Africa is a Country

No place like home for the “go-home blacks”

When an African is forced to leave home – from Somalia, Nigeria, Eritrea or any other country where their lives may be endangered – they know the risks. They know they may find themselves trapped in a refugee camp, waiting often for years to find permanent residence. They know they face a minimum of a month-long trip across the Sahara, called “bahr bila ma” (the sea without water), before reaching the Mediterranean. They know they may get lost in this desert, or run out of water and be forced to drink Benzene. They know they may be held for ransom, and tortured by the smugglers hired, supposedly, to escort them to safety.

If they make it to countries with ports, like Morocco, Algeria or Libya, many live in forest encampments, working multiple jobs to fund the trip across the sea before being extorted again. And once they arrive in Europe, if they haven’t perished at sea, they’re often branded mere economic migrants and are refused asylum before being deported back to the place they fled. Desperate, many will take the trip again across the Mediterranean. And many more follow them.

A recent report reveals there’s been an 80% increase in the number of refugees arriving in Italy compared to the first three months of 2015, with Nigerians, Gambians and Senegalese making up the largest numbers of asylum seekers.

The experience of the typical African refugee is one of rejection, inevitable denials of asylum, and being confronted by persistent anti-African sentiment. Despite this, and the fact that Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia and Mali are among the top 10 countries that people are fleeing, Africans are still largely erased from the discussion around the refugee crisis. Instead they pad the ballooning numbers of victims and receive little support in return.

This kind of erasure is not limited to countries in western Europe, where many African refugees first land. We’re seeing similar patterns here in Canada. In late March, when the new federal government revealed its budget, it included a commitment of $245-million to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, which is in addition to the 25,000 it had already fast-tracked. We support this action and many other Africans do as well, but something’s wrong with this picture.

Many will say that Syria produces the largest number of refugees and so, they deserve preference. It’s certainly true that Syria ranks as the most affected, but, while we remain in solidarity with all displaced people, we shouldn’t practice a first-past-the-post humanitarianism. Africans are a part of this crisis and if the federal government will make commitments to some it should make them to all.

If you want to privately sponsor a refugee in Canada, there are currently no limits for Syrians. This is also commendable, but Africans face the detrimental effects of caps on private sponsorships and incredibly long delays (often years) in the processing of their applications. Not only have applications of specifically African refugees been put on hold, but also some refugee offices such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto have begun turning away new applications submitted on behalf of African refugees. There are reports of families separated, with children waiting for years in refugee camps while their parents are settled in Canada. The longest delays are for the 18 African countries covered by the Nairobi visa office. Most privately sponsored refugees through that office wait more than three years, and, according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, “rather than increasing the numbers of African refugees to be admitted, the Canadian government has asked private sponsors to submit fewer applications at the Nairobi office.”

Canada’s response to refugees has become less global, neutral, and principled and more targeted. It’s within this selection process that African refugees are systematically excluded. It leaves many marginalized populations outside of the dialogue, further dehumanizing them. If and when these refugees finally reach Canada, they’re usually offered loans to help cover the costs of transportation fees, medical services, and sometimes even first month’s rent. These loans, which are typically paid with interest, are often as high as $10,000. Paying them back means working longer hours and postponing their education in a new country. In contrast, Syrian refugees arriving in Canada after November 4  don’t have to pay back their loans.

Last year, when those images of toddler Aylan Kurdi made it to the front pages of the world’s papers, we were as moved as anybody. And when rallies in support of refugees across the globe were organized, we supported and marched as well. But the truth is that some of us have seen images of washed up African toddlers for years. For some of us, Kurdi was one of many. For some of us, the rousing call from governments and settlement organizations and community groups of “refugees welcome”, was welcome but surprising, as there has been no such commotion when Africans drowned. Indeed, we wonder, with anger and disappointment, why the settler-colonial, Canadian state and our own allies remain silent as Africans continue to die; why we have been rendered what the poet Warsan Shire calls “the go home blacks.”

Reading maps, the interventionist state and another $15 billion missing from Nigeria’s government

This week is about charts.

(1) First up, is the chart below from the newly launched Global Consumption and Income Project (GCIP) spearheaded by Professor Sanjay Reddy of the New School for Social Research. (We’ve written before about Professor Reddy’s work challenging the World Bank’s poverty estimates here.) The chart shows levels of income inequality across African countries for the year 2014 (most recent year with available data). Inequality is measured using the Gini Coefficient which measures inequality on a scale of zero to one. (A Gini closer to zero means low inequality while that closer to one means high inequality.)

Surprisingly, Nigeria, with a Gini of 0.4883, has the lowest level of inequality on the continent. Unsurprisingly, South Africa, with a Gini of 0.6624, has the highest inequality measure on the continent. The other countries fall somewhere in between these two extreme cases.

chart 1

(2) The second chart, just below, digs into the underlying factors behind South Africa’s high inequality. First published by The Economist in December 2013 (after Nelson Mandela’s death), it shows, among other things, the evolution of average incomes per person across different racial groups in South Africa from 1917 to 2011. The first takeaway from the chart is that before the official ending of apartheid in 1994, average incomes for whites rose at rates that were considerably higher than those of other racial groups (see the blue line) – unsurprising as this was Apartheid’s main aim. The second takeaway is that the “freedom bonus” largely accrued to whites only – their average incomes nearly doubled over the period 1994 to 2011. This too is unsurprising as the opening up of South Africa’s economy after 1994 was only going to benefit those who had previously been privileged in accumulating capital (real estate, land, equity, savings, etcetera) and skills.

The chart is a great antidote to those who think history doesn’t matter in South Africa. We are especially looking at you, yes you, the choir that likes to sing the “black people are just lazy” song. (H/T to Josh Budlender on Twitter)

chart 2

(3) The next chart is taken from Afrobarometer and shows issues that are of most concern to the everyday African across 36 countries (the survey was conducted in 2014 and 2015). The most cited issue of concern is unemployment, followed by health and education. (H/T to Carlos Lopes on Twitter)

chart 3

That’s on maps for now.

(4) Naturally, we wanted to find out whether the concerns raised in number (3) are reflected in the kind of research questions that economists working on Africa are asking. And what better place to look than the Economic Development in Africa Conference held every year at Oxford University and billed as the premier conference for economists working on the continent (yes, we’ve blogged before about how troubling it is that this conference is held in Oxford). Justin Sandefur of the Center for Global Development went to the 2013 edition and conducted an analysis of the focus areas of the papers presented that year. He split his analysis based on whether the economist was African (i.e. African-based) or non-African. Sandefur found that:

African scholars [were] disproportionately interested in labor (i.e., jobs), firms (possibly jobs again), and monetary policy. Non-African scholars [were] disproportionately interested in political economy, conflict, natural resources, and (an outlier) migration. Roughly speaking, there [was] a division between jobs-focused papers by African researchers and papers by non-Africans focused on institutions.

Does this disconnect surprise anyone?

(5) One of our favourite UN bureaucrats Dr. Carlos Lopes of the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) sat down for an interview with South Africa’s The Daily Maverick to make the case for “interventionist states” in Africa. Here’s a sample:

[African] states need to get involved. The terms “developmental state” or “interventionist state” might be unpopular, but that is exactly what is required for African countries to lift themselves out of poverty, to achieve the kind of economic development required to tangibly improve the lives of hundreds of millions of African citizens.

The idea that governments could intervene in the economic affairs of their respective countries was rendered obsolete by the market fundamentalist ideas of the Washington Consensus.

(6) More on Dr. Lopes: We watched this really insightful talk on understanding Africa’s infrastructure appetite. Here are some facts from the talk that we were unaware of:

  • Africa as a whole has made more infrastructure investments over the last 5 years than in the 30 years prior to this
  • Contrary to perceptions, most of this has been financed by local resources (for example Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Second Suez Canal project)
  • African governments can still do more from local resources by collecting more taxes and cutting down on illicit financial flows out of the continent estimated at US$50billion per annum.

(7) We read this rather puzzling sentence in Chapter 11 of the 2014 book “Zambia: Building Prosperity from Resource Wealth” (emphasis ours):

Public ownership [of companies] remains surprisingly popular in Zambia, reflecting both President Kaunda’s ‘African Socialism’ and the controversial record of the privatization program of the 1990s.

Why is any of this surprising? Something is obviously going to be unpopular if it’s controversial. Duh!

(8) Is this the return of the Zim Dollar?

(9) Lastly, why is the government of Nigeria so clumsy? They’ve misplaced another US$15 billion.

Liberia needs ‘a history that will be called history after the settlers’

liberian journeys

In 1926, following the granting of a 99-year lease to the Firestone Tire Co. by the Liberian government, a group of Harvard scientists and physicians traveled to the West African nation to conduct biological and medical surveys.  One Harvard medical student named Loring Whitman recorded the expedition as its official photographer and gathered a database of some of the earliest media available on Liberia.  Whitman’s photograph and films, along with documents related to the expedition, form the source base for A Liberian Journey:  History, Memory, and the Making of a Nation.  Funded by the National Science Foundation, A Liberian Journey is the result of a collaboration between the Center for National Documents and Records Agency in Liberia, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, Indiana University Liberian Collections, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  In gathering together the records of the Harvard Expedition, this collaborative project provides “a view of Liberia shaped by the white privilege and racial attitudes of American scientists,” as well as “glimpses of the peoples, cultures, and landscapes of Monrovia and Liberia’s hinterland at a time of rapid economic, cultural, and environmental change.”

Dr. Greg Mittman, a professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, placed this expedition in historical perspective at the launch, pointing out that the 1926 expedition team “included some of the best minds in medical entomology, tropical medicine, botany, mammalogy, and parasitology,” including Max Theiler who, on this trip, “began his research on yellow fever, work that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize for the development of yellow fever vaccine.”  In addition to the scientific achievements of the expedition, Mittman also explained that the expedition built a significant archive during their travels, “documenting medical conditions, plant and animal species, and the life and culture among the different ethnic groups of Liberia.”  These important discoveries are available to all users and can be navigated through three different gateways.  Users can explore the collections contained in the site through the Map, which uses LeafletJS to plot out key points referenced in the collections’ materials.  Users can also browse the exhibit focused on Chief Suah Koko, a female chief and key figure in the history of Liberia.  Finally, the collection can be browsed according to the item type, from photo to documents to historic films (some of the oldest available on Liberia) and stories.  This collection boasts nearly 600 photographs, more than two hours of motion picture footage, oral histories, and documents related to the expedition.  All of these items are easily accessible, even on mobile devices due to the choice to build the site on the Omeka platform, in order to “ensure that anyone can access the site especially in areas of Liberia with limited internet connectivity.”

