Africa is a Country

Digital Archive No. 16 — Nigerian Nostalgia

Nigeria has gotten a lot of attention on this platform in the past few weeks, with the publication of a new e-book the week prior to the election of Muhammadu Buhari over Goodluck Jonathan. I have been wanting to cover the Nigerian Nostalgia Project since Sean brought it to my attention a couple of months ago, but I was waiting for the right time. This time of change and possibilities in Nigeria seems like the right time to look at a project that aims to preserve Nigerian pasts while also facilitating the development of national pride amongst members of the global Nigerian diaspora.

Nigerian Nostalgia has been featured on Africa Is a Country previously, but the project has expanded and evolved since that 2011 post. This hybrid crowdsourced digital archive and social media project originally launched on Facebook as part of an effort to use social media as as “place for the estimated 6 million Nigerian users online to gather and piece together, through commentary and discussion, the fragmented history of our collective recent past.” This emphasis on the psychological potential of this project, according to the Tumblr site, was meant to “reconnect the Nigerian psyche to pre-existent, indigenous and proper thought giving base to national pride and a foundation for a sustainable future.” This emphasis on reconnecting Nigerians to their past is linked to the founder, Etim Eyo, being called unpatriotic by a friend. Based on this, Eyo said that he “wanted to find inside myself what would I be celebrating? And I realized that we have to celebrate the values, history and the things that identify us.” That is the impetus driving the community-building activities associated with this project. Olayemi, the founder and administrator of the Tumblr site, similarly found this project to be an outlet to reconnect to her personal history, as well as challenging popular misconceptions of Africa.

For me, the purpose of this blog is simply to learn more about my history. Collectively, there is constant negativity that surrounds Nigeria and Africa as a whole, so the objective of this blog is to show Nigeria’s true beauty and richness in culture both in the past and at this very moment. And who doesn’t like to see old pictures of their beloved country? Haha.

As Olayemi’s comments indicate, the main focus of this project, whether on Tumblr, Facebook or Instagram, is on photographs as a means to preserve the past, in addition to inspiring nostalgia among Nigerians, wherever they may be located. The Facebook group (which requires membership) is host to a whole range of content, from advertisements in magazines to profiles of athletes to family photos.  The Tumblr offers photographs, gifs, and videos that span the Nigerian past from the nineteenth century to the present.  Between the two different platforms, users can explore a wide expanse of Nigerian realities, inspiring critical thought and nostalgic reflection.  You can see a selection of photos pulled from Tumblr below.

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Over the years, the project has jumped from social media to the art scene, being featured in art exhibitions in LagosPhoto 2012 and a “Native Nostalgia” exhibit in Johannesburg in 2013-2014. The Lagos event, in particular, marked the first time that the project left the confines of social media, with the “intimately scaled prints cover the walls of the exhibition venue to form an encapsulating mural.”  Curator of LagosPhoto, Joseph Gergel, found that although there was doubt about the transition of the project into a gallery space and the ability to maintain the connectivity that marks the project online, but, he found, “it did: visitors conversed in person and exchanged their own memories of…cultural events.”  The analog presentations of the fruits of this digital projects shows just how far an endeavor of this kind can go in forging community outside of physical boundaries.

A shot of the Nigerian Nostalgia installation at LagosPhoto 2012.

A shot of the Nigerian Nostalgia installation at LagosPhoto 2012.

Contribute to Nigerian Nostalgia through Facebook. You can also submit photos through the Tumblr site.  You can also follow Nigerian Nostalgia on Twitter and Instagram.  As always, feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

Ryan Gosling’s Film ‘White Shadow’ is an Unflinching Take on Albino Killings in Tanzania

White Shadow, a new feature film directed by Noaz Deshe and executive produced by Ryan Gosling, tackles the persecution and killing of albinos, and the underground trade of their body parts for traditional medicine. This has long haunted Tanzania, a country that ironically has one of the highest percentages of albinism in the world. The film tells the story of Alias, a Tanzanian albino adolescent who after witnessing the brutal hacking of his albino father for traditional medicine, is sent by his mother to the city where she hopes a safer life awaits him.

Alias’ mother leaves him in the care of her brother, a man the boy has never met. He befriends his cousin, the streetwise but alluring Antoinette, who playfully taunts him as he learns to adapt to city life. Alias’ tense experience of Dar es Salaam, the port of peace, is brilliantly captured. As he wanders through a backdrop of picturesque scenes typical of the placid charm of the city, the viewer carries the incessant anxiety, distrust and fear that plague him. Many commentators found that the middle section of the movie dragged on for too long, but I found this to be effective in conveying the extended apprehension of waiting to be hunted down. Deshe spares the viewer no censorship in illustrating the violence of this industry, and the trauma of these jarring, visceral visuals keep one guarded throughout the movie, and in my case beyond.

Only when Alias is with Salum, an albino friend who initially only appears in dreamlike scenarios, do we feel safe. However, as the film’s fragmented sequence aligns, we discover that Salum is definitely real, and suddenly a nightmare lurks in every shot of this double bounty’s escapades.

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White Shadow explores, to varying degrees, themes of traditional medicine, mental health, religion, poverty, urbanization, and dehumanization, highlighting the power of belief systems in driving social reactions to these phenomena. The film leaves one plagued with question after unanswerable question.

White Shadow is immensely difficult to watch. I had to watch the film in two sittings because of the sheer assault on my senses, my nerves, my conscience. My husband abandoned me for the second half and said while the film is beautifully made, he could not confront its inevitable conclusion. I, on the other hand, was captivated by its glorious imagery, its blunt truths, and its protagonist, Alias –particularly his endearing navigation of pubescent life under unimaginably strenuous circumstances. Ultimately, however, my husband was right – the film’s conclusion, whatever it may be, cannot provide respite. Albino killings continue to happen as you read this.

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Deshe’s revelation of Dar es Salaam’s dark side, while not entirely surprising, felt like a stark betrayal to the easy going city I know. Likewise, any inclination to obligingly defend a traditional indigenous practice is absent in this instance. These observations are deeply uncomfortable. Deshe claims that the film cannot judge who the real villains are and to some extent neither can we. For all the shame, devastation and anger one feels, it is a complex tragedy to deconstruct, let alone resolve.

#AfricanLivesMatter, Why Do They Not Mourn Along With Us?

One week ago, one hundred and forty seven/147 young adults met their death at the hands of terrorists in Garissa, Kenya. The number, whether alphabetically or numerically written out, holds no value. It is so arbitrary and trivial, yet it is what most media headlines were fixated on. As the hours went by and the death toll slowed to its final knell, it became even harder to visualize each tallied body as a being unto its own.

When the shock and confusion died down a few days later, fellow Kenyans and I awoke to a deafening silence. Headlines in the West quickly shifted to ‘Terrorist attack raises security questions for Obama’s visit to Kenya.’ On social media my Kenyan friends shared #AfricanLivesMatter and #147notjustanumber, a call to arms to our brothers and sisters around the world, which to our chagrin, was again met by silence. The world had moved on, another bunch of Africans had died — too far away, in a land either too vast or small but either way insignificant, imagined as akin to World Vision commercials and nature documentaries.

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Image credit Capital FM Kenya Twitter

I ask, why do we need the West to care? Will it lessen our sorrow for our slain brothers and sisters? Are we still in the clutches of colonialism where the reaction of our former masters gives us any sort of satisfaction? When will we stop holding onto righteous indignation causing us to always fill the role of a victim?

Don’t get me wrong; it is an injustice to care for one life above another just because of their random geographical placement and apparent shade of their skin. But don’t we Africans have enough of our own to mourn along with? We can ask where the West was, but we can also ask where were the leaders of our very own African Union?

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Image credit Capital FM Kenya Twitter

During the Charlie Hebdo attack, 9/11 or the Boston bombings, I succinctly remembered the lack of gory images of victims – not to say they did not exist. However, the media networks held back these images out of respect for the unique identities of every single one of the dead or injured victims. A dead body is identified by the physical arrangements that make up a bodily visage, but not by their personality, voice or vigour. This is what makes a person; their movements, sounds, thoughts, and energies. Let us continue to remember them this way and not as simply ‘bodies’ to be paraded around our virtual streets.  If you would like to celebrate the lives these individuals have lived, share this link.

If there is one thing almost all university alumni share is the remembrance of that universal feeling of idealism, a hunger for knowledge and a hope for the future yet untainted by cynicisms that burgeon with age. What a tragic time in one’s life to die; so many promising lives unfulfilled and inventions, innovations, inspirations nipped at the bud.

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The Aliens Have Already Landed: The Landscape of African and Afro-Diasporic Science Fiction

In recent years, African and Afro-Diasporic science fiction has been gaining notice in scholarly and literary circles. It’s a welcome change for those of us who grew up devouring stories about adventurous souls bravely going forth into the final frontier. The writers of this fiction still rely on some familiar tropes such as alien invasions, augmented humans, and alternate timelines but also push the boundaries of what we understand as science fiction.

There are, of course, earlier texts from African writers that are similarly innovative… In Emmanuel Dongala’s short story “Jazz et vin de palme” (“Jazz and Palm Wine”), aliens land in a Congolese village and can only be pacified with the jazz and palm wine of the title. Sony Labou Tansi’s classic La vie et demie (Life and a Half) has also been read as science fiction by scholar Lydie Moudelino. The frame of a future look back on 1970s politics in Boubacar Boris Diop’s Temps de Tamango (The Time of Tamango) can also be read productively in the context of science fiction.

More recently, Nigerian-American Nnedi Okorafor’s novel Lagoon envisions aliens landing in Lagos and what happens thereafter. As Okorafor puts it in an interview on the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge, “Lagos is . . . the perfect place for an alien invasion to happen.” In the hustle and bustle of contemporary Lagos, the extraterrestrials interact not only with the city’s human inhabitants but also with animals, plants, spirits, and ancestors.

Works like Lagoon, in which literal aliens arrive not in New York, Washington, or a cornfield in Iowa, centralize their respective locations and place them firmly in a planetary context. Why wouldn’t aliens end up (or choose to land) somewhere on such a large continent?

 Frances Bodomo, "Afronauts"

While not strictly science fiction, Ken Bugul’s novel La Pièce d’or (The Gold Coin) makes free use of the term “extraterrestres” in the context of a threatened apocalypse, raising uncertainty and forcing readers to rethink existing narratives of colonial and postcolonial encounters. The text depicts desolate urban and rural landscapes that are repeatedly described has having declined “since the 1960s” – a common literary refrain. However, “the occupiers from afar” and “the new occupiers,” as they are referred to in the novel, might not quite be the European colonizers and neo-colonialist Senegalese ruling class; perhaps they are “extraterrestres,” literally as well as figuratively. After all, the world could end because a comet is rushing towards an enormous mountain of trash in the center of not-quite-Dakar. Ken Bugul uses science fictional allusions to introduce doubt in our expectations about what typically happens in a postindependence novel.

