Book Review: Born In Africa

Martin Meredith has become synonymous with great books on Africa. His style of writing is easy to read and he manages to make complicated issues accessible to layman audiences.  His two previous books The State of Africa and Diamonds, Gold and War were critically acclaimed.

In Born in Africa he takes a big step back from his usual topics of modern African history, 4 million years back to be precise. As a novice to pre-history, I expected to struggle a bit with the idea of fossils and apes, but Meredith tells the story in the form of the 20th century competition to unearth the oldest fossil and piece it into the ever-changing puzzle of our family tree.

It had been long accepted that Asia was the birthplace of modern man, when we dropped our ape-like tendencies and started walking on our back legs.  But fossil discoveries made in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and South Africa in the 20th century completely rewrote this theory, accompanied by some ferocious fighting between the different groups of paleoanthropologists and academics which makes for compelling reading.

Meredith spends the first part of the book following well-known names like the Leakey family in Kenya and their three generational contribution to the Australopithecus saga. It struck me how an incidental stumbling upon a small tooth in the ground would later lead to a complete rearrangement of our family tree, only to be undone a few years later by another groundbreaking discovery.

The devil is in the detail, as a small difference in a shin bone or jaw size could have massive ramifications to the age and development of each fossil. The debate over whether brain size or walking ability was the precursor to our advancement winds its way through the book.

The second half of the book sees Meredith recap on the discoveries made during the 20th century and the last few years, and where it leaves us now. Based on what we currently know, he declares how human life as we know it was born in Africa and we all probably come from one of the larger families that was in East Africa 200,000 years ago. From there they move forward, into the Middle East, Europe and Asia, leaving behind small traces of DNA to help us map their route.

It is difficult not to be mesmerised by the 4 million year journey our species has taken, and how our development is so closely linked to the earth and the constantly changing climate. It is not unimaginable that our entire history could also be rewritten again based on further discoveries they are bound to make in coming years.

This book is a must for anyone with an interest in Africa, it just might completely change the way you view this amazing continent.

Published in: on January 8, 2015 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Day in Kigali

We only had the pleasure of spending about 18 hours in Kigali, Rwanda, and my wife and I fully intend on returning for a longer visit.

The beauty of Rwanda became visible as our plane descended below the clouds and the rolling hills below us revealed themselves. The airport is pitched on top of one of these hills, and brought back memories of the battle fought here during the Genocide in 1994.  I deliberately tried to put these memories behind me so I could enjoy the modern Rwanda.

Our drive from the airport to the Step Town Motel took us up and down several more hills, and we were both delighted with how clean the streets were.  The trademark black and white paving lined every street us dozens of motorbikes flew past in each direction.

Our motel was placed high on a hill near the city centre with a wonderful view of northern Kigali. The soil in this area is a deep red colour, and must be very healthy considering the greenery that covers the city. 


We decided to walk to the city centre for some lunch as it was only around the corner and we wanted to soak up the atmosphere. The walk was entirely uphill and certianly got the legs working, but we enjoyed the sights of groups of children on their way home from school. The ocassional cry of ‘Mzungu!’ gave us the impression that they don’t often get visitors talking walks in their neighbourhood!

After exploring the the local shopping centre, we caught a taxi to take us down to the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. The drive was down into another valley and then up again, along the aptly named Avenue de le Gendarmerie.  The entrance is very unassuming considering the subject matter, although they clearly cater for bus loads of tourists. 
The exhibition itself is very moving, the content of which is better experienced than retold here.  You can spend a lifetime reading about events in books, but to stand in front of a collection of bones and to hear first hand accounts of the killing is something else.  Upon exiting the museum for much needed fresh air, you then have the uncomfortable experience of walking around the mass graves that hold some 250,000 victims of the genocide. 
This museum is testament to Rwanda’s regeneration since 1994 and is an absolute must-see for any visitors to the city. 
Upon returning to our hotel, we watched the sun set whilst enjoying a local beer on the balcony. We were disappointed that the day had come to an end and we had barely scratched the surface of this beautiful city. It was at this point we decided to return again soon, and I would most certainly be doing some reading on the history of Rwanda.
Published in: on August 20, 2012 at 2:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Why South Africa should support Palestine at the United Nations this week

As I write this, leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations (UN) in New York to attend the General Assembly.  Among the many issues being addressed, the one story stealing the show is the possible declaration of statehood by Palestine, much to the distress of the United States and Israel.

The struggle for a Palestinian state and the freedom of its citizens is not dissimilar from that of South Africa.  For a start, many of the problems facing the region are of British origin, whether it is the Balfour Decleration in 1919, or their hasty retreat without resolving the issue in 1948.  The Palestinian lands are being illegally occupied (by UN definition) and its citizens persecuted by discriminatory policies and brutal and disproportionate repression by Israeli state security.  The worst of them all is the ambivalence shown by the international community and its liberal organizations that claim to stand up for and defend human rights.  Sound familiar enough?

