Africa is a Country

Beyond the International Criminal Court

ICC via ICC Flickrvia ICC Flickr

In the past week, three African states (South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia) have announced their withdrawals from the International Criminal Court. Amnesty International describes these withdrawals as a “march away from justice,” and “drastic blow to countless victims globally.” Rather than simply decrying these decisions, perhaps it is time to think more carefully about what we mean by “justice,” and about the utility of the ICC as a tool to achieve it.

Critics have accused the Court of pursuing only the weakest players in the geopolitical spectrum, in part the consequence of the most powerful refusing to join. Relatedly, they point to the power politics at play in ongoing cases that raise doubts about its supposed impartiality and independence.

Less discussed are the challenges and contradictions raised by the Court’s lack of enforcement powers: namely, who it relies upon to apprehend suspects, and what accountability mechanisms, if any, are in place to prevent further bloodshed in the name of enforcing “justice.”

From the protection of victims and witnesses to the apprehension of suspects, the ICC’s operational reliance on powerful states ensures that individuals from those states will largely escape scrutiny, and that the Court’s decisions are often far removed from the very people it was designed to protect.

Perhaps the most dangerous implication of this dependency on “cooperating” states is the potential for manipulation in the service of entirely different projects. Some analysts draw a parallel between the ICC and the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, noting that while both projects claim to challenge impunity in the name of peace and justice, the reliance on powerful states to implement their agendas can turn victims into proxies for military intervention. The kind of justice that the ICC is in the business of “delivering” is therefore also in question.

The Court’s cases in Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya have variously encountered these challenges and criticisms. The complexity of each case warrants scrutiny, and demands attention not only to the ICC’s relationship to structures of power but also to those of the individuals it seeks to hold accountable, many of whom may use their positions of power to escape trial.

A 2010 Wikileaks file revealed the former ICC Prosecutor’s proclivity to use geo-politics to his advantage: in an effort to win China’s support for the case against Omar Al Bashir, Prosecutor Moreno Ocampo suggested that the Americans reassure China that its access to oil would not be jeopardized if Bashir were “removed” from power.

Ultimately, the Prosecutor seemed more concerned with serving the interests of external players than with the Sudanese themselves, as many accused him of disregarding the indictment’s potential impact on domestic and regional peace-making efforts.

Is “justice” as defined by the ICC ultimately a source of meaningful redress? Does it sufficiently shed light on the broader structures of political and economic oppression?

The ICC and its more prominent supporters, much like proponents of the “responsibility to protect,” generally lead us to believe that the Court is the answer to impunity, as though the law were divorced from politics, and as though “peace” and “justice” can simply be delivered at the push of a button.

Yet the ICC is an institution located within a larger architecture of power that endows some crimes and some victims with legitimacy, and not others. At the same time, its “responsibility to punish” is subject to political manipulation that allows for further exception and impunity, as observed in the case of the Security Council referral on Libya.

The extent to which the Court is, or ever can be, a counter-hegemonic justice project therefore requires careful consideration — demanding questions rather than answers. Rather than presume to know about the priorities of “victims,”  perhaps it is time to engage with activists on the African continent and beyond about the possibilities and limitations of the ICC to contribute to our collective struggles, and to grapple critically with how we conceive of justice itself.

Botswana at 50: African miracle or African mirage?

 GCIS via Flickr President Ian Khama during the 35th SADC Summit held in Gaborone, Botswana. Image Credit: GCIS via Flickr.

At the end of last month, Botswana celebrated the 50th anniversary of its political independence from British colonialism. Long celebrated by outside observers as the “African Miracle” or “African success story” for its steady economic growth and seeming political stability, more recently that designation is being called into question.

At independence in 1966, Botswana was a severely impoverished territory, surrounded by hostile and racist white minority regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and South West Africa (now Namibia). Botswana was steadfast and vocal in condemning these regimes and provided moral support and refuge to liberation struggle groups, such as the African National Congress of South Africa, even though it was heavily dependent on South Africa economically and for infrastructure.

The country is arid with a physical landscape dominated by the Kgalagadi Desert to the west and the famed Okavango Delta to the northwest. At independence, subsistence agriculture was the main economic activity with cattle keeping being particularly significant to the economy of the country. Diamond mining started in the 1970s and 1980s, and this brought significant revenue to government coffers. The result was the fastest growing economy in the world for the last three decades of the 20th century.

Impressive economic growth enabled the government to provide social amenities, such as health, education, roads and water among others throughout the country. The provision of social services has been heavily subsidized by the state in order to be affordable to the population and in some instances these have been provided free of charge. For instance, Botswana’s small population, which today stands at just above 2 million people, was a little more than a decade ago being decimated by an HIV epidemic. The government moved quickly to provide free antiretrovirals and medical care to people living with HIV/AIDS.

The government has also provided grants and subsidies to the arable farming communities in a bid to boast agricultural production, and to diversify the economy and decrease dependence on diamond mining. Unfortunately, arable farming has seen significant decline despite government efforts.

Despite the impressive economic growth mentioned above, significant numbers of people in Botswana still live in abject poverty. Economic disparities are also reported to be among the worst globally. The economy has not grown in line with the population, hence large numbers of young people, among whom are university or tertiary education graduates, remain unemployed.

Botswana has been a liberal or multi-party democracy since independence – it has held elections every five years and has seen four peaceful presidential transitions – even though only one political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has ever held power. Nevertheless, Botswana has consistently been judged the least corrupt country in Africa by Transparency International.

However, for a number of years now, some sections of the population and independent scholars have been voicing concerns about what is seen as the militarization of the public service. Government has also been accused of engaging in grave erosion of civil liberties and authoritarian tendencies. A significant development was the split in the ruling party BDP in 2010, and formation of a new opposition party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), by defectors. The defectors argued that internal party democracy had been replaced by autocracy and favoritism in the BDP.

Corruption and rent-seeking in government are also said to be on the rise, with the perpetrators believed to be getting away with it if they are connected to or a part of the ruling elite. These concerns saw the country experience the most competitive election ever in 2014, with opposition parties registering an impressive 52% of the popular vote while the ruling party trailed at 46.7%. The latter managed to hold onto power and President Ian Khama (the son of the founding president, Seretse Khama), in power since 2008, was elected to a second term by the country’s BDP dominated parliament (despite losing the popular vote the BDP still dominated parliament because of the country’s first past the post electoral system).

The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), which is made of up Botswana National Front (BNF), BMD and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) got 32% of the popular vote, while the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) received 20%. It is highly likely that had the BCP been part of the UDC the opposition may have defeated the BDP. Indications are that the BCP could be part of the UDC for the 2019 elections, which may lead to the first change of government in Botswana.

The BDP has been described as center-right and BNF and BCP as center-left or social democratic. But these labels do not mean much. People or voters are more concerned with service delivery and employment creation than the political orientation of the parties. Young people constitute some 40% of the country’s population and an important voting sector. Ideology means little to them as they worry about lack of economic opportunities and employment.

Furthermore, Botswana remains one of the countries in Africa and the world with the fewest women in parliament, despite an abundance of qualified and available talent.

A new narrative is growing louder, with critics arguing that compared to hugely successful economies, such as Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, which were underdeveloped economies 50 years ago, Botswana is lagging behind. The quality of democracy in Botswana is also said to be in decline, with newer democracies in southern Africa, such as South Africa and Namibia, said to be stronger.

The point of no return in Ethiopia

Screen grab of a video published by Jawar Mohammed, a US-based journalist who shares many videos linked to the Oromos via France24.Screen grab of of Irreechaa protest video published by Jawar Mohammed via France24.

Hundreds of Ethiopians have been killed by their government this year. Hundreds. You might not have known because casualty numbers have been played down; “evil forces” and accidents are blamed rather than the soldiers that fired the bullets; we are even deprived of the ability to fully grasp the situation because journalists are not allowed to report on it and the Internet is periodically shut down by the government. (In fact, last week Ethiopia finally admitted to the deaths of more than 500 anti-government protestors. Protesters insist that more people have died.) Whatever we make of the government’s prevarication, the Irreechaa Massacre that took place at the beginning of this month was a point of no return.

Irreechaa is a sacred holiday celebrated by the Oromo people, when several thousands gather annually at the banks of Lake Hora Arasadi in the town of Bishoftu to give thanks. At this year’s Irreechaa celebration, a peaceful protest broke out after government officials tried to control who was allowed to speak at the large gathering. What happened next is unpardonable.

Video footage shows government forces shooting tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd. Panic erupts. Women, children and men who had come to celebrate flee for safety but many are trampled on, drown and fall to their deaths. The government claims only 55 were killed in the incident. Non-governmental sources, however, put that figure at over 300. Mainstream media has conveniently portrayed the cause of the tragedy as a stampede yet simple logic refutes this. “When you fire on a crowd of 3 million close to a cliff and adjacent to a lake, causing mayhem, that is not a stampede. It is a massacre,” says Dr. Awol Allo, a law lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom.

Frustrations and grievances in Ethiopia have been growing for years. In 2014, protests began over the Master Plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa into Oromia Region. This was just the spark. Though the Master Plan has been abandoned for now, thousands of people across Oromia and more recently Amhara regions have continued to protest against the government. Their demands are fairly basic: human rights, an end to authoritarian rule, equal treatment of all ethnic groups, and restoration of ancestral lands that have been snatched and sold oftentimes under the guise of development.

The government’s brutal response has only added fuel to the fire. Irreechaa is the most recent example of this. Within days of the massacre a wave of anti-government protests erupted across the country, mostly in the Oromia Region. People are coming out in larger and larger numbers. Fear is dissipating and giving way to determination. Many activists believe it is too late for reconciliation — that “the opportunity for dialogue was closed with Ireechaa”.

No one is to blame for this but the government itself. The EPRDF government in Ethiopia has been tragically recalcitrant and short-sighted in dealing with the legitimate concerns of its citizens. Externally it has touted its success in maintaining stability and spurring double digit economic growth rates as a source of legitimacy, while internally it shoved itself into the seat of power by eradicating any form of real opposition. But anyone who has been to Ethiopia knows precisely well that the image of “Africa’s rising star” is only a façade, which tries to cover up deep rooted social and economic inequalities, abject poverty and human suffering, ethnic patronage and corruption, and a weak economy that is overly reliant on foreign investment. In short, the political, economic and social situation in Ethiopia today is not, by any stretch of the imagination, stable, despite what the EPRDF’s self-interested allies like the United States would like to believe.

Over the years, various groups that have tried many ways to peacefully seek change in Ethiopia. In 2005, opposition groups tried to compete in elections. When they almost won, they were arrested and exiled. In 2012 Muslims across the country peacefully demonstrated for more liberties and autonomy. As their movement gained momentum, many of their leaders were labeled as terrorists and sent to prison. In 2014, Oromos began to protest against the government’s ill-conceived Master Plan and are now paying the price. Throughout this period, countless activists, journalists and students have been arrested, numerous independent media outlets have been shut down, and the space for civil society groups has shrunk almost to the point of nonexistence.

The great Frantz Fanon explained that, “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”  In Ethiopia, the government’s actions have left many people with no other option but to fight. It is a country that has experienced much civil violence in the past, and is reluctant to return to it. However, the people’s patience is limited. Already, protestors are beginning to take more desperate measures. Some have torched foreign companies to send a message to the government and its foreign investors that their concerns and frustrations can no longer be brushed aside. From Eritrea, Dr. Berhanu Nega — who once ran as part of an opposition party in the 2005 elections — is preparing for a full-fledged guerilla war.

At this point the EPRDF only has two options: cut its losses, gradually cede power and make way for meaningful elections or dig its boots deeper into the ground, like a stubborn child, and hold out for as long as it can. The consequences of the second option will be more bloodshed and in the end a much greater fall for the regime. History has shown that when Ethiopians have had enough, they have overthrown even an imperial monarchy dating back centuries. The old Ethiopian proverb should be a warning: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

Education in Africa profits billionaire bleeding hearts

mark_zuckerberg_-_south_by_southwest_2008Mark Zuckerberg, image via Wikipedia.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who both double as billionaire philanthropists, have had their eyes on African schools for a while.

“We live in a world where talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not,” Zuckerberg wrote on his timeline a month or two ago. And the “gap between talent and opportunity,” he noted, “is among the greatest in Africa.” Around the same time, Gates expressed similar sentiments in a message to a UN conference on science, technology and innovation, declaring that, in order to solve poverty, “it’s important that we invest in the bright minds and bold ideas that can deliver the next generation of solutions to people, everywhere.”

Around the same time, the CEO of The Gates Foundation offered a mea-culpa of some sort for getting it wrong on education reform in the US. But it hasn’t resulted in any hubris when it comes to Africa. Gates and Zuckerberg are major investors in Bridge International Academies, an American education corporation, which targets the world’s “700 million families who live on less than $2 USD per day” with, what they call the “highest-quality education products.” So far, Bridge (who tweet here) are serving around 100,000 students in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, and are hoping to expand to Liberia as well as to some 4,000 schools in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India in the near future.

Bridge has made the headlines – mostly not favorable – a few times this year. First, in March, the Liberian government announced it may entrust its entire primary education to the company. As widely reported at the time, Liberia’s interest in Bridge didn’t go down well with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh, who called it “ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but [can] find huge sum to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.” To Singh, (and others) the move symbolizes the extent to which “public schools and their teachers, and the concept of education as a public good are under attack.”

