Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Miss Fufu Strikes Back: Decoding How Jay-Z and Eddie Murphy (Re)invented An African Archetype

Jay-Z (Shawn Corey Carter) in concert -Image by NRK P3 via Flick
As I walked out of a store in Silver Spring, Maryland a few years ago, a 30 - something African American gentleman, tried to strike up a conversation with me. Unfortunately for him, the first words that came out of his mouth were, “excuse me, Miss Fufu…” to which I promptly interrupted, “I don’t eat fufu, I am not from Nigeria!”. I then continued to walk past him. His immediate response was apologetic,  “my bad … my apologies, I didn’t mean anything by it”.  Even though this misguided suitor’s intention was not to insult or do harm, his statement carried a lot of baggage. Firstly, his statement projected the stereotype in America that Africa was one country - and that country was Nigeria. Secondly, the idea that he thought I ate fufu because I looked African was misplaced. My denial about eating fufu to him did not stem from a desire to disassociate myself with African food, but rather a desire to be didactic about cultural truths. Having come from southern Africa, I was not too familiar with what exactly fufu was at that time, but I was able to locate it as a West African, specifically Nigerian dish. As I pondered on my drive home about stereotypes about Africa, a few thoughts about African stereotypes raced through my mind. His statement reminded me of how little Americans new about the continent and made me think about where there stereotypes originated. In brief, he had stereotyped me as a young, black, African female - I had become the new stereotypical African archetype, Miss Fufu.

It was during this same year that Jay-Z’s hit song “Girls, Girls, Girls” was playing on the airwaves. The line that stood out to me (and probably to impressionable stranger) when I first heard this song was:
I'm like: "excuse me Ms. Fufu, but when I met your ass
You was dead broke and naked, and now you want half"

These lines from Jay-Z play into popular stereotypes about Africa in a fundamental way. It speaks to popular stereotypes image of Africans being ‘poor’, ‘primitive’ and lacking ‘civilization’. Through this line, Jay-Z takes on the role of Kipling's ‘White Man’s Burden’ - civilizing his African girlfriend. He also becomes an oppressor of women because he feels that his wife is not entitled to half because of her country (continent) of origin – Sending a clear message that African women do not deserve to have material or emotional support because they are somehow not deserving of this because of an association with the stereotypes of ‘poverty’ or ‘coming from nothing’. These lyrics follow, and are a response to a preceding line in the song:

I got this African chick with Eddie Murphy on her skull
She like:"Jigga Man, why you treat me like animal?"

These lines preceding lines set up the players in the song, an African female that is somehow ‘wearing a (bone) skull’ of Eddie Murphy and whom is being treated like an animal by ‘Jigga man’ (another name for Jay Z). The description of the ‘skull wearing’ incidentally, is reminiscent of  his wife Beyonce’s infamous (and equally offensive) ‘tribute to Africa’ photo shoot where she dresses in black face and wears bones, animal print and tribal paint. For well traveled celebrities that have been to the continent (ie Tanzania, and South Africa), it seems that broadening of cultural horizons in the Knowles-Carter household, has so far served to reinforce stereotypes. This line is equally problematic because it plays in to power dynamics between the global North and Global South. Here, he presents himself as famous American rapper in a relationship with a poor African girl that he mistreats. It sends the message that African women are like animals, and such need to be treated accordingly. To show how his attitude translates in his everyday actions, it reminds me of a video that I saw years back of Jay-Z literally treating journalist/girl like an animal by physically assaulting (hitting) her for taking his photo (see Video:Jay-Z assaults African journalist). In some reports, critics have said this occurred in South Africa though this is unconfirmed. For young African women, this type of representation can be damaging at multiple levels ranging from domestic violence to paternalism. From a feminist perspective, it also reminds us of unequal gender roles in relationships. The African woman in this song gets oppressed (treated like an animal), for being female, black and African. The rest of this song is equally ethnically biased and misogynist because he proceeds to name racist and sexist stereotypes about women from all over the world. In fact in this song, no woman in this world is left untouched - the Latino woman who love cooking rice, the Chinese woman bootlegging his music, the African-American woman that snaps her fingers and swings her neck, the list goes on (See lyrics). So how did it come that Jay-Z thought it was okay to treat African women like an animals on video and in real life?

Greatest Comedy Hits
Eddie Murphy Image via Wikipedia
I found out later that with these lyrics, Jay Z was making reference to the famous comedy skit in ‘Raw’ done in the 1980’s by comedian Eddie Murphy (This was his tribute to Africa).  In this skit, Eddie Murphy recounts how he marries an African female from the 'bush' called ‘umfufu’ that he can control. This is a problematic stereotype about indigenous nomadic peoples and the nature of relationships in Africa. It feeds into the popular stereotype of the ‘submissive’ African woman and her stereotypical ‘abusive African man’ (She should be ‘used’ to being treated like that because that how African men treat their women!) Mr. Murphy’s comedy skit, unfortunately, was reproduced from comedy to music. Some may argue that it’s 'harmless' entertainment but the problem here is that in the entertainment industry through Hollywood, music, comedy etc... Africans are only portrayed in one way (backwards and uncivilized) and it is almost always negative. Nevertheless, the problem with ethnic comedy is that comedy is relies on stereotypes. In order for people to find a skit funny, they need to ‘understand’ the stereotype – they need to have a preconceived notion of the subject of the joke. In this case, it is obvious that Jay Z understood the joke based on his understanding on Africa. This is a clear example of how popular stereotypes about Africa are reinforced in mass media outlets like music and live ‘entertainment’ and transferred to the general American public. It is unfortunate that both Eddie Murphy and Jay Z have a large African fan base too. I find it unfortunate when Africans are forced to participate in their own stereotyping or when Africans can’t (or don’t) do more to protest against these offensive stereotypes on music stations like MTV Base (MTV Africa) and perhaps, Channel O. For some reason, when it comes to Africa, the entertainment industry in The U.S. thinks stereotyping is okay. These characterizations are than internalized by the American public, like the man in the store in Maryland. The stereotype is also used as a lens when commenting on the validity of Nomvuyo Mzamane's case against Oprah by another minority blog contributor on the Black Gay Gossip blog article, "Ms. fufu is Suing Oprah".

I love presents! Especially thoughtful ones fr...
Jay Zs bestselling book, "Decoded" Image by Urban Mixer via Flickr

A few weeks ago a flier advertising Jay Z’s book ‘decoded’ was sent to one of the teaching assistants (and faculty). The Amazon book review by Juliet Disparte reads “it is a rare glimpse of the unexpectedly deep meanings behind the most recognizable rap lyrics of the last decade”. In the growing wake of university courses that touch on Jay Z, I wondered what lessons Jay Z wanted me, as a young African female teaching assistant to convey to students about decoding his lyrics. I had first heard about the book on a promotional episode of “Oprah”, now I cant help but wonder in what manner Jay Z and Eddie Murphy would talk to the young ladies at her academy in South Africa there during there publicized philanthropy trips, “Excuse me, Ms Fufu? I donated school books, now you want half?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

