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Sunday surprise — mourning, a global view

Sunday, September 23rd, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — starts with an anthro DoubleQuote inspired by this morning’s readings & a Steve Martin tweet — though in sensitive times it might be best not to chuckle, let alone guffaw, at strangers’ strange ways ]
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One: The tearless eye of a NASA camera on the occasion of the Challenger blow-up:

One of our reporters, who happened to be at a distant nasa base at the time, tells us that afterward a television monitor for nasa’s own internal satellite service kept on its screen a view from a camera on the beach at Cape Canaveral which had been following the spacecraft’s ascent. Now that camera simply stared searchingly out over the blue-gray sea to where it met the blue-gray sky, like a sailor’s widow gazing endlessly at the horizon. Twenty-eight years into the space age, the sea is as much a symbol of eternity as the sky. Both have swallowed up the Challenger and its crew, leaving behind a double emptiness of sea and space.

Two: The professional Ghanaian substitute for tearless eyes:

Here’s an account in the news:

Ami Dokli is the leader of one of the several groups of professional mourners in Ghana. In a recent interview with BBC Africa, she said that some people cannot cry at their relatives’ funerals, so they rely on her and her team to do the wailing. Dokli and the other women in her team are all widows who, after their husbands died, decided to come together to help others give their loved-ones a proper send-off to the afterlife. But crying for strangers is not the easiest thing in the world, so professional mourners charge a fee for their services, the size of which is in direct relation to the size of the funeral. If it’s a big funeral, their tears cost more.

And here’s an American FB version of the ad Steve Martin’s tweet captured:

Do you want to boost your funeral? Hire me….the professional mourner to come and cry at the funeral. Below are the “Summer Special” prices:
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1. Normal crying $50,
2. Bahamian hollering $100,
3. Crying and rolling on the ground $150,
4. Crying and threatening to jump into the grave $200,
5. Crying and actually jumping in the grave $1000

That’s my DoubleQuote for the day.

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A clutch of videos:

Ghanaian Professional Wailing mourners:

Promotional — funerala with a white lady mourner, extra:

Ghanaian troupe of Dancing Pallbarers:

Chinese professional mourning performer:

N’Orleans Second Line:

REVIEW: Commander of the Faithful by John Kiser

Friday, March 30th, 2018

[Mark Safranski / “zen‘]

Commander of the Faithful: The Life and Times of Emir Abd el-Kader by John Kiser  

A while back, I received a copy of Commander of the Faithful from friend of ZP, Major Jim Gant who had been impressed with the book and urged me to read it. My antilibrary pile of books is substantial and it took a while to work my way towards it. I knew a little about Algerian colonial history from reading about the French Third Republic, the Foreign Legion and counterinsurgency literature but the name of Abd el-Kader was obscure to me.  The author, John W. Kiser, had also written a book on the martyred Monks of Tibhirine, a topic that had previously caught the eye of Charles Cameron and made a significant impression. Therefore, I settled in to read a biography of a long forgotten desert Arab chieftain.

What a marvelous book!

Kiser’s fast-moving tale is of a man who attempted to forge from unwieldy tribes and two unwilling empires, a new nation grounded in an enlightened Islam that transcended tribal customs ad corrupt legacies of Ottoman misrule while resisting encroachments of French imperial power. A Sufi marabout who was the son of a marabout, el Kader was the scholar who picked up the sword and whose call to jihad eschewed cruelty and held that piety and modernity were compatible aspirations for the feuding tribes of the Mahgreb. There are a number of themes or conflicts in Commander of the Faithful that will interest ZP readers;

el-Kader’s political effort to build a durable, modernizing, Islamic state and Mahgreb nation from feuding desert tribes and clans

Abd el-Kader struggled to unify disparate Arab tribes and subtribes through piety, generosity and coercion while integrating Turco-Arabs and Algerian Jews who had a place under the old Ottoman regime into his new order. Jews like the diplomat Judas Ben Duran and Christian French former military officers and priests became  el-Kader’s trusted advisers and intermediaries alongside Arab chieftains and Sufi marabouts.