Then last May, Bridge had a Canadian education researcher, Curtis Riep, (a PhD student who focuses on for-profit education), arrested in Kampala, Uganda. Bridge it turned out was anxious about Riep’s less than flattering findings on the quality of its schools there. Bridge even published a wanted ad for Riep in a Ugandan newspaper a few days before the arrest.

The accusations that Bridge leveled at Riep – which came to nought during the investigation – included criminal trespassing and impersonation. The incident put Bridge back into the news.

Driven by the desire to expand its operations and profit, and desperate to avoid any negative press, Bridge’s campaign to intimidate and discredit Riep isn’t surprising. And as Bridge has admitted, the deal with Liberia depended, in part, on how well things were going in Uganda and Kenya. Criticism, then, can be costly.

But Riep isn’t the only one to challenge Bridge’s “win-win” narrative. He’s part of a growing coalition of human rights professionals, who seek to halt the transnational corporate education reform movement. Education International (EI), the world’s largest federation of teachers unions, and ActionAid International, an international development organization with its secretariat based in Johannesburg, South Africa are at the forefront of this push back. To Angelo Gavrielatos, who leads EI’s campaign against the commercialization of education, and Tanvir Muntasim, the international policy manager for education at ActionAid, Riep’s arrest illustrates the extents to which Bridge will go to safeguard its “market share” in Africa. I asked them to tell us a little bit more about Bridge’s business model.

Let’s begin with the basics: who is backing and investing in Bridge International Academies?

Tanvir Muntasim (TM): Bridge has been in Kenya since 2009 and gets it funding from a curious mix of investors, including the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector investment wing and bilaterals like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID). Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar are major investors as well. In 2014, the IFC invested US$10 million in Bridge in Kenya. This is in stark contrast to the fact that at the same time, the Kenyan government received no funding to enhance the provision of education. Combined with Pearson [the biggest  education company in the world], Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, Bridge has received over US$100 million in recent years. A for-profit organization like Bridge receiving development aid is questionable and doesn’t sit comfortably with human rights obligations, as recently seen in concerns expressed by both the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNESCR).

Is it the external funding that makes them low-cost? What’s the business model here?

Angelo Gavrielatos (AG): They’re only low-cost in name. It’s part of the marketing spin associated with Bridge and the like. They like to create the impression that they’re catering for the poor, providing access to out-of -school children. There is nothing low-cost nor affordable about the fees they charge. The fees can be up to 40% or more of the daily income of the poorest. They present themselves as caring companies, philanthropists, concerned with education and children, but if this were true, they would work with the education community and teachers to strengthen public education, but they don’t. The business-model of such for-profit chains is built on driving down teachers’ costs and creating economies of scale through standardizing curriculum development and delivery. The largest single budget line in schools is teacher salaries. For-profit school chains maximize their profit by either employing fewer teachers, underqualified unlicensed teachers or unqualified staff paid at a fraction of qualified teachers. In the case of Bridge, it employs high school graduates who receive a few weeks of training. The curriculum used in these for-profit chains is standardized and scripted unqualified staff deliver lessons by literally reading word for word from a tablet. The material downloaded onto the tablets, instruct staff exactly what to say, what to do, what to teach, and how to teach it. Activities are pre-set and scripted including instructing teachers when to ‘Pause’ when to ‘Circulate for 30 seconds’ when to ‘Rub the board’ and when to tell pupils to ‘Close your textbooks.’

For-profit chains also cut down on costs, by teaching in spaces that are not fit for the purpose. There are examples of vacated, unused office spaces being used as schools. These spaces often lack the most basic materials needed for effective teaching and learning. In many instances, they don’t have playgrounds, nor libraries, nor other necessary school facilities.

The business model used by for-profit chains like Bridge is such that they seek to either exploit loopholes or neglect legislative requirements with respect to the adherence of minimum standards required for the provision of schooling. In Kenya, for example, it argues that it is an ‘informal’ school operation and therefore it should not have to comply with government regulations applicable to schools insofar as the employment of qualified staff and adherence to the national curriculum is concerned. When the government announced last year that it would require half of its staff to be qualified, Bridge actually protested, because it considered such a regulation an infringement on its business. So much for the right of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher delivering an engaging curriculum!

In Uganda, the authorities put a halt to the expansion of Bridge’s activities, because it failed to meet regulatory requirements applicable to schools. In a statement to Parliament last August, the Education Minister (and First Lady), Janet Kataha Museveni, announced the closure of Bridge International Academies for failing to operate in accordance with national requirements with respect to the provision of education. A technical inspection report had found that, among other things, “poor hygiene and sanitation [in these schools] put the life and safety of school children at risk”. The Uganda National Teachers Union welcomed the announcement and called on the Government to remain steadfast in demanding compliance to minimum education standards.

TM: Until last January, none of Bridge’s schools in Kenya were registered with the government. Kenya has now passed regulation on the alternative provision of basic education and training institutions (APBET) and Bridge is attempting to register its schools. But the decision of the Ugandan government to shut down Bridge schools there is affecting their acceptability. The Liberian government has also decided not to let BIA run all the schools in the pilot and has invited other education providers to participate in the pilot, so the monopoly, along with the volume of government funding that they expected and which could have let them cut down costs further isn’t likely going to happen.

How do Bridge and other corporate education reformers defend these practices? Is there any evidence of success?

TM: Just last year, the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim claimed that Bridge schools are producing better learning outcomes than public schools for only US$6 a month. In a statement that we issued with other organizations, we pointed out that there is no evidence that supports this claim, apart from biased data that Bridge has produced itself. In reality, the costs are much higher than $6 a month. In Kenya, for example, when you add the costs of meals, uniforms, exam fees and text books, one child’s education can cost as much as USD$16 to $20 a month. That’s nearly 70 per cent of the monthly income of many people. And even if it were only $6 a month, it would still interfere with the food security of people in the poorest neighborhoods. We have raised these concerns with the World Bank multiple times, but we have seen little effect in their funding practices thus far, apart from the fact that Mr Kim has stopped citing it as a good example.

AG: There is no evidence at all to support the claims of these companies that it improves the quality of education. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that shows that if you apply market principles to the provision of education, you deepen inequality and segregation. And that is what is happening with these schools.

Children are the first losers in this story, because with any corporation, the interests of Bridge and others lie with satisfying their profit motives and/or their shareholders. In education, where the profit motive prevails, the first losers are students, their teachers and the communities they serve. After health, education is the last frontier for venture capitalists. Just think about it, education and children are the most sustainable resources in the world. They will always be there. We should be challenging those individuals and corporations pushing this grotesque commercialization and privatization of education, which reduces students to nothing more than an economic unit. They should be asked a couple of very simple questions. ‘Do you support the right of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher, an engaging curriculum in a safe environment that is fit for its purpose? Would you volunteer your own child to be taught by unqualified staff with a scripted curriculum in a vacant office building?’ If their actions are anything to go by, the answer to these questions would be ‘no’. If it’s not good enough for their own children, it’s not good enough for other people’s children.

What needs to happen or be done to get these corporations out of the education space? And what role do governments play in protecting children from such profiteering?

TM: Hundreds of human rights organizations and teachers unions are confronting governments with the fact that they are shirking their responsibility (of providing free, quality education), and urging the World Bank to stop investing in these companies, to stop basing their views on self-produced evaluations and to support public education systems instead.  However, in Kenya we say that the World Bank has recently invested US$10 million in Bridge and none in public education. Even when Bridge resorted to the grossly unethical scare tactics to get an education researcher arrested and harassed in Uganda, we haven’t seen any formal reaction from the investors in Bridge. A few months ago, The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said it was concerned that UK aid money was going to private education providers and called on the UK government to refrain from such financing. The UK government is being drawn into the dispute after investing £15 million in the venture fund, Novastar, to support the latter’s investment in Bridge International Academies.  We believe that if good quality public education is provided, the demand for such private schools will fall. The question we often ask community members is ‘if you could choose between good quality free public education and good quality private education, where would you send your children?’ The answer, invariably, is good quality public education. So that’s what we are fighting for.

AG: Quite frankly, what could be a higher order priority for a government than the provision of quality education, noting how key it is to the educational well-being of its children and a nation’s future productivity and therefore prosperity? Governments must implement and enforce a legislative and financing framework that ensures the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4, (inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) and to protect and recognize the professional judgment of teachers and educators on questions of methodology, pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and reporting. Where non-state actors are involved in the provision of schooling, they must conform to minimum standards, follow national curricula, employ qualified teachers and use classrooms that are fit for the purpose. Companies must be required to adhere to strict financial regulations, including independent auditing and regulations to monitor how government funds are spent. And, where they are in receipt of any government funding, directly or non-directly, they must be not-for profit. The profit motive has no place in dictating what is taught, how it’s taught nor how our schools are organized.

Why is South Africa withdrawing from the International Criminal Court? And why now?

Last Friday, South Africa stunned the world when it announced it has officially initiated the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The idea of a mass pullout of African states from the Court has been hanging in the air for a few years now.  The main point of contention has been the perceived bias of the Court which has made Africa front and center of its work. To date, all the ICC investigations are located on the African continent and all the individuals indicted by the Court are Africans.

There is one exception to the ICC’s apparent targeting of African perpetrators of atrocity crimes: an ICC investigation that opened earlier this year into war crimes committed between 1 July and 10 October 2008 during Georgia’s attempts to control a breakaway region. But that’s one exception.

Although the African Union has been critical of the ICC and has called on its members not to cooperate with the Court until these issues are resolved, it has stopped short of endorsing a collective withdrawal.

No state had formally taken the steps to withdraw from the Court, until now. All it takes to withdraw from the court is to send a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the withdrawal takes effect a year later. Given how easy this is, some African states’ threats to leave the court over the years were viewed by many observers as empty rhetoric.

But all eyes had been on Burundi lately, whose president just signed a decree to leave the ICC.  As far as we know, he has not notified Ban Ki-moon yet. Burundi’s steps to withdraw from the ICC comes after the ICC Prosecutor announced last April that she would initiate a preliminary examination of the situation there in which political violence (largely caused by the President’s decision to defy the constitution and run for a third term) has killed hundreds of people.

Burundi, a small central African state, however, is not South Africa, one of the most powerful states on the continent.

In its Instrument of Withdrawal sent to the UN Secretary General, South Africa’s foreign minister argues her country’s commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts is “incompatible” with the Court’s interpretation of states’ obligations under the Rome Statue.

But one may ask, why South Africa? And why now?

South Africa’s withdrawal comes on the heels of the controversy that surrounded its failure to arrest the ICC-wanted President Omar al Bashir last year when he attended an AU summit there. South African civil society groups have taken President Jacob Zuma’s government to court over the issue.  Given that the Rome Statute had been domesticated in South Africa’s national laws, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the government had violated national laws and its international obligations for not having arrested Bashir and surrendered him to the ICC.  The government’s claim that Bashir was protected by sovereign immunity under international customary law did not stand.

It is likely that the South African government will run into trouble at home again, because as Justice Richard Goldstone argues the move to withdraw from the ICC may be illegal because the executive branch did not allow the parliament to vote on the issue. But this will likely have no bearing over the effectiveness of South Africa leaving the ICC.

So, now what?

South Africa’s leaving the ICC may have a domino effect, the extent to which is unknown at this point. Africa constitutes the largest regional bloc in the Court’s membership. Without a doubt, African states pulling out will be a major blow to the project of ‘ending impunity’ for atrocity crimes, which is the primary goal of the ICC, as stated in the preamble of the Rome Statute. Now all eyes are on Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia, which could very well be the next states to jump off the ICC wagon.

It is evident that the most powerful states – and their clients – in the world are outside of the reach of the ICC. (In fact, the United States is not even a member. Neither are China and Russia). And for the court to be truly international and legitimate, it must be an institution where the rule of law applies equally to all individuals and states.  On the other hand, however, we should not fall for the simplistic narrative of the Court unfairly targeting Africans.  In fact, the ICC is involved in many African states only because those states have specifically requested an ICC’s intervention: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (twice), Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and just last month, Gabon. The fact that some African states have viewed the Court as a useful instrument to dispose of rebels or political opponents should not simply be swept under the rug.

On the brink of peace

 Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.Afro Colombians in Cali. Image credit: Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.

It seems as if Gabriel García Márquez, by divination, foresaw what would happen in Colombia this month, when he wrote in his seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

This could indeed be a succinct summary of what has happened in Colombia recently, wherein the space of one week: 1) a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, the FARC-EP was rejected in a national plebiscite, bringing the peace process to a grinding halt; 2) the campaign manager of the main party opposing the peace agreement acknowledged the use of misleading advertisement; and, 3) the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Colombia, where I’m from, is a country of contradictions, where peace and war inhabit the same nation. This has been the case for decades. It is a country with levels of inequality comparable to South Africa, where I’m based. It is a country where the presence of the state follows the wealth of the citizens. To think of Colombia now, is similar to thinking of South Africa in 1994; where uncertainties of moving towards peace are met with fears that are manipulated by politicians. The terror of the “Swart Gevaar” is paralleled by the fear-mongering anti-peace agreement campaign led by Senator (and former president) Uribe and his party, the Democratic Center.