The Gaza Strip is effectively a concentration camp, breeding extremists who are willing to give their lives in the name of their cause.  This is hardly unsurprising when many of these young Palestinians have watched their own family and friends killed by Israeli strikes.  I have never travelled to the Gaza Strip, but in many  ways it reminds me of Soweto in the 1970s: the air heavy with the smell of revolution and the feeling that world opinion was slowly turning in their favour.

The Arab Spring represents to Palestine what the 1974 Lisbon Coup, or even the fall of the Berlin Wall, meant to the struggle against Apartheid.  It changed the regional dynamics, whereby long standing threats disappeared overnight, but new ones appeared elsewhere.  The South African government, and the African Union for that matter, should embrace this new era and continue its policy it as shown with Libya, by pledging support for an independent Palestinian state.

This also represents an opportunity for South Africa to diversify its foreign policy.  South Africa has always leaned towards conflict mediation on the continent, although it is still trying to escape the failure of ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Zimbabwe.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an example of a failure of talks, mediation and peace accords.  By South Africa supporting Palestinian statehood, they would be making a statement that although they support peace talks, there is clearly a limit to what they can achieve until something drastic has to be done.

This is also an opportunity for South Africa to forge a foreign policy that does not obediently fall in line with United States or British policy.  At a time when sub-Saharan Africa is divided on the Palestinian issue, a firm stance by South Africa could unite opinion and send out a strong message of unity and integrity.

The irony has not escaped me that the end of Apartheid was brought about through peace talks and not through declarations of statehood or all-out war.  But the dynamics were very different then.  The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union not only destroyed the threat posed to South Africa by Communism; indeed it showed that there wasn’t a threat at all.  The dynamics of the Hold Land have changed too in recent times; Israel no longer has allies in Egypt and Turkey and world opinion has never been stronger against their occupation of Palestinian territory.

There were many times in the fight against Apartheid that the struggle seemed dead in the water, when the global powers talked tough about helping but in fact were quite happy with the status quo.  The Palestinians must draw strength from the perseverance shown by the people of South Africa; their freedom will be achieved and the lives lost will not be in vain.  Perhaps the most disappointing feature of the Palestinian struggle has been their lack of leadership, a figure like Nelson Mandela who would unite all Arabs behind the cause.

But South Africa should not only support the Palestinian bid because of a historical context, but also of diplomatic and economic benefits that would come with it.  The Middle East offers major trade and investment opportunities, which would not come with the baggage that dealing with former colonial powers does.

But any move to statehood, if even made, is likely to be vetoed by the United States and possibly Great Britain and France, in another move to show just how out of date the UN Security Council is.  But South Africa should make a principled stand not only out of support for the beleaguered Palestinians, but as a sign of confidence for the region that represents serious opportunities for the future.

Published in: on September 22, 2011 at 8:45 am  Comments (2)  

One year after South Africa’s world cup triumph and the criticism continues

It was with a great sense of nostalgia that I watched the closing ceremony of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, knowing that it would be some time before South Africa would host anything of that size again.  Like many others I’m sure, I was also overcome with an incredible sense of pride and accomplishment, knowing that South Africa had defied so many critics and nay-sayers who questioned their very ability to host the World Cup successfully.

A year on, people are reflecting on the event and what South Africa gained from the experience.  The usual suspects in the English media, still seething from their own world cup snub by FIFA, have taken it upon themselves to once again drag the name of South Africa through the mud.  Perhaps this forms part of the larger battle the FA is fighting against FIFA, whereby they try to discredit the process of venue selection, but it’s high time they built the proverbial bridge and ‘get over it’.

A particular article in question was in yesterday’s Times.  The headline ‘World Cup legacy leaves South Africa with issues to address’ looks like it was thought of during the closing ceremony and then dusted off for the one year anniversary.  In it, the writers Matt Dickinson and Jonathan Clayton claim that this may have been FIFA’s greatest world cup, but ‘others take a different view’.  (Interestingly, a search through their archives shows a long history of cynical articles relating to South Africa’s World Cup).

The article is riddled with outlandish and provocative statements, of which a couple are worth examining.  ‘Poor have yet to reap any award from last year’s spectacle’ is a common allegation leveled at South Africa, and a fair point.  But when in the years leading up to the world cup was it ever claimed that they would?  South Africa is an extremely uneven society, and it will take a lot more than a soccer tournament to change that.  But to claim that none have benefited is disingenuous, ignoring the obvious employment opportunities and facility improvements  that took place across the country.  Nobody expected these problems to go away overnight, but the world cup certainly went some way to improving them.

