Nov 12 2012

The next civil war in Nigeria?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:25 PM

The publication of Chinua Achebe’s long-awaited memoir about Nigeria’s 30-month civil war, from 1967-1970, comes at a time when many Nigerians are wondering (and worrying) whether their country (Africa’s most populous) is on the verge of another civil. The first, the subject Achebe’s book, pitted the country’s ethnic groups against one an0ther and led Achebe’s own Igbo group to secede (unsuccessfully). The next civil war, Nigerians fear, might pit Muslims against non-Muslims. Partly because Islam takes many forms in social and political domains within Nigeria, and Africa as a whole, the entire subject of Muslim-Christian relations is complex and challenging. But the persistence of Boko Haram’s violent campaign against ordinary Nigerians concerns US policymakers. The hope is that the Nigerian state will organize itself to manage better the Islamic grievances. In recent years, the Nigerian government has mis-handled several opportunities to undercut Boko Haram. The reconciliation with anti-government forces in the Delta (notably, the Ijaw) seems to offer one path that has yet been traveled with Boko Haram. That might no longer be possible, given the level of violence, however. Hence, the emergence of the option no one seems to want: splitting Nigeria along religious lines.

Nov 10 2012

the elusive malaria vaccine: no Salk in this story (yet)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:25 PM

The headline says it all: In  Clinical Trial, Malaria Vaccine Candidate Produces Disappointing Results

Three shots of the vaccine, known as RTS, S or Mosquirix and produced by GlaxoSmithKline, gave babies fewer than 12 weeks old 31 percent protection against detectable malaria and 37 percent protection against severe malaria, according to an announcement by the company at a vaccines conference in Cape Town.

If it chooses to persist with its experimental malaria vaccine, the global pharma giant, GSK, will be going against the entire history of vaccines. Drug efficacy is general 75 percent or higher (much). GSK expected 50 percent and proceeded because donors paying all trial costs. At only 33 percent effectiveness, many African governments likely won’t want to distribute the vaccine. The heavier costs fall on the distribution, actually; and with African health-workers stretched and in short supply, and with so much “low-hanging fruit” available in the form of straight-forward public health actions, there are enormous opportunity penalties for concentrating on low-outcome activities, which is what the GSK malaria vaccine appears to be, given these new trial results.
The human problem, on the individual level, is that you are telling African parents that for every 3 kids they vaccinate against malaria, two will still die if the disease strikes with full force. That’s not even a vaccine at that rate. It’s not even a prophylactic. Nearly all vaccines in use today are plus 50 percent effective (and, often, nearly 100 percent effective).
The disappointing trial results raises the uncomfortable question of whether GSK completely misunderstood the science behind malaria disease. Because the cost of performing the clinical trials, which have been the most expensive ever conducted on African soil, were underwritten by others, GSK has incurred no financial penalty, only a cost to the company’s reputation for drug development. The big question now is whether the Bill Gates foundation and other underwriters of malaria research will continue to cover the costs of testing a vaccine whose health benefits must be weighed against those that can be delivered in other areas at the same cost.

On the frontier of public-health medicine, such decisions are not easy to make.

Nov 09 2012

With Obama victory, U.S.-Africa relations to remain on steady course (Part One)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:30 PM

Having not mentioned Africa in any of the debates, or in any campaign speeches, President Obama made a big point (albeit indirectly) to American voters that the sub-Saharan region is rarely, if ever, on his capacious mind. In gaining re-election, might Obama bring African issues to the fore?

Not likely, given the urgent domenstic fiscal and economic issues bearing down on his second term. But the insular focus on the American homeland should not alter the established trajectory in U.S.-Africa relations. The trajectory clearly suits Obama’s wider personal preference for African self-reliance and also reflects the reality that in many ways Obama’s own African roots are not especially relevant to the defining issues in U.S.-Africa relations.

In only one sense are these issues shaped by culture and identity, and that is in the potential role for recent African immigrants to the U.S. — many already naturalized and politically active — in promoting new directions in relations between their region of origin and the U.S. To be sure, Obama’s own job as Commander-in-Chief insures that some kind of “inherited” African perspective is always present at the highest levels of the American government. More broadly, the expanding set of human relationships, linking Africans and Americans, and building on their legacy of the rich engagement of African-Americans with Africa, remains a source of profound surprise.

