Africa is a Country

An economic strategy for The Gambia

Recently I spent time in The Gambia, a country whose people overthrew a megalomaniacal, authoritarian and vicious President, Yahyeh Jammeh, in an extraordinary democratic moment, due to their courage and the timely supportive action of other countries in West Africa (and very little if at all due to support from major powers, apart from their role in placing some effective limits on prior abuses and eventually supporting a Security Council resolution that helped to legitimize the regional action).

I was able to observe a moving event in which members of the country’s diaspora, from Alaska to Taiwan and from Cape Verde to Sweden, most of whom were active in opposition (and quite a number of whom were highly educated professionals successful in the countries to which they have departed) assembled to meet the new President and to express their pleasure at the New Gambia as well as their sincere hopes for the future. Conversations with ordinary Gambians reveal general relief and enormous optimism. Arguably, the current juncture provides the first opportunity since the country’s independence in 1965 for a broad ranging public conversation on the ends and means of development.

On the agenda of the new and widely welcomed government are now not only the restoration of the rule of law and democratic institutions, but addressing economic and social concerns long severely neglected. Gambians had been among those who are crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, in the hope of a better life, in large numbers relative to their small population.  Many concerns including a population in poor health and insufficiently educated, an undiversified economy vulnerable to downturns in demand for its few exports and unable to generate sufficient employment, especially for youth, must be urgently addressed. The smallness of the country makes it difficult to pursue many strategies available to larger countries, such as those which might accord a driving role to domestic demand (which presumes that the national economy can provide the scale and diversification required for such an approach).

Break the chains of imperialism? Rouse the people to revolution? One wishes it were so simple. The responsible economic analyst must provide prescriptions relevant in the here and now, while not losing track of the broader questions and ultimate concerns. International and national realities – financial, technical, political and social – must all be faced, even as one dreams a dream. Fostering a dynamic and inclusive market economy, able to weather the unforgiving storm of the global economy, even while combatting its constraints and attacking its limitations, is the most proximately realizable utopia.

The dominant approach to economic management for the Gambia and countries like it, coming from the World Bank, IMF and Western governments (who tend speak more or less in unison on such issues) emphasizes ‘sound’ macroeconomic management, interpreted in terms of maintaining manageable debt, low inflation, a realistic exchange rate conducive to avoiding sustained external deficits, and a climate for doing business that is attractive for investors. This is not always wrong, but it is very frequently wholly inadequate. The focus on these priorities reflects the thinking and interests of external institutions, and in particular the perceived desirability of a reliably pro-business (and in particular pro-foreign investor) economic environment. It is based on the idea that such conditions, perhaps complemented by some investment in human capabilities and administrative reforms, are sufficient to jump-start economic growth, as the country specializes in the areas in which it has a comparative advantage. This worldview leads to a concern with lowering costs rather more than it does with raising productivity. Most importantly, it does not directly consider what is needed for the incremental structural transformation of an economy.

Those countries that have successfully developed in any sense have generally pursued a more active strategy. A program of action focused on a country’s own development goals must therefore extend beyond providing economic stability and an institutional and policy environment attractive to business, whether foreign or domestic. In the present delicate transitional situation of The Gambia, sensitivity to a broader range of issues – economic, social and political – as well as a long-term orientation that is strategic, is needed.  (For purposes of this discussion I shall take as given the colonially derived borders of the Gambia, despite the reasons for thinking that it is an important part of the reason for the country’s woes.  The maxim that one might adopt is that the borders may not be abolished but that they can be made less relevant).

One contrast between the different views on economic policy is expressed at the level of high theory by the orthodox view that it can be dangerous and costly for any government to attempt to intercede in ways that aid particular industries, as this involves forms of prognostication of which it is not capable – picking winners.   However, this criticism fails to recognize that interventions can be of very different kinds, and that they do not have to involve costly subsidies – which may be infeasible quite apart from their being ill-advised. They can involve helping to remove infrastructural obstacles (such as in power, storage or transportation), changing trade or tax policies so as to lower the costs of producing or procuring specific inputs, steps to enhance skill development and dissemination of technical knowledge, improving marketing or distribution, organizing industry, workers and civil society to share information or overhead costs better and otherwise solve problems, and many other actions. Some of these measures can be undertaken even by governments with limited capabilities, on the basis of a specific analysis of what is needed combined with a realistic assessment of what it is capable of doing. The idea of growth diagnostics that has been advocated in recent years is in this spirit, as it recognizes that there may be structural obstacles to be identified and removed in order to bring about higher levels of economic growth.  A part of the theoretical grounding for such an approach within the framework of standard economics is the theory of the second best, which clarifies why impediments to the functioning of markets or states that cannot be directly negated might have their adverse effects diminished by introducing other measures, but noting that the right actions can only be identified through a contextually sensitive study of the various impediments that are present.  These impediments may exist either in the national economy or in the world economy and may affect the ability to realize a higher national income presently to enter onto a higher growth path. A set of economic policies and actions that best serve the country’s development must at a minimum sustain livelihoods and generate employment, raise incomes and relieve the country’s foreign exchange constraint (The Gambia is perennially aid dependent and accordingly constrained).

In addition to economic considerations, there may of course also be ecological, social, cultural or political concerns which enter both into the description of the objectives and the constraints.   A program of inclusive growth and development, for instance, might aim not only to achieve sustainable growth but to ensure its adequate distribution across income groups, social groups and regions. Considerations of diverse kinds ought to be integrated into any strategy from the first, as early choices carry consequences as to what will be possible later. A democratic pathway to development requires public discussion and support for the choices made, in order to inform, justify and implement them.

A conversation among Gambians on a development strategy for the country might reflect on the following possible proposals for a realistic development strategy:

What do Gambians wish for their country in ten, fifteen, twenty-five or fifty years? What is the program of action needed to get there? Can The Gambia build new areas of specialization, and not merely further extend existing ones (traditional agricultural exports such as groundnuts, and tourism)? Are there areas of economic activity that are potentially remunerative for the country which can be further developed in the short and intermediate term (floriculture, fruits, medicinal herbs and plants, business process outsourcing, e.g. medical transcription or other niche internet dependent service exports for which the English language, the time zone and sufficiently educated workers are an advantage)? If so, what is the potential role of Gambian government, domestic or foreign businesses, producer or worker cooperatives, or others working together in identifying and providing a spur for such activities, in providing technical knowledge or in certifying quality?   What are the factors that make Gambian activities in certain areas uncompetitive and to what extent can these be addressed through specific actions? (Consider the possibility that high power costs might be diminished by better inducements for solar power – the costs of which have greatly fallen in recent years – or other measures). Very deliberately scanning the field of opportunities nationally and globally is necessary. This process can start immediately, but will require the aid of collaborators outside government and perhaps outside the country.

Taking an inventory of national capabilities, some of which may be hidden (e.g. in the substantial Gambian diaspora, small in absolute number but a large resource for the country) is another necessary early step.  How will future steps build on earlier ones? Can The Gambia link its strategy to existing areas of robust economic growth in the region and globally (for example, what possibilities exist for taking advantage of linkages to Senegal or other countries in the specific industries in which they have been experiencing robust economic growth)? What obstacles must be removed in order to do so? How should the economic strategy reflect main goals such as increasing youth employment? Crucially, what are areas of tax revenue that can be progressively increased? Taxes, if raised, should be clearly tied, through political commitments if not administrative earmarking, to productivity enhancing investments in physical and social infrastructure. As noted already, costs are not as important an obstacle to investment, foreign and domestic, as is low productivity, which can be improved through appropriate public and private investments, with public investment playing a leading role. A close tie between tax revenues and sensible investments can therefore create a virtuous circle. How should a broad-based educational strategy seek to provide the profile of human capabilities that most conduces to the self-realization of citizens as well as the development of a productive, sustainable, economy? What weaknesses in the educational infrastructure, both in terms of quality and quantity, must be attacked in order to do so? What about health and social services? With limited natural resources, The Gambia must urgently invest in people as its ultimate resource.  Relatedly, what are the demographic opportunities and obstacles that are likely to present themselves?  An irony of modern demography, reflected in the Gambia, is that high fertility rates and the associated boom in the number of youth reflect poor health and educational outcomes rather than good ones. Addressing people’s needs better can therefore both directly and indirectly relieve developmental constraints.  What about the relation between city and country? The country has been experiencing rapid urbanization, with rapid growth in a single ‘primal’ city concentrated along the coast, also the resource that draws international tourists.   As in many other countries, this is a consequence of push from rural areas as well as pull from urban areas, as inattention to sustaining productive agrarian livelihoods or decentralizing high quality social services has changed the calculation as to where to live.

In each and every area, comprehensive scrutiny of the limitations and possibilities is needed in order to create an integrated development strategy.

Although the question is vulgar, one must still ask, in the media-driven world of today, what is The Gambia’s country brand? (This can be different for different purposes, e.g. for attracting investors and tourists) How will it be publicized consistently and powerfully? How will the country’s self-presentation to foreign investors, development bankers, aid donors or others reflect its economic goals and priorities and its consolidation of democracy?

How can the government find strategic partners who will help the country to develop needed competences? Private companies can play this role but so can international organizations and national counterparts, once strategic thrust areas have been identified. Some dialogue with the partners may be necessary to identify what these are (for instance in the case of entirely new export activities, for which reliable demanders are needed). Government can help to develop production of certain goods and services on a national scale to make them more viable than they otherwise would be.

Some social goals may be of special interest to foreign partners (e.g. youth employment for European partners concerned about migration) who should be asked to support specific aspects of the policy regime (e.g. tax credits, wage subsidies or other economic inducements for firms hiring youth, vocational training, and aid for small business development).   Foundations and policy organizations specifically concerned with particular strategic priorities can be invited to advise and participate. The government must take a strategic approach to identifying and inviting partners to work with it in high priority areas that it itself defines.

Crucially, how can the relationship with Senegal be revisited to create new opportunities for both countries (e.g. by improving infrastructural links between Senegal’s volatile Casamance region and the rest of the country, while also enhancing trade links with the Gambia?  The elimination of administrative impediments and the improvement of the infrastructure for everyday commerce as well as other forms of practical collaboration – put on the shelf due to the poor relationship between the previous government and Senegal – is an historical goal that should be again pursued with urgency, taking advantage of the good feeling that has followed ECOWAS’s initiative to support democracy in the Gambia.

In what ways can the consolidation and deepening of democracy in the country aid the economic strategy? Sending a signal that the government intends to value and uphold the rule of law can be important to investors but maintaining the active support of the people for the economic strategy is also essential to provide balance and to ensure its longer-term credibility and success. In order to attain this, measures of different kinds can be helpful. Important among these can be the engagement of citizens’ groups in the development of the economic vision for the country, to ensure its substantive relevance, its social and cultural appropriateness and its legitimacy. A multi-level process throughout the country of envisioning desirable collective futures and determining what are the obstacles to them that must be addressed can help to guide the government’s future actions (some organizations have some expertise in this area, such as the Society for International Development, which has undertaken such work in Kenya).   Initiatives to increase local decision-making power such as participatory budgeting can play a useful role.   A range of administrative reforms can also signal the government’s commitment to enhancing accountability to diverse stakeholders. These can include measures to increase transparency (e.g. instituting a right to information about governmental decision-making processes). However, no closed list of specific reforms can substitute for the open-ended idea of the deepening and widening of democratic participation. There is experience in these different areas that the Gambia can draw upon with the aid of progressive governments elsewhere that have undertaken relevant experiments, international and non-governmental organizations, or other friends and intermediaries.

Like other postcolonial nation states, The Gambia should undertake a comprehensive reassessment of its administrative architecture, inherited from the colonial period, and its appropriateness to support the objectives of a dynamic and developmental state. The relation between state and society also must be reconsidered, with thought being given to creative legal and institutional reforms that might support broader democratic engagement in development processes. In the meantime, here are a couple of modest suggestions to enhance the quality of ideas entering into the public debate and thereby into administrative decision-making:

Friends of The Gambia groups – The Government can benefit from the advice of the ‘think tank’ that has been established domestically by the new government to make proposals on Gambian economic policy but the Government can also benefit from the assistance of friends of The Gambia elsewhere, taking advantage of the goodwill that exists in the wake of the democratic transition. These can include independently-minded internationally recognized economists, public health specialists, infrastructure experts, engineers, lawyers, public officials or others from Africa and beyond (whom it may wish to consult when formulating its strategy or interacting with development partners). Membership of the groups can be made open and flexible, so as to draw on all expertise that might be useful to the government. If they are consulted selectively, the involved experts may be asked to volunteer their efforts.

National Rountables – focused on addressing specific problems and thematic concerns, national roundtables can be formed flexibly as needed, bringing together government, political parties, diaspora representatives, business, professional organizations, labor representatives and media.   Such roundtables need not have any statutory authority but they can be very helpful to share experiences and perspectives and formulate ideas, which can then enter the process of formulating and administering policies. They have worked successfully elsewhere to bring together different groups so as to to solve common problems (in particular in El Salvador, in the aftermath of its civil war, where the roundtables have been brokered by the UN).   The Gambia is a small country, in which there are moreover pressing shared developmental goals that transcend the conflicts that may be present (in the old days this idea gave rise to the concept of a ‘national bourgeoisie’!). Both of these facts make possible such a method of social problem solving.

A deliberative approach is needed to gather together expertise, garner social consensus, and formulate an effective strategy. This is sure to be a multi-year, and indeed ongoing, process but it is better to begin as soon as possible, while there is broad commitment to doing things differently in order to bring about a New Gambia (as it has been called by Gambians themselves).

In light of The Gambia’s status as a small open economy, its import dependence and its present low level of foreign reserves (apparently due in some part to thieving by previous President Jammeh and his clique) a strategy for building a sustainable financial buffer is of high importance. Present donor interest in The Gambia should be capitalized upon, but might also lead to some increase in future indebtedness. One can hope that in the intermediate to long-term, an economic strategy aiming to increase exports can address the problem. In the short-term, other measures may be useful.

To capitalize on high diaspora and world interest in supporting The Gambia at present, the new government could announce a Gambia Development Bond, which might be subscribed in dalassis and select foreign currencies. The bond’s interest rate should be set at a low level to ensure that the financing it provides is at a rate favorable to the government and it should have a long maturity. Returns might even be made conditional on future economic growth. The Gambia Development Bond would be made preferentially available to citizens and members of the diaspora in small denominations so as to encourage subscriptions by the general public on terms favorable to the country. An online purchasing facility could be created for ease of subscription or it could be made available via missions abroad and registered intermediaries.  Since the bond would be aimed especially at members of the diaspora, they could choose the option of receiving their return in dalassis at a higher interest rate. This would benefit the government by providing it foreign exchange in return for a long-term domestic currency liability in exchange.

Proceeds from the bond should be earmarked for developmental investments. Inducement to purchase the bonds could also be ensured by providing them with favorable tax treatment. The bond could be made attractive to foreigners by make any earnings received free of any taxes in The Gambia and with limited or no foreign reporting.

The potential gains from such an issue might be sizable. If forty thousand Gambians resident abroad and foreigners make an average investment of two and a half thousand US dollars each, it will result in one hundred million dollars of soft financing, which is not an insignificant amount for The Gambia, whose foreign exchange reserves are on a similar order.

The Gambia might also consider exploring agreements at the political level to settle its external payments obligations to ECOWAS partners, OIC countries, or others in dalassis or other soft trade financing terms (e.g. in terms of deliverable agricultural commodities) in order to take advantage of their willingness to support it at this time.

State funds have very likely been misappropriated and misdirected by the previous President and perhaps his inner circle. We know from efforts to recover funds in other cases (e.g. the Philippines) that the process can take many years and be only partially successful at best, and thus of little value for the short-run needs of the country. To identify the links between existing assets and previous financial misdeeds and to lay claim to them in court are painstaking processes. Nevertheless, it may be desirable to begin such efforts. A forensic audit of financial accounts is of more than historical value, as it can help to establish a principle of accountability and moreover to help diagnose where there are institutional gaps that led to the resulting failures. More importantly from a forward looking point of view, although very speculatively, if the proceeds of foreign loans were systematically stolen this might provide a basis for a claim for debt relief under the doctrine of ‘odious debt’ or similar ideas which have been much mooted in discussions of international law but never applied.   The Gambia may be able to work with relevant non-governmental organizations or work with foreign law firms on a pro bono or contingency basis to pursue such claims.

However, the resolution of such claims cannot substitute for a development strategy.   Happily, Gambians have already started to take advantage of an historical opportunity to begin a conversation on what they want and how best to achieve it. Such a conversation must extend from politics to economics, lest the former does not run aground on the shoals of the latter.   Better still, in this moment of a fresh start, good economics can gain its spur from good politics.  Although they face the headwinds of a harsh world, the next steps are, as they should be, up to The Gambia’s people.

*This is an edited version of a post that appeared on Reddy’s blog, Reddy Reads.

The benevolent great power

China’s president Xi Jinping. Image via APEC 2013 Flickr.

