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

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ghosts of Slavery in Sudan

Officially, slave trade ended 200 years ago after abolitionists in Britain and the US banned the oppressive enterprise. Before the end of that dark era, millions of Africans had been ferried across the Atlantic and sold into servitude across the Americas.

But history has a way of repeating itself, and it is doing just that in Sudan, where thousands of black Africans from the south are abducted and sold as slaves in the Arab north.

According to reports from non-governmental organisations and human rights agencies, a black slave goes for between $10 and $100 (Sh800 and Sh8,000), and various sources claim there are more than 10,000 people living in slavery and servitude in Sudan today, most of them abducted from their villages by government-backed Arab militia.

The motivation for this, the sources say, is a desire for the northern rulers to terrorise their southern subjects and, in the process, distract rebel forces from attacking government targets.

Arek Anyiel Deng, seized from her village at the age of 10 by Arab militia, remembers the events of that fateful day vividly. After many of her fellow villagers were mowed down by bullets fired from the automatic rifles of the marauding Arabs on horseback, the surviving adults fled the melee, leaving behind children and cattle. After a five-day north-bound journey, the young captives were divided out as spoils of war between members of the raiding party.

“My abductor told me I was his slave, and that I had to do all the work he told me to do; fetching water and firewood, looking after his animals and farming,” Deng says. “When I clocked 12 years, he said he wanted to sleep with me, and I could not refuse because I was a slave.... I had to do everything he wanted, otherwise he would have me killed.”

Forced conversion to Islam

A study by the Rift Valley Institute indicates that some 11,000 boys and girls were seized in such raids in the last one decade alone. The captives were then taken to areas like Kordofan, South Darfur and Bahr-el Ghazal, where they are still being subjected to hard labour, beatings and forced conversion to Islam.
Other atrocities include ritual gang-rapes, genital mutilation, sexual servitude and “marrying off” girls as young as 12 years old.

But despite overwhelming evidence by white-shoe institutions like the US State Department, UN Special Rapporteurs and Amnesty International, Khartoum has always denied the existence of chattel slavery, saying such claims are lies meant to tarnish the reputation of the Government of Sudan.

“President Omar Bashir reaffirmed the commitment of Sudan to laws and rules respecting human rights, and he denied the existence of any form of slavery in the land,” said a government statement during the visit to the country by a US delegation led by Martin Luther King Junior, the son of the late black civil rights leader Martin Luther King.

However, apart from institutional and international condemnation, few individuals have dared speak out against this atrocious crime against humanity, and among these is the controversial Sudanese female writer, rebel and human rights activist Kola Boof.

“I cannot, for a minute, be quiet about the fact that slavery is alive and well in my homeland, Sudan,” Boof says. “Before my parents were murdered, I saw it with my own eyes. Black African Christians rounded up, kidnapped, beaten, raped and routinely chained and put into trucks, never to be seen again”.

Ms Boof, whose parents were butchered for speaking against slavery and discrimination, lives in exile in the United States and has penned several books, among them Flesh and the Devil, Virgins in the Beehive and her autobiography, Diary of a Lost Girl.

Moved by the plight of these condemned souls, local and foreign non-governmental bodies and volunteers have established mechanisms through which slaves find their way back to freedom.

Pioneered and spearheaded by non-governmental organisations like the Swiss-based human rights group Christian Solidarity International (CSI) and the American Anti-Slavery Group, the redemption scheme involves purchasing slaves from their owners for between $50 and $100 (Sh4,000-Sh8,000) and reconnecting them with their families.

The lobby groups, which raise ‘redemption funds’ from well-wishers and donors in their home countries, estimate that around 40,000 slaves have been redeemed this way in a period spanning 15 years.

The repatriation programme has been hugely facilitated by a Dinka-Arab peace agreement signed in 1991 which established mutually agreed local channels of returning captured people. The Dinka tradition of intricate clan divisions has also been very important in helping returnees trace their families.

