Examining the roots of biased reporting on Africa

Insensitive Reporting

Writing betrays the notion of subjects as subhuman 

Creating Distance from Subjects 

The cover of the venerable weekly magazine, the Economist in May 2000 said it all. Inside the outline of the continent of Africa, the magazine showed a photo of a young soldier with a rocket launcher slung over his shoulder. Above it was the headline, “The hopeless continent.”

“The hopeless continent”

This example, though extreme, is not unusual in the attitude foreign correspondents take when covering Africa. It is seen as one endless loop of famine, disease, chaos and wanton violence. Correspondents arrive looking for the thrill of their careers and are only too happy to chase the goriest, most devastating story. They tend to write these accounts with all the verve and poetry they can muster.

To be fair, there is good reason for this negative coverage. Africa has had more than its fair share of cartoon dictators, senseless wars and plagues wrought by nature. Reporters have followed the mantra of “if it bleeds, it leads,” for years and one should not expect the reporting on Africa to be any different. Journalists on the continent are under no obligation to write soft, feel good stories when so much despair still exists.

But a close observer of media coverage of Africa will note that there is something different at work on the continent. Reporters seem all too willing to take on a specialized reporting style that strives for poetry but lacks humanity. Take an October 2013 incident when a rickety boat carrying hundreds of migrants from Libya sank on the way to Lampedusa, an island located off the coast of Italy. The tragedy claimed the lives of over 300 people. An event of this magnitude hasn’t been recorded in many years despite the fact that many migrants from the Middle East and Africa have taken the same perilous path seeking better lives. What was so significant about this tragedy is the fact that it was covered extensively. One of the media outlets which devoted some space for coverage was The New Yorker. In an article penned shortly after the incident, a staff writer, Sarah Stillman, painted an image of the people who lost their lives during the tragedy. Below is how she opens her piece.

“At first, the drowning men and women were mistaken for seagulls. Early Thursday morning, local yachters off the southern Italian island of Lampedusa still had no idea that a ship carrying some five hundred African asylum seekers had just gone down in the water nearby. Hearing high-pitched cries, they looked out to sea to find that the source of the noise wasn’t birds (as they’d first assumed) but Eritrean migrants shouting for help, their bodies thrashing. A large portion were women and children fleeing conflict and poverty by way of Libya, only to be hastily drowning, within eyesight of the Italian shoreline, in the same waters they’d hoped would rescript their lives.” 

Comparing the shrieks of the drowning to seagulls paints a vivid picture, but it might not have been chosen by a reporter covering another disaster. To most readers it would have seemed out of place in coverage of the recent ferry tragedy that has claimed the lives of dozens off the coast of South Korea. It is similarly telling that the first reaction to the incident is shown through the eyes of Italian yachters. The survivors and victims’ families will have to wait to tell their stories.

Such unconscious distancing of the subject occurs often in Africa coverage where reporters often seem to arrive on the continent, figuratively, wearing the pith helmet of explorers from a bygone era.

Incognizant racism 

In 1993 the usually diligent writer and historian Robert Kaplan travelled to West Africa for the Atlantic to write about a “demographic time bomb” about to detonate in the region leading to overpopulation and chaos. That, of course, never happened. But his descriptions of the young men he saw in the Ivory Coast was telling of his outlook.

“Each time I went to the Abidjan bus terminal, groups of young men with restless, scanning eyes surrounded my taxi, putting their hands all over the windows, demanding ‘tips’ for carrying my luggage even though I had only a rucksack. In cities in six West African countries I saw similar young men everywhere—hordes of them. They were like loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting.”

It is not unusual for a westerner to justifiably feel swarmed by hawkers and street vendors when he or she enters a major African city. But the description of “hordes” of young men with “restless” and “scanning eyes” who behaved like “loose molecules” is clearly dehumanizing. Undoubtedly Kaplan attracted more attention from the young people because he stood out as a foreigner, but he also projected his fear onto the people who surrounded him.

Would an African writer have described the scene differently? Perhaps the “hordes” of young men would have looked more like small groups. Perhaps the “scanning eyes” would have looked to an African reporter like a good salesman keeping his eyes peeled for other customers.

In 2011, Ivory Coast was once again in the news after a standoff between the two contesting presidential candidates that lasted more than four months. Once the dust cleared, hundreds were dead and more than 1 million displaced. On April 11 of that year, the former president Laurent Gbagbo was arrested and rightfully elected president Allesane Ouattara was able to take the reins of power. At the hight of the civil war, I talked by phone to Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who  is a journalist and broadcaster originally from Ghana who reports for National Public Radio on issues and developments related to West Africa.

After discussing the political environment and the violence, I asked Quist-Arcton how safe she felt in such circumstances. Coincidentally, she was reporting in Abidjan, the same city Kaplan visited during a time of peace. She said even during the time when there was conflict, “I’m an African woman so I blend in much more easily than David being a European man and a tall man that is easy to target.”

She was referring to David Smith, who is the Guardian’s Africa correspondent. Smith was also on the line for this phone interview. I asked him about his safety during the reporting. He said: “I was certainly on my guard because of numerous reports and warnings from other journalists on the ground before me at the same time. A hotel which I stayed in last month was targeted by some armed groups and some people were kidnapped in there and the journalists that were there had a very difficult emotional time some of them were in the end taken from there by the French military.”

I include this example (click link for report) not to celebrate Quist-Arcton or diminish Smith as reporters, they’re both excellent, but show how different the same scene can look to people of different backgrounds. Even in the relative chaos of a war, Quist-Arcton, a native African, was able to move about freely and gave a different angle on the stories. It is doubtful that she saw the Ivory Coast conflict as the inevitable ignition of an unstable community as Kaplan had. Instead, she saw the human element, the ethnic, religious and colonial history and many other things that made up the rich stew of Ivory Coast.

A corollary to this is what Don Heider in his book “White News: Why Local News Programs Don’t Cover People of Color,” calls “incognizant racism.” Heider said that inclusive coverage becomes the victim when journalists have a predetermined belief of what’s expected of them.

“Incognizant racism occurs when journalists produce news products day-in and day-out that simply exclude any meaningful coverage of racial-ethnic communities. In some cases this may actually be a conscious and intentional act, but at least in the newsrooms I have observed, it is not an overt process.  It is the result of dozens of daily decisions, of years of training and practice, of decades of cultural orientation, and of a well-documented history of systematic and institutionalized neglect. It is both an individual and collective process.”

Many foreign correspondents exhibit incognizant racism when they arrive on the “hopeless continent” prepared to paint a picture for their readers, viewers or listeners. An African perspective may not be as flashy, but it can often add nuance and uncover hidden stories. Heider shows the same is true covering minority communities in the United States.

Doom and Gloom

Disaster chasers showing one side of the story 

Painting a Grim Picture 

In 2005, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff pointed out that, at the height of the crisis in Darfur, the major television news networks had barely reported on it. For the entire year, ABC News dedicated 18 minutes to Darfur, NBC devoted 5 minutes and CBS spent a paltry 3 minutes. By contrast, the Martha Stewart trial received a combined 130 minutes of coverage.

If the genocide in Darfur received barely a yawn from the news outlets, other issues barely stood a chance. Kristoff wrote that only one network had even bothered to send an anchor to Africa that year. It was ABC which sent Diane Sawyer there to interview Brad Pitt.

When Africa does receive coverage it generally comes in the form of doom and gloom. This is what CNN Africa correspondent, Jeff Koinange, referred to during a panel discussion among African journalists as the 4 D’s — Death, disease, despair and desperation. Even when news about poverty, AIDS and corruption are reported, most local reporters agree that they are reported without context or the same specificity that would be used to cover a tragedy in the West.

In another discussion about the coverage of the continent, Kristoff reveals that it is very difficult to market stories on Africa. In 2006, CNN’s Anderson Cooper for instance prepared a live report on the Congo but in turn lost 20 to 30 percent of his audience by doing that.

One of the most potent examples I have come across comes from the New York Times Pullitzer Prize winning East Africa correspondent Jeffery Gettleman. Reporting about a massacre in Sudan, Gettleman wrote:

“The trail of corpses begins about 300 yards from the corrugated metal gate of the United Nations compound and stretches for miles into the bush.”

Most readers will, rightfully, shake their heads in disgust at this unimaginably horrific scene. But to the seasoned journalists, something is awry. A trail of corpses stretches for miles? Did Gettleman attempt to count the corpses? Isn’t the first rule of journalism to collect facts? Could a Pullitzer Prize winner simply see this “trail” and not investigate it further? Imagine Gettleman had been working in Tampa, Fla.—he previously worked at the Tampa Bay Times–and came back with a similar story. The first question his stunned editor would ask is “how many bodies were there? I need details about cause of death?” In Africa, such journalistic principles fall by the wayside. It is assumed there will be trails of corpses. Editors accept it. Readers accept it. Reporters can’t be bothered to be too specific. They’re there to paint pictures with words, after all.

Empathy vs. Sympathy 

The power of walking in another’s shoes 

Understanding “the Other”

Pity vs. Understanding

In an interview conducted by Foreign Policy Interrupted, a blog which aims to create space for women to share their voices on international issues, Nigerian journalist Alexis Okeowo wrote about the importance of empathy vs. sympathy. The simple act of telling stories from another person’s point of view is very crucial when reporting. Okeowo argues that “very few people want to be pitied. They want to be understood. That distinction makes all the difference in your reporting and writing. It elevates Africans out of caricature and stereotype into human beings, as full as anyone in the United States and Europe.”

