Africa is a Country

The myth of Donald Trump’s white working-class support

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image via Gage Skidmore Flickr.Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at the South Point Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Image via Gage Skidmore Flickr.

Whiteness is the biggest single factor that emerges from the US presidential election. The majority of white voters across gender and most income groups who went to the polls voted for Donald Trump, someone who does not hide his white supremacist views, condones sexual assault, and built his campaign on openly anti-immigration, anti-Latino and anti-Muslim themes.

Yet sectors of the Euro-American left adamantly stress the role of the white working classes in facilitating Trump’s victory, and dismiss race as “identity politics”, not completely explaining the Trump phenomenon.

Two leaders of the left, Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, were quick to frame this election as a kind of “popular revolt” – very much like they did with Brexit a few months ago. For them, progressives should pay attention to Donald Trump’s anti-establishment narrative, so that we can offer alternatives without the “divisive rhetoric”. Sanders went as far as offering to collaborate with Trump on select issues that will help people come out of the crisis, as long as the president-elect does not engage in racism, sexism and xenophobia. Trump has just announced that he will immediately deport three million migrants, but that has not weakened the Vermont senator’s resolve. Influential commentators say that the anti-establishment left alternative to Trumpism should begin from white workers who supported Trump.

This story of an aggrieved “white working class” who joined Trump in huge numbers to rebel against neoliberal elites and neglectful Democrats is less an objective appraisal of working class voting trends, than a reflex of leftist common sense, inflected perhaps by a yearning for the heyday of (white) union solidarity in the Rust Belt.

Add to this the vicissitudes of the electoral college, and it is no wonder that some on the left focused on the behavior of about four hundred thousand voters in the Great Lakes region –Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – and ignored the rest of the country. Closer analysis reveals that Republican support in the Midwest grew predominantly in rural areas, and in areas where whites are the overwhelming majority – these include both low and middle income areas. From our own data analysis in the three states above, Donald Trump’s growth compared to Mitt Romney’s performance in 2012 is significantly higher in counties with the biggest concentration of white residents than in the most racially mixed ones. This is not surprising, because negative attitudes toward immigration, non-white populations, gender, and LGBT issues are highest when whites live in racially homogeneous communities, and support for racism and anti-immigrant views are the strongest predictors for support for Trump.

Although the ballots are still being tallied, it looks like Hillary Clinton will be receiving the third highest number of votes in the political history of the United States. People of color voted for Clinton. Moreover, Clinton won the support of most voters earning under US $50,000 a year. Far from a popular rebellion against a neoliberal elite, then, a vast majority of voters who have endured structural economic and political disenfranchisement as well as the negative effects of the recent economic crisis, chose Clinton – the “establishment” candidate. Surely, they too have economic anxieties and grievances about the system, but did not vote for Donald Trump.

The gender dimension is also glossed over. The vitriolic sexist rhetoric Clinton has had to face is easily dismissed. Women have suffered from the recent financial crisis too, and like all disadvantaged groups, they bear the brunt of it more than better positioned groups. White women supported Trump by a smaller majority than white men, and women of color voted for Clinton more than men of color, but these trends are largely ignored. Not to mention, an estimated 30 to 40 million US residents are politically disenfranchised and could not vote.

These larger facts are important context for interpreting Trump’s decisive but marginal gains in a few key states. But commentators downplay them both to bolster a tidy narrative of working class rebellion, and to dismiss the importance of race and gender. This story veers dangerously close to the long-standing caricature of the “poor white,” which elites have used to avoid a reckoning with their own complicity with economic and racial inequalities. This dismissal disregards the suffering of groups who have experienced centuries of structural discrimination and marginalization, both in the US and abroad. It reinforces racial, ethnic and gender divisions, and thus undermines the possibility for broader solidarities.

What is also left out is that many whites – many of whom are not impoverished working classes – now feel under attack as “whites.” The election of Barack Obama, the first African- American president, contributed to a feeling that the world is becoming hostile to their very existence. Some believe that a conspiracy of minorities, leftists, feminists, and multi-billionaires, often Jewish, have allied to marginalize the “common white folk.” White racial anxiety is not a new problem in the history of American politics. Even perceptions of economic insecurity are filtered by racial anxieties, which makes race and economics impossible to separate. Racism is neither false consciousness nor mere bigotry, but an ideological and material structure that confers social privilege and material benefits onto a group, and mobilizes that group against any attempt to take away their benefits.

Disregarding the advances made by queer, feminist and critical race theories and social movements, many (mostly white) leftists do not recognize that racism and sexism are structures that regulate the distribution of economic, social, educational and other resources. Instead, they treat racism as rhetorical baggage left-over from the bad old days of colonialism and Jim Crow, allegedly used by elites to “mislead” the working classes. Workers who are white must be included into a wider coalition, but to think that a mere change in messaging will do the trick vastly underestimates the forces that the left is up against. Proposals cannot avoid tackling white and male privilege simply because “that’s our base”.

Nobody doubts that the establishment is in crisis, and something must change.

But why is this becoming common sense only now when it affects white Americans and Europeans? Why should a core of emboldened Trump supporters be the starting point for constructing a broad alliance against the devastating effects of a racial and gendered capitalist world order?

The role of the left should not be to focus its efforts on bargaining with the often misrepresented and caricatured concerns of a small sector of the working classes. It is to mobilize a broader intersectional alliance that can effectively tackle various forms of discrimination, and that addresses the differential levels of exclusion experienced by various groups.

Framing the Trump phenomenon as the wrong response to the right concerns goes in the opposite direction. Knowingly or not, it feeds the growing wave of white nationalism and xenophobia that is taking America and Europe by storm.

Shutting down Dadaab endangers refugees

Faces of Dadaab, image via Riyaad Minty FlickrFaces of Dadaab, image via Riyaad Minty Flickr

Kenya plans to shutdown the world’s largest refugee camp later this month. If the closure goes ahead on November 30, 2016 it will endanger the lives of thousands of people. The initial plans were announced in May this year along with the closure of Kenya’s Department of Refugee Affairs. However, Ethiopia’s recent decision to withdraw its troops from Somalia has allowed al Shabaab to gain ground. As the majority of Dadaab’s refugees are from Somalia, they are expected to return to an increasingly unsafe country.

Kenya’s plans are based on security fears that have been at the forefront of national concerns, since the country invaded Somalia in 2011, and the highly visible attacks on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi and on the Garissa University campus that followed. Frequently, the response has been to conflate Somalis with terrorists. Dadaab has been labelled a nursery for al Shabaab, and the UN has been accused of aiding terrorism. The construction of a security wall along the Kenya-Somalia border has been proposed, and Operation Usalama Watch saw urban refugees in Nairobi rounded up and forcibly relocated to Kenya’s remote camps. In the fight against al-Shabaab, those seeking refuge from them have become a convenient scapegoat.

According to the Government of Kenya, repatriation is voluntary and to safe parts of Somalia. However, the Norwegian Refugee Council has recently criticized the returns process as “no longer voluntary, dignified or safe.” Amnesty International has accused the Government of Kenya of coercing refugees, despite their claims that the process meets international standards for voluntary return. In Somalia, returnees face severe food insecurity, an already serious concern currently affecting five million people. It is only four years since the end of the famine that killed more than a quarter of a million people in Somalia and sent thousands of new arrivals to Dadaab. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) warned last month that Somalia currently has a “dangerous absence of medical care” and that “the conditions necessary for a safe and dignified return are not present” in any part of the country. If the planned closure of Dadaab goes ahead, “hundreds of thousands of lives will be put at risk.”

In July and August 2016, MSF conducted a survey of residents of Dadaab and found responses at odds with the claims of the government and the UN. The Kenyan Government argues that Somalia is safe, while the UN has said that one-quarter of refugees are willing to return. MSF found that 97% of refugees felt the risk of sexual violence was high in Somalia and 86% said they were unwilling to return. The Kenyan government also argued that Dadaab is unsafe for its inhabitants, yet 96% of responders to MSF’s survey said they felt the camp was “very safe.”

Earlier this month the NGO Refugees International released a new field report that called the humanitarian situation within Somalia “dire”. There are more than one million internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country – half that number since the start of 2015. Some refugees have already left Kenya to take advantage of the financial support offered by the UN and avoid being forced across the border later. Government officials have reportedly told refugees that they risk forfeiting financial support if they do not leave voluntarily by the end of November. Many of these people are now struggling to survive in Somalia and have traded Dadaab for the IDP camps in Jubaland. Aside from Somalis, Dadaab is also home to thousands of Ethiopian and South Sudanese refugees. Ethiopia is in a state of emergency and South Sudan is facing widespread famine, neither providing safe circumstances for refugees to return to.

There is still the possibility that Kenya pulls back from enforcing the November 30 deadline. A spokesperson for the Government of Kenya has said this week that they now expect to miss the deadline, due to issues in Somali. This is not the first time that the government has claimed it would close Dadaab. In the wake of the Garissa attack in April 2015 it said it would shutdown the camp within three months. Threatening to close it served as a useful means of attracting increased international funding from countries fearful of further migration. It also worked as a way to distract citizen’s attention from other domestic issues, such as widespread corruption. Some commentators questioned if this was just another case of the Government of Kenya engaging in brinksmanship with the UN.

On November 7 a petition was filed by two human rights organizations, Kituo Cha Sheria and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. They hope the High Court of Kenya will declare the government’s attempts unconstitutional. This would not be the first time the High Court thwarted anti-refugee moves in the country. In July 2013, the High Court upheld refugees right to reside outside of camps. Kenya has also been reminded that the forced return of refugees would violate its obligations under international law.

The pressure for refugees to leave Dadaab has already had grave consequences. One refugee, quoted by Refugees International, condemned the supposed voluntary nature of the repatriation efforts. “But what is my choice? This is about fear. It’s not about choice.” The closure of Dadaab this month will bring about a humanitarian disaster. Refugees in Dadaab will be faced with the prospect of returning to an extremely insecure country. Last week the UN reported that, “the security situation has not improved in Somalia,” while al Shabaab will exploit the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops. Those born in Dadaab, since its creation in 1991, could be sent to a country they have never known. Others will face the prospect of moving to Kakuma, Kenya’s other refugee camp in the northwest of the country. While Kakuma will remain open for now, it is struggling to support the thousands of new arrivals from South Sudan. Yet more will embark on the dangerous journey inwards towards Nairobi or move elsewhere on the continent. To avoid a new displacement crisis, Kenya must reconsider the imminent closure of Dadaab.

Ramadan in Khartoum

 A Sudan MemoirImage from Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir book cover.

Mahmoud Mohamed Taha (1909-1985) was a Sudanese religious reformer and leader, who had also played a significant role in Sudan’s struggle for independence from Britain in the 1940s. After a series of spiritual experiences in the early 1950s, Taha converted his political party, the Republican Party, into a social/religious reform movement known popularly as “The Republican Brotherhood.” The movement attracted a small group of dedicated followers from all over Sudan’s vastness, who concentrated on finding a respectable place for women in Islamic society and on moving closer and closer to what Taha conceived, in his seminal work The Second Message of Islam, as the path of the Prophet Mohamed which would lead to universal enlightenment and peace. Taha’s radical thinking lead to his trial on charges of “apostasy” by the Sudan government, and he was executed for this capital offense in 1985.

Steve Howard is a sociologist who directs International Studies at Ohio University and first came to Sudan as a doctoral student collecting data. His bigger Sudan agenda had been to “become a Sufi,” and his quest landed him in the middle of the Republican Brotherhood. The younger brothers lived communally near their teacher, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, and the book describes Howard’s learning how to think in the Sufi manner while immersing himself in Sudan culture. This excerpt describes Howard’s confronting the challenge of Ramadan in hot, dusty Khartoum—Oumar Bar.

My accepting the invitation to move into one of the houses of the Republican Brotherhood coincided with my learning that the cohesive and consistent body of thought taught by Mahmoud Mohamed Taha was applied every day in the lives of his followers. The most intensive laboratory for this application was the collection of “brothers’ houses” scattered around the southern part of the Omdurman neighborhood of Thawra, and serving effectively as an experiment in democratic living. These houses were where the credo from Mahmoud Mohamed Taha’s book The Second Message of Islam—reconciling the needs of the individual with those of the community—was made concrete on an experimental and daily basis. Men, some single, some married migrants to town, lived communally in these houses to be as close as possible for daily exposure to their teacher. There were brothers’ houses in other towns as well, including Wad Medani, Atbara, and El Obeid. A small group of the sisters had a communal living arrangement in Ustadh Mahmoud’s home. While Ustadh had told me at our first encounter that, unlike the conventional Sufi sects, the Republican Brotherhood did not have an initiation ritual for new members, I felt that my first Ramadan with the Republican brothers and sisters more than served that purpose. Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that is one of Islam’s most fundamental practices, introduced me to a Republican life of discipline in a very physical way. My first Ramadan was also my initial exposure to the seriousness of every element of the Republican message. And Ramadan was a public stage on which the Republicans could demonstrate—in a context well known to all their neighbors and countrymen and women—that the Republican ideology provided the best blueprint for modern life.

I had been exposed to Ramadan’s rigors as a high school teacher in neighboring Chad, where I had learned that it was mighty difficult to keep a class of adolescents focused on my lesson when half its members got up to spit out the window just about every minute. My Muslim Chadian students’ understanding that swallowing saliva constituted breaking the fast was certainly not part of the Republican perspective on spit. But in that torrid Sudan June of my first Ramadan fast, saliva did not go far to make a day without food or water an easy obligation. As the temperatures in Sudan reached 100 degrees or more, I confess that I considered delaying my total embrace of the Republican way of life until after that first Ramadan was over. But after meeting Ustadh Mahmoud and many of the other brothers I was so drawn to the movement and moved by its hospitality that I jumped into my first Sudan Ramadan during Khartoum’s most searing month. While the very young, frail, pregnant, and ill are exempted from the Ramadan fast, I realized that it would not have been possible for a healthy person like myself to avoid fasting in such close living quarters; Islam is an intensely social religion. God in His mercy had made Ramadan a movable obligation, a month in the lunar calendar so its dates moved up eleven days each year in the Western calendar. A cooler Ramadan in Sudan was years away at that point.

Ramadan was associated with fasting before the coming of Islam to Arabia. But the revelation of the Qur’an made Ramadan one of Islam’s five arkan, or “pillars,” that must be followed by observant Muslims, meaning complete abstinence from all food, drink, and sex from before the sun rose to sunset. I found poetry in the scriptural test of when the day begins: when the dawning light allows one to distinguish a white thread from a black one. Like prayer, another one of the pillars, fasting has the dual nature of individual practice combined with the aggregate of community participation, an equation that can give the believer enormous satisfaction. In other words, I eventually learned that it is difficult to sustain either prayer or the fast by oneself, particularly as I moved back to my life in the secular United States. The Sufis who sought refuge for prayer and fasting in isolated spots in rural Sudan believed that they were earning extra baraka for this feat of deprivation.

The sacrifices required of the Muslim during Ramadan were tests of the limits of human physical endurance. If we were waiting for God to come, what better way to prepare? There were many Republican exercises that prepared and expanded the mind for its contests—the lectures, the readings, the discussions among themselves and with men and women on the streets. But the test provided by Ramadan, particularly when it fell in Sudan’s heat, was all about the most basic of human needs: nourishment and water. Belief in Islam is thought of as faith, an exercise of the spirit. But Ramadan shows us how Islam is also about how physical endurance is the essence of humanness. This issue works into Ustadh Mahmoud’s progressive consideration of Islam as well, that Islam evolves with human beings’ understanding of it themselves. With intense prayer, intimate knowledge of God increases, until the desire for food and other animalistic aspects of our nature fade away.

But my test in the heat was in the here and now, and was not to be joined alone. And when there are young men involved, there will be a competitive element. Perhaps not as crude as the Ramadan spitting contests of my Chadian students, but certainly one that stimulates our endurance. My residence, the beyt-al-akhwan, the “brothers’ house” resonated with the question all through Ramadan: Saim wala fatir? saim wala fatir? (Are you fasting today or not?). And conversation among the brothers often moved toward how many days one has fasted this Ramadan versus how successful one had been the previous year. Improving on one’s performance of faith was another Republican hallmark.

