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Coming back to Sierra Leone at the end of June and traveling on to Liberia in July, I’ve seen a big change.  There have been hundreds of deaths, and people are definitely taking the issue more seriously now.

The virus is primarily spread by contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person, so one of the precautions advised is to not shake hands with people. But I’m finding that very hard in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  We shake hands with everyone we meet.  A driver told me, “I carry all kinds of people in my car.  My children are playing with all kinds of children and then we all sit together at home.  What can I do?”  I was sitting in a crowded public transport vehicle in the Red Light neighborhood, just outside Monrovia the other day, waiting for the vehicle to fill with passengers so we could leave.  A vendor came by, hawking green garden gloves, boasting that they could be used to prevent Ebola. People around me laughed.

It’s only in the last few days that I now see hand-washing stations outside government ministries and some NGOs (though not all).  It seems a little futile when the same people go out to eat in the same cook shops with the same shared utensils.

 

Outside the Ministry of Education in Monrovia

Outside the Ministry of Education in Monrovia

 

Education about the virus and how it spreads is now seen as the main public health task.  In “West Africa:  Misconceptions Fuel Ebola Outbreak”A UNICEF spokesman explains, “Some people still deny that the disease is real. Others believe that it doesn’t have to be treated.” The article goes on to explain that, “Widespread misconception, resistance, denial and occasional hostility in some communities are considerably complicating the humanitarian response to contain the outbreak.”  I’m reminded of what I heard in West Africa in the nineties, that AIDS stands for “American Invention to Destroy Sex.”  There is a long history of lament that Africans don’t believe what we’re telling them about their own health crises, cries of we need more education! Ignorance is the biggest enemy!

 

On a teacher’s door in Monrovia

On a teacher’s door in Monrovia

 

On the wall of a bank in Freetown

On the wall of a bank in Freetown

 

In Monrovia, I was told that there have been real impacts on the health system.  People are afraid to go to the hospital and health workers are refusing to treat people.  So, I was told, even a small sickness can kill you because there is no one to treat you.  (See “Fighting Ebola ‘by the Grace of God’” detailing panicked health workers in Liberia abandoning their work stations.)

The coverage I’ve heard on the BBC and elsewhere focuses on how dangerous it is for people not to comply, and experts decry the ignorance of people who don’t understand that these actions are for the health of the population as a whole.  Sierra Leonean firebrand, and special assistant to the President, Sylvia Blyden, makes the point that it is not only uneducated rural people who are acting this way.  Even people in the more cosmopolitan capital are fighting against the public health restrictions. She recently posted on Facebook:

Esteemed members of SIERRA LEONE ISSUES, well the “gullible” people are not only in Kissi Teng, Kailahun. Tonight, credible reports are that a suspected Ebola patient has escaped from Isolation at PCMH Cottage [Hospital], Fourah Bay Rd. in Freetown with help of her friends and family. She was reportedly admitted in isolation whilst waiting for her test results from Ebola lab in Kenema. Well, to cut a long story short, she was forcibly removed from the Isolation room and then, was put onboard an okada motorbike and whisked off to her residence somewhere in Freetown. One of the nurses on duty was seriously SLAPPED for attempting to stop the escape.

Enti na Kissi Teng, Kailahun, some bin day cuss “munku” and “gullible”? [In English:  Isn’t it true that in Kissi Teng, Kailahun, some people were cursing people for their lack of exposure and gullibility?]

I feel like a lot of the coverage of the Ebola crisis has been about the heroic health workers and the ignorant locals.  I don’t dispute the heroism of the health workers, but I do want to dispute the ignorance of the locals.  People on radio call in shows have asked: Why can’t they understand what needs to be done?  Why they need to submit themselves and their loved ones to quarantine?  When someone has the symptoms—fever, vomiting, diarrhea—they are supposed to report to the health center, where they will be taken away from family, and if they die, be buried by men in protective gear with no family present.  You can see why people might be loath to turn over their loved ones. Really who among us would want to turn a sick loved one over to a hospital staffed with foreigners, knowing we might never see them again?  And hospitals in this part of the world have notoriously poor service.  Families routinely have to prepare meals and bring them to patients.  Families have to go to local pharmacies to buy drugs and even gloves or needles from India or Nigeria because hospital storerooms are routinely not stocked. People’s apprehensions about the failings of the healthcare system come from experience, not from ignorance.

At least some commentators have pointed out that this crisis really reveals people’s mistrust of the state, that’s why they don’t do what they’re told. One expert on a BBC call-in program explained this was understandable in the aftermath of war.  I would argue that it’s far deeper than that.  It’s not just the war that caused this mistrust.  The mistrust existed long before.  Furthermore, the issue is more than people ignoring public health warnings from the state. People believe that the state is actually out to get them; more precisely, that “big men” are using the apparatus to of the state to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary people, sometimes at the expense of their lives.

Some folks standing outside JFK Hospital in Monrovia told me that there is a spray, a chemical spray, that if they say you have Ebola, they spray it on you and that’s what actually kills you.  They explained that the health ministry is using it so they can report more deaths from Ebola and get more money.  They said the government already got $1.8 million in March so they know there is money in it.

A friend recounted a story that in one of the poor neighborhoods some group was giving vaccinations against Ebola (“But there is no vaccine,” I protest.  “Doesn’t matter.  People don’t know that,” he replies.)  He says two babies died almost immediately after receiving the shots, and the medical team vanished afterwards, now no one knows who gave the shots.  “Someone must have been poisoning the children to make it look like more Ebola deaths!”  This is an unsubstantiated rumor, but the important thing is how the rumor was spread by average, even well educated, people like my friend.  He said that people think it is someone in or near the government who is getting rich off of the money that is coming into the country to battle the epidemic, and wants the situation to continue to look dire.  When I sounded doubtful, my friend gave further evidence.  He told me that the Chief Accountant at the Ministry of Health was preparing to make a report to the donors of how all the Ebola response money given to the government had been spent so far.  The evening before the presentation he was badly beaten by thugs, and they took all the paperwork away from him and nothing else.  Clearly, my friend argued, someone has something to hide!

So, is this a case of ignorance?  Or do these beliefs tell us something more? I think the rumors reveal something about the nature of the state here and people’s so-called contract with it.  The state has acted in just such a vampiric fashion in the past, feeding off of the misery of its citizens, and likely will continue to do so. They are not responding out of ignorance, but again I would argue, out of long experience.

Susan Shepler is Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington DC.  She is currently conducting Spencer Foundation funded research in Liberia and Sierra Leone on connections between Western education, the state, and armed conflict.

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Since 2001, Jos, Nigeria is internationally known for intermittent bursts of violent, inter-religious conflict. In addition, for the past several years Nigeria has faced terror attacks by the Islamist group Boko Haram, what many would call the worst violent crisis since independence. On 20 May 2014, two bombs went off in the center of Jos, killing at least 118 people and injuring 56 more. The area targeted was Terminus Market, arguably the busiest and most densely populated location in town, a market used by all ethnic groups and by Christians and Muslims alike.

I’ve been living in Jos this past year, researching connections between formal education, the state, and armed conflict and lecturing at the university whenever classes are in session. In the course of my normal activities, I pass the location of the bomb blasts several times a week. The Nigerian government seems unwilling to describe what is happening as a war, but I lived through the tail end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, and this fear, these checkpoints, it feels a lot like a war to me. Actually, not knowing where or when the next bomb blast will occur feels worse (to me) than living in war.