This attitude surpasses boundaries and applies to all writing. Africans have too often been defined and portrayed in ways they don’t agree with because they have not had control of media.

There is also the barrier of understanding. Few western reporters bother to learn local languages or much about the culture beyond the broad brush strokes. In a 2014 Op-Ed published by al-Jazeera, Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan studying at Harvard Law School points out that English and even Swahili are languages used most often in formal settings by many East Africans. For true understanding of what is happening, an observer needs to hear conversations in languages like Kikuyu or Dinka.

“The use of poorly translated or contextualized concepts of hardened constructs in place of malleable ones is thus an integral part of the broader frustration that Africa just isn’t being heard right,” Nyabola wrote. “Yes, this person says that Tribe X is responsible for issue Y, but are they just using that as shorthand for a more complex phenomenon, like the interrelationship between class, ethnicity and power?”

These misunderstandings result in complex conflicts like those in Sudan, Rwanda or the Central African Republic being described in very simple terms as issues of Muslim versus Christian or tribe versus tribe, Nyabola wrote.

White Savior Complex

Africans are generally in the position where foreign writers, documentary film makers and others tell their stories for them.

This phenomenon can be viewed through media which has regularly told African stories through the prism of “white saviors.” The examples of this are numerous. The conflict in Sudan was dramatized on the big screen as “The Machine Gun Preacher,” the story of a white missionary who fought rebels in the region.

The famine in Ethiopia was made into a movie, “Beyond Borders” starring Angelina Jolie.

Even the movie about the Rwanda genocide, “Hotel Rwanda” had room for a white protagonist, a U.N. peacekeeper, and white antagonists played by the slow-footed, calculating world leaders who refused to intervene.

Hollywood, like the work of many foreign journalists, has difficulty putting fully-formed, complex African stories at the center of a narrative. For that reason, it seems vitally important that, like Okeowo urged, Africans tell their own stories. From Cairo to Cape Town, the African media is thriving like never before but is also under attack. In the past two years, newspapers have been shut down by government orders in the Ivory Coast, Uganda and Liberia. Many other countries including Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan have virtually no independent media at all operating domestically. But at the same time, bloggers and brave journalists are staking out new ground and reporting untold stories. One example is Radio Erena, a proudly independent radio that is based in Paris broadcasting news to Eritrea via internet. It reports the news from within and outside Eritrea on a daily basis and through a large network of stringers and informants.

With this type of work, Africans will not be forced to rely on foreign correspondents to tell their stories. The recently deceased Nigerian poet and novelist may have said it best in his inimitable way:

“Until lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Nelson Mandela

“I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself”

 

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

 

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

 

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

 

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that .”

 

“A good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”

 

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

 

Here is Nelson Mandela’s first TV interview in 1961. About a year after this, he was  sentenced to life imprisonment and was incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island.

“We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races, there is room for all the races in this country,”

South Africa’s first black president and the leader of a peaceful resistance movement which finally brought down the apartheid regime of South Africa, Mr. Mandela died today at 8:50 p.m. local time.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

African Journalists Discuss the Challenges and Future of Journalism in their Countries

Journalists from 12 African Countries , Casey Frechette,  visiting assistant professor at the journalism and media studies department at the University of South Florida St. PetersburgEarlier this month, I was able to meet African journalists from twelve countries who came to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s Department of Journalism and Media Studies through the Edward R. Murrow Program for journalists. The program is funded by the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

The journalists were from Botswana, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mauritius, Nigeria, Rwanda, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, South Africa, South Sudan and Swaziland. I asked four journalists what their day-to-day challenges are practicing journalism in their respective home countries and what solutions they have in mind. Here is a video from my interviews with four journalists from Swaziland, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mauritius, respectively.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

At Tampa Bay Gardens, Refugees Gain Dignity Through Work

Over the past couple of months, I have been following refugee resettlement efforts in the Tampa Bay area. I’ve been able to meet different resettlement agents from churches, governmental organizations and other groups working together to help those who have fled their home countries for one reason or another. This video is part one of a three part series I plan to post on Africa Talks.

Dignity Through Work

Tucked in a small six acre patch of land right outside St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church located at Causeway Boulevard, a garden has been set aside for refugees from all over the world to produce their own organic produce. The farm was initiated more than three years ago by Pastor Berhanu Bekele of St. Mary’s Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Pastor Joseph Germain, who founded Global Refuge Community Church, aimed at helping refugees feel at home and integrate into the community.

Tampa Bay Gardens

In September I paid the garden a visit during an event called “Common Ground“ through Welcoming America, a grassroots-driven initiative promoting collaboration between foreign-born and U.S.-born Americans and residents. Through the initiative, a work day at the garden was dedicated to bringing the community, newly resettled refugees and students together. Here is a short clip including my interview with Janet Blair, the Community Liaison for the SunCoast Region Refugee Services Program at the Department of Children and Families and Pastor Joseph Germain.

Shortly after this interview, Tampa Bay Gardens was given a $250,000 grant from the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Administration for Children and Families through the Refugee Agricultural Partnership Program (RAPP). The grant which began on October 1st, 2013 will fund the garden for three years allowing for its expansion and development.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Race and Identity in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Crush-Hopper: Story of a Girl’s Journey Through Post-Apartheid South Africa

Mandisa Haarhoff’s Crush-HopperCrush-Hopper is South African Mandisa Haarhoff’s autobiographical story about a young girl. This is a girl who first learned about beauty by playing with dolls who had long blond hair and blue eyes. She is a giddy and joyful girl who has a soft spot for boys. But that’s not what the play is really all about. Crush-Hopper sends a strong message about what it means to be black in a place like South Africa where race seems to infect everything. Her performance is a beautifully-narrated search for identity in different stages.

IMG_0754A Fulbright student studying at the University of Florida, Haarhoff performed last Thursday at the USF School of Music. Her story is that of a “coloured” girl (in South Africa the term refers to people of mixed race heritage) from the Xhosa tribe fantasizing about marrying her dream man, a white, Afrikaner man with a farm. She begins desperate to be accepted and to sound, act and look “white” in the process.

The audience gets to view the world through her innocent young eyes and the man she first falls for, with blond hair and blue eyes, reminds her in many almost imperceptible ways that she is different, that she is black. Even though Mandisa Roeleene Haarhoff’s last name is of an Afrikaner, she tries to perfect her Afrikaans accent, chooses to use her last name so she can fit in but ends up with a heart break.

But that doesn’t stop her desire to be accepted as “white” and she falls for a false promise from an aunt who offers to send her to a high-end school with white classmates. Shortly, she finds out that it was all a hoax. Her skin bothers her, she wants to live the life that she has been fantasizing about for as long as she can remember.

In school, she battles to fit in. Her quest to be regarded as acceptable by the other race, pushes her to sound different and become a top student which then leads her to meet a boy she falls for, a boy who was falling behind in school. Through tutoring her new crush, she yet again learns rejection. As she eventually realizes her identity, she finally falls for a black South African who further teaches her the dolorous lesson of rejection. Dealing with the cruel feeling through hopping from crush to crush, she finds out how comfortable she is being who she really was all along: A strong African woman from the Xhosa tribe.

Mandisa Haarhoff

Africa Talks - welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

The Case Against Susan Rice: Enamored with Africa’s Dictatorships


Susan Rice

As the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Susan Rice read a eulogy she prepared on the occasion of the death of Meles Zenawi, the prime minister of Ethiopia, she called him a “tough, unsentimental and sometimes unyielding,” leader. She went on to describe how he demeaned people who disagreed with him saying, “of course, he had little patience for fools, or idiots, as he liked to call them.” Rice was speaking about a leader with a legacy tarnished due to his decision to quash dissent, preside over security services that opened fire on protesters during a disputed 2005 election, imprisoned journalists using the fig leaf of terrorism, used food aid as a political tool and stole land in south Ethiopia. That is but a short list of his many crimes. Rice chose to talk of him as a hero and a leader that will be missed for his contributions as a human rights advocate. To call this eulogy naive is to ignore Rice’s history of codling dictators in the region and her track record fundamentally misunderstanding the politics and people of the African continent.

Meles Zenawi's regimeThis dates back to the early days of the Clinton presidency and continued when Rice served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1997-2001. Presidents in the horn at the time were dubbed the “new generation of African leaders” following Clinton’s trip to Africa in 1998. One of the many hapless policies selectively applied in the region and which continues to this day. During his travel Clinton hailed a group of leaders specifically in the horn which includes Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea. All of the presidents except for Meles are still clinging to power 14 years later. But Meles, the leader Rice called “a true friend to me” during the eulogy, gives observers a window onto someone easily charmed by Africa’s dictators. Ethiopia’s late prime-minister has used the country’s economic success to avoid criticism for terrible human rights record and he died while after consolidating power and crushing dissent for 21 years. It is such double standard rooted within the fiber of the relationships formed by the ambassador and which later plays out during Susan Rice’s role in mediating the Eritrea and Ethiopia border demarcation process what drives me to write this blog entry.

Horn of Africa

Mediation in Eritrea and Ethiopia Border Conflict

Rice played a role in the Eritrea-Ethiopia peace process as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, a process which could have averted a decade-long stalemate that has followed. But unfortunately, she and Jendayi Frazer failed to deliver fair judgement for millions of people who are still held “hostage” as some officials call the militarized circumstance on the ground, due to a no war no peace situation between the two countries. To be clear, Rice and others were not obligated to make the two sides come to an agreement, but they should have used their significant influence over Ethiopia to make the country go along with the “final and binding” decision of the boundary commission.