And this is a project meant for Liberians, first and foremost.  Attending the launch of Liberian Journeys at the Center for National Documents and Research Agency, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf envisioned the potential of this project to make Liberian history accessible to all its citizens.  “By that,” President Sirleaf explained at the launch, “it will make all Liberians to know about their true history and roles their forefathers played in the past in bringing all of their children up to this point.”  Dr. Joseph Guannu, a leading historian of Liberia and one of the featured interviewees in the Stories section of the site, has long been an outspoken advocate of the need for Liberians to recapture their history.  “We need a real history that will be called history after the settlers,” Guannu argues, “because a country that does not know its past or where it’s heading, is not a country.”  And Liberian Journeys provides a new direction for Liberian history, gathering together important historical artifacts and making them available to anyone through the click of a button.

Users are also encouraged to interact with the site by sharing their own memories of Liberia.  You can contact the site administrators with any questions via this link.  As always, feel free to send me suggestions in the comments or via Twitter of sites you might like to see covered in future editions of The Digital Archive!

The business of lies

Lucifer has been hard at work on “African” social and traditional media over recent months.

Donald Trump dissing Africans. Trump threatening to arrest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Mugabe calling Trump Hitler’s child. Mugabe proposing to marry Barack Obama. Mugabe dissing Kenyan “thieves”. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli banning miniskirts. Eritrea ordering men to marry two wives or face jail.

The Lord of Lies and his minions of web traffic-grubbing demons are winning, and there just isn’t enough fact-checking holy water to exorcise them from our timelines and your chat groups.

The Internet has lied to the gullible for years, and fake news sites such as SDE, Spectator and Politica of Kenya have been carrying on the tradition.

Helping these children of Lucifer is all of us; That know-all in your chat group who is always “first with the news,” yeah, the one who posts fake news about accidents, goblins and so forth. The Facebook guru who is famous for being famous on Facebook. Outrage Twitter, up at dawn scrolling the timelines looking for things to get angry about. All of us. And Lucifer.

Why do fake news sites exist?

Easy. The love of money is the root of evil, such as all this fake news. Once you click on the link, fake news sites make a few extra dollars on all those ads you see on their web pages. They don’t care if you stay on the site for a long time to read more content; this is why they work hard to create viral, single news items.

Using web tools like webuka and siteprice, you can get an indication of how much these fake websites make in ads monthly. Take, for instance, SDE Kenya, the site that gave us lies about miniskirts being banned in Kenya and the Eritrea thing. In the days after the Eritrea hoax story, the site had an average monthly ad revenue of between $6,000 (via siteprice) and $18,700 (on webuka).  Not dead accurate, distorted by fluctuations in views, which went up to 102,000 daily views. But you get the picture.

The statistics show people stay on SDE an average 5 minutes. They don’t need you to stay long. Just long enough to get you reading that one viral fake story and get those ads.

Lucifer’s work is even more profitable elsewhere. Joseph Finkelstein, an SEO expert quoted in an article by the New Republic, said of one of America’s most well-known fake news sites, The Daily Currant:

But at most, over the few years they’ve existed, The Currant may have made as much as $500,000 in revenue—split between two people who are hardly doing any work.

You see the Devil and his work?

Why do they succeed?

Well, no kinder way to say this; they succeed mostly because we are stupid, prejudiced and ignorant. We don’t check facts, or question the source because we’ve come to believe that, as I’ve said here before, everything is true if it’s on the Internet.

We can forgive ordinary web users for having meme fun with fake news. However, it all gets worrying when mainstream media–many with large audiences–also join in, allowing themselves to be duped into providing conduits for fake news.

Check the source. Who said it? Where? Who else is reporting it? These are steps we could take to verify. But then Lucifer whispers “where’s the fun in that,” and we press the share/retweet button, spreading lies.

Mainstream news sites that do that also profit from high traffic to their sites, even if it means sacrificing some credibility.

Why are media being duped?

Fake news websites play on our own prejudices and ignorance. They bank on us, and major news media, wanting for certain news to be true. Some of the news feeds our existing prejudices; about Africa, and even our own countries.

Josh Voorhees, of Slate, in an article he wrote when Drudge fell for a story on The Daily Currant, said fake sites “rely on (mainstream media) wanting to believe a particular story is true.”

And “wanting a story to be true” is the case with all the stories about President Mugabe. When the US legalized gay marriage in 2015, AWD News, a fake news site, wrote that Mugabe had reacted by “proposing marriage to [Barack] Obama.”

In no time, the article had been shared widely on social media. South Africa’s News24 took it as fact and published it. The BBC published the article as fact, linking to the AWD story with no hesitation. The UK’s Daily Mirror also did the same. In December 2015, BBC Africa reported the “I want to marry Obama” quote as one of its “top 2015 quotes.”

Mugabe, we were told, had said all this “in his weekly radio address.” Even Zimbos, who know, or at least should know, that there’s no such thing as a “Mugabe weekly radio address,” believed it.

In 2015, Spectator, a fake Kenyan site, wrote a fake story claiming Mugabe had called Kenyans thieves. The story made it into an otherwise great story on Kenyan corruption by the NY Times. After some criticism, to the paper’s credit, the fake quote was removed.

the spectator

Yet, an example of “wanting fake news to be true” came from Jeffrey Smith, of the US rights group Kennedy Institute. He shared the Kenya story on Twitter; a corrupt man like Bob had no right to be lecturing on graft, he shouted. When told it was all fake, he replied: “Wouldn’t be the first time he’s made such comments.” The “Obama story” was fake too, but, you see, this sounded like something Bob would say.

Jeffrey Smith Tweet

Which, somehow, makes it all OK. It appears a story doesn’t actually have to be factual, but just believable.

It’s true. I read it on the BBC. It was in the papers too.

One of the major reasons fake news succeeds is gullible “mainstream media” sharing it online. Desperate for content and engagement, and eyeballs to their own websites and paper sales, fake news is pushed on audiences without so much as a basic fact check.

This is how we end up with purportedly reputable news sources such as the BBC reporting it as fact that Mugabe wants to marry Obama.

BBC Africa Story

You get the feeling that, many times, major media do not put stories from Zim or Africa in general through the same credibility tests as they do stories from elsewhere. This is something I’ve blogged before.

Will this ever end?

It won’t. There’ll always be people who lie and people who believe lies. So, no.

Facebook has tried to stop the sharing of fake news on its walls, but it’s all pointless. Because, face it, if people are still crazy enough to believe, and share, fake news, there will always be people crazy enough to produce fake news.

Lies are more fun than facts. Lies are proving to be more profitable for websites. Facts are boring anyway. Even here in Zimbabwe where facts can be more hilarious than fiction.

Facts have never been popular on social media – and that, in fact is, one reason why social media is popular.

*This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on Ranga Mberi’s Tumblr blog.

Malick Sidibé: Directing Light

Legendary Malian photographer Malick Sidibé passed away on  April 14. Immediately following his death, we published a short tribute by the writer and photographer, Teju Cole. Since then we have reached out to friends and colleagues to reflect on the myriad ways Sidibé directed light in his lifetime – in and outside his camera.

Amy Sall: Malick Sidibé was one of the greatest, pioneering African visionaries to push against Western subjectivity, forging a space for African autonomy and agency to be recognized by the masses. His work shone a beautiful and important light on the robust youth culture, sartorial prowess and rich daily lives in Mali. Whereas Western entities saw Africans as one-dimensional, and developed warped theoretical constructions on who we were, Sidibé fought against such ignorance by simply showing the world who we were, in all of our nuanced glory. We are forever indebted to the Eye of Bamako–Amy Sall is a photographer and the editor of Sunu Journal.


Candace Keller: Malick Sidibé was arguably one of the most influential photographers of our time. Most renowned in international art circles for dynamically composed black and white studio portraits and photographs taken of youth at parties and celebratory events in Bamako, during the 1960s and 1970s, Sidibé’s images have inspired numerous fashion designers, photographers, videographers, and filmmakers around the globe. Accordingly, in the past two decades, Sidibé was commissioned to take fashion photographs for magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Paper, and the New York Times Magazine.

In Mali, Sidibé was the patron saint of photography. For much of his career, he was one of few people in the country who could repair medium format and 35mm film cameras. As a result, Studio Malick became a nexus for photographers. Over time, his studio acquired a large collection of cameras, which he regularly gifted to young men and women aspiring to enter the profession. Later in his career, he facilitated several photographic workshops, training future generations, and as the president of the Groupement National des Photographes Professionels du Mali advocated on behalf of the trade and its practitioners at the National Assembly.


Those who knew him admired his generous, humble spirit, jovial sense of humor, and philanthropic endeavors. For his 21st-century fashion shoots and Vues de dos (Back Views) series, he hired single mothers and orphans from his neighborhood to serve as models, providing them with communal support and a source of income. For decades, as he noticed passersby or was reminded of someone who had recently or long since passed, he would find their portrait in his archives and reprint it for their family – unsolicited – as a memento. As president of his hometown association, he helped provide support for the construction and renovation of schools, roads, and other community resources for his village, Soloba.

Over the past 15 years, as I have studied the history of photographic practice in Mali, spending hours in his studio, darkroom, and home, Malick has remained one of my greatest teachers and an inspiration for what it means to be a good person, neighbor, and friend. Sobekela de don! His legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those he touched. May he forever rest in peace–Candace Keller is an associate professor at Michigan State University.

Drew Thompson: Malick Sidibé’s practice flourished outside of the commercial studio, where he initially trained as a photographer. The poses and dress styles of his photographed subjects mirrored the processes of globalization that accompanied the end of French colonial rule in Mali. In fact, his photographs illustrate the material worlds inhabited by his photographed subjects and the forms of appropriation that characterized the presence of diverse technologies like cars, radios, and clocks. Sidibé’s physical movements with the camera blur the boundaries that distinguish social, professional, and political spaces, and as a consequence display the ways in which photography’s practice and acts of looking were fundamental to Malian daily life.


