The Ambassador’s wife

Emancipation, Gender, Women

As is my habit, I randomly stumbled upon an article entitled “The role of the Ambassador’s wife.” This article was actually published by the Journal of Marriage and Family   (Volume. 31 No. 1) in February 1969 and written by a female professor with a Ph.D in Sociology, from the University of California, Berkeley. Seriously when I looked at this article my thought was ‘what in the heavens was she thinking when she wrote this? In her own words, her thesis sought to explore the role of the ambassador’s wife and in her introduction she stated;

“The role of the ambassador’s wife is largely shaped by her husband’s role and spokesman for the American government. This paper examines the way in which his job affects hers…” [the bold is mine]

Yes in 1969 as in many other political and decision-making positions, the position of the Ambassador was predominantly male territory. However I cannot understand how an American professor could publish an academic article of this nature at a time when female ambassadors were not such a strange phenomenon. There might not have been as many female ambassadors  as there are now but in my view an article of this nature only served to perpetuate the gender stereotype and the belief that only men could be ambassadors and women the ambassador’s wives. One can not help but develop an image of the ambassador’s wife as the socialite, paying attention to the wining and dining of her husband’s guests while he talks politics.

The world’s first female ambassador, Hungarian feminist and activist Rosika Schwimmer, was appointed in 1918 to serve in Switzerland. Well done to Hungary for being a trendsetter in that regard.

By 1969, when the article was written  many countries had appointed female ambassadors: Belgium, Bolivia, Bulgaria, Burma, Colombia, Cuba, Finland, France, Guatemala, Haiti,  Honduras, Hungary, Iraq, Ireland, Lithuania, Paraguay Romania, South Korea, Sri Lanka, The Netherlands, Venezuela, and the former Yugoslavia had had at least one female ambassador.  Austria, Costa Rica, Germany, Indonesia, Israel, New Zealand and Tanzania had appointed two; Mexico, Morocco  and Pakistan three; Sweden four; Brazil, Chile, Denmark, India  and the USA five and the highest number had come from Canada  with six female ambassadors by 1969.

Surely coming from a country where the first female ambassador Frances Willis had been appointed in 1962 and the first African-American female ambassador, Patricia Harris, had also been appointed 3 years on the author should have realised the inappropriateness of her research topic at a time when women were fighting for political, economic and social equality of the sexes, what we have popularly come to know as the feminist struggle.

Fortunately for all of us, the world has come to recognise how certain labels can act destructively to perpetuate gender stereotypes. Hence a change in the name given to a group can stir transformation in mindsets and begin to unseat years of deep seated misguided notions about what women can do as compared to men. So from having a Diplomatic ‘wives’ Association we now have a Diplomatic ‘spouses’ Association. Yes, women too can be ambassadors and their partner would be regarded as a spouse not wife. With regard to countries that have legalised same sex marriages, the dynamics would be even more complicated where the ambassador is either male or female married to another male or female, respectively.

So I looked at this article and I appreciated how far we, as women, have come in asserting ourselves as equals, with equal capabilities to those of men. Previously male dominated fields including law, politics and diplomacy have been penetrated by women. I am proud of these achievements as I am one of those who have benefitted from the years of struggle.

Where previously the idea of a female president was scoffed upon today we have plenty of them. Current serving female presidents are Tarja Kaarina Halonen, Finland’s first woman president; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, current President of Liberia and the first African female President; Micheline Calmy-Rey President of Switzerland; Pratibha Patil President of India; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina; Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania; Laura Chinchilla Miranda of Costa Rica; Roza Otunbayeva Interim president of Kyrgyzstan; Dilma Rousseff President of Brazil; Maria Luisa Berti Co-Captain-regent (head of State and Government) of San Marino; Atifete Jahjaga President of Kosovo and Ireland’s President Mary McAleese.

 We also have a number of female prime ministers: Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Iceland Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, Croatia Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Australia Prime Minister Julia Gillard , Slovakia Prime Minister Iveta Radicová, Peru Prime Minister Rosario Fernández, Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and Cissé Mariam Kaïdama Sidibé  Prime minister of Mali.

Scores of influential women whose work has transformed our societies and proved that women are as capable as men, or even better live among us. Just to mention a few phenomenal women: Maya Angelou an inspirational writer and poet, Aung San Suu Kyi the Burmese political activist whose quiet strength in the struggle for democracy has inspired many,  Hillary Clinton who serves as the US Secretary of State, Navenatham Pillay who is the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Oprah Winfrey whose sheer determination to rise to the top and become a billionaire has motivated women particularly black women that they can make it too in a difficult world governed by unjustifiable stereotypes, Christiane Amanpour who has broken barriers in the field of journalism, and Michelle Bachelet who is the first Executive Director of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

These women have rejected, challenged and triumphed over cultural perceptions of women as incompetent beings. They have shown how women can assert their presence and their voices in the political, social, economic and cultural spheres. They have worked hard to define women as equal citizens with equal rights. They have displayed great strength and risen above oppression and subordination and for that I salute them. Indeed these and other women are living proof that women can do it too and the era of the ‘Ambassador’s wife’ is gone, never to come back again…or at least I hope.

