Fearful Streets and Burning Hearts in Addis Ababa

I just flew back from Addis Ababa where I have spent the last couple of days attending a meeting. The streets were empty of traffic, as most city residents remained indoors in response to demonstrations and riots that have wracked the city for the past week. At least forty-five civilians are dead, killed in clashes between the police and opposition protestors who charge that the 15 May elections were rigged by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolution Democratic Front (EPRDF) coalition. It was my first time in Addis and I everyone I encountered was fearful of the ongoing crackdown by the state. I heard of mass arrests, more than ten thousand young men in jail I was told with others claiming that the number was far higher. A young women whose brother was arrested, feared that his punishment might be getting forced to the frontline should war between Ethiopia and Eritrea break out as is seeming more likely by the day. She told me that her mother was in tears daily, dreading the worst for her child, her memories of what happens to people in Ethiopian prisons overcoming any comfort that her daughter and friends tried to provide. I cannot by any stretch of the imagination claim to be deeply knowledgeable on Ethiopia, but I could not escape the feeling I got of it being governed by a state that evokes great fear in its people and that has failed them outside of building wide streets filled with a self regard that gave these poor, brutalised people scant comfort. I hope to return one day when it is more peaceful and I can have the opportunity to discover the city when it is less fearful and when the government is not flexing its muscles.


Why Western Visions of Utopia are Killing Africans

William Easterly writing in Foreign Policy asks: What is utopianism? and goes on to answer that ‘it is promising more than you can deliver. It is seeing an easy and sudden answer to long-standing, complex problems. It is trying to solve everything at once through an administrative apparatus headed by “world leaders.” It places too much faith in altruistic cooperation and underestimates self-seeking behaviour and conflict. It is expecting great things from schemes designed at the top, but doing nothing to solve the bigger problems at the bottom.’ This is the model proposed by the usual idea-challenged and arrogant rock stars alongside their rock star economist partners such as Jeffrey Sachs; all possessed of a feverish utopianism that would have Africans look to them for the solutions to poverty and war. Once again, African Bullets & Honey is home to an anti-Western aid screed. The reason I am so taken with this issue if I may just explain is that I believe fighting the aid industry in its many forms is one of the great moral crusades of our time. Read more of William Easterly’s piece here.

Africans, Woe unto you, ye shall hunger

I am in a sad mood today having just had an argument with someone very close to me and so have been seeing ill portents and darkness everywhere I look. And so this little story on Reuters caught my eye and seeing as I was already feeling kind of messed up, almost reduced me to hot little tears. Yes, I know, it is rather dramatic. It turns out that there is now food being made in factories just for starving Africans. Some of our societies have failed to the point that even food can no longer be taken for granted and charity has become a way of life. Plumpy’nut – made of peanut paste, sugar and a special vitamin – is not being made to feed people in hunger camps, it is being advertised as a charity intervention before starvation really strikes. In other words, preparations must be made for Africans even before they have started starving since it is reliably known that the need will be there sooner or later. “We wanted a product that doesn’t need to be mixed with water and fulfils all nutritional needs; we also believe food should taste good. Maybe that’s a French thing,” says Michel Lescanne, the creator of Plumpy’nut which is made in a ‘picturesque’ village in Northern France. Nutriset, the product’s maker, though formed as a non-profit, has few corporate rivals. With a staff of 50, its turnover is expected to be 15 million euros in 2005, a 50 percent increase on last year. It will produce some 2,500 tonnes of Plumpy’nut that will feed a quarter million children. So there you have it and good luck to them. If African entrepreneurs will not step in to create cheap food products then their countrymen shall either starve or shall provide opportunity for others. African misery is the greatest natural resource in that continent. While people argue about gold and oil, no one notices that there is far more money generated by the humanitarian industry on the basis of African misery than by mining or drilling corporates. It makes me wonder whether Niger has businesspeople at all. See more on Plumpy’nut.