‘Arab Spring, African Fall’: A Reawakening

Idi AminImage via Wikipedia
Uganda's infamous dictator, Idi Amin
For some reason I thought it would be much easier to find a compiled list of African dictators online. Africa has been branded as the ‘continent of dictators’ along with Asia and Latin America since the waves of independence from foreign control. Even though the world’s dictators are spread across four continents (Europe’s dictators rarely ever get a nod), Africa is more often associated with dictatorial rule than its counter parts. Indeed, the continent has been home to its fair share of notorious dictators like Idi Amin, Kamuzu Banda, Al Bashir, Mengistu Mariam and Robert Mugabe. But African leadership is transforming. By looking online and trying to piece together a complete list of dictators, it looks like there are 17 dictators left out of the 48 countries on the continent:
  • North Africa – Algeria, Chad, (North) Sudan, Morocco
  • East Africa – Somalia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Eritrea
  • West Africa – Guniea, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia
  • Southern Africa – Angola, Zimbabwe, Swaziland
  • Central Africa- Congo, Central African Republic
It should be noted that the classification of who is considered a dictator varies by definition and list (one analyst, went as far as listing the number of African autocratic states as 39). Even though Africa is commonly seen as the continent that wrote the ‘dictator’s handbook’, the majority of autocratic leaders today, are largely in Asia. Across different lists of autocratic governance and across different indices that measure levels of freedom enjoyed by citizenry, Asia seems to currently bear the brunt of tyrannical rule. This is even more so since Africa lost four dictators this year. It’s not often that Africa is given credit for teaching and/or upholding the ideals of democracy. Dictatorships in Asia, which have already been inspired by events in North Africa as seen in the ‘Arab Spring’, can (and should) continue to draw parallels and learn from the long history of anti-dictatorial revolts in Africa by its citizenry.
Way to go Egpyt! 02/11/11Image by cactusbones via Flickr
Arab Spring in Egypt was a paramount event.
African dictators have been falling this year. This year, Africans have witnessed the fall of Moburak, Laurent Gbaghbo, Ben Ali and now, Ghadaffi. Although some African leaders tried to hold out a candle for Ghadaffi, even the African Union has now conceded that the he is no longer the leader of Libya. By examining the list, it appears within the continent, North, East, and West Africa have a lion’s share of countries led by dictators. It is clear that at the beginning of this year, the numbers of dictators within Africa, were disproportionally in North Africa. In fact, according to Judy Smith-Höhn, a senior southern Africa researcher at a Pretoria-based think-tank the ISS Sub Saharan (SSA) countries like Malawi and South Africa, experienced the events witnessed in North Africa this year, in the 1990s and yet people are constantly trying to use protests that occurred recently in countries like Malawi, as southern Africa’s `Arab Spring’ (Irin News). As an example, in southern Africa (consisting of nearly 14 countries), Zimbabwe, Angola, and Swaziland are the last remaining dictatorships. So it is also fair to say that North Africa too should have been able to draw parallels and learn lessons from the history of anti-dictatorial movements in southern Africa by its citizenry. When protest led to Kamuzu Banda and De Klerk’s National Party left power, we should have also looked to North Africa asking, “is North Africa next?”

The events in the Middle East that began in North Africa have to an extent been unfairly called the “Arab Spring”, “Arab Awakening” or “Arab Uprising” which by description alienates African countries. Many of the participants are both Arab and Africans or are Africans who are simply not Arab. This terminology marginalizes the millions of people and perpetrates the stereotype that all North Africans are Arabs or the even more problematic one – the claims that Arabs are not Africans even though they are physically on the continent. It also means that when the ‘Arab Spring’ started, a large part of the world initially looked towards the East (Syria, Bahrain etc...) and not at what was occurring in neighboring countries in the South. African presidents though saw the connection. They knew that their disgruntled citizens could once again take to the streets. African presidents’ continent wide, reflected on their own governance, began to panic and preemptively protect the status quo – even the ones that were not dictators! In democratic Malawi, a university professor was even investigated and fired for comparing the conditions in North Africa to conditions in Malawi. African presidents knew that their sleepy (but not asleep) citizens would rise.
In SSA this year, we have seen an African reawakening happening in Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Djibouti, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal, Swaziland and Uganda to name a few. It could have easily been termed the “African Fall”. In fact, the successful revolutions this year, so far have only been on the African continent. However, the power of media attention to sustain a revolt is important to a movement, and without much international support, SSA revolts didn’t turn in to televised revolutions. Instead, the western international media gaze was focused on what their governments have been holding their breaths a long time for - regime changes in much of the Middle East. Although this inspiration to overthrow current leadership has largely been viewed as an impact of the Arab Spring it’s also important to note that many countries in SSA had been ridding themselves of their dictators or other unpopular leaders for a long time. Fighting for democracy on the continent is not something new – it has been only 50 years since the struggles against the colonial rule (essentially, foreign dictatorships) and many of those freedom fighters still remember those battles. The recent struggle for independence seeping across the continent is about gaining independence from our own home bred leadership. We are witnessing, what I hope is the reawakening of Africans and the start of an ‘African Fall’.

--A version of this article was published on African on the Blog

Friday, October 7, 2011

Johnson Sirleaf: Transforming Liberia Through Traditional African Leadership Roles

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf waves...Image via Wikipedia
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman of Yemen and Ellen Sirleaf Johnson for ‘their work on women's rights’. When Liberia’s Johnson Sirleaf was announced as the Nobel Prize winner for 2011, the headlines worldwide noted that Africa’s ‘first’ female president had won the Nobel Peace Prize. Johnson Sirleaf however, is the second female head of state from Africa. This honor should be rightfully accredited to Ruth Sando Fahnbulleh Perry of Liberia. She was the head of state from 3 September 1996 until 2 August 1997, and succeeded by the notorious Charles Taylor. Sirleaf Johnson made history as the first ‘elected’ head of state for Liberia. Perry became head of state after Wilton G. S. Sankawulo stepped down as head of state (chairman) though the Council of State of Liberia. Liberia has the distinction of being the only African country in recent history to have two female heads of state and this is usually ignored in commentary in efforts to build up the image of Sirleaf Johnson as a pioneer in women’s leadership in Africa. It also reinforces the stereotype that African leadership tradition is inherently gendered (women and men had strict roles), and has traditionally excluded African women until western feminism came to ‘free’ African women from their men. This is the narrative that we usually hear from western countries, unfortunately, it is also the narrative that we hear from within the continent. It is important that when people talk about ‘African traditional culture’, they are not talking about ‘African colonial culture’ and passing it off as an African tradition that is timeless and was ‘always there’. We need to distinguish between African traditional culture and African colonial culture because erosion of leadership roles for African women came at the hands of foreign control, and is anything but ‘traditional’.

Cleopatra (1962 novel)Image via Wikipedia
Queen Cleopatra of Egypt
Africa’s true traditional culture has always been inclusive of women’s leadership. The African continent has had a long history of female leadership ranging from Queen Cleopatra from Egypt to Queen Nzinga of Angola. In fact, in traditional African culture, prior to colonialism, female leadership in Africa was not an anomaly. We need to remember that traditional African culture has always been more gender neutral then western culture. Gender roles in African culture have also been traditionally more fluid, and this includes female leadership. Prior to colonialism, women in Africa held roles as priests, spiritual leaders, head of clans or ‘tribes’, and other socio-political organizations (since there were no ‘nation-state’ as we know them today). This is not to say that there was no system of patriarchal domination in Africa. The point is, that in terms of gender equality African women had more equality in the areas of land inheritance, property ownership, tracing lineage (matriarchal, matrilineal and matrilocal residence societies existed), and leadership roles. They also had their own systems of checks and balance so that male power was ‘in check’. For example, this includes traditions like postulating (bowing) to both men and women Priests leadership roles or bowing to females that were older. When foreign influence came to the continent, so did foreign ideas of gendered leadership roles. The European and Islamic tradition of inequality that was strongly patriarchal was forced on African traditional cultures so African women saw that now, they could no longer own land, inherit land, become priests, or trace their heritage through the female’s lineage. This means that African women actually lost their rights to be leaders as a result of colonization.

