Thursday, 26 November 2009

Congo V-Day at the Royal Albert Hall, London

19 November 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the Great Congo Demonstration held at the Royal Albert Hall, chaired by the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Randall Davidson and supported by other clergy, prominent activists and writers, to raise awareness about the atrocities meted out to the Congolese people in the so-called Congo Free State under the brutal regime of Belgium’s King Leopold II. This time, with over 100 people crammed into the lower room of the Royal Albert Hall, V-Day UK 2009 commemorated the women and girls who have undergone murderous rape and assault by the various militia wreaking havoc in Eastern Congo. With reverends and archbishops representing their respective religious groups, V-Day was reminiscent of the gathering that took place 100 prior, only then it was on a far bigger scale, in the main hall of the same Royal Albert Hall, and on this occasion the audience were warned to keep the noise to a minimum.

Organised by V-Day UK, the meeting was inspiring, with a number of speakers including Eve Ensler, playwright, activist and founder of V-Day, and human rights activist Christine Schuler Deschryver.

The morning started with warm, light-hearted introductions by comedienne Sandi Toksvig, but took a sombre turn as the audience heard horrific stories, like that of an 82-year-old woman in hospital who had been raped and beaten, and of a four-year-old girl who had died before she could even make it to hospital. The room wept for the pain endured by the babies, elderly and young women and girls whose lives have been destroyed by the sadistic sexual assaults they have experienced at the hands of the militias in Eastern Congo.

Visibly distraught, Christine Deschryver took to the stage and talked about her anger at having to speak of these horrifying scenes for 13 years in her attempt to denounce the war. She has been accused of being too forthright in her approach, but believes that there is no room for politeness when such atrocities are taking place. ‘I don't believe in politicians,’ she confesses, ‘only a women's revolution will stop things, and it has to start in the mind.’”

The paucity of parliamentary presence somewhat supported this belief. Only two party representatives attended: Eric Joyce, Labour member of Parliament and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa, and Baroness Trish Morris, Shadow Minister for Women. Both agreed that there was nothing to separate the parties when it comes to these issues.

Eve Ensler spoke with incredible passion and was close to tears when recalling the story of an eight-year-old girl who had been raped for weeks on end and had therefore contracted fistula. On their first meeting, Ensler attempted to embrace the young girl and hugged her for the first time after her attack. Unable to hold her bladder due to the fistula, the child relieved herself on Ensler's lap.

Since then, Ensler has campaigned against the sexual violence used as a weapon of war against women in the Congo. She suggested that the synergy of ‘colonialism, racism, capitalism and sexism’ is the reason why the cries of these women go unheard. Ensler ended by declaring that, ‘the way things change is through outrage. The destruction of women and femicide will in effect be the destruction of the life of the world.’

Baroness Morris made a key point when she said that, ‘we won't have a stable Africa without a stable Congo, and without a stable Africa we have a dangerous world.’ So perhaps the time has come to refuse to be kept quiet, outrage must be expressed and sound levels cannot be kept to a minimum.

As Eric Joyce acknowledged, ‘the crisis in Congo doesn't appear to be strategically significant.’ Perhaps that is why the conflict doesn't elicit the same media coverage and political outrage as ‘9/11’. However, the conflict in Afghanistan didn't seem to be strategically significant until that fatal day.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Annkio on Amnesty: a Niger Delta activist speaks out.

On 16 October, the day a group loyal to Henry Okah broke from an amnesty and vowed to keep fighting in the creeks, another key figure in the armed struggle held forth in more rarefied settings. At Chatham House, the London-based think tank, in the room from which Pitt the Elder ran the affairs of England three and a half centuries ago, Niger delta activist Annkio Briggs held sway for an hour.

Reading from a prepared statement, she gave her views on what she termed an ‘amnesty post- mortem’. She said the amnesty was faulty as in her view the government was not going to follow DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) protocol. And that the success of the amnesty was due not to the government as was being claimed, but to stakeholders such as herself who intervened to convince militants the armed struggle was spent.

She spoke of a vacuum evident when Boyloaf, a militant leader joined the amnesty in Bayelsa. She said there had been little provision made for him or his men. No orientation or rehabilitation programmes, and that money allocated to surrendering militants was not paid. Poorly housed and poorly fed, they staged a mini-protest attacking motorists.

‘I see Nigeria as the prodigal son and the Niger Delta as the father willing to forgive the son. Nigeria owes the Niger Delta people a responsibility to stop treating [them]as a conquered people.’