The Love Affair Between the Maasai and the English

Colonialists like their savages savage in a romantic mould. There is a streak of masochism in having your material world dismissed by people who have little but vanity and some sick cows. Colonialists want to believe their subjugated people were worth conquering…they are also good for a shag now and then says AA Gill in the London Times to much hilarity…more>>

Yes, it’s True, There are Slaves in Niger…

So here we have it. The latest call for food aid to an African country is by Niger, which coming under the usual media spotlight has been revealed to be a country in which human bondage is alive and well. Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human group, reckons that there are 43,000 slaves in Niger. These slaves, even when freed, are part of a stigmatized and legally unprotected class to the extent that their former masters or parents’ masters have often laid claim to their property.

Just two years ago, in 2003, Niger amended outlawed slavery, ruling it a crime punishable with up to 30 years in prison. The Economist reports that a chieftain in western Niger, faced with this jail term, offered to free 7,000 slaves held by him and his clansmen in a public ceremony. But the government in the week leading to the March 5th event feared that such a large release of slaves would draw international attention to the filthy trade’s existence in Niger. It declared that slavery does not exist in Niger and the ceremony was cancelled.

The problem gets worse when you consider that slavery also exists in Chad, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania. Woe to those who believe that this trade is at an end as I had for many years. Most of us associate slavery with the transatlantic trade that fed the plantations of the Americas and ended in the 19th century. If only it were so. Slaves still exist and many never left on a ship but were enslaved in Africa.

Of course I need not announce the moral vacuum that exists among us provided there are still people in chains, owned as property by others. I need not ponder why a country such as Niger is suffering famine when it has in its midst such an abundance of evil that has been translated into an economy that is the second poorest on the planet. Surely, in a world whose wealth and security has been enjoyed by those countries with the greatest protection of the individual’s rights, it is not strange that a slaveholding nation should turn to the world to feed and clothe it.

This issue depresses and infuriates me. What am I to do? Where are the Edmund Dene Morels of our time, the African versions especially? We have a Kenyan Nobel Prize winner running around decrying the cutting down of trees; an AU that says that Africa is ready to manage her own problems (with Western cash of course); billions of dollars in aid; Commissions for Africa; rock star concerts to Make Poverty History; a massive evangelical movement that announces to all and sundry that it is proof of a moral awakening; and yet here is slavery alive and well among us.

“For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!”

I just had to put up this interview of my good friend James Shikwati (Director of the Inter Region Economic Network – IREN) who was being interviewed by Der Spiegel on German aid to Kenya. It is not very different from the stuff that has been on these pages often in the past, but I loved it for James’ outraged and uncompromising tone. Click here to go to the interview.

Africans and the European Soul

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Are the Formerly Colonised Set To Colonise Their Colonisers?
(A speculation)

It has come to my delighted attention that African churches are increasingly sending missionaries to the United Kingdom. And that the declining number of British volunteers joining the Catholic priesthood – in Wales for instance – has meant that African priests are increasingly taking over rural parishes. This crisis of belief, if it can be so termed, is so pervasive that churches are closing daily which means that the trend of an Africanised priesthood is only likely to grow. In the cities, London being a fine example, African Protestant and charismatic churches are also growing apace, seeking to emulate their counterparts on the continent.

We are entering an era when the welfare of the European soul shall be in the hands of the African. Europe has always had a peculiar need for Africa as a guiding light to its self awareness. The two, African and European, in the latter’s mind at least, have occupied opposed sides of a binary divide for the last couple of hundred years: black vs. white; stupid as opposed to intelligent; savage vs. civilised; backward vs. forward; lazy vs. industrious…

That Europe has become more secular is public knowledge, as is the rise of state power at the expense of the church. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, recently argued that ‘christianity is close to being vanquished’ and has little influence on government or the public here.

One of the founding ideas of colonialism, and slavery before it, was the state of the soul: Africans were supposed to have none while Europeans were blessed with a hefty, healthy one. But this duality has been turned on its head. No sooner had some wise men in the late nineteenth century concluded that the African indeed did have a soul – a donor driven plot if there was ever one – that Europeans started denying the existence of theirs. As always, our opposed positions had to be maintained.

