“If there had been time or space, I would have liked to confront the frequent preoccupation with African ‘governance’ on the one hand and African ‘corruption’ on the other. The corruption issue is particularly gnawing since it forever seems to tarnish the continent’s right to health and recovery.”Â — Stephen Lewis
Aug 21 2007
The brief call last week by the New Vision to respect the freedom of African journalists is worth repeating in full — is further evidence of the steady maturation of media in the region:
“THE landscape of media freedom in Africa in the past few months is gloomy. In Somalia, six journalists have been killed, in Eritrea at least eight have fled the country and two others are missing and feared dead. In July, two journalists in Congo were arrested for offending the president, and in Nairobi, hundreds of Kenyan journalists yesterday marched in silent protest against a new media bill that would force them to disclose their sources for any story that gives rise to a legal dispute. If the bill is passed, freedom of expression will be at risk.
“In Uganda, many have been beaten up, threatened, intimidated, insulted or had their equipment destroyed by various groups. On Tuesday, a gang in Nakivubo beat up a New Vision journalist. His ‘crime’ was taking a picture of a channel that was pouring sewerage into Nakivubo Settlement School.
“Journalism is a cardinal pillar of democracy that keeps alive free flow of information. Journalists play the watchdog role for society. Journalists may get it wrong from time to time, but they are not always entirely to blame. The Access to Information Act is in place but it is not operational. Though on paper public information is open, it is still extremely difficult having access to basic information in this country. Statistics are scarce and often treated as classified.
“In most cases, only the permanent secretaries or ministers can talk to the press and they are not readily available. Journalists are left with no option, but to piece up bits and pieces of information, with the risk of making errors.
“On our part, as journalists we need to exercise uttermost professionalism to dislodge critics. There is need to be thorough, accurate, balanced, fair, honest and resilient to ensure that detractors of democracy are not armed with excuses to fight press freedom.
“For the press to play an effective facilitating role to democracy, it is important and in everybody’s interest, that journalists be allowed to do their work without intimidation because that is the only way information will flow to serve the communities.”
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Aug 20 2007
“The urban African-American lifestyle has never ceased to influence African urban life. African-American music has always played a major role in the lives of Africans all over the continent, especially in South Africa.” —
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Aug 20 2007
Charles Taylor deserves swift justice and he isn’t receiving it. The former President of Liberia, on trial for crimes against humanity in the Netherlands, has wrangled a reprieve until next January. Lawyers for Taylor have persuaded the International Criminal Court to allow them more time to prepare a defense. The time may be spent well, moreoever, since Taylor’s case is complicated. Human-rights advocates have trumpeted the fact that Taylor is the first African head of state to go on trial for human-rights violations. The trouble is that Taylor’s alleged crimes didn’t occur within his own bodies. Given all the African dictators — present and former — how have directly killed and tormented their own citizens, Taylor’s case is unfortunately challenging. He waged a vicious proxy war in Sierra Leone, but the nature of his involvement makes achieving a conviction hardly routine. How much better to have put on trial, say, Omar Bashir, Sudan’s president, whose direct role in extra-legal killings can be amply (even easily) documented. The international justice community does itself a disservice by avoiding straight-line cases such as Bashir’s. To be sure, Taylor deserves imprisonment; his Liberian rule was criminal many times over. Yet his law-breaking could be well adjudicated within Liberia itself, rather than in Holland — and by Liberians, not foreign do-gooders. By abdicating responsibility for dealing with Taylor humanely yet decisively, Liberia’s new democratic government loses an opportunity to display its rationale and its effectiveness. By aiding and abetting the loss of this opportunity for Liberian self-reliance, the international community perversely weakens African efforts to discipline its own law-breaking dictators. International criminal courts have a role to play in forging national justice and reconcillation but the role must be limited enough to allow national governments — and their polities — to exercize their own legitimate powers. Swift justice for Taylor — on Liberian soil, and by Liberians — remains the best possible option for dealing with a bad situation. What is happening in the Hague court is at least a notch below the optimal. Time will tell whether Taylor’s caseÂ is an example ofÂ “half a loaf” internationalism — or worse.
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Aug 16 2007
“This seems to be the inescapable fate of African political problems fifteen years after the Cold War ended. There are no big political, economic or security stakes for the developed world in these conflicts — just the deaths of human beings.” — Gerard Prunier
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Aug 16 2007
The great French Africanist Gerard Prunier has published a revised and expanded edition of his small 2005 classic, “Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide.” Published by Cornell University Press, the new edition contains a new final chapter and retains essential insights into the deceptively complex conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.Â In a new preface, Prunier ponders the worsening crisis in Darfur and the inability of the international community to craft and impose a resolution. While still a compact book — of less than 200 pages of prose — “Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide” remains an essential introduction to one of the world’s most costly conflicts.
For a longer take on the book, see my Salon review of the original edition.
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Aug 16 2007
Why does CARE, the international charity, need more than a year to phase out of the dubious practice of selling American-grown food — purchased at deep discounts with the help of the American government — to African consumers. Africans grow their own food and their markets are disrupted by the dumping of American-grown food into their countries. To be sure, there is a role for direct food aid, but aid agencies should not be in the position of becoming peddlers of food under the guise of provide foreign assistance, or charity. The economics of food aid is complex, yet no one disagrees that African farmers are better off growing more food rather than less. The U.S. government would do better to give African governments and relief agencies money to purchase food in Africa at market prices, thus benefiting farmers by encouraging them to grow more food. The key point here is that Americans ought to do whatever possible to encourage Africans to grow enough food to meet their needs. Taxpayers should not be funding a program that essentially only helps Americans farmers get rid of food that they can’t sell on the open market and probably shouldn’t have grown in the first place. Charities such as CARE have long been willing co-conspirators in a vast fraud that harms poor African farmers while benefiting much richer ones — all under the guise of doing good. CARE is wise to end its complicity in this morally-tainted system of turning charities into food peddlers on behalf of fat-cat American farmers. But why not end the practice now? Why wait? The harm to African farmers continues.
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Aug 12 2007
“HIV vaccine development is the major public health challenge of our time; there is no alternative but to engage into and continue an aggressive and tenacious global effort.” — Adel Mahmoud
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Aug 12 2007
The recent death of Michelangelo Antonioni reminded me that perhaps greatest European film set in Africa — and the most neglected Africa-based film of all time — was Antonioni’s 1975 film, The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson as a burnt-out journalist named David Locke. Locke is on assignment somewhere in the Sahara — Sudan? — and he is shown disgusted by both the emptiness of an African leader he interviews and the very forms of journalism that allow genuine inquiry into current affairs to be turned into a dark comedy. Locke wants out and he takes an unlikely exit: he finds a dead man in another room in his hotel and takes his identity. He turns out to have become an arms dealer wanted by some shadowy aggrieved customer. Locke travels to Europe, where he meets Maria Schneider, who either sets him up for his assasination, or innocently brings him to such a remote destination that his murder can be easily carried out.
As in most movies that brings Europeans and Americans to Africa, the “dark continent” ignites some dark impulses in these otherwise good characters. Africa both liberates and spoils them. This is the grand “heart of darkness” theme that began with Joseph Conrad and continues to be repeated to this day (see the young British doctor in Last King of Scotland; he becomes unhinged morally and mentally by his encounter with Idi Amin). Nicholson-as-Locke also become unhinged through his encounter with Africa, though clearly the only damage he does is to himself.
Perhaps because the existential themes in The Passenger are so dominant, I can forgive Antonioni for using Africa in such a banal way. The dark ending of the movie is of course a reflection of the Italian director’s own dark view of the world, informed by the crackup of European civilization that culminated in the rise of fascism and in the blood and gore of World War II. Antonioni and countless other post-war European intellectuals and artists saw no avenues for moral redemption (there was “no exist” from condemnation and ennui, in Sartre’s terms). So Africa, as everywhere else, becomes a terrain to act out the existentially-inevitable collapse of Western rationality and ethics. The Passenger thus presents Africa as both the cause of the crackup of a well-meaning journalist and an irrelevant backdrop.
Since my own personal project is to locate, identify and amplify the sources of redemption in the Western encounter with Africa (and the collision between Africans of different ethnicities and backgrounds too), my own journalism about Africa moves along a very different pathway than the one chosen by Antonioni’s David Locke character. Locke sought out the Big Man in Africa and then listened to his lies, unable to adequately address them through his craft of journalism. I seek out the Little Man (and woman) in Africa — then give voice to their hopes and document their (often modest) achievements, aiming to raise the possibility of redemption from within Africa — redemption by Africans and for Africans. Not incidentally, there exists the possibility of finding my own redemption in this process of discovery. For like Locke, Zachary the journalist is the creation of a morally bankrupt civilization whose best-intended people seek to escape the immorality of their own society’s by finding real and spurious ways to “uplift” Africans. That these do-gooders often cannot tell the difference between the real and the spurious is their existential tragedy. Antonioni was too old to address such a contradiction in a film. The tasks awaits a younger movie-maker.
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