A visit to my hometown

My oldest paternal uncle died in July. He was probably almost 100, and was born long before we began to keep written records. He was the oldest man in my extended family and also one of the few people in my hometown – in Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria – that had not converted to Christianity but continued to follow the religion of our ancestors.

For a long time the fact that he was a ‘pagan’ in the eyes of his Christian relatives had been unremarkable. They respected his right to worship whatever he pleased and he in turn respected theirs. But in recent years he had come under extreme pressure from younger members of our family who are adherents of the revivalist Christian doctrines so popular in Nigeria these days. They held that his refusal to become a Christian endangered not just his soul but the lives and material prospects of all of us. His link to the pagan past, from which Christianity had delivered everyone else, ensured that deadly spiritual covenants which had been entered into between our forebears and various deities remained in effect. According to my evangelical Christian relatives my ageing uncle was somehow responsible if someone in our extended family died in a car accident or failed in business.

Blind and infirm, he allowed himself to be dragged to the Anglican Church in Osumenyi and baptized just a short while before he died. When I arrived in my hometown from Lagos for my uncle’s funeral a few weeks after his death, the drumming of the Anglican Church’s band filled his compound. The music was joyful, triumphant. I felt a little sad that my uncle, who had spent a good part of his life defending the faith of our ancestors, had been practically shoved into Christianity. But I could also understand the source of my cousins’ anxiety.

The belief that ancient spiritual covenants are responsible for death, disease and childlessness is one that continues to gain ground as perfectly avoidable death and economic distress become ever more common in Nigeria. Disappointed by the modern State, many people cannot resist the idea that powerful unseen forces are responsible for the tragedies that surround them.

After my uncle was buried, the men of the family gathered under a shed roofed with palm fronds outside the fence of his compound to receive other families, societies and individuals who had come to mourn with us.

Our guests arrived with cartons of beer and soft drinks, brought kola-nuts and garden eggs, and were in some cases accompanied by groups of drummers and dancers. So while my uncle had been forced into Christianity and had his funeral conducted by a pastor, the ceremonies that followed were a modern version of those that my people, the Igbo, had been practising for centuries.

Disappointed by the modern State, many people cannot resist the idea that powerful unseen forces are responsible for the tragedies that surround them

In this way decisions as to which traditional values are maintained or modified or rejected are being made all the time. Most of our guests tended to greet my late uncle’s third son with special respect. He has earned this respect because he is one of the wealthier men of our generation.

From where we sit receiving our guests, we have a good view of his newly completed two-storey home, with a sloping roof of patterned tiles and powder-coated aluminium windows finished in a striking pink. The Igbo have always valued individual achievement and today the most admired form of achievement is acquiring material wealth, the modern equivalent of being a great warrior. The new fiercer Christianity is also very enthusiastic about material prosperity. For some of its preachers, poverty indicates a lack of faith.

The successful are expected to help lift up other members of the Community. Indeed the sacrifices the Igbo and other nationalities throughout Nigeria make to provide education for their relations or set them up in business are amazing. As I take a stroll down the road that runs in front of my late uncle’s compound I run into two young men in ragged clothes, who look stoned out of their minds. They start an impromptu dance around me for which they ask me to pay them the equivalent of a dollar each. These are my distant relations who have tried their hands at various businesses, failing each time, and have now dredged up in our hometown as drug addicts and beggars. They have fallen through the net of our impressive extended-family welfare system. People like that are increasing in number.

Probably because they rely primarily on themselves and their relatives, the Igbo have often asked or expected very little from the State. Our newly redeveloped hometown market (described exaggeratedly as ‘ultra modern’), our little post office and our two secondary schools have all been financed by contributions from within the community. Elections are viewed as occasional dramas through which one or two people in the community earn political office and move up in the world. And people are bemused by the posters of candidates for the 2007 elections which cover every wall in the market.

In discussions with my townsfolk I argue that we must organize to engage the State. We can help our relatives, we can build schools for ourselves, and maybe even one day pave our terrible roads, but we cannot create an island of normality in a misgoverned and dysfunctional State.

To make our nation function better (so that we stop blaming ancient covenants for everything from road accidents to the effects of the economic policies fashioned for us by the World Bank), we must work with others for change.

There are those who look at me and smile, and then go on to suggest that acquiring too many university degrees has given me strange ideas. But there are also those who listen very intently to what I have to say.

The novelist *Ike Oguine* lives in Lagos.

The trouble with models

Ike Oguine

Not too long ago Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was considered a model of leadership in and for Africa. It was a Museveni-led liberation army which finally brought to an end the chaos and violence which followed the collapse of Idi Amin’s nightmarish dictatorship. His National Resistance Army simultaneously fought a military and political campaign. Even while engaged in military struggle it tried to set up elected, local representative committees in rural areas.

For years Uganda has enjoyed relative economic stability with growth rates of above five per cent and inflation in single digits (even while fighting a war in the north of the country against the bizarre Lord’s Resistance Army). A lot of the infrastructure destroyed or left to rot during the Amin era has been rebuilt and the early postwar growth reflected the re-utilization of abandoned capacity. Unlike in many parts of Africa undergoing World Bank-inspired economic reform, Ugandan economic growth was accompanied by significant social improvements. Primary school enrolment more than doubled and household surveys conducted by the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics showed steady reductions in poverty.

Uganda was exposed to the horrors of AIDS before most other African nations, but its efforts to deal with the disease have set an example for the rest of the continent. Museveni’s ABC approach to prevention – Abstain, Be faithful and use Condoms – has proved quite effective. And many African countries are learning from Uganda how to encourage frank and open discussion about AIDS, how to deal with entrenched cultural attitudes which fuel the spread of the disease and how to combat the stigma that is attached to people living with AIDS.

There was some concern when Museveni’s movement, having attained power, decided that political parties would not be allowed to field candidates at elections. They were held to be divisive forces in developing countries. Museveni argued that, while parties divided along class lines in the Western democracies, they tended to divide, quite dangerously, along religious and ethnic lines in Africa. Instead Museveni instituted the ‘movement’ system of politics where anyone who wanted to seek elective office could do so only on an individual basis, not through the sponsorship of a political party. The history of multi-party politics in Uganda and indeed in most of Africa has not been fantastic, so it didn’t seem altogether a bad thing to seek alternatives. And for many years the movement system did allow for a measure of open debate.