Of course, I stumbled myself a number of times in my own pursuit of Ramadan perfection. I remember that my first trip to visit brothers in Wad Medani took place during Ramadan. In Wad Medani I stayed as a guest in the home of Medani’s Republican leader, Ustadh Saeed. There was less commotion in that family home in the morning—no early communal prayer or meeting—so I slept through the morning’s call to prayer. The first thing I did after waking was to take my antimalaria medication (a precaution eventually abandoned as I gained more baraka). A brother in the room saw me swallow the little pill and asked, “So Steve, you’re not fasting today?” I replied that of course I was. And he quickly provided the new information that taking medicine broke the fast, God’s point being that one takes medicine if one is sick. And the sick were excused from fasting. I did observe the fast the rest of the day out of solidarity, but was disappointed to have my record spoiled so early in the fasting month.

The spare cuisine that accompanied the sunset breaking of the fast for the brothers from the houses in Ustadh Mahmoud’s neighborhood suited the Republican/Spartan design of the whole month. Plenty of baraka for everyone. That June, my first attempt at fasting, was also the time of school holidays, which meant that Republican schoolteachers from outside of Khartoum: the Gezira, Kordofan, maybe from the East or the North, came to spend the holidays near their teacher, which meant that they would lodge with us in the already cramped brothers’ houses. As the hour of sunset approached, the brothers would ready themselves for the evening by bathing and dressing, activities that often followed a late afternoon nap. Then, from each of the four houses a procession (masira) of brothers would march—chanting the name of God—through the neighborhoods to the home of Ustadh Mahmoud. They would form a half circle in front of the house, joined by the sisters who grouped to one side, and thirsty, hungry, and hot they would continue the chant for the forty-five minutes to one hour before the sunset azan signaling the end of the day’s fast. Brothers and sisters who lived outside of the network of ‘brothers’ houses’ would also start to arrive and join the dhikir. The standard expectation of practicing Muslims during Ramadan was that the fast should not be an excuse for lightening one’s daily load of work, but I did find this late-in-the-day dhikir an additional test of membership in this intense community of believers. The heat and my intensely dry mouth would sometimes force my willing spirit to just sway with the chant with my mouth closed. It was perhaps a test—within the limits of the fasting day—of our potential to forget about food and just focus on God. It was a practice for the time that Republicans were waiting to come.

But not yet. This world was still hot, and many hungry people had just chanted to bring the sun down. So labor was divided and tasks shared to get ready for the meal. Some of the brothers would bring the long straw mats out from Ustadh Mahmoud’s house and lay them in rows ready for prayer in the empty lot just west of the house. Other brothers would bring out the heavy aluminum pans filled with a large mound of asida (sorghum or millet porridge) and many spoons. The dozen or so pans were placed here and there on the mats, and brothers crouched around them, perhaps eight to ten to a pan. The tin pan descended from the ancient gada wooden bowl, still used by many good Sufi communities around the country for their communal meals. Then, a third group of brothers would come out of Ustadh Mahmoud’s kitchen—where the sisters had been fasting and cooking—with large pails of mulah, a meatless okra-based sauce to be poured over the porridge. Everyone would then dig into the porridge with the spoons provided, while some of the brothers would go around with the sauce pail to try to replenish the dish until there was no more. Off to the side brothers could help themselves to lemonade or karkedeh, the popular Ramadan drink made from dried hibiscus petals that had been prepared in large plastic barrels to quench the brothers’ thirst. If a particularly large crowd came for this simple meal (everyone was welcome, so the numbers were not necessarily predictable), a garden hose would find its way into the barrel in order to serve more guests. Loaves and fishes, Sudan style.

I found this sunset scene at once warm and overwhelming. In order to eat from the pan I had associated with what we were using in the brothers’ house to washing clothes by hand, I had to squeeze into the circle of brothers gathered tightly around it, all crouched on one knee, and balance like that while stabbing at the wobbly porridge mass in the pan—if I had been lucky enough to find a spoon! Those with more fortitude than I (or longer arms) could eat this steaming hot concoction with a bare right hand. I admired those who saved space around the circle by looping their free left arm over the shoulder of the next brother. In my weakened state—new to fasting and to the heat—I often was able to get only a spoonful or two before the dish was gone. The multitasking required—crouching and balancing while scooping asida—was beyond my skill set at that point. I did receive a great deal of encouragement from around the pan, but the brothers were hungry, too.

*This is an excerpt from Steve Howard’s new book, Modern Muslims: A Sudan Memoir (Ohio University Press, 2016)

Trump’s America

Image via WikipediaImage via Wikipedia

The world and many Americans are reeling in shock and anxiety at the election of Donald Trump as the next president of this mighty, but deeply disunited and disoriented country. All but a handful of opinion polls pointed to the victory of the incomparably experienced Hillary Clinton, to the historic possibility of electing America’s first female president. But they were utterly, unforgivably, embarrassingly wrong. They couldn’t pick up Trump’s ‘silent majority’ of ordinary white voters, not just the unapologetic alt-right that quietly cheered on the boisterous candidate, who openly said in public what Republicans and racist whites say in private.

The postmortems will be brutal on the other failures of America’s collective imagination that resulted in this stunning election result: on the rapacious role of the media in selling Trump for ratings and earnings; on the shortfalls of the candidacy and campaign of Hillary Clinton; on the relative turnout rates of the Trump and Clinton supporters; on the perfidious role of Russia, Wikileaks, and the FBI. In this popular American political sport of endless punditry and second guessing, few will take real responsibility for having enabled Trump, few in polite circles will own up to having voted for Trump, much as many whites in South Africa denied ever having been ardent supporters of Apartheid as the noxiousness of the system attracted international opprobrium.

Americans chose Donald Trump, a dangerous buffoon, ill-prepared and ill-tempered for any serious job, let alone the presidency of a superpower, even if it’s one in decline. It is no prediction to expect that America’s slide into global ignominy will accelerate under Trump’s predictably inept leadership and the country’s apparently irreconcilable tribal polarizations. What does it say about a country that could elect such an unsavory character; that could turn all three branches of government to the stewardship of the Republican Party; a party that should have forfeited its right to rule for its glaring political sins of bigotry, obstructionism, myopia and incompetence.

Countries get the leaders they deserve. Only a racist electorate could vote for such an unabashed racist candidate. Only misogynists could find such an irredeemable misogynist appealing. Only xenophobes could go for such a dangerous xenophobe. Only those who don’t realize American citizenship is premised on allegiance to an idea, not common bloodlines, can vouch for a proponent of racialized notions of citizenship. Only enraged and deranged white nationalists could pick such a frighteningly enraged and deranged white nationalist. Only nativist bigots and bullies could endorse such an insecure nativist bigot and bully. Only narcissists could show preference for a tax-dodging conman with no history of public service. Only unethical people could be attracted to a pathological liar and serial philanderer. Only those who don’t believe in the rule of law could support such a lawless man. Only deplorables could elect such a deplorable leader.

Clearly, Trump’s victory is a horrible reflection to the country itself and the world at large the tragedy and farce that is America. The tragedy that such an unfit man could succeed America’s first black president, a man of such remarkable talent and uncommon integrity, decency and commitment to public service. In a revolting twist of fate President Obama will be replaced by the godfather of birtherism, the racist lie that Obama was not American-born, a real American. Obama’s legacy will be dismantled by his nemesis. The tragedy is evident in the country’s inability, and in the Euro-American world more generally as illustrated recently most graphically with Brexit, to deal effectively with inclusion, integration, and inequality; the inclusion of racial, ethnic and religious minorities; the integration of nations under rapid social change; redressing the inequalities engendered by the economic injustices and inanities of neoliberalism, the dangerous dogma that has reigned supreme since the turn of the 1980s and robbed tens of millions of people of decent livelihoods and even their lives, of opportunities and the promises of democratic society.

And so the increasingly pauperized and neglected social classes left behind by the draconian injunctions and destructive interventions of neoliberalism turn to demagogues adept at riding on the misguided fantasies of the common man; demagogues who rail against the establishment and old or new marginal others; demagogues molded from the same cloth of neoliberal zealotry that have wrecked the lives of working people and the middle classes; demagogues who are least able to resolve the crises of well-being for their fellow citizens.

This is to suggest that some of the biggest losers from the dangerous infatuation with Trump will be his most ardent followers. African Americans have never been major beneficiaries of America’s largess, not even under President Obama, nor have the millions of Latino immigrants who toil in the underbelly of the American agricultural and service economy. Trump will not “make America great again”, but will make it hate again with impunity. He will not bring back factory jobs that assured high school educated white men middle-class lifestyles. He will not restore their racist supremacy and deformed masculinities in a world so transformed by civil rights, feminist and gay rights struggles and victories in popular culture and imagination. Indeed these struggles will be given a new lease of life by the antediluvian values, attitudes and policies of the Trump coalition in the White House, Congress and the judiciary.

For the world at large, Trump’s looming presidency elicits different fears, perspectives and expectations. There are fears that post-war internationalism will be appended by isolationism as the United States, its champion, wallows in rabid white nationalism in a world where the ‘colored nations’ are on an inexorable rise. International trade agreements, the structural face of neoliberal globalization, are under threat from a potentially protectionist administration. The recent global compact on climate change, upon which the very future of humanity and our fragile little planet rests, will face renewed obstacles from one of the world’s greatest polluters. Some predict apocalypse that the Trump presidency will lead to the demise of the West as we have known it. Some even doubt the future of the NATO alliance under President Trump with his “America First” doctrine.

Rightwing populist forces will be emboldened, especially in European democracies already rocked by Brexit. Dictatorships will cheer the triumph of Trump, the admirer of dictators and an aspiring autocrat. Putin’s Russia that has done its best to influence the US elections through cyber destabilization will be especially enchanted. The shambolic and invective-ridden US elections have been godsend to Chinese propagandists about the bankruptcy of American democracy and superiority of the Chinese system.

The same sentiments will find expression in African and other democracies and dictatorships around the world. The structural and ideological underpinnings of US-Africa policy will not change much from the swings of the humanitarian and security paradigms that have been dominant over the past half-century. However, the developmental and democratic inflections that sanitized these policies in the last three Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations are likely to lose their currency.

Overall, the loss of the US democratic model may be a good thing for democrats and democracies in other parts of the world especially in the global South including Africa. The Trump conjuncture detoxifies democratic theory and governance from the intertwined tyrannies of American universalism and exceptionalism. It demonstrates the hollowness that there exist ‘mature’ democracies that African countries should import as turnkey projects. It opens up space for serious and creative construction of African modes and modalities of inclusive, integrated, innovative democratic developmental states and societies. With Trump’s election, everyone now knows if they didn’t before, that the American democratic emperor has no clothes. Let’s proceed to make our own democratic clothes befitting our histories, struggles and desired futures.

On a more personal note, I found the election of Trump shocking but not entirely surprising. Shocking because like many people I believed the polls. Unsurprising because having lived in the US for two decades I came to realize how deeply racism, sexism, and xenophobia are entrenched in American society and imaginary. That is why I was so relieved to relocate to Kenya when I was fortunate enough to get a university leadership position where I could do my job and live without the debilitating psychic costs of always defending my humanity and professionalism as a black person. But when I lived in the United States, whose citizenship I carry, I also came to value, and will always do, the traditions of struggles for a more inclusive union by the marginalized minorities and women. These struggles are likely to be rekindled and reenergized by the retrogressive and historically renegade Trump presidency.

History is indeed a house of many mansions, where tragedies open new avenues of struggle and possibility. The Trump presidency won’t be an exception.

 

Feet & Cars

Feet and CarsAll images taken by author in Fond Tie Tie, a suburb of Pointe Noire, Congo, in the year 2015.

Growing up in 1980s Congo-Brazzaville there wasn’t a lot of technology going around. Computer games, cellphones and tablets were alien concepts and we spent our days in the streets playing, when we weren’t at school or doing homework. The streets of Pointe Noire were safe; we turned them into soccer fields, racing tracks, a place to test drive our (handmade) cars with friends. It was a lot of fun; we went from being soccer players one day to car or house builders the next. All in the mud and sand. Life was good.

Today is different.

All the cars we built as children are now being bought already made of plastic. Running around with friends all day is replaced by sitting in front of the television to watch cartoons. The soccer games are now played sitting on the couch in front of the computer or a console.

feet-n-cars-4I now live in South Africa, but go home every winter season to visit my mother, eat Congolese food, and meet childhood friends. I bring my camera along. This year was very special to me. Children who live in the vicinity of my mom’s house in a neighborhood called Fond Tie Tie, gave me a gift: They had designed and made their own cars  complete with sound system, red lights or flowers. I was back in my childhood. I was eight years old again.

The children are poor and the cars are usually made of recycled materials such as food cans, old sandals, metals and wood. I was quickly introduced to the community of young car designers. As they got to know me, they showed me the new designs they had created. The “feet & cars” project was born. Amazed by the creativity, designs and joy of life the children exhibited, I started photographing just their feet and the cars.

The world has become a new playground, not quite the same as when I was growing up, however these children really reignited my hope for this new generation as one seldom sees such enthusiasm, joy and creativity in kids these days like I saw this year in Congo. They still live in a world where technology hasn’t robbed them of their creativity and joy in playing.

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All you need to know about Ghana’s December 7, 2016 elections

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“At elections, Ghana wins.” That is the common sense rhetoric employed by outsiders about a country which has a reputation as one of Africa’s strongest democracies. But for Ghanaians inside the country, it is a much more complicated than that.  Exactly one month from today, Ghanaians go to the polls and some have real concerns about the legitimacy of the poll, including allegations of corruption against the electoral commission itself.  Some challenged the results of the last election, creating a tense environment. The results were only certified after the Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case. There is also sense of deja vu. The major candidates are the same people: incumbent President John Dramani Mahama (of the National Democratic Congress or NDC) is seeking a full second term and the opposition’s Nana Akufo-Addo (New Patriotic Party or the NPP) is making a his third bid for the presidency having already lost in 2008 and 2012. We emailed a series of questions to a group of people with intimate knowledge of Ghanaian politics and history, to help us make sense about what’s at stake on December 7. They could answer which questions they wanted to. This is an edited version of their responses.

The participants are:

Billie Adwoa McTernan, writer and Art and Life editor for The Africa Report.

Malaka Grant, writer and blogger.

Dennis Laumann, historian of West Africa (author of Colonial Africa, 1884-1994) professor at the University of Memphis.

Ben Talton, an associate professor of African history at Temple University and author of the book Politics of Social Change in Ghana (2010)

Kuukuwa Manful, an architect and researcher.

Sean Hanretta, associate professor of history at Northwestern University and author of the book Islam and Social Change in West Africa.

Does it matter who Ghanaians elect as president?

Billie Adwoa McTernan: It does matter. The country needs development and a good president should lead the way so that the people are inspired to work and contribute towards that development.

Malaka Grant: It only matters in the sense that Ghanaians need a face and a name to associate with the nation’s successes or failures. The position of president has become largely ceremonial. The current president’s performance in office is proof of that. He cuts sod, he commissions projects, and he poses for photo ops. However, he can only point to a handful of projects that have gone from concept to completion during the two years that he served as acting president and the four in which he was elected to the office. The real power of the presidency lies in the executive team he or she assembles. A mediocre executive team will inevitably result in a disappointing presidency, and vice versa. The performance and expectations from the top serve as a template for performance in every other area of governance beyond the presidency. This is why Ghanaians ought to take interest and be vested in [who gets appointed to the president’s team] as well as the outcomes of local elections. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Local government has more power to affect positive (or negative) change for the ordinary citizen than the president does or ever can. However the average Ghanaian citizen does not hold their local representative(s) accountable to their duties because of ignorance. Most people don’t know who their MP is or what their function is. Most Ghanaians are not taught civics. An overwhelming number of Ghanaians haven’t a clue about what their constitutional rights and guarantees are or what the responsibilities of their elected officials are beyond campaign promises. But everyone knows that the president is supposed to oversee the welfare of the nation–like a king–which is why so much importance (really, much more than it deserves) is placed on the position.

Ben Talton: The individual and party that hold the office of president in Ghana matter a great deal. The president possesses a broad range of power that allows him or her to define the country’s domestic and international political agenda. Included among these powers is allocating funds for public services and development projects. Every four years in the buildup to national elections, we have seen work on development projects slow down and in some cases stop, and members of the business community table plans to pursue government contracts, as stakeholders anticipate which party will prevail. In the aftermath of an election, funds for a project may dry up entirely if the opposition party wins the election, so pursuing investments or development projects is risky during an election year. From the standpoint of resource allocation, for the business community or small-scale traders and farmers, it matters who has executive powers in Ghana.     