el-Kader the insurgent strategist and battlefield tactician

As a military leader, Abd el-Kader demonstrated both a natural talent for cavalry tactics as well as the organizational skill to build a small, but well-disciplined regular infantry with modern rifles on the European model. It is noteworthy, that while Abd el-Kader suffered the occasional reverse (the worst at the hands of a wily Arab warlord loyal to the French) the French generals fighting him all came to grudgingly respect his bravery, honor and skill. Never defeated, Abd el-Kader made peace with the French and surrendered voluntarily; all of his former enemies, Generals Lamoriciere, Damaus, Bugeaud and Changarnier interceded on al-Kader’s behalf to prod the French government to keep its promises to the Amir, who had become a celebrity POW in a series of French chateaus.

el-Kader the Islamic modernizer and moral figure

The 19th century was a time of intellectual ferment in the Islamic world from Morocco to British India with the prime question being the repeated failures of Islamic authorities in the face of European imperialism of the modern West. El-Kader found different answers than did the Deobandis of India, the Wahhabis of Arabia, the later Mahdists of the Sudan, the followers of al-Afghani or the Young Turks who began turning toward secularism. Educated in the Sufi tradition, el-Kader’s vision of Islam, while devout and at times strict, encompassed a benevolent tolerance and respect for “the People of the Book” and general humanitarianism far in advance of the times that is absent in modern jihadism.

It was Abd el-Kader, in retirement in Damascus, who rallied his men to protect thousands of Christians from being massacred in a bloody pogrom (the 1860 Riots) organized by the Ottoman governor, Ahmed Pasha, using as his instrument two local Druze warlords who were angry about their conflict with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and Sunni Arabs and Kurds enraged about the Ottoman reforms that had ended the dhimmi status of the Maronite Christians. It was the Emir who faced down and chastised a howling mob as bad Muslims and evildoers and by his actions thousands of lives were spared. Already honored for his chivalrous treatment of prisoners and his banning of customary decapitation as barbarous, the 1860 Riots cemented Abd El-Kader’s reputation for humanitarianism and made him an international figure known from the cornfields of Iowa to the canals of St. Petersburg.

Kiser, who it must be said keeps the story moving throughout, is at pains to emphasize the exemplary moral character of Abd el-Kader. As Emir, he “walked the walk” and understood the connection between his personal asceticism, probity and generosity to his enemies and the poor and his political authority as Emir. When some Arab tribes betrayed Abd El-Kader in a battle against the French, consequently they were deeply shamed and ended up begging the Emir to be allowed to return to his service. On the occasions when harsh punishments had to be dealt out, Abd el-Kader meted them not as examples of his cruelty to be feared but as examples of justice to deter unacceptable crimes that he would swiftly punish.  This is operating at what the late strategist John Boyd called “the moral level of war”, allowing Abd el-Kader to attract the uncommitted, win over observers, rally his people and demoralize his opponents. Even in defeat, realizing the hopelessness of his position against the might of an industrializing great imperial power that was France. el-Kader retained the initiative, ending the war while he was still undefeated and on honorable terms.

In Commander of the Faithful, Kiser paints el-Kader in a romantic light, one that fits the mid 19th century when concepts of honor and chivalry still retained their currency on the battlefield and society, among the Europeans as much as the Emir’s doughty desert tribesmen (if there is any group that comes off poorly, it is the Turks, the dying Ottoman regime’s pashas and beys providing a corrupt and decadent contrast to el-Kader’s nascent Islamic state). The nobility of Abd el-Kader shines from Kiser’s text, both humble and heroic in a manner that rarely sees a 21st century analogue. It is both refreshing and at times, moving to read of men who could strive for the highest ethical standards while engaged in the hardest and most dangerous enterprise.

Strongly recommended.

