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Leaders in Africa disappointed me- Jan Pronk

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

The time has come for Johannes Pieter Pronk’s memoirs. After surviving a major heart attack last year, the former Dutch development minister, born in 1940, feels as if every new day is a bonus for him. At his home in The Hague he whips through reports of his many diplomatic encounters and does that with with the same strict discipline as he showed as minister. Some of these meetings took place in presidential palaces but many were with guerrilla fighters along the Nile or desperate Rwandans deep in the Congolese jungle. His first volume is called “Battle of the Great Lakes”, and it focusses on the crises in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the nineties.

Pronk was always helpful towards journalists during his working visits. I often travelled with him, but one never really got to know him. Pronk always came across as an intellectual, not an emotional person. The latter only very occasionally, very briefly. We were once flying to Northern Kenya when suddenly the windows were covered with thick black slurry. The pilot warned us he might have to crash-land. After a successful emergency landing, unloading ourselves while peeing side by side on the runway, I heard some emotion in Pronk’s voice. “Life is certainly worth living,” he sighed. But a few minutes later, when the pilot had screwed the cap on the oil tank, he sounded distant again: “Luckily I’m am still in time for the parliamentary debate tomorrow.”

Jan Pronk(Photo Petterik Wiggers)

Read further:

-How Kofi Annan let Pronk down

-How Pronk in vain asked Kagame not to hurt a dissident minister

-How Meles Zenawi wanted to do his masters with Pronk on the subject of human rights 

All pictures of Jan Pronk and Kofi Annan by Petterik Wiggers  {read more…}

“What an irony that Ethiopia is now the last country in Africa to become democratic” – Eskinder Nega

Eskinder Nega(Photo Ilona Eveleens)

Eskinder Nega is tense. The Ethiopian journalist travels next week to meet his eleven-year-old son Nafkot in the United States after being in captivity in Ethiopia for six years. That makes him nervous, because he barely knows his son. Nafkot was born in prison in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, when his father and mother were imprisoned there. “Would he recognize me?”, Eskinder Nega worries. “He only knows me as a legend, as one of Ethiopia’s most famous political prisoners. But I also have my weaknesses and many mistakes. Will he accept it?”
 

Nine times, Eskinder Nega went behind bars since he returned from America to his native country in the early nineties. The last time was in 2011 on charges of terrorism. In February he was unexpectedly freed among hundreds of other political prisoners after the Ethiopian regime began to make remarkable reforms. The new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed closed down the infamous Kaliti prison, where Eskinder was stuck for years.
 

After communist regimes fell around the world in the early 1990s, including that of the Ethiopian military Marxist Mengistu Haile Mariam, Eskinder Nega expected change. “The end of the tyranny came into view and my wife and I started the first independent newspaper in Ethiopian history”, he says during a short visit to Nairobi. “Mengistu’s successor Meles Zenawi however turned out to be a Leninist, he did not allow opposition and closed my newspaper.”
 

The authorities put him and his wife Serkalem Fasil behind bars in 2005 for seventeen months because of high treason. “I heard in prison that she was pregnant. And later that she gave birth to our son”. After his release, the wife and child went to America for safety reasons, but the father did not want to leave. “To be a real journalist in Ethiopia, you have to be an activist.” He became a blogger and inevitably ended up in prison again.
 

In 2009, Meles Zenawi’s party had adopted a draconian anti-terrorism law. That law made critical journalists into terrorists. In 2011 he was sentenced to 18 years under this law. PEN, the international organization for the freedom of writers, gave him the Freedom to Write Award in 2012. He continued to write, even in prison.
 

“The prison authorities wanted me to stop writing. But I refused and that is why I was branded as a troublemaker who had to live separately from the other detainees. I received neither a pen nor paper and my books were taken away. But sometimes I managed to smuggle a pen and paper inside. I also wrote on every piece of paper or cardboard I could get my hand on, also on toilet paper. Thus, my life in prison became a daily fight. I never stopped writing. Because I knew that if I stopped doing so, my will would be broken. If I had stopped writing, I would have subjected myself to tyranny. ”
 

According to Eskinder Nega, democracy is the goal of all the peoples of the earth. “If democracy can work in a state as diverse as India, and even in South Africa, which is highly polarized because of its history, why not in Ethiopia? We are the oldest nation in Africa and we helped the African countries become independent in the sixties. What an irony that we are now the last country on the continent to become democratic.”

 

Eskinder Nega is optimistic about the chance that the new Prime Minister Abiy can steer the nation into democratic waters. But for now, as a journalist, he remains an activist. “If the new prime minister backs away, there will be big demonstrations against the government again.” He wants to start blogging and writing for newspapers. “In the social media you get your information, while the old media like newspapers gives the analysis. Social media will never eliminate the old media. I want to be active in all media.”

 

This article was published in NRC Handelsblad on Tuesday, 8 May 2018

How Eritrean revolution produced an undemocratic and closed society

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By Dawit Mesfin

The book is an attempt to unravel why this small country with such a rich cultural heritage turned into one of the most repressive and secretive states in Africa. By covering its three distinct eras – colonial, armed struggle, and post-independence – the book presents the history that has unfolded over the last seven decades in a nutshell, and culminates in an explanation of how today’s Eritrea has turned into a pariah state after all the hardship it went through in securing self-rule.  Plaut uses vivid anecdotes throughout the book to show how the prevalent political culture in the country has brought it to its knees and caused a severe haemorrhaging of its youth.

