Africa is a Country

After #MuseveniDecides

RUB Studio

This past week Edward Ssebuwufu opened his Friday evening radio show his usual music, a Ugandan pop song simply titled “Africa.” The lyrics are a wry commentary on the politics of his native nation—“who can buy our country, we’ve put it up for sale” — and for Ssebuwufu they had once again proven to be prophetic. It was February 19th, the day after Uganda held presidential elections, and despite allegations of corruption and fraud it appeared that Yoweri Museveni would be back for a fifth term in office.

Ssebuwufu was not actually in Uganda last week, nor were most of his listeners. The show was on Radio Uganda Boston, which broadcasts worldwide on the Internet from a studio in Waltham, Massachusetts—a historic mill city in the northeast United States that has become a major center for the Ugandan diaspora.

But while the audience is scattered, their attention and sentiments are not. Once Ssebuwufu took his place behind the broadcast desk and announced the latest election figures, he opened the phone lines — punching two buttons on the mixing board to bring the first guest on air. It was a man in Norway asking which polling centers were reporting Museveni’s purported victory. A second caller in Maryland wanted to know what could be done next to challenge the results. A third claimed that the government was just waiting for everyone to go to sleep so that they could swap the numbers in Museveni’s favor. According to Ssebuwufu — who had been at the station for seven hours already that day — this has been the general tone in the diaspora: frustration, and disappointment.

And not without good reason: the elections in Uganda this past week have been mired by irregularities. Radio stations were censored and social media blocked; opposition candidates were repeatedly arrested and protests quelled while state funds fed the incumbent’s campaign; and reports of vote-buying and pre-checked ballots led the US State Department to announce: “The Ugandan People deserve better.”

Despite Museveni’s history of election tampering many in the diaspora had hoped that this time would be different. As Ssebuwufu describes it, that hope is a personal one. “If you ask any Ugandan, they will tell you: ‘I am here, I’m working—one time I want to go back home.’ That means that most of the Ugandans are living outside Uganda not because they want to, but because the situation back home is not good.” For now at least, that situation is not likely to change.

Edward Ssebuwufu

There was a lot of disappointment in Waltham on February 19. Freddie Kibuuka works the counter at Karibu, a Ugandan restaurant just off the city’s main drag. He is 29, which means that he has only known one president in his lifetime. “We felt this was our time to take power. We thought 30 years is too much.” Kibuuka spoke softly, the sense of defeat showing on his face.

At one of the tables, John Nsubuga expressed a more cynical view. Gesturing with a paper coffee cup, he announced: “You can never vote them out, only fight them out.” I heard a similar sentiment next door, where Gerald Mutiaba works as an accountant and manages his own Internet radio station. “I don’t know why people got so surprised when he came out to be the winner.”

Mutiaba placed Museveni’s reign in a larger context: “It is a trend, it has been happening. Look at Mugabe, he did it, Gaddafi did it, Saddam … Maybe we need to learn a lot from history, because it tends to repeat itself.”

But whether surprised or resigned, hopeful or skeptical, everyone I met was also concerned for  Uganda’s stability, and wanted calm, despite the injustice. Ssebuwufu told me that he has been closing out his radio show with a different song: a version of “Give Peace A Chance” released last year by the aging South African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

Ssebuwufu’s message to his listeners—whether in Uganda or the diaspora—is simple: “We are Ugandans. This is a process which comes every five years. It comes and it goes.” He adds: “Please don’t fight each other. I think we’ve walked that path for so long, enough is enough.”

The Friday night broadcast wrapped up at 9:30pm. Seven thousand miles away the sun was about to rise over Kampala. That immense distance is not as far as it once was, as Ssebuwufu’s program illustrates. The election unfolded in real time—so even though diasporic Ugandans could not vote from abroad, they could still follow official announcements, instantly share reports with relatives, and air their own views.

I had previously spent time at Radio Uganda Boston researching their music programming and its ability to connect the stations’ dispersed listeners, but coming back during the election season really drew out for me the extent to which Internet technology affects the meaning, experience and limits of being in the diaspora.

The very concept of a diaspora has always been defined in part by the existence of a shared homeland—whether real or imagined—that is preserved as a memory or myth. But for Ssebuwufu’s generation Uganda is much more than a myth; it’s a reality that they can see, hear, engage, and influence. And yet, they are still removed—protected to some degree, and also powerless; it’s still “back home” as Ssebuwufu likes to say. The election seemed to highlight that paradox of being both intimately connected and physically separated. Ssebuwufu’s listeners couldn’t take to the streets and most could not even cast ballots, so instead they called in and asked him: “What can be done next?”

“What can I do?”

Ssebuwufu didn’t have all the answers. There wasn’t much he could do either, except to keep broadcasting, to give his community an outlet for their frustration, and to hope for the best. “We are just waiting to see what happens, and we keep on praying that it’s not so bad.”

Abdi Latif Ega and the rejection of the ‘African’ novel

 Zachary RosenAbdi Latif Ega in Harlem. Credit: Zachary Rosen

It’s not an uncommon sight to find Abdi Latif Ega, cup of steaming tea in hand, strolling through the streets of Harlem in the afternoon sun, stopping to converse with a range of acquaintances along the way. Ega, a contributor to Africa is a Country, is a Somali-American novelist whose first book Guban breathes life into Somalia’s vast and intricate cultural landscape through the journeys of its characters. It’s a refreshing contrast to the barbaric representations Somalia frequently experiences from the Western media.

Now in the process of writing his second novel, Musa, Ega has launched an Indiegogo campaign to support the creative production of the book. More than just a writer, Ega embraces being a cultural worker who subverts the pigeonholing of African narratives in the mainstream publishing industry by self-publishing his work. In doing so, his writing transcends limitation by not being beholden to what a publisher deems is the  marketability of Somali and immigrant lives.

Consider contributing to this fiercely independent thinker’s campaign to create Musa and read our interview below where Ega speaks about creating complex characters, the relationship of images to creative writing and the state of African literature today.


What kinds of issues move you to write?

My writing comes from being moved to say something about injustice. It’s almost reactionary to it, as a reflex to it. There is a colossal, almost belligerent continuum through history of the elite who everything seems to be working for at the cost of most of humanity. So I don’t see myself particularly as a writer, but part of many things that involve culture; a cultural worker meaning averse to the idea that the writer is put on this pedestal on the back of a book where no one encounters him unless they come to an event or something like that. A cultural worker is a part of the village that creates to enhance the village. In essence as a cultural worker there’s some fundamental injustice or wrong narrative that I’m trying to amend, represent, change; there’s activism and it’s sort of like “writing is fighting” which Ismael Reed says all the time.

When people are coming to appreciate a collection of writing, they’re often invested in the lives of the characters. How do you conceive of your characters? And, how do they accomplish the visions that you have for your stories?

Well I think it’s not difficult for me to find characters. My characters are generally composites, sometimes caricatures of maybe 40 or 50 different types of traits. Perhaps one character can encompass three or four different kinds of bad traits that you feel in one person, like greed and avarice. Sometimes it’s toned down, sometimes exaggerated, but nonetheless a lot of the ingredients come from things that I have seen or intuitively add.

So they’re not alien to our existential, but at the same time the empty page has its own magic and sometimes you find that a character will veer off and do other things. At that point the plot will work as a harness to keep them in a certain vision so that they don’t run away completely from what it is you want to say. So there’s many ways where the character is unknown to you and they speak to you not necessarily by talking, but by inserting themselves in the work. I generally see such; shadows, silhouettes. A lot of it is also in the subconscious, that comes into play; the excavation of the archive.

Things we don’t remember that are locked in our subconscious and we need to delve into that place where the story will open up to you. That’s why it’s an excavation.

So as you’re excavating the archive, do you find yourself in conversation with writers whose work you have been influenced by?

Yeah, I think we’re somewhat collections of what we’ve read. I believe the writing is a legitimate son, or daughter of reading. So you are influenced by many people and certain lines and how that previous author did a certain thing in a description. And this doesn’t really revolve only around writers but it also revolves around poets, who are also writers in another form, musicians, artists, certain paintings you have seen or photographs or movies that capitivate your imagery.

How do photographs in particular move you? How do you translate your experience of looking at images into your writing?

Well, I think it relates in the sense of the reality of the photographs. There’s nothing closer to reality in that moment, that second or two seconds, it’s still life. And so when you’re writing an entire story from a period which is historic, you’re also in some ways creating a much larger photograph with much more detail.

So images are some of the ingredients from which the story coalesces. It seems when the reader experiences that story, they’re also recreating those images again on their own. Images are reborn then through the imaginative process of reading.

It’s a dream sequence. That’s why sometimes your imagination looks better than the movie that’s made of the book because your imagination can be so much more fascinating than what the director decided.

So what is Musa, in your new work, fighting for?

Musa is a spoof on white supremacy. It’s called Musa after the prophet Moses and it deals with a lot themes; racism, institutional marginalization of immigrants particularly of African descent, which I am. The problems of immigration; which means paperwork, legalities during, before and after the war on terror, and how one pays into the capitalist coffers of the system. There’s a duration of eight years or nine years where you might not be able to visit your family or leave the country. Those are definitely the different sides of this which have a lot of problems. I want to represent myself and the activism behind this is that there is a particular story that has not been done to even approximate the colorful lives that we’ve lived. I’m not a son of a diplomat or anything like that. I’m not from the upper class so this is a very different approach. I don’t think any experience is less than the other, but I think the question of representation, where one becomes the representative of everybody, is the issue.

You seem to also take a strong stance against more traditional publishing houses and a style of writing that some writers may perform to be published. There’s a sense that you are not interested in fitting that corporate mold. So what is your relationship with the publishing world?

My relationship is from my previous work, Guban for which I got a traditional agent.

The problem then was that what mainstream publishing was excited to publish were things in my view that were demeaning to African personalities, and particularly the image of Africa. They were more interested in producing works that had a lot to do with child soldiers, works that have something to do with pornographic famine, poverty, violence those things. In the case of Somalia it was all about warlords, pirates and terrorists. Guban is basically a response to all of that caricature and demeaning of the African personality. This is the 21st century, it is not Treasure Island. This marriage between mainstream publishing and media has often determined the things being published. So when Guban started off to actually pose a counter-narrative to these ignoble caricatures of African people, it didn’t fit what people were looking for. That is the relationship between me and mainstream publishing.

I think that [self-publishing] is something that is becoming more and more available. The people who are doing literally criticism whether they are academics or not are going through this amnesia as if it doesn’t exist. People are buying and reading more than in any other time, works that are independently published. Imagine a place like The New York Times will not review a self-published book. How realistic is that in this day and age? My experience has taught me that I think nothing in my life has been mainstream. I’m happy to put out my own work, in that I have no regrets over the work itself. There’s a certain amount of integrity in the work. That it is aligned to my politics, it’s aligned to the things that I want to speak about and I am not necessarily changing anything to pander to any market place.

You’ve alluded to corporate media feeling very comfortable with boxes and one of those contested boxes is the mythical beast of ‘African writing’. Over the last few years there’s been a lot of conversation about ‘African writing’ means.

Some writers and artists of African heritage want to say their works are art first and then ‘African.’ They don’t want to be put on the African shelf, they want to be put alphabetical. Another faction claims their ancestry and speaks of how they define for themselves what an ‘African’ experience can be. Where do you see this conversation now?

There’s a lot of projection onto the African writer in that there’s always someone trying to define what they should be doing. I think there’s an inordinate amount of paternalism that is directed towards African writing in general. The second thing is there are sort of hardened divisions between orality and also a simplistic view of African writing as beginning with Heinemann [African Writer Series], which is textual. How do you look at something in the Somali language, which is oral, or in any other language which is African and disassociate that literature with its Africanness? That’s a very difficult proposition. You cannot say a book in Somali, written from Somali poetry that comes from a long line of centuries, is not Somali. It’s difficult to remove yourself. But the appraisal of it is where the problem is. How, for example, somebody who’s writing in Chicago, all of a sudden becomes a writer who’s universal, rather than provincial and no one says this is not a universal work? I think that’s also where the problem is linked to white supremacy in that, certain literatures are not considered universal as the European or the Western one. In other words, the human condition seems to be located only in the North or the West. If all was fair and there were no limitations of universality as a writer, then of course there would be no problem. So, I don’t think it’s a negation of being an African, I think it’s a negation of being thought of as less than any writer from any country or continent. It’s a rejection of limitation.