With its back to the wall, the Catholic Church is now speaking of the need to re-evangelise the West. A meeting of over 100 bishops in 2004, sponsored by the Vatican, discussed a strategy of clergy exchanges to address the crisis. Africans having plentiful manpower in their rapidly growing churches would fill the gap in Europe while small numbers of European clergy provision Africa with their greater pastoral experience. This of course merely represents the last gasp of a European church that is suffering from a colonial hangover and that imagines itself to be the center. The re-evangelising of the West shall not come under its auspices.

The Africans who shall increasingly take up pastoral duties here will be off-shoots of their home churches. They shall reflect a conservatism and syncretism that shall be unlike anything else the European Christian has ever encountered. Gone will be the sleepy little churches that dot the countryside and welcome to the drive to create super churches that lay claim to large areas of their parishioners’ lives. The Nigerian priest in Wales will look toward the African Diaspora in the cities first and then to Nigeria for inspiration of how to conduct his pastoral duties. The local church, low on morale, and the state secularised to the point of ignoring the Christian church as a possible source of opposition (all state eyes will be on the mosque), will offer no counter balance to the most potent African presence there has ever been in Europe. The African evangelist – many who are now being funded by congregations in Africa – will be here to lay claim to the European soul.

Let me try and extend this wild speculation.

Europeans have steadily transformed their institutions into rational-bureaucratic models that are far less reliant on charismatic power than they used to be. The church which historically laid claim to bureaucratic power on the basis of its hold of the charismatic-transcendental realm has seen the both these positions undermined fundamentally. The African church, on the other hand, whether Catholic or Protestant, is only in the early stages of its rise: its claims to domination of the charismatic-transcendental or the soul are unlimited and are supported by more people every year. Soon I suspect its boundaries will begin to bump up against those of the African state which being weak and lacking strong ideological or moral foundations shall be absorbed ever more into it. The church’s innate drive to expand, under the banner of evangelisation, will have a huge impact on Europe. The entry of African priests, immigrants and missionaries will be lead to their domination of the terms under which the soul and its salvation can be approached by individual Christians. No longer will the division between church and state be automatically assumed; no longer will the European state have a beaten and pliant church to co-exist with. It will be dealing with a dominant, dominating force.

Since this is an out-there speculation, surely there is no harm in extending it slightly.

Let us for a minute assume that the increasing pilgrimages by European Christians to churches in Africa is the leading trend of an amazing rebound in the European public’s desire for spiritual nourishment (just look at Madonna and Kabbalah, and the energy of the American southern Baptists). If this happens, as the African church grows in Europe, the binary nature of the two groups shall once again be on show. You will see on one hand an African led soul-revival that shall in effect be the anti-power to the bureaucratic-rational forms of European state power. It shall be power vs. anti-power; state vs. church; and utility vs. transcendence.

The image of Africa in Europe, as a place of darkness, has always relied on more than the image of death and suffering that has been such a large part of its historical experience. This image in the European imagination has been attributed to the African lacking a soul or possessing a perverted one. Now, the growth of the African church in the vacuum left by its European counterpart will overturn this idea of darkness. Africa’s problems, increasingly part of the European public’s ‘we can help and its not fair’ posture, will, in combination with the upsurge in the fortunes of the church, take on a kind of holy aspect.

Meanwhile, Europe’s secularism and tortured anti-materialist, you-can-believe-and-do-anything rhetoric has the effect of consigning it to spiritual darkness or nihilism. And at least one bridge to the light shall be provided by Africans and their churches. From the historical position of Europeans using African misery and ‘savagery’ as a measure of their affluence and ‘civilisation’, we shall move to a Europe whose definition of its fallen soul is reliant ona comparison to Africa’s enlightened one.

Though this will not necessarily mean that the tangible forms of Europe’s state power will be African or answer to Africa’s political institutions, it will nevertheless be a colonisation of the European in that part of the contest that has always mattered the most between this ying and yang relationship: the soul.

That brings this speculation to an end. I enjoyed it seeing as I was procrastinating all afternoon and had no ready access to other entertainments.