Systems of Governance – The Chimurenga Chronic now-now, a pan African gazette - in print quarterly and online Wed, 24 Mar 2021 21:52:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Systems of Governance – The Chimurenga Chronic 32 32 CHIMURENGA CHRONIC – IMAGI-NATION NWAR – OUT NOW! Wed, 24 Mar 2021 21:52:24 +0000 A new issue of Chimurenga’s Chronic – out now. imagi-nation nwar – […]

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A new issue of Chimurenga’s Chronic – out now.

imagi-nation nwar – genealogies of the black radical imagination in the francophone world

de-composed, an-arranged and re-produced by Chimurenga

feat. Mongo Beti & Odile Biyidi’s Peuples Noirs, Peuples Africains;
Elsie Haas, Julius-Amédée Laou; Cheikh Anta Diop; FEANF; GONG;
Gérard Lockel; Glissant’s IME; Suzanne Roussi; Paul Niger; Andrée
Blouin; Maryse Condé; Guinea’s Cultural Revolution; Awa Thiam;
Francoise Ega; Yambo Ouologuem; Groupe du 6 Novembre; ACTAF
& Revolution Afrique; Med Hondo; Sidney Sokhona; Nicolas Silatsa;
Somankidi Coura; Edja Kungali; Sarah Maldoror; Sony Labou Tansi;
Madeleine Beauséjour; and many, many more…

New writing by: Michaela Danjé; Hemley Boum; Olivier Marboeuf;
Marie-Héléna Laumuno; Amzat Boukari-Yabara; Amandine Nana with
Julius-Amédée Laou; Sarah Fila-Bakabadio; Pierre Crépon; DY Ngoy;
Dénètem Touam Bona; Christelle Oyiri; Native Maqari; Seumboy
Vrainom with Malcom Ferdinand; the “undercommons” collective
translation workshop coordinated by Rosanna Puyol (Brook).

Get your copy through our online store, or soon come at your nearest dealer.

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“The Oppressor Remains What He Is” Mon, 11 Jan 2021 11:03:15 +0000 Why does it seem that the genocide deniers have perked up? What […]

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Why does it seem that the genocide deniers have perked up? What can we make of African indifference on this subject? This conversation between writer Boubacar Boris Diop and scholar Jean-Pierre Karegeye was first published in French in Seneplus, Beninplus, and Cameplus. In this English version, the authors extend their discussion on Cesaire’s thought.

Jean-Pierre Karegeye (left); Boubacar Boris Diop (right)

Boubacar Boris Diop: Jean-Pierre, from time to time the genocide against the Tutsi of Rwanda makes the headlines again, but only briefly. And quite often it is only for caparisoning the genocide’s importance, or even rewriting its history when a new film or book is released or a political event occurs, such as the arrest of Paul Rusesabagina. This is why, for some time now, when I talk to my Rwandan friends about their country, I want to ask them a very simple question, a question that can be summed up in a few words: “What’s going on? Why does it seem that genocide deniers, from whom we haven’t heard in years, seem to have perked up suddenly?” I would like to know how someone like you, a Rwandan intellectual who is primarily concerned with this tragedy, and who is known to have thought and written a lot about the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda, feels about all this.

Jean-Pierre Karegeye: I would like to start with the last part of your question, the fact that I am a Rwandan intellectual. Everyone will easily understand that my perception of Rwanda cannot be that of a researcher who stands far away from the object that he is observing. That is impossible for me. I inhabit Rwanda as much as Rwanda inhabits me with its past and present, where the horrors of the genocide and the hopes of an entire people intertwine. I would even add that the destiny of my homeland haunts me and that I feel like each of my compatriots, as well as Rwanda’s soul, is in constant revival. “What’s happening?” you ask. Your perplexity echoes that of the Rwandan historian, José Kagabo, who, wondering about the legacy of the genocide, asked the following question: “Where did what happened in 1994 go?” This was in 2014, in his introduction to a special issue on the Tutsi genocide in the journal Les Temps Modernes. Linking the two questions, his and yours, we come to this conclusion: After the genocide comes the denial. I also realise that “never again” remains a pious hope, and that the world, Africa, and Rwanda’s neighbouring countries have learned nothing from this immense tragedy. What is dangerous is the hatred against the Tutsi that is sweeping through the Great Lakes region. The pyramid of hate created by the Anti-Defamation League shows a precise link between genocide and hatred.

BBD: The Anti-Defamation League was created to fight antisemitism. Can you elaborate a little more on the pyramid of hate in Rwanda specifically?

