Besting Barbie

Besting Barbie

QoAvsBarbieBaz Luhrmann said it all, and Nigerian Queens of Africa dolls are now outselling barbies.

Nigeria is a complex place, among the most difficult African countries for a westerner to visit and enjoy, much less understand its foreign or social policies. Yet Nigeria often best embodies the contest between The West and Africa. Today in Nigeria, barbie dolls are losing.

Think about it. What toys do little Russians buy? What do those cute little primary school girls in Shanghai do after school? After all those primly dressed little Indian kids get home from their expensive Delhi boarding schools, what do they play with?

Other than smartphones and xBoxes, what do nonwestern kids play with?

I know images are developing in your minds of poverty struck barefoot Africans rolling the frame of a canabalized bicylcle wheel down a dirty path. (It happens in Appalachia, too.) It happens less and less in Africa, where the majority of the population – including kids, by the way – are growing up in cities that often don’t have dead grass.

Do you remember your toys? I bet if you tried hard enough you’d be able to create a narrative of your life, today, that begins with your toys as a child.

The Queens of Africa dolls intentionally challenged the barbie doll market in Africa, and they’re winning.

They’re beginning to sell well in Brazil as well, and they would probably sell well in America if the barbie cartel weren’t blocking them. What are we afraid of?

“The ‘Queens of Africa’ [dolls] … represent progressive qualities such as endurance, peace and love, while developing literary potential in children as well as enhancing their career development for the future,” doll creator, Taofeek Okoya, told Elle Magazine.

Moulin Rouge film producer, Baz Luhrmann nailed it: “It’s not about turning into a blonde Barbie doll or becoming what you dream of being; it’s about self-revelation, becoming who you are.”

Exactly as with barbie, Queens of Africa come in upteen different styles with upteen different outfits and upteen different accessories.

Hip culture digital magainze, TakePart, said: “As Barbie sales continue to plummet, another doll is aiming to slide in and take her place,” but then unfortunately added, “– in Nigeria, that is.”

Therein lies the battle between The West and Africa. TakePart is a creation of Jeff Skoll, the first president of eBay. Skoll who is Canadian sees the world from a much more global perspective than most Americans, even though he’s now firmly entrenched in the L.A. scene.

But he can’t fanthom a future in which Africa betters The West.

Even though with dolls for kids it already has. Averaging a quarter of the cost of a barbie, and with no other discernible functional differences, Queens of Africa would devour barbie in the American market.

After all, for years black kids in America played only with white barbie dolls.

“Okoya is starting to ship more of his dolls overseas, which means it could only be a matter of time before toy shelves in America are filled with African Queens and Naija Princesses,” according to the Atlanta magazine, BlackStar.

I have some reservations, by the way. The dolls are modeled after Nigeria’s three major ethnic groups … not helpful for anti-racism. Okoya is something of a playboy, the son of a Nigerian billionaire and few Nigerian billionaires are nice people… not helpful for moral capitalism.

But I probably could find similar reservations about Mattel.

So if you got one Barbie Rambo in a ring with one Queen of Africa Sheba, who’d be on the turf first?

Uber Alles

Uber Alles

uberafricaUber is rolling over Africa despite growing protests in Cape Town and Nairobi.

Last month Uber launched in Nairobi, its third African market after South Africa and Nigeria.

In my opinion Uber’s genius is principally its app. I think if yellow cab or Marvin’s Machines in Keokee had had the foresight to move with the times, it would be Uber Over.

Uber, however, claims otherwise. It claims its genius lies in contracting with independent drivers who get their own licenses independently of any company, but the fact is there’s nothing new about this.

Limo drivers do essentially the same thing. Shuttle services, too. No, Uber’s genius is in its app.

Cab service throughout the world is one of the most uniform, corrupt and nepotistic services in the world. So essential and never sufficient, travelers stand in lines for ridiculously long times, get drenched waving their appendages into the rain and oncoming 18-wheelers and argue endlessly to keep their cab going on the shortest route.

The cabals that provide workers to the cab cartels across the world are a multi-layered no-contract service licensed by metropolitan cities whose nature of doing business is rarely transparent and never fair.

The only place in the world that I enjoy riding cabs is in London. Of course a cab ride from Heathrow to a hotel in Piccadilly costs almost as much as the flight to London. You get what you pay for.

Other than London? It’s one of the most stressful parts of a trip.

Enter uber. Nigerians love it. The response “has been overwhelming,” according to an Uber executive in Lagos.

Uber plowed over Nigeria. It launched with one of the country’s most famous hip-hop stars, Ice Prince, and then it devoured an earlier similar startup, EasyTaxi, by offering up to $12 to every person for the first ride. It moved from Lagos to Abuja faster than Boko Haram.

EasyTaxi just can’t compete. It doesn’t have the snazzy app or the tech behind it. That’s the wizardry of Uber.

Negotiations continue in Cape Town where over the weekend Uber claimed to have a licensing deal that was then denied today by a city official.

Uber Kenya launched recently in association with the very popular Restaurant Week in Nairobi, offering to give free or reduced rides to certain restaurants.

Resistance is severe in Kenya where living and working successfully means mastering a network of dependency.

The universal argument against Uber is that there is no systematic driver training or qualification. The widely cited Indian rape case is forever mentioned.

One wonders, though, how many rapes and other incidents of abuse routinely occur in regular cabs around the world.

Last month as a hostage situation developed in downtown Sydney, Uber jacked up its fares by 400% as terrified customers tried to leave the city center. (It has since offered refunds.)

Uber’s market-driven pricing rather than set pricing determined by expensive citizen commissions is one of the novelties attracting Africa’s new entrepreneurs. And they need cabs.

In Nigeria Uber usually costs more than EasyTaxi and many conventional cabs, but provides snazzy cars and well-dressed drivers that appeal to a huge segment of this trendy populace.

In South Africa and Kenya, as through much of the rest of the world, Uber costs the same or less.

