Where are our girls? African leaders are late to the party – again

“We’re here!” This is what is embodied in the statement that African nations, in particular West African ones, made when they declared war on Boko Haram at the conclusion of a security summit in Paris. Nigeria and neighbouring countries are to share intelligence and border surveillance in order to track the group’s movements.

African states have finally come to the party – they’re late but at least they have arrived. It was already discouraging that it took this long for our leaders to heed the call. How could Britain’s plan to tackle Boko Haram be released with more force and precision than an African one?

Technically, the fight against Boko Haram should be a Nigerian-led, African-supported initiative with the West providing a helping hand. This was the idea that emerged from the summit – the European Union, the UK and the United States would support the regional effort. When little British girls go missing in Portugal we don’t have Ghana stepping up to the United Kingdom, saying “Steady back, we got this”. When the Malaysian Airlines plane went missing we did not have anyone calling Tanzania’s president, saying “See, thing is we have this little Boeing 77-200ER that seems to have vanished…”

Your problem, your rodeo.

But alas it is not the case here.

The deputy chairperson of the African Union has called for a united international force, citing terrorism as a new phenomenon and one that needs a multi-lateral approach. This is in fact code for “USA and UK, let us borrow some soldiers and technology”.

US troops and intelligence officers have been sent to Nigeria to aid in the search for the missing girls and it is Americans who are analysing the video released by Boko Haram. They have also sent manned planes and drones within the area. The British plan consists of sending military advisors.

It seems that even before this new plan, countries outside Africa were giving a little bit more than ‘support’.

This was the decision taken during a summit held in Paris by French President Francoise Hollande (the same country siphoning extraordinary amounts of resources from its ex-colonies).

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno, Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan, France's President Francois Hollande, Cameroon's President Paul Biya, and Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi pose for a photo during an African security summit to discuss the threat of Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram to the regional stability, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 17 2014. (Pic: AFP)
Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan, France’s President Francois Hollande, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya, and Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi pose for a photo during an African security summit to discuss the threat of Nigerian Islamist militant group Boko Haram to regional stability, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on May 17 2014. (Pic: AFP)

The United Kingdom is to host the follow-up meeting to review the action plan.

So Africa is to lead the endeavour when we could not even organise the venue and snacks to come up with the plan? Why was this meeting not held at the African Union headquarters or somewhere else on the continent?

Again, we are in that precarious position where we want to be the life of the party but end up just turning up late, slightly drunk and dancing awkwardly in the middle of the room.

The Nigerian army has gone from blunder to blunder since the start of this debacle, initially claiming that the girls had been returned when they hadn’t and then having to recant the statement. Even western allies have expressed reservations, saying there is a concern surrounding the Nigerian state’s inability to provide decisive leadership to the military.  The Nigerian government has also previously stated that they will not use force to get the girls back, and also backed out of talks to have some of the girls released.

Reservations about Nigeria’s efficiency are also shared within the country. Senator Ahmed Zanna of Boko, in a television interview with Al Jazeera, said he was disappointed in the Nigerian government who, despite having been given 1.2-trillion Lira since 2012 and having a lot of resources, has handled the situation badly.

In light of all this we now have the Global North stepping in. But the question is: do we really need this level of hand-holding?

South Africa has advanced weapons (this is a country that used to have a nuclear weapons programme), Ecowas has boots on the ground, Nigeria’s force includes 20 000 troops and aircrafts. Kenya is fast-gaining knowledge on counter-terrorism due to its own hot mess called al-Shabab.

I am pretty sure we can cobble something solid together if we put our minds to it and the West can simply add a little flavour to an already complete meal, not provide all the ingredients.

This should have been the conversation at the African Union HQ at the beginning of the crisis in April:

Goodluck Jonathan: “We have lost some girls, this is a travesty! It cannot be allowed.”
Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma: “Let me rally the troops.”
Other members: “We are on it.”

Paul Kagame would slowly swap his glasses for prescription aviators, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf would tie her bandana tighter, someone else would cock a gun while Miriam Makeba played in the background.

Yes, it sounds like a script from a Justice League comic but the truth is we need superheroes and not sidekicks when we face situations like this. The above conversation between African leaders unfortunately didn’t take place, and what has happened is far too little a bit too late.

As a continent we cannot keep being late to our own party, feigning incompetence and coming up with half-baked resolutions. When situations like this arise on the continent, we need to say “We got this, thank you”, not sit back and depend on outside help when we have the capabilities. There are more than 200 girls still missing. We need to stop being reactive and be proactive.  Having summits in Paris and meetings in London and releasing the odd statement is clearly not working to curb Boko Haram and bring our girls back.

Kagure Mugo is a freelance writer and co-founder and curator of holaafrica.org, a Pan-Africanist queer women’s collective which engages in activism and awareness-building around issues of African women’s identity, experiences and sexuality. Connect with her on Twitter@tiffmugo

Book review: Nigerians in Space


Wale had already decided what he would do when he landed on the moon.

“He wouldn’t hit golf balls like the American astronauts” did. Instead, he would play the talking drum, “squeezing out” its rhythms “into the blackness between the stars”.

“He would bind the stars with the drums. There would be dancing.”

Wale’s dream of heading a Nigerian lunar program is the heart of Deji Olukotun’s debut novel Nigerians in Space (2014, Unnamed Press).  Wale is a brilliant lunar geologist. For some reason, his rise through Nasa’s bureaucratic hierarchy is stuck at a mid-level research position. This bureaucratic injustice has left him a jaded and bitter man.

But here is Mr Nurudeen Bello – the mysterious mastermind of the Nigerian lunar mission called Project Brain Gain – offering him the chance to walk on the moon.

He has never met Bello in person. He knows Bello only through hushed conversations on pay phones.  Bello was a man who existed only in the sound of his voice and the strange power of his words to charm his listeners.

Despite his strong misgivings about the whole enterprise, Wale steals a piece of moon rock from his lab in Nasa, as instructed by Bello, and skips town, taking his wife Tinuke and their little son, Dayo. The plan is that he will meet Bello in Washington DC and officially begin the heroic odyssey to space.

What Wale cannot foresee, however, is that he is about to feature in a classic noir fiction. He will not meet Bello and what follows will be a sky-high pile up of disasters taking place at break-neck speed.

Nigerians in Space is so much a novel of our time that it helps us track how far we’ve come from mid-century African novels. We’ve come a long way from novels like Things Fall Apart, novels that presents life as it takes place in a single locality.

Olukotun’s novel is set in Houston, Stockholm, Basel, Paris Abuja, Bulawayo, Lagos, Cape Town and Johannesburg. These days, African novels are built on the life of the global African nomad.

From Teju Cole’s Julius to Chris Abani’s Sunil, contemporary African fiction is defined by characters for whom mobility is life. They traverse global spaces and force us to think of Lagos and Abuja in the context of Basel and Bulawayo.

Some novels hand the reader one unbroken spool of narrative thread to unravel. The thread may twist and turn as the plot requires, but it is never broken. Nigerians in Space holds the reader’s attention, somewhat counterintuitively, through the stupefying incoherence of the plot.

When Wale’s meeting with Bello fails, his increasing paranoia and desperate attempt to unravel the mystery around Bello and the botched space mission take him through a dizzying array of spaces – from Houston to Stockholm, to Basel, to Cape Town. The first chapter ends, and the reader, who is as confused and breathless as Wale is, turns the page hoping to take comfort in some explanation or a plot movement that takes the story forward.

Instead the reader is transported 21 years to the present day with a sentence that reads: “Thursday Malaysius had worked at Abalone Silver for two years.” No explanation of how Thursday is tied to Wale, Bello, or Project Brain Gain. But then no sooner you fall in love with Thursday, you’re introduced to Melissa, and Mrs. Niyangabo and so on.

These sharp, unpredictable turns in a plot moving at lightning speed is exhilarating and will leave you delightfully lightheaded. I let myself freefall down this zigzagging tunnel of stories. I suggest you do the same. It’s a literary trip of sheer delight. The fragmented portraits and incidents do come together in a stunning collage.

Brittle Paper is an African literary blog featuring book reviews, news, interviews, original work, and in-depth coverage of the African literary scene. It is curated by Ainehi Edoro and was recently named a ‘go-to book blog’ by Publisher’s Weekly.

Malawi’s new president seeks ‘new friends’ in Brics

Malawi, traditionally dependent on Western aid donors, will look for “new friends” in countries such as China and Russia, newly-elected President Peter Mutharika said at his inauguration on Monday.

The ceremony at a stadium in the commercial capital Blantyre was boycotted by outgoing president Joyce Banda, who was soundly beaten by Mutharika in disputed elections held on May 20.

Mutharika, who takes power in one of the world’s poorest countries where 40% of the budget comes from aid, said the donor nations were “welcome to stay here”.

Foreign policy would be based on what is best for Malawi, he said.

“We will continue with traditional relationships, but we are now looking for new friends in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia.”

Mutharika said he regretted Banda’s absence, saying she had “declined to come here and hand over power to me.

“I was looking forward to shaking her hand and burying the past. I have an olive branch in my hands.”

A spokesperson for Banda said: “She was not officially invited and her official presidential convoy was withdrawn early hours of Saturday as soon as it was announced that Peter Mutharika had won the presidency.

“It would have been difficult for the outgoing president to travel to Blantyre.”

Malawi's President Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party waves to supporters after he was sworn in in Blantyre on May 31 2014. (Pic: Reuters)
Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party waves to supporters after he was sworn in in Blantyre on May 31 2014. (Pic: Reuters)

Treason charges
Mutharika takes over despite facing treason charges for attempting to conceal the death in office two years ago of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, in an alleged bid to prevent Banda – then vice-president -from assuming power.

Those charges are likely to be dropped as Malawian presidents have immunity from prosecution while in office, and there has been speculation that Mutharika might now try to turn the tables on Banda and have her charged with corruption.

Banda had alleged anomalies in the election and sought to have the vote nullified.

Legal attempts to force a recount failed and the electoral commission declared Mutharika winner with 36.4% of the votes cast against Banda’s 20.2%.

Banda on Saturday congratulated Mutharika on his victory.

Africa needs a new feminism

Africa needs a new feminism. A feminism that rises from the throats of ungovernable women, rolls down the backs of intellectually curious young men, and trickles down from every corner of government to reinvigorate the cultures of our continent, cultures that were greyed out by years of colonialism and the subsequent years of preoccupied capitalism. The feminism of Africa cannot be the same as the feminism of the West.

The cries of western feminists, seemingly weighed down by the apparent woes of suburban housewifery and the very troubling issue of beauty in the mainstream media, are swallowed up by the Atlantic Ocean before the old African woman even has time to tie a hungry grandchild to her back, or the new African woman can use her entry-level salary to take care of a mismatch of relatives who Did Not Have Her Opportunities.

My feminism cannot be the same as that of my western counterpart. As tempting as it may be to sidle up next to a fellow soft-breasted twenty-year-old and talk heatedly about what Beyonce’s ‘suggestive’ gyrating means for ‘respectability politics’, I am not yet there. As fun as it appears to be to park onto a social network and turn my woes into a trending topic, I must remember my place. For my place is not the same as that of a woman in a first-world country – no matter how identical our birthdays are, no matter how “universal” female suffering is. We are not the same.

So why should my feminism be the same?

I am an Africanist. A third generation independent African, my father and mother were born just a couple of years shy of their respective countries’ heated dash from the clutches of a tired Britain. My task is not a simple task – my debt to the continent has not been paid. But I am only one of the few that realises that we owe the continent more than it does us. And I will be damned if Africa loses another young, energetic, liberated mind to the lazy glamour of participating in western feminism’s weak assault on society.

Delegations of women coming from various Malian regions attend a rally against femal genital mutilations as they sit under a banner asking for the end of excision and forced marrriage, on February 6 2014 in Bamako. (Pic: AFP)
Delegations of women from various Malian regions attend a rally against femal genital mutilations as they sit under a banner asking for the end of excision and forced marriage, on February 6 2014 in Bamako. (Pic: AFP)

African feminism has bigger fish to fry. Tasked with the burden of taking the blame for decades of societal degrade – alleged to be picking up where colonialism left off; the crumbs of African traditions are swept to the feet of the African feminist and she is expected not to accidentally crush them. When feminism or any allusion to gender equality is mentioned in a room full of traditionalists, self-proclaimed and otherwise, the voices shouting about the “un-Africanness” of a notion as simple as women’s rights are often all one can hear over the murmurs of those only beginning to find comfort in the idea.

But this cannot go on.

For all the other movements (like the pure socialism of African freedom fighters of the past)  are dead and capitalism has swept up my generation of Africans into a sea of perpetual desire, too busy copying American consumerism to actively participate in the reshaping of the African political landscape. Many more are too busy simply trying to stay afloat with western debt-collectors chopping away at their sodden feet. They cannot express interest in feminism thought processes – especially if said thought processes seem to be limited to concerns common to first-world women only.

So Africa needs a new feminism, one that recognises that the young men of this continent, though allegedly protected by the warm veil of patriarchy, are as much at risk for poverty, disease and hunger as women are; one that recognises that after two or three generations of single-parent homes, young men have little to no idea of what it means to be a man and are left to grab blindly at caricatures of sexist male figures for guidance. Africa needs a feminism that sees that it is the last original attempt to take our cultures into our own hands and shape young men and women that can lead this place away from the greedy claws of ‘foreign investors’; away from the cement-like clutches of heads of state too old to care; away from the exploitative ideologies of fly-by-night politicians.

Africa needs a new feminism, because it’s our last hope.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa is a 20-year-old Mathematics major at the University of Botswana. She blogs at siyandawrites.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SiyandaWrites

Confronting poverty in Africa with cash

A curious phenomenon has been recorded in some parts of Africa: people are becoming happier. The recent surge in happiness has even caught the attention of African leaders. At an April “expert consultation” in Cape Town hosted by the South African government, the African Union and Unicef, presentations were given which included an uplifting set of findings. In Zambia, there’s been a 45% increase in the amount of people who say they’re better off than 12 months ago; Ghana saw a 16% increase in the proportion of people answering “yes” to the question, “Are you happy with your life?” Malawi has seen a 20% increase in people who say they are “very happy” with their life, and in Kenya, there’s been a 6% increase on the Quality of Life index.

According to the impact evaluation work led by Unicef and partners, presented to around 40 African Union member states, people in some African countries are also eating better (Malawi and Zambia, for example, saw a 30% increase in food consumption while Ghana recorded a 10% decrease in the number of children missing a meal); are going to school more; are healthier (Liberia experienced a 20% increase in curative care seeking, Ghana had a 20% increase in health insurance coverage); are better nourished; and are transitioning to adulthood with greater success (Kenya saw reductions in early pregnancy and sexual debut, while South Africa saw a 63% decrease in teenage girls having sex with older men, and drug and alcohol consumption was less likely.)

The reason behind all this happiness, health and (delayed) sex, says Unicef, is simple: Thousands of people living in impoverished communities in these countries suddenly have more cash in their pockets. Some 20 countries across the continent have embraced what are known as a ‘social protection floors’. In essence, a growing number of national governments are deciding to support cash transfers to the poorest and most marginalised with no strings attached. The idea is that even a small amount of cash can tip the balance back in favour of a family, which might be struggling to survive. In countries where wages are often less than US$1 a day, cash transfers of as little as $12 a month, can have a profound impact. While traditional aid programmes continue to play a crucial role, it’s increasingly clear that it’s also very cost-effective to help governments disperse money.

Cash transfers to poor households
Giving money to the poor in the developing world isn’t new. In the 1990s, Brazil began making “conditional” cash transfers to poor households where school-aged children were enrolled in school. However today, it is African governments who are leading the way in developing “home-grown” social protection programs designed to respond to their specific contexts and characteristics. That is, unconditional cash transfers which build on existing strong community structures and hence address economic as well as social inequality. Amid it all, rigorous evaluations have found that households receiving the cash do better. They eat better quality food, they can afford to buy livestock and their children go to school. These benefits defy notions that social protection is a hand-out. Conversely, rather than create dependency, or become a burden on budgets, cash transfers invest in the poor’s human capital, allowing people to generate even more income.

The list of African countries now using cash transfer policies is impressive. In Lesotho, the Child Grant programme is expected to cover 25 000 poor and vulnerable households, reaching 60 000 children, by 2014, more than doubling in two years. Zambia’s expansion of its Social Cash Transfer Programme is expected to reach 190 000 households, or 1 000 000 people, by the end of 2014. In Kenya, the government is planning to double the number of beneficiaries in its cash transfer programme. Senegal is doubling the number of beneficiary households in its programme with plans to reach 250 000 by 2017.  In Ghana, the programme has expanded its reach from 1 650 households in 2008 to 71 000 in 2013. Plans for expansion are also underway in Mauritania, Mali, Malawi, Niger, and Zimbabwe, among others.

Unicef continues to advocate for social protection in Africa, supporting governments as they develop and strengthen social protection systems, and leading an innovative research initiative examining the impact of government-sponsored social cash transfer programs in sub-Saharan African countries: The Transfer Project.

Meanwhile, this Friday, on May 30, African social development ministers will meet at the African Union’s Addis Ababa headquarters to discuss how social protection programs can continue to benefit the continent’s children. The timing has never been more critical: Africa is going through a population boom and by 2050 one in three of the planet’s children will be African. During discussions we will argue that even low-income countries can afford to give money to the poor; indeed that they can’t afford not to. Social protection policies reduce inequity, help children, the communities they live in are transformed, and economies grow.

However, despite the growing popularity of the programmes, questions remain about how and in what contexts cash transfers are most appropriate and effective. Unicef hopes that lessons learned from the five-year Transfer Project will support national policy makers, who might otherwise be working in isolation, so that the benefits of giving money to the poor may continue to make Africans smile.

Natalia Winder Rossi is Unicef’s senior social policy specialist for Eastern and Southern Africa.