Africa is a Country

Nigeria’s ‘brain drain’

Still from “Naija Beta.”

Obinna Ukwuani, the MIT graduate and self-described “education entrepreneur” wasn’t born in Nigeria, but claims a close connection to the country of his parents. The founder of Exposure Robotics Academy (ERA), a competitive robotics camp that he ran in Lagos during his summer breaks from MIT, Ukwuani caught the attention of the young filmmaker Arthur Musah. Hailing from Ghana and Ukraine and himself an MIT graduate, Musah is committed to documenting understudied aspects of the Afro-diasporic experience, particularly the efforts of Ukwuani and others to promote STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in Nigeria. Musah’s documentary Naija Beta was born of an eagerness to better understand the conditions under which African MIT students learn, labor, and dream of “giving back” to the continent to which they are (however ambivalently) tethered.

The film’s opening sequences feature Musah’s eloquent, introspective voice-over narration, which the director uses to communicate not merely his own biography, but also his sheer curiosity about Ukwuani. “Here,” he says of his subject, “was this young guy who called himself Nigerian, even though he was born in America’s capitol, and even before he was done with college, he was headed to Lagos with his team to bring technological education to 35 high school students in Nigeria.”

Sensing that Ukwuani’s aims exceeded the familiar dimensions of tech-centered philanthropy, Musah felt “compelled to follow” the young man and his team “all the way to Lagos.” The credit sequence that follows this confession strongly suggests a Nollywood film, but with a key difference: offering a montage of images of the big city – of notorious traffic jams (or “go-slows,” to employ the parlance of Nigeria), tall buildings, and crowded marketplaces – Musah eventually trains his eye on educational sites like the National Open University of Nigeria (the first federally funded distance-learning center in West Africa) and, finally, the Grange School, a private day and boarding school in Ikeja, close to the airport and flanked by country clubs.

Still from “Naija Beta.”

Regrettably, Naija Beta does not provide much contextualizing information about the Grange School, or about the students who are admitted to Ukwuani’s (apparently highly selective) robotics academy. Describing the academy as the product of a certain “back to Nigeria” movement among MIT students – and more specifically as an effort to encourage young Nigerians “to be passionate about technology” – Ukwuani serves as his own spokesman in Musah’s film, periodically informing the camera of his ambitions. Joining him on this techno-evangelist mission are other MIT students interested in spreading the gospel of robotics, among them the energetic Tobi, a young woman whose parents are from Ogun State. Musah shows her teaching a class, her tone as much inspirational as admonitory, enjoining students to do their best while warning them about the perils of unoriginality.

At its best, Naija Beta captures the near-comic disappointment of students who discover that “Miss Tobi” is requiring them to prepare for all conceivable contingencies, and Musah is particularly alert to the code-switching shared by students and teachers alike (particularly memorable are the MIT students who address the camera in standard, American-accented English, only to offer a few Pidgin words and phrases in casual conversations with the kids), as well as to the bitter doubts with which everyone seems to regard Nigeria. One of the ERA students carefully and candidly outlines her plan to contribute to Nigeria’s “brain drain,” saying, “I want to achieve my personal goals, become an engineer or a doctor. Instead of staying here and saying, ‘I want to improve my country,’ I will go and improve myself.” Dismissing those who advocate remaining in Nigeria, she continues, “Secondary school is the only thing holding me back here. In my own case, it’s not like I have a choice. Once I’m done with secondary school, I’m running away. And I can’t guarantee I’ll come back to Nigeria.” Her sobering thoughts on the futility of Nigerian politics and the impoverishment of Nigerian activism stand in stark contrast to the cautious optimism espoused by Ukwuani and his associates, all of them apparently aware of their enormous privilege as MIT students.

But Naija Beta barely suggests the socioeconomic status of the ERA students themselves, begging the question of how, exactly – under what criteria – they were selected for the program. At one point, Musah shows them swimming in a pool on the palm-tree-lined grounds of the Grange School, their exultant freedom counterpoised with the apparent indigence of a pair of candy sellers forced to sit on the dirt just beyond the institution’s fences.

Still from “Naija Beta.”

If Musah seems to sidestep the question of the students’ relative privilege (and of what appears to be their corporate sponsorship by Shell Oil), he certainly, if only occasionally, zeroes in on the experiences of those on the periphery of Ukwuani’s robotics school, interviewing security officers, day laborers, and several others, all of whom discuss the failings of the Nigerian state (as one man says with heroic bluntness, “The Nigerian government cannot help you”). Back at ERA, the students are instructed in how best to prepare for the SAT – “so they can obtain a great education” in the United States.

“The students that we recruit tend to be the best anyway,” one instructor says, confident in their capacity to “ace” the SAT. One student is caught cheating, however, leading to much handwringing. At one point, Ukwuani wonders if his academy will in fact “raise false hopes,” although he concedes that the students seem to understand that “Nigeria’s challenges are larger than they are.” But he concludes his musings by saying, “The life of a leader is not meant to be easy – it’s fraught with a lot of emotional, psychological, structural challenges that a lot of people may never have to face.” He remains convinced that ERA students, “the best of the best, will be perpetually dissatisfied with what Nigeria has to offer.”

Perhaps the best that can be said for Naija Beta is that it reveals some of the tensions between young Nigerians eager to flee their country for a better life in the United States and the men and women of color who, in fact, made it all the way to MIT, only to become disillusioned by its perceived superiority. One ERA instructor, for instance, laments the competitiveness of Nigerian culture that contrasts with the smooth cooperativeness of life at MIT, seemingly embodying some of what Fanon critiqued about the “colonized mind.” That the MIT students look upon Nigeria with pity and terror is reinforced in a scene in which Ukwuani, listening to NPR in his car (and far from any aggravating “go-slow”), hears about the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, and then about a suicide bomber who targeted a secondary school.

But the film ends on an encouraging note, as one MIT student, referring to Nigeria, tells the camera, “I am not embarrassed to say that I love my country. I have never been so patriotic in my life.” When Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations, she tried to sing along to the Nigerian national anthem, quickly realizing that she didn’t know the words, but resolving to work harder to honor her African roots. “I need to learn that,” she says with a smile.

What lessons on fascism can we learn from Africa’s colonial past?

Mainstream discussion of fascism took a dramatic upturn in 2016. While the term became one of the most incriminatory labels of the 20th century, the reassertion of far-right ideologies and previously fringe political groups across the globe has reanimated popular debate about the term. Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalism and stifling of dissent has been met with considered critiques of fascism in India. In Holland, France, Italy and Germany far-right populism threatens to engulf Europe in a succession of 2017 elections that has mainstream media asking whether this is Europe’s new fascism? The success of Nigel Farage’s xenophobic arguments during Brexit and the circus show of Trump’s rallies brought debates about the nature of fascism firmly into mainstream media discussion.

In the face of populist vitriol against foreigners and enemies, threats and intimidation, demagoguery, and a repositioning (or removal) of the state, its laws and institutions, the repertoire of fascism is under critical debate again. Yet, while fascist behavior often appears loud, aggressive, and speaks in matter-of-fact terms, Jane Kaplan has recently reminded us that fascism is “not just the big bang of mass rallies and extreme violence; it is also the creeping fog that incrementally occupies power while obscuring its motives, its moves and its goals.” To confront fascism we need to “look more closely,” not simply by debating whether the past fits the present, but by applying “the history we already know” in order to look anew at our current circumstance. But what is the history we know?

And what, if anything, does African experience have to say about all this? A great deal, if we care to look. In the 1930s fascism’s face was immediately recognizable in colonial Africa. Historians are now engaging in a fruitful debate about the similarities and differences between fascism and colonialism, and whether one was a form of another. What is less recognized is that this debate was in no way peripheral to colonized people at the time. My own recent research in Ghanaian and Nigerian newspapers has found that editorials debated the nature of fascism on the same page as news reports of forced labor practices in Kenya; of segregation and “extermination” policies carried out by General Hertzog and his government in South Africa; of the use of militarized force to suppress labor in Northern Rhodesia and the power of one-man rule by colonial governors.

What does this tell us? First, that fascism was neither a foreign concept nor an external threat in Africa. In 1937 the Sierra Leone-born trade unionists, I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, declared that Britain ruled in its colonial territories in a way that “turned the whole land into one large concentration camp.” That same year Jawaharlal Nehru asserted that the British Raj in India “wears a fascist uniform.” When rumors swirled that Hitler might be appeased by returning former German territory in Africa, the Nigerian editor J.V. Clinton argued that to be handed back to Germany “would be no greater treachery… than to place us cheek to jowl with European Colonists.” For Clinton, fascism involved the suppression of freedom of speech and racialized violence against workers, but it also had something to do with land, territory and annexation, and settler colonialism.

The second point that African perspectives on fascism tells us is that, because of the close comparisons between colonial rule and fascism, Africans and other colonized peoples around the world understood the character of fascism in a relational mode. This is vital insight for an ideology that continues to defy clear categorization and definition. My main point is simple: if we are witnessing ideas and behaviors that look a lot like fascism but in a contemporary context and in newer geographies (like the United States and India), then we need to expand our historical perspective beyond continental Europe.

The most famous articulation of the relation between colonialism and fascism is certainly Aimé Césaire’s declaration that fascism was “colonialist procedures… applied to Europe”. With this formulation, fascism’s character struck a different chord. We know that this was not the first articulation of this idea, but rather one voice among many. Césaire’s avowal in 1950 meant that the Allied powers could not walk away from fascism so easily. Nor can any of us, wherever we live, now. His declaration demanded that fascism be examined again, with a wider lens and a broader canvas. It cautioned that every time we think we have diagnosed the culprit, we should look again.

To exist every new nation needs a national football team–they also need a kit

Kei Kamara of Sierra Leone celebrates his goal, September 2014. Image Credit: Darren McKinstry (www.johnnymckinstry.com).

The first round of the 2017 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Gabon, Africa’s premier football competition, is nearly over. The knockout round starts later this week. This is the  60th anniversary of the tournament. Algeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire (the defending champions), Morocco, and Senegal are all among the contenders for the title. Sadio Mané’s Senegal have been the form team so far, while Algeria has failed to impress despite some individual magic from Riyad Mahrez, and hosts Gabon and their star forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang have already been eliminated. Although much of the attention of African football fans has been focused on the tournament, spare a thought for some of the teams on the continent that didn’t make it.

The Australia based apparel company, AMS Clothing, is the official apparel supplier to a number of less established national football teams throughout Africa. Unfortunately, none of the teams that AMS supplies made it to the AFCON this year, although Ethiopia did come close. A number of the AMS teams couldn’t even participate in qualifying matches as they aren’t members of FIFA or CAF. Yet this is part of what makes the AMS brand so distinctive and interesting, that it is focuses on less high profile national football teams, regardless of whether they are recognized by FIFA or not. It also provides the opportunity for them to benefit commercially from the sale of shirts.

As in 2015, Africa is a Country is holding another AFCON-themed competition and AMS has again very kindly agreed to provide prizes from their amazing collection of football strips. To have a chance of winning an AMS jersey, simply tag @futbolsacountry and @africasacountry on Twitter with a link to a video of your favorite AFCON goal from a previous tournament and a few words on why you love it, using the hashtag #MyAFCONGoal. Two winners will be selected by our panel. In the event that the same video is submitted by more than one person, we will go with the first person who submitted that video. The winner will be announced on Twitter on the morning of the final.

We spoke to AMS founder Luke Westcott in the lead up to the 2015 AFCON. I spoke to Westcott again this year, delving deeper into the company’s mission, his all time favorite African football strips, producing strips for nations that aren’t recognized by FIFA, having teams and fans vote on shirt designs, and AMS’s plans to expand into Oceania.

Firstly, can you tell me about how AMS got started and its mission? Who was behind it? Was there an explicit politics from the start or did it evolve over time?

AMS stands for African Manufacturing Solutions. I developed a business plan in my final year of high school in Melbourne, Australia in 2012. The AMS plan was created in my own time, not as part of any school class, it was just something that I was interested in pursuing once I finished high school. It involved capturing the massive potential of the manufacturing industry in two African countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia. The plan was a bit too ambitious for a teenager to implement, but I was fascinated with the possibility that Africa, specifically Nigeria and Ethiopia, could one day become the world’s manufacturing hubs.

In addition to my interest in business in Africa, from a young age I also had an obsession with football shirts. I had been collecting them for as long as I could remember. I’ve always preferred the African strips, and my four favorite African jerseys of all time are: First, the Nigeria Adidas 1994 Home Kit, the first time that African patterns were used on a design from what I can remember, and it was executed in a perfectly 90’s type of way. Second, is the Botswana All Kasi 2011/2012. The Zebra print on this one has made it a favorite amongst all collectors. Then there’s the Uganda Hummel 2000/01 Home Kit; the designer cranes on the front make it a true work of art. Finally, South Africa’s Kappa 1998 Home Kit. I am putting this in the “so bad it is good” category.

This eventually led to me selling football shirts online to supplement the purchasing of shirts for my own collection. I soon realized that the shirts of obscure national football team were highly collectable so I focused on sourcing and selling these shirts. Eventually it got to a point where I simply couldn’t source some of the shirts that customers were constantly asking for as these shirts were never made available for purchase.

Then in 2014 when I was 19 years old, I had the idea to create my own brand and supply these smaller national teams myself with attractive and symbolic designs. I founded AMS Clothing along with my friend Angelo Garcia. Our initial goal was to supply the national teams of South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

The vibrant design aesthetic of AMS stands out as many other football jerseys have become increasingly bland and unadventurous. Is this deliberate on the part of AMS to offer something different? Can you talk about what informs the design process and choices?