Who’s making that decision? Uber will say “the market” but then, who’s got their statistical fingers on the market pulse?

Uber Up There.

The Price of Democracy

The Price of Democracy

tovoteortosuriveChad and Cameroon are defeating Boko Haram while Nigeria is losing. What’s going on?

Cameroon shares a 500 km border with Nigeria on the east and Chad shares a much smaller border above the Cameroon/Nigerian border from Lake Chad north.

Boko Haram controls virtually all the Borno State of Nigeria, which is its far northeastern province. Parts of two other Nigerian states, Yobe to the north of Borno and Adamawa to the south, are also contolled by Boko Haram.
Both Chad and Cameroon are holding Boko Haram at bay and, in fact, freeing hostages and securing border posts that Nigeria has abandoned. The few times that Boko Haram has tried to enter either country, it’s been pushed back into Nigeria.

Both countries are less powerful than Nigeria on paper, i.e. in terms of available military hardware and defense budgets. The U.S. which has strategic military arrangements with all three countries has a far greater one with Nigeria than the other two.

Why, then, is Nigeria incapable of defeating Boko Haram?

While the Chadian army is less powerful than Nigeria’s on paper, it’s a much better fighting force. It led the charge, so to speak, in the successful fight against Mali Tuareg Islamists last year, taking a role there second only to France.

Despite its much longer border with Nigeria, many fewer refugees are fleeing into Cameroon than into Chad. This is because the thrust of Boko Haram’s military advances has been to the northeast, driving directly towards Lake Chad.

So the refugee problem, which is a trigger for all sorts of conflicts worldwide, provides Chad with all the rational it needs to ratchet up the fight, and Cameroon – and possibly even Nigeria – don’t mind a bit.

Chad is the most militaristic society of all three countries and that’s essentially the short reason that it’s succeeding in fighting Boko Haram as it would – and has – any insurgency.

Last year when trouble in its neighboring Central African Republic erupted, battles spilled over into Chad for a very short time. Chad’s military response was so severe that while the CAR remains very unstable and its capital in constant turmoil, the fighting has been contained at the border by the Chad military.

Nigeria was once a country like Chad. It became independent from Britain in 1963, but within three years it was a military dictatorship. Military dominance continued in Nigeria right through its bloody Biafran Civil War and after, with several weak and unsuccessful attempts from time to time to move towards civilian democratic rule.

The 1980s were pivotal for Africa because of America’s president, Ronald Reagan. He insisted that all embassies throughout Africa have a chief “Democracy Officer” and that any aid be contingent on moves by that country towards democracy.

Nigeria was dependent almost completely upon British and American investment. New discoveries of oil were being made daily, and a rich future looked possible but only if the west would invest.

The military agreed to Reagan’s initiatives and elections in Nigeria were held in 1993, but as often happens the man who won was quite radical. The general who had agreed to the elections annulled them, and the U.S. and Britain promptly suspended aid.

Not until 1999 was a truly democratic government in place.

Ever since then Nigerian politicians have had a tricky balance: the educated mostly urban populations thrive on democracy. They depend upon goods and investment from the west which insists on democracy.

The rural populations – particularly in places like Borno State – are marginalized, ethnically divided and with local governments mastered by little dictators. They are supported by insurgents and increasingly, radical Islamists.

Most importantly, though, the Nigerian military has been systematically eviscerated by the Lagos civilian government so that it cannot return to power. Defense budgets have been cut and military commands intentionally fractured.

Nigeria is in the midst of still another national election. The last thing that the current president running for reelection wants is to empower the military. In essence, that means ceding at least for now large swaths of his country to Boko Haram.

Democracy is not everything that it’s made out to be: definitely not a one-size fits all. If democratic Nigeria is to survive, it will probably mean so will Boko Haram.

#2 : Terrorism is Down

#2 : Terrorism is Down

-Terrorism is declining in Africa, my #2 Story of 2014.

Terrorism is an almost meaningless word. At its root is war but differentiated from classic war by tactics of brutality and special cruelty.

Yet as we’ve seen in America this year, not even torture is easily associated with American definitions of terrorism. Conflict becomes terrorism in most people’s minds when they are so frightened that they react impulsively and thereby often become unable to defend themselves properly.

Napoleon at Waterloo or Bush at 9/11:

Scared to death. It’s a tactic that the Davids of the world retain as their most valuable, since today’s Goliath’s are incapable of being defeated by weapons other than fear.

Terrorism in Africa was definitely down in 2014 over recent years. From Mali to Egypt to Uganda to Mozambique, the incidents of terrorism were fewer in number than in 2013.

Readers of this blog will be focused on Kenya, because Americans control the narrative of terrorism in the world, and because Kenya is an African country they know more about than most other African countries.

Kenya has a close association to America. Its new constitution is modeled more by America’s than any single other country in the world. More recently Kenya became America’s proxy in the war in Somalia where Kenya remains the occupier and governor of a very fragile peace.

2013 was a horrible year for terrorism in Kenya. Since the horrible Westgate Mall attack in 2012, the Kenyan government began to react like most western governments when terrorized: clamp down.

Kenya beefed up security, increased military and police forces and began passing draconian laws. Much of this was counseled and paid for by America and undertaken exactly as America did after 9/11.

From my point of view, Kenya is even doing better than America after 9/11, because its reexamination of some of its draconian security laws is happening faster than it did in America.

America’s Patriot Act was enacted in October, 2001 and Obama ended all but 3 of its 10 provisions which will die if not renewed this year. Many persons myself included believe it had limited if any impact on reducing terrorism while greatly inhibiting personal liberties.

Kenya’s version of the Patriot Act was passed last month, but Kenya’s High Court suspended most of its key provisions Friday.

I hope the Kenyan High Court perseveres and strikes the law down for good, and I think there’s a good chance it will.

The Kenyan High Court is much more progressive than America’s Supreme Court. The Kenyan constitution, in fact, is more progressive than America’s.