 

Water, water everywhere

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — when a city hits water zero, & when a vast aquifer is up for commercial grabs ]
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I would like to scare you two ways:

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The Guardian’s Cape Town headline (upper panel, above) alerts us to the imminent failure of the first major global city’s water supply:

The head of Cape Town’s disaster operations centre is drawing up a plan he hopes he never has to implement as this South African city on the frontline of climate change prepares to be the first in the world to turn off the water taps.

“We’ve identified four risks: water shortages, sanitation failures, disease outbreaks and anarchy due to competition for scarce resources,” says Greg Pillay. “We had to go back to the drawing board. We were prepared for disruption of supply, but not a no-water scenario. In my 40 years in emergency services, this is the biggest crisis.”

Anarchy due to competition for scarce resources — would you care to say more about how virulent that strain of anarchy might be, and how its epidemiology would intersect with those of water shortages, sanitation failures, and disease outbreaks?

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The lower image, above, shows the extent of the Guarani aquifer — water supply for the vast lands above it, and the fauna, flora and humans who inhabit those lands.

What’s the problem?

As a Canadian government page puts it, Barlow warns Nestle is seeking control of the Guarani aquifer in South America:

Mint Press reports, “A concerted push is underway in South America that could see one of the world’s largest reserves of fresh water soon fall into the hands of transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola and Nestle. According to reports, talks to privatize the Guarani Aquifer – a vast subterranean water reserve lying beneath Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay – have already reached an advanced stage. The deal would grant a consortium of U.S. and Europe-based conglomerates exclusive rights to the aquifer that would last over 100 years.”

Cash would dance in the heads of the relevant CEOs — “including Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke, Anheuser-Busch InBev CEO Carlos Brito, Coca-Cola CEO James Quincey, and Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris” — while guns would no doubt protect their “rights”.

We’ll copyright it, we’ll patent it, no, we’ll — bottle it!

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Justice William O Douglas in A Wilderness Bill of Rights, argued the need for a “Bill of Rights to protect those whose spiritual values extend to the rivers and lakes, the valleys and the ridges, and who find life in a mechanized society worth living only because those splendid resources are not despoiled.” In his now celebrated dissent in Sierra Club v. Morton, he suggested the courts should give standing “in the name of the inanimate object about to be despoiled, defaced, or invaded by roads and bulldozers and where injury is the subject of public outrage.”

In the High Country News article, Should nature have standing to sue? from which I’ve taken those quotes, we discover:

Douglas’ views were inspired by his own experiences in the wild. He grew up in Yakima, Washington, hiking the foothills and peaks of the Cascade Range, and he sang the praises of nature throughout his life. “When one stands on Darling Mountain, he is not remote and apart from the wilderness; he is an intimate part of it,” he wrote in a typical passage from his memoir, Of Men and Mountains. “Every ridge, every valley, every peak offers a solitude deeper even than that of the sea. It offers the peace that comes only from solitude.”

Solitude. Can you believe it? Such a value!

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Douglas:

Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation

Let therefore the Guarani aquifer have standing to sue for all the inhabitants of the lands above it, else — in the prescient words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, speaking in the parched, blistered voice of an Ancient Mariner:

Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.

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Afterthought:

Oh aye, they play soccer, the Guarani —

— and are warriors in protection of their native forests:

Brazil, Guaraní tribe attacked by ranchers who want their land.

Attacks on indigenous people by armed gunmen working for ranchers continue: a slow genocide, the result of the occupation of indigenous ancestral lands.

A slow genocide.. As above, so below.

Surveillance

Tuesday, January 30th, 2018

[ by Charles Cameron — gift horse, Trojan horse, back door — take your pick ]
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DoubleQuote!

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Liz Sly, reporting from Beirut:

U.S. soldiers are revealing sensitive and dangerous information by jogging

An interactive map posted on the Internet that shows the whereabouts of people who use fitness devices such as Fitbit also reveals highly sensitive information about the locations and activities of soldiers at U.S. military bases, in what appears to be a major security oversight.