Beyond alien invasion, other recent novels combine cosmology with technology in exciting ways. In these works, enhanced beings and supernaturally modified everyday objects intersect with existing belief systems. Importantly, the results are unnerving as much for the characters as for the reader. In Deji Olukotun’s recently featured Nigerians in Space, for example, a young man’s solar-powered “moon lamp” seems mysteriously able to replicate actual moonlight. In Zoo City by South African writer Lauren Beukes, a mysterious global outbreak punishes those who commit murder or manslaughter by giving them an animal familiar (with whom they share a close emotional and physical bond) and a personalized supernatural power; the new abilities come into conflict with technologies and beliefs that have developed simultaneously. Protagonist Zinzi has a sloth familiar and can read minds, but when she’s brought in for a police interrogation, she cannot use her power to read her interrogator’s thoughts because of the police station’s “magic blockers” that are “regulation infrasound.” On the cosmological side of things, a dangerous black market trade in the magical animals has developed because some believe that they can be used effectively for ritual sacrifice.

 Frances Bodomo, "Afronauts"

Despite growing recognition for these and other contemporary authors, some of the questions raised by this post about the interest of African audiences in science fiction remain. The longstanding intersection of music and Afrofuturism offers another avenue through which to imagine alternative worlds in Africa and beyond (see, for example, Chimurenga’s Pan-African Space Station), as do films, comic books, and other forms of visual art – each of which warrant their own articles and have. But really, there’s no point in questioning whether or not Africa is ready for science fiction. It has already arrived in various urban locations where sci-fi already had a fan base.

The Consequences of Obama’s sanctions against Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro started this year facing a political crisis. The economic depression the country is going through affected Maduro’s public approval. And Latin American leaders, like Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff and the former Uruguayan President José Mujica, sent letters to Maduro expressing their concern for his treatment of the Venezuelan opposition.

But in the middle of this crisis, Maduro received help from an unexpected source: President Barack Obama. On March 10, the U. S. government declared Venezuela to be a “threat to national security,” and announced sanctions against seven Venezuelan officials for alleged human rights violations and corruption. One month after the announcement it seems that, paradoxically, the sanctions ended up helping Venezuela’s leader.

Citizens and politicians in Latin America criticized the sanctions against Maduro’s Government. The Union of South American Nations that gathers 12 countries officially called for the revocation of sanctions and said Obama’s announcement “constitutes an interventionist threat to sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Uruguayan president Mujica, who sent a letter of concern to Maduro, organized a march in solidarity for Venezuela. Hundreds of Uruguayans attended. “To say that Venezuela is a threat the United States security you need to be have a screw loose,” Mujica said at the rally.

The Latin American diplomatic actors are now focused on the sanctions, not on Maduro’s treatment to the opposition. In an interview with Democracy Now!, Ecuador’s foreign minister explained that the Summit of the Americas, which will be held in April, is now an opportunity to find a diplomatic solution between Venezuela and the United States. It was supposed to celebrate the new relations between the U. S. and Cuba.

Maduro’s popularity has not risen dramatically within his country after the sanctions. According to the local pollster Datanalisis, the president’s popularity increased to 25 percent after the U. S. declared Venezuela a security threat. The same poll had announced that Maduro’s popularity was 23 percent in February. The increase is not remarkable yet, but it is not good news for the opposition either. Maduro’s popularity could keep rising as he capitalizes an anti-American sentiment. He is constantly talking about the sanctions on public radios and state television stations to gather ten millions signatures and demand Obama to take back the sanctions. Millions of Venezuelans have already supported Maduro’s initiative, since many don’t forget the U.S. supported the coup d’état against former President Hugo Chavez.

“Obama’s sanctions reveal how little he cares for Venezuela,” a reporter from Caracas said. According to her, after the Republican Party criticized Obama’s position towards Israel’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the negotiations with Iran, and the diplomatic relations with Cuba, Obama’s sanctions were seen by some people within Venezuela as a political move to please the Republican Party with one foreign policy decision. Republicans have always opposed Venezuela’s socialist leaders like Maduro and former President Hugo Chávez.

“With Venezuela Obama has nothing to lose because he knows the economic relations will be maintained,” she said. Despite the anti-American rhetoric and former tensions, Venezuela remains the U. S. third largest trading partner in Latin America, behind Mexico and Brazil, exporting $11,339 millions on goods last year. Most of the exports were agricultural products. Venezuela exported $30,219 million goods towards the United States on the same year, 90 per cent being oil.

Not even the Venezuelan opposition supported Obama’s action. The country will hold legislative elections at the end of this year and the opposition has not gained the majority in Congress since 1998. The economic crisis–which consists of high inflation and scarcity of basic goods–increased the opposition’s possibilities to gain power, as did the public outrage created by the arrest of leaders of the opposition. But after Obama’s sanctions, opposition leaders had to express their rejection to the U. S. decision. “This announcement is not helping the Venezuelan opposition by interfering in internal problems,” an opposition leader and Governor of the Lara region, named Henri Falcón, said.

Experts on Latin American politics criticized Obama’s sanctions for being hypocritical. After security forces disappeared and possibly killed 43 students in the Mexican’s region of Ayotzinapa last September, the U. S. Government did not announce similar sanctions against Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto.

“The reality is that in Mexico 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa in the state of Guerrero, and hardly a peep from the U. S.,” professor of Latin American Studies at Pomona College Miguel Tinker Salas said. “It took weeks for the State Department to actually respond. So we have a duplicitous policy, on the one hand highlighting human rights issues in Venezuela, while on the other hand turning a blind eye to what is really a humanitarian crisis in Mexico, with over 80,000 dead, 40,000 disappeared and 15 million people being expelled from their own country.”

Obama also ignored Colombia’s human rights record as NYU history professor Greg Grandin explains. “The most dangerous consequence of this action is to put Colombian peace talks between the government and the FARC [guerrillas] in jeopardy,” he said. The left-wing guerrillas are supporters of the Venezuelan government. Since Colombian President Santos is the United State’s most faithful ally, an escalation of the tensions between Venezuela and the U. S. puts him in an uncomfortable position during the peace process.

Obama’s sanctions will probably be a bump on the road, but will not determine the future of Venezuelan politics. The opposition still has a change to win the legislative elections if inflation continues to rise in Venezuela, and the support to President Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution does not depend only on Obama’s decisions. But the fast reaction against any form of U. S. intervention shows how important the ‘scars’ of past interventions in Latin America are. During the Cold War, the U.S prevented left-wing leaders from reaching power by supporting right wing dictatorships or death squads. Without acknowledging this traumatic history of U. S. unilateral interventions, Obama missed the opportunity to seriously talk about and to Venezuela.

Australia–the Face of Monoculturalism

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Australia is how racist this place is, and yet how committed many Australians are to not talking about race. As a South African I recognize this purposeful, focussed commitment to faux race blindness. Even as someone slags off aboriginal people and immigrants, and rants about the need to “reclaim Australia,” many here will insist that they are not racist.

Last week I opened the newspaper and read a story about a white woman who called a family of neighbors who are originally from Sierra Leone “jungle bunnies” and “monkeys.” In the story the word ‘racist’ was in quotes as though she may or may not have been racist, even though her racist rant had been filmed on their phone. I was chagrined, but others I spoke to weren’t: They argued that the paper was “just trying to be neutral.” 

The levels of racism amongst many white Australians seem to match the levels of denial about their being racist. And there is no doubt that the deepest and most abiding forms of racism are directed against aboriginal people. It is as though on some psychic level, white Australians are angry with aboriginal people for still being here, for reminding them of their sins, for refusing to conform to their own ideas about what Australia is or should be. In a country that is so dedicated to the idea of ‘mateship’ that the prime minister sits at the front of the car next to the driver rather than in the backseat, the very idea of racism is jarring. Being racist denies people the ‘fair go,’ that so many people say is at the core of this country’s identity.

Yet, white Australia’s history of dealings with the indigenous people of this continent are as ugly as you’ll find anywhere in the world. It is a history of trickery, dispossession and violence, all of it premised on rock solid racism. Today, aboriginal people in Australia represent less than three per cent of the national population. Within this small population there is huge diversity in language, cultural practices, connection to land and urban spaces, educational levels, and so on. Yet, because racism follows the same script wherever you find it, aboriginal people are over-represented in the criminal justice system, and have health and educational outcomes that – if they were taken alone – would make Australia look like a developing country.

So it came as no surprise to many aboriginal activists here when the federal government informed Australians that it would be cutting off federal funding for ‘remote’ communities effective June this year. This means that the responsibility for refuse collection, water and lights and so on, will soon be the responsibility of state governments. Many (though not all) of the people who live in these communities are aboriginal people, and most of them have very small populations – less than 100 people in some instances. Despite this for some aboriginal people life in remote areas is premised on their connection to country; to the land of their ancestors.

Based on the decision by the federal government, the conservative government of Colin Barnett in Western Australia (WA) immediately announced that it does not have the money to take on this responsibility after the once-off payment the federal government has given it runs out. The state government has indicated that it will consult with the affected communities in the next few months, and it has tried to allay fears saying that people will not be forcibly removed from their homes, but it is likely that their plans to stop services – effectively closing communities – will have that effect. 

While other Australians will be affected, the primary target for the actions are understood to be indigenous people. This was made clear when the Prime Minister Tony Abbott defended the decision that would see up to 150 communities in Western Australia closed. His words were instructive. He was quoted as saying, “What we can’t do is endlessly subsidize lifestyle choices if those lifestyle choices are not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have.”

Abbott’s statement caused uproar because it reflects the attitude that successive Australian governments have taken to aboriginal people. The summary of this attitude across time is essentially this: ‘If only they could just change how they live, they wouldn’t be such a menace to all of us.’ Implicit in the statement is this idea that aboriginal people are holding the nation back. Never mind that it makes sweeping generalizations about a series of communities and people that are diverse in multiple ways.

Because of the blowback, and the government’s own lack of proper planning, it is unclear how many communities will close at the moment. The Western Australia state government is backpedalling the face of widespread opposition from aboriginal organizations and their allies. Yet the fact that such plans could even be contemplated, speaks to a far larger problem in this country.

Abbott’s words are the latest in a long line of insults hurled at the people who are the original inhabitants of this continent and the rightful caretakers of this land. They also echo comments that could have been two hundred years ago when thousands of Aboriginal people were exposed to the diseases of the colonising settlers and many others were massacred in events that were often deliberately erased from the history books.