The reason security has improved in Kenya, and the reason security improved in the U.S. after 9/11, had little to do with draconian new laws that culpable legislators hurried to enact.

The increased security was simply because of increased vigilance that was lacking before 9/11 or the Westgate Mall. We all know now how dismissive the Bush administration was of reports of imminent terrorism. Kenya’s dismissiveness may have been similar but was likely something else: lack of resources.

America and Britain have now beefed up Kenya’s resources, so while the explanation for why Kenya and the U.S. suffered dramatic attacks differs, renewed vigilence was similar in both countries, and given the west’s support, I think Kenya will continue to improve its security.

Should Kenya also put the kibosh on its horrible new security laws it will have also learned from America’s mistakes and will retain citizen liberties in a way America did not.

I think at that point the whole world – including America – will realize that America’s knee-jerk response to 9/11 was counter-productive and that “terrorism” is an eternal threat requiring measured but constant vigilance, not draconian security laws.

It’s fair to extrapolate Kenya’s experience to more or less all of Africa, with the notable exception of Nigeria.

Nigeria has never coalesced into a single republic well. The Biafran War was not a civil war like America’s. It was a much newer conflict of issues of ethnicity, class, privilege and income.

Boko Haram is the newest iteration of this contemporary conflict. There’s no question that its tactics are brutal and extreme, although the kidnaping of the school girls or the executions of young students is not a new technique in African conflicts.

Boko Haram’s ideologies are less global than local. This past weekend powerful Boko Haram forces overran a military base in Nigeria and could have easily taken more territory in neighboring Chad but didn’t.

Boko Haram is on the ascent because the Lagos government is on the decline. Crippled by a falling oil price as much as weak governance, Nigeria’s threat from Boko Haram is a serious internal one that ought not be extrapolated to Africa as a whole.

No conflict, no terrorism, is comforting. But in my long view of Africa, I’d say that things are getting better. More optimistically, Kenya’s chance to reframe how to deal with “terrorism” might be a model for the whole world. Take note, America.

Round ‘n Round the Mulberry Bush

Round ‘n Round the Mulberry Bush

piracyHow many times around Africa, or the world, can you chase a terrorist? Piracy has now moved from the Gulf of Aden to the Gulf of Guinea.

Fans of the superb movie Captain Phillips will understand better than most (except readers of the New York Times or London’s Guardian) how high seas piracy is instrumental as seed money for “new” terrorists.

Then, once they get established, funds come from all over the world, starting with disgruntled or religiously extreme Saudis and spanning a wide range of bad people all the way to Hong Kong gangsters.

Then, they get their hands on big weapons and, game on.

But that seed money is fundamental. It comes from piracy or kidnapings or both.

We can’t ransom James Sotloff, but god forbid that we lose any oil or Camry’s. Yesterday, the Hai Son 6 secured its release from Nigerian pirates. The press release said the pirates got away with “some cargo” but I doubt that was the end of the story.

Almost every big ship that’s pirated is ransomed, and not with a handful of millions of dollars, but with dozens of millions of dollars.

Obama and Hollande successfully chased well-funded terrorists out of Somalia over the last several years, and our proxy army of Kenya occupied their main port, Kismayo.

Now, they’re on the other side of the continent.

Almost two years ago, when the fight against al-Shabaab in Somalia began in earnest, Europeans immediately began seeing piracy not seen before in the Gulf of Guinea.

The European Union immediately set up a committee and fund with about $6 million to help Gulf of Guinea states combat piracy. No takers. Until now.

Yesterday in Cameroon the French ambassador (giving the money), all the big wigs from the Cameroon government (taking the money) and the Brazilian ambassador … Brazil? Yes, almost all the container traffic between Africa and South America occurs between Brazil and the Gulf of Guinea states.

What prompted these weak States to take more direction from Europe is the radical increase in piracy. Last year there were 32 pirate attacks of giant ships and 24 were “successful.”

“Successful” means the pirate’s got a ransom.

A month ago, authorities noted a “game changer” attack of piracy on a container ship in the high seas, much further off-shore than before.

“The attempted boarding of a vessel underway, especially at night and this far out in open seas, is a tactic … associated with highly motivated Somali pirates,” said Ian Millen, Chief Operating Officer of Dryad Maritime.

It was reminiscent of Captain Phillips: three speedboats overtook then boarded the vessel.

The reason it was a tactic “associated with highly motivated Somali pirates” is because it was undoubtedly carried out by highly motivated Somali pirates.

Because they were chased out of Somalia.

Game changer? They’re just playing on a different side of the board.

So now begins a lengthy time of European and Gulf of Guinea States chasing them away. And they will earn millions and millions of dollars, and be richer than they are now, which is richer than they were in Somalia.

And they will be chased from the Gulf of Guinea to Gulf of Tonkin to the Davao Gulf, etc., etc.

Until “rich” is stopped, this will continue ad infinitum. This means you don’t ransom ships, you arm merchant ships to defend themselves (currently highly restricted) and you stop the money chain.

Swiss banks can no longer be so anonymous. The Caymans can no longer be so indiscreet. China must allow regulation outside itself of Hong Kong banking.

Ultimately, you’ve got to deal too with the reasons terrorism exists in the first place. Try these on for size:

Poverty, Depravation, Oppression

Follow The Law Or… ! Sing

Follow The Law Or… ! Sing

FollowTheLawThroughout sub-Saharan Africa the now distant revolutionary “spring” is continued only by the youth’s music.

Movements for real reform heralded by the February, 2011 “spring” have all but disappeared. Governments that came to power then have turned autocratic defending security and ignoring reform, all in the name of “fighting terrorism.”

Music like the Kenyan Sarabi Band seems all that’s left of the original revolutions. These highly charged politically progressive art forms are massively popular … but I guess not popular enough.

I concede it’s hard not to call kidnappers of the Nigerian school girls, Boko Haram, terrorists. But the reaction of Goodluck Jonathan’s government far surpasses America’s overreaching Patriot Act.

