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 dictionary.com 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.