The Free State

There are so many lessons from (and horrors) from the violence against black students at South Africa’s University of the Free State (for background, see here)  but here are my own observations:

(1) While movements like #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have been powerful and poetic, the willingness by white Afrikaner youth at theUniversity of the Free State (UFS) to resort to brute violence to protect their interests and the level of organization displayed (availability of weapons, etcetera) suggests that the kind of decentralized, non-hierarchical, diffused, and seemingly “leaderless” mode of organization may well be inadequate for unsettling the much more organized economic and near-paramilitary concern that has dared to make itself visible in a public higher education institution 22 years after the fall of apartheid. And this is a broader issue concerning who, politically, fully demilitarized as a concession to democracy and who disbanded structures of local and grassroots organization and who did not. I think UFS shows us who’s been waiting and preparing for the moment of violent racial confrontation in South Africa and who will not be swayed by the poetics of an alternative mode of engagement
(2) The rise of#RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, as I argued a few months ago, although necessary, its location in Cape Town (like at UCT) and Johannesburg (Wits University) and at Rhodes University not only eclipsed the ongoing struggles of poorer students at schools (the former technikons and “historically black universities”) like Vaal University of Technology, Durban University of Technology, Tswane University of Technology, but also the struggles of students in the vocational college sector, who have been raising issues of financial and academic exclusion for years. The bodies, lives, and experiences of Wits University and UCT students were ‘sanctified’ in ways that the bodies and hardships of poorer students in the countries post-school system were not.
(3) Linked to the above (and here the parallels with the French peasantry in the wake of the French Revolution are instructive), what UFS shows us is that the shoes that have done the disproportionate and possibly more sordid pinching of the toes of black students in South Africa’s universities has not, in fact, been at the leafy Cape Towns and and Johannesburg schools, but has remained largely unchanged and unchallenged in the quiet enclaves where the level and type of racism backed by the ever-present threat of force and violence has been much more acute. Like the French peasants, who became the squeakiest wheel in Europe, lending their weight to revolutionary fervor, the students at Cape Town, Grahamstown, and Johannesburg, as we can see, have hardly had to live in a context of such abiding physical threat and they could in fact be as vocal (and daring) as what they have been precisely because the nature of their beast operates at the level of symbolic and structural violence, not sheer force. Like the French peasants, these students ( and this is not intended to diminish the validity and urgency of their cause) can hardly be said to be the most oppressed.

(4) Finally, what’s emerged at UFS can’t be addressed by the UFS’s Vice Chancellor Jonathan Jansen or by the students and I wonder even whether or not it can be resolved by means other than violence and greater force. Those images of black students volleyed between the kicks of burly white boys have stirred a different kind of feeling inside me, and one that I would not have expected to experience 22 years after democracy. This takes me back to Point 1 above: who demilitarized and did so far too soon?

Football and power in Colombia: in bed since 1948

When thirty years ago Noemí Sanín – then Minister of Communications of Colombia – asked the directors of the main news media outlets in the country to stop their reports from the burning Palace of Justice and, instead, to broadcast a boring Millonarios-Unión Magdalena game, she was not being innovative. Football has been, throughout the country’s political history, an uncontested panic button for those in power.

We only have to remember the origin of the professionalization of Football in Colombia in 1948. A great deal of it was due to the necessity to give the people a civilized, weekly entertainment to ease the atmosphere that had been heating up since the murder of presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán — and the resulting riots on April 9th of that year.

So what did the government do? It allowed team owners to use the state’s infrastructure, and sold them dollars at a preferential rate, so the professional tournament could begin by August. Months later, news arrived of the strike in Argentina, which opened the door to poach star players from that country’s teams. Thanks to the dollars given by the state, along with other resources, Di Stéfano, Pedernera, Rial, Pontoni and others arrived to Colombian football. Ours was an openly pirate league between 1949 and 1953, which meant, among other things, that clubs were created without enough assets to face lean periods.

Years later, in 1984 when the Minister of Justice Rodrigo Lara Bonilla was murdered by narcos, the Belisario Betancur government wanted to show its claws, so said it would take steps to eradicate the mafia influence in many areas, including sport. But they were only words that didn’t become facts. Especially in an era when, as we now know, drug cartels controlled directly or indirectly a good amount of the Colombian league teams.

Five years later, on Friday August 18th, 1989, presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was murdered. The qualifiers for the 1990 World Cup in Italy were scheduled to start the following Sunday in Barranquilla. Francisco Maturana’s Colombia was to play Ecuador, and many thought that the game should be played as a balm to calm the pain of loosing the president. It was out of the question to mention the paradox that that National Team was made up of players that had reached a superlative level thanks to the investments from “controversial businessmen,” who were the same people that had fueled the death machine that caused the end of Galán.

It took the murder of a referee, Álvaro Ortega, in Medellín weeks later for the government to feel that they had enough, and the Colombian league of 1989 was cancelled. Criticisms poured in from everywhere. Maybe the fiercest one came from Francisco Maturana, who said in his biography, Hombre Pacho, that Football and politics were separate issues, and that the show had to go on. A plethora of good intentions followed, along with the announcement of requirements each team would have to meet to guarantee legality and transparency. But good intentions were just good intentions. Months later, the 1990 tournament began, and the same people were still doing the same things.

There were other milestones. The 2001 Copa América “of peace,” was used to resuscitate the agonizing peace talks with the Farc guerrilla in El Caguán. Up until ten days before its start it was uncertain if the tournament would take place. This was due to a series of terrorist attacks  happening around the country, in particular in Bogotá. Years later, Vice President Francisco Santos thought that there would be nothing like a World Cup to introduce Colombia as the Eden-like society we would become, thanks to President Álvaro Uribe’s seguridad democrática policies. And so the U-20 World Cup came to Colombia in 2011, a tournament for which the government invested 210,000 million pesos (equivalent then to 112 million dollars) to, mostly rebuild VIP areas in stadiums, including elevators that could lift the prominent bellies of FIFA  executives. All of this was done, let’s not forget, by order of Jack Warner, the former Concacaf head now in jail. And how could we forget that Angelino Garzón – the first Juan Manuel Santos Vice President – helped to secure a 50,000 million pesos loan (25 million dollars) in 2010 from the Financial Development Fund Findeter to save the Colombian league teams. Would he have done the same for pig farmers?

And between milestones, there were also those little details that guarantee strength in a relationship: invitations from the world of Football to the officers responsible for the surveillance and control of teams; presidents that welcomed teams under legal investigation into their offices; high-ranking officers that would intercede so that an extradition order doesn’t ruin their beloved toy; and honorable court justices that let slip legal suits that seek to protect fundamental rights, so they don’t lose on ticket sales, while they were  part of Dimayor – the Colombian football governing body.

It is a sick relationship, but very few, not even fans, want to be aware of it. Just like sausages, no one wants to know what are their team’s victories made of. Opinion leaders showcase high ethical standards in their usual platforms, but in the stadium they are much more flexible.

The biggest problem is that someone’s sons are the ones effected by this arrangement. They are footballers, in particular those of low or medium profiles, that when their rights are not respected, and they ask the state for assistance, they are met with the message that the corresponding officer is  on a trip to Barranquilla, invited by the Colombian Football Federation.

This article originally appeared in Spanish in FútbolRed and is translated here with permission.

It’s the economy stupid, N°2

Here’s episode 2 in our new series. If you missed the first instalment and the rationale behind, click here.

(1) Suppose you are a poor country that also has wide-scale corruption, what should you do first? Target scarce resources to fight corruption and hope that growth follows thereafter or grow first and then hope that corruption declines? It appears that the empirical evidence doesn’t give much guidance on what to do. This from Bjorn Lomborg’s Project Syndicate column this past week: “[E]xperts do not agree on whether good governance or development should come first. Historically, good institutions such as secure property rights and the rule of law were seen as the single most important factor driving variation in the wealth of countries, and more corruption was associated with lower growth. But more recent analyses have shown that it could just as easily be that higher wealth and economic growth lead to better governance.”

(2) Even more, conscious efforts at fighting corruption are hardly successful. This again from Lomborg: “A study of 80 countries where the World Bank tried to reduce corruption revealed improvement in 39%, but deterioration in 25%. More disturbing is that all of the countries the World Bank didn’t help had similar success and failure rates – suggesting that the Bank’s programs made no difference.”

(3) More on corruption: A few weeks ago, Transparency International released their 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index report and African countries were singled out as being some of the most corrupt in the world. This is not to deny that corruption is a big issue on the continent, just as its more sophisticated nature is a big issue in Western countries. But what all this discussion neglects to mention is that there is currently a scholarly debate as to whether the Corruption Perceptions Index tells us anything meaningful about the extent of corruption, particularly in the developing world. (We also wrote about this in 2010).

(4) Is all this focus on corruption a red herring? A sort-of “Anglo-American fetish”? After all, who can confidently say corruption was nil when the West was rising?

(5) We were disturbed to learn that Malawi has a 60 year old Colonial-era Tax Treaty with the U.K. that makes it easy for U.K. companies to limit their tax obligations in Malawi. The treaty was “negotiated” in 1955 when Malawi was not even Malawi yet. Malawi (or Nyasaland, as it was known then) was represented in the negotiations, not by a Malawian, but by Geoffrey Francis Taylor Colby, a U.K. appointed Governor of Nyasaland. You can’t make this stuff up.

(6) Back in 2007, the cognoscenti were lauding Ghana as the next African star performer. Ghana then followed this up by going an international borrowing binge. It turns out that much of Ghana’s performance was built on pillars of sand, well sort of.

(7) Over at the LSE Africa Blog was this thought-provoking piece on the informal sector in Africa. The piece argues that the informal sector is important for Africa’s development. Whereas we don’t deny that thinking about the informal sector should be part and parcel of a broad development strategy on the continent, we are a bit apprehensive about the potential for the sector on its own to drive self-sustaining growth. We wrote about this last year.

(8) Another one, from the LSE Africa Blog about the “brain drain” in Africa.

(9) Here’s Dani Rodrik talking about some of the adverse effects of so-called “Free Trade” Agreements.

(10) Talking about the adverse effects of free trade, there appears, sadly, to be a link between free trade and mortality.

(11) Who knew that China, a big creditor to the world, was itself heavily indebted.

(12) Finally, Admiral Ncube, a Zimbabwean aid worker has penned this brilliant poem on aid work as an insult to the poor. An excerpt:

Experts have risen who have not been poor
Whose studies and surveys bring no change
Whose experiments and pilots insult the poor
Whose terms and concepts, tools always change
An industry of sorts – an insult to the poor.

 The part of Ncube’s poem talking about “experiments and pilots” as insults to the poor, reminded us of this story from last year on a most indignifying economic experiment conducted in villages in Western Kenya. We weren’t pleased.

The Fire This Time

While the fight for the 0% fee increase commanded an amazing breadth of support, the subsequent, more radical trajectory of the South African student movement is jilting many sympathizers – including progressives (if you have South African friends, just check your Facebook feed.)  This was certainly the case with the latest action at UCT – in which students erected a shack on campus and burnt colonial, artwork amidst a brutal crackdown by police and private security. While the “Fuck Whites” t-shirt campaign at Wits University only got a few people exercised, the sight of paintings going up in flames has many more debating.

Social media was alight with complaints that students had gone too far, that they were squandering sympathy and that such actions undermined their cause. The latter in particular is a common form of outside commentary: assuming a firm understanding of the students’ long-term goals and the best way of reaching them, and then adjudicating every event in purely tactical terms–whether or not it furthers the cause and thus whether or not it is justified.

It’s quite natural for the Left and for the public in general to debate and prognosticate over movements in which the whole society has a stake. But the above is not a helpful way of doing so. In the first place, it seems premised on erasing the context in which events unfold. It treats the students as a unitary agent – freely choosing its own path and thus morally culpable for all outcomes and externalities. This does violence to the reality of a decentralized, horizontally organized, mass movement – one that erupted suddenly out of wellsprings of suppressed rage, and that has shifted and evolved in response to repression and subversion. Like all radical movements, methods are not always clean or neatly pre-figurative of new ideals, nor should they be. For activists on the ground it’s imperative to fight for them to be aligned with ultimate aims. But for those outside, holding a moral compass to everything that transpires, rather than analyzing real distributions of power and calling attention to the disproportionate violence of the state, is not the course of someone genuinely sympathetic to the aspirations of the movement.

The most unhinged critics suggested a slippery slope from the burning of paintings to Nazism or Fahrenheit 511. Such notions do not bear serious engagement, but since a great many of commentators seem exercised by moral absolutes on the sanctity of art – it’s worth stating the obvious on why context matters, even here. The systematic suppression of art or literature is not something any progressive movement would want to condone – it signifies degeneration and counter-revolution. But no such thing was taking place at UCT, this was not the actions of a state or militarist organization deliberately trying to erase a culture, but another symbolic act of anger on behalf of an subaltern movement persecuting a legitimate struggle for decolonization – a central domain of which is aesthetic. Of course we may wish for a more temperate solution, the relegation of those turgid paintings to some dusty museum, but the reality is that we don’t always have a choice – mass action obeys its own logic. To project a veld fire out of a bonfire on this issue, when the realities of police brutality and exclusion are so immediate, seems not only pedantic but a complete corroboration of what protestors are claiming – that black lives matter less than white insecurities.