Late last year, as if anticipating Abbott’s words, Pat Dodson, a well-known aboriginal public intellectual from the Kimberley noted, “There’s some kind of assumption that by a process of osmosis, people will be absorbed into the mainstream of Western-life ways and be successful. We’re talking about human beings who have come from a different culture, butting up a mainstream monoculturalist perspective on how you should live and making very little concession to the diversity and the distinction of other cultures in the main.”

In the twentieth century, the degrading treatment of aboriginal people was codified into a series of laws and polices that supposedly sought to ‘assimilate’ aboriginal people so that they might become more ‘civilised.’ Using this logic, systematic attempts were made to destroy many of the key tenets in aboriginal people’s cultures and languages. The most notorious of these were the Aboriginal Act of 1905 in Western Australia (which has startling and not accidental similarities with South African laws) and the policy of separating children from their parents, which was implemented across the country.

In WA, the act worked hand in glove with the nation-wide practice of stealing children from their communities. While many aboriginal children were snatched from their parents, children who were deemed to be ‘half-breeds’ (therefore of both aboriginal and European parentage) were strongly targeted. They were placed in large dormitories so that they could be taught the ways of white society. ‘For their own good’, they were subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment, including being punished for speaking their own languages. 

Girls were trained to be domestic workers and boys were raised to be stockmen. Now referred to as the Stolen Generations, thousands of these aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families. They were raised in-group homes and by foster parents, and then released into white society once they turned eighteen. The practice lasted for over a century – beginning in 1878 and officially ending only in 1978. 

White Australia has never fully reckoned with this, nor has it fully addressed its violent birth. While Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, finally said ‘sorry’ to indigenous Australians in 2008, as Robert Manne has pointed out, the apology “did not transcend the confusion that had developed between the general historical apology to the Indigenous people and the historically specific one owed to the victims of Aboriginal child removal.”

Many aboriginal people I have spoken to are done with waiting around for apologies. Some suggest that although the historical attitude of white Australia towards them has been one of ‘assimilation,’ this latest move has all the hallmarks of an attempt at eradication. This time, they are ready. Aboriginal action groups are prepared for yet another arduous battle for political and physical space in a place that was once theirs.

* For more information on protest actions, follow #SOSBlakAustralia.

Movie Night: A discussion on the film “Concerning Violence,” about Franz Fanon’s writings and ideas

Michael Watts: Franz Fanon is a towering figure in the modern history of thinking about race, human emancipation and democracy in post-colonial states, and radical psychiatric practice. Born in 1925 in Martinique, he died in 1961 in the United States, and was buried in Algeria, a country in which he had lived and worked during the anti-colonial war of liberation. Frantz Fanon’s short rich life weaved together two preoccupations: professional psychiatry and revolutionary praxis. Working in unison, each was put to the service of fighting human suffering and racism and to the goal of post-colonial liberation. Fanon’s contempt for the post-colonial national bourgeoisie across much of Africa was withering and unreconstructed. His writing on the violence of colonial racism and on the productive role of violence in human emancipation was as controversial when The Wretched of the Earth first appeared in 1961 as it is today. Daring to produce a documentary – Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defensebased loosely on this book and Fanon’s ideas, and to take the topic of violence head on is either brave or foolish. Or both. Using archival footage from the wars of liberation in Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia, Swedish director Göran Olsson has his hands full. To what effect?

Erin Torkelson: Göran Olsson’s 2014 film Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense is a sensitively rendered and deeply disturbing look at Swedish archival footage of anti-colonial warfare, relying on rock-star academics (Gayatri Spivak) and academic rock-stars (Lauryn Hill) to blend image and text, in a postmodern bricolage structured around Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. While I generally enjoyed the film, I am troubled by the premise — laid out clearly in the press packet (and on the IMDB site, box cover, movie poster, etc.) — that the value of this movie is in its archive: alternatively called a ‘new archive of unseen footage’ and an archive of ‘the most daring moments in the struggle for liberation.’

I am left wondering what, exactly, is “new” about this archive? There is plenty of footage of “anti-imperialist self-defense” floating around late night South African TV (with doccies poking fun at “Rhodesians” at country clubs or stories of victims and perpetrators brought together to “reconcile”); there is a horrific corner of the internet where colonial soldiers post films of their murderous devastation throughout Africa (lest we forget mercenaries filmed “kills” in order to be paid); and there have been several archive-based documentaries about African anti-colonial wars in recent years (Cuba: An African Odyssey, a 2007 French documentary film immediately comes to mind). Suggesting that the archive itself is the most important contribution elides the fact that African anti-colonial wars were very recent history and footage of them actually exists. Stressing the value (the never-before-seen-ness) of the archive seems to (once again) place Africa in an awkward pre-history, outside of time, and certainly outside of film. Likewise, why are these scenes the most ‘daring moments in the struggle for liberation’? Surely, that occludes so much bravery and sacrifice across the continent? Considering these questions, it seems to me that what is ‘new’ is that it’s a Swedish archive, and what is ‘daring’ is that is Swedish journalists filming (it says as much in the press packet: “radical Swedish filmmakers” capturing anti-imperialist liberation “firsthand”). In this sense, the movie is self-reflexively Swedish, (re)centering the European subject in anti-colonial struggles in Africa.

Indeed, you can see this Euro-centric perspective throughout the film. It is extremely difficult to watch the (re)enactment of the white, male gaze overlaid with Frantz Fanon’s words — a gaze that is most transparent, most visible and most deeply problematic in a pornographic scene of a beautiful, though mutilated, topless woman, feeding her infant. And while the press packet fesses up to some European ‘paternalism’ and ‘bias,’ it also continually appeals to Sweden’s history of anti-apartheid activism, “material contributions” to the ANC, and “official neutrality.” Olsson’s invocations of the ‘paternalistic’ Sweden and the ‘activist’ Sweden are separated by several paragraphs in the press packet, but I think, our challenge is to see how these statements work together in a discursive formation: how does the second statement (about Sweden’s liberal activism) work to justify, excuse or erase the first (about Sweden’s paternalism and “bias,” often a euphemism for racism)?

This is why having Gayatri Spivak introduce the film is such an interesting choice. In her classic, “Can the Subaltern Speak” she takes Foucault and Deleuze to task for making the Western, European, male intellectual visible and transparent, and thereby occluding the subaltern subject. In many places, the same could be said of this film. Is Göran Olsson asking Gayatri Spivak to absolve him of these very same sins?

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Camilla Hawthorne: What I appreciated most about Concerning Violence was that it was not framed as an apologia for The Wretched of the Earth’s infamous first chapter, which is effectively how Homi Bhabha (in his preface to the 2004 Philcox translation) framed his psychoanalytic rejoinder to the narrow readings by Arendt and Sartre that painted Fanon as a “prophet of violence.” Indeed, the documentary goes to great lengths to visually center the originary violence of colonialism, a racialized, everyday violence that is etched into material landscapes and carved into human flesh. I also appreciated Spivak’s thoughtful introduction, which concluded with a frank caveat about the limitations of Fanon for explicitly feminist readings of colonial and anti-colonial violence. Just as Fanon famously “stretched” Marx, she suggests, it is now our task to stretch Fanon.

But upon discussing the doc with Erin, I am also left wondering: what can we make of the documentary’s geographical provenance in a Swedish archive? And why was the footage reassembled and released now? Can this documentary be read against the backdrop of Europe’s complicated and contradictory relationship with postcoloniality as a condition, a relation, and a field of academic inquiry? While it has undoubtedly generated important and reflexive scholarship that challenges the racist myth of European boundedness and homogeneity, the postcolonial turn in Europe has also morphed into either a romanticized, colonial nostalgia (in which colonialism is glossed as cosmopolitanism and multiracial conviviality) or a redirection of scholarly and popular attention to white Europeans in the context of anti-colonial struggles. 

We must not lose sight of the fact that this is all happening at a conjuncture when European states are navigating the tensions of inclusion and exclusion and the boundaries of European citizenship as the empire “strikes back” in the form of immigration; in the Nordic countries such as Sweden, known for their bountiful social welfare systems, those on the left have struggled to incorporate a national self-image of progressiveness and openness toward refugees and asylum-seekers with the stark and too-close-to-home realities of virulent racism and xenophobia. A generous take on the documentary can read it as an attempt to situate current struggles over the construction of Europeanness within the context of a broader (and spatially extended) historical, colonial trajectory—as opposed to a “crisis” catalyzed by the arrival of large numbers of postcolonial migrants during the latter half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, however, one could also view Concerning Violence as a sort of attempt at absolution—an effort to displace contemporary reckonings with racism (see: the Swedish racist cake controversy or the work of geographer Allan Pred) as merely aberrational while simultaneously incorporating African anti-colonial struggles into a romantic national Swedish narrative of inclusion and antiracism.

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Brittany Meche: I will begin by saying I found something temporally jarring about Göran Olsson’s 2014 film Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense. Above and beyond the tinge of Third Worldist nostalgia, something about the timing and the narrative rhythm felt out of step. I locate my unease in the treatment of the title concept, violence. Famed postcolonial theorist Gayatri Spivak opens the movie arguing against a reading of Fanon that presents violence as salvational. Instead, Spivak insists that The Wretched of the Earth is Fanon’s meditation on what happens when people are “reduced to violence.” However, Spivak’s presumed lessening gives me pause, and it seems at odds with the steely narration of songstress Ms. Lauryn Hill. Ms. Hill’s rendering of Fanon’s words as they punctuate these moments of “self-defense” do not bely descent into a hellish resignation. Though, lest I be accused, as Fanon is and was, of heralding violence as divine ascent, I contend that these images of jungle patrols, feckless missionaries, mangled mothers and persistent fighters, are undoubtedly terrestrial—the provenance of neither angel nor demon.

Consequently, where in an analysis of violence as reductive descent is there room for Malcolm X’s defiant political prescription: “By any means necessary”? It is this issue of means and ends that is at the heart of my unease about the temporal rhythm of the film. Sitting in the 21st century and gazing back at the 20th, what are we as viewers to make of this representation of decidedly political violence? Particularly in a moment when violence as a means of resistance has been discredited, not necessarily for its ineffectualness, but because it has become the prized possession of powerful states. The term self-defense in the subtitle of the film recalls Olsson’s critically-acclaimed 2011 project The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 about the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Still, I am left pondering: to what extent, in the present moment, can oppositional politics be situated within a framework of self-defense? What does self-defense look like amid late-stage racial capitalism and unending wars on terror? When one can be shot in a position of surrender or when “no-fly zones” are used to justify the bombardment of cities and countless civilian deaths, what articulations of defense remain? Ultimately, I am agitated, exasperated and, yet, profoundly humbled by these images of armed black and brown radicals, poised to make history.