Another criticism is of the ‘white elephant’ stadiums that are dotted around the country.  This cannot be said of Soccer City, which if anything is suffering from overuse and the local Golden Lions Rugby Union are soon to move their from Ellis Park Stadium.  It is only a matter of time before the magnificent Cape Town stadium is used by the Western Province Rugby Union for their home games as they grow out of the small Newlands ground they currently use.  Empty stadiums do exist, such as the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, but this stadium was always going to suffer from this as it is based in a fairly low populated area.  Lets not forget that it was FIFA who ordered the building of new stadiums rather than the use of current ones, not the South African government.

A recent documentary on Al Jazeera told the story of Global Girl Media, which trained a group of young Soweto girls in the basics of journalism and allowed them access to cover the tournament, and one year on they all describe how the experience changed their lives.  South Africa is already a popular destination for movie filming, and as Time reports this industry is expected to expand in the wake of the publicity it has been receiving.

There are two important points that this article, and other nay-sayers completely misunderstand.  Firstly, how the perception of South Africa has changed because of the World Cup.  Tourism over the next few years is expected to dramatically increase because of the positive publicity broadcast over the world for those six weeks, as explained here by the South African Tourism Minister.  Every person I talk to in the UK speaks positively of South Africa’s World Cup, that has to count for something.

Secondly, if these writers had bothered to ask ordinary South Africans how they felt about the World Cup, I’m sure they would have received a positive response.  It was not that long ago that Soweto was the centre of the battle against the Apartheid regime, and in 2010 it was the scene of the Soccer World Cup Final – the very thought of it brings back goosebumps.  The joy and celebration of the World Cup cannot be measured, it is something that has to be experienced.  Even the disappointment of Bafana Bafana not reaching the next round did not dampen the spirits of South Africans during those magical six weeks.

South Africa does have major issues that need addressing, these existed before and after the World Cup.  It is a young and vibrant democracy that, in my opinion, is doing phenomenally well in the wake of it’s traumatic history.  South Africa should be saluted for the successful host ing of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and I hope to see the Olympic Games being hosted there in my lifetime too.

Published in: on June 12, 2011 at 12:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Egypt rips off the shackles of dictatorship

I’m sure there are as many blogs being written about the revolution in Egypt as there were people in Tahrir Square last night, but that does not make the events of the past two weeks any less special.  Some punters were saying that last night, when the long serving dictator Hosni Mubarak stepped down, could be as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall.  With so many dictatorships still in place across the Middle East, only time will tell.

We have been reminded yet again of the power of social media in mobilising the masses.  When all the main news broadcasters were stuck showing the same elevated blurry image of Central Cairo for hours on end, it was Facebook and Twitter that gave us an insight into the cauldron.  When waiting on Mubarak to make a live speech on Egyptian television, his delayed arrival prompted the Twitter trending topic #ReasonsWhyMubarakIsLate, leading to thousands of hilarious responses.  Even revolutions have senses of humour.

Despite this, we have also been reminded that it was not Facebook or Twitter that caused this revolution.  It was people, in their masses, flooding into Cairo and demanding a better life.  The sight of the descendants (however distant) of one of the most ancient and advanced civilisations the planet has ever seen sent shivers down my spine.  There was something truly organic and wholesome about the entire event.

Egyptians, and Arabs across the world, celebrated last night.  But today and for many more days they must pick up the pieces.  They have to restore their government and try and return to normal life, and very importantly get the tourists back in again.  Now the worlds attention turns to Yemen, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to see reactions there.

So what does this mean for the rest of Africa?  South of the Sahara, very little.  Dictators there will be assessing Mubarak’s mistakes, like continually giving ground to the protestors that eventually led to his removal.  But Colonel Gadaffi of Libya should not be so comfortable, if there is anywhere in Africa that is ripe for a repeat of events in Tunisia and Egypt it is there.

Published in: on February 12, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (1)  
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Book Review: Ending Apartheid

Ending Apartheid

David Welsh and J.E. Spence

Pearson Education Limited 2011


When I first spoke to Professor Jack Spence about his upcoming book, “Ending Apartheid”, he explained to me that the purpose of the book was to provoke a debate about the topic which is yet to occur.  Despite nearly 17 years passing since South Africa’s first democratic election, the academic discussion regarding the reasons and arguments for the ending of Apartheid is still in its infancy.  Prof. Spence and David Welsh do not offer a definitive answer to this question; instead their short and concise book offers an insight into the various causes and events that led to the eventual dismantling of the Nationalist government.