In Mid-May, world leaders gathered at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing to learn about what could possibly be the most ambitious economic mega project in human history: China’s One Belt One Road Initiative (OBOR).

According to some estimates, the OBOR will encompass “4.4 billion people, 64 countries [with] a combined economic output of $21 trillion – roughly twice the annual gross domestic product of China, or 29 percent of global GDP.”

OBOR – launched in 2015 with an initial funding of $40 billion – is not only a foreign policy initiative, but also addresses some of the vulnerabilities of China’s political economy. The returns on investment-led growth in China are diminishing. Reforms of state owned enterprises (SOEs), which dominate the Chinese economy and face overcapacity in the labor-intensive steel sector, are politically sensitive. And, China still has vast foreign exchange reserves.

According to the Chinese government, 50 Chinese state-owned companies have invested in nearly 1,700 OBOR projects since 2013. In terms of financing, several state-owned, and multilateral players are involved in OBOR, including the Silk Road Fund, named for the land and maritime Silk Road, which has historically linked China to trade in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. Other players include the Export and Import Bank of China, the China Development Bank, and the BRICS-founded New Development Bank.

The most interesting player, however, is the recently founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which in 2016 already approved  $1.7bn in loans for OBOR. The AIIB is a direct challenge to the US-led international economic establishment, and through OBOR, aims to establish the Yuan as a true international currency. It is actively recruiting African countries. Three countries have so far been invited to be members of the AIIB: South Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia.

As Howard French emphasizes in his new book “Everything Under The Heavens”, it is crucial to understand the history of China’s relationship with the rest of the world to be able to grasp its contemporary worldview and ambitions. Imperial ambitions often go hand in hand with historical revisionism. With its deep, complex and contradictory historical archive, China is able to wield history against competitors and instrumentalize it in order to promote the myth of itself as the only exceptional and benevolent “Great Power.”

The figure of Zheng He exemplifies this. Zheng He was a Chinese imperial explorer and diplomat during the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644). He sailed an expeditionary armada, which according to French was equal in size to the “the combined fleets of Britain, France and Spain that fought the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.” Zheng He’s legacy is now being portrayed as the embodiment of China’s foreign policy of “harmonious co-existence” by Chinese historians and intellectuals. Chinese diplomacy has used Zhen’s legend to further its soft power throughout the Horn of Africa, where He’s expeditionary missions are said to have reached in the early 1400s.

African countries said to benefit most from the contemporary OBOR proposals include Egypt, Kenya and Djibouti, where China recently constructed its first overseas naval base, as well as a port, and a railway to neighboring Ethiopia.

As economist Branko Milanovic emphasizes, OBOR is a return to “hard stuff” in development assistance, referring to critical infrastructure such as ports, railroads, economic corridors and gas pipelines. One of OBOR’s flagship initiatives is the China-Pakistan Corridor (CPC), a $55bn project involving power plants, rail and infrastructure. It has caused regional rival India to boycott OBOR and snub the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, calling China’s plan “imperial”, and a “direct threat” to its “territorial sovereignty.”

For Chinese policymakers, OBOR signifies a return to “non-ideological development assistance,” which separates politics from “mutual self-interest,” according to Milanovic. Though it is true that China generally does not engage in conditionality, OBOR is still deeply ideological, and is shaped by a legacy of “foreign policy as asymmetric transactions,” which dates back to the tributary system of the Middle Kingdom. This is crucial given that other than a recent policy document published by China’s central planning body, OBOR largely remains a skeleton that still has to be filled with substance. As bargaining and negotiations over substance continue, China might employ this asymmetry bilaterally to assert its dominance and deter opposition. For instance, despite Singapore’s prominent support for OBOR, it’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was explicitly not invited to the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, a snub which is widely believed to stem from Singapore’s vocal support for US rebalance in the region.

Western critics, on the other hand, have warned that OBOR resembles Britain’s old colonial trading network, and could exacerbate African countries’ subservient commodity supplier relationship with China. Even Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, who was one of the two African leaders to attend the Belt and Road Forum (the other one being Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia; Egypt’s Trade and Industry Minister was also present), has decried China’s large trade surplus with African countries in a recent interview, and has called on China to “open itself to African goods.” Though these views highlight important characteristics about the asymmetric bilateral relationships that characterize some of China’s involvement in Africa, they also trivialize the agency of African stakeholders. This includes paying attention to crucial negotiation details, such as debt terms, quality standards, and local content/labor requirements. In a series of tweets recently, Kenyan political scientist Ken Opalo, responding to a New York Times article portraying China as the world’s new colonial power, emphasized the agency of African policymakers and called on them to get those critical infrastructures built, and “ignore their self-appointed guardians.” In the context of Kenya’s trade deficit with China, Kenyans might also want to ask the Kenyatta administration why Kenya isn’t in a better position to take advantage of the relocation of labor-intensive industries from China. Potential African beneficiaries of OBOR should be neither naïve nor dismissive, and seek the best possible deal.

Media and citizen scrutiny can go a long way: Pakistan’s leading newspaper, Dawn, recently leaked documents of China’s original proposals in the CPC negotiation, putting pressure on Pakistan’s political class to show that China hasn’t taken them for a ride. As Opalo rightly emphasizes, given that lacking energy and infrastructure remain one of the key binding constraints to productivity growth in several African countries, opportunities such as OBOR cannot simply be ignored, but should also be engaged critically.

Biafra, nostalgia as critique

It was past midnight in a sleepy suburb of Guangzhou in southern China, and the loudspeakers of a restaurant were blaring highlife, upbeat but mournful:

Ojukwu has died, people of Nigeria
Ojukwu has died, people of Biafra
Ikemba [Ojukwu] has died

About one hundred young Nigerian men were celebrating the 2014 launch of an Igbo-language highlife music album, released by one of their own — one of the thousands of Nigerian businessmen making their livelihoods by connecting factories and markets in Asia to West African consumers.

Otigba, the Nigerian highlife singer based in China, dedicated his album to “all his people living abroad” and opened the party with a light, rippling number. The song narrated a cascade of shout-outs to fellow Nigerian businessmen and the markets they work in across Asia and Nigeria, encouraging them to jisie ike, stay strong. Men “sprayed” bills into Otigba’s face or slapped thick stacks of bills one by one onto his head, where they stuck momentarily on his sweat before falling to the ground.

Closing the album was a song entitled “Ojukwu,” which combined a eulogy of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu, the military leader of the failed 1960s secessionist state of Biafra, with praise singing for the Nigerian community in China. One young man with an “I LOVE BIAFRA” t-shirt walked proudly around the party while table conversations escalated in excitement. Obinna, an Igbo Nigerian merchant in his thirties, smiled as he told me that the increasingly loud table next to us was debating about Biafra and how it will soon return.

Otigba’s album evoked two themes of contemporary Igbo political critiques of the Nigerian nation-state: diasporic hustling and Biafran secessionism. But how does rhetoric of a 1960’s failed secessionist state in Nigeria flow into a sleepy industrial city in southern China? And how does it take hold amongst young Nigerian merchants, none of whom lived through the war themselves?

Since the 1990s, markets across the Asia and the Middle East have seen an uptick of these young, Igbo Nigerian men who carve out livelihoods by sourcing goods and importing them to Africa. While Igbos in Nigeria are generally stereotyped as a business-minded minority, many Igbos themselves narrate their entrepreneurialism as a creative and necessary response to historic discrimination and systematic exclusion from access to oil and government sectors by the post-civil-war nation-state.

Refrains like Otigba’s song appear across the towns and markets of the Global South where young Igbo Nigerian merchants congregate; small Biafran flags hang alongside Nigerian flags in shops in southern China and Dubai, banter on slow market days in Lagos often turns to political debate. Photoshopped images and memes of Biafra circulate on social media, and illegal Radio Biafra (a pirate station based in London) broadcasts crackle over the radio waves on public transportation in eastern Nigeria. Some of the most vivid mass demonstrations in Nigeria have been through massive market closures by predominantly Igbo traders in commemoration of Ojukwu’s burial in 2012 and the 50th anniversary of Biafra’s secession earlier this week.

Yet while many of these globally-mobile Igbo Nigerian merchants are clearly moved by Biafran rhetoric, they always simultaneously express hesitation (and often straight up rejection) of this as a concrete militant movement through war. Unlike many migration paths towards the West, migrations across the Global South are largely temporary, with few to no paths to naturalization across Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Nearly all merchants expect to return to Nigeria and subsequently maintain intensive material and social commitments across Nigeria through practices such as frequent remittance, construction, and house-building from afar.

None of the young Biafran commemoration demonstrators lived through the Nigerian Civil War in the 1960s, yet Biafra as a concept is alluring in its power as a counterfactual history of Nigeria: the thinking goes, if Biafra had successfully seceded in the 1960s, young Igbos today would be living a completely different material reality. Redrawing the past has implications for the present: it re-inserts a devastating war back into the national historical narrative and calls the Nigerian state into action concerning the war’s legacies of political power and resource distribution inequalities. As Nigerian columnist Emeka Obasi wrote earlier this week, “Let there be justice and you may not hear much of Biafra.”

Evoking Biafra, either as a nostalgic homeland of the past or as a messianic polity of the future, perhaps can be read as a provocation that a different material reality for Nigeria is necessary, possible, and just within reach. Otigba’s closing song continually addressed the diasporic crowd, interchangeably hailing them as Nigerians, Igbos, and Biafrans. At least in Otigba’s rolling highlife refrains, it is possible to be all three at the same time.

*Translation of song lyrics assisted by E. Nwosu.

Biafra and other ghosts

Lagos traffic. Image by Nick M on Flickr.

In the 1980s, I lived in Ajegunle, a working-class area of Lagos famous for its status as a “slum.” It is more appropriate to describe Ajegunle as a complex community of people from all parts of West Africa, but principally from the south of Nigeria. Sometime in 1986, Newswatch, a leading newsmagazine, ran a cover story on the issue of abandoned property. It coincided with the battle that Chief Odimegwu Ojukwu, former leader of the Biafran secession, waged to regain ownership of Villaska Lodge (in Ikoyi), belonging to his father. I sat in front of a drugstore at a popular hangout near Cemetery Market where teenagers often gambled on boiled guinea fowl eggs, reading the magazine. The pharmacist, a balding man with grave manners, asked to see what I was reading. After skimming the feature, he wondered if I knew why the building had a deck.

“Because you intend to add another floor,” I answered.

“Yes,” he agreed, “but that is not all the story. This decking has been that way since 1968.”

The war, he said, the war stopped everything.

Waving the periodical in the air, he said: “This thing will solve many problems.”

Encounters such as this gradually helped to collapse the borders that distanced Biafra from my world. Reading the literature of the war revealed the episode to me as an important part of the national psyche. Whenever my classmates and, later, colleagues (from the East) talked about the war, they did so in an emotive manner, an attitude that invariably confused the matter with the corporate status of the Igbo people within Nigeria, and with relations between the Igbo and the Yoruba, for instance. In such a circumstance, objectivity was hard to achieve; it seemed practically impossible, before and after the fact. After nearly fifty years, the real impact of the war remains to be measured, free from political gamesmanship.

In an essay on Pan-Africanism published in 1976, C. L. R. James, the Trinidadian political thinker, pointed to global imperialism as a major factor in the war. He wrote that the imperial powers “would have divided Nigeria if they had the chance, but the people said not a bit of it and they finished up with Ojukwu.” James ignored the immediate local contexts for the secession bid. In his 1995 memoirs, Under Three Masters, Chief Jerome Udoji argued that the Biafran War was an ego-trip for Ojukwu. The soldier’s sense of himself drove the campaign, Udoji wrote, and he used the war condition to foster a personality cult.

Perhaps. But so did many soldiers of fortune on all sides of the war. Besides, a strong sense of identity was reinforced among the Easterners, particularly the Igbo, from the experience of solidarity and shared loss. Ojukwu might have been interested in his own image, but the events got wiser than him. The crucial point is that Nigerians have done pretty little with this traumatic episode. It is fair to say that the Civil War was fought not to keep Nigeria one, but to further divide it.


The foregoing is excerpted (and revised) from an essay first published in early May 2001 as an intervention in the debate among Nigerians over the political values of the Justice Oputa Panel (“on truth and reconciliation”), set up in the wake of the return to democratic rule. A few months later, in September 2001, an online group of Nigerian writers and academics came into being. At one point or another, virtually every Nigerian-identified writer or intellectual, including some of the most famous in the world today, belonged to that group. Thinking back to discussions on the listserv, one is struck by how they often degenerated into ugly fights over ethnic identity in Nigeria — routinely, tiresomely between the Igbo and the Yoruba, with scant regard for those of other ethnic groups. Long before its members began to yield to the attractions of other platforms on social media, these fights and the controversies arising from them did much to undermine that group. There were active efforts to destroy what had emerged organically as a community of writers, most of them friends of long standing, and those efforts rode on the back of ethnic preference or prejudice, alias tribalism.

Ultimately, the efforts succeeded. One by one, loudly or in silence, members took their leave. Now those still signed on to the listserv receive monthly notices about “house rules.” A community no longer exists, but the rules supposedly governing its existence do. One could respond to the current Biafran agitation in Nigeria by saying, cynically, that no one interested in understanding anything about Nigeria need look any further that this example of mutually assured destruction. One could respond in another way, though. Nigerians need to acknowledge Biafra as one of their inescapable traumas, and honoring the memory and the courage of individuals from the “enemy side” who identified with and suffered for the cause before, during and after the war depends on such an acknowledgement.

‘Winnie’–a portrait of South African masculinity and its discontents

Remarkably, given its subject, the documentary film Winnie tells a story that has not yet been told.  It isn’t that Winnie Mandela’s version of the events that led to the death of Stompie Sepei haven’t been part of the public record.  Anyone who followed the news in the early 1990s knows about the case.  In 1991, Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory to Sepei’s assault.  The young man was fifteen when he was killed by Jerry Richardson who was both a member of the Mandela Football Club – an entourage of body men who surrounded Mandela in the late 1980s – and an informer reporting to the apartheid Special Branch.  The following year Winnie Mandela faced charges of ordering the murder of Dr. Abu-Baker Asvat, her family physician and a popular community doctor.  After Seipei had been abducted but before he had been killed, Dr Asvat had examined Seipei at Mandela’s house.  While no criminal charges were ever laid in this case, later both matters were the subject of interest by South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1997.

Winnie tells a different story however.  The film provides a feminist context for the events that ultimately neutralized Winnie Mandela’s potency and undermined her leadership: her personal relationships, the murder of Stompie Sepei, her separation from Nelson Mandela and her testimony at the TRC, which prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission’s chairperson, to “beg” her to “say sorry.”

While others have defended Winnie Mandela on how she relates to internal ANC politics and made the case that other comrades were scrutinized less because they were men, Winnie provides an in-depth look at the life and times of Winnie Mandela largely in her own words and in the words of people with tremendous respect for her.  Spanning fifty years, and using archival footage, extensive interviews with Mandela herself, her daughter Zinzi, and a range of confidantes and experts, the film provides a lucid and sympathetic portrait of Mandela.

In many ways, Winnie is a feminist ode to Mandela; a cinematic undertaking that places the foibles and insecurities of men firmly at its center.  The decision to center a feminist analysis – and this sort of no-holds barred feminism – is prescient.  There are scenes in Winnie that will be familiar to viewers – not because they have seen Mandela’s fury in full flight before –  but because it is evocative of the rage Lebohang Mabuya demonstrated when she challenged an obnoxious white racist in the Spur video that went viral earlier this year. Some of the most compelling scenes in the film, involve Winnie’s raw rage and her absolute fearlessness.  In one scene, she physically pushes a white policewoman and berates her for trying to take away her grandchild.  Watching her chastise white male officers who are attempting to arrest her –  it is impossible not to recognize Winnie as the forbearer to this generation’s impatience with authority. And it is this the film captures so well –the ferocious, unapologetic spirit of a woman who refused to back down not simply towards the end of apartheid, but for the thirty years that preceded that the transition to democracy.

It isn’t a perfect film.  There are areas where Mandela’s role is exaggerated and pieces where the delicacy of transitional issues are over-simplified.  Indeed, the film initially seems to offer high quality, but standard documentary fare: Beautiful shots of South Africa’s poverty, well-lit images of Mandela and her daughter, and a storyline that takes us through important historical moments we have seen before.

However, half-way through the film it becomes clear that although Winnie Mandela is an important player in the film, at its core this documentary is an examination of the fragility of patriarchal men.  By shining a spotlight on Winnie Mandela’s strength and fearlessness, the film provides a deep and unflinching portrait of South African masculinity and its discontents.

After documenting Mandela’s unstinting political loyalty to the liberation struggle, her husband and the African National Congress, the film addresses three core topics.  Firstly, it alludes to, but doesn’t delve into her personal life and in particular her love affair with Dali Mpofu (then a young lawyer; now a political activist with the opposition EFF).  The film then turns to the murder of Stompie Sepei, before focusing on the assassination of Chris Hani and Mandela’s treatment by the TRC.

