Archive | October, 2013

Biased western reporting on Africa

8 Oct

 

Many foreign writers on Africa are guilty of two extremes – condescension and too much praise, with the former being more dominant. It is easy to see why it is so much simpler to be disdainful. Arrogance does not require mental application. In fact, it shows a certain degree of laziness. All one has to do is follow a narrative that has been fashioned from the time of Africa’s contact with Europe to the present.

The middle ground – presenting Africa as it really is – is less attractive because it is more difficult. It requires patient study, clear analysis, objectivity and better understanding – all of which writers impatient to make headlines in major newspapers and on to quick fame sadly lack.

And so it was that Mr Geoffrey Gettleman published an article in the New York Times purporting to be an authoritative understanding of President Paul Kagame and Rwanda. Gettleman is, of course, no stranger to Rwanda. He has published many articles on the country – many of them so clearly inaccurate and biased that it is difficult to understand how his editors could pass them for publication. But wait. The narrative, of course!

In the strange world of Gettleman and the other occasional visitors, the number of his articles qualifies him to be an expert on Rwanda and East Africa. However, this has not made him more familiar with Rwanda or made it easy for him to accept what he sees as the reality. The reason is simple – it contradicts the laid down narrative.

In his recent article, he acknowledges the progress that Rwanda has made, but is quick to find an explanation for this “rare” occurrence – naturally outside Rwandans’ own efforts. 

For instance, Gettleman admires (grudgingly) the cleanliness of Kigali and the absence of plastic bags from the streets. He is quick to notice the absence of beggars and street children and other homeless people. But for him the reasons for this are not because Rwandans value tidiness and have social programmes for the most vulnerable members of society. He sees the heavy hand of government behind this. It has banned plastic bags, dictated that streets must be cleaned and carted off the homeless to a rehabilitation centre (which he doubts).

Gettleman is surprised by how secure Kigali is; he can walk at any time of the night without fear of being mugged. However, he does not see security as something Rwandans desire and deserve, but as an imposition by an authoritarian state.

Ordinarily Gettleman would find little fault with President Kagame’s leadership, which he credits with Rwanda’s progress in the short period following the genocide against the Tutsi. It seems it is too painful for him to accept this fact that goes against the predetermined narrative. It must therefore be tempered with a description of President Kagame as the typical African leader – intolerant, brutal, and oppressive and so on.

The problem is not that Gettleman and other so-called experts do not know what is right or that they are agonising to be fair and give credit where it is due and apportion blame where it is deserved. The issue is that what they see – that an African country and its people and leaders can make progress, however modest – does not fit the chosen narrative of Africans as inherently inept, corrupt and murderous, incapable of determining what is good for them.

To be fair to Gettleman, he did not start this narrative. It is part of a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.

It can be traced back to the earliest European adventurers (sometimes called explorers) who traversed Africa on behalf of various interests. In addition to staking out territory for their masters, they doubled as amateur anthropologists, historians and geographers. From these part time pursuits they passed down prejudices and inaccuracies that have become permanent points of reference, even by Africans.

Adventurers were followed by missionaries.  These stayed longer in one place and some were schooled in anthropology and ethnography and made some systematic observation of the societies among whom they worked. The problem was that they observed Africans through western intellectual lenses and used their own social organisation as a standard. Quite often, their conclusions were wrong and went to reinforce an already formed view of Africans.

They, too, passed down bigotry dressed as scholarship.

And in spite of preaching brotherly equality (they were not yet gender sensitive) the missionaries were also racist. The words of the celebrated medical missionary and philanthropist, Dr Albert Schweitzer, aptly summarise this attitude. He is reported to have remarked, “It it true the African is my brother. But it is also true that I am his elder brother”.

The chosen narrative about Africa was then taken up through literature. Writers like Sir Rider Haggard popularised the notion of the noble savage through his novels set in Africa.

In Mr Johnson, the Irish writer, Joyce Cary, presented the African as little more than a boy, incapable of understanding complex issues, but full of admiration for everything European. Luckily, something good came out of Joyce Cary’s racism. Chinua Achebe (RIP) wrote Things Fall Apart partly in response to the misrepresentation of Africans in Mr Johnson

Frustrated colonials like Karen Blixen in Kenya carried on the tradition in Out of Africa.

Today, the same narrative has been picked up by new agents.