JPK: Yes, the Anti-Defamation League, created in 1913 by Sigmund Livingston, has historically fought against anti-Semitism and has since committed to justice and fair treatment for all. Its pyramid of hate or discrimination is built on five levels, starting with cultural biases and escalating with genocide at the top.

I also believe that we cannot separate hatred from genocide denial. One of the great things about this organization is its commitment to laws that punish hate crimes. For example, it was involved in the adoption of the 2009 US Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

When you deny genocide, you continue to harass survivors wherever they are. It adds insult to injury. Those that deny genocide twist the same machete into the unhealed wounds of survivors.

BBD: This leaves me sincerely and deeply puzzled. I would like to come back to this point, I mean to the genocide denial that is both unapologetic and insidious these days. Why now? And why is it suddenly openly gaining momentum again?

JPK: It is a fact that genocide denial is openly getting stronger nowadays. It is true that with the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, that the genocidaires had to keep a low profile. In a way, they hid out while waiting for better days until they could return to the public sphere. Or perhaps we underestimated their underground work. Social media now gives them great visibility, and it shows, almost three decades later, that the world’s indifference during the genocide has remained intact.

BBD: Yet, like many people who have worked on the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, I was certain at one point that the question regarding who the perpetrators were and who the victims were had been definitively settled… Was it just an illusion?

JPK: Not necessarily. We can say at least though that the dividing line between the perpetrator and the victim was clearly drawn. This goes back to Primo Levi, who is clear on this: “The oppressor remains what he is, and so does the victim; they are not interchangeable.” Genocide itself created the two categories. Confusion or the reversal of roles is one of the strategies of genocide denial. What remains, on the other hand, is this genocide denial that represents a shift, not a rupture, in the genocidal paradigm. Although it may seem paradoxical, genocide denial is a proof of genocide. It affirms what it denies. In other words, there would have been no genocide denial had there been no genocide. Genocide denial does not come from nowhere.

BBD: What role should research play in this awareness? What do you think of investigations and clarification work done by artists of various origins and intellectuals from various scholarly disciplines?

JPK: For me, they are first and foremost men and women of good will. They reacted to the Rwandan tragedy by placing themselves at the highest human level. Many of them played a decisive role. I am thinking for example of the project “Writing as Duty to Memory”, of your novel, Murambi, The Book of Bones, of Koulsy Lamko’s book, A Butterfly in the Hills, as well as of publications by scholars and survivors. I believe that the fictional works that resulted from the “Writing as Duty to Memory” project have greatly contributed to teaching about the genocide in European and American universities.

But the status of intellectuals or artists does not matter so much. They mainly are, above all, “human beings of good will”. Moreover, we all know that some intellectuals and artists took part in the genocide and that others became advocates of genocide denial. Léon Mugesera has a Ph.D. in linguistics from Université Laval in Quebec City and Ferdinand Nahimana, the co-founder of the sinister RTLM, the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, has a Ph.D. in history from Université Paris-Diderot. Charles Onana is now a doctor thanks to his genocide denial tropisms. He defended his thesis in Lyon in 2017 on “Opération Turquoise”. There is much to be said about the relationship of, on the one hand, the genocide and, on the other, rationality, ethics and aesthetics.

BBD: The fact is, the tiniest details of the 1994 genocide ended up being known by almost everyone. And since then, the historical sequence started by the first killings of 1959 in Rwanda has revealed all its secrets to us. We can thus conclude that the massacre of more than a million human beings ended up imposing itself as a massive, undeniable reality on the universal conscience.

JPK: I sense in your words a willingness to remain optimistic about the human race despite everything. I do not share your optimism; in my opinion, the idea that humanity has finally realized the extent of the genocide of the Tutsi should be put into perspective. Awareness of the horrors of the genocide was made possible above all by the victory of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This was not only a military victory. It also unveiled the lies and forgeries of the genocidal ideology, forcing its theorists to remain speechless in the face of survivors’ testimonies, which came to be considered as legitimate, truthful and accepted by all. The RPF’s victory was first and foremost of the rehabilitation of meaning. At what point is this universal conscience supposed to have appeared? When the genocide in Rwanda was officially recognized and an International Criminal Tribunal was established? It was, once again, after the victory of the RPF. To cite just one example, universal conscience has never challenged us about the Herero genocide in Namibia by the Germans. But I do not lose hope. Universal conscience towards the genocide is formed, like other things, through education on values just as much as through the common fight against genocide denial.