Using the tragedy as justification, Jonathan ordered a full-scale military war in the north of his country, grossly exceeding his constitutional powers.

In Kenya the implementation of a new constitution in 2012 that was widely praised worldwide has systematically been eroded by the current government’s successful power plays hog tying the theoretically independent legislature.

Feeding tribalism like a hungry dog, President Uhuru Kenyatta has rewarded support for a whole series of small measures in the legislature that in sum hugely increases his own power. All in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

Sunday afternoon the country’s largest stadium was packed to capacity with cheering crowds that only slightly exceeded the number of armed policemen and deployed military. When the president arrived in his new “bullet-proof” presidential Toyota, the crowd went mad with applause.

But his increasing authority lets him pick and choose which laws to enforce. Sarabi Band’s hit song, Fuata Sheria, means literally “follow the law” and implores Kenyans to look back to the constitution, away from corruption.

The song approaches desperation. “Follow the Law” is historically hardly a revolutionary slogan, but in this case it is. It’s a plea to return to the idealistic values of Kenya’s youthful constitution, currently circumvented by most of its leaders.

Terrorism is not new, but these overreaching reactions to it were begun by America and now are being adopted by much of the developing world.

I don’t think they work. The reduced terrorism in America since 9/11 is short term. Jihadists and other revolutionaries work through generations, not decades. Successful efforts against terrorism are not as wholly militaristic as America has taught the developed world they should be.

Britain in its fight against the IRA, or Spain against the Basque separatists; Germany against the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Japan against the Red Army, and even Peru against the Shining Light should be the models.

Those all included military components, but negotiations that conceded power and social policy to the adversaries were more important.

And they worked.

In the still maturing and youthful societies of Africa, America’s approach to terrorism has fomented retrogressive moves to dictatorship and large losses of human rights for entire societies.

The old leaders are all back, and their corruption seems now vindicated as they legislate new authority for themselves to “fight terrorism.”

Boko Tea

Boko Tea

T-PartBokoHaramBoko Haram and America’s T-Party have a lot in common, and neither will disappear until their adversaries adopt some of their moral pinnings.

Boko Haram is on the rise. For more than a decade it’s caused widespread death and destruction in Nigeria, but with its new found fame, it’s expanding into a neighboring country.

“Right now, we are being infiltrated by Boko Haram,” a colonel in the Cameroon army told an Africa-wide press service last week.

Some argue they are “on the run” from northern Nigeria, their stronghold for more than a decade. Others, including myself, believe they’ve been strengthened by their recent worldwide attention.

The group continues to hold nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls from northern Nigeria. Many of the world’s western powers are helping Nigeria try to find the girls and eradicate the organization ever since the world’s media locked onto the story.

Like all politics in the west, Boko Haram has become entertainment:

The world press went ape yesterday announcing that primitive African tribes were now “on the hunt” for Boko Haram.

An extremely articulate, gentle and soft-spoken Boko Haram killer in a scarf-wrapped face was the centerpiece of last night’s CBS evening news.

“Boko Haram’s attacks … should be understood as part of an ongoing political-military campaign …to purge, conclusively, Nigeria’s Northern Muslim society of the source of its culture of corruption, decay and mismanagement,” says a Nigerian expert from King’s College, London.

Boko Haram views kidnapping girls from a corrupt society and turning them into tendrils of antiquated Islam a noble feat. That’s because in most of Africa you have to stretch way back to antiquated Islamism to find societies that were not corrupt.

And those were the precolonial days spoken about so highly by most jihadists. Corruption began with colonialism. It’s never ended.

Corruption in all sorts of forms is the only treatise the T-Party can rationally expound. When it gets into specific issues and policies it becomes mired in intellectual bureaucracy. Purity is the key.

As it is with Boko Haram. Little is ever argued in the academic or religious world about the tenants of Islam, or for that matter, the tenants of Christianity, or for that matter, the iconic folkways of the Irish or Poles.

Rather the purity of those tenants is what is argued. And there is little argument that Africa today, Nigeria in particular, is corrupt.

As is America. Nigerian corruption might reach its apex in a High Court judge taking money from an oil company. American corruption is more likely the Koch brothers airing 10,000 TV ads lying about Obama’s citizenship.

Neither example is more corrupt than the other. It doesn’t matter that one might have a greater impact in its respective society than the other. They’re both corrupt and it isn’t effectiveness but nature that generates the violent opposition of the likes of Boko Haram or America’s T-Party.

More than a year ago the Atlantic ran an excellent piece arguing that Democrats will only achieve supremacy over the T-Party if they adopt some of the T-Party’s ways:

“It is time for Democrats finally to steal a move from the Republican’s playbook… a Tea Party for Reform,” Lawrence Lessig argued in that article.

Even before that, analogies were being made between the T-Party and Occupy Wall Street.


It’s a hard stake to drive into American or African politics, but it’s what we all need right now.

Boko What?

Boko What?

schoolgirlBoko Haram. You need understand little else than the name to understand the situation: “Western Education is Sacrilege.”

‘Boko Haram’ is a Hausa language derivative, which lays blame for the misery in the world upon the educational systems created by the successful, developed world.

Of course there are many in the successful, developed world who agree with this:

In the United States, the number of home schooled primary and secondary school kids increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1½ million in 2007 (1.7-2.9%).

Boko Haram believes that traditional western social values as evinced by public institutions are wrong. The schoolgirl kidnapping in Nigeria is an expression of moral indignation at gender equality.

Most western homeschoolers also believe women are inferior to men, or in a persistent homeschool jargon, “more godly” if they pursue a subservient relationship to men.

So in a real sense western homeschoolers and Boko Haram are comrades in arms.

What begins with the gender fracture continues into other aspects of society, like money and power.

Boko Haram, like the IRA, the Basques and numerous other ethnic-derived rebel movements, is fighting for a redistribution of wealth and power.

They arise from a portion of Nigerian society, the north and mostly Muslim part, which has benefited hardly at all from the development of the Christian south.