However, critics claim this buy-out scheme has upped the profitability of this hideous trade since slavers catch more slaves in the hope of reselling them back. In the past, the UN has decreed that it is ethically wrong to buy human beings, and argued that the system can encourage desperate people to sell their children or the militia to capture more slaves. And the same sentiments have been echoed by several other organisations.

“Our objectives — and, I believe, the sincere objectives of others — was to carefully investigate legitimate claims, redeem on a case-by-case basis, report our findings and seek international pressure to end the hideous practice of slavery,” explains Jim Jacobson of CFI, which was involved in slave redemption.

“But what started as an act of mercy has turned into a debacle. Selling slaves is now more profitable in Sudan than narcotics. Slave redemptions are now enriching slave traders, slave dealers and slave masters.”

Mr Jacobson also added that money generated through the slave buy-back scheme is used to purchase guns and hire people to conduct more slave raids in southern villages.

Tell their tales

But, regardless of whether they are bought back to freedom or they manage to escape by their own, many freed Southern Sudan slaves are grateful for living through their ordeals to tell their tales.

Nyamut Aruop Buoi left her village to go to the market sometimes around 1996 (she is unclear about dates) when she was caught in a crossfire between raiders and locals.

“When I heard the gunshots, I tried to run. My friend was killed, shot while running. Their faces were covered. They were on horseback. I was surrounded by a group of Arabs,” she told the Washington Post.

While debating whether to kill her or not, one raider decided to take her as a wife.

“They tied both my legs and hands,” she recalls. “In the process, I was thrown down and lost a tooth. The first night, many houses were set on fire and people were killed in a Dinka village. I was so frightened I could not sleep.” That night, Nyamut says, she was raped by five men.

Marko Akot Deng, whose limbs were paralysed after a severe beating by his master, told the BBC his harrowing story tinged with bitter emotions.

“In 1987, the Arab militia came and attacked our village and took me. My niece was also abducted but she was taken by a different man and I have not seen her since. I had to look after the cattle, goats and sheep. For food, I was only given left-overs, and sometimes nothing at all. One day, a cow went missing and I was beaten so badly that my right arm and leg paralysed.”

Captured in 2004, Abuk Garang Theip (camp doctors estimate her age to be around 12) is terrified and traumatized as she retells the way she was plucked from comforts the simple of childhood and plunged into the vagaries of servitude.

“As we marched along, they would sometimes killed a person or two on the way. Some were shot. They told me: ‘If you don’t stop crying, we’ll kill you also.’”

Things were never easy during her stay in bondage.

“They wanted me to pray with them,” Abuk says. “When I refused, the wife cut my leg with a knife. She said she intended to amputate my leg.”
Asked why she paid such a high price for resisting conversion, she explains. “I’m Dinka. I have nothing to do with their religion.”

Although she successfully resisted conversion, she was forcefully circumcised.

Apart from those who have escaped or been liberated, there are thousands of others trying to trace their families, abducted years ago. Although they know chances of ever being reunited with their loved ones are slim, a glimmer of hope still lingers.

“My wife Abuk Deng Rual and son Deng Aketch Arol were both abducted in 1988. I have been to the north but could not find them,” says a distraught Akech Arol Deng. “I feel so sad because I miss them so much. I really hope that one day they will come back. If my wife has been taken as a wife by an Arab man and comes back with children, I will gladly accept them as my own.”

Under the cover of conflict

While the dehumanizing trade has subsided in the south since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, abductions and slavery continues to thrive in western Sudan under the cover of the ongoing conflict in Darfur.

This explosive subject has been explored in detailed in the book War and Slavery in Sudan. Written by Prof Jok Madut Jok, a member of the Dinka community, the book brings an insider’s perspective through vivid descriptions of the methods of capture and the heinous experiences of captivity.