I enjoyed the delicate, empathetic and politically grounded treatment of Mandela’s love life.  On several occasions the audience is treated to statements by former STRATCOM operatives – apartheid spies – who cackle in delight about the state of Mandela’s personal life.  We are told it was “in tatters,” or “a mess.”  They informed Madiba, they say, that “there’s a problem with Winnie.”

Each of these attempts to shame Mandela fall flat.  The camera pans onto these old men’s faces.  It lingers long enough to judge them.  They smirk but they are from another era.  There is nothing funny about the slut-shaming they are attempting to sustain–all these years later. The audience knows better.

Instead, director Pascale Lamche shows her hand.  She refuses to be in cahoots with the apartheid spies interviewed in the film.  They are old white men shot in beautiful comfortable back yards.  Lamche is aligned with Mandela and wants us to know it. So, she allows the discredited apartheid spies–the old smirking men who admit to having sent informers to try to ruin our hero, who tell us they taped her and banned her and harassed her children–to do themselves in. She allows them to incriminate themselves, trusting her audience knows better than to shame women for their sexual behavior.  The rumor and gossip and innuendo about Mandela are presented to a modern audience, but they are hollow.  They only make the old men look ridiculous. Even activist lawyer George Bizos – interviewed looking saddened by the heartbreak of his friend Nelson Mandela – seems old-fashioned and unreasonable in the face of what Winnie Mandela endured.

Lamche rightly gambles that not a single soul in the audience would have survived twenty-seven years without emotional or sexual companionship.  So, the allegations eat themselves up.  We are on Winnie’s side. The fragile old men who think somehow anyone still cares who Mandela slept with – they are the sad, terrible joke. Mandela rises above them with her courage and her anger. The joke – with the long view of history as Mandela is reinstated to her place – is on the men who tried to destroy her, and failed.

Indeed, one of the most powerful, respectful and respectable omissions in the film is its refusal to grill either Mandela or Mpofu about their relationship. It is a testament to them both that Mpofu vouches for Mandela’s strength and leadership without alluding to, apologizing for, explaining or excusing whatever it was that happened between them.  It is none of our business, the filmmaker decides. The omission soars and puts the film into a league of its own. The refusal to pry into the affairs of a woman whose affairs have been dragged through the mud is beautiful, important and heartbreakingly rare.

The film then deals with the matter of Stompie Sepei, the young man Mandela is alleged to have killed.  The film makes a convincing case that whatever happened it is evident Mandela did not physically assault Stompie. Given the chaos around her, it is impossible to tell what happened, but there is little doubt Mandela was the subject of gendered double standards.

The matter of the TRC is also addressed.  Again, this section is powerful because it allows Mandela to speak in her own defense so many years later.  It also provides old footage—glorious combative evidence demonstrating Mandela has always been critical of the rainbow nation.  The scene where Mandela is interviewed by US talk show host Phil Donahue (when she accompanies her husband in 1990 on his triumphant US tour) and says she is prepared to go “go back to the bush and take up arms” if the negotiations do not work, is a standout. Winnie shows that if anyone in South Africa has receipts it is Mam’ Winnie.

So, it is then that the final section of the film in which we witness a showdown between Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Mandela is an appropriate end-point. Removed from the urgency of the moment, the scene plays itself out like a skit. Tutu begs Mandela to just say sorry.

“How dare he?” Mandela asks. It is impossible to watch without asking yourself the same question. If you are a woman the question is especially resonant.  How dare he try to shame her, and how dare any of them try to shame women?  How dare they beg us to say sorry for being human?

Many women will like Winnie.  They will find it affirming.  Still, it is men who will need to see it. Above all else, Winnie is a question thrown at men.  The film calls out patriarchy and reminds us that our mothers have been fighting this war for a long time.  The choices Lamche makes force us to look squarely at all the men – black and white – who tried and failed to erase Winnie Mandela.

Go see Winnie; it says important things.

*This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 1-11 June. For screening details visit

Weekend Music Break No.109 – Shameless self-promotion edition

Music Break! Welcome to your weekend. This week we have a bit of shameless self promotion, some new heat from old favorites and some questions.

Weekend Music Break No.109

1) Shameless self-promotion alert! My band, the Kondi Band has a new album out today, check out the video for our song “Titi Dem Too Service.” 2) Drizilik comes to me by way of a Slovenian friend who got it sent to her from Freetown. Too much Salone pride, I love it! 3) Mr Eazi cannot loose. Here is his newest clip. 4) 2Baba presents memory flares from the Biafra war (perhaps?), which began 50 years ago this week. 5) Davido doesn’t want to be a player, but has no qualms about enacting traditional gender roles in his relationships. 6) Brockhampton brings “Heat,” and it really is nice weather out in Southern California. 7) Africa Is a Country favorite Killer Mike appears alongside Big Boi in this exciting collaboration from Atlanta’s older generation. 8) Now for the questions section of our show… First, who is Joss Stone? And, why has she felt the need to insert herself into the audio-visual scenery of every African capital? 9) Second, why are western musicians obsessed with war imagery in Uganda these days? Last Music Break we saw French Montana get kidnapped on his way to the airport in Kampala, and this week, Londoner Jesse Hackett, gets eaten by cannibals in a Wakaliwood homage. 10) Finally, we close out this edition with a dance video from Sacramento soundtracked to the music of Africa Is a Country contributor Delasi.

Have a great weekend!

New film tackles the legacy of the first genocide of the 20th century

Still from “Skulls of my people”

The first genocide of the 20th century took place between 1904 and 1908 when a German force exterminated round 100 000 Ovaherero and Nama people in present-day Namibia, then the German colony of South-West Africa. That mass murder is now the subject of a new documentary, Skulls of My People, by the South African director, Vincent Moloi. The film focuses on the efforts of members of the Herero and Nama communities as they demand that their representatives be included in current negotiations with the German government over reparations as well as an official apology for General Lothar von Trotha’s extermination order.

Moloi’s film isn’t just moving but deeply intelligent, and politically aware. The film opens with a frame within a frame. This technique reveals specific story elements on screen but also visually expresses the claustrophobic and unsettling tone of the film. It’s a window into the past. One that is often haunting (thanks to a subtle but moving score), refreshing and effective. The camera at times hovers in the sky, at a distance, capturing the vastness of Namibia. It isn’t just an aesthetic choice but it affects the way you think, feel and make sense of this horrific legacy seemingly far removed from the comfort of our armchairs. It proves an effective way to photograph what is one of the driest places in the world. It forces us, as we stare at an endless expanse of desert to consider what it must have been like a hundred years ago for the Herero and Nama who died here fleeing German forces. Throughout there is a tension between veracity and emotion, between the patterns of everyday life and the sense of a larger history. Aside from historical urgency, the court case and the ongoing negotiations, Moloi’s deeply timely Skulls adds weight to the case against the German government.

Still from the film of Utjiua Ester Muijiyangue, chairperson of the Herero Genocide Foundation.

The film, which had its world premiere at the top international documentary festival IDFA in The Netherlands at the start of 2017, drives home the cruelty and double-standardness with which Germany continues to treat its former colony.  At it’s heart is Utjiua Ester Muijiyangue, chairperson of the Herero Genocide Foundation, who we spend the most time with. We see her dressing in her home. She tells us how Herero value cattle and how the dress she wears is styled in ways that resemble the animal that plays such an important role in their culture. It is during such intimate moments that the film is strongest. We see how she negotiates the time and space between past and present, and how her stories reduce the conflict to a human scale. “We want the skulls of our people. They belong here in Namibia. They don’t belong there in Germany” she says.

Utjiua tells of a story about a church on a hill where the Germans said people should come and pray.

My people closed their eyes to pray but they never said Amen. The moment they closed their eyes they were all shot in that church. Even when I pray, I don’t close my eyes. 

Such are the painful memories brought forth in the film. The shocking accounts include the way German soldiers drove the Herero into the desert and then poisoned the waterholes; threw children in the air and bayoneted them; raped women; forced women to scrape the flesh off their husbands severed heads so that the Germans could take the skulls back to Germany; they cut off men’s penises and sent them back to Germany to be studied; and forced the survivors who didn’t flee to Botswana or South Africa into concentration camps. “Only because of land?” Utjiua asks. Her sentiments speak to the broader regional concerns over land issues. Particularly when what she’s describing has led to a situation where 80% of commercial farms in Namibia are owned by Germans.

Still from “Skulls of my people”

The film also displays a couple of post-colonial absurdities. Such as the very prominent German Lutheran church in downtown Windhoek, photographed so as to incorporate Fidel Castro street. Or an interview with Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro in the back of a German Mercedes Benz. The Chief figures prominently: “We say we have waited long enough, 111 years is a long period and our patience is running out,” he insists. In a powerful scene Chief Rukoro makes a resistance order in the same spot that Von Trotha performed his famous extermination order.

The film’s passionate insistence on remembrance gives it much moral gravitas. There is still time, perhaps for dialogue but Utjiua’s last words send us a chilling reminder — “it’s a time bomb,” she says. The Herero in Skulls come across as a proud but tired people who if pushed, in the words of Fanon, “ [may] revolt simply because … we can no longer breathe.” Skulls, documents a people whose history has so often been silenced and chronicles the humanity of the Herero and Nama people who continue to take on the mighty and powerful against all odds.

*This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 1-11 June. For screening details visit

In ‘Maman Colonelle’ a Congolese policewoman takes on ghosts of the past

In Kisangani, the third largest city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the capital of its former Orientale Province, the legacies of state decay and conflict continue to affect the social fabric of society. Women and children, who frequently face abuse and rape, are the main victims of this legacy.

In the documentary Maman Colonelle, which will see its premiere at the Encounters Film Festival in Cape Town this month, Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi shadows a Congolese policewoman, Honorine Munyole, in charge of a special unit for the protection of women and children. Hamadi, a Kisangani native, isn’t a newcomer to Congolese cinema. He also directed Atalaku (2013), which documented Congo’s dramatic 2011 presidential poll, and Examen d’Etat (2014), which scrutinized Congo’s opaque and rigid educational system.

Munyole was born in Bukavu, the capital city of a province in Eastern Congo, which is known for its notoriously high incidence of rape. The documentary begins with Munyole’s transfer from Bukavu to Kisangani. In Bukavu, her courageous work to protect women and children earned her respect and admiration among the community. But having arrived in Kisangani, Munyole, a widow and the mother of seven, is directly confronted with the challenges of a new context: Her new home in Kisangani is sparsely equipped, some of the officers in her unit do not speak the local lingua franca, Swahili (only Lingala), and as a newcomer, she still has to gain the trust of Kisangani’s residents. Ironically, in front of Munyole’s new police station, officers wear yellow jackets reading “The police is there to protect us” to remind citizens of their purpose.

Maman Colonel trailer

As the case of Kisangani illuminates, many communities in the DRC still have to grapple with unresolved and overlapping legacies of conflict. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), Rwanda and Uganda were generally seen as allies. However, rivalries surrounding illicit mineral flows and tactical allegiances often caused tensions and confrontations, as documented in Jason Stearns’ book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The confrontations cumulated in what is known as the Six-Day War (June 5—10, 2000). Kisangani was the main battleground of the war, and thousands of civilians lost their lives, were injured, and raped.

Following Munyole’s transfer to Kisangani, widows and rape victims of the war finally feel that there is someone to confide in. Almost 20 years after the war, the means through which to seek justice for these victims are limited. In terms of financial support, an underfunded police unit has to rely on community solidarity in the forms of donations to help widows, rape victims, and children. In this context, the “manage to get by yourself” attitude of many residents, which has been fostered by government neglect, and societal fragmentation, is Munyole’s biggest enemy. By addressing public spaces such as the marketplace, Munyole strives to foster solidarity, and inform people about their rights in the context of sexual violence, and the responsibilities parents have towards their children.

She interprets her job as more than merely policing. She also provides food and shelter to several widows and orphans. As a result, she is often confronted with questions such as “But what is the government doing about this?” a seemingly paradoxical question given that she works as a state-employed police officer, but one that illuminates the lack of faith people place in the state apparatus as a whole. Her case challenges many preconceived notions about civil servants in the DRC, as the vital work of her police unit shows that there are civil servants who continue to serve the public despite all the obstacles.

Throughout the documentary, Hamadi manages to place dismaying societal attitudes into a wider context: Envy and disputes about the state-recognized victim-status among the disabled and rape victims, or the propensity of parents to abuse, lock up, or give away their children to prophetesses because they have succumbed to “witchcraft.” Contrary to sensationalism, Hamadi’s style of documentation lets people speak for themselves, while his framing allows for sensitive issues such as memory, solidarity, conflict, and government neglect to come to the fore. The documentary is dedicated to Hamadi’s friend and fellow artist Kiripi Katembo, a brilliant Congolese photographer and documentary film maker, who passed away from malaria in 2015.

As President Kabila’s refusal to organize elections continues to destabilize the country as a whole, Maman Colonelle serves as a powerful reminder of local sources of suffering, defiance, solidarity, and heroism, and highlights what is at stake.

*This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Jo’burg from the 1st-11th June. For screening details visit

‘The African Who Wanted to Fly’ softens the image of China in Africa

When he was fifteen, the Gabonese Luc Bendza embarked on his life journey to China to follow the footsteps of his childhood movie stars, Bruce Lee and Wag Yu. Notwithstanding obstruction from his family, the cultural shock and economic hardships in China, and continuous racial unfriendliness in his host community, Bendza joins a prestigious wushu academy and excels. But Bendza went beyond that, to become a professor at the school for more than 20 years; won the first world championship of wushu; and met and worked with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee’s producer.  Bendza’s remarkable life is now the subject of a 72-minute documentary film, Samantha Biffot’s film “The African Who Wanted to Fly” (2015).

The documentary is shot in China, Gabon and Belgium with narrators speaking in their respective languages, mostly French and Mandarin (it is subtitled in English). Weaving back and forth in time and space, Biffot’s documentary opens with the current phase of Bendza when he accomplished “half of his dreams” and established his name. Slowly, the documentary delves into his upbringing to narrate—through his siblings and childhood friends—his obsession with Kung Fu.

Born into a family of teachers in middle-class family in Gabon, Bendza, like most of his contemporaries, where other means of entertainment was little, spent his afternoons practicing martial arts. He was obsessed with Bruce Lee and attempted to mimic his gestures and utterances at home with his family and friends outside. Unlike his friends who had other lives, Bendza lived an aloof style; focusing on his ultimate goal—to fly. Already named “master” among his contemporaries at his early age, he attracted a crowd of about 300 to 500 people from his neighborhood and other far places during his King Fu shows with his group.

Bendza’s life changed when he met a Chinese visitor who came to Gabon as interpreter to the Chinese medical team; Bendza befriends him and immediately impresses his guest. After noting his determination to go to China and study martial art, he agrees and helps him convince his family.

As the documentary film shows, China was not easy for Bendza. Being the only black person in the whole school, combined with the lack of cultural exposure of Chinese people at that time posed serious challenges. From young students in a desolate area running away from their seats after seeing him on stage to locals who would use derogatory words on the streets even when walking with his family to his in-laws who initially resisted to allow their daughter to marry a foreigner, Bendza has gone through many cultural trials and tribulations. It is against such continuous challenges and walking in a tight rope, balancing the two cultures and nations that he eventually came all the way to accomplish his dream. In tough times when he was pushed to the edge of quitting, it was the wushu discipline that helped him continue unabated.

Biffot’s excellent documentary is more than Bendza’s personal journey. Rather it seamlessly captures the popular cinema culture in many parts of Africa of the mid 1980s and early 1990s. Bendza’s aspiration has been widely shared by many young boys who dreamed of one day becoming Bruce Lee and other martial art masters. Biffot’s documentary projects how the dream of many young boys could have been had they trekked their journey.

Biffot masterfully overcomes the inevitable challenge of a documentary film–the long and intensive interviews. “The African Who Wanted to Fly” breaks the long narration through music, enticing scenery of nature and footages from films, and reenactments. The soundtrack of the film has also played a key role in making easier to follow the documentary. At times, serene and melancholic instrumental Chinese music and other times vibrant hits that also combines Gabonese beats, the music transitions from one scene to the next and weaves back and forth in time and space smoothly.

The underlying teachings of martial arts–living harmoniously with nature—is also manifested in documentary. The communal music performances in the parks across China is well documented and serves the purpose of breaking the monotony in the film.

The making of the documentary film and watching itself is an embodiment of the wushu philosophy as it is produced in line with art of living in peace with nature that withstands violence.

At bigger scale “The African Who Wanted to Fly” also helps soften the image of China in the continent where it is devolving into cheap products and market control. The popular perception of Chinese about Africa, as demonstrated in the film is, borrowed from the Western media and even becomes worse as it is copy of the original. It is mainly through such cultural exchanges and sports that perception of each other can be improved. Bendza is living testimony. Where others failed, sports and arts can bridge such gaps.

*This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Jo’burg from the 1st-11th June. For screening details visit

It wasn’t cricket

Cricket fans watching South Africa vs Australia. Image via Flickr.