The less people have, the less they have to lose, the more likely they’ll put their life on the line.

Boko Haram, like all rebel groups, can’t survive on its own. Exploiting the undeveloped roads and vast forests of northern Nigeria, they hide not just in the neglected and undeveloped topography but among the millions of people who share a common misery.

Even the barbaric LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) received sanctuary from communities that felt they were being neglected to the point of desperation.

In a strange but true sense, American homeschoolers have likewise been neglected. And they find themselves not only bereft of basic understandings of and skills for the real world, but generally at the bottom of the economic ladder as a result.

If these movements are successful and ascend to power quickly or suddenly (take the Muslim Brotherhood or the Iranian ayatollahs), they’re unable to evolve more rational and moral positions. Instead, they reenforce the conservative myths around which they first organized themselves.

That’s the real danger to a just society. So what to do? Suppress them with every gun you’ve got? Imprison thousands? Or from the liberal side: spend billions quickly but carelessly to remedy such failings as their education?

Something in between, I suspect. Perhaps the IRA and Basque separatist movements are models. But what they both clearly show is that these “struggles” are long ones. There’s no quick fix.

Africa poses an additional challenge. The cleavage in so many African nations between the educated and well off, and the uneducated and impoverished, is greater than anything Marx could have imagined, or that ever existed in Belfast or the mountains of northeast Spain.

Boko Haram has been around for more than a decade. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, over 10,000 people have died in Boko Haram violence.

The Nigerian school girls have captured the world’s attention, but they are only a fraction of the horror and misery throughout the whole world.



rollingstoneAnti-gay and women-suppression is sweeping through much of the non-Muslim world of Africa with a poignant argument against America.

Today Uganda’s dictator signed a long anticipated anti-gay law in an unusual public ceremony with much fanfare.

Immediately after signing he delivered a very provocative speech saying his actions were a response to “western arrogance” and attempts by countries like America to change Ugandans’ way of life.

The law has been several years in the making and received crucial legal and financial support from conservative American lawmakers unable to impose such nonsense on their own country.

The original called for execution of anyone found to be gay. That’s been changed to life imprisonment. But other parts of the bill are draconian and criminalize the knowledge that someone is gay if not immediately reported to the police.

Uganda has been spiraling into oblivion for several years, and this fire-brand piece of legislation follows a whole series of less known laws that criminalize certain dress like mini-skirts.

Hardly a day after that law was best, hoodlums beat poorly dressed women in the streets of Kampala under the noses of approving police.

Uganda is certainly the most extreme example in Africa of massive reversals of human rights Africans had gained this last half century. But it’s hardly the only one.

Anyone convicted as gay in Nigeria now faces up to 14 years imprisonment, after a much controversial law was passed in January.

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan couldn’t be more different from Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. Jonathan is considered progressive and worked closely with western governments in the pursuit of BokoHaram and other terrorists groups.

Totally unlike Museveni he has led a fight against government corruption, rocketing him to popularity. But just as in America, pressed by his right and now facing an unexpectedly close election, Goodluck reluctantly signed Parliament’s bill.

Nigeria is a much more diverse and educated society than Uganda, and the two countries literally span the continent’s diversity. But all over Africa, even in such presumed liberal places as Kenya, anti-gay sentiment is building rapidly.

I cannot find a single country in sub-Saharan Africa where there is not a public campaign to criminalize homosexuality. Even in South Africa with a constitution that more forcibly protects gays than in America, and with same-sex marriage legalized since 2006, a campaign is on.

What’s going on? Why Africa?

The highly popular and respected Kenyan commentator Charles Onyango-Obbo says it’s all about women, not gays.

In a society that condones gayness, women would not have to submit to male authority: “Once you dismantle the sexual hierarchy…then you cannot maintain a political system in which men monopolize power and women have little or none.”

While the light tike Museveni swings his fist at the big guys like America, he’s buttressed by a powerful argument also swinging through Africa:

If same sex relationships are afforded equality in modern societies, why aren’t polygamous ones?

Both deviate from the norm. And Africa not just with its modern Muslim cultures but its centuries of traditional cultures validates polygamy. South Africa’s extremely modern government that has legalized same-sex marriage at the federal level has also legalized polygamy.

So Museveni and similar demagogs around the continent have a hard time criticizing South Africa. But not America.

Has this vicious little tike exposed a flaw in our own reasoning?

Secure that Terrorist

Secure that Terrorist

terrorwarNigerians are fiercely divided on whether America’s decision Wednesday to label Boko Haram a terrorist organization is good or bad, but one thing is clear: they don’t like America turning Africa into the principle field in the War Against Terror.

The arcane political moment when the U.S. State Department labels this or that organization a “terrorist organization” doesn’t attract much notice in the U.S., but it should.

The “Foreign Terrorist Organization” (FTO) amendment to the country’s standing immigration law gives the President and State Department wide powers of interdicting U.S. citizens from virtually any type of engagement with an organization so labeled.

Ohio University African political professor, Brandon Kendhammer, sent a letter to Hillary Clinton in May, 2012, signed by twenty other prominent academicians in the U.S. as well as the Council on Foreign Relations, urging Clinton not to designate Boko Haram an FTO:

The professors explained that the law is so sweeping that it would even keep them from contacting certain organizations and individuals in Nigeria essential to their research.

“Now it’s going to be very hard to contact … or even to just work with communities where members [of these designated FTO organizations] might be present,” the letter complained.

What is normally reported on CNN is the top of the law, that financial holdings in the U.S. linked to an FTO organization are frozen and that specific individuals named as leaders are banned from travel in the U.S.

But like so many of America’s terrorist and spy laws, today, FTO goes much further and gets increasingly sinister. Prof. Kendhammer can no longer even send an email to fellow Nigerian academicians, for example, who might be listed in a deep appendix at the State Department as having “connections” with Boko Haram.

The analysts who make these designations are not academicians, themselves, and might designate an individual doing a Ph.D thesis, for example, “connected with” Boko Haram.

It’s unbridled powers like these which are so chilling. They are powers, like those currently being debated around the NSA controversies, which technically cannot be applied within the U.S. or sometimes as well, U.S. citizens abroad.

Nigerian officialdom mostly welcomed the U.S. move, Wednesday. But the Nigerian public is more conflicted. African governments usually approve, because it usually means getting a lot more guns.

But yesterday a group of Nigerian journalists filing a combined opinion in the Leadership newspaper reminded us that only last year, Nigeria’s ambassador to the U.S. urged the state department not to issue the designation.

There is the obvious disincentive to future foreign investment on the national level, but on the individual level the additional scrutiny that will now befall Nigerians traveling in the United States is a terribly daunting prospect to them.

That would seem petty in the scheme of a War Against Terror if the War Against Terror were not so duplicitous and extra-American. By that I mean almost all the great rules and morals that make America great which are supposed to be preserved by a War Against Terror are blown to smithereens by the way America has been conducting this war in Africa and by the powerful use of the FTO law.

Last month Navy Seals or some such Batmanned into Benghazi and jumped out with Abu Anas al-Liby. He has now been charged in New York with masterminding the attack on the U.S. embassy in Nairobi in 1998.

The crack kidnapping would be illegal in the U.S., as by the way it is in Libya. The week-long interrogation which followed by a U.S. ship at sea violates many worldwide war conventions. But, hey, he’s a bad guy.

Or is he? This was not the first time al-Liby was arrested.

One time was in 1999 by British intelligence. But then with American prompting he was released and likely put on the pay of the CIA to assassinate Gaddafi.

This and other similar intrigues, including of course the training of Osama bin Laden by the CIA to fight the Russians, were listed yesterday by Syracuse professor Horace Campbell and other experts to demonstrate that “means justify the ends” in America’s war on terror.

And right now, the means is all in Africa. And it “means” that African don’t know what it means, because it could change.

It’s nice to think that Obama’s steadfast and incredibly militaristic assault on known terrorists that are now being, literally, rounded up in Africa might be making us safer here at home. And that’s Africa’s problem. It’s making us safer by making them less safe.

Terrorism can’t be blown out. It can be contained, and that’s precisely what Obama is doing, and whether by design or happenstance the containment has become Africa. And you can imagine what that means to Africans.

Containment in the War Against Terror has no limits. Bush and Cheney thought torture was OK, so we tortured. Obama thinks snatching al-Liby is OK, so we snatch al-Liby: all the human rights laws and freedom safeguards of great America mean nothing.

Play bin Laden or al-Liby for however you can, but to your advantage. Leftover armaments can be thrown into a Nairobi mall. Start a little war over in Somalia with your Kenyan proxy, ignore the Ugandan dictator’s threat to execute gays so that your Navy Seals can chase a mean guy into the CAR.

Do whatever you want. There are no rules. Means justify the ends.

That’s the essence of the FTO.

Terrorism can’t be blown out. It can be contained and it can minimized by addressing the desperation of the peoples it appeals to so that it loses support. Those are the only two remedies, and only one of them is right.

Mega-Mess Getting Beautiful

Mega-Mess Getting Beautiful

LagosArtFestivalWhat’s going on in Nigeria is Art: The Art of Life in a mega-city after the village. The Art of Survival in the age of Snowden. It’s a mega-mess, beautiful and getting better. By most accounts there’s less of a chance you’ll get killed, now, but if you do it’s likely your coffin will be fusia colored.

The Lagos Photo Festival opened last weekend and will run through the middle of the month in, yes gulp but then reconsider, Lagos.

Lagos is doing better. Let’s start with the worst: it’s 15 million large and growing (the actual gazetted city is 10 million; surrounding areas that are indistinguishable from this core, another 5 million). There are frequent power outages, although they’re brief. There’s still widespread crime at all levels, from pickpocketing to kidnappings, and the huge police presence is basically there to institutionalize it all.
But truly, the locals, both Nigerians and some of the near 40,000 paid expatriates, think in just the last two years things are definitely improving.

“Vibrant chaos,” is how one of dozens and dozens of expats blogging about “Life In Lagos” puts it.

And practically everyone points to the new governor, recently reelected with 81% of a totally fair and democratic vote, as the reason.

Babatunde Raji Fashola (San) has crushed much of the mafia, reformed much of the police and significantly improved delivery of public services in a short two years. How? By stopping so much of the corruption that siphoned off public funds.

Nigeria can easily be Africa’s richest country. Yes, even richer than South Africa, and that’s a simple calculation of the amount of oil it can still produce.

The Lagos Photo Festival seems to me to embody all that’s good and exciting about this very recent transition from crime and moral oppression into a legitimate society.

What I’ve seen digitally is definitely in the forefront of photo art. Much of it understandably builds on color, as a given characteristic of almost anywhere in Africa. Another central theme among the 50 artists being exhibited is order from chaos, somewhat embodied in the festival’s title, “From Village to MegaCity.”

roomWhen Guernica magazine asked the LPF founder, Azu Nwagbogu, why he created a festival dedicated to photography, he replied, ”[That is] the fastest growing art tool on the continent, and it’s perhaps the easiest to gain access to.”

Nwagbogu is not any more a photographer than a musician. In fact, what he really is is a trained public health official who almost became a professional boxer. Rich enough to wander through Lagos’s new social scene easily, he’s able to command the network that can create something meaningful in a sea of 15 million.

It’s a sad fact, today, in Africa that capitalism is exploding so fast that the trajectory of the rich leads them quickly away from their roots. Many of the artists Nwagbogu has collected for this festival are unknown, precisely because they weren’t rich enough to emerge out of the hoards.

A great example is Afoso Sulayman, born in Makoko, one of Nigeria’s biggest slums. His work is definitely inferior to many of the others, but he’s only begun. He claims to have been photographing for less than a year.

That type of affirmative action in an art festival is something only Africa dare do. And it may ultimately lead not just to new amalgams but new definitions of what art in the modern world really is.

Black Gold

Black Gold

As the U.S. and Europe teeter with their economies their investors are turning to Africa where energy companies are growing rich overnight.

Fed up with the failures of austerity in Europe and the even greater failures of politics in the U.S., giant multinationals are directing investment out of their home turfs to Africa. Facilitated especially by new Chinese technologies for deep drilling, huge new reserves of oil and especially natural gas are being discovered almost daily in Africa.

Literally overnight western companies like Tulow, Royal Dutch Shell, Cove Energy, ENI, Galp Energia, the BG Group and Eskom have seen share prices skyrocket with their new African discoveries.

Global analysts think this presages a major shift in geopolitics in the not-so-distant future. Steve Levine of the trendy new online business journal thinks that by 2020:

“.. oil prices could average $80 a barrel, Gulf monarchs … could face unrest, Mozambique—yes, Mozambique—could become one of the most important petro-states on the planet, China could more congenially assume a top rung among global powers. And the US could untether itself from some tyrants.”

What I think Levine and others fail to underscore is that we already have a Third World African energy giant, and we have had it for more than a generation, and it’s not doing so well.

Nigeria is a mess, and the $64 trillion dollar question is will that also be the outcome for Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, Angola and the others.

Nigeria’s oil, gas and other natural reserves rival many states in the Mideast. Civil war, rampant corruption, now Islamic extremism and a failure to develop basic infrastructure have stymied any meaningful development over the last 30 years.

Nigeria’s manifold problems have not just inhibited Nigerian development, but scared off many global energy companies grossly reducing investment and extraction.

Uganda’s new oil finds are suspended while the county battles multinationals in the courts over royalties.

And Tanzania’s new-found energy wealth is tied up in a series of new energy laws that simply can’t get through Parliament. And Kenya – struggling beautifully but ardently to implement a new constitution, hardly has time for such trivialities as trillion dollar oil reserves.

But that, actually, is a reason things might go OK for East Africa. Unlike the now drunken uncle Nigeria, these countries aren’t just waving in outsiders with no requirement except that they lace the doorman’s hand.

The reason for the stall in Tanzania’s multinational contracts is because of the immense new pressure being exerted on its Parliament by … we-the-people. Centered on new energy finds, the power of young legislators and activists around the country to create a fair energy law is unprecedented in this sheepish country whose population until now has jerked its knees whenever its leaders whistled.

And Kenya has become one of the most sophisticated democracies in Africa. Its only delay, truly, is because such heavy lifting as implementing a new and brilliant constitution must come first.

Each country is different, of course, but my take is that African democracies are maturing so fast that they are now fully capable of creating welcoming capitalist environments for these giant multinationals that will ultimately benefit them mightily. Thirty years ago, Nigeria just wasn’t mature enough.

To be sure this is a serious generalization that needs careful parsing. And don’t give it to the multinationals to do; don’t presume that they always know what’s best. Ask BP Shell and the other multinationals that struggle in Nigeria. Many wish they’d never started.

But once invested giant multinational energy companies get caught up in their own ideological web that won’t let the little spider move on even as the web gets torn to shreds. While a few multinationals have left Nigeria and Belarus, most wouldn’t walk away from their huge capital investment, even when the returns weren’t worth it.

This led to all sorts of horrible things. Horrible returns to investors, yes, but corruption and graft on huge scales that to this day continues to stymy Nigeria.

I don’t think that will happen, again. Thanks not to the greed of the multinationals, but to the sophistication of Africa’s young emerging democracies, today.

And I for one think that Kenya and Mozambique will be the leaders and shakers. Tanzania could turn out well, too. Right there are reserves of oil and natural gas that are almost a fifth of the existing reserves in the Mideast.

And if Angola and Uganda throw off their despicable governments – which could indeed happen – then the oil well overflowith.

Delectably Invasive

Delectably Invasive

Banned from the U.S. after a recently very expensive eradication program in Florida the Giant African Land Snail is on the return. From the bucolic gardens of Budapest to the Westwood dinnerware of the Upper East Side.

The Giant African Land Snail (Archatina mariginata) is one of the most successful creatures in the animal kingdom. There are more than 50 species and they’re all huge. The largest recorded weighs just under a pound and when stretched out underneath its relatively light shell can extend to nearly a foot.

The great irony about land snails in general is that the vast majority of them are considered pests and many of them are classified as invasive by state agricultural authorities. Yet in an upscale San Francisco restaurant you will probably pay $2 per each of a Helix aspersa in garlic butter.

(In Paris, they’re flesh. I mean fresh.)

Although connoisseurs differ on which snail tastes best, most chefs agree that one fresh snail tastes just about the same as another fresh snail. True, little round ones in shiny black bubble cups are more appetizing than the great giant African land snail stewing in its canister, but they are all fat-free and chocked full of useful vitamins like A and D.

In fact it is the eastern European world which has currently gone snails over ape. Slimy rare animal dealers seem to be headquartered in Budapest, but much of the former Soviet Union has few prohibitions about raising or marketing animals.

Much of the social networking community is linked with slime. There seems to be something very special that really sticks these folks together.

In Africa they aren’t cultivated as pets, yet. They are basically just consumed. And responsible NGOs are using snail’s fast breeding, longevity and adaptability to develop snail farms not just to commercialize a practice that has been traditional for generations in the forest peripheries of Africa, but to provide places like California with their banned substance to eat.

So it’s really not a joke. At an average of over $75/pound when served properly dead, can’t you imagine Whole Foods offering a snail loin special?

Does Your State Have Your Back?

Does Your State Have Your Back?

By Conor Godfrey
This poetic essay by Nigerian professor Pius Adesanmi helped me consider the nature of the citizenship I enjoy.

I may rail against certain U.S. policies and politicians, but I know that Uncle Sam has my back abroad.

If I get hurt, arrested, detained illegally, kidnapped, or otherwise physically or legally incapacitated, my blue passport means that someone somewhere is going to do something about it.

(I am however very sympathetic to the argument that not all citizens are equal in terms of state services.)

Nigerian Professor Adesanmi tells his Canadian students that he has “never experienced the psychological comfort of a citizenship considered sacred and inviolable by a state.”

He continues, “ I have never in my life gone to bed with the psychological comfort of knowing that a state has got my back.”

He uses the Yoruba expression “second calabash” to describe how the elite views the citizenry; the expression connotes someone or something of little import, an after thought.

The most recent and vivid manifestations of this are the U.S. and Nigeria’s respective responses to having nationals kidnapped by Somali pirates.

The U.S. exerted tremendous military muscle to rescue one man – Captain Phillips.

Somali pirates held Nigerian hostages on the other hand for 302 days before releasing them to make room for hostages from countries that would actually pay.

In the professor’s words, “The Somalians broke the number one rule of international hostage taking – the life of your hostage must mean something to a particular state – because they believed that anybody in the rulership of Nigeria was even remotely interested in the lives of Nigerian citizens.”

This is harsh stuff.

Obviously military resources might play a larger role than respect for citizenship in determining these outcomes, but symbolically, the images are still potent.

I don’t know if the majority of Nigeria’s 160 million people are second “calabashes” or not, but his argument was convincing in one other respect – Nigerians are treated horribly all over the diaspora, especially in other African countries.

Negative Nigerian stereotyping was rife in every country I ever visited in Africa, some of it laced with simple envy toward a larger and in some respects more successful neighbor.

Nigerians face legal discrimination abroad, and are often targeted by police and security services.

Are Nigerians treated this way abroad because their own state treats them similarly? Because perpetrators know that no one is going to stick up for Nigerian diaspora communities? Maybe.

Recently, South Africa improperly deported over 100 Nigerians on the unfounded suspicion that their Yellow Fever vaccination certificates were fake.

The Nigerian elite reacted with uncharacteristic outrage at this incident, and South Africa was forced to apologize. The South Africans seemed humbled and surprised by the reaction from Abuja. This proves prove the professors point, offered through an adapted proverb – “If you carry piss in your calabash, so will your neighbors when you lend it to them.”

All Global Jihadists Come From Somewhere

All Global Jihadists Come From Somewhere

by Conor Godfrey
Media producers and consumers alike tend to analyze current events using the framework provided by the most recent, similar set of events in the past.

How often did you hear the Arab spring compared to the democratization of Eastern Europe last year?

This is neither good nor bad, just somewhat confining.

I think this is happening with Boko Haram now.

Most western readers have probably heard something about these guys.

They are usually described as ‘Islamic jihadists that want to implement Shari’a law in Nigeria.”

We (middle class American readers like me) are used to these buzzwords – jihadist, Shari’a, terrorist- and they evoke a set of dependable associations.

Whether we are talking about people in Indonesia or Pakistan, Iran or Chechnya, these buzz words still conjure up images of Arabic speaking Middle Easterners that want to kill infidel Westerners for reasons that we cannot fully understand.

However, politics are always local.

Nowhere – not even in pork-laden West Virginia—is that more true than Nigeria.

Even the name, Boko Haram, is a local nick name in the local Hausa language (well, the word Boko anyway).

Perhaps the Boko Haram PR guy realized the media would refuse to cover them if they had to pronounce “The Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad on the Air.”

While Boko Haram certainly pays homage to the worldwide phenomenon of political Islam, their roots are as local as hot pepper soup and Tuwo_masara.

The group takes historical roots in anti colonial anti missionary activity in the former Sultanate that covered the parts of Northern Nigeria where Boko Haram now operates.

In modern times, the group cut their teeth protesting endemic violence and corruption in the local government and security services.

These grievances became increasingly violent after the founder, Mohammed Yusuf, was tortured to death in police custody in 2002.

These same practices remain rife today! Read this very emotional blog regarding young, alleged Boko Haram militants in custody,

Boko Haram is also both a pawn and a player in a specifically Nigerian regional power dynamic.

The young men that killed themselves driving trucks filled with explosives into the U.N. compound in Abuja certainly had religion on their mind, but the people paying for the training, giving the organization political cover, or using the group as leverage with the Federal government may not be in it to guarantee their place in paradise.

Richard Dowden does a great job here discussing the morass of motives and incentives that could be driving Boko Haram’s activities.

Dowden also notes a tragicomic list of people and organizations that are using the Boko Haram brand for their own purposes—criminal syndicates: an arsonist churchgoer and northern Nigerian politicians are just some of the groups that have use the name of or affiliation with Boko Haram for purely local shenanigans.

Boko Haram itself might also be guilty of brand profiteering – with al-Qaeda.

While some members of Boko Haram certainly feel sympathy toward the pan-jihadist Qaeda platform, others probably see financial and logistical support.

As Boko Haram morphs into an umbrella for a number of different factions and interest groups, it will become increasingly difficult to negotiate a settlement that will stick.

My opinion is that Boko Haram’s main target is still the Nigerian government, and not the foreign crusaders and infidels identified in global jihadist rhetoric.

This means that solving the problem requires solving local triggers – not necessarily taking all of the militants off the field.

(Though that certainly helps if you can avoid making the local population hate you.)

In this case, the local trigger is the massive development gap between Southern and Northern Nigeria that fuels resentment, xenophobia, and radicalism. (see wealth map)

It also means dealing with local flashpoints that feed the anger that in turn feeds Boko Haram – things like conflicts between settlers and so called indigenes, fair policing, and an education system that both moderate Islamists and the government can get behind.

If our mental filing cabinet wants to associate these guys with Middle Eastern jihadists, you can be darn sure that the average Nigerian would like to think of them as foreign too.

But I think societies need to claim the radicals at their margins no matter how unpleasant the thought might be.

These guys are Nigerian, and any global dynamics should be viewed through the local lens first.