BBD: What are the different forms of denial of the Tutsi genocide?

JPK: There are several. At least five. The first form of genocide denial is expressed through the notion of inter-ethnic war. It is a theory that considers genocide as a violent confrontation between communities. This theory aims to invalidate any idea of planning. It also erases the dividing line between victims and executioners, which leads to arguments such as: “There are not victims on one side and executioners on the other.” This is also the explanation given by those who planned the genocide. Denying the facts allowed them to deny their obvious responsibility.

The second form of denial explains everything that happened after the plane crash of 6 April 1994, with a genocide denial syllogism. We operate here by substitution and analogy in the following statement: “The RPF killed President Habyarimana. The death of President Habyarimana is the cause of the genocide.” Therefore “the RPF is responsible for the genocide”. It angered the people, and many wanted to get revenge on the executioners, meaning the soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and by extension all the Tutsi. This form of denial does not necessarily deny the genocide but looks for culprits elsewhere.

The third approach to genocide denial compensates for the limits of the second. Faced with the recognition of the Tutsi genocide by the international community, genocide denial subtly redefines itself through the inflation of genocides, which we see in statements of “double genocide” or multiple genocides. This is why Louis Bagilishya speaks of an “ecumenical genocide”. The fourth form of genocide denial is ideological and institutional. It is deployed in institutional spaces. It is, for example, the realpolitik that prevented the Clinton administration from using the word genocide for fear of feeling obligated to intervene in Rwanda after the death of sixteen American soldiers a few months before in Mogadishu. That is the famous Somalia syndrome. French governments continue to deny the responsibility of the French state. A more serious case is that of the Catholic Church. There are those who believe that the church is the symbol of all human virtues and that it cannot have been directly responsible for anything. Accepting its responsibility would go against the idea of the holiness of the church. Fortunately, it is possible to recognize the sins of the church through its followers without questioning the holiness of Christ. I think that John Paul II and Pope Francis were very clear regarding the sins of the genocide. Finally, there is an extension of denial that consists of denying Rwanda success story or attacking Rwanda and Rwandans where it hurts: denying the genocide.

BBD: What strikes me is that, among other things, we are dealing with a kind of paradoxical genocide denial that affirms the reality of the horror much more than it denies it. It does not say that genocide did not happen; on the contrary, it argues that everyone has killed everyone, which makes the tragedy a zero-sum game. And, of course, out of vanity, we invoke freedom of speech, the courage to say out loud what others mutter to themselves. It is disturbing to note that genocide denial is easily expressed in places where it should be condemned instead.

JPK: It’s exactly that, unfortunately. A Catholic priest involved in the genocide, who has become a genocide denier, still says mass with no qualms; politicians in the countries neighbouring Rwanda compete, not in presenting  social projects, but by denouncing  Tutsi population from their countries in portraying them as “harmful and foreigners”, in the hope of being re-elected; western universities welcome genocide denial theories; the so-called mainstream media starts denying the genocide again, which happened for example when BBC broadcast a despicable documentary.

BBD: This documentary by BBC, Rwanda, the Untold Story, made the year 2014 a landmark date. Like it or not, this channel has the reputation of being objective, which is an image that it has always tried to preserve. Yet, it had no problem insulting more than a million dead Africans. But it does not matter in the end that BBC has shown, through such a vile production, the extent that certain media reputations can be overrated. The only thing to be remembered, alas, from the broadcast of this senseless film is the liberation of the “denier” word, the fact that it is increasingly inviting itself into families. You remember, by the way, that we both joined the protest started by Linda Malvern to bring BBC officials to their senses, without success, of course, because these people have nothing to fear from a small African country. Six years later, the texts and events show us that this media episode was far from being insignificant. In fact, it announced what we are witnessing now, that genocide denial has become almost politically correct in the minds of some.