Sidibé humanizes his unidentified subjects through the lenses of fashion, leisure, and romance, and his use of the camera and the prints that resulted prompt a rethinking of popular culture’s role in processes of colonization and decolonization. Furthermore, his pictures were formative to the creation of Recontres de Bamako, the major photography biennial, and the curatorial endeavors of Okwui Enwezor – both of which have transformed the public’s engagement with and study of photographers from the continent of Africa. Sidibé’s photographs represent a distant memory when compared to recent historical events in Mali. In fact, insurgency movements have used the representational contents of and symbolic value embodied by Sidibé’s practice and photographs to challenge political rule and to unsettle state boundaries. What then are captivated viewers to do with such mesmerizing prints and an illustrious professional legacy, especially when the photographer is no longer living and when geopolitical circumstances render the contents of photographic prints as artifacts of the past? Sidibé’s death presents such questions while providing few, if any, answers–Drew Thompson is a visual historian.

Cherif Keita: Malick Sidibé, the man who lived several lives, has left to join his elder colleague Seydou Keïta, in the land of immortality. What an abundant legacy he has left to posterity.

It was in 2010 that I had the unique opportunity of meeting this father of African Photography. One January afternoon I arrived at his studio in the populous neighborhood of Bagadadji, with 21 American students in tow. Smiles, wide-open arms and loud greetings! It was as if Malick had known each of us in the not too distant past. Truly, we had arrived home, at his studio.

Cherif Keita and Malick Sidibe in Sidibe's Bamako studio.Cherif Keita and his friend Toure, photographed by Malick Sidibé in Bamako in 2010.

Our conversations over his numerous photo albums were a unique moment for me, the Malian exile, as well as for the young Americans, freshly arrived in Mali, as part of a study trip, with the theme of Malian history and culture. Each photo spoke volumes about a feverish period of my own youth in Bamako, on the eve of the military coup of 1968. My students had finally under their eyes the vibrant social landscape I had tried my best to paint for them in my classes on the other side of the Atlantic.

After spending a good hour traveling through time, Malick told us that it was time to stand in front of his camera. In general, for Malick, it was a matter of simply catching the joyful moment that we were sharing that afternoon. Such was his overall artistic philosophy.

The last time I saw Malick was in June 2015. Not having found him at the studio, I went to his house in Magnambougou, because I had for him a signed copy of a book written by my friend, Professor Tsitsi Jaji, with one of Malick’s photos on the cover. Even though he was ill and weakened by old age, he had not lost his legendary smile. Very quickly, some albums came out, which we had to vigorously dust off before going through them. They are right, those who say that the world has seen only a small fraction of the thousands of photos taken by this tireless photographer.

Cherif Keita viewing photo album with Malick Sidibé.Cherif Keita viewing photo album with Malick Sidibé.

It is said that when Photography was first introduced in Mali and elsewhere in Africa, people were afraid of it, because in the Bamana language, for instance, it was considered a dangerous act: jà tàa meant to take the soul or the shadow of the person who was being photographed. Going from that to Mali becoming the capital of Photography in Africa, clearly we all owe a debt of gratitude to Malick Sidibé – with his mild manners and disarming smile – for having convinced tens of thousands of people to entrust their souls or shadows to a black hand holding a shiny little box that produced a blinding light. Rest in Peace, Malick, illustrious son of the village of Soloba, in Wassulu–Cherif Keita, born in Mali, is a documentary filmmaker and professor of French and liberal arts at Carleton College in Minnesota.

The Ghost of the IMF’s Past

It’s May Day today, but we still have some work to do. To the coalface we go.

Is the ghost of the IMF’s past back to haunt Africa? It seems these days that no economic news item about the continent is complete without some reference to “The Fund.” So we kick things off with a story about the IMF’s latest tussle with the government of Mozambique.

(1) It was revealed this past April that Mozambique, previously the IMF’s poster child for a “new Africa”, had not disclosed about US$1 billion worth of debt to the Fund. The Mozambican government maintains it didn’t see the need to disclose the debt because it was contracted to protect the country’s “strategic infrastructure.” For instance, about half of the previously undisclosed amount is said to have been contracted by Pro-Indicus, established by the state in 2012 to protect the country’s newly discovered oil and gas reserves.

Whatever the reasons for the non-disclosure, the IMF’s upset and has since suspended additional lending to Mozambique setting off a chain reaction of similar actions by the World Bank and the UK government.

(2) Still on news about the IMF and Africa: the South African Mail and Guardian wins our headline of the week competition with this: “After fighting hard, Zambia expected to stumble into the IMF’s waiting arms”. Notice that the headline says nothing about those arms being loving arms.

(3) Sticking with Zambia, we came across this paragraph showcasing the dubious promise of privatization and so-called “tax incentives”:

Unfortunately, when [Zambia’s copper] mines were privatized in the 1990s, [at the behest of the IMF, World Bank and other donors] investors in the sector were offered very attractive tax incentives that shielded them from paying higher taxes as the copper prices rose. As a consequence, despite copper making up more than 70% of total exports, the contribution to tax revenues is relatively small compared with other countries. In 1992, when the mines were owned by the state and copper prices averaged $2,280 per ton and production was 400,000 tons, the government was able to collect $200million in revenues and other remittances. In 2004, when the mines [had been privatized] and the copper prices had risen to $2,868 and copper production was 400,000, the government only received about $7million in revenues.

It’s from page 9 of the two-year old study “Zambia: Building Prosperity from Resource Wealth.”

(4) This type of economics that unambiguously promises magical things to appear out of lower corporate taxes and privatization has rightfully been called “voodoo economics.” And we are happy to learn there is now growing opposition to it among the younger generation, like the former New York Times economics reporter Catherine Rampall (now an opinion writer at the Washington Post):

Just 35 percent of respondents [inthe latest youth poll from Harvard’s Institute of Politics] said they agreed with the statement that tax cuts are an effective way to increase growth, which is 5 percentage points lower than last year and the lowest share since the poll first asked a question with this phrasing. This is bad news for Republican candidates, all of whose economic policies are predicated on very generous assumptions about tax cuts and growth.

(5) Talking about voodoo economics, it appears that economists are willing to sacrifice more than half a thumb to publish in the American Economic Review, the profession’s most prestigious scholarly outlet. True story.

(6) One of our favorite economists Dani Rodrik has a really illuminating piece dispelling the myth that protective trade barriers in advanced countries (as advocated for by, for instance, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders) spell doom for the world’s poor. Professor Rodrik dispenses with the myth not by making things up but by appealing to the actual historical record:

[T]here is nothing in the historical record to suggest that poor countries require very low or zero [trade] barriers in the advanced economies in order to benefit greatly from globalization. In fact, the most phenomenal export-oriented growth experiences to date – Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and China – all occurred when import tariffs in the US and Europe were at moderate levels, and higher than where they are today.

(7) And Professor Rodrik blessed us twice this week by publishing a piece challenging the promise of so-called structural reform – the kind of reform agenda inflicted on Africa in the 80s and 90s. Here’s a sample:

But the [structural reform] policy prescribers, it seems, suffer from selective memory. Structural reform as a remedy for slow (or no) growth has been around at least since the early 1980s. At that time, the World Bank began to insist on economywide liberalizing reforms as the quid pro quo for developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East in return for “structural adjustment loans”…Oddly, though, debate over the reforms pressed on Greece and other crisis-battered countries in the periphery of Europe did not benefit from lessons learned in these other settings. A serious look at the vast experience with privatization, deregulation and liberalization since the 1980s would have produced much less optimism about the benefits of the kinds of reforms Athens was asked to impose.

(8) We found this much retweeted piece by The Economist on the challenges of manufacturing in Africa confusing to read (we weren’t surprised, actually). The piece subtly manages to re-manufacture (no pun intended) the trope that Africans are incapable of doing anything because they are corrupt and so on. The piece rightfully acknowledges that the continent was more industrialized in the 1970s than it is today but (purposely?) neglects to point out that the reasons for de-industrialization over the last 30 years are largely ideological. For instance, much of the continent began to de-industrialize long before the energy crisis that’s currently afflicting it. Whereas the energy crisis is a constraint on industrialization today, The Economist doesn’t explain why de-industrialization happened in the first place. We’ve written before about this type of historical amnesia when it comes to the debate about Africa and industrialization here and here.

(9) Finally, the good team at Zikoko Magazine have put together this useful list of steps needed to start “a successful Nigerian Church Business.” It’s no joke oh. Times are hard and we all have to make a living somehow.

Weekend Music Break No.94

A break from the routine of the work week, a weekend music break for you all to enjoy this May Day!

Rest in peace Papa Wemba 2) Netherlands-based Cape Verdean singer Gery Mendes asks if our world is really ready for positive change, is it? 3) I’m in the UK right now, so I had to share Stormzy’s latest. 4) London Global Hip Hop outfit Subculture Sage’s video for “Gold” stars two Zimbabwean gold miners. 5) There’s an H&M in Brixton now. (M.I.A. invites AIAC profile subject Dope Saint Jude along for her collaboration with the brand.) 6) Sean Jacobs spotted this, trap rap video from Northern Nigeria. 7) I’ve noted Kahli Abdu as one to watch for awhile, and he did not disappoint with this banger! 8) The Mavin Records crew out of Nigeria dropped a new one this week. 9) I don’t know much about them, but Chloe and Halle are interesting. 10) And finally, a new Azaelia Banks video just for the hell of it.

Happy weekend!

Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs

Except for a brief one-year interlude from June 2012 to July 2013—when Mohamed Morsi was President—modern Egypt has been ruled by military regimes. It began with Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-1970), who came to power through a military coup. Nasser was succeeded by Anwar al Sadat (1970-1981) at Nasser’s death. When Sadat was assassinated, his deputy Hosni Mubarak took over until the protests of January 2011. When Morsi — Egypt’s first and only democratically elected President — was deposed, another General, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, took power. Sisi, who is currently Egypt’s President, declared in February 2015 that the country’s democratic transition “is complete.”

In a way, Egypt’s military dictators came to resemble its pharaohs, with their highly centralized governments, the creation of a culture of fear, and a cult of personality. In modern Egypt, the portrait of the president hangs in every government office, on billboards throughout the cities and on the sides of roads. Buildings and neighborhood are named for them.

Egyptian filmmaker Jihan el Tahri explores this recent history in a new, three part documentary series, Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs. The series has been screened on the BBC, Arte and at major film festivals. Each part focuses separately on the Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak regimes, who combined ruled Egypt for over 50 years.

The series begins with the accession of Nasser through his coordination of coup by “Free Officers” in 1952 against King Farouk. Nasser, however, did not become Egypt’s first republican president. That honor went to Muhammad Naguib, who was born in Sudan. Within one year Nasser, using his popularity, plotted against Naguib, imprisoning him as well as, subsequently, erasing all traces of Naguib’s contributions to the revolution from public memory.