When I was younger I would spend most of my school holidays designing football shirts for fun, so once I actually starting doing this as a business I already had the design skills to create the shirts myself. Being a collector, I knew that the more interesting and unique the shirt was, the more people would want it.

Most of our competition don’t bother to create customized designs for the smaller national teams, and would simply supply them with blank teamwear uniforms with their logo added on. We saw this as an opportunity to set ourselves apart from these other brands, and most importantly provide a uniform that the national team players would be proud of wearing.

With each team, I will usually create about 5 different designs and sent them through to the respective national football federations. They will then respond with their ideas until we have a design we can agree upon. In some cases, we will have the national team players themselves have some input, and the new South Sudan uniforms that we introduced in 2015 were chosen after a vote by the entire national team squad.

A lot has been written about football as an important expression of nationalism and nationhood. The historian Eric Hobsbawm famously wrote: The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.” More countries are acknowledged by FIFA than the UN: There are 211 FIFA member associations versus 193 UN member states.

It is truly amazing to see the effect that football can have on a nation, whether that nation is internationally recognized or not. The platform and funding that FIFA provides to each member association has been crucial in the development of the game in some of the world’s smaller countries. There is definitely a way to go before FIFA becomes truly effective in implementing their development goals, however FIFA new president, Gianni Infantino, has certainly stepped up in terms of financial accountability for each association in his short time in office.

That FIFA allows smaller nations that may not be UN member states to gain formal acceptance into FIFA is fantastic as it allows these nations to be represented on the international stage. Most of the non-UN members that are FIFA members are smaller island nations like American Samoa, Montserrat and Tahiti, so I don’t think in these cases that FIFA are doing anything politically controversial by allowing their nations to gain membership. Other more politically contentious nations such as Kosovo and Palestine may have some groups opposed to their acceptance into FIFA. Nevertheless, I feel that FIFA’s process for member acceptance is solid and that the effects of the entry into FIFA for these nations has been overwhelmingly positive.

In addition to producing jerseys for a number of FIFA members across Africa, AMS has also recently started producing jerseys for national teams such as Darfur United, Western Sahara, and Zanzibar that aren’t recognized by FIFA. Is this part of deliberate effort to reflect and promote more diverse concepts of nationhood?

There are several different reasons as to why we have targeted some non-FIFA national teams. Firstly, we support the participation of these teams in international competitions and believe this is a fantastic opportunity for these places to be represented globally.

Also, there is a fairly strong commercial opportunity in the distribution of national team jerseys both internationally and within the domestic markets of these regions. There are many international football fans who love to wear the jerseys of these obscure teams, and in the case of Zanzibar, there are massive retail opportunities for the sale of their national team jerseys in the local market.

When we partner with a non-FIFA national team we are not looking to support any political movement, it is simply hoping that these unrecognized nations can be wearing AMS uniforms when they are representing their region on the world stage.

The national teams mentioned aboveDarfur United, Western Sahara, and Zanzibarare all members of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), a federation of football associations outside of FIFA. Can you talk more about your relationship with ConIFA? 

The work that ConIFA are doing is truly amazing, and to see some of the world’s unrecognized nations coming together on the world stage is incredible. We don’t have a formal relationship with ConIFA, but definitely support what they are representing.

I think ConIFA has massive growth potential, and after seeing what they achieved at the recent World Football Cup in Abkhazia there is certainly a place for them in the world of football. Hopefully ConIFA will be able to expand their resources to a level where they can provide funding and development for each of their member associations, and I am sure they will be soon able to achieve this as the popularity of their competitions increases.

The goal of AMS is to supply uniforms to the African members of ConIFA, and allow these national teams to capitalize on the popularity of their brand amongst each nation’s diaspora communities.

Can you tell me about the thinking behind the prototype jerseys, which include jerseys for Abyei, Biafra, Cabinda, and Puntland? Does it matter whether the claims of a group, say Biafra, are realizable?

The prototype jerseys were created and made available for purchase after we had a heap of requests from various groups who saw the designs we were making for other national teams. Even though these nations do not have any formal national teams at this stage, it is certainly possible for them to be set up in the future. I think each of the prototype teams would be eligible to join ConIFA if they were able to create a functioning national football association, and we would certainly be there to supply uniforms if that happens.

In 2016 there was a public online poll to choose the design for the new Western Sahara national team strip. Can you tell me more about this process, including how it came about, the reaction, and whether AMS plans to try it again in the future?

This was the idea of the Western Sahara FA after we had sent them through a number of design proposals. In this case, they decided that the design should be chosen by the people, and it was great to see the feedback from the fans.

We are definitely open to having a similar process for future designs, it just depends on the will of each FA to involve their fans in this process. I really like the idea of the national team players having a direct input as well.

Have you received any pushback or criticism for your work, given that some of it can be seen as effectively assisting nations in their efforts to attain international recognition? For example, the reaction of Morocco and its allies when you made a Western Sahara strip.

Actually, until we announced the partnership with the Western Sahara FA we hadn’t received any criticism at all regarding the other national teams we have supplied.

Once we made the partnership with Western Sahara public, there was quite a high amount of negative, and downright hateful responses from groups opposed to Western Sahara having a national football team.

It is not our position to have any involvement in this political debate, we really just want to support football and allow Western Sahara to be represented by their national team. Most of the negative comments seemed to revolve around the belief that we were part of some global conspiracy to support the independence movement, which is just ridiculous.

It is hard to imagine companies such as Adidas or Nike becoming involved with teams outside of FIFA as AMS has done. Does the size and regional focus of AMS give it more flexibility in this regard?

I would be very doubtful of the major sportswear brands supporting non-FIFA teams simply because of their business models. Adidas and Nike will only directly support a national team if they believe there is considerable commercial potential, and it is unlikely they would offer support unless they believed they would be able to reach their minimum order quantities by supplying these teams.

As AMS is a small brand that can work with small order quantities it makes it much easier for us to work with teams of a lesser commercial potential. Our target markets are completely different to those of these major sportswear brands, so I don’t really view them as competition. In some cases, we have competed with mid-tier brands such as Joma and Errea for deals, so it is more these companies that we view as our competition.

What does 2017 and beyond hold for AMS?

The aim is to continue to expand our sponsorship portfolio, and we are close to confirming deals with 2-3 more national teams in the coming months. We also hope to successfully enter the domestic markets of Ethiopia and Tanzania, which is a major aim of the brand. Unlike the major sportswear brands, we are able to lower our prices to meet the demands of less developed markets, and these 2 countries in particular would be ideal for market entry if we can create effective distribution channels.

Long term goals are a bit more difficult to define. As there haven’t really been any other sportswear brands that have focused on Africa, it is hard to us to compare ourselves to any competition. There are plenty of opportunities in Africa, but doing business there certainly has its challenges. For now, we will mostly be working in East Africa and then expand to other regions of the continent once we have developed our business model a bit further. Also, we intend to shift the majority of production to Africa within the next 2 years or so, with Ethiopia being the most likely option of manufacturing operations.

Despite the name and focus on Africa, are they are any plans to expand beyond the continent in future? I notice that there are design proposals on your website for the Palestinian national team.

We are actually about to launch a brand that has a focus on the Oceania region called Palm Tree Sports. This has been in the works for a while now, and we have just finalized an agency arrangement to be based in Samoa, which should see us supplying a number of national teams as well as local clubs in the region. Similar to Africa, there are no sportswear brands in the region that are specifically focused on supporting football in Oceania, so it presents an exciting opportunity. We will probably be working with both FIFA and ConIFA teams, and there are many nations in Oceania that would be eligible to join ConIFA.

The Middle East in another region that we would love to expand into, but at the moment we don’t have any specific plans for this. Maybe once we have got everything set up in Oceania we might look at this as an option.

*The conversation was edited for clarity.

Music Break No.102–Winter In America edition

“… The stakes are very high: literally, survival of organized human society in any decent form,” Noam Chomsky tells Brooklyn Rail, as the former British colony of the United States of America, inaugurates its 45th president. So, this weekend’s Music Break goes out to our American family, who are set to face four years of struggle against a new set of rulers, led by “a mendacious and cathartic white president.”  The decisions made in the nation with the largest military, some of the biggest corporations and the loudest media companies in the world, effect us all.

But let’s not be too quick to panic. If American citizens are firm in their resistance, the regime will be checked by a balance of powers and precedent (we’d recommend some political history, e.g. Corey Robin and Stephen Skowronek) and an law making and enforcement regime that is spread between 50 semi-autonomous states (though those states are equally important in introducing retrogressive laws around trade union organizing, abortion or sexual rights).

For starters, you can play these sounds to drown out the noise of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech today.

Music Break No. 102 – Winter in America edition

African inequality rising

Bean harvest in Ethiopia. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Witness Nigeria. The African goliath has in recent years climbed steadily through the ranks of the UN’s Human Development Index, a global index of key development indicators such as income, literacy and life-expectancy. But Nigeria’s success in the HDI disguises a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots. In fact, when Nigeria’s latest placement in the index is adjusted for income inequality, it falls nine places – three more than in 2010. In other words, the living standards of the Nigerian elite have raced far ahead of the quality of life of the majority.

Indeed, according to the HDI, every country in Africa is today less equal than it was in 2010; for the African masses, in other words, the trickle-down benefits of economic growth have been relatively small. But the story of inequality in Africa is more complex than that of a widening gulf between the very rich and the very poor. African Women, in particular, have shouldered a disproportionately heavy burden. The UNDP estimates, for example, that African women earn only seventy cents on their male peer’s wage dollar, and attain only 87 per cent of the development outcomes of men.

The causes of rising inequality in Africa are a matter for debate. But as Branko Milanovic shows in his excellent book Global Inequality – as in the West, so in Africa, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is a long-run global trend. As Milanovic and others argue, Africa’s recent lurch towards inequality is, as it were, the “natural” outcome of an increasingly capital-driven market economy. But the markets which have emerged in the last two decades are not spontaneous or organic creations; they have architects.

Major Western donor governments and international lending institutions, in particular, spearheaded neoliberal reforms in Africa which spur headline GDP growth but drive inequality. While Western governments unraveled the welfare state in their own countries in the 1980s and ‘90s, they forced their African counterparts to emulate their retrenchment agenda through loan and aid conditions. Under the influence of Western donors, austerity became African leaders default coping mechanism for periods of global economic stress.

The cure for economic stagnation, in other words, became the cause of a new pathology: austerity. Never was this truer in Africa than after the 2007-08 financial crisis. World demand for Africa’s exports collapsed, Foreign Direct Investment fell away and the cost of servicing dollar-debt rose after the 2007-2008 financial crisis; African governments responded – as their western creditors insisted – with spending cuts. The cut-backs buoyed macro-economic growth rates, but entrenched inequality, so much so that the IMF acknowledged it had overestimated the value of structural adjustment.

Increasingly, development in the form of retrenchment and chasing GDP growth has become a kind of madness: the cure for poverty creates more obstacles to economic growth than it overcomes. In Ethiopia, for example, officials post 12% annual GDP growth rates, while tens of millions of Ethiopians find themselves on the cusp of starvation. As René Lefort observed, the cause lies not in Ethiopia’s levels of food production – the country produces enough cereal to feed the entire population – but in the disproportionate impact poor harvests and price rises have on Ethiopia’s agricultural wage-laborers.

By prioritizing high-yield, industrial agricultural practices and diverting resources to manufacturing, the EPLF – Ethiopia’s ruling party – has left great swathes of the population to starve without access to land or income. But such extreme inequality has driven popular protest in Ethiopia in recent months, which has shut down factories, stalled foreign investment and crippled infrastructure.

Is Ethiopia a bellwether, a portent for Africa for the year ahead? It is an extreme case: its growth has been headier, its government’s commitment to development goals steelier than that of other African countries. But Ethiopia is not unique. This is an election year for a number of large African economies, including Angola, Algeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Sierra Leone; each faces a cocktail of falling commodity prices, international economic headwinds, isolationism and domestic polarization. As Joseph Warungu writes, many African governments enter 2017 in defensive mode. As events in Ethiopia, the US and Europe in 2016 have hinted, the fall-out from rising inequality promise to be problematic – as much in Africa as in the West.

Opening Angola’s past to public debate 

Angola’s recent history is beset with conflict. Twenty-seven years of civil war (1975-2002) followed by thirteen years of anti-colonial war (1961-1974). Real political differences fueled these wars, compounded by foreign intervention and shifting control over precious natural resources that altered the calculus of conflict. The Luena Peace Accords of 2002 between the governing MPLA and the rebel UNITA movement brought an unsteady peace without reconciliation and ushered in an oil boom (one that has faltered in the past two years).

The socialist ethos of Angola’s First Republic (1975-1992), and the civil war, kept the state focused on the horizon. As the Popular Republic of Angola, the ruling MPLA produced five-year plans and annual slogans to motivate production and bolster morale under difficult economic conditions. Independence meant that the miseries of colonialism were tidily prologued, and energies targeted present and future development. The 2002 “peace without reconciliation” model opted for a similar perspective: let the oil boom keep Angolan sights on new high rises to distract from body counts, betrayals and disappointments.

Even as the Angolan leadership is relentless in its future orientation, other Angolans have taken up the peace to dig into the past. The year 2015 marked the 40th anniversary of Angolan Independence. The Associação Tchiweka de Documentação (Tchiweka Association for Documentation –Tchiweka was the nom de guerre of Lúcio Lara) and Geração 80 (80s Generation, in this case: Mário Bastos, Jorge Cohen, Kamy Lara, and Tchiloia Lara) launched the film Independência.