JPK: Yes, Rwanda, the Untold Story, is the synthesis of genocide denial, and it is not the first time BBC has done this. What shocked Rwandans the most was this documentary’s excessive contempt. President Kagame, who generally opposes contemptuous silence towards deniers, reacted with words that come back in several of his speeches with a few variations: “With each challenge put in our path, we become stronger, not weaker. Our body may become weak, but our spirit will never be weak.” It is also a way of saying that those who ended the genocide will not be so easily discouraged. Coming back to this film though, what Jane Corbin did was disgusting. She has desecrated the memory of the genocide, which the United Nations considers to be an important means of genocide prevention. Just one example! “Murambi” is the title of your novel because, I imagine, it is impossible for you to feel indifferent about the history of this school. Jane Corbin visited the same site for her documentary. She was accompanied by a genocide survivor who knew nothing about the journalist’s denial plan. The survivor began to give evidence of the genocide by showing the remains of children and women killed after being raped. As a remark, Corbin began to complain about the grim and strange presence of the victims’ bodies. Was she expressing her compassion and the need to see the remains of the bodies buried and treated with dignity? The survivor did not hear it that way. He explained that there were people who still doubted the reality of the genocide and needed to see what had happened in 1994. Corbin’s “moral” comment to the survivor and in such a place was a beginning to the denial of the genocide. Indeed, she used the remains of Murambi’s victims, among others, to express doubts about number of victims.

BBD: You spoke a moment ago about the intellectuals who throw themselves body and soul into falsifying the history of the Tutsi genocide. I can mention Reytjens in Belgium, Erlinder in the USA and a certain Philpot in Canada. The list is unfortunately not exhaustive. I see in their attitudes a clear refusal to learn the lessons of history, which is quite the opposite of Brecht who made the choice to warn humanity after the Nazi defeat and to declare, in a sentence that has become famous, that one should not “cry victory out of season” before adding, to be more precise: “for the belly is still fertile from which the foul beast sprang.” The “foul beast” designates, of course, all Nazism, all the logics of extermination. Personally, I think that this hatred that is never disarmed is an enigma. A Rwandan friend V. told me that a few months after the genocide, when Kigali was still a distraught and wounded city, she came across a gentleman in the street, an old acquaintance, who whispered to her in an icy tone laden with contempt: “What did you expect, then? That we were going to hesitate to go all the way like the other times?” Through this incident, we see how the defeated feel powerless and how their resentment is multiplied tenfold by the defeat, but also by their obsession with the final solution, the fear of not having dared to “go all the way”.

JPK: That is exactly right. All these people blamed themselves for not having been able to kill all the Tutsi in Rwanda starting from the first 1959 massacres. For 35 years, up until 1994, they lived with the feeling of unfinished business. Thinking about the final solution, does it not suggest that the crime is already banal, and therefore invisible? Brecht, who you just quoted, had already written this in 1935: “When crimes begin to pile up, they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable, the cries are no longer heard.” History seems to repeat itself over and over again.

What your Rwandan friend told you is absolutely spine-chilling. You can only imagine what my country would be like if the genocidaires were in power today. Or rather, we do not even dare to imagine it!

BBD: What do you think about the phenomenon of western deniers that I just mentioned?

JPK: You mentioned a few but there were many others afterwards, like Judi Rever. Why this relentlessness against Rwanda? For now, I will only point out that the literature that these western academics and journalists have on the genocide is based on ordinary racism, which is part of what Professor Alexandre Kimenyi calls “the trivialization of genocide” or what Brecht calls “invisible crimes”.  Why Rwanda? Well, it is simple: because Rwanda is in Africa. That is not all, of course, but it is unfortunately one of the main factors.

BBD: They also see themselves, I believe, as valiant knights, almost as martyrs of freedom of speech. If the subject were not so serious, we would laugh at these claims. But there is a red line that their love of freedom of expression will never make them cross. I mean, real courage would be to take the Holocaust at face value, and they will never risk that. In the world as it is, the slightest sentence that would downplay the Jewish Holocaust, and I am not even talking about denying it, would be problematic. And they know this only too well. Spitting on the bodies of a million Tutsi because there is no risk in doing so—that is called cowardice.

JPK: On this point, Aimé Césaire was very clear. He observed in Discourse on Colonialism that what Europeans do not forgive Hitler for is not the extermination of the Jews in itself: “It is not crime in itself, the crime against man, is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the coolies of India and the blacks of Africa.” He could have added that organizing this crime within the West itself is a little more damaging to the image that the West wants to present of itself.

Of the Holocaust, I think various Holocaust Education and Genocide Prevention programs abroad help to contain denial narratives and anti-Semitism.  

In the case of Rwanda, your general observation on Africa applies to the reception of the genocide against the Tutsi: “Being black and African remains an aggravating circumstance.” One should not be surprised, therefore, by the extreme indifference and contempt of European deniers when it comes to something that is not a part of their own space. The freedom to write absurdities that seem knowledgeable regarding Africa is also part of the famous “white man’s privilege” that is much talked about these days. This almost exclusively formed the base of the speech they had when they “discovered” and “invented” Africa according to their fantasies and bias. Therefore, the Europeans have more respect for the victims of Srebrenica or for those of the two great wars than for the dead of Rwanda. François Mitterrand knew he was not risking any credibility when he supported the Habyarimana fascist regime and went so far as to declare: “In these countries, a genocide is not important,” when talking about Rwanda in particular, and Africa in general.