Now, over a month after the bomb blasts, the news media has moved on to covering the more recent bomb blasts in Abuja and Bauchi. (See Nigeria Security Tracker (http://www.cfr.org/nigeria/nigeria-security-tracker/p29483 ) for a complete analysis of the staggering number of violent attacks). The world is not focused on Jos anymore, but Jos is still feeling the impact of the bombs.

During my time here I’ve heard lots of stories of how Jos was before the crisis, or indeed even earlier, in the seventies and eighties. I have only known the Jos that is recovering from conflict, skittishly holding on to a fragile peace. Even before the recent bombing, one of my friends refused to go with me to a film screening at the Alliance Française, saying, “We don’t really go to places where large numbers of people will be gathered.” My group of Sierra Leonean ex-pat drinking buddies canceled our regular Friday hang out because they didn’t want to travel “in these uncertain times.”

“This hold up na war – O”

How has everyday life changed in Jos? The biggest impact felt in daily life is in the area of mobility. There is ongoing massive road construction which snarls up traffic regularly. There are newly set up informal and formal road blocks all around town. And the police have severely restricted parking in town, so the shop keepers are suffering from a lack of customers. And now the state government is trying to stop street trading at Terminus Market (http://www.premiumtimesng.com/regional/164675-jos-explosions-plateau-set-to-enforce-ban-on-street-trading.html )

Violent attacks have happened around the state during my time in town, but they are what are known as “Fulani herdsmen” attacks, all rural, and apparently not a threat to people in town. But nobody really knows what’s behind those attacks. Are they simply bandits? Are they backed by certain politicians? Are the security forces involved? The security forces say they are protecting us, and then one hears rumors of army men behind village attacks. We just don’t know. Even about Boko Haram, we don’t know. The Jos conflict has been high jacked and used by so many for so many reasons for so long, one simply does not know what is happening. This is not just the ignorance of the foreign researcher. My Nigerian colleagues are also analytically frustrated by the complexity and secrecy of recent violent events.

For example, although the powers that be agree that the bombings in the market are most likely the work of Boko Haram, also circulating in Jos is the belief that the bombings are just a continuation of the Jos crisis. That is, local powerful people of some political stripe or another stand to profit somehow from continued insecurity. There is also the story circulating that a soldier in the nearby Rukuba barracks, a munitions expert, warned a women not to go to Terminus market that morning. She later praised him for saving her life, but suspicious Nigerians see proof that the military knows more than it’s saying.

Mythologies of security
In the face of such insecurity and ignorance we turn to the magical power of security technology. After the mall bomb blast in Abuja, the cry went up: “Why aren’t the CCTV cameras working?” As if CCTV could have prevented anything. One night in Abuja, after an evening of Star beer and “point and kill” catfish, we went into “the villa” (the Nigerian Presidential Complex) so one of our group could drop off his laptop. On our way out, he pointed out big white trucks parked on the sidewalk. He claimed there were machines inside the trucks that could scan us down to our underwear as defuse any bomb we were carrying as we drove past. I kept to myself my doubts that any such technology exists.

What’s the score?
One last vignette: Watching the World Cup match between Nigeria and Argentina in a local beer parlour the night of an Abuja bombing. People around us are looking at their smart phones for the group standings to see who will advance, sharing the numbers with neighboring tables. People are simultaneously looking at their smart phones for the number killed in Abuja, sharing the number with neighboring tables. I have the troubling sensation that these two tournaments are somehow parallel, as Boko Haram and the Nigerian government tally up numbers killed in an ongoing daily contest, where the lives of ordinary Nigerians are the dirt beneath their feet.

Susan Shepler is an Associate Professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution in the School of International Service at American University in Washington D.C., U.S.A. She spent the past ten months as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Professor at the Centre for Conflict Management and Peace Studies at the University of Jos in Plateau State, Nigeria.

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First posted June 13, 2014

This week has seen a flurry of activity around an issue that for far too long has been forgotten, silenced or viewed as an inevitable consequence of war: sexual violence in conflict.

London has been the centre of activity, where hundreds of politicians, activists, researchers, campaigners, care providers and, most importantly, survivors of sexual violence gathered for the Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict conference.

All of this is extremely important – but in the rush to ‘do something’ about the horrific crimes being committed in Syria, Central African Republic, Nigeria, and other conflict zones, we should not forget some basic premises.

These may seem self-evident, but are often not addressed when discussing sexual violence in conflict: sexual violence needs to be seen in the broader context of violently unequal power positions; sexual violence does not only occur in conflict or only in societies affected by violent conflict.

Furthermore, we in the ‘Global North’ often play a major direct and indirect role, either by our actions or inaction, in perpetuating the situations which can lead to violence.

The painful truth that most perpetrators of these monstrous acts are in fact not monsters, but otherwise ‘normal’ members of society, products of gender norms and expectations which we all play a role in constructing.

First, while it is extremely important to highlight sexual violence against women, men, boys, girls and gender minorities in violent conflict, shining the light on one issue always risks leaving other issues in the dark. In focusing on sexual violence in violent conflict, we should not forget that it usually occurs in the context of other violence: of murder, mutilation, torture, arson, forced displacement, exclusion and other forms of direct and structural violence.

These forms of violence are embedded in broader systems of oppression and exploitation. We must not fall into the trap of advocating merely for a more ‘sanitised’ version of war that continues to be horrifically violent – just minus the sexual violence.

Second, we must be careful not to fall into the trap of seeing sexual violence as only happening in war zones. In war as in peace, intimate partner violence continues, and the perpetrators of sexual violence are not only militias, militaries and guerrillas, but spouses, partners, neighbours and family members.

A recent, disturbing EU report on gender-based violence speaks volumes in this respect, as do misogynist crimes committed by the likes of Elliot Rodgers.

According to An Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales, published in 2013 by the UK Ministry of Justice, Office for National Statistics and Home Office (ONS):

• Approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year; • Over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year; • One in five women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16.

According to the ONS, around a tenth of reported cases of sexual violence were against men and boys – though it must be noted that under-reporting may be even more of an issue here than in the case of women and girls.

Sexual violence is an issue we need to address here as well, and across the European Union, austerity measures have severely hit funding for projects on sexual and domestic violence, with UK shelters reporting that they have had to turn survivors back.

While the concern for sexual violence ‘out there’ is necessary, it rings hollow when simultaneously funding is cut for programmes and shelters of domestic and sexual violence at home.

These two points bring us to the third one: what role do we collectively as the Global North – our governments, banks, private sector companies, media, religious institutions, and NGOs – play in perpetuating the dynamics in which sexual violence occurs in conflict? What is our direct and indirect culpability?

This questioning in no way reduces the culpability of the perpetrators, but rather widens the net and raises necessary, uncomfortable and complex questions. We continue to sell weapons to states and non-state actors in conflict zones; we consume minerals and resources from these zones and we continue to give political and financial support to state and non-state actors without demanding an end to impunity – unless it is politically expedient for us.

Which brings us lastly to the perpetrators: although their crimes are horrific, we need to overcome the facile temptations of seeing them merely as demons, monsters or barbarians. More often than not, they and the people backing them are ‘regular’ people, not maniacs or sociopaths – and that is the truly unsettling issue.

Sometimes, it can also be difficult to draw the lines between perpetrators and victims: where does a son stand who is forced at gun point to rape his father, mother or sister?