The gender inequalities that African women are experiencing today in terms of leadership are a result of European and Islamic colonization in Africa. They ‘gendered’ roles in leadership and exacerbated existing gender inequalities. Now, through Johnson Sirleaf, we hear of people celebrating the ‘progress’ African women are making in gaining leadership roles denied to us by our men. The steps that women like Johnson-Sirleaf and Perry are taking, are steps towards reclaiming progressive traditional gender roles. African feminism is about regaining rights that were lost. Perry and Sirleaf are stepping on the shoulders of a long tradition of African leadership that is often overlooked or forgotten because it ‘just doesn’t fit in’ to the stereotype of leadership roles for Africa that we like to cling on to. Just as Perry’s position as the ‘first’ head of state in Africa (which was barely 15 years ago) has just been forgotten by popular media and Africans on the continent, one hopes that Sirleaf’s role is also not forgotten in the near future like the countless African women that were leaders on the continent. At this juncture, questions like, ‘Is Liberia ready for a female head of state?’ shouldn’t have been making headlines in countries like Liberia or in any other country. Traditionally speaking, as Africans, we have always been ready for female leadership.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Miss Universal English: The Language of Beauty, The Beauty of Language

Whilst changing the channel on September 13th 2011, I stumbled across the 2011 Miss Universe pageant.  When they announced that Miss Angola, Leila Luliana da Costa Vieira Lopes, was a finalist and I saw she was getting a lot of the audience support, I decided to watch it until the end to see if the crown would for the fourth time, land on the continent (South Africa, 1978; Namibia, 1992; and Botswana, 1999). Although Miss Angola had a relatively small delegation of 3 people in the audience, I also noticed that she was popular and had support from most the audience and rightfully so. She was attractive, congenial, and seemed to genuinely be ‘true to herself’. So out of curiosity, I went to the web to find out why she was the clear crowd favorite from the beginning and what people were saying about Miss Lopes.

Amongst the responses were the usual and customary supportive comments that one would expect ‘she’s beautiful’, ‘congratulations’ ‘she deserved it’. There were also the comments from those that had other favorites, ‘I liked Miss China’…or ‘Ukraine was my favorite’ etc… The comments that I didn’t expect to find was commentary over her response to the Q&A since she had answered it decently enough.

Question: “If you could change one of your physical characteristics, which one would it be and why?”
Lopes answered: “Thank God, I’m very well satisfied with the way God created me and I would not change a thing. I consider myself a woman with inner beauty. I have my principles. I have acquired many wonderful principles from my family and I plan to follow this through the rest of my life.”

The comments weren’t largely directed towards the content her answer, but towards her decision to deliver her response in Portuguese and through the use of an interpreter. Even though I knew she was from Angola, I thought she would most likely answer the question in English since most Africans are multilingual and are usually conversant in one of the ‘International’ languages like English or French. At international events, African representatives like presidents, government officials, scholars etc…do not use interpreters when speaking to international audiences unless they do so purposefully or strategically. Indeed, the language that one chooses to use in today’s society can be highly political, contributing to how others are going to perceive, and subsequently treat you. For Africans who often get the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ stereotype, language here, is used as a form of cultural imperialism  and this makes it even more problematic. So most of the time, we find African representatives feeling that they need to speak English in order to legitimize their ideas, sound intelligent, or simply to be taken seriously by their western counterparts. There seems to be a stigma towards Africans that do not speak the 'Queens English', which is an extension of the colonial cultural legacy. There is also often the associated assumption by non-Africans that one’s ability to speak English is a reflection of one’s ability to think. These negative perceptions seem to be directed disproportionally at Africans (no one vehemently faults Japanese, Polish, Brazilian, French or Iraqi for the same inability). This stigma towards Africa is reflected through comments made by the general public online websites after the pageant (See Comments: Showbizblog, Tumblr, Pinoyhalo, Ricky).

According to the commentary across these blogs, there was a pattern of suggestions from the general public that was advocating an ‘English’-only language policy for pageants. This was problematic because this was not the ‘Miss England” pageant, and the idea that anyone should conform to a hegemonic language at an international event being held in Latin America is ludicrous. It was also problematic that some of these comments were coming form voices in the Global South – notably, the Spanish speaking Philippines (Some going as far as suggesting that Miss Philippines Shamcey Supsup, should have been picked because “she spoke English” (See: Pinoyhalo). For Miss Angola, these comments were compounded by her African identity - Some non-Portuguese speaking, were making reference to her speaking her “native” language over an “international” language (Native here, being a code for ‘African’).  They thought she was speaking an indigenous Bantu language of Angola and not the “international” Portuguese language! It is clear from their comments that because she was speaking in her “African” native tongue, this act being frowned upon –These commentators seemed more fixated on the Angolan’s failure to speak English because she was Angolan. It didn’t seem that there real interest was promoting English. There interests were prompting English relative to an African language. Had they known it was Portuguese, I wondered if they would have made assertions over the importance of speaking an “international” language (as opposed to an African one)? I wondered if the same comments were made for the reigning Miss Mexico, Ximena Navarrete, when she won and if she perhaps, spoke in Spanish during her Question and Answer portion. Notably, one such comment (that had 13 ‘likes’) came from readers of the online version of the Spanish language television network, Telemundo, which prides itself for its substantial Spanish language programming. I didn’t discount that there may have been other factors. I thought about how much this had to do with the persistence of mental enslavement for previously colonized peoples. As an example, it many have been an epitome or reflection of how people in a country like the Philippines viewed Filipino English speakers - in high esteem and at the detriment of indigenous languages like Tagalog or Filipino. 

Statements regarding the idea that the translator somehow  “improved” her answer and that her central idea somehow 'gained intelligence' through translation also surfaced. Based on this, there are clear associations that people make about of the ability to speak English and perceived Intelligence.  Ability to speak the English language though is not a reflection of intelligence. If Lopes wanted to speak in Umbundu, or Kikongo, she should have the universal right to do so without backlash or assumptions about her intelligence or linguistic abilities. It is often rare that I hear the same demands to speak English being made to German, French or Portuguese candidates in “international” competitions. If West Europeans are exempt from this lingual scrutiny why are people from the global south subjected to it? Why do people from the global South subject each other to it as well? This keeps these languages (including Portuguese) that were imposed on people dominant in the world. Some argued that most people understand English and that’s why they advocated this, but going by that logic, Miss Universe should be broadcast in the beautiful language of Madarin (See: the top 10 languages). 

Its clear was that because Lopes chose to speak in Portuguese, everyone further assumed that she could not speak English – even those on the blogs that defended her right to speak the language of her choice. After some investigation, I discovered that Miss Angola is a business management student at a university in England where she has been residing for a few years. She was also Miss Angola – UK in 2010. As a true diplomat and strategist, Miss Angola made a sound decision and showed her linguistic beauty by speaking to a room filled with majority Portuguese speakers in Portuguese!

There are around 5000 languages in use today. There is no universal language. There shouldn't be one. language is a reflection of ones culture (See: Sapir Whorf hypothesis). Differences in language lead to differences in experience, thought and ideas. Requiring the world to speak English will lead to a world where everyone think and act like the English. The problem with this being that they are not all English and will never be English. The other problem with that is that it will suppress ideas that can only manifest or be understood in the context of a particular language, and hence culture. The beauty of this world is that we all speak different languages and no one should be forced to speak another.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Red, Black, and Green: Why Oil Exploration on Lake Malawi May be a Bad Idea

The new scramble for Africa’s oil can aptly be summed up in the three colors of the Malawian flag, ‘Black, Red and Green’. Oil or ‘Black Gold’ in Africa, makes up about 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves, “Libya's 41.5 billion barrels of oil reserves and Nigeria's 36 billion barrels are both twice the size of China's proven reserves and just under twice the size of US reserves” (AfricatheGoodNews).  The current rush for Africa’s oil is proving to be lucrative for oil company investment.The oil exporting countries of Equatorial Guinea, Angola, Chad, Sudan, Nigeria, Congo Republic and Gabon alone have enjoyed an average GDP growth of 7,4% from 1996-2005. This means that there is plenty of Green money to be made - and green here doesn’t not mean environmentally friendly nor innocent.