People who voted “no” to the agreements voted so for a mix of reasons. These include: concerns regarding the possibility of impunity for the guerrillas; the fear of the expropriation of land; concerns regarding the political participation of guerrillas in politics; the fear of a pro-gay agenda hidden within the agreements (an untrue claim reproduced by some Christian churches in Colombia); and a deep distrust of the intentions of the FARC-EP, informed by their actions in the failed negotiations between 1998 and 2002.

Some Colombians now claim that the mechanisms of representation don’t in fact work in Colombian democracy. This is, however, false; the fact that representation does work is proven by the government, and the country’s electoral commission recognizing the votes of Colombians in spite of the negative consequences for the peace process. Remarkably, both the FARC-EP and the government recognized the results of the plebiscite, which means the peace deal must be renegotiated, but pleaded to maintain a ceasefire across the country. Representation is working well. What is failing is the capacity to inform citizens, not manipulate them. The latter speaks to, and gives evidence of, the opportunistic nature of the politics taking place in Colombia. Another challenge lies in the participation of citizens; one can justify citizens voting for or against the agreement out of valid concern for the future of the country, but how does one interpret absenteeism of 63% in a vote to ratify a peace agreement?

Communities and victims in conflict areas have been left in dismay and uncertainty, and a deep fear of what might happen next. The outcome of the voting has left millions of Colombians in disbelief, as if their future has been defined by the lies and manipulation of those politicians campaigning against the peace agreements, in the belief that a “better deal” could be struck. The results of the plebiscite embody the same influences that have brought about the Duterte presidency in the Philippines, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States; presenting a challenge to democracy itself and showing how the necessity to distinguish information from data, truth from Facebook posts, and arguments from tweets is vital to keep democracy away from fascism. Technology has changed the way we relate to information and democracy.

It cannot be ignored that the negotiations of the peace agreements were an elite-elite conversation between the leadership of the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. Ownership by civil society of the peace process was left for later. One could attribute the failure to communicate accurately the agreements and their implications not only to the terror campaign deployed by the party of Uribe, but also to the fact that civil society and those who would benefit the most from the agreements were not included as instrumental actors.

In spite of this, the reaction of civil society has been more than inspiring. In those rural communities where civilians have been victims of massacres and assassinations amidst the violence unleashed by the different armed actors in the war, civilians have come to the fore once more to ask for an agreement now; offering forgiveness and leading hope for the country. The reaction of these groups has inspired other movements in the urban areas who are now organizing themselves in something that could be described as the Colombian awakening for peace, or the Colombian spring. Campaigns under the slogans #AcuerdoYa (agreements now) and #PazALaCalle (to the streets for peace) are mobilizing those who want agreements for peace.

In addition, the “extra time” of the peace process has exposed a series of opportunities to build a more comprehensive peace; with the promising possibility that other rebel groups, such as the ELN, who were not part of the negotiation between the FARC-EP and the government, might join a wider peace process (not necessarily under the same agreement) as it has been announced the formal start of negotiations by the end of October in Ecuador. Ownership for peace can now be given to citizens, civil society organizations and grassroots organizations.

This is where the symbolic power of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos is giving Colombia and its leaders a second chance; one that can bring minor changes in the agreements, the inclusion of other actors and the acknowledgement of the concerns of some Colombians calling for a wider agreement that allays fears and surpasses the skills of warmongers.

Some of the politicians negotiating a new peace deal are the same ones that used lies in their campaigns against the agreements. In fact, they are looking to extend the negotiations as long as possible so they can profit in the parliamentary elections set to take place in 2017, and the presidential elections of 2018. This is an attempt to sequestrate and veto peace for political reasons. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize leverages the negotiations for peace, but the veto power of some of these actors is still latent. As long as agreements do not benefit them or their cadres, they won’t support a broader peace for Colombians.

It is in this space where encouragement and support from overseas is necessary. Colombia needs to be able to envision another country beyond the reincarnation of our memories of war; where we can learn that hope and peace is achievable.

African Women on the big screen, in more ways than one

Lupita Nyong'o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via FlickrLupita Nyong’o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr

When it comes to African women on the big screen, the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, is currently the signifier for how far black African women have traveled in big budget film. Nyong’o won an Academy Award for her debut film 12 Years a Slave, starred in the reboot of the Star Wars series (The Force Awakens) and her new film, Queen of Katwe, about a chess prodigy in Uganda, recently opened “nationwide” in US commercial cinemas. Basically, Nyong’o has achieved bona fide Hollywood stardom – unprecedented for an African actress. Of Queen of Katwe  Nyong’o has said: “This is a view of Africa told with Africans front and center. It’s their narrative, whereas in most films where you see Africa or the Africans, it’s told from a foreign perspective.”

With credit due to Nyong’o’s individual achievements and the Queen of Katwe’s hype, these may obscure the number of recent, small budget films doing the festival rounds  that give great insight into African women as actors, characters and filmmakers. When women make films about women, at least we know they no longer stand on the sidelines – there are well-developed characters, who the audiences can identify with.

Films made by Africans initially emerged in the 1960s as colonized countries gradually attained independence. Senegalese director and writer Ousmane Sembene (celebrated in a new documentary film) produced the first feature film by an African in 1966, La noire de … The first film by a female director, Kaddu Beykat by Safi Faye, also came from Senegal. West Africa has generally had a very vibrant film-making culture, and works from Algeria and Egypt films have also garnered international attention over years. At Burkina Faso’s renowned Fespaco Film Festival, a woman has never won the award for best film, but the last edition of the festival, in 2013, the runner-up prize for best documentary went to Nadia El Fani from Tunisia for Meme pas mal, and best African diaspora film to Mariette Monpierre from Guadeloupe, for Le bonheur d’Elza. And at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu won best film in 2009 with From a whisper. Filmmakers from the sub-Saharan region have enjoyed less of the international spotlight, with the exception of a handful of South Africans.

From a selection of films shown at the African Film Festival, Cologne, which this year focused on African women in cinema, there was no particular typecast in the films by female directors. Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid’s first feature film A peine j’ouvre les yeux (2015), has toured several film festivals and won the awards at the Venice Days of the Venice Film Festival, as well as, as best fiction film at the Dubai International Film Festival. It revolves around 18 year old Farrah, a rebellious young woman who would rather perform subversive rock music and be critical of the regime of the Ben Ali, than accept her admission to medical school. And although Farah is pressured by her family, society and the regime, she dares to dream, has her first sexual experiences, and pushes boundaries like any other teenager.

As I Open My Eyes (2015)

Bouzid noted that Young Tunisians, Egyptians, Moroccans identified with Farrah: “‘That’s us, that’s how we are’, they said”. As she told U.S. website Fusion: “It’s important that they see that young Arab people are exactly the same, like anywhere else. They have hopes, they have desires, they want to be free, they want to express sexuality.”

W.a.k.a (2013) by Cameroonian filmmaker Francoise Ellong, is another courageous film. It tells the story of a young mother, who turns to sex work to fend for herself and her son. While the film over-explains at times and the characters are perhaps a bit too polished for the milieu they work in, it nevertheless draws you in and manages to tell the story of the main character as she strives to separate her two lives. W.a.k.a breaks the taboos and highlights the issue of prostitution in a way that makes it more accessible and digestible, than for instance, the Congolese film Viva Riva!, which is deserving of strong praise, but delves deeply into Kinshasa’s crime scene and does not make for easy viewing. We see the lighter side of life in short films like Soko Sonko from Ekwa Msangis, as it pokes fun at “male and female roles” – will the father, who would rather be at a football match make it through the jungle of hairdressers in time for his daughter’s first day at school?

A welcome offering from Southern Africa is Sara Blecher’s film, Ayanda (2015). Set in Johannesburg, it revolves around a young woman who decides to revamp the auto-mechanic shop she inherits from her father. Blecher manages to balance light-hearted romance, family dynamics and the struggle of the youth to gain a foothold in modern-day South Africa. Blecher herself compared the film to Juno, the comic drama — set in the American Midwest — about a suburban teenager coping with an unplanned pregnancy. But critics say that Ayanda falls short of dealing with the deeper emotional aspects of the story. However, the work caught the attention of acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) and is now being distributed in the US by her company.

Ayanda (2015)

Diversifying the image of Africa on the screen is of course not limited to African women, but as Kenyan filmmaker Judy Kibinge (Something Necessary, 2013) puts it, the film industry on the continent is still young and “women aren’t a rare species.” New technology has made it easier to produce home-made or low-budget films and for filmmakers to distribute their content independently. This means that many young people are trying their hand at the craft that many Africans traditionally had less access to – and African women are no exception.

Filmmaking however remains a difficult terrain says Kibinge. It’s become easier to make films, in the age of Netflix, but actually making money from the work remains a huge problem. Through her company Docubox, Kibinge now supports young documentary filmmakers by running workshops, finding funds and providing a platform for them.

“Every film”, she says, “is still a labor of love by the filmmaker.”

This is Lara Pawson reporting for the BBC

Bullet marked building in Huambo, Angola. Image via Wikipedia.Bullet marked building in Huambo, Angola. Image via Wikipedia.

The first cigarette I smoked was a Marlboro. I was twenty-one. I didn’t feel sick and I didn’t feel dizzy and I was on ten or fifteen a day for the rest of my twenties. Living in Luanda, quite a stressy place, I could smoke two packs a day. My preferred brand was YES. They came in a gold box marked with a red dot like those stickers art galleries use to indicate that a painting has been sold. At some stage, I had to go to the medical centre because I was finding it so hard to breath. A Cuban doctor examined me. He told me that unless I wanted to die young I should give up immediately. During the consultation he sucked on a cigar. If anything, this made me take him more seriously.

I still think smoking looks cool. I still miss it. And I kid myself that smoking may have saved my life. Cigarettes are a useful negotiating tool at checkpoints. I’ve never met a soldier who wouldn’t accept a cigarette.

Now, in my head, I see grass as tall as I am and a red road stretching into the distance. Far ahead, we can see the explosion expanding into the sky. Another ambush. A coach-load of young army conscripts. I’d watched them loading up the day before, so cocky and excited about the prospect of fighting, boasting that they would be the ones to kill Jonas Savimbi. When we heard the landmine detonate, I saw my father sitting in a deckchair beside a swimming pool in Provence. He was wearing a straw hat and taking notes from a book with a gold fountain pen. There was an abundance of bushes of pink fragrant flowers.

Colette and Violette were sisters. They were short, although not unusually so for Mediterranean women of a certain age. Colette was the worker. She was also the teacher. With patience, she helped me get to grips with the subjonctif. She also trusted me with the key to the door to the wine cellar. Violette did very little apart from grind fresh meat for the cat each morning. She also kept an eye on the pet tortoise, and would encourage me to feed it the remains of the day’s vegetables. When the sisters took me on special day trips, for example to the beach, it was always Violette who drove. In second gear. The whole way! But although they had very different personalities, they were in absolute agreement about the young Algerian man I’d met in town. He was not allowed to visit the auberge ever again. You could call this a turning point in my life.

The man who told me I was a natural, was made for telly and would go far, instigated another major turning point. It was a BBC training session at White City. I was learning how to make news packages for the screen. I ended my little report on Ivory Coast’s war with a shot of two women walking barefoot away from the camera. On their backs, they were each carrying a heavy stack of wood. “Far from the bureaucracy of United Nations negotiations, ordinary Ivorians continue to be weighed down by war. This is Lara Pawson reporting for the BBC.” The cliché was what he really admired. I knew I had to leave.

I wear a yellow badge with the words We Are All Migrants printed in blue. A barista in Salisbury pointed at it and laughed. A man in Finsbury Park station saw it and thanked me. A third person, someone close to me, said he hates badges like that: It might as well say We Are All Monkeys.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t take more photographs. Although I was based in Angola for over two years, and have since travelled there for months on end, I hardly have any pictures. I don’t remember taking any in Ivory Coast either, or Mali or Ethiopia or Niger or Burkina Faso. I did take a few in Ghana, but I sold them to a glossy inflight magazine. I didn’t take any of the French sisters either, or all those men who helped transport us from London to Budapest. I tell myself it doesn’t matter because memories of moments fill my head. But would I have more accurate memories if I had more photographs?

I only learned how to truly sit on a horse when I was told to keep my eyes closed. I was living in a hamlet in Somerset with an old man we called The Major. Every morning, starting before seven, we’d take turns to train on top of one of his thoroughbreds. The horse that really taught me how to use my weight and balance and breath was a blind stallion.

Yesterday, I was with a very dear friend. She said, without hesitation, I think I am losing my sight in one eye.

One night in the town of Ndalatando, we were invited to attend a dance. We spent most of the evening seated at a table at the edge of the concrete floor. We drank beer and talked quietly and followed the silhouettes of young couples dancing kizomba. There was no electricity. A few disco lights ran off a small generator. Shortly before midnight, for the final dance, the young women came to the floor holding red carnations. The flowers were a symbol of love, we were told, given to the boys the night before battle. But I have it in my head that they were flowers for the grave.

Where have all the flowers gone? We used to sing that at school, my sister and I. It was the seventies and that was a seventies song.

By the early eighties, when we were teenagers, I used to be able to make my sister laugh so much she’d wet her knickers. Sometimes, on the way home from school, I’d start making her laugh just as we got off the bus, to see if she could make it all the way up one road then the next without losing control. If I tried really hard, I could probably still make my sister wet her knickers from laughing today, but I don’t see her enough and when I do, I forget to try.