The general election of 1948 is often regarded as a starting point of Apartheid, when the National Party defeated Jan Smut’s United Party.  I would personally look back as far as 1910 for the origins of Apartheid, but the purpose of this book is to look at the other end of the spectrum, the ending.

The forty-one years of Apartheid is broken up into three distinct categories; the first phase from 1948-1958 where Afrikaner power is consolidated; 1958-1966 which sees Dr. Verwoerd’s main engagement with black political organisations which included the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960; and finally 1966-1989 when Apartheid is in steady decline.  Many people, including the United Party, saw the National Party’s rise to power as a temporary blip which would be corrected at the next election, but this was to be a tragically naïve assessment.

Spence and Welsh do a superb job of contrasting various elements of Apartheid.  The security legislation that was quickly introduced to give the government more power to control its subjects is an example of the efficacy – albeit brutal – of the government.  But they also allow the occasional personal thought, like when they describe humiliating and embittering experience that Apartheid essentially was for the average black South African.

Apartheid is shown to be more than a simple black versus white issue.  I was struck by the vicious fighting between Inkatha and the other black movements, which was of course happily encouraged by the government.  Similarly there are several splits within the Afrikaner community, although none of them with any significant sense of moderation.

After the internal examination of Apartheid, we are allowed an outside glimpse of what the state of international relations looked like at the time.  I found it quite significant how South Africa fell into the global chessboard of the Cold War; despite international pressure on South Africa to hold democratic elections, the realpolitik of countries like the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United States meant that they were quite happy with the way things were.  Not mentioned in the book is the attempt by the UK in 1970 to sell vast quantities of arms and ammunition to the Apartheid government, a good example of the significance of realism in international relations.

The effectiveness of sanctions is looked at in great detail too, and it is concluded that whilst there is reasonable proof of a squeeze being placed on the South African government, it is more of a long term solution.  Similarly, the battle of the black majority versus the Afrikaner minority is more of a stalemate in the end rather than an outright victory or defeat for either side.   If one definitive reason is given for the ending of Apartheid after the examination of all the evidence, it would be “all of the above”.

Ending Apartheid is a fascinating read that covers all the major issues and leaves room for the reader to explore further with a detailed bibliography.  I certainly hope that the book succeeds in its attempt to provoke debate, and hopefully in the coming years we will see some South African historians coming out with their own interpretations of this enthralling yet wretched period of world history.

Published in: on February 7, 2011 at 8:18 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Mo Ibrahim Index

Yes folks, it’s that time of the year again when the Mo Ibrahim Foundation releases its findings on African governance, development and economic growth.  The main findings of this year’s report is “an increase in economic and human development” but disappointing reverses in democracy.  Press release here.

These sort of indexes and rating systems should always be taken into consideration within their context, but it does serve as an interesting marker for where the continent is, in the grand scheme of things.

The top order has a familiar look to it, with Mauritius, Seychelles and Botswana coming in first to third.  It’s also a case of the usual suspects holding up the table, with Somalia, Chad, DRC and Zimbabwe fighting it out for last place.  Although Zimbabwe has made improvements in many areas, it can take some time for this to show up on the Mo Ibrahim Index.

The recent gains by the continent by way of democratic reforms appear to have fallen behind, but I don’t think this is a huge cause of concern.  Governments across the world are in turmoil; the Democrats in the United States are about to get a walloping in the Mid-Terms, there is an uneasy coalition government in place in the United Kingdom, several other European states have stronger right-wing influences than ever before, and rising power Brazil is heading towards a run-off in its presidential election.  This may not be a reflection on global democracy, but in a young continent like Africa these global trends have a more noticeable effect.

The news about economic growth is very pleasing.  Some reports show African growth higher than anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps this has to do with Africa’s vast wealth of raw materials which will always be in high demand, unlike the collapse of the US motor industry last year, or the struggling Japanese electronic market.  Africa weathered the ‘global’ recession very well, and now is in a good position to make further gains for itself.

Africa’s position of economic gains but democratic losses is not unique.  In fact, India can be seen to be going through a similar situation.  Economic growth is through the roof , but it still suffers from a hugely decentralised government that appears unable to keep up with this growth.  An example of this can be seen in India’s rather disappointing preparation for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

All in all I think things are looking positive.  But there are events on the horizon which are going to attract more attention to the continent, such as the possible succession of South Sudan, elections in Zimbabwe, and the white elephant in the room that is Somalia.  Come on Africa, lets prove the pessimists wrong.

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

Africa and the Commonwealth

There have been  several distinguished guests to speak at the Royal United Services Institute’s (RUSI) Nelson Mandela Africa Lecture, and in July 2010 it was no different.  Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma was invited to speak this year as 2010 is seen as a significant year for Africa with several elections due to take place and the hosting of the Soccer World Cup bringing increased publicity to the continent.

