Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Nowhere People

Sitting outside the door of his battered family house in the Makina sector of the sprawling Kibera slums, Hussain gazes at the setting sun as he ponders what the future holds for him. Unlike the fading sunshine that’s guaranteed of gracing the skies over the world famous shantytown the next day, 25 year-old’s tomorrow is clouded in uncertainties.

With no identity card to quantify his citizenship, college certificate or a godfather in high places the young man’s destiny looks as gloomy as the rapidly approaching darkness. Like Hussain, the fate of thousands of Nubian youths residing in Kibera and other places across the country hangs precariously in the ethnic balance.

“When I went to apply (for the ID) the third time I applied in Luo land because I speak Luo fluently. After giving them my school certificate and photocopy of my parents IDs, they asked me to present a death certificate for my grandfather,” he says. “I dint know my grandfather. When he died I wasn’t even born. Back then when people died, people just died…someone asking me for something that I can never find…they are also trying to tell me in some other way, that I am not a Kenya”.

Without an identity card in Kenya one is virtually a non-entity because they cannot get employment, buy property or transact any official business.

Nubian youths usually have to go through a process called “vetting” where they are required to prove their connections to Kenya through documents like grand parents birth certificates before they could get an ID. Until recently, the whole process used to be supervised by a “vetting committee” in the registrar of persons office.

“At the age of 18, your life as someone from Kenya stops,” one youth from Kibera laments. “When you apply for a national ID, that is when a Nubian finds out this country doesn’t want him and the previous 18 years all of a sudden don’t mean anything”.

The process can take up to three years and still end up with one being denied the vital document. But after getting the ID card Nubian youths like Hussain find it difficult to get any meaningful work outside the squalid slum that they call home.

“In Kenya, honestly you have to have someone on top, as in someone in management for you to get a job and Nubians, we have no one,” the haggard-looking young man observes. “No one in politics. We have no one in government. No one in the big big places…so you find most of the Nubians just walking around. They are just seated everywhere, because they don’t know where to go”.

But the Nubians’ quest to change their status from “nowhere people”, a term used to refer to stateless communities, to recognition recently received a major boost after American freelance photographer Greg Constantine compiled a pictorial book entitled Kenya’s Nubians then & now. Published in conjunction with United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the book documents the community’s history in photos, personal testimonies and a recount of important dates.

“My motivation for compiling this book was because very little is known about the Nubians despite the fact that the area that they live in has been heavily documented,” Constantine explained during the book launch at Lord Errol in Runda last week. “The project also helped me in pushing the agenda of stateless people in Africa”.

The book, expect to be in bookstores across Kenya by January next year, was part of his bigger project called the Nowhere People where he highlights the plight of stateless people in Africa and Asia through photography. The publication joins a rank of initiatives put forth by individuals and lobby groups to advocate for the rights of this marginalized community.

Nubians were brought to Kenya and of Uganda, then known as the East African British Protectorate, in the early 1890s to serve as soldiers in the British Army. Although they gave their all to the empire under the Kings African Rifles (KAR) during the building of the railway line and later in the first and second world wars, their relationship with the colonial masters was never smooth as evidenced by the bloody Uganda Mutiny in 1897.

“After the completion of the Kenya-Uganda railway in first decade of the twentieth century Nubian soldiers and their dependants started settling throughout the country, with the biggest settlement being at “Kibra”, Nubi word for forest, in the soon to be founded town of Nairobi,” explains Mr. Abdul Faraj, Chairman of the Nubian Council of Elders (NCE) and an authority in Nubian history.

Members of the Maasai community used the land for grazing, but they had already signed it over to the British through the 1904 Maasai Agreements. The colonial government consented the settlement of Nubians in Kibra in 1912, affirmed by the fact the Kibera Muslim Cemetery, where the community bury their dead to date, was established in the same year.

After Kibra was surveyed at 4197.4 acres in 1917, notes Australian scholar Samantha Balaton-Chrimes in Kenya’s Nubians then & now, “Ex-soldiers of more than 12 years service and their dependents are given permission to live on a plot in the area, build a structures, graze a limited amount of cattle, and grow food as long as they have a “shamba” pass issued by the military”.

Mr. Faraj says this was a sign of appreciation by the British monarchy for the community’s gallant service to the crown in places like Mozambique and Burma. The colonial government also erected a statue of Nubian soldiers along Kenyatta Avenue and established Kibera Primary School which was inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth in 1953.

“Actually Nubians were willing to go back to Sudan after the World War I but the British government lied to them that the Sudanese government, also British, did not want them to return. The colonialists even produced a letter purportedly meant to block the Nubians’ return to Sudan which left the community no option but to stay”.

But while the piece of land they moved into in the early nineteenth century was awash with vegetation, clean streams and a serene upcountry aura, today it has been reduced to one of the biggest slums in third world. From a total area of more than 4000 in 1917, Kibera has now been whittled down to a dilapidated corridor of less than 500 acres where an estimated 170,000 (according to 2009 census) people are squeezed in a dense jungle of rusty shanties.

“The land was very beautiful…there were streams throughout the year with clean water…as boys we learnt to swim in the rivers that ran through Kibera,” an elder named Yusuf recalls nostalgically while seated outside his family house, which though was once surrounded by mango trees is now buried in a maze of shacks. “Every time it rained the quantity of water in streams increased and that would be a very beautiful time to swim, even do a bit of fishing at the extreme end of Kibera where there was the Nairobi Dam”.

To those who have been in Kibera in this century such tales rings with the fantasy of bedtime stories. But though hard to conceptualize, Mr. Faraj claims that this was the case and goes on to add that in his childhood there was also a lot of wildlife in Kibera with small game like antelopes, hares and rabbits being common.

How then did such a paradise turn into the chaotic shantytown that is Kibera today?

“The slum came about as a result of the government’s failure to establish who are the rightful owners of the land called Kibra,” says the NCE chairman. “Instead the state condoned the questionable land allocation deals that gradually eroded the place to a slum”.

As rural folks flooded in Kibera in search of cheap housing over the years, the community found their carefully crafted traditional houses drowned in a sea of shacks. But one can easily pick the Nubian houses from their distinct architecture and the slanting debe roofing style that stands out distinctively from the riff-raff rusted tin rooftops.

Both the colonial government and the independent Kenya, through National Housing Corporation, hived off huge chunks of Kibera to establish middle class estates like Ayany and Karanja, evicting many Nubian families in the process.

“Most of the areas in Kibera once had Nubian names, but they have been changed. The original name of this land was Kibra. That’s a Nubian name,” says a woman who gives her name as Zam. “Now they say Kibera, which is a Kikuyu name. We had Lomle. Now it is Ayany Estates. We had Sarang’ombe. Now it is called Jamhuri. We had Salama. Now it is Karanja”.

Although Nubians are now concentrated around Makina area of Kibera there are other areas which still bear Nubian names as a reminder of their original residents. Toi, which means…..Laini Saba, which translates into “firing range” since this is where KAR soldiers trained, Gatwekera, a corruption of Nubian word Kathirkher which means “plenty of blessings”.

Apart from Kibera Nubians have also played a significant role in the history of various Kenyan towns. Naivasha for instance comes from the Nubian word neipasha that means deputy general and was named after Nubian commander Selim Bey died there mysteriously in the 1890s.

The huge number of impoverished people concentrated in a tiny place has often led to frustrations that sometimes exploded into bloody violence. Rent related skirmishes broke out in the year 2001 after prominent politicians issued statements that are said to have incited tenants not to pay rent. Many deaths and injuries were reported with a lot of Nubians losing their livelihoods after their rental properties were forcefully occupied or destroyed.

“Every region of Kenya is associated with a certain ethnic group who sees it as their source of identity,” points out the NCE chairman. “Due to our ancestral connection to Kibra, Nubians would like to be recognized as among the natives of Nairobi County which would guarantee them consideration whenever opportunities arise”.

Having filled the rank and file of the colonial armed forces, there has been a perception that the Nubian community was alienated by the independent Kenya government due to their role in the colonization of Kenya. But Nubian Council of Elders, whose members were youths during the freedom struggle, greatly dispute this.

“When the state of emergency was declared by the colonial government, Nubian soldiers refused to enact the emergency rules despite being put under intense pressure, including stage managed assassination of their leaders by purported Mau Mau operatives,” insists Faraj. “Nubians were on the side of the nationalists, going as far as providing safe houses where top leaders like Jomo Kenyatta would meet without running the risk of being caught”.

Nubian sympathizers in the army facilitated such clandestine meetings since colonial officers never suspected that leaders of the freedom struggle would dare set foot in Kibra, then a highly militarized zone. Nyumba Kubwa (big house), where Nubians once hid Jomo Kenyatta and other prominent freedom fighters, still stands as one of the oldest houses in Kibera today.

“We demand, not beg, for our rights because we contributed as much to the freedom struggle of this nation as any other community,” the Nubian community leaders say. “We were on the right side of history hence we should have our rightful place in society”.

Nubians elders say that a strong cultural bond cemented by age-old traditions have been the key to maintaining their identity in a society where they are overwhelmingly outnumbered. They still roof their houses in the slanting debe style, and women wearing Gurbaba still dance to the doluka during traditional weddings.

“It was assumed that we would be assimilated but the strong Nubian culture, dating back to the Egyptian Pharaohs, has been the immunity against this,” Abdul Faraj concludes. “Our resilience lies in the strength of our tightly knit culture where one man’s problem is his neighbour’s

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The African Gladiators

The highly excited crowd seems unfazed by the August morning chill in Nairobi’s Kibera slums as they cheer for the two men locked in a tight struggle at the centre of the sanded sisal ring. Their bodies dotted with paints of different hues, the duo desperately twist, turn, push and press forward, each trying to gain territory and maneuvering space to grab the opponent’s leg and bring them down.