On oil companies she said, 'If they practice 100 per cent corporate social responsibility we will support them to come to the Niger Delta. Only Niger Delta people can give them the security to operate in the Niger Delta.' She went on, 'The oil companies are not politicians, neither are they development agencies. We see them as investors and see ourselves as the owners. We do not want them to tell us any more they are giving developmental money to traditional rulers, youth organisations and women's organisations.'

She ended with a scathing rebuke of Rotimi Amaechi, Rivers State Governor. ‘We are disappointed by his attitude to governance and the people of Rivers State. He has demonstrated a low tolerance for peace and the process of amnesty by what he did at the waterfront. It is a sensitive issue because the people that live on the waterfront are Ijaws and he is an Ikwerre.’ Slum structures along the waterfront were demolished as part of the governor's urban renewal campaign.

She said there had been threats on her life. Members of her family had been called by people claiming to be in government warning her to be silent concerning goings on in Rivers State. To this she responded, 'I have every right to express myself. If it puts my life at risk, it is not something I want or expect but I must live with it. I call upon the Federal Government of Nigeria to take note that I feel my life is in danger.'

To questions from Africa Confidential editor Patrick Smith about the earlier declaration by the presumed Okah affiliated group, and on a Chinese move on six billion barrels of Nigerian oil, Briggs sought to distance Okah from the announcement saying he had renounced armed struggle as a condition of his release.

As for China, Briggs was succinct: 'The Nigerian government is selling off part of its national share in the joint venture to China. We are fighting for our survival, our very existence. It is the responsibility of the United States and United Kingdom and other countries that want the crude oil and the gas to protect it and (their) access to it. We are fighting on behalf of our people. We are not interested in fighting for the US. They should fight for themselves.'

Monday, 27 July 2009

Nigeria in crisis… and the band played on

One of Nigeria’s biggest banks announced this morning that it wants to raise US$3 billion on the local stock market, my old friend Nduka Obaigbena has hosted the glitterati of Lagos in a characteristically grand birthday party and the Lagos go-slow was as bad as ever this morning.

So much for Nigerian normality; elsewhere in the country, bands of fighters have been taking up arms in the name of revolution, a campaign that has cost the governments tens of billions in lost oil revenues.

This month, the government announced an amnesty for militants who have been attacking oil installations and battling it out with government forces in the Niger Delta. The deal has started shakily with several state governors from oil-rich Delta questioning the central government’s commitment to implementing reforms that would deal with the environmental destruction and mass unemployment that is at the heart of this long running crisis.

Now another band of militants – claiming an Islamist ideology – have sprung into action, attacking schools, churches and police stations in northern Nigeria and proselytising against secularist education and for stricter sharia law. This group call themselves Boko Haram (prohibit education). Over the weekend, at least 50 people were killed in clashes with police in the Northern city of Bauchi. Today it seems this group’s operations have spread to other northern towns in Yobe, Kano and Borno states.

Another week in Nigeria, with its heady mix of extremities, some inspiring, some threatening but none mundane. Wiser Nigerian friends counsel caution in moments such as these – where it looks as though someone with a grudge against the government of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is trying to create as much mayhem as possible in as many different places all at the same. That might be the case but Nigeria has never lacked for conspiracy theories in search of a vaguely plausible plot line.

It is certainly true that Yar’Adua has enemies and a few conspirators ranged against him, although probably not as many as his predecessors. Conspiracy or not, the effect will be equally as destabilising in Nigeria: the proselytising militants in the north are targeting secular or Christian institutions, with the almost certain result that they will spark widespread communal clashes. Christians remain a substantial minority in the middle belt and north, and fight back hard when they see themselves as under attack.

There are no established links between the militants and the Delta and the Islamists in the north; indeed, some militants in the Delta have been campaigning to end the occupation of their region by Northern Muslims. However, there are doubts that the Yar’Adua government could hold a military line against militants in the Delta and Islamists in the North, should both groups choose to attack simultaneously.

For many Nigerians, this should be the moment that the Yar’Adua governments starts to address convincingly the causes of these crises on the ground. Both the Delta and North have extended areas of grinding poverty, unrelenting with few government-backed or any other social services; unemployment is widespread and there are few opportunities in education and training.

After much delay, Yar’Adua has put together an impressive team of technocrats at the central bank, and the ministries of finance and energy. They have already produced their blueprints for much needed reforms in the banking and oil industry.