A series of WikiLeaks documents shed light on the private decision process Rice used when considering the Eritrea-Ethiopia conflict.

Susan Rice and Meles ZenawiA one-sided view was evident when, in 2009, Rice sat down with Meles for six hours to learn about what could have been done to resolve the lingering conflict which cost the lives of 70,000 people in 1998-2000. Such a staggering loss within a very short period of time and without purpose hasn’t been recorded even during Eritrea’s 30 years struggle for independence. But I digress, in the aforementioned discussion, Rice learned from Zenawi that  the root cause of the conflict lay not over the contested border town of Badme but the war was ignited due to Eritrean president Isaias Afwerki’s plan which would make “Ethiopian interests on economic development, trade and political relations subservient to Isaias’ wishes.” He further went on to say that the war was not about the “border dispute in Badme and Zelambessa” but that it was “about economic and political differences.”

But no one stopped to ask. If it was never about land, how come Ethiopian troops still occupy land that was awarded to Eritrea after a decision by an international boundary commission? Why is an Ethiopian flag waving in Badme, the land at the heart of the conflict? Mind you, there has been a long line of double-dealing in this case before Rice came into the picture. But earlier this year when New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof announced that he would host a Google+ interview with Ambassador Susan Rice I was so eager to participate and hoped to have the ambassador address the issue. I wanted to present it as clearly as possible and asked a question that was not chosen as one of the ones posed to Ms. Rice. Here is the content of the question in its entirety:Rice on Kristof's Google+

“Mr. Kristof, thank you for this opportunity! I am a concerned Eritrean-American who is worried about the threat to the sovereignty of Eritrea. Why was the world silent when Ethiopia attacked Eritrea in March 2012

It needs to be noted that despite this legitimate threat, Eritrea has shown a commendable self-restraint. But we are left wondering, why the UN is taking its time to act? Last time the two countries were at war, over 70,000 people were killed within the span of 3 years from 1998-2000. Isn’t that a lesson to learn from? 

The second concern I have relates to the border demarcation stalemate from the war that ended in 2000. Despite the Eritrea-Ethiopia Boundary Commission allotting Badme to Eritrea (the land at the core of the dispute), Ethiopian troops are still there. This was caused, as Ambassador Rice’s predecessor John Bolton put it, because Ethiopia was “welching on the deal.” 

What does Ambassador Rice intend to do during her term in order to expedite the border demarcation process and ensure peace and stability in the region?”

Eritreans are still waiting for an answer. I would also like to briefly look at sanctions imposed on Eritrea by the United Nation’s Security Council with Susan Rice leading and pushing for measures behind closed doors.

The Black Hole of U.S.’s Intelligence in the Horn

While the stalemate between the two countries has lingered for over a decade and counting,  Susan Rice has moved on and continues to partner with her friends in the region despite their human right abuse records.

Donald Rumsfeld meets Isaias Afwerki in EritreaShe moved on to play a leading role in securing the votes needed to impose sanctions on Eritrea for their alleged violations of international weapons embargoes and supporting terror in Somalia. But implementing sanctions on Eritrea was not an easy task for the ambassador.  After the Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group appointed by the UN released an over 417 page report in 2011 alleging the government was abetting Al-Qaida linked groups in Somalia. The sanctions in 2009 and 2011 were a far cry from the days when the U.S. department of defense hailed Eritrea for having “considerably more experience than we do over a sustained period of time” in battling terrorism. Former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld uttered these words after he met with President Isaias Afwerki. The title of the U.S. DOD press release read “Eritrea Could Teach U.S. Much to Combat Terror.”

Unfortunately, it’s hard to vouch for the innocence of an Eritrean government which lacks transparency and regularly flaunts international norms and imprisons dissenters. But even with incriminating evidence plastered all over the security report, footnotes tell an interesting story. The evidence used to implicate the country came from statements taken from soldiers who were under Ethiopian captivity, names such as Colonel Gemachew Ayana (Clearly not Eritrean name but Ethiopian) who was allegedly training the OLF in Eritrea and many other statements from highly suspicious sources. Bias when collecting intelligence to identify actual wrongdoing has been a pattern for the monitoring group which has given conflicting reports from time to time.

A Wikileaks document further shows how decision-making in the mediation process solely considered one side. Deadlocked by refusal both from Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi to move forward with peaceful existing solutions, both Susan Rice and Meles looked at a different way to approach the issue. A “stand-alone Eritrea sanctions regime, separate from the existing sanctions regime (UNSCR 1844) under which Eritreans can be designated forthreatening the peace and stability in Somalia, and violating Djibouti’s border, among other sanctionable actions.  Meles strongly backs this approach.”

In another cable, she tries to convince the French ambassador to impose sanctions. But Rice didn’t stop there, she went a step further to ensure additional sanctions and pushesd for a strategy to include Djibouti’s issue with Eritrea because, she believed that  there is “only one chance to secure a resolution, so Djibouti must be included, and noted that the international community has never effectively confronted Eritrea for invading neighboring countries on five occasions (Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Somalia). She noted that in January, the UNSC gave Eritrea a deadline of six weeks to leave Djibouti or face sanctions.”

The ambassador went on to other African leaders such as Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to push for sanctions under the banner of an “African initiative.”

It may not be fair to say that Rice was directly doing the bidding of Meles, but it appears from all publicly available documents that the information she received and her perspective has been seriously one-sided.

U.S. Needs to Look Beyond Statement about Attacks in Benghazi, Libya

John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.)Unfortunately here in America, leaders are obsessing over an issue that the ambassador had little role in. A pre-emptive opposition by John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to block the possible nomination of Susan Rice to the position of Secretary of State. In fact, the effort to block Rice’s appointment gained traction after a letter from a group of 97 House Republicans backed the claim that Rice, currently the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., is not fit to take over the role as the U.S. Secretary of State. The missive accuses her  of “either willfully or incompetently” misleading the American public based on comments she made on a series of Sunday TV talk shows five days after the Benghazi attack in Libya.

In an effort to curry favor, Rice made a trip to capitol hill to meet with skeptical lawmakers last week. That trip appears to have gained her little ground with several senators making public statements that they were even more skeptical about Rice’s nomination after meeting with her.

A protester reacts as the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flamesThe hostility toward her is centered on her statements that the September 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya that ended in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans was a result of an anti-Muslim video. This view has since been discredited. But where did the ambassador get the information from? The intelligence community including members of the NSA, CIA and FBI gave her the talking points she recited on a television show. It defies common sense that the blame goes to the person who conveyed messages drawn up by the country’s intelligence.

Susan Rice: U.S. Permanent Representative to the United NationsAs the political posturing continues, the fixation of the GOP on the Benghazi issue is worrisome because it is as if they are acting as enemy combatants within government for something that has zero relevance and link with the Ambassador’s actual body of work in her career. If there is genuine opposition to Rice, let it be for her misinformed or miscalculated decision making. Let it be for the ambassador’s time in the Clinton administration that should be scrutinized. A series of failures including a failure to intervene in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in a war deadlier than the Rwandan genocide which has claimed 5.4 million deaths. Let us also recall that Rice was against any intervention to halt the genocide in Rwanda and instead was busy making political and election-based calculations according to a history of the conflict written by Samantha Power.

The bottom line is this: it should be Rice’s complete body of work that makes her unqualified to become the next Secretary of State. The Benghazi bungle is only a footnote.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Building Bridges: An Ambassador Reflects on U.S.-Africa Relations


In the last blog entry, I wrote that Ambassador Michael E. Ranneberger was visiting the University of South Florida as part of an event sponsored by the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies. Amb. Ranneberger gave a lecture titled “U.S. Foreign Policy in Africa: Lessons, Challenges, and Opportunities” through the center’s “Lecture Series on National Security.” This blog entry is an update after the lecture as Amb. Ranneberger shares his experience during his work in Africa.

While serving as U.S. Ambassador to Kenya from 2006 to 2011, Amb. Ranneberger was not a diplomat who spent all of his time hobnobbing with elites and clinking glasses at cocktail parties. In fact, during his time there he vocally criticized the Kenyan government on issues including corruption and poor governance. His outspoken views irked the political elite so much that there was even a bill introduced in the Kenyan parliament to censure him in 2011. He further bucked convention later that year when he met and married Ruth Konchellah, a Kenyan community activist who currently runs an NGO, Cherish Others. His term as ambassador ended last year and he has taken on a new role as a foreign policy advisor to U.S. Central Command based in Tampa.

In a one-on-one interview I asked Amb. Ranneberger about his time in Kenya with particular emphasis on his role in negotiating an end to the violence that engulfed the country following the contested presidential election of 2008. I also asked his perspective on the crisis in Mali given his service as ambassador to that country from  1999 to 2002.

 

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

If Africans had a Vote, Obama would Win in a Landslide

The final days of the campaign for the 2012 elections are upon us. Speculation by pundits, a barrage of polls and heated political discussions dominate the media in America. In this spirit, a panel of professors from around the world gathered at an event hosted by USF World and co-sponsored by the USF Chinese Culture and Language Club to discuss how the world views elections and what impact presidential candidates have across the globe.