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Participants:

Dr. Michael Watts is the Class of 1963 Professor of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of numerous articles and books. His research interests include: political economy, political ecology, West Africa, South Asia, development, Islam and social movements, resource conflicts, and the oil industry.

Brittany Meché is a doctoral student in Geography at UC Berkeley. Her research focuses on U.S. military policy in West Africa, risk and preparedness infrastructures, postcolonial theory, race, diaspora, and empire. You can follow her on Twitter @BrittanyMeche.

Erin Torkelson is a doctoral student in Geography at UC Berkeley. Before attending grad school, she worked in South Africa for seven years with land and housing NGOs and social movements. Her current research interests include Southern Africa, youth politics, generation, memory and migration.

Camilla Hawthorne is a doctoral student in Geography at UC Berkeley. Her research addresses the politics of Blackness in Italy, diaspora theory, and postcolonial science and technology studies. She tweets at @camillahawth.

Office Conversations: On Kwaito and Corporate (American) Hip Hop

Welcome to another episode of Africa is a Country “Office Conversations.” This edition we offer up a little arm-chair pop-musicology to help you turn up on a Tuesday afternoon. Participants are Sean Jacobs, Dylan Valley, Boima Tucker, and Ts’eliso Monaheng.

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Sean: I like this track…

 

Dylan: What’s interesting now is how the lines between kwaito and SA Hip Hop have become blurred. Really liking the hip hop that has more of a kwaito sensibility i.e ‘Caracara’

 

Sean: Caracara is my favorite track right now. And the remix blending it with Notorious BIG is even better.

Boima: I need to get my hands on that K.O. album! Not for sale outside of SA!?… Glad that you said it had a Kwaito sensibility. Helps me think through my defense of the “Americanization” of African Rap…

Perhaps the tempos and production sensibilities of currently zeitgeist-y Southern Rap are more close to the Caribbean than the Jazz and Soul influenced East Coast predecessors? Allows for a more pan-African [Black Atlantic] rhythmic stew in which kwaito, dancehall (that Burna Boy track with AKA is dope!), rap, and reggaeton can all blend.

Like how easy Nigerians are able to jump on a Bay beat (which is very clave oriented):

 

Ts’eliso: I actually never thought about it like that, but what you’re saying is valid. We were speaking about it the other day with someone; what dudes in SA are doing is to essentially rip off a producer like Mustard’s whole style and layer raps filled with a tonne of kwaito references on top of that. Most of what’s coming out now wouldn’t pass as “hip hop” ten years ago.

Boima: And Mustard “ripped off” Bay Area teenagers.

Ts’eliso: Oh shit, didn’t know that story… and so it goes. There’s an interesting one here about how KO and his clique bit off their entire style from dudes in Tembisa (a hood in Joburg). Man, a whole book could be written about inter-scene biting, or whatever it’s called.

Check out this dude:

 

And there you have it. Join us next time for another episode of Africa is a Country “Office Conversations.”

A Studio Visit with Afrofuturists Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi

This phrase “Space is the Place” recalls the 1970s work of Sun Ra — father of Afrofuturism. It also resonates in the minds of artists both on the African continent and in the diaspora today. Afrofuturism is not tethered to a specific discipline or medium; because it depends on interdisciplinary borrowing, it allows for new ways of interacting with science fiction, art, the world at-large, and of course, cosmic philosophy.

Two such artists making waves with their Afrofuturist collaborations are Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi — who are currently living and working in Johannesburg, South Africa. Hailing from Mochudi, Botswana, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum works with drawing, animation, installation and performance. Her creative research interests include exploring the political possibilities of imagining and occupying what she calls “Mythologies of the Future.” Since, the early 1990s, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi has lived in Harare and Johannesburg, on and off. She is a painter, video artist and filmmaker who splits her time between studio work and navigating the field of collaborative practice. Her work investigates power and its structures — political, social, and architectural, in order to interrogate the invisible forces that create them and ultimately imagine alternatives.

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What is it that you keep Forgetting (After the Palais de Justice) (c) Thenji Niki Nkosi 2013

Though these two artists engage with different forms of conceptual and aesthetic expression, each constructs a world that pushes the viewer to critically rethink one’s positioning with respect to time and space. When I visited their shared studio in Selby, located in the Johannesburg CBD, I could see these clear divergences immediately. Their powerful partnership and camaraderie was even more refreshing and energizing to witness, especially when they spoke about their collaborative performance art piece, an ongoing Afrofuturist anti-opera entitled “Disrupters, THIS IS Disrupter X.”

While the form of the opera traditionally provides both a linear narrative and clear division between performer and viewer, Sunstrum and Nkosi’s piece manifests itself differently in each iteration — making it both site-specific and deliberately open-ended. For example, in 2014 Sunstrum and Nkosi constructed a living maquette in which visitors had to physically navigate through in order to experience the anti-opera. This work was the result of their one-month residency at Iwalewahaus, University of Bayreuth — an archival laboratory and exhibition space dedicated to the production and presentation of contemporary art from Africa.

While given the task of visualizing a work that activates certain objects from the Iwalewahaus’ collection of African art, Sunstrum and Nkosi found themselves focusing on the tools of the archive — the instruments with which the ‘master narratives of history on the African continent have been constructed. They then used objects of force and beauty — such as guns and sculptural masks — as anchors and points of inspiration for key elements of their own video projections, electronic sound compositions, and live choreography, which resulted in one deeply sensory, complex and satisfyingly unpredictable Afrofuturist experience. With these elements, Sunstrum and Nkosi presented the character “Disrupter X”, who is on a mission to find the mysterious “Geomancer” — a powerful machine that can predict the future and is the last hope for her salvation from “The Agency,” a brutal and powerful entity that easily resembles today’s transnational corporations.

From this intensely visceral performance piece, in which collaboration lies at the very heart of the process, the clear departures between Sunstrum and Nkosi’s studio praxes then begin to make more sense. Sunstrum and I spoke about Asme, the female figure who used to recur regularly in her work, but whom recently she has forgone in order explore what it means to convey a compelling narrative solely through landscapes. These scenes embody the latest iteration of her science fictional and mythological explorations, and can be interpreted as simultaneously primordial and futurist — the cinematic panoramas giving a sense of continual oscillation between past and future.

Let me show you my ship (c) Sunstrum 2013

Let me show you my ship (c) Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum 2013

Nkosi mused on the part of painting that she revels in the most — that moment when the shadow and contour just cleanly run parallel to each other, barely grazing one another to give a satisfaction that can only be gleaned from architectural space being manifest on a two dimensional surface. She notes how this painterly habit became especially challenging to her with her 2013 portrait series, which focused on valorizing the perspectives of South African heroes —those known and unknown, subsumed and un-subsumed into the popular archive.

These nuanced and semipermeable boundaries between Sunstrum and Nkosi’s respective praxes present an interesting way that artists can collaborate while retaining a strong sense of independence. They spend a great deal of time work-shopping and revising each other’s theoretical strategies, leading to work that reflects their thoughtful and deliberate approach to the conceptual and aesthetic components of their work, always inquiring and re-thinking in order to present the most precise articulation of their processes.

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Painting by Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum

This unique dynamic follows through in their approach to exhibiting work. Through ‘joint solo shows’, Sunstrum and Nkosi don’t ask viewers to look for links between their work, but rather engineer these exhibitions in order to combat the solo show model that is ubiquitous within dominant art world structures. The do not put their work in dialogue, but allow it to coalesce in their own radical re-imagining of the spaces in which it is deemed acceptable. I for one am excited to see where their work takes them, and us, next.

Below are some images from our visit to the two artists’ studio:

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Thirty Days Of Joburg City

Rendani Nemakavhani (alias Missblacdropp) is a Johannesburg-based graphic designer and illustrator who initiated the collaborative project 30 Days & A City featuring her work and that of eight fellow creators who live and work in the city of Johannesburg. We caught up with her during the exhibition opening to speak about what inspired her to curate the collaboration, and also where she’d like to see it headed.

Moment of Clarity, April 6, 2015: Nigerian Soldiers Dance Skelewu

“Soldiers in Maiduguri, the embattled capital of Borno state, which has been under constant siege by Boko Haram, celebrate Nigeria’s election to music by Nigerian recording artist Davido” (via CCTV Africa):

CCTV Africa sites top African footballers like Emmanuel Adebayor (is he still around?) and Samuel Eto’o for popularizing Skelewu beyond its Nigerian base. The official music video–posted on Youtube–has had more than 10 million views thus far when we checked earlier today). Skelewu “is variously said to refer to money, love or elation.” In any case, the video is a neat bit of–unintended?–propaganda for Nigeria’s army assailed by the people it claims to protectin Western media media and by its neighbors for its seemingly inept reaction to Boko Haram.

Liner Notes, No.8: Boddhi Satva and Kaysha Bring Congolese Music to the Deep End

Boddhi Satva recently announced a very exciting collaboration between himself and international Zouk legend Kaysha. For those who are unfamiliar with the current African House movement, alongside names like Black Coffee, Osunlade, and DJ Djeff, Boddhi Satva has become one of the scene’s lead sonic innovators. His style is marked by ther merger of Central African drum patterns with a dark, and percussive synth palette — a sound he calls Ancestral Soul. It is this sound in particular has been really making strides to bring African House to the global mainstream. Besides releasing a remix series (1, 2, and 3) of international pop hits, his recent collaboration with Naija Pop luminary Davido, and Coupe Decale star DJ Arafat is one of the tunes with the biggest reaction in my own sets today.

On the other side of this collaboration, Kaysha is a household name in the international Zouk and Kizomba scenes. However, it is his alter-ego Mr. Shada, under which he has shown to be quite a forward-thinking beat maker — experimenting with Kuduro, Coupe Decale, and House in an endless stream of releases, and churning out some of those scenes’ biggest productions. I was rife with anticipation for what would result from their team up. And, I was not disappointed:

Apparently “Mama Kosa” is the first time Kaysha is singing in Lingala on record. Besides the skill with which Kaysha delivers the animateur style vocals, I personally think Satva is at his best when producing for Lingala, or specifically referencing Congolese music in his productions. It is at that moment, when the MC bounces above the deep drum programming that you realize what Satva is in fact doing is moving Congolese Rumba past its 20 year Ndombolo stagnancy (with all respect due to Fally Ipupa), and putting it on a path to the future.

The full release features a remix by Afro House specialist Atjazz, and as an added bonus Kaysha appears as Mr. Shada to provide his own remix of the track (above version). Both are fire interpretations, so pick up your own copy from Satva’s Offering Recordings to hear all three versions in their full glory!

