From Sudan to South Africa, archaeologists are only just beginning to properly explore the remnants of Africa’s magnificent ancient past
Meroitic pyramids at the archaeological site of Bajarawiya, near Hillat ed Darqab, some 250 km north-east of Khartoum. PHOTO: ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP
“Pyramid diving” is an activity that you’d be forgiven for thinking was a dangerous extreme sport dreamed up by a reckless millennial. In fact, it refers to a new archaeological endeavour in the Nubian desert sands of Sudan. In early July 2019, the National Geographic television channel premiered a documentary about exploration of an obscure pyramid in Nuri, northern Sudan. Below the 2,300-year-old pyramid are tunnels and chambers that lead to the last resting place of a pharaoh named Nastasen. The problem for inquisitive archaeologists of earlier times – not to mention grave robbers – was the underground labyrinth flooding with water seeping through from the adjacent Nile River. “I think we finally have the technology to be able to tell the story of Nuri, to fill in the blanks of what happened here,” egyptologist and underwater archaeologist Pearce Paul Creasman told a National Geographic editor, Kristin Romey, in July.
Creasman, a professor at the University of Arizona, is working with National Geographic to discover the secrets of this ancient African civilisation that probably rivalled the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians in advanced intellect, creativity and governance. Just weeks before, the intrepid professor had donned wetsuit and goggles, descended a flight of steps and plunged into the now watery tomb of Nastasen, the pharaoh of the Kingdom of Kush from 335 BC to 315 BC. “It’s a remarkable point in history that so few know about. It’s a story that deserves to be told,” he said. Visibility in the water at the entrance to the subterranean tunnel was zero due to the sand Creasman stirred up, but eventually he discerned stone features in the light of his torch as he swam through a series of chambers. Suddenly, he spotted what looked like a royal sarcophagus. It looked unopened and undisturbed. A glimpse inside that tantalising stone coffin must wait until 2020 when the excavation team hopes it will be logistically possible to open it.
For the moment, Creasman’s focus is on securing the safety of the lengthy piped air-supply system to divers because the tunnels are too narrow for oxygen tanks, as well as locating and removing easily accessible burial artefacts before teams start to excavate through the sediment and fallen roof stones. Given enduring public fascination with the likes of Egypt’s young pharaoh Tutankhamun, the opening of Nastasen’s sarcophagus has the potential to be a momentous global event – and could even be a turning point in international perceptions of Africa. The outside world’s view of Africa – and particularly its cultural heritage – is notoriously limited, not to say biased. “There is a way of seeing Africa in terms of poverty and conflict – the coup, the war, the famine, the corruption – which has become a kind of shorthand for the continent,” BBC World News presenter Zenaib Badawi observed during an African history series that she presented in 2017.
This pervasive view – in the West and East – is informed by current events and takes little account of the rich heritages of earlier civilisations on the continent. Reasons for this include a paucity of paper-and-ink historical records and a legacy of European colonial attitudes of superiority and “civilising” zeal that swept away the memory and markers of the past. This situation was reflected in an infamous 1965 remark by the prominent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who declared that Africa is “no historical part of the world; it has no movement or development to exhibit”. He went on: “There is only the history of the European in Africa. The rest is largely darkness, like the history of pre- European, pre-Columbian America. And darkness is not a subject for history.” Most scholars nowadays agree Africa does indeed have “history”; some argue that comparing it to European history is poor academic methodology.
Much of this history is slowly being revealed at ancient megalithic sites such as the pyramids of Sudan, the fabled Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe in South Africa and the Walls of Benin. Many of these sites are relatively unexcavated and under-explored and we can only wonder what revelations about ancient Africa await future generations. Sudan actually has many more pyramids than Egypt – about 300 of them at various sites in Nubia in the Nile Valley. The earliest examples date back to 2,500 BC and they were built by people who belonged to three great Kushite kingdoms. Made of sandstone and granite, sometimes looming black against the pale desert sand, they are generally smaller and steeper than Egyptian pyramids. The Kushites were heavily influenced by Egyptian culture, commerce and the military – and competed with them; Kushite pharaoh Piye and his successors ruled Egypt for more than a century.
Unesco has described Sudan’s pyramids as masterpieces “of creative genius demonstrating the artistic, political and religious values of a human group for more than 2,000 years”. With such rare antiquities, Sudan should be a modern tourist magnet, with foreign cash bolstering the struggling economy. But decades of violent regional conflict have deterred all but the bravest tourists. The Tripadvisor website, for example, carries just eight visitor reviews of the Nuri necropolis from the past five years – most of them enthusiastic about the visual experience and complete lack of other tourists, but lamenting the abandoned and crumbling state of the sites. Similarly with Axum in neighbouring Ethiopia. The ancient city was the historic capital of the Aksumite Kingdom, a great naval and trading power that ruled a million square miles of the Red Sea region from about 400 BC through to the 10th century, and it is crammed with remarkable relics.
The Aksumites had their own written language, Ge’ez, and a distinctive architecture that incorporated giant obelisks, known as steles, the oldest dating back to about 5,000 BC. Christian and Muslim influences permeate through to the present day, while the place is trapped in something of a time warp, with camel caravans still to be seen setting off into the surrounding desert. The stele park in Axum contains an awesome collection of these towering stones, marking royal burial sites. Skilfully carved with doors at the base and storeys of windows above, stele look like sculptures of skyscrapers – though the idea of such buildings lay many centuries into the future. The tallest, the 33 m Great Stele, lies in pieces; it probably fell and was shattered during construction. In 1937, the invading Italian army removed the 24.6m-high Obelisk of Axum and installed it in Rome; it was returned in 2005 and re-erected in the park.
Ethiopians are adamant that the biblical Ark of the Covenant is safe and sound in Axum – in a small chapel built in the 1960s beside the ancient church of Our Lady Mary of Zion of the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. Also in Axum are the largely unexcavated 4th century Ta’akha Maryam and 6th century Dungur palaces. There is also a great pool reputed to be the bathing spot of the Queen of Sheba, who is said to have lived here. Other antiquities are the Ezana Stone, written in Ge’ez, Greek and Sabaean, and King Bazen’s Tomb, one of the earliest of all African megalithic structures. Then there are the astonishing stone-hewn churches of Lalibela and the secluded monasteries of Lake Tana, some of which are said to have links to early Christianity. With its historical marvels, Ethiopia has the potential for a tourism industry to rival Egypt’s.
But the decades-long conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, the economic and societal devastation of the communist Derg regime of the 1970s and 80s and proximity to the Sudan conflicts have severely constricted Ethiopia’s tourism dividend. However, recent signs of political commitment on various sides to resolving conflict in the Horn of Africa might see the situation change. Indeed, a flowering of peace and democracy across the entire continent might open eyes to an Africa different to the one routinely portrayed internationally. Great Zimbabwe is well known, such is its magnificence, but it might be regarded as something of a megalithic “outlier” when African heritage is considered. Few people outside Zimbabwe know of the spectacular ruins of the Kingdom of Khami to the south, near Bulawayo. These were built from 1450 onwards and contain the longest-known decorated wall in sub-Saharan Africa.
In South Africa, there are the remains of the 11th century Mapungubwe civilisation in Limpopo province, which pre-dates Great Zimbabwe, which have only been partly investigated in recent decades; the site was kept hidden during the apartheid years. This community had a sophisticated trading economy, powered by gold and ivory, which is epitomised in the golden rhino sculpture that has become an icon of democratic South Africa. These and other lights of ancient African history and culture are beginning to shine on the international horizon. A recent claim that the oldest man-made structure on Earth has been located in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province might attract some disbelief. In 2003 researchers announced the discovery of a meticulously arranged rock circle, dubbed “Adam’s Calendar”, which apparently constitutes a heavenly timepiece.
It is said to be 75,000 year’s old – far older than either Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. The truth of these claims is to be determined. Yet this strange place will surely eventually stake a claim in the world’s consciousness of its history too, along with the pyramids of Nuri, the Stele of Axum, the Nok Caves of Togo and a myriad other megalithic marvels across Africa.
Sidebar: The first flight from Britain to South Africa
Lt. Col van Ryneveld with First Lt. Quintin Brand, February 1920, in front of Vickers Vimy Silver Queen, before their England to South Africa flight on 4 February, 1920. Photo: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS UNITED KINGDOM GOVERNMENT
On 20 March, 1920, two South African pilots completed the first flight from Britain to South Africa after a flying time of four days, 13 hours and 30 minutes. General Sir Hesperus Andrias van Ryneveld KBE CB DSO MC (2 May, 1891 – 2 December, 1972), known as Pierre van Ryneveld, was the founding commander of the first flight of the South African Air Force (SAAF). He began his military career in the first world war, in which he served in the Royal Flying Corps (later the Royal Air Force), where he distinguished himself as a fighter ace. After the war, van Ryneveld was called back to South Africa by the prime minister, Jan Smuts, to set up the SAAF. Air Vice Marshal Sir Christopher Joseph Quintin Brand KBE, DSO, MC, DFC (25 May, 1893 – 7 March, 1968) was born in Beaconsfield (now part of Kimberley, Northern Cape) in South Africa. During the years 1914-1915 Brand served in the Union Defence Force. In 1915, he travelled to England where he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. During the first world war, he flew Nieuport 17 scouts, serving as a flight commander in No. 1 Squadron RFC in France.
Van Ryneveld and Brand left Brooklands in Surrey (one of the first purpose-built racing tracks ever built and the departure point for many aviation firsts) on February 4, 1920 in a Vimy G-UABA named Silver Queen. They landed safely at Heliopolis, near Cairo. but as they continued the flight to Wadi Halfa they were forced to land due to their engine overheating with 130 km still to go. The RAF at Heliopolis lent the pair a second Vimy and they continued to Bulawayo in Southern Rhodesia, where it was badly damaged when it failed to take off. Van Ryneveld and Brand then used a South African Air Force Airco DH.9 to continue the journey to Cape Town. The South African government awarded them £5,000 each. First published on Pilot’s Post, a South African weekly online aviation magazine – www.pilotspost.com. Republished with permission.
African airlines: the good and the bad
A history of government interference in African state-owned airlines has led to inefficiency and unsustainable debt levels, but Ethiopia’s done it differently
The arrival of the Iberia Airlines first
flight from Madrid to the city of Bata in
the colony of Spanish Guinea
(today’s Equatorial Guinea).
Photo: IBERIA AIRLINES
Running an airline is a complicated and expensive business. Pundits argue it is best left to those who know what they are doing. But governments across Africa seem to disagree, with most refusing to relinquish the reins of state-owned enterprises and, in most cases, compromising their ability to succeed. The African aviation space has been dominated by state-owned airlines over decades, and the continent is littered with the carcasses of many that have crashed and burned. Ghana Airways (1958-2004), Nigeria Airways (1971-1993), Zambia Airways (1964- 1995), Uganda Airlines (1977-2001) and Air Afrique (1960-2002) were just some of those that didn’t make it. However, there have been some exceptions. South African Airways (SAA) is one of them. In its heyday, it benefited from regulatory measures that afforded it the pick of routes and it was once regarded as the “high-flier” of African aviation, sought after by passengers travelling around the continent.
Its service was professional and safety record solid. But years of poor leadership, political meddling and overspending have eroded its advantage. By 2019, the airline had pulled back on many loss-making routes, and it was surviving on large taxpayer-funded bailouts. Another exception is Ethiopian Airlines, which has slowly and steadily become Africa’s biggest carrier, serving nearly 60 destinations in Africa, compared to SAA’s 25, and more than 100 cities on five continents. In its 2016-17 financial year, it generated $2.7bn in revenue, up 11% from the previous year. Passenger numbers rose by more than 18%. State ownership has been the kiss of death for most African airlines. National flag carriers continue to be desired in Africa by governments regardless of the cost of running them. Though they are regarded as a proud symbol of statehood to be maintained at any cost, most have ended up in the ashes, brought down by substantial financial losses.
African airlines have also historically battled to compete with European carriers and, since the 1990s, Middle Eastern airlines with deep pockets and an eye on the underserviced African market. In addition to the examples above, a few others have survived. Air Zimbabwe, launched in 1967 as Air Rhodesia and renamed Air Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, has done so against the odds. It has all the hallmarks of failure but the government refuses to let it die. Kenya Airways, founded in 1977, is another. It was privatised in 1996 but has battled to build on its position as a leading African airline, a weakness compounded by the aggressive push into the continent by international airlines, one of which was a key stakeholder – KLM. Its financial woes led the Kenyan government to announce in 2019 that it planned to nationalise the airline to rescue it from bankruptcy.
With SAA cutting back routes and raiding the fiscus to survive while Ethiopian thrives, the obvious question is what are the factors that have led to such divergent outcomes for these airlines? Why has Ethiopian been able to make state ownership work for it and SAA not? There are several reasons to consider. One is history. For all its success today, Ethiopian Airlines had a turbulent past rooted in its country’s challenging political and economic fortunes. Its management spent the better part of the 1980s and 90s fending off aggressive state interference in its operations. Political meddling brought it to the brink of bankruptcy. But, ironically, this experience has served it well in later years, creating a resilient and problem-solving management that remains focused on maintaining the carrier’s hard-won autonomy and allowing it to run the business as a commercial enterprise. The government does, however, retain an oversight role through a presence on the airline’s board.
SAA, state-owned for more than 80 years, had a comparatively easy ride, with guaranteed market dominance until the 1990s that put it well ahead of later competition. But instead of building on this early advantage, it has been weakened by poor leadership and overzealous expansion efforts. Management stability and performance has been compromised by increasing political meddling in later years, as it was with Ethiopian in the early days. Ethiopian Airlines has been constant but careful in its expansion, particularly in fleet upgrades. SAA’s current problems are said to have gained impetus with a big push into the African market in the late 1990s by the then CEO, American Coleman Andrews. The airline spent lavishly on fleet expansion to underpin this expansion plan, and sold off a stake in the airline to Swissair to give it access to Swissair’s then-extensive network within Africa and Europe. But by 2002, SAA had suffered massive hedging contract losses. Moreover, Swissair went bankrupt, forcing SAA to buy back its stake.
SAA also battled to build links with other African carriers. Its attempts to set up regional airline Alliance Air in East Africa and establish joint ventures with Nigeria Airways and Uganda Airlines were unsuccessful. Plans to establish a hub in West Africa never materialised. Ethiopian has always prioritised the African market, with a view to positioning itself as a hub for traffic into international markets. The airline has managed to build solid relationships with other African carriers to pre-empt rivals eyeing Africa and to provide secondary feeder hubs for the airline into the main hub in Addis Ababa. The country, a proponent of greater African unity, has put itself in pole position for a new push for intra-continental trade by providing an ever-growing network of air links. A stable, visionary and disciplined management is another factor that separates the fortunes of SAA and Ethiopian Airlines. SAA has had nine CEOs in the decade from 2009.
The revolving door of CEOs was almost matched by a similar trend in key government ministries such as finance. These changes undermined the potential success of turnaround strategies, which were almost as numerous as the CEOs. Mostly, the executives were brought in from outside the airline, lacking the requisite skills and history to counter political meddling. This was at its height during the 2009-2018 tenure of former president Jacob Zuma, whose close friend Dudu Myeni was appointed chair of SAA in 2012. Myeni presided over years of mounting losses, wasteful expenditure and procurement fraud, becoming untouchable until her removal in 2017. During this period, Ethiopian Airlines was run by experienced hands who had grown their careers within the airline. One of these is current CEO Tewolde Gebremariam who has been there for the best part of 30 years. Since becoming CEO in 2011 he has steered the airline through its greatest period of growth.
Ethiopian Airlines has prioritised cost containment, which underpins its long-term business plan. It has also successfully cross-subsidised passenger services with revenue-generating businesses that support its core operation and give it greater control of costs. These include the establishment of training academies, an aircraft maintenance centre and an in-house catering business, which are now core to its operations. Ethiopian’s cargo operation is now the biggest in Africa. In the case of SAA, cost issues appear to have been overtaken by political expedience. Now its extravagant spending and its inability to implement a sustainable, long-term plan have led it to the brink. Its other services, such as SAA Technical and Air Chefs, contribute little to the bottom line – 2.29% and 0.41% respectively in the 2016-17 financial year. SAA’s freewheeling expenditure on free tickets for civil servants does not exist in the Ethiopian stable.
Moreover, the South African airline is vastly overstaffed but held hostage by militant trade unions that are steadfastly against privatisation and staff cuts. SAA also has growing domestic competition; by 2017 its domestic market share had declined from 98% in its heyday to about 23%. With both SAA and Kenya Airways in trouble, Ethiopian Airlines is likely to continue its dominance of the African skies, but it is not without challenges. One is managing its rapid growth, which is having an impact on service delivery. It also needs to bed down its new African acquisitions and ensure these airlines add value rather than drain resources. But SAA remains a force in Africa’s aviation landscape. It has a fleet of 64 aircraft, 10,000 staff and flies to 25 regional destinations and eight cities outside Africa. Its demise would not be good for already patchy connectivity in Africa and passenger convenience. With a business-friendly president in place and professional ministers now in key posts, SAA’s $2bn turnaround plan may gain some traction.
Analysts have urged the airline to follow the Ethiopian model. Researcher Andrew Barlow, writing for the Helen Suzman Foundation, says: “The lessons for SAA’s shareholder are manifold and yet straightforward and easy to implement. An entirely new board should be appointed with a mandate to operate along business lines. The senior management team should be strengthened by the appointment of people with industry experience, who can develop the strategic vision to take the airline forward as a business. Then allow the managers the freedom to do their jobs. It’s not complicated.” Brenthurst Foundation Director Greg Mills echoes this sentiment. “The [Ethiopian] airline’s formula is quite simple,” he says. “They have a plan, they are cost conscious, and they are constantly exploring new routes and partnerships. In South Africa there is little appetite for doing things properly.”
The lesson Ethiopian Airlines offers is not necessarily how to run a successful state owned business. Rather, it highlights the importance of having a strategic plan and the willingness to implement it without having to pander to political expedience in what is already a tough operating environment.
Ethiopia and Eritrea: sustainable peace?
The recent thaw in relations between the two countries is embodied in the fears and hopes of people living in a disputed border town
Genet Gebremedhin poses at her bar in Badme, a disputed town on the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, on 14 June 2018. Badme is a dusty grid of bars, coffee houses and little hotels that Ethiopia controls but which a UN-backed boundary commission says is Eritrean soil.
Photo: MAHEDER HAILESELASSIE TADESE / AFP
At first glance, Badme – a dusty border town between Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, with an estimated population of several thousand people – looks an unlikely place for a border clash. Yet the savannah grasslands surrounding the town saw pitched battles that started in May 1998, involving tanks, heavy artillery, war planes, landmines and small arms, that left thousands from both sides dead and thousands of others maimed or wounded. A memorial for dead Ethiopian soldiers at the entrance to the town symbolises the emotional baggage that remains 18 years after the war ended. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the dominant member of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition with the Eritrean Liberation Front (EPLF). The two were allies from the 1970s, when they sought to overthrow the military government of Mengistu Haile Mariam, and cooperated until the defeat of Mengistu’s forces in May 1991.
The new TPLF-dominated coalition government, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was the first to recognise Eritrean independence in April 1993, after a referendum saw an overwhelming number of Eritreans voting to secede from Ethiopia. The TPLF said it fought for the creation of a federal Ethiopia, and did not seek independence for Ethiopia’s northern territory, Tigray. The confrontation between the two countries that started in Badme was fought along a common border some 1,100 km long and went on for two years at a cost of an estimated 70,000 lives on both sides. The conflict ended formally in December 2000 after the two sides signed a peace agreement in Algiers – but 18 years of tense armed standoff followed, right up until July 2018.
Currently held by Ethiopia, but claimed by Eritrea, many on both sides will have wondered what the town’s fate would be after Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, and longtime Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement in July 2018. A boundary commission established after the December 2000 Algiers peace agreement ruled that Badme, which sits on the edge of a triangular strip of Ethiopian land surrounded by Eritrea, belongs to Eritrea, and the country had been calling for Badme’s unconditional handover for 16 years. In June 2018, Eritrea changed its uncompromising position on negotiations after the senior party in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition EPRDF declared its unconditional commitment to the Algiers peace agreement. This was seen by many as an implicit admission that Badme belonged to Eritrea. One year later, Badme residents are suspended between the hopes of the peace agreement and fears about the town’s uncertain status.