*This is a second excerpt from Lara Pawson’s new book This is The Place to Be (read the first published here last week). It can be purchased here.

Barack Obama–The ‘HalfAfrican’ President

Obama with family in Kenya. Image via Wikimedia.Obama with family in Kenya. Image via Wikipedia.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gained an unexpected endorsement from Kenya in the summer of 2016. Malik Obama, President Obama’s Kenyan half-brother, declared his support for the Republican nominee. Trump, the proud vanguard of the Birther movement, praised the endorsement, while Malik, who had been the best man at Obama’s wedding, complained to the Kenyan press that his brother, “has neglected his African heritage and wants nothing to do with it despite campaigning on a platform that he will help transform Africa.”

Malik’s comments reflect many Africans’ discontent with Obama’s foreign policy and the disappointment that an anticipated “special relationship” between Kenya and the US did not come to pass. But Malik’s views and their eager acceptance by Trump are also relevant to American politics, playing to the substantial segment of the American Right that has made politicized gossip and racial and religious innuendo about the president’s roots – gone viral in the internet age – central to its platform of identity politics and obstructionism.

Studying the Obama and Kenya saga for more than a decade, we have observed that stories about Obama’s Kenyan heritage consistently provide clickbait for a range of parties, from liberal partisans in the US and supporters across Africa who have celebrated the Obama-Kenya connection, to the lurking conspiracy theorists who have decried Obama’s Kenyan heritage. While trying to make sense of the competing streams of Birtherist condemnation and pan-Africanist celebration will undoubtedly challenge scholars and politicos for the foreseeable future, certain trajectories and their significance to Kenyan, American, and global politics are clear.

Obama's inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.Obama’s inauguration day in Kogelo, Kenya (2009). Image credit Zoriah via Flickr.

Obama’s Luo heritage made him a celebrated figure in Kenya well before he achieved fame at home. Early in 2004, as we were conducting research in Western Kenya not far from Kogelo, where the Obama family’s dala, or ancestral homestead, is situated, we kept fielding questions and hearing stories about that “Luo” running for the U.S. Senate. By the time Obama gave his life-changing address at the Democratic convention and then sailed to victory in the Illinois Senate race, it was evident that Kenyans were reading Obama’s ascendancy through the lens of Kenya’s patrimonial politics.

By 2006, when Senator Obama made his first official visit to Kenya, his “homecoming” was celebrated by thousands of Kenyans who lined the streets from Nairobi to his grandmother’s modest home in Nyanza. Kenyans expressed their enthusiasm for Obama, sporting commemorative t-shirts and kanga (wraps), and toasting him with the newly renamed “Senator” beer. But at the same time, Kenyans, and Luo in particular, made their patronage expectations of Obama increasingly overt. As one resident of Luoland confidently asserted, “We will get support from America, as Africans, as Kenyans and particularly as Luo.”

kangaImage by Matt Carotenuto

Viewing Obama’s ascendancy through Western Kenya’s long histories of political marginalization and developmental disparities and through an ethnic identity constituted in migration, Luo people reached eagerly into the global, Luo diaspora to claim Obama as their “son” and patron. They were, however, quickly disappointed. In his remarks and speeches during the 2006 visit, Obama turned patrimonial politics on its head, arguing forcefully before a gathering of Kenya’s political and intellectual elite that (ethnic) patronage was a barrier to growth and both an incentive to and symptom of corruption.

Two years later, Obamamania swept the globe as Obama was elected president. For Obama’s supporters at home and abroad, his biracial background and cosmopolitan upbringing were cause for celebration, markers of a new, more tolerant and inclusive global age. Yet, the 2008 campaign had been hard-fought, with Obama’s political opponents consistently drawing on the new president’s Kenyan descent as evidence of his dangerous Otherness and lack of “belonging.” Indeed, while Trump pushed for Obama to produce his birth certificate, a proliferation of books, blogs and bluster asserted that Obama was truly a “son of the soil” of Western Kenya and thus legally ineligible to be president; Obama (and his administration) were not merely un-American, but illegitimate.

Throughout his administration and again after his 2012 victory, Obama’s relationship to Kenya has been profoundly constrained by the American Right’s consistent use of his Kenyan heritage to indict him as “foreign” and “untrustworthy.” These attacks characterized Kenya’s past inaccurately through western idioms of crisis, reading Kenya’s infamous anti-colonial rebellion (Mau Mau) as “anti-white” and contemporary politics through the ethnocentric prisms of “tribalism” and “radical Islam.” Although scholars and left-leaning pundits often casually dismissed these revisionist attacks as the overwrought ramblings of the Far Right, this discourse demonstrates the power of using corrupted versions Kenya’s past as political tools, fueling the rise of Donald Trump (whose grassroots campaign was propelled by claims over Obama’s supposed Kenyan-ness)  and stoking the colonial nostalgia of Boris Johnson, Britain’s post-Brexit Foreign Secretary.

Obama refrained from visiting Kenya until summer 2015. Even then he faced criticism from the Right – ignorant of Kenya’s status both as the United States’ chief counter-terrorism partner in Africa and as an emerging economic powerhouse on the continent –accused of squandering Americans’ tax dollars on a pointless visit “home.”

obama-matatuObama Matatu. Image credit Cordelia Persen via Flickr

In the 2016 presidential race, the question of the sitting president’s “American-ness” remains a critical topic. A simple Google search of the phrase “Obama and Kenya” provides a jarring lens into the profoundly racist character of the Alt-Right’s conspiracy theories about Obama’s “Kenyan-ness,” amplified in the current electoral cycle by Trump’s tacit support. More generally, polls consistently indicate that more than 50% of Trump supporters believe Obama was born abroad. (According to an NBC News poll released in August, 72% of Republicans doubt that Obama was born in the United States.)

While Trump has recently – and rather disingenuously – endeavored to consign Birtherism to the dustbin of history, the significance of the president’s Kenyan heritage has operated as an important engine to propel the Trump campaign’s anti-immigration (and anti-Muslim) message and a space for the Clinton campaign to challenge Trumps racial bona fides.

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, conjecture has already begun about what his connection to Kenya will ultimately yield and how his tenure as the first American president of African descent will shape U.S. politics, particularly in the arenas of foreign policy and race relations. During his 2015 visit Obama told Kenyans, “the next time I’m back here I may not be wearing a suit,” giving rise to speculation the Obama Foundation would make Kenya a priority. If the last 12 years offer any insight into the future, Obama’s legacy will be shaped by contested histories and the politics of belonging.

The paradoxes of a soft dictatorship

 Amanda Lucidon via The White House.The Obamas and Bongos in August 2014. Image Credit: US Department of State.

For the second time in seven years, violent unrest has followed the presidential election in the small country of Gabon in West Equatorial Africa. The crisis started on August 28, when the candidate of the united opposition, Jean Ping (age 73), declared himself the winner of the presidential election. In the country’s capital, Libreville, people retreated into an anxious pause. Three days later, on August 31, the incumbent president, Ali Bongo (age 57), endorsed the official result announced by the National Electoral Commission (Commission électorale nationale autonome et permanente, or Cénap). Bongo had made a small advance: 49.8% of the votes against 48.2% for Jean Ping, equivalent to 5,594 votes out of a registered total of 627,805.

At the announcement of Bongo’s victory, the streets of Gabon went up in flames. Protesters erected roadblocks and set fire to the National Assembly. The police and the army were dispatched. While the international community multiplied calls for peace and for a recounting of the votes, the UN and the EU encouraged Ping to agree to an official intervention of Gabon’s constitutional court, an institution staffed by judges devoted to Ali Bongo. A delegation headed by the President of Chad, Idriss Déby (himself implicated in electoral corruption) arrived in Libreville on September 21 to help the court’s vote-checking.

On September 24, the constitutional court completed the recount and confirmed Bongo’s victory (with a slightly larger majority: 50.6 % for Bongo to 47.2 % for Ping). Despite the protest of Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for the External Affairs of the European Union, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon soberly “noted” the decision of the court and the election of Ali Bongo.

Gabon is a small country located in the equatorial rainforest, with a population of 1.6 million. Endowed with rich natural resources (oil, manganese, uranium, and lumber), it has proved a bastion of stability in a region undermined by war, violence and social upheaval. Since independence (1960), the country has nurtured strong economic and diplomatic links with France, the former colonial ruler.

In 2009, French president Nicolas Sarkozy made it known that he supported Ali Bongo’s candidacy. Recent scandals, from revelations about the real-estate properties of Gabonese politicians in France to the “ritual crimes” allegedly performed to sustain the influence of selfsame politicians, seem to have strengthened rather than weakened this historical association between the two ruling classes. But, many other Western democracies have also continued, year in and year out, to support the regime in place. Gabon has indeed remained a “soft” dictatorship based on popular politics of regional equilibrium and a fairly successful system of redistribution of national wealth. Both have spared the country from the bloody ethnic conflicts of its neighbours, and tempered the rapacity of the local political class.

Under Omar Bongo (1967-2009), Ali’s late father, the relationship between Gabonese politics and the electorate was built on a flexible system of co-optation called “Union nationale” [national unity], inaugurated in the 1960s by the first president of Gabon, Léon Mba.  Mba surrounded himself with cabinet ministers composed of representatives of all ethnic groups and provinces in the country.  In 1967, Omar Bongo, who succeeded Mba, embraced “Union nationale.” A native of a minority ethnic group (Téké) located in the eastern corner of the country, Bongo’s system of proportional government reassured the public that the only group with a relative demographic advantage, the Fang (approximately 35% of the population), would not monopolize power. To this, he added new forms of political patronage for opponents to his regime, cajoling them into lucrative positions in the government or the administration.

The longevity of the Gabonese political system also lies in the many channels of redistribution that connect politicians (known colloquially as “les Grands”) to ordinary citizens. Even if they siphon off most of the national income, les Grands feed a pyramid of allies, dependents and voters with money, protection and gifts of basic necessities, such as food, clothes, small appliances and medicine. These “donations” tether the Gabonese to the whims of an ostentatious political class that remains firmly in control of the national revenue.

Since the 1950s, the state has maintained tight control on electoral process. The ruling party, the Parti démocratique gabonais (PDG) functions like a well-oiled machine.  In 2016, for example, the Cénap announced the date of the election only eight weeks before the vote. It then restricted the official opening of the election campaign until August 13, fourteen days before the vote. The central government also conducts the census of voters and prints all the voting cards. This year, it took a mere three weeks, from August 8 to August 25, to manufacture and distribute 628,124 cards. One can only imagine the opportunities to discard less compliant voters. Last, but not least, close allies of the president staff appeal courts and arbitration institutions.  For instance, Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo – a former lover of Omar Bongo – has been at the helm of the constitutional court for many years.

Ali Bongo suffers a poor reputation among ordinary Gabonese: many refer to him as “le Diable” (the Devil), and see him as an intruder.  Rumors among the population suggest that he was born of unknown parents in Nigeria, then adopted and raised by Omar Bongo and his wife. The public shuns Ali’s obscure origins, his long military training in Morocco and his friendship with foreign experts, referring to his connections to the “Foreign Legion,” – a term specifically applied to leaders and implying they are controlled by powerful and evil outsiders. Covertly, the public gossips that Ali is a closeted homosexual, a status linked in this part of Africa to sinful behavior and witchcraft.

More importantly, Ali Bongo’s coming to power in 2009 imposed a dynastic logic that broke away from traditional political patronage and ethnic equilibrium. Ali set aside the ethnic patronage of his predecessors to rely on a circle of right-hand men, whose loyalty he has tested during his long years of relative anonymity.  By contrast, Jean Ping’s slogan C’est dosé (“A Right Dosage”) nods to the political tradition of ethnic and national balance. The son of a Chinese businessman and a woman from Ombooué (south Gabon), Ping is of an ethnic minority, and thus well placed to restore the balance of power between the regions of Gabon. Active during the 1990s, a decade of economic prosperity in Gabon, Ping embodies a return to a more prosperous economic era. The fact that he belongs to Ali Bongo’s close family (in the 1990s, he was the companion of Pascaline, Ali Bongo’s sister, with whom he has two children) does not seem to discourage his supporters.  On the contrary, it guarantees that he has a deep knowledge of the local state, and that he will be able to govern.

The lukewarm reactions to the constitutional court’s declaration of Bongo’s victory on September 24 suggest that international actors have accepted the outcome of the elections. In Gabon itself, it is not clear whether the elite slighted by Bongo has enough popular backing to confront the heavily armed, well-organized president and ordinary Gabonese face ruthless retaliation. The opposition in Gabon is thus historically weak, poorly organized and ready to collude with those in power. Since 1960, no movement in Gabon has been able to propose a political alternative. Any attempts to shift the status quo meet with strong repression. In 1964, a coup attempt against Léon Mba was put down with the support of the French army. In 1990-1991, when pressures for the liberalization of politics ended single-party rule, the stamina of the opposition proved short-lived: with the help of France, then-president Omar Bongo quickly contained and crushed its leaders, before coopting some into government positions.

Gabonese like to mock that theirs is a country “where nothing ever happens.” However, at the time of writing, foreign observers were reporting that roadblocks obstructed the main roads in Libreville, while fighter jets flew low over the city. In times of soft dictatorship, there can always be surprises.