It is no wonder then that with the current oil crisis that is on-going in Malawi, Malawians from many sides of the political arena are looking towards oil exploration as a positive solution to the current fuel crisis. Proponents of oil exploration have argued that it will bring prosperity, help improve infrastructure (build schools and hospitals etc…) and more importantly, end the fuel crisis that has been plaguing the country. Opponents of oil exploration are largely citing environmental concerns. Although environmental concerns are important, it is equally imperative that other factors are considered, particularly the political economy. There is need to have further public debate inclusive of social, economic and political concerns so that Malawi does not repeat mistakes made by other African countries that have experienced the ‘curse of oil’. Malawians need to be educated about what becoming an ‘oil producer’ really means so that they can make informed decisions about moving towards becoming an oil producing country. Oil discovery should not be simply seen as the great savior for Malawi’s socio-economic problems. One should not ignore the fact that the discovery of oil (like most mineral resources) in African countries has largely been a curse. Oil prosperity in Africa has been limited to a select few individuals and large oil companies. Studies have shown that in almost all countries where oil has been discovered in Africa, the average standard of living of the majority has gone down and oil corruption has risen (i.e Chad, Gabon and Nigeria). In Nigeria’s case, we should recall that it was revealed that Shell oil had infiltrated every level of the government in order to exert its influence on that country’s government. The practices of oil companies and their Nigerian counterparts have disrupted good governance in Nigeria, business, and civil life. Its discovery is often viewed as a ‘curse’ for many people in that country – Particularly, to the people that come from the oil producing region.

 Although governments argue that they will undergo the necessary environmental assessments, the reality is that assessments are often rubber stamped in the face of the potential for billions of dollars that oil company’s promise to bring or due to corruption (ie Russia’s Sakhalin project went through environmental impact basement but led to the depletion of fauna due to the corruption within the body charged with overseeing the environment). Even when thorough assessments are done, there are no safety guarantees because pipes often burst due to poor maintenance by oil companies. Oftentimes they use old pipes in African countries or just don’t maintain them due to cost or negligence. Oil spills in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region equivalent to the Gulf spill have been occurring yearly. Oil companies have failed to clean up their spills, often blaming sabotage by ‘rebels’ (angry villagers wanting justice and/or militia groups wanting money, many that were initially trained by the oil companies).  In the case of the recent court case that the Ogoni people in the Niger delta region won, it is estimated that the environmental impact is so large that it would take years to clean up. In an ocean, spills can spread for miles but it may only take one such spill to cover Lake Malawi with oil. One spill could potentially end aquatic life and livelihood for people that depend on the lake for generations to come. It will also mean the death to the lake-based tourism industry that is supposed to be one of the catalysts for Malawi’s development goals.

Although the continent is likely to attract $50 billion in investment in the oil sector alone by the end of the decade, Oil does not necessarily mean prosperity and development across Africa. Profit Sharing Agreements that are signed between governments and oil companies often mean that the oil company provides the capital and pays the government back only when they have recouped their costs. Often, crude oil is pumped out of the country and refined elsewhere as an export. Since there are no refineries in Malawi, Malawi would need to buy back its own oil at a premium such a situation would not resolve our fuel crisis. Rather it is reminiscent of colonial systems of mercantilism and extraction.  Oil companies have had years of experience in developing extractive practices that lead to underdevelopment in Africa – they have the resources, capital and lawyers to take on many poorer African governments or local bodies. There has been little or no development in the oil rich Niger-Delta region. The Niger-Delta is one of the poorest in the world since oil money doesn’t trickle down to the region.  In Gabon, oil has lead to mass importation of costly foreign foods at the expense and/or neglect of local agricultural industries. Most of these imported goods are too pricey for ordinary Gabonese to benefit from them even though the country can afford to import them – again, it is the poor that lose out. Thus a young democracy like Malawi would need to have above average governance in African terms to manage this resource. African countries have failed to manage resources in a way that benefits trickle down to the poor people due to internal and external factors. Malawi’s institutions would need to be mature enough to withstand global forces of globalization, neo-colonialism and western hegemony in order to prosper from oil money. 

Lastly, it should be noted that where there has been oil in Africa, there has been conflict or ‘blood oil’. This brings us to the last color- Red. The red blood of Africans has been shed continent wide over this resource. This includes on-going instability in Nigeria, Angola, and Sudan. It includes countries like Libya and Uganda where oil/oil exploration created environments conducive to government systems of central control. Malawian institutions would also need to be strong enough to withstand these internal forces. The amount of resources and wealth that oil brings makes for a good breeding ground for greedy dictatorships and militarism to rise within a government. Oil has the ability to turn politicians into oil mongers. Control of Oil may be a catalyst for future power struggles and war in peaceful Malawi. The Late President Kamuzu Banda, who ironically was a dictator, intentionally did not allow drilling on the shores of the lake because he knew it would bring instability to his government and to the country. Whether he did this purely to secure his own leadership or for the greater good of the country is debatable. Nonetheless oil exploration needs to be closely examined in 'Red, Black and Green'. . It’s important that the country looks at experiences of their neighbors and not repeat their mistakes so that Malawi’s fuel crisis doesn’t become an outright oil crisis.

-- A version of this article entitled, "Malawi's Potential 'Curse of Oil' " appeared in the opinoin column My Turn in the Malawi newspaper, The Nation on August 15th, 2011 - Ms Tinga

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The R/Evolution in Malawi May Not be Televised, But it May be Tweeted!

The coverage of the protests in Malawi by the foreign (non-Malawian) press has left some Malawians wide-eyed and more cognizant of the international media climate. When the protests initially began on July 20th, 2011 (dubbed 20/11), the internet was ablaze with information from Malawians on the ground, in the diaspora, and friends of Malawi. In addition, many Malawians posted updates from various cities in the country providing eye witness accounts of the events as they were occurring.  These early reports proved to be vital for those seeking updates on the nationwide protests on both sides of the political spectrum due to limited coverage on Malawian Broadcasting Channel (MBC) & Malawi Radio which continued with its regular line-up that day. Private domestic mass media outlets like Zodiac Radio, Malawi Voice, Capital FM, Radio Joy, Nyasatimes and others were also successfully doing their utmost to provide detailed up-to-date coverage to the world until they started experiencing broadcasting difficulties. Due to their interrupted service, media coverage was left to private Malawian blogs, and the Malawi online community (including Facebook and Twitter) for parts of the day. A chronological account of the some of the postings can be found on the blog haba na haba. The protests began to 'trend' on Twitter - South Africa before they made the news headlines. Ordinary Malawians had proceeded to tweet directly to BBC, Anderson Cooper, CNN, and Sky News during the course of the day to ensure that international attention would be brought on the demonstrations. By day two, Malawi protests began to 'trend' as a hot topic on Google. The online community engaged directly with programs like BBC- Have Your Say (BBCHYS) and France 24, acting much like a watchdog to ensure that the international media was going to cover the protests and was going to cover it with accuracy.

This revolt was unprecedented for Malawi. Malawi has historically had a reputation as a peaceful country. It is a country that has enjoyed relative peace within its borders since its liberation struggle and subsequent independence in 1964. Even during Malawi's attempts to topple the regime of the infamous dictator Kamuzu Banda, during the 1993-1994 protests for multiparty state, there was relative peace. Banda who ruled the country for the 30 years as a dictator, finally conceded to the will of Malawian calls for multi-party rule as the protests against his regime grew, and held a national referendum. He stepped down peacefully, conceding defeat in the election, and assisted in ushering the transition where he could. According to the 2010 Global Peace Index  by the Institute of Economics and Peace, Malawi continues to be the second most peaceful country in Africa (Botswana being the first) and 39th in the world out of 155 countries. Being a country that has not seen war or wide scale violence within its borders, Malawi has also been a haven to refugees from troubled countries like Mozambique and Somalia. It is also host to Zimbabweans escaping Mugabe's reign. Malawi has been long known as the "Warm Heart of Africa" due its friendly people, tranquility and rustic appeal. It is a country where virtues like tolerance, non-violence, humility and community ("I am because we are") are encouraged through the four cornerstones of the nation, 'unity, loyalty, obedience, and discipline'. Hence, when a group calling themselves, 'Concerned Citizens' which comprised of civil society, the opposition, NGO's and citizens called for a national day of peaceful protest, this was what was intended and expected (Read: Malawi's Peace at Test). Malawians were not initially calling for 'democratically' elected Mutharika to step down. They wanted a change in the attitude of his administration. Attempts had been made by the opposition to engage with the Mutharika administration prior to this, but many Malawians felt that the administration had not adequately addressed concerns. A diverse group of Malawians, including professionals, students, laborers, rural and urban dwellers, and opposed political parties (collectively known as the 'Red Army'), all joined forces to air their grievances and to let it be known to their government and the larger world, that they wanted their concerns to be addressed.