Ashwin Desai’s book Reverse Sweep: A Story of South African Cricket Since Apartheid opens with a quote by white South African writer, JM Coetzee: “Cricket is not a game. It is the truth of life.” In a book that is a sublime infusion of politics and cricket, Desai, a South African Indian writes with a lyricism of which Coetzee, a Nobel Laureate now living in Australia, would be proud.

Yet, while Coetzee’s poetics compare playing cricket to an unpassable test, Desai’s deal with more systemic challenges faced by black South Africans in even getting onto the field in the first place. A sociologist, he treats the reader to a scathing critique of the South African cricketing fraternity over the Apartheid, transition and early democratic eras through the lens of race and class. He expertly and personally narrates the impact on the South African game of racism, neo-liberal capitalism, corruption and maladministration. In many ways, therefore, the book reads as the story of South Africa – from the perspective of an Indian South African activist, academic and cricket fan – lathered with beautiful cricketing metaphors.

It is a book that reverberates with familiar post-apartheid narratives: the speedy abandonment of resource redistribution in favor of international competitiveness; a corruption and bribery scandal toppling the first African institutional head; conspicuous double standards applied against new black players as compared to white players; and the “necessary evil” of apartheid-era administrators and leaders continuing to profit from their expertise and connections in the democratic era, entirely without sanction. It is a devastating indictment of governance in South African cricket in particular and the country more broadly.

Using some of Desai’s own chapter headings, in this review, we attempt to briefly capture the breadth and power of this book in the hope that it will challenge many who may not read it and influence many more to find a way to do so.

Of white knights and Apartheid ideologues

Perhaps the most powerful narrative in the book is its indictment of the past and present white cricketers, cricket journalists and cricket administrators (both from South Africa and abroad) for their hypocrisy, brazen racism and servile self-interest. Understood in its full context, Dr Ali Bacher, the book’s apparent grand villain, is representative of a range of other white people involved in pillaging black cricket in South Africa all the while masquerading as saviors, philanthropists or activists.

Bacher, the last white captain of an official Apartheid-era South African cricket team, was the key orchestrator of so-called “rebel tours” of international cricket teams to South Africa throughout the international sports boycott on South Africa (instituted because anti-Apartheid activists rightly insisted that there could be “no normal sport in an abnormal society”). Throughout, Desai describes a range of pathetic excuses presented by Bacher for these profit-motivated tours: that Apartheid was not really so bad; that racism existed in all countries; and most offensively, the claim that actually the breach of the boycott was good for black cricket in South Africa and black South Africans more generally.

Desai cuts to the core, noting that while Bacher could be correct that on one such rebel tour black West Indian fast bowler Colin Croft might have been seen speaking to coloured children on the boundary, and white children may well have offered his teammate Franklyn Stephenson a cold drink, that this was hardly proportionate to the harms caused by the rebel tours and “what Bacher might have added is that white children had been offering their leftovers to the ‘garden boy’ for centuries in South Africa”. As if to cement the irony of Bacher’s pitiful excuses, Croft, himself heavily criticized by his compatriots for agreeing to tour South Africa, was thrown off a whites-only carriage of a train in Cape Town.

Despite this, Bacher managed to ascend to prominence, remaining synonymous with cricket administration in South Africa for over a decade after the end of the Apartheid, fashioning himself as a human rights activist. In line with a common trope in South African cricket, he claims not to have “understood the full reality of South Africa” or “what the fight against apartheid was all about.” Drawing the link between Bacher’s behavior and the opportunism of many similarly situated white South Africans, Desai is scathing:

When did Bacher’s human rights activism begin exactly? After he was the last white captain of an official apartheid era team, but before he organised the rogue tours that broke an international boycott? Or did he become interested in human rights after the tours but before Mandela was released? If it was the latter, he joined many white South Africans, who, as the saying sarcastically goes, never support apartheid.

New whites for a new South Africa

Either way, Bacher, along with other putatively reconciled but unchanged “new whites” slid smoothly into the “new South Africa” without skipping a beat or losing a cent. South Africa’s willingness to compromise with (white) moneyed interests, buoyed by notions of reconciliation and rainbow nationalism, produced an immediately co-opted color-blind non-racialism.

After fighting tooth and nail to enforce South Africa’s international isolation from the cricketing world, the African National Congress went out of its way to support the immediate re-entry into international cricket for an all-white side – accompanied by two black “non-playing,” “development” cricketers – in India in 1991. Desai details how Nelson Mandela himself, famous for his willingness to don the infamous Springbok jersey three years later, actively supported this venture. Ironically, Madiba adopted the position of the colonial cricket establishment when he described as “extremists” those who maintained that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society, stating instead that “sport is sport, and quite different from politics.”

None of this, as we know, is inconsistent with the ANC’s post-1994 politics or its centralizing, controlling behind-the-scenes-maneuvering culture. That culture has long destroyed parts of the anti-Apartheid movement that agitated for a more radical transformation of society. Nevertheless, the clarity of Desai’s revelations rankle for those of us who retain some belief in the idea that the ANC was ever a genuine advocate for the obliteration of white supremacy, poverty and inequality.

In cricket, the contingent calling for radical change were the black clubs and activists (represented by the South African Cricket Board and South African Council of Sport) who called for policies to redistribute resources following Apartheid’s deliberate destruction of black cricket. Desai makes a convincing argument that the top-down approach of Dr Bacher’s administration – beginning with the reintegration of a white team into international cricket and aiming to trickle down benefits to the grassroots – and supported by the likes of Steve Tshwete, Sam Ramsamy and Nelson Mandela, has profoundly stunted exposure and opportunity within the cricket microcosm. Furthermore, this approach dismantled the structures that advocated politically for substantive change in the form of the politics of reparation and redistribution, favoring instead the politics of representation, or, in Bacher’s words the need for more “black faces.” Desai observes “at a general level depoliticisation was thus the handmaiden of demobilisation. Change was defined as a set of technical issues and targets to be met.”

Given this approach, it is unsurprising, that the present crop of black South African cricketers hail primarily from well-resourced private schools and formerly exclusively white public schools, as Desai notes. Their backgrounds, rather than proving the success of transformation strategies, often highlight the complete failure of a truly developmental cricket program in South Africa – a program able to produce competitive teams in poorer black areas such as the rural Eastern Cape where the game remains extremely popular.

Desai also highlights the blatant racism of white cricketers participating in rebel tours and the continued self-seeking racism of white South African cricket coaches and players in the post-Apartheid period. From Brian McMillan’s instructions to bowl an Indian batsman a “coolie-creeper,” to Craig Matthews’s description of Paul Adams’ bowling action deriving from him “stealing hub caps off moving cars,” to Bob Woolmer and Mickey Arthur’s insistence on picking players only for “cricketing reasons,” Desai illustrates how so-called non-racialism disguises direct individual and system racism that has been at the core of post-Apartheid South African cricket. Even players that perhaps cut more sympathetic figures, like Alan Donald, participated in rebel tours during the boycotts.

Sports journalism and the padding of history

Astonishingly, through a deliberate retelling of history by the white cricketing establishment, and a smooth transition from white players participating in rebel tours into media pundits, commentators and journalists, Desai describes how this history – and even this present – has been deleted.

We have written before on this blog about the racism in contemporary South African cricket journalism, but Desai’s book reveals that such incidents are merely a continuation of a long-term and elaborate journalistic project to soften the writer’s own complicity with Apartheid. Iconic white players who are memorialized in South African cricketing folklore, such as Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, willingly participated in rebel tours with enough political consciousness to threaten to boycott games if they were not paid equally to touring teams, yet they somehow lacked the conscience to consider the inequality of Apartheid South Africa and the total absence of black players on their teams.

Desai reveals too that many household favorites over the last two decades of cricket on television and radio were in fact players on rebel tours who either actively supported Apartheid or were willing to play in support of it for their own financial benefit. Hidden in the public eye are the likes of Mike Haysman, Geoff Boycott, Robin Jackman, Kepler Wessels and Colin Bryden. Their justifications for their actions are not even requested by the South African public who accept on good faith their friendly faces, cricket expertise and detailed knowledge of South African cricket. It is no wonder that when they draw on history these voices choose to regret the tragedy of players like Richards and Pollock not being able to play test cricket rather than reminiscing about the total obliteration of black cricket and the erasure of players such as Baboo Ebrahim, Suleman Dik Abed, Krom Hendricks and Basil D’Oliveira.

Bryden, whose voice for many of us remains synonymous with South African cricket because he has narrated so much of it over the radio, himself worked both as a journalist and for a promotions company supporting rebel tours. Though Bryden may have believed that he was acting in the best interesting of South African cricket, Desai concludes decisively: “for people like Bryden, South African cricket was essentially white cricket… Bryden makes the seamless journey from propagandist to journalist and back again.”

Black skins, white helmets 

Perhaps the weakest part of Desai’s book is its lagging analysis of modern developments afoot in South African cricket. For example, although he analyses the problematic underrepresentation of South Africa at every world cup between 1992 and 2011, there is no analysis of the 2015 World Cup. Nor does Desai deal in any meaningful detail with the impact of recently expanded quotas at both national and provincial levels.

Desai broadly characterises two present positions on racial transformation in South African cricket as the “colour-blind non-racialists” and the “racial bean counters.” He accuses the latter of “aggressive African nationalism,” “chauvinism” and “almost messianic drive” to include more black faces in the South African team at any cost. With an eye on a bottom-up, grassroots driven approach to the development of cricket in South Africa he supports the resurrection of a “militant non-racialism,” an “idea that places both the idea of racial transformation and class privilege centre stage.”

In our view, Desai is too harsh on quotas and too willing to support a radical construction of non-racialism that has never genuinely existed in South Africa. Although noting at least once that “quotas were necessary to force selectors to divest themselves of prejudicial thinking and make the objectively correct cricketing decision,” Desai appears at points to conflate the laudable politics and pragmatism of quotas with those opportunistic politicians who promote them. Indeed, the astoundingly quick turnaround of South African cricket over the last year since Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula imposed a ministerial ban on hosting or bidding for major events until Cricket South Africa met its own transformation targets, is telling.

The problem has never been a lack of black interest in or ability at cricket. The problem, is, and has always been, the willingness of the large, white-run old boys network – of which Bacher was the key protagonist – to manipulate black interest for white gain, all the while professing to be acting in the interests of black cricket(ers).

Batting in uncertain times

Desai’s book reflects lifetime passion for cricket and his deep disappointment with its administration and the way it has served black South Africans. That conflict is intimately familiar. We also both grew up loving the game of cricket despite, and sometimes unconscious of, its whiteness. We were devastated by Hansie Cronje’s betrayal and delighted by the achievements of Graeme Smith’s team and the emergence of black talent such as Makhaya Ntini, Herschelle Gibbs and Paul Adams.

As we have become conscientized, it has been disturbing to recognize the casually biased views of many powerful people within the cricketing sphere towards black cricketers and their open hostility towards discussions of race in cricket. We regret the treatment of black players such as Lonwabo Tsotsobe, Aaron Phangiso, Vernon Philander, Thami Tsolekile, Charl Langeveldt and Garnett Kruger, and the South African cricketing public’s insistence that world class players like Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma have to prove themselves over and over again.

This book reminds us of the personal responsibility for reflection (if not conscientization), particularly within the elite circles that continue to control access to resources and opportunities for others. Transformation requires insiders (and their children) from the old system to understand and interrogate their privilege, particularly because South Africa has entrenched systems that require bottom-up and system-wide transformation. This starts with a proper appreciation of the dirty history of South African cricket and how corrupt white officials, players, coaches and journalists have contributed to reproducing it.

As cricket fans, we have not been merely betrayed by Hansie Cronje or Dr Ali Bacher. We have been betrayed by whiteness. That is the story of South African cricket in post-Apartheid South Africa. We applaud Desai for telling it.

Blaxploitation, Italian style

The Eritrean-Italian actress Zeudi Araya who appeared in number of Italian films in the 1970s.

Italian cinema is renowned the world over for its technical and artistic innovations, from the neorealism of De Sica and Rossellini to the surrealism of later Fellini, or the radical sexual explorations of Pasolini to the anti-colonialism of Pontecorvo. Consistent throughout this rich legacy of cinema however, but scarcely remarked upon, is the presence of black folk in both minor and major roles.

The stories of these actors, several uncredited in their early films, remained largely untold until the 2013 publication of film scholar Leonardo de Franceschi’s comprehensive, edited volume L’Africa in Italia: Per una controstoria postcoloniale del cinema italiano (Africa in Italy: A postcolonial counter-history of Italian cinema). This book, along with filmmaker Fred Kuwornu’s own experiences in the Italian film industry as both an actor and a director, inspired the documentary Blaxploitalian: 100 Years of Blackness in Italian Cinema.

Kuwornu’s documentary is equal parts individual narrative, detective film, film studies lesson, and call to action. It asks, who are (or were) these actors? What do their experiences, and the roles they played, say about race and national identity in Italy? And what can be done today to ensure that Italian cinema reflects the increasing diversity of Italian society?

Kuwornu is an Italian-Ghanaian filmmaker who was born and raised in Bologna; he now resides part-time in New York City. A student of political science, he was inspired to begin documentary filmmaking after acting and working as a set assistant for Spike Lee’s 2008 film Miracle at St. Anna, about African-American soldiers in Italy during World War II. He produced two acclaimed documentaries prior to Blaxploitalian: Inside Buffalo, about the African-American soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division who served in Italy during World War II, and 18 Ius soli, about the children of immigrants born in Italy and their struggles for Italian citizenship. [Full disclosure: I have known Fred since 2013, and assisted with the translations for Blaxploitalian.]

Blaxploitalian explores the stories of Afro-Italian, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean actors whose roles helped to shape the Italian film industry. Beginning in 1915, when the first black actor appeared in an Italian film, the documentary’s “one hundred years of blackness” spans Eritrean actors who arrived to Italy after the dissolution of the Italian Empire and African-Americans who found greater opportunity in the Italian film industry than in the United States (the documentary even shows a jaunty 1954 article from Jet Magazine entitled “Italy’s Movie Boom for Negro Actors”). Kuwornu manages to track down and interview many of these actors, including Denny Méndez, the now Los Angeles-based Dominican-Italian actress and model who shocked the nation when she was crowned Miss Italy in 1996. These engrossing interviews are interspersed with conversations with Italian film scholars such as Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Leonardo de Franceschi about the multiple inflections of blackness in Italian cinema (the “exotic,” the “native who must be subjugated,” etc.) and the relationship between cinema, colonialism, and nation building.

Toward the end of Blaxploitalian, however, the tone of the documentary shifts. Kuwornu shows that Black folk in Italy are increasingly taking roles behind the camera; they are also pushing for more equitable (and less stereotypical) representation. Actor after actor in the documentary describes the humiliation of being asked to put on an exaggerated “African” accent for a role, or only being called to audition for the part of the nanny/prostitute/terrorist/undocumented migrant.

One actor in particular recounts the mind-bending story of auditioning for the role of a southern Italian, and then being told that he looks more North African – but later, when he comes in to audition for the role of a North African, he is told that he looks too southern Italian. For every Black actor who is told that he is too “African” to play the part of an Italian, another is told that she is too “Italian” in her mannerisms to play a character of African descent.

Fortunately, this double-bind is slowly beginning to give way as Afro-Italian actors gain momentum in their advocacy for roles that reflect the “everyday multiculturalism” of Italian society. Igiaba Scego, for instance, describes the significance of Ethiopian-Italian actress Tezeta Abraham’s role in the television series E’ arrivata la felicità’:

Tezetà plays the role of Francesca, a woman who works in a children’s bookstore, and is not too lucky with men. A sort of Black Bridget Jones, with multicolored sweaters that would make the real Bridget jealous… Furthermore, her Roman accent, combined with her rough voice, “rocks,” as the young people might say. It rocks indeed, symbolically linking her to the tradition of the best Italian films, in which Cinecitta’ studios were transformed into city outskirts, into narrative, into life… Tezetà’s Francesca is important for another reason: she is a mirror for many Afro-Italian girls who work, study, and love in this Italy, which is more and more mixed even if it doesn’t see itself that way. Italy tells very little, especially on TV, about the changes it has undergone since the 1970s.

Fred Kuwornu has asserted elsewhere that new media tools such as crowdfunding and social media, along with the increasing accessibility of digital media filmmaking tools, have also contributed to this growing pluralism, since it has become easier and more affordable for people to tell their own stories (instead of waiting for major media outlets to take notice).

Blaxploitalian is part of a broader media diversity campaign entitled “United Artists of Italy,” which Kuwornu has spearheaded along with several other Italian creatives. In addition to this project, activists in Italy have recently advocated for less stereotypical depictions of the African continent, and for laws that would require more equitable representation on television. These campaigns have brought national attention to the pervasive sexism and racism in Italian media –from the use of blackface in a video published by the website of the national newspaper La Repubblica, to the racially-charged imagery of laundry detergent commercials (as documented by Cristina Lombardi-Diop), to a recent segment on the national RaiUno television channel about the benefits of “choosing a girlfriend from the East.”