Colonial Sahara

Image courtesy of filmmakersImage courtesy of Life is Waiting filmmakers

Western Sahara serves as a powerful and timely reminder to the world that colonialism has not ended in Africa. It continues in the form of what the Sahrawi (the indigenous people of Western Sahara) activist Maty Mohamed-Fadel referred to as “the global shame” that is the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

The majority of Western Sahara has been under occupation by Morocco for decades, following incomplete decolonization by Spain in 1975 when the territory was split between Morocco and Mauritania. A bitter war between the Polisario (the Sahrawi resistance movement) and Moroccan and Mauritanian forces ended in a ceasefire in 1991, and left Morocco in control of most of the territory. Polisario controls a small liberated zone, while hundreds of thousands of Sahrawi refugees live in camps in neighboring Algeria. Life for the Sahrawi people has effectively been on hold since then, as they continue waiting for their right to self-determination through a referendum on independence that was meant to take place in 1992.

Despite the ongoing, and often brutal Moroccan occupation, and the lack of international attention paid to the situation, the Sahrawi are not idly waiting for things to change. A new documentary film, Life is Waiting, directed by Iara Lee, is a celebration of Sahrawi strength and resistance, which is clearly alive and well amongst those living in Western Sahara and those in the refugee camps or in exile in other parts of the world.

The film opens with vibrant scenes of exiled Sahrawi engaging in an annual nonviolent demonstration in Madrid, Spain intercut with an overview of the history of the territory. It then goes on to vividly portray the constant struggle of the Sahrawi to assert their identity in the face of the everyday violence of the occupation.

We see Sahrawi poets, musicians, dancers, singers, media activists, athletes, and filmmakers all engaging in non-violent acts of resistance from graffiti, raising the Western Sahara flag (which is illegal), and watch as Lee covertly films police brutality in the occupied territory. Refugees also host an international marathon, international art festival, and an international film festival in the camps. Popular Sahrawi singer, Mariem Hassan (to whom the film is dedicated), describes the importance of using art to show the strength of the Sahrawi people. Even the structure of the refugee camps in Algeria is a symbolic act of resistance, with different areas deliberately named after parts of the occupied territory in order to reproduce and sustain the connection to it.

Lee largely eschews the use of narration and the opportunity to interview officials from the United Nations, Morocco, or even the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), which controls the liberated territory. Instead she simply lets the Sahrawi people tell their story in their own voices (although some international activists are also interviewed). This gives a platform to the ordinary, perhaps the extraordinary people who are directly affected by the occupation, and the highlights variety of ways in which they continue to resist it.

The chance to be at the center of the narrative is one that the Sahrawi rarely get. Despite the fact that no state recognizes Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara and more than 80 states have at various times recognized SADR’s claims to the territory, the world continues to remain largely indifferent to the situation. As Mohamed Laabied, director of RASD-TV, the Sahrawi TV station headquartered in the refugee camps laments: the lack of attention paid to the occupation by international media and Moroccan censorship efforts “hurts, it really hurts … without the media there is nothing.”

The dangers of international indifference and the perpetuation of the status quo, which one Sahrawi describes as a “situation of neither war nor peace,” are evident in the film when a number of young Sahrawi, who have grown up knowing only occupation or exile, raise the possibility of a return to war, saying that it cannot be worse than a life of exile or living in a refugee camp. But the overwhelming majority of Sahrawi in the film, young and old, are in favor of using non-violent resistance and talk of their songs or films as the new weapons in the struggle.

Recently, the Polisario has warned that tensions with Morocco are coming close to devolving into a military confrontation. This highlights how unsustainable the current situation is. Watching this film serves as a timely reminder that it should not take a return to war to bring attention to the issue. The ongoing failure to advance a political solution and the warning from the Polisario makes the Sahrawi commitment to non-violent resistance even more remarkable. Towards the end of the film, the British human rights activist, Keith Lomax, emphasizes the need to find peaceful ways to give visibility to the conflict. The Sahrawi people are clearly doing this already and it is up to the rest of the world to do its part.

Watching and sharing Life is Waiting is an excellent start. Another step, as Lomax points out, is to support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign against companies complicit in the Moroccan occupation (for instance through the exploitation of Western Sahara’s natural resources) like the one that targeted apartheid South Africa or the one targeting Israel for its violation of international law and Palestinian rights.

Uptown Griots

All Images by Gili LevinsonAll images credit Gili Levinson

Last month Mali celebrated 56 years of political independence from France. A few weeks later, on October 9, thousands of miles to the West in New York City’s “Black Mecca,” Harlem, the city’s Malian community marked the occasion with the 9th Mali Music Festival.

The first mass migration of Malians to New York City started in the late 1980s, as part of a third wave of African immigrants. They settled mostly in Harlem and the Bronx. Today the Malian community in New York City numbers approximately 8,000.


The importance of musicians in Malian culture can not be underestimated. One category of Malian goes by “griots.” “Griot” is a West African title held by storytellers, poets, praise-singers and musicians, and it passes from one generation to the next. Griots are recognized as the community’s heart, the  living  archive of its traditions. They are also known for their great ability to give advice and to mediate disputes to those who need it, including leaders. Historically Griots served as advisors to royalty.

Community participation is integral to these types of gatherings. If an audience member’s family is mentioned in the Griot’s song it is customary for the former to give the latter a token of appreciation, usually money.

2A common instrument played by Griots is the Kora, a 21-string “double-bridge-harp-lute”, made from a large calabash and cow skin. Its origins date back to the 16th century.

The annual festival in Harlem–produced by Modoussou Productions and the United Malian Women Association–features musicians from Mali and the U.S. diaspora. On stage this year were, among others, Astou Niamé, Néné DiabatéDiamy Sako, and Dabara.

Alex Boil, the festival’s music producer, says that in recent years, American rap music has influenced some Malian musicians to develop a new Malian rap style. Today all these Griots are traveling around the world and through singing, and music, they are the caretakers of Mali’s cultural history.








Enter the Bulldozer

 GCISMilitary parade at the inauguration of President John Magufuli of Tanzania. Credit: GCIS

As with any foundational figure, Julius Nyerere’s memory bears all the contradictory passions of Tanzania’s modern history, and his name becomes a talisman for all sorts of politically charged commentaries on history and its relevance for the present. This entire symbolic infrastructure is a means by which we explore the influence of the past upon the present. In Tanzania the past includes Nyerere’s one-party state, but also the paternalist colonial state, and the undisciplined state of Tanzania’s present. Actual political change seems to happen very slowly in today’s Tanzania, and as a result the youthful society and growing economy seem to be hurtling into the future faster than institutions can adjust. Nyerere was famously quoted by the journalist William Edgett Smith a saying “we must run while they walk.” The people are running, but until last year, the government seemed to be walking very leisurely indeed.

Enter the Bulldozer. It is the nickname – perhaps more popular among foreign reporters than the Tanzanian masses – of the current president, John Pombe Magufuli. Formerly a hyperkinetic and hardnosed minister of works, Magufuli was elected last October with a 58% majority, which is the lowest margin of victory for a Tanzanian president in history, and even that total is disputed by the opposition parties. The Bulldozer nickname is apt in its reference to his eagle-eyed oversight of thousands of miles of new paved roads across the country during the last administration. Under his new administration the nickname refers to his attitude toward the big businessmen and “big potatoes” of government bureaucracy, flattening big and small alike in his quest to get people on the job, to eliminate waste and corruption in government, and (seemingly) to silence voices of protest.

Magufuli’s arrival in the State House – and immediate visits to ports, factories and government offices in search unpaid taxes and ghost workers – was a refreshing bit of political theater showing he was ready to take on all special interests in an effort discipline a widely resented culture of official inefficiency and graft. Magufuli’s energetic insistence on official integrity recalled the last president still seen as incorruptible, Julius Nyerere himself. As he then sacrificed $500,000,000 in American aid and soft loans on a point of political pride, and seemed to lean toward more regulation, labor protections and trade restrictions on top of his tax collection efforts, businesspeople began to see not a little of Nyerere’s short-sightedness. Anti-corruption efforts measures by themselves were not a strategy for economic growth. In fact, without clearing the deadwood of socialist-era regulation, anti-corruption efforts could well cut out the (illegal) shortcuts that had long allowed businesspeople to navigate the immobilizing forest of regulation.

Thirty years after Nyerere’s retirement, and three subsequent administrations widely perceived as increasingly corrupt, economic growth has been clipping along at 6%-7% annually during a period of stagnation in Europe and Latin America. More than just sour grapes from businesspeople coughing up something closer to their lawful share of taxes, their frustration stemmed from the looming shadow of the failed state-controlled economy under Nyerere’s socialist government. Contradictory incentives and political demands for state-owned enterprises in the 1970s created fertile ground for the ubiquitous habits of embezzlement and bribery that came to define bureaucratic management at all levels of Tanzanian society. Trade restrictions and an overvalued currency created shortages of everything but the most basic products of the agrarian economy by the 1980s. Nyerere blamed these problems on an unjust global economic structure and an epidemic of dishonest bureaucrats, whose arrest and dismissal would return the system to a level of productivity that had never existed.

As Magufuli proposed this year to ban the import of used clothing and refuse a long-in-the-works Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union, many hear echoes of Nyerere’s truculent temperment. Magufuli’s efforts, like Nyerere’s, to identify and prosecute corrupt officials easily expanded into a more general restriction on any criticism or opposition to his efforts. Magufuli refused to revisit the short-circuited election in Zanzibar (the reason for the refusal of the US $500 million), banned political rallies during non-election years (i.e. the next four years), and has used cyber-security laws to impose fines and jail terms on online critics and to shut down media outlets. Nyerere justified his one-party state and restrictions on free speech in service to the rapid development of an impoverished postcolony and the need to foster national unity in a post-colonial world full of ethnic conflict and civil war. Worthy goals, but in the case of the economy, haste led to its proverbial waste.

The legacy of Nyerere’s state and state-run economy is a government (and ruling party) that values decree over debate, and control over entrepreneurship. Magufuli is a model student of this system in its ideal form. He represents a return to Nyerere’s integrity and energetic efforts at good governance, but also a return to Nyerere’s presumption that opposition is mere obstruction. The tragedy of Nyerere’s time was that the lack of real debate over his policies created outcomes that undermined his goals of good governance and economic growth. Magufuli’s well-intentioned emulation of Nyerere’s purposeful leadership may lead to similar disappointment if he cannot find a way to adapt to a mature political field of serious opposition parties offering debate, criticism and considered policy alternatives.


 GCISMilitary parade at the inauguration of President John Magufuli in November 2015. Image Credit: GCIS

Seventeen years ago today, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Father of the Nation, passed away. For Tanzanians this amounts to a “where were you when…?” moment.  I was in school that fateful Thursday when the bell unexpectedly rang and we learnt that Mwalimu (teacher in Swahili) had passed away in London, where he was being treated for Leukemia.

Domestically, Mwalimu played a key role in freeing the country from British colonialism. His leadership was also credited in uniting more than 125 tribes into a unified nation. When he finally stepped down in 1985 (he had been the only leader Tanzanians had known since independence) , the literacy rate was at 91% and the inequality gap was one of the lowest in Africa.

But his legacy went far beyond Tanzania. Continentally, Mwalimu made Dar-es-Salaam the capital of Southern Africa liberation movements. Freedom fighters from Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Angola had offices and training camps in Tanzania, including Mozambique’s Frelimo and South Africa’s African National Congress. Globally, he made the University of Dar-es-Salaam the magnet for anti-colonial activists and thinkers. Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali and Walter Rodney, passed through, stayed and strategized from Dar-es-Salaam.

Even in retirement and posthumously, Mwalimu remained our reference point for counsel, wisdom and direction. Consequently, past and current leaders in Tanzania like to be compared to him. Take current president, John Magufuli. He has been working hard to claim Nyerere’s mantle. Barely 100 days into his presidency, Magufuli became the focus of a hashtag on social media for his anti-graft and anti-waste measures. #WhatWouldMagufuliDo was trending across the continent. But Magufuli also displayed autocratic tendencies, spawning another hashtag: #WhatIsMagufuliDoing. His government became associated with shrinking the civic space, restrictions on media freedom, newspapers suspensions, social media arrests, and bans on live parliament broadcasts as well as citizens participation in political activities.

Some see parallels to aspects of Magufuli’s autocratic tendencies and Nyerere’s years in government. The difference is Mwalimu had incredible foresight and effectively made a U-turn in early 1990s. He foresaw the inevitable democratic changes that were happening across the continent (following the fall of the Soviet Union) and understood that if the government did not peacefully initiate the shift to a multiparty system, sooner or later the citizens would chaotically demand it.

The post-1990 Nyerere would probably say to the current government what he said to his own party that was unwilling to end its monopoly of political activities in 1991. Despite being the architect of one-party rule in Tanzania (1965-1990), Nyerere said: “the people of the majority view have to accept the rights of minority to express their opinions without intimidation. Indeed, must accommodate those views as far as possible.” Likewise, regarding those offering a false choice between democracy and development, Mwalimu would probably repeat what he said in 1973: “If real development is to take place, the people have to be involved.”