Independência Trailer

This film is the result of six years of work by a team of media producers and an historical consultant, Dr. Maria de Conceição Neto, all of them associated directly or indirectly with the MPLA, and headed up by Paulo Lara, a former guerrilla fighter, general in the Angolan Armed Forces, and the son of Lúcio Lara (a founding member of the MPLA and a key figure in Angola’s independence struggle). They produced not only a film, but also more than 1,000 hours of interviews with more than 600 participants of the armed struggle for Angola’s independence. This was not just a film, but a project: Project Angola – Pathways to Independence. And the project is a signal achievement, the film a door to conversations about this critical period in Angola’s past.

Independência screened in Luanda, Malange, Benguela, and Viana beginning in late 2015 and throughout 2016. I saw it Luanda and Lisbon. Typically, Bastos and some of the research and production crew were present at screenings. The idea being that the film is an invitation to dialogue, not the last word on independence.

Film director Mário Bastos explains that the film is but one of many that have emerged from this vast new archive. It is one that speaks from the point of view of participants, but that is pitched to an audience of those, like Bastos, born after 1975. In this sense, the film is an intergenerational act of collective story-telling and history making. Unlike the memories recounted in homes, at Saturday afternoon funges, the film is systematic in piecing together the fragments of memory with archival documents and footage. It begins with memories of the late colonial period, the early days of clandestine organizing, and then moves to the development of the different movements and the armed struggle in exile and in the Angolan interior.

Independência brings together the stories of those who fought on the frontlines, those who were imprisoned (and the stories of the prisons themselves, rarely recounted), and those who were involved in clandestine support for the movements. It shines when it shows us small moments of humanity: Rodeth Gil recounting her fear of swimming. Or for tackling sticky historical questions of memory, like the story of a brutal beating of a prisoner at Missombo prison camp, nightmarishly etched in prisoners’ memories but without documentary record. Importantly, the film reminds us of the fear with which people lived under the colonial regime. Independência also expands the cast of characters typically associated with the struggle for independence. It has an equalizing force, showing “Kiluanji,” a fabled soldier and UNITA general Samuel Chiwale, recounting their memories and experiences alongside Augusto Loth, a nurse, largely unknown to the average Angolan.

Unita, still from film.

The film, and its beautiful DVD version (which includes a short film on memory and another on the making of the film), attend to the past’s difference, its pastness. Bastos’s camera plays with materiality, the flatness of documents, their capacity to betray, the noble quietness of photos, and the digital/analog interface. As someone who has spent many hours with PIDE (Portuguese secret police) documents and many hours conducting interviews, tangling with the complications of reminiscence and of the archival fragment, I appreciated the way the film uses memory to, literally sometimes, re-write the past and contest its interested traces.

Noted Angolan musician Victor Gama crafted a soundtrack that is poignant and historically precise. The film is narrated by writer and musician Kalaf Epalanga whose bass-toned voice but straightforward delivery strike just the right tone for my ear. Elizângela Rita does the narration for Deolinda Rodrigues, one of the five heroines killed in 1969 at the hands of the FNLA after being trained by Cuban soldiers and led into Angola by “Ingo” Vieira Lopes for a reconnaissance mission. Deolinda’s diaries were posthumously published in the early 2000 and offer rich, reflective material and an insider´s critique of the MPLA and its masculinism.

The idea to screen the film in various locales within Angola as well as where its diasporas live and congregate, is its great promise. The film has its limitations too. One friend thought Mário Pinto de Andrade’s role in the founding of the MPLA had been underplayed (I was happy it was mentioned at all); another thought Viriato de Cruz got short shrift. Others may think that Jonas Savimbi (an ally of the U.S. and Apartheid South Africa) and Holden Roberto (close to neighboring Zaire’s Mobutu) don’t get their due. Some viewers will dispute the experience of particular participants. But the film, and, more significantly, the Project, have left an open invitation to conversation and to greater engagement with this critical moment in Angola’s past – one in which even as there was political division, there was also agreement on the desire for independence. Like the recent spate of books on the 27 de Maio (the massacre of MPLA dissidents in 1977), they have re-opened the past to public debate and not just whispers and conversations between friends.

* Independencia will screen at the Pan-African Film Festival in L.A. in February 2017.

Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961)

Patrice Lumumba (center) in 1960. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Patrice Lumumba was prime minister of a newly independent Congo for only seven months between 1960 and 1961 before he was murdered, fifty-six years ago today. He was thirty-six.

Yet Lumumba’s short political life — as with figures like Thomas Sankara and Steve Biko, who had equally short lives — is still a touchstone for debates about what is politically possible in postcolonial Africa, the role of charismatic leaders, and the fate of progressive politics elsewhere.

The details of Lumumba’s biography have been endlessly memorialized and cut and pasted: a former postal worker in the Belgian Congo, he became political after joining a local branch of a Belgian liberal party. On his return from a study tour to Belgium arranged by the party, the authorities took note of his burgeoning political involvement and arrested him for embezzling funds from the post office. He served twelve months in prison.

Congolese historian Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja — who was in high school during Lumumba’s rise and assassination — points out that the charges were trumped-up. Their main effect was to radicalize him against Belgian racism, though not colonialism. Upon his release in 1958, Lumumba, by now a beer salesman, was more explicit about Congolese autonomy and helped found the Congolese National Movement, the first Congolese political group which explicitly disavowed Belgian paternalism and tribalism, called unreservedly for independence, and demanded that Congo’s vast mineral wealth (exploited by Belgium and Euro-American multinational firms) benefit Congolese first.

For Belgian public opinion — which played up Congolese ethnic differences, infantilized Africans, and in the late 1950s still had a thirty-year plan for Congolese independence — Lumumba and the Congolese National Movement’s pronouncements came as a shock.

Two months after his release from prison, in December 1958, Lumumba was in Ghana, at the invitation of President Kwame Nkrumah who had organized the seminal All Africa People’s Conference. There, as a number of other African nationalists pushing for political independence listened, Lumumba declared:

The winds of freedom currently blowing across all of Africa have not left the Congolese people indifferent. Political awareness, which until very recently was latent, is now becoming manifest and assuming outward expression, and it will assert itself even more forcefully in the months to come. We are thus assured of the support of the masses and of the success of the efforts we are undertaking.

The Belgians reluctantly conceded political independence to the Congolese, and two years later, following a decisive win for the Congolese National Movement in the first democratic elections, Lumumba found himself elected to prime minister and with the right to form a government. A more moderate leader, Joseph Kasavubu, occupied the mostly ceremonial position of Congolese president.

On June 30, 1960, Independence Day, Lumumba gave what is now considered a timeless speech. The Belgian king, Boudewijn, opened proceedings by praising the murderous regime of his grandfather, Leopold (eight million Congolese died during his reign from 1885 to 1908), as benevolent, highlighted the supposed benefits of colonialism, and warned the Congolese: “Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms.” Kasavubu, predictably, thanked the king.

Then Lumumba, unscheduled, took the podium. What happened next has become one of the most recognizable statements of anticolonial defiance and a postcolonial political program. As the Belgian writer and literary critic Joris Note later pointed out, the original French text consisted of no more than 1,167 words. But it covered a lot of ground.

The first half of the speech traced an arc from past to future: the oppression Congolese had to endure together, the end of suffering and colonialism. The second half mapped out a broad vision and called on Congolese to unite at the task ahead.

Most importantly, Congo’s natural resources would benefit its people first: “We shall see to it that the lands of our native country truly benefit its children,” said Lumumba, adding that the challenge was “creating a national economy and ensuring our economic independence.” Political rights would be reconceived: “We shall revise all the old laws and make them into new ones that will be just and noble.”

Congolese congressmen and those listening by radio broke out in applause. But the speech did not sit well with the former colonizers, Western journalists, nor with multinational mining interests, local comprador elites (especially Kasavubu and separatist elements in the east of the country), the United States government (which rejected Lumumba’s entreaties for help against the reactionary Belgians and the secessionists, forcing him to turn to the Soviet Union), and even the United Nations.

These interests found a willing accomplice in Lumumba’s comrade: former journalist and now head of the army Joseph Mobutu. Together they worked to foment rebellion in the army, stoke unrest, exploit attacks on whites, create an economic crisis — and eventually kidnap and execute Lumumba.

The CIA had tried to poison him, but eventually settled on local politicians (and Belgian killers) to do the job. He was captured by Mobutu’s mutinous army and flown to the secessionist province of Katanga, where he was tortured, shot, and killed.

In the wake of his murder, some of Lumumba’s comrades — most notably Pierre Mulele, Lumumba’s minister of education — controlled part of the country and fought on bravely, but was finally crushed by American and South African mercenaries. (At one point Che Guevara traveled to Congo on a failed military mission to aid Mulele’s army.)

That left Mobutu, under the guise of anticommunism, to declare a one-party, repressive, and kleptomanic state, and govern, with the consent of the United States and Western governments, for the next thirty-odd years.

In February 2002, Belgium’s government expressed “its profound and sincere regrets and its apologies” for Lumumba’s murder, acknowledging that “some members of the government, and some Belgian actors at the time, bear an irrefutable part of the responsibility for the events.”

A government commission also heard testimony that “the assassination could not have been carried out without the complicity of Belgian officers backed by the CIA, and it concluded that Belgium had a moral responsibility for the killing.”

Lumumba today has tremendous semiotic force: he is a social media avatar, a Twitter meme, and a font for inspirational quotes — a perfect hero (like Biko), untainted by any real politics. He is even free of the kind of critiques reserved for figures like Fidel Castro or Thomas Sankara, who confronted some of the inherent contradictions of their own regimes through antidemocratic means.

As such, Lumumba divides debates over political strategy: he is often derided as a merely charismatic leader, a good speaker with very little strategic vision.

For example, in the famed Belgian historical fiction writer David van Reybrouck’s much-praised Congo: An Epic History of a People, Lumumba is characterized as a poor tactician, unstatesmanlike, and more interested in rebellion and adulation than governance. He is faulted for not prioritizing Western interests.

Lumumba’s denunciation of the Belgian king in June 1960, for example, only served to embolden his enemies, argues Van Reybrouck. Lumumba is also criticized by his Western critics for turning to the Soviet Union after the United States had spurned him.

But as the writer Adam Shatz has argued: “It’s not clear how . . . in his two and a half months in office, Lumumba could have dealt differently with a Belgian invasion, two secessionist uprisings, and a covert American campaign to destabilize his government.”

More powerful perhaps is how Lumumba operates unproblematically as a figure of defiance. As the disappointment with national liberation movements in Africa (in particular, Algeria, Angola, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and more recently South Africa’s African National Congress) sets in, and new social movements (#OccupyNigeria, #WalktoWork in Uganda, the more radical #FeesMustFall and struggles over land, housing, and health care in South Africa) begin to take shape, references to and images of Patrice Lumumba serve as a call to arms.

In Lumumba’s native Congo, ordinary citizens are currently fighting President Joseph Kabila’s attempts to circumvent the constitution (his two terms were up in December, but he refused to step down). Hundreds have been killed by the police and thousands arrested. Kabila, who inherited the presidency from his father, who overthrew Mobutu, exploits the weakness of the opposition, especially the power of ethnicity (via patronage politics) to divide Congolese politically. In this, Kabila is merely emulating the Belgian colonists and Mobutu.

Here Lumumba’s legacy may be helpful. Lumumba’s Congolese National Movement was the only party offering a national — rather than ethnic — vision and a means to organize Congolese around a progressive ideal. Such a movement and such politicians are in short supply in Congo these days.

But Lumumba’s story offers not just an invitation to revisit the political potential of past movements and currents, but also opportunities to refrain from projecting too much onto leaders like Lumumba who had a complicated political life and who did not get to confront the messiness of postcolonial governance. It also means treating tragic political leaders as humans. To take seriously political scientist Adolph Reed Jr’s advice about Malcolm X:

He was just like the rest of us — a regular person saddled with imperfect knowledge, human frailties, and conflicting imperatives, but nonetheless trying to make sense of his very specific history, trying unsuccessfully to transcend it, and struggling to push it in a humane direction.

It is perhaps then that we can begin to make true Patrice Lumumba’s critical wish, perhaps as self reflection, that he wrote in a letter from prison to his wife in 1960:

The day will come when history will speak. But it will not be the history which will be taught in Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations. It will be the history which will be taught in the countries which have won freedom from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history and in both north and south it will be a history of glory and dignity.

Martin Luther King Jnr., Pan-African

Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King in Ghana in March 1957. Image: LIFE Magazine.

Last night, on the eve of Martin Luther King Jnr. Day, an official holiday here in the U.S., I felt the impulse to go in search of references to MLK’s engagement with the African continent. Starting from when he was a guest of Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah at Ghana’s independence in March 1957, where he told Richard Nixon (representing President Dwight Eisenhower): “I want you to come visit us down in Alabama where we are seeking the same kind of freedom the Gold Coast is celebrating.”

A few weeks later, back in the U.S., he gave a sermon “The Birth of a New Nation,” in Montgomery, Alabama, about his trip to Ghana. It is first class. It is part popular history of Ghana, a recounting of its independence struggle, what lessons for African-American struggle (“Ghana has something to say to us. It says to us first, that the oppressor never voluntarily gives freedom to the oppressed”), and, crucially, the challenges represented by the postcolonial (“This nation was now out of Egypt and had crossed the Red Sea. Now it will confront its wilderness. Like any breaking aloose from Egypt, there is a wilderness ahead.”). It is worth revisiting. 