But none of this will matter much unless the government shows a determination to tackle the growing crisis on the ground, to start a dialogue with the people suffering the brunt of economic breakdown and political violence. And it will have to find a way to talk to the militants, sooner rather than later. The band may plan on but the music will get harsher.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Barack Obama beats the drum for democracy and dignity


12 July 2009

Barack Obama's homecoming lived up to the billing. Ghanaians accorded President Obama the warmest Akwaaba! He returned the compliment, meeting with Ghanaian health workers, activists, politicians and traditional rulers.

Then at his inspirational best Obama set out out the main strands of the United States' new Africa policy, brimful of good ideas about what the continent should be doing. But as a seasoned Ghanaian diplomat remarked amid his dazzled younger colleagues: 'Now for the hard part.'

Two thousand of us – journalists, MPs, ministers, academics, business people, military officers and diplomats – crowded into the garish, pink-tiled conference centre in Accra for the occasion.

Inside, the building was resplendent in the colours of Ghana's red, gold and green flag. Kente cloth was the dominant apparel among the audience, happily outflanking the crumpled lounge suits and jeans sported by the diplomats and the hacks. A colour banner melding the national flags of the USA and Ghana hanging at the back of auditorium read: 'Yes together we can!'

Perched in the balcony, the choir was in fine voice, tuning up for their rendition of the Ghanaian and the US national anthems. Enter the Speaker of Ghana's parliament Joyce Bamford-Addo to preside with some formality over the event. Minutes later, Presidents John Atta Mills and Obama troop in; the national anthems are sung with gusto and on with the business. Each speaker was greeted with a blast on the trombone, imitating the musicians of the Asante court who fire off loud riffs on the horns to welcome visitors.

After tactfully brief remarks from Speaker Bamford-Addo and Mills, Obama took the podium, warranting the longest blast of trombone riffs from the back of the hall. 'Sounds like we've got Louis Armstrong back there,' Obama quipped. Armstrong played at Ghana's Independence celebrations 52 years ago.

Opening up, Obama explained he had to come to Ghana at the end of a long trip to Russia and Italy for a simple reason: 'The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra, as well.'

Obama, his advisors told us, is determined to reintegrate African policy into the US's mainstream agenda; stopping over in Accra to make a major policy speech after the G8 summit reinforces that signal: 'I see Africa as a fundamental part of our interconnected world.'

Starting from his premise that 'Africa's future is up to Africans,' Obama went on to tackle the prickliest of issues: 'History offers a clear verdict: governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable and more successful than governments that do not.'

Perhaps only an American president who refers to the 'African blood within me' could speak so candidly to Africa without triggering accusations of interference or hypocrisy. Referring to his own family's history in British-ruled Kenya, Obama pointed to the damage that colonialism had wrought and how 'the West often approached Africa as a patron rather than partner.'

After the Independence era when his Kenyan father won a scholarship to Harvard, Obama spoke of Africa's immediate challenges: 'Just as it is important to emerge from the control of another nation, it is even more important to build one's own.'

Looking deep into the audience he added: 'This time it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead it will be you – the men and women in Ghana's parliament and the people you represent. Above all it will be the young people – brimming with talent and energy and hope – who can claim the future that so many in my father's generation never found.'

The key themes of Washington's new approach in Africa would be democracy, opportunity, health and the peaceful resolution of conflict. It would be a relationship of mutual responsibility and benefit, Obama promised.

Everyone knew to whom Obama was referring when he spoke of 'leaders that exploit the economy to enrich themselves... and police who can be bought off by drug traffickers.' Even in Accra, a few local politicians and security officers wriggled in their seats.

Obama commended the Ghanaian investigative journalist Anasa Aremeyaw Anas along with civic activists in Kenya and Zimbabwe for making change from the bottom up. 'History is on the side of these brave Africans and not with those who use coups or change constitutions to change in power. Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.'

The references were plain. On 12 July, the day after Obama's speech, Congo-Brazzaville's President Denis Sassou-Nguesso was holding elections in which he had barred all the credible contenders and his party had doctored the voters' registration list. None of this has prompted serious protest from Sassou-Nguesso's friends in Paris – ex-President Jacques Chirac and incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy or any other European power.

Sarkozy's African exploits contrast sharply with Obama's. To loud jeers 18 months ago, Sarkozy told told thousands of students in Dakar that Africa was not 'participating in history' because its peasant farmers had no sense of the future. Then last month, boos again greeted Sarkozy and Chirac when they arrived in Libreville for the funeral of Gabon's long-time ruler and France's political fixer, Omar Bongo Ondimba. No sign of 'mutual responsibility' from the Elysée Palace so far.