President Bingu Mutharika had had a prosperous first term and was rightfully given much credit for moving the country forward economically. During his first term he had many successes in which Malawi was called the fastest growing economy. The GDP of Malawi had grown at an annual rate of about 7% (peaking at 9.8% in 1998), Malawi became a food donor nation (proving food Aid to Zimbabwe), FDI increased and the Kwacha remained stable. He was touted as an inspirational and democratic leader by many. He was also regarded as a welcome change after the unpopular Muluzi administration that many argued ruined the country’s economy. During his second term however, many argue that his political and economic ideology began to become more distant from that of the population. Malawians in general began to have grievances about the downward growth in the economy characterized by lack of forex and fuel. Other grievances that the anti-government protestors wanted to bring attention to were:  increased media regulations for newspapers and national radio/TV; a series of unpopular bills that Malawians claimed eroded checks and balances; Mutharika's increasingly close relations with the Mugabe regime; guaranteeing academic freedom and reinstatement of university of Malawi lecturers, an unpopular flag change who's implementation the public felt they were not involved in; the government consolidation of power through the injunction bill and other laws, including the general  direction the country was heading. These grievances were the highlighted in a 15 page petition that Concerned Citizens  say they they presented to the President via the City councils. It included  in 20 actionable points some which were printed in the national paper, The Nation on July 18th. The Pro-government group also highlighted their concerns on the same day in The Nation paper.

The immediate precursors to the protests were the forex and fuel crisis and the diplomatic row with Britain that resulted in the loss of budget support. Earlier in the year diplomatic tensions grew when a cable from Chocraine-Dyet, the British Ambassador, was wiki-leaked. Dyet had expressed concern to his government over Mutharika, accusing him of being 'intolerant' and of being an 'autocrat'. Accusations that Malawians on the ground were already making due to the change in direction that they felt they were witnessing in a once popular administration. Mutharika felt these accusations were unfounded and declared Dyet persona non-gratia, ordering him to leave the country within 48 hours and asking the UK to send a replacement. Subsequently, a diplomatic row began between Malawi and its former colonizer that resulted in UK ordering the Malawi ambassador to UK to leave (including revoking (arguably) the most coveted invitation - the wedding dinner party for popular British royals 'Will and Kate'). More importantly for Malawians, it resulted in UK cutting aid (budgetary support) for Malawians. Other European countries like Germany (perhaps in solidarity with the UK) followed suite. The World Bank also denied aid to Malawi citing budget problems. The Malawi government than began to take austerity measures that included increasing taxes on the poor (via taxes on bread, flour and milk etc...) and on newspapers. It also included the unveiling of a new aid-free 'zero deficit' budget (ZDB). This budget proved to be unpopular by many Malawians though, and was further compacted by unprecedented fuel and forex shortages. Malawian frustrations continued to grow. They were however not able to air their frustrations due to an unpopular 'injunctions bill' which sought to remove the ability for citizens to 'arbitrarily' get injunctions against the government and the introduction of a fee-for-protest that government said would cover government resources during protests. Civil society argued that protesting against the economic woes was a right and not a paid privilege. Due to debates over the 'right to protest' brought about by injunctions, it was not clear on the morning of the planned protests if they would actually occur. 

When the stories were first being broken by international media, they left much to be desired by Malawians due to misinformation some were providing. Part of this information, understandably may be due to communication from professional journalists on the ground being limited due to an order for them to stop reporting abut the protests. Since a number of issues had led to the protests, singling out one issue was not seen as an accurate analysis. Malawi's protests were about the economy and governance (Read: Economic Situation Analysis). Some newspapers reported that Malawi was on strike due to the stoppage of foreign aid by Britain and that Malawians were protesting for commencement of foreign aid alone which is an explanation too simplistic to explain the situation. However, it is important to note that many Malawians do not want to be dependent on 'dead Aid' as an economic policy. They support a 'trade not aid' agenda but they just do not agree that the new ZDB should be sudden or reactionary. Instead, they were calling for it to be strategically and proactively planned over time so that it doesn't hurt the economically vulnerable. In response to the growing problems, Malawians felt that the president had not addressed the issue adequately. Of particular was discontent was the reaction to the fuel crisis that was affecting the bottom line of small, medium and large businesses. It was also affecting dinner plates as maize mills, fishing boats etc... also rely on fuel. With regards to the fuel shortage concerns, Malawians were being told by MERA (Malawi Energy Regulation Authority) to 'get used to it', rather than being given measures MERA was taking to address the shortages which would have been more palatable. Malawi's concerns were and are largely economic at their base - bread and butter issues that don't fall too far from the bread and butter issues that were facing north African countries. A clear difference was that Malawians, at the time were not largely calling for Mutharika to step down until much later in the protest since he is not a dictator and is legitimately serving his term. Closer to home, a country that had watched the economic demise of 'Great Zimbabwe' under the hands of Robert Mugabe, was afraid to see the same happen to them. There was a genuine fear by some in Malawi that that Mutharika was trying to turn Malawi into 'another Zimbabwe' economically (Read: analysis from Zimbabwe standard). It was economic woes that made protesters frustrated but It was the failure for peaceful dialogue and /or measures (governance) being taken to address the economic crisis that made ordinarily passive Malawians take to the streets. Governance issues were brought about because Malawians felt their economic issues were not being addressed adequately - the sleepy giants had risen.

On the day of the protests, Red Army Malawians wanted to make sure that their voices were heard and make clear their grievances. The demonstrations began largely peaceful with people posing for photos in their 'Red Army' gear and singing the national anthem (see: photo and video footage of protests on haba na haba). Some even took to South African style Toy-toying.  Initially, most Malawians were not calling for Mutharika to resign (he is not a dictator after all but was democratically elected and Malawians wanted to see Mutharika serve out his term (some still do). They wanted their concerns to be heard and to be dealt with. As the day progressed however, and protestors clashed with the police because they were allegedly met with 'extreme force' by the police, more demonstrators began to call for his resignation and /or impeachment and become agitated. They waited to hear Mutharika address the nation in his public lecture (that was planned for the same day), but many felt that the issues they wanted to hear in the lecture were not addressed on the first day which lead to more frustrations. Additionally, many of the leaders of the protests were not available to direct the progression of the protests (some had been allegedly arrested, and the whereabouts of some members of the official opposition where unknown). Without proper direction and with aggression by the police, and pro-government supporters holding their march simultaneously, the peaceful protests then began to get increasingly violent.

Prior to the violence, amongst the major international media, there was a single story on Aljazeera that acknowledged that the protests would occur. There was no coverage on the websites or taglines (at bottom of broadcasts) of BBC, CNN, SKY or South African based e-news. Once the protests turned violent, there were reports from Reuters, an hour show on BBC, and coverage on Al Jazeera, BBCHYS, BBC, enews, and lastly CNN. It is important to note that Sky news does not appear to have covered the story at all on either day, and enews only covered it once Reuters had covered it on day two.  Al Jazeera appears to be the first of the big broadcasters to have the protests covered as part of their headline news, including live footage. What is also notable is that most news outlets get their news from the same sources, so if an organization like Reuters provides misinformation, this information is spread ten times fold. This is why it is important for Africa to have news broadcasters like e-news exercise more agency in selecting stories that are relevant to them. As an example, the events in Malawi would have a direct impact on South Africa so it would be in their best interest to cover any disturbances in neighboring countries first, and not with everyone else. e-news has an opportunity to fill a gap in the reporting of issues concerning Africa and in the approach to reporting about Africa.

Of particular concern was that when the 'peaceful protests' for sound economic policies and good governance were not being covered until they turned violent. The message behind the protests began being obscured on international news between fevered attempts to capture the death tolls.  No doubt, Malawi’s protests were probably seen as 'normal African political unrest in a turbulent African country' and not deemed newsworthy until violence occurred. They also seemed reluctant to report protests as long as they were peaceful - it doesn’t sell newspapers nor attract viewers. Once lives were being lost however, the wider media picked up on the story because it may have fit in to the more comfortable newsworthy stereotype 'death caused by political unrest in violent Africa' which is more suitable for their bottom line. Some went as far as reporting that Malawi wanted to topple their 'dictator', Mutharika which is a comfortable narrative (particularly after the Arab Spring) but an incorrect one. These claims prompted some in the Malawi online community to start defending their estranged leader against the onslaught of foreign misreporting - One person on twitter that was part of the red army tweeted that " they are reporting that Mutharika is a dictator ... Mutharika is not a dictator" .

The Malawian online community at first was solely was working frivolously to get the protests covered by sending information about the protests to journalists from BBC and France 24 that asked for it as its own journalists faced challenges in reporting the protests. They then started working frivolously to get accurate information covered. At one stage, when BBCHYS allegedly reported that there was 'Xenophobia in Malawi', appalled Malawians around the world posted "there is no Xenophobia in Malawi" on their Facebook wall (prompted by online newspaper The Malawi Voice's Facebook Page) until BBCHYS - Facebook made an official statement denying that they reported misinformation (Read: Malawi Voice article on Xenophobia in Malawi). Instead, they reported that an Asian Malawian caller concerned that Asian owned shops were now being looted had said it during the broadcast of the BBC show. From most accounts though, the shops that were targeted were those of close business allies to Mutharika and people that Malawians felt had unfairly benefited from business relationships with the president. In addition, the cars and houses that been burned down also largely those of pro-government supporters. Malawians also took to offence when the news outlets began referring to the protests as merely 'riots' a word that denotes anarchy. Hence, implying that Malawians had decided to get up and start looting the country out of anger and to protest through destruction rather than first seek dialogue. As the violence grew, most Malawians on both sides of the political spectrum began to discourage the violence (from protestors and police), looting and destruction that occurred.

For two days, pent up frustrations from both pro-government and anti-government supporters were released on the once quiet streets in Lilongwe, Mzuzu, Karonga, Blantyre, Zomba, and Dedza in unprecedented nationwide protests. On the second day protests continued in Lilongwe and  Blantyre, albeit less violent. It is surprising that in a nationwide violent protest of 14 million, 'only' 18 reported deaths occurred- this may not have been the case in another nation faced with a similar situation. It is important that reporting of the protest in Malawi occurred, but media must take heed to report with accuracy as opposed to pre-written narratives about African riots, dictators, and causeless violence. Furthermore, not much credit (if any) has been given to the contribution of technology during what some have dubbed the 'African Fall'.  During the Arab Spring protests, too much credit was given to the same technologies. There is something to be noted in the way international media may approach the way they source information about sub-Saharan Africa. Whilst technology penetration has not reached the same extent as other regions, there has been an evolution in sub-Saharan Africa with regards to disseminating information. Many were not looking at the impact of the online community (individuals and organizations) were having or considering if cellphone messaging played a role like they did in Kenyans political unrest a few years back. A much richer analysis on the role of technology on information and democracy in Africa would be warranted because technologies are changing grassroots organization in sub-Saharan Africa as well. With increasing media outlets online, they have access to people on the ground, which has been beneficial in some of the reporting on the Malawian events, but more can be done in this era to ensure that African protests, weather pro or anti-government are covered - and are covered accurately. Case in point, there was probably more press on Malawi's problems with Mutharika in the past few years, than there was on Malawi’s success with Mutharika during his prosperity years.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Tribalism Myth in Sudan: Why Can't Africans 'Just get Along'?

At the dawn of the newly independent South Sudan, some news reports on Sudan have explained that Sudan experienced ethnic cleansing and/or genocide resulting from 'tribal' warfare. It seems that this popular concept of 'tribal warfare' is widely understood by the viewing audience as well as widely accepted. However, it is important to remember that the word 'tribe' itself is problematic. 'Tribe' is a contested term due to its inconsistency in meaning [See definitions on or wikipedia], hegemonic affiliations, and stereotypical tendencies. As an example, the term 'tribe' presents inconsistencies in terms of location, numbers, and settlement types. Tribes are often restricted to select geographic areas like Africa (but not Eastern Europe) or amongst select nations within a geographic area like Native Americans (but not to Vikings). There is no consistency in number (aggregate) either but 'tribes' are traditionally thought of as a small group. Hence, this becomes problematic when 'tribes' can consist of millions of people or make up the majority of the nation. As an example, the Shona make up the majority of ethnic composition in Zimbabwe so do they numerically qualify as a tribe?. 'Tribes' are also often thought of as people that wander like the nomadic Khoi San or Masaai. In anthropology, social "evolution" is measured (in rank order) by how people live. The idea here is that people "evolve" from hunter-gathers, bands, tribes, Chiefdoms, Cities, to City-States (nations) [See:Franz Boaz ]. Again, the Shona live in permanent settlements in towns, cities and states so do they qualify as a tribe? Once the Khoi San or Masaai become sedentary (set up permanent settlements) are they too no longer 'tribes'? There are a plethora of other inconsistencies with the use of this term, but where it becomes most problematic is when a fictitious, human construct like 'tribe' is then used to describe another construct like 'tribalism' and 'tribal' warfare and when tribalism is used to explain conflict. 'Tribalism' is rarely unpacked when it is mentioned but the term carries meaning and implications. Notably, that these warring 'tribes' 'just-cant-get-along' due to differences inherent between those two groups. These explanation rob the audience of a critical analysis on the situation at hand and create an image of a continent whose conflicts bare no cultural or historical roots of significance - they just like to fight. Historically, Africa as a continent has bared the burden of the 'tirbalism' and 'tribal warfare' brand so once ethnic conflict or tensions arise within her borders, 'tribalism' is often given as the reason (and an acceptable one at that).

It is important that coverage that seeks to explain the birth of the new nation of South Sudan is inclusive of the former Sudan's historical roots. Some of the coverage that I have seen about the situation in Sudan dates the beginning of its troubles in the 1960's when the country gained its independence. It is vital though that we do not brand the balkanisation of Sudan as simply due to 'tribal' conflict between African ethnic groups that just cant get along. Citing 'triablism' prevents a situation from being analysed due to the real socio-economic dynamics that underlies 'tribalism'. Notably, economic policies or bread and butter issues. In most instances where ethnic conflict occurs on the continent, there is uneven access to wealth or the power institutions in the country (judicial system, private business, government, education, etc...). In the case of Sudan, the South was deprived access to the aforementioned institutions. This was also the case in Rwanda and Kenya as well where we recently saw ethnic cleansing that had its roots in economic woes dating back to colonialism. During colonialism, it was often the practice of the colonial rulers to select a single ethnic group (usually a minority group) and give them (limited) access to some of the power institutions. After the Independence movements, nation building became challenging because the suppressed ethnic group became the dominant groups and this often marginalized (socially and economically) the minority groups. Hence, economic issues often are at the center of 'tribalism'. But focusing on 'tribalism' prevents people from getting to the root of the problem - economics, privilege and discrimination in multi ethnic societies.

Bringing disparate people together through force and unification processes whose differences outweigh their similarities has always been problematic. This is particularly evident through the examples of countries like Germany, where we saw Hitler's unification process lead to the ethnic cleansing of German Jews. A proper and complete analysis leading up to the genocide would include the overwhelming economic conditions that led to antisemitism in post Wiemar Republic Germany as opposed to viewing it myopically as Aryan Germans simply hating Jewish Germans for their Jewishness or 'tribalism'. In which case, the subsequent World War is arguably the largest display of tribalism in 20th century Europe! In East Europe, the balkanisation of former Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia provides us examples of multi ethnic nations that were forced together that led to continual conflicts. Czechoslovakia was founded in October of 1918 as part of the Treaty of Versailles. It consisted of areas that were once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that were ethnically disparate. The ethnically disparate Czechs and Slovaks had been forced together into one country and this arrangement was problematic from the onset. This resulted in the creation of the Slovak and Chech Republics in 1993. Yugoslavia was formed as a result of unifying the Serbs, Croats and Slovenias into one kingdom amongst opposition. Forced arrangements brought about underdevelopment, war, and ethnic conflict. Eventually, Yugoslavia balkanised, and became the independent countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia , and Slovenia.
The current balkanisation of Sudan is hence a formula that we have seen repeated in other parts of the world in recent history. In the case of Sudan, like most African countries, it had been formed at a round table of European nations at the Berlin Conference where all African countries were formed at the stroke of ink. Hence dividing countries based on external forces as opposed to internal unification processes. The problems that arose in the former Sudan are not unique to Sudan nor is the ethnic cleansing that resulted there inherent in the Sudanese people. Similarly, "tribalism" is not isolated to select groups of peoples. The notion of 'tribal' wars seems to be an explanation that is often used to describe conflicts in Africa without fully unpacking the unique situations, conditions, or historical references of that country. This is done by both reporters and journalists from the west and from the continent. All Africans have been told that they have 'tribes', (and everyone belongs to one) and hence 'tribalism' (a natural conflict between ethnic groups for no particular reason) exists therefore it makes 'sense' that since Europe does not have tribes (they have ethnic groups) they cannot have tribalism. Therefore longstanding European conflicts like the plight of the armed movement for Basque independence from Spain and France is not seen as 'tribal' warfare. Few comparisons are made between the conflicts in Africa and other conflicts in the world.

The history of the Dinka's in South Sudan has been a history of domination -largely for control of resources. They have been dominated by Egypt, England (colonization) and lastly, the South Sudan was 'dominated' by Northern Sudan whom contributed to its underdevelopment. In spite of the presence of oil and fertile soil in the area, during these occupations, South Sudan was left underdeveloped. As a new nation, it will face the challenges of nation building amongst people that historically have had little control over their own society and economy. They will need to build a national identity and establish a "South Sudan brand" and reputation as an independent country. But already, tale tale signs can be seen of domination from someone from within its borders. The new money in the country is of the new president as opposed to a neutral national symbol or an apolitical symbol.This move marks the beginning of South Sudan iconography, where its politics are bound to be centered along the lines of individuals (national political icons) as opposed to shared symbols and ideologies. There national brand or identity is likely to be centered on the current President, Salva Kiir Mayardir. One can only hope that this is not a true sign of what is to come and that the new administration will proceed on a path that is inclusive of all the peoples of the new South Sudan.

Tribalism, with all its meanings and justifications is a disputed and problematic explanation for a multi-ethnic nation's ethnic tensions. Now that the Sedans have split, one wonders if any tensions that arise will continue to be called 'tribalism' or if it will evolve to a newer term like 'cross border tribalism' or if it will be considered a battle between two opposing nations with histories and dynamics that need to be unpacked to understand its roots.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The African Journalist's Burden

The relationship between western media and Africa has always left a lot to be desired by continental Africans and African stakeholders. It has always been challenging to get proper stories about events, histories or people in Africa and this has creates a large void in quality reporting on Africa, often resulting in misrepresentation or wide generalizations. In his essay, “How to write about Africa”, Kenyan author and literary critic, Binyavanga Wainaina sums it up best with the words:

"Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress " [Read full Essay from Granta].

What is surprising is that these approaches to writing about the continent are still prominent in many African media outlets (print, radio and television) whether it is written by Africans or non-Africans. As an example, in prominent Malawian papers, topics about aid from foreigners over other issues seem to dominate as well as opinions of those from the west. You’ll often see headlines like, “An American gives Blanket s to x” or “Scots say we need more x,y,z” where what is considered ‘newsworthy’ centers on the relationship between a named foreign national and unnamed ‘local’. Oftentimes their foreignness is emphasized above their qualifications or their knowledge on that topic. Malawian opinions from experts at times get side stepped particularly, when it s a story about aid, skill sharing, or knowledge transfer from the west to Malawi. In many instances the identification of the Malawian is seen as an insignificant factor in the story. Particularly when the ‘local’ is from the rural area, they get labeled, ‘a villager’ (or’ villagers’) and no particular time or effort seems to be taken in identifying this nameless person. This type of reporting sends clear messages that a villager’s identity is not significant. The same trends in reporting can be seen in other African countries.

Whilst this type of reporting about Africa is more prominent and frequent in the western media both historically and in contemporary reporting, when it occurs by African journalists in Africa it is more so problematic. The way African journalists present and represent events and people from their own countries needs to be considered because of the effects that it has on the African (and non-African) reader’s perception of African culture, history and events. It has profound effects on the populations that read the papers. It does need to be considered for some of these journalists the contribution of training programs by well intending western journalists through transnational journalist networks. Journalism ‘skills’ are transferred from the west that may include approaches to ‘how’ to write (and report) about Africa. It seems that these western approaches to writing about Africa are at times internalized by African journalists who reproduce the type of writing about Africa that Wainaina writes about.

Western media reporting (especially in the United States) is a reflection of the western institutions, politics and public policy towards Africa. As an example the coverage of the revolts in the North Africa [Egypt, Tunisia] were reported as events occurring in the “middle east” as opposed to Africans revolting against their leaders for democracy (some African media outlets also similarly reported the events solely as middle eastern news). This is in line with US foreign policy that regards North Africa as part of their middle eastern policy (this can equally be extended to US conglomerates that regard north African countries as part of their regional ‘Middle Eastern business unit). The relationship between western media and its institutions are explored in great detail in the book “Hardened Images: The Western Media and the Marginalization of Africa” by Asgede Hagos. Another contentious issue highlighted in this study is that western media tends to marginalize Africa. This means that some (not all) African journalist essentially participate in their own marginalization and in branding Africa in a generalized, unfavorable way.

The marginalization of Africa though western media has long been problematic for branding Africa as a place of despair and fostering a paternalistic relationship between Africa and the west. It has also propagated ideas like ‘the white man’s burden’ which reinforces other one-sided journalistic stereotypical reporting i.e. the archetype ‘great white savior’. The problem here is the danger of African journalists contributing to the marginalization of Africa through locally owned media channels creates greater legitimacy for the negative or stereotypical reporting. This means that Africans are only reading about Africa through one dominant hegemonic way due to the absence of credible international mass media venues that can accurately (and credibly) report about Africa . Although television media outlets like BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera, France 24 cover African events, questions of depth, scope and neutrality of these outlets needs to be understood since they respectively, primarily cover the issues, interests, and events of their respective place (or ideological blocs). The television outlets also have more extensive networks, researchers and coverage interests outside of Africa. It is important to note that South African based e-news though has proven to provide the most extensive, neutral and non-biased news coverage about Africa. Like its counterparts, its primary interests, also center on its place of origin.