 

Hisham Aidi’s ‘Rebel Music’ Remixes Race, Faith, and Geography

In his Discourse on Colonialism (1950), the French-Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire noted that after World War II, Europeans, culturally and politically devastated by war, began to renew themselves by absorbing African American culture – jazz, literature, art and so on.  In the prologue of Hisham Aidi’s brilliant and sprawling Rebel Music: Race, Empire and the New Muslim Youth Culture, he returns to Césaire’s observation, arguing that today it is Europe’s beleaguered racial minorities – its Muslim underclass, in particular – that are looking to the African American experience for uplift.

Here’s a PBS news item about the book:

Back to the book.

Moving seamlessly across continents, languages and musical genres, Aidi details this cultural and political turn towards Black Atlantic cultures, and in so doing shows just how intertwined the idea of Pan-Africanism is with the history of Islam in the West.

Rebel Music opens with Aidi at a “park jam” in the Bronx in July 2003, talking to a trio of French rappers who have come to the Boogie Down to meet with some hip hop pioneers and activists. The author makes plain that the African American struggle has nourished and inspired marginalized communities worldwide – from the Dalit Panthers of South India to the more recent Pantrarna in Sweden. However, Aidi’s musical exploration is focused on the intersection of urbanism, Islam and global black cultural production; he argues that over the last decade it is Muslim youth, caught between surveillance states, xenophobic movements and Islamist groups, who have been jolted towards race activism and Black Atlantic cultures. (He refers to 9/11 as the Muslim immigrants’ “racial baptism.”)

In Salvador, Brazil, the author gets to hang out with Antônio Carlos Vovo, renowned activist and founder of the musical group Ilê Aiye, and talk about how War on Terror policies and cultural flows from the US have prompted Afro-Brazilian activists to revisit the country’s Muslim past. Aidi analyzes a remarkable manuscript written in 1865 by an Ottoman imam who spent a few months traveling in Brazil, and writing about Islam among the slave population. Today thanks to Lula’s 2003 law mandating that schools celebrate a “National Day of Black Consciousness,” there is a strong interest in Brazil’s Muslim history – especially in the Malê revolt of 1835, when Hausa slaves tried to overthrow the Portuguese master, an uprising that failed, but sent shock waves across the Atlantic and to antebellum America. The current political ferment is occurring, he shows, just as American diplomats are (unsuccessfully) pressing Brazilian authorities to monitor their Muslim citizens. Aidi’s discussion of Carnival and Latin American Orientalism is delightful, as is his claim that Shakira is simply the latest embodiment of the centuries-old Spanish-Portuguese fantasy of “the enchanted Mooress.”

Brazil – Latin America, more broadly – is actually held up as an outlier: he asks – why do Muslim communities in Europe and North America have strained relations with their governments and mainstream society, whereas Muslims in Latin America are politically quite comfortable and un-harassed?

The most tender parts of the book — for this reader, at least — are when Aidi, probing the relationship between jazz and Islam, goes to a national conference of Ahmadi Muslims in Milwaukee and sits down to chat with octogenarian African-American converts: jazzmen dressed in Nehru jackets and Jinnah fur caps who speak Urdu fluently. One of them, Rashid Ahmad, a classmate of Miles Davis and a one-time front-man for pianist Ahmad Jamal, recounts his travels in the Middle East in 1949 as he headed to study in Rabwa, Pakistan. Another elder, also in a collarless shirt and Nehru vest observes, “Jazz makes people think— that’s why jazz artists liked Islam, they were thinking of ways out.” The largest Muslim communities in America are African-American and Pakistani, and Aidi spends some time detailing the historic interactions between Black America and The Subcontinent. The cultural echoes of these early encounters are ongoing. For example, Aidi describes the Pakistani-American punk rock group, The Kominas, and their interest in the Moorish Science Temple, describing how these rockers would travel to Pakistan, and use the concepts and symbols of these heterodox African-American groups to protest state policy and religious fundamentalism.

In his tour of European and American cities, music proves to be a perfect lens for understanding tensions between various Muslim groups, and government efforts to promote Sufism as a “moderate” alternative. Music for state officials, Aidi shows, has become a quick and easy way to distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” Muslim. In London and Birmingham, we encounter former rastas who have cut their locks, and grown bushy Salafi beards. The author traces the circulation of Islamist ideas between England, the Caribbean, and East coast of the United States. In Philadelphia we meet legendary music producer Kenny Gamble (aka Luqman Abdul Haqq), and we see this “father of disco” trying to use art and faith for community building and urban renewal.

Parts of the book look at the cat-and-mouse game between governments and youth activists. After 9/11 – and 7/7 in London – Washington and Downing Street would try to create a “moderate Islam” by – rather foolishly, we now know — mobilizing Sufi groups against Salafi or Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated organizations. Aidi is at his best when he parses the political and moral dilemma facing young activists in impoverished European neighborhoods being wooed by the State Department, offered financial grants and tours of the US: to accept or not to accept? He notes the grand irony of how the American government spent years cracking down on black militancy, but is now using civil rights discourse and black protest for public diplomacy and propaganda purposes.

Aidi shows how young activists pushed back against “state-sponsored Sufism.” And in this regard the sections on Gnawa music, an Afro-Arab musical tradition, are fascinating. Gnawa, a Sufi culture, which drew the attention of Harlem Renaissance artists who visited Morocco (novelist Claude Mckay, painter Henry Ossawa Tanner, and poet Jessie Fauset all spent time in the Maghreb), before being picked up by American jazz artists – has now emerged as the political idiom of disenfranchised North African youth in Europe, used to protest racism and “Sufi policy” in Europe, and anti-black racism in the Maghreb. The chapters on Gnawa music substantiate a recurring argument in the book – and that it is Europe’s ghettoized Muslims who are the Black Powerites and pan-Africanists of our day.

One particularly engrossing chapter describes the burst of race activism among young Muslim Americans over this last decade. He shows young Pakistani-, Egyptian-, and Iranian-Americans leading green energy projects on Chicago’s Southside, organizing protests in Detroit, and lobbying the Census Bureau for “minority status.” These campaigns against “legal whiteness,” as Aidi shows, are taking place in Europe and North America. Unlike their parents, the children of North African, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants do not want to be categorized as ‘White.’ (Incidentally, in response to campaigns, the US Census Bureau is considering introducing a new Middle East and North Africa ethnic category on the census form.) The race activism that one now sees in Muslim America, says Aidi, shows that many young leaders believe that if political empowerment won’t occur through traditional party channels, it can occur through the civil rights movement and people of color coalitions. “By embracing race, the “immigrant” Muslim can become “indigenous,” writes Aidi.

Aidi’s discussion of Frantz Fanon and Muslims and Jews in France is heart-rending and ridiculously timely. Reviewing Arabic sources on Fanon, Aidi describes Fanon’s interest in Andalusian music, his study of the Arabic language, showing how the Martinican’s pan-Africanism was partly forged by his days as a French troop stationed in Casablanca. Fanon thought a lot about Muslim-Jewish relations in Algeria – and today his ideas are relevant to Muslim-Jewish relations in France, as is the Judeo-Arabic musical repertoire of North African Jews. Aidi follows the exiled Algerian-Jewish musicians – now in their late 80s – from gig to concert, as they perform and ponder their legacy. He profiles the Muslim “integrationists” who think reviving this repertoire can help heal Muslim-Jewish relations, and bring French Muslims into the political mainstream; and their political adversaries, groups like the Natives of the Republic (Les Indigènes de la République) who are inspired by the Black Power movement, and recall proudly the days when the Black Panthers were headquartered in Algiers, and Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X visited the city’s kasbah. Aidi predicts that as these transnational, pan-African tendencies gain force among youth in Europe and the US, and North African-descent activists reach out across the Saharan divide to ally with West African-descended communities, neo-conservative groups and right-wing Islamists will again try drive a wedge between North Africans and the rest of the continent.

The beauty of this book I would say is how the author remixes cultures and geography, bringing North Africa into the pan-African world, Latin America into the “Orient,” while positioning the American ghetto as the well-spring of American civilization. Rebel Music is a deliciously overstuffed lasagna, vividly written, brilliantly readable, and unapologetically pan-African.

Here’s a review of the Spike Lee produced Colombian-American movie “Manos Sucias”

It has become a trope in Colombian cinema to deal with stories of violence, especially of drug-related violence. In 1998, La vendedora de rosas captured perfectly the destroyed lives of dealers and junkies in the slums of Medellín; La virgen de los sicarios and Rosario Tijeras (book adaptations from 2000 and 2005, respectively) dealt with the hitmen employed by cartels to do the dirty work; María Full of Grace (a Colombo-Ecuadorian-American production from 2004) showed the plight of mulas used to smuggle cocaine into the United States. And since then we’ve had many stories of drug lords, addicts, middlemen, and the gang violence created by the illegality of certain substances.

So, also, it has become a trope in Colombian cinema criticism to ask if we haven’t had enough already. If there aren’t other stories to tell in the country; if Colombians don’t also love and live and forget away from drugs and the businesses and violence associated to them. Don’t we have other problems? What about racism, elitism, abject poverty, state abandonment? What else can we say about drugs? Or even heartbreak, isolation and depression?

Many of us grew up safely in our modern, urban, middle-to-upper-class settings, away from the issues brought forth by things such as the War on Drugs and Plan Colombia. And, from this perspective, it seems fair to ask “where are our stories? Can we see our country depicted as we’ve known it, devoid of this peripheral violence?”.

Certainly some films have addressed this–Gordo, calvo y bajito (2011), for example, is a story of annoying co-workers and pointless existence, Sofía y el terco (2012) is a story of love, loyalty and liberation–but their existence isn’t, or at least shouldn’t be understood as, a dichotomy between their “drug” films and “our” stories.

International laws and regulations regarding certain substances have, undeniably, shaped every aspect of Colombian life for the past four decades: our politics, our economy, our social interactions, our diplomacy, our way of understanding our own identity, and our way of relating to each other. Even if this doesn’t affect all of us directly, it is not something we can glance over, it is not something we can sweep under the rug.

Stories of drug-related violence are still commonplace in Colombian cinema not only because they are successful (this seems to be what international audiences–unfortunately still the measurement of Colombian films worth–want to see), but also because they are stories that are still shaping our country. These are the lives that many of our compatriots are living.

Yet, is there anything more to say? Any new angles? Any new stories? Manos sucias attempts just that. Directed by American Josek Wladyka and produced by his NYU professor Spike Lee, this is the story of two estranged brothers from Buenaventura who inadvertently meet again in a boat to smuggle drug towards the northern Colombian Pacific coast.