Thankfully, the students themselves do not seem much perturbed by these responses – they are viewed as just another predictable instantiation of attempts to police black rage by a sordid establishment. It has been my honest view that such arguments have been overused by some activists – with the result that fraternal critique is not adequately distinguished from hostile denunciation. But those pressing to uncover colonial hangovers behind all of their critics have sadly been validated time and again, and this latest incident will be viewed as no exception. None of this is to suggest that the movement is beyond reproach, that we can totally separate its cause from its means, or that tactics need not be seriously dissected within the ranks and extremist elements held to account. Torching offices and buses is reckless and likely to lead only to further repression – but to equate the rage of the protestors with the official brutality of the state is the bedrock of conservatism.

Boutros-Ghali, more than an Ali G punchline

How to mark the passing of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former UN Secretary General and a major figure of late 20th Century global affairs? Perhaps by appraising the lessons to be learned from his life and work. The world in 2016 presents a set of problems distinct from those faced by Boutros-Ghali as the Cold War fizzled out in the early 1990s. He had hopes for a more just international order, hopes which were thwarted and cast aside, as the US and its NATO allies careered towards a new norm of “humanitarian intervention,” the unending, spreading wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the new migration crisis. So while his contribution to the international political landscape cannot exactly be appraised as a triumph, perhaps the lessons to be learned are from his dashed aspirations. With all of that in mind, we asked a few scholars in international relations to reflect on Boutros-Ghali’s life and career.

Oumar Ba

Boutros-Ghali – the first African to become UN Secretary General, started his tenure at a time of tumultuous world events that left the UN still incapable of creating an efficient organization for a new era. In 1992, the Berlin Wall had already fallen, the East-West divide had dissipated to the point of making it easier to pass UN Security Council resolutions, but the world also entered an era where complex humanitarian crises meant that peacekeeping operations meant no longer merely sending blue helmets to monitor cease-fires. These were the times of Boutros-Ghali.

Somalia and the US response to it in 1993 pitted Boutros-Ghali against the Clinton administration. The following year, Rwanda revealed the extent to which inaction had paralyzed the UNSC, eager to issue mandates without appropriate resources.  For instance, as the Rwandan genocide was unfolding, the UN decided to reduce its presence from 2,500 to 200 troops, with the mandate of helping the parties negotiate to stop the killings. This failure certainly can’t be squarely imputed to Boutros-Ghali, but rather to the UNSC members. In 1995, Bosnia proved what everyone already knew: the UN was utterly incapable of delivering on its promise to preserve international security.

Yet, Boutros-Ghali had the perfect profile to be UN Secretary General, if there ever was one: African, Arab, Christian, Francophile, seasoned diplomat, international law scholar. His ambitious 1992 Agenda for Peace provided a blueprint for UN reforms, to address the new challenges of the post-Cold War politics and conflicts. It called for a more robust peacekeeping force on standby, with wider mandates and responsibilities in not only preserving peace, but also creating it, where necessary. But it would soon be obvious that the powers to be were not interested in implementing such agenda.

With the Clinton administration’s decision to bar him from serving a second term – and Madeleine Albright as the executioner of that decision – Boutros-Ghali left a UN that still struggled to draw a new blueprint for the 21st century. The man who wanted but failed to make the post of UN Secretary General more secretary than general later returned to the francophone world as the first Secretary General of the Organization Internationale de la Francohphonie.

AR-160219727Boutros-Ghali and Mandela

Lina Benabdallah

That Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s legacy is tainted with major failures in humanitarian interventions is a mischaracterization of his role within the bigger picture. The pitfalls and disappointments of the post-Cold War United Nations should be placed within the context of larger issues that permeated that era. From a Western-centric perspective, the Cold War (not universally all that cold) was a success since no bullets were fired. From a non-Western perspective, conflicts such as the one in Somalia or Cambodia were direct echoes of the realpolitik going on between the two superpowers. Boutros Boutros-Ghali was the first UN secretary general of the post-Cold War global order and inherited a completely different organization. Was he set up for failure?

In hindsight, it is clear that the UN’s transition from a Cold War sabbatical mode to a more proactive international role had to face a few bumps along the way. Boutros-Ghali walking into his term viewed the early 1990s not as a time to celebrate the end of the Cold War; but as the duty of the international ‘community’ to repair the damage done at the Cold War’s margins, in Africa (mainly). He writes in his book Unvanquished: a U.S.-U.N. Saga “I had been elected as Africa’s candidate to take “Africa’s turn” in the job of UN secretary-general. Because of this, (…) I committed myself to try to advance the cause of the continent.”

In my view Boutros-Ghali treated the UN as a post-colonial body which was tasked to respond to issues primarily in the Global South, and specifically in Africa. He reiterated in several instances, controversially, that loss of life to conflicts in Europe and North America should not be valued more than those in Africa and Asia. He reportedly described the conflict in former Yugoslavia as “the war of the rich.” Needless to say such statements earned him heavy criticism.

His stand with the ‘wretched of the Earth’ in the Global South was admired by many, but the existential dilemma of his organization and its financial dependence on U.S. congress tied his hands. For US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and the Clinton administration, Boutros-Ghali had taken a little too seriously his title as general (as in secretary-general) more than secretary. In any event, Boutros-Ghali’s provocation and pressure on the US to pay its dues to the UN did not bode well, and was one of the cards used against reelecting him for a second term, and contributed to his disenchantment with the institution.

Yet, more controversy followed Boutros-Ghali’s legacy even long after his relationship with the UN. Recently, in an interview with Jeune Afrique, Boutros praised Egyptian president Al-Sissi as a selfless man who “only took over power because there was no other solutions,” adding that by doing so he “saved Egypt.” This support, and blunt denial of the existence of any political opposition in Egypt, earned Boutros-Ghali a lot of criticism at home and abroad as Al-Sissi’s regime has been denounced for severe violations of human and political rights.

Muhammed Korany

As we mourn the loss of Boutros Boutros Ghali. We should remember his tireless efforts to promote diplomacy as the beacon of light in the darkest times. He showed us that even when war seems unending, there is a path to light. It’s important that even in the turbulent times that we live in today that we remember peace and prosperity are just over the horizon.

We highly recommend checking out Vijay Prashad’s superb piece for The Hindu. Here’s an excerpt:

During his tenure at the UN, Boutros-Ghali laid out an Agenda for Peace (1992) and an Agenda for Development (1995). In the former, he argued for more robust UN action towards the sources of instability in the world. It was not enough to increase UN peacekeeping missions — to send out the blue helmets to police the world. That was merely a symptomatic approach to crisis. The UN needed to tackle the roots, to understand how the “sources of instability in the economic, social, humanitarian and ecological fields have become threats to peace and security.” To get beyond symptoms, Boutros-Ghali hoped to drive a new “agenda for development,” which would counter the tendency to allow unfettered corporate power to undermine the interests of the millions. Impoverishment created the conditions for insecurity. A secure world would require the human needs of the people to be taken seriously. Debt of the Third World had to be forgiven. No International Monetary Fund-driven recipe for growth should be forced on weak countries. “Success is far from certain,” he wrote of his agenda, which seems charming in light of what followed.

Boutros-Ghali warned, in 1992, “The powerful must resist the dual but opposite calls of unilateralism and isolationism if the United Nations is to succeed.” He had in mind the U.S., which believed that it need not heed the diversity of opinion in the world but could push its own parochial agenda in the name of globalisation. Boutros-Ghali went unheeded. In 1993, at a lunch with Madeleine Albright, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and with Warren Christopher, U.S. Secretary of State, he said, “Please allow me from time to time to differ publicly from U.S. policy.” He recalled that Ms. Albright and Christopher “looked at each other as though the fish I had served was rotten.” They said nothing. There was nothing to be said. The sensibility of the moment was that the Secretary-General of the UN needed to take his marching orders from the White House. The Americans do not want you merely to say “yes”, he would later say, but “yes, sir!”.

The Burning

At the University of Cape Town (UCT) this week, a group of students protested the housing crisis that has affected the university for as long as black people have been present as students on the campus.  Every year black students students starve and drop out because they cannot afford campus accommodation. The #RhodesMustFall (RMF) movement, from which South Africans have come to expect uncompromising and hard-to- watch displays of anti-colonial symbolism, decided to erect a shack to disrupt the complacency that says shacks must stay in their place.

The appearance of a small corrugated iron shack where it doesn’t belong.  It was jarring; incongruous amidst the pristine and manicured elitism of UCT.  It looked malignant; a growth where tidiness normally masks exclusion.

It was a powerful statement but the protesting students were not content with just ruffling feathers.  They wanted to make a pyre: to burning paintings the way one might an effigy.  It was a send-off to all the dead white men whom history has covered in glory instead of blood.

The fact that the UCT art collection continues to house so many of these sorts of portraits was laid bare.  The flames licked at history.  The colonial exploiters were framed in gilt and the fact of them, the idea that there are so many homages to this past, was sickening.

So I looked at the pictures and felt sick.  I felt sick at the fact of them, and I felt sick at their being burned.  Then I learned that the Vice Chancellor’s office had been petrol bombed and I felt very very sick indeed.  What if there had been, in there a black woman cleaning.  What would we then say about the collateral damage?

The events at UCT unfolded after weeks of tension at Wits University. Last week, a student Zama Mthunzi who was reported to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) for hate speech over a t-shirt he created during a protest over the financial exclusion of poor students from Wits, and the presence of security personnel on campus.

Art, it seems, has contagious qualities, as does violence.

At both UCT and Wits, at the University of Kwazulu-Natal and at the University of Johannesburg, indeed at many of the historically white universities in South Africa, private security has been heavily present since the beginning of the academic year in late January.   University administrators have dug in their heels, as have activists.  Both sides accuse one another of violence.

The university of course, has institutional and structural weight on its side.  It has far more “respectable” power than the students.  It has the logic of the status quo in its corner and so it is easy to see it as ‘rational’ in the face of irrational and angry students.

I take this as a given.  I do not suggest that the university and students have commensurate power.  Perhaps my problem is that I expect more from emancipatory movements than I do from the academy.  I want the movement that is building and growing to be ‘clean,’ and untainted by the decay and rot of violence, by accepting that the winning side gets to erase all traces of their enemy.

More to the point though, of what really worries me, is the sense that our national debates about these issues are so starkly polarized. Too many of us insist on scorn and derision, and yet these issues are critical for our common future.  South Africans, it seems are increasingly engaged in violent rhetoric and action.

So this is not a note aimed at berating #RhodesMustFall though the blowing up of the office is chilling.  I have disagreements with some of the tactics they have used of late.  More broadly though, as I look across the political and social landscape, I am concerned that our activists should not succumb to the either/or thinking that seems to have gripped other quarters in our country.  I fear though, that many amongst the student movement are veering in this direction.

Responses to the t-shirt and to the tactic of burning the Vice Chancellor’s office and also the art have been so frighteningly unequivocal.  You are either totally with the students, defending their right to burn art and buildings because people’s lives matter more and ‘who cares about those dead whites and rubbish art anyway?’ or you hate the students and dismiss their concerns because they are wanton and dangerous property destroyers.

Something is wrong.   Similarly, in the case of the t-shirt, there is an important debate to be had.  Is saying “Fuck Whites,” a useful or a diversionary tactic? Where does the violence of masculist language take us?  Yet in too many quarters, simply asking these questions makes you a sell out.  On the other end of the divide, it makes you anti-white, a hate-monger for daring to support a student’s speech as fair comment in a racist society.

The false need for agreement, and the vitriol spread around when people disagree – with university management, with politicians, and with activists – is starting to worry me.

But let me be clear about my own views on some of this. On RMF, and specifically the UCT issue, it is shameful that students have not been guaranteed the right to housing. Part of the project of making universities spaces of liberation and genuine learning includes supporting poor students to be fully functional students like their elite peers.

Also, art must not be burned.  Supporters of the burning of the paintings have argued that this is yet another defense of western notions of respectability; that art is sacrosanct because European democracy says that it is.  I find this view too narrow, and indicative of how much work we still have to do to decolonize our mentalities.

In African societies the griot, the dancer, the woman who painted her home or beaded, or who drew paintings on the inside of a cave –  have been important and in some instances sacred people in our communities.  So I am skeptical of the idea that ‘art’ is only valued by people from settler and colonizing societies. It seems to me that we ought to value art precisely because our acts of creativity have been so under-valued and mis-recognised for so long.

Burning colonial artifacts might feel good but in the end it seems like an act of woundedness rather than an act of strength.  It does symbolic violence to the colonizers and that may be okay, but more than that – and this is where I have real questions – it seeks erasure. I want to believe that a movement for justice is one that rages against forgetting, not one that enables it.