In 1960,  in Atlanta, Georgia, King met with Kenneth Kaunda, then the leading anticolonial leader in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Kaunda went onto play a crucial in liberation struggles in Southern Africa (Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe). Which is fitting that the second King speech I read, dealt with the topic was Apartheid South Africa. This speech delivered by King in in London in 1964 on his way to receive his Nobel Peace Prize. This speech is shorter, but just as powerful. It name-checks Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe. Significantly, King talks about how he “understands” the turn to armed struggle as well as calls for sanctions against South Africa. (The reference to armed struggle also contradicts what is often a stock characterization of King favored by American conservatives and liberals and U.S. mainstream media.)

There is also a separate speech, also on South Africa, that King delivered the following year at Hunter College. It is also worth checking out, as King expands on many of the arguments of the London speech and extends his call for sanctions to Portugal, for its colonies and violent repression of Africans in Angola and Mozambique.

What emerges in these speeches by and interviews with King, including on a range of other topics (.e.g. U.S. foreign policy, Vietnam, racism), is how “from the beginning of his ministry, King was far more radical, especially on matters of labor, poverty, and economic justice, than we remember,” as a post on Jacobin reminds us.

Finally, I listened to a lost audio interview of December 1960, where King is interviewed in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and speaks about his 1957 trip to Ghana and his November 1960 trip to the inauguration of Nigeria’s first independent president. It is worth copying his whole answer to what he learned about those two trips:

There is quite a bit of interest and concern in Africa for the situation in the United States. African leaders in general, and African people in particular are greatly concerned about the struggle here and quite familiar with what has taken place. I just returned from Africa a little more than a month ago and I had the opportunity to talk with most of the major leaders of the new independent countries of Africa, and also leaders in countries that are moving toward independence. And I think all of them agree that in the United States we must solve this problem of racial injustice if we expect to maintain our leadership in the world and if we expect to maintain a moral voice in a world that is two thirds color … They are familiar with [conditions of black people in the United States] and they are saying in no uncertain terms that racism and colonialism must go for they see the two are as based on the same principle, a sort of contempt for life, and a contempt for human personality.

The market decides if we are free

 

Nana Akufo-Addo swears-in as Ghana’s newly-elected President. Image credit Stringer (Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Before Nana Akufo-Addo’s inauguration as Ghana’s new President, the Financial Times sent its Africa correspondent to interview him. Akufo-Addo won Ghana’s presidential elections, on  December 7, 2016, by a wide margin over incumbent John Dramani Mahama. The Financial Times report follows the typical prescription for foreign-correspondents-commenting-on-African-elections. Read it if you are bored. With slight condescension it uses the specter of corruption to frame the country’s political legacy. It wonders-warns about how the new leader will fare in a climate of political uncertainty. It fake-commands that he “must make good” on his promises. Mahama’s National Democratic Congress (NDC) is glossed as “left-leaning” and Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) as a “center-right wealthy technocrat,” who is too rich to be corrupted. The backhanded endorsement of Akufo-Addo comes not because of his skill or political courage, but because he already has enough money, which seems a willfully simplistic misunderstanding of the links between aesthetics and politics. The Financial Times’s focus on the personal characteristics and power of individuals and outdated tropes of African political fragility distract from the structural conditions of the Ghanaian state and, globally, the increasingly tenuous relationship between electoral politics and economics.

As both presidential candidates themselves pointed out, Ghanaian political-economic actors are limited in their ability to change conditions because of massive debt and the influence that foreign investors and loan-makers have over national production, consumption, and infrastructure. Even for the Financial Times, all that matters are macroeconomic indicators of fiscal stability. Understanding its ability to service debt and return on investment are the main reasons that most foreign observers are interested in Ghana.

There are substantive differences between Ghana’s two main political parties rooted in their respective histories, but to call the NDC left-leaning and the NPP center-right today distracts from the global power of free market thinking. Akufo-Addo’s NPP is the political descendant of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), which invited Kwame Nkrumah to lead the independence movement against British rule in the 1940s. The NPP follows its forebearers’ legacy with its explicit orientation towards facilitating free market capital through a decentralized state.

Nkrumah’s radical call for “Self-government Now” led to a split with the capitalist oriented UGCC that continues today. Nkrumahists wanted a centralized, socialist state; this radical position was later taken up by NDC founder Jerry John Rawlings, who led two coups d’etat in 1979 and 1983 and was later elected president in 1992 when Ghana returned to democratic rule. But Ghana entered into a Structural Adjustment Program in 1983, when Rawlings was still a purportedly left-leaning military leader. And since then state policy under various governments has been shaped by the goals of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) which advocate trickle-down development – making the country appear as a reliable place for foreign investment and loan repayment.

Despite their differing rhetorics, the two main political parties both valorize neoliberal economic policies focused on building a good global image and middle-class consumption practices as engines of progress. Indeed, as the 2016 elections have shown, Ghana’s main political-economic split has become a disagreement about how to gain advantage in the global free market with a clear recognition that, by design, post-independence international finance has disadvantaged Ghanaian economic actors at all levels by limiting border crossings and hampering access to capital.

The NDC folks are embarrassed by their candidate’s loss in 2016: the first time an incumbent president in the country’s history has been voted out of office. One party insider tells me that they should have won, but were arrogant and got complacent. Mahama seems more sanguine. In his farewell address, he stakes his legacy on his infrastructural successes. He marks his greatest accomplishments as developing roads, schools, electricity and water access. But for many, the beginning of the end of the Mahama regime was the crippling electricity load shedding by Electricity Corporation of Ghana (ECG) that went on for several years.

State policy since the 1980s – shaped by IMF and World Bank agreements – mandated privatizing state resources. Electricity, like other sectors, has been caught in this process: not fully state-run and not totally private. Unreliable power has harmed local businesses; and even when electricity is available most residential and commercial clients cannot pay market rate. But the Ghanaian state has seemed unconcerned, rather prioritizing state fiscal discipline and maximizing productivity of resources. As a World Bank official pointed out, more than 30% of electricity is lost in its circulation. Rather than focusing on providing cheap electricity to all, they advocate fighting illegal hook-ups and encourage policies that squeeze every last resource out of the poor to service state debt and make private profit. The ECG struggles to regulate its product, and is under pressure to make money and streamline service delivery; people’s needs drop out of the equation.

When Ghana recently attained lower-middle income status it increased its exposure to repaying loans. In a country rich in oil and gas resources, many blame inefficiency and corruption. But even with revenue from natural resources, the state is increasingly tied to the dictates of foreign capital. The state is forced into short-term borrowing to pay civil servant salaries and service older debt instead of investing in local people’s long-term productive capacities, creativity, health, education, and infrastructural needs.

Ghana is not exceptional in this regard. Nations like Ghana aspire to self-sufficiency but find that domestic policies and institutions are structured with an eye to marketing the nation to foreign investors whose goals are extracting resources and selling commodities rather than creating self-sufficient industries through long-term investment.

State and World Bank policy makers rely on macroeconomic indicators that see timely return on foreign investment and debt repayment as engines of growth. Macroeconomics also validate growing class divisions by celebrating the rise of a small entrepreneurial middle-class as an engine of national growth. Accra’s art and music scene and digital industries receive attention from global hipsters, tourists, and even the New York Times. Foreign investments fund highly-visible flashy infrastructure projects, with most construction done by multinational corporations who are locally criticized for importing skilled workers, equipment, and materials and leaving few resources behind. Meanwhile most working people in urban Ghana, such as traders, civil servants, laborers and teachers, do not benefit and cannot afford basic food, shelter, transportation and utilities with their earnings.

As wealth disparities grow in Ghana, and elsewhere, questions arise about the long-term effects of policies that focus on building unsustainable service and consumer economies. We continue to imagine nations as discrete entities that aim for state fiscal efficiency; but the lives of the nation’s citizenry are controlled through global financial networks. Rather than making sustainable conditions for people, policies reinforce growing inequality and continued dependence.

As the 2016 global cycle of elections shows, this is a moment of political anxiety. Elections in many locales mask finance capital’s influence by exacerbating national, racial, cultural, gender and class differences, rather than recognizing historical connections. Electoral politics create the illusion that a national populace shapes state policy, though publics are increasingly uncertain. The United States and Britain threaten to close borders due to racist and xenophobic fears over resource and job losses. A large segment of American voters are so alienated along race and class lines that they identify themselves in the anger and incoherence of demagoguery, turning to an irrational charismatic pundit who talks of fantastical past greatness to address anxieties about an uncertain future. Great Britain votes to remove itself from its closest economic allies, undercutting the flows of goods, resources, and labor that have built its economy in favor of a nostalgia for an ethno-nationalist singularity that also never was. These politics of nostalgia are forms of collective forgetting that erase histories of struggle and inequality.

But whereas in the U.S. and Europe there is a turn to isolationist national rhetoricians who dream on non-existent past glory, in Ghana, where the state is supposedly less stable and less in control of its borders and economic fate, people elect someone deemed a “technocrat” from an old political family, a lawyer who explicitly represents multiple fluencies and access to the power of finance capital. While Ghanaian governments have been forced to navigate an exploitative global financial landscape, perhaps their history of dealing with foreign influences can help reimagine a sustainable political future both within and against capital.

Supporters of the NPP are ecstatic at last weekend’s inauguration in Black Star Square. One campaigner explained to me they were in opposition so long that they had forgotten what being in power was like. Many people are grateful that the elections were peaceful and, as one Mahama voter told me, “we are now just proud to be Ghanaian.” As he takes the oath of office, Akufo-Addo looks the part of national leader. Although he has long been criticized for being overly western, always wearing a business suit, white shirt and cufflinks, he is resplendent in his chiefly regalia and elegant Kente cloth emblazoned with symbols of power and lineage. He carries the presidential sword, raising it above his head, a sign of his office.

From first president Nkrumah’s time, state ceremonies were modeled on the symbols and procedures of an Akan chief’s court as a way to blend established African ideas of sovereignty into the nation-state form. As Nkrumah was opposed to the power of Akan chiefs, he posited appropriating the nuanced ceremonial force of his enemies to help bring Ghanaians of all cultural-linguistic heritage together into a centralized socialist collective. Akufo-Addo, being of Akan royal heritage, dresses for power in a double sense, drawing on a centuries-long history of Akan political order and its more recent reinvention within a Ghanaian national idiom.

Akufo-Addo’s speech struck a presidential tone. But immediately after the ceremony, videos and memes start circulating of his speech intercut with speeches from which he seemingly plagiarized lines by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, with Bush’s speech having drawn on one by Woodrow Wilson from 1913. When I first saw the video sent to me on WhatsApp, I was struck by how the elegance of Akufo-Addo’s delivery was enhanced, as his lines were immediately repeated by footage of Bush and Clinton from years earlier. This doubling created a rhetorical continuity and traces political connections to Clinton’s free trade doctrines and Bush’s neo-imperialism all put in the language of citizenship.

The sutured, cut-and-paste speech blended Akan, Ghanaian, and American signs of political power in a pastiche that announced the obligations and privileges of Ghanaian citizenship. Perhaps unintentionally the speech showed how in both the United States and Ghana ideological differences – Democrat and Republican, NPP and NDC – blur in the face of the power of the free market to shape worldviews; purportedly rational discourse is in fact a play of aesthetic differences. A further irony in drawing on Woodrow Wilson to celebrate Ghana is that Wilson’s political internationalism was underpinned by support for racial segregation and justifications for slavery. This has led to recent calls for the removal of his name from Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs. African nation-states were never supposed to be equal players on the global stage, but now claim sovereignty in the language of international finance; in this case literally doubling the speeches of American leaders that link citizenship to financial domination at the root of the free market. While American and European electorates rush to forget a past in which national wealth came through violences of the slave trade and imperial conquest, Ghana calls forth global linkages in the voice of Empire.

The inauguration captured how Ghanaian politics blends various traditions of rhetoric and sovereignty into a new mix. We cannot be distracted by the intents of charismatic personalities, but should ask ourselves what political aesthetics tell us about future alternative economic configurations dressed in the attire of the free market.

The long short history of Angola-Israel relations

Following the vote in favor of UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2334 (2016) condemning illegal Israeli settlements of Palestinian territories and East Jerusalem, Israel cut diplomatic ties with 10 of the 15 member states that compose the UNSC. Israel reserved a specific retaliation for the UNSC’s two African member states: no more international development aid for Senegal and Angola. Interpreted as a largely symbolic move, Israel’s reaction to Angola is, however, in sync with the longer trajectory of Israeli/Angolan foreign relations.

These relations have been both material and symbolic. The relationship has two distinct phases. Hostile at first, it began with Angola’s independence and emplotment in the global Cold War. In the wake of the Cold War, Israel-Angolan relations morphed into a friendly and lucrative bond. Yet, some of the discourses and commitments of the first phase are cross-hatched into the second phase. Angola’s vote on UNSC resolution 2334 is the most recent example, although Israel’s public outrage is new.

First, a thumbnail sketch of Angola’s decolonization. The MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) declared Angola’s independence on November 11, 1975. Cuban troops and Soviet military hardware allowed them to hold off FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) forces bolstered by Zairean troops (and CIA funding) to the capital’s north. The MPLA had secured the city’s southern rim against a South African military invasion accompanied by a clutch of UNITA (National Union for the Independence of Angola) soldiers. In brief, independence, civil war and foreign intervention blossomed simultaneously.

The sociologist Jan Nederveen Pieterse noted that Israeli army brass helped plan the 1975 South African invasion of Angola. The strategy echoed that used by the Israelis to drive the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) out of Lebanon and the US strategy against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas (blamed for fomenting insurgency in El Salvador). In other words, this constituted part of a pattern of white settler states not only red-baiting but actively attacking liberation movements. The South African invasion of Angola further drew on Israeli counterterrorism strategies developed in the West Bank and Gaza. Counterinsurgency cooperation in Southern Africa thus lit up a network of politics that spanned the Middle East, Central America and Southern Africa.

International revolutionary movements built their own networks of solidarity, military support, and educational training. Southern African liberation movements (the MPLA, Mozambique’s FRELIMO, South Africa’s ANC, and Namibia’s SWAPO), for their turn, struggled to protect or achieve their sovereignty in the face of obstructionist white settler states and Apartheid policies. Various observers have reminded us of the similarities between Apartheid South Africa and Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands: population control, non-contiguous land areas, passbooks and special IDs, archipelagos of ethnicity, militarized states, torture, and terror. (Also not too distant, by the way, is the US history of Native American reservations.)

These white settler states acted in their own interests in the name of the Cold War. Israel, like South Africa, did not act as a proxy for US interests any more than Cuba acted at the behest of the Soviet Union (as Piero Gleijeses and others have demonstrated). When Angola’s civil war shed its Cold War allies after 1988 – the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale proved key to negotiating Namibia’s independence and the withdrawal of Cuban troops – it did not take long for Israel and the Angola’s MPLA-ruled state, once on opposite sides of the Cold War, to enter a warm embrace. Interest superseded ideology.

But first, Angola’s civil war had to incarnate another continental stereotype: resource war (a key step in the shift from Israel-South Africa-UNITA relations to Israel-MPLA relations).

In the early 1990s, UNITA controlled the diamond-producing regions of northeastern Angola, allowing it to purchase weapons on the international market. In 1993, a former South African Apartheid army officer, Fred Rindel, helped UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi establish diamond sales to a DeBeers subsidiary with offices in Antwerp and Tel Aviv. Meanwhile the Angolan state fattened the Angolan Armed Forces (FAA) on a rising tide of oil production. Between 1994-1999 – a period Angolans refer to as “neither peace nor war” – FAA and UNITA generals exchanged fuel for diamonds in a strange state of peaceable co-exploitation of the diamond rich Lundas region.

By 1999, the FAA drove UNITA troops from the region and the Angolan state began to take over the diamond trade. In 2000 Ascorp (Angola Selling Corporation), was afforded by the state a legal monopoly on diamond marketing. Aside from the Angolan state, Ascorp’s main stakeholders were TAIS of Belgium (first held by Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the country’s President, then transferred to her mother) and Welox of Israel (part of the Leviev group).

Lev Leviev is an Israeli businessman. Born in Uzbekistan he resides in London. He is the world’s largest cutter and polisher of diamonds. He is Vladimir Putin’s friend. He owns key New York City properties. Among his holdings is Africa-Israel, a company with an investment profile in other mining ventures on the continent and in settlements on the West Bank (and a Times Square property apparently sold to Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and confidant).

More official, less problematic relations pertain too. In late 2001 and early 2002, Israeli intelligence lent assistance to the FAA (then in hot pursuit of Savimbi). While official and public relations focused on greenhouse vegetables and the transfer of agricultural expertise, an Israeli drone cruised the skies of eastern Angola tracking UNITA troop movements and attempting to pinpoint Savimbi’s whereabouts. They eventually killed Savimbi in February 2002, ending 27 years of civil war by April of that year.

Meanwhile, in the Lundas, Ascorp tried to create a single buyer and seller for Angolan diamonds and thus abolish “blood diamonds.” In fact, it created a new kind of war. According to journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Law 17/94 has turned the Lundas into a kind of reservation where the state confiscates anything from anyone or any enterprise, in the name of the public good, and delivers it to the mining companies. The local population is forced into mining and denied the possibility of producing a livelihood by agricultural means. Security services, owned and run by FAA generals, act with impunity. The terror in the area, as recounted in Morais’s book, Blood Diamonds: Corruption and Torture in Angola, is reminiscent of King Leopold’s red rubber regime in the Congo. Diamonds support a regime worse than that in Gaza, in an area larger than Portugal. Angolan generals profit. Israeli businessman Lev Leviev profits. And with profits from the alluvial miners of Lunda North and the industrialized mine at Catoca in Lunda Sul, together with companies like Alrosa, they’ve broken the DeBeers monopoly.

This is why, until recently, Israel has countenanced Angolan support for Palestine at the UN. Israeli prosperity matters more. But what work has that done for Angola? And what has changed with the recent vote? Angola recognized Palestine as a state and Yasser Arafat visited Angola regularly. In the 1980s, Angola’s radio jingle “From Luanda, Angola: the firm trench of the revolution in Africa!” keened a rallying cry to fight imperialism around the globe. Those connections weren’t just official. Angola’s ruling party, the MPLA, maintains a cog and machete on the nation’s flag (despite calls for change) and party protocol still finds cadres referring to one another as “comrade.” At the same time, ordinary Angolans strategically employ socialist rhetoric on their uber-capitalist rulers.

The connections between Israel and Angola operate in ambiguous historical terrain, no matter how glaring the profit of their current bond and its bind with justice. Subtending the new, friendly, lucrative relation is Angola’s socialist international and anti-imperialist past. Today the MPLA-ruled state cultivates symbols from that past to produce a sense of continuity and historical legacy. Some powerfully placed old-school cadres still believe in the right to self-determination and sovereignty. Political rhetoric and international relations mobilize this tension between old and new values. That’s what happened in the UN vote. This time Israel reacted, because it was the Security Council.

Angola got a slap on the hand. The Angolan ambassador to Israel got a parking ticket for parking illegally when he went to justify the vote to the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. And the Israeli press played up the charge of Angola as “occupying” the province of Cabinda; the latter “fighting for a sovereign independent state since 1960.”  But it is hard to believe that this schoolyard, tit-for-tatting will bruise the moneyed networks that keep Angolan and Israeli elites unconcerned with righteousness.

*This post is adapted from Chapter 9, “Along the Edges of Comparison,” by Marissa Moorman in Jon Soske and Sean Jacobs (editors), Apartheid/Israel: The Politics of an Analogy (Haymarket 2015).

The Arabs had a country

Nasser with crowds. Image via Associated Press.

The death of Fidel Castro prompted some debate in the West. Many commentators concluded that the Cuban revolution’s descent into authoritarianism outweighed its contributions to the struggle for independence in Latin America and the Third World. Others have celebrated Castro as a hero of Third World liberation. For many in the West, it is puzzling to see the likes of Castro venerated as a hero. Perhaps the legacies of leaders such as Thomas Sankara, Hugo Chavez or Castro are only fully intelligible from a perspective that de-centers the West. From that perspective, victories – however flawed or fleeting – are cause for jubilation. Leadership like that of Castro’s broadened the horizon of political possibilities, and his internationalism and commitment to social revolution at home proved that revolution itself, however flawed, was indeed possible.

In the Arab world, there is no figure that embodies these ideals and contradictions than the second president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Himself a comrade of the late Castro, and leading figure of the non-aligned movement, Nasser counted among his sincere allies the likes of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Che Guevera and Patrice Lumumba. He led the nationalization of the Suez Canal and subsequent confrontation with the British, French and Israeli militaries in 1956, which was not just an Egyptian or Arab victory, it was a victory for all colonized people, a reversal of one the glaring injustices of colonialism.

Nasserism became a dominant ideology in the Arab world, and inspired a wave of “republican” coups and revolutions; Jordan and Iraq in 1958, Yemen in 1962, Algeria in 1964, Sudan and Libya in 1969, Jordan again in 1970. Central to Nasserism, and the ideologically similar Baathism, was the impulse to reverse the dismemberment of the Arab world in the wake of the World War I through the eventual creation of a single pan-Arab state, “from the Ocean to Gulf.”

The most successful experiment in this proposed political union was between Egypt and Syria from 1958 to 1961. Political instability had wracked Syria since the current state was established as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement between colonial powers Britain and France in 1918. In 1958, the Syrian government proposed immediate unification with Egypt as a way to stabilize Syria and finalize a long-standing process of integration between the two states in pursuit of Arab unity. Though the unification was brief – undone in a coup led by Baathists in 1961 – it was welcomed with “overwhelming support” by the Arab masses, as Tareq Y. Ismael argued in his 1976 book, The Arab Left.

Even in death, Nasser was a man of his era. His passing in 1970 came as the Arab world was still reeling from the successful Israeli attack on Egypt in 1967, which was ultimately the death-knell of pan-Arabism and Nasserism. A Lebanese newspaper headline captured the significance of his death best, declaring: “One hundred million human beings – the Arabs – are orphans. There is nothing greater than this man who is gone, and nothing is greater than the gap he has left behind.”

Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, worked diligently to undo much of the progress Egypt made under his predecessor’s reign, pivoting towards the West in foreign policy and initiating a painful economic liberalization that created the social and political conditions that caused the Arab revolutions of four decades later. Sadat’s agreement to forge a separate peace with Israel completed Egypt’s transition from the leader of the Arab world to a regional pariah. With the Arab world’s most powerful and populous country effectively removed from the Palestinian theater, the Arab states retreated inward and non-interference became the rule in their relations. Domestically, Sadat began the long process of neoliberal economic restructuring.

For some, the idea that Nasser’s image would be raised by Egyptian protesters in 2011 battling the very apparatus he built in Egypt, is a contradiction that cannot be resolved. Such a perspective fails to understand that Nasser is not remembered by most as a military dictator. Rather, he represents a bygone era in which principled opposition to a world system built upon and the exploitation of the Third World was a viable political project. Nasser, like Castro, like Chavez, like Sankara, symbolized the Third World’s dignified opposition to the very conditions that created it.

For Arab revolutionaries in 2016, that dignity remains elusive. The fall of Aleppo in Syria is but the latest in a series of crushing defeats. The euphoria of 2011 has given way to despair and tragedy almost everywhere in the region, and every concession to the revolution has been brutally rolled back. The ancien regimes have handled the challenge of 2011 more adeptly than anyone could have imagined.

In the Arab world, there is no other figure that embodies this counterrevolution more than the sixth president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His regime positioned itself as the continuation of the 2011 revolution, while stamping out any trace of it that remained.  El-Sisi is attempting to coopt Nasser’s image in his propaganda, but he is nothing more than the farce to Nasser’s tragedy. Nasserism was legitimated by populist economic policy and anti-imperialism through pan-Arabism. El-Sisi can lay claim to none of these aspects of Nasser’s legacy. He has continued the process of neoliberal economic restructuring set forth by Sadat and acted as rear-gunner for Israeli colonialism on the ground, and most recently for incoming U.S. President Donald Trump at the UN Security Council.

It is perhaps in “the Arab sphere,” to use the parlance of Nasserism, that El-Sisi has most perfectly become Nasser’s inverse. His foreign adventures are a departure from the isolation of Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, but they have served the forces of counterrevolution at every turn. The Egyptian regime has entered the Libyan quagmire on the side of General Khalifa Haftar, who hopes to become “Libya’s Sisi”. Egypt was also an early member in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a familiar battlefield for Egyptian military, though in the 1960s, the Egyptians were going to war against the Saudis and their British backers.

But the reports of an Egyptian intervention in Syria to support the Baathist regime strike the most historic chord. Just as it was in 1958, Syria has become the epicenter of a crisis plaguing the wider Arab world, and Egypt, in the midst of its own political turmoil, is entering the fray. But where Nasser’s unification with Syria represented the hope that the Arab world could transcend the divisions it inherited from the colonial masters – the hope that a revolutionary moment could be exported – El-Sisi’s is the completion of Egypt’s counter-revolutionary turn. For Arabs leaders, it seems, there is only unity in betrayal.

“Doing good” in an age of parody

Image via Barbie Savior Instagram.

For some time now it has felt overdone, even somewhat passé, to examine closely the ways that Africa is represented and how Americans engage with it. The backlash against clicktivism after #KONY2012 has bought us the funny ranging from Radi-Aid’s Band Aid-like music video calling on Africans to send radiators to freezing Norwegians, or the more recent viral White Savior Barbie Instagram account. Everybody is in on the joke.  Does this mean there is little power left in the narratives about Africa that sites like Africa is a Country gave us such clarity about a few years back?

There are two reasons to take this moment of parody seriously. First it wouldn’t be far-fetched to argue that there is a dependence on parody as political critique. Second the “volunteer” or “saving Africa” industry parodied so bitingly on social media and elsewhere, continues to thrive sending thousands of young Americans and Europeans to Africa to do good. So, why does being in on the joke not slow down the desire to save Africans?

Much of how we think about volunteerism stems from the experiences of one of us (Elsa) working as a volunteer at the Moroccan Children’s Trust in Taroudant in southern Morocco close to Marrakesh. During her time there, Elsa interviewed volunteers from North America and Europe as well as on-site coordinators. (The research, by the way, was conducted for an honors thesis in International Comparative Studies at Duke University.) Instead of finding volunteers blind to the multiple and complex ways in which “voluntourism” can be a neocolonial project, the Moroccan Children’s Trust was supported by young volunteers fully aware of the relation between their work and parodies of it, as well as the cultural and political critique of the “white savior complex.”

What might appear to be a paradox – that young people volunteer for NGO’s abroad while aware of the critique of such work – is not only built on a long history of such debates in philanthropy but in its contemporary iteration, and is a logical outcome of neoliberal subject-making. Familiar images of Africa both presented in earnest or satirized continue to represent Africans as needing help. These allow a new generation to continue their self-development through service on the continent despite their awareness of the ethical problems. How does this happen?

The generation in the Global North that most consumes social media news and satire as politics has been labeled “millennials.” They are a generation born in Europe and North America between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, those who came of age at the beginning of the 21st century. They grew up in a geopolitical environment that values individual empowerment and asserts that compassion is the main catalyst for social change. Millennials have been raised to believe that they can and should be major actors in helping provide aid abroad. Their choices and desires are intertwined with the evolution of social media, which has helped create a collective society that empowers millennials to construct their own identities through being seen and recognized constantly. These selves are present not only on individual social media platforms but are effectively echoed in the way voluntourism and other forms of aid represent the role of young people in Africa. The circulation of images online between official sites created by international NGO’s and community based organizations and personal sites makes one’s own world almost indistinguishable from the global terrain of aid and development. As they have always done, such images also make consumers feel connected to a wider community, one united by shared global responsibility. These images are of course what Barbie Savior skewers. But they also successfully turn aid and philanthropy and volunteering into an entirely affective economy, switching emotional resonance for political and economic landscapes of inequality.

Millennials are also encountering an increasingly stressful and limited job market, albeit one that is meant to offer freedom and flexibility not available to their parents. They have experienced waves of financial collapse and economic downturns leading to higher levels of unemployment, student debt and lower levels of income than preceding generations had achieved at a similar age. They are, therefore, encouraged to pursue experiences that they can use to market themselves positively. Their job searches are characterized by employers’ desire for candidates with affective skills such as empathy and sympathy. Not only has the last decade seen significant increase in the professionalism and skills required of volunteers but volunteering is the ideal evidence of having achieved affective skills. Volunteering has therefore become a worthwhile investment for millennials in periods of economic stringency and despite increasing criticism.

Alongside this changing labor landscape, millennials have only really known a world characterized by neoliberal policies. They value above much else individual empowerment and are skeptical of a governments’ capacity to provide social good. Such subjectivity allows young millennials to understand their own voluntourism, not in terms of the unequal geopolitical relationships that they critique, but as an appropriate form for them to develop their own skills base, including something that could be called global empathy.

If, as neoliberal citizen-, their primary responsibility is towards their own advancement (because that is in itself a social good and globally responsible), there is no contradiction in being both critical of and a participant in voluntourism. Or being engaged in (or resistant to) many other seemingly paradoxical political and social movements.

The struggle for moral authority in Zimbabwe

Screenshot of Evan Mawarire’s This Flag Youtube video.

One of the most remarkable protest acts in Zimbabwe in 2016 was a little-publicized act by a small group of female Christian worshippers who dressed up in sacks, and prayed and wailed for three days. It was indicative of a year replete with seemingly symbolic and performative acts of defiance against President Robert Mugabe and the ruling party ZANU-PF’s chokehold on power.

In mid-2016, preacher Evan Mawarire started a campaign that startled the regime. Mawarire posted a video on Youtube of himself, swaddled in Zimbabwe’s national flag and lamenting the country’s state of affairs. Perhaps in spite of himself, he had gone straight to the heart of the beast. His words and actions appealed immediately to Zimbabweans’ moral sensibilities. Following Mawarire’s post, various other movements – mostly launched through social media – mustered courage and confronted the state using different tactics. Some organized saucepan-clanging marches, prayer meetings, dressed up in academic regalia and played street football or just sat, looking idle on the streets. The actions injured the ego of a regime that prides itself in ruling over one of Africa’s most educated populations; the message of “graduates,” in particular, was unequivocal: “We are graduates today, rovha mangwana ([and]loafers tomorrow).” These actions, while seemingly eschewing direct confrontation with a notoriously brutal state machinery, effectively challenged the moral authority of the regime. The last thing the Zimbabwe regime wants to surrender to anyone, even before the national airport, is its guardianship of the post-independence moral narratives and symbols and the authority that comes with them.

After independence from British colonial rule in 1980, Robert Mugabe moved swiftly to consolidate his hold on the political and historical landscape narratives and imaginations of the country. Monuments were built to commemorate fallen war combatants and civilians of the independence war. Besides Independence Day, other days were also set aside for commemoration of the war and its heroes. Particular care was taken in ensuring that the war narrative, national days and associated emblems, such as the national flag, were closely related to President Mugabe and the ruling party. It’s no exaggeration that Independence Day in Zimbabwe today is associated, not with a national embrace of a  nation, and the journeys Zimbabweans have travelled together, but with the ruling party’s reaffirmation of its perceived one-sided heroism, moral hegemony and authority.

Mawarire prayerful lamentation and use of the national flag on Independence Day was a radical political action indeed: A flag sans the meanings attributed to it, we are reminded by social theorist Emile Durkheim, is just but a piece of cloth, but as a societal emblem, it is imbued with a moral force that galvanizes collective sentiments and exerts moral demands on individuals in society. His action hit the regime square in the face. The national outpouring and support that followed Mawarire’s Youtube post and his subsequent persecution, became for many not only a civic duty, but also a higher moral one. For the regime, it was an extreme challenge to its moral authority and the backlash was immediate. Mawarire had to skip the country into exile.

Prayer meetings, spontaneous possession by ancestral spirits in courtrooms during activists’ trials and other quasi-religious activities continued after he left. Such political actions do not lack historical precedence in Africa. In 1985, the anthropologist Jean Comaroff wrote about Apartheid South Africa – and how the use of brute force in suppressing political protests gave rise to symbolic and performative practices, often involving ritual practice, in place of “open discourse.” In her analysis, Black Africans’ religious communities took centre stage in defying the brutal Apartheid machinery. Similarly, in the Zimbabwean case where any kind of dissent is met with booted feet, gunfire, water cannons and tear gas canisters, creative modalities of political action, such as the manipulation of religious and cultural codes, are common responses from the oppressed. During the country’s liberation struggle against white minority rule in the 1970s, it was not uncommon for Black guerilla armies of ZANU and ZAPU to seek spiritual endorsement from traditional chiefs and spirit mediums. Over and above their Marxist “revolutionary” training, ZANU fighters often sought legitimacy from mediums of the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, a female ancestor claimed by many Shona-speaking groups in the country. So, political efforts that lean on things religious and spiritual have today also become useful in shaking the edifice of dictatorship. In fact, they are more useful than the calculated ten-point, calibrated plans and “organic” political actions of those identifying  as “secular” political outfits. It is pastoral figures, and other religio-political actors who have shown a knack at articulating the social experiences of Zimbabweans, and they have a redemptive appeal to the long-suffering nation.

What does this mean then for the future of political organizing and mobilization in Zimbabwe? Clearly, modalities of mainstream struggle also have to change or accommodate other creative political actions, even when they appear transient. It’s no longer helpful to cast aspersions on those who don’t bring forward political manifestos or chant revolutionary slogans. Religious, moral and psychic solidarities are not compensatory to “real” political action. They are real, and they reflect sentiments rooted in extant conditions of social existence. In Zimbabwe people have turned en masse in recent years towards religion – be it charismatic churches, traditional revivalist movements or other spiritual groups. Civil society movements, such as those of organized labor and students (the traditional constituencies of opposition parties) have been largely decimated during the last two decades. So, religion, taken here in the broader sense as a rallying point for the collective social organization and action, has gained more from the crisis. And it is religion that will have the most significant role in either delaying or inspiring future meaningful political action in Zimbabwe.

Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s embarrassing attempt to ingratiate himself to Donald Trump

Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Image credit: Thierry Charlier (AFP/Getty Images)

On December 26, 2016, President Denis Sassou Nguesso left Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, for Miami, Florida, accompanied by his foreign minister and a team of aides. In power since 1979 for all but five years, Sassou Nguesso has acquired a reputation for gross corruption and equally gross human rights abuses. Despite these credentials, he was reportedly scheduled to meet US President-Elect Donald Trump at a charity dinner on the evening of December 27.

Sassou Nguesso publicized the meeting widely. Thierry Moungalla, his Communications Minister, announced it on Twitter on December 26, along with a memo signed by Firmin Ayessa, Sassou Nguesso’s longtime aide. The meeting was announced on Sassou Nguesso’s official website; in Les Dépêches de Brazzaville, his propaganda newspaper; and on Télé-Congo, the state-run television station, which even published a doctored photograph of Trump and Sassou Nguesso embracing, with the latter standing slightly taller. Trump’s necktie ultimately belied the photograph’s origins. It was taken after a meeting between Trump and Mitt Romney, with Sassou Nguesso now in Romney’s stead.

News of the meeting – which would have been Trump’s first with an African head of state since his election – went viral on social media. Apparently embarrassed, Trump’s spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, denied it had ever been scheduled. Details of the meeting remain hazy. It is unclear who issued Sassou Nguesso’s invitation, what was to be discussed, and in what context the meeting would occur. What is clear, however, is that the meeting was to occur at the charity dinner in Palm Beach, Florida, and possibly at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

The meeting, according to the Congolese government, would ostensibly focus on the humanitarian crisis in Libya. Sassou Nguesso’s real agenda had four points. First, Sassou Nguesso and other African autocrats perceived NATO’s intervention in Libya as a threat. If, following the Arab Spring, western governments proved willing to intervene on behalf of democracy activists, Africa’s autocrats would lose the ability to employ violence against citizens. This threat was particularly acute after the Burkinabé Revolution of 2014, which forced President Blaise Compaoré from power after 27 years and emboldened activists across the region. “African problems,” Sassou Nguesso planned to tell Trump, “require African solutions.” The principle is eminently reasonable, almost indisputable. For Sassou Nguesso and other autocrats, however, it is a license for repression.

Second, Sassou Nguesso is enmeshed in corruption scandals in Australia, France, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Earlier this year, during trips to Washington, Sassou Nguesso’s wife, son, and finance minister were served with subpoenas, which require them to disclose the sources and locations of Sassou Nguesso’s wealth. The subpoenas were delivered as part of Commisimpex SA’s effort to collect a $1 billion arbitration award, which stemmed from Sassou Nguesso’s refusal to pay infrastructure invoices some 30 years ago. Sassou Nguesso routinely uses official meetings with French presidents to elicit guarantees of immunity from prosecution. He is seeking similar assurances from Trump.

Third, Sassou Nguesso has long had a strained relationship with ExxonMobil, and its CEO Rex Tillerson, who was recently named Trump’s nominee as secretary of state. The strained relationship dates from the late 1980s, when ExxonMobil played a central role in offshore exploration. According to Elie Smith, a leading journalist in Central Africa, Sassou Nguesso awarded French corporations Elf and Total the most lucrative production permits – essentially snubbing Exon Mobil. Given Sassou Nguesso’s protracted centrality in FrançAfrique corruption networks, his decision was no surprise. Still, he is keen to repair his relationship with Tillerson.

Finally, the meeting underscores how Africa’s autocrats seek foreign cover for domestic troubles. Sassou Nguesso routinely leads mediation efforts across francophone Africa: in Cote d’Ivoire in 2006, in the Central African Republic in 2015, and in Libya since 2011. In 2006, his efforts helped secure an Oval Office meeting with then president George W. Bush, during which Sassou Nguesso pressed for relief from a debt crisis caused by his own mismanagement. In 2015, Sassou Nguesso sought French President Francois Hollande’s implicit approval for a constitutional revision, which enabled him to stand for “reelection” in March 2016. Now, Sassou Nguesso seeks cover for his ongoing military campaign in the Pool region, which ostensibly targets a rebel group that no longer exists. In reality, the campaign is designed to threaten citizens who might otherwise protest his fraudulent “reelection.”

As Sassou Nguesso waited for the meeting in Palm Beach, his aides attempted to mitigate his humiliation. His Foreign Minister, Jean-Claude Gakosso, attributed the delay to “diplomatic time.” Thierry Moungalla admonished the Congolese press to “be patient.” But he was excoriated in the African press, on social media, and at home. One Ouagadougou newspaper, Le Pays, mocked his presumption: “What does he think he can teach the new American president about Libya?” One commentator suggested that Sassou Nguesso “should stage a sit-in at Trump Tower.” Paul Marie Mpouélé, a Brazzaville activist, called the episode “a national shame.”

The domestic repercussions have already begun. As his military campaign in Pool makes clear, Sassou Nguesso routinely employs violence against civilians to preempt dissent. Fearing that the Trump debacle could provide a focal point for frustrated citizens to protest, Sassou Nguesso again threatened repression. On December 29, the regime’s security services opened fire at a Brazzaville prison, where Paulin Makaya, a leading democracy activist, is incarcerated. At least three were killed and several arrested. Expect more repression in the short-term.

Some expect the charade in Miami to further strain relations with Washington. It will not. Many of Africa’s autocrats welcomed Trump’s election. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza congratulated Trump minutes after his election, as did Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. “Your victory,” Nkurunziza declared, “is the victory of all Americans.” Sassou Nguesso welcomed Trump as a “pragmatist.” They believe Trump will prioritize America’s economic interests over its democratic ideals. Sassou Nguesso’s personal affection for Trump might be diminished after the Miami incident, but this will in no way dent his enthusiasm for a Trump presidency.