The plight of Sudanese slaves has also been articulated in the film I am a Slave. The movie tells the real-life experiences of Mende Nazer, who was abducted in Nuba and held in bondage in Khartoum and London. The British drama, which was partly shot in Kenya, claims that an estimated 5,000 people work as trafficked slaves in the United Kingdom.

Published in the Daily Nation 11/10/2010.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Penned from the Palace

Somebody once said writers belong to the streets, not the palace. But there are those who have defied this unofficial creed -- like Vaclav Havel, Barack Obama and Leopold Senghor -- to issue timeless works from the comfort of their presidential homes.

In Africa, such leaders ruled in the post-independence era, during which many compiled their political beliefs and life stories into numerous books, some of which still remain important references in academic institutions.

Although their grand dreams failed, most African founding fathers will forever be remembered through their immortal words.

Today, perhaps one of the most compelling modern day presidential memoirs, besides Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's The Child Will Be Great.

Her's is an epic depiction of human resilience, endurance and struggle against seemingly insurmountable hurdles, and all that in an environment hostile to women.

After surviving an era of military coups, detention, warlords and overcoming the popular George Weah in closely contested elections to inherit a literally failed state ravaged by years of war, Ma Ellen, as she is popularly known, still remains upbeat throughout the pages of this moving book.

She describes Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson, two warlords who were pitted in bloody battles for supremacy for many years, as undisciplined, homicidal maniacs, and goes on to revisit the 26 -ear-old mayhem in words reminiscent of scenes from the under-appreciated 2005 film, Lord of War.

"They gave boys as young as nine drugs to fuel their ferociousness," she explains. "They gave them... guns... and permission to take whatever they wanted, and then sent them out to villagers and countryside to loot, rape, fight and kill."

Other African presidents who have compiled their ideas into books include deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, whose controversial Green Book outlines his outrageous political views; Ketumire Masire and Yoweri Museveni. Read on:

President Daniel arap Moi and Raila Amolo Odinga

Okay, these two did not write their memoirs, but their biographies are worthy a mention here.

Although they realize the power of the written word in boosting popularity and posterity, many leaders today either lack time or talent to pen their memoirs, if the huge number of journalists and university dons being hired to do the work is anything to go by.

And while many of these biographers have been hailed for compiling exemplary works, some have been accused of telling their subjects' tales in a manner that, most often than not, leaves many stones unturned.

When Nigerian lawyer Babafemi Badejo's Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics hit the bookshelves four years ago, many Kenyans ran for it, hoping to understand the Prime Minister's rocky past, especially his role, if any, in the 1982 attempted coup.

But, to their disappointment, the book turned out to be a hugely sympathetic story that denied readers a chance to understand one of Kenya's most... enigmatic... politicians.

"It has a weakness, in that, despite the rich variety of sources, the book comes like a dry chronicle, rather than an engaging and sensitive portrait. One gets the feeling that quite a lot is being held back, although the author secured full cooperation from his subject," says one critic, who goes on to lavish praise on the book's vivid and detailed recount of Kenya's political events in the last three decades.

Before Dr Badejo, Andrew Morton had narrated the story of retired President Daniel Arap Moi in Moi in The Making of an African Statesman.

Labeled by critics a cosmetic makeover of the former president's image, the book conveniently omits facts many Kenyans would die to know, like Mr Moi's marriage life, the Ouko murder saga and the Goldenberg scandal.

Morton goes to great lengths to paint a picture "of a man dedicated to his Christian faith, and having few material needs or ambitions; a country lover of simple tastes and demands...."

The English journalist seems to have forgotten a lot of criticism again the former president, including the fact that Moi bought a Sh2.5 billion presidential jet -- and built an airstrip, complete with a tower, at his farm in Kabarak -- as the country reeled in abject poverty.

Apart from many other glaring omissions, Andrew Morton's entire book seems to exonerate Moi from virtually all the crimes he has been accused of -- like the misappropriation of public funds, illegal expenditure, tribal clashes, human rights abuse and torture of political prisoners -- and goes on to blame the West for soiling the retired president's name.

