Thursday, August 25, 2011

General Butt Naked Redeems Something

Here is a link to a review about the Liberian militia leader Butt Naked that first appeared on the Free African Media website.

Interview With Greg Stemn

Here is a link to an interview I did with my friend Gregory Stemn that appeared on the South African website Free African Media.

In Liberia, NeedyMedia Needs Help

Last week in steamy, rain-soaked Monrovia, anticipation for the World Cup aside, I could already sense the buzz building around presidential elections scheduled for October of 2011. In the coming contest—only the second presidential election since the end of the civil war—Liberians will decide whether to reelect Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female head of state, for a second term. Just as the daily downpours fill the potholes that mar almost every road in Liberia, giving the illusion of a smooth passable surface, Liberia’s airwaves and newspapers will soon be filled with the political propaganda of the candidates.

While Liberia is certainly not a repressive environment compared to other countries in matters of free speech and press freedom, the profound lack of resources that the Liberian media has at its disposal creates a kind of de facto censorship. Outlets cannot cover the candidates to the depth necessary, and are vulnerable to the ethical lapses that often occur in media environments where survival trumps professional journalistic practice.

Besides talks of soccer, particularly concerns about the condition of injured Ivorian superstar Didier Drogba, speculation on who might be a worthy contender to succeed Sirleaf was part of almost every conversation my Newhouse School colleague Ken Harper and I were in. Most educated people read several newspapers, listen to the local stations as well as UNMIL radio, the voice of the U.N. military mission, as well as the BBC, VOA, and now the Chinese- and English-language news. As the election season heats up, the Liberians will increasingly rely on the media to help them sort out the issues, define the platforms of the candidates and investigate the claims and counter-claims that will be gushing forth from the propaganda machines of the candidates.

While Sirleaf may experience nothing but accolades when she travels abroad, in Monrovia she is a more controversial figure. The local media have been pounding her administration for the past several years with allegations of corruption, sexual scandals and incompetence. The Monrovia-based New Democrat newspaper ran an extended piece last week suggesting how it was international lawyers, rather than administration officials, who saved the country from entering into seriously disadvantageous natural resource deals.

Incidentally, Tom Kamara, the editor of the New Democrat, said his newspaper’s Web site was brought down by hackers two times in the past month. The newspaper is also battling legal action from the government threatening its existence: a libel lawsuit seeking a million dollars in damages and a claim for $2 million in alleged unpaid taxes. When I asked Tom if he thought someone was trying to take him off the board, he just laughed. “They are trying to put me out of business, but I will carry on.” He said.

When the hackers damaged his Web site, they left a message on the home page: “Your hatred feeds our power.” For Tom, their fear feeds his courage. Of all the newspapers in Monrovia, the New Democrat has been relentless in its coverage of the Charles Taylor trial and revealing the details coming from the testimony that most other media outlets in Monrovia would prefer to ignore.

Editors like Tom Kamara, or Rodney Sieh, the editor of Front Page Africa who recently returned from exile in the U.S., are bringing a new style of journalism to Monrovia with good, solid reporting, extended analysis of major issues, and a certain fearlessness in dealing with entrenched power. It’s no coincidence that both papers also have their own printing presses on the premises, which prevents the authorities from easily shutting them down (as they sometimes do to the papers that rely on the sole newspaper printing business in town). Despite his problems with the government, Tom Kamara has a picture of Sirleaf pinned above his press. He says he has no animosity for her or her government, but neither does he want to sacrifice the truth in the name of some false notion of civic solidarity.

It is also the case that Kamara, as well as Sieh, pay their reporters and staff better wages than their competitors so they are able to attract the best and offer quality, independent reporting. This is unfortunately the exception rather than the norm in Liberia’s media landscape. My friends at Star Radio, for instance, are currently experiencing severe cash-flow problems that have forced management to curtail services and cut back on staff and salaries. This is a pity because in Liberia, Star Radio is one of the few trusted sources of nonbiased information. As often happens in post-conflict situation, donor fatigue sets in (in Star’s case major donors have been the Swiss foundation Hirondelle and USAID), but management is still not capable of managing their numbers. Part of the problem is a lack of advertising revenue potential but a major issue is a lack of know-how. One reporter told me that management “has forced us to become beggars.”