But in recent years, faced with strong and sustained political opposition, Museveni has become increasingly authoritarian. The hounding of political opponents worsened steadily and reached a new high when his former comrade-in-arms and personal physician Kizza Besigye mounted a strong challenge for the presidency during elections in 2001.

‘The anointment of Museveni and Zenawi as model leaders was premature, as is the reversion to the handy pessimism that Africa is a hopeless continent’

Museveni won and Besigye fled into exile complaining that the elections were heavily rigged and that his life was in danger. The last straw for many of Museveni’s former admirers was his decision in 2005 to change the Ugandan constitution to allow him to run for another term in office. Each Ugandan parliamentarian was reportedly offered the equivalent of $3,000 to approve this change. He then ran for the 2006 presidential elections, and predictably defeated Besigye, who’d returned from exile to run against him. Besigye was hardly able to campaign because on his return Museveni put him on trial on (probably trumped-up) charges of treason, terrorism and rape.

The disappointment about the turn of events in Uganda is probably made worse coming at about the same time as another former model, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, member of Tony Blair’s Commission on Africa, is having his police force kill and lock away political opponents. A few years ago leaders like Museveni and Zenawi had inspired the idea that an African renaissance was afoot. Their recent tragic failings have revived the familiar prejudices about how Africa will perpetually remain the heart of darkness.

The anointment of Museveni and Zenawi as model leaders was premature, as is the reversion to the handy pessimism that Africa is a hopeless continent. Even as admirers abroad were promoting Museveni, many Ugandans were concerned that real political power in their country was really held by a small group of ex-fighters, like Museveni and Besigye, and that many at the top were deeply corrupt. One of the more sensational scandals of the late 1990s was the secret purchase by Museveni’s brother, an army general, of the country’s largest bank. It was never satisfactorily explained how he could buy such a substantial business on his army officer’s salary.

Museveni’s intervention in the Congo wars, moreover, went beyond the need to protect Ugandan territory. Congo has successfully proved at the International Court of Justice that the Ugandan regime and its allies systematically stole a lot of Congo’s wealth. It seemed that, because of what he had accomplished, people outside Uganda were ready to ignore the dark side of Museveni’s rule. Thus he enjoyed a far more favourable opinion in the international media than among his own people. And the world is only waking up to what many in Uganda long knew.

The relapse into pessimism because of the former models that have failed ignores the positive democratic pressures which forced these men, who were more admired than they deserved to be, to reveal their true colours. As the democratic changes achieved across most of Africa in the 1990s come under threat from power-hungry leaders, what is most remarkable is the readiness of political and civil groups to rise in defence of democracy. This political opposition to authoritarian leaders is being sustained even under the most difficult circumstances. And it is these democratic movements, not the transient darlings of the international media, that will determine Africa’s future.

The novelist *Ike Oguine* lives in Lagos.

War on corruption

Alamieyeseigha was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport and is on trial on charges of money laundering. Hundreds of thousands of pounds sterling were allegedly found in his suitcases. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Nigerian agency leading what the Government calls a ‘war on corruption’, claims credit for tipping off the British authorities.

Another state governor, arrested in Britain months earlier on similar charges, jumped bail and returned to Nigeria. He continues to govern his state, protected by constitutional immunity. A senior minister, reportedly close to President Obasanjo, died while facing trial for receiving bribes from a French firm contracted to produce national identity cards. The inspector general of police, accused of embezzling millions of dollars of allocations to the police, has been dismissed and is now standing trial. A former minister of education is on trial for literally handing bags of cash to some senators (including the former president of the senate) to protect his ministry’s allocation in the national budget, and the senators are also being prosecuted. Many state and federal officials and senior managers in banks and other private companies are in detention, before the courts or have fled abroad. So great is the fear of the EFCC that, in some states, the big and shiny four-wheel drives of the politically powerful have disappeared into thin air.

These are extraordinary developments in a country where many people have accepted that corruption is a normal way of doing business. Supporters of President Obasanjo say that only a man of enormous courage and conviction could take on this culture of corruption. But it seems many Nigerians are unconvinced. The President has certainly taken on some powerful individuals, yet he has very little popular support to show for it.

Nigerians are sceptical about claims that the President who has caused so much suffering is genuinely interested in fighting corruption

That charge of selective justice, the allegation that there’s one kind of justice for Obasanjo’s supporters and another for his opponents, is one more reason why his ‘war against corruption’ does not seem to have resonated widely among Nigerians. Rumours circulate that even those politicians apparently close to Obasanjo who have been prosecuted have in fact fallen out of favour before the EFCC became interested in them. The depth of corruption over the years has bred so much distrust of political figures that it’s easy to sell the notion that the current Government’s efforts against corruption are really directed at destroying its political opponents.

Obasanjo’s opponents also contest the President’s moral authority to fight corruption. The 19 April 2003 election which earned him a second term was so heavily rigged that wags call it the 419 election, after the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with fraud. In Rivers State, governed by one of Obasanjo’s staunchest allies, the President received close to 100 per cent of the votes on the electoral register. Challenged by opponents and international observers, he promised to investigate this statistical impossibility but never disclosed the results of his investigation.

For masses of Nigerians life has been very hard under President Obasanjo. The most resented policy of the Government has been the steady increase in the price of petrol, to match price rises in the international market. Nigerians do not accept that they should take the cost of rising global oil prices when their country is one of the largest producers of oil in the world. High fuel costs have resulted in increases in the prices of basic necessities. The public sector and private companies continue to lay off thousands of people every month. Nigerians are sceptical about claims that the President who has caused so much suffering is genuinely interested in fighting corruption. They think that, as with his economic policies, the President’s real motivation is to curry favour with international financial institutions and Western governments. And the President has indeed received far more praise for his war on corruption from institutions such as the World Bank than from his own people.

Attacking the culture of corruption in Nigeria is extremely important; the ‘privatization’ of government by public servants has reached an unacceptable level. But the message to President Obasanjo from his countrymen and women is that his definition of corruption and indeed good governance is too narrow.