More predictable certainly are a set of well-established concerns that define U.S.-Africa relations under Obama. Far from redefining or revolutionizing this relationship, as president, Barack Obama did much to continue and carry on the forms of engagement initiated by Presidents Clinton and Bush. Indeed, the roots of every major aspect of U.S-Africa relations in the Obama era were laid during the two-term Bush presidency.

Under Bush, humanitarian concerns dominated; the most dramatic evidence came in the expensive pledge by American taxpayers to fund ARV treatment for Africans with HIV-AIDS. Enormously generous and effective in providing life-saving treatment for millions of ordinary Africans, the partnership on ARVs, launched by Bush, was renewed by Obama. While humanitarianism (to paraphrase a prescient book on the subject by the Council on Foreign Relations) is not enough to build a durable relationship of mutual benefit between the sub-Saharan and the U.S., the impulse to help — and the help itself — remains central to official policies.

“Humanitarianism-plus” might accurately describe the U.S. posture except that the movement on the ground suggests far greater complexity in U.S.-Africa relations and emerging set of self-interested security reasons for U.S. engagement and for a “mutual benefit” partnership with African governments.

Oct 20 2012

Blacks in North Africa: El Hamel’s new book on race and identity in Morocco

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:22 PM

African studies has long suffered from a divide between north and south of the Sahara. Scholars of the sub-Saharan strained to buold bridges with the studies of North Africa, which from Braudel to the present has been integrated neatly (and not illogically) into the Mediterranean world. Pan Africanists of course emphasize the unity of Africa and recent single-volume histories of the entire continental land mass earnestly attempt to identify robust multi-directional links between North and South.

One challenge for both approaches to understanding Africa is race. The sub-Saharan and “black Africa” are largely viewed as coincident. North Africa, by contrast, is chiefly viewed as part of the “Arab world,” whatever that means (and if it means anything, it means something different to different thinkers). One meaning of course is to read Arab as synonymous with Islam, and yet the meaning of Islam in the North is often quite different than in the sub-Saharan.

The thicket of issues grows even denser when the subject of race within the African continent is broached. Here the divide between North and South appears, on the surface at least, quite real and impenetrable. North Africans often present their region as so hybridized that race is irrevelant. And yet the status (or lack of it) of actual black people in, say, Egypt or Morocco, suggests that North Africa isn’t race neutral but rather decidedly ambivalent about the embrace of racial diversity.

Simplistic notions about race and North Africa are coming under growing scholarly scrutiny, part of an important effort to document and analyse the scale and scope of black slavery in the North and to assess and comprehend the degree of prejudice and marginalization that blacks experience in the North to this very day.  One benefit is a rising appreciation of the role of Africans from the sub-Saharan in North Africa and in the image and understanding of “blackness” in societies north of the Sahara. One of the most significant figures in this scholarly re-assessment of race in North Africa is Chouki El Hamel, a colleague of mine at Arizona State University and one of the world’s leading authorities on the Gnawa people of Morocco.

The Gnawa are best known in popular culture, as El Hamel writes in his forthcomng book, entitled Black Morocco, as “a spiritual order of a traditional black Muslim people who are descendants of enslaved sub-Saharan West Africans.” Embraced by the jazz musicians Randy Weston and Pharoah Sanders, the Gnawa have become well known to fans of world music. But their social and historical significance, both for Morocco and black Africa, are virtually unknown. In the hands of El Hamel — a beautiful writer as well as a Moroccan challenging his own country’s norms — the Gnawa are a gateway into a neglected, even hidden, aspect of the African diaspora that El Hamel elegantly and bravely seeks to expose to the light of reason.

El Hamel persuasively argues, drawing on a mountain of original evidence, that Moroccans ought to answer to their own history of domination of sub-Saharans, who sometimes were brought to the North as slaves. “This denial and refusal to admit to the injustices of slavery and its legacy,” he writes, “produces the unfortunate effect of seemingly eradicating the historical truths surrounding race and slavery and does an injustice to those who were enslaved.”

El Hamel does more than reclaim the lost voices of the Gnawa and the discarded history of multi-racial Morocco. He also reinforces an important truth about the African diaspora: there is more to the story than the New World of the Americas. El Hamel highights “a less researched but no less important aspect of the global African diaspora,” the movement of peoples “internal to Africa.”

By examining “the forgotten role of Blacks in Morocco,” El Hamel provides important new evidence for the complexity of the Pan-African dream — at once underscoring the contested nature of the claim that geographic and cultural unity ought to be coincident — while at the same time demonstrating that the two-way traffic between north and south of the Sahara deserves greater understanding.


Oct 11 2012

Chimpanzee politics gets personal

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:08 PM

This is the story of the plight of chimpanzees in West Africa – not the only story by any means, but the only one I know first hand — about an orphaned chimpanzee, once cared for (as a baby) by my wife, and who is now an adult living in a zoo in Ghana.

This chimpanzee, who goes by the name of Jimmy, was cared for by my wife Chizo when he was an infant in Accra. Their relationship and the plight of chimpanzees generally in Africa occurred against the backdrop of competition between Great Apes and humans for resources. Though they are our nearest genetic relatives, chimpanzees are threatened by increased logging and hunting. Logging destroys chimpanzee habitats and hunting destroys chimpanzees themselves. The latter is intensifying as middle-class Africans, living in cities and earning decent incomes, gain the capacity to afford what they call “bush meat” and which sometimes includes the flesh of chimpanzees.

Jimmy is now an adult of about 12 years old, and lives with his own female companion, Izma, in the Kumasi Zoo. In June, Chizo and I visited Jimmy and Izma, traveling from the U.S. where we now live (Chizo grew up in Nigeria and we met while we both lived in Ghana). In advance of our visit this summer to the Kumasi Zoo, we did not even know if Jimmy was dead or alive, since zoo officials do not communicate regularly with us. We were delighted to discover, within minutes of our arrival inside the zoo, that Jimmy distinctly remembered us and that also he had fathered a child while in captivity. In early 2011, Izma, his female companion, gave birth to a boy, Samson, who we found in reasonably good health, though somewhat under-weight for his age.

That Jimmy can experience of fatherhood in the safety of a zoo cage of course is a bittersweet achievement.  The plight of Africa’s chimpanzees remains a source of anguish for Chizo and I. Jimmy, Chizo’s beloved orphaned chimpanzee, is still in captivity after all. He remains subject, at times, to cruel and stupid taunts from visitors. His diet is inadequate because of limitations on the zoo’s budget. Jimmy’s enclosure is too small and Samson has no toys to play with. The floor of their enclosure is, sadly, concrete. As the photo of this family shows, they are separated from their freedom by iron bars.

The last time we visited Jimmy, back in 2008, Chizo first let Jimmy “groom” her arms and then her forehead. Then she and Jimmy embraced through the iron bars. As Jimmy curled his arm around Chizo’s neck, I held my breath. When he realized her, I privately celebrated her escape. Before we left the zoo, I asked the zoo director if Jimmy would ever be freed. “He is too popular,” the zoo director said. Besides, the director wanted Jimmy to sire a child.

Now that he has done so, the Kumasi Zoo seems even less likely to release Jimmy into a chimpanzee sanctuary, of which there are many in West Africa. In addition to the Ghana government, which oversees the zoo, insisting that Jimmy is the property of the Ghanaian people, there is the added factor that Jimmy is now too old to easily adapt to the company of other chimpanzees and the routines of a jungle sanctuary.

None of the stubborn facts of Jimmy’s life story free me from my sense of grief over his incarceration. Of all the things I have not done in Africa, failing to free Jimmy is what I most regret. Knowing that he shares his existence with a boy-child eases my sense of regret but does not extinguish it.


Sep 30 2012

Introducing “Hotel Africa,” new book on African politics

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:44 PM

Hotel Africa: the politics of escape presents an alternative way of looking at sub-Saharan Africa: a perspective that counters the usual media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Far too often, Americans visiting Africa claim to meet only the sick, the murderous and the starving. Or they meet sick starving Africans murdering each other. In Hotel Africa, I showcase a different bunch of Africans – brainy Africans, caring Africans, hard-working Africans, dignified though damaged Africans – Africans who, under adverse conditions and not always successfully, attempt to build and sustain a decent life. In Hotel Africa, I also describe the complex set of incentives and penalties, constraints and opportunities, that give coherence and significance to the strivings of Africans, and to their failures as well as achievements. Hopefully by meeting these people, and by trying to understand the complex systems in which African lives are embedded, your understanding of Africa south of the Sahara will change and grow in ways that deepen your appreciation of this most misunderstood region.

The journey I wish to take you I began myself some dozen years ago. In 2000, I sat in a shack in the capital city of Burundi, smack in the heart of Africa, smack in the middle of an undeclared civil war, huddled together with a gang of irregular soldiers and their leader, a charismatic man in his 30s who I met with the assistance of Alexis Sinduhije, the leading journalist in Burundi. I sat with Alexis and these self-styled warriors, listening to them talk about mayhem from the heart of darkness – stories about pillaging and killing their ethic enemies – listening to them describing their actions and their motives – in short, doing what a foreign correspondent in Africa is supposed to do – reporting on human suffering, the people who inflict it, and its victims.

I spent three hours in a shack with these men and at the end I didn’t understand anything about who they were, what they did, where they came from, or their world. I wasn’t even sure what they told me was true, or whether that even mattered. So at the end of my carefully arranged encounter with young killers, I dined with Alexis Sinduhije and I told him, I don’t want to do this. Then I asked him a question – a question I would go on to ask many other Africans in many other places – can you show me something beautiful?

He did. He took me to an art dealer on the outskirts of Bujumbura and I gazed for the first time at sublime masks and statues, made by traditional peoples of central Africa. And in a Bujumbura gripped by tensions brought on by disorderly insurgencies, Sinduhije one evening took me to a private home where Burundians happily swayed to the captivating songs of Brenda Fassie, the South African diva, until the clock approached the city’s 10 p.m. curfew.

Alas, I never returned to Burundi. But I remain fascinated by traditional African art and music. Everywhere I have traveled in Africa, I have looked for the beautiful in the everyday, and for what works. At considerable cost to my standing with editors for the famous publications I once wrote for, I decided that better journalism could be done by reporting on what’s working in Africa – the functional, the sustainable, the dignified, the ordinary  – than by reporting on the pathological extremes that dominate global media coverage of Africa and Africans. I decided that journalism ought not to diminish and demean Africans under the guise of promoting sympathy for them.

Africans problems need not be exaggerated or invented in order to get Americans to care. At least not in my writings. Not by me.

My purpose is not to suggest that Africa is without problems, or that outsiders cannot help Africans. But the near-exclusive focus on African pathologies – and the media’s emphasis on the “pornography of pain” – presents only part of Africa’s reality, and not the most interesting or significant part either. In Hotel Africa, while I aim to explain forces that act on African affairs in often unrecognized ways, I also seek to celebrate concrete, commonplace African realities – realities that invite us to understand and engage Africa and Africans more deeply – and on a far more equal basis than we achieve by approaching Africans as objects of sympathy or assistance.

Sep 17 2012

Dignifying “everyday” Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:57 PM

Countless entries on Africa Works and, in articles I’ve written for others, have emphasized the importance of seeing Africa and its people in a 360-degree, panaromic perspective. Everyday Africans are, in short, vastly different than the dominant media images of disaster, disease and mayhem. Out of the everyday, a new image of the region is emerging, and that image, while not wholly positive, conveys a stronger, more appealing backbone than the usual fare. The premise is clear and persuasive: in understanding the normal, the functional — what works — in Africa, both Africans themselves and sympathetic outsiders can better appreciate this neglected and frequently abused (by media) region.

Photographers and video-documentarists have a special role to play in the reinvention of who and what counts as typically and paradigmatically African. So the appearance this month of a new collection of everyday African life, by an American photojournalist, is welcome. That the New York Times, in its influential “Lens” blog on visual journalism, is featuring the work of Peter DiCampo and Glenna Gordon. two terrific young photojournalists who have made outsized engagements with the sub-Saharan region. Their works highlights the sea-change in attitudes on the part of the mainstream media towards even the possibility of African normalcy.

The era of reveling in the pathology of African pain may not be over but at least the “pornography” of African pain is less compelling than at any time this century. DiCampo’s photos stand as evidence that in the everyday,  Africa’s depth and significance can best be grasped. His work parallels that of many other earnest and sincere chronicles of the African, arising from the soil of the continent and the passions of the diverse multitude driven to the African story.

Let the celebration of the “new African normal” begin in earnest.

Sep 14 2012

Reinventing the African safari: Mat Dry’s delicious dream

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:12 AM

Mat Dry is an American on an unusual mission: to re-invent the African safari.

Long dominated by hunters and suffused with colonial nostalgia, the African safari needs more than a makeover. The “great white hunter” was discarded along with many other tropes of exploitative colonialism. Dry, an Arizonan and a former tennis pro, discovered the African bush, then worked as a guide for one of South Africa’s leading tour companies. In recent decades, a new generation of safari companies have stripped out hunting and killing, redefining the safari as a pro-conservation pursuit that puts bearing witness to wild animals at the center of the experience.

The problem, of course, is cost, and also comfort. These safari are expensive: for the rich, if not the super rich. And the bear the stamp of colonial nostalgia because often — whether in the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Okavanga delta in Bostswana — animal lovers from Europe, the U.S. and Asia are kept far away from “wild” Africans. Only Africans employed directly in the safari experience are encountered. These safe, sanitized Africans, while earning a deserved good living, reinforce the perverted sense that people serve as backdrop to wildlife in Africa.

Dry rebels against this form of safari. While preserving the love of big animals, he’s managed to drive down costs, through clever deals with suppliers and his own penchant from roughing it. In his deftly written memoir, “This is Africa: true tales of a Safari Guide,” Dry recounts some his fascinating, romantic adventures in the bush, both with humans and wildlife. In person — and I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting him — Dry presents a pragmatic vision of how safaris for “the rest of us” might become more popular.

Dry’s secret is “overlanding,” taking large groups in a single bus or truck across vast areas. His capacity for camping in the African bush seems second only to Hemingway’s, whose novel, The Green Hills of Africa, immortalized the sublime encounters between man and nature on the African savannah.

I do not know whether Dry’s delicious dream of an African safari for “the everyman” (and woman) will become a reality. But I do know this: my wife Chizo and I will join him someday on one of his quixotic journeys. Until then, I will visit with the stories derring-do in his charming memoir.

Aug 30 2012

Science and Innovation in Africa: invisible no more

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:02 PM

Bravo to two South African scientists to drawing attention, in the influential pages of Science magazine, to the revival and advance of scientific research in Sub-Saharan Africa. The new vitality in scientific research in the region is paralleled by a deepening interest in innovation by entrepreneurs, engineers and ordinary people in the region. The new appreciation for science as an activity and innovation as way of life should benefit Africa and Africans in a multitude of ways, most which remain obscure. But surely as Africans are emerging as important consumers, they will also become increasingly important to the world as producers — and innovators. As I wrote recently in a column for Spectrum magazine on indigenous innovation in Africa, “No longer content to import technology, Africans are using cellphones to spur indigenous innovation.”

Jul 24 2012

Ghana and the Death of a President

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:20 PM

The sudden death of Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, throws into upheaval Ghana’s presidential election campaign and immediately thrusts Mills’ vice president, John Mahama, into political center stage.

I spent the month of June in Ghana and will begin a series of posts on the country in the coming days. During my visit, Mills startled political observers by making a trip to the U.S. for what he called a “routine” medical checkup. During his absence one news outlet reported his death, then hastily retracted its report. Mills himself rebuffed criticism of his leaving Ghana for the U.S., saying he wanted to “recharge his batteries” for what was expected to be an intense re-election campaign which pitted him against the same candidate as he only narrowly defeated four years ago.

Mills’ death robs Ghana of a re-run of the last presidential election. At the same time, his vice president Mahama, who has already been sworn in as the new president, has six months in office to consolidate his position atop the country’s government. Based on his personal popularity, which is substantial, Mahama may well quickly emerge as the front-runner in December’s election.

Mills came to power after narrowly winning against a candidate from the then governing New Patriotic Party, Nana Akufo-Addo, in polls in December 2008. Akufo-Addo was considered a likely winner over Mills this go round because of concerns over growing corruption in Ghana’s government, poor service delivery by government agencies and uneven benefits from the country’s economic growth. With Mahama likely to be the new candidate against Akufo-Addo, the election calculus must be redone.

Ghana last year was deemed by The World Bank to be a “middle income” country and its rise from poor-nation status illustrates the general ascent of African economies. Rather than representing a shift in governmental approaches, the campaign between Ghana’s two leading parties highlights the pro-U.S., open-market concensus in Ghana’s elite circles.

« Previous PageNext Page »