BBD: This extraordinary sentence by Mitterrand, reported by journalist Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, has never been denied. For me, it is the French equivalent of Donald Trump’s “shithole countries”, and when you think about it, it is much more serious. Coming back to Césaire, this sentence from Discourse on Colonialism earned him attacks of extreme virulence and accusations of anti-Semitism, but, sadly, his book remains as topical as it was in 1954… When the Law on the Positive Aspects of Colonization was passed in France, Césaire himself publicly invited the deputies of the Palais-Bourbon to reread Discourse on Colonialism. Interesting, isn’t it?

JPK: Regarding these accusations against Césaire, a clarification is needed. The Martinican poet never left room in his thinking for the slightest ambiguity about the Holocaust. He spoke of colonial practices. He also had a universal understanding of the condition of the Negro. In Notebook of a Return to my Native Land, while asserting himself as a profound Negro, he identifies with all the victims all over the world: “I would be a Jew-man, a Kaffir-man, a Hindu-man-from-Calcutta, a Harlem-man-who-doesn’t-vote.” In another stanza, he wants to be “a pogrom-man”. I think we have to reread Césaire bearing in mind that his starting point as well as his guiding principle are based on the condition of Black people, racism against Blacks. His condition of “fundamental negro” opens him to the misfortunes of others. In 1998, he declared: “The negro is also the Jew, the foreigner, the Native American, the illiterate, the untouchable …”. He thus understands the Jewish question well. Rather, he shows that Europe has never repented its crimes and that the Holocaust is a culmination of the thousand-year history of the West. By the way, Frantz Fanon reminds us of Césaire, in his Black Skin, White Masks, when he declares: “Anti-Semitism touches me in the flesh”. He also speaks of the Jew as “a brother of misfortune”.

That said, I am tempted to add that the West often evokes the Holocaust as if the crime had taken place elsewhere. Do you know, for example, that the Christian West has long accused the Jews of being a deicidal people? Long before the Holocaust, from the 7th century until 1959, the Catholic Church would pray every Good Friday for “the perfidious/infidels Jews”.

BBD: Would you say today that reading Césaire has given you a better understanding of the mechanics of genocide?

JPK: Here is what I would say. Césaire is important for analysing the colonial genocide and for establishing the link between the genocide against the Tutsi and the Negro condition. Césaire also allowed me to understand the “pseudo-humanism” of the West and to realise that it has learned nothing from the genocides that are rooted, among other things, in the dogma of a pure race. It is also in Césaire’s work that we find some instances of dialogue between the Holocaust and the Tutsi genocide. Apart from Césaire, the Holocaust literature and the history of anti-Semitism are, in my opinion, essential for understanding the mechanisms of genocide.

There is another point that I would like to insist on, and it concerns researchers like Filip Reyntjens, who are part of the old school of thought and do nothing but recycle the “colonial library”, to quote Mudimbe here. As surprising as it may seem to a rational mind, the Tutsi extermination project was based on the ethnological narratives of the last centuries that have established the Hutu, Tutsi and Twa as inert objects of scientific research. This isn’t obviously all of it since some were at their best with the Habyarimana regime. One must again mention the Reyntjens who co-wrote the Rwandan Constitution, which was as vile as the one written by the supporters of apartheid in South Africa. Defeating such a regime also means deconstructing the condescending colonial thinking that gave genocide ideological support. Old-school intellectuals such as Reyntjens do not accept that the wheel of history has turned against them. This new Rwanda in which they have lost all their privileges is simply unacceptable for them. Many journalists and researchers exist only through their ludicrous “invention” of Africa. Judi Rever, Robin Philpot and a few others know perfectly well that without their denial of the genocide, they would not exist. If the word “Rwanda” were to be removed from their writings, nothing would be left of them. They invent themselves by inventing Africa. Who still talks about Pierre Péan and Stephen Smith?