It is a fact that in Liberia, as in many developing countries, the media is under-resourced. Certain newspapers have sought to blackmail politicians and businesspeople, while crying foul when they are threatened with lawsuits or sanctions. These practices have allowed Sirleaf, on occasion, to dismiss critical coverage by accusing the independent media of being “checkbook journalists.” In fact, there is always speculation around town about which editors are “in the bag” with the current administration and which are fighting for the opposition, or perhaps for just some sort of positive change.

Next year, Liberian media will be the world’s witnesses and the country’s watchdog to the unfolding of a campaign that will be hard-fought and one where the interests of ordinary Liberians will hang in the balance. The capital will be saturated with advertisements, talk-show appearances and public rallies. In the countryside, however, particularly places like the remote cities of Fishtown or Harper, where there are few passable roads during the rainy season, the local population may remain starved for information. In fact, I am not sure there is one newspaper in Liberia that owns a four-wheel drive vehicle.

As the election season heats up, the threats and intimidation will likely increase, but there is a real question of whether the information needs of ordinary people can be served by journalists who are pressed by survival needs and whether such an environment can be said to be free. Democracy has proven to be a fragile and often elusive commodity in Liberia. Without a strengthened media partner in the election process, its fragility will likely be tested again.

This first appeared on the website of the Committee to Protect Journalists. June 2010

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Is Jacob Zuma the Tiger Woods of African Politics?

A letter from a student to the president

Dear Mr President Jacob Zuma

After having read the front page story of the Sunday Times (31/01/2010), I feel compelled to write to you as this ordinary citizen that I am. Because I am a commoner, my judgment of your actions could be regarded as disrespect. Equally you might be indulging in all these sordid acts because you feel that you cannot be questioned and brought to book.

As a young man I have an interest in the way in which those in power are behaving, so as to ensure that we have good, moral and ethical leaders to look upon. A public figure who does not inspire confidence or does not conduct themselves in a manner that seek to inspire development of society, should be eliminated from the limelight and sent into the deepest of corners so that their misleading acts are shunned. To me you happen to be such an individual.

In your address during your inauguration and also in your first State of the Nation address, you emphasized greatly on moral regeneration. The reason why religion has seemingly failed to produce members that embody the values taught in religious institutions is because the preachers themselves are failing to be upright leaders who live out what they preach. You are such a preacher to me.

Given your past record that displays you as a man who is easily tempted by indulging in sexual intercourse, it is very difficult for me to throw water over the claims made by the Sunday Times. To me it is irrelevant that the person you impregnated is the daughter of Dr Irvin "The Iron Duke" Khoza, I would still feel the same way even if it was just yet another woman. If this baby was born under normal circumstances, it means that you must have slept with this lady around January 2009.

During the same time you had already paid Lobola for Thobeka Madiba-Zuma and you were planning your wedding day with her. At the same time you were already having the pleasure of being attended to by two wives. I suppose given that you were busy campaigning for the 2009 General
Elections, the challenges that you faced couldn't be accommodated by
your wives, you needed to find solace and release your masculine energy
on another woman outside wedlock.

What nauseates me the most is the fact that this lady got pregnant,
meaning you had unprotected sex yet again. To me it is clear that you
have unprotected sex with your wives, because you do it so easily with
"omakhwapheni". It means you are a risk to your wives, because you seem
to be fishing for HIV, so that you can take the catch home and
distribute it evenly amongst them. Unless there is preventive medication for HIV that you have and we the ordinary people do not have access to.

The Zulu Kingdom should be ashamed at how you have paraded their culture of polygamy, a culture that is in fact to me very demeaning of women. To me it symbolizes true qualities of chauvinism and patriarchy, whereby if a man is not satisfied with one woman, then they can go get another. Meanwhile society would vilify a woman who would take a second man. Polygamy also promotes cheating on your wife, because you must first know the second wife, well in your case sixth, intimately on stolen moments away from your wife. So during that time you are lying to your wife or wives claiming to be seeing no one besides them and even to God, whom you made such a pact with when getting married.