Sadat, who served as Nasser’s vice president, used his time at the helm to undo much of what Nasser had built. Nasser worked hard to unite much of the Arab world under his leadership — he is credited as the father of Pan-Arabism– but also remembered involving Egypt in costly and disastrous wars in Yemen and with Israel.

Under Sadat, Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel (Sadat visited Israel and spoke in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset) that isolated Egypt politically for at least decade. Sadat also negotiated with the West and opened up the Egyptian economy to western investment.

Hosni Mubarak took up where Sadat left off in his devotion to capitalism and western, especially U.S., political influence. The 30-year rule of Mubarak was defined by the growth of income inequalities and dismantling of the social safety nets that Nasser had put in place. Corruption ran wild throughout the country and the military consolidated its stake over the economy. The only state sector that functioned effectively, was the security apparatus. Forced disappearances, human rights abuses, and extreme police brutality were all widespread during the Mubarak regime.

One aspect of military rule that has remained relatively unexplored until recently, is its relationship to political Islam, which has always garnered large followings of devoted members among ordinary Egyptians. The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have been in and around Egyptian politics since the early 1920s and the government’s best efforts to weaken them notwithstanding, they always reemerged stronger.

Publicly, Egypt’s military regimes play up their opposition to Islamists, but enjoyed symbiotic relationships between successive Egyptian governments and Islamist groups.  In Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs,  El Tahri explores this rarely acknowledged mutually beneficial relationship.

Nasser, for example, exploited his relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood to gather popular support for the 1952 coup. Once he had stabilized his dominance over Egypt, he criminalized and imprisoned Muslim Brothers, including prominent Islamic theorist Sayyid Qutb. Sadat eased the grip on political Islam and actively encouraged Wahabism. Sadat’s strategy was to co-opt them so as to neutralize radical Islamists. However, the Islamists would eventually assassinate Sadat. The Mubarak regime then changed course and cracked down on political Islam. Mubarak later changed his mind and allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in parliamentary elections in the early 2000s as independent candidates. The Brothers won several seats and provided a serious opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party.

El Tahri manages to interview all of the major players that were part of the drama of the last 50 years of Egyptian politics. Embers of the ruling party, the Free Officer Movement, 1970s student leaders and leaders of Islamist groups, all get their turn on camera. It’s rare to hear such candor about Egyptian political history and the film does a great job of situating the viewer into the political culture of the time.

My family is Egyptian — my parents migrated to the United States in the early 1980s — and I was brought up with the idea that these central figures in modern Egypt were infallible men of honor and patriotism. This series destroys that illusion. Instead they were characterized by political failure, deceit, corruption and greed.

To get her viewpoint across, El Tahri uses traditional storytelling techniques. At the center of the film are interviews mixed with found footage of historical significance. To add cultural depth to the narrative, she complements these with clips from classic Egyptian films and television shows that depict significant events in history. This is of course vintage El Tahri, whose films add up to an alternative history of “Third Worldism” (see for example her brilliant films on Cuba’s African solidarity campaigns or post-apartheid South African politics).

Egypt’s Modern Pharaohs was funded by a grant through the Doha Film Institute (DFI) in Qatar. Headed by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the sister of Qatar’s ruling Emir, DFI is another tool of Qatar’s soft power in the region, which includes the Qatar Foundation, hosting the 2022 World Cup or welcoming many global political and economic summits. Through funding and influence in media, arts, sports, and education, Qatar has worked hard to elevate its political status in the Middle East and globally. Qatar was also a vocal supporter of the Arab Spring. As a result, the military and nationalists in Egypt accuse Qatar of aiding the Brotherhood. After President Morsi was overthrown, Egyptian relations with Qatar deteriorated, with the generals preferring Qatar’s rival Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian military viewed the local bureau of the Qatari public diplomacy broadcaster Al Jazeera as a fifth column for Morsi and the Brotherhood. After he came to power, Sisi closed down Al Jazeera’s office and jailed some of its reporters.  Within Egypt, where conspiracy theories are commonplace, the sponsorship of El Tahri’s film by a Qatari foundation will thus arouse suspicion and debate, but that is a red herring. The film has to be judged on its merits.

Wither the Left in Nigeria?

Most contemporary observers of Nigerian politics would be surprised to learn that the Left has been a significant part of the country’s postcolonial history.

Nowadays, the Left includes various groups, ranging from NGOs to pro-democracy and anti-government groups, but my use of the term is restricted to a particular historical process that shaped the establishment, formation and cooperation of different organizations with allegiance to a Marxism-Leninist forms of political economy in post-colonial Nigeria.

Nigeria’s political independence is often credited to nationalist leaders, such as Chief Obafemi Awolowo, Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe and Sir Ahmadu Bello. In the process, commentators minimize the heroic role played by the Labor movement (led by Chief Imoudu), the Zikist movement (led by Chief Mokwugo Okoye) and other Left organizations.

The general strike of 1945 marked the beginning of the struggle that end in the termination of colonial rule in Nigeria in 1960. The Left remained a power after independence, as well. In 1960 for example, protest against a British request to set up a permanent British military base in Nigeria was organized by leftist students and workers, preventing Nigeria from becoming a military outpost of a dying British empire.

This robust Left tradition would continue from independence through the periods of military rule in Nigeria.  However, three events in the late 1980s and early 1990s spelled the fate of the Left in Nigeria.

General Ibrahim Babangida came to power in a military coup in 1985, ousting General Muhammadu Buhari, who had overthrown a short-lived elected government (the same Buhari who is the country’s current democratically elected president). In 1986 Babangida, presenting himself as a reformer, appointed the Cookey Commission to chart Nigeria’s political future. The commission—composed of leading leftists–advocated for, among other things: social justice, a return to democracy, and a socialist state. The military rejected most of the recommendations, particularly the one that proposed transition to a socialist state. Babangida also pushed through an IMF loan that the Left vehemently opposed.

Babangida then intensified his repression of the Left. At Amadu Bello University, the military ordered all Marxist books burned and dismissed professors associated with Marxism, such as Festus Iyayi (University of Benin), Toye Olorode and Idowu Awopteu (both of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife). Patrick Wilmot (born in Jamaica), who taught at Ahmadu Bello, was deported to the UK.

Yet the Left ­­persisted. In the early 1990s, leftists formed a coalition – the National Consultative Forum – to develop a new constitution, establish an interim government, and a timetable to chart the end of military rule and run elections. When the military responded by arresting coalition leaders at the launch, Leftists regrouped as the Campaign for Democracy. Babangida called for elections to elect a civilian in 1993, then annulled the result; he eventually left office later that year. Unfortunately, his successor Sani Abacha proved even more ruthless. Without a viable path to power, leaders on the left were imprisoned, lost their jobs; over time, many conformed to the neoliberal system instituted by the military regime.

This begs the question: given this history of activism despite the odds, why is the Left invisible in contemporary Nigerian politics? In addition to its confrontations with the state, the Left’s fate has been shaped by internal debates about whether change is best promoted through revolution or liberal democracy. This debate has been polarizing and has allowed political and business elites to consolidate power in the post-military era. Unable to articulate a clear political plan, many erstwhile Leftists have gravitated to limited reform agenda of most NGOs:  constructive engagement with the state, as opposed to structural change in the socioeconomic and political life of Nigeria. Working with NGOs has transformed Leftists into state partners, no longer interested in taking power but in sharing it. Non-governmental organizations in Nigeria advocate for surface level change in state practices, rather than radical transformation of the state to popular participatory and people-centric democracy. The NGO invasion of trade unions exemplifies this trend. They are content to have their right to protest price hikes preserved as subsidies drop. The Occupy Nigeria movement met a similar fate. Meanwhile, brilliant organizers die mysteriously: For example, in 2005, Chima Ubani was the victim of a suspicious accident on his way to mobilize one such protest.

Nothing describes the current state of the Left better than the participation of those few who represent it in government. These include: Labaran Maku, who was deputy governor in Nassarawa State and later became former President Goodluck Jonathan’s Information Minister; Kayode Fayemi, who was Governor of Ekiti State and is now Minister of Solid Minerals; and Uche Onyeagocha, who became a member of the House of Representatives (the lower house of the national assembly). All are avowed leftwingers, but rely on a political system whose agenda is dictated by the same elite that have turned Nigeria’s state and public resources into private property.

It is the Left’s reluctance to contest power that has given us the present system. While some of today’s elite were hobnobbing with the brutal Abacha regime, on June 4th, 1998 in Benin City, left leaders such as Ubani, Bamidele Aturu, Emma Ezeazu, Salihu Lukman, Dr. Abayomi Ferreira, Uche Onyeagocha and others from across the country, launched The manifesto and Democratic Alternative accompanied by a manifesto that challenged the Abacha regime. The DA, in alliance with the United Action for Democracy, was later at the forefront of the fight against Abacha. When the latter died in 1998 and the present transition to civilian rule was initiated by the Abdulsalami regime, the Democratic Alternative applied and registered as a fully fledged political party, and at a convention in Port Harcourt later that year, declared to sponsor candidates at all levels for elective office. Their ambitions were foiled, however, by lack of funds, the commercialization of the electoral system and the absence of consensus about the nature of political participation by all Left organizations.

The question is: wither the Left in Nigeria? Can the Left perform its historical role by organizing and reshaping the politics of Nigeria for the good of its citizens? At this critical moment the Left has the opportunity to redeem itself by organizing and re-engaging. The Nigerian people are frustrated by the lack of leadership from elite politicians. They want change, but not the kind of change promised by the Buhari administration. Rather, an alternative vision of what Nigeria might be.

This is the moment for left-leaning political parties to cultivate new alliances, and build consensus around issues that are germane to Nigerians – the comatose economy, education, health and jobs. It is time to break the elite stranglehold on politics and shake off the embrace of the current system. The Left’s finest days are yet to come.

The Myth of the African travel writer

Bethnal Green, London. By @NyathikanoBethnal Green, London. By @Nyathikano

The proposition that I attend the African Travel Writing Encounters (ATWE) workshop held at the University of Birmingham in the UK on a blustery, drizzly day in March came from a close acquaintance who fits the customary profile of a professional travel writer – meaning that he is white and male. Daniel Metcalfe, my acquaintance, followed his own impulse: he travelled solo around Angola for three months and recorded his discoveries, adventures and experiences in the critically-acclaimed Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey into Angola, published in 2013.

