Mar 22 2012

When Time Stands Still: is Mauritania Africa?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:20 AM

CNN deserves praises for its enterprising report on the persistence of human bondage in Mauritania, a country which straddles the cleavage between North Africa and the region to its South, the sub-Saharan which consumes my own attention. Sparsely populated, resource poor and profoundly isolated, Mauritania is defined by Islam — and imprisoned by outmoded ways of thought that even 100 years ago were contested by reformers in the Muslim world.

To be sure, the character and frequency of slavery in Mauritania remains an open question. The government has outlawed the practice and activists have beseiged the country, even opening shelters for “runaway” slaves. The rhetoric plays well in the U.S., but the activist agenda appears to have caused scant change in Mauritania itself, where CNN vividly reports that slavery persists in rural areas especially.

Reporter John D. Sutter, in his reports at CNN online, gives voice to the voiceless among the Mauritanians abused by their country’s ragged tradition of bondage. Whether 10-20 percent of Mauritania’s 3.4 million population lives in slavery — as CNN suggests — is not the point. The feudal exploitation of one set of people by another, is an artifact of history in black Africa, where the colonial slave trade fueled a heightened awareness of the essential value of human liberty. “Better poverty with freedom than wealth in chains” was the rallying cry of many an African activist during the fitful decolonialization of the sub-Saharan. Such active and relentless repudiation of the practice of human bondage never happened in North Africa, leaving the Mauritanians to wander in their confused twilight between inhumanity and illegality.

That Mauritania is not part of the African experience doesn’t mean we should care about the plight of its slaves. But activists need to be wary of exploiting an outmoded and false meta-narrative — Africans enslaving each other — when they present the story of contemporary Mauritania for global audiences. Here the map lies. Mauritania is no more part of the African experience. Ali Mazrui many years ago proclaimed the “triple heritage” of Africa in order to bring Islam fully into the mix of African spiritual traditions (along with Christianity and animism or traditional religion). But the great Mazrui did not mean to integrate every practice of North Africa into the tapestry of black sub-Saharan life; only some.

Slavery in Africa? No.


Mar 08 2012

Kony hijacked by purveyors of poisonous meta-narratives

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:05 PM

The self-appointed documenters of African exploitation received a measure of opprobrium this week, as CBS News points out in its report on the questionable viral video campaign of the non-profit Invisible Children.

Invisible Children has been criticized for spending more of their resources on advocacy and filmmaking rather than on-the-ground humanitarian work. And they’ve also been accused of grossly mis-representing the politics and context surrounding indicted Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, who remains on the loose despite decades of his murderous assault on civilians, especially children.

“One consequence, whether it’s [Invisible Children] or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone,” Chris Blattman, professor of political science and economics at Yale University, told CBS. “At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures.”

Blattman, one of the most perceptive commentators on African affairs and on the contradictions of aid projects in the region, is highlighting a problem that I’ve longed complained about: the tendency to Americans and Europeans to hijack African problems for their own purposes. The case of Jospeh Kony seems to have attracted some of the worse examples of this general tendency, with its stark and often-inaccurate depictions of Kony, his Lords Resistance Army and the conditions of northern Uganda.

Many of the stories of the LRA are simply fabricated, and there is no discussion of the geopolitical rationale for Sudan’s support for Kony and the LRA — or why Museveni and the US tolerated his activities for so long. These documentaries are also profoundly ignorant of ethnic issues. The film-makers, invariably white and professed altruist, present a story that goes like this: black people woke up one day and started killing each other for no reason. the men also mistreated horribly their women and children, again for no reason.

When the US government kills wome and children in Afghanistan, as its forces surely have done, we are told that these actions are regretable mistakes; and the very white altruistic do-gooders who complain about Kony and African brutality say nothing.

In fact, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have very specific grievances against the Ugandan government and even the highest leaders of the Acholi, such as Norbert Mao, an elected member of the Ugandan government, view the LRA as an expression of Acholi grievance. To be sure, Mao disapproves of Kony and his methods, he deplores the mistreatment of children and he wishes the Acholi could only peacefully express their dissent.
But your documentary and the many others like it never speak to Maoi or understand the conflict in ethnic terms. These film-makers are part of industry that gets monetary rewards for re-packaging lies and half-truths for the sole purpose of presenting Africans as half-human, diminished victims of their own people.

My wife Chizo, in these situations, would ask, why are foreigners so eager to document our failures when they have so little interest in African successes. Some insight into this pathology can be found in my own lengthy examination of  the persistent tropes, or meta-narratives, that explain how Westerners become committed to denigrating, diminishing and dismissing Africans — without even realizing they are doing.

In brief, in reviewing the various  “meta-narratives,” or tropes, in storytelling by non-Africans about Africa, I first identify these tropes and then argue that they grip the minds of outsiders so fiercely as to prevent them from actually seeing Africa and its people in their terms (whatever that might be) and instead see Africans as a “prop,” or backdrop against which to play out their own issues. Problematic and perverse meta-narratives are, in my view, the challenging intellectual issue facing Western thinkers on Africa.

These tropes can and should be contested — and the flap over the actions of Invisible Children should promote more critical perspectives on how African conflicts are depicted and why.


Mar 02 2012

In Senegal, a new fight against legal monarchs

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:57 AM

In a recent article for the Atlantic.com, I complained about the vanity of Senegal’s president, Wade, who rather than stepping into retirement after two terms has insisted on running for a third. He even went so far as to alter the Constitution to do so. Senegalese voters responded this week by repudiating Wade, who received barely more than one-third of the vote. Now he must stand in a run-off against a challenger who nearly matched his vote totals. The challenger, Macky Sall, is already appealing to the 11 other challengers in the race. So far, he’s won an endorsement from the third-highest vote-getter.

Senegalese politics is highly stylized, and this election is essentially about a generational transfer of power. Wade claims to be 85 years old and is part of an elite born into French colonial rule and weaned on a detached, arrogant top-down style of leadership once distinctly French but now not even employed by politicians in France. By contrast Sall, who is 50 years old, represents a generation who has lived through Senegal’s stagnation and continued economic dependence on France. Unlike other Africans that have avoided civil wars and experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, Senegal has not. Sall need to say little more than that he stands for change. In fact, he stands for youth. In a country of political geriatrics, Sall seems positively youthful. His victory in a vote scheduled for either March 18 or 25 would not transform sleepy Senegal but at least bring the country into the 21st century.

Most importantly, the democratic process in the sub-Saharan, which often merely ratifies the status quo, would send a powerful message to other presidents who bend laws and abandon past promises in an attempt to become legal monarchs. To many African democracies are coming dangerously close to being undermined by political dynasties based on personality cults. For this reason alone, the next Senegalese vote looms large.