Of course, media diversity is not just an Italian issue; the work of Kuwornu and his colleagues is inspired by and interwoven with similar initiatives elsewhere: #OscarsSoWhite in the United States, as well as the work of Idris Elba in the UK and Omar Sy in France. But one could argue that there is a particular exigency to the situation in Italy, in which the ongoing refugee “crisis,” the obstruction of a legislative proposal to grant citizenship to the children of immigrants, the rise of the far-right, and economic stagnation have conspired to produce an especially virulent brew of anti-Black racism all’italiana. In this context, Blaxploitalian implicitly argues, representation matters.

Linton Kwesi Johnson and Black British Struggle

Linton Kwesi Johnson and the late Darcus Howe at the offices of “Race Today.” Photo Credit: Adrien Boot.

Linton Kwesi Johnson, the Jamaican-born British poet and reggae artist, memorialized bblack power and immigrant rights movements in the UK of the 1970s and 1980s on records such as “Forces of Victory,” “Dread, Beat and Blood,” and “Bass Culture.” LKJ was deeply involved in those struggles not only as an artist but as an activist and intellectual. Entering politics through the youth section of the British Black Panther Party in Brixton, he went on to join the “Race Today” newspaper collective. There, along with Darcus Howe, who passed away last month, and other black British radicals he helped reflect, amplify, and organize black and Asian community resistance to police abuse, National Front skinhead attacks, and systemic racial exclusion in British society. In this interview, the originator of dub poetry talks the role of culture in politics; antiracist and class struggle in the UK; and the importance of a wide range of figures from Althea Jones-Lacointe and CLR James to Ken Booth and the Last Poets.

Music clearly played a big role in the antiracist struggle here in the 1970s and early 1980s. Could you talk about how black British youth identified with Jamaican music and its relationship to their own struggles?

All right, let me put it this way; reggae music was the umbilical cord that connected my generation of Jamaican youth to Jamaica. It provided us with an independent identity. It was rebel music and we identified with it because my generation was basically the rebel generation, as opposed to our parents who were more conformist. We were the rebel generation and Reggae music was our music. It afforded us an identity, it provided us with the nexus of a culture of resistance to racism in Britain. A lot of the lyricism that came out of those Reggae tunes were couched in Rastafarian language of anti-colonialism and the image of the rude boy. We identified with that image, the rebel image.

So, reggae music was crucial for us, in terms of self identity and in terms of consciousness, really, because a lot of the songs that we were listening to as youth, like Ken Booth’s “Freedom Street,” for example, we could identify with the lyrics of that. And when Bob Marley sang about “Concrete Jungle,” we could identify with that concrete jungle. We have our own concrete jungles here in Britain and London, in Manchester and Birmingham and so on and so forth.

Your own poetry is often concerned very with local conditions in England, in London. It must have circulated among British youth as well during this time. Did you see a relationship between culture and politics? I know that you were also the arts editor at Race Today. Do you understand culture to be part of politics?

Absolutely, that was our position that there was a cultural dimension to political struggles and that cultural activism went hand in hand with political activism and they complimented each other. We got those ideas from Amilcar Cabral for example, from Guinea. Yeah so yes, in fact a lot of people became politicized through culture.

C.L.R James was also very influential, is that right?

Yes I was one of C.L.R James’, one of the people who helped to look after C.L.R James during his last days. He lived with us, he lived upstairs on the top floor of the building that housed the Race Today collective of which I was member. And I spent quite a bit of time with him, sitting by his bedside and chatting and all of that. Yeah so James is, but of course you know James was a renaissance man and he was into Michelangelo and Keats and Shelley and Shakespeare and all of that but he understood and appreciated the artistic and the cultural expressions of the working class and the peasantry. I remember he wrote an article for us on Ntozake Shange for example. And he could talk for hours about the calypsos of the Mighty Sparrow and so on.

When Bob Marley came to live here after the assassination attempt in Jamaica and was here recording “Exodus”, he was packaged by Chris Blackwell and Island Records as a kind of a commercialized rock star. But did his presence here have any effect on black British youth?

Bob Marley had a huge effect on black British youth because he was a reggae star artist from Jamaica who was being treated like a rock star. And there was great joy that this was happening amongst young black people. There was a great joy that this thing was happening. At the same time, some of us felt a little bit resentful that our reggae artist from Jamaica was being appropriated by the rock world. You know? He belonged to us. He didn’t belong to white people. He was a black reggae artist, he was no rock artist.

But, by and large, Bob Marley’s success gave a fillip, stimulated British Reggae music. So there was generated greater interest in reggae music. And a lot of black youth who weren’t so much into reggae, because they wanted to distance themselves as a second generation from the roots of their parents. And they felt they were more sophisticated or whatever, or they had petty bourgeois aspirations or whatever. They were more into American music. Bob Marley converted those people to reggae (laughs). And it was on the back of the success of Bob Marley emerged bands like Aswad. Existing British reggae bands like Matumbi and Steel Pulse kind of took off and got record deals with some of the major record labels. I myself got signed to Island Records on the wave of all of that success. Yeah, so reggae was very important in terms of its influence on my generation of youth.

Bob Marley was a deeply, deeply spiritual person, there’s no doubt about that. He was a Rastafarian, but Rasta is part spiritual and part political, you can’t talk about Rastafari without talking about politics and you can’t talk about Rastafari without talking about spirituality because they’re both things. In fact I would say that Rastafari was and is a kind of spiritual response to the anti-colonial struggle or it was a way of expressing the anti-colonial sentiments, our section of the black population. Bob Marley was essentially, as I said a deeply spiritual person, but he was a Pan-Africanist, a Garveyite, and one only has to listen to the lyrics of his songs to realize that he was a political animal.

The CIA would not have opened a file on Bob Marley had he been, you know, non-political. You look at songs like “Burnin’ and lootin’ tonight,” “Get up, stand up,” there’s a song on “Uprising” where he urges the listener to rebel he says “We’ve been trodden on the wine press far too long, rebel, rebel.” In “Africa unite” he talks about African unity and that sort of thing so yes Bob Marley was deeply spiritual and also political. He wanted to distance himself from local politics in Jamaica but I mean in the early 70s he was on the bandwagon, the cultural bandwagon that the People’s National Party rolled out in the 1972 election. The attempted assassination was because he was seen to be an asset for the PNP in the build-up to the 1976 election.

So he was someone who at least amongst the political classes, they felt that he had a … He commanded a tremendous amount of respect amongst the masses and he had clout amongst the masses and whoever had him in their corner had a big advantage. But Bob Marley didn’t really want to be seen as a political partisan in fact in one of his songs I think it’s “Rat Race” he says “Never let a politician do your favor, they will want to control you forever.” But he certainly, as I said if you analyze the lyrics of his songs, you can see that he was a politically conscious person. And I mean in a lot of cases for Bob Marley, the personal is the political. He’s writing a song maybe about a personal grievance but it’s couched in the language of politics.

Did he ever reach out to or have any connection with the local struggles here in England when he was here in the late 70s?

Not that I know of, not that I know of. But I’m almost sure that there was solidarity with our struggles here. But you know of all the Wailers, Peter Tosh was the one who was more overtly political. Peter Tosh got involved in demonstrations, got locked up by the police and beaten up by the police. He was far, far more militant and outspoken than any of the other Wailers.

You had connections with other Jamaican artists and Jamaican poets. Mikey Smith was here for some time in England and you were close.

I brought Mikey Smith over from Jamaica. I’d met him in 1979 when I’d done a couple of shows in 1979 for Peter Tosh. Used to have these youth consciousness concerts once a year and 1979 I did two gigs with him, one at the Ranny Williams Center in Kingston and one in Hellshire Beach. I was part of a line up that included Black Uhuru, The Tamlins, I can’t remember who else was on the bill, I was the opening act, in those days I was playing with backing tapes and dancers. I didn’t bring the dancers to Jamaica with me so I only had the music, what they called playback.

Anyway cut a long story short, it was on that visit to Jamaica that I was sought out by Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora both of whom were students at the Jamaica school of Drama. And Mikey I think was specializing in directing, anyway they sought me out and they found me and we just hit it off and for me it was wonderful to know that there was a school of poetry in Jamaica which was based on a revival of orality in Caribbean poetry. And that saw itself within the tradition of reggae music. In the same way that you had blues poetry or Jazz poetry in America and it gave me a great sense of validity because I was plowing a lone farrow here in England at least so I thought. But when I went to Jamaica and heard these guys Mikey Smith and Oku Onuora, came and said “Yes there are other people doing what I’m doing,” and it was great.

In fact I coined the term dub poetry but I was using that to describe the art of the Reggae djs like U-roy and Big Youth and so on. But Oku Onuora was the one who kind of conceptualized the idea of dub poetry as a term to describe this new movement of orality in Jamaican poetry. So Mikey wanted to know … These guys were looking at me as if I was some kind of big star in England and I could open up the doors to success for them. Anyway cut a long story short, I had founded or co-founded a company called Creation for Liberation and through Creation for Liberation I was able to invite Michael Smith to England to do a poetry tour and he also performed at the first international book fair for Radical Black and Third World books in 1982. And I also released Mikey’s record ‘Mi Cyaan believe it’, ‘Mi Cyaan believe it’ and Roots on my record label LKJ records in fact it was the first record I ever put out on my record label.

But the year before that in 1981, I happened to be in Barbados fronting a documentary for the BBC called ‘From Brixton to Barbados’ about the Carifesta, the regional arts festival they have every six years or so and that year it was in Barbados. And Mikey Smith was there in Barbados and Anthony Wall thought it would be a good idea to film him performing his famous poem ‘Mi Cyaan believe it’ which was broadcast on the BBC. So that’s how Mikey got introduced to the British public.

What is it about poetry that makes it particularly suited to political expression?

I don’t know, I haven’t got a clue. All that I know is that I came to politics, I came to poetry through politics. It was as an activist in the Black Panther movement that I discovered something called black literature, books written by black people which I didn’t know anything about before that. And WEB DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk which wasn’t really poetry it was prose but it was very poetic prose, stirred something in me and made me want to write, write verse. So I don’t know but personally speaking I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and there’s some people who would argue this kind of arty-farty notion of art for art’s sake bullshit that politics has no part to play in art which is just a lot of nonsense. I don’t know if it’s because poetry is really about language and how one uses language in a kind of a succinct kind of a way. And you know there’s a musical dimension to it. I don’t know I really can’t answer that question but I’ve always been attracted to political poetry and lyrical poetry and if you look at the canon of British poetry, it’s full of political stuff from Alexander Pope, Shakespeare, Shelley.

Were you influenced at all by The Last Poets or Gil Scott Heron?

Well they were a big influence on me, the last poets were a big influence on me because I heard them when I was in the Black Panthers. I think we had about one or two LPs we used to circulate amongst the youth membership, I was in the youth section to begin with before I became a fully-fledged member. We had Message to the Grass Roots by Malcolm X and it was also had an LP by the last poets that was circulating around and I thought “Wow these guys are using the language of the street as a vehicle for poetic discourse I mean this is fantastic, this is great I want to do something like that with Jamaican speech.” So yeah, they were a big influence on me and this idea of the voice working with percussion, with drums and all of that, I first got an insight into that from the last poets. Yeah they were a big influence.

I found out about Gil later on and me and Gil did a tour of America back in the 80s. We played all over America from New York to Alabama.

His father was Jamaican, I think.

Yeah his father was Jamaican footballer. Played for one of these football clubs. Yeah but me and Gil did a tour of America and I loved his stuff, I think Gil is in that tradition of the Last Poets. But I became great friends of Amiri Baraka who is coming out of that blues, jazz tradition. So I’ve always seen this relationship between music and poetry, I’ve always been attracted to it. Yeah, those guys were a big influence.

So in some ways some of the culture of anti-racist struggle or immigrant rights struggles changed after the insurrections of the early 1980s. Do you think there was a change in kind of the politics and the racial climate for the worse under Thatcher? Did things kind of move in a different direction?

Well, I really don’t know how to characterize that period because it was a period of intense class struggle, class struggle and the racial dimension of that was important. It was a period of anti-fascist struggle and anti-racist struggles. It was a period that saw the rise, well not so much the rise but perhaps the consolidation, of white racism in the mainstream. I think organizations like the National Front lost support because people who may have thought of voting for them thought the conservative government was right wing enough so they would rather vote for the Tories.

It’s a very complex period because I think as an electoral force, the Thatcher period dealt a death blow for the extreme right in this country. It was a period that also saw solidarity, a great solidarity between black and white working class youth. Rock against Racism was a big success and it helped to bring us together. It was period of intense struggle, class struggle as well as anti-racist struggles, it was a period when Mrs. Thatcher came to power with one mission and that was to claw back the gains that the white working class had won for itself in the post World War two settlement and she took on the miners and won and so on and so forth.

The great irony is that after the black insurrections of ‘81 and ‘85, 1985, it was under a Thatcherite government that things began to change for black people. Slowly the emergence of a black middle class that was nurtured by the Tory government under something called the intercity partnership lead by a man called Michael Heseltine who was the minister at the Department of the Environment.

And after, one of the significant things that happened was that in 1981 after the racist murder of 13 black children in New Cross, the New Cross massacre action committee, which was a broad-based organization of activists from up and down the country, we organized on the second of March 1981, we mobilized nearly 20,000 people marching from New Cross to Hyde Park to protest the murders and the way the police had been dealing with it. Handed in a letter of protest to Number 10 Downing Street and so on. It was a watershed moment because it made the British establishment take note of the fact that we had black power and we could mobilize that power and it was during that Thatcherite period that they began to speed up the process whereby a black middle class could emerge. Because before the 1980s black people had been one the periphery of British society, we were marginalized. We come into the Mother country and were treated like fucking third class citizens you know what I mean? We were marginalized. And by the end of Thatcherite period a black middle class began to emerge and by the end of the 20th century we were closer to the center than the periphery.

What were the conditions like in the 1960s and 70s for black Britons?

During the 1960s and 70s for black people, Britain was a very racially hostile place to be living in. Black people were marginalized and treated like third class citizens. In the sixties, I can’t remember in which constituency, in Birmingham for example, the conservative candidate’s slogan was “If you want a nigger for a neighbor, vote liberal or labor,” so that was a kind of, you know… And in the period following Enoch Powell’s famous “Rivers of Blood” speech, you know Powell was a conservative politician who made a bid for the leadership of the Tory party by playing the race card and he advocated the repatriation of black people and all that and made some big speech about rivers of blood and racial war, racial conflagration and all of this kind of stuff, on the back of that there was a rise in racist and fascist attacks against black and Asian people. Racist murders, and during that period the police would deny that racist attacks and racist murders that there was any racial motive what so ever, it was only after the New Cross fire in 1981 that the police began to introduce into their vocabulary the idea of racially motivated crime. In the consciousness of the police, in the vocabulary, it didn’t exist. It was if a white man called a black man a nigger and stabbed him it was just treated as a criminal act.

Even the police themselves were often …

Well during that period, I would say that the National Front and other like racists were indistinguishable from your ordinary police officer because they more or less dealt with black people in the same way. And I mean in the period that saw criminalization of a whole section of black youth belonging to my generation, you know we had the infamous suss law where you’d be arrested and charged with attempting to steal from persons unknown. This vague law, vagrancy act from the 19th century, 1840 something that was used against the black youth of my generation. But it’s also a period of self organization. We responded by building autonomous political organizations, cultural organizations, began to establish independent institutions, like for example this year 2016, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of New Beacon books, the first Black publishing house and book seller in this country.

It was around that period too that saw the formation of the Caribbean artists’ movement, founded by people like John La Rose who was the founder of New Beacon, the Jamaican novelist and broadcaster Andrew Salkey and the Bajan poet and historian Kamau Brathwaite. Two years later in 1968, Bogle-L’Ouverture, another black bookseller and publisher was also founded. So you know we began to build political organizations, the Panthers, Panthers was founded in 1967 although it was first called United Colored Peoples Association before it became the Black Panthers.

Lots of black power … Late sixties was a black power period. We had an eye on what was going on in the United States of America, our parents were more like Martin Luther King followers, we were more like Malcolm X followers and so we had lots of black power organizations, not just here is London or where the Panthers were based but in Nottingham, in Bristol, in Birmingham, in Manchester, organizations up and down the country. That is why were able to mobilize so many people, nearly 20,000 people when the New Cross fire happened in 1981 because we had already built this network of organizations up and down the country. So it was a period of resistance, it was a period of fight back, it was a period of building.

You had built autonomous black institutions and then were able to also mobilize white solidarity once New Cross happened, is that right?  

Well there was always some solidarity amongst white people from going back from the early days, you know? Progressive people on the left of the labor party for example. And there were always decent people amongst white working class as well. It was not that everybody was a racist you know, there was decent white people as well but racism was endemic and still is in British society. Amongst those independent autonomous institutions that we built, were churches, because we weren’t welcomed in the white churches when we came here, especially the Anglican churches. The churches of the working class like the Methodists would be more accommodating but you go to an Anglican church and if you weren’t told directly by the vicar after the Sunday service that you’re not welcome there, you pick up the vibes anyway and people began to so black people started their own churches. As a matter of fact in 2016 now I think that the most organized section of the black community in this country are the churches.

How did you connect the Panther idiom with the British black struggle in that period – with the British version of black struggle as opposed to the US one?

Well you know the black struggles that were going on in the 60s, 70s really cannot be localized because black power was everywhere. There were anti-colonial struggles being fought in Africa, for example, against the Portuguese for example, there was anti-apartheid struggles going on in South Africa, there was struggles for, anti-colonial struggles going on in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia, these things were in the news. People like Martin Luther King came to this country and visited. We had people like Malcolm X came over here and visited. I don’t know how the Black Panthers actually started because I joined relatively late but it was an African brother called Obi Egbuna who started it. So we understood, we were aware of what was going on in the United States of America, we identified with those struggles being waged in the United States of America, even in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, in Trinidad, in Barbados, we knew all about all those struggles.

When we came here, it was a rude awakening for a lot of us and um, you know in my parents’ generation, they identified…you know in a lot of West Indians’ homes you would go and you would see a picture of white Jesus on the wall, you would see a picture of Martin Luther King and you might even see a picture of J.F. Kennedy on people’s walls you know? We were aware, my parents’ generation were aware of and identified with the civil rights struggles that was going on in America and so parallels between what was going on over there and what was happening to them here. My generation, we were more militant, we were the rebel generation and we identified with the Black Panthers in America. We weren’t into this kind of doctrine of non violence preached by Martin Luther King, we adopted Malcolm X’s slogan “Freedom by any means necessary,” fire for fire and blood for blood you know and that was it. So that’s how it was.

Can you just say what your involvement was in the English Black Panthers and where it was operating from?

The Black Panthers, I was a member of the Brixton branch of the Black Panthers movement, we had branches in West London, North London and South London and I was in the Black Panthers in South London. And our leader was a remarkable woman called Althea Jones-Lecointe who is a consultant gynecologist or something now in some big hospital. In those days she was doing a PhD in biochemistry, brilliant woman. She came to my secondary school and gave a talk and I think that’s what made me curious about the Black Panthers and I started going to their meetings and asking questions and so on. And I thought well, I want to be a part of this movement. My activities included going from door to door to try and get people interested in the organization, I would kind of campaign and we had campaigns as well, for example, a man called Joshua Francis was beaten up, badly brutalized by the police and there was a campaign for justice going on. I would be involved in those campaigns, attending demonstrations. Saturday afternoons or Saturday mornings I would be either in Brixton market, Balham market or Croyden market selling our newspaper, the Black Panther paper. We had direct links with the American Black Panthers we used to sell their papers too. In fact Angela Davis came over and visited us at one stage. And I got my political education in the Black Panthers, you know? We studied books like C.L.R James’s ‘The Black Jacobins’ – a history of the Haitian revolution lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture, we studied that. We studied books like Eric Williams’ ‘Capitalism and Slavery’. We studied books like E.P Thompson’s ‘The making of the English working class’, we studied ‘Black Reconstruction’ by W.E.B Dubois you know some serious education that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Can you describe the scale of the Black Panthers?  

I don’t know, I wouldn’t really hazard a guess but we had two sections in the South London chapter, we had the youth league and the Black Panthers. As a youngster I couldn’t have just become a Black Panther like that, I had to join the youth section first and kind of serve like an apprenticeship and then you became a fully fledged member and it was kind of a hierarchical structure. You had a central core and so on, but all I can tell you is that we had a chapter in Brixton, we had a chapter in West London and we had a chapter in North London and we had connections with other like-minded organizations in London in Nottingham, in Birmingham, Manchester and so on and so forth. There were organizations, I can’t even remember the names of some of them. In London we had other organizations like the Black Unity and Freedom Party, you had SELPO, South-East London people’s organization. I can’t remember all of them but our membership but our presence was greater than our membership. I mean you might not have had more than 100 people as signed-up members in a particular branch of the Panthers but the support and the people you could mobilize would be ten times that or 20 times that. Or people who came to meetings who were not fully fledged members but they came to meetings anyway. So in terms of numbers I wouldn’t really hazard a guess.

I remember seeing footage one time of James Baldwin coming here in 1968 speaking at the West Indian Center. Was Baldwin someone that people read or talked about?

Of course, you know I remember I was running a bookstore outside a record shop in Brixton as part of my activities when I was a part of the Black Panther youth league, and was minding the book stall. Books that we got from New Beacon books, we had a store right outside Desmond’s Hip City record shop in front of the Atlantic pub at the Junction of Atlantic Road in Coldharbour Lane, a little bookstore there selling these books. And James Baldwin came down to Brixton and he came to the book store and I remember showing him, James Baldwin, a copy of his own book The Fire Next Time!

A different kind of girl power 

In recent years there has been a global convergence on the “girling of development”; in other words, girls’ empowerment and education as a way to address poverty. This includes corporate campaigns such as Nike’s Girl Effect  and those by state aid organizations such as USAID’s Let Girls Learn. These campaigns promote understandings about girls’ empowerment that portray girls as individuated selves who can overcome structural difficulties – such as poverty and disease – if they only re-invent themselves by working hard, staying in school, delaying marriage and entering the workforce. This kind of “girl power” assumes an autonomous girl-subject who must rely on herself to improve her circumstances. This attention to the individual deflects attention from the role of the state, foreign policies, consumption patterns in the global North, as well as capitalist relations that exacerbate poverty in the global South. Poverty appears to be a personal problem rather than a political one.

Such storylines devolve into blaming local culture, families, and/or religious communities for the direct and structural violence that girls experience in the global South. The portrayal of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai in Western media often blames the entirety of Muslims and the nation of Pakistan for the bad behavior of the particular members of Taliban who attacked her. What we have then is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as the site of power and the demotion of the collectivities to which she belongs. These logics are deeply problematic because they shift blame to local entities (families, for instance) that, too, are enveloped in poverty due to capitalist relations. Furthermore, such logics mark religions and religious communities as irrelevant to modern times. Hence, one of my preoccupations has been to reclaim religion/families/cultures from these tired portrayals and excavate alternate evidence. Queen of Katwe, a Disney production directed by Mira Nair, provides one such intervention.

Queen of Katwe official trailer

The film Queen of Katwe traces the life of chess champion, Phiona Mutesi, who lived in the shantytown of Katwe in Uganda. At the age of nine, she enrolls in a chess program managed by a local church ministry, enticed by the free cup of porridge that is distributed to students there. Through perseverance and practice, support from her mother, and a tenacious coach, Phiona goes on to win the national championship. Hers is, indeed, a story of triumph against insurmountable odds; a life-script that, perhaps, is not accessible to many girls in Katwe. However, the movie makes a range of interventions in the conventional wisdom about what constitutes education and points to the need to re-think dominant conceptualizations of “girl power.”

Phiona did not go to school and yet she was able to reason her way through the rigorous sport of chess. We, hence, immediately encounter a girl who succeeds outsides the context of formal schooling. Next, religious institutions and ethics inspired by religion play a crucial role in the lives of the characters. Phiona, for instance, encounters chess through a Christian sports outreach ministry that runs various programs for underprivileged youth in Katwe. The program provides sports but also feeds kids, a service that is crucial in the context within which Phiona lived. We also observe what a life lived in the service of others looks like in the character of coach Robert Katende. Hired only in a part-time capacity because that is all the church can afford, Katende is later offered an engineering job, which he declines to continue working with the Pioneers (his chess students). That is his life’s work.

In addition to highlighting the role of religious institutions in improving the lives of the most marginalized in society, we encounter Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet, who provides a glimpse into yet another support system for Phiona. Nakku, who is widowed and has four children, is fiercely protective of her family and works hard to provide food and shelter. Even though events beyond her control lead her older daughter, Night, to get pregnant early, Queen of Katwe develops the characters of Nakku enough for the audience to not devolve into blaming the mother for the daughter’s transgression.

Significantly, it also develops Night’s character – through scenes that show that she cares for her family, particularly Phiona – to avoid marking the black girl as a site of hypersexuality and promiscuity. Indeed, Nakku and Night’s life circumstances present complicated options linked to survival, which resist reduction to stereotypes. Likewise, we meet supportive friends and siblings who are equally crucial in Phiona’s ascent.

Phiona’s story of triumph then is not the triumph of the autonomous, empowered girl who single-handedly beats the odds and moves out of the slums. Rather, it is a story about interdependencies, where religious institutions, community, siblings, a well-wishing mother and religiously-inspired ethics all play a role in creating moments of relief. Such complex portrayals of black girlhoods call on the audience to re-think assumptions about success and girl power.

Yet, Queen of Katwe also shows how individuals’ as well as communities’ capacities for action are mediated by structural constraints – gatekeepers in the form of state officials and school masters, or fees to enter chess tournaments. We thus leave the movie with a understanding that improving the lives of girls in the global South entails not only resisting the demonizing of their cultures, families, and religions but also paying attention to the structures that limit their opportunities.

Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki

Donald Rumsfeld and Isaias Afwerki. Image via Wikicommons.

Despite all that’s been written and spoken about extreme repression and economic blight in Eritrea, surprisingly little has been publicized about its inscrutable leader, Isaias Afwerki, who has led the country with an iron fist since independence in 1991. Based on common knowledge among Eritreans in the country and other information that I have collected over the years from frequent contacts, I am attempting to profile him.

Having closed all independent media and banned international correspondents, President Afwerki rebuilt the national media to exclusively serve his own interests and ambitions. In regular interviews with the state media, he approves all questions beforehand. In the midst of interviews, he often takes over, addressing a single question with lectures that ramble on for 30 minutes or more. The journalists’ only role is to help him transition between topics and occasionally nod in approval or agreement. Once during a pre-recorded interview, one of the “journalists,” Asmelash Abraha, fell asleep during the president’s long reply. In his regular interviews with the state media, Afwerki talks at leisure and analyzes many world developments. During an interview on the national broadcaster, Eri-TV, journalist, Temesghen Debessai, asked the president questions interchangeably in three languages, Tigrinya, English and Arabic. Afwerki talked about a variety of issues, demonstrating his command of language, history and current events for his Eritrean audience.

Afwerki appoints and fires ministers unpredictably and erratically. Journalist Seyoum Tsehaye tells a story about his encounter with Afwerki before he himself was imprisoned (15 years later he is still behind bars). Tsehaye, then director of the newly established ERI-TV, was summoned to the office of the president. The two had a heated exchange, and the president demanded he leave. Before Tsehaye reached his own office, Afwerki had called Tsehaye’s immediate supervisors to effectively freeze him from his job.

Similarly, Andebrhan Welde Giorgis wrote in his book, Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope (2014), that a disagreement he had with President Afwerki when he was governor of the national bank resulted in the sudden appointment of Tekie Beyene to take over his position. He was instructed to vacate his job the same afternoon.

Another example of Afwerki’s arbitrary and abrupt nature in dealing with underlings in his government involved the National Holidays Coordinating Committee. This is the key office that undertakes all national celebrations, including planning and carrying out propaganda. When some of the performances at the Independence Day celebration of May 24, 2010, displeased the president he ousted Zemhret Yohannes, the committee chair and a longstanding executive member of the ruling party.

Later, Afwerki appointed Semere Russom, minister of education, to chair the committee. Barely a year into his term, Russom returned from a trip to China to learn that his position had been taken over by Luel Ghebreab, then chairwoman of the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW). Ghebreab herself fell out of favor the next year (both as chair of the holidays committee and chair of the women’s association) and was replaced by Zemede Tekle.

Afwerki is notorious for not providing clear directives when he appoints people to a new position or to launch a big program. Frequently, he meets with people and approves directives while in his car or walking, or when out-of-town on public holidays. Without having adequate knowledge or a full grasp of the new task, newly appointed officials must navigate their way perilously through trial and error.

In the regular cabinet meeting, ministers take turns to present the quarterly or semi-annual reports of their respective ministries through Power Point presentations. All other sensitive issues are handled autonomously by the president and his favorite (at that moment) officials, mainly from the army and security.

Corruption is not only tolerated but encouraged, and the president uses it to buy loyalty. Relatively incorruptible government officials are considered a potential threat, so Afwerki makes sure he appoints loyal subordinates who will report directly to him.

Since the mid-2000s, the president has started a so-called “tour of inspection” that allows him to personally monitor all development projects across the country. During these tours, he advises or instructs private businesses and hands down directives directly affecting these government projects. Disregarding the expertise of professionals or ignoring them entirely, Afwerki approves projects that cost millions. For example, during the second half of the 2000s, all Eritrea was talking about a dam project called Gerset – a name that became ubiquitous in the national media. Afwerki was the sole architect and engineer for the project, which he launched against the repeated advice of professionals. Although the intended goal was irrigation, after Gerset was built, (not unexpectedly) the whole project proved to be a failure. It sustained massive cost over-runs due to the huge cost of pumping water uphill. Fast forward to today, and the whole embarrassing project has faded away from the collective memory.

The Gerset project wasn’t unusual. President Afwerki often takes on massive but under-researched projects that gobble up a significant material and human resources. Some of the most hyped and now totally failed projects of recent years included a cement factory in Massawa; a banana and tomato-packing factory known as “Banatom” in Alebu (with an Italian investor); the Massawa International Airport; the Massawa Free-trade Zone; and a sugarcane farm in Af-Himbol.

Since 2012 these types of projects have been on the increase. As a likely result, the president spends less and less time in his office. Instead he handles domestic issues by phone from his current work place, and leaves international affairs to his political adviser, Yemane Ghebreab.

One recent project to which Afwerki devoted his time was the Kerkebet dam, about five hours west of the capital. With the grand idea of developing drip irrigation, he relocated to the site and spent all his time closely monitoring and supervising construction. Army recruits and construction workers toiled away in three daily shifts, which meant using ample electricity at night (which is unusual in Eritrea).

After the Kerkebet project was finalized in a relatively short time around 2012, Afwerki moved to another, bigger construction site known as Gergera, about an hour’s drive south of the capital.

Gergera Dam – intended to be used as a source of water for most of the country’s southern region and extending to the eastern lowlands – started in the second half of 2013. The project coincided with the new “popular army” scheme of 2012 that required all citizens, including civil servants, to contribute free manual labor. Makeshift tents were erected and food rationed while most civil servants and civilians spent their days collecting stones. Except for ministers, mothers and married women, all nationals including celebrities such as singers and athletes had to provide free manual labor. The president and officials in his favor at that time would closely monitor every development, constantly assessing the level of loyalty shown by the laboring citizens.

As the physical project of Gergera was about to end, Afwerki shifted interest, and in 2014 started yet another similar project, in Adi-Halo, about a half-hour’s drive from the capital. (A simultaneous project, Gahtelay, is in progress in a different location). The president still maintains the tradition of moving his offices periodically. This time he moved his office to Adi-Halo, both working as site manager and running the every-day functions of national government.

In Adi-Halo, President Afwerki has been working tirelessly to adjust government salaries. With a few handpicked and seasonally favored assistants, and of course without any consulting professionals, he has been employing an unconventional matrix to restructure the salary scale. It consistently fails to meet his expectations. Thus, government employees are earning a disproportionate amount of monthly salary despite the fixed scale. In his traditional New Year’s interview, he acknowledged that this project will take some time.

Afwerki also has been working diligently to manage the financial chaos he himself created. The Eritrean national bank changed its currency note toward the beginning of 2016, as part of a controversial currency replacement program.

Under the program, nationals are only allowed to withdraw up to 5,000 Nakfa of their savings in any given month. It requires that all transactions above 20,000 Nakfa be handled through bank checks despite the fact that checks are not widely used in Eritrea. Only three people in the country can verify and approve a transaction of more than 20,000 Nakfa, which normally takes about one month to complete. With the high inflation rate, 20,000 Nakfa can buy, for example, just one Samsung smartphone.

Afwerki enjoys and never misses the endless commemorations of major battles that the nation celebrates with great fervor. All top government officials are expected to suspend their work and leave town for days to accompany him. During these junkets, in the midst of his endless jokes and ridicule/praise, officials get a feel for their current status with the president.

In addition to the routine public ridicule and humiliation most officials undergo, President Afwerki is known for physically assaulting top government officials including ministers or national figures, such as journalists. His character is taken as the model and it trickles down the lowest ranks.

Having effectively demolished all public institutions and structures, Afwerki’s character and his legacy will take a generation to fix. As he frequently utters in some private occasions, however, is unfazed. The “country is his sole creation whose existence depends on his personal whim.”

Reckoning with the moral imperative on South African farms

Yolanda Daniels is a domestic worker with three children. She has lived on a farm outside of Stellenbosch in South Africa’s Western Cape for more than 16 years with the white farm owner’s consent. Like many other women living on farms, overwhelmingly coloured and black, both the security of Ms Daniels’ employment and housing are precarious and constantly under threat. Both are reliant often on the whims of their male partners or husbands, but mostly of white farm owners and managers.

For several years the farm manager on the farm where Ms Daniels lives, Mr Scribante, sought her eviction through a number of unlawful and indirect means. The final manifestation of these attacks was opposing her attempt, at her own cost, to making necessary improvements to her home such as levelling floors, establishing a system of running water and a washbasin, adding windows and laying paving outside the house.

Prior to this, he had attempted to get her to leave by unlawfully disconnecting her electricity supply, removing the door from her home and simply ceasing to perform his obligation to maintain the premises. On both previous occasions, as a result of Ms Daniels’ tenacity and persistence, the Magistrates Court had come to her aid. On this occasion, however, neither the Magistrates Court in Stellenbosch, the Land Claims Court in Randburg nor the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein vindicated her rights.

Ms Daniels, whose rights were recently upheld in a path breaking Constitutional Court judgment, is not alone in having called upon Constitutional Court for assistance in affirming her rights. In Ms Daniels case, the court was clear that both the constitution and the Extension of Security of Tenure Act entitled her to make the necessary improvements required to ensure a dignified home, regardless of Mr Scribante’s consent. But many similar examples exist.

Elsie Klaase, for instance, is a seasonal worker on farm near Clanwilliam. In 2016, after 30 years of living and working on the farm with her three children and three grandchildren, the Constitutional Court upheld Klaase’s application resisting her eviction. This following the Clanwilliam Magistrates Court and the Land Claims Court decisions that Ms Klaase herself had no independent legal right to continue occupying her home on the farm because her husband was evicted after being dismissed from his employment on the farm. The Constitutional Court lambasted the judgments of the lower courts for “demean[ing] Mrs Klaase’s rights to equality and dignity” by only considering her occupation as legitimate “through” or “under” her husband.

Then there’s Magrieta Hattingh, is an elderly woman living on a farm in Stellenbosch. She lived there with her three children and three grandchildren for more than 10 years and had worked on the farm for some of this time. The Magistrates Court, Land Claims Court and Supreme Court of Appeal denied that her right to a family life included the protection of the occupation of her grandchildren and adult children. It took a 2013 Constitutional Court judgment to affirm the validity of Hattingh’s right to family life, because, as it pointed out “families come in different shapes and sizes.”

These three examples illustrate a ubiquitous problem with respect to the precarity of farm workers in general, and women in particular, drawing attention to broader social issues and systems of oppression. First, women living and working on farms find themselves in dual patriarchal relationships: the relationships with their male partners and their relationships with farm owners and managers. Their employment is, by design, often seasonal (and therefore temporary and contract-based). As the cases of Klaase and Hattingh show tenure for them and their families has also been deeply insecure.

Second, the majority of farm owners and managers are white and the majority of farm workers and dwellers are black African or coloured: the legacies of colonialism and
Apartheid are alive and well on farms throughout South Africa.

Third, more than 20 years after the adoption of the constitution and nearly 20 years after parliament’s enactment of the Extension of Security of Tenure Act, legal representation and protection of farm workers’ rights remains the exception, not the norm. It took Hattingh, Klaase and Daniels all several rounds of draining, costly, demoralising litigation in courts around the country for the justice system to vindicate their rights. This suggests that both the legacies of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalist worker exploitation may often be reproduced by South Africa’s justice system.

It is in this context of the daily realities of women living and working on farms in South Africa that last week’s watershed Constitutional Court judgment in Ms Daniels case must be appreciated. The court’s judgments reveal the palpable disdain for Mr Scribante’s actions noting that he himself accepted that without the improvements Ms Daniels sought to make, the “dwelling is not fit for human habitation.” It affirmed that, after attempting to reasonably engage Mr Scribante, Ms Daniel’s was well within her right to make improvements that amount to “ordinary, basic, things” without his consent.

But the increased influx of similar conscience-crushing cases that the court has heard in the last few years also led it to make statements of broader importance about the treatment of black farm workers by white farm owners and managers in South Africa. In a judgment written by Justice Madlanga, the court acknowledges importance of land reform and redistribution as a means of “recognising the injustices” of the past, which include colonial- and Apartheid-imposed systems of racism and sexism. Justice Madlanga affirms the deep physical, psychological, economic and emotional pain that go with such dispossession. His judgment begins with a quote from a farm worker at a community meeting imploring his comrades “we must remember that there is only one aim and one solution and that is the land, the soil, our world.”

It proceeds, therefore, to make it categorically clear that white farmers’ property rights need to be better balanced with black workers rights to dignity, housing and security of tenure. It accepts the vulnerability of black women to evictions despite protective laws noting they are “susceptible to untold mistreatment.” These are important reaffirmations by the court that it will not stand in the way of any efforts to redouble commitment to redistribution of land and wealth. This is of course, if politicians of various loyalties are indeed committed to “radical economic transformation” and claims of “economic freedom.” It invites us to question whether the constitution and judiciary are convenient scapegoats rather than obstructions to transformation as is now so often suggested.

Moreover, in a judgment which is written in both Afrikaans and English (this is a rarity), and is clearly intended to be  read by white farmers and those sympathetic to their positions, Justice Johan Froneman implored them to take the rights of the farm workers and dwellers seriously. Justice Froneman, a white judge, who explicitly identifies himself with the position of someone who “grew up” on a farm, underlined the hypocrisy which is often present in white people’s attitudes towards poor black South Africans:

Anyone who travels through our beautiful countryside cannot help but notice that the living conditions of workers who live on farms do not always meet a standard that accords with human dignity…  

That there still can be a debate about whether the applicant, Ms Daniels, should be allowed to improve her home dwelling by doing ordinary things to make it more habitable without consent, shows that we still have a long way to travel before the promises of the Constitution are fulfilled. Remember, what is at stake here is the levelling of floors, the establishing of a system of running water with a washbasin in the house, the addition of another window and the laying of paving outside. Ordinary, basic, things.

Many of us who take these basic everyday conveniences for granted, appear not to view it as a problem that others are denied them.

These statements are an indictment on the conscience of white South Africans who far too often lack basic compassion and empathy for the very material plight of poor black people. Acknowledging this broader context, Justice Edwin Cameron bolstered his agreement with Justice Froneman in what appears to be the court’s first direct acknowledgement of white privilege and how “white people in particular … grew up with the benefits, both accumulated and immediate.”

The constitution’s preamble begins “recognising the injustice of the past…”. The rest of its text follows from this basic premise and which is both a legal necessity and a moral imperative. It is with this in mind that the rights to access to adequate housing, dignity and not to be arbitrarily deprived of property must be read. Read in this way, as the court does, these rights take new and potentially radical meaning. For example, “Recognising the injustices of the past… no law may permit arbitrary deprivation of property” hardly reads as Magna Carte for the liberal protection of property rights.

As Justice Cameron acknowledges, in South Africa, while the past continues to haunt landless farm workers whose employment and housing are precarious it is “not the past”,  “is not be done with us” either and “it will not leave us in peace until we have reckoned with its claims to justice.”

Weekend Music Break No.106

This time no theme, just another Music Break for your weekend!

Weekend Music Break No.106

1) This week starts out with Morocco via Bronx rapper French Montana’s approach to the current Afropop zeitgeist in the USA, and obligatory accompanying video shot in Africa… a trip surely inspired by Ugandan youth’s propensity towards “viral dance videos,” Nice, but what’s up with that ending French!? 2) Awesome Tapes From Africa recently reissued the hit 1980s album from South African Bubblegum artist Umoja. Here is the original video for the hit double platinum song “707.” 3) Up next J Hus, the catchy-hook-laden UK street rapper of Gambian origin, releases the long awaited first single from his forthcoming major label debut. 4) Fellow UK Afrobeats artists, Omo Frenchie, Kwamz, Flava, Sona, Selimax and GB team up for an Africa Is a Country all star lineup. The results are hypnotically spectacular. 5) Then, we head to Nigeria, with Burna Boy, and the visuals for his new single “Hallelujah.” 6) That is followed by another standout performance from Nigerian artist YCEE, “Juice,” featuring production by super producer Maleek Berry. 7) We love anything that brings together the Americas with Africa. So, Sean Tizzle, and his salsa-afropop hybrid “Latin Lover” takes us to Central America and the Caribbean. 8) Heading a bit South from there to the Pacific Coast border of Ecuador and Colombia, Rio Mira play “Román, Román” live at the Petronio Alvarez festival in Cali. 9) Cuban Hip Hop is getting a lot of attention these days. Last week saw the release of the Afro Razones album. This week, we have Cuban Hip Hopper La Dame Blanche showing us a bit of her recent trip to SXSW in Austin, Texas. (Side note, it’s amazing for me to hear the connections between traditional Pacific coast Afro-American music and the Cuban melodies in La Dame Blanche’s flow.) 10) Finally, we have to pay homage to the cradle of contemporary global pop music, Jamaica, with Alkaline and his new single “After All.”

Have a very happy weekend!

Rosa Parks doesn’t live here anymore

Gesundbrunnen Wriezener Straße Rosa-Parks-Haus

Sitting in a back room of the Babylon Kino, in downtown Berlin, we listened as Fabia Mendoza proudly rifled off the numerous front pages her husband, the artist Ryan Mendoza, had made since the sensational story broke about the relocating of civil rights icon Rosa Parks’ house. We had just watched her documentary The White House, the official backstory to the project. It presents a visual chronicle of how Ryan Mendoza entangles a journey of self-discovery into the current housing blight in Detroit, ultimately rescuing Rosa Parks’ house from the demolition list and re-erecting it in Berlin.

The documentary shows Ryan Mendoza initially traveling to Detroit to acquire a house to send to Europe for an art installation. To the artist’s complete surprise, the White House project generates a slew of negative publicity, casting him as a contributor to the blight and criticizing him for promoting “Ruin Porn.” After a second urban intervention, he gains notoriety as an artist working with blighted houses in Detroit, which eventually leads to Rhea McCauley, Rosa Parks’ niece, approaching him for assistance to save the house where Parks lived in the 1950’s from demolition. Despite initial reservations about playing into a “white savior” stereotype, he takes on the project, stripping the house, packing it up, and rebuilding it alone back in Berlin.

In the Q&A after the screening, a polished, clued up, and prepared Fabia Mendoza, spun the project’s positive media impact. She was at pains to dispel any lingering suspicions about her husband being just another white savior. Yes, there was some controversy, but what was more important was “awareness”, that everyone was now talking about Rosa Parks, she explained. Yet, we wondered, when did people stop talking about Rosa Parks?

The documentary carries the tension of a good story trapped in a short-sighted race-sensitive idea of white male saviors exploiting black culture. The film calls on black working class Detroiters to tell their story about the city, about poverty and the housing crisis. We’re introduced to kids cycling on colorful, pimped-out bikes who tell us about their streets and the city. Later, interlocutors sing or rap for the director, taking advantage of the opportunity to express their black city culture. This is “real Detroit” telling its own truth.

Hearing that Ryan Mendoza wants to relocate a house from Detroit to Germany for his White House project, members of the public initially express surprise but eventually lend their support, perhaps in the belief that it will highlight their plight. And yet, strangely, while it is undeniable that this is about banks and the city of Detroit abandoning poor black folk, the voices the Mendozas coral in this footage often insist that this is not a story about race. It is one about humanity.

Against the black urban mise en scene that is Detroit, Ryan Mendoza appears as an intruder who breaks into scenes with his tallness, his goofy, larger-than-life self. He’s in the houses, down and dirty in the business of demolition. He makes a cameo in a rap song filmed in the aftermath of the demolition of Rosa Park’s house, and is shown as the lonely worker painstakingly rebuilding it again in his courtyard during a cold and dark Berlin winter. You get the sense that for him it is all pomp and drama, deeply felt. When the media coverage gets dark, he delivers candid monologues about how personal a crisis the misunderstandings are.

But what indeed has Ryan Mendoza put up in Berlin? A house, a heritage object, or an art-installation? Is a house still a house when it is dismantled, its frame moved across the world, and reassembled in a courtyard without street access? Berlin regulations do not allow one to simply up and build a house where you like. Fabia Mendoza made it clear: the Rosa Parks House is officially a “temporary installation” and as such is unconnected to utilities, only partially visible from the street, and without an interior. For us at least, this change in state is important. And indeed, members of Miss Parks’ family clarify, remarking in the film and elsewhere how the house is now “in its afterlife.”

Read in this way, Ryan Mendoza has made a personal art project out of a piece of Black history. Herein lies one of the fundamental issues of the white savior complex, a phenomenon nodded at but entirely undigested by the artist. To riff on Teju Cole’s eloquent critique, in this form of the white savior complex, African-American heritage here, and Black heritage more generally, is simply a space onto which white egos can be projected, a space in which any white European or American can satisfy their artistic or emotional needs.

In doing so, even when “making a difference” or “raising awareness”, they draw more attention to themselves than to the issues at stake, inserting themselves into a conversation that fundamentally should never be about them. “It feels good,” notes for example a Berlin Tagesspiegel journalist about Berlin being able to play host to the house. The question is never asked, though, of whether it is important or even necessary that a German city feel good about the legacy of an African-American civil rights icon.

To be clear, as one always needs to be when critiquing the white savior complex in action, this is not racism, nor do we fault the Mendozas for, as far as we can tell, they’re making an effort to help both the Rosa Parks Foundation as well as Detroit and Berlin-based youth social initiatives. Yet we wonder: was the $100,000 raised to disassemble and move the house to Berlin somehow not enough to save the house where it was, or otherwise help the Rosa Parks Foundation on the ground in Detroit? Or were other options simply never considered?

In the end, how far have we come? The problem remains that the story is still about the white savior. It is not about justice but still about the emotional experience that validates privilege. It is only enough to pause and acknowledge, as Ryan Mendoza does before continuing to tear down his first house, that one is white and this should really be about black people.

There is hence no consideration of the other ways in which a person with a certain privilege can attempt to help a community. In the end, Rosa Parks’ house is no longer part of the black heritage landscape in the United States – across the world, Ryan Mendoza’s Rosa Parks House ensures that the artist’s name now has a place next to Miss Parks’ in any conversation about her legacy. Yet, wasn’t this always about his story?

Like so many others, this rescuing of black history comes with a slick sheen of altruism. But for the Mendozas it framed as a struggle, a burden. They never wanted this house. It belongs in the US, they insist. As Ryan Mendoza himself put it, “I would like to see it here for as short a time as possible. I totally love this house but this is not my house. I’m trying to give back as much as possible.” But what is never made clear, however, is what it would take to get the house back – or where exactly it would go.

The house has taken on a life of its own, through educational projects, and art and cultural performances that riff on Rosa Parks’ place in American cultural memory. But in all of this, we cannot help sense that something is not quite right. That the house is out of place here in the outskirts of Berlin. That Rosa Parks’ story fits awkwardly with that of a white European artist seeking to reconnect with his American roots. Somehow, in this fantastic tale of rescue and re-erection, we cannot but shake the feeling that, ultimately, Rosa Parks is simply a famous guest in the big story of Ryan Mendoza’s house.

Green White Green is a love letter to Nigeria’s youth

Still from Green White Green

Abba Makama’s exuberant comedy Green White Green (2016) belongs to a new breed of Nigerian art films made outside of the Nollywood industry. Financed, in part, by the federal government’s now-defunct Project Act Nollywood, Green White Green bypassed familiar Nigerian distribution streams, including the local multiplexes, for the international film festival circuit, where it has been met with considerable acclaim.

The film had its US premiere at this year’s New York African Film Festival. An official selection of last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin Critics’ Week (a sidebar to the Berlin International Film Festival, run by the German Film Critics Association), and African International Film Festival (where it won Best Nigerian Film), Green White Green follows the fortunes of three Nigerian teenagers as they anxiously await the transition to university life.

Green White Green is Makama’s feature-film debut. It begins with a sardonic survey of Nigerian national identities, emphasizing the country’s three most prominent ethnolinguistic groups — the Hausa, the Yoruba, and the Igbo — in a brilliant parody of documentary-style didacticism, complete with stentorian voice-over narration. Perhaps most amusingly, the representative Yoruba family features a matriarch who uses Nigerian film to loquaciously express her ethnic chauvinism, loudly proclaiming the allegedly unique beauty of the Yoruba-identified work of Tunde Kelani and Kunle Afolayan — much to the chagrin of her son, Segun (Samuel Robinson), whose closest male friends, Uzoma (Ifeanyi Dike) and Baba (Jammal Ibrahim), hail from Igbo and Hausa families, respectively. Acknowledging the persistence of ethnic nationalism (embodied most memorably in the figure of an Igbo man who speaks endlessly and eloquently of Biafra and of the separatist dream that it represented), Green White Green depicts the mutually transformative friendship of three “ethnically different” young men whose elders nurture more conservative notions of “proper” social interaction.

Green White Green trailer

Makama’s film is a hopeful, downright energizing love letter to Nigeria’s enterprising youth — to a new generation plainly capable of greatness. During the Q&A that followed the screening at Lincoln Center during the festival in New York City, Makama was asked why — and with what conceivable justification — his film is so positive, so optimistic. He replied that while his original vision was much darker — arguably in keeping with contemporary Nigerian sociopolitical realities — the finished film reflects his vision of a culturally sophisticated, creative, and altogether driven young generation (which includes the youthful Makama himself), as well as his love of comedy. Co-written by the playwright Africa Ukoh, the script for Green White Green features, along with a number of hilarious one-liners, biting references to certain patterns of ethnic prejudice familiar from Nigerian popular culture (“When did Igbo people start to become dominant in the visual arts?” asks a snobbish and altogether tone-deaf Lagosian gallery owner, perplexed upon discovering Uzoma’s artistic talents).

Makama is a master of satire, as evidenced by a succession of short films that he made before Green White Green, including 2010’s Direc-toh, an uproariously funny take on Nollywood’s legendarily speedy shooting schedules, and 2012’s Quacks, which pokes fun at wealthy, well-educated Nigerian expatriates who return to their home country only to pompously prescribe remedies for its innumerable political problems (all while remaining ensconced in their air-conditioned, generator-driven compounds, of course). Strikingly, Quacks includes priceless documentary footage of Occupy Nigeria (specifically, the Ojota fuel subsidy protests of January 2012), shot by Makama’s friend and collaborator Tejumola Komolafe. Similarly, Green White Green is punctuated by documentary inserts, demonstrating Makama’s commitment to recording and conveying the lived realities of Nigeria even while offering jaunty satire.

Still from Green White Green

Born and raised in Jos, Makama attended college and graduate school in the United States before returning to Nigeria to found Osiris, a production company based in Lagos. Working out of the Osiris offices in Lekki, Makama has secured work in an impressive array of media, from television to the internet, collaborating with such corporations as BlackBerry, Viacom, and Globacom. In 2015, he directed Nollywood, a short documentary for Al Jazeera, which outlines the development of one of Nigeria’s most prolific media industries. Despite his career’s intersections with the Nollywood industry (and with what might be termed the Nollywood imaginary), Makama told me that he does not identify as a Nollywood filmmaker. For one thing, his work does not rely on Nollywood stars, nor does he depend upon the traditional, Idumota-, Onitsha-, and Asaba-based marketers for financing and distribution. Makama’s work thus serves as a vivid illustration of the importance of distinguishing Nollywood from other, independent forms of Nigerian cinema.

The Coffin Revolution

Image via Bonteh’s Blog.

On November 21, 2016, Mancho Bibixy, the newscaster of a local radio station, stood in an open casket in a crowded roundabout in the Anglophone Cameroonian city of Bamenda. Using a blow horn, Bibixy denounced the slow rate of economic and structural development in the city, declaring he was ready to die while protesting against the social and economic marginalization of Anglophone persons in the hegemonic Francophone state. Quickly dubbed the Coffin Revolutionary by English-speaking Cameroonians, Bibixy emerged as a key leader in the larger Anglophone political movement against the Cameroonian president’s policies requiring all the country’s schools and courts to use French.

While the majority of Cameroonians speak French, two western regions of the country were once part of the British Empire, and English continues to dominate in these regions. After 1922, Cameroon was a mandate territory of the League of Nations, then became a United Nations trust territory that Great Britain and France jointly administered. The British Mandate territory of Cameroon included the Southern and Northern Cameroons. The court system is based on common law. These facts, and the history that led to it, are little known among both scholars and journalists outside the country.

The protests began a month earlier as thousands of Anglophone Cameroonians, from teachers and lawyers to irate youths protested the Francophone president’s dicta in the streets of Anglophone cities.

Within months, Bibixy and two other high-profile male Anglophone protesters would be arrested and face the death penalty. The state used a 2014 law created to help combat Nigeria-based Islamist militant group Boko Haram, whose fighters regularly launch attacks in Cameroon; it formally tried the three men for complicity in hostility against the homeland, secession, civil war and campaigning for federalism. In response, hundreds of infuriated youths, mostly young men, stormed the streets to demand the unconditional release of Bibixy and the others. The government responded by outlawing groups that advocate for Anglophone rights and shutting off internet connections to Anglophone regions of Cameroon in January.

The protests in English-speaking Cameroon are the culminating point in Anglophone secessionist/separatist movements that dates to the 1960s. The British Northern and Southern Cameroons severed from Europe on February 11, 1961. Each had a plebiscite that required them to choose between union with Nigeria and union with the former French administered region, Cameroun. As Anglophone activists point out, outright independence did not appear on the ballot and evidence suggests France and Britain rigged the votes. The Northern Cameroons became part of Nigeria, which had been a British colony, while the Southern Cameroons joined Cameroun in the Republic of Cameroon, a loose confederation with semi-autonomous states, the West Cameroon State (Anglophone) and the East Cameroon State (Francophone).

While the West Cameroon State had nominal independence that extended to its own political parties and press (East Cameroon had only government-run newspapers but West Cameroonian newspapers, while heavily influenced by political parties, had a press at least theoretically independent of the state) the Francophone majority was an ongoing threat to its political autonomy. Political elites used varied social and political strategies in the period of the federal republic to preserve a distinct Anglophone national identity. These efforts did not prevent the Francophone government from making all West Cameroonian political parties and newspapers illegal in 1966 or the dissolution of the federal republic in favor of a unitary republic in July 1972. But Anglophones continued to profess a distinction from Francophones, and consequently described themselves as forcibly re-colonized within the Francophone Republic during the 1960s and 1970s.

Indeed, the regime of Cameroon’s first president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Francophone, arrested and imprisoned his political opponents, many of them Anglophone, and severely repressed resistance from the 1960s to 1982. As Achille Mbembe and Meredith Terreta have both highlighted, the Francophone Cameroonian state has used violence, interrogations, intrusive intelligence gathering, imprisonment, disappearances, propaganda campaigns, resettlement and concentration camps and public beatings since the dawn of independence. Consequently, as Nantang Jua and Piet Konings contend, Anglophone political elites resorted to less visible and controllable forms of protest until the mid-1990s. At this point, the government adopted wide-ranging political reforms, including the introduction of a multi-party system, fewer restrictions on forming civil associations and private newspapers and a human rights commission. These reforms freed Anglophones to act more openly, and they successfully placed the “Anglophone Problem” on the national and international agenda. Organizations, such as such as the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC), sprang up to advocate for self-determination in the form of a return to a federal republic and later the creation of an independent state, which they call the Republic of Ambazonia.

The events of 2016 and 2017 indicate the rolling back of protections that led Anglophone Cameroonians to organize for a political configuration that would allow them full citizenship. Videos showing security forces brutalizing Anglophone student protestors in Buea, the capital of the southwest region of Cameroon, have circulated on Youtube. The Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium (CASC) called for a “Ghost Town” campaign, imploring Anglophones to withdraw from public life for two days in late January to protest the French-only rule and the shutdown of the internet. The campaign advocated that Anglophones completely withdraw from all forms of public life to stunt the economy and to protect themselves from the “trigger-happy [police] forces” in the streets. In Bamenda business activities grounded to a halt as markets, banks, fueling stations and commercial centers closed. The consortium had called for no violence during the Ghost Town movement, but angry youths barricaded the roads in Limbe, which harbors the country’s lone oil refinery. Any commercial bike rider or taxi driver caught working had to face the enraged youths. Matters reached a climax when hundreds of angry Limbe youths stormed French schools in Limbe. Hundreds of Francophone students and teachers were forced out of their various school premises by furious youths as police fired tear gas and gunshots to disperse the ramping crowd.

The ban on membership in CASC and SCNC came later that month. The internet ban made Anglophone residents of Cameroon what newspaper reports termed “digital refugees,” as they traveled to Francophone towns or Nigeria to access the internet. International pressure led to the restoration of the internet on April 21, but the government announced its determination to control internet use and block its use by secessionists and political dissidents. Whether organizers of the strike will negotiate with the government, which they made contingent on internet restoration, is unknown.

Anglophone Cameroonians have endured forcible internal colonialism by a hegemonic Francophone African “other.” Their situation raises critical questions related to self-determination, inquiries that scholars, non-governmental organizations, and policymakers should investigate. Like many fragmented African states in the postcolonial period, Cameroon has prohibited democratization and self-determination. The threat of chaos and state failure makes the project of resistance urgent. Yet interrogations of Anglophone separatism/secessionism might illuminate secessionist movements in countries like Canada, where a Quebec sovereign movement persists, as well as throughout the Global South as in Western Sahara. Indeed, neither western or African media nor academic literature can afford to continue to erase or marginalize Anglophone Cameroon from the region’s present and history.

The problem of white supremacy is not rocket science

I was losing my temper.

I was sitting in the cinema in central London watching LA 92. The spark, I’m sure, was the soundtrack. As if the beating of Rodney King’s bones, the breaking of his skin and flesh, required this exaggeration of music. As if the Los Angeles riots – the looting, the shooting, the deplorable attacks on drivers – required this orchestral melodrama. As if, I was thinking while squirming in the second row from the back, we could be weaned off white supremacy with violins.

Afterwards, a friendly stranger holding a beer and a rollie said it reminded him of Adam Curtis’ Bitter Lake. He was referring to the use of archive footage spliced together with newsreels, and the absence of a narrator. But I don’t think this comparison is helpful. Bitter Lake is a sophisticated attempt to expose simplistic Western narratives of good and evil, focusing specifically on Western politicians’ hypocritical approach to militant Islam and Saudi Arabia and their disregard for Afghanistan. LA 92 is a choreographed reproduction of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that reinforces lazy narratives on racism and violence.

We see the astonishing police attack on Rodney King on 3 March 1991 and, thirteen days later, the shooting of another African-American, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, by a female Korean shopkeeper. We see a lot of media footage of the trials that followed both events, leading to the acquittal of the four white police officers, who pounded King so relentlessly with their batons, and a $500 fine to the woman who was found guilty of the involuntary manslaughter of Harlins. We watch the riots unfold and escalate. We see the assaults on drivers by several African-American men, who manage to stop moving cars and trucks on the road. The attacks on two truck drivers – Reginald Denny, a white man, and Fidel Lopez, a Guatemalan immigrant – are horrendous. Both men were dragged from their vehicles, their bodies smashed and kicked repeatedly. We see Lopez lying on the road being spray-painted black as he goes in and out of consciousness. We see Korean shopkeepers in a shoot-out in front of their stores. We see an elderly woman weeping. We see much to make us gasp, to make us want to shield our eyes from the screen.

It is challenging viewing, particularly near the end when we are shown the mesmerizing footage of King, stuttering and blinking and appealing for calm: “Can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?” Watching this made me feel even more agitated. It looked like King was being used by the authorities. His call for calm seemed to be a call to the black community, as if the black community was the problem. Sitting in the cinema in central London, surrounded mainly by other white audience members, it felt like we were all being let off the hook. Here was the bashful, broken African-American man, beaten up and beaten down by racist white cops, now close to tears, begging everyone to just get along. And here he was doing what the cops and the army could not do – ending the riots.

LA 92 is topped and tailed with a slice of black and white footage from a 1965 television report, Watts – Riot or Revolt? The white American journalist, Bill Stout, looks into the camera and asks: “What shall it avail our nation if we can place a man on the moon but cannot cure the sickness in our cities?” This question was posed by the McCone Commission, which investigated the causes of the 1965 Los Angeles riots as well as proposing what might be done to avoid a repeat. By book-ending LA 92 with this particular clip, the film’s makers seem to be posing the same question in 2017 for the 1992 riots. Well, it may have seemed pertinent in 1965, four years before Neil Armstrong took man’s first steps on the moon, but it is limp in 2017. The problem of white supremacy is not rocket science.

Six days before I sat down to watch LA 92, I went to another London cinema to see I Am Not Your Negro. Both films are documentaries made of archival footage. Both films attend to racism in the United States. Both films look back. And so the similarities end. Whereas LA 92 runs without narration, I Am Not Your Negro threads James Baldwin’s words over the images, read (perhaps a little too) slow and deep by Samuel L Jackson. Whereas LA 92 shows beating and kicking and stealing and lying and crying, I Am Not Your Negro gives us shopping, TV shows, consumers, demonstrators, democracy and Doris Day singing and dancing. Whereas LA 92 reproduces the idea that there is “a Negro problem” and reduces responsibility for racism to the far away far right, a few bad apples in the police force and a couple of deluded right-wing judges, I Am Not Your Negro insists that there is not and never was “a Negro problem” because the problem is white people’s refusal to see ourselves and to take responsibility for our history. I Am Not Your Negro questions the true value of consumption and capital. It urges us – even nice white, left-leaning people who go to the cinema to watch critical films about race in the States – to consider who we are, what our ancestors have done, what we are still doing and how we are benefitting from the white supremacist system in which we live.

After the screening of LA 92, there was a Q&A. Chairing the discussion was Bonnie Greer OBE, the novelist, playwright, broadcaster and critic. Also on stage were LA 92 producer, Simon Chinn, and David Lammy, Labour’s candidate for MP for Tottenham, and author of Out of the Ashes: Britain after the riots. Greer began by praising Chinn emphatically for what she described as a work of art. At some point, someone in the audience asked about the decision not to have a narrator. Responding, Chinn said that the riots and King’s beating had been so heavily mediated already – on private cameras as well as by professional news crews – that he and the LA 92 team had not wanted to mediate the story any further. In so many words, he said that they had wanted to avoid injecting their own opinions onto the film – as if choosing footage, editing it and splicing it together is not a deeply subjective act of mediation.

I wanted to say so many things, I ought to have walked out. But my temper got the better of me and my hand shot up and before I knew it, I was holding a mic, telling the audience how angry I was. My frustration was such that I became quite inarticulate. Failing to string a decent sentence together, a string of questions fell from my lips. Noting that the audience was almost entirely white, I asked why the panel thought minority communities needed to do more work to fix divisions and reduce anger and violence, when most white people haven’t even begun to consider their whiteness, let alone the system of white supremacy. I complained that documentary films are not being made about the Bullingdon Club, whose members can smash up restaurants without facing charges or losing their place at Oxford University or their chance to govern the country. I said something positive about two other films Chinn had produced – Man on Wire (2008) and Searching for Sugarman (2012) – before stating frankly that I hadn’t liked this one at all. At some point, Greer interrupted me. Not unfairly, she asked me to make my point. Defeated, I remember saying: “I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m just so angry and I want you to know that.” A woman a few seats away clapped very quietly and leaned over to whisper that she agreed with me, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d actually said. I thought about Baldwin. Every time he’s seen speaking publicly in I Am Not Your Negro, he looks close to tears, he chain smokes, and rage and hurt are oozing from his pores. Yet Baldwin is always articulate, considered, brave and candid. What a fool I had just made of myself. What a missed opportunity.

As the Q&A continued, so I continued bubbling over with anger. I was thinking that the documentary we had just watched seemed to suggest that the police beating of Rodney King was somehow equal to the protesters’ attacks on the two truck drivers. Of course, they are all horrific acts of violence – but they are not the same and they are not equal. They have different meanings that need to be unpacked. If the film didn’t do that for us, then we, the audience, should do it for ourselves. And we should have that conversation publicly. I was thinking about the man who captured King being beaten on his personal camera. I think it was Greer who commented that this act of filming meant, finally, everyone could see how police regularly treated African-American men. This may be true, but 25 years on and it doesn’t seem to have stopped the shootings and the beatings. Surely we, the white-skinned public, need to put our own bodies on the line. We need to take risks with our own bones and flesh. We need to physically intervene when we witness racist violence taking place. Filming is too easy.

I was also thinking about the context in which we had been watching this film. In London, many of us take it for granted that white Americans are more racist than we are, that we can look down on their crude and cruel ways because we are better and kinder. I was wishing that we were discussing white supremacy, acknowledging that this is the system in which we are living – in the States, in the UK and throughout Europe. I was thinking about all the London dinner tables I’ve sat at, listening to highly educated white people insist they would never vote Conservative but are quite happy, over lemon meringue pie, to make ignorant comments about “Africa”, choosing words like “primitive” and “under-developed” to emphasize their point of view.

If you are still wondering what my point is, let me try to be more clear. Racism is not confined to the KKK and the neo-Nazis, or even the Republican Party and Britain’s Conservatives. There are many white people who feel afraid when they see a black man on their street, who imagine that this black male body will do them harm. There are many white people who don’t want a black family moving in next door. There are many white parents who do not trust a black teacher to educate their child as well as a white teacher. There are many white people who understand themselves to be superior because that is how they have been encouraged to think. These white people may read the Guardian. These white people may enjoy dancing to Bob Marley. These white people may enjoy going on safari. These may appreciate Lenny Henry. These white people may live in Brixton. These white people may send money to Comic Relief. These white people may boast about their multicultural community. These white people may love Doris Day. They may not think about John Wayne. These white people may admire Barack Obama. These white people may love Nelson Mandela. These white people take their whiteness for granted. They know white supremacy has nothing to do with them, these white people.