Category: News & Politics

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church enthrones its new patriarch

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church last week elected its sixth patriarch, 71-year-old Abune Mathias. Mathias, previously the Ethiopian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem, was enthroned on Sunday, March 3 in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a membership of 50 million followers.

Click on the first thumbnail below to view a gallery of the inauguration.

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Marthe van der Wolf is an Ethiopian/Dutch journalist based in Addis Ababa. She holds an M.Phil in African Studies from the University of Cape Town.


Ghana’s celebrity pastors in an unholy row

They prefer to be known for preaching about peace and loving thy neighbour, but Ghana’s celebrity pastors are becoming embroiled by a rather ungodly row.

A well-known pastor has sparked outrage among his colleagues by making what Ghanaians are describing as an “earth-shattering” prophecy: that President John Dramani Mahama will die this year.

The reverend Isaac Owusu Bempah, founder of one of Ghana’s burgeoning new charismatic churches, the Glorious Word Ministry International, says that the message came to him directly from God.

Owusu Bempah, who first announced the prophecy on New Year’s Eve and has repeated it several times on local radio, has also cautioned that the president’s refusal to meet him might hamper attempts to avert the disaster.

“I have not been able to meet the president and inform him. A similar thing happened when I prophesied about the late President John Atta Mills [who died last year], but they turned me away,” he said.

But senior figures from other churches have hit back at the prediction, claiming it was unethical, and did not meet the criteria of a genuine prophecy.

“According to the new testament, if you give prophecy, it should edify, exalt or confirm,” said Bishop Dr Charles Agyin Asare, founder of the Word Miracle Church International and former vice president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Chariasmatic Council. “The scripture says we should judge prophecies to see whether they be of God, not that we should swallow them hook like and sinker. If I were to judge this prophecy, I would judge it incorrectly,” Agyin Asare added.

Dramatic prophecies are not uncommon in Ghana, where churches are big business and celebrity pastors compete to fill conference centres, theatres and arena for special weekend long services and prayer gatherings.

Agyin Asare, one of Owusu Bempah’s main critics, says he himself was called to ministry after hearing the audible voice of God in 1983 calling him to “heal the sick, raise the dead, preach the kingdom”.

But less than a year after Ghana’s last president John Atta Mills died suddenly in office, there has been limited appetite for predictions of doom in the presidency.

Worshippers raise their hands in thanks to God for the election of John Atta-Mills service at a service at the Pure Fire Miracle Church in Accra on January 4 2009. (AFP)
Worshippers raise their hands in thanks to God for the election of John Atta-Mills as president during a service at the Pure Fire Miracle Church in Accra on January 4 2009. (AFP)

“We lost our president last year, and if [Owusu Bempah] was really concerned, the president is a Christian, he has a pastor, he could seek audience with him. But if you just dump your prophecy into the public domain, then you are just trying to scare people. That is not what a Christian minister is supposed to be doing,” Agyin Asare said.

Owusu Bempah was not available for comment, but it is not the first time the reverend, who is a regular fixture in the media in Ghana, has warned of impending disaster. A previous prophecy that Ghana could descend into civil war during December elections failed to materalise, after a new government was elected peacefully.

He is not without controversy. In 2011 he was accused of impregnating a member of his congregation whose mother brought her to the church to be exorcised of an evil spirit. Owusu Bempah denied those allegations, blaming a junior pastor in his employment who he said had fathered three children simultaneously with members of the church. He admitted taking the young female member of the congregation in to live with him in his home.

There is no official regulator of churches in Ghana, where two-thirds of the population is Christian and church attendance is high, although no figures exist. But some Christians are critical of the conduct of Ghana’s churches. “Most of these churches and their leaders are affiliated to a political party, they just make money out of the ignorance of the people,” said Charlotte Biney (49), a resident in Accra. “The churches hypnotise them and the people believe whatever they say. Even educated people fall for it – deep down in our culture most of the people believe in spiritualism and devilish spirits. It’s mind-boggling – sometimes you look at them and ask yourself what’s wrong with them.”