Finally, some wonder what Mwalimu would make of the intolerance of the current government to alternative viewpoints, and its penchant for making impromptu decisions and visits that lack legal basis and are devoid of concrete plans. In a farewell address to parliament in 1985, Nyerere said: “We never pretended to have any special wisdom about the means of developing our country. We made false starts and mistakes, but we had the courage and the wisdom to correct our mistakes.”

What would Mwalimu do if he was to return to his beloved country today? He would weep over the tragedy of missed opportunities; that we have failed to discern the signs of the times and the government has gone back, politically, to the pre-1990 era. In typical Nyerere fashion he would then berate us about the huge divide between the rich and the poor. He would chastise the current and previous governments for immortalizing him in buildings, airports and bridges, but not in his principles. He would also rebuke them for ingratiating themselves to neighbors with dubious human rights and democratic records. Finally, he would warn us to leave him alone and stop comparing him to anyone else, ever again. He wouldn’t linger any longer, because the pain would be too much to bear.

Congo needs fewer metanarratives from the West and more of this

A still from the film.A still from the “Kolwezi on Air.”

Following the Democratic Republic of Congo’s highly politicized implementation of its decentralization policy–also known as découpagea new province, Lulaba, was created. It’s capital is Kolwezi which is also one of the major mining towns in what used to be Katanga, located in the southern DRC. In Fiston Mujila’s new novel, “Tram 83,” Kolwezi, like many other cities in Katanga, is described as a melting pot. Migrant workers from neighboring provinces such as Kasai, but also southern Africans, especially from Zambia, encounter there mining multinational corporations from China, Australia, Canada, and Belgium.

Kolwezi also happens to be the site of a unique media experiment: Radio Tele Manika, the largest local radio-and television station in the city, more popularly known by its acronym RTMA.

Radio Tele Manika is now the subject of a documentary film. The radio host Carlo Ngombe usually greets his listeners with this poem: “Kolwezi, be the land where vagrant breeze will sing me a symphony of justice. But above all Kolwezi be the inexhaustible source, from which I will draw a persisting zeal, and most importantly an oblivion of bitter memories.”

Reporters in Kolwezi, have to prove very adaptive by transforming different constraints into opportunities. Gaston Mushid Mutund, director of production at RTMA, drives through a miner’s town at the outskirts of the city, and explains that the ordinary residents do not have access to political authorities, but if the media covers an issue it can spark political reactions. Since “newspapers are only published in Kinshasa, 2,000 kilometers from here,” video and audio outlets have to highlight recurrent issues in mining towns such as the lack of proper sanitation, or the need to trust a doctor, not a magician with the treatment of HIV/Aids.  

RTMA reporters, hosting segments in French and Kiswahili, have differing talents. Patrick Busasa alias “Top One,” is a very confident man as his nickname might indicate. He sees himself as a role model of the Katangese media scene, a perfectionist, who often is a sound technician, cameraman, and moderator at the same time. He interviews popular artists such as Sando Marteau , or D’laranta, whose song “Au Nom du Seigneur” openly challenges the corruption, which characterizes one of Katanga’s thriving new business models: the church and its self-made preachers.

Fidelie Muyongo is another RTMA talent, not fazed by what she describes as societal prejudice against female journalists. One of her segments covers the dining characteristics of Chinese residents of Kolwezi, and their fondness of Skol, one of many excellent Congolese beers. The exchanges portrayed in the segment were a very different perspective from the usual metanarrative of “China-in-Africa”, which is too often mediated by Western intermediaries with their own agendas.

By showing RTMA intimately engaging with issues in Kolwezi, the film indirectly manages to portray the distance, and bias from which international-, or even national media outlets would engage with local complexities. This is especially salient in the context of the DRC, a country that knows recurrent metanarratives and objectification all too well.

“Kolwezi on Air” also shows that RTMA’s crew is not afraid to take on local politicians. Whether it’s scrutinizing the salary gap between employees of the state-owned railway company SNCC and Members of Parliament (monthly wages $80 and $8000 respectively), the expulsion of tradeswomen from the market, or questioning a ruling party politician over his claim that the constitution merely exist in order to obtain foreign aid, RTMA is on it. Ironically, the politicians often demand from journalists to justify the failures of the Congolese political class, and criticize them for what they call “deceiving the masses.”

Being a reporter in Kolwezi is far from easy. “There are realities of power that we face.” Especially when questioning the activities of “the powerful,” journalists in the DRC are frequently intimidated, and private stations shut down. Other forms of power also pose challenges. Congo’s notoriously inefficient power company SNEL, is a frequent source of blackouts and technical failures, causing delays in segments, which anger RTMA’s advertisers.

On the radio, Carlo Ngombe’s voice constantly accompanies Kolwezi’s citizens in their day-to-day lives:  “We are no victims and there’s no culprit. We have a capacity to adapt that many people on earth do not have. So our precariousness, but especially our self-preservation, our ability to get by should command respect, not compassion, but respect.”

These words not only characterize the psyche of Kolwezi’s 500,000 residents, but also very well describe the objective of the film. Some might argue that the film engages in the “glorification of the local”, and it could do more to highlight the broader realities of political, economic, and historical dynamics of Kolwezi, Katanga, and the DRC (colonial history, multinational mining, etcetera). But director Idriss Gabel and his team have recognized that the international perception of the DRC has already been shaped sufficiently by controversial metanarratives about why Congolese people are constantly victimized. If one considers the coverage of RTMA carefully, the discourse of its reporters, and their encounters with mining sites, state employees, politicians, magicians, Chinese residents, and musicians all embody this assemblage, which defines Kolwezi’s broader reality.

More importantly, “Kolwezi on Air” achieves to demonstrate what makes RTMA’s perspective so important. The station embodies the struggles of Kolwezi’s residents, whether they are coping with power outages, making ends meet, or having to pursue multiple obligations simultaneously. The DRC needs less objectifying metanarratives from the West, and needs more RTMA’s.

Ousmane Sembene invented a new cinema for Africa

Sembene on the set of Moolaade in 2003. Image Credit the Sembene EstateSembene on the set of Moolaade in 2003. Image Credit: the Sembene Estate

The legendary Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene (he passed away in 2007) is back in the spotlight thanks to a new documentary film, Sembene! (2015), that addresses his decades-long career as a writer, director, and charismatic exponent of African cinema.

Co-directed by Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman, Sembene! is currently playing in cinemas throughout the United Kingdom, alongside revivals of three of Sembene’s masterpieces: La Noire de… (1966), Sembene’s first feature film, which turns fifty this year; Xala (1975), Sembene’s mordant take on male chauvinism and postcolonial corruption (the two are hardly mutually exclusive in Sembene’s work); and Moolaadé (2005), Sembene’s swan song, which powerfully dramatizes resistance to the tradition of female genital mutilation.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Gadjigo, Sembene’s longtime friend and official biographer (author of Ousmane Sembène: The Making of a Militant Artist), about his film and the recent resurgence of interest in Sembene’s remarkable body of work.

As Sembene’s friend and biographer, how did you approach the challenge of making a film about the director?

Ousmane Sembene’s work had a huge influence on me as a young man, and we recognized that the influence he had was part of his project as an artist. Therefore, we decided to weave my own story — of a young man who rediscovers his African-ness through Sembene’s stories — into the structure of the film. As we later worked so closely together, right until his passing, those two stories intersected in ways that were both practical and, for me and hopefully the audience, very emotional.

Sembene! is at once biographical and autobiographical, as it features some of your own reflections on growing up in Senegal and encountering Sembene’s novels as a teenager. Can you say more about it what was like to discover Sembene’s work at a young age?

Before I went to school, the stories I heard were from my grandmother and elders, stories about the world that I knew, the beautiful world of the small village that I grew up in. Once I was sent away to school, hundreds of miles from the village, I began to lose those stories, and my connection to the land and to my family. They were replaced by stories from places completely foreign to my existence — stories from Europe, from Africa. I was forbidden to speak my native language in my high school. And after a few years, I found myself aspiring to be something I never could: a European. But then I discovered the novel God’s Bits of Wood (1960), by Sembene. It was set in places that I knew, with references to the cultures I had experienced. It even had a character named Samba. Reading that book was a moment that forever altered my life, a moment that a switch was thrown. I realized that, as an African man, I had stories — beautiful, powerful, inspiring stories — that were mine, that were familiar, that celebrated my people. I didn’t need to look to Europe to find meaningful stories. Here they were.

A number of African languages, from Wolof to Diola, can be heard in Sembene’s films. How important was it for Sembene to feature these languages in addition to French and Arabic?

Sembene was deeply committed to the use of African languages in his work. In his first films, due to funding constraints, using Wolof was impossible. But he fought to use them in his later works. For Mandabi (1968), he convinced the French funders to make a Wolof-language version of the film. Thereafter, his films included indigenous languages. He also started the first Wolof-language literary magazine. For Sembene, the loss of African languages meant the loss of African cultures. You can’t have one without the other.

La Noire de… (1966) is perhaps Sembene’s most enduringly popular film, a reasonably accessible introduction to his thematic obsessions and stylistic proclivities. Why does this film continue to speak so powerfully to audiences all around the world?

It is a film that, though steeped in the specificity of a Senegalese woman, touches upon the marginalization that the majority of those on the planet experience. It is a story of a woman who is unseen and unheard, who, due to the color of her skin and her gender, is automatically assumed to be some sort of lesser being. But, of course, Diouana, like all of us, has her own gifts, her own voice, her own power. And the French couple that exploit her in fact also miss an opportunity to grow, to learn, to connect, due to their implicit biases. The film’s themes are entirely relevant today, as we deal, in the U.S., with police brutality, with the invisibility of people of color in the media, and with other less sensational but equally destructive forms of institutional racism.

Sembene was increasingly critical of French funding after the experience of making Mandabi in the late 1960s, suggesting that foreign financing was “tainted with paternalism and neocolonialism.” What are some of the most important lessons to take from Sembene’s experience of cultural and economic imperialism?

A few notes about Sembene: he believed in the Marxist ideology, but ceased to be a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That’s because he didn’t fully respect the institutions. He came to his Marxism through manual labor and through the unions, rather than through learning about it at university. He came to know exploitation by living in a fully exploitative system, and his lifelong desire was to liberate other workers, and, especially women, from the systems of exploitation. And while Sembene liked to rage against the imperialist machine, he also was savvy enough to use whatever tools he could to get his work done. In fact, all of his films were funded with money from abroad, and he had steadfast and essentially allies around the world. One thing I admire about Sembene is that, despite what he would say in his interviews, he was as much pragmatist as ideologue. He wanted to get his stories told, and understood the importance of those stories. And thus he adopted an “any means necessary” approach to making work. To be honest, he could be equally tough, if not tougher, on the Africans he worked with. The goal was to tell stories that empowered workers and women and the marginalized, and he did it with unprecedented energy and consistency for 50 years.

 Lisa CarpenterSamba Gadjigo and Sembene. Image Credit: Lisa Carpenter

Far from a hagiographic account of the filmmaker, Sembene! addresses some of the controversies in which Sembene was embroiled, including those related to the production of Camp de Thiaroye (1988), a project that Sembene was accused of having “stolen” from a protégé. Did Sembene see himself as being in competition with other African filmmakers?

I don’t think it was competition. One of the complexities of Sembene is that the work he did necessitated having a very large ego, and that ego at times kept him from giving full support to other artists. He grew quickly impatient with those who did not have the willpower and single-mindedness to get the work of storytelling done. To him, African storytelling was a job one did, just like farmer or leatherworker. And those who did not do the job with what he judged to be full integrity and passion lost his respect. I think he made a mistake in this realm; there were many, many young artists who could have greatly benefited from his tutelage, whom he dispensed with too quickly.

Sembene faced considerable opposition in the late 1970s following the completion of Ceddo (1976), a film that explores the arrival of Islam in West Africa and critiques the religion as a tool of social control—a source of oppression whose proponents were complicit in the spread of imperialism. How do audiences receive this controversial film today, particularly in light of the success of the similarly themed Timbuktu (2011), by Abderrahmane Sissako?

It is a fantastic comparison, and a great question. Unfortunately, Ceddo has not been widely seen in years, and so its message, which is not actually anti-Islam, but anti-oppression, has not been critiqued in this new era of heightened attention to Islam. We are working to have the film restored, and when it is, we hope it will reach audiences throughout the world, and continue the conversation that Sissako’s incredible film re-kindled.

Recently, scholars have drawn attention to contributions to African cinema that predate Sembene’s Borom Sarret (1963), calling into question Sembene’s status as the so-called “father of African cinema.” The Senegalese filmmaker Momar Thiam, for instance, adapted a Birago Diop story as Karim (1963), a film that was completed before Borom Sarret. Surely the designation “father of African cinema” has to do with more than just chronology, however. What does it mean to continue to think of Sembene in this way? Or does his legacy transcend such honorific distinctions?

People love those phrases. And in addition to its potential inaccuracies (we also have Egyptian cinema dating back to the 1920s and before), there is an element of paternalism that some have noted. We also like to consider Sembene in the context of Third Cinema — a global cinema of resistance that is more associated with Latin America than Africa. But I will also defend the concept of Sembene as the defining figure African cinema to date. His example of a cinema that was not only African in theme and subject matter, but which is told with a fierce social conscience, and with a deep sense of African storytelling traditions, remains the standard. You can’t make a film in sub-Saharan Africa without having Sembene as a reference in some way.