Meanwhile, though, the town and its significance are rarely discussed in either Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, or Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The citizens of the town used to live “under the protection of the Ethiopian army”, with the ongoing possibility of conflict with Eritrea looming over their lives, says Beyench Belay, 60, a long-time Badme resident and mother of one who lives by selling basic commodities from her small shop. However, tension has eased somewhat since the July 2018 peace agreement, she adds. Nevertheless, Belay believes that Badme should remain in Ethiopia if there is to be a sustainable peace between the two countries. “We haven’t been told to vacate the town, although I have heard rumours on its ‘planned handover’ to Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. She added that, in her view, the transfer of Badme to Eritrea “would not be done easily”, given the lives that had been lost.
Belay’s view, however, is not shared by 18-year-old Martha Hadush, who has lived in Badme all her life. Martha (Ethiopians don’t have family names, but use first names and the father’s name) lives with her family in Badme and makes ends meet by selling a traditional alcoholic drink known as tella. She would “sacrifice” the town if it meant a better future, she says. “I look eagerly to see the day I can visit Eritrea,” she told Africa in Fact. “I wish for there to be sustainable peace and love, and if that means giving up on Badme, I’m ready to do it.” But she added that she didn’t intend to stay in Badme anyway; she plans to move elsewhere in Ethiopia in the hope of getting employment in the public sector or in another business. Such different views go back to the start of the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, according to Martin Plaut, a former BBC Africa editor and observer of Eritrean politics since the 1980s, when Eritrea was still part of Ethiopia.
Differences between the two former liberation groups, the TPLF and the EPLF, are at the heart of current disagreements, he told Africa in Fact. “The immediate causes [of the war] were many, including petty disputes between farmers along the border and Ethiopia’s belief that the [region’s] coffee crop was being sold off at a profit by Eritreans,” he said. “The EPLF’s attitude towards the TPLF (whom they treated as ‘little brothers’) and theoretical differences over Marxism also laid the seeds of future disagreement.” But the thaw in Ethiopian-Eritrean relations has slowed, with four border points that had re-opened since September 2018 closed on the Eritrean side without explanation. The peace deal needs to go beyond the personal chemistry between the countries’ two leaders, Plaut urges, and be institutionalised to avoid any repeat of the misunderstandings that led to the Ethiopia- Eritrea war.
Landlocked Ethiopia says that it wants a closer economic union, so that it can direct some of its foreign trade through Eritrean ports. This has been met by a stony silence from Eritrea, fuelling speculation that the peace has stalled after 18 years of “no war, no peace”. Eritrea has a much smaller population than Ethiopia and a stagnating economy and, according to a BBC report, some townsfolk fear being overwhelmed by Ethiopian goods. It is also thought that tens of thousands of Eritreans may have taken advantage of the temporary border opening to ask for asylum in Ethiopia. Some of these migrants may be using Ethiopia as a transit point to travel to other African countries in search of freedom and better economic opportunities. Much of the unpredictability of the situation may be due to the Eritrean leader, according to Plaut. “Isaias is notoriously fickle in his opinions, and it suits him when the situation is fluid and complex rather than rules-based. He wants to manipulate and control.
Abiy, meanwhile, has too many issues on his plate to really concentrate on his ties with Eritrea.” Plaut added that the border closures might have been avoided if civil servants had been tasked with reaching agreement on how the formerly disputed territories should be dealt with, and with drawing up proper rules and regulations. In a recent interview disseminated on YouTube, Abiy indicated that he thought that the need to “harmonise trade customs matters and the non-return of Eritrean opposition groups” were reasons for the closures. An Ethiopian government official recently told Africa in Fact, on condition of anonymity, that Ethiopia believes the closures from the Eritrean side are a temporary measure. The country has stationed customs officers at three border checkpoints with Eritrea in anticipation of a resumption of border trade. Plaut says Isaias will probably resist getting Ethiopian-Eritrean ties on a stable footing, but he is optimistic about the prospects of improved relations between the two East African countries.
“It is self-evident that the future requires both nations to cooperate and work on joint projects for their mutual benefit,” he told Africa in Fact. “Little really divides their peoples, who are energetic and dynamic.” Plaut’s optimism is shared by Belay, who has enjoyed a personal benefit from the diplomatic thaw between Ethiopia and Eritrea: she was able to reunite with her sister after 30 years. “She came across the border from Tekemobia, in Eritrea, to meet me,” Belay said. Other Badme residents say that people from the two countries are moving relatively freely across the border to trade in gold, livestock and basic commodities, despite the border points being formally closed from the Eritrean side. This is probably an indication that the rigid separation between the two countries introduced after the 1998-2018 war will not return.
Lesotho: torture and assassination
Lesotho army and police involvement in politics threatens to prevent the government from undertaking necessary constitutional, security, judicial and public-sector reforms
Lesotho political party All Basotho Convention (ABC) leader and candidate Tom Thabane (C) casts his ballot at a polling station on 3 June, 2017 in Maseru, during a general election. It was the third general election since 2012.
Photo: GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP
Lesotho’s peace and stability has long been threatened by “political leaders’ desire to cling to political power”, according to a 2002 report by the South African-based Institute of Justice and Reconciliation. The country became independent in 1966 and experienced its first coup in 1970. Politicians have used different strategies to preserve or consolidate their power base, including creating Koeyoko, or “secret political elimination machinery”, says Major- General Metsing Lekhanya (retired), former chair of the Military Council (MC). Koeyoko’s first victim was Odilon Mofo Seheri, a former personal secretary to King Moshoeshoe II, who announced a plan to form a political party to challenge Joseph Leabua Jonathan, the country’s first prime minister. In June 1981, Seheri was abducted after attending a meeting at a Maseru hotel, where he was suspected of having plotted a coup against Leabua.
His bones and ashes were later found in the remote area of Bushman’s Pass. His wife was only able to identify a ring, keys and a belt. No one was prosecuted for the murder. On 4 September, 1982, the home of Ben Masilo, a critic of the government was attacked. Masilo escaped unharmed, but his five-year-old grandson was shot and killed in the attack. Three days later, on 7 September, Edgar Motuba, the outspoken editor of the anti-government publication Leselinyana la Lesotho was abducted with two visitors by a group of men who claimed to be members of the police. Their bodies were discovered the next day; the authorities did not disclose how they had died. Koeyoko had eliminated three victims in one year and it was evident that dissenting views would not be tolerated. Although the police were implicated, no arrests were made, raising suspicions that the killings were ordered from above.
In 1986, after ruling unopposed for 20 years, Jonathan lost power in a coup led by Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Sekhobe Letsie, who installed Lekhanya, with the MC, in power. Immediately after assuming power, the military barred political opposition. On 23 December, 1998, Lekhanya shot and killed a 21-year-old student, George Ramone, who was later reported to be having a relationship with the major general’s girlfriend. After a failed attempt to get a bodyguard to claim responsibility for the shooting, a rigged inquest absolved Lekhanya, despite attempts by the MC to use the incident to get rid of him. In the late 1980s Letsie was involved in the kidnapping and murder of two former ministers deposed in the coup, Vincent Makhele and Desmond Sixishe and their wives, Montsi Makhele and Manapo Sixishe at Bushman’s Pass in the early 1990s. The former ministers were known to have left-wing sympathies and had declared allegiance to Leabua.
Both were also thought to have strong relations with Libya, Cuba and North Korea and were suspected of enjoying armed support from these countries. The murders remained hidden until Ramone’s murder exposed ruptures within the MC. Cleared at the rigged inquest, Lekhanya moved swiftly to arrest Letsie and dismiss three of his allies on the MC. Letsie went on to be convicted of murder, and served 15 years in prison. The murders of Ramone and the two former ministers and their wives involved systematic attempts to protect the murderers and the resultant culture of unaccountability laid the foundation for the present, ongoing politicisation of Lesotho’s army, which has its own murderous track record. Prior to the 2012 elections, the then prime minister, Pakalitha Mosisili, appointed Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli as the commander of Lesotho’s defence force (LDF).
The appointment was controversial, with critics pointing out that Mosisili would have been aware that an election was looming, and that the appointment would be the prerogative of the new government. Mosisili lost the election to Thomas Thabane, who became prime minister of the country’s first coalition government. Two years after taking power, Thabane indicated that Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao would take over the LDF from Kamoli, who refused to step down. In January 2014, bombs exploded at the home of Thabane’s wife and that of the then police commissioner, Khothatso Tšooana. Kamoli reportedly refused to hand over eight LDF members later implicated in the bombings and on 30 August, 2014, the LDF staged a pre-dawn coup. Thabane, Mahao, and Tšooana fled to South Africa, only to return under the protection of the South African police.
Due to ensuing political instability, the first coalition government did not complete its five-year tenure, and snap elections were held in March 2015. Mosisili was returned to office on the back of a coalition of seven political parties. Back in office, Mosisili addressed a military parade, thanking the military, particularly Kamoli, for ensuring his return to power; a startling statement given that, in fact, Basotho voters had elected him. It was after this that 23 LDF officers were arrested, charged with plotting a mutiny with Mahao. The officers, who were reportedly tortured and denied medical and legal access while in custody, were later acquitted at a court martial. One of Mosisili’s first political actions after taking power was to dismiss Mahao as commander of the LDF, demoting him to the rank of brigadier, and reappointing Kamoli on the grounds that his dismissal by Thabane had been illegal.
On 25 June, 2015, Mahao was assassinated by members of the LDF, which claimed he had been shot resisting arrest. However, a nephew who was with him at the time said his uncle was shot while attempting to surrender. Some LDF elements were also intolerant of the media. On the night of 9 July, 2016, a group of LDF members shot Lloyd Mutungamiri, editor of the Lesotho Times newspaper, four times in the face while seated in his car. The soldiers, who were arrested and charged with attempted murder, are still awaiting trial. The attack on Mutungamiri followed a front page story alleging that the government had paid Kamoli a R40 million golden handshake to step down. The paper was also accused of supporting opposition parties. In 2017, South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) correspondent Nthakoana Ngatane had to flee Lesotho after receiving threats of rape and death.
The LDF also has a history of ruthless treatment of ordinary civilians. On 10 May, 2014, a couple, Lisebo Tang and her fiancé, Ts’epo Jane, who had parked their car next to Kamoli’s home were sprayed with more than 100 bullets after they were mistaken for people intending to harm him. Tang died on the spot while Jane was badly injured. There were subsequent allegations that the Tang family had been intimidated to stay silent about the incident and given R10,000 for funeral expenses. The LDF members allegedly responsible for the shooting were later charged with murder and attempted murder. In another incident, on 19 July, 2016, Dr Makoae Mojalefa Taoana, who had reportedly treated jailed mutineers, died of injuries sustained after his car was engulfed by fire in the capital, Maseru. And in May 2017, a group of LDF officers killed three people they suspected of shooting a fellow LDF member and a vendor and threw their bodies into the Mohale Dam.
Ten LDF suspects were later arrested. In June 2017, Lesotho held a snap election after Mosisili lost a motion of no confidence. Thabane became prime minister for the second time on the back of a third coalition government. Khoantle Motšomotšo was appointed LDF commander after Kamoli resigned on 1 December, 2016. He cooperated with Thabane’s government in bringing to book a number of LDF members involved in extralegal activities. But this was to prove fatal, because the LDF ranks included Kamoli allies, and Motšomotšo was assassinated by two officers, Brigadier Bulani Sechele and Lieutenant Colonel Tefo Hashatsi on 5 September, 2017. Both officers were fatally shot while trying to flee. The triggers for Motšomotšo’s assassination included allegations that he had sold out army colleagues to the police, had accepted the LDF’s subjugation to civilian authority, and released several officers who had faced criminal prosecution.
In June 2017, Lipolelo Thabane, Thabane’s estranged wife, was gunned down and killed by two assailants, two days before her husband’s inauguration. She had just won a lawsuit which had sought first lady benefits for herself. Foreign Affairs Minister Lesego Makgothi later said the investigation into the murder “had stalled”, although he assured the nation that the case remained a police priority. After Mahao’s assassination, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) appointed South Africa’s then deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, to mediate attempts to stabilise Lesotho and established a commission of inquiry led by Justice Mphapi Phumaphi of Botswana, to investigate the allegations of a 2014-15 mutiny, Mahao’s murder and the legality of Kamoli and Mahao’s respective removal and appointment. The SADC commission finished its work on 21 October, 2015, two months earlier than planned, due to the uncooperative attitudes of both the government and LDF.
The SADC report exonerated Mahao of resisting arrest and being part of a munity. The 23 LDF members were also exonerated, with Justice Phumaphi declaring the alleged mutiny a “fabrication”. But the commission recommended that Kamoli be relieved of his LDF command, that all soldiers suspected of murder, high treason and other serious crimes shielded by the LDF command be suspended while investigations continued, and that all soldiers charged with mutiny be given amnesties. By using Koeyoko tactics, the LDF and the Lesotho police force are failing in their duty to be apolitical and accountable to a civilian authority as required by the country’s Constitution. Their involvement in politics threatens to prevent the government from undertaking the constitutional, security, judicial and public-sector reforms recommended by the SADC report.
South Africa: lessons from history
South Africa’s history syllabus had to be replaced after apartheid ended, but new recommendations could be a step back into the past
Students at Orlando High School in Soweto in May 1977 are addressed by a teacher (R). Soweto students had made international headlines in June 1976 when thousands of schoolchildren marched through the streets in protest against the use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in the township schools and were shot at by the apartheid police.
All governments, no matter the country, try and impose themselves on the history curriculum and especially in the history textbooks, said Barry Firth, educationist and chair of the South African Society of History Teaching, in an interview at CPUT Campus in Cape Town, where he lectures history, in July this year. Firth’s assertion is nowhere more evident than in the South African apartheid government’s insertion of the myth of the Afrikaners as the chosen people into its National Christian Education history syllabus. Apartheid-era textbooks like those written by the late teacher and author AN Boyce offer ample evidence of this, as academic Richard Chernis points out in his thesis, History Teaching during the Period of National Party Rule 1948-1990 (University of Pretoria, 1990).
Chernis cites Boyce, saying [Boyce] “uses the terms ‘problem’ and ‘trouble’ ad-nauseam when referring to the role of non-whites in South African history: the ‘Basuto problem’, the ‘native problem’, the ‘Sekukhuni problem’, the ‘Indian problem’ and the ‘Bantu problem’. Boyce later admitted to his earlier bias. He was quoted by BL Molyneaux in his 1994 book, The Presented Past: Heritage, Museums and Education, as saying: “I am not proud of some of the chapters in my earlier books, but I am trying to correct the mistakes I made and I have changed some of my previous interpretations”. This approach was not unique to South Africa. African countries freeing themselves from the shackles of colonial history have also struggled challenges in retelling their history.
This is reflected in educationist and academic Ronald Ndille’s 2018 article for the SA Society for History Teaching journal, Yesterday&Today, ‘Our schools our identity: efforts and challenges in the transformation of the history curriculum in the Anglophone subsystem of education in Cameroon since 1961’. In his article, Ndille cites several challenges Cameroon has faced in transforming its history curriculum in schools and universities. One of the “stumbling blocks”, he says, “rests on the fact that Cameroon is a country of over 260 ethnic groups with mutually unintelligible languages sitting about a kilometre apart in some areas”. But, he adds, Cameroon’s political elite posed a “much more serious hindrance” to curriculum reform. “A majority of those called upon to design school programmes were people who received colonial education,” he writes.
“Evidence of the initial curriculum reform of the 1960s demonstrates a semblance with the colonial curriculum, implying that when the new elite were called upon to design the history programme soon after independence, they carefully replicated what they had acquired as historical knowledge and have since found it very difficult to move away from it.” Ndille concludes by saying that while efforts at reform have been made at every level in Cameroon, transformation of the history curriculum envisaged in policy documents after independence has not been achieved. The overall theme of both colonial and apartheid syllabuses was that black people were participants in white narratives. It was not only in the text and ideology, but in the philosophy surrounding teaching as well; in the apartheid/colonial state the teacher driven approach governed what was being taught.
Teachers were the custodians of knowledge and learners the receptacles. The curriculum, designed around the regurgitation of “facts” and dates dictated by the teacher, made no space for reflection, debate or discussion. After the end of apartheid it was clear that South Africa’s history syllabus had to be replaced. Its first attempt, Outcomes Based Education (OBE), put the learner in the centre of learning. But OBE implementation proved a challenge to both learners and educators; teachers from the apartheid era, for example, struggled with the learner-centred system. OBE was followed by a new National Curriculum Statement (NCS), Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement, (CAPS), which was adopted by the then education minister, Kader Asmal, in 2011. CAPS was to change not only the content, but the way history was taught, describing the subject as, “about learning how to think about the past, which affects the present, in a disciplined way.
History is a process of enquiry. Therefore, it is about asking questions of the past: What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen then? What were the short-term and long-term results? It involves thinking critically about the stories people tell us about the past, as well as the stories that we tell ourselves.” The CAPS document outlining the curriculum for high school grades 10-12 said the specific aims of history were to equip students with knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the past and the forces that had shaped it, providing them with an understanding of historical concepts, including sources and evidence, and equipping them with the “ability to undertake a process of historical enquiry based on skills”. University of Cape Town history education specialist Prof Rob Siebörger, who helped develop CAPS, argues it is the international benchmark for the way history is taught.
But the CAPS philosophy is dependent on a number external factors: the training of the teachers, the culture of the school, the ability of students to comprehend the concepts, the ability of educators to teach the concepts, and the way in which the textbooks are written to initiate discussions. In South Africa, this international standard is being placed on an education system racked by inequality, where most learners are taught in their second language. Both Barry Firth, quoted in the opening paragraph, and Siebörger agree it is the schools with means that get the full benefit of the system – others have a longer and harder journey. A study by educationists Johan Wasserman and Denise Bentrovato, ‘Confronting Controversial Issues in History Classrooms: an analysis of pre-service teachers’ experiences in post-apartheid South Africa’ (2018), illustrates the challenges educators face in implementing CAPS. The study interviewed 75 pre-service high school history teachers who had undertaken the practical teaching component of their education degrees.
The research revealed that the student educators were totally unprepared for teaching controversial issues. The entrenched biases of the schools and the locked-in racial views of the students – and mentor teachers – led to heated confrontations, meaning the aims of the CAPS method were not fully realised. In an article published in 2018 in the journal Yesterday&Today, the researchers said the experiences of the 75 student teachers varied greatly for numerous reasons, including the institutional culture of their placement school and their relationship with their mentor teacher. Their experiences, however, highlighted the centrality of race in addressing controversial issues, reflecting the deep-rooted legacies of apartheid. “The consequences of this was a black/white binary that continues to influence the way certain schools, pre-service teachers, mentor teachers and learners relate to history and to each other,” Wasserman and Bentrovato wrote.
However, Firth argues that a discussion in the hands of a grounded teacher, even using the discredited AN Boyce textbooks, can spark a deep discussion; that the positioning of the question elicits debate and discussion. As a high school history teacher in Carnarvon, a rural South African town, he successfully did this with classes of students from vastly different backgrounds. CAPS itself is now under scrutiny by a ministerial task team (MTT), reappointed by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga in December last year following the same team’s initial report, which contained several recommendations aimed at making South Africa’s history curriculum more Afrocentric and relevant to South African students. One of the MTT’s initial recommendations was that history should be phased in as a compulsory subject for grades 10-12 by 2030. It also criticised the current curriculum because the “South African content avoids controversial and problematic issues.
This undermines the fact that a multi-perspective approach is relevant in history”. The MTT report also said the CAPS curriculum made the topics and themes on Africa too “touristy” and were taught to students “too early in their lives”, in the lower grades. The reappointed MTT will be responsible for formulating a new history curriculum for grades 4-12 as well as screening text books to ensure they align with the new curriculum, as well as proposing history teacher training programmes. But the first MTT report has not gone unchallenged; educationists and commentators have criticised what they describe as “contradictions” in the report. For example, very much in step with CAPS principles and methodology, the report states that: “History should not be used for political expediency and that its particular role in developing critical thinking be affirmed and defended….. history education at school has the potential to offer explanatory, analytical and interpretative skills.
Ideally, learners have to be capable to assess arguments and develop an ability to construct counter-arguments which have to be synthesised within an historical narrative. They need to be aware of the nature of historical evidence, conflicting evidence and historical interpretations, and in the process they should develop a sense of historical perspective. This is because history is a problem-solving discipline of a specific kind.” Elsewhere in the report, however, the MTT attacks CAPS: “….biased towards the liberal school of thought as a dominant historiographical paradigm in South Africa. This is the hidden curriculum defining CAPS and it is connected to the intellectual traditions of western liberalism and its idea of human hierarchies, individual liberty and private property.” Thus, the MTT apparently advocates for a teaching of African nationalism, which it suggests is more benevolent than Afrikaner nationalism; the report is silent on how this proposed new curriculum should be taught.
It is no surprise then that the minister has extended the MTT’s term for it to iron out the contradictions in its own findings. Firth points out that even if CAPS is scrapped and those with a political agenda get their way, they will still have to overcome the very real challenges South African teachers face trying to teach history – lack of resources, training, time and a system that rewards pass marks instead of comprehension and debate. Changing the syllabus will not make these problems history.
Togo: the German legacy
Togo’s accession to the modern age of international politics could be said to have begun in July 1884, when the protectorate treaty with Germany was signed
The premises of the palace of King Mlapa IV.
Photo: BLAME EKOUÉ
In 1883, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, decided to impose a protectorate on the area now known as Togo. Togoville, on the northern shore of Lake Togo in what is now the southern part of the country, came to German attention when Gustav Nachtigal, the German consul general in West Africa signed a protectorate treaty with King Mlapa III of Togoville, on 5 July, 1884. So it was that Germany claimed overlordship over the territory. History has it that Plakou, the king’s “stick-bearer” signed the treaty that gave Togo away to Germany. The signing of this historic treaty by one of his subjects remains enigmatic for historians. But there is little doubt that Mlapa III played a vital role in the German annexation of a place known to indigenous people as Togo-Bè, a kingdom that stretched about 30 km from west to east and about 20 km from south to north. Some historians have claimed that Mlapa III was not living when the protectorate treaty was signed.
However, Joel Mensah Kwassi, the current Mlapa VI, who was newly enthroned in July 2018, thinks otherwise, as he told us during an interview at his palace, with its reminders of the German colonial era, among them a cannon and the machines designed to manufacture sisal fibre. Very unusually, he had granted us an audience. “Mlapa III was not an ordinary man of the kingdom; he was never seen in public. He did not talk to foreigners. In our tradition, it is the stick bearer or linguist who first deals with foreigners. So, if the king delegated Plakou to sign a treaty on his behalf, the latter could never claim ownership of that treaty,” Mlapa VI told Africa in Fact. Togoville, as the kingdom’s main settlement was known, also acted as the religious and political centre of the kingdom. Mlapa III had many powers and prerogatives, and his spiritual authority extended to nearby cities such as Bè-Beach – the current Togolese capital, Lomé – and Porto Seguro, now called Agbodrafo, whose markets made them the ideal shopping centres of the time.
The people worshipped a deity known as Nyigblin, a smith-god whose effigies were usually made in gold. It was believed that Nyigblin provided the people with wealth. Historians do not doubt Mlapa III’s role in the German possession of the area. “Certainly, he would have been an influential figure,” says Komla Etou, a senior lecturer in the faculty of history at Lomé University. “There is no doubt that he was descended from a lineage of kings, or that he ended up imposing his rule on the other leaders of the kingdom. The Baguida Treaty, which established the new colony, was signed by chiefs and subjects but there is little doubt that it was signed in the king’s name. This also shows how organised the people were at that period.” Historical evidence of Mlapa III’s role in the signing of this treaty is exhibited in a small museum in the palace compound, including a photocopy of the treaty, the throne of Mlapa III and pictures of German infrastructural projects in Togo.
Mlapa VI believes that the treaty, which saw the area becoming a German protectorate, was aimed at the economic development of a country that had been ravaged by the slave trade. “The Germans said that they wanted win-win trade ties. This opened up Togo to the global economy. This treaty has made Togo what it is now,” he told Africa in Fact. Togo’s accession to the modern age of international politics could be said to have begun in July 1884, when the protectorate treaty was signed. Nachtigal first used the eponym of the country to designate the protected territory in a report of 9 July, 1884 to Bismarck when he referred to the Togogebiet, or “Togo zone”. Nachtigal’s explorations of Africa in the second half of the 19th century occurred at a time when Bismarck was looking for opportunities to colonise parts of Africa, spurred by the desire to reassert his own international prestige and that of Germany.
The Germans’ first step was to conquer territories along the coast of the current Togo. However, local memories of the slave trade, which had been abolished in 1848 by the then French government, did not make their mission easy. To establish themselves, the Germans first sought local auxiliaries – called Yovofio in the Ewe language, or “representatives of the white men” to help them administer the territory. “The Germans understood that they needed to promote a local administration through local ‘right-hand men’ if they wanted to build confidence between themselves and our communities,” recalls Assenoub Amegan Amévi, 72, a grandfather who worked as a warehouseman for the Germans. “Many of their first collaborators were people working with the chieftaincy and spiritual leaders – including Plakou, who signed the treaty on behalf of Mlapa III. In some villages they were made the sole representatives of the German administration.”
The rise of such “collaborators” with the German colonialists in the organisation and management of the territory created legitimacy disputes after the death of Mlapa III. However, the then German administration used tact and dexterity to solve these chieftaincy disputes. “To settle these disputes, Lieutenant [Valentin] von Massow, chief of the imperial police in Togo from 1884 to 1896, held a consultation with the people. Many local people had never experienced such a thing. This marked the first “democratic act” in the colonial history of Togo; formerly, the people had never taken part directly in the election of their king. Meanwhile, in other territories, the western metropolitans were imposing their ‘right-hand men’ by force,” says Etou, the historian. After establishing their administrative and political supremacy over the southern territories, the Germans went on to conquer the northern part of present-day Togo.
However, this colonial adventure faced resistance from some of the people there. To counter this, the German administration made use of the fact that German missionaries had been active in the region since 1847. As the colonialists saw it, their mission was to open the way for the promotion of German culture. Later, they would emphasise education as the main way to achieve this, and they would go on to open several primary schools in the plateau and central regions of the country. Records show that by 1905 the colonial administration was training 469 merchants and trade employees, 148 government officials, including teachers for elementary and vocational schools, 397 teachers at mission schools and some 1,722 workers and craftsmen in Togo. Tony Toulassi, a 92-year-old retired electrical engineer, says that the missionaries helped the German administration to make its way into the northern parts of the territory.
“The German Presbyterian church helped to promote western culture, to the detriment of our traditional religion,” he says. “They built schools to prepare the natives to accept the arrival of the foreigners… On the other hand, education helped our elders to learn many jobs.” Some historians insist that the German conquest of deep Togo, which had been formerly hostile to western culture, was facilitated by various projects already under way in the south. Between 1911 and 1914, in their bid to make Togo a strategic colony, the German colonial government built a telegraph office in Kamina, a small village located about 160 km north of the current capital, Lomé, says Ouro-Agbandao Tchaboue, 45, a teacher and tourist guide living in Kamina. The ruins of the office can still be seen in the town. Hundreds of locals were recruited for the construction work. “There was mutual respect, because the Germans wanted to retain the good impression they had left to the south,” he recalls.
The telegraph office linked the German colonies, and it also established a connection between them and the German metropole. Some local people gnashed their teeth at the presence of the foreigners, but it should also be said that the local German administration worked enormously hard to make their colony the best in West Africa.” After they completed their conquest of the north, the German administration later focused on developing primary sectors of the economy, especially forestry, agriculture and fishing. “Though valuable oil palms grew naturally near the coast, the Germans introduced certain export crops, including cocoa and cotton, to be grown on plantations worked by African labour,” says Gerard Waklatsi, a sociologist. “Roads and railways were constructed to link the port to parts of the interior.” Today, some Togolese still feel nostalgic for the German colonial era. Even for those who do not, though, there is little doubt that Togo’s fate would have been different under French colonialism.
The German administration established itself in Togo through a close collaboration with the kingship, while under French colonial rule kings generally lost their prestige and power, says Komlan Kouzan, the deputy dean at the Literature and Human Sciences Faculty of Kara University. “Some Togolese do not hesitate to say that they admire the work done by the Germans, while others still remember their meanness, roughness and racism,” Kouzan adds. “However, power was a little more decentralised under the German colonial era, which allowed the development of infrastructure at the grassroots.” Ironically, that advantage from former colonial times has been lost: the government appoints the king, and he does not have as free a hand to make decisions as he once had under the colonial administration.
Senegal: Mouridism and identity
The Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform nationalism in the country
The only known photograph of Cheik Ahmadou
Bamba, probably taken before 1923.
Earlier this year I was sitting on the TGV high-speed train travelling across France listening to the BBC’s Africa Today podcast, which discussed the impact of the fire at Paris’s Notre-Dame cathedral on the African continent. The discussion outlined the idea that Notre- Dame represented not only a spiritual base for Catholics in Africa, but also a historical landmark of the spread of Catholicism to the continent. As such, it also had become a point of reference, particularly for Francophone African Catholics. Some African Catholics experienced the near destruction of Notre-Dame as the near destruction of their history and the origin of their faith in a physical and symbolic sense. The landmark had stood for centuries, and had become sacred by belief and ceremony, and a key part of religious foundational myth. Such foundational myths can powerfully inform personal and national identity.
We can explore this by looking at the Mourides of Senegal and the impact they have had in creating a Senegalese identity. The Mourides do not have as long a material history as African Catholics, nor can they claim a history of proselytising (which might be described as an explicitly colonial act). Moreover, their religious world view has overtly immaterial aspects. Thinking about this that day on the TGV, I asked myself how a religious sect such as the Mourides in Senegal, which has an explicitly immaterial outlook and a small material history, constructs a view of history that understands the “self” and the “other” and the interactions between them, and is able to influence and shape a national culture. For the Mourides have played an important role in the creation of the nation state of Senegal. They have created a history that is intertwined with the creation of Senegalese nationalism. That is, they created a history that expresses a specifically Senegalese, anti-colonial and black Afro-Islamic position.
Muslims of sub-Saharan Africa are often forgotten within the Ummah, or greater Islamic community. Many are neither Arab, nor Arabic speaking. Most are black African, and many practice different forms of Islam than people in the west might associate with the religion. To other Muslims, they can appear to exist in a limbo between African tradition and an Islamic modernity based within the nation state. According to writer Donal Cruise O’Brien, Mouridism bridges this gap with its idea that all are equal, regardless of wealth or prestige. Through its interactions with Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Mouridism was able to extend its ideas of equality and justice beyond itself, because the movement had a cultural grounding in a blackness, which resonated with Senghor’s black African take on Islam. It was also egalitarian in orientation, which suited Senghor’s belief in Afro-socialism. The founder of Mouridism, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, is known as the man who “said no” to the French when Senegal was still a French colony.
The story goes that he was summoned to the then capital, Saint Louis, and ordered to renounce teaching Islam or face exile. He refused and proceeded to pray in the governor’s office – but praying only two rakas (the sets of ritual movements Muslims use when praying to God). Normally, a Muslim will pray three or four rakas. The shorter prayer session signified that Bamba felt he was in enemy territory. The idea is that a reduced time of prayer increases the time available to defend oneself. Whether the French colonialists picked up on the symbolism of this or not, we will never know. But in this moment Bamba demonstrated both his knowledge of his Islamic faith and his self-assurance regarding his black identity. In this moment, Mouride history coincided with black nationalism. It is this spirit that Senghor often invoked in his own pieces on African identity and being. The result of this encounter was Bamba’s exile, first to Gabon and then to Mauritania, for refusing to renounce his role as a teacher of Islam.
This act of defiance is nowadays celebrated in the Magal (or religious festival celebrating a particular religious leader) of the Two Rakas, which started in 1980. The story illustrates how the Mouride Brotherhood constructed a material history from immaterial beginnings. A Saint Louis schoolteacher started the magal, and after much soliciting, and supposedly with some reluctance, the Khalifa-Générale (the chief Mouride and leader of the Brotherhood since Bamba’s death) gave his approval. The magal is innovative in the sense that it takes its inspiration from religious and secular sources. It is thus about remembering a specific political act that Bamba, as the founder of the Islamic brotherhood, undertook as an act of defiance against white colonialists. The date of the magal, 5 September, is calculated by the Gregorian calendar, not the Islamic one. The event includes academic lectures on themes such as “Bamba and the Qur’an”, while also incorporating more traditional elements such as khasside (recitations of devotional poems written by Bamba), dhikr (devotional prayers), large meals and pilgrimages to the colonial office where the act of defiance supposedly took place.
The festival, then, is syncretic in that it brings different ideas together. It is a celebration not just of religion, but of blackness, of anti-colonialism, and of academic debate within this historical context. Its specifically anti-western cultural point of view highlights the power of blackness and Senegalese identity. This is particularly poignant when considering the religious and societal environment around the time of its founding. Marabouts (or West African Islamic leaders) and politicians were known to be working together, often in very close relationships. Institutional bribery and corruption were common. The Khalifa- Générale would issue an Ndiggal (or fatwa) to ensure the ruling socialist party was reelected. Anyone who failed to carry it out would, technically speaking, cease to be a Mouride. Aside from their involvement in institutional corruption, some marabouts claimed to have magical powers, entrenching their followers’ beliefs in ideas of magic, not scripture.
A classic example was the marabout who claimed he could drink whisky because it turned to milk in his stomach. This meant that it did not make him drunk, and his action remained halal. However, educated intellectuals in Dakar scorned the unlearned marabouts’ claims to magical abilities. This all changed when Abdou Lahatte Mbacké became Khalifa-Générale. He banned the use of tobacco and alcohol in the Mourides’ holy city of Touba, and urged a return to a simple lifestyle based upon the farming of millet rather than peanuts, and to the simple pleasures of Mouride and Senegalese tradition. Though the magal of the two raka was first organised as a religious and academic event, this occurred outside of entrenched power systems. The magal therefore became a symbol of religious and societal reform based on what had once made Mouridism individual: a real sense of black and African power going beyond a rejection of colonial narratives and involving the creation of new narratives based on social and political critique.
The Mouride movement also rejects subordination to the Arabic Ummah – unlike the other two main Sufi brotherhoods in Senegal, which look to Fes and Baghdad for guidance. It, therefore, also celebrates the capacity of les noires to create their own philosophical paradigm, one which is proud of its differences. Narratives that emphasise taking pride in one’s identity and history play a role in Senegalese politics. Senghor’s secularism was based on the ideas of justice and equality as represented within Islam and Christianity, but with the religions in question functioning on a higher level of spirituality. As a Christian ruling a majority Muslim country, Senghor had to walk a tightrope between the two religions. In Senghor’s vision, the state’s role was therefore the champion of justice and equality between peoples and religions. The new state of Senegal’s rhetoric and policies would be based on aiming at the achievement of universal justice and equality – “a brotherhood of man” in Senghor’s words – as a secular idea informed by religion.
The aim of creating a brotherhood of man is now deeply ingrained in Senegalese society. Ideas of religion and religious duty are not overtly incorporated into the political narrative because they are understood as given. Instead, these are represented within the themes of nationalism. This makes politics the instrument that allows the creation of heaven on earth. In 1963, when Senghor opened the Great Mosque of Touba – the most important Mouride mosque and, according to some, the biggest mosque in sub-Saharan Africa – he proclaimed that a building of such glory represented the spiritual and material greatness of Senegal. It was built by unpaid Mouride volunteers and took over 30 years to complete. In the case of the Great Mosque, immaterial religious gestures helped to shape political realities. By projecting the Great Mosque as a nationalist symbol of Senegalese greatness, Senghor suggested that prayer was not only about devotion to one’s own god, but about creating a shared, universal justice and equality.
Through Senghor, the Mourides, who represent a black Senegalese version of Islam, have helped to inform Senegalese nationalism. Many Senegalese consider Bamba to be as important a national hero as Senghor himself, or Lat Dior, the Wolof king who fought off the first wave of French colonialism. A story that is told about Bamba illustrates this. While on the ship that was taking him to exile in Gabon, it is said that Bamba wanted to pray but the captain of the ship would not allow it. Bamba is said to have laid his sheepskin prayer mat down on the ocean and to have prayed on it as if on land. This miracle is recited across Senegal as evidence of Bamba’s Baraka (spiritual energy), while pictures of it can be found everywhere. The French colonialists allowed Bamba to return to Senegal in the later years of his life, realising that exiling him caused more problems than it solved. Bamba was a pacifist, claiming his only weapon was his pen, and this is a common element of the Senegalese identity nowadays.
Respect of origin, identity and religion are mutual, sect is not important, and beliefs are enquired about, not questioned or rebutted. The pacifistic element in both Bamba and Senghor’s thought is another element that connects them and is therefore probably why it features so strongly in the Senegalese national consciousness. This national consciousness is often seen in the artwork of Senegalese artists, mainly done on glass. These paintings often depict Bamba himself; contrary to Salafist Islam, Sufism does not discourage the representation of human figures, but sees it as an act of worship. Depictions of leaders are regarded as carrying their baraka; touching a photo or painting of Bamba confers his power and blessing. These paintings often involve the colours of Senegal, or the outline of Africa, alongside the figures of Bamba and of the Great Mosque of Touba. They combine nationalism, religion, and race and Mouridism – all within one piece of art.
In some paintings Bamba’s figure emerges from the middle “L” of the word “Allah” written in Arabic, as if the saviour of Africa, Senegal and Islam were emerging from the heart of Allah. As an icon, Bamba crosses historical boundaries and permeates his blessings into an understanding of faith that goes beyond devotion, moving into politics and interacting with values of a universalist appeal. Stories of the past, his actions and the interaction of spiritual images with Sufism come together to create a materialistic history based on interpretations of these values and morals, not just by politicians and marabouts but by disciples too, making them about personal interactions of equality, not just inaccessible scripture. Mouridism’s influence on the state and the creation of a national consciousness includes the Baye Fall and what they represent. A sub-sect of Mouridism, disciples of Baye Fall follow the example of Cheikh Ibra Fall, Bamba’s first and most devoted disciple. This includes the disavowal of all materialism and the embrace of hard labour as the highest form of prayer.
From one point of view, this could be said to be akin to the Protestant work ethic that Marx and Weber observed, but there is more to it than this. Baye Fallism involves the idea that sacrifice through hard work creates equality among men on earth as well as before god, meaning that all achieve heaven in the same way, no matter their socio-economic position. Baye Fall traditionally wear clothing made out of scraps and do not cut their hair, which results in long dreadlocks. Their aesthetic resembles that of Rastafarians, who believe that they will one day return to Africa, the promised land, but for the Mourides their home and spiritual land is, very specifically, the city of Touba. There, Baye Fall function as members of the police, or as labourers or as administrators of religious schools. The image of Bamba and the Baye Fall as a blacknationalist symbol therefore has an impact beyond Senegal. Bamba is seen not just as the saviour of Senegal, but of Africa, and the gateway to return to Africa for those who have moved away.
Through the use of aesthetics, politics and spiritual relations with the state, Mouridism has created its own history and at the same time contributed to Senegalese consciousness. This originates in the figure and actions of Bamba himself, who created a material history that is based not only on the overt materialism of buildings (such as the Great Mosque) and their spirituality, but also on a historical account interwoven with political and religious philosophy that gives power to the community and the nation. Bamba is thought not only to save Senegal, but all of Africa from the problems of social and political injustice that it faces. That this internalisation took place in Senegal was due partly to the way that Senghor constructed a multi-confessional state. But it was also due to the presence of Mouridism: an indigenous, black African approach to the religion of Islam.
Rwanda: the genocide archives
Amid mounting calls for an honest investigation into the Rwandan genocide, the UN and certain governments appear to be opposing full disclosure
A group of Rwandan refugees walk past a pile of machetes and axes confiscated by the Zairean army on July 16, 1994 in the border city of Goma. (Photo by PASCAL GUYOT / AFP FILES / AFP)
“Everyday we learn to forgive,” President Paul Kagame told a commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide in Kigali in April this year, “but we do not want to forget.” Yet, 25 years after the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda, full disclosure and recognition of responsibility for what happened, particularly as regards members of the international community, are still outstanding. The International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR), established in 1994 and dissolved 2015, dealt with the planners and the architects of the genocide. Almost two million people accused of helping to perpetrate the genocide were tried before the traditional Gacaca courts between 2001 and 2012. But questions of international responsibility remain unaddressed. Moreover, investigators, researchers and historians face obstacles in the way of establishing the truth. In June 2014, the Rwandan government established the Rwanda Archives and Library Services Authority (RALSA).
Yet despite pledges by international leaders to fully investigate what happened, members of the public elsewhere in the world still have only limited access to evidence about the genocide. UN Security Council deliberations on Rwanda, the Clinton White House papers and French and Belgian government documents remain classified. Apparently, this applies even to international court decisions. This year, the executive secretary of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide, Jean-Damascène Bizimana, asked for, but was not granted, access to the ICTR archives. Olivier Nduhungirehe, to everybody, including survivors of the genocide, students and researchers,” he told Africa in Fact. What is clear is that the UN and certain governments are opposing full disclosure. During his speech earlier this year, Kagame paid a special tribute to the Czech ambassador, Karel Kovanda, who, he said, “joined colleagues from New Zealand and Nigeria to call for action to stop the genocide despite the indifference of more powerful states.”
He was probably referring to some of the five permanent members of the Security Council. While the massacres were occurring, three of the Big Five – France, the UK and the US – resisted the use of the word “genocide”, says British journalist Linda Melvern, author of the book A People Betrayed: the Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide, first published in 2000 and updated in 2009. To be sure, the UN is in a delicate position. Its inability to deal effectively with the genocide is still very much resented, and not only by Rwandans. No UN flag was flown at an homage ceremony in Kigali on 8 April, 2019 for 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were brutally beaten and shot to death by Rwandan government soldiers on 7 April, 1994. This despite the fact that the Belgian soldiers were members of the UN mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). Their former comrades were outraged at their government’s order to the peacekeepers to surrender.
“Many of the Belgian soldiers had wanted to stay in Rwanda to prevent even greater slaughter and were humiliated by the government’s decision to withdraw them,” according to an OAU report of 7 July, 2000 by an international panel of eminent personalities. The former soldiers were also critical of the UN, which, they said, systematically underestimated the threats the Belgian blue helmets faced from Hutu extremists. “The withdrawal meant that they were viewed as cowards, and morally irresponsible ones as well,” reads the report. “It is not surprising that many of them threw down their blue berets in disgust upon their return to Belgium. Others, in full view of the television cameras, pulled out their knives and slashed the berets into ribbons.” According to Melvern, the New Zealand ambassador, Colin Keating, told her that “non-permanent members of the [Security] Council were kept in the dark about what was happening”. Cables sent to the UN secretary-general’s office by UNAMIR’s field commander, the Canadian general Roméo Dallaire, did not reach the council.
They stayed in the secretary-general’s office on the 38th floor of the UN building in New York, she says. For whatever reason, Boutros Boutros-Ghali kept those cables to himself. Yet these cables included essential information. One was a fax General Dallaire sent to his superior, General Maurice Baril, at the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York, on 11 January, 1994. According to the OAU report, Dallaire warned that a militia commander who he had met “has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsis”. Despite this, Kofi Annan, then chief of peacekeeping operations, denied Dallaire permission to seize arms caches revealed by the informant. Moreover, Boutros-Ghali changed existing procedures regarding the transmission of information to the Security Council, determining that officials could brief the council only with his express permission, Linda Melvern discovered.
“All the information that went to the council came through Boutros-Ghali,” she says. In a report dated 21 April, the then secretary general did not mention mass killings, preferring to describe Rwanda as being in “a civil war”. Why did Boutros-Ghali restrict the information that went to the council? According to Melvern, it might have been because he was beholden to the French president, Francois Mitterrand, who had supported his election. To settle the question, she says that access to documents and the telephone records from Boutros- Ghali’s office will be necessary. According to Melvern, the permanent members of the UN Security Council refused for weeks to admit that a genocide was taking place. The British ambassador to the UN told the council that it would become “a laughing stock” if it described the events in Rwanda as a genocide, she says. And France also resisted the use of the word “genocide”. Some see France as bearing more responsibility for the international failure to act because of its direct involvement in the region.
Accordingly, access to the French archives has been a sensitive point for years. In 2015, the French president, François Hollande, declassified documents related to the genocide, including minutes from secret defence meetings and files of advisers to the president at the time, François Mitterrand. Researchers and historians would be granted access to the documents on request. Yet gaining access to those archives has proved extremely difficult. A former Belgian senator, Alain Destexhe, who published an essay on the genocide, told Africa in Fact that he was denied access to both Mitterrand’s archives and those of the defence ministry – supposedly because his “profile did not meet requirements”. Researchers also complain that only a fraction of the classified documents have surfaced so far. That might change. In April this year, President Emmanuel Macron appointed a commission of academics to carry out a two year investigation into the role of the French army in the genocide.
The commission will have access to presidential, diplomatic, military and intelligence archives. Kigali’s reaction was rather positive. But the problem, Alice Urusaro Karekezi, a researcher at the University of Rwanda’s Centre for Conflict Management, told the Kigali-based daily newspaper The New Times is that the commission does not include a single recognised expert on Rwanda. Moreover, access to Mitterrand’s archives was to be granted at the discretion of their custodian, Dominique Bertinotti, who told news agency Agence France-Presse in April this year that her approval is not “automatic”. Independent or inexperienced researchers will be confronted by staunch opposition from the French military establishment and officials who were in office in 1994, who deny that France holds any responsibility for the tragedy. The issue is so sensitive that it caused a controversy during the European elections campaign in May this year.
A claim by Raphaël Glucksmann – director of a documentary on the genocide and head of the Socialist Party list in the election – that Mitterrand had been an “accomplice” in the genocide triggered a letter of protest signed by 23 former ministers. Yet “the facts are stubborn”, as Kagame says. Prior to the genocide, France had been an important supporter of the Hutu regime in Kigali. According to a January 1994 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), France was one of the regime’s main arms suppliers, along with Egypt and South Africa, before and after the war began between the Hutu-dominated government and Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in October 1990. France’s contribution included mortars, artillery, armoured cars and helicopters – in addition to providing military advisors to the Rwandan Gendarmerie and armed forces, according to HRW. According to Melvern, French military training extended to the presidential guard, which is thought to have initiated the genocide.
Moreover, France did not suspend its supplies of arms to the government after the imposition of a UN embargo on 17 May, 1994. Five shipments of artillery, machine guns, assault rifles and ammunition provided by the French government were sent to government forces based in Goma (in then-Zaire) in May and June of that year, according to a May 1995 report by HRW. Meanwhile, a French military operation between June and August in 1994, codenamed “Turquoise”, nominally under the UN, is another controversial issue. France portrayed Turquoise as a humanitarian mission to hide its support of the genocidaires, claimed Captain Guillaume Ancel, a French army veteran who served in the operation, in a 2018 memoir. Any declassification of US documents would also likely result in embarrassing revelations – in particular, as regards responsibility for the downsizing of the UN force that General Dallaire outlined in his book on the genocide, Shake Hands With the Devil (2003), and its tragic consequences.
“The United States almost single-handedly blocked international action in Rwanda [for] six weeks prior to the genocide, which might have prevented the bloodbath altogether,” says the above-mentioned OAU report. The US State Department even refused to scramble the broadcast of RTLM Radio, a Hutu extremist media outlet that incited killing during the genocide, according to Melvern. Half a million lives could have been saved if UNAMIR had had sufficient air support and logistical and communication capabilities, concluded Scott Feil, a former US army career officer, in a 1998 report to the Carnegie Commission on preventing deadly conflict. In April this year, more than 300 French academics, historians and citizens signed an open letter questioning Macron’s refusal to appoint suitably qualified experts – including Hélène Dumas, the only French researcher who speaks Kinyarwanda, and Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau, a prominent historian of the first world war and author of a book titled Une initiation Rwanda (2017) – to the commission that is to investigate France’s role in the genocide.
In April this year, lawyers representing relatives of victims killed at Biserero in Rwanda between 27 and 30 June, 1994 by Hutu militias after the French army abandoned them there, called for access to the French Ministry of Defence archives for the French judges who were to investigate this tragic event. During a meeting with President Macron, another group, the Ibuka association of survivors, whose name means “remember” in Kinyarwanda, also called for the declassification of official French archives concerning the genocide. Former French military members who served in Rwanda during the 1990- 1994 period are claiming that the French government of the time worked closely with the Rwandan Hutu regime. Ancel, the former French army officer mentioned earlier in this article, claims that Turquoise, a French-led UN operation supposedly aimed at ending the massacres, was in fact intended to prevent the RPF from capturing Kigali. The aim was to return control of the capital city to the government, the former officer claims in his recent book, Rwanda, la fin du silence (Rwanda: the end of silence).
In another book, General Jean Varret, who headed the French military mission in Rwanda between October 1990 and April 1993, says that both Rwanda’s president at the time, Juvénal Habyarimana, and the French embassy ignored his warnings that the Rwandan military was planning to massacre Tutsis. The commission of inquiry will find it difficult to ignore these claims. The quest for the truth about the Rwanda genocide has been long, but the pressure is mounting. Researchers of the Rwandan genocide – academics, journalists, survivors, and French activists fighting for the decolonisation of France’s relationship with Africa and with the Rwandan government – are calling for open access to the genocide archives. The full truth of what happened then has yet to be established, they say. This includes vital information concerning the accountability of members of the international community.
Reply from the Spokesman of the Secretary-General of the United Nations
The United Nations has tried to ensure that there is justice for the crimes committed in Rwanda during the genocide, and it has looked at its own actions during that period, mostly notably through the Carlsson Commission, which issued its own report on the UN’s responsibilities in 1999. The UN has followed up on those recommendations in our effort to ensure that what went wrong in Rwanda will never be repeated. The statement from the article that “investigators, researchers and historians face obstacles when attempting to establish the truth” with respect to access to the archives of the ICTR is not supported by the facts. The Arusha branch of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals manages the archives of the ICTR. Its access policy is guided by the basic principles of openness and transparency, balanced with the obligation to maintain the confidentiality of classified information, including classified judicial records. The International Residual Mechanism cannot provide members of the public with access to the confidential records of the ICTR. The Judicial Records and Archives Database is accessible through a website (https://jrad.irmct.org/search. htm) containing approximately 850,000 pages of judicial records and 22,000 hours of audiovisual recordings of judicial proceedings. The physical location of the archives therefore does not impose an impediment to accessibility with respect to users in Rwanda. On average, each month, over 3,600 records are accessed, 10.5 access requests are responded to, and approximately 80 visitors are accommodated by the Archives and Records Section in Arusha. The claim in the article that access to the ICTR archives was denied to Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide and to personnel of the Permanent Mission of Rwanda to the United Nations is also unfounded. The International Residual Mechanism in Arusha has not received any request from Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight against Genocide. One request was received from the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Rwanda to the United Nations, and it was responded to on the same day that it was received.
Nigeria: 20 years of democracy
Political scientists agree that unfettered access to oil cash was a key factor in the character and duration of military rule in Nigeria
A member of the National cultural troupe of Nigeria performs during the Democracy Day celebrations in Abuja, on June 12, 2019. – Nigeria celebrates the Day of Democracy on June 12, commemorating the country’s first free elections, on June 12, 1993, after a decade of military rule. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)
Until the return to civil rule in 1999, the military was in power in Nigeria for a combined total of 28 years. And, as is perhaps to be expected from a society that had languished for so long in the grip of military rule, Nigerians (or is it just the Nigerian elite?) have developed a love-hate relationship with soldiers. Their despotism was barbaric – as seen during General Sani Abacha’s rule from 1993-1998. Their barbarism is seared into the public imagination and preserved for popular culture in music and urban lore. Yet, paradoxically, few condemnations of the political class were ever complete without an allusion to the need for a “strong man”, a corrector with a horsewhip. Material experience of military rule notwithstanding, the myth of the man on horseback – the exacting but benevolent agent who rides out of the barracks to set a wayward political class straight – maintains a puzzling grip on the Nigerian mind. There are signs that this myth is decreasing in appeal.
Indeed, the decline in its influence is arguably the main achievement of Nigeria’s democratic decades since the generals went back to their barracks. This is not the same thing as saying that people are totally happy with their lot under democratic rule; as a matter of fact, most recent polls show a worrying level of disenchantment. Nevertheless, the more distant the experience of military rule, the greater has been societal reconciliation to the reality of democracy as the only game in town. Broad criticisms of capitalist democracies have become louder and more trenchant across the western world over the past decade. The 2008 economic crisis brought the western elites’ pursuit of their own interests, often to the detriment of everyone else’s, under an intense spotlight. Similarly, Nigeria’s elite is often accused of hijacking the democratic process. Such criticisms take on especial resonance in the Nigerian context when seen in the light of the country’s socio-economic and political characteristics. Among these is the rightly belaboured fact that Nigeria is a petro-state. In petro-states, economic power ultimately flows from a barrel of crude oil.
This incentivises the political class to put the imperatives of cartel politics before the needs of domestic civil society. Political scientists agree that unfettered access to oil cash was a key factor in the character and duration of military rule in Nigeria. Unaccounted oil revenue gave an impetus to political centralisation. Civil society argued that decentralising power (if at first only on paper) would bring opportunities to reimagine the state. The first aim was to reduce the country’s dependency on oil. Ultimately, though, the aim was also to prise the state from the clutches of a predatory elite. It is questionable whether these goals have been achieved. Yet the lessons about the protean character of elite politics couldn’t be clearer. The spectre of elite power still stalks the Nigerian political landscape. Nigerian elite power is still based on simultaneously exploiting and deepening the crisis of under institutionalisation.
Yet, as a quick survey of the democratic process over the past 20 years shows, harping excessively on the elite’s cogency and power underestimates (i) the extent to which elite and popular politics fuel and feed off each other; and (ii) the extent to which elite-subaltern interaction exists at the mercy of powerful cultural forces. Some evidence of this can be found in the (so far unsuccessful) campaign to stamp out corruption from public life. In his inaugural speech as president of the newly inaugurated Fourth Republic in May 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo described corruption as “the greatest single bane of our society today” and expressed regret at “the full-blown cancer it has become in Nigeria”. Instructively, even as he promised in the same address to tackle corruption “head-on at all levels”, Obasanjo also predicted that “the beneficiaries of corruption … will fight back with all the foul means at their disposal”. As it happens, Obasanjo was right on both scores – about the level of Nigeria’s moral improbity, and about the capacity of corruption to take the fight to its enemies.
Given the new president’s clear determination to stamp out corruption, it comes as no surprise that one of the most important (and for the same reason, most controversial) achievements of his administration was the establishment in 2003 of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) under the leadership of Nuhu Ribadu. For anti-corruption activists and the general public, the EFCC was the institutional symbol of a deep-seated desire to see the ogre of corruption finally slain. Ribadu carried out the commission’s brief with gusto. For a brief spell, fear of the EFCC was the beginning of wisdom among the political class. But this golden era would prove to be short-lived, as the EFCC was gradually undermined by accusations that it was nothing more than a sinister plot trained on the heart of the opposition. Some have argued that Ribadu’s campaign was tilted against the opposition elite. But the real issue is that, as Obasanjo had predicted, corruption fought back with a vengeance.
By the time of the Umaru Yar’adua and Goodluck Jonathan (2010- 2015) administrations, the EFCC was politically neutered, just another feature of Nigeria’s vast bureaucratic landscape. A detailed analysis of the reasons behind the EFCC’s political emasculation is beyond the scope of this analysis. What deserves mention from the perspective of this synopsis is, first, the light it throws on elite politics in the country, and second, the questions it poses about effective mechanisms for tackling corruption. It would be a mistake to assume that corruption and its politics are the business of the elite alone. If there is one overarching insight from the drama of corruption and the anti-corruption campaign in Nigeria, it is the extent to which the state, the political elite and the wider public are almost equally implicated. Corruption is not the only arena in which progress has been tenuous. The Nigerian state also remains impervious to reconstruction. To be sure, it is not quite the uncivil state of old, thanks in part to new democratic constraints.
But it can still be heavy-handed: the casual molestation of private citizens by state officials is still par for the course in many urban spaces. And that is because, as mentioned earlier, the state’s almost exclusive access to the levers of oil revenue gives it the prerogative. Even so, it is a state that is now largely demystified, particularly from the perspective of total control over the means and methods of violence. The ruling elite’s reaction to the Niger Delta and Boko Haram insurrections respectively exemplifies this demystification. Though short-lived, the presidency of Umaru Musa Yar’adua will at least be remembered for one thing – the proposal, in 2009, that Niger Delta militants, who had battled Nigerian troops to a standstill and endangered oil production, should be given a general amnesty. His successor, Goodluck Jonathan – no doubt sensing an opportunity to do well by his Ijaw co-ethnics – ran with the scheme and put additional flesh on its bones.
To put things in perspective: we have seen the Nigerian state punishing Ken Saro-Wiwa’s middle class resistance with a judicial hanging, and then offering an olive branch to elements who had repeatedly blurred the distinction between resistance and criminality. What explains the federal government’s change of tactic? One view, charitable in regards to the state’s intentions, holds that the later embrace of amnesty was dictated by a desire for peace in the troubled region, so that oil production could proceed. Another view holds that the military, after years of chronic disinvestment and corruption, has lost its monopoly on the use of violence. This became tragically clear with regard to the Boko Haram insurgency. The military has struggled to muster the force, technical wherewithal and logistical savvy required to dislodge insurgents who moved rapidly to impose themselves on vast territories across the north-eastern states. That there is a Nigerian democracy at all to evaluate is due mainly to a resurgent civil society.
Following the cancellation of the 12 June, 1993 presidential election by the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida, who held power from 1985 to 1993, Nigeria descended into a political crisis from which arguably it did not fully emerge until the return to democratic rule in May 1999. The cancellation was rightly seen as a move designed to keep the military in power. It set the stage for a showdown between the state and civil society that would dominate the next six years. Although civil society would be beaten down, especially during the Abacha era (1993- 1998), the successful 1999 election and the restoration of civilian rule suggested that civil society had effectively won the war. Yet that wave of civil activism did not last long. First, even before an unprecedented coalition of workers, students, journalists, professionals, religious groups and prodemocracy activists achieved its overarching goal of defeating the military, ideological and personal fractures started to pull it apart.
Second, as the military withdrew into the barracks, leaving a vacuum of sorts and opening up new spaces within the state, many civil society activists went into politics to implement policy ideas that they had previously canvassed. Third, the world in which civil society activists had campaigned for the restoration of democratic rule in the early 1990s was radically different from that in which the new civilian regime awoke in 1999. It was a world that would change even more fundamentally as the 20th century gave way to the 21st. During the Fourth Republic, Nigerian universities became a hotbed of intermittent strikes and trade disputes. According to one estimate, some 1,281 working days, or about four years, were lost to various strike actions called by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) over this 20-year period. ASUU’s declining influence since then is emblematic of the decline of trade unionism in general. The Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), once a key ally of the intelligentsia, emerged from the military era distinctly the worse for wear, its heroics during the struggle against military despotism a distant memory.
Both ASUU and the NLC had been veritable redoubts of expertise and progressive activism. Their continuing travails, combined with changes in the structure of the media (for instance, the rise of digitisation and the emergence of media owners and proprietors with no apparent links to the traditional elite) created a notable breach in the emergent public sphere. Religious politics has also been of consequence in the democratic era. Indeed, the inauguration of the Fourth Republic coincided with the ascendance of Pentecostalism as the dominant form of Christianity. Not only is Pentecostalism currently the most visible and most ebullient expression of Christianity, its impact on other Christian denominations, the Islamic competition, and the domain of popular culture in general, has been nothing short of profound. Pentecostalism has affected both state and civil society in almost equal measure. In the first place, some of the most influential political figures in the Fourth Republic have been self-confessed Pentecostals.
Furthermore, politics in the Fourth Republic has been more or less superintended by powerful Pentecostal pastors, who have combined with powerful politicians to create an uber theologicopolitical elite. To this extent, Pentecostalism has been an unwitting stabilising force for Nigerian democracy. The Pentecostal elite, which is strategically positioned between state and civil society, is contributing to nascent power formation by producing and disseminating spiritual “texts” (for example, prophecies) that ground events in metaphysical frames beyond the reach of democratic politics and institutions. On balance, Pentecostalism has outflanked Islam, its historical rival, for political power and influence. Both Pentecostal presidents, Obasanjo and Jonathan, wore their religious identity on their sleeves – the latter more opulently than the former. Both Muslim presidents, Umaru Musa Yar’adua (2007-2010) and Muhammadu Buhari (2015 – ), were forced to make political moves that implied recognition of the power of Pentecostalism and the Pentecostal elite.
When Pentecostal pastors themselves are not running for office, they have a say in who does. Since 1999, Nigeria has alternated between spells of surplus and scarcity in tandem with the rise and fall of oil prices. Overall, the state has failed to steer the economy away from reliance on a single commodity that is subject to extreme price cycles. This remains the country’s Achilles heel. The Nigerian state as we know it would not exist without oil revenue. Given that oil rents are still so important in gaining access to power, politics tends to take on aspects of warfare. Politics is the only game in town, and it is played on a winner-takes-all basis. Short of a drastic rethinking of its economic fundamentals, political competition in Nigeria is destined to remain a lethal business. It is a real question how long Nigerian democracy can survive if the country’s economy continues to splutter. The good news is that few people now think that the man on horseback holds a magic wand.