Such is the level of concern about the conduct of some churches that even pastors said that there should be closer monitoring of the activities of church leaders. “I think that there should be more ethics in ministry,” said Agyin-Asare. “Being a pastor doesn’t mean you are not accountable – you should be accountable to your church and you should be accountable to a group of ministers. As human beings we are not perfect – God calls imperfect people to do his work.”

Afua Hirsch for the Guardian Africa Network

Bamenda: Where politics and music blend

Anyone who views the suffering of the masses as his own is a hero in the eyes of a freedom-loving people. So what causes the pedestrians in my town’s main streets to prick up their ears and redirect their steps is music that is highly critical of dictatorial regimes.

Liberation music is the sound of Bamenda, my city in Cameroon. It’s also called Abakwa town, which means rebellion. Administratively Bamenda is the headquarters of Cameroon’s Northwest Province. But ideologically it is the political melting pot of the country.

Paul Biya, Cameroon’s president, acknowledged this by making Bamenda his first port of call when he took office in 1982. To the pleasant surprise of Bamenda’s inhabitants, he described the town as his “second home”, and he launched his party, the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement, there. It was also in Bamenda that the first opposition party was launched on May 26 1990.

Bamenda is where politics and music blend. Up to 20 music warehouses line Commercial Avenue, its most popular street. These shops open and close with music in the air: local makossa stars like Lapiro de Mbanga, Longue Longue and Petit Pays, and reggae stars like Bob Marley, Lucky Dube and Peter Tosh boom and vibrate across the streets.

De Mbanga became famous in the 1990s when he composed a song titled Mimba We (Remember Us) that was highly critical of the Biya regime. In subsequent albums he expressed profound sympathy for Bamenda’s people. When he was dragged to court in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, all hell broke loose.

Major music warehouses celebrated the life of the artist by playing his songs day and night. But the betrayal of a people’s trust is difficult to forgive. De Mbanga discovered this when he back-pedalled on his role as the voice of the suffering masses. In the 1990 dawn of multiparty politics, the Biya regime implemented “Operation Ghost Towns” — a curfew that led to many losing their lives.

Despite the public outrage, De Mbanga sang in favour of the very regime he’d previously castigated. Bamenda’s rejection of De Mbanga was instantaneous — so much so that he no longer deemed Bamenda safe and was reduced to seeking shelter in Yaounde, Cameroon’s seat of government, where at the apex of his popularity he could not set foot.

His support of the regime hasn’t helped him though. This year he released Constitutional Constipation, a song calling on Cameroonians to resist the legal changes allowing Biya to remain in office beyond 2011.

For this rebellion he received a three-year prison sentence and today his fans listen to the song as a way of showing solidarity with their star.

Another makossa musician, Longue Longue, has a special place in the  hearts of Bamenda’s inhabitants. And he returns the sentiment: when Linda, his unfaithful lover in one of his songs, abandons him her destination is Bamenda. She becomes a prostitute there, but the musician continues to cherish her as if she were the most chaste and most saintly of lovers.

His first song, Ayo Africa, in the late 1990s was a jibe at colonial masters in general. He followed this with another bestseller, Privatisation, which derided the Biya regime’s policymakers for the corrupt and inept manner in which they were handling the privatisation of state-owned entities.

Soon after the album hit the market, rumour — the main source of information in Cameroon — made the rounds that Longue Longue was going to be arrested. Longue Longue had anticipated this reaction: in Privatisation he solicited the protection of none other than the people of Bamenda. He sang that he was “pickin for Bamenda”, which means “son of Bamenda”, and dared anyone to lay hands on him. He ended the song by calling on Bamenda’s people to shield him from the vendetta of the white man (the colonial master).

The song’s success was confirmed by the welcome Longue Longue got in Bamenda in June 2007 on the eve of the parliamentary and municipal elections. He staged a live show, pulling in the poor and the rich alike, much to the chagrin of the authorities and the glee of the opposition.

Brasseries du Cameroun, the country’s largest brewery, was first to see the potential of Longue Longue’s growing popularity in Bamenda. It organised a festival for Mutzig (echoing “music”), one of its popular beer brands. It took place at the Guinness Club in Bamenda and Longue Longue’s presence filled the air as hundreds of us turned out to welcome the “liberator”, shouting: “We are behind you, we want to see who will dare touch you.” The rain was unstoppable that night but we partied and danced with our hero all night long.