The struggle is obviously taxing and testing the young men’s breaking points, for despite the mildly chilly day, a thin sweat glistens over their ebony skins. Then suddenly, the young man with facial tribal markings hooks his elbow on the bigger man’s upper thigh and with one mighty lunge, both fly across the mattress of sand. The judge declares the contestant whose forehead is adorned with tribal incisions the winner as he has landed on top of his opponent.

His jubilant colleagues storm the contest area and lift him shoulder high in a lap of honour around the ring, with the traditional Nubian drumbeats drowning the excited shouts of the tiny throng of spectators.

“I am here for Nuba and Sudan,” says 20 year-old Zachary Nabil, the jubilant winner. “Although I have lived in Kenya for the last five years, my commitment and love for my motherland runs deep,” adds the high school student.

Nabil has travelled all the way from Nuba Mountains in central Sudan in the company of 10 colleagues to take part in the Kibera Traditional Wrestling Tournament, the first of its kind to be held in the sprawling slums for decades. All the other participating teams, Kakamega, Kibera and Riruta, are from Kenya. But the Sudanese stand out not only for their jet black complexion and the facial tribal markings but also their skill and tact.

Organised by the Kibera Nubian Wrestlers in conjunction with Sports for Youth Development Initiative (SYDI), the tournament is a series of similar events that were launched several months ago to promotes unity in the shantytown.

“We held our inaugural wrestling tournament in March and the enthusiasm with which it was received encouraged us to organise the second one,” says SYDI Press Officer Phillip Emase. “Before launching these events we acted a movie called Nuba in December featuring all our wrestlers.”

Popularly known as menge in the Nubian language, traditional wrestling has been part of many African cultures since ancient times. The sport was immensely popular in Egypt, Upper Nile region and West Africa before almost being eroded to extinction by colonization.

However, in the mountainous terrains of Central Sudan the game faltered and staggered its way into modern times. Boys in this region encounter the sport at a very tender age hence by the time they reach their teenage years their skills are highly polished. Perhaps this explains why the youthful team from Nuba Mountains easily scooped top honours in the Kibera tournament.

“In Sudan the players wrestle on bare rocky ground unlike in this ring where there is a thick cushion of sand,” says Ali, the Nuban team trainer. “The problem with Kenyan wrestlers is that they think muscle and size is everything. But traditional wrestling, unlike the western version, is more of skill and tact than strength.”

The sport was a popular past time activity of the earlier generation of Nubians who settled in Kenya, from Sudan, in the 19th century. However it died out as these immigrants settled and got absorbed in the Kenya culture.

“Our intent of reviving this ancient sport now is to see it grow into a status where we can represent Kenya in major international wrestling tournaments,” explains Amani Salim, chairman of the Kibera Nubian Association (KNA) and the event’s general overseer. Although they are yet to get any sponsors, Mr Salim believes repeated media publicity will popularize the game enough to attract the interest of corporate organizations.

“If properly managed and developed across the continent, traditional wrestling could be the first African game to be incorporated in the Olympic Games,” adds the optimistic Salim who grew up in Kibera and participated in wrestling events as a youth.

The same sentiment is echoed by Musa Tai, a 31 year-old local wrestling hero who believes there is more in the game than just the muscle.

“If the government assists in putting the right mechanisms in place this game, just like football, can be a source of income for the youth and a means to lasting peace among different communities,” he says.

The Kibera Academy, where the tournament was held, is a popular Nubian community centre where various cultural and social activities take place. Hence as the young men contested for supremacy and honour over the sand, large canvases of vintage photos telling the Nubian tale since their arrival in Kenya more than a 100 years ago were on display a few meters away.

The open gallery is a walled wealth of history, from the first Nubian soldiers that served in the Kings African Rifles through the pioneer Nubian settlements in the forested Kibera in the early 1930s to the recent generation of descendants.

Although the historical display gets me gaga, screams from the ringside snaps me back to the ringside where the crowd is now pressing tightly around the sanded centre.

Two tall young men are circling around the sisal rope enclosure like dark gladiators, each waiting for an opportunity, that chink in the armour, to pounce. None presents. I am convinced that this particular pair's contest, if not restrained, might easily spill past the rules. They stand and size each, much to the chagrin of the crowd that is by now baying for bruise or blood.

“They are wasting time. If they can’t do it let them get out of the ring and let those who can do it do it,” fumes an agitated fan.

Then without a warning the two challengers lunge at each other, muscle taught and tight as they toss and turn in a desperate attempt to trip or not to be tripped. Ultimately, one man prevails as his opponent fails. The winner is whisked away shoulder high by his excited mates while the loser walks out crest fallen. Like the rest of the crowd, I chose the winner.

“It’s Ugali, githeri (mixture of maize and beans) and rabuon (sweet potatoes) energy,” brags the heavily panting victor as he answers my questions between gulps of water and air. “Traditional foods are an integral part of my diet and I believe that’s where I derive my immense power. I have only lost one game since I started wrestling competitively.”

The tournament is over and the master of ceremony has announced the wrestlers from Nuba Mountains as the overall winners, having floored all their ten opponents but two. Judging from the way members from the various teams are embracing and greeting each other, it’s obvious the muscular men have been here for more than just the physical contest.

“Today the wrestling ring and the overall event have been a historic meeting point and re-union between the Kenyan Nubians and their cousins the Sudanese Nubans,” says Mr Emasse.

As part of its campaign to use sports as a creative avenue to address the numerous problems facing Kenyan youth in marginalised places like Kibera, SYDI plans to register a national association of traditional wrestling in the country. The organisation is already running successful football, boxing and tae Kwon do teams.

“The reason for organising the tournaments now is to popularise the sport, re-unite the two Nuba communities and lobby for the creation of a national wrestling league,” he concludes.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Battle of the Blogs

They have been branded the bad boys of the cyber world for their cunning talent to unlock the skeleton in the closet. But call them what you may, bloggers have drastically altered the traffic in the information highway.

From the WikiLeaks cables that shook the diplomatic world to its core to the Muliro Gardens sex scandal photos that left many Kenyans speechless, the so-called internet blue-eyed boys have pulled down the pants off the secrets of many.

“With the advent of the internet and its accessibility I think more Kenyans are finding alternative forums in which they can express themselves,” observes Jackson Biko, a renowned columnist and an ardent blogger. “This not only goes to provide a much needed avenue for such creative processes it goes into providing alternative source of information and platforms for interactive discussions”.

But in their quest to speak their minds or disseminate information bloggers have attracted wrath and praise in equal measure. While being applauded for being the silver lining under the clouds of conservative journalism by unearthing scandals and creating uncensored interaction platform, they have also been accused of fueling conflicts and bringing down social and political systems through unregulated content and promoting “shoddy” journalism.

However, overall bloggers have earned a reputation for being the daredevils ready to deep their hands on issues from which the mainstream media shies away from.

The now popular WikiLeaks, a site hosted by millions of bloggers around the world, caused a diplomatic pandemonium in recent times when they released thousands of classified cable messages allegedly sent to Washington by American diplomats from all over the world.

Earlier on, the same site had released “Collateral Murder”, a video from the US military showing soldiers allegedly killing civilians in Baghdad.

In Kenya, bloggers were the first to release the US drug dossier, publishing the harmonized draft constitution two days before the mainstream and accurately predicting the names of the Ocampo Six days before they were officially unveiled at The Hague., a popular entertainment blog, was the first to release videos of erotic dancing at the Swaggerrific Concert at the KICC and the nude photos of a local diva. Other examples of instances where the blogs have stepped in the gap when the mainstream has been hesitant includes the Muliro Gardens sex scandal photos released by and a video allegedly showing Prime Minister Raila Odinga being barred by Ethiopian officials from addressing the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa early this year.

Blogging culture gained inroads in Kenya around five years ago but reached a fever pitch during the 2008 post electoral violence. Led by an army of mostly Diaspora-based commentators, the blogosphere was literary on fire at the height of the post electoral chaos as hundreds of bloggers spewed chains of highly opinionated articles. This vicious content in turn triggered thousands of venomous comments from partisan readers.

While regional leaders burnt the night oil trying to work out a peace-fostering power sharing formula a fierce battle of the blogs raged on.

The BBC Monitoring, a body that monitors and reports on mass media worldwide, noted that “some bloggers and online forums try to regulate their content, but others appear to have shunned moderation” in their quest for justice.

However, many bloggers strongly deny the claims that they incited people or played any role during the mayhem, pointing out that they just provided a platform on which Kenyans could debate and discuss the issues that were affecting the country at that time.

“Whereas a few blogs got it wrong on the extremity of insults, a majority of blogs actually helped stop the violence,” explains Dennis Itumbi, a journalist and a regular blogger through the social network Facebook. “You will remember (since gone offline) did a sentence of hope appeal where hundreds of Kenyans set text messages about what was happening which was then transmitted to police headquarters and international bodies real time”.

Mr. Itumbi also identifies another blog,, that he claims used Google Maps, a satellite linked online mapping software, to identify violence hotspots and places where victims were in urgent need. Many blogs adopted the software afterwards.

“All reports done to probe the chaos like the Kriegler, Waki and the Kenya National Human Rights indicted a few radio stations in the mainstream media,” the popular blogger points out. “None identify any blog as having fuelled the election dispute or the violence”.

He also says that while the last general elections was a “live television” election where every station dedicated all its airtime to monitoring the proceedings, next year’s polls in Kenya will be the bloggers’ election. The precursor to this was the 2010 referendum where blogs trail blazed the way in announcing the provincial elections.

“Bloggers under Kenya United announced the results long before IIEC,” Itumbi recalls. “This was because whereas the mainstream had a reporter in every district, bloggers had a blogger in every polling station”.