If Obasanjo is genuinely interested in delivering good governance, he must widen public participation in how the country is governed, including in deciding how a real war against corruption is to be waged.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos

Strange bedfellows

I only became interested in the French referendum on the EU constitution when news reports began to say that the tide was turning against the constitution. Before that I had just assumed that France was so closely tied to the EU that the idea of its rejecting the constitution was inconceivable. When I began to watch the news reports, the analysis and the interviews about the referendum, I was immediately struck by the convergence between those I would describe as ‘progressives’ and some really sinister-sounding people on the far right.

I only became interested in the French referendum on the EU constitution when news reports began to say that the tide was turning against the constitution. Before that I had just assumed that France was so closely tied to the EU that the idea of its rejecting the constitution was inconceivable. When I began to watch the news reports, the analysis and the interviews about the referendum, I was immediately struck by the convergence between those I would describe as ‘progressives’ and some really sinister-sounding people on the far right.

I remember one late-night programme that seemed particularly surreal. Three senior politicians were being interviewed: two from the Socialist Party, the other a leading member of the National Front. One of the socialists and the National Front leader spoke eloquently about why the constitution was unacceptable while the other socialist struggled to make a case for a oui vote. Sometimes his two opponents, from very different political constituencies, sounded nearly alike. Both of them seemed to agree that the fundamental issue was preserving the ‘character’ of France. There were enemies to be kept away even if the enemies were somewhat different: for the socialist, it was Anglo-Saxon notions of competitiveness; for the fellow from the National Front, it was the innate Frenchness of France, its cheeses, its neighbourhoods, its culture (which are in danger, I suppose he would think, from being corrupted by immigrants).

I remember one late-night programme that seemed particularly surreal. Three senior politicians were being interviewed: two from the Socialist Party, the other a leading member of the National Front. One of the socialists and the National Front leader spoke eloquently about why the constitution was unacceptable while the other socialist struggled to make a case for a oui vote. Sometimes his two opponents, from very different political constituencies, sounded nearly alike. Both of them seemed to agree that the fundamental issue was preserving the ‘character’ of France. There were enemies to be kept away even if the enemies were somewhat different: for the socialist, it was Anglo-Saxon notions of competitiveness; for the fellow from the National Front, it was the innate Frenchness of France, its cheeses, its neighbourhoods, its culture (which are in danger, I suppose he would think, from being corrupted by immigrants).

The question that troubled me after watching that programme was this: is there a danger that the legitimate desire to defend national cultures against the assaults of globalization can result in a nationalism hardly different from the politics of the extreme right? Pundits say that the referendum in France was anyway decided on the basis of the unpopularity of the French Government. So the issue is not about the outcome of the referendum but about the strange bedfellows who came together around the non campaign.

The question that troubled me after watching that programme was this: is there a danger that the legitimate desire to defend national cultures against the assaults of globalization can result in a nationalism hardly different from the politics of the extreme right? Pundits say that the referendum in France was anyway decided on the basis of the unpopularity of the French Government. So the issue is not about the outcome of the referendum but about the strange bedfellows who came together around the non campaign.

Some political tendencies that are emerging in Africa in response to the failures of the post-colonial state are even closer to the politics of the extreme right. Fed up with self-serving and repressive regimes, some in Africa have turned to an ethnic and religious politics. They seek to replace the failed state put together by the colonial master with ‘more authentic’ political structures founded on shared ethnicity or religion. The colonial state, it is argued, is fragile precisely because it is an arbitrary creation. If new nations are established in its place on the basis of real linkages between peoples or if it is recognized that ethnic groups are really ‘already existing’ nations and allowed to go their separate ways, then states with an identifiable ‘character’ would emerge. Only then would we have truly viable African nations. The irony of course is that Africa’s most homogeneous state is Somalia, the one African nation where people share almost completely a common ethnicity and religion. Yet it fell apart almost a decade and half ago and shows few signs of regaining its national coherence.

Some political tendencies that are emerging in Africa in response to the failures of the post-colonial state are even closer to the politics of the extreme right. Fed up with self-serving and repressive regimes, some in Africa have turned to an ethnic and religious politics. They seek to replace the failed state put together by the colonial master with ‘more authentic’ political structures founded on shared ethnicity or religion. The colonial state, it is argued, is fragile precisely because it is an arbitrary creation. If new nations are established in its place on the basis of real linkages between peoples or if it is recognized that ethnic groups are really ‘already existing’ nations and allowed to go their separate ways, then states with an identifiable ‘character’ would emerge. Only then would we have truly viable African nations. The irony of course is that Africa’s most homogeneous state is Somalia, the one African nation where people share almost completely a common ethnicity and religion. Yet it fell apart almost a decade and half ago and shows few signs of regaining its national coherence.

Some 25 years’ ago when I was a student in university beginning to associate with progressive circles, the gravest sin anyone could commit was to suggest that ethnic or religious politics was anything but ‘reactionary’. Today, some of my colleagues from that period and some of the heroes of progressive struggles in my country, Nigeria, say that the only way to preserve the country as a single entity is to restructure it as a federation of ethnically based nations. And I have witnessed several debates, as surreal as the one I saw on television during the French referendum campaign, where my old friends sound almost the same as politicians whose entire careers have been based on the cynical exploitation of difference.

Some 25 years’ ago when I was a student in university beginning to associate with progressive circles, the gravest sin anyone could commit was to suggest that ethnic or religious politics was anything but ‘reactionary’. Today, some of my colleagues from that period and some of the heroes of progressive struggles in my country, Nigeria, say that the only way to preserve the country as a single entity is to restructure it as a federation of ethnically based nations. And I have witnessed several debates, as surreal as the one I saw on television during the French referendum campaign, where my old friends sound almost the same as politicians whose entire careers have been based on the cynical exploitation of difference.

The politics I grew up with have sometimes been criticized for being too remote from the lives of real people (a little like the EU). It has been said that the twin notions of social equality and pan-Africanism which animated us had no meaning for ordinary people. In our multiethnic and multireligious setting, some argue that what matters is the sense people have of how much their beliefs and sense of self are respected. It is said that this need for respect is far more important to many of our people than struggling for the redistribution of wealth along equitable lines or establishing global bonds amongst people who have a shared history of racial and colonial oppression. In other words, their place in the world, as defined by religion and ethnic kinship, is what is fundamental to them, what they are prepared to die, or even kill, for.

The politics I grew up with have sometimes been criticized for being too remote from the lives of real people (a little like the EU). It has been said that the twin notions of social equality and pan-Africanism which animated us had no meaning for ordinary people. In our multiethnic and multireligious setting, some argue that what matters is the sense people have of how much their beliefs and sense of self are respected. It is said that this need for respect is far more important to many of our people than struggling for the redistribution of wealth along equitable lines or establishing global bonds amongst people who have a shared history of racial and colonial oppression. In other words, their place in the world, as defined by religion and ethnic kinship, is what is fundamental to them, what they are prepared to die, or even kill, for.

We were probably too dismissive in those days of the rights people claimed as ethnic or religious groups rather than as individuals or members of social classes. When we stigmatized expressions of ethnic and religious feeling with words like ‘reactionary’ or ‘primordial,’ we excluded a significant part of people’s experiences as social beings and of the issues they wanted addressed. But it is one thing to concede that and quite another to say that the only hope for Africa now lies in creating separate religious and ethnic states.

We were probably too dismissive in those days of the rights people claimed as ethnic or religious groups rather than as individuals or members of social classes. When we stigmatized expressions of ethnic and religious feeling with words like ‘reactionary’ or ‘primordial,’ we excluded a significant part of people’s experiences as social beings and of the issues they wanted addressed. But it is one thing to concede that and quite another to say that the only hope for Africa now lies in creating separate religious and ethnic states.

Our idealism had its roots in a strong optimism about the capabilities of our societies to provide fulfilling lives for our people, about the abilities of our various ethnic and religious groups to respect but at the same time reach across their differences. This is how to create vigorous new nations and even one great African state. Savage dictators, massacres, famines and structural-adjustment disasters have since sobered us up considerably. Yet the core of what we believed in remains as true as ever – that to entrench ourselves in our ethnic and religious fortresses is to turn away completely from hope and opportunity. To reduce our horizons to the obsessive preservation of difference is to diminish ourselves terribly. And it is not just narrow-minded and pessimistic: it is also, as the tragedies in Rwanda, Burundi and too many elsewheres have shown, extremely dangerous.

Our idealism had its roots in a strong optimism about the capabilities of our societies to provide fulfilling lives for our people, about the abilities of our various ethnic and religious groups to respect but at the same time reach across their differences. This is how to create vigorous new nations and even one great African state. Savage dictators, massacres, famines and structural-adjustment disasters have since sobered us up considerably. Yet the core of what we believed in remains as true as ever – that to entrench ourselves in our ethnic and religious fortresses is to turn away completely from hope and opportunity. To reduce our horizons to the obsessive preservation of difference is to diminish ourselves terribly. And it is not just narrow-minded and pessimistic: it is also, as the tragedies in Rwanda, Burundi and too many elsewheres have shown, extremely dangerous.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

The Burden of Notoriety

THE poverty and suffering of Africa has recently been making headlines. The reincarnation of 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' by Bob Geldof and Co, and British finance minister Gordon Brown's tour of Africa, recently highlighted the concern. The poverty pledges and platitudes concerning AIDS and hunger on our continent flowing from Bono, Bill Gates and others at the World Economic Forum at Davos are the response of the well-off to the relentless drumbeat of press reports about famine, misrule, civil war, poverty and disease in too many parts of Africa. Are the powers of the world finally about to devote serious attention to some of the problems Africans are wrestling with? Or is it, as in the past, merely a seasonal phenomenon that will soon dissipate? And what does this heightened attention mean to Africans themselves? I've posed these questions to friends and colleagues and received some interesting answers.

A, who is ambitious and upwardly mobile, cringes with shame each time there's yet another news report about the outrages of the Sudanese regime and its allies in Darfur, their continued use of mass murder, rape and starvation as instruments of political domination. He is angry that the media directs the attention of the world predominantly to Africa's tragedies and rarely to people like him, who, against great odds, are making a success of their lives. It is almost as if in concentrating on the horrors in our part of the world, the press, the politicians and even organizations genuinely committed to Africa are suggesting that people like A do not exist.

True, one can validly complain about the way the media feeds vulture-like on bad news from Africa. But there is too much bad news in Africa and even the upwardly mobile must ask - why is this so? What can be done about it? The killings in Darfur, the carnage in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the devastation of AIDS were not invented by the press or by opportunistic politicians. They are all too real. If there are people thousands of miles away campaigning very hard to redress the suffering of many of our fellow Africans, then it is pathetic that the only emotions this suffering evokes from some more fortunate Africans is shame and anger at the press for drawing attention to it.

M is a talented scholar, a very experienced university teacher, now grey well before his fiftieth birthday. A lot of his life has passed fighting governments with contempt for learning, who slash university budgets. Most of M's students have never even seen the critical journals they require in their areas of study. M feels used up and impotent, and thoroughly betrayed by the rulers of his country. After striving for years to train new generations of youth to feel confident about their African identity, he has himself turned his back on all that. Like the British historian Niall Ferguson and certain neocons around President Bush, he now believes that the granting of independence to African states was a mistake. He thinks that Gordon Brown and his like, instead of flying around Africa to have their photos taken with sick and hungry babies, should seriously consider recolonizing the continent. He doesn't see how anyone could do worse than our governments have done so far.

M's despair is understandable. What has happened to many of our universities and the other institutions that once embodied the hopes for an African renaissance is beyond belief. In such circumstances it is easy to clutch at fantasies. For the idea that more imperialism is the solution to Africa's problems is an absurd fantasy. The current American quagmire in Iraq demonstrates quite clearly what happens when foreign rule is imposed on a people. Africa's own extremely unhappy experience of colonialism, from Belgian King Leopold's bloodthirsty exploitation of the Congo in the late 19th century to the savage responses of the colonial powers to the African independence struggles of the second half of the 20th century, recommend strongly against re-colonization.

The idea that more imperialism is the solution to Africa's problems is an absurd fantasy.

Amongst those African activists directly engaged in dealing with the problems of our continent, amongst the fighters for participatory democracy, human and peoples' rights and sustainable development, for AIDS awareness and self-sufficient economic activity at the grassroots, one encounters a more balanced response to the external world. There is some pragmatism. Most activists are prepared to listen carefully to every potential source of support. Thus if Bill Gates is genuinely interested in supporting the fight against AIDS he will find many activists prepared to work with him. But there is also a lot of scepticism. There have been too many fine words over too many years. Grand declarations alone will draw little more than a yawn.

But above all, there is a large measure of self-belief. The women and men across Africa who wake up each day courageously to confront brutal regimes or savage diseases do so because they absolutely believe that through such struggles a better future will emerge. They are grateful for whatever help can be offered from outside, but they have no doubt whatsoever that these battles are primarily theirs to fight and win.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Nollywood looks to the future

In the early 1990s, the resourceful Nigerian entrepreneur Ken Nnebue sponsored the production of Living in Bondage, a video movie in Igbo, a major Nigerian language – with English subtitles. That movie, shot with rudimentary equipment, turned out to be phenomenally popular in Nigeria. Thus was born Nollywood, the Nigerian video movie industry which describes itself as the third most vibrant film industry in the world, after California’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

Living in Bondage was a morality tale about evil people scheming to deny the son of a polygamous chief his inheritance by means which included resort to ‘black magic’. At the end of the day, evil is defeated and the forces of good triumph. Before Living in Bondage, a number of Nigerian television comedies and soap operas had enjoyed a lot of popularity. But Living in Bondage broke all previous records.

Several thousand movies later, Nollywood is now asking itself: what next?

The television dramas that preceded Living in Bondage had mostly been rather polite, rather middle class. Where such dramas treated sexual relations or the resort to supernatural forces, they did so coyly. In contrast, Living in Bondage was bold, even lurid, especially in the portrayal of the practices of ‘witchdoctors’ and the desperation of their clients. The suggestion in the movie that a lot of the wealth of Nigeria’s new rich came from diabolical practices resonated widely in a society of incredible inequality.

The successful formula of Living in Bondage – bold storytelling, a good dose of ‘black magic’, and quick and easy distribution by video – has given birth to thousands of Nigerian video movies. The industry has produced its seasoned directors and star actors and actresses, complete with cult following. And Nollywood’s films have spread far beyond Nigeria and spawned similar industries across Africa.

Several thousand movies later, Nollywood is now asking itself: what next? This soul-searching is prompted in part by the criticisms the industry has attracted. One of the most common charges is that its focus on ‘black magic’ is detrimental to the image of Nigeria. The argument goes that at a time when we are striving to attract foreign investment, movies which depict Nigerians as attached to supernatural forces will give foreigners the idea that we are a backward people. This argument, which you encounter mostly among middle class Nigerians, smacks of hypocrisy (never mind whether our first priority should be to attract foreign investment or to encourage local creativity, which our movie industry shows is quite abundant). The reverence for diverse supernatural forces is widespread in Nigeria as it is all over Africa, in spite of centuries of Islamic and Christian penetration. That is why the ‘black magic’ movies have proved so popular. To try to hide the hold such beliefs have on the imagination of our people is silly.

A weightier charge is that in emphasizing the allegedly diabolical aspects of our traditional religious practices, some home movies distort these practices and their underlying philosophies. The goddess of the river or of the forest in many a home movie is a fearsome agency of death for adulterers or people who have acquired ill-gotten wealth and so on. But the investing of rivers, forests, the natural elements and so on with religious significance arose from an appreciation by many African communities of how essential certain objects and phenomena are to the very survival of humankind. Our ancestors made goddesses out of rivers from a deep connection to and reverence for nature, and not to kill adulterers – as some of our video movies appear to suggest.

At the end of the day, evil is defeated and the forces of good triumph

Nollywood has also been criticized for shoddy production and disjointed storylines. The typical video movie is shot in a week or two from a hurriedly written script, usually a rehash of the last successful movie. Because movie producers are in too much of a hurry to hit the market, there is hardly any effort to seek and develop new talent. Instead, the demand for our handful of popular actors and actresses is so heavy that they virtually walk from movie set to movie set all year round – which is reflected in the uneven quality of their work.

Tawdry sex scenes have been a favourite selling point. For a few weeks recently, a poster for a new movie showing a plump woman with enormous breasts wearing only a net top was pasted on nearly every billboard in Lagos. And there is a constant battle over movie ratings between the censor, a civil servant in the Federal Ministry of Culture, and movie makers, who are always seeking new ways to stay ahead of the competition.

Nollywood acknowledges its problems, but points out that it is learning all the time. Its products have included not only the ‘black magic’ films, but also many thoughtful stories about love, loss and tragedy, and several films which fully reflect the Nigerian gift for laughter. Its most amazing contribution might be the films in Nigeria’s indigenous languages which do justice to the depth and dynamism of those languages and reach the millions of our citizens who do not understand English. Some of its producers and directors like Tunde Kelani, Charles Novia, Ebereonwu and Tade Ogidan have displayed sensitivity and/or ambition and some of its actors like Ramsey Noah and Omotola Ekeinde have more than earned their great fame. For Nollywood, the future looks very bright indeed.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

The West's new friend

SO enormous is Muammar al Qadhafi's sense of self importance that he named his small book of political thoughts the Green Book. He obviously saw himself as being in the same league as Chairman Mao, who authored the Red Book so dutifully waved by the young militants of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The Green Book purports to solve all the major problems of political organization in the modern world and contemptuously dismisses virtually all prior political ideas. Parliaments are undemocratic since ‘the mere existence of a parliament means the absence of the people'. Ideas rooted in class struggle are futile for even if the working class triumphs in its struggle with capital, ‘attributes of other eliminated classes emerge in the very ranks of the working class'. The only acceptable form of modern political organization, according to Qadhafi, is the people's congress. Only people's congresses built up from the bottom of society would guarantee real democracy. Popular democracy is of course a positive idea, but it certainly wasn't an invention of Qadhafi's as the Green Book claims. Furthermore Libya under Qadhafihas never been anything but the dictatorship of one man.

Qadhafi's ideas concerning political organization were matched by radical rhetoric against imperialism. Qadhafi's association with a number of groups that pursued their objectives through violent means earned him notoriety. In the mid-1980s the Americans claimed to have evidence that he had sent a hit squad to kill President Reagan following the downing of two Libyan air force planes by American pilots. That claim was subsequently discredited, but there is credible evidence of Libyan involvement in other acts of political violence. Libyan agents have been convicted of attempting to assassinate dissidents in exile.

Several thousand movies later, Nollywood is now asking itself: what next?

But Qadhafi now says he has left all that behind. The struggle against imperialism has apparently been abandoned; the priority now is to restore relations with the Western powers. No longer a sponsor of terrorists, according to him (and Tony Blair), he is now actually an ally in the ‘war against terror'. It seems a dizzying transformation.

Qadhafi's inspiration when he overthrew Libya's King Idris in 1969 came from Nasser's vision of pan-Arab nationalism. But Qadhafi's expression of this nationalism consisted principally of a number of failed merger attempts with other Arab nations, including Sadat's Egypt, which were clearly incompatible with Libya's proclaimed anti-imperialist agenda. It seemed that none of these attempted mergers was preceded by any clear thinking about advancing the interests of the peoples in the countries Qadhafiwanted to merge into one state. Rather, the primary motivation appears to have been the creation of large, powerful Arab nations. It seemed that the mere declaration that two countries had become ONE would eliminate all the possible contradictions between them, giving birth overnight to a powerful new nation.

After several failures Qadhafiabandoned his vision of a powerful Arab state and turned his attentions to Africa. Once again his vision was to create one powerful African nation out of 50 disparate states. The idea of a united African nation has a distinguished history. It has animated the work of thinkers and political leaders like WEB Du Bois, George Padmore and Kwame Nkrumah. But while these thinkers and leaders appreciated that African unity required careful thought and planning, Qadhafi's own approach was, as usual, peremptory. What was required was right away to create a single African army and a single government. Presumably unity would then occur as a matter of course.

The horrors perpetrated by those gangs of killers must ultimately be attributed to Muammar al Qadhafi

Muammar al Qadhafi's schemes for grand mergers may be dismissed as the grandiose dreams of the leader of a small desert nation. His eccentricities, including living in a tent in the desert and his all-female platoons of bodyguards, may be amusing. But the devastation Qadhafihas caused in West Africa is all too serious. The two most notorious criminals in the recent history of West Africa, the Liberian Charles Taylor (now in exile in Nigeria) and the Sierra Leonean Foday Sankoh (now dead), were products of Qadhafi's training camps for African ‘revolutionaries' and their guerrilla groups, the NPFL and RUF, were armed and supported by the Libyan leader. These groups killed thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans in savage wars that lasted more than a decade and whose effects are still being felt in those two unfortunate countries. The horrors perpetrated by those gangs of killers – the hundreds of casual massacres, the hacking off of limbs, the turning of young children into soldiers taught to commit bestial acts, the turning of young girls into the concubines of drug-crazed militia commanders, the destruction of the moral and social fabric in Liberia and Sierra Leone – must ultimately be attributed to Muammar al Qadhafi.

For Qadhafi , the making of revolution was just another extension of the yearning for grandeur, another sport. Like the obsessive search for nations to merge with; like the pursuit of a nuclear programme which has now been dismantled and shipped to the United States after millions of dollars were frittered away; like the Green Book which proposes itself as ‘the final solution to the problems of governance'. In dumping his radical rhetoric, Qadhafihardly gave up anything because it was anyway always empty talk and a load of fantasy.

As thousands of Liberians and Sierra Leoneans found out so tragically, Qadhafi's fantasies could be very dangerous because he was willing to put Libya's oil money behind them. There may be debate about the quality of the evidence used to convict the Libyan agent Megrahi for the Lockerbie bombing, but Qadhafi's sponsorship of the NPFL and the RUF is undeniable. The work of the War Crimes Tribunal in Sierra Leone will not be complete until this new ‘friend of the West' is made to answer for his crimes.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

Artists of pain and hope

In societies going through tremendous suffering, how does a writer delve deeply into the pain all around them but not be overwhelmed by it? How does an artist hold a mirror to the lives of people tormented by poverty and social dislocation without reducing them to objects of scorn and/or pity?

These questions permeate the work of two of Africa’s most important novelists, the Cameroon-born Calixthe Beyala and the Zimbabwean Yvonne Vera. These two writers have never flinched from examining the pain of modern Africa, but have at the same time created characters that carried within them antidotes to that pain.

One of Beyala’s early novels, The Sun Hath Looked Upon Me, is set in Quartier Général, the slum of a Francophone African city. The QG, as its unfortunate inhabitants call it, is filled with filth and misery; its gutters stink, its rubbish is never collected. The forces of the state terrorize and humiliate the people at will. From time to time police gangs carry out raids to loot and rape. The corpse of a dead woman cannot be buried because her relations are unable to secure a permit from the city’s bureaucrats. Three days after her death the body smells unbearably in the heat.

Ateba, the novel’s heroine, is abandoned in this miserable place by her mother Betty, a prostitute. Ateba’s aunt, Ada, who bears the burden of bringing Ateba up, goes in and out of abusive relationships with a succession of men. Betty’s relationships with men were no different. In addition to her customers, ‘the hands that fondled her, the sex organs that penetrated her,’ she occasionally had ‘tenured’ men. When one of her tenured men was to visit, Betty would get all excited, ‘would become almost a normal housewife. She’d wash, she’d clean, she’d cook.’ Ateba’s friend Irene cruises the QG’s clubs, is picked up by men and has sex with them for money. But when Irene gets pregnant she is alarmed that her child will not have a father and decides to have an abortion. It proves a fatal decision.

Though only just 19, Ateba is determined to avoid the fate of the women around her. In the midst of resignation and despair, she surges with an angry and powerful vision, that of women shaking themselves free of the old assumptions that underlie patriarchy. As a response to violent abuse, to the ‘stumbling blocks of tradition... obstructing the view, clogging her throat...’, ‘she prefers the cries that come from the very core, that shake life loose and give birth to streams of blood, that seismic breath that repairs nature’s mistakes and brings mankind to eternity’s threshold.’

When Irene dies while having an abortion, Ateba snaps. She goes to a club, goes home with a man and after she’s had sex with him, kills him by beating his head against the floor. She thus gives vent to the violence that had long accumulated inside her. Beyala’s novel is a tragic story, but at its heart is a sharp vision of what lies beyond the despair of today.

While they portray the pain, terror and despair in African lives, they also explore the resources of hope and vision which contemporary Africans might draw from

Mazvita, the heroine of Yvonne Vera’s novel, Without a Name, lives in Mubaira in rural Zimbabwe. The year is 1977, and the liberation war against white minority rule is raging. She works the land as does her lover, Nyenyedzi. Theirs is a deep and tender love, but Mazvita is restless; she wants to go and live in the city. Mubaira has become for her a place of terror since while walking in the fields one day, something pulled her down and she found it was a man with a gun. The people who come from the city, she says, have no fear in their eyes, they are free. Nyenyedzi tries to convince her to remain with him. ‘The land is inescapable. It is everything... The land defines our unities,’ he says.

His arguments are in vain and Mazvita leaves him for Harare. She does find freedom there, the freedom that is symbolized by glittering shops selling the skin-lightening cream, Ambi, by men who have lifted their hair with heated metal combs to produce big afros. Mazvita moves in with Joel, who ‘was like a machine, ready to go somewhere... whose eyes blinked so quickly it was a miracle he saw anything’. When Mazvita gets pregnant, Joel makes it clear he does not want her and the baby. They interfere with his freedom. Mazvita, in a moment of desperation, strangles the child with one of Joel’s neckties. When the novel begins, Mazvita is taking her dead baby home to Mubaira for burial. The agonizing story of her life unfolds as she makes her painful journey. When she arrives at Mubaira, she finds that the village has been destroyed, the huts and fields burnt.

Vera’s novel is no easy romanticization of the joys of the life of the land. There is nothing romantic about Mubaira, which is swollen with terror as the people struggle to reclaim their land. But the land, even in its troubled state, embodies those things which connect the people to their selves, to each other and to their histories. What the land offers in opposition to the alienation of the city is cohesion and wholeness.

In Ateba, Calixthe Beyala has created a precocious visionary, who sees very clearly a promised land of freedom and dignity for women beyond the misery of her surroundings. The tragedy of Yvonne Vera’s Mazvita begins the moment when, out of fear, she cuts her connection to the land to seek the false and cheap freedoms of Harare. What these novels have in common is that while they portray the pain, terror and despair in African lives, they also explore the resources of hope and vision which contemporary Africans might draw from. The artist, these tragic novels suggest, must be mercilessly truthful but never surrender to cynicism and despair.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

How much fraud is too much fraud?

The national elections in Nigeria this April started inauspiciously. In some places heavy rains swept away the flimsy shacks meant to serve as polling booths. At some polling centres, due to the rains and poor preparation, election officials arrived several hours after voting started. Sometimes voters turned up where they had registered to vote to find their names not on the voters’ list. But most Nigerians bore these irritations patiently, going from one polling centre to another searching for their names in the chaotic records of the electoral commission and standing in the rain for as long as it took to cast their votes.

It was thus doubly distressing that their exemplary perseverance was rewarded with a sad but all too familiar drama. As in the mid-1960s, in 1983 and again in 1999, opposition parties rejected the election results, alleging widespread fraud. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), the winners and also the ruling party, described the opposition as bad losers. The opposition parties announced that they would not recognize a government whose mandate derived from fraudulent elections. The PDP denounced them as dangerous enemies of democracy, who were deliberately creating the conditions for a military coup d’état.

Nigerian and international election observers had reported many examples of election rigging in parts of the country. Even the PDP, with touching candour, conceded that there were ‘irregularities’ here and there, but insisted that such irregularities did not affect the overall result. Election observers, however, believe that in 6 out of Nigeria’s 36 states rigging was so bad that the outcome could not be said to reflect the popular will. In one of the six, Rivers State, both the voter turnout and votes cast for the ruling party were in the high 90-per-cent range – a feat usually associated with sham elections run by dictatorships. Observers saw election officials and police stuffing ballot boxes. In some states votes were summarily ‘allocated’ by electoral officials too lazy even to bother with the stuffing.

The PDP has argued that even if their votes in the six states were not counted, they would still have comfortably won the presidential elections. They challenge their opponents to go to court. Nigeria’s jurisprudence of election petitions is, however, dismal. Strikingly similar cases have been decided quite differently and sometimes procedural devices are used by the courts to frustrate election petitions.

In other African countries where disputes have arisen, the judicial route has also proved frustrating. In Zambia local and international observers concluded that President Levy Mwanawasa won the December 2001 presidential elections fraudulently. The case challenging his victory has been before the Zambian Supreme Court for more than a year. Meanwhile Mwanawasa has remained president. Witnesses gave sensational evidence in November 2002 of how the elections were rigged. But Mwanawasa’s lawyers countered by filing an application to strike out the petition on the ground that there is no provision in the Zambian constitution for removing a sitting president – even if that president is fraudulently elected. In Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change’s challenge to President Mugabe’s election is still before the courts over a year after the election. The country remains in a state of political stalemate.

Any sort of civilian government, even a fraudulently elected one, seems to many a better choice than military dictatorship

Even among Nigerians sympathetic to the demands of the opposition parties for justice, there is a concern that they should not go too far in pressing their case. Nigerians remember how the dispute over the fraudulent 1983 elections contributed to the overthrow of the civilian government, ushering in 16 years of sometimes quite brutal military dictatorship. Any sort of civilian government, even a fraudulently elected one, seems to many a better choice than military dictatorship. Thus when one of the defeated presidential candidates, Muhammadu Buhari, suggested that his party would seek to overturn the PDP’s victory through ‘mass action’, there was considerable alarm. The PDP has skilfully played on these fears, equating nearly every protest against electoral fraud with subversion.

The PDP and its supporters argue that ours is a growing democracy and we should expect these problems as part of a natural process of development. And they point to the messy ending to the US presidential elections in 2000 as an example of how even longstanding democracies sometimes have difficulties with elections.

But it is precisely because our democracies are yet to take root that we need to be extremely vigilant about the integrity of electoral processes. Many forces across Africa regard democracy as an inconvenience, including groups of extremists and power-profiteers seeking shortcuts to power. Electoral fraud severely undermines democracy and strengthens these opportunistic forces. So those who resist or protest against electoral fraud are in fact crucial defenders of democracy.

In the April elections the people of Nigeria’s Kano State provided an example of how to defend democracy from fraudulent politicians. As results of the state governorship elections began to flow in from the districts, it became clear that the PDP candidate and incumbent state governor was going down to defeat. Then, mysteriously, the flow of results ceased. A sense of unease began to grow in the state capital, the ancient city of Kano. Rumours began to circulate that the PDP was trying to manipulate the results. Unable to take the suspense any longer, people began to gather at the vote-collation centres. The crowds grew in size and confidence, and began to demand the immediate release of the results. This demonstration of people’s power became so determined that police, used by the ruling party to cow opposition elsewhere, were powerless. The cornered electoral commission reluctantly announced the results and Kano State ended up getting the governor people had actually voted for.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos.

Nigeria’s sharia furore

When the Governor of Nigeria's Zamfara State, Sani Yerima, announced in 1999 that his state would adopt the sharia legal system it was a political masterstroke. Yerima's announcement instantly connected him with the deeply religious Muslim masses in the north of the country. After the callousness and mind-boggling levels of corruption engaged in by Nigeria's military dictators and their civilian friends, Yerima's offer of justice in accordance with the laws of God resonated powerfully among ordinary people. So powerfully in fact that several other governors in the north felt compelled to adopt sharia law in order to save their political careers.

There is a long tradition in the north of radical Islamic leaders emerging from time to time to lead the people in a struggle against injustice and the debauchery of the powerful. The greatest of these leaders, Shehu Uthman dan Fodio, went on to create the Sokoto Caliphate, a federation of Islamic city states, in the early 19th century. By opting for sharia law as soon as he became state governor, Yerima laid claim to the mantle of Shehu dan Fodio.

The outcry that followed the first brutal punishments under sharia law only provided Yerima and his supporters with an opportunity to demonstrate their steadfastness. Critics of the imposition of sharia law were outraged at the amputation of the hand of Jangebe, a peasant convicted of stealing a cow. Further outrage followed in the case of a teenage girl, Bariya Maguzu, given 100 lashes for fornication - at the time she was still breastfeeding her baby and her appeal was still pending in court. Yerima responded to the criticisms defiantly. He declared that neither domestic name-calling nor Western meddlesomeness would prevent him from carrying out the injunctions of God.

Even when the advocates of sharia are forced to retreat, they have managed to present their retreats as victories. After a massive worldwide campaign the life of Safiya Hussaini, convicted to die for adultery, was spared by an appeal court. For advocates of Nigerian sharia this further demonstrated the beauty of the sharia legal process. It showed that respect for the rule of law was healthy and sound in the sharia states.

Resistance by non-Muslims to the introduction of sharia law in Kaduna State led to a series of riots in which mobs of youths (both Muslim and non-Muslim) killed more than 20,000 people and destroyed hundreds of homes. The riots showed the danger of trying to press an extremist religious agenda in a fragile multi-religious nation like Nigeria. Yet the riots only seemed to strengthen the hands of the advocates of sharia in the context of Nigerian politics. It provided evidence of how far they were prepared to go to get their way; and it served as a warning to their opponents that they were not to be trifled with.

‘After the callousness and mind-boggling levels of corruption engaged in by Nigeria’s military dictators and their civilian friends, Yerima’s offer of justice in accordance with the laws of God resonated powerfully among ordinary people’

While the sharia group has come across as focused and determined, President Obasanjo could not have been more muddle-headed in his response to them. At first he spoke dismissively of 'political sharia', and predicted it would soon fizzle out. There is no doubt that the motives of the politicians who suddenly transformed themselves into religious champions were suspect. But for most Nigerian Muslims sharia wasn't something to be contemptuously dismissed. The supporters of sharia knew this and never tired of citing Obasanjo's statement as an example of his hostility to Islam. With thousands dead in the Kaduna riots and little sign that the sharia issue was fizzling out, Obasanjo began to make noises about dealing decisively with divisive forces. And months later his Attorney General arrived at a conclusion that many thought was obvious all along - that aspects of sharia law were inconsistent with Nigeria's secular constitution. Having now discovered this unconstitutionality, what did the Federal Government propose to do about it? Well... nothing.

A rather more constructive response to sharia has come from some Muslim intellectuals and activists. In a number of courageous lectures, articles and press statements, Ayesha Imam, a leading campaigner for women's rights, argues that the severe punishments being handed out to poor and uneducated women in the sharia courts are themselves contrary to Islamic law. 'Only the poor and uneducated are being harassed under these morality laws,' she has pointed out. 'Of the cases prosecuted in Zamfara, none have convicted the rich and powerful. Immorality - theft, corruption, embezzlement of public funds, adultery, promiscuity - are not only found among the poor.'

Lamido Sanusi, who writes for many national newspapers, has questioned why less severe interpretations of Islamic law, of which there are several, have not been adopted. He draws attention, for example, to a precedent in Islamic law for the suspension of the sentence of amputation during a time of extreme misery, and wonders why a similar suspension should not be in force in economically devastated Nigeria. He also argues that implementing sharia law in a complex multi-religious society requires far more care and wisdom than Yerima & Co have so far displayed. Ali Ahmad, a law teacher and himself a lawyer who practises in the sharia courts, has called for an Ijtihad, for law reform within sharia. In his words: 'Sharia first blossomed during a period of creative ferment centuries ago but stagnated when later generations came to believe that the law need not adapt to changing circumstances.'

It is these courageous Muslims, not Sani Yerima and his supporters, who are responding genuinely to the yearning of the Muslim masses for justice founded on their faith.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos.=end author_note

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