The movie is, in summary, the story of their eventful journey together, but, in essence, it is the story of a disenfranchised Colombia, of a country where many still feel that there is no other choice but to join these ranks.

Buenaventura is Colombia’s biggest city on the Pacific Ocean, and it is the country’s biggest port. Its industry and commerce brings in millions in revenue. But its position in a mostly underdeveloped, unregulated region of the country with great access to waterways, has meant that various illegal groups have sought and have been able to take control of it, and that the population there (which is 90% black) has rarely seen an increase in their quality of life.

The movie decides to humanize this daily struggle. Its characters are not stereotypical gangsters, even if their descriptions might seem so: Jacobo (Jarlin Martínez) is the older brother, who loves salsa, doesn’t understand young people’s “fads,” has been in the game for too long and dreams of saving enough to retire and move to Bogotá. Delio (Cristian Advíncula) is the younger brother, who is too inexperienced for this kind of job, wants to be a rapper, and is in it because he wants to provide for his wife and their young son.

Throughout the movie, it is revealed that they are, simply, typical Bonaverenses. In their conversations in the boat you can feel their dreams and heartbreaks, their stories of happiness and suffering, their shared love of soccer and their common understanding of their blackness. These are not two evil criminal men who want to defy law and authority. These are two guys who weren’t offered any other way. They are the first line of drug-crime violence: those who are easily sacrificed and forgotten, those who are not in it because of greed, but because they need it, but yet are not beyond hurting others to protect what little they have earned, because this is as much as they can get.

Manos sucias is a story of state abandonment and of good people trying to get by, even if that means becoming bad people. A story of grief and self-preservation. It is a Colombian story and a story of humans, and this point is advanced tremendously by the solid acting by Advíncula (who made his cinematic debut here) and Martínez.

The story feels authentic, even if it was originally scripted in English and then translated into Colombian-Pacific Spanish. Only a few minor mistranslations stand out (such as one of the characters calling people from the United States “americanos,” when most Colombians would simply say “gringos”), but they are lost in the sincere portrayal of Martínez and Advíncula, who are both from Buenaventura and understand perfectly who are they talking about and whom they are talking to.

Paramilitaries and guerrilleros appear on the film too, but they are not used to signify the state of the country, they are there merely to explain the context of harshness these men have to live through. And it is true that a lot of aspects of the culture of Buenaventura–such as its soccer madness, its infatuation with salsa choke, or its incredible production of hip-hop artists–are only briefly mentioned. But this is not the point for now. This is a very brief and direct story, and for what it tries to do, it works perfectly.

Manos Sucias will be screened in the United States throughout April and May. Check here for the schedule. Watch the trailer below.

The Rise of a Post-colonial University

In the last two weeks, students belonging to the #RhodesMustFall collective have rechristened and remade of one of University of Cape Town’s key administrative building as ‘Azania House.’ They have been occupying the building since March 20and it has become a nodal point for the student led collective. At the end of one of the first teach-ins at Azania House, a UCT student and member of the collective, Ru Slayen, half-jokingly and half-seriously suggested instituting teach-ins like the one we had just had in a new summer school to be named the Post-colonial School of Cape Town.

Ru’s words might have been half-serious and half-joking but they also, as I grasp them, iterated a desire to institute and inhabit a university that in the first instance enables an understanding of the after-effects of colonialism and then reflects on how to ‘go beyond’ them, as Stuart Hall argued in 1996. Cecil John Rhodes’ statue is one such manifest symbol of colonialism and the students’ passionate calls for its removal are a reminder of the visceral ways in which history is experienced. But the visceral sting of colonial inheritances can be felt repeatedly and in many places. At Azania House students remind us of that experience through the posters that they have put up on its walls. Amongst the many that have come up in in the last two weeks, one announced that, “we are no longer at ease.” Several others bear printed copies of the many racist Facebook responses that the #RhodesMustFall page has received; these Facebook comments appear intent on hurting and demeaning the students who are part of the movement. Some of these racist comments are from fellow students, and others perhaps from members of the wider Cape Town and South African citizenry who disagree with the #RhodesMustFall collective’s cause and dispute its members’ position. On its part, the university administration has also had to deal with vicious outpourings. It had put up writing boards around the statue to invite comments from the university community on transformation issues but had to remove them because, according to a university missive, many of the comments penned there constituted ‘hate speech.’

At the university wide assembly on March 25, 2015, many black student speakers angrily, indignantly and poignantly called out such hurtful commentary and hateful speech. They gave the audience a taste of what they have been at the receiving end of in the last few weeks. Furthermore they drew attention to the hurtful milieu they live and study in—replete not just with colonial era statues and symbols but also with pedagogical and conversational modes that regard black students as deficient, necessarily lagging in the civilizational race, and with course content that tells their history and describes their African present as above all a site of failure and lack. 

Descriptions of this milieu and the complaints against it were articulated with passion and pain. Several students insisted that the symbolic redress of that pain through the removal of Rhodes statue could not be a matter of rational deliberation, discussion and debate. Their words complimented the remarks my colleague Xolela Mangcu’s made at the assembly and penned in a Cape Times article the day before. Passionate words articulated to signal profound desires are also a sign of dangerous politics for some (see for instance here and here; see Xolela Mangcu’s reaction to these here).

The humiliated possess the power to pollute the privileged and to horrify them. The political theorist Gopal Guru discusses the nature of that power while writing about Dalit politics and the so-called untouchables of India. At UCT all of us—students, faculty and staff members—had arrived at the large assembly in the wake of a movement triggered by Chumani Maxwele’s act of flinging excreta at the Rhodes statue; that act undermined and polluted historical privilege, and now perhaps some members of the university assembly and its public sphere were also horrified.

This is not the place to rehearse frequently analyzed blind spots of the Habermasian public sphere and the well-known critiques of the deliberative democracy model. But it is important to recall and understand the nature of prestige accorded to, what another social theorist Michael Warner calls, the “ideology of rational-critical discussion” or “parliamentary forensics” (2002:82). In a post-colonial university like the one I believe Ru asked for, social science disciplines will help students historicize this ideology, understand how parliamentary forensics emerged in the metropole and how they became reified as the normative democratic form. The university will help students understand how such democratic forms have determined their past and might determine the future of their societies.

Such a post-colonial university might indeed have to emerge from the ashes of what brand managers call a “world-class” one. But it might be one where the dominant “hierarchy of faculties” (on the top – reason; on the bottom – passion; Warner 2002: 84) and attendant political practices is questioned. Furthermore, to draw on Warner again, it might be one where we know our students not only through the practices of arguing, opining, discussing and deliberating but by putting ourselves in the line of their “corporeal expressivity” (2002: 82). To paraphrase Warner, what our students say to us might then be really sensible to us if we pay attention to not only to what they say but also to how they say it (2002: 83).

Students who passionately asked for Rhodes’ fall grounded their demands in history, in the description of their present context, and in a well-spring of historical and lived experience of hurt and pain caused by attempts to humiliate them. Coming from India where majoritarian enactments of such passions have been the source of grievous harm especially to minorities and to the very idea of a democratic, secular India, I am only too familiar with the dangers of such political practices. Hope of reasoned legislative and judicial deliberation has sometimes been the only recourse available to minorities and others under siege from majoritarian passions.

But then I am reminded of another formative post-colonial thinker, Stuart Hall, whose words are worth quoting at length here. Writing about the crisis that left politics has found itself in for the last few decades, Hall wrote

… isn’t the ubiquitous, the soul-searching, lesson of our times the fact that political binaries do not (do not any longer? Did they ever?) (reason and passion come to mind – my words) either stabilize the field of political antagonism in any permanent way or render it transparently intelligible? …. political positionalities are not fixed and do not repeat themselves for one historical situation to the next or from one theater of antagonism to another, ever ‘in place,’ in an endless iteration. Isn’t that the shift from politics as a ‘war of manoeuvre’ to politics as a ‘war of position,’ which Gramsci long ago and decisively charted?  And are we not all, in different ways, and through different conceptual spaces desperately trying to understand what making an ethical political choice and taking a political position in a necessarily open and contingent political field is like, what sort of ‘politics’ adds up to?(1996: 244)

The choice I believe black students at the university assembly made was not to enact a public that would abide by the ideology of parliamentary forensics, but what Warner and others have hailed as a counterpublic that literally speaks in many languages (note for instance the use of isiXhosa and Afrikaans by some students and speakers), switches codes, is impolite, conflictual, conscious of its minor and marginal location, and sets itself up against the dominant public genres and forces. In other instances, in their own meetings, meetings with Senate and other assemblies, the same students have and might chose the rational deliberative mode as the ethical political choice of the hour.  It is then perhaps the sign of an emerging post-colonial university that the #RhodesMustFall students are not beholden to one way of doing politics or the other. Instead they have been crafting what an ethical political position in a contingent field might be; they deliberate upon the choices available to them and act upon that choice—passionately and reflexively—to change the place we all work and live in.

The Eight Years of Jan van Riebeeck

April 6th used to be a public holiday in Apartheid South Africa. It was supposed to be the day that Jan Van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa in 1652 as the chief colonial administrator of the Dutch East India Company’s new colonial settlement to settle what is now Cape Town. Who of my generation does not know this? It was drilled into all our minds at primary (read: elementary) school. And even if we were not lucky enough to go to school, the mythology certainly did not pass us by. The version of history taught to us started with him. In fact if the old history books were to be believed, this was when the history of our country started.

After bringing major disruption to this part of the world, Van Riebeeck continues to be presented as one whom we should value. His statue occupies centre stage at the foot end of Adderley Street, the main street in the our city.

Who did he find at the Cape? The great leader Autshumato and his people today referred to as the Khoi. According to archeologists, human beings had lived here for more than a 100,000 years and as Khoi and San definitely for thousands of years.

Van Riebeeck spent eight years of his life on these shores and we hold him up as an example to our children who know nothing about Autshamayo, the great Khoi leader.

Autshamayo and his people lived along the southern and western coastal strips, where adequate grazing was to be found. Over time they spread out into the north, intermingled with the amaXhosa, enriching their language with their clicks. Today there are sixteen different clicks in the Xhosa language as a result of the influence of the Khoi and San whose languages were drawn from the sounds of nature.

When Autshamayo encountered the European delegation, he was cordial. He bartered with them and must have assumed that they were passing by as many others had done before. Instead, they had come to build a refreshment station to serve ships belonging to the Dutch East India Company.

Slowly a mutual animosity developed over access to pasteurs. Van Riebeeck and his men were settling down and pushing the KhoiSan away from adequate grazing land. The beauty of the Cape and its wealth of resources had begun to entice the visitors to stay and develop a settlement rather than just a transitory refreshment station.