I continue to believe that the students who have brought Rhodes’ statue down and continue to insist that we look his legacy in the face, are some of our finest and bravest minds.  They have found a way to demonstrate the symbolism of the colony and to shake this country out of the complacency of accepting the intolerable. They must also know that when you begin to destroy art (regardless of its quality or who made it) the collateral damage is always, always far more bloody and self-harming than you can immediately see.

In the end a movement is not simply the sum of its ideas; it is spoken for by the actions of its members. A movement marks its progress by what it has created and not just by what it destroys (although destruction has its place).

A movement must see beyond the here and now; beyond the catharsis of immediate disturbance. Catharsis has its own power but it must not be mistaken for power. What is done in the name of a movement either builds it, or haunts it.

The task for this generation of activists is to reimagine power and this means resisting the impulse to use power in a way that demeans and cheapens and exploits. This means refusing to use the master’s tools. Violence is the favourite tool of the institutions and structures that do the most harm to black and poor and marginalized people everywhere in the world and so I will continue to repudiate its use, even as I recognize that it takes place in the context of greater and often disproportionate violence. I know this is not popular amongst those with whom I spend intellectual time but it is a position I have considered carefully.

I would like the RMF movement to employ ever more creative and energy-giving means to fight power as it is currently understood in this country. I would like RMF and other student groupings to also aim their ire at the liberators who are also black, because they have betrayed the dreams of millions and they command a trillion rand state budget. #FeesMustFall began this focus on the state but I am deeply interested in where it goes and what that also builds. I would like RMF to widen its scope while also continuing to aim at those who have always run the colony and who still today continue to administer a system of intellectual apartheid.

I know that this is not my movement and that I am almost old enough to be a mother to some of the protesting students, so these are just wishes. I am aware that this is a lot to ask and that it has its pitfalls.  Still, given everything I have witnessed this past year, I am hopeful. I continue to watch this generation and to be awed by its energy and dynamism and bravery. I remain an ally – critical; worried at times; on my feet with excitement at others – but an ally nonetheless.

Akin Omotoso’s NBA All Star Weekend diary, Toronto

Wednesday 11th:  In Rum We Trust

All that snow that Alejandro G. Inarritu said evaded them in Alberta, Canada during The Revenant shoot finally turned up in The T-Dot with full force.

I thought I would escape writing about the weather this year but it dominated all the narratives. Even the Lords Of The Court weren’t immune. Commissioner Adam Silver’s joke about the weather was the best for me, he joked to reporters that the game was played indoors. And indoors on College Street at Free Times Café was where I found myself on arrival. I asked the waiter for their house special telling him I had journeyed from far. The Hot Apple Rum cider was presented to me. As I sipped on it, I asked why he recommended this drink. He smiled and said: “when it’s cold like this, in rum we trust.”

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Thursday 12th: Giants Of Africa

Masai Ujuri has a lot to be proud of as the world arrives in Toronto for All Star weekend. The All Star Game will feature two of their players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the Raptors are the number two team in the Eastern Conference behind a team led by the King.

Kicking off the festivities was a premiere screening of a documentary on Masai’s work on the African continent called Giants of Africa. The premiere was at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the official home of the Toronto International Film festival. The invite called for smart casual, let’s just say I dressed warmly which to me was the smart thing to do. It was a red carpet affair, with all the guests walking onto the red carpet with the sounds of Baba 70 playing. The Fela Playlist was strong and I nearly burst out dancing when my one of my favorite Fela songs came on. In fact, I wanted everyone to stop for a minute and listen to “Army Arrangement.” I remember once watching Seun Kuti perform the song at a gathering in Lagos a few years ago, and even though Fela wrote the song in the 70s, and Seun was singing it in the present, he didn’t have to change a single sentence. That’s genius.

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The documentary, directed by Academy Award nominee Hubert Davis, follows Masai and his team as they try to make an impact in the lives of basketball players in Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Rwanda through the Giants Of Africa program and the basketball camps they hold. The film is very moving and powerfully told. Especially because of the players, and their histories, and the wars some of them have overcome to make it to playing in the camps — you can really get a sense of the salvation this hoop dream can bring. Cinematically, it presents a basketball poetry hardly seen from the point of view of Africans. There is a sequence where a character tells the most gruesome story of his upbringing, while the camera tracks beside him dribbling the ball on the darkest of nights — it was cinema at its most visceral.

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Friday 12th: Ice Cold 6

The first thing that I realized today was that whatever I had brought for warmth wasn’t going to cut it. Never mind wardrobe malfunction, I needed a wardrobe overhaul. Basically my South African jackets were vests compared to what I needed to deal with in The 6. I had to get Mammoth type furs.

It was the Rising Stars Game. To celebrate the first NBA All-Star game taking place outside of the U.S.A., the NBA made Team World the home team instead of Team U.S.A.. Representing Canada were Andrew Wiggins, Trey Lyles and Dwight Powell. For the continent, Denver Nuggets Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, whose story going from DRC to China to the NBA has to be told on film some day. And even though Jahlil Okafor was playing for Team U.S.A., we still ‘throway salute’ as they say in Pidgin English. Mudiay came out smoking, and despite his best efforts Team U.S.A won by three points.

After the game, walking through the pathways from the Air Canada Centre — built to keep visitors like myself out of the cold, someone said that tomorrow was going to be colder. I asked myself how that was even possible?

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Saturday 13th : Negative 31

The lady told me, “No one gets accustomed to negative 31 wind chill,” as she fetched her jacket from the coat check. “I might be Canadian but I ain’t crazy!” she added. Originally, when I planned this trip I thought it would be a great opportunity to get the see the city from a different point of view. Usually when I’m in Toronto I just use the taxis. This time I thought I’d explore the bus routes, do some walking etc. Then Revenant Part 2 snow happened and I realized a few things about my life: 1) I have nothing to prove to anyone 2) From now on I am limiting the steps I take in actual snow. 3) I now know how fast I can get from the house to the Uber, and how fast I can get from the arena door to the front seat of the taxi. These are the things that start to consume my mental and physical energy, because the cold is real.

Klay Thompson paid attention when his father told him not to come home if he didn’t win the three point shoot out. And then, the event that had been low on everyone’s radar turned out to be a history making one. To be in the arena and watch Aaron Gordan and Zach LaVine go at it in ways that the contest hasn’t seen since the Air Jordan and The Human Highlight Film was the one time, for a brief moment, that Negative 31 was the last thing on my mind. To watch such a history making event live was surreal, and as someone on Twitter said, “They should have had them dunking till Monday!” To think I had even dared to suggest that the dunk contest be moved from the highlight of the evening to the middle section and the 3-point contest turned to the main event. How dare I?

Sunday 14th: Kobe

The score was never the thing about today’s All-Star Game. It was all about Kobe.

The fans at the Air Canada Centre gave him a great send off. The custodians of the game, those Lords Of The Court, kept it free flowing. The jump ball between Kobe and Lebron was a nice touch. And, with different players taking turns to guard Kobe, the mood was light, and the audience was appreciative. This is why we watch, this is what we play for and this is why they play.

And while Kobe had the night, Steph Curry reminded everyone that he and the Warriors are still the team to beat, the team to watch and bring on the second half of the season.

*All photos by Akin Omotoso

Capturing Brazilian Candomblé through the lens of Mario Cravo Neto

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

There is a silent story when studying global history in the UK. This is the history of the slave route from the African continent to Brazil. Led by Portuguese colonisers, the route between Africa and Brazil saw ten times more slaves crossing the ocean (around 5.5 million in total, of which 4.8 made it across alive) than the ones forced by the British to work in the U.S.

Most of the people taken to Brazil were forced to work in Portuguese plantations, with the central hub being the city of Salvador in Bahia, founded in 1548. This city is also the birthplace of photographer, Mario Cravo Neto.

Born in 1947, Cravo Neto is one of Brazil’s most widely acclaimed photographers. Rivington Place—one of London’s foremost art centres—is now hosting Cravo Neto’s first UK solo exhibition. He passed in 2009, but this exhibition shows how much he will be missed.

Cravo Neto’s work is important to understand the religious practice of Candomblé in Brazil. Candomblé is a religious practice based on West African beliefs, specifically from the Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu people. From the 16th Century, many of these people brought their traditions and oral histories on the slave ships, weaving them together (combined also with the colonisers Catholicism) to form what refer today as Candomblé.

Portuguese colonisers tried to end the traditions of Candomblé, which explains why the first Candomblé church was only founded in the 19th Century. Candomblé followers were still frequently persecuted until the 1970s, but this was perhaps more to do with its role as a religion that is essentially racialised and tied to ‘blackness,’ which many Portuguese demonised.

Case in point, the initial colonisers were intensely aware of this majority non-white population, thus systematically encouraged and implemented a migration of white Portuguese population to Brazil. Miscegenation—the mixing of different racial groups—during the period of slavery was also a lot higher in Brazil than in the U.S.: whilst this may be attributed in part to promiscuity, it also reads as a dissemination of the white, Portuguese ‘seed’ into the black population (whilst the British feared miscegenation, the Portuguese seemed to encourage it).

cravoMario Cravo Neto, ‘Sacrificio ‘V [1989], Courtesy of Daros Latinamerica Collection, Zurich & Rivington Place, London.

Candomblé as tied to blackness was seen as an act of resistance against the coloniser. This was literal in the case of quilombos: communities founded by runaway slaves, where Candomblé is most often practiced and to this day undergo frequent raids by police. A quashing of Candomblé thus becomes a quashing of blackness, and vice versa.

Cravo Neto’s photographs therfore become a site of resistance. He understands the importance of Candomblé to Brazilian identity, and puts it at the forefront of his work. His images are imbued with references to the spiritual practice: Sacrificio V (above), the sacrifice of animal, which is said to feed the deities, existing as an explicit example.

Less clear are some of the other more nuanced black and white portraits that make up the first half the exhibition named The Eternal Now.  In this instance I think of Deus de Cabeça (Head of God; see photo below). An integral part of the belief is the following of orixas (orishas), the deities underneath the supreme creator, Oludumaré. Each person is said to have their own orixas, based on their personal character, who they then communicate with and worship throughout their lifetime. Parallel to orixas are nkisi, objects which contain a spirit. Deus de Cabeça is a coming together of both orixas and nkisi. The subject holds the spirit, represented here in turtle, to their face—their bodies becoming a patterned symbiosis—amalgamating the nkisi, or the orixas (whichever way you want to see it) with their human counterpart. 


Laróyè is the second portion of the exhibition. The word is a greeting to éxù, the messenger of all the orixas. As Argentinean curator Gabriela Salgado writes:without his [éxù’s] consent, the other entities would not manifest or connect with humans, as he holds the key to open the gates of the intangible.”

In her salient essay she also goes on to point out that éxù is an entity that patrols the street and protects those that inhabit it, “the homeless, the stranded and children.” Cravo Neto’s colour photos here come as manifestation of éxù, the camera eye reflecting that of éxù’s own. The messenger’s colours are black and red and this colour scheme is leitmotif that runs throughout the photographs that Cravo Neto made for Laróyè. Whilst the shadows in these photos are strong, the bodies of the Salvador population exude the prevailing black. They become the ‘earth’ and clad in red cloth, the ‘fire’ too, that the black and red of êxù are said to symbolise. They are the human counterparts of éxù – both the life force of Salvador and the messengers of the Gods.

CravoMario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

But what if, like me, you have little knowledge of Candomblé when you enter Rivington Place? What I was reminded of first was the musings of novelist, essayist and photographer, Teju Cole, in his essay, “A Truer Picture of Black Skin.“ In the black and white works of Cravo Neto, but even in some of his colour photographs, there is not always an attempt to illuminate black skin. I mean that literally—some of these photos are dark, the shadows, as aforementioned, are strong. Teju Cole writes similarly about the photographer, Roy DeCarava: “His work was, in fact, an exploration of just how much could be seen in the shadowed parts of a photograph, or how much could be imagined into those shadows.”

Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.Mario Cravo Neto, ‘Laróyè 1980-2000. Courtesy Rivington Place, London.

What DeCarava was shooting, says Teju Cole, was black identity under question. The same could be said of Cravo Neto, even if imagined differently. Both are documenters of the black experience in their respective countries (DeCarava’s in the U.S.). Both use the shadows to help illustrate their point. They differ as photographers all over the place: framing, colour, abstraction vs. realism. But the shadows remain, and talk of untold or invisible experiences.

There aren’t many fixed statistics regarding the numbers of Candomblé followers in Brazil. In 2010, around 5% of the population declared themselves spiritualists—one can only imagine some of these follow Candomblé, but not all.

In a country that declares itself a racial democracy (something to explore another time), I believe it important to understand the history of Candomblé (even if the numbers are small) to the Afro-Brazilian experience—as both a cultural practice, a form of black unity, and as colonial defiance. In this sense, the photographic works of Cravo Neto are increasingly important: as documentation, as art, and as resistance.

‘Mario Cravo Neto: A Serene Expectation of Light’ is on at Rivington Place, London till 2nd April 2016, and is free entry. Do also check out the exhibition there on Maud Sylter—it is equal importance.

Teca #5: Music pours down in Lima

Welcome back to Teca, Latin America is a Country’s own jukebox, where we’ll introduce you to some of the coolest, hippest, most recent music from cities around Latin America.

It never rains in Lima. Even if this is not entirely true, you are likely to hear Peruvians say this often about their capital on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. It is humid, but temperate out there, and though there is (almost) no rain, there are always clouds closing over the Limeño sky.

Maybe this is why, when I think about the music of Lima, I first think about introspective bands with beautifully arranged bittersweet, rueful songs. But this city of nine million people (about 30% of Peru’s total population) has plenty to offer, from the cumbia chicha bands of the local huekos, to a punk-rock revival, to a never-ending supply of electrocumbia sounds, and much more.

This is why we’re bringing you a new edition of Teca right from the City of Kings, with some of the hippest and coolest limeño bands. Here’s our brief selection:

Kanaku y el Tigre

Bruno Bellatín and Nicolás Saba had been playing music together for over 15 years in Lima. They collaborated often, but had their own projects. Then, Saba started to call himself “El Tigre.” One day, Bellatín realized they were collaborating all the time, so maybe he should find a name for himself to accompany “El Tigre.” He chose “Kanaku,” which Bellatín says is “a call to introspection.” And, thus, Kanaku y el Tigre was born.

They play banjos, ukuleles, Peruvian charangos, as well as various toy instruments, and they got some people to play drums, percussions and horns, too. They say their sound is “Peruvian Psychedelic Funk,” but that seems to fall short to describe the beautiful simplicity of their songs, which may appear bare upon first inspection, but are truly rich and decorated.

They debuted with the album Caracoles in late 2010 (from which the below track, “Bicicleta,” comes from), with which they became known around the Latin American indie scene. Last year, they followed up with Quema, Quema, Quema, which features cover art drawn by hyper-famous Argentinean cartoonist Liniers, as well as the sounds of more traditionally pop/rock instruments and beats, but still with a definitive style.


Legend has it that, a few years ago, Rui Pereira decided to move to the Lima beach to record a demo. One day, Sandro Labenita dreamed he was in a band with Rui. Sandro told Rui of this dream and they decided to come together to form Tourista, a dance-rock, indie-pop trio (completed by the synth-master known as Genko) that has gotten airplay throughout Peru.

They debuted in 2012 with their EP Déficit de atención, fast-paced, danceable punk-rock music aided by synths, loops and Pereira’s catchy lyrics. In about two weeks, they will debut a new album, Colores paganos, which they promise will be filled with more Afro-Peruvian instruments, as well as more Andean and tropical melodies.

The first single from Colores paganos, “Select y Start,” promises a much slower, more introspective record. But for now, here is the song that made me love them:

La Lá

In 2014, the singer/songwriter La Lá released her album Rosa, which subsequently, I hope, was played next to many lit fireplaces, or within reach of ocean waves. Her music is, as her website describes it, the music of intimacy, music that “invites you to take a nap in the sofa, or drink a tea while you look out the window after having lunch.”

It is a very fragile, internal, personal state, and the minimal arrangements do perfect justice to La Lá’s voice, a voice that slowly wraps around you and keeps you comfort. So get the wine out, dim the lights, and listen to her powerfully subtle vocals:

Pamela Rodríguez

Wow, 2011 was five years ago? That’s when Pamela Rodríguez released her latest album, Reconocer, an indie record that still sounds relevant. There, she sings in a way that makes you hear to what she’s saying, with a particular twist to the female singing voice that has become common in some Latin American indie acts.

Her singing voice and style has changed considerably from her debut album Peru Blue (2005) and her second record La orilla (2008), but I believe it has changed for the better. Fortunately, for those of us who wanted to hear her again, last year Pamela released a song (or EP?) in four movements: Una herida hecha luz.

Amadeo Gonzales

Are you looking for a Peruvian folk idol who is also a cartoonist, a graphic artist and a bit of a legend in the fanzine movement? Well, look no further than Amadeo Gonzales, who is all of that and maybe a bit more.

Amadeo and his brother Renso have published the cartoon fanzine Carboncito since 2001 and they have worked in many other cartoon publications since then. Amadeo has also worked extensively in concert posters and various graphic design projects. His worked has been showcased in galleries throughout Peru. And he has also recorded two albums Mostros, marcianos y rocanrol (2011) and Perro de la calle (2014).

Both of them are very simple affairs. Amadeo, the self-taught musician, is not looking to get complex or layered, just to create catchy, witty tuned. And he definitely succeeds. In particular in his song “El marciano,” in which a Martian says something unintelligible to Amadeo:

Also check out: surf-rockers Almirante Ackbar, synth-pop experimenters Las Amigas de Nadie, indie pop melancholic Mondebel, Nico Saba’s side project Los X Conchas Negras, techno cumbia masters of ceremonies Dengue Dengue Dengue!, and whatever the guys at El Chico del Pórtico have to showcase.

amadeoAn Amadeo Gonzales poster.

Check out the rest of Teca here. 

Did we miss any bands? Tell us in the comments below, or in our twitter, Facebook, or email.

Jacob Zuma’s Party

You honestly wouldn’t have guessed that the guy was an intelligence operative. A big guy, sure, but dressed like he was going to the beach. No ill-fitting suit or wrap-around sunglasses.

But as he stood near the barricades where the President’s motorcade would soon pass en route to the opening of Parliament, you could see him scanning the small crowd of bystanders. Always watching.

“So what are you, the Secret Service?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.

“Something like that,” he says.

“Crime Intelligence?” I ask, referring to the police’s intelligence division.

“Yes,” he says, so matter of factly that it caught me off guard. That the state intelligence agencies surveil protesters and activists, including deploying undercover agents to crowds, is not news, but I did not expect such candour.

I ask him how many of his colleagues are here, fishing for a general number. But my new friend surprises me again, and points.

“There’s one, and the guy next to him. And over there.” We are at one of the short stretches of the parade route that has been opened for public bystanders. Maybe 20 metres long. The crowd is thin here, just a few dozen people. He’s just told me at least four undercover intelligence agents are among them (including him). One can only imagine how many have been deployed in total.

Why would he tell me this? I assume because, like many others, he is disgruntled at this state of affairs. That his mind boggles at how much security and resources have been brought to bear on this occasion — essentially, to control the crisis of one man.

eae5c804-855e-432d-98ea-43877c7d012aImage by Shaun Swingler/Chronicle.


Everyone I speak to says this is an unprecedented level of security for the opening of Parliament.

Barbed wire has been rolled out along Darling Street and Adderley, effortlessly rolled off the back of those trucks that we remember from Marikana. Eight-foot high metal barricades line the route that Zuma will take – coming past District Six down Roeland Street, right on Plein Street, left on Spin Street, and pulling into Parliament’s gates behind the Slave Lodge.

The police are out in numbers that are simply extraordinary. There is a phalanx of cops on every corner and many have formed barriers across major intersections, backed up by Nyalas and water cannons. Units of the  Public Order Police –our riot police – seem to have been called in from every corner of the country. I see SAPS bakkies from as far off as Upington and Kimberley. We hear reports that police have been bussed in from other provinces too. The city’s municipal police divisons are all out in riot gear too. 

Farther back I see a few members of South Africa’s controversial paramilitary units, the Tactical Response Team with their berets, and the Special Task Force with their SWAT-style helmets. (Not carrying rifles, for once.) Off to one side, we even see a cluster of Cape Town’s liquor squad dressed in body armour. None of them looks too happy.

With this show of force, I wonder who the hell is policing the rest of the country? It’s an uncomfortable point for those who believe there should be fewer police, or none at all, but most people living in South Africa want more and better police in their communities. In surveys, crime features as the second or third biggest concern for citizens, after jobs and housing. The police have been slammed before for their unequal allocation of resources. So what is the knock-on effect on the safety of ordinary citizens when hordes of police are withdrawn from the communities they are ostensibly meant to serve, and dragged all the way to Cape Town to form a wall between the President and the people?

Several protests have taken place today, across a wide political spectrum. A Zuma Must Fall march unfolded without incident earlier in the day, and the ANC-aligned Ses’khona People’s Movement and MK Veterans Association marched ostensibly to commemorate the anniversary of Mandela’s release, though they are led by a banner saying “The DA Has Hatred for Black People”. As the day grows later, a large crowd of EFF supporters splits off from the Zuma Must Fall gathering, and heads up Adderley Street with a contingent of Pan Africanist Congress activists and students under the banner of #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall. Suddenly, up ahead, the police have blocked the way with a wall of shields. We can’t see what’s happening from further back, but suddenly stun grenades are exploding at the front and everyone falls back. Later, video footage of skirmishes between a few Ses’khona supporters and the EFF will appear online, but largely people are pissed off but peaceful.

Accusations circulate later on social media that police played a partisan role, policing some protests aggressively while giving others space. Photos also emerge of a riot cop tearing up placards brought by the students. One reads: No Free Education No Vote.


unnamedSouth African Police Service member tears up a placard stating “No Free Education No Vote”. Photo by Wandile Kasibe.

Eventually,  in a quieter side of town, Zuma’s motorcade sweeps in. And it’s eerie. The marching bands have come and gone. Honour guards from the Navy stand in silence along the route. The crowd is so thin where I’m standing that bystanders are outnumbered by theParliamentary security staff. Suddenly, military police trot past on horseback. Then military police on motorbikes. Then several sedans full of presidential security, and then Zuma himself sweeps by in what can only be described as a Pope Mobile. He waves, but there is almost nobody here to see him. Aside from the hum of engines, the moment passes in silence. Later I will read that he did not walk the red carpet per tradition, but was driven right up Parliament Avenue and deposited on the very final stretch of red carpet.

Put these security measures together, and you have to assume that important people believe this man is unsafe. The threat assessment must be off the charts.


Later, as dusk gathers I get on my bike and cruise the empty streets around Parliament, the President’s address streaming through my headphones via the SABC.  “Compatriots,” he tells us, “We are proud of our democracy and what we have achieved in a short space of time.”

I go past barbed wire and barricades and detritus.

“Our democracy is functional, solid and stable.”

I pass an armoured Nyala, where a cluster of cops from some other place are listening to the address as well.

“The Constitution, which has its foundation in the Freedom Charter, proclaims that South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”

We should not fall into the trap of Zuma-Must-Fallists who attribute all our problems to one man. But the ruin and the chaos in our streets today seem like the product of a system that has stretched and distorted to accommodate the crises of one man. It has bent itself to be shaped to his needs. And it probably can’t bend much further.

It’s the economy, stupid (also known as our new, weekly economics post) N°1

Given that we have an economist on board, it would be a crime not to ask him to do weekly post / “column”–called Its The Economy Stupid where he does a post with listicles of economic news; more like help us make sense of what mattered that week in economic policy, the markets or debates among experts. It was basically his informative Facebook posts about economic politics in his native Zambia, that got my thinking. Grieve Chelwa, of course, is duly qualified. He has a Ph.D in Economics from the University of Cape Town and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University’s Center for African Studies. You’ll also remember Grieve for this.—Sean Jacobs

(1) We’ll start where else but in the United States of America where Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, is facing questions about paid speeches she gave to the money men and women at Goldman Sachs. So at this Goldman Sachs shindig, Hilary Clinton makes a couple of jokes (watch beginning from the 6:30 mark) about a meeting she had with some “African” economists in the 90s and how she challenged them on the exclusion of women’s work in GDP statistics on the continent. The audience clearly enjoys this segment of the talk and has a series of laughs at the expense of the poor African economists.

Firstly, Madame Clinton should tell us the names of the “African” economists she met with. Inquiring minds want to know. Secondly, the joke’s on this audience because women’s domestic work is hardly reflected in GDP statistics even in the U.S. And by the way, women’s contribution to, for instance, agriculture in most African countries are relatively well captured in agricultural surveys. And agriculture is not an insignificant part of total output on the continent.

(2) Burkina Faso, which has been Africa’s biggest adopter of Genetically Modified (GM) Crops, has announced plans to phase out GM cotton. Adopting GM cotton increased Burkina’s cotton output. But it turns out that the GM cotton delivered a far inferior cotton quality resulting in “severe economic losses for Burkinabe cotton companies”. This development will definitely impact the GM adoption debate on the continent going forward. (Some additional reading is here).

(3) The 2016 Winter Edition of the Journal of Economic Perspectives has an entire symposium on the “Bretton Woods Institutions” (World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization). Some of the essays, particularly this one by Martin Ravallion, are somewhat critical of the World Bank. Unfortunately, none of the essays feature writers from the “South”, particularly in light of the long history of interaction between these institutions and the countries of the South. Alas. (By the way, all the essays are free to read without the need for a subscription).

(4) New OECD tax agreement improves tax transparency – but the U.S doesn’t sign and the U.S press won’t tell you.

(5) Related to item number 4, the U.S. is emerging as the world’s favorite new tax haven: “Everyone from London lawyers to Swiss trust companies is getting in on the act, helping the world’s rich move accounts from places like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota”. Remember that story about Teodoro Obiang’s mansion in Malibu, California?

(6) So Barack Obama has signed into law the Electricity Act of 2015 which provides legal backing for his “Power Africa Initiative”. The initiative was announced during Obama’s tour of Africa in 2013 and aims to bring electricity to 50 million people on the continent by 2020. The U.S government has made financial “commitments” of $7bn towards the initiative plus $43bn in pledges from “partners”. Any investment into Africa’s power sector should certainly be welcomed but calling the initiative “Power Africa” might be a bit of a stretch. For one thing, the International Energy Agency reckons the continent needs to invest about $55bn per annum until 2040 to meaningfully power the continent.

(7) We are not surprised that the global aid industry transforms “unremarkable young people [from the West] into a little aristocracy [in much of Africa]”.

(8) The economic “burden” of hosting refugees for Western European countries is tiny. It would even be smaller if they were allowed to work. Hmmm, we wonder what explains all the refugee bashing, then?

(9) Nigeria is facing a widening fiscal deficit (which is the difference between government expenditure and government revenue) mainly as a result of dwindling revenues from oil exports. News broke a couple of weeks ago that Africa’s biggest economy was in talks with the World Bank and the African Development Bank for $3.5bn in emergency loans. The news was swiftly dismissed by the Minister of Finance who said the country had merely held “exploratory” talks with the World Bank. Nigeria’s story is now typical as the continent struggles with debt issues after borrowing heavily over the last decade when commodity prices were high and mighty (see Chad’s, Ghana’s and Zambia’s stories).

(10) The rate of inflation in Zambia (which is the rate at which prices are increasing) more than doubled to 21% in January 2016 from 7% in January 2015. The Kwacha’s underperformance in 2015 largely explains much of the rise in prices over the two time periods. Rising prices might turn out to be a significant factor in the presidential elections slated for August this year.

(11) January was the 101st birthday anniversary of Professor W. Arthur Lewis. Professor Lewis is the first and only black person to win the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. He also served as economic advisor to Kwame Nkrumah and some of his thinking around development economics was influenced by his time in Ghana.

(12) Finally, Julius Sello Malema, firebrand leader of South African opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, had lunch with the Financial Times last week. The ending is gold.

On love, race and history in Ghana: AIAC Valentine’s Day special!

A couple months ago I was fortunate to read Carina Ray’s excellent new book on the history on interracial intimacy on the Gold Coast / Ghana. I decided to interview her for AIAC and when our conversation moved from political economy and racism to political economy, racism and love, we figured – Valentine’s Day! So here it is: an AIAC take on love, critical politics included.

Why do you think that the history of interracial intimacy in the Gold Coast / Ghana important? What drew you to study it and to these stories in particular?

Let me answer the second question first. When I started the archival work that culminated in Crossing the Color Linemy intention was to write an altogether different book about multiracial people in colonial and post-independence Ghana. Much has been written about them in the context of the precolonial period as cultural, social, political, and linguistic intermediaries—the ubiquitous “middle(wo)men” of the trans-Atlantic trade, especially as it became almost exclusively focused on the slave trade. Hardly anything, however, has been written about this group during the period of formal colonial rule in British West Africa. So I set out to do just that, but quickly discovered that while the archive had much to say about interracial sexual relations in the Gold Coast, there was relative silence about their progeny.

This struck me as an intriguing departure from most early-twentieth century colonial contexts in which anxieties about multiracial people spurred increasing condemnation and regulation of interracial sex. In the introduction and first chapter I spend some time addressing why a book about sex across the color line has comparatively little to say about multiracial people. This was largely because multiracial Gold Coasters during the formal colonial period generally identified themselves, and were identified by Africans and Europeans alike, as Africans. To my mind it would have been ahistorical to write about them as a distinct social group. This allowed me to engage the question of interracial sexual relations in a deep and substantive way in its own right, instead of as a precursor to progeny.

To answer your first question about why this history is important, I have to return again to the nature of my archives. What jumped out at me immediately when I started working with the sources was the extent to which they revealed not only the deeply human and interpersonal dimensions of these relationships, but also the wider grid of Afro-European social relations that they were embedded in. The colonial government’s obsessive focus on interracial sex was methodologically generative because it produced a multidimensional archive that provided surprisingly detailed accounts of the conflicts and connections that characterized the everyday lives of and interactions between Africans and Europeans. What at first glance may seem like a narrow focus on interracial sexual relationships actually opens up an unprecedented view into colonial race relations in the Gold Coast. Part of what makes these relationships so compelling and important, then, is their potential to recalibrate our thinking about colonial economies of racism in ways that allow us to see greater parity between settler and administered colonialism without suggesting an equivalence.

But these relationships are also important in their own right, not least because so many of them force us to reckon with the unsettling gray area where racism and affect could and often did coexist. How else can you explain the British doctor who risked his distinguished career as a colonial medical officer to marry across the color line, and then proceeded to maintain his membership in a Europeans-only club that barred his African wife? In this and in so many other instances where I was confronted with relationships that resisted neat categorization, I found myself recalling Frantz Fanon, who in writing about interracial intimacies in Black Skin, White Masks, says “Today we believe in the possibility of love, and that is the reason why we are endeavoring to trace its imperfections and perversions.” I can’t think of a more profound or precise theoretical approach to the problem of love, in general, and the problem of love across the color line, in particular. This is not to suggest that all of the relationships I document in Crossing the Color Line were loving, but rather to say that loving relationships were not immune to the racism of their time.

Why and how did interracial sex go from being a fact to being a problem?

Although both Africans and Europeans most forcefully articulated interracial sex as a problem during the colonial period, I think its important to point out that during the precolonial period Africans tightly regulated these relationships in ways that indicate that they recognized their potential benefits and risks.  Likewise, the various European powers that held sway along the Gold Coast managed their varying anxieties over these relationships in ways that recognized their indispensability to the European presence on the coast. That’s an important background to the question so that readers are not mislead into thinking that the Gold Coast was an interracial sexual utopia prior to the onset of formal British rule.

What was different about the first decade of the twentieth century was that the hyper-racialization of formal colonial rule meant that the very things that had once made interracial sexual relationships indispensable—namely their ability to acculturate and integrate European men into local societies in ways that allowed them to develop beneficial reciprocal networks—were now “undesirable.” Indeed that was the very term Governor John Rodger used to describe relationships between African women and European officers when he officially banned them in 1907. Coming on the heels of “a century-long shift from a Britain that asked to one that demanded and a last commanded,” to borrow from Tom McCaskie, the ban on concubinage not only signaled a new political modus operando, it also heralded a new era of colonial racial insularity, albeit one that was never fully achieved.

Readers won’t be surprised that interracial sexual relationships emerged as a “problem” under formal colonial rule, but what I hope to show is that making concubinage a punishable offense did more to undermine British authority than it did to preserve it. This is particularly evident not only in the individual disciplinary cases brought against offending British officers, but also in the wider current of anticolonial agitation that swelled around the increasingly illicit nature of interracial sexual relations. These relationships could no longer be publicly recognized and so they appeared all the more unseemly to Gold Coasters, who used them to call into question the moral credibility of British colonial rule.  In short it was how the British chose to manage concubinage, as a problem, that actually became the bigger problem in the end.

I want to pursue an issue you raised in your first response. What about love? Where is the scholarship on love in African history? We hear a lot about pain, we learn a lot about anger and hate, but what of affection? How do your stories contribute to the history of love and what lessons do they teach us for love’s present?

Your question rightly points to a massive lacuna in our field, but also to deeper more unsettling questions about why historians have, until very recently, neglected love as a historical force and object of analysis in Africa. That pain, hate, and ager, to which I would add fear and suspicion, surface so frequently says more about the biases that shape our field, than it does about the affective and emotive economies that shape the lived experiences of African peoples, past and present. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that in as much as I think Africanist historians need to move beyond functionalist or transactional approaches to sexuality, marriage, and allied concerns, to get at affect, I also think that the scholarship on love elsewhere in the world would do well to remember just how intertwined affect and function can be…just how transactional love can be. Forget about romantic love, anyone with a kid knows that love is amenable to being bought!

But back to the scholarship. When Jennifer Cole and Lynn Thomas published Love in Africa – a book that is never out of my arm’s reach – I remember thinking to myself, this book is as close to a mic drop as any of us Africanist historians will ever come! TADOW! For me their book is the “call,” and now the question is, what’s the “response.” Jennifer had already pointed the way with Sex and Salvation: Imagining the Future in Madagascar, a beautifully and persuasively written historically-informed ethnography, and Rachel Jean-Baptiste’s Conjugal Rights: Marriage, Sexuality, and Urban Life in Colonial Libreville, Gabon takes up the challenge too. I also appreciated Pernille Ipsen’s analysis of love in her book Daughters of the Trade: Atlantic Slavers and Interracial Marriage on the Gold Coast, which moves beyond a purely functional or pragmatic reading of Ga-Danish marriages in the context of the transatlantic slave trade. But clearly much more work is needed on this front.

In the case of Ghana and Britain both colonial racism and anticolonial resistance conditioned the possibilities for love across the color line in the twentieth century. The raced and gendered configuration of couples—African woman/European man or African man/European woman—and the respective political and social geographies of colony and metropole they inhabited shaped not only the kinds of emotional ties that developed, but also our ability as historians to interpret those ties. I was constantly aware of how much more fraught it was to write about the affective ties between African women and European men in the Gold Coast than about about love and affection between African men and European women in the British ports or elsewhere in Europe.  Comparatively fewer caveats seemed necessary and I am still grappling with the why of that, especially since Marc Matera does such a superb job of showing just how racially vexed those relationships were in Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century.

But I also think there is something more fundamental at work in how people think about love as a panacea that is profoundly reductive and hinders our ability to see the ways in which love has and continues to coexist with racism…and a range of other isms for that matter. It’s clear from many of the stories in Crossing the Color Line that a variety of affective ties grew amidst the racism and exploitative and unequal power relations that shaped these relationships. That observation still holds true. I’m always struck by the lack of attention paid to how racism operates internally within interracial relationships today, yet there is no shortage of reportage, like this and this, emphasizing how external societal racism negatively impacts interracial couples. The assumption seems to be that if you are in an interracial relationship you can’t be racist.  Well, we know that’s not true.

You’ve given us a lot to think about. I know that some historians don’t like being asked about what their work means for our present and future, but I was hoping you could underline your book’s contribution to ongoing conversations in the continent and diaspora. What do you hope readers take away from your work? 

Actually, I take a very different approach. I think its crucial, especially as Africanists, to think about what our work means for the present and future precisely because the African past is always at play in the ways that people think about, talk about, write about, make policies about, etc., etc., Africa today. The very fact that our field is in itself a repudiation of centuries of racist thought about Africa’s lack of history and its lack of coevalness with the West, points to the urgency of actively engaging the present and the future, when and where possible, in our research.

That ideological commitment is at the heart of my book’s conclusion. In the section on “Interracial Heterosexuality, Homosexuality, and States of Panic,” I draw on the insights gleaned from my work on colonial interracial heterosexual relations in Ghana to think through the recent intensification of church and state-sponsored homophobia in a number of different African countries. Subjecting contemporary homophobic discourses to both comparative and historical analysis reveals them to be part of a much longer history of sexual panics visible across different parts of the continent, especially during the colonial period and continuing through today. In taking this approach, what I hoped to show is that homophobia in places like Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Uganda today does not represent an incomprehensible form of African social conservatism, a claim that inevitably leads down a slipper slope toward old tropes of African backwardness and stasis, underpinned, as they are, by the idea that Africa and modernity are incompatible. Rather, like the sexual panics that gripped their colonial predecessors, it is better understood as a symptom of deeper anxieties and social dis-ease occasioned by the crises facing the state in post-independence Africa – of which those at the forefront of this disturbing trend are unsurprisingly also those facing particularly acute crises of legitimacy.

What’s next? Where do you go from here? 

I have the tremendous privilege this year of being at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell, where I’m getting started on my new book project, tentatively titled “Somatic Blackness: A History of the Body and Race-Making in Ghana.” In so many ways this is the book that I thought I would write first, so it represents a return to the foundational questions about race, identity, blackness, and the body that first captured my attention as an undergraduate study abroad student in Ghana in 1993! Wow, I really just dated myself there. 

Can The Tate Britain curate a post-imperial future?

“It must be done, and England should do it” – John Everett Millais, 1874

Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past exhibition catalogue opens with a foreword by the esteemed scholar of black Britain, Paul Gilroy. Britain, Paul Gilroy has argued on occasion, “remains ambivalent about its imperial past.” In the catalogue for the recent Tate Britain exhibition Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past (25 November 2015 – 10 April 2016), Gilroy continues along similar lines, writing in the foreword that the British Empire “is often narrated as a simple story of civilisational clash that anticipates the diplomatic and military problems of the present. Apart from the sheer scale involved in the uncomfortable task of post-imperial evaluation, there is contemporary pressure to filter the Empire’s protracted history, to compress its expansive geography, to deny the whole, lengthy process any philosophical or cultural dimensions and to mystify its profound economic consequences.”

James Sant, "Captain Colin Mackenzie", 1842James Sant, “Captain Colin Mackenzie”, 1842

The exhibition therefore seeks to explore the “porous” boundaries “between the exotic, the everyday, the anthropological, and the aesthetic” (per Gilroy) by way of an astonishingly vast array of visual and cultural objects produced in and collected from Britain’s overseas colonies and protectorates.

Artist and Empire is organised into six sections – Mapping and Marking, Trophies of Empire, Imperial Heroics, Power Dressing, Face to Face, and Out of Empire/Legacies of Empire. The exhibition proposes to “foreground the peoples, dramas and tragedies of Empire and their resonance in art today.” On my way through London after a conference on the fragments of American empire in Beirut, several friends and colleagues recommended I take a break from my own work on the resonance of black identity in one particular former British dominion (Egypt) and stop by the Tate instead. I’m a bit confused by what I saw.

The vast majority of artwork and objects on display consist of overwrought and lavish portraiture, typically of British imperial figures (often “cross dressed” in native ‘garb,’ as above) who are sometimes accompanied by docile, feminine, and exotic colonial subjects in the background, or kneeling adoringly beside them. Anyone familiar with the basics of Edward Said’s use of Orientalism as a theoretical lens will be unsurprised at the number of paintings that juxtapose the half-naked native with the regally uniformed British officer in a Caribbean, British North American, South Asian, or African setting.

Even when colonial subjects are the central subjects in a painting, they are still placed in orientalist arrangements that reflect British sensibilities. For example, white colonial masters paternalistically presiding over a gathering of newly civilised subjects, as in Charles Warren Malet’s 1805 portrayal of a treaty signing in Mysore. Or the East/West hybrid styling of Carlo Marochetti’s 1856 coloured bust of Duleep Singh (a gift to Prince Albert). Not to mention the beguiling primitivism in a 1784 portrait of a Polynesian chieftain’s daughter painted John Webber in the style of Venus (i.e. topless).

John Webber, Poedua, Daughter of Orio, 1784John Webber, “Poedua, Daughter of Orio”, 1784

The exhibition candidly discusses (more so in the catalogue but still present in the gallery) the often horrifying circumstances that enabled such scenes to be rendered on canvas, in stone, or in photograph. Poedua, the aforementioned daughter of a chief name Orio, was held hostage by James Cook in order to compel her father to allow two of Cook’s crew (gone AWOL of their own accord) to return safely. Visual renderings of kidnapped, imprisoned, or enslaved peoples unfortunate enough to encounter the British abound in the exhibition, occasionally offset by subversive art produced in situ.

An example of the resistance art on display includes brilliant Asafo flags made by Fante artists in the early twentieth century. Fante people appropriated the Union flag for use alongside images and symbols of local significance. The exhibition explains such flags are first produced to demonstrate loyalty to the British, but are eventually banned as seditious in the midst of Ghana’s struggle for independence. 

Additionally, early in the exhibit, Scottish artist’s Andrew Gilbert’s installation, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, asks what would happen if the British had lost the Battle of Ulundi in 1879, rather than the Zulu army? Would they too have been put on display?

Finally, Artist and Empire closes with a nod to the resonance that British Empire has on modern (“post-colonial,” even) artistic production in Britain. The Out of Empire/Legacies of Empire room features watercolours by Rabindranath and Abanindranath Tagore, sculpture by Ronald Moody and Benedict Enwonwu, and other pieces from Donald Locke, Sonia Boyce, Judy Watson, Tony Phillips, The Singh Twin along with a number of other twentieth century and contemporary artists

Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015Andrew Gilbert, British Infantry Advance on Jerusalem, 4th of July, 1879, 2015

There is no question that what Professor Gilroy sees in Artist and Empire – a chance to “reconcile the tasks of remembering and working through Britain’s imperial past with the different labour of building its post-colonial future” – is a productive exercise in itself. But those tasks, and this labour, seem more dependent on the position of the visitor themselves than it is effectively probed in the curation and presentation of the exhibit.

Something about the clever counter-linearity of the exhibition is profoundly superficial, however. At the start of Artist and Empire, viewers are confronted with Walter Crane’s 1886 map of the imperial federation, a subtle socialist critique of commercial imperialism denoted by several visual cues common to the socialist movement in the late nineteenth century. This map re-appears, again by Andrew Gilbert (All Roads Lead to Ulundi [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015), at the end – a reimagining of the imperial and cartographic triumphs apparent in the colonial British artwork on display.

The effort to expose what Paul Gilroy refers to as the “disputed legacies” of British colonialism is clearly apparent in what is ultimately an illuminating glimpse at the beauty and barbarism of Britain’s imperial past. “Past,” however, may be the Tate Britain overstating Britain’s progress in its cultural, and indeed political, investments.

Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886Walter Crane, Imperial Federation:Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886 Andrew Gilbert, All Roads Lead to Ulundi [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015Andrew Gilbert, “All Roads Lead to Ulundi” [British Empire Map as ‘Paterson’s Camp Coffee’ Advert], 2015

I frequently wondered about the prior ownership and means of acquisition of many objects on display when confronted with a Maori quarterstaff (Taiaha) and Kainaiwa war bonnet. Both of these sacred objects appear with white men in other contexts: the Taiaha surfaces again in painting, propped beside Sir Joseph Banks in a 1771 portrait by Benjamin West.

Tate Britain is not unique among other cultural, national institutions in the Western hemisphere for excluding mention that the artefacts it holds (and displays) are stolen goods. But my question upon viewing the exhibition is where, in Artist and Empire, does an acknowledgement of these items and their legal precarity appear? Does such an admission of the spoils of empire threaten, as with the glaring lack (with the exception of one T.E. Lawrence and his “friend,” the Emir Feisal) of the Arab world in the galleries*, the ‘innocent’ nostalgia for empire that Britain continues to clutch onto?

Augustus John, Colonel T.E. Lawrence and The Emir Feisal, 1919Augustus John, Colonel T.E. Lawrence and The Emir Feisal, 1919

I am not entirely sure that Artist and Empire “faces” anything at all. I appreciate its efforts to query the roots of British identity, particularly as Alison Smith notes in the catalogue, in light of this “moment in crisis in British identity.” This exhibition is certainly a step above the far less critical The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting, put on by Tate Britain in 2008. However, its tepid historicizing of colonial brutality – and complete silence on contemporary unevenness of labour, production, and ownership in both the arts and in British society at large – renders the exhibit one of many perfunctory exercises to purge a shallow sense of guilt without addressing the very real and material logics that sustain ongoing, structural inequalities within and outside of Britain.

*Everyone I spoke to about this exhibition later had the same question: Where the hell are the Arabs, Tate Britain?

How to say Joseph Kony’s name

Between 21 and 27 January, far away from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the small town of Gulu in the northern region of Uganda was engrossed in the confirmation of charges hearing for alleged rebel commander Dominic Ongwen. It is one of the few public criminal proceedings for crimes committed during the 20 year Lord’s Resistance Army-Ugandan government war, so when public screenings of the hearing were organized, people came in their numbers to see it for themselves.

On the first day, an ICC lawyer began the prosecution’s opening by outlining the war and, in particular, the role LRA leader Joseph Kony played in it. As he made his presentation, there were whispers among the people gathered in the screening hall. A few people were confused by the prosecutor’s anglicized pronunciation of the names of northern Ugandan people and places which made some of what he was saying difficult for them to follow. One mispronunciation that stood out was the name Kony.

Following mass international coverage of the war, Joseph Kony has become one of the most well-known Ugandans in the world – famous, in particular, for abducting young children to serve in his army and for the gruesome ways his forces mutilated and killed civilians. In 2012, an eponymous campaign by Invisible Children brought his name to even more front pages. (In fact, Invisible Children’s goal was to “Make Kony famous.”) That campaign was challenged by many for presenting a simplified message about the war. So it comes as a surprise to many people here in Northern Uganda that in spite of this many still cannot say his name and in some cases, actually advise others to pronounce it as the prosecutor initially did, “Coney, like Coney Island.” The word kony is actually the Luo word for “help.” It is only one syllable and is not that difficult to say with some effort.

Complaining about the pronunciation of a name probably seems petty but it actually speaks to a larger issue: how detached people in and outside of Uganda are to the North’s experiences. Given how ethnically, politically and economically divided Uganda is today, this is especially real. There is stigma towards people from the lesser developed North by people living in the South, with them labeled as killers, cannibals or Kony’s name as insults. Politics rarely touches on reparative mechanisms for victims of war here and when it does, it takes too long (the passing of a government policy meant to “address justice, accountability and reconciliation needs of post conflict Uganda” has lagged for years).

When I tweeted mine and others in Gulu’s reaction to the opening presentation, I was met with resistance from fellow Ugandans who felt the tweet was making a big deal over nothing. Part of me agrees – how Joseph Kony’s last name is pronounced does not seem that important when we’re dealing with the pre-trial hearing for someone that is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes. On the other hand, one realizes that over the past ten years northern Uganda, and in particular Gulu, has been welcome to numerous foreign researchers intent on gaining expertise on the LRA war, international agencies eager to gain success stories from their contributions to addressing its impact, and even Ugandan politicians playing on the hopes of the war’s survivors to gain support. Now prosecutors at the ICC are working to ensure the trial of Dominic Ongwen, someone who is alleged to have carried out Kony’s orders. One would assume that the process of exploring the dynamics of this war would have involved numerous visits to the region and interaction with the people here  listening to them express their views. And while doing this they would have, in theory, noticed that no one says anything remotely close to Coney, right?

Through Ongwen’s case the world has said that it wants to provide justice for survivors of the war in northern Uganda. To do this it is hugely important to demystify the simplistic and sometimes misinformed narratives that often surround the war and its effects. Demonstrating basic knowledge about a central figure in the war may not provide all the solutions, but it’s a start. Fortunately it seems that the people at the ICC agree: seven days after the hearing began, while making his closing remarks the prosecution lawyer made a conscious effort to say Kony’s name correctly, often apologizing and correcting himself when he mistakenly said coney. Perhaps the ICC isn’t so far away, after all.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #15 – World Carnival 2016 Special!

The first Africa is a Radio episode of 2016 goes to Carnival with special guests Hipsters Don’t Dance! This month we run down some of the sounds of the World Carnival sound from Trinidad to Rio to Lagos and back!


Samito – Tiku la Hina
Baiana System – Playsom
Buju Banton – Champion (Maga Bo Remix)
Angela Hunte – Mon Bon Ami
Machel Montano & Timaya – Better Than Them (Jambe-An Riddim)
Runtown & Walshy Fire – Bend Down Pause Remix ft Wizkid & Machel Montano
Olatunji – Oh Yay
Patoranking – My Woman, My Everything… (feat. Wandecoal)
Banda Vingadora – Metralhadora
Delano – Devagarinho
Eddy Lover – Baja Pantalones feat. Aldo Ranks, JR Ranks & Mach & Daddy
Wizkid – Final (Baba Nla)
Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band – Amaehu

Our Ivanka, our America: a story of Latino immigrants

To the family she is just “Ivanka.” Not “Ivanka Trump,” not “Miss Trump”—simply “Ivanka.” As if the millionaire’s daughter and my family in New York of Latin American immigrants were old friends. In some way they are.

Some years ago, my mother told me on the phone that my cousin Marcela—who has been living in the States for almost ten years but only two years ago became a legal citizen—was working for Ivanka. “Who’s that?”, I asked my mother – to which she replied, indignant: “Well, Ivanka!”

Last year, as I was planning a visit to the family in Jackson Heights, their bustling neighborhood in Queens, my mother called to tell me that if I wanted to see another member of the family—whose name I should better not mention here, since after twenty years in New York he is still an “illegal”—I should change my route, because, “as you know” (I didn’t) “on Sundays he is with Ivanka.” That meant that he was working for her in one of the luxury stores she owns.

Actually, none of us has ever spoken to Ivanka in person. However, the word “Ivanka” has a very special meaning for my family. For us, the mere mention of the name reminds us that those of us who went to “America”—a word that most “Americans” use but no Latin American does—have, somehow, made it there.

Almost half of my family on my mother’s side left Colombia betweenen the late 1990s and the early 2000s for New York, New Jersey, and other cities along the East Coast of the United States. First that relative whose name must not be spoken, then three of my mother’s six younger siblings—uncles Pablo, Fernando, and Gonzalo—and, finally, cousin Marcela, who is two years younger than me.

They are part of the tremendous exodus happening in Latin America since the 1970s. Due to the follow-up immigration of partners and children, some marriages and the birth of a couple of sons and daughters, the five original relatives have built a vast extended family, which today is indeed bigger than the one that stayed in Colombia. Their story is that of millions of others. So-called “Hispanics” are nowadays the largest ethnic minority in the United States. Around 54 million people, 17 percent of the total U.S. population, have a Latin American background. In 2060 they will account for 31 percent.

Most of the approximately eleven million people that live and work in the United States as illegal immigrants are Latin Americans. I have no idea about what Ivanka makes of that. My cousin Marcela, in any case, does not want to accuse her of anything. Usually, when I talk to Marcela I get the feeling that she, in general, does not like to talk in a negative way about other people.

Marcela went to New York when she could not find work after getting her degree in Psychology in our city, Bogotá. When she still was an illegal alien she worked for almost three years as a clerk in one of Ivanka’s jewelry stores. At times she was responsible for the transportation of jewelry worth thousands of dollars, she told me recently. Aside from the meager salary, which was her final reason to quit, Marcela said this experience was a quite positive one. “Ivanka seemed like a good, polite person. Of course, I only saw her twice. But anyway, she didn’t seem to be arrogant,” Marcela told me in the timid way in which uses to answer to my questions every time we talk about her life in New York.

What Ivanka’s father, Donald Trump, the magnate and presidential pre-candidate for the Republican Party, thinks about Latinos in the United States (the word he uses to talk about them is “Mexicans”), and especially about those who are illegal, became clear some time ago. In one of his explosive speeches in the summer of last year, Trump famously said that when Mexico “sends its people, they’re not sending the best”. They’re sending “people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

To avoid a nasty generalization, Trump considerately added: “Some, I assume, are good people.” To this day, Trump’s public statements about Latinos—as well as about a quite long list of other ethnic and religious minorities—have remained along similar lines.

After Trump’s statements, the U.S. Congressional Research Service noted that the majority of illegal immigrants behave quite differently; crime rates within the first generation of immigrants are lower than in the rest of the population.

In an open letter to Trump, a young Mexican woman wrote that her father, who has lived illegally in the United States for years, and who “has worked 5-6 days a week since I was a child and I’ve never heard him complain about it one time,” was the greatest man that she knew.

Latin American politicians, artists and a starred chef from Spain criticized the billionaire. However, polls show that for many voters Trump appears as the best Republican candidate. I ask my cousin Marcela what she thinks of Donald Trump. Her answer to this question is slightly more vehement than the others. “I think that he has no idea what he is talking about,” she says. “Maybe he does not know that almost every waiter, every cook, every cleaning person in the restaurants and hotels he frequents is a Latino who probably was or still is illegal.”

I ask whether she believes that our emigrated family belongs to “the best” of our country. “I don’t think so!” she replies with a laugh. “But we are people who came here to live a decent life, and whose only dream is being legal. Of course, bad immigrants do exist. And the problem is that all of us are being discriminated against because of those few. That is just not right. We came here to work.”

My relatives belonged to Colombia’s lower-middle-class, which usually holds hard work, cleanliness, respectability, and family values in high regard. They have built a productive life in the U.S. And, like a huge number of immigrants in the States, they send money back to Colombia almost every week.

That’s how Marcela paid back the debts her mother had incurred to send her to college. None of my relatives has ever committed a crime (except, of course, being illegal themselves) and they would very probably perceive any trouble with the law as a disgrace for the whole family. Despite the common Colombian stereotype, none of them has ever been involved with drugs—except for Uncle Pablo, of course.

As a young man, Pablo was an notorious stoner who built his joints in such a masterly manner that his buddies used to call him “the architect.” Once I asked him about his infamous past. He told me, still ashamed, that he had lost many years to drugs, “and caused your grandmother many headaches.” But thirty years ago he found Jesus and became a pastor in one of the evangelical churches born in Tennessee or Alabama and that are now flooding all of Latin America. In the early 1990s Pablo and his wife were ordered by their church to go to Philadelphia and save the souls of Latinos. Today they live in Atlantic City with two daughters in college.

My other uncles emigrated for more mundane reasons. Fernando—known in the family for his calm temper and his funny dance moves when he has had something to drink—worked as a cab driver in Bogotá for years. One day he saw himself in his constantly vacant cab, surrounded by countless other vacant cabs and their frustrated drivers who had fled to the capital to escape the violence and lack of perspective in their provinces.

His two sons were in high school back then. Fifteen years ago, when I visited my family in New York for the first time, Fernando, still illegal at that time, had three jobs: from five to one he worked for a demolition company in New Jersey; from three to ten at night he worked at a recycling yard in New York; and almost every weekend he worked in a factory producing radiators. Today one of his sons lives and works in Newark, the other one studies in Bogotá. Fernando’s marriage, however, did not survive the long distance.

Uncle Gonzalo—a neat, diligent, and sometimes too serious man who is always the first one to congratulate me on my birthday every year and has the peculiar habit to tell waiters how to set the table correctly—was doing well as a bank employee in Bogotá. In the late 1980s he was laid off as part of a mass dismissal. He started working for a construction company that went bankrupt. So he opened a restaurant and then a bar—both failed.

One of his daughters was in college, the other one just born. In the first years after his arrival, Gonzalo—who was always proud of having an account with the Chase Manhattan Bank, which one can get as an illegal—worked as help in the kitchen of a yacht club on Long Island. Today he is the head waiter there. Both his daughters live close to New York; the elder married a Jewish lawyer some years ago and has now three children, the younger is in high school. Gonzalo’s marriage however, did not survive the long distance either.

My cousin Marcela tells me that getting the chance to work for Ivanka came “as a kind of liberation” from the first hard jobs, from cleaning toilets, from feeling like an extraterrestrial in the United States.

At first, she remembers, she was afraid to go to Manhattan: “I barely spoke English and all these people seemed so important! But it got better with time.” I ask how is it even possible for an illegal person to find a job. “That’s easy. You always know someone who knows where people are needed.” And how come they let you work? “Well, we are the perfect workers. We get minor salaries and if someone finds out that we are working with fake papers we get fired right away. After that the next immigrant is waiting in line and the whole process starts over.”

And what would my cousin reply if someone called her and the rest of our family criminals? “I would tell that person that we are no criminals. Yes, we have lived as illegals, but none of us wanted to be that.” I dig deeper: “But you knew that you were doing something illegal.” She is quiet. I ask again: “What would you say to that?” Then she says in a sad voice: “I don’t know what to say. I really don’t know what to say…” And then I feel very ashamed. We come from the same place. One day I also decided to leave Colombia, in my case for Germany, and to look for new perspectives, to begin a new life. I just had more luck.

A few years ago my cousin married a U.S. citizen. Last year they had a baby girl. Ivanka’s father stated some months ago that, should he become president, children of former illegal immigrants would not be accepted as U.S. citizens. I ask my cousin Marcela if she is afraid of that. “No,” she answer, “I am not afraid. My daughter will have it better than we did. There are more and more Latinos who are shaping this country. This is, too,” she says with a timid smile, “our home.”

This article appeared originally in German in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, August 23, 2015. Translation by Elisabeth Brenker and Hernán D. Caro.

Africa is still front and center at The Hague

2016 is off to a very busy start for the ICC. And yes, Africa is still front and center at The Hague. Here are a few developments to help you stay updated on what’s happening.

Last December, the ICC finally moved into its permanent headquarters, leaving the small space that they had rented since it was created in 1998.  Long gone now are the tiny IKEA courtrooms, or “the Swedish sauna,” as one lawyer once called them. Moving into new offices on the shores of the North Sea that have costed 204 million euros is certainly an indication that the ICC isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It is a permanent feature of international justice – and of international politics, regardless of what its officials say.

The trial of former Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo – along his ally Charles Blé Goudé, has just started, four years after Gbagbo was transferred to The Hague.  This is the first time in history that a former head of state stands trial before the ICC (the charges against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta were dropped before they reached the trial phase).  Gbagbo and Blé Goudé are each charged with four counts of crimes again humanity, in relation to the political violence that erupted in Côte d’Ivoire after the 2010 elections.

The confirmation of charges for former Lord Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen  have just concluded.  (The confirmation of  charges is a procedure at the ICC where the prosecutor presents to the pre-trial chamber the preliminary evidence that it has; the judges then issue a ruling whether the evidence is satisfactory enough to move to the trial phase or not.)  Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Abducted by the LRA at age 9, Ongwen was a child soldier who later moved up the ranks of the LRA command structure.  As such, Ongwen’s case is both one of a victim and an alleged perpetrator, blurring the lines between the two, as British journalist Michela Wrong has documented.

The confirmation of charges against the Malian Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi will start soon.  It is argued that during the Islamist takeover of Northern Mali, Al Mahdi participated in the destruction of religious monuments, notably Sufi shrines, in Timbuktu.  This is the first time someone is pursued by the ICC on charges of war crimes related to the destruction of religious symbols.  The prosecution of these types of crimes is still lagging in international law, following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001, and the ransacking of Palmyra by the ISIS last year.

The case against Al Mahdi, also known by his nom de guerre Abu Turab, is one to watch very closely for many reasons, as Mark Kersten has written here.  To complicate the matters further, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has abducted the Swiss Béatrice Stockly in Timbuktu last month, and they just released a video featuring her and requesting among other things that the ICC let Al Mahdi go.

The trial of former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda opened last September and is still ongoing.  In 2014, Ntaganda walked into the US embassy in Kigali and asked to be taken to The Hague. He was the deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). His group was active in the Ituri province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  Ntaganda is charged with 18 accounts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last December, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga, whose trials had been complete at The Hague, were transferred to the DRC – their home country – to serve their prison sentences.  Lubanga has been sentenced to 14 years of prison after being found guilty of recruiting child soldiers.  Given that he had been in ICC custody since 2006, he has to serve four more years.   Katanga should have been freed a couple weeks ago, after having served 2/3 of his 12-year sentence.  But the Congolese government has expressed the intention to prosecute him and keep him in jail, which, of course, raises a host of questions.

Finally, is it possible that the ICC is at last seriously setting its eyes outside of Africa?  Last week, Pre-Trial Chamber I gave the Prosecutor the green light to open a full investigation on crimes allegedly committed in Georgia during the Russia-Georgia war of 2008.  This will be the first full investigation outside of Africa.  Other situations under preliminary examination – which have not reached the investigation phase yet – include Afghanistan, Colombia, Nigeria, Guinea, Iraq, Ukraine, and Palestine.

Weekend Music Break No.91

We’re back with the first Weekend Music Break of 2016. A series of videos for you to enjoy as you ease into relax (or catchup) mode:

Our selection this weekend starts off with a video directed by AIAC film editor Dylan Valley — Niko10Long hips us to the real Politrix going down in Cape Town, South Africa; Brooklyn staple with Guyanese roots, Jahdan Blakkamore ushers in an upliftment anthem to end all sufferation; The multi-talented, Boston-based Sierra Leonean scientist/rapper David Moinina Sengeh brings a positive Afrobeat jam and video; Mozambican-Canadian singer Samito releases a dance art video for his epic Tiku la hina; Keeping it in the Mozambique realm, Spoek Mathambo reveals Batuk, his new partnership with Aero Manyelo, a deep house project inspired by the Afro-luso house scene based out of Maputo; Daniel Haaksman proposes to Rename the Streets in the former colonial capitals (his being Berlin) to not celebrate the war criminals and crimes of the nation’s past, #NamesMustFall — respect Daniel; Stephen Marley celebrates the great innovations from African history, alongside Wale and the cast from the Fela! musical; Renown coreographer Maimouna and Les Ambianceuses out of Paris call for all women to take their power back via a little “Booty Therapy”; Christain Scott aTunde Adjuah brings us back to an age where Jazz and politics were one, via an integral #BLM lens, at NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series; and finally, Seattle based Zimbabwe-DRC crew Chimurenga Renaissance reveal their new EP Girlz with Gunz via a beautifully executed thematic streaming video.

Have a great weekend, and enjoy!