Aug 21 2009

When fashion models are smarter than diplomats and presidents

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:15 AM

When models are smarter than diplomats and presidents, is the end of the world near?

I jest of course, but seriously, the complaint about the fear of rigged elections, by Gabon’s most famous beautiful woman, deserves a wide hearing — and reminds that the political charades in Africa may be tolerated by the great and the good but that even an “ordinary” fashion star perceives the folly that often goes under the name of “elections.”

Gloria Mika is of course no political scientist and she probably doesn’t even spend a lot of time in her home country of Gabon, choosing instead to catwalk around the runways of Europe. But while the august statesmen at the African Union and the great brains at the World Bank and the United Nations have failed to call for a halt to folly that is Gabon’s upcoming election, Mika has decided enough is enough. After 42 years of Omar Bongo as president-cum-dicatator of her resource-rich, sparsely=populated country, Mika thinks maybe, just maybe, the citizens of Gabon should not face the choice of electing Bonbo’s son as their next president.

“Forty-two years with the same president could make the citizens feel like: ‘What can we do anyway?’” she told BBC.

Now why can’t Obama say this or Zuma of South Africa or Wade of Senegal or Museveni of Uganda? Why can’t African leaders, so often found complaining about how their moral senses are not taken seriously, say what this fashion model has said?

The question is rhetorical. We know why. African leaders still hold fast to the notion of family dynasties, of passing power from father to son — or wife — or political lackey.

I applaud Mika’s courage in refusing to accept the folly of Gabon, in refusing to deny the reality that the African Union refuses to recognize. A new dictatorship is emerging in Gabon, or rather, the old dictatorship is changing its face.

Mika, who is the face of L’Oreal cosmetics, left Gabon at the age of 16 and lives in Paris. In her interview, she noted that because Gabon’s election later this month will be decided in only a single round, the winner — out of 23 candidates — might only need 20 percent of the vote.

That is only one technical flaw in the balloting. The biggest: allowing Bongo’s son to become one of the candidates. He and all others with links to the Bongo regime should have been banned from contesting, and the election itself should have been held later in the year in order to allow candidates to organize around real reformers. Having been robbed of true civic life for so many decades, the people of Gabon should have been given a months — not weeks — in order to “exercize” the machinery of free speech and political association.

Instead, the sun will quickly set on Gabon’s “experiment” in elections, and the African Union, which could have objected to the election but hasn’t, will give critics fresh reasons  for viewing this organization as an obstacle to the advancement of the peoples of the region.


Aug 16 2009

Misunderstanding Africa: heart of darkness redux

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:40 PM

Thomas Friedman, the uber-columnist and senior globalization writer at the New York Times, jetted into Botswana last week, then flew to the remote Okavango Delta, rich in wildlife and terribly expensive for foreign visitors. Friedman quickly realized his many wireless devices were useless and cleverly dubbed this pristine and nearly depopulated northern part of B0tswana to be the “Land of No Service.” He then went on to extrapolate from his summer vacation that “much of Africa” is a Land of No Service.

Once more, another bigtime American finds Africa a convenient prop to push a larger message about life and the world. In this case, Friedman wants to inform us that being disconnected from the global web has some benefits. But why must he lie about Africa — demonizing it once more as a place of darkness — in order to drive home his point?

His “no service” mainly refers to his cell phone and even sat phone. Yet in reality, cell phone in Africa is today fantastic. In my own travels, even to remote places, mobile-service is often fine. Indeed, the more remote the area I visit, the stronger my signal (because fewer people are making calls). At times in Africa, and again in remote parts, I ponder why I never experience a dropped call (ie, a call that ends because the network is overloaded), while in the Bay Area, where I live, I suffer through a half-dozen dropped calls every day.

Botswana is of course a special situation, being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. Friedman tells us the country is the size of Texas; he does not tell us that the population of Texas is twelve times greater than Botswana’s. So of course there are “no service” places in Botswana, but the reason is not technological but social: the Botswanans want it that way. They want to be able to tell their well-heeled tourists that they are really in a remote place. For Friedman to confuse an exotic tourist destination with a place of Africa poverty is an echo of past gross misunderstandings of the African condition.


Aug 15 2009

Zuma Zooms

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:57 AM

Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa for nearly 100 days, got strong marks from the Financial Times on Friday. The FT, a great chronicler of African affairs, was strongly critical of Zuma in the runup to his election, essentially raising the specter of some new heart of darkness descending on South Africa because of his populist tendencies. Zuma and his friends warned that he was actually a moderate and he’s so far played to this script. Poor South Africans are impatient with his cautious approach to redistributing wealth. Yet financial markets, as the FT points out, have “applauded” his choice of anew head for the the country’s central bank. Zuma also wins plaudits from the FT for his willingness to include non-blacks in his policy initiatives. He’s even gone so far as “to persuade white emigrants to return” the country. The greater openness to white participation is welcome because his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, seemed often to demonize his white critics and racialize political disputes. In another contrast to Mbeki, who was aloof and formal, Zuma shows a passion for getting around the country. The FT gives a fascnating anecdote about about Zuma’s unannounced visit to the mayor of a troubled township, Balfour. The mayor’s secretary was so shocked to see South Africa’s leader that she dropped her lunch on the floor — before quickly calling the mayor, who had knocked off early, back to his desk.”There is no place that will be hidden from me,” Zuma was quoting as saying afterwards.

The true tests for Zuma’s presidency lie ahead. But his first hundred days have silenced the hysterical fears surrounding his rise to power — and set the stage for real acheivements.


Aug 12 2009

Dictatorship in the Desert

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:26 AM

President Obama request to aging, tired and unimaginative African leaders that they make way for a new generation isn’t being heard in the poor, landlocked nation of Niger, where President Mamadou Tandja, long oblivious to his country’s urgent problems, has this month shamefully rigged an election that revises the country’s “constitution” in order to permit him to remain in office for another three years — and then stand for re-election indefinitely.

Tandja’s move, in his tenth year in the presidency, amounts to the imposition of dictatorship. In a message to critics, Tandja has jailed one opposition leader who the BBC reports has been beaten in jail.

There is little outsiders can do to end the folly in Niger. Aid agencies already prop up the state for “humanitarian” reasons. The French, who could force through a change, are showing less willingness to undermine African leaders under Sarkozy. And the French may feel preoccupied with the sudden power gap in Gabon, where Omar Bongo’s death creates a succession challenge. Niger also offers few strategic benefits. Except for uranium, the country has nothing essential for the world.

Niger is an important bellwether for Muslim Africa. The country runs across the top of northern Nigeria and inhabits a belt of savannah of environmental signficance to the region. At best, outsiders should begin pleading with Niger’s president to announce a date when he will permanently retire from office. The best hope will be for Tandja to decide that three more years in office is enough. Maybe Mo Ibrahim, the African philanthropist and former telecom king, can be persuaded to give Tandja a hefty payment — and perhaps in France — as an inducement to leaving Niger alone.


Aug 11 2009

Male circumcision in East Africa: new film

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:21 PM

Today is the third anniversary of Africa Works, and I’m celebrating by trumpeting the arrival of a short documentary film about male circumcision rituals among the Bugisu in Uganda. The Bugisu live in the foothills of Mount Elgon and represent a powerful farming community with strong traditions. For a few years, I’ve been studying a Bugisu village, mainly to better understand agricultural issues in Africa. On one visit, last November, my videographer, a talented journalist from Kenya named Juliet Torome, departed from our usual observations in order to witness three days of a remarkable bi-annual circumcision ritual. Torome spent hours each day following around two young men as they prepared for circumsion and then underwent “the cut” before an audience of hundreds of their neighbors. Torome, with the help of a gifted American editor, Melanie Reynard, last month created a riveting short documentary, distilled from more than a dozen hours of video. Shot on a simple camera, the documentary gives a rare glimpse of living traditions. The film will be aired shortly on the educational station, KMTP.

One point highlighted by Torome’s documentary is the growing appreciation among public-health experts of the role of male circumcision in suppressing HIV/AIDs. The Bugisu rituals underscore the idea that Western medicine does not have a monopoly on the circumcision. Proponents of this technique as a means of reducing the epidemic would do well to remember the appeal of tradition in promoting cricumcision among men.


Aug 09 2009

Why limit UN rape inquiry to Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:37 PM

The head of the United Nations has made a brave and timely call for a formal inquiry into rape as a tool of war in Africa. Why not broaden the inquiry to the entire world? To limit the investigation of rape to Africa reinforces the corrosive belief that Africans — and especially African men — are engaged in a special kind of evil that has no parallel or precedent elsewhere in the world. Abuse of women is a global problem — and has a long history in both Europe and Asia. In Korea, home of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Japanese visitors physically exploited women during Japan’s occupation of Korea in the last century. More recently, in the former Yugoslavia, rape was also a tool of terror and civil war. While it may be true that today rape in Africa as a tool of war occurs more frequently than anywhere else in the world, this still begs the question of the appropriate international response. Is it to once again send the message that special horrors occur only in Africa? To do so is to repeat the old canard that has informed thinking about Africa since Joseph Conrad wrote his novella, “the Heart of Darkness.” In justly identifying moral failures in Africa — and holding those who cause them responsible — we should not promote the wrongheaded notion of African “exceptionalism” in moral matters. To me, the dubious notion that Africa spawns special moral failures skates too closely to the argument of the 19th century occupiers of Africa who insisted that the mental and moral inferiority of Africans demanded that they could not judge themselves and manage their own affairs — and that Europeans must do so for them. Today, some of the same arguments are made about why Africans cannot be trusted to discipline the criminals among them. Rape is a crime that Africans must address fully and energetically. They need the world’s help to do so in some cases. But in giving Africans help to identify and criminalize the rapists among them, the world ought to introduce the lessons from other places and other times. No one part of the world has a monopoly on the abuse of women; and intelligent, compassionate responses to the persistence of rape as a tool of war can come from anywhere.


Aug 07 2009

The social construction of rape in Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:31 AM

The subject of mistreatment of African women is neglected, both within Africa and across the world. African women generally face great obstacles in exercizing their legal rights. Sexual mistreatment of women in Africa – from mild forms of harassment at work to tragic physical abuse – remains the most flagrant problem, but not the only one. Women can have difficulty exercizing their rights to property, education, even public speech.

A new book, “The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence,” is focused on wholly on the sexual abuse of women during the Rwandan genocide. The book contains disturbing testimony from seventeen rape female  victims that lacks independent corroboration, but tracks reports stretching back many years. While many books have documented the genocide, I think this is the only book to concentrate on rape and sexual mistreatment exclusively. One shortcoming, from a standpoint of scholarship, is that the testimonies in the book were collected fairly recently, more than 13 years after the genocide – and most of the events described in the book – took place. The authors apparently only first visited Rwanda in December 2007. By this time, Rwanda society was almost entirely organized around the preservation and promotion of the genocide. Because these oral testimonies cover long-ago events and contain few surprises or dramatic tales, they lack an immediacy that might improve the readability of the book. Because these testimonies also lack analysis, they most easily fall into the category of “bearing witness.”  The woman are careful not to blame anyone in particular for the what happened to them and they ask, understandably, that the atrocities brought against them never be done to others.

A short foreword by Stephen Lewis is excellent, and his endorsement of the project is significant.

I might seem unkind, or stupid, to raise the issue of veracity and lack of context, so I will explain a bit.

One reason for concern about veracity is that Lewis and Eve Ensler, who wrote the Afterword, are both prominent actors in a campaign to draw attention to the problem of rape in Eastern Africa, notably the Congo and Rwanda. This book fits neatly into their campaign. Rape is horrible and I agree wholly with Lewis, writing in his foreword: “I don’t understand what possesses men to behave with such bestiality.” Yet by calling African men beasts, and doing so indiscriminately in this book, the tradition of demonizing African men – as presenting as beasts, as sub-human – is revived. I’m concerned about the fervor with which well-meaning Westerners criticize African men as behaving in inexplicable, bewildering and utterly repulsive ways. This reaction strikes me as trading on the entire “heart of darkness” legacy, and I wonder why critics of the brutality of African men – and evidence of this brutality is undeniable – cannot make more specific, nuanced claims.

The final chapter, Life After Death, supplies some sound criticisms of the government of Rwanda, whose officials are usually given too much credit. In the final three pages, there are references to the wider world and the decision by the UN Security council, in June 2008, to join the campaign to, as the authors put it, “end sexual violence in conflict.”

Why rape emerged as a tactic in civil wars around the world in the 1990s is not explored in this book. About the same time as the Rwandan genocide, the tactic emerged on a large scale in the former Yugoslavia, which neither Lewis nor the authors mention at all, choosing instead to make only references to African examples of rape as a tool of war. Again, I worry that the authors have some blindspot that allows them only to see African men acting as beasts and not European men in the former Soviet bloc or Japanese men, who raped with impunity and on a massive scale in China in the 1930s and 40s. That rape of African women by black men is viewed in isolation by educated women and a former Canadian UN official remains a blemish on this book, in my view. The book reinforces the idea that Africans inhabit a separate moral zone that is far far worse than anything ever experienced by non-Africans. This shortcoming is both predictable and easily remedied, by adding another short chapter that examines rape as a tool of war through history. We will find that white Americans raped Native American women with impunity in the conquest of the American; that the Japanese pillaged Asian women in the 20th century; and that advancing Soviet soldiers, in the waning months of WW2, did the same to thousands of German women. Punishment of women through rape can never be understood solely in terms of misogyny. To insist that men rape women out of some irrational hatred of them explains little or nothing. Rape as a tool in war is directed, ultimately, as much at the men who possess these victimized women as against the women themselves. That is why, in my humble opinion, rape as a tool of war is flourishing most in parts of the world where women are essentially the property of fathers and husbands. It is not only because men in war act horribly. To ruin a man’s property in war is the ultimate act of rationality. To rape his wife and daughter is to attempt to destroy his morale, his pride, his willingness to rebuild his life. Rapes in the former Yugoslavia had this very same aim. To understand that rape as a tool of war “makes sense,” however perverse, renders rape no less criminal.


Aug 06 2009

Midnight in Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:16 PM

The recent protests in northern Nigeria, centered in the city of Maiduguri deserve much reflection and serious responses. Nigeria is alone among the nations of the world in having a large  population equally divided between Muslims and Christians. Tensions over religion have always been high in Nigeria, yet the country has contained them much better than outsiders recognize. Maiduguri is itself something of a cosmopolitan city, brimming with diversity; the range of Islamic views is even wide. Nigerian’s are correct when they say (rather defensively now) that Boko Haram is atypical. Indeed, even Islamicists usually have a friendly face in Nigeria.

Continent-wide, Islam in Africa has long roots and maintains a distinctive (and Africanized) character. And yet despite its authenticity in an African context, Islam faces renewed challenges to its legitimacy from an aggressive, mobilized evangelical Christianity. In Nigeria, some “muscular” Christians have demonized Muslims in their midst, adding to their sense of grievance. To begin with, Muslims are among the least educated and poorest segments of Nigerian society (this is also true in Ghana, Kenya, Uganda and other Anglophone countries where Muslims are a significant minority). Economic marginalization thus co-evolves with religious marginalization. This is the context with which to view the anti-Western grassroots Islamic opposition to a secular, “modern,” pro-Western Nigeria.

One further thought: the execution in police custody of the leader of the fundamentalist  Boko Haram sect  (“Education is prohibited”) should be deplored. Yet police executions are routine in Nigeria (as they are in Kenya). The failures of police are socially-constructed; during the dark decades of dictatorial rule in Nigeria, the police were systematically weakened in order to give the armed forces greater sway over civil society. Improving the quality of policing should be a major goal of Nigeria’s government, yet the police continue to be treated as a “poor step-child” to Nigeria’s military.

The issue of civil control of course bedevils any discussion about Nigeria’s “potential.” The country is home to enormously talented people, yet the apparatus of the state remains weak and maybe weakening. The Islamic rebellion in Maiduguri provoked such a ferocious counter-attack from the capital of Abuja in part because the government had just made an “amnesty” offer to rebels in the Niger Delta. Perhaps the government is trying to send a message to other restive regions: don’t expect the same “generous” treatment as the Delta dissenters are receiving.

The problem of the Delta, where the rebels come chiefly from a single ethnic group, shares little on the surface with the challenge of restive Islam. Yet on the eve of a visit to Nigeria by Secretary of State Clinton, questions about the capacity for Nigeria to prevent deepening civil unrest ring louder than any time since the early 1970s, when following a bloody war to half an Igbo seccession Abuja created a new federal system that largely in place today.

The drums of civil war are beating again in Nigeria, and the time for bold action on behalf of peace is now.