Although the race here at home is expected to be extremely close, worldwide, Obama is the clear choice. In a global poll by UPI, Obama was preferred over Mitt Romney in 31 out of 32 countries. In another poll by BBC World Service/GlobalScan/PIPA, 20 out of 21 countries preferred the president. In this survey only 9 percent of respondents chose Romney as the better candidate to lead the U.S.

Global surveys have also routinely found that Obama’s presidency has rehabilitated the perception of the U.S. around the world.

I wanted to find out why this is, and more particularly, for an African audience, has some of the luster of Obama’s historic election worn out.

So after the panel, I sat down with Dr. John Gathegi, a professor at USF’s School of Information and a native of Kenya. Although the love affair with Obama has become more of a marriage of convenience, Obama is still the overwhelming choice of Africans and the global African diaspora, Gathegi said.

At the end of my one-on-one interview with Dr. John Gathegi, I asked who he thinks is the most preferred candidate in Africa right now. He answered, “I think hands down, president Obama,” he said. “Hands down, in Kenya you would be very hard-pressed to find anybody who would support the other candidate and I suspect in most of the other African countries as well.”

 
Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Malawi’s Activists Turned Politicians: What Standards Should Joyce Banda’s Administration Be Held To?

ImageIn the wake of the death of Malawi’s former president, Bingu wa Mutharika due to cardiac arrest, the country’s political leadership has welcomed a new guard. Joyce Banda, an outspoken activist and leader of the People’s Party, became the president of the country making her the second female president in Africa. In the relatively short period of time until the people of Malawi cast their votes in the next presidential election set for 2014, Banda’s administration has its work cut out for it.

Last week, the Patel School of Global Sustainability hosted a roundtable discussion on the “Role of ImageSocial Justice in Development and Sustainability.” The discussion was led by Rev. MacDonald Semberka, a top advisor to President Banda. On Tuesday July 31, he met with the University of South Florida’s leadership to discuss a potential partnership with the Patel School’s ‘Cities of the Future in Africa’ initiative. He later met with a research team to hear about their projects and discuss how they may be used to improve the quality of life for people in Malawi.

ImageBut for MacDonald Semberka, also an activist turned presidential advisor, the road to leadership hasn’t been smooth. Last year, he led a nationwide protest demanding answers from Mutharika’s administration about the struggling economy. The former president deployed the army to squash dissent in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu cities in Malawi. In the midst of the chaos, Semberka was the target of an arson attack in September when a youth group set his house ablaze with a petrol bomb. A series of attacks were also recorded as Mutharika openly declared that he was ready “for war” against anyone questioning his policies. But for the activist, Semberka, it was a price he was willing to pay as he tried to move his country away from what he calls “the impunity and disregard of the rule of law and impudence and arrogance” that characterized previous leaders.

Speaking to a group of researchers, professors and business leaders at USF, he said that his country is in the process of rebuilding capacity that was dismantled by the previous government. He reminded the group that his country was named in the failed states index despite the fact that Malawi has never been the site of a major war. Semberka believes his country is now ready for international partnerships and has unexplored mineral deposits such as uranium. These mineral riches are also making the country a target for interested nations like the United States and China in the new scramble for resources in Africa. Image

In June, Malawi made headlines when its Vice-President Khumbo Kachali announced that the country would not be hosting  a scheduled African Union summit because Sudan’s president, Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir was scheduled to attend. Semberka believes the government set an exemplary role in Africa by refusing to host al-Bashir, who is the only sitting president under an arrest warrant by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Semberka said his government pleaded with Sudan’s government to send a high level delegation instead of al-Bahsir but was met with a petition to recall the summit which was ultimately held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

ImageMindful of the economic crisis which caused massive protests, Semberka said the country has unveiled a new development strategy called the Malawi “Growth and Development Strategy” narrowing down its priority areas from 16 to 5 areas, namely: agriculture & food security, tourism, education & science and technology, infrastructure development and energy. He acknowledged his regret for being out of the country during the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Africa tour and visit to Malawi but said that his government is now “resuscitating” the country’s economic program with the World Bank and IMF and will work to build partnerships with other countries. This past weekend, Hillary Clinton hailed Banda for taking charge in introducing economic reform. Banda passed an austerity budget permitting, Kwacha (Malawi’s currency), to devalue by about 49 percent in order for the IMF to loan it $156.2 million to help the country meet its payments. Clinton also promised to spend over $46 million in the coming three years in the agricultural sector.

As one of Malawi’s foremost human rights advocates and HIV/AIDS leader, MacDonald Semberka’s visit to the Patel Center came shorty after he attended a biannual International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. where about 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries attended. Semberka as the director of the Maphuziro Foundation, has been working on HIV/AIDS prevention, awareness, behavioral changes and home based care. In a brief video interview after his lecture, he said that in most African countries, stigma kills HIV/AIDS patients as much as the disease. Therefore, his organization has been working to reduce the stigma attached to the disease.

In the past he has also served as the chief liaison for Civil Society & NGO organizations in Malawi. Prior to his current position he served as the national coordinator of the Malawi Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), which networks 91 civil society and non-governmental organizations and has organized protests defending human rights. Asked about what kind of standard he should be held to as a presidential advisor, he said the government needs to listen before talking and shouldn’t be militant in terms of its approach. He said, “even if I’m hurt, I will be the last person to call you names. Government should stop impunity and mother its own people, create a conducive environment. That’s why it is there for. It is there to chart destiny of the country.”

He also discussed the hot button issue of gay rights which has roiled the continent. This is especially true in countries like Uganda where an infamous bill nicknamed “kill the gays” put forth capital punishment as a solution for homosexual acts. Semberka, who has received a significant backlash for speaking up about gay rights issues, said in his mind the issue is about basic human rights. “I feel passionate that no human being should be ostracized because they are what they are,” he said. “And in the same way, I wouldn’t want anyone to ostracize me.”

However, the majority of the discussion last week revolved around development issues such as water scarcity.
Semberka said government looks at options to solve problems by asking how to meet basic needs: is it better to privatize the water supply or subsidize it? He added that 85 percent of the population is rural and focus should be on how to improve the country’s progress toward Millennium Development Goals. Corruption is also a problem from members of the old guard eager to maintain their positions of power and influence.

Overall, Semberka stressed the need for partnership with other countries. He concluded that there is indeed a link between social justice and development. Without access to essentials like water, electricity, land, education and health care, there can be no social justice.


Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

A Twitter Moment with Africa’s Straight Shooter: George Ayittey

During the past five years of my stay in the United States, I have come across different members of the African diaspora who are passionate about the future of the continent. I’ve talked to ambitious educated individuals who’ve expressed their determination to one day go back and contribute. On the contrary, I’ve also come across some members of the African diaspora who have completely decided to detach themselves from their home countries due to complex personal or political reasons. However, the most unique kind I’ve come across so far are the educated elite who selectively decide to support some aspects of leadership in their home countries and silently condone bad political actors. This is despite a clear knowledge and understanding of what it means to have rights and freedoms protected in their adopted countries. 

In past blog entries, I gave examples of challenges of assimilation and also the hard work of African immigrants who excel in so many ways and become successful abroad. But sometimes I also find myself thinking about serious issues the continent has in terms of growth in its civil society, leadership, accountability and serious governance issues.

So, I dared to throw a question to one of the straightest shooting public intellecturals from Africa:  George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist, author and president of the Free Africa Foundation in Washington D.C. I wanted to see what he thinks about some educated elite of Africa and their indifference to dictatorial impunity on the continent. I simply asked: “Why do some educated Africans shut their brains off when they see some things that are clearly wrong?” Ayittey didn’t let me down. Without beating around the bush, he dove straight in and unpacked my rather general question, which I believe, could apply to different countries in Africa. He said that there are three possible reasons. I have decided to post some of the text from his response. Below are the three reasons he listed:

“The FIRST possible reason is loyalty, affiliation, patronage or consideration. Some educated Africans may be active supporters of a terrible regime because of the perks, privileges or patronage they receive or expect to receive. Such people will defend the regime to the hilt. Others may feel ‘connected’ to the regime by tribe, religion, ideology or party affiliation. Such people will simply remain silent when things are clearly wrong in an attempt to cut the regime some slack, hoping that it might correct its mistakes.

The SECOND explanation is intellectual astigmatism. Many educated Africans of the 1960s and 1970s generation were fed and raised on the ‘externalist orthodoxy’ – that everything that went wrong in Africa was caused by hostile external forces – Western imperialism, neo-colonialism, the World Bank, IMF, unjust international economic systems, etc. These educated Africans can see with eagle-eyed clarity the injustices perpetrated against Africans by whites or Westerners but are hopelessly blind to the equally heinous injustices perpetrated against Africans by their own leaders. They only see wrong-doing when it wears a white or Western face (intellectual astigmatism).

Many of them in this category are teachers, lecturers and professors, who, in my view, have done enormous damage to their students. They have written articles, books, etc. and built their careers peddling the externalist orthodoxy. So when something goes terribly wrong in Africa, their instinctive reaction is to look for a foreign conspiracy and refuse to hold the leader accountable or responsible. For example, if some African leader butchers some of his people it is NOT his fault; rather, it is the fault of the US or Britain for supplying him with the weapons or propping him up.