The popularity of De Mbanga and Longue Longue on our streets in Bamenda has been a source of profound inspiration for other Cameroonian musicians. Petit-Pays, a makossa music maestro, initially sang only of erotic love. His lyrics contained such obscene words that even the degenerates blushed.

But when the musician began to express frustration with the regime his popularity soared. His song I’d Suffer for My Country became a favourite of the Bamenda people because it was seen as an indictment of Biya. And when Petit-Pays scaled the heights of obscenity by posing naked on the album, his fans in Bamenda saw not pornography but radicalism. They interpreted his nakedness to mean the political nakedness of Cameroon. The song topped the charts twice.

Successful political music can be dangerous, though. Nyamsi Kotto Theodore, popularly called “Kotto Bass”, had a hit with his song Yes Bamenda, which catalogues all the great political figures the Northwest Province has produced. But he never lived to enjoy the fruits of his musical labour. In Bamenda it is widely believed that he was eliminated by the regime for daring to hero-worship the people of Bamenda, whom the regime’s most determined apologists take delight in denigrating.

Aaron Kah is editor of Kilum 24 in Cameroon, and former news editor at Abakwa FM media. This post was first published in the M&G.

Renting a read from Ethiopia’s paper landlords

Despite an abundance of national and international newsmakers, Addis Ababa has relatively little in the way of newspapers – no dailies of note or even newsstands to offer news consumers. But don’t be fooled. This is a city of voracious readers where even the poor are indulged.

In fact, some corners of Addis are reserved for newspaper passions, Arat Kilo being one legendary neighbourhood. And by persisting, there you may stumble upon the city’s secret: consumers too poor to buy a copy of a newspaper but able to rent a read.

Arat Kilo is not only the home of the country’s Parliament building but also of flat-broke citizens with rich news-reading addictions.

“Paper landlords” offer “news seats”  to readers who gather on the edge of a road, in a nearby alleyway, even inside a traffic circle. And for years, these “paper tenants” have happily hunkered down, reading a copy of a newspaper quickly and then returning it to watchful owners nearby. And even today’s deteriorating economy and “press-phobic” government has not significantly slowed
this frenzied exchange.

In a country without a substantive daily Saturday is distribution day for the country’s weeklies. That also makes it the toughest day to find an empty news seat in Arat Kilo, or anywhere on the streets of Addis.

Luckily, Birhanina Selam, the nation’s oldest and largest publishing house, where 99% of newspapers get published, is in Arat Kilo. So readers there can get news hot off the press while the rest of the city gets the paper later that day.

Major cities elsewhere in the country receive newspapers a day or two later and for readers there the cliché of journalism as the first rough draft of history seems senseless. The story is already history by the time it reaches their streets.

Unlike newspaper readers in the countryside, the poor of Arat Kilo must deal with noise. Cars blow horns hysterically. Street children shout for money in the name of God. Lottery vendors call out for customers. Taxi conductors shriek names of destinations. Yet the “renters” tune out the city’s hustle as they run up against rental deadlines. Paper landlords vigilantly act as timekeepers.

Readers dare not hold copies for more than a half hour or they will be charged more birr. One copy of a newspaper may quickly pass through a hundred readers before, late in the day, it is finally recycled as toilet tissue or bread wrap.

Now, as a rising number of unemployed people hunt for jobs through newspapers and a growing population of pensioners distract themselves with news, news seats are popular pastimes.

Men catch up on the news in Addis Ababa. (Tristam Sparks/Flickr)

And this is true despite prices for newspapers doubling as a result of the rising costs of newsprint and the country’s latest round of inflation and devaluation.

Addis — dubbed the political capital of Africa because it hosts the headquarters of the African Union – is not as safe a haven for journalists as it is for journalism readers. Some international patron saints of media call the current government one of the world’s most journalist unfriendly regimes.