But the subjective nature of the book should not come as a surprise from this writer of fortune who had previously done opportunistic books on Princess Diana, Monica Lewinsky, David and Victoria Beckham and Tom Cruise.

Peculiarly, both Moi and Raila, two towering figures in the Kenyan political landscape, had their stories done by foreigners with no firsthand knowledge of the country's political history.

Hence the two biographers have been criticised of failing to bring out the side of their subjects many readers were eager to know.

Patrice Lumumba

"Neither brutality, nor cruelty, nor torture will ever bring me to ask for mercy, for I prefer to die with my head unbowed, my faith unshakable and with profound trust in the destiny of my country, rather than live under subjection and disregarding sacred principles," said Patrice Lumumba in a political testament written in form of a letter to his wife, now preserved as a historical document, shortly before his death in prison.

The Congolese legend eternalised his views in Congo, My Country. But the fact that the book was published posthumously in Belgium in 1962, four years after the submission of its manuscript, renders its authenticity as uncertain as the various theories floated to explain the mysterious death of its famous author.

Kwame Nkurumah

The first Senegal president, Leopold Senghor, adored as the father of Francophone Africa's poetry, was so passionate about the written word that he housed literary exiles from as far as Haiti and Cuba during his presidency, besides compiling numerous poems.

However, Kwame Nkrumah was perhaps one of the most prolific presidential writers in the continent, compiling his political philosophies into numerous titles, like African Socialism Revisited, Africa Must Unite and African Personality.

"As far I am concerned, I am in the knowledge that death can never extinguish the torch which I have lit in Ghana and Africa. Long after I am dead and gone, the light will continue to burn and be borne aloft, giving light and guidance to all people," reads the epitaph on Nkrumah's mousoleum in Nkroful, the village of his birth in southern Ghana.

Perhaps when scripting these prophetic words, the Osagyefo (liberator) had a premonition of his downfall, which he sorrowfully recounted later in Dark Days in Ghana.

Julius Nyerere

When it comes to wielding the pen from the palace in the East African region, Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere stands out among his peers like an elephant in a golf course.

After making a name by translating Shakespeare's Merchants of Venice into Kiswahili, the humble leader discussed his complex political visions through titles like Education for Self Reliance and Crusade for Liberation.

As a scholar, Nyerere was a strong advocate for the application of education as a tool for self-reliance and liberation, rather than a ticket to elitism.

"The skills acquired by education should be liberating skills. Nothing else can properly be called education. Teaching that induces a slave mentality or a sense of impotence is not education at all -- it is attack on the minds of men," Mwalimu explains in one of his books.

Although, earlier on, Jomo Kenyatta had recounted the ways of his people in Facing Mount Kenya, long before Oginga Odinga narrated the ups and downs of his political career in the 1960s opus Not Yet Uhuru, their writing abilities were nowhere near Mwalimu's talent.

Nelson Mandela

"I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that, after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

Written by Nelson Mandela during his incarceration at Robben Island on some scraps of paper which he hid under the floor of his prison floor, these words were to be the lines of the first chapters of The Long Walk to Freedom, arguably one of the most popular autobiographies in Africa and beyond.

But this should not be a surprise, since anything associated with the iconic anti-apartheid leader -- from his former apartment in Soweto to his cell in Robben Island -- always has an hypnotising effect on humanity.

So huge is the Mandela name that specialists claim that, were he a brand, he would rank alongside the likes of Coca-Cola and Microsoft. He reportedly gets more than 4,000 invitations to events, and numerous request for autographs and product promotions per month.

To protect the old statesman's identity from exploitation his lawyers have copyrighted his name, prison number and other relics linked to the Mandela legacy.

Apart from his own writings and those of his official biographer Anthony Simpsons (the late), there are tens of other unofficial texts chronicling Madiba's life and times.

(First published in the Daily Nation)