The THIRD reason is FEAR. Many educated Africans keep quiet when things go wrong out of fear that they may lose their jobs, reprisals may be taken against them or their families. Though the situation has improved marginally in recent years, intellectual repression prevails in much of Africa. Say something an African government doesn’t like and ‘Poof!’ you are either dead, in exile or in jail. Security agents trailed me in Ghana and Zimbabwe; raided my hotel room in Kenya, and tossed me into jail in Senegal. Even in the U.S., I was not safe – received threatening phone calls and my office at American University was fire-bombed in 1999. But one can fight back. The trick is to adopt another African country.”

You can follow George Ayittey on Twitter and also read the original repose in its entirety here.

Here is also a video from TED that Africa Talks viewers might find interesting. In an impassioned presentation in 2007, he expresses his disappointment toward corrupt leaders in Africa and explains how it’s time for what he calls the “Cheetah Generation” to take back the continent from the “Hippo Generation.”

George Ayittey on Cheetahs vs. Hippos

In this second video below, Ayittey explains what is meant by the “Cheetah Generation.” He says it is “the new and angry generation of Africans who can see that their leadership has failed them . They’re not going to sit there and wait for governments to come and do things for them. As a matter of fact, they’re not going to sit there and beg for foreign aid, because they can see that every social need in Africa is a business opportunity. The Cheetah Generation is entrepreneurial.”

 Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions . If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Africa Coverage: A Growing Case of Shooting the Messenger

You’ve come across this. I’m sure of it. Imagine watching an important speech about something groundbreaking and getting interrupted by an annoying comment about what the speaker is wearing instead of what he is saying. If you’re an active social media user like I am, you probably have seen what I call the “snark bombers” or “snark shooters,” which in my mind paints this sad image of people who are sitting in a basement somewhere and are basically doing nothing but snapping at everything that comes their way. I personally think that such cynicism has a numbing effect and loses weight when overdone. But what’s worse you ask? When such snark comes from scholars, activists, aid workers and other individuals who have a certain degree of influence. It’s especially bad because they have an established platform to be heard. Unfortunately, what I’ve noticed is that there is a growing culture of shooting the messenger instead of attacking issues at hand. The habit of targeting journalists is getting celebrated as I tried to describe on my blog entry following World Press Freedom Day.

I find myself asking, is dialogue about Africa coverage leading to an unfair criticism of Journalists?

In recent months, there’s been much talk about how Western media covers Africa. I’ve been closely watching the back and forth conversation about how Africa shouldn’t be covered and of course the famous satirical article by Binyavanga Wainaina which originally coined the title “How to Write About Africa” and its updated version. It brings to light mostly Western media’s dehumanizing effect on the continent. It highlights the cliched words used and mindset of the writers when reporting, and so on.  I consider some of the criticism healthy and think that it carries merit but I feel that some coming as a reaction to such complex subject is just trivial nitpicking and makes me cringe. For example, Laura Sesay, an assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, expressed her criticism about Kristof’s coverage of a young rape victim and said that you wouldn’t see that in America and Europe. As sad as that is, if a rape victim and her family give consent, you would surely be able to reveal the victim’s name. What I am having a problem with such criticism is not the fact that she is mad about how things are covered but the fact that it is missing the point.

Rape is a serious problem in places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo where for example from 2006 to 2007, over 400,000 women were raped in a 12-month period. In the same time frame, 1,152 women were raped every day at a rate of about 48 per hour changing the view of how rape is being used as a war crime. The criticism ignores the fact that Kristof has done significant work to battle trafficking of women and girls, most notably his remarkable book “Half the Sky.”

Sometimes the criticism of Africa coverage has value. What you wouldn’t find in any American or European coverage is a sentence like this one by Jeffrey Gettleman covering a massacre in Sudan: “The trail of corpses begins about 300 yards from the corrugated metal gate of the United Nations compound and stretches for miles into the bush.” Would such reporting ever meet editorial standards when he was working at the then St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) and wrote about a rural town in Florida? I am 100 percent confident that no sensible editor would allow that to stand as factually accurate enough to publish in a news piece. If a trail of bodies existed in Tampa stretching for miles, editors would want to know specifically how many, exact locations, names of victims, etc., etc. In Africa such vague–perhaps embellished–reporting is allowed to stand without further examination. The unspoken assumption is that Africa is one endless tragedy and such trails of corpses are par for the course.

Unfortunately, substantive criticism like this of Africa coverage is the exception instead of the rule.

What pushed me to write this is a recent unexpected criticism I came across after  Nicolas Kristof’s column titled “Africa on the Rise.” The criticism was surprising because I thought that amplifying the continent’s success is not a bad idea at all.  After all, serious challenges face different countries in Africa ranging from leadership to poverty. However, to my surprise, Kristof caught a lot of flack for his column. Some reacting on Twitter labeled it “recycling” and “lazy” journalism. For example, one prominent activist Tweeted “Without that balanced approached, then your readers think whole continent is a misery basket. Which isn’t true or helpful.” Makes perfect sense right? But I still don’t see how that column can get such reaction. I am of the opinion that balance and context are important attributes in journalism that are missing in much of today’s reporting. And in this report, Kristof has included information about his initiative which is called “win a trip” and allows students to travel to remote places with him in order to see and learn from the lives of people first-hand. Kristof has done a great job communicating with his viewers too. He makes a good point in response to such comments he said: “I believe in periodically reminding everyone that the larger context is a rising Africa that some think is going to be the next Asia.”  He also reminded readers that he has been covering growth in Africa in the past . But overall, I think we need to get the mixed bag of good news and bad news so that we can work to better understand the complex realities of people’s conditions on the continent.

Kristof continued to explore this burning subject in his blog by pointing out the complexity and importance of what covering the continent entails. He asked how journalists should cover Africa posing pressing questions he says:

“…basic problem with eastern Congo is that it’s undercovered rather than overcovered: this is the most lethal conflict since World War II and has had far fewer column inches than any other major conflict. Likewise, the 1 million kids a year who die of pneumonia, overwhelmingly in Africa, deserve more coverage, not less. Same with maternal mortality, malaria, fistula, hunger and so on. I’m proud that my coverage on some African challenges feels as if it has helped spotlight the challenges and led to lives saved. So what do we do to call attention to problems without exaggerating them in the public mind?”

That is an extremely challenging question journalists working on the ground face on a day-to-day basis. That’s why I applaud such forward conversation between journalists and their audience.

I also find myself asking why should it matter who is doing the reporting, if the reporting is accurate? More broadly, why target the messenger? 

I think disparaging remarks about journalists’ efforts is counterproductive. In her Foreign Policy article, Seay points out that most journalists rely on stereotypes and a mindset that already exists in most people’s minds when discussing the continent or people from the continent. She says: “A reporter does not have to be Caucasian to provide objective and well-written reporting from the continent, and in many cases, this reporting is more nuanced than that of an international correspondent who spends five days reporting a story.”

Even though some of the criticism makes sense, in this case, I share Tristan McConnel’s sentiment when he responded to her Foreign Policy article pointing out that there are “self-appointed Africa-watchers who dip a toe in the continent and then pontificate from afar.”

Most journalists who are trying to make a difference in people’s lives are not “pontificating” from some luxurious hotel in South Africa or receiving a Sheraton or Hilton five star treatment to bring the stories of victims. They are writing about miserable stories to bring about change. Since when is journalism about pleasing people? I think there are multimillion dollar PR campaigns for that sort of activity. Therefore, there’s nothing more that gives me satisfaction and faith in the power of journalism when I come across investigative journalism such as CNN Freedom’s documentary which resulted in the releasing of over 600 slaves in Sinai Desert.

What do the nay sayers have to say in the face of shocking reports such as human and organ trafficking of African immigrants in the Sinai? These incidents have been reported by the media and are ignored in a couple of minutes as if it’s not an issue of concern. I’m dumbfounded by the lack of interest to take action, including indifference by Africans who could actually make a difference. Kudos to the CNN documentary and well deserved recognition from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, IRE, to award its top prize to an investigative documentary called “Death in the Desert” by CNN. I personally know friends and co-workers who have made this perilous journey through other countries in Africa and some who never lived to tell about it. Tragically, their desperation has become a money-making opportunity for Bedouins who capture and torture these asylum seekers and extort large ransom amounts from their families at home.

Sadly, in such cases, the idea that is gaining new prevalence especially at present is the growth of information technology and its adverse effect on interpersonal relationships. Sensational coverage, especially on TV and different online media outlets have been incapable of generating intelligent discourse that would benefit society. Instead, we’re living in times where people are exposed to serious gut-wrenching stories habitually juxtaposed with news of less importance by the media which is desensitizing the audience.

In conclusion, I would like to say that more coverage is what we need. The claim that the media is filtered for you and that you don’t have a choice for balance is getting old as readership and audience changes. Kristof’s audience is not the same as they were a decade ago. The New York Times has a wider and more inclusive coverage with what some experts are considering the renaissance of journalism and how what we share is dynamically changing in time.

Therefore, sweeping generalization both from the West and from Africans is not only counter-productive for the conversation, it is also distracting. Instead of complaining about how the media is covering a certain subject, why not spend the time and energy talking about the actual issue? For example, recently there was an incident where an intern for One Campaign, incurred a major backlash of anger from a group of people who were angered by the report including the word “unhappy,” when covering the first independence celebration of South Sudan. I still yet have to understand what was factually incorrect about the use of the word “unhappy” as the same title was used for the Economist coverage of the country’s anniversary. What I think they should have done? Well, list the things they see that need explanation. Perhaps they want more coverage of South Sudan’s progress in tackling corruption or their efforts to make English the official language. Pick an issue and attack that, not the person. There are some good news stories coming out of South Sudan, but unfortunately they’re overwhelmed by the negative news. But if all we hear are the attacks on reporters, it sounds like a bunch of whiners who are bent on snapping at everything that comes their way.