As more and more local journalists face threats, the number of newspapers dwindles as diminutive media houses close. Over the past few years, some two dozen journalists have fled to neighbouring countries. They’ve left behind a country hurtling towards a “no free press” zone, with few media houses willing to publish private political newspapers.

In 2010, two journalists in Ethiopia collected two prestigious awards — the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Award and the Pen American Centre’s Freedom to Write Award — for their fortitude and courage working in Ethiopia as political journalists. These honours witness the way the country handles the free press.

At present only a handful of local newspapers and two handsful of local magazines circulate in Ethiopia, with a total weekly circulation that barely equals that of one day of Kenya’s Daily Nation’s 50 000 print run.

By comparison, Fortune, reportedly the leading English weekly in Ethiopia, publishes 7 000 copies a week at most. So, unfortunately, the poor – and everyone else – in Addis have fewer copies and less variety. And a nation with the second-largest population in Africa – some 80-million potential readers – registers among the fewest number of newspapers on the continent.

Ironically, in Addis you do not often see readers riding in taxis, waiting at bus stops or sitting in cafés for hours. Few Ethiopians read newspapers, magazines or books alone in public but they do banter in groups. Only a few cafés allow their verandahs to be news seats to attract more customers. On the contrary, many street-side cafés post No Reading signs next to No Smoking signs. The Jolly Bar, friendly to newspaper renters for more than a decade, now forbids customers to read newspapers inside or outside.

In Arat Kilo, however, no one expects, or can afford, to read their papers in a comfortable seat or on a café verandah. “Here citizens may stand for a while on a zebra crossing and read the headline and pass,” says Boche Bochera, a prominent “paper lord” in the neighbourhood, exaggerating how his place is overrun by newspaper tenants.

Here, stones are aids to reading as are lampposts and pedestrian right-of-ways. And readers lean against notice boards or idle taxis, transforming themselves into “newspaper warms”. The streets of Addis, like Arat Kilo, get warmer with newspapers and newspaper readers lying on them.

Nowadays, traditional newspaper vendors and peddlers find themselves challenged by newspaper lords such as Boche. From a flat stone in Arat Kilo, Boche earns bread for his family of six by renting newspapers and magazines from sunrise to sunset.

Wearing worn overalls, he spreads the day’s newspapers around him and passes copies to paper brokers, mostly kids; his “paper constituencies” may reach 300 people a day. His attachment to this task is legendary.

“I have a beautiful daughter called Kalkidan,” he says. “I named her after a magazine I lease weekly.”

And he seldom bribes community police to let him sit comfortably. “That is how I survived for the last 15 years,” he says.

When papers start to wear out with over-use, Boche splices them with Scotch tape. Then he affixes his signature so everyone knows which copies belong to him. This, he reasons, is his protection. But, he says: “Some disloyal paper tenants steal my copy and sell it somewhere else to quench their hunger.”

As the hub of street newspaper reading, Arat Kilo entertains more than a thousand people a day. Other spots are rising to the challenge.

Merkato, dubbed the largest open market in Africa, now has a place for newspaper addicts around the Mearab Hotel. When daylight wanes, newspapers rented there will be collected and resold in kiosks nearby to wrap chat, a local leafy stimulant.

Other Addis neighbourhoods, like Piassa, Legehar, Megenagna and Kazanchis have also created newspaper circles for paper tenants.

Yohannes Tekle (29) has been a regular reader of street papers for seven years. These days, especially, when a newspaper costs up to six birr (75 US cents), he rents one for 25 Ethiopian cents (which is less than one US cent).

For Tekle, a day without newspapers is unthinkable. “It is like an addiction,” he says. “Sometimes, I regret it after renting a paper when it is full of mumbojumbo news. I could have used that cent for buying a loaf of bread.”

Still, he’s reluctant to set aside the habit. “If I miss a day without renting, however, I feel like I missed some signify cant news about my county – like a coup in progress.”

Mohammed Selman, a lecturer in journalism, is a freelance writer. He lives in Ethiopia. In 2009 he won the Excellence in Journalism award for print from the Foreign Press Association in Addis Ababa. This post was first published in the M&G newspaper.