The first substantial threat came after five years in 1657 when Van Riebeeck released nine men from their contracts and by royal decree granted them title deed to land along the Liesbeeck River. Each were granted 15 morgen of land in what is now known as Bishopscourt very close to the Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba’s residence. Autshamayo did not take this lightly and so began their 150 year resistance to prevent the Europeans from taking their land.

In that same year, 1657, Van Riebeeck’s company imported the first slaves from the Indonesian Islands and India, bringing the skill and labour that built the Cape. From them flowed some of my ancestors. (As Sahistory.org.za notes, “between 1652 and the ending of the slave trade in 1807, about 60,000 slaves were imported into the Colony”) Anyone keen to know more about the 176 years of slavery at the Cape should visit the Iziko Slave Museum at the top end of Adderly Street in the city. Be prepared for your stomach to turn as you witness the cruelty.

In 1659, Van Riebeeck instructed the slaves to build a wooden fence, with watch towers, from the mouth of the Salt River, through Rondebosch to Kirstenbosch, using the deeper parts of the Liesbeeck River as part of the barrier. To finish the barrier quickly, a hedge of indigenous wild almond trees (Brabejum stellatifolium) and thorny shrubs was planted along the section between the river and Kirstenbosch.

It further locked out the natives from their grazing land and access to the Salt River, the Black River and the Liesbeeck River so named by the Dutch East India Comapany.

Van Riebeeck recorded an encounter where they confronted him about land rights and asked him “Who should rather in justice give way, the rightful owner or the foreign intruder?” In response to this demand to withdraw, van Riebeeck said that the territory had been won in battle and now belonged to the VOC. The Khoikhoi then asked for at least the right to collect “veldkos” (bush food), specifically wild almonds (Brabejum stellatifolium) from their traditional lands. Van Riebeeck denied this request as well. He needed the very same wild almond plants to form his barrier hedge to keep them out.

Efforts to protect the hedge began as soon as it was planted. Van Riebeeck issued a Plakaat (a posted law) forbidding everyone “not only from making passage through … the said hedge, but not even to break off from it the smallest twig, no matter what the reason is supposed to be, on pain of being banished in chains for 3 years” Today, there are only two surviving portions of van Riebeeck’s hedge, the Kirstenbosch section and another in Bishops Court.

By the time Van Riebeeck left in 1662, 250 European people lived in what was beginning to look like a developing colony marking clear exclusion of the native people. In just eight years at the Cape, he had sown the seeds of a division that continues to harm us till this day.

In Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens on the slopes of Table Mountain, where a part of that hedge still grows, this story of exclusion is not mentioned in its official brochure.

It refers to an almond hedge known for its thorns as the remains of the original hedge named Van Riebeeck’s Hedge.

The brochure fails to explain its real purpose as outlined above and its effect of denying natives access to land and water they held to be sacred. From the settler point of view, the barrier was created to prevent them from raiding their livestock, often traded from the Khoisan.

Van Rieebeeck is constantly the subject of revision. His defenders among rightwing whites have even charged Jacob Zuma, the country’s President with hate speech at its Human Rights Commission for stating the obvious: “You must remember that a man called Jan van Riebeeck arrived here on 6 April 1652, and that was the start of the trouble in this country … What followed were numerous struggles and wars and deaths and the seizure of land and the deprivation of the indigenous peoples’ political and economic power … (Van Riebeeck’s arrival) disrupted South Africa’s social cohesion, repressed people and caused wars.”

Jan van Riebeeck was an employee of a marauding company not known for fair trade outside Europe. Not very different from some companies today who parachute into our country, strip us of our resources and then fly back from whence they come. Twenty years after democracy, we need to carefully consider how we want to do business with the world. Perhaps we have little room to choose because of the great unfairness of the world economic system. But let us be aware of those who are doing us harm both from amongst ourselves and from abroad and expose exploitation where ever we see it.

It is unfortunate that the City of Cape Town chooses not to teach us to value Autshumato and others like him who have done us no harm. Instead it gives pride of place to those who have done us great harm and seems determined to help us adjust to a version of history that can only be described as a gross distortion. Failure to interrogate this attitude will only leave most citizens unsupported in making sense of their past and their present experiences.

Binyavanga Wainaina: “Kenya is not a nation if we can’t properly memorialize each and every citizen we lose”

I want to go to a place. A piece of ground, also a place online, where we can find the names of all those who have died for Kenya since 1963. I want to know their names. I want to walk and walk listen and witness know the lives of those no longer visible to me, but whose blood mattered. I want the children I may once have to go there and visit and walk through our stories. I want all schools to go there.

We are not a nation if we can’t properly and fully memorialize each and every citizen we lose. I want to see the names ages and photographs of those who died in Mpeketoni. Those killed during PEV. Stories. Forgetting is not good. It is in these acts, our public commons reawaken. The politics of saying we are not ready to face ourselves, the fullness of our pain, is the same politics that allows us to ignore it when a Kenyan strips the institution they are given to run, strips it dry, dry, and returns like a zombie, a plastic rubber-band zombie in some new form, to govern somewhere else again.

I want a public again. I want some random church choir knocking on my door at easter to sing at my door. I want to see three million Nairobians flood the streets to cry, and sing, and hug because our children have been killed. I want to stop feeling that we live inside mostly the private. I want never to hear the word self-empowerment again.

I am the product of a nation that empowered me. I am a child of Municipal Council schools, I am a child of Kenya National Library Services, of Provincial General hospital, Nakuru. I want thousands of names inscribed permanently in Uhuru Park. I want each name to have a story. I want to see the names. I want to see the names. Stories. I want to see the names. Photographs. It is not enough to send MPESA to Red Cross. I want to be a citizen of a nation that is not just Electoristan.

My heart is dull with pain, and I feel the pull to cover it all with that hard, now familiar Kenyan cynicism and move on, which really means suck the very remaining soul of it dry.

[Image credit: @Moon_Guy_K]

How to Govern Nigeria

“Too much of a sense of identity makes a man think he can do no wrong; too little does the same.”
–Djuna Barnes (quoted in James Baldwin, “Princes and Powers,” 1956)

I

Two issues dominated political discourse in Nigeria in 2006, the final full year of the presidency of Olusegun Obasanjo (1999- 2007), the first president in the Fourth Republic: the ‘third-term agenda’ and political violence in the Niger Delta. Obasanjo’s devious attempts at extending his tenure beyond two terms were defeated by a combination of mass opposition and the opportunistic grit of his political enemies, but the violence of hostage-taking in the delta was too heedless to be fought. The militants were armed, so the state had to negotiate. One outcome of the complex negotiations was the emergence as Vice-President in 2007 of Goodluck Jonathan, formerly a professor of Zoology at the University of Port Harcourt. Inside four years, as a result of the “Doctrine of Necessity” cobbled together to resolve the constitutional crisis arising from President Umaru Yar’Adua’s demise, a man who wished for nothing higher than the deputy governorship of Bayelsa State found himself at the helms in a country where everyone has an opinion, and wields it like a warden’s rod. A man from whom little is expected dances to the music of his station.

Here is the farce that is Jonathan’s presidency:

The piercing cry of marginalization which has defined the history of the country’s oil-bearing region since independence is now little more than the murmur of a short-sighted elite operating a virulent form of internal colonialism; by presenting Jonathan as its best-foot-forward the Niger Delta has frittered immense moral and an intellectual capital; the right-wing tactics of old Nigeria, routinely deployed by the People’s Democratic Party, PDP, have eaten through the progressive fabric of the nation’s body-politic, to the extent that an alliance of North and Southwest power blocs now presents itself through the All Progressive Congress, APC, as a viable alternative, compromising progressive politics immeasurably.

II

In the euphoric days following the end of military rule in 1999, with Obasanjo settled into his job as president and the specter of Shari’a governmentality still in the northern horizon, I agreed to review a new, non-commercial magazine published by the Nigerian chapter of a non-governmental organization interested in environmental issues. People at this NGO expected me to provide a “formal analysis” of the magazine, commenting on the layout, design, and the content of the occasional political opinion. They also invited a friendly political activist to chair the event, and I knew right away what was afoot—with “a literary person” you didn’t want to leave things to chance.

They got the obligatory review, but the context of my commentary was broader. The general elections in February of that year had convinced me that the popular struggle for democratic change peaking during the regime of General Sani Abacha had been usurped by the same forces it had meant to drive out. Political struggle in the Niger Delta had been historically prosecuted on the highest level of personal sacrifice. Yet the global scale of the struggle also ensured that issues of life-and-death faced by the ordinary people in the Niger Delta were now a matter of administrative convenience. In his closing remarks, the chair of the occasion essentially debunked all my claims, and with a touch of bad taste (or good, depending on how one sees it), commented on the cologne on my shirt as proof of my political outlook.  I was more amused than offended.

Perhaps the bureaucratization of the struggle for environmental rights in Nigeria was inevitable.  In Western Europe and North America, environmentalism was a rationalized part of political life, and much of the material support that Nigerian activists received was meant to reinforce the liberal view of politics as pragmatic negotiations between the sovereignty of power and the sovereignty of rights. Did this understanding of non-governmental patronage anticipate the militancy of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, and other groups? What were the links between the militias and the groups that have occupied power in the South-South in the past decade and a half?

It is political naiveté to expect the swamp dwellers to forever hymn the wreck that had been their reality since Oloibiri. After all, power blocs rise and are consolidated from the resources that have impoverished the Niger Delta, the same blocs using the power thus gained to make the impoverishment a fact of life. If they wanted to live like that forever, there would be no point in struggling against the pervasively oppressive system to begin with.

Yet a close attention to the antagonism between President Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State in 2013, and in the historical context of the Niger Delta after 1990, revealed several things, the most disarming being the famed dictum about history repeating itself as farce. Why are those who have suffered so much due to the primitive exploitation of oil resources from the Delta so eager to continue with things as they are? Is it too much to expect that, with the balance of power in favor of the once-marginalized, greater concern for ethics would carry the day?

III

It is often said that President Jonathan, like his two predecessors in the Fourth Republic, is the product of a corrupt political process. Given the structural violence pervasive at all levels of society, a person of outstanding moral power could not have emerged as president in 2011. Jonathan’s political behavior during his first term indicated a below-ordinary level of a sense of responsibility, falling short of what his office demanded. Beyond his commendable rectitude in the face of a provocative open letter published by Obasanjo in February 2014, it is hard to find an instance in which the president has behaved with outstanding courage.