First, there is the media (Gettleman and co.) whose general characterisation of Africans differs little from that of Rider Haggard or Joyce Cary.

Then there are the NGOs and various international agencies, which, in a bid to justify their chosen role as saviours and benefactors, seek to portray those they want to save as a people with a predilection to violence and self-destruction.

All these are fed by anecdotes of diplomats gained from chance conversations at the numerous diplomatic cocktail parties.

Even with the best of intentions, foreign writers will not be able to present to their audiences the real story of Africa, the struggles of its people and the motives of its leaders until they free themselves from the narrative imposed on them. They must get rid of the blinkers.

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Tanzania’s isolation in the East African Community

8 Oct

 

In June this year, the presidents of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda met in Kampala and then announced a plan with definite timelines to speed up integration in the East African Community. They have since met again in Mombasa and will be in Kigali soon.

There were two reactions to this development.

The first was that the three were creating a two-lane integration process – one for those who wanted to sprint and another for dawdlers.

The second was a signal that if the other two could not make up their mind about how they wanted the East African Community to move forward, they risked being left behind.

In both cases, depending on where one stood on the issue, the action of the three countries was said to be leading to the possible isolation of Tanzania and Burundi or to pulling them along to join the others.

Tanzania shrugged and scoffed at such suggestions, saying they were inconsequential and that the trio could go ahead with their plans. Some Tanzanians even claimed that not much could be done without their country since it was the regional centre of gravity.

That initial disdainful dismissal of what has come to be known as the tripartite arrangement has given way to realism. Now Tanzania and Burundi are chafing at being left out by the other three partner states. The prospect of isolation, or at any rate being left behind, is looming.

Indication that this change of attitude is happening came from a recent meeting of the East African Council of Ministers in Arusha.

A lot of good may come from the decisions of Presidents Paul Kagame, Yoweri Museveni and Uhuru Kenyatta to go it alone. They are now likely to pull along the other reluctant partners after all.

In many senses both the actions of Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda and the new response by Burundi and Tanzania had to happen at some point. Exasperation among East African Community enthusiasts with Tanzania for its slow pace towards integration was bound to trigger some reaction or other.

It is not a coincidence that the three countries chose to address the very areas where Tanzania has been less cooperative: single customs territory, non-tariff barriers, free movement of people, goods, services and capital, infrastructure and political federation.

For long the excuse of the Tanzanian leadership was that their citizens should not be stampeded into faster integration because there was no urgency and in any case they needed time to grasp the concept.

As it now turns out, that was only a pretext. Ordinary Tanzanians now recognise that the other three partner states are determined to go ahead without them. The prospect of achieving what they have set out to do is very real. The likelihood of isolation, or at the very least being left behind, is also becoming real and is being voiced by ordinary people.

Politicians are now picking it up because it is becoming a serious issue and likely to make them climb down from their arrogant position.

This change of attitude has obviously been forced on the Tanzanian leadership. They now realise they might lose out if the other countries establish a single customs territory and also start using a single-tourist visa. And despite repeated denials, plans to build the oil and transport infrastructure in the northern corridor will significantly affect the volume of cargo along the central corridor.

Already, there are examples of a climb down. Tanzania unilaterally hiked charges on Rwandan-registered trucks ferrying transit goods through its territory. Rwanda retaliated and raised charges on Tanzanian trucks. Tanzania cried foul but in the end backed down and reduced the charges they had set without consultation.

The decision was not, of course, a result of good neighbourly feelings. It was the product of hard-nosed business calculations. Tanzania has more trucks doing business from the port of Dar es Salaam to Kigali and on to northern Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was therefore bound to lose from a protracted tariff war.

The same considerations are probably coming into play with regard to the tripartite arrangements between Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. The fear of loss and isolation will make the Tanzanian leadership find their East African feet and recognise that it is in their best interest to travel together with their partners and at the same pace.

They might yet rediscover the integrationist spirit of their predecessors. Historically, ideologically and even in practical terms, Tanzania was the most integrationist of the East African countries. This owed in large measure to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s Pan-Africanism and de-ethnicisation of the country, and the fact that the country was the home of nearly all liberation movements in East, Central and Southern Africa.

About ten years ago, all that began to change. We began to see the development of an inward looking nationalism and dangerous flashes of xenophobia.

That could yet change again and the previous enthusiasm for a united East Africa return. The fear of isolation and loss of business may bring that about.