A traveler through any of Ghana’s metropolitan areas encounters large billboard after billboard displaying President Mahama’s image. That same traveler will be hard-pressed to locate similar billboards promoting Nana Akufo-Addo. One encounters a similar disparity on television and radio. Mahama has been airing long commercials styled as documentaries on local television.  Meanwhile, the NPP’s exposure has been limited to the occasional radio ad. The NDC is not unique in exploiting the power of incumbency. In 2008, when the political tables were reversed, the NPP’s campaign was similarly extravagant and the NDC’s campaign exceedingly minimalist by comparison.   

It also must be said, however, that party incumbency does not secure political success. This fact is a testament to the strength of Ghana’s democracy.  Despite the ruling NPP’s glitzy presidential campaign in 2008, Akufo-Addo, in his attempt to succeed President John Kufuor, lost to John Atta Mills of the NDC. We may very well see a similar reversal of fortune on December 7 …  In a country with limited financial resources, the office that holds the purse strings has the capacity to transform local communities and the livelihoods of its residents.  In no uncertain terms, the president matters.    

Who or what has the most impact on shaping the contours of electoral debate in Ghana?

Billie: The media plays a big part, particularly radio. People often form their opinions based on the conversations (which are unfortunately often filled with scandal and sensationalism) on radio.

Does ideology–left or right–matter in Ghanaian elections? How different are the parties from one another or is Ghana’s political system becoming more like the American model?

Dennis Laumann: The differences may not be as stark as they were even 20 years ago, but the ruling NDC espouses a more social democratic politics while the NPP, despite its perennial presidential candidate’s populist and often seemingly liberal campaign promises, embraces a politically and economically conservative ideology. Of course, in the current global neoliberal order, and in a country with limited resources and economic clout, the ability to implement progressive policies (in the case of the left of center NDC) is constrained. Ghana’s two main ideological lineages that originated in the late colonial era — one on the left and primarily associated with Kwame Nkrumah and the other on the right and known as the “Danquah-Busia tradition” — are thus represented by these two major parties in Ghana (though there are a number of very small parties claiming to be Nkrumahist). Whether most Ghanaian voters support either political party for mainly ideological (rather than ethnic or familial) reasons — or even recognize the ideological distinctions — is questionable. I am always struck by Ghanaian-Americans who support the NPP back in Ghana but vote Democrat in the United States and fail to see the ideological inconsistency.

Billie Adwoa McTernan: The line between the two main parties is blurred and I’m not sure there is a big difference in either of their policies. Both talk about encouraging business investment and public private partnerships and both also talk about social development and strengthening the institutions that are supposed to support the most economically vulnerable.

Kuukuwa Manful: No, ideology does not matter. Although the major political parties claim to ascribe to particular ideologies, to even the casual observer this doesn’t play out neatly in the issues they campaign on or how they govern when in power. The NDC fancies itself leftist and encourage public comparison to the American Democrats while the NPP considers itself capitalist, and encourages comparison to U.S. Republicans. On the ground however, the NPP has campaigned on social platforms and instituted massive social schemes while in power, and the big brass of the NDC have not shied away from outright promoting capitalism. The lack of ideological distinction doesn’t mean it’s all about ethnicity though. There are sociological differences between the parties, for example in the kind of leaders they select and how people have moved through the party ranks. Party activists tend to move up through the NDC ranks faster, and a number of ministers and high-ranking party officials in this current government started out as student politicians and community organisers.

Ben Talton: Discerning the substantive ideological and policy differences between Ghana’s two dominant political parties is extremely challenging, because the differences are relatively minor.  Both parties claim vastly different political legacies and ideologies. But once in control of Flagstaff House, neither party has put much in place policy-wise that definitively set them apart from each other. This has been true with regard to both domestic and international affairs. The blurred line between their policies helps explain the personality driven—rather than issues driven—nature of the 2012 and 2016 campaigns.

It would be overly simplistic to describe the NDC as equivalent to the Democratic Party in the U.S., but that has not stopped commentators from frequently making that case.  It’s not a huge distortion, but it is misleading.  The Democratic Party in the United States is tightly wound with corporate interests in ways that the NDC in Ghana has never been.  Members of the New Patriotic Party have compared their party to the U.S. Republican Party, as both are champions of the private sector and of free enterprise as the foundation of social progress.  So simplifying the NDC as the political left and the NPP as right of center, has some merit.

However, we’ve had an opportunity to see both parties in power and the contrast between the NDC and NPP does not rival that between U.S. Democrats and Republicans in substance or form.  The NDC held Flagstaff House from 1992, the start of the Fourth Republic, until 2000.  If we include the PNDC period (when Rawlings governed), beginning in 1982, the NDC had a continuous eighteen-year run.  The NPP had its turn from 2001 to 2009 (presidents takes office the January following the previous December’s election), following President Kufuor.  The current NDC government, under Mahama, won the 2012 election, but the NDC had been in power since 2009, after winning the 2008 election with John Atta Mills as the party’s flagbearer.  These changes in government from one party to another, formally called double alternation, are truly unique in Africa. It has taken place every eight years since 1992 without widespread or protracted violence.

Both parties have largely followed the neoliberal recommendations of international financial institutions. Differences between the two parties have been defined by the outcomes of these foreign prescriptions for the Ghanaian economy. With nearly identical economic strategies, the parties’ approaches tend to boil down to sloganeering and promises of immediate material support for individuals and groups.  

How big a role, if any does regional or tribal politics play in Ghanaian elections? It it does, can you name those forces.

Dennis Laumann: Unfortunately, ethnicity (more accurate than “tribal”) still plays too big a role in Ghana’s elections, though only the NPP can be described as an ethno-centric party. In every election since the return to multi-party democracy in 1992, the NPP has won just the Asante Region, or the Asante Region and one or more surrounding Akan-majority regions only.  Every single one of its presidential candidates has been Akan, too. In contrast, Mahama’s NDC wins Akan and non-Akan regions and its presidential candidates have hailed from starkly different regions (Volta, Central, and Northern) and diverse ethnic groups (Ewe, Akan, and Gonja).

Just look at a map of any of Ghana’s recent election results – you might think you are seeing the United States with its “blue” and “red” states, the latter predominantly white-majority (but in Ghana’s case, Akan).

Supporters of the NPP deny its ethnocentrism, of course, and explain it away by suggesting it is some of the non-Akan ethnic groups that vote en masse for the NDC, singling out the Ewe who live mostly in the Volta Region. But this counter-argument is false, as the Volta Region, where the NDC always receives its highest percentages, is multi-ethnic, comprised of not just Ewe but Akan and other populations, as well. Moreover, since they have backed the NDC in every election, the Ewe have voted for presidential candidates from different ethnic groups from across the country (as opposed to Akan supporters of the Akan-centric NPP).

Sean Hanretta:  Speaking as someone with a professional relationship with Ghana, my experience there makes me conclude that both the NDC and NPP are recruiting support through a mixture of ideological positioning and forms of group identification and that both are trending towards a kind of neoliberal middle. The NDC is keen to preserve its reputation as a more populist and “left” party. But conversations I had in July with some of the neighborhood captains in charge of turning out the Muslim vote in both Accra and Kumasi suggested that even strong supporters are complaining that the NDC has abandoned its traditional commitment to the poor and has simply become a vehicle for advancing politicians’ careers. On the other side, the NPP would clearly love to shed its image as a regional or “ethnic” party and to lay exclusive claim to the long tradition of technocratic liberalism in Ghana, a tradition that dates to well before independence. To that end, NPP supporters will sometimes imply that it is the NDC that is in fact an ethnic party or that its populism is demagogic. But just as the NDC is having a hard time retaining its populist image in the face of growing perceptions of corruption and aloofness, the NPP’s leadership and the default attitudes and networks of some of its core supporters make it difficult to shed its image as the party of “Akan” elites. High levels of migration—both rural-urban and from the north south—have complicated parties’ spatial strategies and efforts to cash in on alliances with local traditional authorities.

It’s important in all of this to distinguish between popular perceptions and the realities of policies and voter response—it was, after all, the NDC that presided over Structural Adjustment in Ghana and the NPP routinely puts forward northern Muslim vice-presidential candidates. But perceptions do matter and will probably matter more and more as the actual policy differences between the parties continue to shrink.

The forces driving the underlying convergence of the two parties—their distinct historical trajectories and, for now, demographic profiles notwithstanding—are not entirely clear, but I’d attribute most of the responsibility to political economic forces. The decade of rapid increase in GDP (roughly 2003-2013) saw a narrow version of the developmentalist discourse gain even more legitimacy than it already had. The last three years have seen a series of changes that have only intensified this attitude among urban elites. As GDP falters, inflation returns, power shortages shape the daily rhythms of the middle class, and the oil sector captures people’s attention, the state finds its legitimacy among the affluent increasingly predicated on its ability to “manage” the economy, attract foreign investment, and restore “growth.” In rural areas, the dynamic has been different with high regional differentiation. Rising fuel prices, erratic commodity prices, increasing environmental spoilage caused by unchecked illegal gold mining, and rampant land grabs have been offset by an expanding (but increasingly privatized) local health system and improved transportation. These dynamics predate the recent economic problems and are not as firmly associated with any particular party. The real difference has been the divergence of the rural north and the rural south. The majority of the decline in rural poverty over the last fifteen years has been confined to the southern half of the country. Overall inequality has increased to around US levels, though it remains far below that of, say, South Africa. But even in the north the prominence of NGO-style interventions seems to have hollowed out the appeal of more transformative politics.

All this is, of course, consistent with broader global trends, and so reflects the narrowing of the kind of politics that will be accepted by the Bretton Woods institutions and other creditors. But changes in the way Ghanaians themselves talk about the state and the economy seem to me fairly significant and to reflect, at least in the first instance, domestic dynamics. These changes have allowed other institutions—the Supreme Court, the Electoral Commission, etcetera—to act in ways that encourage the consolidation of the two-party system. Thus Ghana, like the US, has come to have two parties that increasingly split the vote almost exactly in half (the differences between the first and second place presidential candidates in the first round of last four elections have been 4%, 8%, 1%, and 3%, respectively, with the third party share being 7%, 3%, and 3%, and 1.5%). Such duopolistic parity simply further encourages the professionalization of politics and of electoral strategies and thus the convergence of the parties.

Billie Adwoa McTernan: I do think [regional or tribal factors] play a role, most noticeably outside of the big cities and cosmopolitan areas. People vote for those they feel represent them, whether that is politically or culturally, and they choose which of those two things is most important to them.

How do you explain voting patterns in Ghana?

Ben Talton: Voting patterns in Ghana are influenced by myriad factors.  For example, we have seen palpable ways in which poverty constrains democratic practices. It offers an open window to patron-client relationships.  Both major parties are heavily dependent on foot soldiers, rank-and-file members drawn larger from among low wage laborers, who do much of the grassroots organizing, campaigning, and sloganeering for party leaders. In exchange for their votes and helping to turn out the vote, foot soldiers expect jobs. Patron-clientelism is a highly volatile dynamic in a political system with limited material resources.  

Ghana’s smaller ethnic groups have been less predictable than Ewes and Akans.  The Ga in and around Accra, the capital city, are more divided between the two major parties. Mahama hails from the north, but received a lower percentage of the vote from the Northern Region in 2012 than his predecessor Atta Mills, who was a Fante from the south, enjoyed in 2008.  In any case, the NDC is more popular than the NPP among northern communities.  So, ethnicity is factor and has long been a factor, but far from the defining one.    

Dennis Laumann: As a historian, predictably, I argue the voting patterns are rooted in history. It is no coincidence that the electoral divide is largely along Akan/non-Akan lines. The NDC wins all or nearly all of the non-Akan regions in every election since the return to multiparty democracy in 1992 while the opposition NPP wins all or some or only one (Asante) of the Akan-dominant regions.  This is partly attributable to the old splits between Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, socialist and multi-ethnic, and various manifestations of what is today the NPP, conservative and Akan-centric. Further back in history, one can argue the divide is partly the result of the slave trade, as various Akan kingdoms, most significantly Asante, generally enslaved members of other ethnic groups, especially from present-day northern Ghana and the Volta Region, for sale to Europeans. It is arguable whether the average Ghanaian voter is influenced by or cognizant of these historical legacies, but the voting patterns are fairly consistent with these pre-colonial and colonial divisions.

In a number of African countries contemporary politicians are measured by how they fare against the legacy of the ‘founding father’ (example, Mandela in South Africa, Nyerere in Tanzania). Is that the case in Ghana? (Is that Nkrumah? Rawlings?)

Dennis: While there are several small, practically insignificant parties claiming to be the true heirs to Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party, the ruling National Democratic Congress is Ghana’s Nkrumahist party – social democratic, multi-ethnic, and national. Indeed President Mahama, and his immediate predecessor, Atta Mills (both of the NDC), proudly traced their political lineage to Nkrumah. What is intriguing is that even the NPP, whose origins date back to the anti-Nkrumahism, so-called Progress Party and other incarnations, today pays homage to Ghana’s founding father. In the future the NPP will likewise be forced to at least minimally embrace the Rawlings legacy, too, as the former President remains popular, was Ghana’s longest-serving ruler, and deserves credit for kickstarting the country’s political and economic development over the past few decades. Just as supporters of the NPP tradition long derided Nkrumah and denied his achievements but now speak positively about his legacy, Rawlings will become an icon across the political divide in coming decades.

Malaka Grant: Nkrumah is considered Ghana’s most successful president. Many of the public programs and facilities he instituted still stand and are in use today. This likely accounts for why in this election, it appears everyone is scrambling to present themselves as the heir of Kwame Nkrumah’s legacy. CPP (Nkrumah’s party) has the most logical right to claim. The incumbency (NDC) has pointed to the recently completed public works projects as proof to their legitimacy to that claim. The NPP (the main opposition party) has made no such claims – since it would signal hypocrisy at its finest, as the party’s founders were responsible for Nkrumah’s overthrow – instead chastising the other parties for trying to capitalize on the late president’s legacy. Even they know how Nkrumah’s memory captivates the imagination of the young voter. The scramble to colonize Nkrumah’s reputation for the sake of political expediency is on, and it does us all a disservice.

Nkrumah the Pan Africanist was a great man – a visionary. But he was also despotic, or became so during the course of his presidency. He instituted a one party state, oversaw the jailing of political dissidents and quelled democracy in Ghana. This the stain of Nkrumah’s legacy that today’s political leadership do not want to be associated with, and in attempt to buttress their own public image by making comparisons to Ghana’s first president, they rob the nation of a full picture of the man by sweeping his flaws under the rug.

Today’s political elite ought to be able to stand on the strengths of their own achievements, just as Nkrumah did in his day. We can’t move forward if we are always looking back.

Sean Hanretta: I think the fate of Ghana’s “founding fathers”—and we should pause to think about the gender relations, generational structures, etc. implied by the tendency to compare contemporary politicians to an all-male crew of past heads of state from a lost “golden era” very different from today—has been very complicated.

Nkrumah is an interesting example and a more nuanced case than Rawlings, I think. Symbolic appropriation of Nkrumah comes cheap—at least since the 1980s. Few now openly disavow him but few outside of college campuses and some radical intellectual circles deeply study his ideas or projects either. But even as a symbol, his legacy is a delicate issue. The NPP’s efforts to relativize Nkrumah’s contributions by making him simply one of the “Big Six” of Ghanaian nationalism—alongside Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, Emmanuel Obetsebi-Lamptey, Edward Akufo-Addo, William Ofori Atta, and JB Danquah (the last three not coincidentally all relatives of perennial NPP flagbearer Akufo-Addo)—constituted an explicit effort to build a genealogy of anticolonialism that bypassed the simplistic textbook story of Nkrumah’s heroism. This move was prompted not by any intrinsic commitment to a more inclusive history but by the fact that their opponents were always quick to remind people of the NPP’s descent from anti-Nkrumah movements. On the part of the NDC, an easy assimilation of Nkrumah as ancestor is complicated by the personalization of authority around Rawlings and by the fact that some of the more passionate (and informed) keepers of the Nkrumah flame are highly critical of the party. Among Ghana’s various third parties, Nkrumah serves mostly as a convenient emblem that people can appropriate to assert their ethical or ideological purity—a dynamic surely familiar to third party voters in the US.

