The Africanists

Insights. Comments. Thoughts. Analysis. Africa.

You have chosen to see articles in the following category:

Richard Dowden

They were good guys, but not terrorists. Why did it take so long for the West to support Mandela?

 Sir Nick Stadlen, a former High Court Judge, has made a remarkable new film about the Rivonia trial called Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes.

The 1955 Rivonia treason trial in South Africa was an event of monumental, almost biblical stature. Not just was – is. Nelson Mandela and his comrades were on trial for their lives. The African National Congress leaders had been caught red-handed at a house called Liliesleaf Farm north east of Johannesburg as they plotted a campaign of guerrilla warfare. They had realised that the Apartheid government would never concede democracy to black people in South Africa and that armed resistance was the only way forward. The police found detailed plans for a bombing campaign and details of many key members and activists. 30 of these were put on trial. After years of failed peaceful protest, the ANC had decided to take up arms against a race-based political and social system that deprived them of the rights of freedom and democracy, reduced human beings to brutal slavery and questioned their very humanity.

 Sir Nick Stadlen, a former High Court Judge, has made a remarkable new film about the trial called Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes. It’s a clever title because the accused were not executed, as they expected, but given life sentences. The film was recently shown at the British Museum and I hope it gets a global showing. It brought together many of those who were, in one way or another, part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the UK. Sir Sydney Kentridge, the last surviving lawyer for the accused, introduced the film. Most of the audience were old and grey but their straightforward self-confidence and simple attire suggested that many of them had resisted and fought against apartheid.

  {read more…}

Africa – The long view


Why did European countries take over of Africa? Was it inevitable? What might have been if they had agreed to establish diplomatic and trading relations with African rulers? What was Africa like then? What glimpses do we have from the first outsider?

Afbeeldingsresultaat voor picture Verney Lovett Cameron

I have just finished reading a little known book by Verney Lovett Cameron, a British naval officer who walked across Africa from Bagamoyo on the coast of Tanzania to Benguela in Angola. It took him four years from the beginning of 1872 to 1875 and he nearly died – several times. His aim was to find the sources of the Congo river and discover which streams he crossed might lead him to it. But in this he failed and was forced to head to the west coast which he finally reaches sick and exhausted. Today Cameron comes across as an honest, determined but unimaginative man who carried all the racial attitudes of the time but is deeply sympathetic to African societies which are being destroyed by slavers who create roaming gangs of displaced people who rape, rob and kill to survive. As Cameron and his train of carriers and guards make their way across the continent they become weaker and more and more dependent on the very people Cameron was determined to expose: the slave traders, Arab and African.

Two shocking facts – new to me – and a question emerged from the book. In Europe’s schools today we are taught that Britain “abolished the Atlantic slave trade” in 1807. In fact it continued. Portugal agreed to stop taking Africans to America in 1836 but did not enforce it. Nor did the United States and Britain. So Portuguese ships continued to take slaves from southern and central Africa to Brazil and the southern Caribbean across the southern Atlantic until the 20th century. Brazil was ruled by Portugal until 1822 but it did not abolish slavery until 1888. In east, central and southern Africa millions of Africans were seized and force marched as slaves to Zanzibar to work on plantations there or sent north to “Arabia”. My question is why aren’t Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the Gulf not – like Brazil – populated by the descendants of black Africans?

{read more…}

What does Brexit mean for Africa?

Sometimes turkeys do vote for Christmas. And 52% of British voters have just done so.

 Brexit is national suicide. The tribes of Britain will now be at war with each other. The Scots will demand another referendum and will vote to leave. Northern Ireland will be vulnerable to conflict again.

(Are they really going to build a fence along the border? Would Sinn Fein go back to war if they do?) And the Welsh will not be slow to realise they do not want to be tied to an impoverished England.

 Already the world’s capital markets have shown their reaction and fear that Britain is no longer a global leader in finance and international connections. I wonder if all those building sites in the City will remain building sites and whether other gleaming towers of steel and glass may soon bear “vacant” signs.

 What does it mean for Africa? All the reports I have seen show a strong African belief in Britain staying in the EU. Many on the continent saw Britain as an important voice for Africa in Brussels and at the UN in New York. But now, England and Wales – outside the EU and led by little Englanders – will see British influence in the world diminish further. Could Britain even find itself squeezed off the UN Security Council?

 You can be sure that the aid budget will be slashed. I am not a great fan of aid, but it did represent Britain’s commitment to the world’s poor and especially to struggling African countries. Will outgoing PM David Cameron’s brave attempt to raise the issue of global corruption be shelved? Britain’s weight in the world will be so diminished that few will take it seriously anyway.

 The exit will also feed racism in Britain. There is little doubt that many of the Leave voters, frightened by immigration, want to stop foreigners coming to Britain. Africans – more visible than Europeans – will no doubt be targeted.

 The new government – presumably led by former London mayor and leading Leave campaigner Boris Johnson – will try to stop foreigners coming to Britain and be far less willing to accept refugees under the UN Convention. Our universities will suffer as foreign students will find it difficult to get visas and many will turn to American or European alternatives. I also predict there will be a rise in racist attacks on Africans and other “aliens”.

 For centuries, for good and ill, Britain has played a major role in world affairs and particularly in Africa. It is the most international country in the world and for centuries has been open to refugees and migrants generally – not least because they brought expertise, new ideas and ambition which broke through Britain’s class barriers.

 Now it seems doomed to become an impoverished island off Europe. And when the Brexiters – fed false figures and lies by Britain’s right wing press – realise they have made a dreadful mistake, it will be too late.