However, showdown between bloggers and authorities is not a phenomenon unique to Kenya alone. While the Egyptian newspapers, radio and television stations remained partisan or cowed by the dictatorial regime young bloggers risked life and limb to take the bull by the horns.

By creating a network of information exchange through the blogs and social media, Egyptian and Tunisian youth traded tips on how to organize demonstrations and outwit anti-riot police. Ardent bloggers Ahmed Maher, Asmaa Mahfouz and Israa Abdel Fattah together founded the April 6 Youth Movement, the Facebook group that spearheaded the mass protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Other prominent Egyptian bloggers that have had a brush with the law are Kareem Amer, who was charged with insulting Islam and Mubarak and jailed for three years, and Abdel Monem Mahmoud.

But despite the purported state of competition between the blogs and mainstream media channels the two information mediums compliment each other in many ways. For this reason media houses and individual journalists have opened blogs where they follow up on their lead stories or express their personal views on various issues.

“I stumbled on by mistake, I was looking for a place to release my creative energy and it sort of got a life of its own,” explains Jackson Biko, a renowned columnist and a consistent blogger. “Both mainstream and blogs serve different purposes hence this perceived “war” between bloggers and mainstream is a useless storm in a teacup”.

While grateful for having a column in a leading daily that gives him a platform to advance his professional argument Biko says its his blog that he finds a platform to indulge and vent his “creative longings” unhindered.

There are millions of personal blogs established by individuals as online daily diaries or to discuss a topic they feel passionate about like art, science and religion. Although very few of these blogs, unless the author is a well known character, ever gain much popularity they provide an ideal platform for venting and interaction.

“The trick is getting a subject matter you are at home with or very passionate about,” Sitawa Wafula, a performing poet and a consistent blogger, tips on how to attract traffic in the fiercely competitive blogging world. “Know what others are saying about it, know what it should be and be your own person. Striking a code in all those three combined with consistency and resourcefulness is what makes you a master blogger”.

She also says that one should also seek to connect their blogs to networks dealing with the similar issue by engaging in debates on other platforms.

To many content developers the beauty of the blogs lies in the fact that there are no gatekeepers or policies to adhere to and they provide a platform on which to display their work to a global audience at no cost.

“Advantage over traditional media is you are about to dictate how you present your word,” Sitawa explains. “You have a wider audience depending on how you position yourself and it is easy to share your work through social media and RSS feeds”.

Itumbi concurs with this view and adds that a blog gives the blogger the opportunity to virtually own different forms of media on a single platform. One can literary “own” a TV station, a newspaper and a radio station by consistently posting video, audio and text on their blogs.

“Unlike in the mainstream where a journalist plays an outsiders role by objectively telling the story, blogging enables the writer to fuse opinion and fact as part of the story”.

Apart from being a way of connecting with like-minded people around the world and giving readers real time information, blogging is a new form of self-employment since bloggers can earn money from adverts linked to their blogs or being invited to give professional services. It’s also an important source for mainstream journalists since bloggers are usually at the source of many events.

“We have an average of 20 opinion pieces per week and a total of 28 newspapers across the board every week,” Itumbi says. “In Kenya alone, 240 blogs are created and close to 1.2 million tweets generated everyday”.

The popularity of blogs in Kenya today is attested by the fact that all major media houses have established blog review columns. Business organizations have also embraced this concept to market their goods and services to the millions of people that navigate through the virtual world on a daily basis

“With the advent of the internet and its accessibility I think more and more Kenyans are finding alternative forums in which they can express themselves,” Biko concludes. “This not only goes to provide a much needed avenue for such creative processes it goes into providing alternative source of information and platforms for interactive discussions”.

Prominent leaders have also been sucked into this virtual vortex with a majority of them either having a blog or an account in popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Martha Karua and Rwandan President Paul Kagame are some of the most active politicians online around East Africa.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Kola Boof: I Screwed Osama bin Laden!

Kola Boof might not be as comely, adored or glorified as the young Nigerian literary sensation Chimamanda Adichie but the highly controversial Sudanese writer, poet and activist is a rebel with a course.
Or to use the words of one critic “the new black woman writer that many love to hate”.

Editors, critics, naysayers and admirers have used many adjectives in a bid to crack the Kola Boof enigma but none seem to get it right. Trying to explain her explosive personality within the confines of written words is like attempting to grasp the universe in a fist. From her controversial writings, political and religious views and carefree lifestyle, everything about this self declared “womanist” reads like a script straight from Hollywood.

Several publications claims that Kola Boof was so enigmatic that rumours started doing rounds that she was a hoax, which prompted her to grace several American television and radio talk shows to prove she is real.
Born Naima Bint Harith along the banks of the Blue Nile in Omdurman to an Egyptian Archeologist and an Oromo queen, Kola Boof witnessed the brutal murder of her parents at the tender age of seven. But instead of destroying her this horrendous childhood experience planted the seed of defiance and rebellion that gave birth to the controversial personality she is today.

“It started when my birth parents were murdered and I stayed outdoors all night with the bodies,” Kola explains to DN2 through an online interview from her home in the USA. “Years later in America, when I was around fourteen, my psychiatrist explained to me that staying with the bodies that night made me fearless. He said that it made me an emotional exhibitionist”.

She explains that her parents were killed for openly voicing their opposition to slavery and racial discriminations that are still rampant in some parts of Sudan. Although little Kola moved in with her Egyptian grandmother, the old lady decided the girl was too “dark-skinned” to be assimilated in a family that for so long has been fighting to get rid of “blood abeed” (black blood) in their heritage. For these reasons she was eventually placed for adoption where she was taken in by Marvin and Claudine Johnson, her foster parents who took her to America in 1979.

After her naturalization in 1993 the 40 something year-old mother of two returned to North Africa where she hopped across Libya, Egypt and Morrocco doing various jobs which included playing paid party girl in state functions and starring in low budget Arabic movies. During this time Kola was already putting her thoughts on paper having developed a passion for writing while growing up in America.

“As for developing a writing style I would say that I tried to copy the pacing of the old movies I loved as a kid. When I couldn’t speak English, I loved silent films circa 1914-1929, Abel Gance being my favourite director,” she explained during an interview with Kam Williams of, a website exclusively dedicated to African American Literature. “So, I fashioned a style out of that. The integrity and ethos of what I would write, however, came from the films of Ousmane Sembene and from reading Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath and Alice Walker”.

Kola Boof also explains that other “mothers” of black literature like Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, Grace Jones, Diana Ross and Gloria Steinem have greatly shaped the path of her writing career. Hence it comes as no surprise that even though the fiery scribe has penned numerous books that have sold in more than 12 countries, her titles always stirs bittersweet emotional reactions from the reading public. In recognition of her achievements as an author, a popular online book store, have a page exclusively dedicated to her.

According to an online resource base, Kola’s vivid prose and poetry first rubbed authorities and mainstream society the wrong way in 1997 when she was expelled from Morocco for reciting verses from her anthology Nile River Woman, branded inflammatory and blasphemous.

Her autobiography Diary of a Lost Girl was delayed for several months after publishers turned down the manuscript because Kola couldn’t allow editors to sanitize it, all in a bid to bring out a “version of the book that is true to my character and vision as an artist”.

Years later, her acclaimed bestselling collection of short stories Long Train to the Redeeming Sin was forced out of print in 2003 after her publisher’s premises were firebombed by extremists in Morocco. Besides writing Kola Boof’s other talents cuts across the movie industry, cooking, public speaking, military espionage and politics.
The outspoken scribe says that her brand of feminism focuses less on ideologies and more on the daily struggles of black women whom she says are down-trodden, oppressed and silenced by racial supremacists and abandoned by the only partners who are supposed to stand up for them; black men.

“I embrace the ancient ritual of baring the breasts to show respect for the circle of life and to celebrate the eternal power of womankind and the African woman’s legacy. The true African creed, the true African religion,” Kola explained her animistic beliefs during the interview.

She regularly poses topless on the cover of her books and other forums which she justifies by arguing that culturally, African women bared breasts for thousands of years before colonization sexualized them. The culture of women walking around with bared breasts is still practiced in some rural African communities. Kola also takes world main religions head on, arguing that they are institutions devised by men to enslave and colonize women.

“We need to abolish the man-made religions…everything by men should be phased out. It’s time for us women to legislate the way in which we worship God and the way in which our children are taught about women,” she proposes.

To push home her controversial position on matters faith her new book, to be launched in New York in June this year, is entitled The Sexy Part of The Bible. Set in modern West Africa, Europe and the United States the novel features a diabolical young African hellcat called Eternity who miraculously survives several rebellions to unmask a powerful secret. Written with the signature Kola Boof musicality and erotic undertones, reviewers of this yet-to-be released book claims that its “guaranteed to stay on your mind long after you’ve put it down”.

“The Sexy Part of the Bible is a racist name that white explorers in the 1600s called West African women,” she explains. “The missionaries taught their sons to see the white woman as “the virtue” of the bible and to consider the black woman as “the sex” in the bible”.

This apparently skewed opinion on religious matters has landed this firebrand “womanist” in trouble more than once. Besides numerous death threats from extremists around the world, her website writes that on April 9th, 2003 an investigative UN human rights report released in Switzerland identified her as one of the several Sudanese personalities tried in absentia by a court in Khartoum and sentenced to death (fatwa) by beheading. But Kola Boof is no stranger to life on the run. She claims to have been a high-ranking SPLM espionage officer travelling the world soliciting funds for the former rebel movement.

“In 2004, I went to Israel and gave a speech that resulted in guns and ammunition being given to the South Sudanese rebels,” she says. “I have never received full credit from the SPLA, because the men are very sexists and feel I am acting out of place….but for the funeral of our leader John Garang, they had me write the poem Chol Apieth to eulogize him, and that was their way of acknowledging my contributions”.