Why Africa must get most from new rush

8 Oct

 

Africa is the most sought after place in our universe. The next is perhaps outer space. But this is for a very small elite. On the other hand, Africa is being courted by everyone like she was the most and beautiful girl in this wide neighbourhood. Which, of course, she is.

China has come calling. It has actually been doing that for quite a while, quietly, sometimes unnoticed so that some people were caught off guard when they noticed its real intentions. But now it is so determined that it won’t take no for an answer.

India, too, is a very serious suitor. In the past India left its huge expatriate population resident in many African countries do its work. Lately, it has become clear that delegated courting is no longer enough. The stakes are high and the rivalry so intense that India has decided to be more direct about its intentions.

Japan does not want to be left behind by these up and coming Asian neighbours flaunting their new wealth and power. It has also joined the fray and last week hosted a conference in Yokohama on Africa’s development that was attended by many of the continent’s bigwigs. The Japanese have been doing this for the last twenty years (this year’s conference was the fifth).

All these countries courting Africa claim that they want to be part of the continent’s growth. And they go about it the same way – organise huge conferences to which they invite African leaders to come and show off their countries’ attractions. The Japanese call theirs the Tokyo International Conference for Africa’s Development (TICAD) that is held every five years. For the Chinese it is the Forum on China Africa Cooperation and it takes place every two years, which perhaps shows their urgency.

The increasing attention Africa is attracting has the west burning with jealousy. The west thought they had Africa in their tight embrace and all to themselves, well, until the new kids arrived. As so often happens where there are no rivals, the west had neglected and even mistreated her.

Now the appearance of serious rivals has rattled them out of their complacency and the fear of losing what they had always taken for granted has become real. And like someone who has been used to having things his way, the west initially responded predictably, with arrogance, abuse, threats, warnings – never an attempt to win her back. That is changing as they realise the competition is for real. That is one reason United States President Barrack Obama is going to Tanzania soon after China’s President Xi Jinping was there earlier this year.

This is not the first time that there has been such a rush for Africa’s fortunes. Nor are the reasons very different. The methods may have changed, but even then only slightly. The first time resulted in carving up the continent between various greedy and impatient suitors in order to avoid deadly blows over Africa’s bounteous beauty.

Today the story is very similar. The talk about being interested in Africa’s growth and wanting to be part of it is typical suitors’ talk – sweet, persuasive and sometimes even irresistible, but concealing the real desire of total conquest. In any case, no one will say their real intentions are to grab and own completely. The interest is Africa’s beauty, its resources, which are so dazzlingly inviting, they get those who eye them drooling.

Africa is getting wealthier, too, and that is another attraction. Who wants a poor person for a partner? The Indians know that very well. The poor bride, unable to stand the taunts of her in-laws, often douses and burns herself. Self-immolation is an Indian invention we certainly don’t want here.

In between, Africa was scarred by ideological fights by two distant rival bullies.

In all this rivalry, Africa has always come off worst. She has obviously failed to use her many charms to extract the best deal from rival suitors. Is it going to be any different this time?

One hopes that the presidents and their delegations (some of them incredibly and inexplicably large) use the opportunity at the meetings to learn about how the hosts got to where they are and come home and adapt the lessons to their countries.

Today’s African leaders, especially those sitting on newly found wealth, must surely have learnt from the folly of their ancestors who gave away Africa’s wealth in exchange for bottles of schnapps, cheap trinkets and other kids’ stuff. Many of them ceded entire countries to European adventurers and imperial agents by appending their signature – really an X mark – on agreements they could not read or understand. Sometimes this was done at the point of a gun, the promise of protection or after they were thoroughly inebriated.

Today, there are many agreements floating around seeking signatures for similar concessions. The guns have been replaced by the cheque books, but the schnapps, toys and other objects of vanity remain.

Still, Africa can play hard to get and extract the best deal from all these suitors. After all she holds what everyone wants. At this year’s TICAD Japanese Prime Minister pledged $32 billion, a fifth of which is to go to infrastructure development. In the last ten years, the Chinese have committed $75 billion, the United States $90 billion. What the Indians and Europeans are willing to offer can only match this.

This gives you an indication of Africa’s worth and why there is a veritable rush and competition to lay hands on her. This time, Africans must know the value of wealth of their continent and not give it away again for next to nothing.