The main thrust of Plaut’s argument is how the Eritrean revolution, like many others in Africa, has produced one of the most undemocratic and closed societies in the world. Here Eritrea is characterised both by the generous nature of its people and the heavy-handedness of a government that has blocked social, economic and political developments that under normal circumstances would usher in people’s participation in governing themselves.

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Kenya has become a “bandit economy”, says Chief Justice Willy Mutunga

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According to Kenya’s chief justice, Willy Mutunga, the country’s citizens are at war with mafia-style cartels run by political bosses and corrupt businesspeople. He says that Kenya harbours mafia-style criminals similar to Al Capone’s mob in 1920s America, and that this “cartel collects millions every day”.

In a recent interview with Dutch newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, the respected Mutunga claims that corruption stretches from the very bottom to the very top of society. He says, for instance, that a Kenyan policeman who extorts a bribe from a motorist must share the booty with the head of the local station, who in turn shares the money with superiors possibly all the way up to police chiefs in Nairobi. Larger cartels, he explains, make money through trafficking illegal migrants, counterfeit money, weapons, drugs and consumer goods.

Mutunga, 69, has been nicknamed ‘the Robin Hood of the Kenyan judiciary’. The son of a tailor, he rose up the system through talent and sheer determination. Previously a left-wing academic, he stood up against the dictatorship of President Daniel arap Moi, leading to Mutunga’s dismissal from the university and a prison sentence in 1982. After the end of Kenya’s one-party state in 1991, Mutunga became president of the Law Society of Kenya and chair of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. After the election violence of 2007/8, which claimed more than a thousand casualties, Kenyans demanded fundamental reforms. Mutunga was made Chief Justice and President of the Supreme Court and was tasked with reorganising the judiciary. The heads of corrupt judges began to roll.

Nevertheless, Mutunga claims corruption in Kenya has never been worse than today.

“The influence of the cartels is overwhelming,” he says. “They are doing illegal business with politicians. If we do not fight the cartels, we become their slaves. But leaders who do take on the cartels must be prepared to be killed or exiled.”

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A book on and by gays in Kenya

A fresh breeze is blowing through the gay community in Kenya since the beginning of this year. First, the famous Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina came out of the closet. And now a book is published with stories, letters and poetry by and about gay people in the country. Homosexuality is not illegal in Kenya, but there is a prison sentence of up to 14 years for sex between two men or two women.

Kevin Mwachiro is author of Invisible: stories from Kenya’s queer community.  He hopes to combat with his book ignorance about homosexuality, and especially show gay people that they are not alone. “It’s a very lonely time before you dare to come out of the closet. I certainly experienced it like that. But after all the stories I’ve heard over the past two years, I realize how smooth it actually was for me”, says the 40 -year-old gay activist and journalist.

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Liberator with a tyrannical tendency

 

Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Guerrilla fighter Meles Zenawi in 1990 in Tigray. Photo Koert Lindijer

Meles Zenawi was, as the Ethiopian culture prescribes, distant and polite. But after an interview he also could talk straightforwardly. “I am a communist and have no reason to hide it,” the guerrilla fighter said in 1990 in a Tigrayan village at the time of the collapse of the Communist empire. Later as Prime Minister in the capital, Addis Ababa, after a conversation of three hours, he put his feet on the table and said: “I just had the French ambassador for a visit. What an asshole that guy was. These Western envoys think they can impose anything on me. Do you have a cigarette? ”

Meles was not the leader to break the traditional authoritarian power system in Ethiopia. Under the feudal regime of Emperor Haile Selassie (1930-1974) Ethiopians could not think for themselves. Under his successor, the ruthless military Marxist Mengistu (1977-1991), no one ventured to express his own opinion. Under Meles Zenawi it was also better not to deviate too much from the ideas of the ruling party. Rulers in Ethiopia tend to rule like gods. {read more…}

Chinua Achebe: Peaceful world my sincerest wish

By Nasrin Pourhamrang*

Recently, the classic African novel “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was translated into Persian by Ali Hodavand and released in Iran. Nasrin Pourhamrang, Editor-in-Chief of Hatef Weekly Magazine interviewed the author on a wide range of topics from Art, culture and literature; politics, cultural and linguistic preservation to the legacy of colonialism and his forthcoming book there was a Country-A personal history of Biafra.

Nasrin Pourhamrang: Technology has come to the help of the borderless world of art and literature and has eliminated the geographical frontiers. How do you feel about the fact that your novel has been translated into Persian and that Iranian readers can read some of your works for the first time and make an acquaintance of Chinua Achebe?

Chinua Achebe: I received the news of the Persian translation of Things Fall Partwith great joy! Of course, one of the goals of any writer is to connect with his or her readers. Things Fall Apart in particular, indeed all my books, have enjoyed a warm readership. I am particularly grateful for the effort of the translators of my work. They extend the reach of Art, in this case stories, to more people who may not have encountered them in the original English. I am told with this Persian translation that Things Fall Apart now exists in nearly 60 world languages! It is a wonderful blessing and I am deeply, deeply, grateful! So, the fact that readers in Iran can also read my work is very important to me.
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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…}