But the line-up of speakers seemed to have been hand-picked explicitly to shake-up such complacent views as I held prior to arriving at the university’s labyrinthine medical school where the workshop took place. With the exception of University of Sussex graduate student Matthew Lecznar, all the male presenters were black African, and all the white ones were female. And the marathon session (we began at nine in the morning and finished late into happy hour) was brought to a triumphant close by the irrepressible and enormously talented Lola Akinmade Åkerström (a Nigerian, now living in Sweden), whose evocative photography is represented by National Geographic Creative and travel writing has been published in a plethora of national and international media outlets.

In fact, Lola’s presentation was one of only three given by Africans who are practicing travel writers. Fellow Nigerian, Pelu Awofeso was another, and Zambian author Humphrey Nkonde was linked to the meeting by telephone after encountering problems in his bid for a British visa (par for the course when you attempt to ram global travel and Africans into the same frame). Most of the remaining presenters hailed from universities and research institutes in Algeria, Brazil, Ghana, Morocco, Nigeria, and United Kingdom – in other words, they were scholars.

And, given that the racial profile of Britain’s academic staff almost precisely mirrors that of the traditional travel writing cohort, I won’t startle anyone by saying that the UK-based academics in attendance were almost all white. In other words, despite the surprising and exhilarating racial diversity on display, it remained true that, like a Montgomery County magnet school, most of the blacks had been bussed (more accurately, flown) in. And the main reason why this matters is because it highlights an important loop-hole in equality and diversity initiatives in UK higher education that arises from the popular notion of the ‘global university.’ Higher education institutions can buy in diversity through funding for international research projects, conferences, networks and the like, while simultaneously falling short of rectifying glaring racial inequalities locally.

Appropriately enough, one of the first papers, delivered by York university-based researcher Janet Remmington, drew attention to the possibilities for unsettling the status quo inherent in travel that is seen as “without purpose” or “meandering.” Her subject, Sol Plaatje, was at one time described by colonial South African officials as a “political native engaged in peregrinations amounting to travel (my emphasis).”

Despite breaking new ground in several ways, the workshop’s presentations – running the gamut from journeys undertaken by Moroccan ambassadors in the 19th century (Hamza Salih) to Samuel Crowther’s expeditions to the Niger (Alexsander Gebara), and inclusive of the contemporary travel writing showcased by Awofeso and Nkonde – failed to reflect the basic concept of the European archetype: travel undertaken for its own sake. African travelers, it would seem, must still justify their movements across the planet (whether the motives be professional, economic or political). Passports may have replaced passbooks for a number of us; but we must still answer the question, “Why are you here?”

No normal sport in an abnormal society


Recently, Aubrey Bloomfield, a graduate student at The New School, and I wrote a piece for The Nation about a sports boycott as a strategy against the occupation of Palestinian land by Israel. Here’s an excerpt:

There appears to be support among Palestinians generally for sporting sanctions against Israel. However, to date BDS has largely been focused on other targets. In recent years, the cultural boycott has become a growing aspect of the movement. While the success or failure of cultural boycotts is debatable (they have had success up to a point), what the South African case points to perhaps is the greater impact of sports boycotts on political attitudes and reform.

One thing that seems to work well—when international diplomacy and common sense have failed—is the threat of withdrawing a rogue nation from the community of sport. In South Africa the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society” encapsulated the conviction that as long as the regime excluded the majority of its people from participating in society as equals, it should be excluded from participating in international sports competitions as equals. For white South Africans (and their apologists), sporting isolation was a bitter pill to swallow.

The Israeli government and sports associations’ responses to recent threats of Israeli expulsion from UEFA and FIFA are particularly instructive: Citizens have strong feelings about sport. It is closely tied to national identity, and the symbolic effects of sporting sanctions are more palpable than economic sanctions may be for many citizens (in the way, say, that being denied access to certain commodities may not be).

Up to now, BDS has been largely ambivalent about a sports boycott. Nevertheless, experience has shown that sports boycotts are very powerful tools for international solidarity groups. Ultimately, they could prove crucial in the Palestinian case, forcing a much broader conversation about the Israeli occupation and potentially representing one of the most significant threats yet to the status quo.

Shadow and Axed

As promised, here’s the latest instalment of our film news series, #MovieNight.

(1) First up, the not so good news. Shadow and Act, the film website that has a crucial online space for news and critique on films and filmmakers of the African diaspora for the last seven years, may close down. In a recent, very personal, blog post on the site, founder Tambay A. Obenson revealed that the recent sale of Indiewire didn’t include any of its individual blogs as part of the package; meaning the future for Shadow and Act is uncertain. We’ll be holding thumbs and sending out positive thoughts. Here’s an excerpt:

I really believe that there’s a need and public want for a web presence the likes of which I summarized above, and that it could be very successful if properly run; especially in a time when issues like “diversity” are cause célèbre here in the USA specifically; although, as we’ve covered on this blog, you’ll find very similar conversations being had across countries in Europe, countries in South America and continental Africa, as well as our neighbors up north, Canada – regions all over the world where people of color are still unfortunately woefully underrepresented in cinema (in front of and behind the camera), and effectively marginalized. If relaunched, it could be a well-run global brand accessible to anyone with an internet connection, anywhere in the world, that we can all be proud of, and will be extremely pleased to know exists. And if I’m going to do this, I want to do it right and go all the way with it, or not do it at all, which, again, takes hard work, people and of course money to build something of real value.

(2) “MTV is telling stories that mainstream established media refuses to tell you,” quipped a South African colleague about the channel’s South African iteration MTV Base’s new documentary on South Africa’s #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall student movements. Since 2015 these movements have brought the academy to its knees and the nation to a standstill. (To refresh, rewatch our video or visit our archive) Left in the capable hands of director Lebogang Rasethaba (Future Sound of Mzansi) and producer Allison Swank (she used to write for us), this is a very promising project. The documentary premiered on MTV South Africa this week. For those of you who didn’t catch it, here is the trailer:



(3) Still on trailers: The trailer for The Birth of a Nation, from American director Nate Turner, finally dropped and it’s looking great. The opening shot of an American cotton plantation, underscored by Nina Simone’s rendition of Strange Fruit is breathtaking. The film deliberately uses the title of D.W. Griffith’s film (1915), which was lauded for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques and shunned for its racist portrayal of black people (it was used as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan.) Watch the trailer here.


(4) Bi Kidude was Zanzibar’s own “Iron Lady” – not of politics, but of music.  She performed classic taarab around the world, combining her formidable talent with an arresting stage presence and huge personality. To mark the death of “probably the world’s oldest singer” (she was thought to be over 100 years old when she passed away in 2013), Andy Jones’ I Shot Bi Kidude was launched recently in Zanzibar. The film focuses on the mysterious and complicated kidnapping of the musical legend by a family member, and is asequel to Jones’ first film about the star, As Old As My Tongue, which celebrated her music, and her unconvential behavior and free self-expression, which challenged the traditional role of women in an Islamic society. You can stream As Old As My Tongue on Vimeo on Demand here.

(5) The director Gavin Hood (remember Tsotsi, the first South African film to win a Best Foreign Film Oscar) has a new movie out called Eye in the Sky, which deals with the disengaged nature and moral dilemmas of modern warfare. Shot in Cape Town (as a stand in for the heavily Somali neighborhood of Eastleigh in Nairobi) the film is receiving mostly positive reviews from other than Kenyan Somalis. It features an impressive lineup of actors, including Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman and Somali-American Barkhad Abdi. Which leads us to the question: Is Abdi being typecasted? He went from a breakthrough role playing a Somali pirate in Captain Phillips, to a Kenyan Somali intelligence operate in Eye in the Sky, to a drug dealer in Sacha Baron Cohen’s awful (some say offensive) The Brothers Grimsby. His next role will be in Where the White Man Runs Away, about a white journalist who embeds himself among Somali pirates. Here’s the trailer for Eye in the Sky.

(6) The Ghanaian-American co-production Nakom is now available to stream in some regions on Festival Scope. The film follows a Ghanaian medical student drawn back into his farming community after the sudden death of his father, and all the obligations that come with such circumstances. He is forced to make a difficult choice between following tradition and the narrative arc that he has projected for his own life. Co-directed by Kelly Daniela Norris and TW Pitman, and produced by Isaac Adakudugu (who actually comes from Nakom), the film looks to be both contemplative and charming.

(7) The new short film Reluctantly Queer, explores same sex desire in Ghana. Shot on 8mm by the Ghanaian-American director Akosua Adoma Owusu (she also did Kwaku Ananse revolves with a young Ghanaian man “struggling to reconcile his love for his mother with his same-sex desire, amid the increased tensions arising from same-sex politics in Ghana.”  Reluctantly Queer premiered at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.

(8)  Keina Espiñeira, a PhD in Political Science and Visual Studies, who also holds an MA in documentary, has made a migration film called We All Love the Seashore. The film seeks to blend documentary and fiction and collide “myths from the colonial past” with “dreams of a better future.”

(9) Finally, a Nigerian director has ripped off the plot of Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq, about a group of women who withhold sex until their men stop fighting. Lee’s film was ideologically a mess, so no surprises when some people on Twitter judged the Nigerian film to be better. Here’s the trailer for the Nigerian film:

When Emperor Haile Selassie went to Jamaica on this day in 1966

Fifty years ago today, Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie visited Jamaica. Hysterical crowds of thousands of people greeted him the airport in the capital of Kingston. The Ethiopian resistance to Italian colonialism and later occupation, legendary in the Atlantic world, drew some of the attention, but it was the Jamaica’s Rastafari population who were particularly enthusiastic. Rastafari revered (and still revere) Haile Selassie as divine. Leonard Barrett, in the first extensive study of Rastafari, explains how, in the first part of the twentieth century, the combination of economic and political crises in Jamaica and the rise in Afrocentric belief systems as promoted by people like Marcus Garvey (and his “Back to Africa” philosophy) led to a belief in Haile Selassie’s reign as more than the continuation of Ethiopia’s monarchical government system. The coronation of Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. In Kevin McDonald’s film Marley, Bob Marley’s wife, Rita, recalls meeting Selassie and recognizing his divinity.

From 2004 to 2013 I engaged in research that looked at the relationship between Ethiopia and Rastafari, resulting in this book. I was fascinated by the appeal of Ethiopia to Rastafari, but also, crucially, how the Ethiopian population perceived the Rastafari movement. Haile Selassie and his April 21, 1966 visit to Jamaica cast a big spell over this relationship.