US gets it wrong on Rwanda

8 Oct

 

In this region, some things never change regardless of the facts on the ground. For instance, when it comes to issues in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda inevitably gets drawn into the mess even when it is evident that it has nothing to do with it.

And so predictably, last week the State Department announced that the United States government was suspending military aid to Rwanda. Rwanda’s crime? Aiding and abetting the recruitment and training of child soldiers for the M23 rebels in Eastern DRC.

When this was announced, there was a collective sense of shock and disbelief. What? Child soldiers in Rwanda? Impossible. Not in a million years!

I believe some in the State Department were equally flabbergasted by the utterly wrong and illogical accusation.

But in the Congolese jungle, now also inhabited by the United Nations and the big powers, logic is an alien concept; truth doesn’t matter; shock and puzzlement don’t count. What matters is to advance the plot of a narrative that has been created about Rwanda.

The accusation against Rwanda raises an important question. Who actually shapes the Obama Administration’s policy on the Great Lakes Region? Is it crafted by the State Department as indeed it should be? Or is it fashioned elsewhere and then brought to bear on the State Department?

Apparently, Obama’s Great Lakes policy is made elsewhere, not at State Department. This is why.

The United States embassy in Kigali, the US Army’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the US military in general know and understand the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) very well. They all know its composition and reputation. They are aware it is a highly respected, disciplined, professional and an efficient fighting force. It therefore has no need or place for child soldiers.

The US military has cooperated with the RDF in training and peace-keeping missions. So has the United Nations.

All top AFRICOM Commanders, almost as a rule, call on the Rwandan ministry of defence and RDF at the start and end of their tour of duty, and many times between.

On the basis of all the information gathered by the different agencies, the US Departments of State and Defence have the correct picture of Rwanda and the region.

So where does this obviously misinformed policy come from?

For one, it has the unmistakable imprint of Human Rights Watch, the UN Department of Peace –keeping Operations (DPKO) and their media allies like Reuters, For some inexplicable reason, Human Rights Watch has President Obama’s ear and is able to influence his policy towards the Great Lakes Region.

For long Human Rights Watch has set itself in opposition to Rwanda. It has carried out a hate campaign against this country and attempted to implicate it in the anarchy, numerous rebellions and human rights abuses in the ungoverned Eastern DRC. This crusading rights group has done so through misinformation, lies and fabrication which are then spread as truth by their partners in the media.

None of this has stuck. Which is why they keep on rehashing it or looking for fresh accusations like the new crime called the recruitment of child soldiers. If everything else fails, surely thi will work. Apparently it is a worse crime than extensive massacres, mass rape, pillage, extortion and wanton destruction of property, and even genocide.

How else can one explain the complete lack of condemnation of the FDLR and the Congolese army’s adoption of the genocidal group as their comrades in arms? Or the total absolution of the DRC government from all blame by MONUSCO’s chief of child protection, Ms Dee Brillenburg Wurth with her laughable assertion that DRC has zero tolerance to the use of child soldiers? She has effectively become DRC’s spokesperson. A certain Mr Lambert Mende had better watch out.

There is another sinister motive behind the present accusation against Rwanda. It follows a familiar line peddled by MONUSCO and its parent body, the UN’s DPKO, Human Rights Watch and associated media, and the DRC government. They have always insisted that M23 is not a Congolese rebellion but rather a Rwandan creation.

Denying that the rebellion is a Congolese problem removes the responsibility for its solution from the DRC government and from the huge UN peace-keeping operation in the country. On the other hand, making it appear like external aggression gives the enemies of Rwanda, especially the foreign backers of the FDLR and remnants of the genocidal regime that created it the pretext to continue supporting them so as to destabilise the country.

Equally dangerous, the denial of M23 as a genuine Congolese rebellion with legitimate grievances is also denial of the right of thousands of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese to Congolese nationality. This is at the root of M23 grievances. It is hardly surprising that the so-called international community refuses to discuss the plight of Kinyarwanda speaking Congolese refugees in neighbouring countries. 

In seeking to punish Rwanda for crimes it has not committed, the Obama Administration is placing itself into a trap. First, it is ceding American leadership in the region to non-state actors and special interest groups as well as certain countries with a vested interest in the continuation of instability in the region.

Second, it risks becoming complicit in ethnic cleansing and probably genocide.  Neither of which does anything to advance peace and security in the region or globally, not to speak of Obama’s legacy in Africa.