Although many journalists on the continent have timelessly continued to represent the continent in a neutral manner, greater awareness by some African journalists with regard to the story selection, word choices, and ideologies that represent the continent should be noted so that they don’t inadvertently contribute to its misbranding. There is much room for improvement on how Africa is presented in the media both in written and televised reporting. As journalism continues to grow on the continent, hopefully we will be able to sift through the journalistic techniques that we inherit from the west that may not present Africa in a favorable way and that extend western media hegemony.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Gbagbo and the Chocolate Factory: Power & Cocoa in the Ivory Coast

Over the years, Chocolate eggs have been placed in Easter baskets around the world in Europe, America, and other continents across the globe.  Chocolate has become a central part of some religious and secular practices during the month of April. Year round, it is used to make chocolate coins for Hanukah or Santa Claus (Father Christmas), for courting on Valentine’s Day, and it used daily to make food and beverages. Not much thought is given by the general public in the west on the African origins of most of the Cocoa they consume or the labor used to obtain that luxury. Instead, when people think of Chocolate, they think ‘Swiss’ or ‘America’ when countries like Switzerland, Germany, and America don’t grow cocoa. Ivory Coast happens to be the world’s largest supplier of Cocoa. This means that the money that Gbagbo is clinging to is being funded by local Chocolate Easter Egg hunts and addictions to high-end chocolate lattes. Needless to say, the chocolate industry is very lucrative and holds the Ivory Coast’s purse strings. Similarly, I would like to point out that the Ivory Coast holds the chocolate industry’s purse strings as well. This is evident in how the current political crisis has impacted on the chocolate industry economically. In recent months, we have seen how the political situations in Libya, Egypt and now Ivory Coast has impacted prices of various commodities around the world. Hopefully, these events have given a chance for Africans across the continent to reexamine (and reevaluate) their central roles in the global economy and how their products affect prices world-wide.  The recent political crisis in the Ivory Coast is a clear example of this. The crisis has resulted in the rise of cocoa prices which increased to a 32-year high as a direct result of the political situation. According to Bloomberg report, Cocoa prices in New York had risen as much as 34 percent since the disputed elections where Gbagbo refused to step down. Prices only fell for the first time this year on March 4, 2011 because there were signs that Gbagbo’s reign as CEO of this large 'chocolate factory' was finally coming to an end. This shows the impact that the Cote d Ivoire situation has on the businesses on an international scale.

This raises the question on how we value African produced commodities both in the raw form and manufactured form. Particularly those products that African countries have a monopoly in supplying like chocolate. Since roughly, 50 million people around the world rely on cocoa for their livelihood, this gives Ivory Coast a considerable amount of power. Whilst only a few people will draw the connection between Chocolate producing Ivory Coast and its role in the global economy, and the political crisis, it effects have a real impact on many. Three quarters (67%) of the world’s cacao bean production takes place in West African in countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast. Ivory Coast alone supplies 43% of the world’s cocoa. Many people in the Ivory Coast (or outside of it) may underestimate the impact the country has on global industries and economies, but is is now being made visible. Whenever a large supplier of chocolate like Ivory Coast, cannot provide a regular supply, it will have a ripple effect on buyers all the way up the supply chain. It will also affect all industries connected to chocolates (milk, raisin, nuts, and peanut butter).  If Cadbury (See: Cadbury: An Ethical Company struggles to ensure Integrity of its Supply Chain) or Hershey is not able to get a regular supply of cocoa, it will cost them more to make chocolate and hence the price of chocolate will go up worldwide. Regular consumers will feel this impact at grocery stores and restaurants. Thus large chocolate manufacturing countries have a stake in Gbagbo’s presidency and on undervaluing the importance of Ivorian Cocoa to their products.

When they restructured the world cocoa market in the 1990s, it left Ivory Coast with little real power over the market. The liberalization policies still don't benefit Ivory coast and have led to large companies having power in the industry (See: Global Restructuring and Liberalization: Cote d' Ivoire and the end of the International Cocoa Market).  Realizing the value to African commodities through their effect in the global economy and branding them will be beneficial to Ivory Coast. At this juncture in its economic history, Ivory Coast should be synonymous with chocolate even if it’s not producing a finished product. As a comparative example of the importance of branding raw products, Colombia’s coffee beans are known worldwide as quality beans in their raw form so any product that uses Colombian beans has added value and can fetch a higher price. Ivory Coast is producing more chocolate than any other country, and clearly, their ability to supply chocolate impacts the chocolate industry. Clearly, it should be able to set prices of Cocoa at a fair trading price. Ivory Coast is in a position to negotiate Cocoa prices. The Chocolate companies know the value of their product and of the Cocoa they are getting. The misnomer that large MNCs will simply and easily ‘go somewhere else’ has been used for years but it doesn't make good business sense and is not an easy feat. For businesses, there are large switching costs that they will incur, and getting a new large supplier would change everything from its pricing strategy, production costs, and may cripple that company. MNC’s have been encouraging countries to mass produce cocoa so that they can achieve economies of scale (drive prices for the consumers down due to large supply of cocoa). Even if they were to go somewhere else, will that new country will probably not be able to meet the demand without large investments in infrastructure that many times the MNC is not prepared to pay. It will also mean the end to unreasonably low cost chocolate for customers in the western market.

There are always economic reasons why MNCs enter a certain country initially (and it is clearly not for humanitarian endeavors). There is no cocoa grown in Malawi, Zambia, Tanzania (much less America or Europe) so Ivory Coast has a product that not many countries can supply at that price. Yet, for some reason this adage that African countries are interchangeable and have ‘little’ to offer the world of economic value is persistent and internalized by some African leaders. not knowing the value of their product in global terms affects their bargaining power.  There is little reason that Ivory Coast is not in a position to set price minimums so that chocolate money trickles down and can be used for schools as opposed to being used to employ child labor of children that can not afford to go to school. There is also an added need perhaps, for this country to brand itself as the ‘Cocoa Coast or Chocolate Coast’ internationally to help add value to their raw product as is the case with Colombian beans. This can trickle to other industries and create and/or ‘chocolate development’ or even ‘chocolate tourism’. This 'chocolate tourism' though should be done in a way that is progressive and does not result in continued abuse of chocolate farmers. In the event that an MNC does get supply ‘elsewhere’, then that country can concentrate on getting another buyer and/or diversifying its products to make more food products that can be consumed locally or regionally. If Ivorians are unable to ‘feed themselves’ working as laborers on cocoa farms,  we then need to question the real life benefits of these farms for them. Their labor is on this farm may be wasted and they may benefit more from selling and growing items that will sustain them or that they can actually eat.

The International Cocoa Organization  (ICO) and the World Chocolate Foundation (WCF) appear to be the foundations in charge of setting standards and guidelines for the cocoa industry. Unfortunately, the latter ‘chocolate police’ are primarily made up of MNC’s and the goal for businesses is to provide value for its shareholders.  In the case of the ICCO, Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana, Cameroon, Gabon and Sierra Leone are all represented but I think it is also important for regional agreements to made so that work on common issues as a united front in the board. Ivory Coast used to have a Cocoa board (CSSPPA) that was dissolved in the 1990's that was powerful but was dissolved to make way for liberalization. Although this board may not have been perfect, it created some standards within the country and protected farmers at some level.  With no real representation, the question of who is really looking after the primary interest of the Ivory Coast needs to be raised?  Just like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we can see how economic wealth and greed has played a key role in the chocolate industry. A few companies and people are getting rich from the labor of the hard working people in an exploitative way. Currently in these plantations, child labor, debt servitude (‘slavery’) and displacement of people still exists because of the chocolate industry (see: Chocolate Work or read: Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa (African Arguments)). Cocoa does not fetch an economically sustainable price for the farmers who are the suppliers. Gbagbo and his supporters have benefited from this industry and this is evident in his unwillingness to step down. Gbagbo’s Ivory Coast has also not lead to the type of economic growth that the Ivory Coast has the potential to realize. The challenge will be to see how Mr. Ouattara’s Chocolate Factory will look like and if his presidency will mean change for the Ivorian people that rely on Chocolate for their livelihood. In his attempts to liberalize the Ivorian economy, we hope that he will set an agenda that helps Ivory Coast receive an equitable price for its Cocoa and that children will be eating cocoa instead of picking it.