The Secretary-General’s lecture was split in two, speaking firstly about democracy in Africa and then development.  He started out by discussing the historical connection between Africa and the Commonwealth, and how it pushed hard for decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s,  But it was tough going, as many member states resorted to one-party democracy or military rule.  The last ten years, however, has seen a return to multiparty democracy in many members states, and the Commonwealth has assisted in the post-war reconstruction in states such as Sierra Leone.  The Commonwealth’s work is now largely focussed on constitutional and parliamentary work and other institutions of democracy, as seen in Swaziland, Zanzibar and Tanzania.

When it came to Zimbabwe, he said that he would ‘welcome’ their return to the Commonwealth, and pointed out that Zimbabwe was never expelled but rather left on its own terms.

On the topic public relations, the Secretary-General stressed that the above work which he refers to as ‘best practice’ is indeed the bread and butter of what the Commonwealth does in Africa, but this does not always make international headlines like other organizations.  He stressed that the Commonwealth prefers to offer a ‘helping hand’ rather than a ‘wagging finger’.

In the second half of his lecture, the Secretary-General turned his attention to development in Africa, and pointed out that much of Africa’s economy is informal and unrecorded, therefore making it difficult to measure development accurately.  He shared his positive outlook on Commonwealth Africa’s development, saying that the cup is certainly half full, of which the Commonwealth has poured in its fair share of good cheer.

The Commonwealth is said to have instigated the process of debt relief; even though it does not have the capacity to provide huge amounts of aid to Africa, this way it has donated billions of dollars of unquantifiable work.  The Secretary General then turned his attention to the future, suggesting that the focus of the Commonwealth’s efforts lie in the treatment of HIV and AIDS and assisting in the shortage of teachers across the continent.

In his concluding remarks, he noted that democracy and development are ‘inconceivable apart’, to complete a fascinating lecture.  It was a shame that more time wasn’t given to the audience to ask questions, as I had several that I was hoping to put to him.

As far as my own thought go, I believe that his lecture went over the heads of a good few people there.  The Royal United Services Institute, by its very name, is a military think tank, and one of the first questions posed to the Secretary-General was that of military intervention.  The audience appeared to be made up foreign policy hawks and people largely ignorant of the continent of Africa, so it made for some uncomfortable questioning.  Although questions and answers remained off the record, the Secretary-General reiterated what he said in his lecture; that the Commonwealth is an organization made up of equals and it is there to discuss and assist, not issue ultimatums.

This could prove to be a very important lecture in the long run.  The new coalition government in Britain only a week before had pledged to put the ‘C’ back into the ‘FCO’ (Foreign and Commonwealth Office), so it is significant that this lecture was taking place at RUSI and in Whitehall.

The Commonwealth is probably the most important institution binding its African member states together: not only is this part of an important historical bond but they have much work to do together in the future.  If there is only one thing that comes out of this RUSI Nelson Mandela Lecture, lets hope it is a more positive British foreign policy towards the Commonwealth and Africa.

A full transcript of the Secretary-General’s speech can be found here.

Published in: on August 28, 2010 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Africa’s World Cup

I know by now that even hardened soccer fans must be getting sick of news of the world cup and ‘how much it is doing for Africa’.  But as an African in exile, I admit to have been quite moved by events over the past few weeks.

The opening ceremony was spectacular, and rather than than just the usual dull moving arrangements of oddly shaped objects, this ceremony had a real Africa vibe to it.  But what really raised the hairs on the back of my neck was the sight of Bafana Bafana lining up in the tunnel, about to take to the field to play Mexico in the opening game.  As the Mexicans stood motionless, facing the front with dead-pan faces, the South African team were singing, dancing and clapping with huge smiles on their faces.  This moment captured the very reason why Africa deserved to host the world cup; because they offer something completely unique that no other continent could come close to.

If the first goal of the tournament was anything to go by, I began to think that Bafana Bafana could surprise everyone and perhaps make it past the last 16.  But unfortunatley that was not to be; their draw with Mexico and loss to Uruguay put them out of contention.  Their final match against France brought them within 2 goals of making it out of their group, but events did not go their way.  They won 2-1, but goal difference ruled them out of the competition.  The reaction by the South African public to Bafana Bafana’s early exit was admirable, they were genuinely proud or their team and thanked them for three exciting matches, completely different to the witch-hunts and damning media reports faced by some European teams.

It was during this match that I realised how much everybody wanted them to go through to the next round, including the British television presenters who unashamedly threw their objectivity out the window.  I think this was a proud moment for South Africa; although the hosts had not done was well as they hoped, they had won the hearts of many people; what more could they have asked for?