Ethiopian academic Alemseghed Kebede, who analyzed various Rastafari thinkers for his Ph.D., was led to his research topic on the role of cultural understanding among Rastafari by his immense curiosity about Rastafari and their view of Haile Selassie. According to Alem, the way Ethiopians view Rastafari is colored by the fact that the latter have a different way of looking at the figure of Haile Selassie:

I was one of those people who was saying to myself, “Why would they consider Haile Selassie as God?” And, secondly, why would Ethiopia, which is a very poor nation, why would they take it as and consider it as the Promised Land? . . . I was dismissing their movement. I was saying that there is no way someone in their right mind could believe that Haile Selassie was a living God. I think there is misconception of the Rastafari when they talk about Haile Selassie. They are not talking about what you and I or the rest of people know. They don’t have this kind of historical view of this person. They have this symbolic understanding about the living God. Then, at that time, during the 1930s, you see Haile Selassie emerging as a very important figure and of course afterwards he is one of the founders of the Organization for African Unity and internationally he is a very interesting figure. All of those things were very important symbolic elements, in order for [Rastafari] to make a decision in terms of who this person was, so I think that is how they came to the conclusion that Haile Selassie was God, and Ethiopia, heaven on earth.

Alemseghed’s explanation points to a gap between what he refers to as an Ethiopian, “historic” notion of Haile Selassie, and the Rastafari “symbolic” view. There is a perceived divide between Rastafari and everyone else—Rastafari have one view and “the rest of the people” have another. His immediate reaction to Rastafari, namely, asking why Haile Selassie and why Ethiopia, demonstrates that the answer and framework of understanding for Ethiopians is very different from that of Rastafari. Exemplifying this situation is a narrative that I have come to term the “Miracle Story,” which describes the April 1966 visit of Haile Selassie to Jamaica in very different ways, depending on the perspective of the storyteller.

“I know that the Jamaicans are here because of our king,” Daniel Wogu, an eighteen-year-old student and Shashemene inhabitant working toward acceptance in a medical program, told me. “They believe that he is sent from God to save them or make the black people free from slavery. They have their own history,” he continued. “As I have learned from Ethiopian history, they say that our king went to their country to visit and there were some unexpected happenings. There was rainfall or something. They say then that this proves that Haile Selassie is not actually a man, but is God.”

Henock Mahari, an Ethiopian reggae musician born and raised in Addis Ababa, the city where he still lives and works, said something similar: “He was once in Jamaica and it hadn’t rained, and then it did rain. They accepted him as a God because of this miracle. They see him as a messiah and call Ethiopia their Promised Land and leave their home to come here and finish their life here.” In a general discussion with my hundred-strong English language class at the Afrika Beza College, a female student told me that “Jamaican people live in Shashemene and they like Ethiopian people very much because Haile Selassie went to their town and at that time there is no rain. When Haile Selassie got there, there was rain. So, after that day, Jamaican people like Ethiopia very much.” Shemelis Safa, a high school teacher in the town, had a similar explanation for why Rastafari move to Shashemene: “As I know, Haile Selassie went to Jamaica. It was very dry and they needed rain. Unfortunately, when this king arrived in Jamaica, the rain came.”

At the patriarchate in Addis Ababa, a scholar of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church described a similar phenomenon and how this divided the perceptions of Rastafari from Ethiopians: “Generally speaking, the understanding we have on [the] issue [of Haile Selassie] between us and the Jamaicans is different. The Rastafarians believe in once upon a time when Haile Selassie visited Jamaica, the country was suffering from drought. And right after his arrival, the rain fall. They consider him a god, because they associate him with what happened.” And a Shashemene-based Orthodox priest also told me of the rain starting when the emperor arrived. Even Haile Selassie’s grandson, Prince Ermias Sahle Selassie, told me that he had also always been told that story. I could recount many more of the same narrative, but they all generally amount to the same thing. There was a drought in Jamaica, and when Haile Selassie arrived in the country the rains started and the people of Jamaica were thankful. No individual I spoke with could provide further information about when or where this occurred or any other aspect of Haile Selassie’s visit. Most importantly, however, no storyteller could provide any specific source for the story. I tried to track down some semblance of source material, but to no avail. The essence of the tale, however, is significant: the miracle of rain directly relates to the consideration of the emperor as divine.

Each of these stories underlines the importance of rain in Ethiopia, given the high numbers of subsistence farmers and the historic prevalence of famine-causing drought. Drought is perhaps mentioned because it makes sense to Ethiopians. In addition, acknowledging a perception of Haile Selassie performing a miracle can justify belief that the emperor is divine by linking him to the Orthodox Christian tradition of reading the miracles of Mary as part of the church service. As philologist Getatchew Haile has written, “miracle stories were designed to be read in the churches and monasteries of the empire, as indeed they still are, during daily church services like the reading of the gospel.” Given the role of miracle stories in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, this reading of the Rastafari faith can be viewed as inserting Rastafari into an Ethiopian understanding of religion. Thus the otherwise strange belief in the former emperor as God can be placed in the context of Ethiopian realities and an Ethiopian narrative of faith. Relief from drought and divine intervention are relevant to Ethiopian culture and belief. This provides an opening for Ethiopians to welcome Rastafari into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Watching the documentary footage by Vin Kelly of the Jamaica Information Service of Haile Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica on April 21, 1966, it is obvious from the wet tarmac that something quite different occurred when Haile Selassie arrived in Jamaica. As observer Dr. M. B. Douglas reported to Leonard Barrett, “The morning was rainy and many people were soaking wet. Before the arrival of the plane the Rastafarians said that ‘as soon as our God comes, the rain will stop.’ This turned out something like a miracle, because the rain stopped as soon as the plane landed.” Though this description also described the event as a miracle, it is the complete opposite of the miracle outlined by my Ethiopian informants. Instead of Haile Selassie causing the rain to start, here he stops the rain so the celebration of his arrival can begin.

I see these conflicting narratives of Haile Selassie’s arrival as emblematic of the conflicting narratives of Ethiopian identity—one on behalf of Rastafari, the other on behalf of Ethiopians themselves. Each conception of identity is based on history, faith, and cultural realities which are different for both groups. In addition, there is more than a single sense of Ethiopianness for Ethiopia itself. The various and varied ethnic groups each have their own history, faith, and cultural reality that together work to piece together what it means to be Ethiopian.

Though Daniel Wogu and Shemelis Safa mention the connection to freedom from enslavement and the Solomonic dynasty respectively, the main thrust of the stories is that of the rain falling, a miracle made possible by the man Rastafari revere. It is the only explanation for the Rastafari belief. A story like this does not take into account any of the “symbolic” aspects contributing to a belief in Haile Selassie as divine, discussed by Alemseghed Kebede. However, despite the difference of perspective, the fact that the miracle story can be understood according to an Ethiopian Orthodox narrative underlines the importance of the church as a unique point of integration between Rastafari and the Ethiopian population. Haile Selassie himself seems to have felt this way too, as demonstrated by his reacting to Rastafari by shifting the focus away from his divinity and onto his faith in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

*This post is adapted from MacLeod’s book Visions of Zion: Ethiopians and Rastafari in the Search for the Promised Land, published by NYU Press and available here.

Do US presidential candidates care who Kwaku the plumber will vote for?

Waiting for a cab in The Bronx.  Image by Damon Winter (NY Times).Waiting for a cab in The Bronx. Image by Damon Winter (NY Times).

The lack of a distinct “African” category in polls or surveys in the United States make it impossible to definitively talk about the “African” perspective. However, according to “The Newest New Yorkers Study from 2013,” a study by New York City’s Department of City Planning, the city has the highest concentration of Africans nationally. That coupled with the fact that Africans are driving the recent growth in the number of black people here, means African immigrants are, and will be an important demographic in elections to come. From talking to Ghanaians in the Bronx, one day after the much discussed Bernie Sanders rally, there have few attempt to reach the proverbial “African man on the street.” In no stump speech will you hear about “Kwaku the plumber.”

Malata African Market off 167th and Grand Concourse is ostensibly a grocery store but its main function is really as a community center with goods on display for decoration. Dilys Wireko, who has owned the market for 12 years, calls it “the politics store.”

Behind us, between aisles of assorted local beverages, fufu powder andBlack Stars jerseys so common to many stores in Ghana, a group of men, in a mixture of Twi and Ga, loudly debated the upcoming Ghanaian elections. Ms Wireko shrugs,

I love my customers, we’re all family here. They come gather here and watch matches together. When there is a big soccer match, I don’t even sell anything! I have to turn on this TV, the TV at the back, and the place is full.

Ms Wireko doesn’t often discuss politics herself, but regarding the American elections, she says firmly, beaming with a smile “I am for Hillary, full stop.”

Her 13 year old son and 6 year old daughter are the ones with whom she discusses the presidential race, usually as they watch commentary on CNN. They’ve taken to chanting “Donald Trump, Donald Trump,” knowing it will irritate her.

For many African immigrants, the Clinton name is a reminder of the 1990s economic boom. As a self-described man-of-the-streets or Asraini), Kofi Antwi Okoh, told me:

Clinton was the best president I ever had. When I came to this country in 1995, when someone gave you one dollar, it was like today’s $100. When she comes, the life of Ghanaians will be better.

Samuel Osei, a local fashion designer echoes this saying:

I had a job at the post-office and everything was okay. Now everything has changed…. When Bush came, he came to kill people. He took all the money Clinton had saved and spent it on the war and brought the debt.

American dream, I heard about America, I want a good business. So I am going to America, now all my businesses have collapsed, I have only been able to lay blocks for my house in Ghana.

Bill Clinton’s first trip to Africa was to Ghana in March 1998, where over half a million people gathered to see him at the Independence Square. Ghana then president, Jerry John Rawlings, would reciprocate and visit Washington the next February.

The only Sanders fan to be found here, is a chartered accountant. Moses Mensah explains that “when it comes to economics, his ideas produces better jobs than Clinton’s.” Mr. Mensah who is the New York chairman of the National Democratic Congress party in Ghana, finds that Sanders appeals to his socialist ideas like the NDC’s in Ghana, inherited from the first president Kwame Nkrumah. “Clinton used to be my lady” he explains “but as Sanders came on board, I shifted to this guy.”

When I brought up the question of US-Africa policy, Mr. Mensah nodded:

America has a special foreign policy. They go where they can gain something. They don’t have permanent friends. They have permanent interests. That is the underlying principle of American foreign policy.

