The puzzle of political alternation

DRC: quo vadis?

As Kabila fights to retain power, opposition politicians must put political differences aside in the interests of the electorate

Children in Goma, capital city of North Kivu province, DRC © iStock

The 2006 elections marked the end of a dramatic decade in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after two wars (1996-1997 and 1998-2002) and a complex peace process. Joseph Kabila, who succeeded his assassinated father Laurent-Désiré in January 2001, was sworn in on December 6, 2006 as the first elected president of the Third Republic, in the country’s first reasonably fair and free multiparty election since independence. But the next election, in November 2011, was so contested that it brought the country to the edge of implosion. It was not organised to protect a fragile democratic process but to consolidate power. The regime used its control over the security forces and the electoral machinery against a weak and divided opposition. Since September 2014 President Kabila’s political family has attempted several times to push his reign beyond its constitutional limit of December 19, 2016. Aubin Minaku, the speaker of the National Assembly, tried to change the constitution in September 2014 but failed to mobilise the necessary majority. In January 2015 the government proposed passing a new electoral law that included a census that would delay the elections by several years. Once again, however, this was blocked—this time not by Parliament but in the streets. Protests were organised in several cities, including Kinshasa and Goma. At least 40 people died. Few expected the violence, and it was unclear who had instigated it. Given all this, the only strategy that has worked is slippage, le glissement: delaying the electoral calendar on the grounds that the government is not ready to organise elections; and the systematic non-disbursement of funds budgeted for phases of the electoral process. Since 2014 Kabila has found it increasing difficult to guarantee a cohesive government. It is likely that he exceeded his expiry date to take advantage of the superficial unity between the interest groups on which his regime is built. Through his father, Kabila is a member of the Balubakat people in North Katanga. Both Kabila regimes (père and fils) are perceived as representing a Swahili-speaking Katanga-based political fortress. More recently, signs of serious discontent have emerged among the Balubakat. The north of the province, where the Balubakat comes from, has been largely absent of the growth dynamics observable in the major cities such as Lubumbashi, Likasi and Kolwezi. The people there blame their leaders for this. After Laurent-Désiré Kabila took power, Balubakat leaders visibly enriched themselves, but there was hardly any return for North Katanga. Most Congolese politicians have used their mandate to develop their own regions by rehabilitating roads, building schools and hospitals, and so on. In 2013 three Balubakat leaders lost decisive positions in key sectors of public life. John Numbi ceased to be national police chief, Daniel Mulunda Ngoi was dismissed as president of the electoral commission and Jean-Claude Masangu ended his mandate as president of the national bank. At the end of 2014, Katanga turned against Kabila, a consensus incarnated in the personality of the then governor of Katanga, Moïse Katumbi. In March 2015 party leaders within the majority, including Pierre Lumbi, Olivier Kamitatu, Charles Mwando Simba and Kyungu wa Kumanza joined forces. Known as the G7, they share the conviction that further constitutional reform or slippage of the electoral process pose enormous risks for the country’s stability, and might undermine the achievements of the peace and democratisation process. Since then Kabila has struggled with the supporters of his challengers in 2006 (Jean-Pierre Bemba, who has since been tried and convicted in The Hague) and 2011 (Étienne Tshisekedi, who left the country in 2013, only to return in 2016). Most of all, he has struggled with members of his support base who won the 2006 elections with him, and who were the main reason Congolese and international public opinion considered the election to be reasonably free and fair. Some were key people in his regime during his first period in office. Lumbi was minister of infrastructure and, later, Kabila’s counsellor on security; Kamitatu, minister of planning; Vital Kamerhe, who left the president’s camp in 2010, was speaker of Parliament; and, of course, Katumbi. They are now leading opposition figures. Their success will depend on their capacity to mobilise the masses who are frustrated because they believe that the current regime has neither the capacity nor the political will to change the country. The mistrust is widespread, and directed at the entire political caste. Politicians are thought to be interested only in enriching themselves, their families, their clans and their own communities. Little distinction is made between the ruling party and the opposition. Congo’s political elite lacks moral authority and, therefore, the ability to manage social unrest. Tshisekedi recently returned to the country, cheered by an impressive crowd. But it remains to be seen whether he can translate this enthusiasm into an effective popular force for change. The opposition must provide a plan to govern the country differently, and take into account the DRC’s complex ethnic and regional puzzle. Congo’s political elite lacks moral authority and … the ability to manage social unrest. Katumbi is thought to be a likely challenger to Kabila. He has a good reputation as a businessman and manager, and is seen to be generous. He has the money, charisma and looks for a successful campaign, and has used his success in football and development to support his political ambitions. Yet it is unlikely that the Congolese population will accept a third president from the former province of Katanga. Moreover, dark shadows hang over his business past: questions could be asked about how he acquired his wealth. Many people think he lacks the strength of personality to be a leader at this level. He is not considered a sophisticated intellectual nor a visionary. He might play a crucial role in the future of the country, but a lot depends on the coalition he can mobilise. Tshisekedi considers himself the president elected in 2011, and his followers in his home province of Kasai believe it is their turn to provide the president after predecessors from the western (Kasavubu), northern (Mobutu) and eastern (the Kabilas) parts of the DRC. Other challengers are in the offing. In 2011, Kamerhe claimed much of Kabila’s 2006 electorate in the Kivu provinces. But can he manage the huge potential for grassroots anger and violence? Currently, every local conflict in eastern Congo is activated under pressure of local tensions. The Congolese state collapsed at the end of Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocratic regime and has not risen from its ashes. Its capacity to deal with local conflicts is limited. Political protagonists may try to manipulate these conflicts to position themselves on the political chessboard at provincial or national levels. Kabila has probably lost his capacity to hold together the antagonistic groups that comprise his regime. The opposition must prove that its leaders can unite to fight an election. They will have to build the country’s different local realities into a dynamic political force for change.

Mapping ethnic conflicts

Africa: an artificial patchwork?

Understanding the dynamics of ethnic conflicts in Africa means appreciating the role of ethnic identity

In 2011 Peter S. Larson, a professor at the University of Nagasaki, Japan, published an attempt to chart the interplay between ethnicity and African conflict. Larson used the 1959 map of 835 “ethnic regions” of Africa produced by anthropologist George Murdock. While admitting that Murdock’s map is “perhaps naïve”, Larson states that it remains an important source to Africanists. He then drew on the University of Sussex’s Armed Conflict and Event Location Database to plot current conflict events onto Murdock’s ethnographic map. Mapping conflict by national borders painted huge chunks of the African map red with danger, Larson found, but plotting the Sussex data onto the Murdock map altered the patterns. In particular, conflicts became identifiable as regional rather than as national or international. Moreover, he wrote, “one can see that conflict events largely occur within Murdock’s ethnic boundaries”. Yet he argued against the conclusion that African conflicts were mainly ethnicity-driven. As one example, Larson’s map revealed that the Algerian conflict is really a conflict between the government and the Amazigh, a Berber group of the Kabyle region of the Atlas Mountains who have a tradition of independence: Amazigh means “Free People”. By contrast, the map plots the ethnic element behind the secessionist war in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, where the Bakongo majority has developed a unique culture distinct from that of other Bakongo in the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Similar convergences of conflict and ethnicity can be seen in Ogoni and Ijaw militancy in the Niger Delta, the Tuareg insurrection of northern Mali, and other regions. Larson’s map was published just before the Arab Spring rolled out across the Maghreb. The latest Sussex map, published in 2015, shows the spread of conflict into Libya, especially to Benghazi.

Conflicts in Africa by ethnic region

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog:

In Egypt it has moved into Sinai, where most people speak Bedawi Arabic, unlike Cairo’s Egyptian Arabic majority. In the former Somalia, conflict is centred in Mogadishu. Other conflicts are mapped in north-western Nigeria (Boko Haram), South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR). The map shows that violence against civilians had declined in Zimbabwe, especially in Matabeleland. Meanwhile, civil protests continued in South Africa, as well as in many West African and Maghreb capitals after the lull following the Arab Spring. Perhaps more telling is Sussex’s 2015 map of the agents of violent conflict in Africa. Searching only for “communal militia” reveals a widespread tendency to armed communal violence, in distinct regions, that likely involves an element of ethnicity. For example, in Libya communal militia-driven conflict occurs in remote and coastal areas that are homogeneously Arab or Toubou. But the civil war is not only ethnicity-based; it is also a politico-confessional conflict between former Gaddafi supporters and Salafist and democratic forces.