Once the final 16 teams had been determined, Ghana had the responsibility of carrying Africa’s hopes.  But their exit on penalties still makes me ill when I recall it.  It was not only their loss, but the manner of their loss which prompted so much disappointment around the world.  A deliberate hand ball by a Uruguayan player led to a penalty that could have won Ghana the game, but it was missed and the ensuing penalty shoot-out went the way of the South Americans.  For all FIFA’s efforts of publicising the concept of fair play during the world cup, I could not think of a more unfair exit from the world cup.

The final has come and gone, with Spain rightfully lifting the trophy on Sunday night.  The congratulations and applauds towards South Africa for their successful hosting of the event are refreshing.  There was no shortage of cynics and nay-sayers in the weeks leading up to the event, with talk of terrorist attacks, unfinished stadiums, machete-wielding gangs roaming the streets and even danger of snakes to the English team at their hotel in Rustenburg.  The disgusting journalism that promoted these ideas has been shown up for what it is, illustrated by the arrest of a Sunday Mirror journalist  for orchestrating a break-in of the English changeroom after their game against Algeria.  I hope this has taught the media to be less cynical of South Africa and its readers to be more wary of what they read.

On the radio after the final, one person questioned when next the world cup will be held in Africa.  I thought this was a very poignant question to ask after the final.  It will be many years until South Africa can host it again, so which other country has the money and infrastructure to host the tournament?  Unfortunately not a lot of places spring to mind.  Nigeria has the money and the fan base, but it also has massive problems with corruption and oil-related violence.  Perhaps a joint East African tournament could be held? This is unlikely after the recent bombing in Uganda.  Hopefully in a few years this will not be the case, and South Africa has shown that the benefits of hosting this event are well worth the effort.  I look forward to that day, and the day an African team lifts the coveted trophy of the soccer world cup.

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 5:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Damaging Democracy in Commonwealth Africa

Below is a paper on Damaging Democracy that I will be presenting at the Democracy in the Commonwealth conference in London in June 2010.  More information on the conference can be found here.


Democracy and Africa are two ideas that have not always fitted together comfortably.  Having survived colonization and decolonization, it has only been in the last 20 years that most parts of Africa, including the Commonwealth countries, have had democratic governments running them.  The legacies of dictators like Idi Amin and Sani Abachi still form western ideals of what democracy looks like in Africa.  But in the past few years there have been several elections in Commonwealth countries which have been widely regarded as free and fair by the international community.  Democracy is a fine balance than needs constant attention and maintenance, and this paper intends to show the constant dangers posed to democracy in African Commonwealth states.  But what exactly is the term ‘democracy’ being referred to mean?  In the strictest sense, it refers to the peaceful method of changing governments.  But there is more to it than that, as states have to fulfill many obligations before they can begin to be defined as democratic.  There is, of course, the holding of free and fair elections that lead to a representative government, consisting of politicians that are committed to serving the people rather than themselves.  A free and independent media is vital to a democracy, as an outlet to analyse and criticize its politicians and their decisions.  Democracy can also be measured by the freedom its citizens have, regardless of their age, gender, colour, ethnicity, and so on.

The most obvious starting point for looking at the dangers posed to African democracy is the elections themselves.  African Commonwealth countries do not have a distinguished history when it comes to elections, and 2007 was a particularly bad vintage.  Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa with a population of over 150 million people, has had its fair share of disputed elections.  It’s most recent, in 2007, proved to be no different.  Although Umara Musa Yar’Adua of the ruling People’s Democratic Party won with 70% of the vote, there were reports of widespread fraud and violence.  The Commonwealth Observer Group called the election a ‘missed opportunity’, saying that they were even worse than the disputed 2003 elections.  Nigerians deserve much better than they are getting; the vast oil wealth it contains requires a strong and fair government to manage this better and to benefit the people better, but this is yet to happen.  At the time of writing,  Yar’Adua had just died from a long suffering illness, adding more drama to next year’s election which is due to vote in a Muslim northerner as part of the system of rotation in place.  For sub-Saharan’s second biggest economy, it is vital that a free and fair election is held.   Presidential elections in Kenya in 2007 made world headlines for all the wrong reasons, after widespread violence left over 1,500 people dead.  Elections held there in 2002 were widely regarded as democratic, voting out the ruling party that had been in power since independence in 1963.  After what was described as Kenya’s most competitive elections, Raila Odinga was said to have beaten president Mwai Kibaki, but official results that were delayed eventually announced Kibaki the winner, with large question marks being left over the handling of the final results.  Unrest lead to violence that took on ethnic divisions, requiring former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan to intervene and assist the setting up of a coalition government.  Although much of the violence was based upon historical land and social injustices, the questionable election served as a catalyst to bring tensions to the surface.  The coalition government is still intact today, although progress has been slow and worries remain about the possibility of further violence at the next presidential elections in 2012.  As Kenya is the commercial hub of East Africa, it is also vital that elections in 2012 are free and fair.  These two elections were in two of the most significant countries of the continent, which has ramifications in each of their regions.  If Nigeria and Kenya are to encourage democratic elections in each of their sphere of influence, they had best start with their own.

