“Africans have always had enormous potential for freedom, justice and self-determination.”
September 22, 2012
-Closure of Pambazuka regrettable
-AU, ICC, Media in Africa et al, FAHAMU Founder and former Editor of Pambazuka Firoze Manji bares his mind
By Ajong Mbapndah L
With over thirty years in international development and human rights, Dr Firoze Manji remains a leading voice for the voiceless in the continent. The Founder of Fahamu and former editor of Pambazuka exhibits unparallel knowledge and brilliance in his analysis of challenges confronting Africa and the way forward. From his departure from Fahamu and the closure of Pambazuka Press, to the scramble for Africa, the African Union, the ICC, and more, Firoze of Kenyan nationality bares it all in an interview with Ajong Mbapndah L for PAV.
PAV: Dr. Firoze, thanks very much Sir for accepting to talk to PAV, we start with the question that intrigues many Africans, why did you decide to part ways with Pambazuka after toiling hard to make it a leading voice for the voiceless in the continent?
Firoze Manji: It is with much regret that I had to part ways with Pambazuka because of irreconcilable differences with the Fahamu board of trustees. Pambazuka News has become one of the principle sites for analysis, discussion, organizing and communication on the struggles for freedom and justice in Africa. It is my sincere hope that it will continue the tradition it has established over the last decade. I have long been committed to the principles of ensuring that Pambazuka News was always freely accessible and considered as part of the Commons. It is important that we always ensure that the Commons are not commodified. The closure of Pambazuka Press is also regrettable – there remains a vacuum in book-publishing that gives voice to those engaged in emancipatory struggles in Africa and the global South. Printed books are currently priced outside the reach of the majority of activists in Africa. We have to find a way in which books can be placed in the hands of those who are engaged in transformative struggles across the continent.
PAV: With over thirty years in international development and human rights you certainly have seen it all, in broad terms where you situate Africa today, everyone is talking about potential, but in what areas do you see tangible progress and what areas is more work needed?
Firoze Manji:The people of Africa have always had enormous potential for freedom, justice and self-determination. Our history is littered with crimes that have undermined and prevented us from being able to determine our own future. The Atlantic slave trade decimated the continent of some 20 million of its youngest and finest. Europe’s industrial revolution, the wealth it accumulated over that period was a direct result of the pernicious trade in human beings. The colonization of the continent by European powers destroyed our cultures, our creativity, and resulted in the integration of the entire continent to the needs for European capital. But at the same time there has always been a spirit of resistance that has constantly reasserted our humanity and claims for freedom. In the post Second World War period, that resistance swept the continent, affecting every country from Cape to Cairo, from Djibouti to Dakar. It was that uprising – in the cities, on the farms, in the urban ghettos, in plantations and factories – that swept the nationalist movement into power that led eventually to some degree of political independence. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost in that struggle – recall the wars of liberation in Algeria, Congo, Kenya, Angola, Mozambique, to name but a few. Empire did not take these defeats lying down. They used assassinations, coups d’état, misinformation, invasion, and all manner of tricks to undermine the move to independence. The roll call of the finest leaders whose lives were cut off is too long to recall, but included people such as Amilcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Augustino Neto, Kwame Nkrumah, Steve Biko, Samora Machel, and so on. And that is to say nothing of the many outstanding women and men who gave up their lives in the struggle to assert their humanity and cry for freedom. But it is important to note that the betrayals and conspiracies came not just from empire, but included those who from within the movements.
Nevertheless, in the short period after independence, there were some extraordinary achievements. Whatever one might say about the shortcomings of post independence governments, one has to acknowledge that in a very short period of time they transformed their countries: where once there was no health care or education, there was universal access provided; where there were no roads, an extensive communications network was set up. Within a short period of time, parameters such as life expectancy, infant mortality, maternal mortality, child mortality and so on showed dramatic improvements.
Sadly that was not to last long. From the beginnings of the 1980s, we saw the reversal of all the gains of independence across the continent as a result of the willingness of our leaders to collude with the West in implementing the structural adjustment programmes (later called the ‘PRSPs’) by the international finance institutions including the World Bank and IMF. We saw wholesale privatization of what was then part of the commons – land, water, electricity, healthcare, education and so on. And what was not privatized was sold off to the Northern ‘development’ NGOs. Support for farmers, agricultural subsidies, inputs, cooperatives, marketing boards, all these were cut. Instead public funds were used to subsidise the private sector. And the economies were transformed from being net food producers to being net importers of food. The countries were opened to the voracious appetite of the multinational corporations and banks. Currencies were devalued, and debts had to be repaid in dollars. To get dollars meant producing not for the need of the people but for the needs paying the banks and finance houses of the US, Europe and Japan. And in the process, the local elites got rich, while the majority got poorer. Enrichment of the few at the expense of impoverishment of the many. The last 30 years have been marked by a mass scale dispossession, dispossession of land, dispossession of the commons, of mineral resources, oil, agricultural products and so on. But the worst dispossession of all has been the political dispossession: today our governments are more accountable to the banks, international financial institutions, the multinational corporations than they are to their citizens. That is the tragedy of the last three decades.
We are constantly reminded that many African countries are demonstrating significant growths. But the reality is that only a few have benefited from that growth. Today the majority are poorer today than they were even under colonial rule. This is what Walter Rodney characterized as growth without development. Can we call that progress? And meanwhile, the continent has faced military interventions on a wide scale – Côte d’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia, are just the beginning. The US AFRICOM is now spreading its wings across the continent. Everything is being militarized, with the encouragement and collusion of our ruling elite.
But at the same time, we have witnessed important developments in the last few years. There have been significant popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, what the West has come to refer to as the ‘Arab Spring’, that led to the downfall of those close allies of imperialism, Ben Ali and Mubarak. What has inspired these uprisings has not been merely the existence of repressive regimes, but more importantly the growing discontent and anger at the loss of all the gains of independence, the widescale impoverishment that the last 30 years have brought. But these uprisings have not been confined only to North Africa. Today, the gathering momentum of movements for change defines the social and political scene on the continent. We are witnessing not so much an Arab Spring as an African Awakening. There have also been protests, strikes and other actions in Western Sahara, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Gabon, Sudan, Mauritania, Morocco, Madagascar, Mozambique, Algeria, Benin, Cameroon, Djibouti, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Swaziland, South Africa, Malawi, Uganda and more recently in Nigeria and Togo. Indeed, they have much in common with events we have witnessed last year in Wisconsin (USA), Spain, Greece and indeed in the Occupy movement. The mass uprisings and protests that erupted across the continent and in the Middle East share a similar etiology. Over the last 30 years, countries in the global South, and in particular in Africa, have seen the systematic reversal of the gains of independence. The net effect was to reduce the state to having a narrowly prescribed role in economic affairs, and precious little authority or resources to devote to the development of social infrastructure, resulting in the erosion of the ability of citizens to control their own destinies. These events have been the topic of a recent book edited by Sokari Ekine and myself: African Awakenings: the emerging revolutions (Pambazuka Press, 2012).
PAV: As mentioned earlier, there is unanimity on the incredible potentials of Africa, and there is these great scramble from foreign powers, the Chinese, Americans, Brazilians, etc, is the continent as it stands today better equipped to face the challenges of a second scramble? Based on your knowledge and rich wealth of experiences can you walk us through a few pros and cons of partnership with some of the leading actors seeking inroads in the continent, the Chinese, Americans, Europeans, Brazilians and Indians
Firoze Manji: I think not. With the growing economic crisis of capitalism, we see the race for accumulation by dispossession taking place at an unprecedented scale. The resources of Africa, its cheap labour, is being eyed by many. The unfortunate fact is that few of our governing elites are willing to challenge this growing urge to exploit the continent – far from it, they know that they have much to gain from filling their pockets and their off-shore bank accounts by colluding with those who what to rob the continent.
While the entry of China, Brazil and other ‘emerging powers’ has provided some level of breathing space in the sense that our governments have alternatives to the hegemony of the US, in practice the policies of these countries in relation to Africa do not necessarily constitute an intervention that favours emancipation. But we cannot leave the task of self-determination and emancipation to either our governments or to external powers. That task is one that we need to build the confidence of African people to achieve.
But it would be a serious mistake to view the entry of the ‘emerging powers’ with those of the US, Europe and Japan. The latter are the dominant exploiters of African labour, extractors of natural resources, and decimation of the environment. China, for example, is certainly becoming as big as the US in terms of trade. But in terms of natural resource extraction and in terms of extraction of wealth through debt financing, they remain a very small player in comparison to the US, Europe and Japan. Remember, the domination of the multinational corporations, banks and international finance institutions is guaranteed not by the ‘emerging powers’ but principally by the US. There is a growing US military presence in Africa in the form of US AFRICOM. We have seen military intervention in Africa from the US and its NATO allies in Somalia, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya. There has been no equivalent military intervention and occupation by the emerging powers.
PAV: The African Union recently elected its first female Chairperson; do you expect the new leadership to finally shake the continental body of its lethargy?
Firoze Manji: I don’t believe so. Having a woman head what is essentially a patriarchal institution does not constitute a transformation of the goals and aims of an institution. The election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK, Indira Ghandi in India, Sirleaf Johnson in Liberia, has not resulted in progressive transformation of those countries. The election of Nkosozana Dlamini Zuma represents a victory not so much for women, but especially for the growing power and influence of South Africa on the continent. Bear in mind that South African capital’s penetration into Africa has grown significantly since 1994.
PAV: Leadership to many remains an issue of concern, not only within individual countries but at the continental level, is it Nigeria with endless tales of corruption and security challenges posed by Boko Haram or is it South Africa which according to many has failed to rise up to the occasion in providing decisive leadership for the continent, how does Africa address the leadership problem? There has been an increasing clamour for democracy across the continent, but sometimes the democracy has not necessary come with development and Mali can be used as an example, in contrast, a country like Ethiopia under the leadership of late President Meles Zenawi made so much progress yet Ethiopia was not viewed as a democracy, what is your take on this?
Firoze Manji: The question I think we need to ask is: to whom are these so-called leaders accountable? As I have commented earlier, our governments have become more accountable to the international corporations, banks, international finance institutions and speculators than they have to the citizens who elected them. There is a democratic deficit. And that is not just a comment about elections, but rather a more profound question about who makes decisions that affect our lives. Who decides what is produced, for whom it is produced, how it is produced, who benefits from the production, who has a say in the distribution of wealth? Why are our farmers condemned to producing crops that feed the North, but leaves them destitute? I think we need to start asking such questions, because it is by doing so that we can begin to think about deciding what kind of ‘leadership’ we want. I think we are living in a period where new forms of collective leadership are emerging: look at how decision making began to develop in Tahrir Square in the rise of the Egyptian revolution and in the Occupy Wall Street movements. These were forms of democratic decision making. The revolution in Tunisia and Egypt were not led by individual leaders, but by collective action. That, I believe, is the future.
The increasing cries for ‘democracy’ cannot be reduced to the holding of elections and the ballot box. The popular cry is for democratization rather than merely voting every few
years. Remember, while citizens are allowed to cast their vote once every four or five years, Wall Street and the 1% cast their votes every second of every day, making decisions that have devastating effects on the 99%. Take, for example, the frightening escalating price of food that has lead to more than a billion people starving. This is not because of shortages of food, but rather because the 1% are speculating on food and food production as commodities. The rich get fat on gambling on the price of food, while the rest are forced into hunger.
As for the situation in Ethiopia: we need to ask the activists, political opponents, journalists and many others who are languishing in Ethiopian jails whether they think there has been ‘democracy’ under Meles. As far as I can tell, the situation is not likely to change with the departure of Meles.
PAV: Looking at the continent today, which are some of the leaders who inspire you and which are some of the countries you will consider as models for the rest of the continent to follow?
Firoze Manji:The leaders who inspire me are those whose hard work led eventually to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions; the young people in the ghettos of our cities who have taken to the streets with great courage to demand a better future; the women who have organized and fought against oppression and violence against women; the women farmers who are ensuring the survival of sustainable and environmentally positive African family farming systems and who are opposing the attempts of Bill Gates and Kofi Annan to chain them to the agro-industrial corporations through AGRA (Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa); the communities that have fought to prevent the decimating environmental impact of natural resource exploitation such as in the Niger Delta; the workers who organize to defend their interests against the exploitation of international corporations – such as we have seen recently in the mining industry in South Africa; those brave activists from LBGTI and queer movement in Africa who show immense courage in asserting their humanity against the most terrible threats; those who organize to ensure that the struggle for self-determination is not lost, such as those in Western Sahara, Diego Garcia, etc. These are some of the leaders that inspire me and whom I believe we should consider as models for the rest of the continent to follow.
PAV: In France, the assets of Theodorine Obiang , the son of Equatorial Guinea’s President were recently confiscated, and the French civil society has cases against a number of African leaders for siphoning state funds, considering the pervasive nature of embezzlement and mismanagement of state resources, do you consider this the way forward to punish and dissuade those who loot with impunity?
Firoze Manji: The problem here is who benefits from confiscating the riches stolen by our presidents and dictators? Will the Egyptian people benefit from the return of the millions that Mubarak stole and banked in England? How will citizens of Libya benefit from the appropriation of Gaddafi’s millions? Of course thieves need to be punished: but if justice is to be done, then the loot has to be returned to those who created it.
PAV: On the International Criminal Court, Charles Taylor jailed, Laurent Gbagbo on trial, a warrant on Sudanese President El Bashir, what is your response to critics especially within government circles who think the court is unduly targeting African leaders?
Firoze Manji: The problem we face is three-fold: first, who has the greatest influence on how the ICC decides who is to be prosecuted? The irony is that the primary influence on the ICC comes from the Security Council. And the Security Council is dominated by the US – the state that refuses to sign up to the ICC. So we see that decisions about who to go after by the ICC is politically determined. Which is why – in keeping with the US’s history – it is Africans who are primarily targeted.
And that brings me to the second issue: if the decision to prosecute or arrest is politically determined, then that is an admission that these actions by the ICC are not about justice but rather to serve the political ends of particular powerful states. It makes a mockery of the whole purpose of having an international court. I would be more convinced about the ICC’s role if we were to see people such as Bush and Blair arrested and tried. They are not arrested for political reasons: it has nothing to do with the evidence that is there for all to see that there is just cause to arrest them for crimes against humanity.
Thirdly, by trying people outside the national terrain, you decontextualize the crimes. The whole procedure becomes more about revenge than about justice. By removing the criminals from the national terrain, you deprive citizens of the possibilities of seeing justice done, and to experience the catharsis that is necessary to be able to move on. It is frequently argued that the ICC is necessary because of the weakness and lack of independence of the judiciary in our countries. Sure, that is a short term solution. But it begs the question about what do we do to develop a judiciary that is both competent and independent.
PAV: How do you size up the African media today and its role and contribution in helping the continent meet up its challenges?
Firoze Manji: Over the last 30 years there has been an unprecedented level of centralization and concentration of capital, as well as an unprecedented level of financialisation of capital. This has resulted in almost every aspect of production and almost every aspect of our lives being controlled by some 500-700 international corporations – what Samir Amin calls ‘oligopolies’. That phenomenon has also happened in the media sector. So despite the growth in the number of media institutions in Africa, if you look carefully you will find that the main ones are owned by a handful of corporations. So these institutions are not independent – they represent the interests of the 1%. To attract advertisements and to be profitable, they need to serve those interests faithfully. It puts truly independent media in great difficulty to be able to survive. The pressure on increasing profits means that nowadays newspapers and other media houses employ fewer and fewer journalists. This means that journalists aren’t able often to do the kind of investigative work that is core to their profession. To be able to generate enough stories, they therefore rely on the news services – basically European and US sources of news – that they just recycle. This means that what is generated by corporate media in the North is recycled as ‘news’ in Africa. It also leads to a certain level of laziness, relying on news and information circulating on social media such as Twitter and Face book. Journalists don’t have time to check stories, so this results in stories circulating that have not been checked. I think there is a great deal of demoralization amongst media workers who are capable and smart, but are not able to find an environment that enables them to work as they should. The development and nurturing of an independent media is something that remains a priority on the continent.
Pambazuka News sought to fill the gap only insofar as it provided a platform for analysis from intellectuals, activists, bloggers, social movements etc. It never aspired to be a conventional news service.
PAV: Last question Sir, prior to this interview, we discovered you were a dentist, how did you transition from that to the indefatigable social critic and activist you are and now that you left Pambazuka, what next will you be working on?
Firoze Manji: Well, the transition from dentistry is a long story, but suffice to say that I have long been an activist, even before I qualified, but to support that I needed to earn an income somehow. I drifted from dentistry to public health research, into international development, human rights, and eventually established Fahamu in 1997, and launched Pambazuka News in December 2000. What one does to earn a living should not prevent you from being politically active in the cause of emancipation. But I also think that while each of us have our own histories and pathways, the past is something we need to learn from but not become imprisoned by. So while I was once a dentist, I don’t need to continue in that pathway unless I have no choice.
I remain committed to the cause of emancipation and justice. There are many ways in which I may be able to contribute to that. For the present, I need to reflect on the possibilities for the future and so I am taking time off to regroup.
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