Let us be clear, though, that understanding the dynamics does in no way mean condoning the deeds or lessening the perpetrators culpability. But labelling them simply as ‘deviant monsters’ is the easy way out, for it does not force us to look long and hard in the mirror as individuals and as societies and ask ourselves: what it is about our values and our actions and inactions that abets such crimes? All of these issues are on the table in London, and though the impact of a single conference should not be exaggerated, it is already a milestone that sexual violence is being debated at this level. However, no-one is served by an over-simplification of the issues. The issue is far too serious for that.

We, as being directly or indirectly part of the systems that have allowed sexual violence to occur, owe it to the survivors to engage with these uncomfortable questions.

Henri Myrttinen is Senior researcher on gender issues for the peacebuilding organisation International Alert

A new report by International Alert aims to give a more nuanced understanding of the links between gender and peace. You can read the report here.

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FOURTEEN-YEAR-OLD JATU stood under a dull October sky on the stoop of her zinc-roofed, one-room concrete shack in New Kru Town, one of the poorest communities in Monrovia. Chubby teenage schoolgirls approached, in green tunics and with neatly braided hair, their black shoes clicking against the dusty, uneven road. Jatu’s tank top scooped across her breasts and heavily padded bra—what locals call an “iron-titty bra”—and her skin-tight leggings sat low across her buttocks, revealing her butt crack—her “junction,” as it is known in “colloqui,” or Liberian English. Jatu has fine cheekbones and brown eyes, framed by close-cropped hair—she wears it this way because she cannot afford to get it braided. As the girls passed, she turned away to hide the scars carved into the left side of her face, neck and shoulders, reminders of when she was mowed down by a taxi at the age of eight. The driver abandoned the car and fled, leaving Jatu for dead.

Since then, Jatu’s life has been shaped by a series of injustices that are quotidian for many girls in Liberia. This small West African nation, ravaged by civil war through the 1990s and early 2000s, is one of the poorest in the world—the European Commission estimates that over half the population lives in extreme poverty, on less than $0.50 a day. Born to a single mother with two other children, in a poor riverside community near New Kru Town called Crab Hole, Jatu told me she left home voluntarily at age eleven after sensing she was a burden on her family. Unable to pay tuition fees, she dropped out of school and moved in with an older friend, who soon took her to a club where they met a couple of “boys.” Together, they danced to pounding music, sipped beers, and then parted. Jatu’s friend said she would meet her at a nearby street junction, but disappeared. As Jatu walked out onto a dark road, she was met by two of the boys, who said they had paid her friend to “have” her. Before she could argue, they dragged her behind a car and raped her.

That was Jatu’s first taste of life on the street. Back then she was “forced,” but soon she started to “willingly” barter her body—“cut jopu,” as the locals say—on the road, in bars and in nightclubs, for goods or a little money, sometimes less than a dollar a session. For a time, she lived with nine other girls in a tiny room, kept by an older woman who took a cut of her earnings, and sent what money she could to her mother. Jatu now works independently, and pays “gronna boys”—street hustlers—for protection. She still sends money to her family.

There is no reliable count of underage prostitutes such as Jatu in Monrovia, but the police say the number of these “short-time” girls is rising. Unlike in many developing countries, where children are trafficked and forced into sex work by crime syndicates, many Liberian girls are encouraged to cut jopu by their families and friends, among whom their work is an open but largely unspoken secret. Most of the girls I spoke to continued to live with their families, contributing money they claimed came from an “uncle” or “friend.” This tacit acceptance of underage prostitution is driven partly by economic need, but is also rooted in certain aspects of the local culture. Liberia’s patriarchal norms mean women and girls are expected to take the lead in supporting households even though they wield less social power, and many romantic and sexual relations in the country today are transactional. As Butterfly, a local hip-hop artist, raps in a popular song referring to her “apple”—“you take it you pay.”

Sitting in her small office in Congo Town, a relatively affluent part of the city, Korto Williams, the country director of ActionAid, an organisation that promotes women’s rights, spoke of a pervasive “culture of the sugar daddy.” According to Williams, Liberia has a long history of fetishising and abusing young girls, who were, in the past, often married off to older men soon after they reached puberty. Before the civil war, it was common for well-off families to take on girls from remote villages as domestic workers, usually on the promise of paying for their education. Under such arrangements, these girls were often also forced to have sex with the man of the house, and sent back home if they became pregnant. During the war, many young girls became “girlfriends” of generals and soldiers in exchange for food, material goods and protection. Today, Williams said, the legacy of sexual violence during the war has become an excuse for widespread abuse of girls and women. The problem exists in homes, on the streets, and even in schools. In a recent study commissioned jointly by the government and several international NGOs, 18 percent of girls and 13 percent of boys reported having been asked for sex by their teachers in exchange for better grades. Three-quarters of boys and almost a quarter of girls agreed that “men are superior to women,” and almost half the boys and about a third of the girls agreed that “sexual violence and abuse is a normal part of man-woman relations.”

In recent years the Liberian government has tried to address underage prostitution. Under President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 became Africa’s first elected female head of state and jointly won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on women’s rights, Liberia has launched several progressive policies to improve the lives of women and girls and reduce sexual violence. With assistance from international donors, a Women and Children’s Protection Section was established within the Liberian National Police in 2005. It now has almost two hundred staff in fifty-four units across all of Liberia’s fifteen counties. In 2006, the country adopted a national plan of action against sexual and gender-based violence, meant to provide healthcare to survivors of assault, speed up the legal response to rape cases, and provide safe homes and support services for abused women and girls. Two years later, a special court was established to try cases of sexual violence under some of the strongest rape laws in Africa, which punish statutory rape—defined as any instance of a person over the age of eighteen having sex with a person under that age—with life imprisonment.

But many activists question the impact of these laws and policies. The special court has completed just eighteen trials in the last four years, with only a handful of convictions. Last year it completed only five trials, and dismissed 93 percent of the cases brought before it citing administrative and investigative inefficiency. The scale of underage rape in Liberia remains staggering. According to figures from the Ministry of Gender and Development, in 2012, 68 percent of reported rape cases involved victims between the ages of three months and fourteen years. In 2011, three quarters of the perpetrators in reported cases were relatives, friends, neighbours or intimate partners of the survivors.

While much of the abuse goes on behind closed doors, underage prostitution is impossible to ignore. Monrovia has a high, and growing, number of corners, hotels and nightspots notorious for hosting young girls and their customers. The police’s failure to tackle the problem is as conspicuous as the prostitution itself. Occasional raids have only created fear of the police among many girls, who saw these as efforts to “chase” them away, and not to help. When she was twelve, Jatu was forced to have sex with an officer who helped retrieve some money owed to her by a customer. She offered to pay him, but “the policeman say I not pay but he must have me.” Other girls complained of being robbed by the police, and chose to avoid them rather than report cases of abuse. “You carry that case to the police station that a dead case,” Jatu’s friend Naomi, who is also fourteen, said. “You yourself will go in jail.” Despite official efforts at rape education, very few of the girls I met understood the concept of statutory rape or knew where to turn for help. For most, cutting jopu remained simply “business.”

In the face of these problems, and given the lack of other employment options, helping Liberia’s short-time girls is especially difficult. Sitting in her dimly lit office behind Monrovia’s rundown police headquarters late last year, Vera K Manly, the head of the Women and Children’s Protection Section, told me rehabilitation remained a major obstacle. “If you are taking the child from the street, the child must go through some processes … to stop them from going further in the streets,” she said. While there are plans to build a national safe home for these girls, currently the government has only three safe homes, all in Monrovia, which have, at most, the capacity to house girls for a few days at a time. Beside these factors, Manly said, solving the problem will also require a change in cultural attitudes that permit men “to have sex with small girls.”