Libya: ‘Rats’ & ‘Dogs’ defeated humans?

Africa, Democracy, History in the making, Social Justice

As the Libyan rebels gain ground towards Tripoli every news station is talking about an end to the grip on power that Gaddafi has had over Libya for 42 years. And just some hours ago the Colonel lost a grip on himself and in an outburst called the rebels ‘dogs’ and ‘rats.’ This got me wondering who are the real rats and dogs in this equation. The unarmed civilian protestors who, inspired by their counterparts in the region, peacefully assembled asking for ‘democratic reforms’ and in return received warplanes, warships, tanks, artillery, and live fire from their government? The rebels who, provoked by a rigid government that was not willing to negotiate took up arms and welcomed assistance from NATO forces to resolve their ‘Libyan’ crisis? The leaders and nations behind the NATO forces who ‘could’ be driven by nothing more than political and economic expediency? A leader and his government on the verge of total collapse who for 42 years systematically eroded all freedoms of the media, speech, assembly and association;  who tortured all opposition, disappeared many and killed scores more? A leader who launched a war against his own people and killed more than 6,000 lives in just 6 months?

Surely without NATO intervention we would have seen one of the following outcomes in Libya:

1.      Disintegration into a perpetual civil war

Highly likely! When two or more warring sides are driven the battle will go on until one side has no more people or resources to fight. Another DRC – another Somalia – a protracted war, with a government that holds power in some regions of the country while others are controlled by rebels. Lawlessness and ultimately a debilitation into a perpetual state of insecurity is what we would have seen.

2.      Defeat for the rebels-brutal punishment from the restored leader

With no NATO to stretch the Gaddafi resources both human and military, the rebels would have faced the full wrath of the Gaddafi forces. Eventually they would have run out of arms, if no (more) covert supplies were given to them. Gaddafi would have regained his control over Beghazi. This would in all likelihood signify severe bloodshed as the wounded leader wiped out every single trace of an attempted mutiny. Libya would have given historians yet another ‘Reign of Terror’ to document. Very likely! No wonder NATO did not leave it to chance for this outcome to come to pass.

3.      Defeat for the rebels-mercy from a benevolent leader

The rebels would have run out of ammunition. Gaddafi would have crashed the protests and resumed his post at the helm of Libya as President. He would then have reflected on the cause of  the protests, instigated reforms, promised to step down, arrange for the holding of free and fair elections and we would never heard of him in a bad light anymore. Really? More of a pipe dream and delusional wishful thinking, I would say, given the man’s history.

4.      Impasse-Negotiated solution

Maybe the two sides would have fought until they were tired of it then sought a negotiated solution whereupon they would  enter into a power sharing government and live happily ever after the way Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in Kenya or Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai have been doing in Zimbabwe. To borrow one my friends’ expression this would have been ‘[absolute] nonsense upon stilts.’

Picture credit: African Cultural Renaissance Artists

What we have now is a post-NATO-intervention Libya. NATO efforts were ‘allegedly’ focused on  ‘ the protection of civilians.’ To what extent this is true history shall reveal in due course as it has always done. But what other alternative was there really? Would it have been better for NATO to stand on the sidelines while Gaddafi, the butcher prepared a barbeque out of his own people’s flesh? Would the intervention have been more legitimate had it been by the African Union? Was the African Union ever going to stop the killings?

Fears remain that factions within the rebel groups could disintegrate into inter-rebel fights for political control. More fears are  that pro-Gaddafi fighters will continue to pose a security threat to Libya launching incursions, possibly ‘terroristic attacks’ and haunt Libya even after Gaddafi is gone. Worse still as I write, Gaddafi himself is nowhere to be found. God forbid that he be on his way to Zimbabwe to join his long term friends Bob and Mengistu. I am convinced the four scenarios I posed above would never have been better options and if the rebels do not rapidly assert control a protracted war could still be a possibility. Should the new authorities also fail to assert control over their resources then history shall reveal the real rats and dogs.

They are all terrorists

Responsible journalism, Security, Terrorism

When most of us hear the word terrorist this is the picture that forms in our heads because it is the most flagged stereotype.

A long bearded man, wearing a flowing robe, with a keffiyeh-Islamic headscarf- for men or a hijab for women and most probably a practicing Muslim. Yet this image and perception is fraught with inaccuracies. It is neither perpetually true nor justified.

I am also greatly concerned by the skewed reporting by the wider press on incidences whose consequences are grave and whose nature is terroristic. For instance the recent killings by Anders Breivik of  87 of his fellow Norwegians earned him the labels a ‘far-right Norwegian nationalist with ardent -anti Muslim views’,  ‘a right wing extremist’ (Wikipedia), a far right extremist (BBC News) a mad man (The Time World), a  ‘Norwegian mass killer’ (The Telegraph) and a self confessed mass killer (The Guardian). Yet when Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab tried to detonate a bomb aboard a Detroit bound flight headlines such as these were all over the news:

  • Detroit terror attack: profile of Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab – The Telegraph
  • Source: Terror suspect’s father tried to warn authorities – CNN Justice
  • Flight 253 terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab led life of luxury in London before attempted attack – Daily News UK
  • Terror suspect, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab… Investigations still to be completed reveal he visited Houston in 2008 – The Examiner, Texas US

Clearly attaching the label ‘terrorist’ to Mutallab was an easier task for the press than it was with regard to Breivik. Worse still Breivik actually carried his act through yet Mutallab only had the intention but his plans failed. Do not get me wrong, Mutallab’s failure to detonate the bomb does not in any way make him less of a terrorist but one can not help but wonder what the cause and reasoning behind the differential labelling could possibly be.

Two days ago, my friend, Sarah Dorman, was reading a book called ‘The First Terrorists.’ I could not read it because it was in Arabic and my Arabic is still very much elementary but I did ask what it was about. She said it is an analysis of the origins of terrorism from an Islamic point of view. The book apparently identifies the Israelis as the first terrorists, arguing that the Zionist movement, which saw the Israelis trying to set up a nation and in the process displacing Palestinians began the war on terror. The book argues that had Israel not started the war against Palestinians, Arabic Islamists would not have had a reason to retaliate. And so it appears that blame shifting, labeling and in some instances misrepresentation is the order of the day when it comes to identifying who is a terrorist. It is with this struggle to define a terrorist in mind that I reached my conclusion and it is as follows:

The word terror existed before the terms terrorist or terrorism were created. The Oxford dictionary describes terror as ‘a feeling of extreme fear.’  The Cambridge Smart Thesaurus explains it as violent action which causes extreme fear. The Cambridge Thesaurus goes on to explain that terror is synonymous with fear, panic, fright, horror and dread. The Collins English Dictionary describes terror as great fear, panic or dread inspired by a troublesome person. The definitions of terror cannot get any better than these three sources, or at least my Advanced Level English Literature teacher, Miss Mpeti would say so. I believed and do still believe her.

Using these definitions, it means that any person who commits acts or threatens to commit acts that instill fear, horror and panic in people is committing terror and is therefore a terrorist. So from:

  • Osama Bin Laden (considered to be the worst terrorist ever) who took out the twin towers and killed many in the USA;
  • Al Qaeda who burn whole villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan;
  • Joseph Kony who  killed, raped and maimed civilians in Northern Uganda and continue doing so in parts of Southern Sudan and the DRC;
  • Omar Al Bashir who killed, displaced, and instigated the rape and are still killing, displacing and instigating the rape thousands in Darfur, South Kordofan and South Sudan;
  • George Bush responsible for wars that caused and still cause the death and maiming of thousands in Iraq and Afghanistan;
  • Benjamin Netanyau and his  Israeli government who have caused great suffering on Palestinian civilians;
  • Retaliating Palestinian Liberation Organisation members who attack Israelis with suicide bombers;
  • Genociders in Germany in particular the Holocaust by Nazis, Rwanda 1994, Zimbabwe in the Gukurahundi 1987 and Operation Mavhoterapapi 2008, Cambodia mass killing by the Khmer Rouge, Indonesian slaughter of the East Timorese;
  • Al-Shabab attackers on Uganda in July 2010;
  • Individuals responsible for the numerous bomb blasts in Nigeria, India, Pakistan;
  • Umar Farouk, the Nigerian who attempted to detonate bombs in an aeroplane and;
  • Anders Behring Breivik the Norwegian man who killed more than 87 of his own people they are all terrorists.

Terrorists live among us. They do not only wear headscarfs and masks, they also dress in smart suits and pretty dresses. They could be men or women. They could practice Christianity, Islam or any other religion. They might have a reason for their actions driven by certain ideologies or philosophies or they may just terrorise others out of  a sadistic character complex.

So despite the many specific definitions provided in UN Conventions against Terrorism, and despite the fact that genocide is defined differently in the Convention on the prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide from terror, when we go back to the basic description of the feeling in the people against whom these acts are committed; it is terror. And it does not matter if the individuals committing the act are seating heads of state, power hungry tyrants, ambitious drug-lords, war mongering warlords, religious fundamentalists or  common thieves. In my view, they are all terrorists and should be treated with the highest condemnation and disdain!

Democracy is African too!!!

Africa, Democracy, Governance, Politics

So many times I have heard one too many African leaders deriding the idea of democracy as a Western driven agenda meant to achieve regime change. They have argued that the aim of the West is to get rid of all the strongly nationalist and patriotic leaders and movements that have been in power since independence from colonial rule. They have insisted that the West seeks to assist weak-minded politicians to come into power. The argument is that these weaklings would then serve the interests of the West, particularly through giving them easy and unlimited access to Africa’s vast resources in the extractive industry including oil, gold, diamonds and other precious stones, uranium and other minerals. My president has often called such leaders ‘puppets’ and at times ‘stooges of the West.’  He has also referred to the main opposition leader as ‘an ambitious frog’ ’a white man masquerading as a black’ and ‘a tea boy for his white boss.’ Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has alleged that Africans cannot speak of democratisation until they have transformed their economies from the pre-industrial age suggesting that democratisation should be a separate process from economic development yet it is the democratisation of these economic policies, of the political space and of society in general that African citizens are seeking.

Should there be a grain of truth to the African leaders’ position, that the West has hidden behind the veil of ‘democratisation’ to selfishly serve their own agendas; that cannot be used as a justification in concluding that democracy is merely a Western tool to gain access to Africa’s resources. It cannot also be the reason why African leaders continue to repress the press, harass fighters for social justice, resist electoral reforms and launch terror campaigns to remain in power. In fact a quick survey will show that most of Africa’s terrible leaders have survived because of the support they have received from the West.  To mind comes the case of the US whose engagement with the highly corrupt Gabonese government has never considered prioritizing meaningful reform. Besides the obvious benefits from the oil, the thousands of Gabonese languishing in poverty could as well be invisible to the Americans. The same can also be said in the case of the government of Obiang Nguema in Equitorial Guinea which for years has exacted a terrible humanitarian crisis on its people through its corruption and repressive rule yet few in the West have raised a finger against it.

Besides, this manipulation of political power for personal gain by influential states is not just a ‘Western’ phenomenon. The rising economies in the Global South such as China have also supported terrible governments such as that of Sudan and Zimbabwe in exchange for oil and mineral deposits respectively. South Africa for instance; which has the military, political, diplomatic, and financial/economic capabilities to influence the affairs of the region has for years ignored the quest for human rights, calls for freedom of speech, assembly, and association by Zimbabweans when they were being trampled upon by the Zimbabwean government. South Africa idly watched on as a spectator. Indeed the Zimbabwean political and economic meltdown served the South African agenda. Being a new nation, requiring extensive properly trained and qualified professional personnel in their numerous schools, hospitals and companies South Africa did nothing to stem the flow of trained brains from Zimbabwe into their country. The vacant posts were filled and continue to be filled; cheaply too because the ‘desperate’ Zimbabweans do not hold too many bargaining chips.

It is with these facts in mind that I ask myself whether the question of the Africanness of democracy, the meaning of democracy and its relevance as a phenomenon to the African context should be asked at all. I would think not. Scholars might have debated this concept left, right and center and some may have concluded it is a nifty ideal but who needs a fancy definition of democracy when the people on the ground are defining it themselves. Africans are tired of enduring long years of dictatorships, brutality against peaceful democracy campaigns, as well as series of coups and protracted civil wars. They have had enough  insecurity and are looking for stability which allows them to live normal lives. They are seeking to set up governments of the people, for the people and by the people taking us back to the simplest and most accurate definition of democracy.

A wise African woman said something that I found to be quite profound and a concise summary explaining the rising quest for democratisation and improved governance amongst African populations. She said;
“African states have failed to inspire loyalty in the citizenry; produce a political class with [real] integrity and [genuine] national interest; [they have failed] to [impress upon] the military, the police and security forces their proper roles in society; to build nations consisting of different linguistic and cultural groups and to fashion economically viable economic policies.” (Makau wa Mutua in Human Rights and the African Fingerprint)
Indeed these are the woes besieging the African continent- despotism, autocracy, police brutality, ethnic strife, poverty, inequitable distribution of wealth and corruption. Africa is riddled by self-serving governments and politicians whose sole purpose for participating in politics is their own self aggrandisement. In my country as in many others on our continent I have never heard the politicians mention the words ‘Nationalism’ or ‘Patriotism’ unless elections are around the corner and usually those words are mentioned to discredit their opponents perceived to be ‘sell outs’ trying to subject the nation to neocolonialist ideologies.

Police forces and in some cases military forces, terrorise the very populations they ought to protect. Reports of police brutality and abuses by the military against political activists, journalists, student activists, women activists and the general masses are widespread on our continent. Africa has recorded scores of deaths and has seen untold suffering because of wars fought merely because people belonged to different ethnic groups. More often than not politicians fuel these differences in order to capitalise on them to score political victories. Most recent examples would be the ongoing fighting in the Southern Kordofan and Darfur regions of Sudan. Also still fresh in our memories would be the genocide in Rwanda and the period of the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe when one’s ethnicity was the difference between life and death. Corruption is also endemic. Governments have poor or poorly executed economic policies ploughing our continent underground and causing it to be identified as the richest continent in abstract but the poorest and least developed in reality. In the case of Zimbabwe, an economy that was so prosperous and deserving to be called Africa’s ‘breadbasket’ has indeed become a ‘basket case.’

It is not surprising then that against this backdrop of deteriorating standards of living, high levels of unemployment, and widespread repression nations should rise in protest. So yes, let scholars say all they want and let philosophers find something to ‘philosophise’ but when it comes down to the basics I will tell you that democracy is African too because Africans are defining it for themselves. It is what drove the Tunisians, Egyptians and Gabonese in January; Angolans, Cameroonians and Djiboutis in February, Swazis and the Burkinabe in April; the Ugandans in May and the Malawians in July onto the streets. It is why every year thousands of people take to the ballot box to choose their leaders, despite previous experiences of that process’ futility in bringing about change.

It is in their claim for an environment that allows them to thrive to their full potential economically, socially, politically, religiously, culturally, physically and spiritually. It is in their denunciation of ruthless and corrupt governments and brutal police forces. It is embodied in their demands for equal distribution of wealth and an end to the current dogma where the rich keep getting richer and the poor poorer. It is in their fight for dignity and freedom, their quest for victory.

And it did not begin with the recent protests. The quest for democracy may not have been called as such but it was already evident when the whole of Africa fought against colonial rule. The things we hated in the white supremacist political order characterised by exclusion of the majority from the means of production; deep divides between the rich and poor and the educated and uneducated; the torture, murder, forced disappearances and inhumane and degrading treatment of those who dared to speak against the ‘evil’ white regimes; denial of equal opportunities for all citizens; and the exploitation of national resources for the benefit of a few are the same things we denounce in the current crop of leadership on the African continent. Hence calls for democratisation are calls for a restoration of humanity and dignity to the masses. Surely that cannot be said to be un-African when several African cultures embrace the concept of humanity recognizing that ‘to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity in others.’ We call it ‘hunhu’ in Shona in Zimbabwe. They call it ‘ubuntu’ in Zulu in South Africa and Rwanda Rundi in Rwanda and Burundi, ‘botho’ in Botswana, obuntu in Uganda and Tanzania, ‘umundu’ in Kikuyu in Kenya, ‘vumuntu’ in ShiTsonga in Mozambique and ‘bomoto’ in Bobangi in DRC , ‘insenniya’ in Egyptian.

So peoples have challenged the legitimacy of political establishments to the proportions of the Egyptian and Tunisian Revolutions where whole nations brought things to a standstill until leaders were effectively overthrown but also in a series of concerted efforts over a long period of time through organised social and political movements exercising civil disobedience and continually fighting for democratic reforms.

If anyone will insist that democracy is un-African shall we also accept that the opposite is African? Clearly not because autocracy is not an African phenomenon, it is a human phenomenon. It existed throughout ancient civilizations and for generations, monarchies and dynasties on all continents displayed variations of it. From Shaka Zulu in South Africa who buried virgins with his dead mother, to Louis the XVI in France who used the guillotine on every dissenting voice during his reign. Even great historical figures such as Alexander the Great Macedonian King, Napoleon Bonaparte the French leader who tried to control the world, renowned communist Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung and the Great Ethiopian Emperor Haille Selassie have had despotic/autocratic characteristics attached to the historical accounts of their reign.

So neither democracy nor autocracy belong to any specific people and cannot be imported to a people. Democracy is a human element that can only exist when it has been demanded by those who want it in the same way that autocracy can be rid of by those who do not want it. As Martin Luther King Junior rightly said, freedom can never be given by the oppressor; it has to be demanded by the oppressed. As in history when uprisings took place during the Russian, French and Great American Revolutions, the quests for freedom, good governance, and defiance of rulers that deny majorities a life of dignity, remain the reasons why African peoples seek to democratise.

There is no need therefore to look beyond the people’s clamour for freedom and justice to seek imaginary ‘detracting’ external forces. The Egyptian example throws this argument in the face of its expositors because the usual forces perceived to be spreading democracy as an absolute truth in order to serve their own political agendas, were clearly opposed to the revolution succeeding and only supported the revolutionaries when it was clear that it was going to succeed. It was the sheer bravery and courage of the protestors that yielded a success. For days after the people of Egypt took to the streets, the West did not lift a finger to fight for them against the brutal attacks they faced. In fact the West had not lifted a finger for decades when the people of Egypt faced a repression so heavy that they bore numerous violations each day. Egypt had not had a democratic election in ages yet no one from the West seemed to see anything particularly wrong with that. Surely if democracy was a Western driven agenda the West would have rushed to the rescue of the Egyptians in the face of such blatant undemocratic tendencies.

My position may be challenged by the developments in Libya which some have seen as another chance for the West to exploit oil resources in the name of change. Without seeking to dismiss the possibility that the involvement of the Western states might have elements of economic expediency, one must never lose sight of the fact that the forces in Libya are not purely Western. Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Greece, Romania, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States and Turkey may be Western but Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are definitely not, yet they all have forces helping the protestors now turned rebel fighters fighting for democratic change in Libya.

So the next time you hear anyone saying that democracy does not exist and that if it does it is not African , tell them it is in your right to practice your religion freely and without fear, to speak freely, and to criticise politicians without fear of arrest, torture or forced disappearance. Tell them it is in your right to elect leaders of your choice and to make such a choice in a violence-free and intimidation-free environment. Above all you must tell them it is in your right to live, to eat, to have clean water, to have a roof over your head with proper sanitation, to get proper medical treatment when you fall ill, and to send your children to the school of your choice.  Explain  that democracy lies in the collective power of a people; that it is in a people’s perception of how their resources and country should be governed and the measure of how their aspirations can and should be fulfilled. Tell them that democracy is African too.

Water wars: Battle for the Nile?

Africa, Development, Peace, Politics, Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Shared Resources

Before I get into my story here are some boring facts.

Officially named the longest river in the world and going on and on for 6670 kilometres the Nile River serves 11 African countries namely; Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Egypt. It starts off as 2 separate rivers the Blue Nile and White Nile. The White Nile, which originates in Burundi, contributes 15% and the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, contributes 85% of the water to the Nile. The two converge near the capital of Sudan, Khartoum and then flow through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea as one big gigantic Nile River.

But to get to the real story…

When I was in Addis Ababa in 2010 I attended a public meeting where issues concerning the Nile River were discussed. After the meeting I walked away with the impression that the Ethiopians who were at that meeting were just a bunch of self-pitying bitter individuals who envied the Egyptians because they had done wonders with a free flowing river, something that they had failed to do. I had listened to the story behind this perceived bitterness yet still I could not understand what the big deal was about, after all Egypt is the end user of the Nile and can do whatever they wish with a river that flows their way, right? Actually I was wrong.

A bit of the background…

Many years ago when the British still exercised colonial power over most parts of Africa they signed an agreement with Egypt in May 1929. The Treaty gave Egypt and Sudan rights of usage of the water on the Nile and reserved the use of all the water on the Nile during the dry season for Egypt. It also gave Egypt the right to monitor use of the water on the Nile by upstream countries including the right to veto any attempts by upstream countries to launch developmental projects on the Nile yet allowing Egypt to undertake similar projects without the consent of the upstream states. The treaty effectively meant that the Nile belonged to Egypt.

Some 30 years later, another agreement the Nile Waters Treaty, was signed between Egypt and Sudan in 1959. It gave sole rights of usage of the water on the Nile to the two countries with Sudan entitled to 18.5 and Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters. This treaty neither consulted nor even considered that the other riparian states were equal stakeholders in the allocation of the Nile waters. The treaty also meant that no upstream country could interfere with the flow of the Nile waters by having any public works such as dams, hydroelectric power stations or using the water on the Nile for irrigation without the consent of the Egyptians. So for years the agreement stood and enabled Egypt to cultivate vast amounts of land growing sugarcane, rice and wheat (which need a whole lot of water by the way). Both Egypt and Sudan constructed dams for hydroelectric power and irrigation on the Nile.

The Nile is not only a source of water but a source of pride and a long and rich history to the Egyptians. I must admit the Egyptians have done wonders with the banks of the Nile. This is a speck of what you get on a single day of going around the Nile in Aswan in Egypt.

On the other end of the Nile, Ethiopia’s rivers contribute 85% of the water into the Nile yet its people have starved. Even today, next to the distinct characteristic of being the only African country that was never colonized and being home to a great portion of the world’s most beautiful women (in my own opinion), the famine in Ethiopia remains one of the reasons why it is distinct on the world map. Most people have seen the graphic pictures of malnourished children spread over the electronic media drawing attention to the food insecurity in that country.

The Ethiopians could not use the water on the Nile because the best way to do so was through construction of dams. To build dams they needed money. To get money they needed the approval of the International Development Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. That should have been simple enough since these institutions are supposed to be independent, right? Again, wrong! Ethiopia was told it needed the consent of the lower riparian states (i.e. Egypt and Sudan). The two downstream states resisted any interference with the flow of the Nile waters arguing that any such action by Ethiopia would violate the 1929 treaty. Some people have insinuated US interests in Egypt as a strategic partner in the war against terrorism to have been pivotal in influencing the global financial institutions from withholding the requisite funds from Ethiopia.

My understanding of international law tells me that a state cannot be bound by an agreement to which it is not a party. This means neither the 1929 nor the 1959 agreement is binding on Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states because they are not party to the agreements. The two beneficiaries, Egypt and Sudan have not entered into any other treaty concerning the sharing of the Nile waters with the other stakeholders, Ethiopia included. Although a treaty exists which calls for equitable allocation of the Nile waters, namely the Cooperative Framework Agreement Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya have signed, DRC is expected to sign it but Sudan and Egypt have not and have expressed their intentions not to sign the Framework.

I must be clear that water is a very precious resource in Africa, more so in the region through which the Nile flows because rainfall is erratic to almost scarce in some countries. As a shared resource the Nile is important to all who stand to benefit from it. However without diminishing the role of the other 9 states involved, the Nile issue does seem to be a battle between Ethiopia and Egypt because Ethiopia has the means to reduce the Nile waters drastically and Egypt stands to be affected the most by such an action.

How, some may ask?

The controversy has been stirred because Ethiopia has begun the construction of a dam on the Nile. Named, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, it shall have a capacity of 63 Billion cubic metres. It will significantly reduce the flow of the Nile waters downstream to Egypt and although the impact of that reduction has not yet been ascertained, it is definitely not negligible.

So what is the big deal with that?

A great part of Egypt is too dry and rugged to sustain human life. Only the areas close to the Mediterranean have an average of 100-200mm a year while the rest of the country records a measly 25 -50mm of rainfall annually. The Nile represents the source of life in that barrenness, no wonder Egyptians refer to the River as ‘the Gift of the Nile.’ Seriously, coming from a country where we can record an average of 1000mm per year and 72 to 100 mm a month, I feel really privileged and can understand why Egypt needs the Nile.

The same cannot be said of Ethiopia. It has much better rainfall patterns with an annual average of 450mm. This rainfall is currently the backbone of Ethiopia’s water resource and agricultural needs and 85% of the flow into the Nile.  Droughts and climate change have made the rains erratic and unpredictable therefore forcing Ethiopia to find other options besides relying on rainfall to sustain its agriculture.

Some of you might ask why, if Egypt is the end user, they cannot use the water in the river as much as they like. Indeed life would be so much simpler if that were the case but there is a catch to it.

Its name is aquatic biodiversity.

Big word I know, I was also bamboozled when I first saw it. It refers to the composition of plants and animals in the water bodies of the world. Egypt has an obligation to protect and sustain freshwater lakes, rivers and fisheries within the Mediterranean. These can be affected by overfishing, pollution, building dams and excessive water withdrawal from the Nile. So Egypt cannot just build a giant dam on the mouth of the Nile into the Mediterranean and run the sea dry.

So remains the question, what should be done?

Past efforts at dialoguing failed to yield any results hence the tension that has been caused by the construction of the Renaissance Dam. The unyielding and non-negotiable position of the Hosni Mubarak regime contributed to the stalemate. It pushed Ethiopia to make this drastic decision. Who can blame them, I mean you have a country whose rivers contribute more than 85% of the total flow of water into the Nile, but by virtue of a bilateral agreement in which it was not party it is not entitled to utilise that water? Ethiopia has an estimated population of 85-90 million people, 80 % of whose livelihood depends solely on agriculture and 78 percent of whom struggle with an income below US$2 yet it only uses about 2 to 3 % of the water on the Nile. Within a national context I have been taught that an unjust law is no law at all and calls for civil disobedience. I am not sure what that would translate to within the realm of international law.

However, the problem does not have to be so insurmountable.

Ethiopia must negotiate a coordinated construction of the Renaissance Dam in good faith and be prepared to share the benefits of the dam with its two downstream neighbours. Having been denied access to the benefits of having the Nile within reach, so to speak, for a long time, they must however rise above these past differences. The dependence of the Egyptian identity, economy and water security on the Nile cannot be understated and I fear, if driven to desperation, they could carry through their threats to go to war.

War is however not a viable option. It will not resolve anything but only serve to worsen the tensions. What we need now is dialogue, constructive one at that. Egypt must be prepared to give up some of the privileges it has had when it was almost the sole user of the Nile. Clearly there is nothing in international law that justifies Egyptian dominance over the Nile waters especially given that the Treaty they rely on did not consult the other Riparian states. In fact all the Riparian states must cooperate with each other by joining the Comprehensive Agreement in good faith and in a spirit of partnership for all stakeholders to benefit equitably from the resource of the Nile as is required by Principle 27 of the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Egypt should also get rid of or reduce unsustainable patterns of consumption of the Nile waters to allow other beneficiaries to benefit from the river.

Egypt should concede that Ethiopia has rights to the water on the Nile and the construction of this dam was long overdue. Egypt must also concede to the Ethiopian argument that conservation of the water on the Nile will be higher in the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia than it will ever be on Lake Nasser in Egypt where masses of water are lost through evaporation. Should Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia co-operate in building the dam then they all stand to benefit from it.

The international community {which has not done nearly enough to help resolve this stalemate} must now play a pivotal role. By international community I refer to the monetary institutions and developed nations who, for years, have not supported Ethiopia’s efforts to build a reasonably sized dam that could have alleviated the starvation in Ethiopia without drastically reducing the flow of water downstream to Egypt.

If I may digress and vent my frustration a little bit.

They gave the head of the household a fish instead of giving him the fishing rod. So for years we saw stories making headlines of the oh-so-charitable countries that gave food aid to Ethiopia yet Ethiopia has been crying out to have the means to produce the food it needed itself. Forgive my presumptuous nature but I thought international cooperation meant nations sticking together to create the best possible conditions for the existence of all peoples.

My point is global financial institutions should support Ethiopia’s agricultural efforts, particularly during the rainy season enabling them to utilize the rains to avert food shortages. A little bird also tells me that diligent use of technology could help alleviate the impact of climate change on Ethiopia. Apparently skillful rainfall predictions and assessments of climate patterns could help Ethiopia to be best prepared to utilize the rainfall it receives, lessening its dependency on the Nile and therefore easing the pressure on the Nile giving Egypt a better chance of receiving the amounts of water it needs.

It sounds like a story but it is real and all because of a river.


Activism, Gender, Human Rights, Human Trafficking, Migration, Security, Sexual Violence, Uncategorized, Violence Against Women, Women

Imagine a young woman. I will call her Lily.

She lives with her mother and her little boy. A man comes into her life. He can see how she is struggling to make a living, working two jobs to support her family. He courts her and convinces her he is in love with her. He then invites her to visit him, promising to marry her and end her miserable days of never having enough. Enough money, enough food, enough rest. Innocent as she is and totally besotted with him, she goes. Little does she know that it is all a lie…

Somewhere else lives this beautiful and intelligent creature. I will call her Rose.

Barely sixteen years of age, she is innocent, hopeful and dreaming of a glamorous future as a model. A modelling agency visits her school. Excited to finally realise her dream she auditions and of course she is taken on board. She accepts the offer to travel to a new land and is thrilled to have made it into the career of her choice. She expresses her concern that she does not have a passport and is told by the modelling agency that they will take care of everything. She creeps out of her house in the middle of the night, leaving her father whom she considers old-fashioned and unadventurous, oblivious of her destination or her fate. If only she knew…

Another little girl, only nine years old is on holiday with her mother. I will call her Orchid.

She is excited to be soaking in the exotic surroundings of their chosen destination. She is fascinated by all that she sees around her when suddenly she finds herself being dragged away by huge burly men into a truck. And so ends her days of innocence…

The last girl I want you to meet is really young. I will call her Daisy.

Pretty and really tiny she lives on her family’s plot of land surrounded by wild vegetation and the sound of the sea. They are a poor family and they struggle to make it from day to day but she does not care. Why would she when she is surrounded by so much beauty. A man comes to her house and convinces her father to sell her to him. And so her father does sell her to this man because he has too many mouths to feed. The man takes her away and she will never return…

Suddenly these women and girls find themselves as sex slaves. They are drugged, used, abused, and assaulted. They are forced to sleep with 12 men each, every day. Rose is forced to be the ‘star’ in a pornographic movie. They all cannot escape. They are threatened with the death of their families if they even try. They become pieces of property for the owner of the business. This man makes a quarter of a million, yes $250 000 US per week out of selling the bodies of these young women. They get nothing. All that remains is just bruises; wounded and destroyed souls.

Indeed these are but some of the scenarios that victims of human trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation face. It is a horrible crime against humanity that is committed by people with no heart against innocent women and children. It is an industry for sexual perverts, pedophiles and vile spirited individuals. Most of them look just like the normal person on the street, you would not suspect them of harbouring such evil thoughts and intentions in their heads. The people in this industry make a lot of money to such an extent that trafficking is regarded as the second largest industry, next to drug trafficking.

The important thing is to know that human trafficking could happen to anyone- rich or poor, educated or not. Any one of these girls could be your sister, your daughter, your friend, your niece or just any girl. Young girls and women aged between 15 & 21 face the greatest risk because the business demands that they be young, attractive and therefore marketable.

As the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in persons, especially Women and Children defines it, trafficking involves the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons for the purposes of exploitation. This can be done by threats or use of force, coercion, abduction, deception, abuse of power by a person in a position of authority against vulnerable individuals or paying off someone who has guardianship rights over someone else to give you access to the person they should protect. Trafficking occurs usually because there is an abuse of trust by a lover as in Lily’s case, a potential employee as Rose’s  experience shows, society in general as shown by Orchid’s abductors and close family or friends as was the case in Daisy’s story.

Trafficking is not only conducted for purposes of sexual exploitation. Women and children can be trafficked for purposes of domestic servitude, forced marriage, forced labor in mining, fishing, and agriculture or some other industry.

A few lucky victims of trafficking manage to escape or to get rescued but even then they still face many problems. They may have nightmares, partial memory loss, or suffer from dementia as a consequence of their trauma. Usually they face enormous difficulties fitting back into the ‘normal’ society life because often we alienate, stigmatise and exclude them socially. Many of us do not tolerate them and dismiss them as prostitutes or drug abusers because more often than not as victims of trafficking they are forcefully injected with drugs to impair their judgement.

Let us keep in mind that the demand for the products of trafficking fuels the continued supply of women and children. So if we all could advocate abstinence from pornographic material, most strip tease clubs, from prostitution [and here I am excluding what some people could describe as prostitution but would be in fact commercial sex work-it is different because it is consensual and made by individuals who have the free choice to engage in it] we would make great strides in reducing trafficking. If we spread the word we could save the lives of a few young women who could be duped or tricked into trafficking. Let us help them not to fall into these traps.

Let us be part of the solution and support our fellow sisters by affirming their rights as victims instead of revictimising them and labelling them when they return or are amongst us. Let us help them to reintegrate into our society. Their experiences are horrendous and they need us to rekindle the flame of humanity in them.

[The descriptions of the girls above fit my own understanding of the plot of a film called Human Trafficking. This film captures and exposes the gory details involved in trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitation and I urge all of you to watch this movie, if you have not done so already]

For more information on trafficking also visit the following sites: