Africa is a Country

A Revolution in Many Tongues


In February of 2015, Ankara Press, a romance imprint of the Nigerian publisher, Cassava Republic Press, debuted a Valentine’s Day Anthology that featured romance stories originally written in English and then translated into the author’s mother tongue. The anthology was published online and was a free download. At the same time, both the original and the translations were read aloud, by the writers themselves or others, and the recordings made available online. As the editors explained in their introduction, the Valentine’s Day Anthology was “a much truer representation of romance in Africa as we can hear and see what romancing in different languages might sound like and mean.”

This month, Jalada Africa, an online journal out of Nairobi, has upped the game: publishing a short story originally written in an African language, with translations in 30 African languages.  The story, Ituĩka Rĩa Mũrũngarũ: Kana Kĩrĩa Gĩtũmaga Andũ Mathiĩ Marũngiĩ, is by Ngugi wa Thiong’o and was originally published in March 2016 in Kikuyu, a Kenyan language. It has now been translated as The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright. This makes it the most translated African language story.

Jalada’s intervention has been a long time coming. Back in 1962, a group of young African writers met at the Makerere Writers’ Conference, under the now unfortunate banner, “African Writers of English Expression,” promising to decolonize African literature. The young and optimistic Ngugi also captured this excitement when he enthusiastically concluded in his post-conference write up titled, “A Kenyan at the Conference”: “With the death of colonialism, a new society is being born. And with it a new literature.”

Translation Issue cover

Translation between African languages has yet to be practiced and theorized into critical and popular acceptance. Jalada is undertaking both theory and practice, and saying that African languages can talk with each other. Its call and answer sends out a challenge to writers, scholars and publishers who see African languages in the service of the more useful English. Or conversely, those who understand translation as most desirable when coming from superior European languages into anemic African languages desperately in need of anglo-aesthetics transfusion.

Jalada’s translation initiative is also part of a larger language awakening. Capturing the shift from an English-only consensus to a multiple-languages debate, the 2015 Kwani literary festival titled, “Beyond the Map of English: Writers in conversation on Language” centered and celebrated the language debate. At that festival prizes for the inaugural Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature were awarded. Scholar and writer Boubacar Boris Diop has started, Ceytu, an imprint in Senegal dedicated to the translation of seminal works by Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire and others into Wolof.  In 2013, Chike Jeffers edited an anthology of philosophical texts originally written in seven African languages and then translated into English. And Wangui Wa Goro who translated Ngugi’s Matigari from Gikuyu into English in 1982 has done a lot of work to make African literary translation viable and visible.

When setting up the $15,000 Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, Dr. Lizzy Attree and I were immediately confronted by the absence of structures that are simply taken for granted when it comes to English language writing; there is a dearth of scholarship, and little recognition in the way of prizes. For Kiswahili, with more than 400 millions speakers, literary prizes number no more than five. I do not know of a single journal devoted to literary criticism in an African language, or any writer residencies that encourage writing in African languages. The point is, given a population that will soon reach one billion people spread out in 55 countries, even one hundred African language-centered journals and literary prizes would be pitifully inadequate. African literature needs a lot more of everything.

To be sure, advocates for writing in and translating among African languages have their dissenters. For example, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, the author of the novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance, argued in a 2010 New York Times op-ed titled, “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse”, that because Ngugi wrote in an African language he should not be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She argued: “I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.”

To make the argument that languages creates “tribal differences” sounds so asinine in light of Jalada’s translation issue.  As Jalada Africa shows: A thousand African languages, a thousand opportunities to make literary history.

Jalada has youth on their side: Like the Makerere generation before, Jalada is composed of young writers who understand their mission to contribute to decolonization: Moses Kilolo, the Managing Editor, Novuyo Tshuma the Deputy Editor, the Treasurer, Ndinda Kioko and other writer administrators are in their 20s and early 30s. Among many others, writer members of the collective include the 2013 Caine Prize Winner Okwiri Odour, the brilliant Mehul Gohil, featured in the anthology Africa 39: New writing from Africa South Sahara, and the gifted poet Clifton Gachugua, whose first collection of poetry, The Madman at Kilifi (University of Nebraska Press 2014) won the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets.

In translation, there are no indigenous, vernacular, native, local, ethnic and tribal languages producing vernacular, native, local, ethnic and tribal literatures, while English and French produce world and global literature. There are only languages and literatures.

Pan African Space Station Lands in New York City

Last November Chimurenga installed the Pan African Space Station at Performa 15 in New York, which was described as a “multi-tiered programming platform that takes the form of a library-of-people” and featured (amongst others) Brooklyn-based African Record Centre/ Yoruba Book Center; artist and educator Nontsikelelo Mutiti; and poet, choreographer, and Afrosonics archivist Harmony Holiday.

As part of the installation, Africa is a Country curated three panels over the course of the weekend, covering reflections on music and migration, identity and cultural expression in photography; as well as the exchange between African and Caribbean music. All the sessions are available on our Soundcloud.

We (via Alice Obar) also made a short video on the PASS installation, featuring interviews with Chimurenga associate editor Stacy Hardy, artist Nontsikilelo Mutiti, and African Record Center co-owner Roger Francis. Not to mention highlights from the panel discussion, as well as some music by Lamin Fofana, Innov Gnawa, and Tanyaradzwa Tawengwa. Check it out below:

Ghanaian Facebook Proverbs

Surely the American actress Marilyn Monroe never quoted the Akan proverb: “Never laugh at the sloppiness of your mother-in-law’s breast; your wife’s may turn out to be just like that when she grows older”; neither did a young Angela Merkel, long before becoming German Chancellor, ever retort that “Fermented sobolo never got anyone drunk” at the 1972 Oktoberfest! But you would be forgiven for even wondering if either attribution were true had you chanced upon Ghanaian social media spaces just over two years ago.

Ghanaian’s on Facebook and other social media platforms post innovative works, misattributing quotes to well-known figures (who are mainly from the geopolitical West) to create humorous collaborations with their Ghanaian readers, questioning the authority of said geopolitical western figures, and challenging their audience to think about what is assumed to be true. This has evolved from a particular context: a significant portion of the population has access to the Internet, and shares a cultural history and present that demand a fine-tuned sense of irony – an irony that mocks popular “western” figures  and the “superior fonts of wisdom” attributed to the West as a whole.

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It all started in November 2013 when the Ghanaian writer, Nana Awere Damoah posted on Facebook: “Never introduce your child to the delights of the tilapia head until he or she is old enough to buy for himself or herself – Abraham Lincoln”. A Ghanaian journalist named Abubakar Ibrahim followed suit, also on Facebook: “having an okro mouth does not mean you will be given banku to go with it – Albert Einstein.”

Both Damoah and Ibrahim posted these quotes for their obvious humour. Their respective Facebook communities, mainly other Ghanaians, responded with comments acknowledging the disjunctions. After all, from a Ghanaian (and probably any other) point of view it is hilarious to imagine a 19th-century American president with no known connection to West Africa extolling the virtues of savoring the head of a tilapia (which is a very Ghanaian thing to do). Equally ridiculous is the notion of Einstein idiomatically connecting an “okro mouth”, which signifies gossip (due to the slimy and slippery nature of okro soup) to banku, a staple food which accompanies okro soup (yum).

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Similar to #WhatWouldMagufuliDo trending across East Africa, these posts spurred a chain reaction that went viral on Ghanaian Facebook and Twitter for several months, as users creatively poked fun at famous figures and criticized issues of national interest. These posts were made up not only of Ghanaian proverbs misattributed to a famous person or fictional quotes misattributed to famous people, but also included common Ghanaian parlance misattributed to famous names and modified quotes from actual authors.

Posts like these were marked by the hashtag #GHCoats, made up of “Ghana” and “Quotes”. (While the “GH” is straightforward, the replacement of “quote” with “coat” is an inside joke for those familiar with Ghanaian phonetics. The play on words also plays with the habits of the bourgeois – who, in Ghana, are associated with formal dressing, including wearing “coats” (quite humorous when you consider the tropical weather inherent to the country – for more satire on this, see the prose of Ayi Kwei Armah in Fragments and the poetry of Kofi Awoonor in “We Have Found a New Land”).

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Ultimately, Damoah compiled the innovative Facebook attributions into a free e-book called My Book of GHCoats. My Book of GHCoats can be called conceptual poetry, which is an avant-garde form of literature that comes into being when a poet compiles different pieces of information from various places into a single piece. Thus, we can think about questions relating to authorship, audience and collaboration, all in the context of their relationship with social media.


Decolonizing the teaching of economics in South Africa

Recently Ihsaan Bassier, a graduate student in economics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa, wrote a thought provoking essay for GroundUp, a local news website, on the need to “decolonize” the teaching of undergraduate economics at that university. Economics in South African universities is currently taught in the manner and methods of the neoclassical school which has been shaped by universities in the West. The neoclassicals emphasise the primacy of markets in resolving questions about production and distribution.

For Bassier, a decolonized curriculum is one that puts the teaching of South Africa’s economic realities (inequality, poverty, unemployment, demographic underrepresentation, racism, etcetera) at the heart of  the curriculum. It matters that we decolonize economics, argues Bassier, because most students don’t go onto graduate studies, “where theories are supposedly interrogated.” As a result, “they will enter policy and business [professions] thinking that intervention always harms the poor, that outsourcing is only ever efficient, and that markets are ultimately fair towards employees.”

Bassier’s critique forms part of a broader conversation on decolonizing university curricula that’s currently taking place on campuses across South Africa (and in the United States and parts of Western Europe).  That debate has now slowly moved to the disciplines, especially the social sciences and the humanities. See here, here and here.

My own experience at UCT agrees with his general observations. I did all my graduate study there (Honours, Masters and PhD) and taught undergraduate economics in that School from 2012 to 2014. What I’ll do here is add a little to Bassier’s arguments (with examples) and respond to some of the criticisms raised by his essay in South Africa.

Let’s look at the way the “Labour Market” is taught to undergraduates at UCT. The importance of this market cannot be overemphasized given the high levels of unemployment and wage disparities in the country. Naturally, students come to class with the expectation that they will understand what they see around them. Unfortunately, the standard material disappoints.

Start with wages. Students want to know why an executive at a financial company earns R80 million (US$5million) per year and why someone on the janitorial staff might earn only R35,000 (US$2,300); that is about 2,000 times more. The standard story is that wages are determined by “marginal productivity”. In other words, people are paid according to how much they “contribute” to the company. So the executive earns 2,000 times because he contributes 2,000 times more.

This story is only partly true because we know that wage disparities are also a result of executive capture of the compensation process. That is, executives are in many ways determining the sort of pay packages that they receive (see the work of Piketty and friends). A decolonized curriculum would also stress this other channel through which income disparities arise.

Now consider minimum wages. We teach students that minimum wages result in unemployment and the only exception, slipped in as a by the way, is the case of monopsony. That is, minimum wages are only beneficial to workers if the labour market is dominated by a single employer. The logic is simple: a single employer will force down wages so that instituting a minimum wage can actually increase earnings and employment. But the South African labour market is to a large extent dominated by monopsonists. UCT is itself a big player in the market for hiring janitorial staff – that’s precisely what the #EndOutSourcing protests on campuses are about. And so too are Labor brokers. Monopsony, therefore, has to feature prominently when teaching labour markets in the South African context.

But let’s get to the commentary on Bassier’s post. Surprisingly, given what’s at stake, there’s been very little of it. Save for a few references on social media, there was this response of Johan Fourie, a lecturer in economics at Stellenbosch University and avid blogger, that deserves some reaction. One of Fourie’s key accusations, without any basis, was that Bassier  wanted to  “remove content.” This is of course a distortion of Bassier’s views. Bassier simply wants the curriculum to reflect South African realities. That distinction is important.

Fourie then claims that graduate studies offer a more decolonized curriculum than undergraduate studies. But this is at odds with my own experience as a graduate student at UCT, where the teaching only serves to entrench the neoclassical school. Just flip through the content of the standard graduate textbooks. And even when, as PhD students, we conduct South African-centered research, the research questions are asked through a neoclassical lens. I too would have been a priest of this school had I not sought alternative views.   

Finally, Fourie suggests that undergraduates take-up economic history electives as a way of introducing local context to their overall learning. I agree with him on the importance of history, but unlike him, I’d want South African historical context to feature prominently in the compulsory undergraduate economics courses. Students shouldn’t have to take an elective to learn about the role played by the egregious hut tax in the rise of South Africa’s mining industry. Students shouldn’t have to take an elective to learn that the high levels of income and wealth inequality in South Africa today are related to large-scale systematic dispossession and discrimination over the course of history.

Ihsaan Bassier has started a really useful and long overdue conversation about the place of economics teaching in the South African academy. It’s time to start thinking about the answers.

It’s good for the future of cinema that Africa exists

It’s only April, but it’s already been a bad year for Hollywood. If you need a reminder: an all-white acting nominee list at The Oscars; a“swag bag” featuring a free trip to Israel; Chris Rock’s tone-deaf stereotypical jokes about Asian Americans; Leonardo DiCaprio wins Best Actor trophy for a role “celebrating the resilience of settler colonialism on land constructed as terra nullius;” and the producers of the new Nina Simone biopic thought it would be good to blacken up lead actress Zoe Saldana. Which reminds of something Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety once said: “It’s good for the future of cinema that Africa exists.” Which is why reviving our #MovieNight feature.  From now on this will be a fortnightly feature. Here’s our movie night to right all the celluloid wrongs.

(1) One of the most interesting short films to come out of South Africa recently is  Jas Boude, a documentary by two University of Cape Town film students that chronicles a day in the life of the 20SK8 collective, a group of skateboarders from the city’s Cape Flats. The film touches on overcoming the continuing violence of apartheid-inherited spacial geographies via some beautiful camerawork and a pumping yet emotive soundtrack by BFake. We thought it was pretty jas.

(2) Nigerian American rapper Tunji Ige just dropped a short documentary called Road to Missed Calls which The Fader has described as “…an incredibly insightful and telling vantage point of an artist who’s at that page turning part of their career, and can go in either direction.” The film starts off with a series of missed call voicemails from the filmmaker and the creative team behind Tunji. While clearly not a great communicator, Tunji is definitely a talented musician, and an artist to watch.

(3) Young eco-conscious filmmakers Sinematella Productions have created a ‘video poem’ shot on location in Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Mozambique, Lesotho and South Africa as an ‘ode to the continent we get to call home.’

(4) Staying with the visual poem theme, London- based fashion photographer Seye Isikalu has created a short film called The Ocean, dealing with “the complexities that sometimes come along with being completely passionate & committed to who or what you love.”

(5) Activist filmmaker Iara Lee, a Brazilian of Korean decent, has made it her life work to seek a more just and peaceful world through the arts.  She started a foundation called ‘The Cultures of Resistance Network ‘ and recently made a film on “Africa’s last colony” – the Western Sahara. The film focuses on a group of young Sahrawi activists as they risk torture and disappearance at the hands of the Moroccan authorities, who have been occupying their homeland since the Spanish left four decades ago.

(6) On a sweeter note, South African romantic comedies seem to be really taking off.  Happiness is a Four Letter Word is following the success of Tell Me Sweet Something by delivering thick on the rom with a little sprinkle of com. While it presents an imagined Joburg that is more aspirational than realistic, it’s about time black characters get do more than suffer and endure hardship on screen.

(7) In 2012 a blog post by US-based Zambian author Field Ruwe called ‘You Lazy Intellectual African Scum’ caused a social media storm. The story was essentially about a white ex-International Monetary Fund official scolding the writer on a New Year’s eve flight, blaming Zambia’s intelligentsia for its levels of poverty. While it sparked a rigorous debate on the role of intellectuals in African society, it presented a completely skewed version of what Zambians are actually doing to build their country. It also absolved the west of any wrong doing. The film version of the post, by Kenyan student director Kevin Njue has just been released on Buni.TV. You can stream it here

A non verb

Ask me who are my top five South African MC’s and Proverb sits comfortably unchallenged at the top. Proverb is one of the few rappers, metaphorically speaking, who can spill blood without drawing a weapon (i.e.without being vulgar). And he confesses that this is because he’d like his kids to be able to listen to his music from a young age.,

Proverb’s policy on vulgarity is one the things that sets him apart from his peers, who like him have daughters and sons yet have no qualms about the vulgar content of their material. “Not for my kids” or “My kids will have to wait”, they argue. It is a challenge, one that is rarely taken on by rappers. Equally challenging, though, is for rappers to produce content that is relevant and current. And Proverbs latest album, “The Read Tape”, has me questioning if he has risen to it.

Listening to “The Read Tape” it sounds like Pro is literally out of words. I want to compare him to Kanye West who hasn’t produced or delivered anything we can call music, since “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” But we still listen to him because behind the trash he currently produces is a catalogue that demands attention, or at least acknowledgement.

Proverb, like Kanye, has a catalogue behind him that very few can match, and unless you recall that catalogue, it’s easy to relegate “The Read Tape” to the “just another hip-hop album” bin. Pro has done enough great hip-hop albums – inspirational work, such as “Fourth Wright” – so he doesn’t need to produce “just another” one.

At a time when South Africa is on fire politically, there is sadly zero social commentary on the album. And the word play we know and love Proverb for, is absent or rather childish. There are more freestyles than carefully crafted verses and not a mist of motivation in his rhymes. He sounds like an insecure and tired vet.

Pro solidified his place on the throne South African hip-hop with his back catalogue. “The Read Tape” gives anyone who wants to take a shot, a chance to claim that seat.

The art of Wura-Natasha Ogunji: Beauty, stillness, and connection in Lagos

Splitting her time between Austin, Texas and Lagos, Nigeria, Wura-Natasha Ogunji is part of a movement of first-generation visual artists of the African diaspora who have chosen to relocate their art practice to the home country of their parents. Ogunji’s work consists of mixed media work on paper, performance art and video, and explores homeland, diasporic identity, the role of women in Nigerian society and figures from Yoruba folklore.

In this series, the use of hand sewing to create visual commentary about Nigerian modern society brings to mind the vital role that women have historically played as producers of cultural critique, both inside and outside of the home. Commonly associated withThere's a City Between uswomen’s work and the decorative arts, the inclusion of threadwork in Ogunji’s pieces can easily be seen as resistance to the type of cultural production that has been most valued by the art world and what has been dismissed as craft.

Fascinated by the ways in which people negotiate the city using little to no words and how simple gestures incite actions, Ogunji attempts to capture snippets of all that goes unsaid.  Creating complex, dreamlike scenes on architectural tracing paper, which appears almost cloth-like against the thread, graphite and ink, Ogunji’s drawings are weightless in material and ethereal in theme. The forms in her illustrations seem to have a life of their own,conspicuously attached to diverse sources of energy: Disc jockeys don vibrant Ankara prints, beams of neon blues and oranges radiate from figures, the Ife heads give (or take) energy from plants at the bottom of the sea, and humming generators give life to blossoming flowers. In four panels Sound Man and the Sea (2015) depicts a man who wears headphones manipulating what could be a sound system or turntable just below the surface of thrashing ocean waves, rendered with gestural dark blue and electric green brush strokes.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji “Sound Man and The Sea” (2015)
 Thread, ink, graphite on paper 
4 panels (60 x 24 inches each)

Opposite the figure is an Ife head partially submerged in the water, perhaps keeping a watchful eye. In Generators Flowers Ife (2014), two neon green generators power the growth of four orchids. Attached to electrical cords that double as stems, the flowers hover in front of a seemingly live Ife head that has a flower tucked behind her ear.  The drawing is likely a comment on the ubiquitous presence of generators in Nigeria, which suffers from frequent electrical outages, but also acknowledges the incredible influence generators have on the lives of modern Nigerians and the role they play in sustaining modern culture.

In these works, as in other drawings from the series, the traditional is never far from the modern, and machines are inextricably linked to human, plant and spiritual life. These relationships are hardly antagonistic but sophisticated and graceful in their chaos. Ogunji reveals oft-overlooked aspects of Africa’s most populous city and asks viewers to see Lagos as an afro-futuristic dreamscape, where beauty survives in the contradictions and the possibilities are endless.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji “Generators Flowers Ife” (2014)
 Thread, ink, graphite on paper
 23 x 24 inches

Mixed feelings: reflections on the Ivy League

Princeton CampusPrinceton Campus, image via Flickr.

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi, Claude M. Steele explains how stereotypes can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, subliminally affecting the behaviors and performance of those who are subjected to them. Though we all recognize that profiling exists, we often forget how much it influences our interactions and experiences, and are only reminded of it when drawn out of our element and thrown into an environment that refuses to recognize us. In the United States – a country that prides itself on social mobility and acceptance – anyone who has straddled color and class lines, is reminded that they do not belong. An illusion of diversity and inclusion masks and protects institutionalized inequality and privilege. Real diversity and inclusion cannot exist without dismantling the latter. 

A few weeks ago, I was invited to a dinner at the house of a Princeton alumna, who had graduated ten years before I began my studies there. It was an occasion to discuss equity and diversity issues on campus, given the recent waves of protest at Ivy League institutions, including our alma mater. I typically avoid such events, but, curious, I decided to go, most of all because I did not know why someone like me, who never donated money to the university, never showed interested in alumni affairs and barely maintained a connection to peers or faculty, was invited. 

For many who went to an Ivy League school, this type of social gathering is anything but unusual. As I walked in, a gentleman checked my coat and handed me a glass of wine. I sighed a breath of relief for having gone home before coming and changing into a skirt, cardigan and Italian black flats, rather than wearing the black jeans and worn-out boots I had donned to work that morning. I entered awkwardly, surrounded by people who were at ease mingling and making small talk about their philanthropic organizations while nibbling on hors d’oeurves.

One of the first people who spoke to me was an older gentleman from the class of 1971. Interested in what the letters and numbers on his name tag (P00, P002 P004) meant, I asked him.

“I’m a proud parent of three Princeton alums,” he said, “Class of 2000, 2002, 2004.”

“Oh,” I replied, somewhat startled. Then I realized nearly everyone who was within the age of having adult children had one or more child who attended or graduated from Princeton. This was the status quo. Consider the fact that at most Ivy League schools 10%-15% of those who end up enrolling are the children of former graduates. “Legacies” – children of alumni of a generation or so back – number twice as many. 

During the dinner there was much talk of the status of equity and diversity on campus, and of what the university was doing to address the challenges that less privileged and minority students faced. This was all valiant, but the way it was done was yet another reminder that to be part of this conversation, to be invited to this dinner, indeed to be a Princetonian, one has to conform to a role. These exclusive parties – despite their underlying philanthropic objective – are evidence of it. To partake in this camaraderie, one is constantly thinking about how to speak “intelligently,” remembering which fork is for the salad and which is for the entree, and the need to laugh at the jokes, but not too loudly. In short, how to fit into a social class that has never been open to people like you. According to Steele (and many others) this is where the dissonance occurs. In the world of the Ivy League class and the world that the majority of us come from, there is very little convergence.  

When I left later that evening, I continued to feel unsettled. There was a time, I recalled, when I was an undergraduate, when one of my friends asked me if I wanted to make some extra money.  Though I came from a middle-class, immigrant family my parents supported me in colleague by giving me cash for things like food and leisure. Yet, wanting some financial independence, I took the opportunity. A week later, I found myself at a mansion in Princeton Township, dressed in white. This was where I first learned how to open a bottle of champagne and pour a glass of wine neatly and properly. Now, some 7-8 years later, I was a guest at one of these dinner parties being served wine and dinner by a middle-aged black man. Maybe it was just irony but there was something convoluted and sad about this situation. I did not want to be part of this. I do not want my kids to be part of it either

I spent six years of my adult life at Princeton and in most of the time since then I’ve struggled to reconcile what that meant with the person I am. My feelings about the school are mixed. The education I received has undoubtedly opened many doors for me. At the same time it has made me extremely conscious of the fundamental elitism ingrained in an Ivy League education and transmitted from generation to generation. At least now we are beginning to have conversations about this ugly truth. I question, however, if it is truly possible to change and make more inclusive an institution that, at its core, is meant to buttress the modern American bourgeoisie and all its privilege. I hope to be proven wrong.

The economic crises in Angola

There’s a lot going on in Angola. Western media have extensively covered the trial and detention of the so-called book club (really a civic activists study group on protest) and the imprisonment of Cabinda activist Marcos Mavungo to the exclusion of other questions. The 15+2 activists, how the book club is known, and Mavungo highlighted economic mismanagement and corruption in their critiques of the government. Meanwhile, a related crisis, the government’s navigation of the ongoing economic crisis (the price of oil plummeted with no prospect of resurgence any time soon), has received less attention outside of the business press.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines economic rights – like the right to an adequate standard of living and to work. Yet most human rights organizations (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etcetera) opt for the more idealistic political rights – freedom of political expression, freedom of association and assembly. It may be why we don´t hear much in the international press about the economic crisis that squeezes daily life for ordinary Angolans more than politics.

Three other events since the beginning of 2016, equally as important as political human rights issues, are also shaping the political scene and refracting the economic crisis.

The first is the passing, on February 27th, of Lúcio Lara, an historic leader of the ruling MPLA during the armed struggle and first decade of independence. Lara was considered the successor to first president, Agostino Neto, but stepped aside so current president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, could become leader in 1979 . Lara, who clashed with profligate MPLA leaders, effectively retired from politics when the MPLA made the transition from Marxism to neoliberalism in the late 1980s.

Eulogies proliferated. Many read these as critiques of the current regime.

The political scientist and long time Angola observer, Gerald Bender, remembered Lara on his Facebook page. He  noted that Lara was known as “o duro” (a hardliner to Washington, hard to keep in line to Moscow, hardcore in terms of his discipline within the MPLA). Mostly, Bender opined, he was a strong nationalist.

Reginaldo Silva pointed to the ongoing racial issues in the MPLA that caused Lara to step away from leadership (and propelled dos Santos to the front), when he, Lara, was an obvious successor to Neto. He also recalled his role in the repression and the political narrowing that followed the 27 de Maio. Both questions inflect current political and social life. If, as according to Silva, absence defined Lara´s political life in the last 30 years, a great part of Lara’s legacy is his archive – a form of historical presence – kept by the Associação Tchiweka (Lara’s nom de guerre).

Sergio Piçarra’s daily comic in Rede Angola best captured popular discourse. That is, the contrast between the old and the new MPLA (doctrinaire Marxism-Leninism versus a capital friendly oligarch building politics) that so many articulated in their eulogies; or, Lara’s singular discipline and uprightness compared to the blurred lines of politics and economic interests, the lack of ethics, and not so up-standing behavior of today’s leadership.

This brings us to the second event of consequence: President Dos Santos´s announcement on March 11 that he will step down in 2018. Angolan writer José Eduardo Agualusa summed up the contradictions in this move in an interview with Cape Verdean radio Morabeza:

We have elections in 2017. What does this mean? If there are indeed elections, he doesn’t know if he will win or lose, so how can he say he’ll leave in 2018? …..On the other hand, if he wins, he will leave just after he’s won? That also doesn’t make any sense because it lets down those who voted for him.

The announcement has renewed the debate about succession. Given that the assumption is that the MPLA will win, who will be Vice President? The current VP, Manuel Vicente (former head of Sonangol) is in hot water, his face splashed across the international media for bribing a Portuguese prosecutor investigating a corruption case against him. The other much chatted option is José Filomeno dos Santos, Zenu, one of president’s sons and the head of Angola’s Sovereign Wealth Fund.

There’s not much news coming from from the Sovereign Fund, of late, as the price of oil is less than half of what it was when the Fund was formed to help leverage oil wealth to diversify the economy and stabilize Angola’s future.

Finally, there’s the horrendous condition of state hospitals in Angola – the main news story in Angola last week. A petition from Central Angola suggested the state take monies from the Sovereign Fund to help remedy the situation.

In the meantime, hundreds, if not thousands, of Angolans have made donations of medical supplies, purchased in local pharmacies at (anecdotally) reasonable prices (something for example that is NOT the case with food these days) to stanch the hemorrhaging. Angola is hit with an epidemic of yellow fever and a spike in malaria cases. Already chronically under-funded, under-staffed, and under-resourced neighborhood hospitals are sending more patients to the central city hospitals. One friend who dropped a donation at the David Bernadino pediatric hospital said it “smelled like death.”  

A new minister of health, Dr. Luis Sambo (former WHO Regional Director for Africa), widely praised, has been welcomed with this disaster. $4 million went missing from the Global Fund via the Health Ministry. In the 2016 national annual budget, defense received as much as education and health combined, suggesting that this problem, while not intractable, will not be easy or quick to resolve.

The 15+2 await their judgement today, but most Angolans, unlike the Western media and observers, won’t notice: They are worrying about where to find sugar, how much cassava flour costs, and how to afford and find the medical supplies required for treatment in delapidated health facilities. It’s safe to say that the MPLA has not delivered on any part of its 2012 campaign slogan “grow more to distribute better.”

It’s the economy, No. 6

 World Bank)World Bank President Jim Yong Kim (right) embraces African Bank President Donald Kaberuka (Photo Credit: World Bank)

This week we start off by shining some light on the World Bank.

(1) The World Bank effectively has a monopoly in the market for measuring poverty. Almost everyone has heard of the Bank’s “a dollar a day” measure. It’s famous. It’s thrown around at poverty conferences, poverty strategy sessions, in the business class section of flights to Davos, coffee shops, academic seminars at hip universities, et cetera. It seems that everybody (but the poor) knows about it. And the idea seems simple enough: Figure out the absolute minimum amount of money one needs to live meaningfully. Anyone with a daily expenditure below this minimum is then considered poor.

The World Bank first estimated poverty using this approach in 1990. And back then, this minimum was thought to be $1 per day. Since then, it has been adjusted upwards to reflect changes in the cost of living in countries across the globe. It’s currently at $1.90 per day.

(2) Behind this simple number is a battalion of assumptions. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with making assumptions because social reality is complex. But it turns out that the assumptions the World Bank makes in arriving at its poverty measure are quite “strong.” In other words, using a different set of assumptions result in different poverty estimates to the extent that the Bank’s approach is “incoherent and meaningless.” That’s the charge levelled by Professor Sanjay Reddy, one of our favorite economists based at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Reddy makes this argument in a paper published last week with Rahul Lahoti (the version that’s not behind a paywall is here. We didn’t tell you). The paper’s main conclusions are discussed in this blog post and was also covered by The Economist.  

(3) While the World Bank’s measure implies that the number of poor people has declined across the globe between 1990 and today, Sanjay Reddy’s work suggests otherwise. And this matters a great deal because many policies are considered “pro-poor” precisely because they reduce poverty as per the World Bank’s measure.

(4) Still on this topic, a new World Bank report titled Poverty In A Rising Africa finds that

poverty in Africa may be lower than current estimates suggest and [there hasn’t been a] systematic increase in inequality.

Hmmm, we wonder what Professor Reddy has to say about this.    

(5) Still some more on the World Bank: The human rights advocacy group, the Oakland Institute, has released a report alleging the Bank has resumed lending money to Ethiopia towards a controversial project linked to land evictions. The report is summarized and discussed here.     

(6) Some more on poverty: March 21 marked the first anniversary of Namibia’s third president since independence, Hage Geingob. Upon assuming office,Geingob launched a “War on Poverty” which came complete with a Poverty Eradication Ministry. The stocktaking looks disappointing, one year hence.     

(7) Things are looking up for Zimbabwe (or are they?). The country might later this year access IMF funding for the first time since 1999. True to form, the IMF has asked (or is it ordered?) the country to implement a series of “policy reforms” including a cut to public sector wages.

We wonder how wise this move is considering that Zimbabwe is still recovering, and perhaps hasn’t fully recovered, from a skills exodus of epic proportions. You probably want to attract and maintain skills as you rebuild the state’s capacity not scare them away. But who are we to say anything about this? The IMF are the experts here. They know best. Right?

(8) Although not explicitly mentioned in the IMF’s press statement, there’s been news (here, here and here) suggesting that part of the conditions led down by the IMF was for Zimbabwe to begin compensating farmers who lost land during the controversial land redistribution program.

Is this a policy reform? And is it borrowing from Bridget to pay Mary? We are curious to hear the opinions of Zimbabweans on this matter.

(9) The economist William Easterly this past week shared the image below and tweeted: “Let’s be clear that U.S. Foreign Aid is not about development, it’s about U.S. national security”.   


(10) Finally, in Russia, a homegrown credit ratings agency has been launched to rate Russian debt. This follows the exit of Moody’s, the impending exit of Fitch as well as Standard and Poors’ uncertain future in that country.

Ain’t nothing wrong with this, right? After all, some other big power in the world already has its own rating agencies rating its debt. Heck, we all should have our own rating agencies. We at Africa Is A Country have thus decided to rate our bonds Super-duper Grade. The best. Guaranteed to get your money back.  

“I go chop money nah”: the perversion of class consciousness in Nigeria.

In a country where the police and justice system are largely perceived as corrupt and ineffective, many Nigerians have resorted to vigilantism and jungle justice to balance the scales. But as expected, in the court of public opinion where sentimentality and frustration run high, the quest for justice can become perverted, if not overtly partial.

Take road accidents for instance. Motorists have been eternally typecast as villains. It doesn’t matter whether the pedestrian was jay-walking or the bicyclist was riding blindfolded, the fault will be laid at the feet of the car owner – the oppressor of the lowly and the enemy of progress.

I remember a story narrated by Peter, a taxi driver whose brother was involved in a road accident in their village that claimed the life of a motorcyclist and his passenger. According to Peter, the motorcycle failed to stop at an intersection linking the minor road to the expressway, and rode smack into his brother’s car. Such accidents are rife in cities across Nigeria, contributing to the banishment of okadas (commercial motorcycles) to city margins and their subsequent replacement with slower motorised rickshaws.

A fatal road accident is every Nigerian motorists’ nightmare as mobs have been known to brutalise and immolate drivers (and sometimes passengers) in their vehicle before questions are asked. It’s for this reason that some motorists hit and run. Others like Peter’s brother, quickly seek sanctuary in a nearby a police station, where they will inevitably have to bail themselves and the car out after settling burial expenses with the victim’s community. No easy feat for most in a country were funerals are unnecessarily expensive, and as such an avenue for surviving family members to demand excessive sums in compensation. Never mind that their dead would most likely never have earned that figure over their entire lifespan.

Now when accidents involve two automobiles, the driver of the sleeker car gets less sympathy, notwithstanding who was at fault, a scene I witnessed at a junction. Neither the screaming red brake lights nor the traffic warden’s white-gloved palm up could stop the rickety truck from ramming into the bumper of the SUV. As expected, an argument ensued, the usual crowd of nothing-doers flocked around the vehicles to proffer unsolicited opinions, and then the police arrived.

In the final analysis, three options emerged. The crowd reasoned the SUV driver should pay for damages on both cars on the account that he could afford to. The police suggested the drivers park their vehicles in the police station until the matter was resolved. Parking was a means of extorting money from both parties, since, as an unwritten rule, cars were charged each day they remained at the station. The third was for the SUV driver to swallow the bitter fact he’d have to cough up the money to fix his car, since car insurance policies are a rarity in Nigeria and a court case could languish in the legal system for years.

Selective justice, where the poor are painted as innocent victims or saints by the largely impoverished population, is nothing more than a case of good old classism. Granted, the poor are immensely impacted by corruption and whatever ills the Nigerian society can dish out, but lest we forget they’re also active participants in perpetuating their circumstances. Corrupt politicians, who win elections by handing out bags of rice and phone recharge cards in exchange for votes, would be a thing of the past if the poor eschewed instant gratification for competent candidates.

The lower class, which makes up more than half the population, isn’t helpless. They can, as posited in George Orwell’s 1984, upend the entire socio-political and economic structure to birth a more equal and humane society if they’re inclined. Still, I’m afraid that this theory may not apply to Nigeria. Ask a random person from the lower class what they would do if given the reins of the country, and their answer – accompanied by a sly smirk – will most likely be: “Ah, I go chop money nah.” An answer no different than one coming from a middle or upper class person.

A convenient example of a person from the lower class who made it to the top is Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan, who claims to have walked to school without shoes as a child. Yet despite his humble beginnings, his presidency was characterized by poor governance and gross mismanagement of Nigeria’s treasury.

In the same vein, Niger-Delta militants, who took up arms to protest pervasive poverty and the continuous degradation of their land and water by oil spills, quickly forgot their struggle after they were awarded lucrative contracts to guard oil pipelines they once targeted. With their newfound wealth, they built mansions and bought SUVs while their brethren continue to inhale noxious fumes from incessant gas-flaring.

The tendency of the lower class to view car-owning Nigerians as an extension of the ruling class – and, as such, Voodoo dolls on which to vent their frustrations – is neither here nor there. Not if during elections they hire themselves out as goons to politicians and sell their votes to the highest bidder. If they channelled their resentment appropriately and positively, rather than begrudged ordinary Nigerians struggling to make a living, chances are their lot would improve tremendously.

Na Moita–Photographing the Settlements of Rio de Janeiro

Na Moita” is slang in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for an action that cannot be carried out in the open. It literally translates to “in the bush,” and it is normally associated with delinquent activity, but also with anything unusual.

In the Baixada Fluminense – that is, the northern, most populous area of the Greater Metropolitan Area of Rio de Janeiro – life is often times at odds with city planning and other abstract notions, such as laws.

Morar” is a Portuguese verb rich in connotations–it can mean “to reside,” “to abide,” “to live,” “to settle,” and “to occupy,” depending on the context–and it captures essentially the status of the inhabitants, or “moradores,” of these communities: some occupy, some others reside, few abide by the rules, and all live together thanks to interim agreements amongst themselves. For example, such is the case with the drug-dealing gangs that fuel the relentless confrontations with police, which have ended in blockades made of unused furniture.     

Along with some students and staff from The New School in New York, I visited the Parque das Missões and Vila Beira Mar, two of the most prominent examples of slum habitation in Rio, according to local NGO Teto (which is known throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America as “Un Techo para mi País,” a Chilean transnational organization that mobilizes young volunteers to fight poverty).

Teto was there to accompany us throughout all the process. By association, people in the communities did not question much the fact that we were taking pictures, since the organization would always send media teams to document their housing intervention projects.

The living conditions were dire, electricity would disappear every time it rained, and the clogged drainage would cause major floods, not to mention serious sanitation issues. However forsaken the community seemed to our group, each individual that we spoke to was perfectly content with their community and the strong ties that bind it together: It was a settlement (or “assentamento,” which, in its etymology, signals to an agreement) that they all had created in the face of pressing difficulties. Needless to say, most assentamentos do not have a housing permit from the local prefecture.

Perhaps more importantly, community members also spoke of how dependent they were of “Bolsa Família.” This social welfare program was perhaps the centerpiece of the Lula administration, also part of the larger Fome Zero federal assistance program. It reduced poverty by 27.7% from 2006 to 2011, and is often described as the most impactful program of its kind in the world. It is now under threat by the large scale protests and court challenges against the Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) government.

Without Bolsa Família, the lives of the people of these neighborhoods would dire, and they would maybe be confronted with other decisions to be taken “na moita.”

These photographs, below, taken with a manual focus analog compact camera in black and white celluloid (a lot of focus hunting went on), are themselves as makeshift as the structures and situations that they intend to document; they portray the precarious material conditions and the way inhabitants bypass implicit or explicit norms to adjust to the ever shifting social dynamics, urban environments.

















The hunt for (the trial of) Dedan Kimathi

Dedan Kimathi’s face is inescapable in modern Kenya. Framed by bundles of dreadlocks pulled into two long horns, it appears on t-shirts, in larger-than-life murals aside Nairobi buildings, and in graffiti art on the sides of matatu buses. His image has long stood in, symbolically, for all the heroic ideals and lost hopes of an era of revolutionary decolonization.

The full photograph presents a much different picture: Kimathi, handcuffed, loosely covered in blankets, sitting in the defendant’s chair on trial for his life in November 1956. The “hunt” for Dedan Kimathi, an enigmatic leader of the so-called Mau Mau rebellion that engulfed Kenya in the 1950s – a movement that had many names, many faces, and even more interpretations – captivated global attention in the years leading up to his capture. In 1956, Kimathi pled not guilty to charges of weapons and ammunition possession, which carried the death penalty under the Emergency Regulations instituted in 1952. Hundreds of people gathered outside the courthouse, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary leader. The trial ended in conviction, with Kimathi sentenced to be “hanged by the neck until he is dead.” After the failure of multiple appeals, Kimathi was hanged on 18 February 1957.

EAS Kimathi on trial

It has long been assumed that the record of Kimathi’s trial had been lost, destroyed, or purposefully kept hidden. Many have gone in search of it in archives across multiple continents, with little success. I recently came across a letter from no less than the late J.M. Kariuki, a former Mau Mau detainee and outspoken populist Kenyan politician assassinated in 1975, requesting the file from the High Court in 1971. The request was denied.

Why? The life of any “archive” can be strange and convoluted. The British destroyed and hid records, particularly in relation to their colonial past, as revealed by the recent activism of Mau Mau veterans seeking reparations from the British government. Various governments of postcolonial Kenya have also destroyed or denied access to archives based on their potential impact on contemporary conflicts over land, politics, violence and memory. But colonial trial records have, in general, been available in England and Kenya. The void left where Kimathi’s trial file should be, increased exponentially the popular myths and conspiracy theories that have long surrounded him.

The absence of this file is especially ironic, given Kimathi’s deep belief in the power of words and his dedication to the bureaucratic work of historical documentation. Kimathi excelled in school debating clubs and was known for his oratory flair. In the forests of Central Kenya, he lectured the Mau Mau itungati (troops of young warriors) on the necessity of historical records: each camp kept an accounts log, wrote histories, issued new identity cards, and carefully recorded lists of loyal fighters and traitorous others.

He established the Kenya Parliament in the forest and marked his official decrees with a stamp: “Marshal D. Kimathi.” He was also a prolific letter writer, producing eloquent tracts that compared the struggle in Kenya to those in Indochina and Rhodesia, quoted biblical scripture alongside Kikuyu proverbs, and called on the British to live up to their own moral claims: “Mtoto umleavyo ndivyo akuavyo” (roughly, “As you bring up a child, so will he grow”).  Although the British painted the Mau Mau as atavistic, anti-modern savages who spurned civilization, the state Kimathi built in the forest demonstrates that his Mau Mau was not the rejection of modern governance, but the building of an alternative to the colonial version of it.

Kimathi Mural at PAWA254Kimathi Mural at PAWA254

My search for Kimathi’s trial emerged circuitously, inspired by an earlier discovery of the revealing, but mislabelled, trial file of Elijah Masinde, another anti-colonial, rebel prophet. Tales of ephemeral encounters and partial glimpses of the Kimathi trial led me to a multi-year, multi-continental, and multi-archival search, filled with false starts, fraudulent (or at least poorly transcribed) copies and growing suspicions.

Last year, there was a breakthrough. I followed leads to the British lawyers, Sir Dingle Foot and Ralph Millner, who had taken up Kimathi’s appeal to the Privy Council in London. Millner, often described as a “socialist” or “communist” lawyer, had defended several African trade unionists and liberation leaders against colonial prosecutions. Ralph Millner’s papers, held in the Royal Senate House Library in London, had only recently been catalogued and opened to the public.

And there it was: a complete, certified, original transcript of the trial of Dedan Kimathi, under embossed seal of Her Majesty’s Supreme Court of Kenya. Working with Kenya’s Chief Justice Willy Mutunga and the dedicated staff at the Supreme Court, the file has now made a long anticipated return to Kenya.

The revelations from the trial are too numerous to list here: from the controversial retelling of the capture and shooting of Kimathi by Homeguard Ndirangu s/o Mau to Kimathi’s own testimony, which tells of his painful personal history with epilepsy, internal struggles within the Mau Mau movement and his desire for peace in Kenya. The return of this critical piece of lost history will no doubt shock many, its content unsettling many popular and historical assumptions, and spark much-needed debates on a far broader range of issues than those raised purely from the pages of the trial.

Will Kimathi’s trial papers raise the dead? Probably not. But they do provoke unsettled issues. Like those of land and freedom (or self-mastery) for which the Mau Mau fought and on which many feel independent Kenya has not delivered. Kenyans may ask: land and freedom for whom?

It’s the economy, N°5

First up: (1) Things are not looking up for the “Africa Rising” story and we are only half-way through what was meant to be Africa’s decade. Ghana, just last year, was bailed out by the IMF. Kenya, this past week, announced that the IMF had offered the country a $1.5bn stand-by facility. In Zambia, the IMF concluded a two-week visit painting a very dismal outlook for the country. Zambia will soon need a bailout. In Mozambique, the authorities have had to renegotiate repayment terms on outstanding debts given the country’s lackluster economic performance. It’s also becoming increasingly likely that Nigeria, the continent’s biggest economy, might have to approach the “Fund” for help in plugging its budget shortfall.

(2) Ironically, the Economist, using data from the IMF, declared in 2011 that Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria and Zambia would be among this decade’s star performers.

We don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

(3) As we said last year, Africa needs to industrialize if it’s going to meaningfully rise. That’s the lesson from history. Countries on the continent need to move away from the colonial legacy of depending on primary commodities (cocoa, copper, oil, et cetera).

(4) For a longtime, economists in the South talked at length about how the benefits of trade liberalization were exaggerated. After all, they had seen first-hand the devastation that the lowering of tariffs had wrought on labour markets in their countries. But these were dismissed as nothing other than the protestations of heretics by the powers that be. The case for ever “freer trade” was ironclad. Trade raised all the boats in the sea!

The free trade religion is now looking shaky even in the West. Recent statistical work by the MIT economist David Autor and his colleagues finds that increased trade between the U.S. and China has been utterly devastating for manufacturing jobs in the U.S. And this partly explains the rise of Trumpism.

American economists rule the world. Perhaps the obsession with free trade will now die.

(5) By the way, if you have an hour to spare you can listen to David Autor talk, in a very accessible way, about his work on trade and the disappearance of U.S. manufacturing jobs here. And one of our favourite economists Dani Rodrik had a set of interesting tweets on this very topic last week.

(6) At the blog Stumbling and Mumbling, which we secretly think is an apt description of the econ profession (shhh, don’t tell anyone), was this interesting post about how U.K politics and policymaking is dominated by private school types. Here’s an excerpt:

The problem is that the dominance of the privately-educated leads to one prism dominating political discourse, leading to a damaging lack of cognitive diversity.

We could rewrite this sentence as:

The problem is that the dominance of Western development economists leads to one prism dominating the development discourse on Africa, leading to a damaging lack of cognitive diversity.

(7) Relatedly, David Pilling of the Financial Times recently declared that “the only thing we know about African economies is that we do not know much at all”.

We wonder who the “WE” is in Mr. Pilling’s statement. Perhaps “WE” stands for Western Economists?

(8) Okay, for some good news. According to the Economist, agriculture production across much of Africa (Ethiopia, Mali, Rwanda, Zambia et cetera) is improving quickly. Which is a good thing.

(9) Curiously though, the Economist seems to think this is a result of market reforms started in the early 80s and 90s. Our reading of the evidence, at least for Zambia and Malawi (countries that we are familiar with), actually suggests the reverse. Agriculture production in the two countries was revived as soon as the state reintroduced subsidies (see the scholarly evidence for Malawi and a chart we put together for Zambia).

(10) In Nigeria, the soon-to-be disbanded Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) is looking for its $16bn. Does anyone know where it is?

(11) “It’s easier for North Americans to travel within Africa than Africans themselves”. This is shameful and Africa needs to fix this. The economic benefits of increasing intra-African mobility are potentially large. Ghana’s recent announcement that it would grant visas on arrival to citizens of the African Union is a giant step in the right direction. Other countries need to emulate this; and

(12) Finally, we came across the following sentence while reading Charles Chukwuma Soludo and Thandika Mkandawire’s edited volume African Perspectives on Structural Adjustment:

It is estimated that about 100,000 expatriate technical-assistance staff work in Africa, meddling in every aspect of policy analysis, advise, policy-making, and implementation and gulping up $4billion per year.

Too many cooks spoil the Egusi Soup.

Hillary Clinton, Goldman Sachs and ‘African Development’

Hillary Clinton is still refusing to release the transcripts of three paid speeches she gave in 2013 at Goldman Sachs, “an investment bank notorious for using its ties to public officials to influence policy.” The speeches collectively netted her $675,000.

We came across a video of a speech she gave to Goldman Sachs at the headquarters of the Clinton Global Initiative in September 2014. On this occasion, the investment firm was celebrating its 10,000 Women initiative, an anti-poverty campaign that invests in entrepreneurial women (and entrepreneurial women only) in low-income countries. In the speech, Clinton has some fun at Africa’s expense.

First, some background: The 10,000 Women program argues that women in poor countries are best positioned to fix the global economy, because of their inherently female tendency to reinvest most of their earnings in their families and communities. As poor women are liberated from the yoke of tradition, culture and other patriarchal norms that might stifle their private sector potential, they are free to access credit, grow businesses and solve poverty once and for all. Indeed, Goldman Sachs’ chiefs and allies assure you that overcoming the credit gap will empower women to take up their “rightful role in helping to change the face of the global economy.”

The Clintons have long been entangled with this corporate development agenda, so it wasn’t surprising that Hillary took to the stage at the 2014 event and hailed Goldman Sachs’ work with a boilerplate about “extraordinary commitment.” She declared “the credit gap [one] of the biggest problems we face in the global economy,” but neglected to mention that, on the whole, micro-lending programs have had disappointing results. At times, the results have been tragic. Instead Hillary offered an anecdote about a trip to Africa she made some 20 years ago.

About 6:35 into the video, Clinton begins talking about unnamed African economists she met somewhere (undisclosed) in Africa. To her horror and amusement, the economists were utterly oblivious to the contributions women were making to their communities. Clinton asked them how they calculated women’s work and they told her, “we don’t.” She then lectured them on their apparent sexism.

Yet, as resident AIAC economist, Grieve Chelwa, recently reminded us on this site, “women’s contribution to, for instance, agriculture in most African countries are [actually] relatively well captured in agricultural surveys. And agriculture is not an insignificant part of total output on the continent.” Furthermore, “women’s domestic work is hardly reflected in GDP statistics even in the U.S.”

One of the obvious problems with Clinton’s admiration and approval of Goldman Sachs’ approach, is that it paints, at best, an incomplete picture of how free-market capitalism actually works, and that it promotes the idea that poor women and rich banks, rather than states, are responsible for fixing economic problems.

In reality, as long as US and other multinationals keep sucking billions of dollars out of the continent every year – through tax evasion and trade mispricing practices – the potential for African women entrepreneurs and their respective countries to prosper is limited.

Clinton knows this all too well and so the video exposes not only her cozy connections with Wall Street oligarchs, but also her avowed establishment perspective on global development.

*For more on Hillary’s Africa agenda, see previously on AIAC, and in-depth coverage in other media here, here, here, here and here.

Uganda’s chemical elections

Tear gas – the English term – is frequently overheard in everyday conversation in Kampala. Its chemical formula is a semi-permanent climatic feature in the capital. Residents exchange advice on prevailing winds at taxi stages prior to planning their journeys through town. Customers leave online reviews of local businesses that read: “safe place, [no] tear gas or rioting.” Levels of familiarity are such that a local police womens’ rugby team in the nearby town of Jinja is named “Jinja Police Teargas Rangers,” while the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija, recently cited the government’s decision to import rather than manufacture tear gas as a reason for the poor performance of the Ugandan shilling.

Kizza Besigye, Uganda’s opposition leader, is widely thought to be the most tear-gassed man in Kampala. His multiple arrests and detentions have become quotidian event that inspires rolling of the eyes en masse in the capital (he has been under house arrest since last months elections). In 2011, police officers fired a tear gas canister directly into his car during a protest against the rising cost of food and fuel. Apparently disappointed by its effect, they then expended a can of pepper spray in his face, leaving him temporarily blinded.

Tear gas comes in a variety of chemical formulas designed to irritate the mucous membranes, causing coughing, crying, sneezing, breathing difficulties and severe pain in the eyes. Its deployment dates back to the First World War, when xylyl bromide was used to force disoriented soldiers out of their trenches, exposing them to artillery fire.

The proliferation of tear gas around the world owes much to the work of the US General Amos Fries, who spearheaded the creation of an international gas market after the war. Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Anna Feigenbaum refers to a 1921 article in the trade publication, Gas Age Record, that explains how gas is “admirably suited to the purpose of isolating the individual from the mob spirit,” and is equally effective at dealing with “savages” – a versatility that enamored it to both colonial administrations and law enforcement agencies.