I expect more from my fellow Africans. We need to communicate better. We need to clearly state examples and point out serious problems to fix the way we’re perceived. We shouldn’t be in the business of launching vague, snark-filled attacks but instead work and voice clear constructive criticism with examples, numbers and citations. This way we can actually better the communication process.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions . If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

A Melancholic Day : World Press Freedom in the Horn of Africa – Bumps in the Road Ahead

On World Press Freedom day, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) released its annual list of the best and worst countries as it relates to press freedom. The usual suspects, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, were singled out in a list of the 10 worst countries for censorship. Many other African countries received failing marks.

ImageSince, in most cases, national security is the excuse given to counterbalance arguments regarding press freedom, it got me wondering. As I was reading the list published by CPJ, I was struck by a notable omission. Doesn’t a free press need some semblance of stability in order to operate? And yet Africa’s most notorious failed state, was not listed. Somalia, a country destroyed and consumed by conflict since, arguably, the turn of the last century somehow avoided mention. In the past 20 years, 40 journalists have been killed in Somalia (since 1992). Yet, in spite of threats posed by terror groups and the worst drought in 40 years, Somalia still manages to allow a space for journalists to report on issues that matter. Southern Somalia with its Transitional Federal Government  supported by external actors such as the African Union peacekeepers is only truly able to control the capital city, Mogadishu.

ImageA power struggle with Islamist militant groups such as Al-Shabaab and Hizbul Islam continue to render large swaths of land in the south no-go areas. And yet, amidst the anarchy, journalists still roll out reports on social and political issues from the country. They are confronted with restrictions, intimidation and physical threats on the ground on a daily basis. The south is a much different environment compared to Puntland in the northeast and Somaliland which has had a peaceful free and fair elections and presents a fair opportunity and space for the press. For example, recently a hopeful voice was heard after Voice of Peace radio director Awke Abdullahi was released. He said he will never abandon his commitment as a journalist and defend his community despite the fact that he just endured two months of detention in prison. This proves that there are challenges but also marks as a victory for the freedom of the press.There are additional reports of intimidation of journalists in Somaliland but what is striking is that these reports are being confirmed from Somalia by journalists who are allowed to practice in their country. Mogadishu is not an exception in this case and it just goes to show that the media still faces dire challenges ahead. I take my hat off to the people who continue to churn out the daily news reports in Somalia even when the news is full of tragedy.

Image

Shifting gears, in an Op-Ed on the New York Times, Mohamed Keita, the Africa advocacy coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, made interesting points about the relationship between the press and economic growth. As the presence of China increases on the continent to compete for Africa’s natural resources, China is pushing the need to focus only on positive news of achievements by governments. This approach used by most governments on the continent desensitizes and misinforms the audience. People look for the media to stick up for their interest and bring about reforms on various social and political issues. In addition, state-run media only serves the interest of governments and does not leave room for holding authorities to account.

In the opinion piece, Ethiopia’s and Rwanda’s economic growth and suppression of media was used as an example to show a growing trend. Ethiopia is also involved in a disturbing type of systematic squashing of  the media as the government continually uses the banner of terrorism to imprison journalists and squash dissent. Eskinder Nega, an Ethiopian journalist who decided to stay in the country and report from the ground despite media crackdown by the government is an example of one of the people who are facing imprisonment for inciting terrorism and could face a death penalty if found guilty in a hearing scheduled later in May. Foreign journalists aren’t immune to the terrorism laws being used against journalists. A recent arrest and an eleven year sentence handed down to Swedish journalists, Martin Schibbye and Johan Persson, also brings up this concern of how governments use terrorism laws. The reporters were captured with rebel groups from Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) while documenting the groups’s activities. The rebel groups are part of many opposition movements working against the Ethiopian government.

There are other types of difficulties facing the press in African countries. For instance, although  Rwanda’s relations with China and economic growth were mentioned in the article in relation to stifling the press, post-genocide issues have had a dire impact on how journalists go about reporting. In recent news, the supreme court of Rwanda showed some sign of leeway when the sentence of two journalists Agnes Uwimana Nkusi and Saidati Mukakibibi, was reduced from seventeen to four years and from seven to three respectively. What makes the charges on the women unfair is the fact that pro-government tabloids with messages inciting violence get away with printing quotes such as this: speaking against opposition, “We do not exaggerate when we say the ordinary Rwandan in the rural areas still thinks when your tribesman wins the elections you have carte blanche to dust off your machete, hone it and cut up your neighbor from the different ethnic group, or throw him into the river, or carry out pogroms.” This is as incendiary as the rhetoric that helped fuel the genocide in 1994 and it should not be allowed in the  new Rwanda.

This double standard is bound to come back to haunt the justice system in the long run. I’ve had similar discussions with Rwandans who are concerned by the legacy the genocide has left in terms of freedom of expression. Nadege Uwase, the Executive Director of Global Issues Leadership Development (GILD), is a genocide survivor and deeply understands the conditions in the country from personal experience. She expressed her concerns during the election in 2010 shortly after visiting Rwanda. Talking about her visit, “I was thoroughly disappointed by party opposition leaders. They were hardly visible. I think my country needs to get to a point where one can have a political argument, especially about our government’s policies without fear of life. Because of the genocide legacy, we are not quite there yet, our political climate does not allow that. With that legacy, it is hard to encourage civil discourse, which we desperately need.”

Image

The fact remains that the media has been used to distract people from real problems and against populations in a negative way. However, this extreme example of Rwanda is also used to justify atrocity against journalists. Sure the media was used to turn clans against each other during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Philip Gourevitch, the author of “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families” notes in this book review, “the dead had seen their killers training as militias in the weeks before the end, and it was well known that they were training to kill Tutsis; it was announced on the radio, it was in the newspapers, people spoke of it openly.” But as societies learn how to use their voice to build up their communities and come out of traumatic experiences, in time this argument also loses ground.

Eritrea is a unique case since independent media has been shut for over a decade. Countering the CPJ report, in an interview with the Voice of America, Dawit Haile from the Eritrean embassy in Washington D.C. said that the report is “groundless.”  He said, “there are various and many types of satellite dishes that are available through the country, but also the countryside – also the city is filled with internet cafes, and people read all kinds of information.” It’s true, the public mostly in urban cities have access to satellite dishes allowing  them to enjoy international TV programs. Unfortunately, those programs don’t inform them about their own country. Since there is no independent media and the list puts Eritrea first for censorship, I would like to briefly mention the use of Internet. Ironically, there is no record of internet censorship or filtering system. In fact, I’ve come across social media groups inside Eritrea allowed to freely express their opinions. The major stumbling block for internet users in the country is a slow bandwidth speed, 128K, and can be regarded as equitable for Africa. In Eritrea, education is a priority and internet access without education is meaningless.

An Open Society Foundation’s report by Iginio Gagliardone and Nicole Stremlamu, titled “Digital Media, Conflict and Diasporas in The Horn of Africa,” found out that even though Eritrea was the last country to get an Internet connection in Africa in 2000, “ in 2010 it registered the highest percentage of internet users in the Horn (5.4 percent).” The research, also notes that communities living in the United States and Europe produce and consume news online. The Internet undoubtably provides a medium where the diaspora can engage and talk about issues in regards to the country. However, there are major fallouts even within this medium. As online information overwhelms the audience it is also getting hard to differentiate facts from fictitious reports. A recent example is when unconfirmed rumors started swirling around online, mainly by opposition sites claiming the Eritrean president was terminally ill or even dead. Some outlets went as far as saying that tanks were in the capital, several military generals were arrested and there’s a coup attempt. This reckless and sensational tabloid-style reporting went on for a week even grabbing the attention of international media outlets until the president held an interview on Eri TV, the state-owned media outlet. Although it’s not the first time that online outlets have exaggerated and fabricated news, this specific incident is an indication that there is a need for independent media in the country. The only positive outcome from this incident was the fact that Eritreans were able to engage in civil discourse which is a rare commodity because of how polarizing the political condition of the country has become.

Overall, the fundamental principles of journalism are universal and challenges in the region will take time to show progress. This should also remind us that there is a need to celebrate and remember brave journalists on the continent who risk their lives, face harassment, imprisonment and pay the ultimate price while on duty. Difficulties can only be met with increased participation of African journalists who abide by strict codes of ethical behavior and are committed to informing the public in order to improve the lives of the people. I will end post with a quote by George Ayittey, a Ghanian economic professor, an author and president of Free Africa Foundation in D.C. : “Real reform starts with INTELLECTUAL FREEDOM – freedom of expression, of the media, etc. Reform must come from WITHIN to be sustainable, not dictated from the outside. It is the PEOPLE who must make their own case for reform.”

I would also like to recommend an interview I was fortunate enough to conduct with a group of Pakistani journalists on Global Journalist, a show which also produces a multimedia content for its website and broadcast on KBIA.org, Central Missouri’s NPR affiliate. We discussed the challenges journalists face when covering the often turbulent events in their country and what needs to be done to improve press freedom. As they share their experiences and give recommendations, it draws parallels to the challenges in highly volatile areas in Africa.