Nigerians expect a lot from their presidents; they expect a president to be powerful without being overbearing. The problem is that the Jonathan is an ordinary figure ruling a country of extraordinary expectations. What is expected is that he rises above the values of his milieu—negative for the most part—and become the one to cut the expectations to size. There is a problem here. Even with the best intentions, the president cannot fight above his weight. Add to this the peculiar experiments of the past twenty-five years (since the military formation of two political parties), which has led to the emergence of parties without distinguishing ideologies and of which the PDP is symptomatic. The result is a mismatch between the protocols of presidential power, civic expectations, and unpredictable events for which the president may not be held accountable but which he would accept as part of the turf if he had the right amount of political imagination.

This is why Jonathan as president hasn’t done much to demonstrate exceptional political will. The more controversial decisions of his presidency—the removal of putative petroleum subsidies in January 2012; the ghastly renaming of the University of Lagos as Moshood Abiola University in June 2012; the pardoning of former governor of Bayelsa State, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha; the still unaccounted-for disappearance of $20 billion in February 2014; the arms’ deal imbroglio in South Africa; the confoundingly shoddy handling of the Boko Haram menace–could have had serious consequences for Jonathan were Nigeria to be governed by transparent rules. The fuel subsidy scandal later revealed a level of corruption too high for legal probity; the failed renaming of UNILAG ran the government into a cul-de-sac, without the kind of escape route soldiers routinely created by simply shooting in the air and taking off in a cloud of dusts. Thus the president is left with only forgettable actions in the “transformational” vein. It is thus an empty PR slogan, before and during electioneering campaigns, that Jonathan’s is called the “transformational presidency.”

The president’s style is to opt for the commonplace: do the needful, stretch nothing, be seen to have done what is necessary.

Can one blame him for this? Yes, to the extent that he is an executive president and his office comes with a lot of discretionary powers. But he is an ordinary person, far from the risk-taker needing courage, loyalty or wisdom to act.

IV

Few actions generated as much anger and indignation during the first two years of Jonathan’s tenure as the controversial pardon of his former boss, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, in April 2013. The removal of petroleum subsidy and the renaming of the University of Lagos by presidential fiat were quickly or eventually reversed because the president could not really afford to fritter his political capital on those relatively insignificant issues. The big game, second-term tenure at Aso Rock, was still at large, the more cynical of his advisers must have calculated, so why allow these civic matters to lay your trap to waste?

Having come to power against the wishes of the power bloc in the North, and not sure of continuing acceptance in the other power bloc in the Southwest, Jonathan’s best bet remained the emerging bloc called South-South, his own political base. But even that could not be taken for granted, politics being what it is, and Nigerian politics for that matter. In addition to an uncertain political climate, there was another bee in the bonnet. Henry Okah, an acknowledged leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta, MEND, remained unsullied by political horse-trading.

But Okah got into trouble as soon as Jonathan got into power, following his arrest and trial for the 50th independence anniversary explosions at Eagle Square in Abuja in October 2010. Some of his statements to the court were leaked to the press, which indicated that persons close to the president had allegedly tried to blackmail him, but there was no knowing how he stood with the people in the South-South, the political base he shared with the president. Only the president and his closest advisers knew this.

Here’s a plausible scenario:

The militancy in the Niger Delta which grew out of widespread state violence in the 1990s bred an astute sense of political awakening, which MEND did a lot to institutionalize. The emergence of politicians like Jonathan, Alamieyeseigha, Peter Odili, and many others can be traced to this political awakening.

The same process explained the indispensability of this geopolitical zone to the calculations of the People’s Democratic Party in the run-up to the 2007 general elections: the Vice-Presidency had to be zoned to the South-South. Jonathan, initially deputy to Alamieyeseigha until the latter was impeached, arrested, and convicted for money laundering charges, moved swiftly from that office to the governorship, then the Vice-Presidency, until circumstances thrust him into the President’s office.

Of these figures, only Okah remained outside official politics. Whatever his current travails, he was certainly not without his own constituency. Jonathan had benefited most from the political fortunes of the region, in actual terms. His ascent to the office of the president was a historic feat, and pointed to the legitimacy of the case for the redress of the imbalances in Nigerian politics, especially as far as the Niger Delta was concerned.

On the national stage, the menace of Boko Haram and the fallout of wrangling within the ruling party seemed to be weakening the president’s hold on the party’s bridle. His desire to contest the forthcoming election was heading for a dead-end. Okah’s trial looked likely to end in at least a conviction, and if this happened without a counterbalancing development, the hold on power would be weaker still, his influence in the Delta eroded.

The rehabilitation of Alamieyeseigha came to the rescue. The former governor was reputedly influential among the leadership of the disarmed militant groups. When he returned to his base after jumping bail in 2006, he was warmly welcomed by his people. He was not a suspect in a criminal case; he was a victimized defender of their rights.

A more self-destructing politics of identity can hardly be imagined.

Postscript: March 31, 2015

Some of the best ideas that have been advanced about how to govern Nigeria as a just, inclusive and humane country, have been about federalism, the political principle in which governing power is shared between a central government and constitutive states. This is the form of government that Nigeria put into practice during the Second Republic, following the fiasco of the short-lived First, and has more or less stuck with since. I say more or less because when they’ve been able to get into power, which is not often (the Second Republic lasted four years, the Third never really took off), civilians have operated a constitution in which the ideals of federalism remain just that—ideals, and without idealism. That explains why calls for “sovereign national conference” have dogged every government, civilian or military, since 1990.

Last year, the government of Goodluck Jonathan constituted a conference that was, so the script went, aimed at responding definitively to such calls. It would be inclusive and its recommendations would be acted upon. By and large, however, the members were handpicked by the government, and it seemed to me (at least) like a nefarious form of patronage—with the forthcoming elections in view. In the run up to the elections, supporters of (now) out-going president had many field days proclaiming that talkfest as a supreme achievement.

But there was a problem: the most fulsome of these songs of praise rested on ideas of federalism as indistinguishable from regionalism. The federal principle was intended to address issues of inequality among the regions of the country, but when the People’s Democratic Party, the ruling party post-1999, made “zoning-formula” its primary article of faith, it turned what was an aspirant principle into fate. In the writings of staunch federalists like Obafemi Awolowo and Ken Saro-Wiwa, federalism is hobbled by the inchoate thought, a debatable proposition, that a presidential aspirant will come from a region! The constitutional fact, however, is that Nigeria is made up of states, not regions. It is still a long way to that cherished day when this flawed understanding of federalism will go the way of all junk. But the historic change that happened with the election of General Muhammadu Buhari (rtd) has hopefully set the country on that way.

Just hope, though: what else is there for those who can feed forever on cynicism?

*This essay originally appeared in the Africa is a Country ebook, Nigeria: What is to be done? published before last weekend’s elections. The postscript was added Thursday.

We’ve Resurrected Weekend Music Break. Here’s No.68

Keeping with the weekend’s theme, we’ve decided to resurrect the Weekend Music Break with number 68! For those who forgot (or who are new to the site), this is the place to highlight music that has caught our eye, or landed in our inboxes this week. Enjoy this edition’s selections in no particular order:

First, the video for Rocky Dawuni’s lead single “African Thriller” has been out for awhile, but his new full lenth album Branches of the Same Tree was released just last week:

 

Next we have Kenyan-Dutch musician and filmmaker Festus with a dub reggae track, and video documenting a trip home to Nairobi and Kisumu. It’s beautifully shot glance at the East African landscape and its people (despite a bit of the persistent African Kids music video theme). The track is out last week via his own label Turtleville:

 

Ghanian Hiplife/Azonto star Atumpan moves on from the small girls to focus on the baby mamas with a rural village themed video:

 

UK-based South African DJ and producer Moroka put out a groovy edit of Senyaka Kekana’s early-Kwaito single “Go Away,” as a tribute to the recently passed singer:

 

Finally, BBC1xtra had their annual Destination Africa event this past month. For it, they sent UK-based artists Stormzy, Jay Vades, and New York-based singer JoJo Abot home to Accra to record a collaborative record called, “Mievado”. This week’s release of the song was accompanied by an interactive video that gives you little closer taste of each artists’ perspectives on the city.

 

How to make sense of the #GarissaAttack in Kenya you may want to switch off television news

To make sense of the attack by Al Shabaab on Garissa University near Kenya’s border with Somalia (official count of fatalities are 148; others say closer to 200), you may want to switch off television news. Especially since CNN is moving Nairobi to Nigeria and Tanzania to Uganda. Crucial will be how these attacks will be framed in the next few hours and especially how the Kenyan state will respond (already they’ve blamed the judiciary and in the past they’ve round up Somalis despite little evidence). Equally important is public opinion. So, like we did at the time of the attack by Al Shabaab on the Westgate Mall in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, we’ve compiled a bunch of links, including some twitter accounts, we suggest you read or follow.

Here you go …

Poet Shailja Patel‘s “The Road to Garissa” on The New Inquiry.

Criminologist Mwenda Kailendia in The Guardian, “Kenya attacks: Brute force isn’t enough to beat the terrorists

Karen Rothmeyer in The Nation: “Horrifying blowback in Kenya.”

Anthropologist Samar Al-Bulushi‘s “The Politics of Spectacular Violence

Novelist Abdi Latif Ega’s “What’s it like to be Somali in Kenya

International Relations scholar Stig Jarle Hansen,”Al-Shabaab is failing in Somalia, but Kenya’s chaotic response could keep it alive” on The Conversation.

Journalist Caroline Hellyer reporting for Al Jazeera English: “Recent ISIL communications show attempts to secure influence in East Africa – the stronghold of al-Shabab and al-Qaeda.”

Harry Misiko, “How Kenya made itself vulnerable to terror,” on the Washington Post’s WorldViews blog.

Maina Kiai in Kenya’s Daily Nation,”To eliminate insecurity, we must not be tempted to take unlawful decisions

Political science graduate student Ken Opalo on his blog about “Five Things About Al-Shabaab and the Somalia Question.”

Historian Matt Carotenuto on “Terrorism and Violence in Kenya: Balancing a Global vs Local View

Samira Salwani, “Corruption and Terror: Somali Community in Kenya Caught in the Crossfire

This documentary made 2 years ago by Al Jazeera reporter Mohammed Adow (you would recognize him his recent reporting on Nigeria’s general election) about Garissa, which also happens to be his hometown. The film, which is very personal, also gives a good history of state violence in Kenya’s North Eastern Province, where Garissa is located. The North Eastern Province is  “the country’s third-largest region, borders Somalia and is exclusively inhabited by ethnic Somalis.”

We’d also suggest streaming the Kenyan channels NTV, Citizen TV and KTN.

And follow these twitter accounts: @AlinoorMB @robynleekriel @HarunMaruf @Daudoo and @KenyanPundit.

* We’ll continue to add to and update to this post. So keep checking in.

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