To be sure, On the 21st April the Africa America Institute will hold a forum on “Setting U.S. Policy in Africa for the Next U.S. President” with representatives from each campaign and where “congressional leaders, U.S. government officials, policy experts and Members of the African Diplomatic Corps to discuss and propose U.S.-Africa policy priorities for the next Administration.”

But events like this don’t make up for the lack of outreach to the communities here, and perpetuate the problem of overlooking voices and opinions from members of the communities who see a connection between their livelihood here and an ability to contribute back to the continent.

For Bobby Digi, an activist of Nigerian descent involved in Staten Island’s African-American-Caribbean community and the owner of the first African-Diaspora gallery Canvas@Studio150 in the borough, the political outreach and conversations to convince the people in the African community to organize must come from the bottom up.

After attending Bernie Sanders’ rally in Harlem with Harry Belafonte, former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, Erica Garner (the daughter of Eric Garner, murdered by police), Digi planned on allowing the Sanders campaign to use his gallery space and give them any resources needed to reach the diaspora community there.

Having worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign and as a guest at one of his debates. Digi is one of the few links between the national campaign, and the local communities on the ground.

Sadly, for the majority of people I spoke to, there isn’t the general feeling that there is a permanent interest in the African communities in the U.S. For the amount of attention and organizing looking at electoral democracy in Africa, the effort towards America’s Africans here leaves much to be desired.

Nigeria’s economy is doing like this. It’s blinking, shaking

This week we’re all about Naija. (BTW, the title will make sense by the end of this post.)

(1) Nigeria, like many African countries, relies on the export of a single commodity, oil, to earn foreign exchange. Lately, the gods of oil haven’t been kind to Nigeria (nor to Angola). The price of oil has fallen by about 60% over the last two years throwing the country’s budgeting process into disarray. The government has an expenditure gap of about $11billion that needs filling. The scarcity of foreign exchange (primarily U.S. dollars) means it’s becoming increasingly costly to import foreign goods into Nigeria – including refined petroleum (like you, we too wonder why Nigeria has to re-import the oil that it exports).

(2) It’s also increasingly becoming difficult for the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to continue propping up the value of the Naira, the country’s currency. The IMF wants the CBN to devalue it (i.e. let its value fall versus the U.S. dollar and thereby preserve precious foreign currency). President Buhari’s response has simply been to say “NO!” He worries that a devaluation might lead to an increase in the local price of imported goods with devastating consequences for the poor (and his approval rating). The Naira is trading at more than half its official value in the parallel market.

(3) Nigeria should have put money away when oil prices were high. But it didn’t. And former Minister of Finance Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, whose job was to do the saving, now blames former president Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan probably thought the price of oil would forever remain high.  Okonjo-Iweala should have known better than to trust the optimism of a guy named Goodluck.   

(4) Anyways, given that help from the IMF is likely to come with conditions (devaluation of the Naira, for example), President Buhari last week travelled to China to seek alternative help. He’s now back in Nigeria and his press secretary claims the visit yielded $6billion worth of investment pledges from China.

(5) The $6billion China is offering won’t require any paperwork. We didn’t make that up. That’s exactly what Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama told Reuters: “It is a credit that is on the table as soon as we identify the projects. It won’t need an agreement to be signed. It is just to identify the projects and we access it.” If only banks were this lenient with everybody. 

(6) One of the more exotic outcomes of the trip was an agreement for a currency swap transaction between Nigeria and China. With the swap, Nigeria will exchange Nairas for the Yuan, China’s currency. The Yuan will now constitute part of Nigeria’s foreign exchange reserves and will “flow freely across banks.”

(7) The swap does make economic sense because Nigeria has a great deal of trade with China. Previously, a Nigerian importing from China would have to buy U.S. dollars and then send these over to China. But with the currency swap, the Nigerian importer can pay their Chinese supplier directly in Yuan putting less pressure on the demand for the already scarce U.S. dollars. This whole swap thing is also beyond our heads, but this piece by Nigerian economist Feyi Fawehinmi was one of the best explainers we read on the internet. Nonso Obikili’s piece is also worth reading.      

(8) Still sticking with Nigeria was this story in The Africa Report about the success of former Lagos State governors Bola Tinubu and Babatunde Fashola in raising tax collections from $4million in 1999 to $100million in later years. That’s a 2,000% increase!  Tinubu and Fashola then used this money to upgrade Lagos State’s infrastructure. So how did Tinubu and Fashola pull it off? Well, by using a company with links to Tinubu to collect taxes on a commission basis. Don’t laugh. It got the job done, right?

(9) The point is African governments need to find innovative and contextually relevant ways of collecting taxes to build effective states – states that provide decent healthcare, education, security, infrastructure, et cetera. African governments collect about 15% of GDP in taxes (compared with about 40% in high-income countries). We are in no way suggesting that the “Tinubu formula” is the way to go about it. But there is something to be said about it being a response to a local reality. A reality in which tax evasion and corruption are pretty widespread.

(10) Finally, our resident economist wishes he was half as eloquent as Nigerian lawmaker Muhammed Kazure Gudaji in explaining that country’s economic woes (see the video below):

Maestro Sidibé


I have never been to Bamako, never been to Malick Sidibé’s studio in that city. In the later years, he would receive visitors, and his son would take their pictures against those famous Sidibé backdrops. But the heyday of the work had been in the 60s and 70s in that post-independence ferment that one also heard in the silvered and world-knowing tunes of the Super Rail Band and Boubacar Traoré, that galaxy of greatness.

The Maestro Sidibé, the Eye of Bamako, was blind in one eye. That is a time-saver for a photographer, to see the world with monocular vision as a camera does. An optical faculty ever-ready to pounce, economical as a cat.

Observe the immediacy of “Regardez-moi!” Could a photograph be more audible than this? This young man of fifty four years ago is full of life, zest, display, and joy, and the Eye of Bamako catches with unerring sympathy that irrepressible presence. Sidibé prised photographic practice from its classic studio precincts, where it had been brought to perfection by Seydou Keïta. They were of the line of great duos that sometimes haunt the arts, Picasso and Matisse, Hokusai and Utamaro. Keïta worked during the day. Sidibé made the night real: parties, dancing, flash photos. He was the obverse, keyed in to the unexpected point of view.

And the stamina! “At night, from midnight to 4 am or 6 am, I went from one party to another. I could go to four different parties. If there were only two, it was like having a rest. But if there were four, you couldn’t miss any. If you were given four invitations, you had to go. You couldn’t miss them.” He drank the full draught, and retained the evidence.

In “Je veux être seule,” a beautiful young woman has asked specifically to be shown without the man who was in the picture. The photographer is at her service, and so the man is dodged away into a ghostly nothing. No questions asked.

Malick Sidibé made many great pictures of African modernity. They will outlive him, and us. He showed us as we were, between the desire for solitude (Je veux être seule) and the wish to be seen and celebrated (Regardez-moi!), between the contained and the exuberant. All of it is there.

I received the sad news today that Malick Sidibé has died, at the age of 80. May his soul rest in peace.

Africa is a Radio: Episode #16

Africa is a Radio is back for April with both classic and contemporary sounds out of Africa and its diaspora.


1 Ricardo Lemvo – Habari Yako (Rumba Rock)
2 Papa Noel – Bon Samaritain
3 Fuego & Sango – Se Me Nota
4 Wyclef Jean – Leve’l Pi Wo feat. Power Surge
5 Willie Colon – Eso Se Baila Asi (Uproot Andy Remix)
6 Shadow – Killing Me (Subculture Sounds Remix)
7 Hugh Masekela – In the Jungle
8 Carlos Lamertine – O Dipanda Sondo Tula Kia
9 Amara Toure – Salamouti
10 Neg’Marrons – La Voix du Peuple
11 Booba – Validee feat Benash
12 MC Soffia – Menina Pretinha
13 Khuli Chana – Money
14 Serge Beynaud – Okeninkpin
15 Linegras – Malandra

The Power of Prayer

Last week, in a two to one majority decision, judges of the ICC’s Trial Chamber V (a) decided to drop the cases against Kenya’s deputy president William Ruto and former journalist Joshua Arap Sang. Ruto and Sang were charged with crimes against humanity, in the aftermath of the late 2007, early 2008 post-electoral violence in that country that left 1,200 dead and over half a million people displaced.

It is notable that the Chamber declined to acquit the suspects, ruling instead to vacate the charges because the prosecution case had broken down and the evidence available was too weak to convict them if the trial had continued. It’s worth reading the dissenting opinion of Judge Olga Herrera Carbuccia. The presiding judge, Chile Eboe-Osuji, declared a mistrial, citing “serious tainting of the trial process by way of witness interference and political intimidation of witnesses.”  Judge Robert Fremr agreed that:

There was a disturbing level of interference with witnesses, as well as inappropriate attempts at the political level to meddle with the trial and to affect its outcome.

But in Kenya, the details of this ruling are lost amidst the jubilation and celebrations that followed this announcement. The mood here is overwhelmingly that Kenya won, and the ICC lost. Lost in this process, is also the fact that Kenya was never in the dock at the ICC. Six individuals were. Six Kenyan citizens, not Kenya as a state or a nation.

Basically, over the past five years, we went from the “Ocampo Six” to the “Ocampo Zero” (in reference to Luis Moreno Ocampo, the first chief prosecutor of the ICC, and the six individuals he targeted for crimes against humanity). Six individuals were charged with crimes against humanity in relation to the post electoral violence (PEV) of 2007-2008, and in the end, only two of them stood trial. Now the charges against those men have been vacated. This essentially forecloses on any hope for accountability, whether at the ICC or before Kenyan domestic courts.

Upon hearing that he was off the hook, Ruto reacted with a “Hallelujah! God is great! Our God is Faithful,” before adding “My wife snuck out at midnight, to pray for me.” Thousands of supporters of the ruling Jubilee Coalition poured onto the streets to celebrate the final whistle on the Kenyan ICC cases. Joshua Sang has already proclaimed his political ambitions. President Kenyatta has called for a national prayer and thanksgiving rally at the stadium in Nakuru on April 16.

But one would be foolish to believe that this outcome was just delivered by the power of prayers. In fact, over the last few years, the Kenyan state and its leaders have relentlessly obstructed the work of the ICC and undermined the prosecution case. The Kenyan administration has refused to hand documents that the Office of The Prosecutor had said were important to prove the culpability of President Kenyatta. Witnesses have been intimidated, disappeared, and have refused to testify. When forced to appear before the Court, witnesses have recanted their earlier testimonies, saying that they were coached by ICC investigators.