In his book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, Richard Dowden likens corruption in Africa to a cancer, where it ‘has taken over the body.  It is the system’.[1] This forms what appears to be an unshakable image of Africa, such as the 419 internet scam that has its origins in Nigeria.  Guy Arnold has argued that Africa is probably no more corrupt than other continents, yet this has constantly been used as a tool for the West to ‘manipulate economic and political behavior’ of African states.[2] Like much else with Africa, corruption is not a uniform problem in each state.  When huge quantities of aid are poured into countries without the infrastructure to deal with it are in place, it is difficult to avoid people trying to take what they consider their ‘fair share’.  This has been highlighted in recent literate like ‘Dead Aid’ by Dambiso Moyo.[3] In the Transparency International corruption index of 2009, Sierra Leone, Cameroon and Kenya come up worst for African Commonwealth countries (tied 146th out of 180), followed by Nigeria, Uganda and Mozambique tied on 130th.  In a global perspective, this is not a relatively bad performance, but in countries with developing economics, corruption still represents a major hurdle.  Corruption, money-laundering and patronage politics are problems that member states have to resolve by themselves, as the Commonwealth is a collection of member states, not a police force.  Some improvement has been seen recently, such as recent arrests of prominent government officials by the Anti-Corruption Commission in Sierra Leone, and the setting up in most states of some form of anti-corruption organizations.  However, the continent still has some way to go to remove this ‘cancer’.

The Commonwealth, as it is widely known and celebrated, is phenomenally diverse, with many different languages, cultures, ethnicities, and so on.  Africa is no different, and how some of the smaller sections of a society are represented is important to a healthy democracy.  Rhoda Howard wrote in 1986 that the rights of minorities in Commonwealth Africa have been ignored in favour of the national majority in the nation-making process.[4] Since then Africa has made improvements in the treatment of minorities, such as the empowerment of women in the post-war reconstruction of Sierra Leone, which the Commonwealth has assisted in.  But other minorities have not fared so well, such as homosexuals.    Homosexuality goes against many traditional African beliefs, to the point where governments are taking action against it.  Gay sex is illegal in 37 African countries, and Commonwealth states such as Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and Uganda there are strong views against homosexuality being accepted by society, largely due to religious beliefs.[5] A recent attempt by the Ugandan government to pass a bill that would bring about the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’ drew international criticism, although the law has yet to be passed.  Malawi too is taking strong action against homosexuals, with Malawi church leaders describing homosexuality as ‘sinful’ and the high profile arrest of two men after their wedding ceremony.  Perhaps this perceived increase in homophobia has more to do with a greater dialogue taking place in the respective countries, but how the issue is dealt with puts a spotlight not only on democracy but on human rights standards, something the Commonwealth is sworn to uphold.

A free press is another fundamental institution in a democracy, and with African Commonwealth states having relatively high literacy levels, newspapers in particular are a popular way of keeping up with politics.  When a seemingly unpopular government is in office, it is the press that provides the greatest criticism of their actions and can often take the role of the official opposition and is thus the first target for retributions.  Zimbabwe, before it left the Commonwealth in 2003, provides a fascinating case study of this.  Newspaper editor Geoffrey Nyarota founded the Daily News at about the same time that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was galvanizing support against Robert Mugabe’s government, and although they were never officially in collusion, the Daily News and MDC became vital allies in the fight for democracy, which unfortunately ended in the bombing of the printing plant in January 2001, closing the newspaper.[6] A bizarre case in Zambia recently highlighted the lengths that some papers will go to when criticizing the government.  In an effort to highlight the damaged to the health system being caused by a nurses strike, The Post published pictures of a woman giving birth outside a hospital after being refused admission, which Zambian president Rupiah Banda took issue with.  The news editor, Chansa Kabwela was arrested for the distributing obscene images, but the case was eventually dismissed.  It is not an uncommon sight on the streets of African cities to see groups of people huddled around various newspapers every morning, discussing and arguing about the front page.  This is perhaps one of the greatest pillars of democracy in Africa, and is also one of the first to be attacked by undemocratic forces.  Any attempt to suppress the media in these countries should serve as the warning sign.