One afternoon, I joined Jatu and Naomi (whose names have been changed for their protection) in Jatu’s shack as they prepared rice and soup for lunch. “My ma born me but my ma passed away,” Naomi said, and added that she didn’t know where her father was. With no one to care for her, Naomi turned to “short time” when she was twelve, with the help of a thirteen-year-old friend. She said she had never been tested for HIV, and that “I don’t believe that AIDS is real.” Unlike other girls, who call cutting jopu “business,” Naomi described the work as “rape.” She also defined statutory rape: “when the person force you against your will and you too small.” Staring at a blackened coal pot with dour, dark eyes, she told me she saw no other way to earn a living. Jatu and Naomi earn from 100 to 150 Liberian dollars from each customer. They make, at most, 450 Liberian dollars —roughly $5— for a day’s work. “You sit down and say, oh when you do not do this one you will not eat,” Naomi said.

Jatu had little hope of help or change. One night in November, I saw her join another girl for a night of work in a club beside St Paul Bridge, which lies between New Kru Town and Crab Hole. Jatu covered her scars with a scarf and joined her friend to dance under huge, booming speakers. They kept their faces turned down as young men edged toward them, and carefully avoided eye contact.

Clair MacDougall is a writer based in Monrovia. Her report in this issue is funded in part by the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, and is part of a transnational investigation into violence against women in Africa.

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“Anarchy”, “religious war”, “genocide” and, recently, “cannibalism” – these are some of the most commonly used words in Western news media when referring to the crisis in the Central African Republic (CAR), at least since the takeover of power by the rebel coalition Séléka in March 2013. The conflict, which in December alone resulted in approximately one thousand deaths, has uprooted one-fifth of CAR’s population. This conflict was by and large a consequence of former rebel leaders’ and some of their soldiers’ lack of future prospects within the troubled political-economy of the country. It is not easy to control military forces during a war – even less so after a war, when the minimum unifier (typically, regime change) has been achieved. In many cases, this is when the real problems start, as interests begin to diverge and promises made by the politicians to the fighters are not kept. This is very much the case in CAR.

Séléka was disbanded after the coup when its leader, Michel Djotodia, declared himself the new interim president of CAR. The coalition subsequently fell apart and began carrying out atrocities and looting Bangui and its surroundings with impunity, as they felt Djotodia was still indebted to them. In reaction to the violence and by and large to protect itself, the population founded self-defence groups collectively referred to as anti-balaka (“anti-machete”). While Séléka is predominantly Muslim, they have never targeted people because of their faith. It is thus slightly surprising that anti-balaka, at least in Bangui, have used their Christian faith as a common denominator and targeted Muslims. Perhaps it is a strategy to draw sympathy from the West; it is certainly the key reason why Western media currently label the conflict “religious”. This is clearly an oversimplification…..

 

The full text is available in Africa Spectrum (Vol 49, No 1 (2014)) as open access http://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/afsp/article/view/715/713

A popularized version is also available in the Danish Journal Udvikling (Vol 41, No 2 (2014)) as open access http://ipaper.ipapercms.dk/Udenrigsministeriet/Udvikling/2014/Udvikling214/?Page=48

And previously on Bistandsaktuelt website (in Norwegian) http://www.bistandsaktuelt.no/kommentar/arkiv-kommentarer/religionskrig-folkemord-kannibalisme

 

udvikling

 

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Kenya has witnessed series of terrorist attacks since the year 2011 when its soldiers began operation in Somalia dubbed: Operation Linda Nchi (Operation protect the nation). The most recent attacks, was the Likoni church attack on March 23rd 2014 and in Nairobi’s Eastleigh estate on March 31st 2014 – each of which left behind 6 casualties. The Alshabaab has not claimed responsibility in any of them but following that, the government launched Operation Usalama Watch (Operation Peace Watch) on April 2 in a bid to alleviate the threat of terrorism from the country once and for all.

It is remembered that prior to the launch of Operation Usalama Watch, the slain radical cleric Sheikh Abubakar Shariff Makaburi asserted in a television documentary[i] that the attacks including the one on Westgate Mall in 2013 was justified according to Islam. However, shortly after that, he was killed by “unknown assailants” on his way from the Shanzu Law courts in Mombasa. During that eventful week, the temperature in Kenya was that of contrasting images of victims of the Likoni church attack trying to recover particularly an 18-month old baby with a bullet lodged in his head — while on the opposite, the death of Makaburi, perceived to be the face of terror in Kenya’s backyard—the enemy from within.

The discourse of raising tensions seems to have been the final nail in the coffin – provoking retaliation in which heavy police deployment was evidenced in Nairobi particularly in East Leigh, an area mainly populated by ethnic Somalis among others such as South C, Langata, Kawangware and Kasarani.

It is commendable that the government of Kenya finally decided to prioritize the security of its citizens although the manner in which the operation was conducted raises some questions. There is growing discontent of racial profiling and that the operation was targeted sorely at the Somali community and Muslims in general regardless of their status. A report by human rights watch indicates human right violations through arbitrary arrests, detention and extortion[ii] with more than 4000 people arrested in East Leigh, among them 173 illegal immigrants who have since been deported to Somalia.[iii] By the end of April, 281 refugees had been deported to Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps. Besides not having search warrants, the report also points to police involvement in acts of looting and bribery regardless of whether those being searched had proper documentation. Similarly, a good number of arrestees including women and children are said to have been kept in detention for more than the lawful 24 hours as provided for by Kenyan law.

Looking at issues behind the façade, Operation Usalama watch is a reminder of the weakness of Kenya’s security apparatus manifested by corruption and little adherence to professionalism as opposed to loyalty. Whereas the government has asked for its citizens’ support in a bid to guarantee national security, it is imperative to note significant success cannot be achieved through force but through dialogue and adherence to professional standards that respect the rights of individual human beings. Politicization of security matters and collective targeting of all or a section of a community while forgetting that the community is a victim of the same enemy will only serve the interests of terror groups.

Secondly, the role of the mass media/war journalism in religious/ ethnic[iv] polarization has come out clear to the extent that some columnist[v] unremorsefully propagated hate speech by calling for collective punishment. Without much consideration of the impact of their reports, war journalists have come out to make their unneutral “we” versus “them” stands clear – something that again will serve only to polarize and create more conflict in the society. Interestingly, just before the 2013 presidential elections, messages of peace filled the airwaves as most media station played vital roles of discouraging violence as the country headed to the elections. Barely one year later, the same mistake is being repeated.

Overall, amid growing fears that Alshabaab is exporting its sophistication[vi] to Kenya, there is need for a review of Kenya’s counterterrorism strategy and an adoption of a a more sober one through sound intelligence gathering. The pathway to this, starting from the recent operation, is to depoliticize the war on terror and deal with refugees in a humane manner and in line with international and policy standards such as by facilitating local integration, resettlement in third countries and voluntary repatriation.  The next step is to correct the wrongs and initiate dialogue with aggrieved communities such that they become partners rather than enemies in this struggle. This can however be achieved is the mass media will play its watchdog role neutrally without fueling incitement.

 

Nairobi on a rainy day. Photo: Mats Utas

Nairobi on a rainy day. Photo: Mats Utas

 

[i] Nation TV: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_CAM9gglrQ (Accessed on April 27th 2014).

[ii] Human Rights watch: http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/04/11/kenya-halt-crackdown-somalis April 11 2014 (accessed on April 20th).