Polygamy reduces women to objects that are used to just satisfy the egos of many men out there, who see having many women as a sense of
superiority and achievement. To me this is a very small minded sense of

I cannot have you preach morality to me when you partake in such
disgusting acts that make me feel if only I was not a South African.
When a sex scandal broke off about Mr Bill Clinton, he had to step down
as President of the USA . The President of the World Bank stepped down
after such allegations were tabled against him. However to you it is
just yet another day another dollar and nothing will happen, because you are hiding behind tradition and using it to camouflage your helpless sexuality.

You are a man who does not respect women clearly, a man who does not
believe in treating your wives with the best respect they deserve. I
doubt maKhumalo is happily married to you, but she is probably fearful
of what shall become of her if she were to leave you. It is unfortunate
that the majority of the people in your organization find your acts
acceptable; it goes to show how the morals of the ANC have become
fragmented over the years.

You occupy the highest seat in our land and many people will find a way
of using your acts to justify their mistakes and atrocious behaviors
which resemble yours. You are not a beacon of hope to me, but rather
that one of disaster.

It is impossible that you could raise all your 20 children, so it means
that you promote unstructured families whereby kids grow up with single
parents. You promote and justify cheating. You promote for society to
discredit the three pillars of fighting HIV, because you do not Abstain, you do not get to Be Faithful, you do not Condomize.

What are you good for? Absolutely nothing. You are shaming our country
and making it seem as if we are unable to be led by principled leaders.

You are a health risk to your wives, you are a financial risk to the
taxpayers who must pay for your opulence and you still pledge your
support to communists.

I ask of you to step down as President, before you turn South Africa
into a quagmire that resembles your sexual life and its animalistic

Written by: Lukhona Mnguni

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Africa's Development in the 21st Century: A Review

Frankly, trying to address the ills facing the African continent in 40 pages is like trying to gather in a school of tuna with a butterfly net. You have to wonder what the Nordic Africa Institute, the sponsor of this work, was trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, Fantu Cheru’s treatise, 'Africa’s Development Agenda in the 21st Century: Reshaping the Research Agenda', is an earnest attempt to provide a roadmap for a new path towards African development. Cheru’s dispassionate lens briskly sweeps across the major issues of agriculture, urbanisation, globalisation, peace and conflict in a survey of all the ills that the continent faces. Unfortunately, he misses some of the major and perhaps most intractable ones.

He states that 'the development challenge in Africa is multidimensional and conventional development orthodoxies are inadequate to address it.' He then proposes five pillars of development for rebuilding Africa: reverse the failure in agriculture; reverse the decline in higher education; strengthen regional integration; expand the governance reform agenda; and prevent deadly conflicts. These dictums should strike even the most casual reader as both obvious and conventional.

Search as I might, I couldn’t find one exciting new approach to the challenges of development. There was scant mention of issues like corruption, HIV/AIDS, the possibilities for communication and bio-technologies, the impact of transnational drug and weapons flows, the dangers of China’s unique brand of self-serving ‘assistance’, reforming the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) agendas and the bilateral aid system, or the impact that climate change, economic meltdowns or the global jihad will have on Africa in the new century. What Cheru has given us is a policy paper that could have come directly off the World Bank’s website 10 years ago.

At this point one has to ask, what is Africa? Is it Botswana or Guinea-Bissau? Is it Swaziland or the Democratic Republic of Congo? Of course it is all of them. But they won’t develop in remotely similar ways. In fact, there should actually be a moratorium on the use of the word Africa in book titles related to development. Just that one modification would force well-intentioned thinkers like Famu to investigate more deeply and see what might actually work in a particular case, rather than what ought to work for everyone.

Famu should also pay more respect to the historical record. He calls the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola 'the most deadly' without putting into the same category the war in the Congo, which has claimed several million deaths, or the wars in Mozambique, Sudan or even the wars of his own country Ethiopia with Eritrea. The section on conflict is the weakest in the text. In addition to committing factual errors such as claiming that Liberia’s President Samuel Doe was killed by supporters of Charles Taylor, rather than by Taylor’s arch-rival Prince Johnson (caught live on video tape), Famu submits that localising conflict resolution is the key to preventing conflict in African states in addition to 'changes in the social and political order'. Advice like this is veridical but hardly a reshaping of anyone’s agenda. He also promotes such dubious contrivances as the African Union inspired Panel of the Wise, which has accomplished nothing of significance since its creation in 2007.

If Africa must rely on the African Union or talk-shops like ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) to solve its endemic conflicts, then pity the poor African. Even in West Africa, where Liberia and Sierra Leone seem to be making baby-step progress, Guinea is heading in the opposite direction. What good has the African Union been in Guinea, or Guinea-Bissau or Equatorial Guinea, where thugs rule civil society and the word democracy is a tasteless pretence on the tongues of vampire elites?

In fairness Famu’s text has two strong recommendations: the need to assist urban slum dwellers who are multiplying exponentially but who rarely get a nod from the donor community; and the need to strengthen tertiary education, which has been embarrassingly ignored by the donor community. There is a great danger that with the newly inspired focus on reforming agriculture, the millions of young people growing up in urban slums will simply be left out of everyone’s ‘agenda'. It is certainly a lot easier to give a bag of seeds to an impoverished farmer than it is to find jobs for slum-dwelling, semi-literate, 20-year-old ex-combatants. One problem is that when the world thinks Africa it thinks poor peasant farmer, while the reality is that Africa, like most of the developing world, is urbanising at a rapid clip, and to say in an unplanned manner would not be ungenerous.

Brevity can sometimes be a virtue, but in the case of Professor Famu’s agenda it undermines its message by leaving out the urgency and anger.

Published by Pambazuka 12/03/09 Issue No. 460

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amadou and Mariam

I first heard this dynamic duo from Mali at one of those listening kiosks at the Virgin record store in Paris. (Remember record stores? Apparently the French still have a liking for them.) Then I missed them when they came to Cambridge this summer. Lately I saw them in a compilation brought out by the folks at Starbuck's who I must say have decent taste at least in the opinion of this child of the 60's.)

Check out their MySpace page.

It's Africa's Downturn Next

In what he described as an impending ‘economic tsunami’ , Britain’s Development Minister Douglas Alexander has called upon the developed world not to forsake their promises and obligations to the world’s poor, regardless of the current state of the world economy. Speaking to the BBC yesterday Alexander warned that as many as 90 million people would be ‘pushed back’ into extreme poverty and that the very real gains in economic progress that many African countries have experience over the past few years would be in peril. His suggestion for action, in a move similar to one announced by Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, would be to set up special funds that would, in effect, be a special stimulus package for the world’s poor. Alexander also warned the developed world about the perils of protectionism and to encourage aid-on-top-of-trade to countries in the developing world.

These are bold and encouraging words coming from Britain, a country which has pledged to maintain its foreign aid commitments. The question for leaders of the G20 meeting London in April is whether the political risks of continuing their foreign aid outflows will be accepted by their constituents. Obviously, as the global crisis deepens, it will be harder and harder for Western politicians to continue to push foreign aid transfers through their legislatures, no matter how much pressure Bono or Jeffrey Sachs put on them.

On the ground in Africa, the effects of the global downturn were already being felt by the end of last last year as commodity prices fell and work was slowed or halted in Zambian copper mines and bauxite pits in Guinea. In countries with no social security or unemployment insurance and where private companies, not governments, supply essential services like energy, housing and health-care, the shutting of even a single mine can dramatically effect the lives of thousands of people.

We can certainly forgive the leaders of the G20 for turning their short-term focus on solving the international banking crisis and on stimulating their own economies. However, it must be said, that a real stress test of the moral character of the Western free-market system will take place when new aid budgets and trade policies are decided upon and announced in the coming years. After years of pounding the principles of free market economics and the glories of globalization into the heads of African leaders, it would be morally bankrupt to now turn our collective backs. Opponents of current policies might argue that this is a great opportunity for African leaders to wean themselves of foreign aid and begin to focus on developing real economies. There would certainly be nothing wrong with this outcome except that their dependence on natural resource exports and a lack of economic diversification make such a leap all but impossible in a world where commodity demand is shrinking and where trade barriers might start growing again.

Average Africans have much more to fear than fear itself. Who has the courage to stick by them?

(First published by the Harvard International Review, March 10th 2009)