 

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Eritrean Culture on Trial: Assimilation Gone Awry

As a former Missourian and an Eritrean immigrant, I was heartbroken when I came across the April 15th St. Louis Post Dispatch front page story detailing the statutory rape case against an Eritrean immigrant in St. Louis who impregnated a 12-year-old. As I scanned through the story, I spotted several ambiguous parts which begged for perspective. In today’s blog entry, I will try to explain this clash of new immigrant adapting to the cultural norms of his or her adopted society. I’ll also trace the cultural roots of traditional practices of the Kunama ethnic group in reference to the case and I will take a quick look at the bizarre birthday, January 1st, that all of the immigrants involved in the case share.

Let’s start with the good news. Despite hostile reactions towards immigration issues plaguing the country, especially as the rhetoric around election season heats up, St. Louis has proven to be more than just a place for resettling immigrants. The International Institute of St. Louis’ president and CEO Anna Crosslin, made a point of letting residents know that refugees have opened about 300 small businesses bringing more than $100 million in the region in different forms varying from job creation to spending profits. Therefore, for 20,000 refugees sponsored by the institute, it has become a place they call home. These stories are constant reminders of how the area has not only embraced immigrants who came to the U.S. looking for protection but also created an environment for them to thrive.

Image

I’d also like to point out the inspiring successful Eritrean-American migrant stories before talking about the challenges and complexities surrounding this unfortunate matter. St. Louis is home to Dr. Ruth Iyob, a noted Eritrean intellectual, an associate professor and research fellow in the Center for International studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Dr. Iyob is a noted scholar who wrote, perhaps, the definitive political science account of Eritrea’s road to freedom. It was mandatory reading when I was a student at Asmara University. St. Louis is also home to Mengesha Yohannes and his brothers who are celebrating the 27th anniversary of their restaurant Bar Italia, a successful Central West End restaurant with some Eritrean roots, serving mainly Italian food bringing to light a reminder that Eritrea was once an Italian colony.Those are the immigrant stories off the top of my head as evidence and example that, when afforded opportunities, Eritrean immigrants benefit the economic growth of their communities and, in turn, achieve the American Dream.

ImageNevertheless, some challenges put a strain on immigrants assimilating to a new area as is common in most cases. Hence, it is sobering to come across stories of newly arrived Eritrean immigrants who have gone through horrible ordeals to come to the U.S. just to find themselves struggling to adjust to yet another challenge in what they considered their new home. The Eritrean community in the St. Louis area have endured tragic losses in recent years. From young lives cut short in an unsolved homicide where the victim was a second generation twenty year old young Eritrean man, Romeo H. Teferi, to a report about a fifteen year-old young boy, Sahele Wodede, caught in the line of fire during an inner-city shootout. Such incidents demonstrate that crime is one of the major facts of life for new immigrants who, typically, find themselves living in dangerous neighborhoods as they try to carve out a life for themselves.

At the wheel of assimilation is a growing call for action by resettlement agents to curb cultural differences between the hosting community and immigrants. Nothing brings this challenge to the forefront as much as the case of the account of a statutory rape against an Eritrean immigrant which I mentioned at the outset of this piece. In this case the accused, Asannay Marbati, protested that having sex with a minor in Eritrea is acceptable, despite legal prohibitions of such traditional practices in Eritrea. I feel that it is important for the readers to understand that, contrary to the claims by the accused, in Eritrea, the legal age of consent is 18. The penal code of the country criminalizes all sorts of physical and sexual abuses against children. The law doesn’t take this issue lightly. In fact it penalizes offenders with harsh imprisonment for up to fifteen years depending on the severity of the sexual offense of minors below 15-years-old.

ImageSimilar to narratives heard about developing countries, Eritrea also faces fundamental legal challenges to this day. There is a culture-clash between traditional practices and modern laws and norms. However, it is important to note that Eritrea has made strides in abolishing harmful traditional practices in the country. For instance, in 2007 Eritrea abolished female genital mutilation (FGM), a common practice in the region and the continent as a whole. This issue is close to home for me since my mother, who serves as the head nurse in a government clinic, led campaigns against FGM and I was fortunate enough to witness exciting conversations among women who discussed for the first time the harmful effects of the practice. In addition to this, campaigns to combat traditional practices such as child marriage and arranged marriage are showing progress in Eritrea.

ImageAnother important factor to take into consideration when examining the St. Louis case is the cultural background of the Kunama ethnic group. Eritrea has nine ethnic groups and the Kunama make up 2% of the population. According to the late Dr. Alexander Naty, who taught Anthropology at Asmara University (I was one of the students in his class in 2001), an interesting fact about the Kunama ethnic group is that before converting to Christianity or Islam, their communities followed matrilineal lines creating higher social status for women in the decision making process of their communities. Dr. Naty also recounted oral Kunama testimonies from members of the Shila clan of how communities were safe havens for women in other ethnic groups who were persecuted for pre-marital pregnancies.

“In the past girls among the Tigre were not supposed to get pregnant unless they were married. Those girls who became pregnant without legal marriage were killed. One would imagine that this practice must have been adopted after the Tigre conversion to Islam. In any case, a girl became pregnant and she told about her pregnancy to her brother who did not want his sister’s death. They decided to flee to the land of the Kunama ethnic group. The girl delivered her child there. According to this Kunama oral tradition, members of the Shila clan trace their descent to this legend.”

ImageThis being the oral tradition passed in the Kunama ethic group, according to a report by the Cultural Orientation Resource Center, a research on the resettlement of Kunama refugees who lived in Ethiopian Refugee camps after fleeing a border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia from 1998 – 2000, the report notes that it is common for minor girls as young as 13 or 14 to be married to older men. But in a surprise twist to the antithetical theories presented above, the same research notes that despite few opportunities given to girls for school:

“when a mother dies, her children join her mother’s relatives, even if the children’s father is still alive. Elderly women wield a great deal of authority over younger family members.”

Additional research on the Kunama community reveals that despite the continuation of poor traditional practices such as FGM and child marriage, some still remain matrilineal.

Last but not least, I would like to bring the bizarre coincidence noted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that many immigrants share the same birthday, January 1st. This was not the first time I’ve heard of such reports. According to a report by The Sun, a British daily paper, immigration officers pick the birth date to migrants whose records were incomplete. But the claims of Suzanne LeLaurin from the International Institute of St. Louis suggest that it is because Eritrea doesn’t have a birth certificate or people don’t celebrate birthdays. She said “In many countries around the world, there is no such thing as birth certificates, there is no recognition of birthdays.” This claim has some merit. In rural regions, especially among nomad communities migrating from place to place, the knowledge to keep records may not exist. But Eritrea as a country keeps records of all its citizens in order to provide different governmental services. What might be the issue in this specific case is that since the group resettled in St. Louis came as refugees, it would be difficult to obtain original documents from government offices. What’s puzzling to me is how difficult could it be to prove someone’s age? I couldn’t help but think, aside from all the points mentioned, if authentic or conclusive evidence is not available to prove how old the girl is, shouldn’t there be an option to consult scientific experts? Not certain about technicalities and procedures but how about conducting ossification tests to verify if she is a minor or not? Even if it might not be a 100% conclusive, it is available. After all, we live in the 21st century where scientific evidence such as DNA tests are used to help solve too many criminal cases to count.

Overall, Missouri and the St. Louis area has been a welcoming home for immigrants who seek protection from war-ravaged areas of the world ranging all the way from Bosnia to the war-torn nation of Somalia. Immigrants seek rights and protections by coming to America, but that there is a flip side to that coin. Their adopted home will also hold them accountable for violating the laws of the land. Therefore, it struck me, as a newly sworn in American citizen that what all Americans should learn from this case is: ignorance of the law does not pardon a criminal. This case should serve as a call for action in order to improve assimilation efforts already in place.
Africa Talks - welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Mali’s Coup: Mutiny Within a Blink of an Eye Or A Ticking Time Bomb?

In the past two months, West Africa has witnessed an unprecedented security threat as several governments were caught in the grips of coups or attempted coups. As Guinea-Bissau soldiers arrest the nation’s Prime minister over a suspected coup, Mali’s new interim civilian president got sworn into office last Thursday, after a 27 days long coup that has puzzled the International Community. Was Mali’s coup a surprise? Or does it have roots deeper than just a junta composed of low-ranking officers deposing a sitting president? And most importantly, how should other African governments avoid becoming the next victims of lawlessness?

Let’s start with a bit of context. In January of this year, Malians were already voting, voting with their feet that is. According to aid agencies, over 20,000 Malians fled into neighboring countries prompted, in part, by the uncertainty that followed a massacre of 82 Malian soldiers in the North. In this case, the Tuareg rebels utilized Al-Qa’ida methods including slitting the throats of soldiers and distributing the horrific images to the outside world.

Image

The group at the heart of Mali’s chaos is demanding the creation of a new state in the northern provinces of Mali to be governed by Sharia law, the Tuareg rebels National Movement for the Liberation of Azwad (MNLA). This militant group is said to have joined forces with Ansar Dine, another Tuareg rebel group with ties to extremism. With the help of the latter rebel group, the chaos has escalated to eventually pose a regional threat.

Image

However, long before the alliance of Tuareg rebel groups, according to a report titled “Global Jihad Sustained Through Africa,” by The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Mali had already been victimized by terrorist activities. In February 2008, gunmen attacked an Israeli Embassy in Mali’s capital. In another incident, in August of 2010, two spanish aid workers were kidnapped in neighboring Mauritania and freed in Mali after nine months. Following that, in September of 2010, Mauritania decided to send its aircraft to attack militants who had kidnapped seven foreigners near the Niger-Mali border.