However, SPLM representatives in Nairobi claim that there are no records to prove that Kola Boof ever worked for the movement as she says.

“I have been in the movement since the beginning and I have never heard of such a name,” explains Jeff Okot, Coordinator of Information and Media Campaigns countdown to Southern Sudan independence. “ I have even tried to consult with our contacts both in Sudan and abroad but all of them says they have never come across or heard of a Naima bint Harith or Kola Boof”.

Mr. Okot goes on to say that many Africans living abroad have evoked the name of the SPLM in the past to gain asylum and other favours and “this could be one of the cases”.

But in her response to questions posed to her by DN2 via email Miss Boof reiterates that his work with the movement in Juba and Rumbek is well documented.

“I wrote a very detailed account of my work for the SPLA,” she insists. “I am very hurt by the men of SPLM and very hurt that they would trash all I have done for the cause of South Sudan, despite the fact that I am Northern Sudanese”.

The controversial author’s popularity is confirmed by the fact that some of her books like Diary of A Lost Girl and Long Train to the Redeeming Sin are very popular at the

While being grateful for the people of Southern Sudan for overwhelmingly voting for secession, Kola says she is very disappointed with renegade General Arthor Deng Dut whose rebellion in the state of Jonglei since April last year have claimed thousands of lives.

“I am terribly disappointed in the actions of General Athor, who was at one time my commander,” she says. “This is not the time for men’s egos and tribalism but a time for unity and supreme intelligence”.

During her days as a party girl-cum-spy in North Africa the outspoken writer claims to have met and mingled with the high and mighty of the Maghreb which included Muammar Gadaffi, deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and former powerful Sudanese spiritual leader-turned opposition activist Hassan al-Turabi. Depending on the importance of the information she was seeking, Kola admits in her biography, sometimes she used her feminine assets to open up the hearts of men.

However, all the events and incidences in Kola Boof’s wild career seem to have been eclipsed by her alleged intimate escapades with the late Osama bin Laden, one of America’s most wanted terror suspects, in 1996. These allegations, though dismissed by many as a publicity stunt, not only landed the outspoken scribe in the American list of world’s most wanted terrorists but also made her the American media’s most preferred punching bag.

“I originally denied being involved with the Osama until when the London Guardian threatened to out me. I was terrified to be branded “Hitler’s Girlfriend”. But once the United States became aware of it and placed me on a suspected terrorist list I really didn’t have any choice but to admit to it and to tell my side of what happened”.

In the Diary of a Lost Girl Kola Boof claims that although they became lovers by chance bin Laden housed her in a mansion in Morocco against her will for six months where he regularly visited and took her for fishing and hunting excursions.
“He is a gifted poet, he was very soft spoken and sensitive but also very violent…he beat me, and he was tyrannical towards his men and embarrassed about sex…but addicted to it,” Kola Boof told an interviewer. “Because I’m black and wasn’t of his faith, he considered me a ‘non-woman’”.

Many of Americans including the so-called “terror experts” rubbished her damning revelations, dismissing her as an attention seeker. Brushing off these accusations by saying such kind of ignorance is the reason why America took so long to apprehend bin Laden, Kola Boof regrets the day this issue spilled out.

“I never wanted anyone to know about me and him. I wanted that to be a secret that I carried to my grave, and since I wasn’t the one who revealed it it’s definitely something that I wish was in the closet. It’s destroyed my career,” she admitted later.

This issue multiplied the number of death threats coming her way many folds with an attempt being made on her life in 2002. Although she lives somewhere in the United States, Kola no longer reveals her whereabouts or identity for security reasons.
“My sons and I move around a lot but we are happy and we have a good comfortable life,” she says. “Our home is like a fortress and we are all armed. Both my sons are younger than 12, but they are expert gunmen. I had to teach them this way”.
But despite being pushed into a perpetual life on the run this phenomenal woman remains defiant and un-cowed.

“You have done quite enough evil…and you can kill me, one skinny little woman, but you will never kill the truth. I will not shut up!” Kola Boof screams at her would be assassins.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nobel Prize: Crowning Devils and Deviants

There was an outcry from the Communist Party headquarters in Beijing last year after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the imprisoned Chinese dissident and political activist Liu Xiaobo, who immediately dedicated it to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The communist government’s bone of contention is that by awarding the prize to Mr. Xiabo the Nobel Committee was indirectly discrediting the Chinese judicial system which has found the political activist guilty of “incitement to subversion of state power”.

This year the declaration of Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf among the three joint winners evoked bitter response from her political opponents and critics, with many claiming it was a conspiracy by the west to boost her re-election chances.
“She does not deserve it. She is a warmonger. She brought war on our country and spoiled the country,” Opposition leader Winston Tubman retorted during a campaign rally in the Monrovia. “Now she has said she will run again and on the eve of the election the Nobel Peace Prize committee gives her this prize, which we think is a provocative intervention within our politics”.

The Liberian chief executive has admitted that she provide supplies and to former rebel leader and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor. Apparently, Madame Sirleaf’s popularity among former warlords is apparently still high. Prince Johnson, a former rebel and presidential candidate in the just concluded elections with strong ties to Charles Taylor, backed Ellen-Sirleaf in the runoff which greatly bolstered her re-election bid.

But this is not the first time that a “rebel” is being awarded the coveted prize. For the last eleven decades the highly coveted Nobel Peace Prize has been bestowed upon social dissidents, deviants, maniacs, non-conformists and the so called “enemies of the state”. The winners are usually men and women who sacrificed their personal safety, dignity, career and lives at the altar of public service.
So unpopular were the beliefs and ideologies of some of the past winners that four were assassinated, among them a president and an executive prime minister. Both the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Premier Yitzhak Rabin were murdered for taking a bold step towards the realization of a lasting peace between Israeli and Arabs.

Apart from Sadat paying with his own life, the other eight incumbent presidents that have won the Nobel were deviants in their own rights since they supported policies that drastically whittled down their popularity among the electorate. Several years after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev brought end to decades of Cold War Fredrick de Klerk followed suit by bringing down the curtain on apartheid by releasing Nelson Mandela.

Long before she was named the Nobel Peace Prize winner in 2006, Professor Wangari Mathaai was already famous for her passionate activism against the destruction of the environment. The most famous incidence was way back in 1992 when, in a company of fellow women activists, she stripped naked in protest against the planned sale of Uhuru Park to private developers. Retired President Moi termed her a “mad woman” who was “a threat to the order and security of the country.”

Many are the times when Prof Mathai and members of her Green Belt Movement were clobbered by police for holding demonstrations against the grabbing of public land. Although she served as a member of parliament for Tetu, a constituency in her home district, she lost the seat in the 1997 General Election due to what pundits term as ideological differences with President Mwai Kibaki.

The fiery Wangare Mathaai finds a comrade in Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition doyen who was crowned with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Suu Kyi was honoured for her tireless efforts to bring justice and democracy in the tiny Southeast Asian country that have since been renamed Union of Myanmar. Placed under house arrest by the Burmese military junta for many years, Su Kyi is referred to by admirers as the “Nelson Mandela of Asia”.

But the efforts of these two powerful women are somehow dwarfed by the humbling achievements of Mother Teresa, the founder of the now famous Missionaries of Charity based in Calcutta, India. Born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu in the Republic of Macedonia in 1910, Mother Teresa captivated the world by living among the impoverished people of this urban centre of Indian state of West Bengal despite the millions of dollars that were flooding into her charity organization. She won the Nobel Prize in 1979.
Carl von Ossietzky was among the very few members of the German civil society who dared to raise a voice against Adolf Hitler and his NAZI party in the 1930s. Being a pacifist, he was strongly opposed to the huge militarization that was going on in Germany during the time. He paid dearly for speaking his mind on the Hitler regime by being condemned into a NAZI concentration camp where he contracted a fatal bout
of tuberculosis.

Ossietzky was declared the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1936 while still bedridden with untreated TB that eventually claimed his life. But just like Liu Xiaobo of China, the NAZI government denied him the opportunity to collect the award in Oslo, warning him that doing so meant being stripped of his German statehood.
Although the dropout student-turned journalist never picked the award personally he was blazing defiance even from the anguish of his deathbed.

“After much consideration, I have made the decision to accept the Nobel Peace Prize which has fallen to me. I cannot share the view put forward to me by the representatives of the Secret State Police that in doing so I exclude myself from German society,” he declared. “The Nobel Peace Prize is not a sign of an internal political struggle, but of understanding between peoples.”

Alfred Luthuli and Desmond Tutu, the first and second African to be bequeathed with the coveted prize, were honoured for their relentless yet peaceful campaign against apartheid rule in South Africa.

Being the ANC president Mr. Luthuli differed with the militant section of the party who were advocating for an armed struggle. In 1967, seven years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the charismatic leader died after being hit by a speeding train while taking a walk near his home in Kwazulu-Natal. However Luthuli’s supporters saw the hand of the apartheid government in his death.

A year after the mysterious death of the South African freedom fighter Martin Luther King Junior, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, was shot dead as he addressed a crowd from a balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.

Other notable dissidents who have graced the red carpet in Oslo to collect Alfred Nobel’s Holy Grail are Dalai Lama, Yasser Arafat, Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim woman to win the award, and Mohammed ElBaradei.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Fountain of Foreskins

According to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates 30% of world males are circumcised, 70% of whom are Muslim.

After reports released by UNAIDS (2007) and Centre for Disease Control (CDC; 2007) indicated that male circumcision significantly reduces the risk of HIV/AIDS transmission during penetrative sex, there have been a lot of excitement about the practice, especially among those communities who traditionally shunned it.

However so much attention is directed to the process of circumcision, the US Government donated Kshs 960 million towards the Ministry of Health’s five year nationwide free circumcision strategy for prevention of HIV/AIDS infection, that nobody seem to care what happens to its ultimate by product; foreskin.

Millions of males are circumcised around the globe every year which raises one rarely unasked question, where do all the foreskins go to?

Investigation by sagepage-uncolonized revealed that when men and boys lose this small ring of flesh, the world gains in many ways, or so it seems. While in some parts of Africa the foreskin is dipped in brandy and eaten either by the patient or circumciser, the most common method of disposal in other parts of third world where the practice is popular is feeding them to animals or burying.

However, in the west, where circumcision is a hot debate with many arguing that it’s an unnecessary and painful process, the foreskin trade is a booming business. Besides being an important ingredient for numerous consumer skincare products and beta interferon-based drugs the prepuce is used in the production of fibroblasts, skin cells used in regenerating new skin.

Fibroblasts cells are the agents behind the formation of elastin, a protein that allows the skin to snap back to its original shape like a rubber band after being pulled or stretched, and hyaluronic acid which locks moisture to keep the skin supple and plump.

Fibroblasts are used in all kinds of medical procedures from eyelid replacement, growing skin for burn victims and those with diabetic ulcers to making creams and collagens in the cosmetic industry. Using the process of culturing one foreskin, which contains millions of fibroblast cells, can be used for decades to produce miles of new skin.

In fact research shows that one foreskin contains enough of this genetic material to grow 250,000 square feet of skin! Hence one of these seemingly insignificant pieces of male genital flesh can generate thousands of dollars in revenue over a period of time.

There is a preference for infantile foreskins because, according to The Caltech Undergraduate Research Journal, they have more potential for cell division and less incidences of tissue rejection since they have not fully developed their identifying proteins. At birth the inner lining of the foreskin (preputial epithelium) is usually fused with the glans which makes the procedure of performing the cut among infants even more precarious.

Although modernity have developed contraptions like Gomco, Plastibell and Mogen clamps meant for reducing the risks and pain, opponents of the practice among new borns argue that besides exposing the baby to unbearable pain and possible permanent tissue damage its also a violation of the young ones human rights.

But despite the numerous campaigns to stop or ban infant circumcision the practice remains a norm in many parts of the world which ensures that baby foreskin, the most valuable raw material in the foreskin industry, remains in constant supply. In Where is My Foreskin? The case Against Circumcision Paul Fleiss says that “Parents should be wary of anyone who tries to cut their child’s foreskin since the marketing of purloined baby foreskins is a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry”

And he has a point since Dermagraft-TC, a product grown from cells in infant foreskins and used as a temporary wound covering for burn patients, sells for about $3,000 per square feet. Patients with major burns require several of these during recuperation.

American profit-oriented tissue engineering corporations like Organogenesis, Advanced Tissues Sciences (ATS), BioSurface Technology, Genzym and Ortec International received the approval of US Government’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) a few years back to trade in foreskin based products like GraftskinTM (Organogenesis).

Besides developing off-the-shelf cultured skin graft products which exhibits reduced complications from blistering or scarring the prepuce has also been used, albeit sparsely, in reconstructive surgery of the inner lining of the mouth.

Intercytex, a tissue generation company based in Cambridge UK, raised the foreskin utility business several notches higher by developing an injection based drug called Valveta. Dubbed by one report as “fountain of youth in baby foreskins” Valveta is a foreskin-derived skin treatment that rejuvenates and smoothens skin withered by age, wrinkles or damaged by scarring from acne, burns and surgical incisions. Each vial of Velveta, enough for treating four square centimeters of skin-almost the size of a postage stamp, consists of about twenty million live fibroblasts, cells that produce the skin-firming protein called collagen which becomes increasingly scarce with age.

Going for about $1000 per vial Velveta is not approved for use anywhere else outside the UK where it was introduced in June 2007.

But the most intriguing story is the quest by medieval European churches and monasteries for the foreskin of baby Jesus. Many Christian artists of the time were so carried away by the issue that they created numerous images depicting the actual circumcision of Jesus both in paint and sculpture.

Churches, museums, crusaders and kings sought to have and hold the actual foreskin. The Circumcision of Jesus Christ is a recent study by a group of theologians and researchers on what happened to Jesus’ foreskin during and after the biblical times. The study claims that one St Catherine of Sienna wore the foreskin as a ring on her finger to symbolize her marriage to Christ while a nun named Agnes Blannbekin is reputed to have a life time of mourning the “loss of blood and pain which the redeemer suffered during the circumcision”.

Monday, October 10, 2011

African Evangelical Revolution

The fire of Pentecostal evangelism is burning through the continent scorching "sins" and shaking the religio-political status quo to its very foundation. Meanwhile, traditional churches are watching helplessly as their members defect en masse to the Pentecostal churches.

Evangelical church services are characterised by a spiritually charged atmosphere, energetic singing, dancing and passionate prayer. Sermons are delivered by charismatic pastors, some of them highly educated and modelling their preaching along the lines of American gospel greats such as TD Jakes.

The youth and a considerable chunk of senior citizens find Pentecostal church services more exciting than the subdued and even staid worship marked by silent congregations listening to soporific music that the first European missionaries brought here.

"Africans want things done powerfully," says Rev Nathan Samwini of the Christian Council of Ghana. "You meet white evangelicals from America -- they behave like Africans. They are vibrant, everything is done with vigour."

Material and spiritual success is a core element of their message which, on a continent where a significant section of the population is poor, attracts a huge number of people. "African realities make them open to faith," says Luis Bush, a renowned evangelist and a cousin of former US President George Bush.

"When a person is in that kind of need, it makes them much more open to external relief and belief than if you have comfort. Poverty really opens you up to spirituality," he adds.

Promoting a pragmatic and entrepreneurial approach to Christian life, Pentecostal evangelists attract young impressionable people from urban areas and dissatisfied older generations from the mainstream denominations. This is aided by the fact that their church meetings tend to be joyous fanfares with loud music and dancing reminiscent of festive carnivals. The sermons are crafted along popular themes such as miracle healing, financial breakthrough, finding marriage partners and freedom from demonic bondage -- all based on a literal interpretation of Bible stories. Most underplay the hallmarks of traditional Christianity such as humility, submission and meekness.

Twenty-nine-year-old Charles Kasibante, a former Catholic who joined the Miracle Centre Church in Kampala, says he feels more spiritual.

"I was hanging out in the wrong places with the wrong people. Then in 1994 I went to a 'born-again church'. The charismatic preaching, the dancing and the singing appealed to me."

Born-again Christians

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, about 17 million Africans described themselves as born-again Christians in 1970. Today the figure has soared to more than 400 million, which accounts for roughly 19 per cent of the continent's population.

But as the fire of evangelism spreads across the continent, so does greed and materialism. This expansion has led to the emergence of mega-churches, sanctuaries visited by thousands of worshippers every week, and media-savvy celebrity pastors enjoying all the trappings of power, including bodyguards, limos, nice homes, designer suits and pride of place at important State functions.

Their role models are American 'prosperity gospel' preachers like Morris Cerullo, Robert Tilton, Creflo Dollar, John Avanzini and Marilyn Hickey.

The glamour and glitz associated with these successful evangelists has greatly increased the number of those heeding the call to serve as ministers, which has led to an unprecedented multiplication and fragmentation of evangelical churches in recent decades.
Winning members is a cut-throat business employing all forms of publicity, the most preferred being televangelism.

To beat competition, some of the preachers claim to have all sorts of miracle working powers besides branding their establishments with catchy names. House of Harvest, Mountain of Fire, Prayer Palace and Miracle Centre are just a few examples.

In Kenya alone, almost 100 churches submit registration requests everyday to the Registrar of Societies. Some are eventually registered as the pastors' private property, exclusively co-owned with spouse and family, which explains the numerous protracted church ownership tussles that sometimes end up in court.

A 10-nation survey by US-based Pew Forum indicated that Kenya was the most evangelical African nation with 56 per cent of its Christians being born-again, beating the more populous South Africa and Nigeria at 34 and 26 per cent respectively. The concept of being "born-again" used to be very unpopular with the working class but these new Pentecostal movements and mega-churches have glamourised it by recruiting young urban professionals, students and high ranking government officials through emotional messages and Christianisation of secular music genres such as rock, hip-hop and reggae that are popular with the youth.

With a majority of its estimated population of 130 million people languishing in poverty, it is not surprising that Nigeria is the largest centre of Evangelical Christian faith in Africa. Judging from the glamorous and luxurious lives of some of its pastors, the Pentecostal faith is a veritable gold mine for some people in that country.

Besides having tens of thousands of churches, Nigeria boasts some of the wealthiest men of the cloth in the world.

Pastor Mathew Ashimolowo was for a long time considered the richest Nigerian evangelist until his formidable income supply was nipped in the bud. Donning high-end designer silk suits and shoes, he ministered in London where his Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) was based. He is said to have made so much money that it attracted the attention of the British tax collector, at which point he fled back to Nigeria where he operates from a modest premise in Lagos.

However the most successful evangelist in Africa now is Bishop (Dr) David Oyedepo, the general overseer of Living Faith Ministries Winners Chapel. Besides acquiring an aircraft 10 years ago to facilitate the international spread of his ministry, he has one of the largest basilicas in the world.

The auditorium of his Canaanland Church on the outskirts of Lagos houses 50,000 worshippers every Sunday. Besides this the charismatic preacher has founded a private university that has been ranked among the best in Nigeria by the Accreditation Committee of the Nigerian Universities Committee.

Cheerful givers

The success of these leaders and their ministries is owed to congregations inspired by the often quoted Biblical injunction that "cheerful givers never lack" besides selling recorded sermons, holding seminars, conferences, mammoth crusades, establishing learning institutions and writing motivational books.