While Obama talks of getting serious about corruption on all sides Рtargeting money launderers and tax havens by using forensic accounting methods and protecting whistleblowers РSarkozy's government is seeking ways to derail attempts by civic activists in France to launch private prosecutions of the families of Bongo, Sassou-Nguesso and Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaor̩.

That raises the spectre of just how hard it is for Africa to pursue the political and economic reforms that Obama says that the USA will back: some of Africa's biggest economies such as Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria are still held down by arbitrary rule and widespread corruption – and in which many of their main trading partners are implicated.

Beyond the political concerns, Obama floated several innovative ideas to promote educational, economic and social opportunities: US$3.5 billion of investments in agricultural research and production, rapid development of Africa's renewable resources and $63 billion to improve public health provision across the developing world.

Saving his strongest rhetoric to condemn Africa's warmongers, Obama said: 'Defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe or who worships a different prophet has no place in the 21st century.'

And promising US backing for Africa's own peacekeepers desperately trying to contain conflicts in the Horn and Congo-Kinshasa, Obama said: 'When there is genocide in Darfur or terrorists in Somalia, these are not simply African problems – they are global security challenges, and they demand global responses.'

In his final rhetorical flourishes, Obama spoke directly to Africa's youth: 'The world will be what you make of it... You can conquer disease, end conflicts, and make change from the bottom up. You can do that. Yes you can. Because in this moment history is on the move.' By this time, most of the auditorium was cheering in encouragement.

Such rampant idealism contrasts starkly with the gritty realism of the writer V.S. Naipaul, known for his grim depictions of African and Caribbean states. One of Naipaul's favourite aphorisms was 'the world is what it is'. That more or less reflects the conservative views of Obama's main opponents: it's a rough world and protecting national self-interest is going to be hard enough without any internationalist flights of fancy.

And it's that sort of gritty realism that would await Obama on his return to Washington, an African-American development expert explained as we sat in a bar in Osu after the first couple had taken their helicopter to see the slave castle at Cape Coast. The hope and the inspiration were all there, she said The real challenge was using that to change direction both in Africa and the USA – both in the middle of the devastating financial slowdown.

In the USA, much will depend on Obama's ability to win Congressional support for new initiatives – ending US agricultural subsidies that weaken the prices of African crops or financing more public health projects – at a time when Washington's trillion dollar fiscal stimulus is still yet to produce the sought-after results in the domestic economy.

The biggest hurdles are in Africa itself. After showering praise on the liberal politics and good economic management in Ghana and Botswana, Obama's officials recognise that positive change in the continent's bigger economies such as Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria is critical to a great leap forward for Africa.

Even the most resilient Afro-optimist would search hard for signs of political change in the short-term in those three countries. Yet the youth, who make up the majority in all three countries, are lauding Obama's remarks and are calling out for change themselves. Now for the hard part, indeed.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda, a book by Reverien Rurangwa

On 7 April 2009, the anniversary of Rwanda's 100-day genocide, Reportage Press is publishing Genocide:My Stolen Rwanda by Reverien Rurangwa. This is a personal account of the massacres by Reverien Rurangwa, who witnessed the murders of 43 of his family members. He was the only one of his family to escape.

'For thirteen days in April 1994, Reverien Rurangwa hid in silence with his family in a tiny cabin on the side of a mountain until they were finally hunted down by their Hutu neighbours – men with whom his father had often drunk a beer after work. In minutes, 43 members of his family were massacred in front of his eyes. Rurangwa watched as his mother was stripped of the red dress that he had given her as a birthday present, before being murdered.

Although part of his arm and hand were cut off, Rurangwa managed to escape before their assassins set fire to the hut. Rurangwa was 15 and alone in the world. His only souvenir of his childhood is a battered family photograph. In this extraordinary memoir of survival he recounts how with great difficulty he put his life back together and built a new life in exile.

Fifteen years on, only 36 convictions relating to the genocide have been secured and many of those who took part are still walking free. In Rwanda, some survivors even find themselves living side-by-side with people they know were responsible for the brutal murder of their families and friends. The effects of the genocide persist. Other genocidaires remain in Congo, where they terrorise villages and tax the residents. And despite the pledges by the United Nations and Western governments that lessons had been learnt and such a tragedy would not be allowed to happen ever again, the massacres in Sudan's Darfur region have demonstrated that in the face of mass murder, the so-called 'international community' is at best impotent and weak.