The Kenyan state has also deployed an unprecedented diplomatic offensive against the ICC, enrolling both the African Union and individual African states. But above all, Kenyatta, Ruto and the Kenyan state had won the narrative battle on the ground, here in Kenya. By joining forces, and running on an anti-ICC platform, not only were they able to snatch victory at the 2013 elections, but also convinced the majority of Kenyans, even some victims of the post electoral violence, that the ICC was the enemy.

Over the past three months, I have been conducting interviews across Kenya, about the ICC. At the Nakuru Pipeline IDP camp, Daniel – not his real name – told me, “My own son was pierced by an arrow by one of his classmates. So saying Uhuru and Ruto were the perpetrators is sheer nonsense.” Another man, Samuel said:

An old man like Francis Muthaura, a man of seventy something years, being charged with rape, displacing people? Don’t you think that that was done to irritate people? Charging him with rape and killing people was aimed at annoying the community. That was a way of making the country go into war.

Not everyone needs to understand what command responsibility and being charged as an indirect co-perpetrator means in international law jargon, but if the victims themselves don’t get why is the ICC involved, there is a problem.

Speaking of the ICC proceedings, Daniel added:

All we hear is Witness 1, Witness 5, Witness 19 …What’s that? I asked Bensouda in person when she was here, why they hid the witnesses’ identities. If I was asked to give a statement, I would identify myself … and identify the perpetrators.

In any case, this is a good time for the ICC’s Office of The Prosecutor (known by its initials, OTP) to get into some serious soul searching. From the start, it was clear that Ocampo had engaged in some political calculation and a balancing act, when naming the six suspects. It is not clear it was the actual evidence that lead to the naming of those specific six individuals.

Moreover, had the OTP built its case on material evidence rather than relying mostly on witness testimonies, it would have made the political interference and witness intimidation less lethal to the prosecution case. I was sitting in the court room in The Hague almost two years ago when Judge Eboe-Osuji, visibly annoyed, chastised the prosecution and told them “you need to get your ducks in a row, we expect to see your witnesses lined up here.”

As for Kenya, it is clear now that the page has been turned, the books of accountability for the 2007-2008 PEV have been closed. At the domestic level, virtually no one has been prosecuted for their role in the violence that had engulfed the country. The establishment of the International Crimes division within the Kenyan judiciary did not happen and probably won’t. Even if that court sees the light of the day, it will not address the 2007-2008 violence.

Even more worrisome, the transitional justice process is stalled. Three years after the Truth, Reconciliation, and Justice Commission (TRJC) submitted its 2,000-page report, the Parliament has still not read and debated it, let alone implement its recommendations. Maybe Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are counting on the power of their prayers to deliver peace in Kenya for the upcoming next year’s elections.

More than fees must fall – Building a living archive of struggle

Throughout 2015, on our campus outside central Cape Town, we were involved in an uprising around tuition fees, outsourcing and student accommodation. Unlike the elite “white” campuses, such as the nearby University of Cape Town or Stellenbosch, where campus struggles often took on a symbolic form, ours was a struggle against the ongoing marginalization of students and the exploitation of workers at one of South Africa’s historically black universities. This marginalization was apparent in the absence of media coverage of our struggle, until dramatic scenes of police violence played out on national television.

The University of the Western Cape – or UWC as the university is popularly known – mainly serves black (colored and African) students. This is partly a function of its history under apartheid. South Africa inherited a three-tiered university system. Elite, white “liberal” universities at the apex (UCT, Wits), Afrikaner campuses (Stellenbosch, Pretoria) and “historically black” universities (basically campuses constructed by the apartheid regime for specific “ethnic” groups. Throughout the 1970s and 80s the university was known for student resistance against both the apartheid government and Afrikaner senior management and staff. Under the leadership of Jakes Gerwel, the university attempted to transform itself from an apartheid university to “the intellectual home of the left” through the recruitment of radical scholars and intellectuals. In his 1987 inaugural address, Gerwel (later Mandela’s Chief of Staff) outlined the university’s role in the wider political struggle against apartheid:

I am becoming rector at a time when the crisis of authority, the crisis of validity – some people call it the crisis of legitimacy – of the state and the government is not any longer just a theoretical construction but is written in huge letters in every house, every school and every university.

Today we once again find ourselves confronted by a state that is increasingly paranoid, repressive and facing its own crisis of legitimacy. Off-campus the growth of protests against the lack of services, housing shortages and rampant unemployment occurs against a backdrop of corruption, patronage and state capture. Over the last month, we’ve reflected on the dramatic events on our campus, exploring the themes, contradictions, highlights and tensions that emerged and are ongoing. From these reflections we have compiled a report that highlights the experience of students at UWC during the #FeesMustFall struggle and some of the unresolved issues, particularly the question of labor outsourcing.

Our report draws attention to the differential experiences of students at UWC in a number of ways. First, the spatiality of UWC is such that it is strongly shaped by apartheid geographies of race and class. Located on the edge of Cape Town and surrounded by colored working class neighborhoods, the campus itself was designed to be locked down in the event of protest action. Like South Africa’s townships there are few entry and exit points. The university administration and reactionary elements among the student body also attempted to use socio-spatial divisions between black and colored students to demobilize our movement. Like other campuses the ruling party, the ANC, and its allies used a variety of smear tactics to discredit the intellectual capacity of students, insinuating that we were led by some shadowy “third force.” This apartheid-style paranoia was reinforced by the militarization of our campus by security forces, some of which have direct ties to the old racist regime. Like other working class campuses, our struggle has foregrounded the role of outsourced workers. Interviews with workers reveal that they make poverty-level wages, and commute long hours to work each day. Ours is not a selfish struggle for lower tuition, but one that speaks to the ongoing oppression of black workers across this country.

Our university holds vast archives of the liberation struggle. There is however, a crucial difference between these archives and our report. Ours is a living archive, a document of a struggle that is ongoing, not a dusty memento of struggles gone by, and one that will intensify in the coming years. We are not interested in lionizing heroes or waxing nostalgic. We are developing the theory necessary for a new generation of activists to take the struggle forward.

The Radical Historian

Until the 1970s, South African historiography – on elite, white English-speaking campuses – was dominated by liberal historians. These historians traced South Africa’s history of racism to the frontier settled by Dutch descendants, refusing any links to British imperialism, even as they had begun to integrate Africans into their histories. A group of mostly young, white and radical South African historians based in Britain broke this hold by the liberals on the academy and historical analysis.

Known as revisionists, these historians questioned the assumption that modern South African racism constituted a hangover from the frontier encounter of the Boers with Bantu-speaking peoples. They offered a materialist analysis. In their work, they linked the rise of segregation and formalized state racism to the “mineral revolution” of the late 19th century, the penetration of Southern Africa by British capital and imperialism and the accompanying growth of the migrant labor system. Post-1948 apartheid, they insisted, was an adaptation and refinement of previous patterns of racial segregation rooted in the migrant labor system. The revisionists made connections between apartheid and post-war capitalism, in the process offering an alternative to the liberal faith that economic development would erode racial domination.

One of the most important of these revisionist historians was Martin Legassick, a former Rhodes scholar who did his PhD at UCLA with the pre-eminent liberal South African scholar, Leonard Thompson. By the 1970s, he was back teaching in the UK (he couldn’t return to South Africa because of his anti-apartheid activity). At the end of February this year, Legassick passed away in Cape Town.

I first met Martin when I travelled to South Africa in 2000 to serve as a Fulbright scholar at the University of the Western Cape. At UWC, I was assigned to co-convene a post-graduate seminar on comparative US and South African history with Martin and Mohamed Adhikari, a historian of colonial and early 19th-century Cape Town. Sixteen years later, my understanding of South Africa’s past remains deeply imprinted with Martin’s approach, theoretical framework and political commitments – all quite inseparable as anyone who knew him will attest.

Martin had an ability to conjoin rigorous scholarship with full political engagement. In the time I was at UWC, Martin placed his forensic research skills at the service of dispossessed people in the Northern Cape who sought to reclaim land stolen from them by apartheid and colonialism. This, I thought, was exactly what left historians should do with their talents. But Martin’s talent and legacy is much more than after-hours political activism.

My lengthy discussions – and on occasion, disagreements – with Martin, both inside and outside the classroom, forced me to rethink many of my  assumptions about the now ruling ANC, the Communist Party (the SACP), and so-called “two-stage revolution” in South Africa (first nationalism, then socialism). Martin’s political interventions of the 1980s as an exiled activist constituted, in their own way, an important rethinking of the trajectory of the anti-apartheid movement. After our seminars, I often found myself in the library perusing back issues of the journal Martin and his comrades in the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC produced during that crucial era, Inqaba ya Basebenzi [Workers’ Fortress]. In those pages, I found the kernel of the analysis that later made Martin such an astute critic of the post-apartheid order: the need for the political autonomy of a working-class movement.

Those ideas, advanced with great force and clarity in the last decade of his life both in historical scholarship and political activism, made more sense than ever as the ANC consummated its embrace of neoliberalism and crony capitalism. Martin had recognized before many that as a national liberation movement the ANC had long privileged a rising bourgeoisie over the liberation of the Black working class. Moreover, as a dedicated Trotskyist, he had always rejected the Communist Party’s insistence on the subordination of revolutionary trade unions to its infallible leadership – a view shared by many on the anti-Stalinist left. Finally, during the 1980s, Martin and his comrades insisted that an organic workers’ movement inside South Africa – not the SACP from exile or a quixotic armed struggle – would serve as the battering ram against both apartheid and capitalism. His most recent writings on South African labor and socialist history have offered mountains of evidence upholding the possibility of this missed opportunity.

When I first met Martin, all of this translated into a very specific political position: the only hope for the South African working class was a break with the Alliance, and the creation of an independent workers’ movement that could fight for socialism. In 2000 the emergence of an independent trade union movement looked like a very remote possibility. Yet, at the close of Martin’s life that development now looks like a promising prospect. It is a damn shame that Martin will not be here to witness it, to help push it along and to explain it to the rest of us.

On a final note, in November 2000, I conducted an interview with Martin that was published in Radical History Review. The journal and its publishers, Duke University Press, have made review of the interview public at Africa is a Country’s request. It’s worth revisiting. You can access it here.