After establishing the spiritual dominance in their respective countries, Pentecostal leaders are gradually shifting their focus to setting a social agenda through assumption of political power. This is achieved either by seeking favour from political leaders by promising to vote as a block or gunning for public office banking on their followers to elect them.

During the Ugandan general elections in 2006, most of the country's born-again church leaders, under their umbrella body, the National Fellowship of Born-Again Churches, held massive prayer conferences and rallies at Namboole and Lugogo stadia where they endorsed President Yoweri Museveni as their preferred candidate, terming him "God's gift to Uganda".

This was in contrast to the traditional denominations which, under the Ugandan Joint Christian Council (UJCC,) openly criticised the amendment of the country's constitution to give the President a third term. But the Pentecostal's move was no surprise since they boast among their members a huge contingent of high-ranking government officials led by First Lady Janet Museveni, army bigwigs like Elly Tumwine and Aronda Nyakairima, former Cabinet Ministers Dr Nsaba Buturo and Ezra Suruma, all of whom claim to be "saved" or balokole.

President Museveni is himself a common figure at crusades, having presided over the opening of the grand Miracle Centre Cathedral in Kampala and being on record as saying that he preached the resurrection of Jesus Christ to Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi, a Muslim, during a continental gathering of Heads of States. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza is also a self-declared 'born-again' Christian and worship leader of Komeza Gusenga (keep on praying), a choir composed of ex-rebels who fought alongside him during the civil war.

In Kenya several Pentecostal evangelists contested for various seats in the last general elections but only Bishop Margaret Wanjiru made it, winning the Starehe seat in Nairobi.

Although Pastor Pius Muiru's presidential bid in that election was no more than a big joke, things might be different in future elections if the rate at which evangelicals are winning souls is anything to go by.

Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka seem to have realised the voting potential of the evangelical movement in Kenya since they have both publicly declared their being "born-again", setting the stage for a future Pentecostal political showdown. While Raila, whose religious affiliations were sometimes questioned, was baptised in a highly publicised ceremony by maverick evangelical cleric and self-declared prophet, Dr David Owuor, Kalonzo constantly quotes the Scriptures during political rallies.

Well-drilled army

In Nigeria the Pentecostals are marching onwards like a well-drilled army. Boasting more than 20 million members and belonging to the powerful Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria (PFN), their design to assume political control is clearly explained in some of its literature, which states the desire to create "a new social, economic and political reality that reveals the true nature of God's reign and the likeness of Christ through its renunciation of the world's definitions and tactics".

This agenda, which implies making all Nigerians undergo the Pentecostal conversion experience of being born-again in order to create a platform on which radical social transformation will be enacted, was made clear by one of the PFN leaders in a speech presented to members in a 1992 conference.

"In Nigeria we can become the force of change not by loving politicians but by winning souls. If we can get at least 80 per cent of Nigerians born again, you can be sure a Christian will be president. You won't even need to be a rich man before you become president because the people will say you are the one they want and you must be there," he said. Such statements have not been taken lightly by rivals considering that these churches supply 40 per cent of the total revenue earned by both public and private radio and television stations besides having some of the most learned clergy in the world.

The predominantly Muslim northern Nigeria has reacted swiftly by instituting Sharia law in most states. Where it is observed, Sharia bans the preaching of any other religion. The aggressive work of evangelical missionaries has also sent jitters in Islamic North Africa, prompting Algeria to pass a law in 2005 that made it a criminal offence to convert Muslims to another faith.

"Evangelicals are demonising other religions in their efforts to promote their values. It is another form of Jihad (holy war)," claims Sidique Wei, the head of a New York-based advocacy group called United African Congress.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Wild West Africa

The mere mention of West Africa conjures images of military coups, slavery, Pidgin English, voodoo, long flowing dresses and football madness all framed in a stereotyped perception that individuals from the region are dishonest, calculating, patronizing and cunningly enterprising.

This generalization is enhanced by the fact that West Africans have a closely knit culture and history as symbolized by shared traits like the popular Boubou, the trademark flowing dress that has its origins in the clothing of nobility around the region’s empires from the 12th century. The female version of this attire is even more glamorous with comically huge head gear which, complimented with heavily jeweled fingers, wrists, neck and other detailed feminine touches, makes the usually voluptuous West African woman an arresting sight. The dress code is rapidly becoming fashionable and popular in other parts of Africa.

With more than1000 ethnic communities this is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. Some of the major communities are Fula, Faso and Hausa whose populations are present in more than five nations in the region thanks to pre-colonial trade routes and the political influence of ancient civilizations.

Like in many other places across Africa, several of these ancient kingdoms and chieftains have survived the ages to thrive in modern times and though politically powerless, the monarchs still remain important status symbols especially during traditional functions in which they preside over. Civilizations that thrived here long before the arrival of western powers and eventually birthed the modern nation states include Songhai, Empires of Ghana and Mali, Dahomey, Sosso and Ashanti.

Besides having many wives and displaying bare beer bellies in social gatherings these traditional kings and chiefs, some reinvented and propped by British colonialists, still sways a lot of influence among their subjects hence many political leaders seek their endorsements during elections. It’s not strange to see state presidents and other senior government officials attending the gluttonous royal gatherings.

Although there is a general assumption that the rotund and muscular nature of many West Africans is genetically imbedded a glance at their cuisine tells a totally different story. While the rest of the sub-Saharan Africa has posho meal-called Ugali, nshima or mealie meal depending on the country- as the pillar of their diets here fufu, pounded yams, potatoes or plantains is the main source of starch with the stew being generous on meats and fats, which perhaps explains the smooth, round and oily faces common in Nigerian movies and the robust statures of footballers like Didier Drogba and Michael Essien.

“When we Nigerians heard stories about people in Europe who restricted their daily meals to vegetables, we did not believe them. We wondered how a man could survive without meat or animal fat. But now we have no choice but to exist on edible leaves and other non-body-building ingredients to survive these hard times.” A Lagos resident laments the economically induced vegetarian diet.

Food is so important in this society that in Ghana ‘Kafo didi’ is a popular phrase which loosely translates as ‘even debtors must eat”. This means you never crucify those who owe you just because wafts of mouth watering aromas are drifting from their kitchens.

The Nigeria movie industry is the biggest in the world after Bollywood in terms of number of films produced per year, beating Hollywood with all its pomp and hype to number three. Churning out around 2,000 home videos per year and employing thousands of people in cast and crew, Nollywood was worth over $2.3 billion by 2008 according to talk show host Oprah Winfrey. But this movie making machine is not celebrated by everyone.

“Our movies are so hopelessly out of step with reality that instead of imitating life, or life imitating them, they are rather imitating dreams. I vowed never to subject myself to the torments of watching Nigerian movies after previous frustrations with their cheap, predictable storylines, slapdash plots, annoyingly inept acting skills and poor technical quality.” Criticizes Farooq Kperogi, a renowned Nigerian journalist, lecturer and social commentator.

Apart from dominating the continent’s home video entertainment West Africa is also the home of some of the greatest names in classical African music like Angelique Kidjo, Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Manu Dibango, Youssou N’Dor, San Fan Thomas, and Mory Kante.

Through migrations dating back to slavery, the region’s dynamic cultural trademarks like voodoo, ritual killings, athleticism and music has been exported far beyond the African coastline to distant lands like the Caribbean, Americas and Europe. Akon, Djimon Hounsou, Sade Adu are some showbiz greats with West African descent. European football is also a major beneficiary from the region’s exquisite talent, with West Africans filling the ranks of major European clubs and national teams. Marseille Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Djibril Cisse are examples of famous French footballers with West African roots.

Barrack Obama was the only publicity icon in the Diaspora that seemed to have evaded West Africans. But it dint take long for the resourceful Nigerians, who were grumbling loudly on learning the US President traces his ancestry to Kenya, to concoct a theory in their favor. In an apparent bid to convince, or confuse, the world that American leader's forefathers chanted oga not omera, a certain community has been striving to justify their case since 2004.

“No one is saying by any stretch of imagination that if you go to Kenya, you will not see Obama’s father’s house; we are looking at his ancestry, at his roots. It is like Alex Haley, an American who traced his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, to Gambia,” says one historian from a tiny monarchy near Port Harcourt, peculiarly called Obama Kingdom.

Elders from this tiny kingdom in River State claim the American President’s ancestors migrated from there in the late 1700s hence he should “link up with his own people and contribute his quota to the development of where he is from.”

Apparently, the West African claim to Obama being “one of their own” was partially granted when the American President chose Ghana as his platform to address Africa when he visited the continent in July last year.

And although several heads of states, including President Kibaki, symbolically lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in highly publicized tour of the continent, the hopes of legally detaining the coveted football prize in Africa during the last World Cup in South Africa was squarely on the shoulders of West Africans. With an exception of Algeria all the other African flag bearers in the soccer carnivore were from the region.

However West Africans drink from cups of shame and fame in equal measures, or so it seems. Stolen oil, human trafficking, firearms, counterfeits and drugs are some of the contrabands that transit through the region besides internet scams, corruption scandals and other illicit enterprises. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 27 percent of cocaine consumed in Europe annually worth $1.8 billion passes through West Africa. This explains why so many people from the region, especially Nigerians, are languishing in foreign jails or have been executed on charges of drug trafficking.

“Taking advantage of porous borders and weak state and security institutions, criminal networks are increasingly using West Africa as a transit route for narcotics bound for Europe from Latin America. Unlike groups operating with low-level authorities in the past, today they are infiltrating state institutions, fueling corruption and destabilizing the political and social fabric of nations.” Says Said Djinnit, head of United Nations Office for West Africa.

Though peaceful elections have been held in, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the last few years coups in Mauritania, Guinea and the civil war in Ivory Coast after disputed elections is a stark reminder that the barrel, rather than the ballot, is still the most preferred route to power in the region. Due to along history of dictatorships, tyranny and bloody regime changes, a recent UN report noted, the region's “democratization process, if not properly managed, could trigger political violence, economic disruption and social strife in fragile societies in the region.”

The presence of the Nigeria dominated Ecomog troops, the only regional peacekeeping force in Africa, has not been enough to prevent six bloody conflicts from taking place here. The worst was in Sierra Leone where the late Foday Sankoh’s RUF gained worldwide notoriety for chopping off their victims’ limbs in what they called the “short and long sleeve” policy, and Liberia where a Charles Taylor instigated civil war claimed more than 500,000 lives. The two conflicts inspired the 2006 award winning movie Blood Diamond featuring Beninese star Djimon Hounsou.

Frequent political instability and cronyism have created room for graft and other economic crimes to thrive in most West African nations. As a confirmation of corruption prevalence in the region, Transparency International has for many years been ranking Nigeria as the most corrupt nation in the world alongside other West African countries like Ivory Coast and Guinea.

“In as much as corruption destroys the legitimacy of government in the eyes of those who can do something about the situation, it contributes to instability in the region. In Ghana and other West African states, corruption and embezzlement of public funds have often been cited among the reasons for military takeovers.” Observes Mondays Atuobi, a research fellow at Koffi Annan Foundation.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Quest for "Paradise Europe" claims more than 10,000 African souls

The boat sways perilously through the rough waters, leaving the 200 plus occupants huddled together in mortal fear and cold, some clutching dog-eared bibles and other religious paraphernalia praying the rickety vessel remain in one piece for the next 100 miles. Originally built to carry 40 fishermen, in this trip the rotting boat is overloaded five folds.

Welcome to the Mediterranean, the southern border of “Fortress Europe” and the watery graveyard for thousands of disgruntled African refugees making a run for the European mainland.
Most of these immigrants are citizens of West Africa, mostly Nigerians, and Horn of Africa nations pushed away from their homeland by wars, harsh economic conditions and the fantasies of a Europe flowing with milk and money.

According to media and non governmental organizations’ statistics more than 10,000 people have drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 1996. The worst incidence was in March 2009 when two boats carrying around 250 people each sunk off the Libyan coast after encountering bad weather. Only less than a hundred people were rescued.

These ill fated trips are facilitated by powerful criminal organizations run by Nigerians and North Africans with strong networks in Europe. According to a United Nations report released in 2006, these corporate criminals receives 300 million dollars annually for their clandestine services of bribing officials, document forgery, purchasing boats and fitting them with Global Positioning System (GPS) for navigation.

After paying around US$2500 to these trafficking organizations the would-be immigrants are herded in Senegal, Mali and Niger from where they embark on the perilous Trans-Sahara drive. Although the porous 5,000 km Libyan border is a wide open door overcoming the hostile desert is a major test of tenacity.

Besides the risk of getting a sun stroke from the scorching heat, there is also the possibility of the truck engine stalling from sand choke, the driver loosing the way or abandoning the passengers in the middle of nowhere and the threat of being attacked and robbed by desert bandits. The international press places the figure of those who have died trying to cross the vast sea of sand in the last five years at 2,000 but this is a very modest number since according survivors dozens die every month.

Although there are those who make a run for Spanish waters through the Canary Islands majority enters Libya in the hope of sailing across the Mediterranean to Europe. But since most are poor they have to earn their place in the boats by working in the informal sector in Tripoli and other urban centers.

After paying an approximated US$1000 to smugglers the aliens are ferried across the dangerous Straits of Gibraltar in overloaded and unseaworthy boats or canoes to the Spanish islands of Barbate, Algeciras, Gibraltar and Malaga. In 2008 alone Spain police intercepted 14,000 illegal immigrants and 663 illegal vessels. The Spanish authorities detain these “sin papelles” (undocumented illegal immigrants) temporarily before sending them back to their country.

However majority pass through Lampedusa, a tiny island south of Sicily which though it belongs to Italy lies geographically closer to Africa than Europe. Landing here most often attracts beatings, arrests and detention in the NAZI-like Temporary Holding Centre awaiting deportation back to Africa, most often to Libya. The very few lucky ones, mainly Eritreans and Somalis, are granted asylum owing to instability in their homelands.

More than 1,800 immigrants are sometimes packed into the detention centre designed for 850 which pushes others to squatter in makeshift plastic shelters littered all over the compound. The camp has been renamed the Centre for Identification and Expulsion after its role was changed in January.

According to UNHCR, around 36,000 “boat people” made it to Italian soil in 2008-a 75 percent increase compared to 2007 figures-which means the country absorbed half of the 67,000 immigrants who arrived by sea in Europe.

“We don’t want to become the Alcatraz of the Mediterranean,” complained Bernardino De Rubeis, the mayor of Lampedusa. “The inhabitants of the island are not racist and we are not angry with the immigrants, but we don’t want a structure on the island that will end up as a sort of prison.”.

While commotion reins the surface of this haunted sea, capitalism flows unhindered deep in its belly. Running for 520 km from Mellita in Morocco to Sicily through the same route followed by immigrants seeking to land in Lampedusa is the longest underwater pipeline in the Mediterranean called Greenstream. Among the bones of thousands of would be immigrants buried in this watery grave eight billion cubic meters of gas pumps annually from Africa to Europe. Perfect embodiment of the Rome-Tripoli business pact founded under the slogan “more oil, less immigrants”.

Since it’s not a signatory of the Geneva Convention Libya does not recognize refugees hence those illegal immigrants deported back to this country are physically abused and subjected to a life of misery in the numerous detention centers. The ongoing civil war has made the situation worse for these Africans with most fleeing back to their homelands and those who remained being executed by rebels in the belief that they are mercenaries under Muammar Gaddafi’s payroll.

But long before the war, the deposed Libyan despot and his regime was mistreating the poor souls besides using them as a bargaining chip with European powers.

“It was October 2007; I was coming back home with two Malian friends and a Congolese, when the taxi we were inside has been stopped by the police. We have been immediately brought in a detention camp for illegal migrants in this city (Tripoli)” says a 29-year-old Cameroonian who entered Libya illegally in 2007.

Investigations by independent journalists and NGOs have shown that, on various occasions, the Libyan and Moroccan authorities arrested and abandoned large numbers of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in the desert where many die of hunger and thirst.

Besides damping the desperate Africans in the inhospitable Sahara without basic survival kits, the Gaddafi regime signed an accord with Silvio Berlusconi in 2009 giving the Italian Guardia Costiera a license to intercept shiploads of immigrants in the high seas and turn them back to Libya. According to estimates by the Italian news agency Ansa, more than 1122 illegal immigrants were forcibly repatriated to Libya in the quarter of 2009 alone.

In return the conservative Italian government was to build a 1,200 kilometer highway, stretching from the Tunisian border in the west to the Egyptian frontier in the east, as a compensation for colonizing the Maghreb nation from 1911 to the World War II. This was besides the US$5 billion to be extended in investments for the next 25 years, building of immigrants holding centers in the Libyan coast, donation of patrol boats and training personnel to man them, holding joint military exercises among other goodies. But with the fall of Gaddafi last month, the future of this financial pledges remains unclear.

“As non-Africans, these students have shown their support for these Africans, against an African Union chairman who continues to be used against his own people by Berlusconi, who has made some very unacceptable statements about African migrants” commented an Italian students on his protesting colleagues who jeered and hurled paint on the Libyan leader during his visit to Italy in 2008.

There are so many immigrants’ detention camps in Libya today that European media sometimes refers to the country as the African “Guantannamo Bay”. But the suspected terrorists detained in the famous Cuban island live in far much better conditions than the masses of despondent humanity wallowing in these Libyan facilities. These refugees lives in deplorable conditions in the camps as they wait for expulsion back to their countries, done after the purchase of a release ticket either by their relatives back home or their native governments.

“Until 2007 the medium length of detention was less. In that period the Libyan government would transport migrants on its own, but as their presence grew, Libya decided their families or their countries owed them this service.” Said an anonymous Libyan immigration official before the fall of Tripoli last month.

The unofficial alternative is through bribing the corrupt jail wardens who demand up to US$1000 per prisoner. With up to 60 people living on crude bread and water in a five by six meters stone cube cells, sleeping on a cold floor and subjected to a daily life of humiliation and harassment, these are World War II concentration camps save for the gas chambers.

Things blew up in the evening of August 2009 when around 300 hundred immigrants, mostly Somalis and a few Eritreans, incarcerated at the Ganfuda detention camp near Benghazi tried to escape. The Libyan police descended on them with a murderous zeal, beating blindly with knives and batons and leaving six refugees dead, a dozen missing and more than fifty seriously injured. Despite censorship by the secretive Gaddafi regime one of the prisoners recorded the incidence through a cell phone and leaked the photos to the internet.

But this is not the only case of violence against foreigners in this North African country. In September 2000 gangs of xenophobic Libyan youths triggered by a minor dispute during a football match went on rampage, killing black immigrants, burning houses and looting property in foreign occupied suburbs of Tripoli like Gregarage and Abhuzin.

Libyan authorities claimed to have counted only 33 bodies but eyewitnesses said more than 500 were killed.

“It was so fierce. It was so horrible. It was so terrifying that even the Nigerian Ambassador himself could not withstand the situation.” One immigrant said. “Some others were unable to come out in the cross fire. They Died. But mine was only injuries sustained from machete cuts.” He added.

These led to forced repatriations where thousands of Nigerians, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Gambians, Chadians and Nigers were returned back to their homeland, some leaving property and businesses they had spent years building.

Despite “Brotherly Leader” Muammar Gaddafi attempts to distance himself from the ethnic attacks by blaming the violence on “hidden hands” determined to scuttle his dream of “the Union of African States”, interviews with those fleeing the violence said that the gangs of youth acted with the complicity if not direct support of state forces.

Although Libya has the largest number of sub-Saharan Africa immigrant detainees in North Africa, thousands of other are imprisoned in Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia and Mauritania.

Those without the courage or cash to embark on these precarious journeys sneak their way into merchant ships as stowaways by colluding with corrupt ship crews, hoping to land in Europe or America. Ironically, while two hundred years ago Africans were being forced to cross the Atlantic chained in ship holds today they are paying or stealing their way into ship holds to cross the same ocean.

Many governments in the world severely punishes vessels found harbouring stowaways, hence those discovered by the ship crew are either tossed overboard in the high seas or cast adrift in makeshift rafts.

In 2006 a group of five men and four women trying to get to Europe from Gabon ended up landing in a desert beach in Namibia, 2,500 km in the wrong direction. Their fate was sealed after being discovered by the Chinese crew who cast them adrift on rafts made of steel drums, with just a small bottle of water and a bag of uncooked rice for provisions.

Monday, September 19, 2011

ICC, Ocampo and Africa

Luis Moreno-Ocampo’s forays into the darkest corners of Africa have attracted the fury of the continent’s despots, but his integrity train rolls on

Scenes of chest-thumping bravado and accusations across the political divide, triggered by the rather unpalatable prospect of losing political kingpins to The Hague, are now the order of the day in Kenya since the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor named the six suspects last year. But Mr Moreno-Ocampo insists that there is no turning back, and that no amount of political gimmickry will derail his mega-tonne justice train.

To those unlucky or unruly enough to be in his gun sights, the Argentine is a constant source of dread and sleepless nights. But for the masses affected by the post-electoral turmoil, Mr Moreno-Ocampo is a saviour, a man in whose hands they believe they can safely keep their hopes for justice.

Attempt to condemn

Little wonder, then, that there has been a spirited attempt by many suspected villains across the continent to condemn and label the ICC and its erstwhile prosecutor as enemies of Africa’s style of governance and justice.

During the ICC Review Conference held in Kampala in June last year, accusations against the court by various delegations raised eyebrows around the world, with some even calling its processes “anti-Africa”. Rwanda President Paul Kagame, one of the strongest opponents of the court, once termed the ICC a “vehicle of neo-colonialism, slavery, and imperialism”.

Weak judicial systems

The 2006 dismissal of potential cases against US actions in Iraq and the apparent inaction by the ICC on situations in other hotspots outside Africa have also been cited by those accusing the court of applying selective justice. International law experts, however, cite weaknesses in Africa’s legal systems as the major cause of the big number of situations being referred to the ICC.

Which is why many in civil society lobby groups, the media, and a large section of the general public have welcomed the growing number of referrals to The Hague as a sign of the continent’s commitment to international criminal justice and a desire to weed out the strangling culture of impunity.

Established in 2002 through the Rome Statute as a permanent tribunal to prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, the ICC is the last resort for many, even though its authority ranks below that of national courts. This means proceedings are initiated through referrals by a state party, the prosecutor, or the UN Security Council.

As of March 2010, 30 African countries had acceded to the Rome Statute, although only a handful had amended their domestic laws to accommodate its provisions.

A strong pointer to the weaknesses of Africa’s judicial systems — or its love for the machete — is that most of the situations the court has been investigating since its inception concern conflicts in northern Uganda, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Of the ICC’s 15 warrants of arrest issued, 11 are for individuals from Africa.

Suspects in custody at The Hague are former DR Congo warlords Thomas Lubanga, Germaine Katanga, Mathew Chui, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, and former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor. Other wanted suspects still at large include Sudan leader Omar al-Bashir and his humanitarian affairs minister Ahmad Harun, Janjaweed militia commander Muhammad Rahman, the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) Joseph Kony, and four of his senior deputies.

The perceived failure by the court to investigate corporate entities accused of fuelling conflict in Africa is one of the issues that many opponents of the court have cited in their allegations of selective justice.

A UN report released in October 2002 accused 85 companies of supplying arms to the Ugandan and Rwandan armies and 25 militia groups in DR Congo. Although the ICC was quick to issue warrants of arrest against Congolese and LRA warlords, critics say it has done or said nothing against these firms, most of them still operating in the Great Lakes region.

“If those indicted have committed any crime, surely they must face the consequences of their actions,” says Lord Aikins Adusei, a West African political commentator.“But it will also be an incomplete justice if those supplying the weapons and bankrolling the conflicts are allowed to go unpunished.”

There are also claims that the fact that major world powers are not bound by the Rome Statute considerably dents the authority of the ICC to act as an impartial centre for justice.

The US, China, and Russia, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, are not signatories, which makes the court toothless in situations where the three are involved. This is evident in the lacklustre approach to situations in the Middle East and Asia, where each member of the council has vested interests.

Hague Invasion Act

To protect its soldiers against any future action by the court, the US Congress passed the American Servicemembers Protection Act (ASPA) in 2002. Dubbed the “Hague Invasion Act” by opponents, the legislation not only prohibits any form of military aid to countries that have ratified the statute (exceptions granted), but also empowers the US president to use military force to free American soldiers held by the ICC.

To further advance what human rights activists have termed a “two-tier system of international justice”, the world’s biggest democracy has been coercing nations to sign the controversial Bilateral Immunity Agreements (BIAs), which bar signatories from surrendering American nationals who have committed major crimes to The Hague.

Although President Obama has removed the sanctions to the BIAs, his administration is yet to formalise a policy decision on either the ICC or the bilateral agreements.

The few African nations — like Kenya and Malawi — that refused to sign the repressive BIAs were penalised by drastic cuts or withdrawal of military funding. Reports indicate that around 100 countries, mostly economically vulnerable Third World nations, are party to these agreements.

But, apart from lifting the BIA sanctions, the current American administration has softened the country’s stance on the ICC by sending delegations to the court’s annual meeting of the Assembly of States Parties in The Hague in 2009 and the Review Conference in Kampala earlier this year. And, on both occasions, US representatives expressed their country’s desire to cooperate with the court.

“After 12 years, I think we have reset the default on the US relationship with the court from hostility to positive engagement,” said State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh of the future of US-ICC relations in light of the Kampala Review Conference. “In this case, principled engagement worked to protect our interest, to improve the outcome, and to bring us renewed international goodwill.”

In a move that might significantly shift the paradigms of international justice, member states at the ICC Review Conference in Kampala agreed to add the crime of aggression to the list of the court’s prosecutable offences. Expected to come into force in 2017, the amendment will give the prosecutor or a state party the authority to initiate an aggression case where the UN Security Council fails to take action.

Probably piqued by politicians’ claims that The Hague’s actions may destabilise regions, Mr Moreno-Ocampo has, on numerous occasions, emphasised that his investigations follow legal rather than political possibilities. And he repeated this assurance during the National Dialogue and Reconciliation Conference in Nairobi last week, saying he was not interest in the cause of the Kenyan violence, but the alleged perpetrators.

This tricky balancing act, made worse by wily politicians and their supporters, points to the winding path through which Mr Moreno-Ocampo and his team must manoeuvre to rid their court of any iota of susceptibility to politicisation.

In Kampala last June, for example, the sharply divided Kenyan delegation clearly manifested the ODM-PNU coalition rifts in plenary sessions, where they differed on almost every issue despite being presumed to represent the collective position of the nation over the ICC.

Investigate Museveni

During the same gathering, a Ugandan opposition leader called on the ICC to investigate the country’s president, Yoweri Museveni. While presenting his evidence to the prosecutor, Mr Olara Otunnu, head of Uganda Peoples Congress Party, said President Museveni should be investigated for crimes committed in Kampala, northern Uganda, and the DR Congo.

This came even as the Lord’s Resistance Army leader Kony refused to negotiate any peace deal until the warrants against him and four of his top aides are dropped. But the LRA might be headed for the gallows if a recent plan by President Obama to disarm the group materialises.

However, for many, it was the ICC’s warrant of arrest against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir a year ago that proved it had the guts to go after the “big fish”. Charged with genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity in Darfur, al-Bashir made history by becoming the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC.

But the African Union reacted swiftly by convening a gathering in Libya, where members voted against the directive, with Senegal calling on all African countries to withdraw their ICC membership en masse as a sign of protest. The request was not granted, and, instead, several African countries have since declared their will to implement the arrest warrant.

Although the Sudan leader has dismissed the indictment as the antics of a “white man’s court” designed to destabilise Africa, the dragnet is rapidly closing in on him. And, although countries like Kenya and Libya have allowed the wanted head of state within their borders, he has already been excluded from the Olympics in Beijing, the World Cup in South Africa, and the African Union heads of states summit in Kampala.

Before making the bold move against the Sudanese supremo, Mr Moreno-Ocampo had been criticised by human rights groups for his cautious approach to states like Rwanda and Uganda.

Friendly countries

But after the move, Mr Antonio Cassese, a former president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia who chaired the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, criticised Mr Moreno-Ocampo for charging al-Bashir with genocide and issuing a public warrant of arrest. This, Mr Cassese argued, made it easy for the Sudanese leader to avoid arrest by travelling only to friendly countries.

“If Moreno-Ocampo intended to pursue the goal of having al-Bashir arrested, he might have issued a sealed request and asked the ICC’s judges to issue a sealed arrest warrant, to be made public only once al-Bashir travelled abroad,” Mr Cassese wrote in an article published by in July 2005.

But, to many, that does not matter. What matters is that the wheels of justice have begun to turn, no matter how slowly. And no one could sum that hope better than the prosecutor general of Rwanda, Mr Martin Ngogo.

"There is not a single case at the ICC that does not deserve to be there. But there are many cases that belong there, that aren’t there."

Published in DN on 7/12/2010