Museveni has become the very intractable, narrow-minded, authoritarian leader against which he warned

 If Shakespeare were alive today, he would probably be writing plays about African presidents rather than medieval kings. Nowhere else in the world has such dramatic and personal politics. Uganda is a case in point.

 In this East African nation, the re-election of President Yoweri Museveni on 18 February had always been a foregone conclusion. Having ruled for 30 years now, he will almost probably keep extending it until he dies in office.

 Victory was ensured when his two main rivals and former associates – Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye – would not unite. But even if a single opposition candidate had emerged and won a majority, the election would be annulled or a quick “recount” would reverse the results.

 In the early days, Museveni did not mind criticism and discussion; he was sharp enough to debate and defend his rule. But today, anyone who gets close to challenging him gets beaten up, jailed or both. Museveni has become the stereotypical African dictator that he once denounced.

{read more…}

The never-ending scandal of the Western Sahara

Forty years ago on the 6th of November, Morocco invaded Western Sahara, a former Spanish colonial possession – mostly made up of desert – in West Africa.

As Spain walked away, Morocco claimed the territory as part of its ancient empire. The UN had declared that it was up to the people of the territory to decide their own future, but before they could do so, King Hassan II of Morocco organised the “Green March” in which hundreds of Moroccans were bussed to the border and – in front of the international press – pushed into Western Sahara waving Moroccan flags.

Meanwhile, many miles away from the media, columns of tanks, armoured cars and truck-loads of Moroccan soldiers swept into the territory. So too did troops from neighbouring Mauritania which also claimed swathes of ground.

These foreign troops were met by indigenous fighters of the Polisario Front who were lightly armed and no match for tanks and artillery. Gradually, the Polisario fighters and thousands of civilians were pushed over the border into Algeria.

Morocco ignored international calls for it to withdraw and even left the Organisation of African Unity (the predecessor to the African Union) when the continent body declared the occupation illegal.

Polisario kept up the fight and by 1979 managed to force Mauritania to retreat. But Morocco refused to be moved and instead constructed a vast wall of sand and rock and planted mines the entire length of it in order to protect its illegally acquired territory.

40 years later, little has changed. Morocco retains control over the area and to this day huge numbers of Sahrawi refugees live in white tents across the border in Algeria. The Government of Algeria estimates that there are now 165,000 people in the camps, but there has never been an agreed registration exercise. The UN refugee agency’s assistance programme is based on a planning figure of just 90,000 refugees.

{read more…}

Stephen Ellis was a cool observer

       Stephen Ellis who died last week was one of the greatest Africanists of his generation. He was also a great friend to me and my family and also to RAS. He edited African Affairs from 1998 to 2006 bringing several bright young academics to the journal.

Stephen was a cool observer of Africa and took on the big themes that dominated Africa after the end of the Cold War. After graduating from Oxford, he was a volunteer teacher in Cameroon and then worked as a civil servant in London for a while before turning to academia to teach in Madagascar and study the rebellion in the 1890s there. He wrote his first book: “The Rising of the Red Shawls” as a result.

When he returned to London he became head of Africa at Amnesty International. This introduced him to the bad side of Africa’s politics during the Cold War. Stephen was a scrupulous researcher but he also became friends with people he had campaigned for and this introduced him to African politics.

We first met when he waited to be interviewed for the editorship of the journal, Africa Confidential. I was disappointed not to get the job but when I realised who I had been up against I realised why. We became good friends and colleagues and worked on several stories together.

But Stephen always wanted to dig deeper than journalism. He was an excellent interviewer, posing simple, almost casual, questions to find the threads that led to the truth. He meticulously unravelled them and pondered on their meaning and implications. Unlike one-dimensional journalism, Stephen hankered after the hidden and obscure, delving deep into topics such as the drug trade in Africa.

In 1991 he became Director of the African Studies Centre in Leiden in Holland and brought together several bright young researchers creating lively debates about African political power and making Leiden an important centre for African studies.

Here he wrote “The Criminalization of the State in Africa” with Jean-François Bayart and Béatrice Hibou. This exposed how the World Bank demand for the privatisation of state assets resulted in their transfer from station institutions to the ownership of the politically powerful. This grab for the national wealth by the politically powerful contributed to the wars and violence of the 1990s. In 2008 he was appointed Desmond Tutu Professor at the Vrije University in Amsterdam.

Stephen took on some of the most shocking and touchiest topics to research such as cannibalism in the Liberian civil war and the African drug trade. He also spent time exploring African traditional spirituality with his partner, Gerrie ter Haar.

Journalists like me were envious of his freedom to spend weeks, even months, in the field following one story. But he always came up with fascinating new tales and insights told with relish at dinner but treated with classic academic detachment in his writing.

This often landed him in hot water, especially when a national newspaper picked up a reference in The Mask of Anarchy to Charles Taylor’s cannibalism as part of traditional ritual practices in Liberia and Sierre Leone. Taylor sued but when several witnesses offered to testify to defend Stephen’s allegation, he did not pursue the case.

For exposing this and the shocking ritual violence deployed in those wars, he was showered with abuse by some and accused of giving Africa a bad name. This saddened him but did not deter him. Many Liberians and Sierra Leoneans were very pleased that the full horror of those wars had been made public.

In 2011 he published Season of Rains, an exploration and overview of politics, culture, and society as well as religion in Africa. But meanwhile he was delving into the secrets of the African National Congress. This infuriated many people who saw the ANC as a heroic organisation led by its saintly leader, Nelson Mandela. He exposed the ANC’s drug dealing in central Africa and also the killing of many young ANC recruits in camps in Angola.

Stephen claimed that the ANC had been run entirely by the South African Communist Party and that Mandela himself had been a member though he was never able to prove it conclusively. Although the ANC were angered by his exposure of less-then-heroic aspects of the party’s past, senior members admitted that the book was broadly accurate.

His last book, yet to be published, is on the Nigerian drug networks whose skill, power and reach across the world amazed even the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

Stephen was a very good man in Africa, positive, honest and brave.

To me he was a wonderful friend.

We have all lost a great Africanist and condole Gerrie and his family.

In the fight against Shabaab Kenya’s leaders must take their minds off their bank balances, show compassion for the victims and understand the enemy

The first time I saw Uhuru Kenyatta speak was in Addis Ababa at the 2012 World Economic Forum. As he stepped down off the platform, his assistant slipped and tumbled heavily down the steps. Everyone rushed to help him. Kenyatta was closest. He turned, saw the man was not badly hurt and looked away. He did not help him to get up.

 On November 23rd last year Kenyatta was in Dubai watching a Formula 1 race. Meanwhile, twenty-eight Kenyans were taken off a bus in Mandera County and murdered by Islamic fundamentalists. He was told of the incident but did not return to Kenya until the motor racing was finished.

 When the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi was attacked in September 2013 it took the Kenyan Special Forces three and half hours to arrive. There was then an internal battle over who should be in control between the police chief and the head of the army. Sixty-seven people were killed. The President was strangely absent but he complained angrily about a shocking picture of a wounded woman on the front page of the Nation newspaper the next day.

 It took eleven hours for Kenya’s anti-terrorist unit to get to Garissa – flight time fifty-five minutes. There had been warnings of an attack in the locality, but only two armed guards were posted on the gate at the university where hundreds of Kenyans from all over the country were living. Why did no one in the Kenyan government recognise their vulnerability? No one from Mr Kenyatta’s government has so far visited the wounded or made any comment on the solidarity march that ordinary Kenyans organised in Nairobi.

 But jet fighters bombed camps in Somalia which the government said were terrorist bases. They did the same after the Mandera massacre and claimed they had killed the perpetrators. Vice President Willam Ruto said: “Our retaliatory action left more than 100 fatalities and four camps were destroyed.”

{read more…}

Nigeria: The most important elections of the decade

This election last weekend in Nigeria is the most important African event of the decade. The ‘Africa Rising’ story can only continue if the continent’s biggest economy is stable and its rulers can transform the lives of its 174 million people, as well as the region and the entire continent.

The choice is stark. Africa is the continent with the most potential, the least development and the greatest underused human talent and neglected potential. Nigeria is the big one: The gateway to Africa’s future. The rest of the world – political, commercial and cultural – is ready to engage and invest. All Nigeria needs is stability, good leadership and governance. This election and the policies of those who win it can either help create that stability or destroy it. Such an opportunity may not come again for another decade.

55 years of wasted opportunities have left 60% of Nigerians living in poverty. Unlike previous generations, the 90 million Nigerians under

14 years old are able to see the reality of how things work in Nigeria and how they are done elsewhere. Connected, they will know what they are entitled to. Denied access to education, healthcare and employment, they will suffer and die in the dark. Gaining these universal rights, they could make Nigeria one of the richest and most powerful countries in the world.



Said Samatar, a Somali icon dies

Said Samatar, who died last week, explained Somalia. A brilliant scholar he used words like swords and clubs wielded with speed and skill to skewer or batter his audience. Not just a Somali expert, but a true exponent of the Somali way: attack first and fast and only concede or retreat as tactical ways of re-launching or advancing his argument. All this was done with that other great Somali talent – humour. I shall treasure his signed copy of Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism – the history of Sayyid Mahammad Abdille Hassan, a Somali nationalist who battled against the British invasion the early 20th century and defeated them on more than one occasion. He hit them with bullets and sent them handwritten poems. The British called him “The Mad Mullah” but they never caught him.

 I first met Prof Samatar at a small closed conference in Cairo soon after Somalia had effectively disintegrated. He berated the rest of the world for neglecting the country, but then explained how Somali culture – not foreign intervention – had caused the collapse and only Somalis themselves could find a way to reconstitute the Somali world (he hated states) through a kind of clan-based anarcho-syndicalism. He urged his Egyptian hosts not to go to Somalia, but to leave it to the Somalis. To him the Somali culture of contradiction was both the cause and the cure. That was in 1994. He has been proved right. And although he would be wracked with grief at the state of Somalia today he would also be laughing at the seemingly pointless battles and quick-fire wisecracks.

Je suis Nigeria

The great surge of marchers in Paris on Sunday the 10th of January was impressive and very moving but what was it for? We know what it was against:

murdering cartoonists – or anyone else – is a bad thing and should not happen. But what was the message to the world?

 The politicians will welcome this response because they can use it to introduce lots of new security measures which no one will question.

France’s security services will be given lots of money. I suspect we will soon see waves of arrests of Muslim activists in France.

Politically I expect France will swing to the right and become a less tolerant society (especially of Muslims).

 I will not be joining ‘Je Suis Charlie’. Why? Because although I would defend their right to draw and say what they like, these cartoonists did not respect or care about ordinary sincere believers who would have been deeply hurt by the violent dehumanised images of the founders of the great religions of the world. These were not just Muslims, but Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists as well. Some of those images came close to the sort of cartoons that the Nazis drew to depict Jews in the 1930s.

 I am not a believer. I was brought up a Catholic and worked for the Catholic Church in different ways for 10 years but now I would describe myself as a sceptic, an agnostic. As a good liberal I defend the right of everyone to write, draw or compose whatever they want.

Let the adult public decide whether they want to see it or not. They can mock the politicians and the Pope as much as they wish.

 But if writers and cartoonists use the power of their pens to attack and mock the sincerely held beliefs of the poor and voiceless in society who cannot reply, that is not just mean, it is unjust. It is also provocative and will lead to violence. That is not a moral judgement. It is a fact.

 France has a bad history with the Arab world. The vicious war for Algeria in the 1950s and 60s and the murder of many Arabs – some reports say more than 200 – in Paris in 1961 have not been forgotten.Muslims still feel discriminated against in jobs and at schools. Arabs I met – and still meet – in France complain that racism is directed at them far more than other Africans. Arabs remain at the bottom of society.

 But there is a terrible irony here. The Wahhabi Islam that has created Islamic militancy has its origins in a close ally of the West; Saudi Arabia. Wealthy Saudis, such as Osama bin Laden, from a country that grew rich on our need for their cheap oil, fund terrorism against us.

Just as in the 1970s and 80s much of the IRA’s money came from Britain’s ally, the United States.

 Friday’s siege and shoot out and the outpouring of solidarity with those who suffered and the people of France in general was deeply moving. The world will have sympathy for France. But was it also a nationalist march making a statement about the strength of France?

Will France now swing to the right and use the march to create a less open society?


Little evidence of ‘Africa Rising’ in Index of African Governance

Next time you pick up a glossy document from one of the global consultancy companies promoting investment opportunities in Africa, count the number of times the word ‘could’ appears. Also the phrase “potential to become…”.

These global megafirms, whose word is life or death to small countries, give the impression that Africa has only just been discovered, a hidden El Dorado of investment opportunity. Get on a plane to Ouagadougou tomorrow and make your fortune.

The worst examples of this grotesque hype have been the Renaissance Capital’s book The Fastest Billion – about “Africa’s Economic Revolution” and The Economist’s Hopeful Continent cover with trite article written by a tourist.

They should be more careful. There is no doubt that there is wider space for commerce in most African countries than there was 10 years ago but in no way is it like doing business in Norway. And it wont be for a while. If these organisations blow the bubble up too big and too fast it will burst and we will be back to The Hopeless Continent days.

{read more…}

Battle against islamism brings back international real politics to Africa

A loosely interconnected Islamist uprising is spreading from Syria in northern Arabia to Mali in West Africa and threatens to produce terrorism in Europe and the US. That is the clear and immediate danger. But the Western response to it may signal the demise of the American-led global prescription which followed the end of the Cold War in 1989. Washington proclaimed democracy, human rights and the free market. But from now on those values may be trumped by one simple demand: security.

When the West shifted its position on President Assad of Syria the new message was clear: “If you are on our side in the fight against global jihad then we do not mind who you are or what you do.” In other words, 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are back in a new global war in which the absolute need to win trumps our basic values.

{read more…}

What West Africa can learn from earlier outbreaks of ebola in East Africa

The Ebola plague in West Africa is worrying. It is the largest and most extensive outbreak since the disease was first identified in 1976. That was in Congo and consequently outbreaks have occurred in DRC again in 1995 in 2003, and in Uganda and Sudan in 2000.

The total recorded deaths recorded in these outbreaks was – according to Wikipedia – 606. All these were in rural areas. Already in West Africa the outbreak has spread to towns and more than 1000 people have died. More than 2000 are infected and numbers are still rising

Three points are worth making.

First, if this disease had broken out in London, New York or Paris there would be a cure by now; I am sure someone will come up with a shocking comparison between what we spend on slimming drugs and what we spend on fatal diseases in Africa.

As it is we are faced with more images of dangerous, disease-ridden Africa unable to help itself.

{read more…}

One hundred years on, we must not forget Africa’s role in the First World War

One hundred years ago this week, self regarding, ignorant and weak leaders with the primitive belief that God was on their side, ancient tribal hatreds and total disregard for human life, combined to make decisions that killed an estimated 16 million people and wounded at least 20 million. These decisions wrecked the lives of millions more, setting economies back decades, including in Africa which is often forgotten. A hundred years ago this week Europe was indeed The Hopeless Continent.

Then they did it again 21 years later. The second round was about something important; a battle not between tribes but ideologies. But the First World War was purely tribal rivalry – who is to be top dog in Europe. Like many however, my parents always referred to the enemies as Germans, not Nazis.

The media will devote much time over the next four years to recall and debate the reasons why. My fear is that each country will only cover it from its own perspective of victory or loss.

In Britain the First World War is predominantly viewed today through the eyes of the poets, particularly Wilfred Owen. The recollection on Armistice Day is for remembering the fallen, not an acclamation of victory. The delight of Winston Churchill and others like him who reveled in war is quietly forgotten.

The first war was a ghastly meaningless mistake whose chief significance was that it led to the Second World War. For France however the war was about survival. It was fought largely on French territory and despite horrific losses France held on. But the vengeful settlement the country insisted on imposing on Germany in the aftermath led to the rise of Nazism and the second war.

The Russian attitude was interesting because its revolution in 1917 took it out of the war. It is interesting to hear Mr Putin blaming the Bolsheviks for withdrawing from the war. He said this week: “it was called an imperialist war in Soviet times…. there is no difference between the first and second world wars” because in both cases “people gave their lives for their country and should not be forgotten”. There is, he pointed out, not a single First World War memorial in Russia.

For Germany the stress is on regret. President Joachim Gauck said this week that his country was “completely unjustified” in invading Belgium. He called it the “triumph of extreme nationalism over empathy and of propaganda that knew no bounds”.

The war was the first remembered peoples’ war. All previous wars are remembered by official accounts and the occasional writer who happened to be there. The First World War is remembered in millions of family letters and photos and an excellent archive of personal memories that the BBC has collected over the decades.

My great aunt who lived in Paris in 1914 told me that when she heard the gunfire as the Germans advanced she decided to go home to London. When she got to Calais she found the piers lined with hundreds of stretchers bearing wounded soldiers waiting to be shipped back to Britain. Shortly after, her fiancé was killed.

My grandfather left his wife, two children and his job as a civil servant and signed up for the navy on the day war was declared. He was sent with the Naval Division to defend Antwerp but the train which took them from Dunkirk was stopped by a German patrol and they surrendered. He never fired a shot and spent four miserable years in a prisoner of war camp.

A disabled old man called Henry who lived in a flat in Paddington who I visited as a student had been on the Western Front. He showed me a note written in German. He had been guarding some prisoners and asked them to write the note in German saying he had them well and sign it with their names and unit so that if he was ever captured he might give it to his captors and be treated well. Amid the industrial slaughter and careless killing, there were moments of amazing humanity.

Who remembers the First World War in Africa? The accounts of the time were about the exploits of British and white South African troops but thanks to Edward Paice who wrote Tip and Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa we have a far clearer picture of what happened when Africa became a battleground for the Germans, British and French.

He points out that the official death toll was more than 105,000 of whom only 11,189 were British troops. The rest, 95,000, were mainly African carriers who were at first paid but later press-ganged into carrying supplies for the troops. The full figure was higher but may never be known as many of those forced to carry were not registered. Disease was their biggest killer. 50% of the Gold Coast (Ghana) Regiment died of exhaustion, starvation or disease. Some 50,000 Kenyans died. The Germans kept no record of their African carriers who were not paid.

Of course, with so many men forced to leave their villages farming collapsed in some areas and in many places there was mass starvation. Paice reckons the toll of African civilians on the German side was at least 300,000. But, as in Europe, the end of the war was accompanied by the outbreak of influenza, a new disease in Africa. It killed between 1.5 and 2 million Africans. “The scale and scope of the Great War in East Africa, in particular, was gargantuan” writes Paice.

The only monument in Africa that I know of which commemorates the war is a grave of a young British soldier near the Uganda-Tanzania border. The local people still tend it. There is also a memorial in Nairobi. But where are the monuments in Berlin, Paris, Brussels and London to the Africans who died in Europe’s appalling outbreak of tribal mass murder?

Richard Dowden is Director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa; altered states, ordinary miracles. Follow Richard on twitter: @DowdenAfrica

Aging African leaders should make space for the younger generation

Telling Africans and their leaders what to do – or not do – is not in my nature. Outsiders do not have a good record in this area.

But sometimes situations and events become so precarious and decisions taken are so obviously going to lead to disaster that you have no choice but to say something. This is Africa’s moment and the world is slowly but surely recognizing that the continent is no longer all about dictators, tribalism, wars and corruption. But some presidents – throwbacks to the age of dictators – are threatening this new perception.

When Thabo Mbeki was President of South Africa, he cast doubt over the accepted wisdom on HIV/AIDS. South Africa was pilloried and rightly so. But many South Africans quietly got on with combatting the spread of the disease. One of them was Jacob Zuma, the Deputy President, in charge of the national Aids project. In an interview I did with him in 2002 he quietly dissociated himself from his president’s views on aidssaying: “…what has happened is that people have mixed the president’s thinking with the policy of the government… he is a thinker, a political scientist… government policy is based on the premise that HIV causes Aids.”

Later however, he admitted that he had sex with a woman who was HIV positive but took a shower afterwards. Perhaps he did not really believe in the campaign he had headed after all. At his recent re-inauguration the President did not look well. He has had to cancel so many engagements and meetings that it is now clear that Cyril Ramaphosa is running things. Since being open about one’s HIV status was one of the main policies of his government’s anti Aids strategy, it would be a great act of leadership for President Zuma to now declare his own status.

{read more…}

Gay Africa: casualty of a different power struggle

Uganda’s war over homosexuality threatens to spread to other African countries and has further damaged the increasingly strained relationship between Africa and Western donors. For the donors it is a matter of human rights for minorities – a corner stone of democracy. For Africa it is part of the push back against the Western donors and the assertion of an African agenda. In Africa’s very religious – Christian or Muslim – societies, it is a matter of morality. At best it is a battle between Western human rights and African morality but both suspect the other – quite rightly – of more cynical agendas.

How did we get here? In the mid 1980s when Aids became front page news it was at first an American story from San Francisco dubbed “The Gay Plague”. Then there were the reports from Southern Uganda – the area I had lived in more than a decade earlier. A particular hard-nosed news editor asked me: “So are they all bumming each other in Africa?” My reply was that in all the time I had been working in Africa I had never come across homosexuality. That was true. Nobody talked about it.

In the United States Aids had begun to spread through the gay community while in Africa it was spread through heterosexual relationships, but my assertion that there was no gay sex in Africa was absurd. In fact teaching in a Catholic school in Buganda it was staring me in the face. The Uganda Martyrs, 22 young men executed by the Kabaka, the Baganda king, Mutesa II in 1886 and canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1964, were burned to death because they refused to have sex with him. But in the school, this was played down. We taught that they were executed because they converted to Christianity. Homosexuality was not talked about in Africa.

If it came up in conversation Ugandans and many other Africans would tell you that homosexuality is not African. They say it was introduced to Africa by the Arabs or the Europeans who forced Africans to do it – all part of the imperial takeover of Africa. It is true that African cultures tend to be very patriarchal and often macho. Part of that culture is the refusal to accept that some people, male and female, are gay and that they are just made that way.

Of course the mainstream religions (Christianity and Islam) which have traditionally denounced homosexuality were mostly introduced to Africa by Europeans and Arabs. Their new well-funded fundamentalist counterparts – Wahabi Islam from Saudi Arabia and born again Christianity funded by theologically primitive churches in America – are killing off Africa’s traditional tolerance of otherness. There is much evidence that historically many African societies tolerated homosexuality and found ways of accommodating gay people.

If anything it was the Christian churches and Islamic preachers who suppressed it. Many years after I left Uganda I heard that the head boy of the school I taught in had committed suicide. He was a very sensible, mild mannered boy who worked hard and never did anything wrong. The girls loved him because he handsome and never hit on them – or hit them – as other boys did. I learned that he had become a well-respected priest but one day he had gone to the forest and hanged himself. I am now sure he was gay and had become a priest in the belief that God would give him the strength to resist these heinous feelings.

There was the bizarre case in 1997 of the first president of Zimbabwe, the Reverend Canaan Sodindo Banana. His male bodyguard accused him of forcing him to have sex. At first his denials were believed but the case came to court and other victims came forward as witnesses. Banana was convicted and served a prison sentence. When he died in 2003 he was not given a state funeral but Robert Mugabe called him “a rare gift to the nation.”

Since then there have been other reports of gay groups throughout Africa including at senior levels of the Nigerian army but until recently not many Africans have admitted they are gay. It can be a death sentence in some societies. I fear for Binyavanga Wainaina, the gay Kenyan writer who movingly came out in public earlier this year. Since the new law in Uganda bans the promotion of gay literature, presumably his books are banned there now.

But wait a moment. There is another side to this apparently simple story of backward primitive Africa confronting progressive Western morality. I grew up in a world which was very similar to where Uganda is at the moment. In the Catholic boarding school I went to homosexuality was the worst crime in the book and boys were beaten for it. It was not just a matter of school discipline. We were told we would definitely go to hell for it too.

And that was pretty much the view of society too. Homosexuality was illegal and gay people discriminated against in the UK until a series of laws began to be passed in 1967. Even then it was tolerated as long as it didn’t “frighten the horses” – cause a public problem. So people like Oscar Wilde were destroyed by those laws and, in my lifetime, Alun Turing, the man who broke the German enigma code in World II, committed suicide after being convicted of homosexual acts. He was also forced to have chemical hormone treatment to “cure” him. Until recently a prominent psychiatrist I know believed it was a “disorder”.

The fact is that in Britain it has only been 30 years since being gay has been OK thanks to a concentrated campaign to change the public attitude. Africa may not have been exposed to that debate and even then we must not assume its people will simply follow what Western governments tell them to do. Why should we expect African countries to automatically follow suit and change their minds and their laws, just because we tell them to? That does sound like neo-imperialism to me. With China and other countries now engaged in Africa, African people and their rulers are becoming more self-confident and are able to push back against the western agenda – including western liberal values.

It is tragic that this new self-confidence and ability to assert African values has started with the issue of gay rights but we should be neither surprised, nor smug about it.

We need to stop worshipping Mandela and start emulating him

I took a complete break over Christmas and New Year but instead of going somewhere sensible like Scotland or Sri Lanka I went to South Africa and Lesotho. Sunshine everyday and magnificent scenery with lots of Braais, Boerewors and wine, but it was impossible to switch off completely.

South Africa reminds me of the line in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great novel The Leopard when the Risorgimento hits Sicily and the old order is under threat: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” says the prince.

There were moments on this trip when I struggled to spot the difference between 1979 when I first visited the country and now. At that time there were still some houses in rich areas that were not surrounded by high walls and razor wire. Now there are none. The whites have retreated deeper into their bunkers and have been joined by some richer blacks.

The poor – even a few whites these days – still live in ‘townships’. Some have been rebuilt, but the rambling conglomerations of shacks made from random boards and corrugated iron are still visible everywhere and new ones are continually popping up. At a social level not much has changed. Social events, except at the highest level, are rarely racially mixed.

The death of Nelson Mandela might have reminded people of where he had come from and where he was trying to take the country, but there is little sign of it in today’s South Africa. The best line to come from the coverage of his funeral was: “we need to stop worshipping him and start emulating him”.

{read more…}

The greatest leader of the 20th century

Almost no one in the late 1980s believed apartheid would end peacefully. The government was in trouble but the core of its system that kept the whites in power looked solid. It was under attack on the streets of townships – but children with stones and burning tyres, though persistent, were no match for a brutal well-armed police force. And the government was becoming more and more aggressive in killing or imprisoning opponents at home and attacking its enemies abroad. As the country looked increasingly like an archipelago of white-ruled bastions amid a turbulent black population, the rhetoric was becoming more and more paranoid. However, the main opposition organization, the African National Congress, was suppressed in South Africa, ineffective except as an inspiration. Based in Lusaka, Zambia, it poured out aggressive Soviet-styled propaganda about revolution but could do little else.

However, the ground was shifting beneath the feet of both the apartheid government and the ANC. In 1988 I was summoned by one of its senior members and told that there were rumours that Nelson Mandela was talking to the government. There had been an unsubstantiated report that he had held a discussion with some of its senior members. The official hinted that the ANC leadership in exile was no longer sure that Mandela was keeping to the ANC line. The implication was that Mandela was no longer a reliable representative.

The rumour turned out to be true. Mandela had broken the fundamental rule of the ANC: never to have contact with the enemy. He had done it entirely on his own initiative, disclosing it to no one. In 1987 he met Kobie Coetzee, the Justice Minister, and two years later, President P.W. Botha. He offered talks about talks but said that only the ANC itself could authorise negotiations. It was as if he, completely removed from the political scene for more than 20 years, cut off from his followers who dared not even speak his name, had seen a spark of light in a very dark tunnel.

In secretly agreeing to that meeting Mandela gambled everything. Already a prisoner for 24 years, he had second or third hand information about events in South Africa and even less information about the intentions of the South African government or the US and Europe. He knew that the Central Committee of the ANC would have forbidden it if they knew and would have expelled him if he went ahead. It was an extraordinary gamble. That vision and courage displayed here made him a great leader.

{read more…}

Kenya and the ICC: “Don’t be vague, go to The Hague,” (but send Bush and Blair too)

This is a crucial moment for the International Criminal Court. If it drops the ball or the UN Security Council (UNSC) kicks the Kenyan cases into the long grass, the ICC is finished. At present the Court has agreed – reluctantly – to a postponement of the cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice-President William Ruto until February. Interestingly it has done so because the prosecutors did not object – they wanted more time to present witnesses. The Court did not believe that Kenyatta’s presidential duties were a reason to delay the trial.

African heads of government have denounced the ICC as disproportionately focusing on the continent. In terms of numbers, they are right. All eight current cases before the ICC are African. Four of them are at the request of the African governments themselves and two were begun with the full support of African governments. The other two were referred to the court by the UN Security Council. Of the seven other cases being investigated by the ICC two are African.

So what on earth were the African presidents going on about when they complained at their recent meeting in Addis Ababa that Africa was being unfairly targeted? This is a specious, self-serving argument that assumes they are above the law. I was shocked to see Mrs Nkosasana Zuma, Chair of the African Union, joining in. My question to them is where else in the world are atrocities happening and why aren’t you bringing them to the attention of the ICC? Syria? It is being investigated already.

{read more…}

Do not upset a Big Man

I knew from the moment that President Robert Mugabe said he would step down from the presidency of Zimbabwe if he lost the election that he knew he would win it. If he had not been certain of winning, he would not have called the election. Power – military, political, bureaucratic – is what he understands, loves and has enjoyed for 33 years. It’s more than love – it’s an addiction. Other African presidents try to cajole him. He charms and patronises them. British Prime Ministers and American presidents lecture him. He swats away their words and plays the colonialist card. Opposition movements challenge him. He crushes them with violence. Then he charms them.

Mugabe will leave power when he wants to – or when his body gives out.

{read more…}

The Case of Kenya and the ICC: Diplomatic Earthquake

Everyone is so relieved that the Kenyan election this year did not result in a repeat of ethnic violence after the 2007 election, that we seem to have forgotten that both President Uhuru Kenyatta and Vice President William Ruto have been summoned to appear at the International Criminal Court in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity.

This week Kenyatta was invited to London to attend the conference on Somalia, Kenya’s troublesome northern neighbour. Everyone else charged with crimes against humanity by the ICC has been arrested on sight and locked up to await trial.  But instead of slipping on the handcuffs this week, Mr Cameron grasped Mr Kenyatta warmly by the hand and welcomed him to London. He argues that Mr Kenyatta is cooperating with the court. That remains to be seen. Kenyatta must report to the ICC in The Hague on July 9th, Ruto on May 28th.

There are precedents here. Mrs Thatcher embraced Augusto Pinochet of Chile, another murderous dictator but one who helped Britain during the Falklands war, because he too was an enemy of Argentina. And Tony Blair embraced Colonel Gadaffi when he dropped his nuclear programme. But their crimes were committed before the ICC was established. {read more…}

Tax havens and Africa: Will the G8 deal with the real issue?

If you hadn’t noticed it is the United Kingdom’s turn to host the G8 again. Not as important these days as the G20 but, as a gathering of the old capitalist nations, it takes serious decisions (and sometimes implements them).

The last time Britain hosted the Summit in 2005, Tony Blair dedicated the event to Africa and persuaded all the G8 leaders to sign a pledge that they would give 0.7% of their GDP in aid to poor countries.

Britain is the only one still keeping the pledge. Even though I am an aid sceptic I am quite proud of that. Aid sometimes works well at a local level but we haven’t worked out how to make big aid work at a government to government level.

More important than giving aid would be to stop doing bad things to poor countries. The worst thing we – the British – do is to maintain the world’s most iniquitous secret tax havens.

{read more…}

The controversial legacy of Thatcher in Africa

cartoon Daily Nation


Mrs Thatcher played a pivotal role in the ending of Apartheid in spite of herself. She once declared the African National Congress to be a “typical terrorist organisation… Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land”.


But she gave these “terrorists” diplomatic protection. In the mid 1980s the South African government blew up the ANC offices in London and tried to kidnap its members in London including Thabo Mbeki and Oliver Tambo. She was obliged to provide armed bodyguards for their most senior officials.


A close aide once told me that she opposed Apartheid more on the grounds that it was a sin against economic liberalism rather than a crime against humanity. She also was bitterly against sanctions of any sort – they were a crime against free trade. She even went on denouncing them after Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth had imposed a ban on sporting contacts and other marginal sanctions. She boasted that she alone had managed to fight off demands for stronger sanctions.


Advised by her husband Dennis who had business interests in South Africa, she felt that anything that damaged wealth creation must be bad for South Africa. She was also a great admirer of Laurens van der Post, the South African writer and traveller later exposed as a fraud, who also opposed sanctions on the country. He introduced her to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu leader, who played an ambivalent role in the struggle against apartheid, splitting from the ANC in 1979 and accepting “homeland” status for Kwazulu. His movement, Inkatha, helped the South African police repress ANC rebellion in the townships.

{read more…}

Why the next Pope should be an African

Over the decades that I have travelled in Africa I have met only four African atheists. Africans seem naturally networked to religion. All meetings — on politics, sport and even business — begin with a prayer. God is invoked on every occasion, private or public. Religion is comfortably woven into daily life. Amid the current economic boom that most African countries are enjoying, huge new numbers of churches are being built, some of them vast halls.

The Catholic Church, the largest Christian denomination, is part of the fabric of all African societies. Its schools, community centres and health clinics are trusted far more than state ones and often closer to the people. In wars in Africa that I have covered as a journalist, I found Catholic parishes became refuges in which food and medicine were provided — like the monasteries in the chaos of early medieval Europe. The priests, nuns and church workers who run them are often the best informed about what is happening and the most committed to the local community, unlike foreign aid agencies, which are forced to pull out when there is danger.

The Catholic Church in Europe used to be like that, part of the warp and weft of society. And if it wanted to become so again, it should send for an African Pope.

{read more…}

Will elections in Kenya be the road to hell again, or a new beginning?

President Mwai Kibaki leaves with a $200,000 golden handshake, but what kind of political settlement will he leave in his wake? Everyone is strapped in and the Kenyan election roller coaster has begun. A cacophony of electioneering propaganda is being blasted out through every medium. The political godfathers are flying around the country firing up their supporters, screwing down the vote, constituency by constituency and promising heaven after the March 4th poll. Kenya is poised at the top of a ride that could fling the country violently off the rails and send it to hell – as it did after the 2007 election. Or it could take the country elegantly into a dynamic new era, a transformation that would make it one of the most democratic countries in the world.

{read more…}

Africa’s image and reality

© Petterik Wiggers

© Petterik Wiggers

The debate about the “image of Africa” seems to be reaching a consensus. The starving African child represents a reality that is rare and local. We must clear our minds of that image as representative of Africa, all of it, always. The growth figures show that Africa is apparently doing well economically and many of the conflicts, which were always local, often quite small but created terrible suffering, have come to an end. Medication for AIDS and other diseases has become more widely available. No one speaks of the hopeless continent any more.

Some people have tried to say that the image of the starving child was “wrong”. But it wasn’t invented. From Biafra, to Ethiopia and more recently Somalia and Niger, it is an occasional shocking reality which we will almost certainly see again. On the other hand there is a new image which projects Africa as the new China, the driver of the world economy in a few years time. This image shows Africa as young, smart, dripping in bling and driving a flashy car. These are simplistic reversals of the old image, and as unrealistic as the hopeless continent.

{read more…}

UK and US must play more consistent hand to end world’s worst war

Africa is covered in epithets, like graffiti. It has been labelled dark, lost, hopeless. But generalisations about Africa are dangerous.

The only certainty is its size: it could contain the United States, China and India and still have room to spare. Recently it has been dubbed rising, hopeful, the continent of the future. But Africa cannot be declared successful until its vast, rich heart, the Congo, is peaceful and prosperous.

Most other African countries have more or less emerged from the uprisings and chaos of the 1990s that followed the end of the Cold War. But Congo lies broken and wasting. The last two elections have not produced a government capable of delivering services or security.
{read more…}

Flower farms in ancestral Ethiopia: a choice between large or small

Flower farm in Ethiopia(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Flower farm in Ethiopia(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Amentu, Ethiopia. The Rift Valley in Eastern Africa is our hole in the ground, where we all come from. Not far from here our earliest ancestors stopped hanging out in the trees and started to use their rear limbs to get around on. From here we began to migrate and multiply all over the world. Today a line of worn tarmac runs along the valley floor, fed by earth tracks through fields of stubble lying brown and empty after the harvest. Wriggling lines of green mark streams which lead to the Awash River. The east and west horizons are bordered with crazy grey mountains jagging into a light blue sky. Flashing like mirrors in the sun are the valley’s huge blue lakes and, in recent years, vast rigid squares of plastic sheeting have sprung up.

{read more…}

How Meles rules Ethiopia

Meles Zenawi © Petterik Wiggers

Meles Zenawi is the cleverest and most engaging Prime Minister in Africa – at least when he talks to visiting outsiders. When he speaks to his fellow Ethiopians, he is severe and dogmatic. But he entertains western visitors with humour and irony, deploying a diffident, self-deprecating style which cleverly conceals an absolute determination to control his country and its destiny, free of outside interference.

He was one of four African presidents to be invited to the Camp David G8 meeting last weekend. The aid donors love Meles. He is well-informed, highly numerate and focused. And he delivers. Ethiopia will get closer to the Millennium Development Goals than most African countries. The Ethiopian state has existed for centuries and it has a bureaucracy to run it. So the aid flows like a river, nearly $4 billion a year. And Meles is the United States’ policeman in the region with troops in Somalia and Sudan. He also enjoys a simmering enmity with his former ally, now the bad boy of the region, President Isias Afwerke of Eritrea. “It’s Mubarak syndrome,” a worried US diplomat told me. “We only talked to Mubarak about Egypt’s role in the region, never about what was happening inside Egypt. It’s the same with Ethiopia.” {read more…}