What are some of your favorite Sembene films, and why?

I am deeply moved by them all. Xala (1975) has a special place in my soul, because, as a young man who did not understand the have/have-not elements of African society, it opened me up to a new reality of exploitation. And so does Moolaadé (2005), as I was on set with Sembene, seeing him on set, as an 80-year-old man, going blind, but still outworking all of the young ones … It was an example of focus, determination, passion and heroism that has kept me inspired every single day for the past 13 years.

Finally, what should audiences new to Sembene know before approaching his films?

What is amazing about Sembene is that you really don’t need much context. Watch the films, and you will feel them in your heart and soul. They were made out of a true sense of urgency, and that sense of urgency never goes out of style.

 Kino LorberImage Credit: Kino Lorber

Apparently, I love Africa. I’ve been told this by people who hardly know me.

Construction worker in Luanda. Image via Stephen Martin FlickrConstruction worker in Luanda. Image via Stephen Martin Flickr

In 2003, I was among the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, who marched through London to demonstrate against the war in Iraq. I thought a lot about Angola that day. I felt very sad that there had never been a big march against the war there – even though, by then, it had already ended. In the public eye, some wars matter more than others. In Trafalgar Square, I tried really hard to squeeze back my tears when Adrian Mitchell read a twenty-first-century remix of his poem, To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies About Vietnam).

On a Saturday or a Sunday afternoon, my mother would do the ironing and my sister would fold up in an armchair in the front room and they’d watch romantic black-and-white films together and they’d cry. I was wholly perplexed by their response.

I tear up easily these days. Outside Blackhorse Road tube station, three Romanian men were sitting on the pavement playing the accordion, the violin and the clarinet. Their music reminded me of the Cape Verdeans on Luanda’s ilha. Was this a Romanian morna obeying the cycle of fifths? I gave them a pound and something within me juddered. Inside the station, the acoustics were perfect, like a cathedral, and as I descended on the escalator, I felt myself being swallowed by the sounds from the street.

When I started out as a journalist, I thought I understood the meaning of objectivity. But within a few months of reporting from Angola, I lost that faith and ceased to believe in objectivity even as a possibility. Yes, you can give a voice to as many sides as possible – but that’s not objectivity. Today I don’t even believe that objectivity is a useful goal. It’s false and it’s a lie and it doesn’t help people to mentally engage in events taking place around the world.

I was astounded when I realized how television reporting actually worked. A BBC team was visiting Angola. They’d gone to a hospital to do a story about landmine injuries. Their piece showed the British reporter conversing earnestly with a patient lying in bed. In fact, the reporter was nodding and pretending to talk: the real conversation took place between the patient and an Angolan freelance interpreter, who was never shown on camera. The idea of the foreign reporter as an omniscient multilingual hero is a trick. I hate the way the news plasters over the rough edges of truth.

I was in my forties when a woman from Malaysia called Su taught me how to put on eyeliner. But at your age, she said, all you really need is a bit of mascara. Not long before I met Su, my mother had told me that I’d reached the age when I could no longer get away without makeup. Whenever I tell people this they laugh.

Apparently, I love Africa. I’ve been told this by people who hardly know me. I’ve been introduced in pubs, on demonstrations, in emails and on public transport as someone who really knows Africa and who is dying to go back to Africa. But I’m not sure I know what Africa means any more. I went through a phase of thinking that the word itself should be banned. Perhaps then people might be forced into thinking more carefully about what they’re saying.

Not so long ago, an Angolan woman got quite cross with me. What is it with you? she asked. What is it that you’ve got with our country? With my country? Why are you so interested in us? We’d spent the afternoon at an art gallery in London, walking and talking and looking at huge pieces of work, and just as we were about to part, her distrust of me came tumbling out. It felt like a loathing. If she’d had a little more courage, I think she would have spat on me.

The trouble is, I couldn’t answer her question. I tried. But nothing I said was quite what I meant. So I’ve carried on asking myself: What is it I’ve got with their country, with that country?

The only answer I’ve been able to come up with is that I was there during a war. It was an incredibly intense experience, one that influenced me radically. For a long time, I tried to work out how I could retrieve it. I wanted a repeat, like that absurd sensation you get when you first take certain class-A drugs. I was sitting in Shoreditch Town Hall. Duncan was holding my hand. I was thinking that my head was going to shoot off like a rocket launching from my neck. Get up! Dance! he said. You’ll be OK if you dance.

Angola was a bit like that, but it went on for weeks and weeks and months and months – and I miss it.

Despite being forty-eight, I still haven’t fully come to terms with being British and being white. A lot of people think I’m posh too. It’s in my voice, my face, my whole manner. Even with my mouth shut, you can see the privilege. It’s etched into me.

There’s a primary school at the bottom of my street. In summer, when my windows are open, I can hear the children playing games outside. I imagine them standing in circles, clapping hands and taking turns to skip and jump.

One afternoon I was walking past the school gates with a friend. In the middle of a conversation about his new dog, he hesitated. Then he looked at me with an expression that reminded me of the first time we’d met. Have you ever noticed those gates? he asked. I stepped forward: I wanted to show him I was giving them my full attention. Then I said that yes, I had, perfectly, yes, noticed. But it was only in that moment, my Jewish friend at my side, that I understood what he meant. Standing at about three meters high, they form an arch at the side of the school. Each gate consists of a row of vertical iron rods, set just far enough apart to push a man’s fist through. To either side of the lock that holds the gates together is a circle of metal the size of a small satellite dish. Inside each circle, a letter: M on the left, G on the right. At dusk, all you can make out is the top of the gates and the bare concrete wall running behind the back of the school.

When we lived in Bamako, J used to allow us extra time to walk anywhere because, he used to say, You can’t go down the street without talking to every single person we pass even though you don’t speak Bambara. We did try to learn Bambara, both of us. We took classes. J was a much better student than I. But in the end, we left Mali after just a few months because I was pregnant and had begun to bleed. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office, half-listening to him advising me to go home and half-reading the notice on his desk discouraging female genital mutilation. He said he couldn’t guarantee a clean blood transfusion should I need one. So I flew home, bleeding all the way, but having to pretend I was fine because you aren’t allowed on a plane if you’re bleeding – especially as much as I was. And perhaps I didn’t really like Bamako very much anyway. I spent a lot of the time wishing I was still in Luanda. I still do. Moments when I get desperate pangs for the place.

*This is an excerpt from Lara Pawson’s new book This is The Place to Be, which can be purchased here.

Shutdown–On the death of compromise in South Africa

 @LionelAdendorf on TwitterPolice firing teargas at protesting students on the South African parliament grounds in 2015. Image Credit: @LionelAdendorf on Twitter

“War will bring the revolution; revolution will stop the war”–-Jhumpa Lahiri

For some time now people who write about South Africa have been suggesting that the country is in the process of changing.  It is now time to accept that the country has changed.  We are in a new phase, one that is characterised by a rejection of compromise as a tactic for managing democratic intercourse. There has been a tendency to suggest in recent weeks that student leaders within some Fallist groupings are highly intolerant, and that they are engaged in a dangerous form of brinksmanship.  It is clear that it is incorrect to suggest that it is only some in the student movement who are like this.  The rejection of compromise politics does not come from one quarter alone.

We see brinksmanship across the political spectrum, from the smoldering campuses in KwaZulu and Fort Hare, to the burnt schools in Vuwani, to the charred remains of the African National Congress.  We see brinksmanship in the serious battle lines that are drawn between business and labour; the sort of impasses that result in protracted disputes every year.  Who can argue that Marikana was not the result of brinksmanship.  We see brinksmanship in the failure to reign in rogue elements within the National Prosecuting Authority and security services.  Similarly the slash and burn tactics that have placed the CEO of the public broadcaster, Hlaudi Motsoeng, and the head of the national airline, Dudu Myeni, in positions of leadership indicate a willingness to exact maximum damage in service of broader objectives that are sometimes opaque.

These sorts of divisions are indicative of a new phase in our politics; one in which intransigence and radicalism take centre stage.  Unlike others who worry about radicalism and intransigence, I am not convinced about whether the digging in of heels we are witnessing will take the country forward or backwards in the long run.  It is too early to hazard a guess.  While there is much that is worrisome about stubbornness, it is also important not to dismiss obstinacy as a mechanism for resolving long-standing impasses that have not been dealt with because not enough pressure has been applied.

In the conventional model of democratic politics, you put forward an idea, debate it and then work to build support for your view.  Democratic societies reward those leaders who work out solutions, bridge divides and calm tensions.  These rewards exist not simply in the electoral set up, but also through other sorts of incentives.  Prizes and awards are given to bridge-builders; buildings are named in their honor and they are rewarded with public accolades, academic honorifics and so on.

While bridge builders continue to be seen as ‘leaders,’ their credibility is diminishing.  As the very notion of democracy goes on trial, radicalism and intransigence are increasingly replacing compromise as the go-to instincts of the body politic.

This is of course because the strategy of compromise has had mixed results in the last two decades. On the one hand, the compromise brokered in 1994 has resulted in a relatively ‘stable’ society and the growth of a significantly larger black middle class than existed at the end of apartheid.  Educational opportunities have expanded for all black children, and many more South Africans have access to services like water and sanitation than did under apartheid – both in real terms and as a proportion of the population.

At the same time, compromise has suffered a bad rap because of the ways in which it has been linked to other negative phenomena within the ruling party. It is widely accepted that careerism, political thuggery and an obsession with big-man politics have ascended in the ruling party.  Unfortunately what has blossomed at the same time is the cynical notion that t mediation and negotiation were mere strategies for self enrichment.  In other words, because the ANC has both championed compromise as a tool for managing conflict, and has also become more and more corrupt in its dealings with big business, it is easy to conclude that compromise politics is in fact corrupt politics.  Compromise has also suffered from the fall of Rainbowism. In many ways then, through its association with a compromised ANC and a compromised racial politics of Rainbowism, compromise as a political tactic, has come to be associated with selling out.

This is a pity.

For the purposes of clarity it is important to separate the ideological underpinnings of a politics that embraces compromise (what I refer to here as compromise politics) as a necessary and important aspect of moving forward a social agenda, from the other tendencies that have deepened and solidified in the post-apartheid ANC.  For example, it would be easy to suggest the ANC’s cosiness with big business is a function of a politics that embraces compromise. Certainly, compromise brought the ANC and big business into closer proximity to one another, but it is careless to argue that at its heart the ANC’s neoliberalism is only or even largely the result of its reliance on negotiation and compromise with external actors as a political strategy for securing and then sustaining democratic practice.   One can accept political compromise as a tactic, without accepting that concessions must be made on each and every issue confronting a society. One can hold firmly to principles, whilst accepting that at a macro level compromise is a critical tactic in a democratic society.

So, we are now in a new era.  We are no longer wondering where we are going, it seems we have arrived in a new place in which we are witnessing radicalism and intransigence as a modus operandi across our society.

We see it in the ruling party, where administrative matters like appointments and parastatal deployments take up inordinate amounts of time and leave blood on the floor time and again.  We see this radicalism and intransigence amongst university administrators who took far too long to comprehend the tactics of the student movement and so made strategic blunders early on, that have lost them trust and vital time.  We see it in the radicalism and intransigence of some of the leaders of the Fallist movement who are prepared to inflict maximum damage now in order for long-term goals to be achieved.  We see it amongst many white South Africans who continue to bury their heads in the sand by continuing to organize, protect and enrich themselves on the basis of race.

We see this radicalism and intransigence also in the actions of protesters who burn schools because of municipal demarcation issues or to highlight lack of water and sanitation.

I say this without assigning moral equivalence: I do not of course believe the intransigence of AfriForum is the same as the intransigence of the Fallists; nor do I think the intransigence of ANC factions intent on evading accountability is the same as the intransigence of Vice Chancellors whose role is primarily to run universities not to find the money to deliver free higher education.

My observation is merely that where the country stands today is a consequence of many separate sections of society saying that they have had enough of compromise.  This is especially interesting because we are a very young nation but we were founded on the very notion of compromise.  We were celebrated the world over for our ability to bring together disparate views.  During the 1990s, South Africans elevated the middle ground to the high ground.  Yet here we are today, gripped by radicalism and intransigence and an outright rejection of the compromise tactics that carried us to this point.

This is both startling, and completely unsurprising.   It is also not as frightening as some might think.

Those of us who were already adults during the heady transition days prided ourselves in being a nation of negotiators who pulled ourselves from the brink. The brink was a bad place and we were happy to no longer be on it.  I certainly believed, as the new millennium dawned, that South Africa might face some tough times ahead, but that the country would be defined by its ability to talk its way from the ledge.  Today many in our society are not as frightened of the brink as I was.  They see the brink as an important space to occupy.

Compromise politics was part of the national bloodstream – it would save us.  So of course it is startling to observe the way in which across many fronts, we are failing to resolve impasses today. Given the widespread embrace of compromise politics across South African society until recently, it is now disconcerting to note that  the rejection of compromise as a tool for social progress.

At the same time of course I am completely unsurprised by the starkness of this development and the ways in which it is manifested.  Make no mistake: There are valid and ethical reasons to reject compromise, even if one is not a political purist. There are some issues and some moments in history in which compromise makes no sense; moments in which moral and economic victories are within reach and ought to be fought for unequivocally without compromise.