The Global Heat Map, published by the GPS tracking company Strava, uses satellite information to map the locations and movements of subscribers to the company’s fitness service over a two-year period, by illuminating areas of activity.

Strava says it has 27 million users around the world, including people who own widely available fitness devices such as Fitbit and Jawbone, as well as people who directly subscribe to its mobile app. [..]

In war zones and deserts in countries such as Iraq and Syria, the heat map becomes almost entirely dark — except for scattered pinpricks of activity. Zooming in on those areas brings into focus the locations and outlines of known U.S. military bases, as well as of other unknown and potentially sensitive sites — presumably because American soldiers and other personnel are using fitness trackers as they move around. [..]

The Pentagon has encouraged the use of Fitbits among military personnel and in 2013 distributed 2,500 of them as part of a pilot program to battle obesity.

Unanticipated consequences..

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Amira El Masait, from Rabat:

After Building New AU Headquarters, China Spies on Addis Ababa Facility By Amira El Masaiti

In 2012, the Chinese government “graciously offered” African States a gift and constructed the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa. The act of soft diplomacy proved to be a rather self-serving maneuver to spy on the activities and discussions being conducted by leaders of the exclusive continental group.

In Addis Ababa, ministers and heads of states meet twice a year to discuss major continental issues. While strict security measures give the impression that that building is closely monitored and secured, an unseen security threat was present from 2012 until 2017. The threat was from none other than those who built the headquarters: the Chinese. An investigation conducted by “Le Monde Afrique” exposed Chinese espionage efforts.

According to the report, for five years, between midnight and 2 a.m., computer servers were reaching a peak in data transfer activity. A computer scientist noticed the oddity of the situation. The organization’s technical staff later discovered that the AU servers were all connected to servers located in Shanghai.

Every night, the secrets of the AU were being stored more than 8,000 km away by what was thought to be a diplomatic ally of Africa.

The glass tower $200 million complex was gifted to the African Union in 2012. The computer systems were fully equipped by the Chinese, allowing them to open an undocumented portal that gives Chinese administrators access to the AU’s computing system. This “backdoor” is an intentional fault put into code to allow hackers and intelligence agencies to gain illicit access to information.

Shoulda looked that gift horse in the mouth..

“Following this discovery, we have taken some steps to strengthen our cybersecurity,” a AU official told Le Monde.

But at least, “The Chinese have nothing to listen to. They have never colonized us. They have supported the struggles of independence on the continent and help us economically today,” an AU official told Le Monde anonymously.

Another official believes that, “They are not alone.” In fact, the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the British intelligence agencies (GCHQ) have had their share of surveillance on the AU building, according to documents which were extracted by Le Monde, in collaboration with The Intercept.

Aaah!

In which one might look to Boko Haram for a suitable husband?

Sunday, June 25th, 2017

[ by Charles Cameron — oy, there’s nuance, even among one’s enemies ]
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Consider:

The media’s portrayal of jihadi groups’ horrific rule in the Sahel is a double-edge sword in the fight against these armed movements. On the one hand, their typical coverage provides a classic and possibly efficient form of war propaganda, which calls for unity against the common enemy.

But on the other hand, the depiction of Islamist presence and political influence as unequivocally oppressive misses some critical points: namely, the jihadis’ interest in managing their use of coercion rather than just unleashing it; and their ambition to govern aspects of life through both violent and non-violent ways, sometimes in accordance with local customs.

That’s what you’ll find under the subhead Easy narratives vs. difficult thinking in an African Arguments post titled Mali: The stoning that didn’t happen, and why it matters. That’s almost a disappointing headline, isn’t it? I mean, what? — was there nobody there who was without sin to cast the first stone?

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The idea that there was a stoning — in Mali, which I for one have never visited and was not even remotely thinking about until that headline popped up in my news feed — had a sort of immediate appeal, a frisson, of the type that characterizes clickbait. So I clicked.

Stonings, however, are abhorrent in my culturally conditioned view, and it’s fairly convenient for me to abhor them at a distance when indulged in by those I like to think of unkindly, the damn jihadists.

The thing of it is, there was no stoning.

That’s a hard thing to report, however. Breaking news — no stoning occurred near Aguelhoc in northern Mali — Christiane Amanpour reports!

Reporting that there has been a stoning, on the other hand, by jihadists — those damn jihadists — that’s not only easy to report, it’s welcome news. Somehow. Despite, or perhaps because of, our abhorrence of stoning — as a punishment for adultery — by, and this is the final twist in our abhorrence, those jihadists.

That’s welcome news, even if stoning is unwelcome, as are jihadists, and even if there was no stoning, despite them.

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Even if sharia law is not the monolith we tend to think it is — and, returning to that African Arguments post — specifically to those punishments “which are mandated and fixed by God and are applicable in cases of fornication, apostasy etc”:

Questions over these penalties (known as had, plural hudud) were debated at length in 2012 when allied Islamist movements occupied Mali’s three main northern regions: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Timbuktu; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in Gao; and Ansar Eddine in Kidal.

At that time, judiciary decisions were delegated to local Islamic judges (cadis). Crucially, there were many differences in the application of hudud across these three regions. For instance, there were multiple cases of amputations for robbery in Timbuktu and Gao. But in Kidal, Ansar Eddine agreed with local Islamic judges that sentences would be maintained in line with local customs that historically prefer detention over physical punishment.

Oops. As the writers go on to note, there was actually one stoning for adultery in Aguelhoc in 2012, though the one-time leader of the Ansar, Iyad Ag Ghaly, apparently didn’t know about it. And:

Such complexities and variations between regions supposedly governed by the same Shariah provisions demands additional investigation. Why would hudud, a pillar of political and social legitimation across jihadi movements, be suspended in some places but not others?

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Okay, now I don’t really know who the Ansar are, and if you’d told me they are Malian jihadis and Iyad Ag Ghaly is or was their leader, I wouldn’t off the top of my head imagine he would disfavor huhud pubishments — as mandated by Allah — in favor of detentions.

But Boko Haram.

I’ve heard of Boko Haram, they don’t like western education, and they abducted the Chibok and other girls, marrying some and selling others into sexual slavery, if that’s a valid distinction. They too are, in a word, abhorrent.

And then I read this, in the same article:

In the Lake Chad area, several organisations – including The International Crisis Group – have documented that a significant number of young Kanuri women have voluntarily joined Boko Haram in order to find a suitable husband or benefit from new economic opportunities. For some women living in particularly impoverished rural areas, joining the jihadi insurgency may be more attractive, at least to start, than their daily routine in the strict patriarchy of rural villages.

The idea of members of Boko Haram as suitable husbands somehow hadn’t occurred to me. But then I’m not a young woman, nor even a local.

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If what I’ve written thus far interests you, I’d encourage you to read the whole article. There was no stoning in Aguelhoc, despite the reports in Agence France-Press (reporting from Bamako) and Radio France Internationale (reporting from Paris), picked up by Le Monde and The Guardian.

In sum:

Most media accounts depict an unequivocal reign of terror under Islamist rule in northern Mali. But field interviews reveal a more ambiguous situation in which egregious violence by radical groups coexists with a non-violent governance agenda and willingness to deliver services.

In central Mali, jihadi movements forcibly gather local population to preach. They also regularly assassinate those perceived to be collaborating with state officials and foreign armed forces. But at the same time, these groups provide mobile justice courts in places where judges have long been absent. They advocate for the suppression of land rights that benefit a tiny and contested aristocracy. They offer much-needed protection to cattle herders during seasonal migrations. And the simplified marriage procedures they impose allow youths to escape elder’s control over marital engagements.

How much simpler the world is, if we see it from a distance.


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