Rurangwa was meant to visit London this week to coincide with the book's release and the Genocide Memorial Day. However, he lives in Switzerland and was denied a visa by the Swiss authorities who, after 15 years, have still not granted him refugee status.

Part of the proceeds from the sale of Genocide will go to Ibuka-Memoire et Justice, which supports victims of the genocide. Reverien Rurangwa is the charity’s Vice-President.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Letter from a reader: Shame on the African Union Leaders

The African Union leaders made history by electing one of their longest surviving dinosaur dictators, Colonel Qaddafi, to be the African Union president for the 2009 term. They made history not because they elected Qaddafi; but rather because this was the first time ever this man gets elected in his entire life.

Over his long rule of Libya for close to 40 years, he has always mocked elections and democracy, and one of his preferred slogans in his green book is 'representation (by election) is mendacious'; but when it serves his interests, it is rather something to celebrate.

By doing this, the African leaders have shown that their union is no more than a circus stage for clowns such as Qaddafi to show his colorful gowns and enjoy the spotlight that he has always longed for. They will soon rediscover what the Arab leaders experienced during the seventies of the past century, that Qaddafi’s persistent push for fast tracking this union, or any other union, is solely for his own wicked ambitions to become a world leader. He tried fast tracked and hasty unions with Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Chad and even the Island of Malta; all miserably failed when the real intentions of Qaddafi were revealed.

It is shameful for Africa and the African leaders, who are democratically elected, to elect this dictator who has ruled Libya with an iron fist since 1969. What an awful example for a continent that suffers from dictatorship, corruption, civil wars, and diseases.

Most of the African leaders know very well Qaddafi’s record in the world and inside his own country; his resume is one of the worst in the entire world specialized in terrorism, atrocities, dictatorship, suppression of free speech, and oppression.

It may be a timely reminder for Africans and the African leaders who elected Qaddafi with some selected items of their new president’s resume and his shameful record which includes but is not limited to the following:

· Sponsorships of several African civil wars and worst dictators, some examples include but not limited to, Liberia and its Charles Taylor, Uganda and its Idi Amin, Central Africa and its Bokasa and Chad.

· Full invasion of sovereign African nation, Chad, 1980-1987.

· Air raids and destruction of Sudan’s broadcast station of Um-Durman, 1985.

· War with neighboring Egypt, 1977.

· Bombing French airliner UTA over Niger (your new president’s agents have been convicted by the French court and he paid compensation for all European and American passengers; but not the African ones);

· Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, 1988 (your new president’s agent has been convicted and is serving life sentence);

· Public hangings, assassinations, kidnappings, and the imprisonments of thousands of Libyan dissidents inside and outside Libya (this has been going-on for almost 40 years with your new president’s public endorsements and joyful bragging);

· Cold blooded murder of 1,187 prisoners in Abu-Salem prison near Tripoli, 1996;

· Robbing the Libyan people from their oil revenues for his adventures and sponsorships of terrorist organizations around the world since 1969, while Libyans are suffering from lack of basic public services, ruined infrastructure, high unemployment and oppression.

Nevertheless, even with his awful resume and shameful record for this position, Qaddafi deserves some credit for being able to convince his African counterparts to elect him as their president; which proves the wisdom of the old Arabian idiom 'Birds fall in love with their resemblance.'

Nigerian jobs for Nigerian workers?

Protests in Lincolnshire recently by British workers irate over jobs there going to Italian and Portuguese ones raise some interesting issues.

Total, the French oil company had caused to be brought in about 300 construction workers from those two EU countries to carry out building projects on its huge £200 million Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire. An Italian concern had won the contract and brought in its own workers, housing them in large barges built for such a purpose. This caused locals who felt themselves qualified but spurned to protest.

These protests led to workers across the region and country walking off their jobs in solidarity with the protesting workers. Many of them held up placards with the legend ‘British Jobs for British Workers’. This was from a 2007 speech given by Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister.

The first issue this raises is why there is not a similar outcry over oil- rig jobs in Nigeria or other oil-producing countries in Africa, going to foreign workers shipped in to the country as easily as the crude is shipped out. And these foreign workers are never housed in grey barges, but in palatial houses in grand compounds resembling nothing else in those countries but presidential villas.

The second issue, of course, is why the British premier would include in his speech a slogan he knows is not only disingenuous, but unlawful, given his country’s membership of the EU, and that bloc’s rules guaranteeing the free movement of goods and workers between EU countries.

All of which demonstrates that all over the world, oil companies act with impunity and disregard for local sensitivities; and so do politicians.