[iii] http://www.nation.co.ke/news/-/1056/2282736/-/14ffoab/-/index.html     (accessed on 29th April 2014)

[iv] Daily Nation: http://mobile.nation.co.ke/blogs/Are-we-just-going-to-sit-around-and-wait-to-be-blown-to-bits/-/1949942/2252048/-/format/xhtml/-/uw6jti/-/index.html (Accessed on March 20, 2014).

[v] Daily Nation: http://mobile.nation.co.ke/blogs/Turning-screws-on-Somalis-will-force-them-reveal-attacks–/-/1949942/2276024/-/format/xhtml/-/j4iy76/-/index.html (Accessed on April 11 2014).

[vi] The east African; “New age terrorism calls for fresh strategy,” April 26- May 2 2014.

 

Hawa Noor is a researcher and communications consultant based in Nairobi. She has a background in journalism, interfaith peace-building work and as a lecture. Her research focuses on governance and conflict issues.

 

 

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One country?

There used to be a popular computer game called SimCity. Thereby, the player was the governor of a city and took decisions on developments. By increasing the taxes or by saving too rigidly, consequences such as fires or other disasters would cause massive damage; the urban population would start protest in pixelated crowds. Many years later in real-life Monrovia, I observed governance practices which reminded me of the computer game. Policies were being put forward that even made the very government employees shake their heads.

Since the peace agreement of 2003, Monrovia has become a bustling and growing city. Its fancy banks and shopping centers offer possibilities for consumers with economic strength. A good job was done by the government, unquestionably, as trustworthiness and credibility was restored to a vast degree. Arriving from Robert’s International Airport and driving through town, I was amazed by the newly renovated buildings and streets with flowery trees. Once again, Monrovia had received a face lift since my last visit in 2012. On my way in the plane, I had read the President’s Annual Message to the National Legislature (2014), a 45 pages script featuring the improvements, economic growth and state of development in general. Viewed from above, it seems all too good to be true.

Discussing these impressions with my informants and friends, most of them – from all walks of life – say the same: It’s all propaganda. Unsurprised by this rather sarcastic view, the question remains: What is their evaluation based on? Within a few days in Monrovia it became evident; despite the fancy development update by the President earlier this year, life for the ordinary people still only improves slowly and at times even bears major setbacks. New to me was that some of those that had earlier supported the present government were now outspokenly critical.

One of the first news I heard in Liberia concerned the fuel shortage. This is in itself not a new or particularly Liberian issue. Apparently, a supplying ship had got stuck in Côte d’Ivoire and arrived only after a few days. There were no reserves in Liberia, and the effects for the people were quite drastic: one of the major fresh water suppliers in Monrovia, Aqualife, subsequently experienced a shortfall in production. As a consequence the price for a bag of water doubled. An informant worried that people were starting to drink well water which would increase the risk of bacterial infections, she added. As a consequence of the fuel shortage but also due to the growing demand of electricity, the Liberian Electric Company (LEC) had to ration the supply of electricity produced by the generator park in Monrovia. As a result, many neighborhoods in central Monrovia were without electricity. A number of additional constraints rendered transportation in Monrovia a challenge. There were no motorbike taxis anymore, as they had been banned due to a severe accident the year before (BBC, 06.11.2013). The competition for a seat in a taxi had increased, and as these run specific routes, there was only one way to get around in certain spaces in town: to walk. Though there existed alternatives to the motorbikes, the „yellow something“, Chinese tricycles that had appeared only recently on the roads of Monrovia. They did not have a common name yet. However, they were slow and too few, which now left people with no alternative than walk

I discussed my impressions with some economically better situated friends: no motorbikes, few alternatives for public transportation, but also the constant threat of ordinary people to be evicted from informal settlements such as Buzzy Quarter or West Point. How will the city continue to work? Are they aware that salaries of securities and lower government officials do not suffice for housing or transportation in peri-urban spaces? The debate revealed another side of the story, as they saw many advantages in recent developments: since the ban of motorbikes there is less noise, the traffic flows better and there are less scratches on their cars. Many suggest that the motorbike riders were criminals. This is a change in the discourse on post-war reintegration of ex-combatants: the motorbike project had previously been praised as being a successful way of integrating idle young men. Secondly these young men created a peopled infrastructure beneficial to the flow of people and goods in the city center. The ban is contested, however, there seem to be more powerful supporters of the ban.

One day I was lucky to find a motorbike rider who took me to a friends’ place in Sinkor, but the time I saved I subsequently spent in discussing with the driver. He was severely disgruntled and urged me “to tell the international community” what went on. To him, the international community would clear problems in Monrovia that the government cannot solve. What happened to the motorbike union? “They have been bought by the government”, he complained. His statement reminds of the past experiences many people share about the state being a malignant organism (Utas 2009).

A few days later, only a few taxi were circulating on the roads of Monrovia. People were standing in masses at the fringes of the city, waiting for a means to go to town. Many had started walking, and it looked like an immense demonstration on the way to town. “The government imposes an insurance on taxis”, said Moussa, the taxi driver I had chartered earlier to transport my luggage. Apparently, a 300 USD per taxi and year for registration and insurance was to be introduced, according to the Liberian Observer (2014) it was an amount of 500 USD. Moussa did not have this insurance, but he said he knew enough police officers and laughed. All along, informants engaged in transportation complained about the riskiness of this business: within two years, a taxi is damaged due to the bad roads and conditions at large. To “work and pay”, that is, driving a taxi for someone and reporting 1’000 Liberia Dollars (about 13 USD) per day does not leave much for the driver. Traffic jams consume fuel and time, and the police take bribes at each corner. Whoever has some funds will invest in education or start a new business to avoid risk and finally make more money.

These observations from a few weeks in Monrovia in early 2014 reveal that there remain a number of challenges in the post-war city. Though the government is praised on an international level, the critique from the citizens become increasingly harsh. Walking some miles in their shoes indeed reveals that after a decade of peace, with international funds of hundreds of millions per year, the government seems not to understand the needs of the ordinary people. The people were left walking the streets. From their perspective, I got reminded of the game SimCity we used to play: how much burden can be laid on these people? They are tired of war, yes, but a bulk of them know it’s not right that they stand on the road and battle for a seat in a car while one SUV after another pass by. To change perspective again, the city seems orderly, there are more parking spaces, and things are going back to normal. Maybe what also goes back to “normal” is a lack of understanding between those that impose policies based on an inadequate understanding the reality of the vast part of the population of ordinary Liberian people. It requires a monthly revenue of a few thousand USD to be able to pay a 300 (or 500) USD insurance on a taxi, and last but not least, a trustworthy insurance and justice system. This does not apply for the reality most of the taxi drivers are situated in.

 

Literature:

BBC. 2013. Liberia bans motorcycle taxis in Monrovia. November 6.

Johnson Sirleaf, Ellen. 20014. Annual Message to the National Legislature. Monrovia: Republic of Liberia.

Kaufman Andrea. Forthcoming. Monrovia in the making. Urban imaginaries between ruins and construction sites.

Liberian Observer. 2014. Registration, insurance inspections create transportation nightmare. Thousands stranded with hundreds of taxi cabs grounded. March 3.

Utas, Mats. 2009. Malignant organisms: Continuities of state-run violence in rural Liberia. In: Crisis of the state: War and social upheaval. Kapferer, Bruce et al. New York: Berghahn Books. 265-291.

 

Andrea Kaufmann received a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Basel, Switzerland in July 2013.

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CinemAfrica, the annual Stockholm film festival devoted to African film was held last week. I was in the jury selecting the best film. The Senegalese film Under the starry sky won the award, and the Egyptian documentary Crop got a honorary mentioning. Below is my review of Crop.

crop

Crop

Directors: Marouan Omara & Johanna Domke (Egypt 2013)

What fits into a film frame without being seen? In this Egyptian documentary a whole political landscape from Nasser to the Egyptian spring is framed without being shown. It is narrated without being visualized. Close-up images of Presidents and central political events are visualized only in our imagination by a slow, thorough, monotonous speaker voice; the voice of a long-serving photo journalist of Egypt’s largest newspaper. What is visualized is beige, rustic, often symmetric, esthetic pictures from the boss’ office, newsrooms, and hallways down to the printer halls of the newspaper. Somewhere down the road of the narrative words and images swaps place in importance: images becomes background music as narration turns into spoken images. It is astute and it works.crop2

This film is the antithesis of the Oscar nominated and celebrated documentary the Square. One of the main characters in the Square points out that the battle over Tahrir square “is in the images”; and the film is an overload of battle images and close-up events. Still, and paradoxically, Crop, without any footage from the Cairo streets, feels closer.

The narrator of Crop, the photo journalist gets a heart attack at the start of the political uprising at the Tahrir Square and he reports not just current events but also an Egyptian past in slow careful prose. He presents himself as a journalist that has throughout his career avoided being present at political unrests. As such his is the anti-thesis of journalism – the art of being absent. In the film he states:

“We the photo journalists of Al Ahram would not be sent to any political unrest only if they wanted to present a strike as bad for the country or the economy. We were never there for people fighting for better wages or better life conditions. It did not matter what kind of picture we took: they were either not published or used to prove something entirely different.”

He describes in intimate details how all pictures and stories of his Al Ahram, Egyptian state press, were over centuries distorted to fit the government in power. The narrator himself has taken photos of all the Egyptian presidents – described one by one. From the onset the government had a tight grip over the journalists, but in time journalists came to offer a self-censorship they hardly reflected over. This changed with the Arabic Spring and the events at the Tahrir Square.

Our narrator meets the popular uprising when in hospital recovering from his heart attack. Egyptian news media still denies what is happening, but the beds around him are packed with wounded people. He is filled with awe of the young man next to him who has been shot by the police but straight after waking up again starts to post his photos and film clips from his phone onto social media. The young man has even filmed the very sequence where he got shot. He admires the new bravery and clearly questions his own complicity.

The people where fighting the images who had betrayed them for so long with their own images,” he says, and implicitly talks about his own images – the fake imagery he has spent his entire life creating.

With shifts in power the state directed newspaper he worked ceased to comprehend what they were supposed to report and who they should be loyal to. He states that some started fighting the police, but it by and large became a newspaper without direction – first time without a political patron to serve.

This is a brave tale of media complicity and power on the highest level. The absence of news images in the film is not only visually sass, but is making even more sense when one thinks of the content they show. It was all fake – made to prop up a regime that like so many others chose power over its people.

What happens with the Al Ahram’s and other journalists’ possibilities of free reporting after the reintroduction of military governance in the country is not touched upon in the film, but the narrator ends the film by saying:

“whatever will happen in the future – this moment of self-expression will never be taken away from the people of Egypt”

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Last Friday, the 28th of February, a wealthier primary school in the suburbs of Kampala had a special occasion during their Friday Assembly (in which students hold performances):  the P2 class reenacted the signing of the anti-homosexuality bill by President Museveni. One kid was dressed as President Museveni, wearing his distinctive hat, and a smart jacket – he was surrounded by his classmates who were acting as MP’s, and one dressed as a military. After signing the bill, ‘Museveni Junior’ told the other kids “Fellow Ugandans, this is our country. We should not accept cultures and values imposed on us. Am, therefore, signing this bill into law to stop all immorality.”

In doing so, it shows a dominant explanation of Museveni’s signing of the anti-homosexuality bill: provoked by Western insistence on the issue, Museveni had no choice but to sign the bill. In other words, there is a clear cause (Western activists’ unproductive insistence on the issue) and effect –  the bill becoming law. Other analyses emphasise how the “tussle over gay rights has drawn attention away from Mr Museveni’s increasingly autocratic rule” who wants to extend his reign.  These sets of analyses emphasize how the Ugandan regime was the main agent, wanting to divert attention from other issues. In this piece, I want to problematize these monocausal explanations. Instead, I want to highlight how due to a range of factors, Museveni was no longer in full control over the bill, leaving little options than signing it. More generally, different actors have been trying to influence the bill and had an impact on the debate – not always in the ways they intended to, such as Western donors. In this context, it is hard to put ‘blame’ on one particular set of actors, be it American evangelicals, Western donors or a master plan of the Museveni regime: all of them played a role in the bill becoming law.

Museveni’s balancing act.

A crucial point is that President Museveni has never been an outspoken supporter of the bill, instead being rather dubious about it: he was fully aware of the disastrous international consequences. In his first public reaction after the introduction of the bill, he for example argued how it did “not represent the party of government position” and how “Uganda cannot risk its foreign policy by allowing the Bill to pass in its current form”. In consequent years, the bill was weakened, but still consistently shelved (in 2009, 2011 and 2013), until it reappeared on 20 December 2013, when it was passed by the parliament. After its passing, Museveni continued his ambiguous position on the bill: he claimed how the bill was passed without his consultation, and in a rushed manner, by a small number of MP’s led by speaker Kadaga forcing him to look further into the matter. In his interviews and statements, Museveni has consistently focused on two issues: On the recruitment of homosexuals (and related with this, the ‘recruited’, those who become homosexuals for ‘mercenary reasons’), and secondly, ‘exhibitionism’ of homosexual behavior. In doing so, he left a loophole, being that there was a possibility that certain people were ‘born homosexual (…) rare deviations in nature from the normal’. In doing so, he could both satisfy the domestic constituency – he was criticizing homosexuals – but also the international constituency by leaving this loophole. For example, even after announcing that he was going to sign the bill, in a response to Obama’s criticism, Museveni argued how he encouraged the US government to provide evidence that some people are born homosexual, which would then allow to review the legislation.

Important is that the bill has to be seen within the national political context: on the one hand, the bill coincided with the political ambitions of a range of actors, in which  for example speaker Kadaga is rumored to be interested in Museveni’sposition. The anti-homosexuality bill, around which she has been actively mobilizing, is an excellent platform for this. On the other hand, it has to be situated in a power struggle between government and parliament, in which the latter increasingly wants to assert its power. Both of these factors help to explain how the  bill was  passed in parliament without being announced on its  agenda , in order to avoid actions from the government  -  Prime Minister Mbabazi tried to block the bill last minute as it was being passed without the necessary quorum.

This internal political climate helped the bill to gain increasing prominence and importance within the public debate; which was in turn further fueled by external interventions: not only by American evangelicals, but also through Western pressure, which allowed Ugandan actors involved to build further political capital on this. As highlighted by many analyses, the gay rights agenda is perceived in Uganda as an imperialistic, neo-colonial Western agenda. Picking up a fight with donors over this ‘invasion’ is politically very productive which manages to unite many Ugandans.

Lastly, the bill was not only the product of national-level political calculations and international pressure, but also because of the popularity of the bill on a local level: constituencies want their MP’s to deliver on the bill. After being introduced, and certainly after the bill acquired its specific meaning of anti-Western instrument, it was very difficult for MP’s to follow Museveni’s position, or any other actor opposing the bill. Churches also played an important role. Not only evangelical churches, but also other (traditional) churches have consistently supported the anti-gay bill, but at local and national level.

This context made it increasingly difficult for Museveni in balancing both domestic and international interests: nuanced positions became almost impossible; certainly after the bill had passed parliament. Reflecting his personalized rule, Museveni traditionally has a firm grip on the parliament, and particularly over contested legislation such as the anti-homosexuality bill, which he managed to contain for years. After the bill had passed parliament, he was no longer fully in control. The tipping point seems to have been the NRM caucus in early February in Kyankwanzi, in which Museveni was publicly endorsed as the NRM flag bearer for the upcoming 2016 elections, and which has led to Museveni’s public announcement at the same event of his intention to sign the bill. Although he kept his options open after this – as shown above, he invited the US to bring more evidence – when this was picked up by the international media, showing the West to be in charge, Museveni had no more choice to sign the bill – not doing so would make him politically too vulnerable. The East African for example quotes insiders saying that public statements of Western leaders, including Obama “smacked of arrogance” leaving Museveni no choice but to sign it “to salvage national pride”.

Diversion from who and when?

Another important point is the diversion argument, in which it is argued that diversion from internal politics is the main reason of existence for the bill. This is certainly a factor, but probably not in the way it is presented. First, the term ‘diversion’ suggests a level of instrumentality and unity within the regime which was not there, as has been shown above. This becomes clearer when looking at the lifespan of the bill: it does not appear that the bill was introduced by MP Bahati as part of a larger plan to divert attention from broader political issues, rather than by personal political ambition and his links with evangelical churches. When looking at the way in which the bill was used, one could however make a point for diversion, as the bill re-appeared at critical moments (although one could argue that, given the regime’s governance record of the last years, such moments can be found at any point of its recent history). In other words, it is difficult to see diversion as the cause of the bill, but it is nevertheless an important outcome as it was used in this manner: the passing of the bill into law further confirmed this, as the popularity of the President and the regime strongly increased.  Second, a distinction needs to be made according to the audience it wants to divert attention from. Internationally, it certainly did not do the job: there has never been more attention for Uganda and its politics. Historically, the donor audience  naturally ignored draconian measures of the Museveni regime: given its geopolitical (and particularly regional military) importance, recent measures which are closing down the political space , through for example the public order management bill or the treatment of opposition politicians have mostly been ignored. Yet, the anti-homosexuality law managed to get the spotlight on the regime, and seems to succeed where other measures failed, in provoking world-wide condemnations and a number of aid cuts.

Another outcome is that the law gives the regime ammunition against potentially critical voices, and can be seen in the context of other recently introduced laws such as the public order management act or the anti-pornography bill. According to the Minister of ethics, the latter law allows the arrest depending on “the way in which one talks, dresses or walks which is deemed provocative or likely to cause sexual excitement.” (…) “Anything that provokes, stirs or creates unnecessary sensitivity..”. In other words, these laws allow draconian measures to be taken in various fields, but all of which may succeed in further narrowing down the political space, rather than the stated objectives of the laws in the social sphere. It is unclear to what extent the police effectively is going to arrest women in mini-skirts; and these laws therefore seem to reflect a broader tendency allowing the regime to build up a range of judicial measures which it can use à la tête du client to silence critical organisations. The fact that ‘pro-gay’ or ‘pro-pornography’ propaganda are vaguely defined, only adds to the discretionary power of the regime. The laws do not only offer formal ammunition to the regime, but also morally: as Andrew Mwenda argued, while before the law critical politicians could for example be accused of rape (as infamously happened with main opposition candidate Kiiza Besigye), they can now be accused of being homosexual. The fact that Mwenda – who is outspoken against the law – is now referred to as homo by Ugandan tabloids seems to prove his point.

Identity politics as mobilization platform

Every society has a number of cleavages running through them, such as ethnicity or sexual identities. None of these are necessarily defining for the politics or society of which they are part. Yet, as has been proven extensively for ethnicity, identity politics is a very effective tool for political mobilization: it is difficult to find a more effective mobilization platform than the development of a ‘us vs them’ discourse, particularly if the ‘other’ is an exotic minority, about which little is known. Sexual identity has only recently become an important factor in Ugandan society and politics, as the issue has become politically mobilized by a range of actors. It is important to mention that the identity politics surrounding the anti-homosexuality bill has different layers, and is not limited to ‘anti-gay’ vs ‘pro-gay’: the more prominent the issue became, the more it became a debate about other issues: Africa vs the West, about the protection of African culture, and on an individual level it is perceived to be about the protection of its own family. All of these help to understand why it is deemed important on a local level, why Western public statements might be counterproductive, and why the issue is an important mobilization platform.

Finally, in this snowball effect in which the issue  became more and more important, it is difficult to see how it will play out, and how it will be  implemented. A good point of comparison is perhaps the recently introduced anti-pornography law, in which there are increased reports of harassment of people, in which mobs undress people for ‘indecent dressing’, forcing the police to issue a statement warning the public to stop undressing women wearing miniskirts.. It has to be noted that, different from the anti-pornography law where this ‘popular implementation’ started almost immediately; so far this does not seem the case for the anti-gay law. This does not mean that the national state will be able to fully control the issue: a major problem will be how individual actors will understand and enact the law.

In other words, once the gay issue was introduced as a political factor, it was hard to foresee where it would end up – as various actors positioned itself around it, and had an impact on the debate: external pressure and various forms of internal domestic pressure further fed into each other, both leading to a further prominence of the debate. In this rather unpredictable environment, which was, and continues to be dominated by short-term calculations and an increasingly intense political climate, it is difficult to attribute ‘blame’ to one particular actor: this became particularly clear in the period between the passing of the bill in parliament late December and the actual signature late February, in which Museveni had to balance all of these factors and felt more and more cornered, ultimately leading to the signature of the bill.

Kristof Titeca is a researcher from the Institute of Development Policy and Management (University of Antwerp) and the Conflict Research Group (Ghent University). He currently is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics (Department of International Development).

 

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Sitting astride Freetown’s Mount Aureol, Fourah Bay College (FBC) is often regarded as the crucible of Sierra Leone’s post-independence history. ‘When Fourah Bay College sneezes”, one student reflects, ‘all of Sierra Leone catches a cold’.

In the mid-1980s, FBC sneezed. Radical students, alienated by Siaka Steven’s brutal one-party regime, decamped to Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. The move set in motion a train of events which meandered, in fits and starts, towards the outbreak of the rebel war.  By the time the students returned to Freetown in the early 1990s, Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was laying waste to the country’s south-eastern flank and their idealistic dreams of revolution had evaporated. The combative student movement that had flourished throughout the 1970s and 1980s seemingly slipped off-stage.

Today FBC has been reduced to a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone, although as sub-Saharan Africa’s oldest Western-style university it remains self-consciously the nation’s original ivory tower – ‘an Oxford in the bush’, as one academic puts it. Yet the 6000-odd ‘Fourabites’ – once the country’s foremost political vanguard and de facto opposition to the one-party state – are markedly less visible in public life than they once were.

Meanwhile, the university itself has slid into apparently irreversible decline. Material conditions have atrophied almost continuously since the civil war ended in 2002, and campus accommodation is now uninhabitable to the extent that even students from the farthest provinces are denied lodgings.

In such circumstances, one might expect to find the students in fighting spirit. Yet despite being equipped with a collective history that boasts the remarkable events of 1977 – when ‘No College No School’ demonstrations spread from FBC and forced the Stevens to hold elections and lower the voting age to 18 – students at FBC today rarely challenge the university administration, and almost never confront the government on national issues.

Indeed, the university currently possesses no student union. The last student elections were cancelled, the authorities citing campus violence. With faint echoes of the prohibition of the union for three years in the 1980s, the elections have been postponed indefinitely – effectively signalling a moratorium on student politics.

‘Since 2007 we have not really had an open opposition to this government from the university,’ says one former student. And with an enfeebled (or non-existent) student union, ‘nobody can talk for the students’. In effect, he explains, ‘the university can just do whatever it wants’.

Yet the situation is not simply the result of cynical brokering on the part of the university administration or the central government – both of which, some argue, may benefit from the current state of affairs. Unlike in previous eras, when student activists tended to unite against a common enemy, campus politics today is largely mobilised around internal struggles. Fratricidal violence is common, and for the best of the last decade (if not longer) an internecine conflict has torn the campus apart – the result of a bipolar factional battle between two camps: the so-called ‘Whites’ and ‘Blacks’.

The history of the camps varies depending on who you speak to, but most narratives locate the origins in the mid-1990s, when a group of students defected from the then all-powerful political club, the Auradicals, to form a rival entity, the Generals. In some accounts this group espoused a more ‘European’ world-view, in contrast to the comparably hard-line Africanism of their opponents, today’s Blacks.

White vs. Blacks

A member of the Blacks at FBC. Photo by Josh Hughes

The division between the two has steadily hardened, increasingly pervading all areas of university life. A former leader of the Black camp, a figure known as ‘The Dictator’, speaks of ‘invisible lines’ that have spread across campus, segregating the entire student body. It has, he explains, ‘now gone beyond politics; it has gone social.’ People speak of lecturers threatening to fail students who don’t vote for one or other camp; others complain that access to employment after graduation is now strictly determined by camp loyalties.

The consequence, according to historian Ibrahim Abdullah, is that ‘what used to happen in the past, when students used to come together to fight for a common cause… those days are gone.’

In local discourse, the state of campus politics today is treated fairly unambiguously. Public perception of the ‘crisis’ up at FBC is refracted through a nostalgic lens. ‘This is a place for gentleman’, one student laments. ‘It used to be the Athens of West Africa, but it is being transformed into the laughing stock of the world’.

For many of the radical generation of students that opposed the one-party regime of the All People’s Congress (APC) in the 1970s and 1980s, the current crop, with its White-Black rivalry, are regarded with disdain. Gibril Foday Musa, who was expelled in the 1980s and fled to Libya along with a number of fellow radicals, echoes a commonly held view: that ‘students no longer command the respect that we commanded’. For him and many others of his generation, any suggestion of meaningful difference between the Blacks or the Whites is quickly dismissed. ‘No one talks about ideology or principles anymore,’ he complains.

Violent infighting is regarded as indicative of declining levels of political maturity among current students. Such a development, Musa argues, is fundamentally novel: ‘in our day we fought intellectually, then we’d come together to fight against the administration or the central government’. Or, as another former student puts it, ‘the violence, the anger, has been pitted against each other – it’s not against the system now. That is what the polarization is producing.’

In part this is a discourse that demonizes today’s students, finding them culpable for falling standards. Yet many also believe that national politicians from both the incumbent APC and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) are exploiting the division among students, manipulating the two camps for their own ends.

In the eyes of the public, the White camp is in the pocket of the APC, while the Black camp is seen as the handmaiden of the SLPP. Rumours abound of politicians visiting the campus during election time, bribing students and funding campaigns. Many believe the APC has taken to remote-controlling student elections, in order to ensure that a compliant student leadership remains in power. Some point out that the Blacks have failed to win an election since the APC displaced the SLPP at the ballot box in 2007. There are rumours that the most recent elections were cancelled because the Whites were facing defeat.

It appears that the APC may have learnt its lessons from the 1980s. Where once the students of FBC were the government’s most trenchant critics, successful interference over the years has resulted in a student polity that dances dutifully to the tune of national politics. Some cite the example of the student union president in 2005 who was impeached by his fellow students for refusing to demonstrate against the government of the day – only to be swiftly restored to office by the government and the university administration.

Above all, there is an agreement among commentators that what is happening up at FBC is increasingly just a reflection of what goes on downtown. ‘The national political divide has eaten deeply into the fabric of student life,’ says Umaru Fofana, one of the country’s leading journalists.

As with national politics, intense factional competition appears to be characterised by an absence of meaningful ideological difference distinguishing the two sides. Ethno-regionalism instead seems to predominate: the Whites are presumed to be majority Limba and Temne from the north and west, whereas the Blacks are believed to be composed primarily of Mende people from the south and east.

The reality though is slightly more complicated. For one thing, the rigidity of the ethno-regional configuration appears to be exaggerated. Members of both sides accuse their opponents of being ‘exclusive’ – while claiming inclusivity for themselves – but in fact neither camp is really a homogenous ethnic or regional bloc.

Similarly, political alignments are more fluid than most public commentators assume. It is not the case that to be Black or White merely indicates whether ‘you are for or against the government of the day’ – as the current Anti-Corruption Commissioner asserts. Today’s leading Whites claim to be unashamedly fractured with respect to party affiliation. The group is keen to point out that as recently as 2012 thirty-one students – including representatives from both camps – were rusticated for their part in staging a protest against the eviction of a group of students who had been camping out in college accommodation during the exam period. In the case of the Whites, this meant demonstrating against their supposed paymasters down in State House.

Nonetheless, the fierce conviction held by most commentators that the division on campus is at least partly determined by the topography of national politics cannot be dismissed lightly. Almost all students I spoke to – with the exception of some at the very top of their respective camp hierarchies – confirm that politicians have been spotted up at FBC at the time of union elections, and there is a broad consensus that the government has a firm foothold in student politics. Speaking under condition of anonymity, a former leader of the Black camp confirms receiving envelopes of cash sent up from downtown – although he denies accepting them.

On reflection, it seems likely that national politics plays a part in campus politics not through party political strategy determined from the centre, but via the diffuse efforts of certain individual politicians. FBC has always been a crucial political constituency in Sierra Leone so it should come as no surprise that certain politicians are willing to go to great lengths to manipulate its members.

Student politics at FBC is complex and nuanced; yet with its fibrous web of links to national political life, a certain degree of pessimism is perhaps unavoidable. Most recognise that the campus is a training ground for future politicians: the prospects for democratic consolidation at the nation-wide level in the years to come thus look a little bleak.

If national politicians are infiltrating campus politics, then the critical distinction between the state and civil society is also being compromised. And if student leaders are being exposed to bribery and patronage politics so early on, then prospects for rooting out corruption in public life are far from encouraging.

A culture of electoral violence is also damaging in another respect: as the difficult experience of this year’s only female presidential candidate once again demonstrated, the hyper-masculine atmosphere of the election process and the male-only political clubs severely disadvantages female political participation.

Caution should be exercised when comparing student unionism today with that which came before. It is easy to romanticise the older generation of Fourabites. Yet conditions are different now: the students no longer have a clearly identifiable enemy, and the multi-party system in many ways presents an altogether more complicated challenge then the previous one-party state.

Nonetheless, the current situation on campus is worrying. A vibrant and autonomous democratic culture should be allowed to flourish up on Mount Aureol. For whatever happens at FBC – and history has shown this all too vividly – has real implications for Sierra Leone at large.

Tom Gardner is a postgraduate student at Oxford University. He is currently making a documentary on the subject of student politics at Fourah Bay College, past and present. For more details visit cargocollective.com/nepafilms or follow him on twitter at @nepafilms.

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