Spread of main languages in Africa

Source: Peter S. Larson’s blog:

Militia conflict in south-central Nigeria occurs in the Christian Igbo heartland, far away from Boko Haram’s strongholds. The conflict on the CAR/Congo border is primarily confessional, between Muslim Séléka and Christian Anti-Balaka militia. The conflict in Darfur, in the Sudan, involves a number of ethnicities, as well as ethnicised environmental drivers. In South Kivu, in the DRC, the conflict involves several ethnicities, as well as ethnicised drivers deriving from the long aftermath of the Rwandan genocide—complicated by relations with endogenous political militia sometimes supported by foreign governments. Community conflict in highland Kenya is regional and ethnic, and relatively isolated from the multiculturalism of Nairobi. The emergence of communal militia in South Sudan is mostly a result of the breakdown of the Dinka-Nuer ethnic compact, but is also driven by the fragility of the new state and a tendency by all parties to resort to military “solutions”. Communal armed conflict in former Somalia involves a power struggle between six major Somali clans, plus Al-Shabaab, and only a smattering of “outsiders”. This brief overview is an indication of the difficulty of accurately charting the role of ethnic identity in African conflicts. Each involves many facets, including the influence of ethnicity, which is itself complicated by history. Even distinctly ethnic civil conflicts such as the 2007/08 pogroms in Kenya and the wave of violence in 2008 in South Africa involved a blend of other factors and influences. In Kenya, where perhaps 1,500 were killed and perhaps 600,000 displaced, the crisis was rooted in political unrest following the contested election of President Mwai Kibaki. Opposition supporters of his opponent, Raila Odinga, went on the warpath, killing members of Kibaki’s ethnic group, the Kikuyu. This ethnicised the conflict, with Kikuyu striking back at the Luo and Kalejin ethnic groups. In South Africa 62 people were killed and 100,000 displaced in violence supposedly directed only at foreigners. But the media’s “xenophobic” tag was inaccurate; only two thirds of those killed were foreigners, among them Somalis and Mozambicans. Resource contestation and business jealousy were the root causes, while the violence also had elements of sheer criminality and the settling of personal scores. This was also the case in Kenya where land, hunger, poverty and criminality skewed ethnic tensions. More coherently, ethnic conflicts include those where a particular, identifiable group seeks to establish a secessionist movement. For instance, the ethnic Alliance of the Bakongo political party, established in 1955, wanted a Kongo Kingdom covering parts of the DRC, Congo, Angola and Cabinda, with the long-term aim of restoring the pre-colonial Kongo Kingdom of 1390-1857. But other than South Sudan and Eritrea, both of which had distinct ethno-nationalist foundations, secessionist wars have always failed in Africa.


MICHAEL SCHMIDT is a field reporter who has worked in 45 countries across six continents, but with a focus on Africa. He is the author of five books including Drinking With Ghosts (2014). He is a 2009 academic leader at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), a 2011 Clive Menell Media Fellow at Duke University (USA), and a 2017 Arts Rights Justice Academy Fellow at Universität Hildesheim (Germany). He researches and writes on African affairs and continental human rights.


Reporting ethnicity in African politics

Africa: the scourge of ethnicity

Understanding ethnicity—inherited or imposed—can go a long way to ensure accurate coverage of conflict in Africa

As a journalist I have covered a range of conflicts, some of which had a clearly ethnic dimension. But ethnicity is a multidimensional concept that blends race, colour, creed, class, clan, language, lifestyle, identity and culture in an ephemeral and continually shifting matrix. This can make it a tricky subject at the best of times. Moreover, politics can be distorted through an ethnic lens, making it treacherous territory for journalists, especially when they can’t speak local dialects or know little of the ethnic dynamics they are reporting on. There is also a historical dimension. Some ethnic conflicts have their roots in precolonial times, yet they survive tenaciously into the current era, amplified by access to modern technologies.

Michael Schmidt and colleagues in South Sudan

In South Africa, for instance, rural conflicts are often written off as “tribal”, even when they occur between clans of the same tribe. In 1996, I reported on intense fighting in the Umvoti River Valley in Zululand. The area was chicken-and-goat territory, the hills studded with thatched rondavels, tiny mielie patches and dozing cattle, but the belligerents were armed with modern assault rifles. Old grudges continued to simmer in a contemporary context. The conflict had started in 1951 when a rebel chief formed his own clan and the two factions had been at war ever since. This had included the assassination of the first-born son of the chief of the original faction. Moreover, the bloody conflict had got caught up in political warfare between the African National Congress (ANC) and its rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). Former soldiers, taxi warlords, and white right-wing farmers in the area also played shadowy roles. Journalists are mostly urban-based and disdainful of provincial folk, and the situation was dismissed as a clash between ignorant peasants. But the urban-rural divide is an important inflection of ethnic identity. Because of the apartheid migrant labour system, the Bomvu clan feud had moved to the cities, with murders in Johannesburg and Durban. South Africa’s population is two-thirds urbanised, but the country’s cities continue to be affected by rural contestations since most of its citizens are rural-born. Then again, an urban ethnic identity can be fluid and creatively cosmopolitan, with new supra-tribal ethnicities being formed, as I found reporting from Kinshasa in 2003 on the implementation of the Pretoria Peace Accords. The country, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is a vast hinterland of more than 250 ethnicities including whites and Twa. To live in Kinshasa and jive to the music of Werrason is to be quintessentially Kinois, regardless of one’s ethnic origins. Yet an undertow of ethnicity prevails in the political arena, as with persistent rumours that President Joseph Kabila is Tanzanian and not Congolese by birth. Ethnicity is supposedly inherited; but it is just as often imposed. In 2007, I reported on the Darfur conflict in Sudan. But Sudan was not at all what I had supposed it to be. The mystical Sufi version of Islam was more in evidence than the hardline Salafism with which Khartoum had been erroneously associated. And in Darfur itself it rapidly became obvious that the Western characterisation of the war as a confessional race war between Muslim Arabs and Christian blacks was a projection. I was part of a team of journalists, one black, two white. Although we were briefly detained on arrival in El Fasher, we were leapfrogged in the queue for permits. We had readier access to the warzone than the Westerners we left languishing in Khartoum. A journalist’s real or perceived ethnicity may have a bearing on his or her access to stories. White Africans are often seen as outsiders in Africa, like Western aid workers. This may get them better access, but may also confront them with anti-Western hostility. Meanwhile, a slender light-skinned Tswana photojournalist friend and colleague had trouble taking pictures in refugee camps in South Sudan because he was thought to “look like a Janjaweed”, or a member of the camel-herding militia that was plaguing the region with violence. In El Fasher, the region’s capital city, the Fur and Arabic languages cohabited, apparently peacefully, with other regional Nilotic, Mande and Kanuri tongues. Both in the town itself and in its sprawling refugee camp a visitor expecting clearly delineated evidence of ethnic conflict was immediately disoriented. Yet the drivers of the conflict lay as far back as 1972, when Gaafar Nimeiry’s socialist regime tried to break the power of the Fur chieftains. Undermining their authority weakened centuries-old agreements on the sharing of watering holes. Meanwhile, the Sahara was marching implacably eastwards at the rate of about 5km per year, swallowing up the increasingly contested remaining wells. Disputes over Darfur’s oil also contributed to the conflict, which was exacerbated by the availability of modern weaponry. A resource battle had been ethnicised by unscrupulous local leaders and by Western observers— for whom an Islam-versus-Christianity narrative was attractive of political support and donor funding. Darfur was more about power than it was about creed or colour, as I would find again with the Israeli “Summer War” on Lebanon, which I covered in 2006. The tendency to ethnicise a pre-existing resource contest is not unique to Africa. Ethnicising a conflict obscures the asset-stripping objectives of many partisan leaders. Perhaps, more importantly, it provides warlords with a pool of potential fighters for their cause. I experienced this in the Solomon Islands, South Pacific, in 2010, where I trained journalists to cover a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that had been established in the wake of a war between the two primary islands of Guadalcanal and Malaita between 1998 and 2003. The “Tensions”, as the war was euphemistically known locally, were almost invariably described as an ethnic clash between Guales and Malaitans in an increasingly bitter struggle for scarce jobs and land. Upon further investigation, it emerged that multinationals had purchased swathes of timberland, displacing large numbers of peasants. The work of a brilliant investigative journalist, Mary Louise O’Callaghan, had also shown that the “improper” acquisition of Guadalcanal land by Malaitans had occurred because Guale men had subverted the traditional matrilineal control of land to make a quick buck selling land to Malaitans, and had then blamed the buyers for the resulting dissatisfaction. In making these observations I’m not reducing such conflicts to the purely economic sphere, as Marxists tend to do. Ethnicity can be a powerful mobilising force though its compelling aspects can often be invisible to foreign correspondents who have been “parachuted” into a complex fight on short notice, and who are not stationed long-term in the countries they cover. Working in Bamako and Ségou in Mali in 2008 I was unaware that I was in the heartland of the Bambara ethnic group—Mali’s largest at 25 percent of the population. I had no indication of tensions with the Tuareg I met, even though they were in the middle of their fourth insurrection since 1916, demanding ethnic balance in the government and military. Though I knew of the potential ferocity of the Tuareg nomads, whose homeland was the Sahel band to the north-east of Timbuktu, I was unprepared for the anti-Bambara brutality of the Ansar al-Dine and other rebel groups that swept to power in the entire north of the country by January 2013. I did not have the “ethnic radar” or the languages I needed to pick up on the undercurrents. My ignorance was partly a factor of geography. Ethnicities in Africa can be resiliently localised, even when they bridge colonial-era national borders, as in the Sahara, in the Sahel and the Great Lakes regions. But it was also partly because ethnicity can fade in and out of the foreground as a focus of national tensions. South Africa is a good example. After the advent of democracy in 1994 the ANC maintained a public ethic of multiracialism during the Mandela presidency. But with the Thabo Mbeki presidency, rumbling dissatisfaction within the country’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, at the favoured status of the “Xhosa-Nostra” resulted in the rise of Jacob Zuma, an isiZulu speaker, whose presidency has seen a reversion to an atavistic, ethnicised politics. And when ethnicity is suddenly foregrounded, it can be with a barely matched explosiveness. As is generally known, the Rwandan genocide was trip-wired by the downing of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s jet on April 6, 1994. But it had been simmering ever since the 1950s, when the Belgian colonisers introduced “ethnic” classification cards for groups identified as Tutsis, Hutus and Twa. These were, however, essentially fake ethnicities. Of the 18 clans in Rwanda, all, except arguably the royal clan, were ethnic mixes of groups that had intermarried over a millennium. Those classified Tutsi had to own more than 10 cattle, and it helped if they were tall. In fact, this was a class designation with spurious racial elements appended. The result of this faux ethnicisation was 100,000 slaughtered in 1959 and 800,000 in 1994. The spillover from the latter continues to generate fresh ethnic and ethnicised conflicts in the Great Lakes today.


MICHAEL SCHMIDT is a field reporter who has worked in 45 countries across six continents, but with a focus on Africa. He is the author of five books including Drinking With Ghosts (2014). He is a 2009 academic leader at Tecnológico de Monterrey (Mexico), a 2011 Clive Menell Media Fellow at Duke University (USA), and a 2017 Arts Rights Justice Academy Fellow at Universität Hildesheim (Germany). He researches and writes on African affairs and continental human rights.

Looking for the right rules of engagement

People displaced by Boko Haram conduct their daily businesses at a government-run camp in the Bulunkutu area of Maiduguri, Borno state, north east Nigeria, February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)


Boko Haram: fight or talk?


Last year, the Nigerian military persistently denied media reports of an upsurge in attacks by Boko Haram in the country’s northeast. Then, in November 2018, the Islamist militant group raided an army base near the border with Niger and Chad and killed over 100 soldiers, according to Reuters news agency. The army admitted the attack in the town of Metele, but said the death toll was 23. But even that relatively lower figure represented a devastating turn for the Nigerian military.

Three years earlier, it had put the group on the back foot under the  new government of Muhammadu Buhari, a former army general who came to power on a promise to defeat Boko Haram. Those early wins allowed the Buhari government to feel upbeat about rescuing hundreds of abducted schoolgirls and ending the conflict through negotiation. By 2016, the new president was urging the United Nations (UN) to mediate and offering to “bend over backwards” to solve the crisis. The talks that followed led to the release of 103 schoolgirls, but further negotiations failed. Over 100 of the girls kidnapped in 2014 from Chibok town amid global outrage remain missing.

Many analysts have linked the partial success in the negotiations to the recent rise in attacks on military targets, pointing at the huge payments the group received as ransom and the release of its commanders in exchange for the schoolgirls. “Going into negotiation with terrorists gives [them] a psychological sense of control over the authority, and somewhat legitimises their activities,” said Anietie Umoren, a psychologist and researcher at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile Ife, Nigeria.

Indeed, critics argue that the group has used the resources to regroup. With attacks persisting and the military response not as effective, such ironic outcomes raise the question of how the Nigerian government can best engage the group and end the crisis.

Only a few countries admit negotiating with extremists. Most western countries, for example, adopt a “no negotiation with terrorists” policy, especially with regards to the payment of ransom. Countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel maintain this policy, but do sometimes negotiate secretly, according to Alan Steinberg in a 2015 paper in the Journal of Peace, Conflict and Development. On the other hand, France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland are more open to negotiation, according to various reports. The successful Nigeria negotiation for the abducted girls was mediated by the Swiss government.

For decades, many policymakers feared that negotiating with extremists would weaken governments, legitimise extremism and incite violence, but some recent studies have countered that claim. Ostracising extremists may do more harm than good, argues Harmonie Toros, an expert on conflict resolution, in a 2008 research paper. Rather, a preparedness to engage in dialogue with extremists could help resolve conflicts. “Negotiations also enable groups to voice their grievances and strengthen factions interested in non-violent solutions,” she writes. “In contrast, naming groups as terrorists with the intention of delegitimising them can radicalise such groups and curtail attempts to resolve conflicts non-violently.”

Nigeria’s experience with extremism dates back decades, but it was the advent of Boko Haram that required the Nigerian government to formulate some form of official position on negotiating with radical groups. The jihadist sect, which emerged a decade ago, has now become one of the world’s most brutal extremist groups. Its activities have left over 30,000 people dead and more than 1.6 million people displaced, according to the UN’s 2018 Nigeria National Human Development report.

While the Nigerian government does sometimes admit to engaging in negotiations with Boko Haram, it denies paying ransoms. In 2016, Information Minister Lai Mohammed acknowledged the negotiation to free the Chibok girls succeeded after the mediation of the Swiss government and the International Red Cross, but denied that a ransom was paid. However, the Wall Street Journal and the BBC reported that between two and three million euros were paid to the group and also that some of its top leaders had been released.

That approach showed early signs of trouble. By March 2017, a Boko Haram propaganda video showed a man clutching an AK 47, claiming to be one of five commanders freed and threatening fresh attacks. The group, which has split into two factions, soon intensified its attacks in 2018, killing hundreds of soldiers and civilians. Security analysts point to several reasons for the new attacks, among them poor military strategy, demoralised troops and poor equipment. They also traced the problem to the government’s negotiation model, which funnelled millions of dollars to the militants and freed their skilled fighters, allowing the group to rebuild its arsenal and manpower.

The recent uptick in attacks by Boko Haram, also known as Islamic State in West Africa (ISWAP) in recognition of the group’s allegiance to the terror group ISIL, has three main causes, according to Cheta Nwanze of the Abuja-based SBM Intelligence. “The funding received by Boko Haram from the federal government came with the added benefit of experienced commanders being returned,” he told Africa in Fact. In addition, the security forces were increasingly attending to threats elsewhere, including clashes between herders and farmers in the central region and deadly attacks on villagers by bandits in the northwest. The government’s attention was further distracted by the looming general election in February this year. Moreover, Boko Haram was marking the 10th anniversary of the death of its founder, Mohammed Yusuf.

In March last year,  Information Minister Lai Mohammed said the government was negotiating a possible ceasefire and an end to the conflict. But after the Melete army base attack and other similar raids, the government appeared reluctant to negotiate and pay ransoms. It gave a hint of this in August 2018 after the sect abducted three female aid workers and demanded a huge amount of money for their return, according to government insiders. The government rebuffed the threat and the militants murdered two of the workers in response.

President Buhari, who was at the time of writing seeking a second term in the February elections, has not stated clearly what, if any, non-military approaches he may apply in dealing with the crisis if re-elected. The government would, however, “consolidate on [Buhari’s] first-term achievements”, according to the campaign manifesto of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress.

Meanwhile, Buhari’s main challenger in the election, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, says he will use “diplomacy, intelligence and border controls” in tackling the problem. Taunting the Buhari administration for its prisoner swap policy, Abubakar added that he would not release captured Boko Haram fighters back into society. “It makes no military or practical sense to release hardened terrorists, who have taken the precious lives of members of the Nigerian Armed Forces, on the flimsy excuse that they have been deradicalised or are repentant,” Abubakar said on 12 January, according to the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN).

Analysts say the crisis may ultimately not be resolved militarily. Any negotiations, however, must be done from a position of strength, they warn. “You cannot rule [negotiations] out, but … you don’t negotiate from a position of weakness, which is where we are now,” Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and former head of Nigeria’s Human Rights Commission, told Africa in Fact.

The United States Institute of Peace, an American federal institution that promotes conflict resolution worldwide, says negotiations with extremists can help governments to gain intelligence and influence, and so ultimately contribute to ending conflict involving extremists. “The greatest benefit of engagement is to end the conflict, or at least its terrorist form. If the terrorists can agree to stop violent acts, the state can reciprocate by softening its ‘no engagement’ stance. This initial exchange can lead to further exchanges,” it says on an undated page of its website, Engaging Extremists.

The fact that a split has recently emerged within the group may, however, make talks more difficult. One faction is led by the better-known Abubakar Shekau – a former deputy of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf – who has been reported killed several times, only to re-emerge as apparently alive and well. The other faction is led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, a son of Yusuf’s, who acted as the spokesperson of Boko Haram before it split in 2016. Shekau has repeatedly turned down previous attempts at negotiation, while al-Barnawi has been open to dialogue. In 2016, President Buhari admitted that the split had made it difficult to find credible leaders with whom to negotiate.

“We have to find a way to draw the more pliable faction into local politics, in a manner that is not hostile to the Nigerian state and its citizens,” says SBM’s Nwanze. “This is because [the extremist group] is increasingly gaining acceptance among some locals as an alternate government.”

One community where such an alternate government may operate is the fishing town of Baga in Borno state, where the militants launched a deadly attack in December 2018. The army, which initially denied the group had taken control of the town as widely reported in the media, later announced it had recaptured it. Weeks after that claim, residents said Boko Haram militants remained in control of Baga, and were issuing “movement permits” that allowed residents to move in and out of the town, the newspaper Premium Times said in a 5 February report.

Negotiating with a Boko Haram faction that operates as an alternate government raises the fear that the Nigerian government is flirting with a threat to its legitimacy, or even the possibility of a secession, if it allows the group to consolidate its gains. Whether it decides to do so will be determined by a range of factors, including whether Buhari successfully retains the presidency. In the meanwhile, though, Nigeria’s approach to engaging with the extremists looks more like dithering than purposeful, considered action.

A billboard in Maidugari, Borno state, the birthplace of Boko Haram, shows Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari and other politicians ahead of recent general elections. Political leaders will play roles in deciding on possible talks with the deadly Islamist group. February 2019 (Photo by INI EKOTT)

Ini Ekott is the Assistant Managing Editor (News) at Premium Times, an online newspaper based in Abuja, Nigeria. Prior to this, he reported for Next, an investigative newspaper in Lagos. He has written for IPS Africa and other publications and is a former Wole Soyinka investigative journalist of the year.

An acute sense of dislocation


Protesting students (foreground) are watched by students (background) attending lectures, at the University of Cape Town on October 3, 2016. – Groups of students with the Fees Must Fall movement moved around the campus singing and dancing to disrupt lectures on the first day of classes after weeks of closures at this and other universities around South Africa. (Photo by Rodger Bosch / AFP)


Post-colonial theory: the strong arm of identity


I have always been mistrustful of the rhetoric on decolonisation. Our difficulty deciding its meaning not only consigns it to a realm of needless obscurity but also frustrates our cause, which I understand to be the reimagining of the entire knowledge-making apparatus in the pursuit of a just, humane and equitable social order.

The major problem with the term “decolonisation” is its status as empty signifier. My concern is that the radical potential of decolonisation discourse — because of its indeterminacy — is always at risk of being co-opted by hegemonic political formations. We have witnessed such reversals already in the fate of the so-called African Renaissance, an idiom that was meant to signify continental rebirth but was converted instead into the ideological glue that rationalised former South African President Thabo Mbeki’s export of free-market economics across Africa. We also observe it in university life today with the relentless commodification of engaged scholarship into just another signpost on the road to tenure.

I would regard “decolonisation” as being another one of those radical chic terms. Everyone who cares about the future of higher education in South Africa is talking about it, yet most admit they do not know what it actually means. It is no accident that the looseness of the term is consistent with the anti-foundationalist values of the intellectual tradition with which it is most closely associated, namely, post-colonial theory. Indeed, the post-colonial genre is itself difficult to master, being viewed in some quarters as not theory at all. It has been regarded even as a form of post-theory: criticise a post-colonial writer, Vivek Chibber warns in his book Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (2013), and you may be dismissed for having misunderstood.

But there is a second problem with the term “decolonisation”: it seals us within a colonial imaginary in which the binaries of coloniser and colonised, white and black become impossible to displace. If we are committed to a non-racial future as enshrined in our constitution, it is difficult to imagine how that can ever be realised for as long as we continue to reify — and weaponise — certain highly contentious markers of social difference.

I am, of course, speaking about race, for despite the common sense that it is a social construction, some of us continue to assert the value of strategic essentialism. It cannot be denied that racism remains an integral part of lived experience in South Africa, but it has to be distinguished from race, which, again, has no external referent.

Post-colonial theory proceeds from the premise of social difference, an insistence that underpins its trademark critiques of eurocentrism, colonial ideology and economic determinism, as Chibber argues in his 2013 book. The result is an abiding suspicion of grand theory and a corresponding focus on marginality, alterity, and particularity instead. Inevitably, identity becomes the basis for political mobilisation as the possibility for universal comradeship slowly disintegrates.

The influence of post-colonial theory on student movements in South Africa has been substantial. Unwilling to frame their struggle in terms of the universal values of dignity, security and equality, protestors have opted for the particulars of white privilege and black pain, practising a form of identity politics that is unmistakably middle class.

Trapped in a self-referential form of protest, a certain narcissism has set in, as self-styled radicals reveal a decidedly unradical preoccupation with their own bourgeois destinies. Whereas the May 1968 generation pursued causes that extended far beyond the confines of the academy, to date our students have shown little interest in backing the causes of the South African majority – most of whom will never set foot inside a university. Young people who are functionally illiterate and virtually unemployable have no interest in decolonising consciousness, let alone in resurrecting the past glories of the colour black.

I am not attempting to disavow or trivialise the lived experiences of protesting students. What they perceive more than anything is an acute sense of dislocation – a feeling of otherness that is the fate of anyone entering an institutional space that is deeply alienating. But these psychological concerns must be recognised for what they are, namely, an emergent elite’s struggle for a coherent sense of self, rather than a movement for radical social change. The future of South Africa does not depend on the middle class – black or white. It depends on the millions of South Africans whose terminal state of wretchedness is both a necessary and sufficient condition for revolution.

The fact that decolonisation discourse is saturated with bourgeois concerns also tells us that something is seriously wrong with the academy. The marketisation of knowledge-making processes over the past four decades – and the gradual insertion of South African higher education institutions into that global landscape in the post-apartheid years – has resulted in the assembly-line production of graduates who are quickly assimilated into the well-oiled machineries of a market-friendly economy. Yet decolonisation activists, by and large, do not seem to take issue with the instrumentalisation of their education, directing all their energies towards the attainment of what they call “free, quality, decolonised education”. Instead of a materialist reading of the asymmetries of academic life, they support an agenda that centres on high-level abstractions, such as “epistemic violence” and the like.

There is another reason to question the decolonisation agenda – specifically, its suggestion that the academic disciplines we have inherited remain suitable as disciplines in a society as historically contingent as ours. For example, it is one thing to question the topics and methods of a discipline such as psychology, but it is another matter entirely to question the existence of psychology altogether.

Disciplines as they exist today do not represent, in the words of Plato, “the carving of nature at its joints”. They only exist because particular societies have deemed particular problems worthy of investigation. There is nothing given about a disciplinary order, which only emerges as a result of specific arrangements between knowledge-making communities and powerful interest groups. Approaching decolonisation as an intellectual project that targets individual disciplines, therefore, is a non-starter.

In the 1970s, the theorist Gayatri Spivak castigated French feminists for expressing solidarity with Vietnamese women. It was the first time in the history of the socialist left that someone from the Global South had questioned the possibility of universal comradeship. From there, post-colonial theory took off, its popularity in no small measure the result of the general disarray of the left.

Today, internecine conflicts among academics and students – both in South Africa and internationally – find socialists and anti-racists being put down as conservative and racist. And that is perhaps the most pernicious effect of decolonisation discourse: the now widespread belief that one’s identity constitutes an argument in and of itself, a belief that is surely antithetical to the very concept of a university.

The idea that only black people may speak for black people, that only women may speak for women, that only disabled people may speak for disabled people, that only disabled black women may speak for disabled black women – in short, the idea that only the oppressed may speak for the oppressed, and only if they are identically oppressed – is one of the most absurd yet dangerous ideas in circulation today.

Post-colonial theory denies the possibility of empathy – of a shared humanity – and it is for that reason that it cannot provide the ethical vision we need now more than ever.

First published under a Creative Commons licence by Africa is Not a Country on 26 November 2018.


Wahbie Long, Ph.D., is an associate professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychology and the director of the Child Guidance Clinic at the University of Cape Town. He has a Y1 rating from the National Research Foundation of South Africa, and has held fellowships at Harvard and Durham. In 2016, he was the recipient of the Early Career Award of the Society for the History of Psychology (Division 26 of the American Psychological Association).

A bold new approach to governance


Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta (L) shakes hands with the National Super Alliance (NASA) coalition opposition leader Raila Odinga after a news conference at the March 9, 2018 at Harambee house office in Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)


Kenya: out with the old


On 6 February this year, Miguna Miguna, a Kenyan-born attorney and a solicitor in Canada tweeted that Kenya was in danger of becoming a Kenyatta-Moi private estate. “Patriots,” he added, would have to “mobilise” to stop the takeover of the country, by creating a “vibrant people-focused and merit-based society … built on the principles of social justice and governed by individuals of integrity”.

In an earlier tweet, Miguna had claimed that certain “Anglo-American imperialists” were working with Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga, to “mutilate the Constitution” with the aim of turning President Uhuru Kenyatta into a “theoretical monarch”. The social media posts expressed a widespread perception in the formally democratic country that its governance is currently threatened by a dynastic takeover, following a rapprochement between Kenyatta and Odinga, his erstwhile arch rival for the presidency, in March 2018.

Besides stimulating unity and numbing the opposition, critics say a widely publicised handshake between the two leaders created a platform for the germination of a form of dynastic politics that brings together the scions of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, the first president and first vice-president of Kenya, respectively. Kenyans had effectively been left “at the mercy” of the government following the handshake, Ayub Savula, a member of parliament told Africa in Fact in a telephone interview. The deal would “erode” the legislature’s oversight role in parliament, said Savula, who represents a district in western Kenya. “The democratic strides that Kenya has made since independence in 1963 will go to waste,” he added.

The engagement with Odinga was part of a long-term plan aimed at ensuring that “we develop a society that is politically inclusive”, Kenyatta said during a round-table interview with media houses at State House in Mombasa at the end of 2018. For his part, Odinga told the media in Nairobi on 28 December last year that “The Handshake”, as it has become known in Kenya, was the foundation of the unity and development of Kenya. Details of the agreement have not been made public.

Nandi County Governor Stephen Sang said in a phone interview that the rapprochement was contracted between two individuals who represented the private interests of two of Kenya’s rich and famous families, and that it was “not wholesome”. The politicians’ concerns reflected widespread perceptions among citizens of East Africa’s biggest economy that the country will be run by two individuals for their own gain. Many are now rallying behind the “Hustler Movement”, an amorphous grouping that supports Deputy President William Ruto.

Many Kenyans see Ruto – who worked as a kuku (chicken) seller to supplement his parents’ income while at school and went on to earn a doctorate in ecology from the University of Nairobi – as their emancipator. He is seen as a hardworking and aggressive politician who responds swiftly to their needs. The deputy president has pushed for the installation of electricity in businesses and homes under the Last Mile project, which seeks to supply every Kenyan home with electricity. He has overseen road construction projects and very visibly inspected them. Addressing residents of Tharaka Nithi County in June 2018, for instance, he bluntly told road contractors whose projects were behind schedule that they should try their hand at other businesses, “like roasting maize”, if they were unable to complete road construction.

Ruto has facilitated the installation of critical services such as renal units in health institutions across different parts of Kenya and shown a critical interest in the country’s agriculture. “Farmers must change with the times; they must embrace forms of agriculture whose returns are high and the market for produce readily available,” he told the African Green Revolution Forum in Kigali, Rwanda in September last year.

His energy and boldness in addressing issues that other politicians prefer to avoid or leave to the slow operations of a cumbersome bureaucracy has won him many supporters. Ruto’s frequent pronouncements on issues that affect people’s daily lives have “made the deputy president’s political star shine”, says Julius Bosire, a lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

“For a long time, Kenyan politics has been in the hands of leaders who lacked the balls to call things as they are,” Bosire told Africa in Fact. “Taxpayers’ money has been stolen, not merely by the million, but in billions, without principled opposition from many lawmakers. This lazy, hands-off leadership has made Kenya’s economic prospects nosedive, leaving Rwanda and Ethiopia on top.” Ruto’s apparently genuine interest in popular issues makes him virtually unique among Kenya’s current crop of senior political leaders, Bosire argued.

Ruto’s frequent visits to districts around Kenya keep him in touch with problems that affect citizens on the ground, said Amos Kirong, a political analyst in Nairobi. “He sees and feels what the common man goes through in a typical day, and offers solutions,” Kirong told Africa in Fact. “This has promoted dialogue between the government and members of the public. Public participation is a crucial component of our Constitution. It stimulates democracy because it provides the public with the opportunity to take part in critical decision-making processes in government.”

Public interest in participating in discussions around the national budget, public procurement and tendering, and the legislative process has grown in recent years, says Joseph Ole Lenku, the governor of Kajiado County. According to the governor, the region held more than 15 public forums between 28 May, 2018 and 3 June, 2018 in more than 50 locations to discuss the county’s 2018/2019 budgetary estimates. Kenyans now feel more able to question and appraise government claims and projects, and their experience of this has gradually changed their attitude to the question of accountability in particular, says Ole Lenku. Long accustomed to dynastic-style rule, with its entrenched secrecy, they have come to expect a more open approach to governance.

This, and Ruto’s demonstrated contact with “ordinary citizens”, has seen him faced with hostility from the establishment, whose leaders include the Kenyattas and the Odingas, as well as the families of former president Daniel arap Moi, who ruled for 24 years, and Musalia Mudavadi, a former deputy prime minister and vice president.

Moi senior’s son Gideon Moi is a polo player, senator and chairman of the Kenyan African National Union (KANU), which was the country’s ruling party for 40 years until its election loss in 2002. His brother, Raymond, is an MP.

The opposition leader, Raila Odinga, a former prime minister, is the son of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, a former vice president. Raila’s elder brother is a member of the East African Legislative Assembly and a former nominated senator, assistant minister for finance and an MP. Mudavadi, a member of the opposition coalition, National Super Alliance (NASA), inherited the Sabatia parliamentary seat from his father, Moses Mudamba Mudavadi. He is said to be planning to run for the presidency in 2022.

The public demonstration of unity between two members of two of the country’s major political dynasties has sparked fears among ordinary citizens that the country will return to the days when national resources were unfairly distributed and tribalism was rampant in the award of public offices. To many, Ruto represents the advent of a “hustler era” in which the country’s political offices will be more open to people without a privileged background.

Dynasties are not a uniquely African or a Kenyan phenomon, says Godfrey Sang, a political analyst based in Nairobi. He points to the Bush family in the US, the Trudeaus in Canada and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in India. But, he argues, that Kenyan dynasties have limited interest in, or tolerance for, democracy and often seek to block opportunities for lesser-known candidates of greater merit. This approach is “a form of birth-based exclusion that is antithetical to democracy,” he adds.

Faced with Ruto’s apparently unstoppable rise to influence, proxies of political dynasties have come up with a plan to prevent him from succeeding President Kenyatta in 2022. In 2013, President Kenyatta and Deputy President Ruto entered into an agreement that promised the former a two-term presidency of five years, which would expire in 2022. After this, Ruto would be the Jubilee Party’s candidate to run for president for the years from 2022 until 2032.

Central Organisation of Trade Unions Secretary General Francis Atwoli has told audiences at several barazas (public meetings) and media interviews that the Constitution should be amended to allow Kenyatta to continue as president after 2022, arguing that he “has much to offer” the country. Senator Irungu Kang’ata has also said that the president will be “too young to retire” by the time he concludes his constitutionally mandated terms. And in February this year, the former vice chairman of the Jubilee Party, David Murathe, claimed at a meeting of leaders of the Kamba people at Kalonzo Musyoka’s Yatta farm that “no law bars President Kenyatta [from] serving as deputy to another president”.

However, in the same month, President Kenyatta said he would not be running for any political seat after 2022. Speaking as he left for a meeting of the East African Community summit in Arusha, Tanzania, he called on Kenyan leaders to discard politics that had “no impact on the lives of Kenyans”. But the apparent indirect reference to Ruto’s popular connection with citizens, which is in such contrast with many of his peers in Kenyan politics, and the implicit claim that establishment leaders could co-opt it for their own purposes, wasn’t lost on commentators.

“Whichever way you look at it, we are not about to change our mindset; we will support one of our own, son of a pauper, to be Kenya’s president in 2022,” says Didmus Barasa, an MP for Kimilili, western Kenya. Like many of his fellow citizens, Barasa feels that a Ruto presidency will free Kenyans of the archaic leadership of dynasties.

Kenya’s decades of dynastic politics have constrained citizens’s capacities to contribute to public debate. Above all, its dynastic rulers have never tolerated ideas that deviated from their own. To many Kenyans, the new “hustler era” holds out the promise of a new and more open democratic space in which the role of the government is to focus on issues that affect ordinary citizens.


Mark Kapchanga is a senior economics writer for the Standard newspaper in Kenya and a columnist for the Global Times, an English-language newspaper in China. He is pursuing a PhD in investigative business journalism at the University of Nairobi.
Sustainable Development Goals – Issue Number 50 – Striving to survive and thrive.

Sustainable Development Goals – Issue Number 50 – Striving to survive and thrive.

Sustainability – it has become all too easy to subsume the cure for the world’s ills under this throwaway word.  The word refers to the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level, or to avoiding depletion of natural resources to maintain an ecological balance.  The 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was released recently – we are literally facing a real and present cataclysm.

We thus chose the subject of Sustainable Development Goals as the topic for our special 50th issue of Africa in Fact. Not only does this issue mark a milestone for us as the flagship publication of Good Governance Africa, but it is also a turning point towards a new urgency of engagement.  AIF Issue 50 suggests that the success of the SDGs will rest on three pillars: political will, cooperation and partnerships, and investment in reliable data.

This issue is on sale now from Exclusive Books, C N A, Spar and PnP stores nationally.

Fear and loathing on the frontline

Fear and loathing on the frontline


A man unloads meat as tyres, which were set alight during service delivery protests, burn behind him on June 2, 2010, in Monwabisi Park, Khayelitsha, about 30Km from the centre of Cape Town. South African police on June 1, 2010 arrested 26 protestors who burned tyres, threw stones and blocked roads over the removal of open-air toilets which have caused a stink for Cape Town officials. Police reacted to three separate uprisings in Khayelitsha, a poor shack-filled area in the east of the city, firing rubber bullets at two of the crowds. AFP PHOTO/ RODGER BOSCH (Photo by RODGER BOSCH / AFP)


South Africa: dying for change


In early 2012, Ayanda Kota, leader of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) in the Eastern Cape, made his way to the Grahamstown police station. As an activist, he’d had an eventful year – to the extent that he had won some local fame, featuring in reports in Grocotts Mail, a community newspaper.

His visit to the station that day, however, had nothing to do with his public life; he was there to attend to a personal matter. Kota had misplaced some books he’d borrowed from Rhodes University sociology lecturer Dr Claudia Martinez-Mullen, who had laid a charge of theft against him in August 2011.

But the fact that he was now a media figure would have nasty consequences. He was about to experience violence that would shock the Grahamstown community. Arriving at the station, accompanied by Rhodes sociology lecturer Dr Richard Pithouse, Kota was recognised by six police officers who proceeded to assault him.

“A whole group of them just assaulted him,” Pithouse, who said he had witnessed the incident, told GroundUp in an October 2016 article. Forced to the ground, he was held down and kicked and punched. To humiliate him further, the police officers pulled down his pants and dragged him down a corridor while the abuse continued. “Look who is the newsmaker of the year now,” one of the policemen reportedly said.

The theft charge for not returning borrowed books was later withdrawn, but Kota’s treatment at the hands of the police outraged fellow activists across South Africa, who offered solidarity and support. With the help of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa, Kota sued the South African Police Service (SAPS), which resulted in a R120,000 settlement. “What I experienced was hard and painful but the struggle must go on,” he said.

This was not the first time that Kota’s activism had resulted in violence and intimidation. Prior to founding the UPM, Kota was national secretary for political education for the Azanian Students Convention (AZASCO), a youth wing of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). He left the organisation in 2001 after he received death threats and was assaulted by fellow members angered by his opposition to AZAPO leader Aaron Mosibudi Mangena’s appointment as deputy minister of education, which Kota believed was an ANC attempt to neutralise AZAPO.

Kota is unapologetic about his activism. As leader of the UPM, which he founded in 2009, he has consistently opposed the Makana Municipality of which Grahamstown is part. The UPM campaigns for better housing, water, sanitation and municipal services for Grahamstown residents. They also demand that South Africans are allowed more involvement in political decision-making processes that affect the country. Kota’s activism has given him a media profile on radio, in newspapers and online. As a form of protest, he has also been known to take faecal material to the premises of Makana Municipality as an expression of his contempt for the local authority’s failure to provide residents with clean water.

Both he and other UPM members have been subjected to telephonic death threats from anonymous callers, and the police have responded to UPM protest action with rubber bullets, baton charges, pepper spray and arrests.  “What intimidation has taught us as activists for change,” Kota says, “is we must always be ready to take off the coat of fear.”

The UPM is not the only South African grassroots organisation whose members have been assaulted and intimidated, even killed, for challenging the status quo. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM) is a shack dweller’s movement, which campaigns against evictions and for public housing. Founded in 2005 and based largely in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) – although it also has branches in various parts of South Africa – the organisation has about 50,000 members. Its general secretary, Thapelo Mohapi, claims that under the auspices of the ANC, activists are regularly assaulted and their homes raided.  He gave the example of one incident in Cato Manor, Durban on 16 November last year, when the doors of people’s homes were reportedly kicked in and the properties raided. The home invaders assaulted people, five of whom were badly injured.

Abahlali baseMjondolo says its members have been tortured in police custody, while at least one activist has been murdered; two ANC councillors are currently serving life imprisonment for the 2014 assassination of Abahlali baseMjondolo member Thuli Ndlovu. And last year, Durban police confirmed there had been an attempt on the life of Abahlali BaseMjondolo member S’bu Zikode. His car was tampered with on two occasions and he was forced to go into hiding. Last year, too, armed men interrupted an Abahlali baseMjondolo meeting on the East Rand in Gauteng and threatened to fire shots in the air if the meeting was not stopped.

“Our members have faced torture and death threats from the police and members of the executive committee of the ruling party at branch level,” Mohapi said, speaking from Durban.

In 2014, Sello Mokhalipi, a former provincial chairperson of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which campaigns for the treatment of HIV/AIDS was the target of intimidation. Mokhalipi, who split from the TAC and started a rival organisation, was part of a fierce battle the TAC waged against the Free State province health department over deteriorating health services. In an article on the Daily Maverick website in January 2016, Mokhalipi described receiving a threatening anonymous phone call demanding he stop his campaigning. “My activities were going to have a negative impact on the ANC and that it [sic] cannot be tolerated, especially while elections are around the corner,” he said. Mokhalipi was told he would be harmed if he disobeyed the caller.

A June 2018 article in South African weekly newspaper the Mail and Guardian reported there were 284 political killings across South Africa between 2000 and 2017, the majority of them in KZN. An earlier report, in 2013, noted there had been 447 political killings in KZN since 1994.

So why have South Africa’s independent civic activists and organisations found themselves on the wrong side of the police and members of the ruling party? In 2014, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa released a report, which claimed that police and local government were criminalising protest action. According to the report, local authorities were manipulating legislation to enable them use force against people who were exercising their right to protest publicly.

One example given in the report was a 2014 incident in Philippi East, Cape Town, in which police used live ammunition to fire on protestors. Another Cape Town incident in 2014, which aroused public attention was a police raid on Siqualo, an informal settlement in Mitchell’s Plain. Police reportedly assaulted and arrested several people, including community leaders suspected of leading local protests against voter registration. A Siqualo resident, Lungiswa Bashe, whose shack was damaged in the raid, claimed that the police involved told residents they were acting on President Zuma’s instruction.

Clearly, members of community organisations who protest against poor state health care, lack of public housing and other government service delivery failures are being intimidated and harassed. The question is: why? According to Rhodes University sociology professor Lucien van der Walt, one reason is that politicians have a lot to lose in an environment where officials stand to corruptly benefit from private-sector tenders. “Politicians have a material stake in political intimidation and have a great deal to lose in leaving office,” he told Africa in Fact.

Proceedings before the South African Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA), which oversees the management of state funds, have exposed numerous examples of dodgy tender processes. Private-sector tender submissions to government are riddled with irregularities. Bidding processes that are supposed to be competitive have been nothing of the sort, with kickbacks to politicians and other state officials. Van der Walt suggests that state officials benefit financially from tendering processes to such an extent that they are afraid of losing these benefits, giving them a material stake in the intimidation of activists who threaten the status quo.

Dr Johan Burger, of the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), concurs that government members feel threatened by their opponents because they don’t wish to lose power. Government members, he says, feel so threatened by their opponents that intimidation is now a feature of South African politics. If government members feel threatened by their opposition, it is reasonable to assume that the likes of Kota instil significant fear in them. “And as there is an election pending,” Burger says, “acts of intimidation in some instances are likely, as they are part and parcel of our politics.”

Hugo van der Merwe, director of research at the Cape Town branch of the Centre for Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), says the right to protest is regularly violated and met with violence. “The issue of the right to protest is not sufficiently recognised and is often met with excessive violence,” he says. “This is an issue of great concern.” Both Burger and van der Walt suggest that the fear of losing power is a driving factor in the way government officials and their proxies respond to community-based protest action and service delivery activism. Kota’s assault at the Grahamstown police station and the intimidation and violence experienced by other community activists is illustrative of this fear.

These examples all amount to an abuse of critical human rights, including the right to protest, and clearly reveal an unmanaged fear of grassroots opposition that is defensive and suggests psychological inadequacies. Indeed, one is compelled to assume that some people in government, driven by fear of grassroots opposition, demonstrate poor psychological health in their intimidation of people who seek to bring change to South Africa.


Anthony de Villiers is a freelance journalist with a special interest in advocacy.
How governments influence mental health

How governments influence mental health

Sub-Saharan Africa: mental health

This paper sets out to investigate mental health disorders in sub-Saharan Africa, and the extent to which they are influenced by various aspects of the government or state. Mental health disorders, in this context, are classed the mainstream way: depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder; drug and alcohol use are included for purposes of comparison. The aim is to identify the extent to which government/state related variables predict mental health in sub-Saharan Africa. In other words, the aim is to obtain some indication of the extent to which government policies might help to “create” mental ill health in the population.

One might, from this perspective, understand mental health as consisting of two factors. The first of these is an innate predisposition to mental ill health that individuals might “carry with them”. These are theorised to be either genetic or socialised into individuals at a very young age. Factors such as a family history of mental ill health, as well as early adversity such as domestic abuse, bad parenting and bullying, among others, might play a role here.

The second major component consists of precipitating factors, which are external influences, or stressors. When paired alongside the predisposition, these can cause mental ill health to become manifest. This predisposition-threshold model is widely accepted within the discipline of psychology. The analysis seeks to identify some of the precipitating factors, rather than the prevalence of the innate aspects. If government policies or state bureaucracies have an impact on mental ill health, it is most obviously at this external point that they come to do so.

First, the prevalence of various categories of mental ill health is described. Secondly, those afflictions with the greatest prevalence were selected. Thirdly, these were correlated with contextual variables, to identify any government or state-related variables that influence mental ill health in the region.

The mental health data was obtained from various sources, including the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a research institute focusing on global health statistics at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The extent of mental ill health was measured in Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs). One DALY can be thought of as one lost year of healthy life. The sum of DALYs throughout the population can be thought of as the disease burden or the gap between actual disease situation and the ideal, where the population lives to an advanced age free of ill health. This is adapted from the WHO’s definition.

The external, government related variables were obtained from World Bank indicators and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

The IHME provides an indication of disease burden globally. Using their data, Richie and Roser (2019) created a series of visualisations of mental health and substance abuse disease burden. Their mappings are used in figures 1, 3 and 4. Considering figure 1, which maps global mental disorders and substance abuse, it appears that Africa is relatively devoid of these phenomena, and that these appear to be afflictions of the more advanced economies. Note, however, that the identification of psychological disorders is to an extent a western practice, and a number of arguments can be made about the validity of measuring western notions of mental health in an African context.

[Figure 1]

Figure 1.png

Figure 1: Global mental disorders and substance abuse (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

If we break mental ill health in sub-Saharan Africa down into its constituent afflictions, the prevalence of mental health issues in that region shows a high degree of variation.

[Figure 2]

Figure 2.png

Figure 2: Various classes of mental disorder in sub-Saharan Africa

It is evident that depressive and anxiety disorders are the major mental health challenges in this region. The IHME displays this graphically:

[Figure 3]

Figure 3.png

Figure 3: Global depressive disorders (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

The prevalence of depressive disorders in Africa is heterogeneous, and is closer to the severe end of the spectrum, globally. The heterogeneity suggests some complexity to the aetiology of depression throughout the region. Anxiety is far less prevalent across the region.

[Figure 4]

Figure 4.png

Figure 4: Global anxiety disorders (from Richie and Roser, 2019)

The question is: to what extent these patterns can be explained by factors at least partially under government control or as related to states’ service provision?

The following graph illustrates the risk factors associated with depressive and anxiety disorders. It is evident that problems in family dynamics account for a large portion of depressive aetiology – a pattern seen uniformly across the world. Of course, these family dynamics are very likely caused by contextual factors themselves. In the following sections, the analysis will move beyond these immediate family/household–related factors. As mentioned, we want to focus on the factors that push people over the threshold into mental ill health. This puts the focus onto the contextual stressors rather than on innate and biological factors or early life socialisation (such as bullying and childhood maltreatment).

[Figure 5]

Figure 5.png

Figure 5: Risk factors associated with depressive disorders in sub-Saharan Africa (from IHME data)

There is some indication in the literature of the broader contextual factors that might predispose individuals to depressive episodes. The most obvious of these are income and education. Both of these variables have been shown to have some relevance to depression globally. These are therefore included in the analysis.

But this analysis goes further by investigating additional variables obtained from World Bank data. These include air pollution, access to basic services, migration and refugees, rural-to-urban shifts, gender equality and government expenditure on health. The choice of which variables to include in the analysis was constrained, to a large degree, by the available data. It was hypothesised, however, that all of these contextual factors would have some impact on the prevalence of depression and/ or anxiety disorders in the country.

In order to do so, a correlation matrix was created for the variables in question. Ideally, a multiple regression would have been used, but the available data precluded this. From this, the most influential external factors were selected. In our analysis, only the rural urban shift proved to have a measurable impact on depression, alongside income and education.

The government/state factor was included in the analysis in the way that the measures were constructed. While services were not found to be clearly related to depression, investment in education was found to be related. The significant outcomes were plotted on a graph, which also reflected gender differences.

[Figure 6]

Figure 6.png

Figure 6: Education, income and rural-to-urban migration as related to depressive disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 6 presents data for three stressors: education, income and rural-to-urban migration when related to depressive disorders, measured in number of DALYs lost. Each dot represents a sub-Saharan country, broken down by gender (DALYs lost by females and DALYs lost by males in that country). The position of the dot is then determined by the coordinates of the female and male score. The vertical line indicates the switch from female to male bias in the impact of depression.

The graph, therefore, allows one to see gender bias in depression burden by noting whether the dot falls above or below the vertical line. It also allows for an understanding of the severity of the burden. Dots further towards the top right represent higher burdens. Not all sub-Saharan countries are plotted – only those in which depression could be reliably linked to the stressors in the analysis were included. Also, the names of the countries were not included. Although this would be an interesting addition, it was felt that this might detract from the overall message/pattern in the data. For a similar reason, a broad indication of the severity of the burden was included on the x and y axes, rather than the exact DALY burden.

It is evident from the graph that there is some variation in the influence of gender, depending on the predisposing factor. Education is seen to be more of a factor for females than for males. This effect was found to be of moderate strength. Income, on the other hand, was found to be more influential for male depression. The third factor – rural-to-urban migration – did not display a noticeable effect between gender, and was less influential overall

These findings suggest that government investment in education has an unintended consequence of boosting mental health within the population.

The same methodology was applied to anxiety disorders. As with the depressive disorders, a correlation matrix was constructed for the variables in question. Once again, from this, the most influential external factors were selected and included in the analysis. Only one variable emerged, alongside education and income. This was access to services. To preserve some comparability, the rural-urban shift was also included in the plot.

[Figure 7]

Figure 7.png

Figure 7: Traditional, family and household factors as related to anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

From this graph it is evident that there is no single overarching causal factor regarding anxiety disorders. Is it possible, however, that broader socio-political issues also have an impact on the high anxiety disorder burden in sub-Saharan Africa? To gain some idea of this, a number of contextual factors were investigated; air pollution, access to basic services, migration and refugees, rural-to-urban shifts, gender equality and government expenditure on health.

[Figure 8]

Figure 8.png

Figure 8: Education, income, rural-to-urban migration and services as related to anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the case of anxiety disorders, investment in education was clearly more influential than the other factors. In addition, there seemed to be less of a gender bias in this effect, with no noticeable difference being exhibited between females and males. Income showed no clear correlation with anxiety, and neither did rural-to-urban migration. Services, however, showed a noticeable effect on anxiety disorders. The services scale included factors such as access to sanitation and the provision of safe drinking water. It is worth noting, however, that the services included in the analysis were not exhaustive; rather, they were constrained by the available data. Anxiety related to access to services showed a noticeable bias towards females.

Figure 9

Figure 9: Education, income, rural-to-urban migration and services as related to depressive and anxiety disorders in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is possible, merely by superimposing the depressive and anxiety graphs, to observe the combined effect of the four variables that came out as significant. When combined, the gender biases are less obvious, except in the case of services – which is unsurprising, since services appeared as significant in anxiety disorders only. The other variables show very little bias.

The analysis suggests that Africa is not as badly affected by mental health issues as more westernised/industrialised countries. Although the terminology is difficult, it might be said that this state of affairs may be expected to change as Africa moves more in line with globalisation. Depression and anxiety are, currently, the major disorders regarding mental ill health. These disorders have a large social component – as opposed to a condition like schizophrenia, which appears to be more biologically/genetically based.

The IHME data indicated that the risk factors associated with these two classes of disorder are largely family/household related, and include factors such as having an abusive partner or being bullied, among others. Beyond these factors – which are typical of global mental ill health aetiology – the broader context was found to have some impact on the expression of these disorders. Income and education – the latter was measured via government-related variables, such as investment in education, among others – were found to be related to both depression and anxiety, although in different ways. This suggests that mental health is affected by the environment in which individuals find themselves.

More importantly, these mental disorders are to a significant part affected by the diligence of government. The state’s underinvestment in education and services, and the failure to protect a basic level of income has a noticeable impact on their citizens’ levels of depression and anxiety.

This is a bold claim, and it opens up some questions for future research and clarification. Most obvious is the suitability of the data collected. Critics of mainstream psychology have noted that these disorders emerged from a western, industrialised context. Some powerful critiques have questioned the extent to which these are valid concepts in an African context. One might suggest that the more industrialised/westernised/globalised Africa becomes, the less the importance that should be attached to this question. The problem of whether these are appropriate constructs, however, remains. Future research might be directed toward this issue.

Another area for further investigation relates to the issue of how these issues should be addressed. A strong critique of psychology has been that it offers no effective cure for the ills that it describes. Typically, psychotherapy has been seen as the remedy to psychological problems. The effectiveness of psychotherapy has been questioned, but the real problem with psychotherapy probably has more to do with the fact that it is slow and typically expensive.

It seems unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future, that Africa’s mental health challenges will be addressed by armies of psychotherapists working at affordable rates. How, then, should these issues be tackled? One way is by conducting this kind of investigation into the uniquely African predisposing factors, and then addressing these factors via activism or some other means. Considered from this perspective, the most important message of this brief exploration is that a much more thorough investigation of the contextual and state-related predisposing factors to mental ill health needs to be carried out.

Vaughan Dutton is a chartered research psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, with 18 years’ social research experience gained at senior levels in commercial, government and academic contexts. He has taught social research methods, social theory and psychological theory at a number of universities in South Africa and the UK. Currently a consultant, he is also completing a doctorate in psychotherapy. He studied research psychology (applied social research) in South Africa, and holds a research doctorate from the University of Oxford.

Waiting for their day in court

Waiting for their day in court

The president of Togo, Faure Gnassingbé Photo: Blamé Ekoue

Togo: fear and favour

The Gnasssingbé clan has been ruling Togo for more than 50 years.The late Eyadema Gnassingbé to power in January 1967, following what was described as the first coup d’état in black Africa, during which Sylvanus Olympio, the country’s first head of state, was assassinated. With strong military backing, the regime continues to dominate and maintain control over all levels of the country’s highly centralised government.

President Faure Gnassingbé, the son of the late Eyadema, says he is trying to modernise the country’s public institutions, including the judiciary. But a 2017 Afrobarometer survey conducted by the Center for Research and Opinion Polls (CROP) of more than 35 countries in Africa revealed that over 63% of Togolese do not have confidence in their judicial system.

The reasons cited included long delays in judicial processes, the complexity of the judicial system, the lack of advice or legal assistance, the inattention of judges, and high costs. Only 37% of Togolese citizens believe the country’s courts represent a credible justice system as against an average of 48% in the West African sub-region, according to the report.

Togolese citizens fear the justice system, seeing it either as not offering any sort of justice or as offering unfair justice. And a fear of public institutions leads citizens to mistrust them, Mathieu Agada, a Togolese psychologist told Africa in Fact. “Mistrust arises from fear. Fear is linked to anxiety about something. This means that something scares you. This would partly explain the feeling of mistrust towards our institutions, particularly the judiciary,” he said.

Others attribute widespread perceptions of public mistrust in the country’s judiciary to other sources, including pervasive corruption and a culture of impunity. According to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, Togo scores 32 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), which places it in 117th position out of 180 countries. Civil rights organisations have been arguing for decades that the justice system needs to be more efficient and transparent, but have consistently encountered an administration that lacks the will to do anything about it.

As a result, members of the population often prefer to settle accounts on the streets with people they presume guilty of an offence. Mob justice is common, and presumed culprits are often assaulted. Mob justice is thought to be more common in rural areas, where mobs target people suspected of practising black magic and witchcraft. In urban areas, lynchings occur mainly when a person is suspected of theft or in cases of road rage.

In August 2015, Kwamé N’Dri, an Ivorian national accused of theft, was lynched to death by a mob in a suburb of the Togolese capital. A group of young people started beating him up without giving him time to explain himself, according to an eye witness. “They sprayed him with gasoline and burnt him alive on the national highway leading to Burkina Faso. Upon seeing a police car, they fled,” Alain Bamaze told Africa in Fact. He added that members of the group had said there was “no point” in going to the police.

Unusually, the authorities expressed concern. The ministers of justice and of security and civil protection issued a joint communiqué calling on people “to have confidence in the judiciary as well as the security forces whenever they find themselves in a situation of crime and offence”. Damehane Yark, the minister of security and civilian protection, warned that “any act or behaviour inciting mob justice is highly reprehensible and the authors or accomplices will expose themselves to the rigour of the law”.

Yet the lynchings continue. In August last year, a man accused of robbing a shop was assaulted and burnt alive in the town of Kara, some 400 km from the capital. “Discouraged by incompetent justice, people today prefer to do justice themselves,” says Paul da Silveira, a Togolese sociologist working for a local NGO, Programme International de Volontariat et d’Échange Culturel (PIVEC), which promotes human rights in detention centres.

No official figures are available for the number of incidents of mob justice. Emmanuel Vivien Tomi, a Togolese researcher and filmmaker, puts it at an average of 15 cases every year. In a recent film, Crime at the Drugstore, he seeks to raise awareness about the phenomenon that has become so recurrent in Togo. “My new film is part of a fight against the tragic scenes often seen in the streets of Togo, with people indulging in mob justice without restraint,” he told Africa in Fact.

Others point to social inequality as a cause of mob justice in Togo. “It’s not only lack of confidence in the system that leads to mob justice,” argues Mathieu Agada , a psychologist at Lomé-based BIASA International Hospital. “Other frustrations accumulate, and sometimes people look for a scapegoat.”

According to civil rights organisation Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Togo), “popular justice” has its roots both in a real survival instinct and the frustration felt by citizens who for many years have suffered poverty, endemic corruption, state aggression, and theft of their property and savings. The organisiation says this frustration is exacerbated by perceptions that the police do not play a protective role in society and that the justice system is inherently corrupt – both symptoms of a failed state.

In 2015, the Togolese government launched a plan to modernise the justice system, with the financial and technical support of the EU, as part of an action plan for 2016-2020 aimed at attaining UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, access to justice for all. But sceptical human rights activists argue that the state’s centralisation of power is in itself an obstacle to achieving this aim.

“The psychology of the regime is based on maintaining a grip on all institutions,” says lawyer Raphael Kpande Adjare, who defended a Togolese student leader sentenced with other student activists in January this year to three year’s imprisonment for defying a ban on holding a press conference. Adjare argues that it is difficult to see how the state can introduce a transparent and impartial justice system, when the state uses that institution to repress political opponents and to stay in power.

In his address to the nation in 2018, President Gnassingbé promised to take action in the coming years to improve the justice system. This, he said, would help to promote the rule of law. “We will continue to support the functioning of strong democratic institutions that work effectively to promote the rule of law and individual and collective freedoms,” he said. “To achieve a more efficient and less expensive justice system, we will consider the establishment of courts throughout the country.”

But critics say state officials must first seek an improvement in their own ethical practices if they are to build confidence in the justice system. Any reforms will not only face the problem of centralisation, but also of the pervasive corruption of the system.

“We must first address corruption if we are to bring about confidence in our criminal justice system,” says a Togolese who was convicted of setting fire to the country’s two central markets in 2012 but pardoned last year by the president after six years in jail (he insisted on anonymity). After being released on bail and placed under judicial supervision, he continues to proclaim his innocence regarding the incident, which also saw many opposition leaders arrested for their alleged involvement. “Popular dissatisfaction undermines confidence in public institutions, also undermining government legitimacy,” he told Africa in Fact. “Personally, I have lost trust in our justice system.”

However, Justice Minister Puis Agbetomey says he is confident that the plan to modernise Togo’s judicial system will turn the wheel of justice in the right direction. “The law is the bulwark for any society that loves justice and peace. The judicial system safeguards this law. Through the implementation of several reforms, Togo is gradually moving forward by providing the means to make [our] justice system independent, fair and respectful of human rights,” he told a meeting in January this year  to launch a campaign financed by the EU to speed up the processing of Supreme Court cases.

On 23 January this year, Togo’s Supreme Court announced that it would process 500 cases dating from between 1994 and 2010 in “extraordinary sittings” over the next six months; many complainants have been waiting for years for the court to hear their cases. Supreme Court President Gamato Akakpovi said the campaign marked a new era: judicial officials would be required to serve the Togolese people and “talk the law, and only the law”.

Critics, however, remain sceptical – and wary. Kpande Adjare, the lawyer, says the Togolese will continue to mistrust their government until it respects the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. Da Silveira, the sociologist, says the rule of law will not take root in Togolese society if the current situation of widespread mistrust of the judicial system continues. Even if the government makes a sincere effort at reform, “the path is still long,” says Hervé Akinocho, a research coordinator at CROP, “before Togolese people will have confidence in their justice system.”



Students protest on the steps of Lomé court building at the trial of a student leader arrested for trying to convene a press conference Photo: Blamé Ekoue

Blamé Ekoue is the Togo correspondent for the BBC and for Paris-based media house, ANA. He has also reported for Associated Press and Radio France International. He holds a BA in Communications from the Leader Institute in Lomé. Formerly deputy editor of the West Africa Revue, he has been a contributor to the Lome-based Business and Finance magazine since 2015.