The US remains the largest exporter of tear gas today, due to a sustained alliance between the defense industry, government and the military. Feigenbaum recorded 314 cases of its use around the world in 2013 (not including unreported incidents) – the vast majority of cases being against nonviolent protesters. Uganda came sixth in this global league table and was the most frequent offender in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Ugandan government began to import tear gas from China in 2011, in line with its shifting economic alliances. A large shipment containing “more than a dozen new tear-gas vehicles” arrived last month, one of which fired at market traders present at a pre-election rally.

Edward (33), who works as a produce vendor in Nakasero market, says he has been exposed to tear gas on five occasions, while David (36), a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) driver, reports having witnessed 30 separate incidents while driving around the city.

Kampala’s markets have responded to the repeated gassing of the city centre by electing their own defense committees, responsible for keeping lookout, transporting afflicted persons to safe areas and administering towels soaked in water and lemon juice.

Asked about the origins of tear gas in Kampala, Edward doesn’t hesitate: “Museveni is the big man – he is the one that orders it.”

Agnes Nakasujja (49), a spice vendor, interjects: “We feel bad, because we know what is next; we don’t want to have war.” Unlike Edward and David, she remembers the conflicts that afflicted Kampala in the early 1980s, and is unwilling to risk stability by voting for the opposition.

Perhaps the most pernicious effect of the increased deployment of tear gas and military equipment on the streets in Kampala is in the fear that it invokes in the electorate, providing a reminder of the close relationship between the president, the police and the military. As Museveni begins his fifth term as President of Uganda, the growing “mobs” of politically disaffected people in Kampala are likely to be left rubbing their eyes.

The ‘Big Man’ Syndrome in Africa

Why do so many African leaders overstay their welcome or break electoral rules? In the recent elections in Uganda, 30 year incumbent Yoweri Museveni won a fifth five-year term. Opposition activists are contesting the results. This has raised again that eternal post-independence question. Museveni is seventy-one years old and has governed since he took power in a military coup in 1986; longer than the majority of the country’s population have lived. Some Ugandans console themselves with the fact that the country’s constitution has an age limit for the presidency of 75 years. But as the South African television anchor Imran Garda joked on Twitter: “Yoweri Museveni declared the winner of Uganda’s election. And the one after this. And the one after that one too.”

Museveni is not alone. More recently Rwanda’s Parliament voted to change electoral rules that would mean Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda since 2000, could govern till 2034. A parliamentary commission that traveled around Rwanda eliciting comment on Kagame’s third term plans, strikingly could only find ten people who disagreed with the proposal. Although questionable, Kagame is genuinely popular, but it is unclear why no one else in Rwanda is qualified to lead.

The Republic of Congo (also known as Congo-Brazzaville) just extended the total 32-year rule of Denis Sassou Nguesso via a referendum marred by irregularities. Elsewhere popular unrest and resistance have followed incumbents’ desire to illegally extend their tenures, as witnessed recently in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

One ready-made explanation usually trotted out to explain this behavior, is that of the so-called “big man” syndrome, which sources it to African “culture.” However, this disease is rather a product of recent African history. Colonial administrators utilized African traditional structures for “indirect rule,” but deformed them by promoting the power of the chief or the traditional leader at the expense of the precolonial checks and balances mechanisms. Post-independence African presidents have just perfected these systems.

So how do these African leaders retain political power?

The short answer is: Because they can. Electoral systems operate at the discretion of the President. In practice, the President make the rules, breaks them and changes when he wants to (yes, it is normally a he). Museveni, for example, effectively controls the electoral commission and the coercive apparatus of the state: Who controls the count, wins the election and in the lead-up, the police and the army harass and intimidate the opposition, while the president campaigns uninterrupted.

Furthermore, equating popular will with the president’s person is key. The President is always patriotic, and it is only the President who is willing and able to do what is needed. Paul Kagame’s defense was that it was not that he wanted to extend his rule: “It’s the people, you see, they want me to stay on.” And the President always needs more time to fulfill his agenda.

Museveni needs five more years to do something he could not accomplish in the previous thirty.

Furthermore, the Presidency is a family business and there is no future or monetary gain outside politics. Accumulating wealth and business opportunities are tied to controlling the state. So, is the economic fortunes of your allies, party officials and, crucially, the President’s family. Once you are out of office, you lose your ability to steer contracts or get a cut from profits. After tenure, the then former President—or, even more so, his allies—also risk prosecution either for embezzlement or human rights abuses.

Also key is the role of outside forces. The African Union (AU) rarely sanctions leaders who break electoral laws. It is striking that the current AU chairperson (a rotating one-year symbolic post among African presidents) is Idriss Deby of Chad (in power since 1990), that his predecessor was Robert Mugabe (in power in Zimbabwe since 1980) and before that Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup in Mauritania in 2005, filled the seat.

Don’t expect the African Union to expel or sanction Museveni. Four hours after Museveni’s victory, neighboring Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta posted on Facebook: “The people of Uganda have spoken, and they have spoken very clearly.” The rest, even those elected in open, free elections–like Jacob Zuma of South Africa–fell in line.

As for the United States and the European Union, criticism of electoral processes sounds hollow if you keep investing in extractive industries that fund illegitimate rules of Presidents of resource rich countries (as in Angola) or let “War on Terror” considerations (in Uganda, for example), trump democracy. Although the fall in the oil price has dramatically reduced the Angolan state’s income, the revenues from oil still accounts for close to half of the state budget. Which is the source of President Eduardo dos Santos and his family’s personal wealth. There is a joke about Angola: “Who is the public in Angola?” “The President.” “Where does all the money go?” “To the public.”

Just as outside forces do, the political class and the military and police guarantee the president’s rule. But they can also precipitate the president’s downfall. In the DRC, Joseph Kabila is frustrated by members of the political class who are deadlocked over whether to legitimize his illegal efforts to prolong his rule. Even more dramatic were recent events in Burkina Faso and Senegal. There the police and army were used to harass the opposition, yet proved crucial to ending impunity. In 2012 when Senegalese President, Abdoulaye Wade, was outvoted two to one by his opponent Macky Sall, he considered declaring himself winner up until the point when emissaries from the security forces—mindful of the popular opposition against Wade—came to warn him that he would not have their support and that they would respect the election result.

In this context, it is significant that Senegal’s current president, Macky Sall, recently announced a referendum to reduce his mandate by two years. “Have you ever seen presidents reduce their mandate?,” Sall is reported as saying. “Well I’m going to do it. We have to understand, in Africa too, that we are able to offer an example, and that power is not an end in itself.” The actual truth, as Sall (who is facing criticism with the slow pace of change in Senegal) himself when he was running for office told Yen a Marre, the Senegalese youth movement that played a key role in Wade’s exit, was that he, Sall, didn’t want to face the kind of revolt Wade faced.

Africa is a Country’s Pan-African Space Station transmission archived

Last November, Africa is a Country teamed up with Chimurenga’s Pan African Space Station library-of-people installation at the Performa 15 Hub in New York City. We were able to curate three panels over the course of a weekend, hosted by: academic and writer (and non-academic soca specialist) Rishi Nath; immigrant rights activist Thanu Yakupitiyage, otherwise known as DJ Ushka of Brooklyn’s Dutty Artz collective; and AIAC photography editor Zachary Rosen.

We wanted to make sure to archive the conversations, so you could listen if you missed them when they went live. So here are the embeds via our Soundcloud for you to enjoy again and again!

Block The Road: The Sound of Afrosoca

An exploration of the recent explosion of cross-Atlantic exchange between Caribbean and African musicians, with Rum N’ Lime Radio co-hosts – Queens-based writer and academic Rishi Nath, and DJ, producer, and Trinidadian Soca ambassador DLife.

Adrift: A soundtrack for migration

A current and former member of the Brooklyn DJ collective Dutty ArtzDJ Ushka (Thanu Yakupitiyage) and Lamin Fofana, talk about Fofana’s recent EP as a jump-off point to discuss migration — from what the Western media has dubbed a European “migrant crisis” stemming from Africa and Syria — to other examples of being “adrift.” The two draw on their personal experiences as immigrants to the U.S from Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone respectively to discuss how they’ve incorporated heavy themes of (im)migration into their work as musicians and activists. What turned into a two-hour podcast, features both Ushka and Lamin’s musical selections as a soundtrack to being adrift – both physically and geopolitically.

Seeing voices: Reflections on African photographic portraiture

Zachary Rosen moderates a discussion with Delphine Fawundu, a Brooklyn-based photographer. In her work she focuses on identities through cultural expression; incorporating themes of social justice, music and history.

All you need to know about Uganda’s 2016 elections (and aftermath)

President Yoweri Museveni came to power after a civil war in 1986 and some Ugandans had hopes this election would be different. Initially the signs weren’t good. The police regularly harassed opposition supporters. In January, Museveni refused to participate in the country’s first pre-election television debate (on domestic policy) between presidential candidates, because “such events were for schoolchildren.” Then in early February he changed his mind and took part in a second debate on foreign policy. The debate was a tepid affair, but raised hopes about a more competitive, open contest. Those hopes were soon dashed. The leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was arrested a days before voting day, stopping him from addressing yet another packed rally at Makerere University.

Image via TwitterImage via Twitter

Then on Election Day, the Electoral Commission (EC) did not deliver materials to polling stations where the opposition was predicted to dominate. The police and military (who can’t be separated anymore) arrested Besigye again. Since then, Besigye has been under non-stop detention, sometimes driven from his home to police cells, and returned to spend nights at home.

The EC declared Museveni the winner with 60%, omitting results from opposition strongholds in the tally. Meanwhile, the military had occupied Kampala and its environs and to date does not show any signs of a withdrawal plan.

When Museveni was announced winner of the election, no crowds hit the streets to celebrate. The air of tension refused to dissipate even when social media, which had been blocked has been reinstated.

The reactions of other African leaders were crucial. Kenya became the first country to send congratulations to the chagrin of many Kenyans and Ugandans. Burundi, North Korea and Russia followed.

The United States in a statement criticised the poll and mentioned that Uganda deserved better. The opposition called the election a sham and asked the youths to take to the streets to protest. Former Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo, on behalf of the Commonwealth Observer Mission called for dialogue, to resolve the impasse. Botswana criticised the poll and called for a peaceful resolution of disputes.

Image via TwitterImage via Twitter

Commentary has been flowing since the election. Here’s what I’d recommend you’d read:

In an article written for, Clair MacDougall focuses on the disconnect between the words coming off the US government’s lips condemning the election while the same country continues to line the pockets of Uganda’s military. The Ugandan American Editor of Black Star News, Milton Allimadi, in an open letter to the US President detailed the extent to which the Obama administration has gone to entrench the Museveni dictatorship.

Jamie Hitchen, a researcher at the Africa Research Institute, has a good take on the Electoral Commission’s institutional credibility. He also gives an overview of the numbers. Even better is Development Seed.Their report maps the rigging and ballot stuffing trends.

The journalist and filmmaker Kalundi Serumaga compares the 2016 election to the 1980 election that was so heavily disputed, Mr. Museveni, a candidate who came a distant third took up guns and headed for the tall grass, where he spent five years killing, till he overthrew the ‘elected’ government.

Senior journalist Daniel Kalinaki explains the difference between winning the hearts of the people, and actually taking power in an op-ed column for Uganda’s Daily Monitor.

General David Sejusa, who is in jail over engaging himself in political activities while still a serving soldier writes from his prison cell and provides an insightful analysis of the generational tension in the country’s political space.

Ugandans in the diaspora are also responding to the crisis through protests. Those in Canada were the first. And Boston followed.

Museveni via ReutersMuseveni via Reuters

As for popular culture, the singer Matthias Walukagga has released a song, “Referee” criticising the Electoral Commission (dominated by Museveni loyalists). When musician Bobi Wine released a pre-election song calling for peace, titled “Ddembe,” (peace in Luganda), it was rumored to have been banned. After the election, the musician removed the gloves and released “Situka (Rise)” whose lyrics capture the mood of the times.

When leaders become misleaders and mentors become tormentors, when freedom of expression becomes a target for suppression, opposition becomes our position.

Chrisogon Atukwasize’s cartoons depict the tensions that existed during the campaign period and show no signs of disappearing soon. In one cartoon, Museveni’s party secretary general threatens that the ‘state’ shall shoot any youth who dare to protest the election result. In another, he portrays Electoral Democracy as dead in Uganda.

As for social media, The Kampala Express, a Facebook newspaper edited by journalist Timothy Kalyegira has perceptive post-election updates that show a growing trend of violence in the country. The medical anthropologist Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook timeline has some of the most well-written opinion and reportage about the entire electoral season. Often colored with sexual imagery, Dr. Nyanzi’s writing proves that the lines between the personal and the political do not exist in today’s Uganda.

What about books?

As for the rivalry between Besigye and Museveni, according to many a regime propagandist it is personal. Daniel Kalinaki’s 2014 biography of Besigye, who is considered the country’s President-elect by many disgruntled Ugandans, provides an extensive background to the opposition movement against Museveni. The book can be ordered via Amazon.

Four years before Kalinaki’s book, Olive Kobusingye, a blood relation of Besigye’s published The Correct Line?: Uganda under Yoweri Museveni, which juxtaposes Museveni’s 1980s and 1990s statements about democracy with his deeds in power following Besigye’s first public confrontation of the system in 1999.

Museveni, as usual, gets the last word. It is important for one to read from Museveni’s own pen to put the Besigye (or opposition) perspective in the right context. Sowing The Mustard Seed: The Struggle for Freedom and Democracy in Uganda gives a glimpse into how the man who has ruled Uganda longest, the country’s only living leader (all past leaders are dead) viewed his own contribution to ‘liberating’ Uganda before he took to the bush to fight a five year war, during the war and after he won it and became president.

Finally, we would recommend these people on Twitter: @amgodiva (lawyer-activist), @Natabaalo (journalist), @cathkemi (journalist), @enamara (twitter personality), @bkabumba (lawyer – academic), @asiimwe4justice (lawyer – activist), @RosebellK (blogger), @tomddumba (political strategist), @IsaacImaka (journalist) and @FrankWALUSIMBI (journalist).

It’s the economy, N°4

Yes, this is a weekly series. Barclays Bank dominates this week’s missive. Oh, what is 16 plus 6? Don’t tell us yet. Hold that till the end.

(1) This past week, the British bank Barclays announced plans to exit the African market after a formal presence of about a 100 years. The bank currently employs about 40,000 people across the continent.

(2) The initial reaction for many was to think that Barclays was passing a vote of no confidence on the continent’s future. But closer inspection reveals that the African business is being sacrificed (surprise, surprise) to save the mothership. Barclays needs extra capital and some of that will come from selling its Africa business. “It’s not an Africa problem; rather it’s a Barclays problem”.

(3) One cannot even begin to imagine how many of the 40,000 workers feel right now. They’ve worked hard for the bank. Delivered impressive results. And now the future seems uncertain. What will happen next? Will the bank be broken up into smaller bits? Will someone buy the business as a whole? Will the new owners maintain current levels of employment or maintain employee benefits? So much uncertainty.

Africa, foreign capital is not your long-term friend.

(4) Bob Diamond is in talks to buy parts of Barclays’ Africa business. Who is Bob Diamond, we hear you ask? Well, he was in-charge of Barclays during the time that the Libor manipulation scandal was unearthed (Libor is a crucial interest rate that ultimately determines interest rates on mortgages, credit card debt and so on). As a result, he was forced to resign his position as Barclays CEO in July of 2012.

Diamond has been busy buying up banks in Africa since leaving Barclays. Ah, capitalism. Heads I win, tails you lose.  

(5) In Zambia, the Ministry of Finance confirmed that a team from the IMF will be visiting the country this coming week to discuss, among other things, the possibility of an IMF Program. “IMF Program” is IMF lingo for a bailout package with strings attached.

Zambia has in the recent past borrowed heavily on international debt markets and is now experiencing the beginnings of what appears to be a sovereign debt crisis.

(6) Buoyed by high commodity prices and plain-old irrational exuberance, many African countries (like Ghana and Zambia) borrowed on international debt markets beginning in the last decade. Commodity prices are now falling making it difficult for countries to service their debt.  Some analysts think that debt traps typical of the 1980s and 1990s might be on the horizon. Back to the future, anyone?

(7) Still sticking with the issue of international debt: there is growing debate about corrupt practices associated with either the contraction of debt (see the case of Standard Bank in Tanzania) or with how the proceeds of debt are spent (for example in Kenya and Zambia).  

(8) Some more on debt: Carlos Lopes, the head of the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in Addis, had an insightful op-ed in the Daily Maverick this past week. In the piece, Mr. Lopes tackles some of the myths surrounding Africa’s past indebtedness. For instance, Cold War geopolitics were just as responsible for the debt build up as were domestic factors. Lopes concludes the piece by suggesting ways of managing current levels of debt stress on the continent.

(9) We were shocked to learn this week that only 60% of “economics studies published in the field’s most reputable journals are replicable”. And it appears that authors are exaggerating, by quite a bit, the magnitudes of their results. (And yes, the replication exercise only looked at 18 studies from laboratory experiments published in two journals. Even then, we still think this is cause to worry).  

(10) Happily, the movement to reform how economics is taught in Western universities seems to be gaining ground. We would also like to see a similar movement to reform how economics is taught to students in many parts of Africa. The discipline is currently taught through a Western lens and hardly reflects nor sufficiently exposes students to African development realities. The dominant textbooks are chockfull of examples on the market for lattes and cappuccinos. As an undergraduate economics major at the University of Zambia, our resident economist had no clue what a latte or cappuccino was. But he sure as hell knew what the market for munkoyo looked like.  

(11) Finally, should we be worried that Nigeria’s Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, cannot correctly add N6 billion to N16 billion?