The rejection of the compromise politics  by many protesters on the left is the logical conclusion of almost two decades of insipid and terrifying compromises on the running of the economy, institutional racism, the functioning of our education systems and the layout and structure of our urban and rural spaces.  One can in fact, embrace Rainbowism, and also recognize that compromise has not taken the poorest South Africans very far.


I have less patience of course for those who reject compromise because they are reactionaries – those like Afrikaans singer Steve Hofmeyr and his slightly more urbane ilk in Afriforum.  Still, it is worth nothing that the absence of a political narrative explaining why compromise continues to be necessary has allowed these elements to strengthen their voices and mobilize broader support than they should have.   In other words, regardless of what you think of Mandela’s latter-day politics and irrespective of your thoughts on the ANC leaders who negotiated the settlement that lead to the historic 1994 elections, there is no denying the amount of effort that went into building and sustaining the narrative of the Rainbow Nation.  It was potent because it was carried forward consistently and eloquently, even in the face of its obvious weaknesses.


There has been no commensurate energy invested in revising and recalibrating that narrative to take account of growing social strife today.  The limits of the 1994 political compromise have inevitably begun to give at the seams and yet I cant think of a single leader inside or outside the ANC who has managed to coherently and productively steer the conversation about politics and inequality towards calmer waters.

The present crisis on campuses illustrates this point.  The university crisis is above all, a failure of those who championed compromise politics to adapt to a dramatically different political context.  The old words no longer fit and the old guard are now too old to restrategize.  The problem isn’t so much that they don’t understand the radicalism of the youth, or even that they don’t know how to communicate with a strident new generation.  The problem seems to be that those who sit in positions of power within the state and universities simply do not see their politics and their positions as being as radical as those of the students they so oppose.

When the militant protest for free education meets the militant defence of the rights of those currently enrolled in schools (which implies a defence of the status quo, albeit for pragmatic reasons to which I am deeply sympathetic because I am of a certain generation and so I do not reject pragmatism), we have a stalemate.

Leadership matters most in times like this and thankfully there have already been some creative attempts to broker peace.  Still, South Africa seems to be tainted by its past embrace of compromise.  The last two decades have turned compromise into a swear word.

The transition in 1994 saw both a revolution and a war averted and many of us were pleased with this.  It seems however that we had only reached a temporary and insufficient peace.  We are now howling at the past:  all of us barking with regret at the time we have lost to superficial agreement.

The whites and the blacks and the young and the old; the government and the activists; the progressives and the conservatives: We are all regretting what we gave up because twenty years ago.  The party is over and in the cold light of dawn we see that compromise became both a means and an end and perhaps this was our mistake.  We did not yet know that sitting down does not mean giving in.

Perhaps the cacophony of noise; the howling and the barking and the sound and the fury this time will signify that we are wiser now, and more prepared to accept that compromise is a tool; that facing one another in discourse, eye-to-eye is the only mechanism we have at our disposal to save us.  We have to stand close enough to breathe one another’s breath. It is the only thing that will save us from having to burn ourselves anew each time we rage.

My people them dey stay for poor surroundings*

Makoko, Nigeria. Image via WikipediaMakoko, Nigeria. Image via Wikipedia

In 2012, the star architect Kunlé Adeyemi unveiled his “floating school” in Makoko, one of more than 100 slums in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. Most of Makoko’s residents, who are estimated between 40,000 and 300,000, live in makeshift structures built on stilts on lagoon water. The floating school, built by local residents, used wooden offcuts from a nearby sawmill and locally grown bamboo. It sat on 256 plastic drums and was powered by rooftop solar panels. The construction of the floating school gave new hope to residents hoping for more durable, permanent housing structures in the face of regular flooding. It was also viewed as a prototype for housing crises elsewhere on the continent.

One thing the floating school did not do was encourage government intervention to improve the lives of Makoko’s residents. Instead, residents were regularly subject to threats of eviction because Makoko is located on prime land. At best, the international attention (the school won a number of design prizes) slowed attempts by the Nigerian government to finally “clear” Lagos of the slum. It didn’t help when three years after the floating school was first constructed, it collapsed in June 2016, after heavy rainfall.

The global assessment of slums by UN-Habitat shows that 828 million people, or an estimated 33% of the urban population of developing countries, reside in slums. In sub-Saharan Africa, 62% of the urban population resides in such settlements. For Nigeria, the World Bank reported that as of 2015, 48% of the total population (estimated at more than 180 million) reside in urban centers.

Nigeria’s biggest cities – Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Aba and Enugu – present a number of urgent problems for urban planners: urban decay, slums, overcrowding and lawlessness, which lead to the loss of land and natural resources. Lagos faces the most acute housing crisis. It began to expand at a breakneck pace with the oil boom of the 1970s. Lagos is now Africa’s largest city with a population that exceeds 10 million. The result has been over-urbanization, meaning that populations are growing much faster than local economies, leading to major social and economic challenges of slum proliferation.

In an effort to alleviate the housing crisis, the Lagos State Government (LSG) and its different agencies contributed a mere 27,000 housing units between 1950 and 2010. Considering that the population of Lagos tripled over this period of time, these efforts have done little to alleviate the acute lack of affordable housing for the poor or lower-class Lagosian. It is estimated that about 500,000 units of housing per annum over the next 10 years would be needed to keep up with the housing demand.

The deterioration of urban centers are the result of, but not limited to, the lack of enforcement of urban development and management regulations by city authorities, and the non-compliance to building laws by developers. Most city authorities in Nigeria are so overwhelmed by the rapid development and spread of informal settlements that their regulatory interventions make little impact. Secondly, the absence of a ‘maintenance culture’ for already existing housing infrastructure is missing from the Nigerian public housing market. The issues of repairs and maintenance are foreign to Nigerians causing rapid decay and deterioration of buildings which affects the sustainability of the urban environment and consequently leads to the development of informal settlements.

Though it is still unclear what the new government’s agenda is with regards to housing delivery regulatory reforms in the past 10 years are helping to create an enabling environment for housing delivery. The LSG plan formulated in 2012 provides a framework for housing, but it is not ambitious to resolve the housing and slum proliferation in the city. The plan focuses on promoting private housing estates or gated communities. Yet, this solely services the upper and middle-classes. A move in the direction of exclusively gated communities/private housing estates hampers societal development, promotes crime and classism.

The majority in Lagos lives in rented accommodation, and is at the mercy of landlords and estate agents who dictate a market that is poorly regulated and monitored. Despite 2011 tenancy legislation that imposes restrictions on advance rental payments, the law is not being enforced and landlords regularly request upfront payments of two or more years. Agency fees are another expense the law has been unable to govern. In Nigeria, agency fees top out at 10%, the highest on the continent. Thus, the urban poor are displaced and deprived access to decent and affordable housing, thereby rendering most of them “homeless.”

In 2014, the LSG launched the Lagos Home Ownership Mortgage Scheme, aimed at financing housing delivery. Under the scheme, the government provides the housing and funds the mortgage facility to be granted by a participating bank. First home buyers are expected to make a down payment of 30% and the balance of 70% spread over the next 10 years at 9.5% interest rate. Sadly, access to financing is still a major barrier for most people. Currently, the LSG is in collaboration with several organizations and initiatives that are increasing awareness on the issues, as well as developing sustainable housing solutions using local materials that are easily accessible, with implementation to commence in 2017.

*Fela Kuti – Coffin For Head of State (1981)

Black African immigrants, race and police brutality in America

//" target="_blank">Glenna Gordon's images of Liberian immigrants a href="" target="_blank">in Staten IslandImage: From Glenna Gordon’s series on Liberian immigrants in Staten Island

Perhaps the most famous example of “African passing” is the infamous anecdote of former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan. A student in 1960s U.S., Annan had traveled to the Jim Crow South. He needed a haircut, but was told by a racist white barber: “I do not cut nigger hair.” Annan, who is Ghanaian, responded: “I am not a nigger, I am an African.” In doing this, Annan did not challenge the degradation pre-assigned to him by virtue of his skin color, and accepted the premise that there is something inherently pathological about American blackness to which black people from Africa are impervious.

This line of thought is not uncommon. As Chimamanda Adichie, herself a Nigerian immigrant to the U.S., has stated: “When you’re an immigrant and you come to this country, it’s very easy to internalize the mainstream ideas. It’s easy, for example, to think, ‘Oh, the ghettos are full of black people because they’re just lazy and they like to live in the ghettos.’”

The evidence put forth by the characters that showed up from America on our living room TV in Tema, in Ghana where I spent my early life, seemed bent on conveying that black people were a problematic sect in the United States. Whether from CNN’s discussion of crime and violence, or in the rap videos buoyed by the twin manifesto of brute force and wealth, this perennial drip feeding meant that even before our plane had taken of from Accra and headed to JFK, I’d be admonished by extended family, pastors, market women and an air hostess – none of whom had lived in America – to not become like “those black people,” the Akata people.

The problem of such marching orders is that in America the definition of blackness – with its complex history – often lies in the eye of the beholder. It is as the truth for many Africans, as the novelist Yaa Gyasi wrote, that “when my little brother had the police called on him by our new neighbors while riding his bike on a nearby lot, he couldn’t say to those officers, ‘It’s O.K., I’m Ghanaian-American’.”

Unlike in Kofi Annan’s (problematic) case, most Africans – particularly poorer immigrants – don’t get a “get out of black free” card in instances of race prejudice. It wasn’t the case when four plainclothes officers shot Amadou Diallo (an immigrant from Guinea in West Africa) 41 times, as he pulled out his wallet in 1999. Seventeen years later we are again suffering with the tasering, shooting and summary killing of Ugandan immigrant, Alfred Olango, in San Diego. What these acts of police violence show is that the desire to self segregate in matters of race prejudice is indulging in a fantasy.

The fantasy may derive from a superiority complex. As Pew research shows, there are more African immigrants with college degrees relative to the overall U.S. population. But respectability or the lack thereof is no reason for someone to die, no matter their race. What matters is that the black immigrant population has grown by 137 percent in the last decade, and forms a relatively larger percentage of the overall U.S. black population. In America these days, Africans are the new blacks. Studies show that by the second generation many black immigrants lose the cadences and other linguistic signs that their parents still maintain. Children leave the tightknit community to go to college, and families in general disperse around the country in search of education and better opportunities, melting into the general black experience in America. Whatever challenges stand in the way of black individuals and families in the U.S.are our prerogatives.


Consider, for instance, the revelation from the National Academy of Sciences’ report on the integration of immigrants into American society. The finding show that black immigrants are “more likely to be poor than the native-born, even though their labor force participation rates are higher and they work longer hours on average.” Although the poverty rate for foreign-born persons in general declined over generations to match the native born, poverty levels among black immigrants rose to match that of the native black population.

Since black immigrants make up a double-digit share of the overall black population in some of the largest metro areas for instance, we have to accept the fact that African immigrants will be victims of the larger epidemic of gun violence that has disproportionately targeted people of color in America. Another tragic aspect of Olango’s case is the fact that he was a refugee. But that is hardly unique; about one-third of immigrants from Africa enter the U.S. as refugees. In Olango’s case, he had had fled his hometown Koch Goma, living briefly in Gulu before traveling to the United States in 1991.

So, you can imagine the extra pain of toiling, through persecution, surviving through camps, making the journey here and putting up with all of the challenges of adapting to a new society and culture in order to construct a home for your family only to have all of that sacrifice and work annulled by the lack of self control or training of an American policeman. As Agnes Hassan, a Sudanese refugee who had been in a camp with Olango asked “We suffer too much with the war in Africa, we come here also to suffer again?”

I remember very vividly, the late afternoon of December 13th 2014 at the Justice for All March in D.C. when Amadou Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, said from the stage: “This sorority of sisters, we the moms, we don’t want to belong to this group. We’ve paid a heavy price to be here.” The sombre statement struck my heart, but it was her accent, reminding me of my mother, which was dispiriting and discomforting. It really could have been my mother up there at that moment.

We minimize the power and stake that African immigrants have in the conversation about racism when we forget it was the case of Amadou Diallo, an African, that was one of the first to mobilize protesters and demonstrations against police brutality on a large scale; and in a city like New York nonetheless. Since then we have protested the killings of Sudanese Jonathan Deng, Cameroonian Charley Keunang or Deng Manyoun in Kentucky among myriad cases that we don’t know about because they didn’t trend as  popular hashtags post mortem, or they were struggling refugees with no extended family to advocate for them in life.

It can be tempting to want to compare police brutality here to violence back home, as the Nigerian author Adaobi Nwaubani did, when she told PRI after the first presidential debate “I don’t want black people, or white people or whomever to be shot and killed in interactions with the police [in the US], but I can’t pretend that I’m horrified by the fact that the police stopped and searched someone.” This, however, overlooks centuries of targeting and persecution of black people in the country’s history. (Nwaubani, incidentally, also told PR “stop and frisk” does not strike many Nigerians as remarkable.)

As the report from the UN expert group on People of African Descent puts it, “contemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past. Impunity for state violence has resulted in the current human rights crisis and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.” Note US Supreme Court Justice, Justice Sotomayor’s suggestion that the “way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

How would Alfred Olango have known before he texted his friend Steven Ojok back in Kampala on Sunday “you know what, man, I am taking my daughter for dinner”, that there was a coffin with his name on it.