Mali was well aware of this. Despite Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure dubbing the turmoil in the north as “Other people’s war,” the country did recognize the threat to its security. In fact, in April 2010, it teamed up with Mauritania, Niger and Algeria and signed a treaty to combat terrorism in the region. But abductions continued and continue to this day. A trend demonstrably pointing to Al-Qa’ida’s thuggish strategy to capitalize on vulnerable individuals to generate income as ransom payments are funneled for rescue. The rebels continue their rampage while over 200,000 Malians flee looting, hunger and complete anarchy.

Image

So, how could ATT’s government be oblivious when there were vivid warning signs in the North Sahel region? Leading up to March, it appeared to be business as usual for the president. He not only ignored the chaos in the north showing little to no attempt to suppress the rising panic and anger of his soldiers and junior officers, but also ignored the fact that they were victimized by the rebels. There were even reported incidents of Malian soldiers being unable to pursue rebel groups due to a lack of petrol available for their vehicles.

Image

This recipe for disaster prompted the soldiers to act the only way they know how to: Mutiny. The junta, National Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State (CNRDRE), decided to take matters into their own hands and embarked on a misguided mutiny that dismantled peace and constitutional order in the country. What a wake up call it was for the president who was chased into hiding just weeks away from scheduled elections.

At present, Mali has a fragile future. Dioncounda Traore, the seventy-year-old newly sworn-in civilian president, with his doctorate in mathematics, has been given an opportunity to solve the difficult equation of holding national elections within forty days. The first question one might ask is: how can elections even be held when fully 65 percent of the country is not under the control of the central government? During his inauguration ceremony, he vowed that there would  be no hesitation “to wage a total, relentless war” against what he calls the “invaders.”

ImageWaiting in the wings is the former coup leader Capt. Amadou Sanogo who has expressed an interest in returning to power if he feels the urge. Today, Mali is at the mercy of an unpredictable political atmosphere while thousands of its citizens are displaced and desperately awaiting a return to normalcy.

What can other African governments with similar militant group threats in remote regions learn from Mali? I think it is clear to see that dismissing or simplifying militant threats will not only embolden militant efforts but also put leaders in a compromising position. The crux of the matter is that after recurring extremist attacks, leadership attitudes have changed in the continent. It is up to African governments to take the helm of leadership and find the courage to work together. Even one unstable region, one dissident group or suicide bomb attack in a community is too many to ignore.

Africa Talks - welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Rising from the Ashes: Rwanda Celebrates the 18th Anniversary of the Genocide

In 2010, Rwanda held an election which came under scrutiny for a media crackdown and the arrest of some opposition candidates. For incumbent, Paul Kagame, however, it was an undoubtable win with an overwhelming 93 percent of the votes. Shortly after that, concerned about the treatment of the media in Rwanda, I met professor Rangira Gallimore, an associate professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo. and the founder of a non-profit organization assisting women and children who suffered gender-based violence during the Rwandan genocide. Ms. Gallimore assured me that to this day, Rwanda has people who deny the genocide. She said: “The country’s social tissue is still torn” speaking about the legacy of the genocide and she added that some who were arrested during the election were, in fact, genocide deniers. After strongly criticizing the lack of participation of the international community during the genocide, discussing human right groups concerns of suppressing dissidents, she said, some of the evidence presented by human rights groups were not credible and that “there is an inhuman side of human rights when you put things into context.” Ms. Gallimore, who lost family members during this dark time in Rwandan history, was also quick to remind me of the negative role the media played in fanning the flames of genocide and how radio, television and print media were used as tools to embolden perpetrators.

Image

I met Ms. Gallimore during an event sponsored by the Anglican Church of the Advent titled “Rwanda: Genocide, Aids, and the Church” held at the Boone County Library. It was a fundraiser presentation by a visiting Rwandan Rev. Ernest Mahoro originally from Kibungo, Rwanda. One of the most important points he stressed during his lecture was the power of reconciliation. In Rwanda, people had to learn to live alongside neighbors who killed their family members during the genocide. Mr. Mahoro stressed the active involvement of his church in Rwanda making sure that peace and reconciliation can take root in communities by providing space for people to assemble and share stories in order to heal. Later that year I came across a heart warming story about how he was able to partner with the Rwanda Community Partnership Project and raise money to build a clinic for child and maternal health in Rwanda. However, I have been struggling to understand how people have the strength to forgive someone who murdered a family member.

Image

The Rwandan solution is an inspiring one and, I believe, unique in the history of such mass tragedies. In search of an immediate and cost-effective solution, the government had to look for traditional remedies to resolve an issue of this magnitude. They chose to adapt a unique traditional dispute resolution system called “Gacaca Courts.” These courts are not considered fair or equitable by international standards and have been met with criticism from some concerned groups. However, what most Rwandans will say is there can never be a proportional punishment for the genocide and locking up all the perpetrators would be an impossible task. Therefore, they have sought to record the horrors and force the murderers to admit their crimes in public and return to society as productive members.

Image

On this April, Rwandans mark the 18th anniversary of the genocide, it is fair to say that Rwanda has come a long way. The Economist referred to the tiny country as “Africa’s Singapore” based on its business-friendly environment. Its GDP is growing by seven percent or more annually. Since the days of genocide, it has received accolades from business partners and tourists and its capital, Kigali, is rated to be one of the cleanest and safest African cities. I also heard hopeful messages from Ms. Gallimore who currently leads a study abroad program at the University of Missouri. She spoke highly of the experience students get from attending the program. She believes that the progress was made possible because of the approach the government has taken. She said that “when going with students, they have been able to notice that there is no stealing, violence and everything in Rwanda is relatively different” and changing for the better.

 

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

A bold move forward: Kenya’s new constitution proves skeptics wrong

At a time when anti-establishment sentiments are high in the United States, many Americans are searching for answers in their constitution, in an effort to turn back the clock to the way things once were. More than 7,000 miles away in Kenya, the mood has been markedly different in the past couple of months. There, they’re rewriting the constitution with an eye towards the future.

Considered to be a huge leap forward from what was left by colonial powers, more than 45 years ago, Kenyans have finally approved their own constitution, after riding a wave of reform. Kenya’s lawmakers finished drafting the new law in April, for a “yes” or “no” referendum vote on Aug. 4.

Most of the key changes proposed in the new constitution focus on the main branches of power: the executive, legislative and judiciary. The changes are concerned with devolving power to the greater mass of citizens, instead of the few holding power at any given time. Africa’s image around the world is largely seen through the lens of problems such as poverty, corruption, illiteracy and tribalism. For decades, the perception and the underlying reality of these problems, has weighed down the continent’s growth.

Before the vote, the new law grabbed the attention of conservative Christian groups in the U.S. In fact, it was reported by major newspapers such as the New York Times that before Kenyans had even finished rewriting the draft of the new constitution, Christian groups organized petition drives in Kenya against it, objecting to two major provisions regarded as threats to Christianity. The first provision will recognize the Islamic courts in handling nuptials and land disputes relating only to Muslims. The second provision strongly opposed by Christians will legalize abortion if the life of the mother is in danger. It is also important to keep in mind that Christian fundamentalism is a strong bloc in Africa. According to a report by the Economist, 17 million Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970, whereas today, the number has risen to more than 400 million, according to the World Christian Encyclopedia.

The religious right in east AfricaKenya, a place where money has purchased influence and power for decades, was not immune to this flow of funds in the name of religion, to support the interest of a small group. A brutal by-product of this battle for votes occurred in June, when someone detonated three grenades in a crowd of people, who had gathered for worship, rallying for a “no” vote at Uhuru Park. Speculations followed the bombing, accusing governmental and other groups, who supported the new law. But this scar didn’t halt the process. In fact, amid all the chaos and fear, polls still showed that 60 percent of Kenyans supported the new constitution before the vote.

Despite these birthing pains earlier this month, a peaceful plebiscite was held and 69 percent of Kenyans backed the new constitution.

The whole world has been following Kenya’s progress towards democratization, including African totalitarian leaders. As the wave and fever for local, regional and national elections takes over Africa, elections have proven to be poor indicators of democracy and civil liberties. In this domino effect of the democratization process of Africa, dictators resisting democracy have used Kenya’s 2007 election as a cautionary tale of why they refuse to hold elections in their own countries. The aftermath of the last national election in Kenya claimed 1,300 lives during ethnically fueled clashes.

Many parts of Africa are now looking to the process as a glimmering example of peaceful democracy. The manner in which the successful referendum has been conducted, proved skeptics wrong. Nonetheless, the main challenge lies on the implementation of the new constitution for Kenya’s bright future. After all, thoughts put on paper don’t have rights, people do.

This article was originally published on East Africa in Focus.

Africa Talks welcomes feedback and questions. If you have questions or recommendations for future content, please contact: africatalksblog@gmail.com

Saudi Arabia’s Abuse of Ethiopian Workers

Tampa Bay Ethiopian Community Holds Candle Light Vigil for Victims of Abuse in Saudi Arabia

  This Summer Saudi Arabia announced plans to “regularize residency and employment status” of foreign workers in the country. This euphemistic language was a warning to the thousands of undocumented workers that they had from July 3 to November 4 to get documentation or get out. The move was reportedly made in …

Continue reading