Africa is ‘blessed’ with an abundance of natural resources, some that have been around for a while and some that are new.  The difficulty facing those states with oil, gold, diamonds, uranium and the like is how to let the wealth of these areas make its way down to the general population, rather than letting the ruling parties line their pockets with the profits.  This is a challenge that is not unique to Africa, and for some states this new found wealth puts them in unchartered territory.  One such place is Uganda, which recently had oil discovered in Lake Albert.  Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is said to have sent officials around the world discovering how best to manage this new commodity, in a bid to avoid some of the problems that somewhere like Nigeria has experienced with oil.  But this new found wealth also has the potential to fuel corruption and to encourage the ruling party to hold on to power – Museveni has already abolished presidential term limits.  Ghana too has recently discovered oil deposits, but is being more transparent than Uganda in its efforts reap the rewards for its own citizens.  Nigeria is the obvious example of how not to manage oil; its Niger Delta is riddled with piracy, the environment around the oil wells has been ruined and too few Nigerians have benefited from the tremendous wealth the country possesses.  There is a growing international interest in Africa’s resources, including the likes of Iran, Venezuela and China, for which African states must be prepared to do business with their citizen’s interests in mind.  It is still too early to say for certain that Africa’s natural resources are a ‘blessing’; it is vital that the lessons from South Africa’s gold to Sierra Leone’s blood diamonds are learned and that these commodities are managed properly.

African Commonwealth states enjoy cordial relations with each other, and conflict between them seems highly unlikely.  The major security problems that are faced by these states come from non-Commonwealth neighbours.  Kenya has suffered from its proximity to Somalia, not only by way of the dangers of maritime piracy, but by soldiers fleeing over the border to escape the war.  Kenya has been forced to reinforce its border security after a series of abductions and a growing refugee problem.  The newest member of the Commonwealth, Rwanda, is still engaged in conflict with forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo in a war that goes back to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and was one of the main objections to them joining the Commonwealth in 2009.  Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia all suffer from refugee problems as a result of the continued war in the Congo.  Some of Africa’s security issues have global implications, such as the Nigerian born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab responsible for the attempted bombing of an American airliner in 2009, and the rumoured growth of Al Qaeda in East Africa.  These security dilemmas show that it is not only important that these Commonwealth states maintain their good relations with each other, but that they work on their relations with their neighbours and with the international community.

No discussion on damaging democracy in Africa would be complete without reference to Zimbabwe.  Although not presently a Commonwealth member state, it is likely to resume membership in the coming years as its unity government begins the repair work after a decade of devastation.  Zambia and Botswana were the most vocal when it came to denouncing Mugabe, but the silence from South Africa was deafening.  Former president Thabo Mbeki’s policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ did eventually produce the Global Political Agreement (GPA) between the three main parties, but it came at a huge cost, in both humanitarian and economic terms.  With roughly a quarter of the population of Zimbabwe displaced, it is imperative that the diaspora are encouraged to return, and that all conditions agreed in the GPA are met.  The credibility of both South Africa and the Commonwealth have suffered over the situation with Zimbabwe, so bringing back stability to this once prosperous country will go some way to restoring that.  By doing so, the Commonwealth will reaffirm the principles set out in the Harare Declaration of 1991, such as the belief that ‘international peace and order, global economic development and the rule of international law are essential to the security and prosperity of mankind’.

Africa has much to be optimistic of; its destiny is in its own hands as to what the future holds for it.  Many people condemn the increased presence of China in Africa, because of their questionable record on human rights and their policy to do business with anybody, but it is entirely up to these states to do choose who they do business with.  African’s Commonwealth states share a similar history, but are very diverse, and so too are the dangers posed to these democracies.  As we have seen, these dangers can be in the form of fraudulent elections, corruption, persecution of minorities, a stifled media, misused natural resources, conflict and failed states.  At the closing of the World Economic Forum in Tanzania, South African President Jacob Zuma called for ‘the strengthening of oversight institutions that can support and maintain the entrenchment of democracy in Africa’.[7] This is illustrative of the important role the Commonwealth has to play in Africa, especially where regional organizations like the African Union and Southern African Development Community have disappointed.   If these pitfalls can be avoided and reversed, then Africa has a bright future.

[1] Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles (London, Portobello Books, 2008).

[2] Guy Arnold, Africa: A Modern History (London, Atlantic Books, 2006).

[3] Dambiso Moyo, Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa (London, Allen Lane, 2009).

[4] Rhoda Howard, Human Rights in Commonwealth Africa (Totowa, Rowman and Littlefield, 1986), p. 92.

[5] The Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press, Religious Beliefs Underpin Opposition to Homosexuality (

[6] Geoffrey Nyarota, Against the Grain; Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman (Cape Town, Zebra Press 2006).

[7] South African Government Information, ‘President Jacob Zuma concludes working visit to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’, 7th May 2010 (

Published in: on May 18, 2010 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment