Apr 29 2012

Dead Africans on Page One (again)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:25 PM

The New York Times yet again last week displayed a disquieting pattern of presenting dead Africans on the front page of its great newspaper, while refusing to present dead Americans in the same fashion. In the latest instance of what I call the pornography of African, Times editor prominently displayed on the top left corner of its April 24 front page “the burned body of a boy.” The disturbing photo might seem appropriate — unless one considers that the children killed by, for instance, American drone attacks in Yemen or Pakistan, never receive similar photographic display. So even on the narrow grounds of newsworthiness, the contradictions are evident and ample: for mysterious “reasons,” dead Africans can be displayed in lavish fashion — this photo of this dead boy was in color! — while death inflicted by Americans cannot be displayed. Neither are the deaths experienced by Americans in combat suitable for front page photographic treatment (or inside the paper either).

How does the paper justify reporting on “dead day in South Sudan” in such manner? Why do even the finest American journalists continue to depict African suffering in ways considered inappropriate for American victims?

I continue to ask these questions even though the answers are not on offer. This sort of Western bias against Africans remains unconscious, embedded in a set of corrosive meta-narratives that deserve critical engagement with a goal of, someday, replacing them with tropes that do not demean and diminish Africans under the guise of promoting sympathy for them.

I’ve been asked (most recently by Chanda Chisala of Lusaka, Zambia), Why do journalists seemingly evince a preference for African deaths over others?

Maybe out of habit.

Possibly journalists think such photos provoke sympathy.

Or perhaps images of dead Africans sell. Pornography is a form of entertainment, after all, so there is the same gain in reader interest that comes from, say, violence in movies. That’s why the photo is on front page after all and not on page 12.

Finally there’s sublimation. Editors really want to publish photos of dead people but Americans resist too powerfully so editors pick the weakest to exploit: the anonymous African


Apr 26 2012

Killing the messenger: Islamic insurgency widens in Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:06 AM

Now the terror bombings in Nigeria are targeting the messenger: the offices of the venerable This Day newspaper.

“The suicide bomber came in a jeep and rammed a vehicle into the gate,” said Olusogen Adeniyi, chairman of the This Day editorial board. “Two of our security men died, and the obviously suicide bomber died too.”

This Day is broadly supportive of the Nigerian government and its president, Goodluck Jonathan. The bombing signals an escalation of the Islamic insurgency in Nigeria. The newspaper’s offices in the northern city of Kaduna also were bombed, This Day reported.

The targeting of journalists can only be an attempt at silencing critics of Islamic fundamentalism — and punishing those who promote intelligent debate over Nigeria’s future.

This Day is only one of many independent media outlets in Africa’s most populous country. Does this bombing suggest that journalists will now become routinely targeted by Boko Haram terrorist group? Surely the moment has arrived for the Nigerian government raise the level of seriousness of its domestic terror crisis.

Indeed, when President Jonathan visited the bonb site on Saturday, he suggested that the language describing Nigeria’s predicament had changed. In speaking about whether his administration seeks to negotiate a settlement with the Boko Haram insurgents, he said, “Just like a war situation, you may dialogue, you may not dialogue, depending on the circumstances. But we will exploit every means possible to bring this to an end.”

Jonathan’s comments belie a potential flaw in the Nigerian approach to its urgency: the government tends to view them as criminal conspiracies rather than political movements. In the case of the oil insurgency in the Niger Delta, treating dissent as criminality seems to be work. A series of deals and amnesties for Delta insurgents undercut resistance. But what deals can be made to pacify Boko Haram, whose leaders appear to believe they represent a movement of political autonomy for conservative Muslims. The wave of bombings in Kano – the latest murderous assault came Sunday against a gathering of Christians — suggests, at least to my wife Chizo, that fundamentalists seek to drive all Christians out of the major cities of north.


Apr 17 2012

Marathon races and the police culture of Kenya

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:28 PM

The strange life and troubling death of Kenyan marathoner Sammy Wanjiru received an exhaustive review in the hands of Sports Illustrated this month, in a long account, reported and written by David Epstein, of the champion marathon runner’s extraordinary spending sprees and womanizing. Even by the standards of genorosity and unsatiability displayed by the proverbial African “big man,” Wanjiru’s behavior reached standards of excess that raise questions about Wanjiru’s sanity. While Epstein steps back from drawing any conclusions about Kenyan culture from Wanjiru’s baroque self-destructiveness, he does shine a light on the dismal policing practices in the East African country. If someone as prominent as Wanjiru — who died a year ago in what is widely believed to be the result of either a terminal fall from a balcony or a deliberate murder — cannot receive a decent police investigation, imagine the treatment handed out to ordinary families who loses a loved one in suspicious circumstances. Police corrupted the crime scene, extinguished any chance of a professional autopsy and even raised doubts that they might have contributed to Wanjiru’s death. While Kenya lost a world-class champion in the process, the country’s police also have garnered another black mark for awful performance.


Apr 14 2012

Malawi wisdom

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:34 PM

After the sudden death, by heart attack, of Malawi’s 78-year president, Bingu wa Mutharika, earlier this month, Malawians anxiously suffered several days of uncertainty. First, the government would not immediately proclaim the president dead. Having been flown to South Africa for medical attention, Mutharika seemed to have gone missing rather than ceasing to exist. The confusion, of course, was ultimately explained by the rules of succession in Malawi, which called for vice president, Joyce Banda, to assume executive power. Not only was Banda a women in a Malawi riddled with casual sexism and long traditions patriarchal behavior, she was also a critic of Mutharika, a former World Bank official who seemingly did the impossible in managing an economic revival but tarnished his reputation by displaying increasingly autocratic behavior.

Mutharika’s death, then, had the potential to plunge Malawi, a small and oddly-shaped country in southern Africa that has often flirted with “state failure” over its 50-year history, into crisis. The question of whether Malawi should even be country — in colonial times Malawi, then known as Nysasland — was a thinly-populated British protectorate where a motley collection of whites and Asians controlled the economy, which mainly consisted of tobacco and tea growing. No less a central figure than Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi on its independence in 1964, questioned whether this long, thin and heavily-rural jurisdiction, should simply be rolled into its much larger neighbor, Zambia, which during British rule was known as Northern Rhodesia.

Doubts about Malawi’s viability have never completely vanished and, during the first decade of the 2000s, when Malawi faced a serious of severe food shortages, questions again arose over whether Malawians ought to voluntarily be absorbed into either Zambia or land-rich Mozambique, neighbor to the east.

Under Mutharika, Malawi settled on a set of policies that reward small farmers, who receive inputs such as fertilizer at reduced prices. The policy contradicted the advice of international assistance experts but Mutharika wisely argued that these experts were the cause of Malawi’s food shortages. He was proved right by Malawian farmers, who grew record amounts of corn under the stimilus of government buying programs. Indeed, Mutharika effectively nationalized the maize crop, repudiating free-market, neo-liberal agricultural policies that remain (sadly) the cornerstone of the international aid community’s approach to African farming.

Mutharika’s vanity, in the end, alienated a voting public that might otherwise have treated him as a hero. His death could have plunged the country into a new crisis, if his inner circle had refused to permit Joyce Banda’s ascension to the presidency. Her path was not blocked and Malawi, for the moment, again seems like a nation that deserves to the world’s admiration, if not Africa’s. Hailed as a grassroots leader, Banda must stand for election in 2014.


Apr 07 2012

Boko Haram’s Evolving Threat to Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:59 AM

J. Peter Pham released a timely paper this week on Boko Haram, tracing the history of the insurgent Nigerian movement in useful detail. Pham, who directs an Africa studies program at the Atlantic Council, concludes that the Nigerian government should “deal forthrightly with the threat” of violent Islamic extremism.

Pham is right. At the very least, Nigeria should, and the U.S. government should help. The question is how. What objectives should the Nigerian government have in addressing Boko Haram? Pham offers few clues on specific policy options open to a Nigerian government that, to put it politely, has badly handled the Islamicist threat over the past decade. Pham provides a few disturbing reasons why. First, elements in the Nigerian state may be covertly helping Boko Haram, which of course would make reducing acts of terror sponsored and carried out by the group more difficult. And Pham cites the emergence of critical leaders of Boko Haram who possess non-Nigerian roots. He singles out Chadian-born Mamman Nur, who is believed to have trained with al Shabab in Somalia and, according to Pham, returned to Nigeria in 2011 — in time to direct a deadly attack on a United Nations building in Abuja.

While Pham’s account is important, policymakers still lack a clearer sense of how Boko Haram fits into the longstanding regional differences in Nigeria, especially between Muslim North and the largely Christian “South South,” the Delta region, home to Goodluck Jonathan’s Ijo people and the larger Igbo grouping that my wife, Chizo, claims allegiance to. Boko Haram as a movement may ultimately be shown to be a foreign import, a formation alien to the political culture of Nigeria. Such is the suggestion by Pham and others, motivated in part by the need to find a justification for “internationalizing” the problem (ie, calling on the U.S., the African Union and others to help reduce and, ultimately, end terrorism in Nigeria).

Nigeria does need outside help in responding to Boko Haram. But we can support security aid to Nigeria without working overtime to create imagined enemies of the Nigerian state. But what is equally possible, and probably more disturbing than anything Pham identifies, is that Boko Haram may represent a destructive and dysfunctional, but authentic, movement of resistance, homegrown in Nigeria, and fueled by 50 years of festering, simmering and ultimately unaddressed regional differences, which are made more complicated because these regional differences often masquerade as religious ones.


Apr 03 2012

In Sall, Spring Comes to Senegal

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:51 PM

The election victory of Macky Sall marks the end of an era of political stagnation in Senegal.

Or does it?

Skeptics have pounced on Sall’s long experience as a political protege to evicted President Wade. Yet Sall undeniably represents a new generation of leaders in this Francophone West African country. Wade was an eightysomething gerontocrat; Sall is 50 years old and, astonishingly, about the same age as America’s youthful President Obama. Sall is also a technocrat; a geologist by training, he is a rare scientist to achieve a place in the commanding heights of African governance.

By outward appearances, then, Sall’s landslide electoral victory — he obtained nearly two-thirds of the votes, an astounding total for a campaigner who received only a quarter of the total votes cast in the first round of voting. Head-to-head against Wade, Sally gathered nearly all of the support that went to a dozen rival candidates in the first round, with Wade hardly better his original tally. The one-sided victory was a humiliating rebuke to Wade — and perhaps a warning to other African presidents who insist on refusing to accept limits on the number of terms they can hold in the highest office.

How Sall makes his mark on Senegal is now anyone’s guess. But two things are clear. First, the generational change in leadership is healthy in itself. Second, Sall comes from the Fula ethnic group. In a country where the Woloff are the largest ethnic group and the Serer are the most significant minority, Sall’s Fula heritage gives him the perspective of an outsider, which could help him lift Senegal out of stagnation. Popular in the beginning of his 12-year rule in 2000, Wade lost his following — and his reputation — over the practice of nepotism, public finance scandals, rising food prices and power cuts.

Sall promised to reduce government spending and improve performance. Perhaps his position as a Fula — few in number and hence Sall has few “relatives” to pay off — will help the new President slim down Senegal’s bloated government and improve the chances of providing more government services to the needy.


Apr 01 2012

Kenya’s oil rush: next, a rush for Turkana wives?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:22 PM

The apparent discovery of oil in a remote, impoverished part of Kenya follows the intense exploration and development of petroleum resources in Uganda and in Ghana, where expectations of petro-riches are starting to distort political and economic life. Now the same may occur in Kenya, though there are signs that euphoria may not take hold.

Nairobi’s formidable Nation newspaper reported last week on the humble Turkana village — in an arid region in northwest Kenya — that is apparently ground zero for the oil strike. Residents already are thanking God for somehow putting oil in a place where, until this month, seemingly was forgotten by God.

Politicians in Kenya are also acting like their prayers have been answered; for at the rate Kenyan lawmakers get paid — and spend money themselves — perhaps only a gusher oil strike can make balancing the public finances plausible. The Nation newspaper exuberantly reported: “Economic experts and political scientists say the discovery of oil will transform Kenya into a major player in world politics and provide a battleground for global powers eager to reap from the oil reserves.”

That’s unlikely of course, at least any time soon. The most immediate impact of the oil find in Kenya will likely be to send more people into the country’s churches, where prayers for prosperity now seem to carry a greater chance of success. The Kenyan situation reminds me of how Ghanaians, about ten years, began calling on the Lord, sometimes in televised prayers, to move some of Nigeria’s ample oil supplies to Ghana’s territory. As the chief of engineer of the universe, God apparently can send oil from one subterranean hiding place to another, even moving the crude across national borders. At least that’s how Ghanaian preachers described the process in their prayers and sermons, which purportedly have been answered — with Ghana’s own oil discovery now well established.

Though there are no reports of Kenyans praying for the movement of some of Uganda’s oil to Kenya, because God did do so. Which may explain why he chose the Turkana to receive his gift. Great people, tough history. Men from all over Kenya are now lining up to marry the daughters of this exotic and noble ethnic group.