The year of Elaine Salo

Elaine Salo, on the right, in conversation with Zackie Achmat, in Muizenberg, Cape Town, circa 2003. Photo: Sean Jacobs

It is very difficult to write about Elaine Salo in the past tense.

I first met Elaine in the mid-1990s.  I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about how we met, but I can’t quite recall when and where. In retrospect I’m surprised we had not met earlier. As someone else wrote about her: “It is only a little hyperbole to say that Elaine knew everyone and everyone knows her.”

We had both studied at the University of Cape Town, though she preceded me by several years. She was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape, but for me she was so much a representative of Cape Town, the city of my birth, it was like we knew each other all along. The familiarity came from the cadences in her voice, her smatterings of Afrikaans, how she reminded me of my five sisters, or her research on Manenberg where one of my grandmothers briefly lived after being forcibly removed from Kirstenbosch below Table Mountain.

An outstanding quality of Elaine was that she was unapologetic about the people and places where she was from, those she studied.

I still remember once, in the early 2000s, while I was still a graduate student, recording a conversation between Elaine and the gay rights and AIDS activist Zackie Achmat, about sexual politics in Southern Africa for the Cape Town arts and politics journal, Chimurenga. The interview happened at Zackie’s house in Muizenberg and was later published as “Black Gays and Mugabes.” I was supposed to interview them, but ended up mostly watching and listening as these two intellectuals sparred effortlessly, mixing humor, insight, history, cultural politics and solidarity.

It was a lesson in political engagement.

But I should have known: Elaine came from that generation of activists who had done the hard work of liberation, but now didn’t shy away from engaging head-on with the limitations and promises of the new South Africa.

At the turn of the century, I moved away from South Africa to New York City, so I saw less of Elaine. When we did see each other however– at conferences mostly, or when I visited Cape Town — our conversations picked up where we had last left off. Elaine still had so many plans for research she wanted to do: on water politics, sanitation, the racial geography of Cape Town, the moral economy of Manenberg (the coloured township which was the subject of her doctoral research). She talked about books she wanted to edit, articles she wanted to write and conferences she still had to go to.

The last time I saw her was last January at an outdoors restaurant in Plumstead, a suburb to the south of the city. We met for breakfast. Her husband Colin was there too, along with their daughter Jessica. They were visiting with family. Elaine insisted my then-10 year-old daughter Rosa — curious, a tween, bookworm, fidgety, bright, and anxious at all the unfamiliarity of the city — should meet Jessica. She thought that they would immediately recognize one another. She was right. She knew people.

I grew up in one of the dormitory townships of the Cape Flats and it is around that world — one where Elaine cut her teeth as an activist and later as an academic, that we connected the most: The politics, the hypocrisy of the city’s governing and middle classes, and the potential — hidden in plain sight — of Cape Town’s very poor black and coloured residents. Elaine’s work was a model of how to treat the people in that region with respect.

The historian Terri Barnes best characterized Elaine’s work on Cape Town: “Her passion was to clothe the experiences of women and men on the Cape Flats in the dignity they deserved. Not god’s stepchildren, not tattooed gangsters, not gap-toothed drunks on street corners, not child-women shouting at dirty urchins. No. People with histories, communities and choices who deserved respect and careful theorizing.”

One of my favorite memories of Elaine is from the early 2000’s in Cape Town. Then in conversations with my now wife, also Jessica, I lamented a lot about what the city had lost with segregation — in terms of the rich cultural life of the world around the mountain — and could never recover again. Things that my father would talk about. I felt that I could never adequately capture that world or experience it. Then Elaine invited us to a party at her her house in Woodstock. As we walked through the door and settled in, a jazz band was jamming in the middle of the living room. I think Colin was on guitar, and the late Vincent Kolbe on piano. I turned to Jessica and didn’t have to say anything. This is what I had been talking about.

A few years ago I posted a picture on social media of my dad and myself as a child at his work. He was a gardener in a rich, white suburb in Cape Town for 40 years, a quick walk from where he was born in Newlands and grew up in Kirstenbosch. He worked for a white Supreme Court Judge. I wrote about how as a child I accompanied my dad when he would go to work on Saturdays and how I didn’t do much work, but ran around the large estate chasing tennis balls, or read from the large pile of newspapers and magazines in the servant’s quarters or badgered his boss with questions.

Elaine wrote to me: “My hope for you is that you can make a thousand flowers bloom just like your dad. The beauty of gardeners like musicians is that they share the fruits of their labor freely … Sight and sound cannot be contained.”

That is how I remember her.

*This is an edited version of remarks first made at a memorial for Elaine Salo this summer in Newark, Delaware. Elaine died on August 13, 2016. She was 54. 

Made-in-China: The lives and times of Africans in Guangzhou

Still from film Guangzhou Dream Factory.

Guangzhou, in Southern China, has a long tradition as a trading port. More recently, in the wake of the Chinese state’s aggressive foreign and trade policies to Africa, the city is also home to a growing community of migrants and businesspeople from that continent. The latter buy goods in bulk in Guangzhou to sell back in Africa. Some have decided to stay.

In 2009, The New Yorker published, “The Promised Land,” by Evan Osnos “… which looks at the wave of African traders moving to China. The largest group has settled in the city of Guangzhou, where Chinese neighbors have named the community Qiao-ke-li Cheng—Chocolate City.” Though Osnos’s article wasn’t the first in-depth look at African migrants in China — Osnos’s account was predated by the work of academics like Heidi Østbø Haugen, Adams Bodomo, and Roberto Castillo — however, Osnos’s article certainly mainstreamed the broad outlines of these African migrants’ experiences in China and launched an intense focus on the community of Africans in China.

African migrants’ contemporary presence in China dates back to the late 1990s when the financial crisis in Thailand and Indonesia pushed Africans (among other migrants) to look for opportunities elsewhere. To date, it is hard to find reliable information on the numbers and nationalities of the Africans in China. Academic scholarship as well as media reports estimate the numbers to be anywhere between 20,000 and 100,000. However, during the last few years, there has been a trend of African migrants leaving China to go back to their home countries after encountering hardships and disappointments. Heidi Østbø Haugen and Manon Diederich, for example, document Gambian migrants’ stories about life in China and their decision to return home. The new film, Guangzhou Dream Factory directed by Christiane Badgley and Erica Marcus, thus adds a rich account of the complexities of living in China as an African migrant.

From the very beginning, Guangzhou Dream Factory exhibits a major strength: in a break with tradition, Africans are not just objects of the camera, but subjects who represent their own stories and experiences. Through talking to expatriates of various backgrounds (and entanglements with China, including wives and children), a complex story of aspirations, deceptions, challenges, and opportunities is woven. Some of the migrants have been very successful, others disappointed, and a few have become activists in helping other Africans who have settled in the community.

For example, Rahima is an Ugandan migrant who runs an East African food service (a sort of meals-on-wheels). She is also the president of an association to look after Ugandans in Guangzhou. Rahima shares stories of broken dreams and scammed migrants who sell all what they own back home in search of dreams made in China. Many young women, she recounts, are brought to China with promises to be employed as teachers or factory workers only to find themselves forced into a choice between prostitution jobs or unbearable debt.

Rahima is filmed carrying a baby who she found in a shop near his mom’s corpse. We don’t know who the dead mom is or what part of Africa she was from. But, we do know of Eva, a Kenyan young mother who falls victim to visa-cons, quits her job in Kenya and flies to China chasing a mirage. Upon landing in China, she immediately finds out that the employment agency that she had paid was fraudulent. The only positive part about Eva’s story is that she finally manages to get back to Kenya, “jobless and indebted, but at least she was safe.”

Yet the picture is far from being all bleakness. The filmmakers talk to young African entrepreneurs who are making strong steps towards achieving their made-in-China dreams. Both Emy, a restaurateur, who aspires to makes movies in China, and the Cameroonian self-made “King of Suits,” Kingsley Azieh Che — who claims to supply about 80% of the suit whole-sale businesses in his country — are examples of the kind of opportunities that many young Africans aspire to when they think of what China means for their futures. These success stories are, unfortunately, not possible for the average African migrant to China. In an email exchange, Christiane explains that most Africans who end up doing well in China are urban, middle class. They are “people who have enough money to pay for travel, visas, accommodation, goods, etcetera. And you know that in most African countries, that is a fairly small segment of the population.”

The documentary film also raises the very poignant and pressing questions about the future of children of mixed marriages, or of those who were born to African parents but only see China to be their home. The film shows the story of a Nigerian woman, Favor, and her daughter Cherich who was born in China and speaks fluent Chinese. We learn that a few weeks after the film was finished, the immigration police caught the mom and jailed her, and that she was sent back to Nigeria with her daughter. Christiane noted that the film has opened an opportunity to voice questions of responsibility towards this generation of African children born in China, the status of their parents, and the roles that can and must be assumed by African and Chinese authorities alike.

It is true that one could simply say that these stories are no different than any typical immigrant stories, full of hope and delusion, success and disappointment. But the overall sentiment of the documentary is that African migrants in China are skilled entrepreneurs, creative business-owners, risk-takers, and resilient strong individuals. This is a contrast to the images that the “Jungle” of Calais leaves in our minds, the capsizing boats in the Mediterranean, or the bare-life camps on the fringes of the EU.

If you want to see “Guangzou Dream Factory,” it is available for educational use only. For more information and screening events check the film’s website.

The armed conflict lurking in the countryside

Congolese Army. Image via Wikipedia.

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The protests against Congolese President Joseph Kabila in cities like Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, only reveal part of the crisis the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is currently facing. In the wake of the end of the constitutional mandate for Kabila’s presidency, sporadic fighting has sprung up in the Eastern part of the country, centered around historical grievances, and unresolved local tensions. For many years these tensions have gone unnoticed by international observers, however they can tell us more about fundamental divisions in Congolese society than the protests in cities can.

Behind the explicit aim to chase out a regime that is no longer considered legitimate, armed groups from across various swaths of the country have used the current political crisis as an opportunity to redress political marginalization, or to act on aspirations to rule over territories, populations and resources. The current fragmentation of authority in rural Eastern Congo is the outcome of a constant reconstitution of local political order, largely based on exclusivist and ethnic claims.

That the aspirations over territorial control are largely translated into identity discourses comes as no surprise. A gradual loss of capacity of the Congolese state to impose its rule, provide security and promote local development since the early 1990s has created the necessary space for armed groups to become brokers in local power games. It remains unclear where this armed group activity will lead us, but the first indications tell us we are gradually moving towards more violence, and to further political and military fragmentation and confusion.

One of the regions with a risk of new rounds of violence is the nexus connecting the Rutshuru-Lubero-Masisi-Walikale territories (North Kivu). The area around the rural agglomeration of Kitchanga, for example, has seen recent and isolated cases of violence against local villages. Moreover, tit-for-tat confrontations between several armed factions of Hutu and Hunde descent have caused a generalised context of fear among the population. Rumours about a larger attack of militias against Kitchanga have created a generalised psychosis. In this context, a minor incident might spark off large-scale violence. Recent attacks by armed groups against civilians causing numerous victims in Luhanga, Bwalanda, and Nyanzale, indeed indicate that violence again is becoming more recurrent on the axis Rutshuru-Lubero-Masisi-Walikale.

This situation, linked to the Congolese Army’s campaigns to track one of the armed groups in the region, is not necessarily new. However, today’s tensions are amplified by the larger crisis at the political center. This crisis has reinforced the image of a state lacking capacity and legitimacy. It also paves the way for armed groups to reposition themselves and revise their strategies with the aim to impose their rule.

In South Kivu’s Kalehe territory, Raya Mutomboki factions of Tembo origin, have tried to forge new armed coalitions, not only to put pressure on Kabila to leave office but also to consolidate more localized claims of self-governance. After December 19th, main roads in Tembo areas have been under control of these Raya Mutomboki factions who believe Congolese state services should be pushed out of the area because they are no longer legitimate. They are also motivated by the ambition to set up roadblocks preventing the return to the region of over 40,000 Congolese Tutsi who fled during the fighting of the 90s, protect their community against Hutu militias, as well as fight for the recognition of the territorial claims of the Tembo.

These developments in the Kivu Provinces, as well as other areas in Eastern Congo, echo larger dynamics of inter and intra-ethnic competition over resources and political representation across the country. These issues remain unresolved since earlier rounds of violence in the 90s, mainly because of the lack of commitment and capacity of the Congolese state. The absence of protection mechanisms for local communities, and a governance context which is organized ethnically or through patronage networks, has prevented a coherent and effective response from the Congolese state, and have facilitated a proliferation of armed groups.

Although it is too soon to make any clear predictions, the political crisis resulting from Kabila’s refusal to leave office risks pushing these rural zones through new rounds of violence. This crisis provides armed groups with the perfect incentive to revive their local claims to rule, risks reinforcing their links with disgruntled or radicalized anti-Kabila forces, and could even turn some of these groups into attractive allies of the regime’s strategies to stay in power. It is even questionable if a potential agreement between Kabila’s regime and the political opposition about a transition of power at the state level, will have any effect on these simmering dynamics.

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Africa makes us* look better

Image via Pexels

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Africa makes us look better. Just by stepping off a plane we get richer, more interesting and prettier. In most cases our lighter skin and straighter hair earns us a special place in society. We receive a lot of attention, wanted or not, and feel like minor celebrities. When we are invited to sit at the high table, between a priest and the headmaster of a school, or when a police officer stops traffic for us so we can cross the highway safely we become special. It doesn´t matter if we feel uncomfortable or if we think, like our ancestors, that we deserve to be treated differently, the outcome is the same. By accepting this position of privilege we somehow validate it. We contribute to the perpetuation of a centuries-old system of superiority and subordination.