The consequences of all this are rather mixed. Needless to say, a whole host of other significant political figures with no current champions have effectively vanished from the public narrative, so any really serious coming to terms with the events of the first few decades after World War Two remains a long way off. (But what country can claim it has fully and dispassionately worked through its origin myths?) And one could argue that the thinness of Nkrumah’s symbolic role in contemporary Ghanaian political life reflects the priorities of a population with a more pragmatic, forward-looking attitude. Probably the most important useful legacy of Nkrumah is the growing public awareness of the circumstances of his ouster—an important lesson about the amount of control any Ghanaian government truly has over the direction in which the country moves.

Given the contested results from the last election, are their fears again about post-election violence?

Ben Talton: Every four years, those who have cast ballots for the losing party are disappointed with the results.  But it has not been the practice that they then return home to sharpen their machete.  Political violence tends to be perpetrated by a small minority of members of the NDC and NPP, rather than smaller parties. Violence is not the expected or accepted response to undesirable political outcomes. That said, the government, the Electoral Commission and the Ghana Police must take seriously these relatively low-level incidents, to prevent violence from settling into an expected and accepted aspect of Ghana’s political culture.

Activists from the rank-and-file members of the political parties strengthens Ghana’s democracy and in many ways help to make elections work. They are the ones mobilizing voters, promoting campaigns, and inventing and promoting many of the popular campaign slogans. And they are also the most likely to be involved in incidents of violence. The most obvious sign of durability of Ghana’s electoral system is the change in the party in power in 2000 and then again 2008.

A more tenuous aspect of the political process is that control over public facility must be handed over to activists from the victorious opposing party.  So, it is not only violence, but the destruction of property is a potential problem. It is dangerous to link economic opportunities with political success. Those on the losing side, will invariably be disappointed. This does not necessarily compel violence, and, indeed, we should cultivate a culture in which such violence is not a part of Ghana’s political legacy. There have been acts of violent intimidation before, during and after elections. Foot soldiers steal or destroy property belonging to the opposing party.

Dennis Laumann: I doubt there will be any violence with the possible exception of a very few isolated, localized, and short-lived incidents. But, as always, the NPP will cry fraud if they lose – again. Like their American counterparts, the Republicans, they will fail to recognize their defeat can be attributed to their own ethno-centricism.

Besides the occurrence of elections every four years, what are the other institutions that make you confident (or not) that democracy in Ghana remains relatively stable?

Ben Talton: Conducting free and fair elections is not the only marker of a mature democracy.  The media are the ballast of Ghana’s political system. The press top the list of institutions that reflect the relative stability of Ghana’s democracy. The country remains high on the list of global south democracies. Ghana enjoys a robust free speech political environment.

There are a variety of news programs on television and radio on which guests and hosts, in English and local languages, criticize political figures, including the president and other members of the ruling party. The tone has remained more respectable and issues-driven than the discourse on U.S. television and radio. Journalists, media personalities and everyday citizen express their opinions without fear of government retribution, but does not appear to be a rampant issue. There have been isolated reports of people losing their jobs for expressing their political perspectives.      

Ghana’s activist communities have grown also stronger during the past decade, aided by social media, the internet, and traditional media coverage. Ghana’s ongoing energy crisis has fueled the largest and most sustained protests in 2015 the country. Many activists have insisted that the government’s failure to resolve the crisis disqualifies President Mahama from seeking an additional term. Last year the NPP organized some of the largest protests.

In 2014 various protest groups came together through the hashtag #occupyflagstaffhouse and petitioned the Mahama administration to address an array of issues, including infrastructure, declining economy, and corruption in the government. The government did not shut these protests down and they remained peaceful.

There is also a vibrant political culture at Ghana’s universities, particularly the University of Ghana at Legon. Most recently, faculty, led by my colleague Akosua Adamako Ampofo, protested to demand the university remove a statue of Mahatma Gandhi the university had accepted from the president of India in June. The protesters prevailed and the government agreed to remove the stature. The government was adamantly opposed the position that she and other protesters held, but, in the end, they acquiesced. I highlight this issue as an example of the strength of the vibrancy of civil society and the freedom of protest in Ghana, hallmarks of a strong democracy.  

Dennis Laumann: The obvious answer to this question is the existence of a free, lively, diverse, and contentious print, audio, and visual media, which has steadily developed since the return to multiparty democracy in 1992 and thrives especially during the present administration of President Mahama.

How invested are you in local elections, i.e beyond the Presidency?  Do voters care who the members of parliaments are?

Kuukuwa Manful: Voters do care who the Members of Parliament (MPs) are, because in the way governance has come to be practiced here, MPs are who people go to when they need things – ranging from tarred roads to school fees and attendance at funerals. For many, the MP is the highest governing authority they have access to and thus will tend to vote for someone who they believe will benefit themselves and their community, and this person is not always the candidate put forward by the party they belong to or the party whose presidential candidate they support unconditionally. We see this manifest in what is known as ’skirt and blouse’ voting – where people vote for a presidential candidate from one party, and a parliamentary candidate from another party. The Jomoro constituency (in the Western Region) illustrated this in 2008 when Samia Nkrumah, daughter of Kwame Nkrumah, won the parliamentary seat. She unseated the incumbent NDC MP although the NDC had held that seat for three election cycles. She campaigned very effectively and was a fresh/new voice and face, the daughter of a beloved president and very active in social issues and philanthropic activities in the area. In that case, compared to the incumbent Lee Ocran, the people of Jomoro constituency chose her because she was perceived as more likely to make a difference in their lives. People will sometimes choose an MP from another party because of their wealth, (positive) character traits, history of philanthropy and/or activeness and popularity in the constituency.

Dennis Laumann: One of the fascinating results of the elections four years ago was that many Ghanaians across the nation voted “skirt and blouse” meaning they supported one party’s presidential candidate and another party’s parliamentary candidate. In other words, in a single constituency, the NDC may have won the presidential vote but the NPP candidate may have been elected to parliament. The dynamics of each local race are complex and often independent of issues and personalities dominating the national level.

Billie Adwoa McTernan:  It depends on the what are the issues for voters. If you live in a community that doesn’t have enough schools you might want to vote for the parliamentary candidate that is promising to advocate for that, but if you are student looking towards the job market you might look at which presidential candidate is promising better job creation opportunities.

What would you say are the most pressing issues for Ghana policy wise right now? Can you list three and say why?

Billie Adwoa McTernan: I can list two. Education. Quality education, with well-equipped institutions that is free and for all. There is no point in building several schools if the teachers are just going to read from a book and not engage students. Also good healthcare.

Ghana has a very youthful population. Do they matter in elections?

Malaka Grant: The 2012 Report of the Institute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research (ISSER) of the University of Ghana notes that youth constitute about 70% of Ghana’s labor force and a majority of the voting population. The youth don’t just matter in elections; they are the whole point of elections.  It’s the concerns of the youth – especially in those that age on the higher end of the age spectrum – that drive the nation’s policy. Those in the 20-35 age bracket are in their marrying and childbearing stages of life, bringing with them all the concerns of this phase. Housing, education for their children, employment and confidence that theirs’ is a government that understands and is concerned for the future is what drives them to the polls. John Mahama ran – and won – on a platform of “youth”. He was the first president young enough to be born in ‘Ghana’, unlike his opponent who was so old he was born in ‘Gold Coast’. He used an iPad to deliver speeches, signaling that he embraced and understood technology and its function in the modern world. Candidate Mahama dressed like the new African Man. He was relatable and his opponent was not. Even elderly voters in 2012 understood the power of his youth and hoped that he would bring an Obama-ish flair and effectiveness to the office of the presidency. The influence of the youth extends much further than their local communities. Youth influence and opinion goes wider and travels faster than older generations of Ghanaians are accustomed to. Politicians understand this, which is why so much time is invested in Kalyppo Challenges and catchy slogans sung by bleached skin Ga boxers, all in an effort to capture youth imagination and hopefully, allegiance.

Billie Adwoa McTernan: Very much. They are potentially starting “the traditions of voting” as it were for their future families. And the parties know, which is why they have taken to use music by popular youthful musicians in their campaigns.

Diego Maradona’s misguided political statement on Western Sahara

The marketing for tomorrow's match.The marketing for tomorrow’s match.

Diego Maradona is considered as the greatest footballer of all time and scorer or the “Goal of the Century.” And now, it seems, a willing apologist for the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara.

According to a number of news reports, as well as posts on Maradona’s official Facebook page and the Twitter account of former Egyptian football great, Mohamed Aboutrika, the two of them are set to return to Morocco along with other former stars of the game—including Brazil’s Rivaldo, Ghana’s Abedi Pele, and Liberia’s George Weah—and former Moroccan players for a so-called “Match for Peace” tomorrow. Organized by the Royal Moroccan Football Federation, the match will take place at Sheikh Mohamed Laghdaf Stadium in Laayoune, the capital of occupied Western Sahara.

The announcement on Maradona’s official Facebook page reads: “Match for Peace in Morocco, next Sunday November 6. With great football stars: Rivaldo, Noureddine Naybet, Abedi Pele, Mohamed Aboutrika and George Weah”

This is all deceiving. Less a match for peace, the game is part of Morocco’s wider efforts to project a positive international image and normalize its occupation. It marks the forty-first anniversary of the so-called Green March, an event orchestrated by the previous Moroccan king, Hassan II, during which hundreds of thousands of Moroccans crossed into Western Sahara in 1975. While it is something to celebrate for Morocco, for the Sahrawi of Western Sahara it marks the invasion and partial occupation of their homeland by Morocco in 1975, forced exile for many, and serves as a painful reminder of the unfulfilled promise of self-determination.

This is not the first time Maradona has done this. (He has a jumble of contradictory politics and associations anyway. See here, here and here.)

In 2015 Maradona participated in a similar match to the mark the fortieth anniversary of the event, along with Aboutrika, Pele, Weah, and apparently others such as Brazilian Gilberto Silva. Maradona even played for free. Yet international criticism was muted at best.

Maradona during the 2015 version of the match. Maradona during the 2015 version of the match.

Following this year’s game, Maradona will reportedly attend the opening of the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) climate summit in Marrakech, Morocco. Sahrawi activists have criticised Morocco’s hosting of the summit as an attempt to greenwash the occupation.

The Sahrawi already have to contend with the overwhelming indifference of much of the international community and a Moroccan occupier steadfastly backed by powerful allies such as France, and to a lesser extent Spain and the United States. And now, at a time of heightened tensions due to growing frustration with the continued postponement of the promised referendum on self-determination, sports events such as the one Maradona and the other foreign stars will take part in do not promote peace. Instead they only serve to help Morocco whitewash the occupation.

A truly exceptional footballer but a truly misguided political statement.

Re-thinking immigration by looking at Africa

Charles Moses, 30, a new immigrant from Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra State, smiles in front of the wall of a house in Madina, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra that is home to many Nigerians.Charles Moses, 30, a new immigrant from Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra State, smiles in front of the wall of a house in Madina, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra that is home to many Nigerians. Image credit: Louise Matsakis.

Immigration to the West accounts for less than 50% of all global migration according to data from the United Nations. Most people move from one non-Western country to another, yet their stories are rarely told. Journalism about immigration focuses overwhelmingly on those coming to North America and Western Europe, even though individuals who move within the Global South make up the majority of refugees and migrants.

Claire Adida, the author of Immigrant Exclusion and Insecurity in Africa: Coethnic Strangers, published this year, wrote to me in an email:  “Africans migrate in Africa all the time, looking for economic opportunity, interacting with members of their host societies, carving out a life for themselves away from their hometown. They have been doing this for generations.”

Adida, who is also Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California-San Diego, added: “Yet we know very little about these communities, their struggles and successes, and we have very little data. This is therefore a phenomenon that remains very much informal and poorly understood.”

In her new book, Adida explores the diversity of immigration experiences in urban West Africa. The book is one of the first to explain immigration integration in the developing world.

Immigrants, for example, make up 3% of Ghana’s population. At least 80% of immigrants who come to the West African nation are from other African states, according to a report from the International Organization for Migration (IMO). Many come from neighboring states, such as Nigeria.

Most economic migrants arrive to Ghana from neighboring countries, partly because Ghana is a part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The economic partnership of fifteen West African countries was founded in 1975, and aims to foster free migration within its borders.

Ghana’s borders have recently become even more porous. Beginning in July, the country began to offer tourist visas on arrival to citizens of all 54 African Union (AU) member states. Historically, it has been more difficult for Africans than for American and European tourists to travel within their own continent.

While in Ghana’s capital in June, I met a group of Nigerian immigrants selling cellphones along the streets of Madina, a bustling neighborhood on the outskirts of Accra. One of them, Henry Nnamdi, 33, held up a shiny red Samsung, and explained that he left three young kids to move to Ghana four years ago to earn more money for his family.

In the same market was Charles Moses, 30, another mobile phone salesman. He came to Ghana only six months ago, after the Nigerian government demolished his clothing boutique in order to build a bridge.

While his lack of knowledge of local languages has made meeting new friends difficult, “We Nigerians mingle with Ghanaians very easily,” he said. Nnamadi and Moses are some of the thousands of Nigerian immigrants who come to Ghana each year, largely to find opportunities for work.

While many migrants who leave neighboring countries to come to Ghana are unskilled laborers, some bring important trades to the country.

“I decided to move to Ghana because I wanted to learn an approach to medicine in an Anglophone country,” Van Nam Glouzon, 30, a doctor originally from Ivory Coast explained to me. Glouzon, who also speaks French and Russian, noticed that most medical research is written in English, and believed practicing in an English-speaking country would allow him to stay on the cutting-edge of his field.

According to research conducted at the University of Ghana’s Centre for Migration Studies, a significant number of male migrants who came to Accra reported that moving delayed marriage. Many said they had trouble renting a room, which delayed marriage even further.

Not all people who come to Ghana from neighboring countries are male. Nearly half of them are women, the University of Ghana report indicated. Olivia Ogechi, 26, is one of them. She moved from Nigeria’s southern Imo State in order to pursue nursing school in Accra.

“I have a passionate need to serve people,” she said while organizing the colorful women’s shoes she sells in the city’s street markets. “Ghana is a cool place to stay,” she continued.

The IMO report showed also that not every immigrant to Ghana comes from a neighboring state. Fifteen percent come from Europe, like Torbjörn “Toby” Bergman.

The 43-year-old emigrated from Sweden two years ago to open Chuck’s Bar & Restaurant, an upscale continental eatery in Tamale, a city in northern Ghana 10 hours from Accra by car. On a Friday night, the restaurant’s expansive backyard was packed, in part because it’s one of the only places like it in town.

“We changed something about this city when we opened this place,” he said.

Many of the people who come to Ghana arrive under more unfortunate circumstances than Bergman. In recent years, Ghana has seen a large increase in the number of refugee and asylum seekers, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

The Ghanaian government has sometimes botched its responses to the influx. In June, more than 40 asylum seekers, including infants, were left to sleep in the open near Accra’s international airport, according to Joy News. The Ghana Refugee Board (GRB) chose to repatriate them back to their countries of origin.

“It was a number of refugees from the Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, central Africa, and other countries who were lodging on the lawn of a benevolent Ghanaian,” said Sheila Tamakloe, the journalist who reported the story. Some refugees were even sleeping on the lawn of the GRB.

According to Professor Adida, “Inter-African migration brings both promise and peril to African host societies. It brings promise because African migrants open up new economic opportunities by creating or bringing new goods, new trading routes, new institutions,”

“At the same time, African migrants are – just like everywhere else in the world – easy scapegoats when an economy contracts, and unemployment and instability rise.”

What is clear is that each individual who immigrates to Ghana, or to any country on the globe has their own narrative, no matter their reason for movement. What can be done now is to continue to tell their stories, especially those largely undocumented in the Global South.

Peculiar alliances

 Mariusz Kluzniak via FlickrHeavy clouds in Colombia. Image credit: Mariusz Kluzniak via Flickr

One of the most counterintuitive sights in the referendum on Colombia’s historic peace agreement between the government and FARC rebels, was a coalition between Human Rights Watch (HRW) and former President Álvaro Uribe in favor of a “no” vote.

At the beginning of October, Colombian voters narrowly rejected a comprehensive historic peace agreement that would have ended the decades-long war between the government and the FARC. For his work on the peace deal, President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Since the margin of victory for the “no” campaign was slim (53,894 votes in a country of 35 million eligible voters), many factors were cited as potentially decisive: a hurricane on the day of the voting; that it was really a referendum on the unpopular President Santos; and the involvement of HRW that might have lent some respectability to the No campaign. The No campaign, which was based on fear rather than political imagination, was led by Uribe, whose regime was associated with widespread state violence. Human Rights Watch leaders chimed in that peace cannot be had with “impunity.” The HRW also tried to extricate itself from Uribe’s uncomfortably tight embrace even as it celebrated the rejection of the peace agreement.

It is important to look beyond this peculiar alliance. After all, Amnesty International also called on the government to ensure “that all those responsible for the despicable crimes under international law inflicted on millions of people over half a century face justice,” and in the process, casually equated justice with criminal accountability for military and political leaders.

How did major human rights organizations end up narrowing justice to punishment? What are the effects of prioritizing trials for perpetrators of political violence and war crimes over other measures? The transnational human rights movement that came to prominence during the Cold War with Amnesty International’s campaigns for the release of “prisoners of conscience” has taken a punitive turn. The reduction of justice to punishment is not, however, simply an imposition by human rights organizations from the global North. The Argentine human rights movement of the 1980s popularized the fight against impunity and amnesties as a human rights cause. Yet these concepts, taken up by academics and activists in North America and Europe, ended up being used as a wedge against the wishes of communities most affected by violence. As I have argued elsewhere, when concepts in human rights and transitional justice travel, they change, and their effects are contingent on the new contexts and the ways they get mobilized.

The rhetoric of justice as criminal accountability has been globalized and thereby separated from its original context. The curious case of HRW’s advocacy against Colombia’s peace agreement raises at least two problems with this globalization of a specific human rights ideology: First, the call for trials might be less convincing and productive in certain political and social context. Second, the broader reframing of justice as punishment for human rights violations and war crimes leaves us with an impoverished understanding of justice and an uncritical embrace of criminal justice systems that often have been part of the problem that they are called upon to remedy.

When Argentine activists started their fight against impunity for enforced disappearances committed under the military dictatorship, their concern was about the accountability of state actors: the state tried to pardon itself. The concern about accountability was tied to calls for truth about the disappearances and for reforms to ensure that state agents would never again torture and murder citizens.

The vocabulary of impunity and accountability that has been developed in the Argentine context took on a different meaning when used elsewhere, especially in the context of protracted civil conflict with multiple parties. Communities that have lived through complex armed conflict often prioritize peace, reparations, and redistribution over calls for punishment of perpetrators. In the Colombian referendum, people living in provinces that have experienced high levels of ongoing violence have overwhelmingly voted in favor of the peace agreement. The agreement allows FARC combatants to transition from paramilitary fighters to participants in a political process that has systematically marginalized many Colombians. There is a difference between calling for prosecutions of murderous state agents and subjecting a complex military and political conflict to the binary logic of criminal law. The peace agreement was bound to be a compromise, not the pipe dream of any of the parties. The HRW subjected it to standards of ‘justice’ developed in very different circumstances, and it did so from a safe distance.

Even if those most affected by a conflict voted for trials, there are reasons to be cautious about embracing criminal justice mechanisms as responses to politically motivated violence committed by state actors and non-state agents.

The vocabulary and institutions of criminal justice are (ideally) designed for crimes committed by individuals in defiance of community norms, not for situations in which the state apparatus turns violent on its own citizens or violent civil conflicts. Although domestic and international law include prohibitions on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the course of an armed conflict, subjecting civil war to criminal punishment carries the distinct dangers that non-state military actors are punished for their participation in the conflict rather than their specific prohibited conduct during the conflict.

The submission of politicized violence to the machinery of criminal justice easily vindicates the state, the courts, and the law that might deserve critical scrutiny. In transitional trials, prosecutors and judged craft narratives that offer legal judgment and criminal punishment as redress for violence that is described as ‘lawless.’ But is it so? State repression and civil conflict are not occasioned by the absence of the state or the law, but are enabled when state power and legal mechanisms are wielded against real and imagined political adversaries. The law and the criminal justice system are not innocent of the violence they are called upon to adjudicate. But rather than inviting reflections on the connections between state power, legality, and violence, trials too often celebrate a facile understanding of the rule of law and punishment as the opposite of, and appropriate reaction to, violence.

Even so, the prospect of prison for perpetrators of politicized violence feels just right to many people. Trials, for all their shortcomings, can constitute important rituals of transition. Such rituals can deliver a powerful message of a new beginning. Yet they do this by ascribing the responsibility for complex violence to the individual perpetrators who are being convicted (if that is indeed the outcome of the trial). The messy and much needed stories of collaboration, structural violence, dispossession of land and natural resources, racism, bystanders, and indifference are unlikely to feature prominently in courts. Moreover, trials often do little to change the material realities of the people victimized in the conflict. Thus, trials may feel good, but they do so at the price of reducing the complexity of the conflict into a simple morality tale and inviting us to get comfortable with a punitive state.

A human rights movement that is interested in reducing violence and state repression should be cautious about endorsing trials that celebrate the punitive state as a fountain of justice. As long as the fight against ‘impunity’ has priority, broader social justice issues will lose out.

Drogbacité

 Jake Brown via Flickr.Didier Drogba touches up his hair during Cote d’Ivoire v Mali. Image credit: Jake Brown via Flickr.

My candidate for the best thing ever posted on the internet – an object that may single-handedly justify the existence of social media – is this clip of Didier Drogba, along with his wife and two friends, watching the final of the 2015 African Cup of Nations. The game pitted the Ivory Coast against Ghana and, as is oddly traditional in the African Cup of Nations, it went not just to penalty kicks but to a surreal and extended shoot-out that culminated in the two goalies taking shots against each other. Boubacar Barry, the Ivory Coast goalie, became a legend that day by accomplishing a feat few goalies ever have. He first blocked the penalty kick from the Ghana goalkeeper. Then Barry stepped up, sweating, and kicked the ball into the goal, winning his country the African Cup of Nations.

Drogba, however, was watching from far away. He’d retired from international football after the devastating 2013 defeat, also in penalty kicks, to Zambia in the final of the African Cup of Nations. But as compensation for not being able to watch him be part of that victory on the pitch, we got to watch him watching the shoot-out. What is delightful about this video is that we’ve all, at some point, been in the position that Drogba occupies in this video. Still, his intensity, and the way he celebrates when his country wins, is unbelievably funny and joyous to watch.

There is also a certain sadness, or longing, about the moment: he’s living vicariously what he probably deserved (as much as any athlete deserves anything) to have lived himself. The intensity of the video is partly the result of the fact that you know that, he knows he should be there. Or maybe it is that he is there on the pitch as well as his coach – or rather, in the end, on the floor, almost praying in front of the television.

Who is Didier Drogba? In his new autobiography Commitment he tells us some of the story. The genre of the athlete autobiography is dangerous territory. As you wade into one of these, there is always a good chance of being force-marched through insufferable clichés, tedious personal details, and overly massaged accounts of interactions with other athletes and managers. One enters with trepidation. But Commitment is actually quite an enjoyable read, rarely scintillating, but comfortingly steady and straightforward in recounting a life that has been full of intriguing twists and turns.

Drogba’s trajectory has, in a way, been an unusual one. He became one of the most famous footballers of his generation thanks to his time at Chelsea, but never won a major tournament for his national team. He was, however, able to use football – in a small way – to contribute to peace in his country, something probably more valuable than a trophy. So it was that, as he watched the Ivory Coast finally win the African Cup of Nations in 2015, from his home, he could celebrate as if he was there, as if he had won.

Drogba was born in 1978 Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast, but at the age of five his parents sent him to live with his uncle, Michel Goba, in France. Goba was a professional football player. Looking back, Drogba describes this experience of being “uprooted” at a young age as a defining one, though he “never forgot those roots” in Ivory Coast and has “long felt a burning need to reclaim them.”

Following his uncle’s itinerant career, he grew up in different small towns in France, first in Brest, then Angoulême, then Troucoing on the outskirts of Lille. He stood out: some of his friends “would even rub my skin to see if I really was that colour!” Neighbors would stare or look away.

In Dunkirk, Goba – by then Drogba’s legal guardian – got him on a youth football team. On Sundays, they went down the beach where his uncle showed the young boy “all sorts of tricks,” like “how to use my body against a defender, and how to time a jump effectively.

“When I saw him jumping up for a ball, I used to think that he stayed in the air forever, as if he was flying,” Drogba recalls (p. 9). Still, the pitch wasn’t an escape: as he played, he was “always hearing comments about the colour of my skin.” Lonely, he lived in his “own bubble.” This helped him develop a vital skill that has served him well: adapting “really fast to whatever situation I found myself in. New team, new country? No problem.”

Eventually Drogba’s mother and father migrated to France, and he was re-united with his family. As a teenager he lived in a one-room apartment in Levallois with five siblings, including a newborn brother. His father discouraged him from playing football and urged him to focus on his studies. But when his grades improved, he asked if he could return to the pitch, the only place he felt really happy.

“Deep inside, though, I knew I would be a footballer, irrespective of what my father said. There was no question in my mind.” When his father came to watch one of his games, he realized he was seeing a totally different person than the shy son he saw at home.

Drogba was part of a remarkable generation of footballers who grew up in France during these years. But unlike Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane and Lilian Thuram, he never attended a football academy or training program. Instead, he made his way through the lower levels of French professional football. In fact he wondered, early on, if he would ever make it: in 1998, at the age of 20, he fractured his ankle and fibula, reduced to watching Henry, a new superstar, lift the World Cup trophy.

Throughout the book, he writes about coaches who took an interest in him and taught him who he was as a player. The coach at Le Mans, for instance, once told him: “You don’t need to play the full 90 minutes. For you, five, 10 minutes are enough . . . You can play ten minutes and make a difference.” Throughout his career, both in professional and international football, Drogba had that transformative presence on the pitch: he often came on as a sub and changed everything. He was able to move up from the lower division to a Ligue 1 club, at Guingamp, where he played alongside Florent Malouda and under coach Guy Lacombe, who Drogba remembers as “… a great tactician, and he taught me a lot about placement, movement, pace.” Later on, when he was at Chelsea, coach Guus Hiddink reminded him that he could “stop running around all over the place. You’re a striker, you don’t have to do that. Just stay up there and finish the actions.”

I tend to think of Didier Drogba as a particularly solid player. But Commitment offers up constant reminders of how brutal and bruising a professional athletic life can be. His early career included a string of injuries to his legs and feet, including broken leg and foot bones. Later, just before the 2010 World Cup, he broke his arm and even ended with a bout of malaria that slowed him down in the 2010-11 season.

Commitment offers some particularly charming accounts of what it is like to be on the pitch as a professional footballer. He writes about a game he played with Guingamp against Paris Saint-Germain. He was awed as he watched the Brazilian star Ronaldinho score a brilliant goal against his team that day: “I obviously couldn’t clap, but in all honestly, that’s what I felt like doing.” In the second half of the game, a teammate scored an unexpected goal and somersaulted in celebration. “His leap gave us all wings.” Soon Drogba scored. The small stadium was packed, as were the “blocks of flats and balconies” that overlook it in the town. When Drogba scored another goal, “total madness broke out around us.”

Through these performances, Drogba became recognized as a star striker, and at the age of 25 was recruited to play at Olympique de Marseille. This is a place famous for the intensity and devotion of its fans. Drogba describes going to the hill-top Basilica in the town, and offering his OM shirt in the hopes that this would “give us a bit of divine fortune.”

At first Drogba was terrified, feeling “different from his teammates.” But they carried him along: one day early on, when he was lagging on a team run, unaccustomed to the heat, a teammate said: “We’ll wait. We’ll just follow you. You lead, we’ll follow.”

“I was now dictating the pace,” Drogba remembers. “I was blown away by that attitude.” He was given a jersey with his favorite number – 11 – and fans greeted him warmly on his first game with a banner that said “Drogba, score for us.” Playing in front of the 60,000 fans in the Stade Vélodrome, he often felt “a sort of out-of-body sensation.”

Drogba became famous in part for the way he celebrated his goals for Marseille: “whenever I scored, I broke into a bit of coupé-décalé, a popular dance in Ivory Coast and in the Ivorian community in France, based on Ivorian pop music.” This became his “trademark,” and the “fans loved it.” They adopted it as their own, and after a key victory there were “lots of demonstrations of coupé-décalé by the locals!”

But he also continued to encounter racism from fans. After scoring against Real Madrid, he heard fans making the “unmistakable sound of monkey noises. It was a small minority but, all the same, it was very clear. I was shocked. And I will never forget thinking, even in my moment of glory, ‘Wow, a big team like Real Madrid. I can’t believe they’ve got fans like that!’”

At Marseille Drogba fully came into his own as a footballer. Freed from the “physical attrition” of the second division, he found himself in a place where “it’s technique that’s important, and timing, attacking at the right moment, having a good footballing brain, knowing when the other team is having a slight dip and grabbing the balance of power. It was all about reading the game and by then I’d started to understand these things, so it felt natural to me, and therefore easy.” He gained that particular kind of flattery that marks a good striker, hearing defenders “making some comments along the lines of the only way to stop me was to kick me. . . .”

Playing against Porto, he met José Mourinho in the tunnel after a game. He “jokingly asked me in French if I had any brothers or cousins who played football like I did.” ‘Actually, there are lots in Africa who are better,’ I joked back”.

“‘One day, when I can afford you, I will sign you,’ Mourinho promised.”

It was to be, and a few years later with Mourinho at Chelsea Drogba reached the peak of his career. For the many Mourinho-loathers out there, Commitment offers a striking counterpoint. Drogba lavishes praise on the manager. For one thing, he didn’t have his team do those silly 5 to 10 kilometer runs that were the norm in France.

“I had always hated those runs and often used to struggle with distance-running training.” His emphasis was on being “football fit” (p. 87). The two developed a relationship that remained strong throughout Drogba’s career. “Communication – that’s all I have ever asked of managers. It’s so incredibly simple, but it’s amazing how often it doesn’t happen.”

Drogba was raised Catholic, and attributes much of his success to his faith. He has “conversations” with God during games – “which might sound funny or strange to some people, but anyone who has seen me looking up to the heavens or crossing myself, that person will realize this is true.” Drogba’s recounting of a famous 2012 victory by Chelsea against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final highlights the role religion played for him on the pitch. With his team down 1-0 Drogba began “speaking to God . . . begging him, ‘If you really exist, show me, show me!” God responded, enabling him to score a header, timing his jump perfectly “just as my uncle had taught me all those years ago.” Of course, God, can be a bit fickle, and not long afterwards Drogba had a “moment of clumsiness” and earned Bayern a penalty kick. “Oh my God! What have you done! Why does this always happen to me, why?” But he had enough energy to hassle Arjen Robben, who took the penalty kick, which was saved by Petr Cech. The game went to a penalty kick shoot-out and Drogba scored the decisive penalty.In the locker room afterwards, Drogba draped himself in the Ivory Coast flag and delivered a long speech to the trophy.

It was, however, as a player on the Ivory Coast national team that Drogba made his most important speeches. Though a dual national, with both French and Ivory Coast passports, Drogba was never selected to play on any of the junior national teams in France. His uncle, however, had once played for Ivory Coast and, as he put it, “I really wanted to continue the family tradition and pull on the jersey for ‘The Elephants.’”

“Even was I was young, I used to get goosebumps whenever I heard our national anthem” (p. 227). He recalls his first match with the national team, an African Cup of Nations qualifier, in September 2002: “what is seared in my memory for ever is the excitement of walking out into the cauldron of heat that was our national stade, the Stade Félix Houphouët-Boigny.”

Fans had packed the stadium since ten in the morning, with artists and musicians performing, and “everyone had been joining in.” And this, he learned, was “the norm for every game!” (p. 230) Only ten days later, a civil war broke out in Ivory Coast. Though a ceasefire was signed a few months later, there were regular bursts of fighting over the next years, and French and UN peace-keeping troops were deployed in the country. Drogba, who was the best-known star on the team thanks to his success at Chelsea, became captain of the team in 2005. That September, with the country again “on the brink of another full-blown civil war,” Ivory Coast team qualified for the 2006 World Cup.

As the team was celebrating their historic qualification, Drogba approached the cameraman filming the scene for Radio Télévision Ivoirienne, asked him for the microphone, and proceeded to make a speech:. “My fellow Ivorians, from the north and from the south, from the centre and from the west, we have proved to you today that the Ivory Coast can cohabit and can play together for the same objective: to qualify for the World Cup.” Then, asking his teammates to get down on their knees, he continued: “[W]e ask you now: the only country in Africa that has all these riches cannot sink into a war. Please, lay down your arms. Organise elections. And everything will turn out for the best!”

Drogba recalls that he had no idea if the speech would be heard or would have any impact, but when the team arrived in Abidjan, there were huge crowds waiting at the airport and “crazy” celebrations. His parents were waiting for him, and they were deeply proud – “not so much because of our qualification – that was almost secondary – but for the message I had sent out for peace.” His words had been played and replayed on television and aired on the radio for days. As the team made their way through the city to the president’s house, there were throngs of celebrants in the streets, on rooftops, “waving flags, blaring horns, cheering and crowing with joy.”

The team had a disappointing performance at the 2006 World Cup, but in 2007 Drogba was chosen as the African Player of the Year. In March of that year, a ceasefire was brokered between rebel forces in the north of Ivory Coast and the government. Drogba had an idea: what if he travelled to the rebel stronghold in the north, in Bouaké, to present his recently acquired trophy as African Player of the Year? And what if Ivory Coast played their next game – an African Cup of Nations qualifier to be held in June – not in Abidjan but in the north as well? He proposed the idea to the head of the Football Federation, who was encouraging, and then proposed the plan to the president of the Ivory Coast. The government agreed.

At the end of the month, Drogba travelled “into the rebel heartland of Bouaké” in an “open-topped car,” escorted by soldiers. He met with the leader of the rebel group Forces Nouvelles, Guillaume Soro, who was soon incorporated into the government as Prime Minister as a further step towards ending the conflict.

The African Cup of Nations qualifier, against Madagascar, was set for  June 3, 2007, in Bouaké. Though some teammates were worried about the journey, Drogba reassured them based on his trip to the area in March. The team blazed against Madagascar, winning 5-0, with Drogba scoring the final goal.

“The game itself became a symbol of an attempt to heal divisions. I saw soldiers from the army watching alongside soldiers from the rebel forces.” The footage of the game encouraged people who had fled their homes in the north to return. “People were heard to say, ‘If Drogba has been to Bouaké, it means it’s safe to return.’ It was amazing to realise how much impact was footballers could have.”

Drogba’s political role, he writes, made him a “national icon – something that I had absolutely not expected.” In 2007, after the brother of one of his best friends died of leukemia for lack of treatment in Ivory Coast, Drogba created a foundation to raise money for health and education in his country. He writes that he decided to “donate all my commercial earnings to the foundation” and has “continued to do so ever since. He wanted to avoid creating “a foundation that – and I’ve seen this a lot – is announced with big fanfare and one big fund-raising event, a dinner or something. They get a load of money in, and then silence. No one knows where the money has gone.”

Recently, however, Drogba has been accused of doing just that with his foundation, which is now under investigation. And, ironically, his teammate, John Terry, took cover in Drogba’s foundation, claiming that he couldn’t possibly be racist if he had donated money to charitable work in Africa.

If the future of the charitable Drogba seems a bit uncertain, the footballer Drogba is still journeying on the football pitch, having taken advantage of the retirement plan for great footballers offered by Major League Soccer. He made an interesting choice by joining the Montréal Impact, assuring him a place within a Francophone community and fan culture. From the start, he’s been welcomed by fans there, with cultural organizations including the Maison de l’Afrique in the city joining with the MLS to produce this poster celebrating his first game with the team. Some even managed to get a famous banner long deployed by Chelsea fans – that says “Drogba Legend” – over to Montréal. He scored a hat-trick in his first match and has been a steady force since then.

Looking ahead, he says he envisions returning to Chelsea in some capacity once he has stopped playing. “I think I have left my mark on football,” he notes – rightly. And he’s appreciated it: “I started with minus nothing, so everything I now have is a big plus.”

Music Break No.100

Music Break number 100 is here!!! Let’s celebrate the occasion with a playlist of classic African music from our younger years. I know that for me, many of these songs soundtracked long car rides and late night parties at home. Sean Jacobs also puts in some of his own favorites to reminisce on. No description this week, just enjoy some classic sounds from around the continent. And if anything sounds new, go ahead and follow the Youtube wormhole!

Music Break No.100

Have a happy weekend!

“What can we do for ‘the worst place in the world’”? Surely this play, is not the thing.

Promotional Still from The Drink It in the Congo.Promotional Still from They Drink It in the Congo.

As an Africanist and a woman of color, I make it a mission to support diversity in storytelling. This often means I am setting myself up for failure; at the receiving end of a botched history-cum-geography lesson about “Africa” or some other place where ‘black’ people are. This time, while watching Adam Braces play, They drink it in the Congo, the failure was so severe that it reduced me to tears. In an act of self care, I walked out at intermission (though in an attempt to give the play a chance, I read the second half at a later date. It was futile).

For the first 90 minutes, I watched as black men were portrayed as violent and full of rage and as sexual predators, and black women were portrayed as victims and silent workhorses. The stage was transformed into a coltan mine in the middle of the presumed Democratic Republic of Congo, and black characters from one scene transform into violent militia in the next. I watched more black men, holding machine guns, allude to forcing a father to rape his daughter. In the next scene I watched that same young woman writhe in agony, an aid worker speaking to her in broken French, while rattling off stats on a phone to confirm said rape. I watched as black bodies were brutalized and put on display for consumption of art. In a play that promoted itself as being about the Congo, I watched as black characters were used to prop up the self-exploration of white leads.

I have little to say about the quality of the writing, acting or stage production – I will leave that to the experts (some of whom have taken umbrage with these things). But as a community psychologist who seeks to grapple with the basic premise of what makes us human, of what makes us act, of what makes us real, there is much to say about the premise behind Brace’s play – and what could have been produced instead.

This play exists as a supposed think piece, a project that is likely rooted in an effort to appeal to fundamental aspects of humanity. A piece to “get people talking” and thinking about the Congo, or “the worst place in the world” as it is labelled on the play’s website. But I can safely say he didn’t stand a hope in hell of doing this – not in the way he set it up.

To assume that invoking extreme emotional responses will lead to critical reflection on life, liberty, and in this case, the plight of the Congolese, shows a limited understanding of how emotions are related to action. Much psychological literature has been devoted to exploring how emotions can be used to inspire action, and in some cases, changes that aid the “tortured other.” Such research tells us that when a stimulus evokes an emotional response, in our efforts to manage emotions, a process of engagement, thought and action, and occasionally change, can occur. The wide use of emotional appeals in the humanitarian aid industry is rooted in such evidence.

The play seeks to regulate the emotions of theatre goers through the use of shocking and largely violent stimuli (guns, rape, tragedy), with the hopes of triggering a cognitive  engagement and a response.

However, the reality of emotion regulation theory is, that numerous factors will influence whether or not engagement or change occurs in response to emotion. For example, are the audience the type of people who are likely to engage in critical thinking? Or are they the type of people to respond to uncomfortable emotions through denial or switching off? Does the stimuli in question present a challenge to someone’s existing understanding of the world (perhaps a black lead fighting for the Congo instead of a white one)? It turns out, that the latter is more likely to invoke thinking and action. However, given that this play fails to produce alternative perspectives on the Congo, instead flipping the script on white characters and their role in the Congo, the use of stereotypes are wasted. We are left with little more than a piece of poverty porn, wherein stereotypes of the Congo, its suffering, its violence, and the sexualized and violent African, are reified.

This vision of the Democratic Republic of Congo just isn’t true. Every day, people exist, survive and sometimes thrive in that country. And, a host of local organizations in the country are currently using art, theatre and other forms of media in an attempt to present a counter narrative to what is peddled by western media and international NGOs.

For example, Yole Africa (the art of empowering youth), a Goma-based organization uses the arts to provide a local narrative to challenges what is “known” about the Congo, presenting stories of everyday life, its joys, sacrifices and successes. Their Youtube series Art on the Front Lines, includes short films that focus on the stories of teachers, artists and children in Goma who work at using art to challenge the colonial legacies in their education system to “show the world that you can make something professional out of nothing,” as quoted by a local teacher. If given the chance, people from the DRC can tell you that they, like people all over this world, are more than just the product of things that happen to them. We are all more than the effects of war, of suffering and of violence. This as a counter narrative is what holds the real power for change. For if it can happen to them, what is to stop it from happening to us? This counter narrative, a reminder that our own happiness and safety is just as fragile as theirs, is far more likely to be the type of stimulus to inspire real cognitive reflection and change.

In the hands of the mainstream media, stories of the DRC will not seek to uplift or challenge our thinking. In the hands of mainstream media, the Congo remains the heart of darkness, because there is no reward in claiming otherwise. However, the days are long behind us when the “poor and suffering” must rely on the voice of an outsider to speak on their behalf. If the play must be the thing, then perhaps the people behind productions like this one should step out of the way, and leave it to the Congolese to tell their own stories.

Beyond the International Criminal Court

ICC via ICC Flickrvia ICC Flickr

In the past week, three African states (South Africa, Burundi, and Gambia) have announced their withdrawals from the International Criminal Court. Amnesty International describes these withdrawals as a “march away from justice,” and “drastic blow to countless victims globally.” Rather than simply decrying these decisions, perhaps it is time to think more carefully about what we mean by “justice,” and about the utility of the ICC as a tool to achieve it.

Critics have accused the Court of pursuing only the weakest players in the geopolitical spectrum, in part the consequence of the most powerful refusing to join. Relatedly, they point to the power politics at play in ongoing cases that raise doubts about its supposed impartiality and independence.

Less discussed are the challenges and contradictions raised by the Court’s lack of enforcement powers: namely, who it relies upon to apprehend suspects, and what accountability mechanisms, if any, are in place to prevent further bloodshed in the name of enforcing “justice.”

From the protection of victims and witnesses to the apprehension of suspects, the ICC’s operational reliance on powerful states ensures that individuals from those states will largely escape scrutiny, and that the Court’s decisions are often far removed from the very people it was designed to protect.

Perhaps the most dangerous implication of this dependency on “cooperating” states is the potential for manipulation in the service of entirely different projects. Some analysts draw a parallel between the ICC and the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine, noting that while both projects claim to challenge impunity in the name of peace and justice, the reliance on powerful states to implement their agendas can turn victims into proxies for military intervention. The kind of justice that the ICC is in the business of “delivering” is therefore also in question.

The Court’s cases in Uganda, Sudan, and Kenya have variously encountered these challenges and criticisms. The complexity of each case warrants scrutiny, and demands attention not only to the ICC’s relationship to structures of power but also to those of the individuals it seeks to hold accountable, many of whom may use their positions of power to escape trial.

A 2010 Wikileaks file revealed the former ICC Prosecutor’s proclivity to use geo-politics to his advantage: in an effort to win China’s support for the case against Omar Al Bashir, Prosecutor Moreno Ocampo suggested that the Americans reassure China that its access to oil would not be jeopardized if Bashir were “removed” from power.

Ultimately, the Prosecutor seemed more concerned with serving the interests of external players than with the Sudanese themselves, as many accused him of disregarding the indictment’s potential impact on domestic and regional peace-making efforts.

Is “justice” as defined by the ICC ultimately a source of meaningful redress? Does it sufficiently shed light on the broader structures of political and economic oppression?

The ICC and its more prominent supporters, much like proponents of the “responsibility to protect,” generally lead us to believe that the Court is the answer to impunity, as though the law were divorced from politics, and as though “peace” and “justice” can simply be delivered at the push of a button.

Yet the ICC is an institution located within a larger architecture of power that endows some crimes and some victims with legitimacy, and not others. At the same time, its “responsibility to punish” is subject to political manipulation that allows for further exception and impunity, as observed in the case of the Security Council referral on Libya.

The extent to which the Court is, or ever can be, a counter-hegemonic justice project therefore requires careful consideration — demanding questions rather than answers. Rather than presume to know about the priorities of “victims,”  perhaps it is time to engage with activists on the African continent and beyond about the possibilities and limitations of the ICC to contribute to our collective struggles, and to grapple critically with how we conceive of justice itself.

Botswana at 50: African miracle or African mirage?

 GCIS via Flickr President Ian Khama during the 35th SADC Summit held in Gaborone, Botswana. Image Credit: GCIS via Flickr.

At the end of last month, Botswana celebrated the 50th anniversary of its political independence from British colonialism. Long celebrated by outside observers as the “African Miracle” or “African success story” for its steady economic growth and seeming political stability, more recently that designation is being called into question.

At independence in 1966, Botswana was a severely impoverished territory, surrounded by hostile and racist white minority regimes in South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and South West Africa (now Namibia). Botswana was steadfast and vocal in condemning these regimes and provided moral support and refuge to liberation struggle groups, such as the African National Congress of South Africa, even though it was heavily dependent on South Africa economically and for infrastructure.

The country is arid with a physical landscape dominated by the Kgalagadi Desert to the west and the famed Okavango Delta to the northwest. At independence, subsistence agriculture was the main economic activity with cattle keeping being particularly significant to the economy of the country. Diamond mining started in the 1970s and 1980s, and this brought significant revenue to government coffers. The result was the fastest growing economy in the world for the last three decades of the 20th century.

Impressive economic growth enabled the government to provide social amenities, such as health, education, roads and water among others throughout the country. The provision of social services has been heavily subsidized by the state in order to be affordable to the population and in some instances these have been provided free of charge. For instance, Botswana’s small population, which today stands at just above 2 million people, was a little more than a decade ago being decimated by an HIV epidemic. The government moved quickly to provide free antiretrovirals and medical care to people living with HIV/AIDS.

The government has also provided grants and subsidies to the arable farming communities in a bid to boast agricultural production, and to diversify the economy and decrease dependence on diamond mining. Unfortunately, arable farming has seen significant decline despite government efforts.

Despite the impressive economic growth mentioned above, significant numbers of people in Botswana still live in abject poverty. Economic disparities are also reported to be among the worst globally. The economy has not grown in line with the population, hence large numbers of young people, among whom are university or tertiary education graduates, remain unemployed.

Botswana has been a liberal or multi-party democracy since independence – it has held elections every five years and has seen four peaceful presidential transitions – even though only one political party, the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), has ever held power. Nevertheless, Botswana has consistently been judged the least corrupt country in Africa by Transparency International.

However, for a number of years now, some sections of the population and independent scholars have been voicing concerns about what is seen as the militarization of the public service. Government has also been accused of engaging in grave erosion of civil liberties and authoritarian tendencies. A significant development was the split in the ruling party BDP in 2010, and formation of a new opposition party, the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD), by defectors. The defectors argued that internal party democracy had been replaced by autocracy and favoritism in the BDP.

Corruption and rent-seeking in government are also said to be on the rise, with the perpetrators believed to be getting away with it if they are connected to or a part of the ruling elite. These concerns saw the country experience the most competitive election ever in 2014, with opposition parties registering an impressive 52% of the popular vote while the ruling party trailed at 46.7%. The latter managed to hold onto power and President Ian Khama (the son of the founding president, Seretse Khama), in power since 2008, was elected to a second term by the country’s BDP dominated parliament (despite losing the popular vote the BDP still dominated parliament because of the country’s first past the post electoral system).

The Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC), which is made of up Botswana National Front (BNF), BMD and Botswana Peoples Party (BPP) got 32% of the popular vote, while the Botswana Congress Party (BCP) received 20%. It is highly likely that had the BCP been part of the UDC the opposition may have defeated the BDP. Indications are that the BCP could be part of the UDC for the 2019 elections, which may lead to the first change of government in Botswana.

The BDP has been described as center-right and BNF and BCP as center-left or social democratic. But these labels do not mean much. People or voters are more concerned with service delivery and employment creation than the political orientation of the parties. Young people constitute some 40% of the country’s population and an important voting sector. Ideology means little to them as they worry about lack of economic opportunities and employment.

Furthermore, Botswana remains one of the countries in Africa and the world with the fewest women in parliament, despite an abundance of qualified and available talent.

A new narrative is growing louder, with critics arguing that compared to hugely successful economies, such as Singapore, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates, which were underdeveloped economies 50 years ago, Botswana is lagging behind. The quality of democracy in Botswana is also said to be in decline, with newer democracies in southern Africa, such as South Africa and Namibia, said to be stronger.

The point of no return in Ethiopia

Screen grab of a video published by Jawar Mohammed, a US-based journalist who shares many videos linked to the Oromos via France24.Screen grab of of Irreechaa protest video published by Jawar Mohammed via France24.

Hundreds of Ethiopians have been killed by their government this year. Hundreds. You might not have known because casualty numbers have been played down; “evil forces” and accidents are blamed rather than the soldiers that fired the bullets; we are even deprived of the ability to fully grasp the situation because journalists are not allowed to report on it and the Internet is periodically shut down by the government. (In fact, last week Ethiopia finally admitted to the deaths of more than 500 anti-government protestors. Protesters insist that more people have died.) Whatever we make of the government’s prevarication, the Irreechaa Massacre that took place at the beginning of this month was a point of no return.

Irreechaa is a sacred holiday celebrated by the Oromo people, when several thousands gather annually at the banks of Lake Hora Arasadi in the town of Bishoftu to give thanks. At this year’s Irreechaa celebration, a peaceful protest broke out after government officials tried to control who was allowed to speak at the large gathering. What happened next is unpardonable.

Video footage shows government forces shooting tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd. Panic erupts. Women, children and men who had come to celebrate flee for safety but many are trampled on, drown and fall to their deaths. The government claims only 55 were killed in the incident. Non-governmental sources, however, put that figure at over 300. Mainstream media has conveniently portrayed the cause of the tragedy as a stampede yet simple logic refutes this. “When you fire on a crowd of 3 million close to a cliff and adjacent to a lake, causing mayhem, that is not a stampede. It is a massacre,” says Dr. Awol Allo, a law lecturer at Keele University in the United Kingdom.

Frustrations and grievances in Ethiopia have been growing for years. In 2014, protests began over the Master Plan to expand the capital Addis Ababa into Oromia Region. This was just the spark. Though the Master Plan has been abandoned for now, thousands of people across Oromia and more recently Amhara regions have continued to protest against the government. Their demands are fairly basic: human rights, an end to authoritarian rule, equal treatment of all ethnic groups, and restoration of ancestral lands that have been snatched and sold oftentimes under the guise of development.

The government’s brutal response has only added fuel to the fire. Irreechaa is the most recent example of this. Within days of the massacre a wave of anti-government protests erupted across the country, mostly in the Oromia Region. People are coming out in larger and larger numbers. Fear is dissipating and giving way to determination. Many activists believe it is too late for reconciliation — that “the opportunity for dialogue was closed with Ireechaa”.

No one is to blame for this but the government itself. The EPRDF government in Ethiopia has been tragically recalcitrant and short-sighted in dealing with the legitimate concerns of its citizens. Externally it has touted its success in maintaining stability and spurring double digit economic growth rates as a source of legitimacy, while internally it shoved itself into the seat of power by eradicating any form of real opposition. But anyone who has been to Ethiopia knows precisely well that the image of “Africa’s rising star” is only a façade, which tries to cover up deep rooted social and economic inequalities, abject poverty and human suffering, ethnic patronage and corruption, and a weak economy that is overly reliant on foreign investment. In short, the political, economic and social situation in Ethiopia today is not, by any stretch of the imagination, stable, despite what the EPRDF’s self-interested allies like the United States would like to believe.

Over the years, various groups that have tried many ways to peacefully seek change in Ethiopia. In 2005, opposition groups tried to compete in elections. When they almost won, they were arrested and exiled. In 2012 Muslims across the country peacefully demonstrated for more liberties and autonomy. As their movement gained momentum, many of their leaders were labeled as terrorists and sent to prison. In 2014, Oromos began to protest against the government’s ill-conceived Master Plan and are now paying the price. Throughout this period, countless activists, journalists and students have been arrested, numerous independent media outlets have been shut down, and the space for civil society groups has shrunk almost to the point of nonexistence.

The great Frantz Fanon explained that, “we revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”  In Ethiopia, the government’s actions have left many people with no other option but to fight. It is a country that has experienced much civil violence in the past, and is reluctant to return to it. However, the people’s patience is limited. Already, protestors are beginning to take more desperate measures. Some have torched foreign companies to send a message to the government and its foreign investors that their concerns and frustrations can no longer be brushed aside. From Eritrea, Dr. Berhanu Nega — who once ran as part of an opposition party in the 2005 elections — is preparing for a full-fledged guerilla war.

At this point the EPRDF only has two options: cut its losses, gradually cede power and make way for meaningful elections or dig its boots deeper into the ground, like a stubborn child, and hold out for as long as it can. The consequences of the second option will be more bloodshed and in the end a much greater fall for the regime. History has shown that when Ethiopians have had enough, they have overthrown even an imperial monarchy dating back centuries. The old Ethiopian proverb should be a warning: “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”

Education in Africa profits billionaire bleeding hearts

mark_zuckerberg_-_south_by_southwest_2008Mark Zuckerberg, image via Wikipedia.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who both double as billionaire philanthropists, have had their eyes on African schools for a while.

“We live in a world where talent is evenly distributed, but opportunity is not,” Zuckerberg wrote on his timeline a month or two ago. And the “gap between talent and opportunity,” he noted, “is among the greatest in Africa.” Around the same time, Gates expressed similar sentiments in a message to a UN conference on science, technology and innovation, declaring that, in order to solve poverty, “it’s important that we invest in the bright minds and bold ideas that can deliver the next generation of solutions to people, everywhere.”

Around the same time, the CEO of The Gates Foundation offered a mea-culpa of some sort for getting it wrong on education reform in the US. But it hasn’t resulted in any hubris when it comes to Africa. Gates and Zuckerberg are major investors in Bridge International Academies, an American education corporation, which targets the world’s “700 million families who live on less than $2 USD per day” with, what they call the “highest-quality education products.” So far, Bridge (who tweet here) are serving around 100,000 students in Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, and are hoping to expand to Liberia as well as to some 4,000 schools in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India in the near future.

Bridge has made the headlines – mostly not favorable – a few times this year. First, in March, the Liberian government announced it may entrust its entire primary education to the company. As widely reported at the time, Liberia’s interest in Bridge didn’t go down well with the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, Kishore Singh, who called it “ironic that Liberia does not have resources to meet its core obligations to provide a free primary education to every child, but [can] find huge sum to subcontract a private company to do so on its behalf.” To Singh, (and others) the move symbolizes the extent to which “public schools and their teachers, and the concept of education as a public good are under attack.”

Then last May, Bridge had a Canadian education researcher, Curtis Riep, (a PhD student who focuses on for-profit education), arrested in Kampala, Uganda. Bridge it turned out was anxious about Riep’s less than flattering findings on the quality of its schools there. Bridge even published a wanted ad for Riep in a Ugandan newspaper a few days before the arrest.

The accusations that Bridge leveled at Riep – which came to nought during the investigation – included criminal trespassing and impersonation. The incident put Bridge back into the news.

Driven by the desire to expand its operations and profit, and desperate to avoid any negative press, Bridge’s campaign to intimidate and discredit Riep isn’t surprising. And as Bridge has admitted, the deal with Liberia depended, in part, on how well things were going in Uganda and Kenya. Criticism, then, can be costly.

But Riep isn’t the only one to challenge Bridge’s “win-win” narrative. He’s part of a growing coalition of human rights professionals, who seek to halt the transnational corporate education reform movement. Education International (EI), the world’s largest federation of teachers unions, and ActionAid International, an international development organization with its secretariat based in Johannesburg, South Africa are at the forefront of this push back. To Angelo Gavrielatos, who leads EI’s campaign against the commercialization of education, and Tanvir Muntasim, the international policy manager for education at ActionAid, Riep’s arrest illustrates the extents to which Bridge will go to safeguard its “market share” in Africa. I asked them to tell us a little bit more about Bridge’s business model.

Let’s begin with the basics: who is backing and investing in Bridge International Academies?

Tanvir Muntasim (TM): Bridge has been in Kenya since 2009 and gets it funding from a curious mix of investors, including the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the World Bank’s private sector investment wing and bilaterals like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DfID). Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar are major investors as well. In 2014, the IFC invested US$10 million in Bridge in Kenya. This is in stark contrast to the fact that at the same time, the Kenyan government received no funding to enhance the provision of education. Combined with Pearson [the biggest  education company in the world], Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar, Bridge has received over US$100 million in recent years. A for-profit organization like Bridge receiving development aid is questionable and doesn’t sit comfortably with human rights obligations, as recently seen in concerns expressed by both the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (UNESCR).

Is it the external funding that makes them low-cost? What’s the business model here?

Angelo Gavrielatos (AG): They’re only low-cost in name. It’s part of the marketing spin associated with Bridge and the like. They like to create the impression that they’re catering for the poor, providing access to out-of -school children. There is nothing low-cost nor affordable about the fees they charge. The fees can be up to 40% or more of the daily income of the poorest. They present themselves as caring companies, philanthropists, concerned with education and children, but if this were true, they would work with the education community and teachers to strengthen public education, but they don’t. The business-model of such for-profit chains is built on driving down teachers’ costs and creating economies of scale through standardizing curriculum development and delivery. The largest single budget line in schools is teacher salaries. For-profit school chains maximize their profit by either employing fewer teachers, underqualified unlicensed teachers or unqualified staff paid at a fraction of qualified teachers. In the case of Bridge, it employs high school graduates who receive a few weeks of training. The curriculum used in these for-profit chains is standardized and scripted unqualified staff deliver lessons by literally reading word for word from a tablet. The material downloaded onto the tablets, instruct staff exactly what to say, what to do, what to teach, and how to teach it. Activities are pre-set and scripted including instructing teachers when to ‘Pause’ when to ‘Circulate for 30 seconds’ when to ‘Rub the board’ and when to tell pupils to ‘Close your textbooks.’

For-profit chains also cut down on costs, by teaching in spaces that are not fit for the purpose. There are examples of vacated, unused office spaces being used as schools. These spaces often lack the most basic materials needed for effective teaching and learning. In many instances, they don’t have playgrounds, nor libraries, nor other necessary school facilities.

The business model used by for-profit chains like Bridge is such that they seek to either exploit loopholes or neglect legislative requirements with respect to the adherence of minimum standards required for the provision of schooling. In Kenya, for example, it argues that it is an ‘informal’ school operation and therefore it should not have to comply with government regulations applicable to schools insofar as the employment of qualified staff and adherence to the national curriculum is concerned. When the government announced last year that it would require half of its staff to be qualified, Bridge actually protested, because it considered such a regulation an infringement on its business. So much for the right of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher delivering an engaging curriculum!

In Uganda, the authorities put a halt to the expansion of Bridge’s activities, because it failed to meet regulatory requirements applicable to schools. In a statement to Parliament last August, the Education Minister (and First Lady), Janet Kataha Museveni, announced the closure of Bridge International Academies for failing to operate in accordance with national requirements with respect to the provision of education. A technical inspection report had found that, among other things, “poor hygiene and sanitation [in these schools] put the life and safety of school children at risk”. The Uganda National Teachers Union welcomed the announcement and called on the Government to remain steadfast in demanding compliance to minimum education standards.

TM: Until last January, none of Bridge’s schools in Kenya were registered with the government. Kenya has now passed regulation on the alternative provision of basic education and training institutions (APBET) and Bridge is attempting to register its schools. But the decision of the Ugandan government to shut down Bridge schools there is affecting their acceptability. The Liberian government has also decided not to let BIA run all the schools in the pilot and has invited other education providers to participate in the pilot, so the monopoly, along with the volume of government funding that they expected and which could have let them cut down costs further isn’t likely going to happen.

How do Bridge and other corporate education reformers defend these practices? Is there any evidence of success?

TM: Just last year, the World Bank President Jim Yong Kim claimed that Bridge schools are producing better learning outcomes than public schools for only US$6 a month. In a statement that we issued with other organizations, we pointed out that there is no evidence that supports this claim, apart from biased data that Bridge has produced itself. In reality, the costs are much higher than $6 a month. In Kenya, for example, when you add the costs of meals, uniforms, exam fees and text books, one child’s education can cost as much as USD$16 to $20 a month. That’s nearly 70 per cent of the monthly income of many people. And even if it were only $6 a month, it would still interfere with the food security of people in the poorest neighborhoods. We have raised these concerns with the World Bank multiple times, but we have seen little effect in their funding practices thus far, apart from the fact that Mr Kim has stopped citing it as a good example.

AG: There is no evidence at all to support the claims of these companies that it improves the quality of education. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that shows that if you apply market principles to the provision of education, you deepen inequality and segregation. And that is what is happening with these schools.

Children are the first losers in this story, because with any corporation, the interests of Bridge and others lie with satisfying their profit motives and/or their shareholders. In education, where the profit motive prevails, the first losers are students, their teachers and the communities they serve. After health, education is the last frontier for venture capitalists. Just think about it, education and children are the most sustainable resources in the world. They will always be there. We should be challenging those individuals and corporations pushing this grotesque commercialization and privatization of education, which reduces students to nothing more than an economic unit. They should be asked a couple of very simple questions. ‘Do you support the right of every child to be taught by a qualified teacher, an engaging curriculum in a safe environment that is fit for its purpose? Would you volunteer your own child to be taught by unqualified staff with a scripted curriculum in a vacant office building?’ If their actions are anything to go by, the answer to these questions would be ‘no’. If it’s not good enough for their own children, it’s not good enough for other people’s children.

What needs to happen or be done to get these corporations out of the education space? And what role do governments play in protecting children from such profiteering?

TM: Hundreds of human rights organizations and teachers unions are confronting governments with the fact that they are shirking their responsibility (of providing free, quality education), and urging the World Bank to stop investing in these companies, to stop basing their views on self-produced evaluations and to support public education systems instead.  However, in Kenya we say that the World Bank has recently invested US$10 million in Bridge and none in public education. Even when Bridge resorted to the grossly unethical scare tactics to get an education researcher arrested and harassed in Uganda, we haven’t seen any formal reaction from the investors in Bridge. A few months ago, The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said it was concerned that UK aid money was going to private education providers and called on the UK government to refrain from such financing. The UK government is being drawn into the dispute after investing £15 million in the venture fund, Novastar, to support the latter’s investment in Bridge International Academies.  We believe that if good quality public education is provided, the demand for such private schools will fall. The question we often ask community members is ‘if you could choose between good quality free public education and good quality private education, where would you send your children?’ The answer, invariably, is good quality public education. So that’s what we are fighting for.

AG: Quite frankly, what could be a higher order priority for a government than the provision of quality education, noting how key it is to the educational well-being of its children and a nation’s future productivity and therefore prosperity? Governments must implement and enforce a legislative and financing framework that ensures the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 4, (inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) and to protect and recognize the professional judgment of teachers and educators on questions of methodology, pedagogy, curriculum, assessment and reporting. Where non-state actors are involved in the provision of schooling, they must conform to minimum standards, follow national curricula, employ qualified teachers and use classrooms that are fit for the purpose. Companies must be required to adhere to strict financial regulations, including independent auditing and regulations to monitor how government funds are spent. And, where they are in receipt of any government funding, directly or non-directly, they must be not-for profit. The profit motive has no place in dictating what is taught, how it’s taught nor how our schools are organized.

Why is South Africa withdrawing from the International Criminal Court? And why now?

Last Friday, South Africa stunned the world when it announced it has officially initiated the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC).  The idea of a mass pullout of African states from the Court has been hanging in the air for a few years now.  The main point of contention has been the perceived bias of the Court which has made Africa front and center of its work. To date, all the ICC investigations are located on the African continent and all the individuals indicted by the Court are Africans.

There is one exception to the ICC’s apparent targeting of African perpetrators of atrocity crimes: an ICC investigation that opened earlier this year into war crimes committed between 1 July and 10 October 2008 during Georgia’s attempts to control a breakaway region. But that’s one exception.

Although the African Union has been critical of the ICC and has called on its members not to cooperate with the Court until these issues are resolved, it has stopped short of endorsing a collective withdrawal.

No state had formally taken the steps to withdraw from the Court, until now. All it takes to withdraw from the court is to send a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the withdrawal takes effect a year later. Given how easy this is, some African states’ threats to leave the court over the years were viewed by many observers as empty rhetoric.

But all eyes had been on Burundi lately, whose president just signed a decree to leave the ICC.  As far as we know, he has not notified Ban Ki-moon yet. Burundi’s steps to withdraw from the ICC comes after the ICC Prosecutor announced last April that she would initiate a preliminary examination of the situation there in which political violence (largely caused by the President’s decision to defy the constitution and run for a third term) has killed hundreds of people.

Burundi, a small central African state, however, is not South Africa, one of the most powerful states on the continent.

In its Instrument of Withdrawal sent to the UN Secretary General, South Africa’s foreign minister argues her country’s commitment to peaceful resolution of conflicts is “incompatible” with the Court’s interpretation of states’ obligations under the Rome Statue.

But one may ask, why South Africa? And why now?

South Africa’s withdrawal comes on the heels of the controversy that surrounded its failure to arrest the ICC-wanted President Omar al Bashir last year when he attended an AU summit there. South African civil society groups have taken President Jacob Zuma’s government to court over the issue.  Given that the Rome Statute had been domesticated in South Africa’s national laws, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that the government had violated national laws and its international obligations for not having arrested Bashir and surrendered him to the ICC.  The government’s claim that Bashir was protected by sovereign immunity under international customary law did not stand.

It is likely that the South African government will run into trouble at home again, because as Justice Richard Goldstone argues the move to withdraw from the ICC may be illegal because the executive branch did not allow the parliament to vote on the issue. But this will likely have no bearing over the effectiveness of South Africa leaving the ICC.

So, now what?

South Africa’s leaving the ICC may have a domino effect, the extent to which is unknown at this point. Africa constitutes the largest regional bloc in the Court’s membership. Without a doubt, African states pulling out will be a major blow to the project of ‘ending impunity’ for atrocity crimes, which is the primary goal of the ICC, as stated in the preamble of the Rome Statute. Now all eyes are on Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia, which could very well be the next states to jump off the ICC wagon.

It is evident that the most powerful states – and their clients – in the world are outside of the reach of the ICC. (In fact, the United States is not even a member. Neither are China and Russia). And for the court to be truly international and legitimate, it must be an institution where the rule of law applies equally to all individuals and states.  On the other hand, however, we should not fall for the simplistic narrative of the Court unfairly targeting Africans.  In fact, the ICC is involved in many African states only because those states have specifically requested an ICC’s intervention: Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic (twice), Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and just last month, Gabon. The fact that some African states have viewed the Court as a useful instrument to dispose of rebels or political opponents should not simply be swept under the rug.

On the brink of peace

 Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.Afro Colombians in Cali. Image credit: Maria Claudia via Wikipedia.

It seems as if Gabriel García Márquez, by divination, foresaw what would happen in Colombia this month, when he wrote in his seminal work, One Hundred Years of Solitude: “It was as if God had decided to put to the test every capacity for surprise and was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay.”

This could indeed be a succinct summary of what has happened in Colombia recently, wherein the space of one week: 1) a peace agreement between the Colombian government and the main rebel group, the FARC-EP was rejected in a national plebiscite, bringing the peace process to a grinding halt; 2) the campaign manager of the main party opposing the peace agreement acknowledged the use of misleading advertisement; and, 3) the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Colombia, where I’m from, is a country of contradictions, where peace and war inhabit the same nation. This has been the case for decades. It is a country with levels of inequality comparable to South Africa, where I’m based. It is a country where the presence of the state follows the wealth of the citizens. To think of Colombia now, is similar to thinking of South Africa in 1994; where uncertainties of moving towards peace are met with fears that are manipulated by politicians. The terror of the “Swart Gevaar” is paralleled by the fear-mongering anti-peace agreement campaign led by Senator (and former president) Uribe and his party, the Democratic Center.

People who voted “no” to the agreements voted so for a mix of reasons. These include: concerns regarding the possibility of impunity for the guerrillas; the fear of the expropriation of land; concerns regarding the political participation of guerrillas in politics; the fear of a pro-gay agenda hidden within the agreements (an untrue claim reproduced by some Christian churches in Colombia); and a deep distrust of the intentions of the FARC-EP, informed by their actions in the failed negotiations between 1998 and 2002.

Some Colombians now claim that the mechanisms of representation don’t in fact work in Colombian democracy. This is, however, false; the fact that representation does work is proven by the government, and the country’s electoral commission recognizing the votes of Colombians in spite of the negative consequences for the peace process. Remarkably, both the FARC-EP and the government recognized the results of the plebiscite, which means the peace deal must be renegotiated, but pleaded to maintain a ceasefire across the country. Representation is working well. What is failing is the capacity to inform citizens, not manipulate them. The latter speaks to, and gives evidence of, the opportunistic nature of the politics taking place in Colombia. Another challenge lies in the participation of citizens; one can justify citizens voting for or against the agreement out of valid concern for the future of the country, but how does one interpret absenteeism of 63% in a vote to ratify a peace agreement?

Communities and victims in conflict areas have been left in dismay and uncertainty, and a deep fear of what might happen next. The outcome of the voting has left millions of Colombians in disbelief, as if their future has been defined by the lies and manipulation of those politicians campaigning against the peace agreements, in the belief that a “better deal” could be struck. The results of the plebiscite embody the same influences that have brought about the Duterte presidency in the Philippines, Brexit in the UK, and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States; presenting a challenge to democracy itself and showing how the necessity to distinguish information from data, truth from Facebook posts, and arguments from tweets is vital to keep democracy away from fascism. Technology has changed the way we relate to information and democracy.

It cannot be ignored that the negotiations of the peace agreements were an elite-elite conversation between the leadership of the FARC-EP and the Colombian government. Ownership by civil society of the peace process was left for later. One could attribute the failure to communicate accurately the agreements and their implications not only to the terror campaign deployed by the party of Uribe, but also to the fact that civil society and those who would benefit the most from the agreements were not included as instrumental actors.

In spite of this, the reaction of civil society has been more than inspiring. In those rural communities where civilians have been victims of massacres and assassinations amidst the violence unleashed by the different armed actors in the war, civilians have come to the fore once more to ask for an agreement now; offering forgiveness and leading hope for the country. The reaction of these groups has inspired other movements in the urban areas who are now organizing themselves in something that could be described as the Colombian awakening for peace, or the Colombian spring. Campaigns under the slogans #AcuerdoYa (agreements now) and #PazALaCalle (to the streets for peace) are mobilizing those who want agreements for peace.

In addition, the “extra time” of the peace process has exposed a series of opportunities to build a more comprehensive peace; with the promising possibility that other rebel groups, such as the ELN, who were not part of the negotiation between the FARC-EP and the government, might join a wider peace process (not necessarily under the same agreement) as it has been announced the formal start of negotiations by the end of October in Ecuador. Ownership for peace can now be given to citizens, civil society organizations and grassroots organizations.

This is where the symbolic power of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos is giving Colombia and its leaders a second chance; one that can bring minor changes in the agreements, the inclusion of other actors and the acknowledgement of the concerns of some Colombians calling for a wider agreement that allays fears and surpasses the skills of warmongers.

Some of the politicians negotiating a new peace deal are the same ones that used lies in their campaigns against the agreements. In fact, they are looking to extend the negotiations as long as possible so they can profit in the parliamentary elections set to take place in 2017, and the presidential elections of 2018. This is an attempt to sequestrate and veto peace for political reasons. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize leverages the negotiations for peace, but the veto power of some of these actors is still latent. As long as agreements do not benefit them or their cadres, they won’t support a broader peace for Colombians.

It is in this space where encouragement and support from overseas is necessary. Colombia needs to be able to envision another country beyond the reincarnation of our memories of war; where we can learn that hope and peace is achievable.

African Women on the big screen, in more ways than one

Lupita Nyong'o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via FlickrLupita Nyong’o at San Diego Comic Con. Image credit Gage Skidmore via Flickr

When it comes to African women on the big screen, the Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, is currently the signifier for how far black African women have traveled in big budget film. Nyong’o won an Academy Award for her debut film 12 Years a Slave, starred in the reboot of the Star Wars series (The Force Awakens) and her new film, Queen of Katwe, about a chess prodigy in Uganda, recently opened “nationwide” in US commercial cinemas. Basically, Nyong’o has achieved bona fide Hollywood stardom – unprecedented for an African actress. Of Queen of Katwe  Nyong’o has said: “This is a view of Africa told with Africans front and center. It’s their narrative, whereas in most films where you see Africa or the Africans, it’s told from a foreign perspective.”

With credit due to Nyong’o’s individual achievements and the Queen of Katwe’s hype, these may obscure the number of recent, small budget films doing the festival rounds  that give great insight into African women as actors, characters and filmmakers. When women make films about women, at least we know they no longer stand on the sidelines – there are well-developed characters, who the audiences can identify with.

Films made by Africans initially emerged in the 1960s as colonized countries gradually attained independence. Senegalese director and writer Ousmane Sembene (celebrated in a new documentary film) produced the first feature film by an African in 1966, La noire de … The first film by a female director, Kaddu Beykat by Safi Faye, also came from Senegal. West Africa has generally had a very vibrant film-making culture, and works from Algeria and Egypt films have also garnered international attention over years. At Burkina Faso’s renowned Fespaco Film Festival, a woman has never won the award for best film, but the last edition of the festival, in 2013, the runner-up prize for best documentary went to Nadia El Fani from Tunisia for Meme pas mal, and best African diaspora film to Mariette Monpierre from Guadeloupe, for Le bonheur d’Elza. And at the African Movie Academy Awards in Nigeria, Kenyan director Wanuri Kahiu won best film in 2009 with From a whisper. Filmmakers from the sub-Saharan region have enjoyed less of the international spotlight, with the exception of a handful of South Africans.

From a selection of films shown at the African Film Festival, Cologne, which this year focused on African women in cinema, there was no particular typecast in the films by female directors. Tunisian filmmaker Leyla Bouzid’s first feature film A peine j’ouvre les yeux (2015), has toured several film festivals and won the awards at the Venice Days of the Venice Film Festival, as well as, as best fiction film at the Dubai International Film Festival. It revolves around 18 year old Farrah, a rebellious young woman who would rather perform subversive rock music and be critical of the regime of the Ben Ali, than accept her admission to medical school. And although Farah is pressured by her family, society and the regime, she dares to dream, has her first sexual experiences, and pushes boundaries like any other teenager.

As I Open My Eyes (2015)

Bouzid noted that Young Tunisians, Egyptians, Moroccans identified with Farrah: “‘That’s us, that’s how we are’, they said”. As she told U.S. website Fusion: “It’s important that they see that young Arab people are exactly the same, like anywhere else. They have hopes, they have desires, they want to be free, they want to express sexuality.”

W.a.k.a (2013) by Cameroonian filmmaker Francoise Ellong, is another courageous film. It tells the story of a young mother, who turns to sex work to fend for herself and her son. While the film over-explains at times and the characters are perhaps a bit too polished for the milieu they work in, it nevertheless draws you in and manages to tell the story of the main character as she strives to separate her two lives. W.a.k.a breaks the taboos and highlights the issue of prostitution in a way that makes it more accessible and digestible, than for instance, the Congolese film Viva Riva!, which is deserving of strong praise, but delves deeply into Kinshasa’s crime scene and does not make for easy viewing. We see the lighter side of life in short films like Soko Sonko from Ekwa Msangis, as it pokes fun at “male and female roles” – will the father, who would rather be at a football match make it through the jungle of hairdressers in time for his daughter’s first day at school?

A welcome offering from Southern Africa is Sara Blecher’s film, Ayanda (2015). Set in Johannesburg, it revolves around a young woman who decides to revamp the auto-mechanic shop she inherits from her father. Blecher manages to balance light-hearted romance, family dynamics and the struggle of the youth to gain a foothold in modern-day South Africa. Blecher herself compared the film to Juno, the comic drama — set in the American Midwest — about a suburban teenager coping with an unplanned pregnancy. But critics say that Ayanda falls short of dealing with the deeper emotional aspects of the story. However, the work caught the attention of acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, 13th) and is now being distributed in the US by her company.

Ayanda (2015)

Diversifying the image of Africa on the screen is of course not limited to African women, but as Kenyan filmmaker Judy Kibinge (Something Necessary, 2013) puts it, the film industry on the continent is still young and “women aren’t a rare species.” New technology has made it easier to produce home-made or low-budget films and for filmmakers to distribute their content independently. This means that many young people are trying their hand at the craft that many Africans traditionally had less access to – and African women are no exception.

Filmmaking however remains a difficult terrain says Kibinge. It’s become easier to make films, in the age of Netflix, but actually making money from the work remains a huge problem. Through her company Docubox, Kibinge now supports young documentary filmmakers by running workshops, finding funds and providing a platform for them.

“Every film”, she says, “is still a labor of love by the filmmaker.”

This is Lara Pawson reporting for the BBC

Bullet marked building in Huambo, Angola. Image via Wikipedia.Bullet marked building in Huambo, Angola. Image via Wikipedia.

The first cigarette I smoked was a Marlboro. I was twenty-one. I didn’t feel sick and I didn’t feel dizzy and I was on ten or fifteen a day for the rest of my twenties. Living in Luanda, quite a stressy place, I could smoke two packs a day. My preferred brand was YES. They came in a gold box marked with a red dot like those stickers art galleries use to indicate that a painting has been sold. At some stage, I had to go to the medical centre because I was finding it so hard to breath. A Cuban doctor examined me. He told me that unless I wanted to die young I should give up immediately. During the consultation he sucked on a cigar. If anything, this made me take him more seriously.

I still think smoking looks cool. I still miss it. And I kid myself that smoking may have saved my life. Cigarettes are a useful negotiating tool at checkpoints. I’ve never met a soldier who wouldn’t accept a cigarette.

Now, in my head, I see grass as tall as I am and a red road stretching into the distance. Far ahead, we can see the explosion expanding into the sky. Another ambush. A coach-load of young army conscripts. I’d watched them loading up the day before, so cocky and excited about the prospect of fighting, boasting that they would be the ones to kill Jonas Savimbi. When we heard the landmine detonate, I saw my father sitting in a deckchair beside a swimming pool in Provence. He was wearing a straw hat and taking notes from a book with a gold fountain pen. There was an abundance of bushes of pink fragrant flowers.

Colette and Violette were sisters. They were short, although not unusually so for Mediterranean women of a certain age. Colette was the worker. She was also the teacher. With patience, she helped me get to grips with the subjonctif. She also trusted me with the key to the door to the wine cellar. Violette did very little apart from grind fresh meat for the cat each morning. She also kept an eye on the pet tortoise, and would encourage me to feed it the remains of the day’s vegetables. When the sisters took me on special day trips, for example to the beach, it was always Violette who drove. In second gear. The whole way! But although they had very different personalities, they were in absolute agreement about the young Algerian man I’d met in town. He was not allowed to visit the auberge ever again. You could call this a turning point in my life.

The man who told me I was a natural, was made for telly and would go far, instigated another major turning point. It was a BBC training session at White City. I was learning how to make news packages for the screen. I ended my little report on Ivory Coast’s war with a shot of two women walking barefoot away from the camera. On their backs, they were each carrying a heavy stack of wood. “Far from the bureaucracy of United Nations negotiations, ordinary Ivorians continue to be weighed down by war. This is Lara Pawson reporting for the BBC.” The cliché was what he really admired. I knew I had to leave.

I wear a yellow badge with the words We Are All Migrants printed in blue. A barista in Salisbury pointed at it and laughed. A man in Finsbury Park station saw it and thanked me. A third person, someone close to me, said he hates badges like that: It might as well say We Are All Monkeys.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t take more photographs. Although I was based in Angola for over two years, and have since travelled there for months on end, I hardly have any pictures. I don’t remember taking any in Ivory Coast either, or Mali or Ethiopia or Niger or Burkina Faso. I did take a few in Ghana, but I sold them to a glossy inflight magazine. I didn’t take any of the French sisters either, or all those men who helped transport us from London to Budapest. I tell myself it doesn’t matter because memories of moments fill my head. But would I have more accurate memories if I had more photographs?

I only learned how to truly sit on a horse when I was told to keep my eyes closed. I was living in a hamlet in Somerset with an old man we called The Major. Every morning, starting before seven, we’d take turns to train on top of one of his thoroughbreds. The horse that really taught me how to use my weight and balance and breath was a blind stallion.

Yesterday, I was with a very dear friend. She said, without hesitation, I think I am losing my sight in one eye.

One night in the town of Ndalatando, we were invited to attend a dance. We spent most of the evening seated at a table at the edge of the concrete floor. We drank beer and talked quietly and followed the silhouettes of young couples dancing kizomba. There was no electricity. A few disco lights ran off a small generator. Shortly before midnight, for the final dance, the young women came to the floor holding red carnations. The flowers were a symbol of love, we were told, given to the boys the night before battle. But I have it in my head that they were flowers for the grave.

Where have all the flowers gone? We used to sing that at school, my sister and I. It was the seventies and that was a seventies song.

By the early eighties, when we were teenagers, I used to be able to make my sister laugh so much she’d wet her knickers. Sometimes, on the way home from school, I’d start making her laugh just as we got off the bus, to see if she could make it all the way up one road then the next without losing control. If I tried really hard, I could probably still make my sister wet her knickers from laughing today, but I don’t see her enough and when I do, I forget to try.

*This is a second excerpt from Lara Pawson’s new book This is The Place to Be (read the first published here last week). It can be purchased here.

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