However, maybe exactly this feeling of being special and superior is one of the reasons why so many of us “fall in love with Africa.” Maybe we are craving a level of attention Europe cannot give us. And Africa can and does. Here we belong to the cosmopolitan circle; we go to cocktail parties at embassies and discuss world politics and the problems of African countries as if we are experts. We surround ourselves with allegedly sophisticated people, who have Master´s degrees in politics, law, or international relations.We complain about our housekeeper or watchman; about how we need to explain some things ten times and they still don´t do it in the way they are “supposed” to. We seem to know why African countries are still not at the same level as others and what the solutions for the problems of African people are. And, as part of the elite we feel very important.

In Kenya, sometimes you can also find a few Kenyans at those fancy dinner parties, but in general they are quite rare in the world of expats. However, even if Kenyans are present, we tend to think of them as the exception rather than the rule. The existence of a Kenyan middle class is still quite hard for us to accept as part of the reality. This growing group of Kenyans with university degrees, good jobs and an interest in enjoying the sweet urban life as we do confuses our polarized image of African societies – where people are either ultra-rich politicians and businessmen or living in slums. Having two or three Kenyans as friends is something desirable, no matter how close you actually are to them. We mention these marafiki wa Kenya (Kenyan friends) in conversation to show our opposite that we are integrated in Kenyan society. We think this makes us “one of the good ones.”  We say sawa sawa (It’s ok.), habari (How are you?) or asante rafiki (Thank you, my friend.) to feel like a local, neglecting the fact that these are the only words we know in Swahili.

We feel good belonging to a secret club, with its own language and codes. The entrance fee is being an expat, not to be confused with being an ordinary immigrant, like, for instance, people from Uganda or South Sudan. We feel comfortable surrounded by people with similar backgrounds but we don’t have to deal with the thoughts, dreams and challenges of ordinary Kenyans.

If we engaged in more genuine conversations with Kenyans, we would have to recognize the hypocrisy of our existence as expats. We would be thrown out of our convenient little bubble full of Java House coffees, safaris to the Masai Mara and weekends at Diani Beach. Once the bubble popped, we would have to ask ourselves how we can justify our continued existence here? And this we try to prevent, by all means.

*By us and we I refer to the thousands of expats in Kenya, predominantly from the US or a European country (including me), who come to Kenya in search of a reputable job position, a high salary, meaningful work or simply a bit of adventure.

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Yahya Jammeh’s tribalism

The Jammehs with the Obamas. Image Credit the US Department of State via Flickr.

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The Gambia’s outgoing President, Yahya Jammeh, appears to be going nowhere slowly. After conceding defeat in the December 1 presidential election, Jammeh – who has held power for the past 22 years – made a U-turn. In spite of the country’s electoral commission confirming opposition candidate Adama Barrow’s victory, Jammeh filed a petition with the Supreme Court, asking it to void the entire election result. A pattern of rule through continuous firing and rehiring has come back to haunt Jammeh, however, as the Supreme Court has not been able to hold a sitting since May 2015, when Jammeh sacked two of its justices. The countdown has started to January 19, when the constitution requires Jammeh to hand over power.

Outside The  Gambia, Jammeh faces widespread opposition to his latest power grab. ECOWAS, the AU and UN issued a joint statement calling for Jammeh to step down. ECOWAS Commissioner Marcel de Souza asserts that a military intervention may be considered, and neighboring Senegal has indicated that it is willing to take part in military action to secure the transition to democracy. On December 16, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation issued a statement calling Jammeh to accept the results of the election, and many African heads of state have confirmed they will attend the inauguration of Barrow.

Inside The Gambia, Jammeh has held a tight grip on power and the citizenry, and has done his best to gag both the press and the opposition. His government is widely criticized for human rights abuses, torture, disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

After Barrow’s victory, and Jammeh’s conceding defeat, however, there’s a marked change in the political tone inside the country. Jammeh has never been more isolated. A range of civil society organizations – including the Gambian Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce, the Student Association, the Teacher’s Union, and lately, the Islamic Council – have asked Jammeh to accept the voice of the people. Eleven of The Gambia’s ambassadors abroad have done the same. The question is not whether Jammeh’s era is coming to end, but whether it comes to end with or without bloodshed.

The insistence on bringing a valid election result before a non-functioning Supreme Court is not the incumbent’s only impasse. Another, more dangerous gambit has been Jammeh’s repeated invocation of “tribe” in politics. Jammeh has made rule by division his trademark – and he has made identity issues, ethnicity and religion in particular – relevant in politics in ways they were not before.

Gambians are used to Jammeh’s predictable unpredictability. It has played out in a variety of bizarre, discredited and violent proclamations, including on state religion (declaring Gambia an Islamic state through a unilateral presidential decree in 2015), medicine (claiming to be able to cure AIDS with herbal medicines), gays (“vermin” whose throats should be slit), and women’s dress codes (skinny jeans causing infertility in women).

Jammeh’s spin on tribalism has been to accuse members of the country’s largest ethnic group, the Mandinka, of tribalism. In continued attacks on Mandinkas, he has made criticism against his rule by decree and human rights record into an ethnic issue. He has threatened the Mandinka with extinction (“I will kill you like ants and nothing will come out of it”). In June 2016, Jammeh spoke in a rally in Tallinding and asserted that “since 1994 all the trouble makers have been Mandinkas. If you don’t behave I will bury you nine feet deep.” The speech led to condemnation by the UN’s special advisor on the Prevention of Genocide.

Jammeh’s singling out of the Mandinka is partly related to the ethnic belonging of his predecessor, Dawda Jawara, President of The Gambia from independence in 1965 and ousted by Jammeh in a coup in 1994. The Mandinka make up about 40 percent of the Gambian population. Yet, “tribe” has not been a basis for collective action. In fact, ethnicity in The Gambia is far from a categorical label of personal belonging which such numbers would imply.

Three years of living in The Gambia have taught me that questions about personal “origin” always unleash stories of migration, change and interchange: “We who are surnamed Kebbeh were Fulbe while living in Senegal five generations ago but are now Wolof”; “the families surnamed Cham are Wolof or Mandinka now but were originally Fulbe from Futa Toro”; or, “My father is Mandinka but I moved to my Serahuli grandmother and was raised by her so I guess I am Serahuli now”, and so forth. When Gambians talk about their background in ethnic terms, the stories they tell reveal layers upon layers of social integration across differences of language and tradition. Marriage across ethnic lines is more a rule than an exception. Social mechanisms for integration across “tribe” are everywhere, in notions of equivalent surnames (Juawara and Mbow, Willan and Fofana, Tunkara and Kanteh, Nyang and Sanyang) and in humor.

It is no small irony that Jammeh’s spin on tribalism echoes colonial techniques of divide and rule. The British operated with a split between the tiny colony in today’s urban Banjul (and Kombo St. Mary’s) and the remaining rural area of the protectorate. Administrative positions were located in the colony and dominated by urban Wolof and Aku. Former President Jawara represented a political voice from the countryside. Mandinko-speakers were in majority in the rural areas, a demographic reality that was reflected in Jawara’s political party. His task following independence was to integrate the interests of the protectorate with those of the urban elites. His government did not play on Mandinko dominance. On the contrary, Jawara’s strategy to keep political legitimacy was to incorporate newcomers into government, from both the former colony and the protectorate, of all ethnic affiliations, a strategy disliked by many older members of the party that took part in the independence movement.

Jammeh’s rhetoric has unleashed rumors about his privileging of his Jola ethnic minority, for instance about the channeling of development resources, schooling in particular, to his own southern areas. It is difficult to verify these rumors, or tell them apart from Jammeh’s overall strategy of rewarding those who are loyal, regardless of ethnicity. There is also widespread speculation about his preference for Jolas in government positions and over the existence of an armed “Jola militia” in the south toward the areas of the Jola separatist movement in Senegalese Casamance. This fuels fear of a future rebel Jola movement loyal to Jammeh that will create a merged conflict area across the southern Gambia-Senegal border.

The rhetoric on “tribe” does not seem to have convinced the majority of Gambians. Today, social media are peppered with slogans that counter Jammeh’s spin: “My tribe is Gambia,” “Tribalism has no place in our nation,” and “To hell with tribalism” – the latter version also a subtle reference to president Jammeh’s reply when the UN Secretary General criticized human rights abuses in The Gambia (“Go to hell”). Nonetheless, any attempt to understand the dynamics at work in The Gambia’s crisis will have to take into account two decades of “tribal” discourse by the country’s president.

Barrow won the election, but Jammeh got nearly 40 percent of the vote countrywide. Reconciliation efforts must address the traffic in ethnic stereotypes, about Mandinka, Jola, the diaspora, and all groups that have been subject of libel. The most acute task for the new government is to address the economic disenfranchisement that gives fertile ground for demagogues who seek power by portraying valid grievances as tribal conflicts.

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Can African states offer new approaches to refugee asylum?

Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Image Credit: Anouk Delafortrie (European Union/ECHO)

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In 2007, Tanzania did something radical: it promised a pathway to citizenship for over 162,000 refugees from Burundi who had settled in the country in the early 1970s. No one took much notice when the Tanzanian government, with little international fanfare, began to systematically carry out this process. As Al Jazeera reporter Mehdi Hasan has recently highlighted, a double standard influences reporting on the global refugee crisis. The media has trained its attention on asylum seekers in Europe, but has largely ignored the plight of the estimated 4.4 million refugees living in Sub-Saharan Africa — a silence he deems “white privilege at work.”

Asylum seekers in many parts of the continent also face problems of xenophobia similar to those plaguing the US and Europe. Take, for example, the case of Somali refugees in Kenya. As Abdi Latif Ega has pointed out, Somali citizens and refugees alike face routine forms of harassment and racial profiling at the hands of Kenyan state agents and foreign counterterrorist operatives. In addition, the Kenyan government is threatening once again to close Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, and (in ways that echo Trump’s call for a wall on the US/Mexican frontier) officials also claim to be constructing a security barrier on the Kenyan/Somali border.

In many ways, the Kenyan refugee crisis highlights both the challenges faced by asylum seekers worldwide and the potential for a more tolerant approach to asylum. While Kenya is hardly a paragon for progressive refugee policy, for decades, hundreds of thousands of refugees have gained sanctuary in the country. From a certain vantage point, Kenya can provide a ground upon which to envision less restrictive types of registration and border controls and more flexible models of sovereignty.

According to normative theories of statecraft, governments should monitor and protect their borders. For a number of reasons, the Kenyan state has been unable (and at times unwilling) to carefully regulate international immigration. The boundaries between Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya have historically been extremely permeable. Due to a long history of political and economic marginalization, many citizens from Northern Kenya lack national identification documents. Denied basic services, some have registered as refugees in order to access water, schools, and health care from UNHCR-funded refugee camps. Refugees and migrants are also able to change their status by illegally purchasing Kenyan ID cards (thanks to the collusion of civil servants) or simply moving in with relatives across the border. In the absence of proper registration mechanisms or accurate demographic data, the Kenyan government is frequently unable to distinguish between “citizen” and “alien.”

Such conditions have undoubtedly caused problems, but they have also created spaces where refugee and citizen can coexist and where distinctions between illegality and legality can blur. In spite of discriminatory state policy, Kenya has hosted well over half a million Somali refugees. Despite recent crackdowns by police and security forces (including indiscriminate anti-terror operations and increasingly routine deportations), Nairobi remains a space of asylum for undocumented and unauthorized migrants from Somalia, South Sudan, and other neighboring countries.

In many ways, Nairobi provides an extra-legal model for a city of refuge. The Kenyan government simply cannot deport the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who have integrated themselves into the social and economic fabric of the city. In lieu of settling in overcrowded refugee camps, many have found work in the “informal” urban economy and have come to see the country as their primary or secondary homeland. The lives of asylum seekers in Nairobi and other urban areas are, of course, not easy. Those living outside of refugee camps cannot access certain state and UNHCR services. However, in many cases, such basic welfare provisions are also out of the reach of ordinary Kenyan citizens.

It is also questionable whether Kenya’s porous borders are an inherent security threat, as state officials and foreign observers often assume (al-Shabaab’s attacks in the country only escalated after Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011). Moreover, such permeability is essential to nomads, traders, and asylum seekers, many of whom must cross international boundaries for basic survival. Like the US/Mexican frontier, the Somali/Kenyan border cuts across social and political networks that long predated the advent of the state.

What might appear to be a government “failure” has, in fact, led many policy makers to rethink refugee encampment and advocate for the urban integration of asylum seekers. There is also a growing awareness of the contributions that immigrants make to their host country’s economy. Such policy shifts do not prefigure a complete disregard for nation-state borders. However, they do suggest the need for formal systems of inclusion and recognition that de-privilege the distinction between “citizen” and “alien.”

With the resurgence of xenophobic and nativist politics in the US and Europe (as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump and the surging popularity of Marine Le Pen), it is time for policymakers and social scientists to look outside of the Global North for political solutions. In a number of less-resourced countries, migrants, refugees, and citizens are developing innovative strategies and government officials are implementing more humane policies to cope with the global refugee crisis.

Even states deemed “weak” according to the norms of international law and social scientific theory may, in fact, inspire us to push beyond the horizons of the nation-state and point us towards a future less tethered to the constraints of territorial borders. What many international observers deem Kenya’s biggest “failure” is, from another vantage point, one of its greatest virtues: namely, its porous international boundaries.

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