BBD: Nobody, of course. There is already nothing more to say about these people. Let us now turn our attention to the study of the Tutsi genocide in Rwanda by African intellectuals. Shouldn’t we talk, in their case, about silence–an awkward silence—rather than active genocide denial? By this I mean that if we leave the countries directly impacted by the tragedy aside—Rwanda, DRC and Burundi—almost no African intellectual has anything to say about the subject. “Rwanda, Writing as Duty to Memory”, that you mentioned, is an exception, which should be put into perspective in many respects. In truth, even today, almost 30 years later, when I speak of the genocide of the Tutsi in African universities, the younger ones have absolutely no idea what it is all about and their professors only vaguely remember some television footage of the 1994 massacres, nothing more. How can such an indifference be explained? I often refer, out of desperation, to what Mongo Beti calls “the habit of unhappiness”. It makes sense, but it is not enough. I believe that the shortcuts of Afro-pessimism are for many in the image that Africa reflects to the world. Whatever happens on the continent is blamed on Africans’ congenital flaws and almost never on specific social and political mechanisms. The Tutsi genocide is thus read as a story of Black people killing each other “once again”, for no other reason than an atavistic taste for blood. This means “nothing new under the sun”.

JPK: Your observation of African intellectuals is important because we have our share of responsibility, if only because of our silence during and after the genocide. I am not one of those who thinks that “saviours of the savages” are the sole cause of all our problems. You also just repeated what you wrote in Africa Beyond the Mirror, namely—and I quote from memory—that “among the rare cries of indignation heard during the genocide, hardly any came from Africa”. According to Eboussi Boulaga, this silence from African people is because we are not used to valuing our own lives. Many African people have a disembodied reading of events that happen on the continent. What do African intellectuals pay attention to the most? A speech by Macron on Francophonie or on Africa, or a tweet by Trump on electoral fraud in the United States. These challenge them much more than topics like genocide denial, the religious extremism that is striking several African countries, the Anglophone question in Cameroon, the current war in Ethiopia.  And I am only mentioning the conflict zones.

BBD: In Rwanda specifically, how is the reconciliation process going?

JPK: After its political and military victory, the RPF never gave in to the slightest idea of revenge. The fight against genocide denial and genocidal ideologies is one of the pillars of Rwandan reconstruction. One thing, for instance, that is not talked about much is the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda in July 2007. Everywhere in the world, such a step should be hailed as a victory for humanity; in the Land of a Thousand Hills, after a genocide, it is simply exceptional. The profoundly humanistic and reconciling message is the following: extremists justified the extermination of more than one million Tutsi by the death of a single individual, President Habyarimana. The 2007 law, on the other hand, simply means that even the extermination of one million innocent people does not allow the killing of a single genocidaire.

I am proud to see the Rwandan people defying fate like they are and echoing President Kagame’s fundamental choices, including the three principles he listed at the 20th Genocide Memorial: “to stay together, to be accountable to ourselves, and to think big.”

We can live together and forgive without erasing the past because, as George Santayana so rightly says, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it and make the same mistakes”. Commemorating the genocide is also a way to prevent it from happening again. I like the Sankofa image that comes from West Africa, I believe from the Akan culture. This mythical bird that walks or flies with an egg in its beak and keeps its head stubbornly turned towards where it comes from. It is a sublime symbol of the dialectical relationship between the past and future.


Jean-Pierre Karegeye has published extensively on francophone African literature, the Tutsi genocide, child soldiers and religious extremism. He recently co-edited a book, Religion in War and Peace in Africa (Routledge, 2020).

Boubacar Boris Diop is the author of several novels including the acclaimed Murambi, The Book of Bones, about the Tutsi genocide, a topic on which he has also published many articles over two decades.

For further reading, check out Who Killed Kabila I and Who Killed Kabila II in our online store:

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Your Own Hand Sold You: Voluntary servitude in the Francafrique Mon, 28 Dec 2020 11:07:33 +0000 In the CFA franc, the French colonial mission in West Africa found a way to ensure a paternalist and pernicious stranglehold on the economies of a vast region of the continent.

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In the CFA franc, the French colonial mission in West Africa found a way to ensure a paternalist and pernicious stranglehold on the economies of a vast region of the continent. Critics are vociferous and persistent in decrying its catastrophic effects on the socio-economic development of 150 million people in 15 countries over more than seven decades. French corporations and African elites are the few beneficiaries of CFA-zone machinations. Historically, those who opposed the currency risked alienating the metropole and were on the receiving end of its intransigence and outright violence. Not much has changed, writes Moses Marz, and a significant shift in the mindset of the French bureaucracy is the only likely remedy for monetary servitude in the Francafrique.

On 7 January this year, the Front Anti CFA organised by NGO Urgences Panafricanistes for a demonstration at the Place de l’Obélisque, a plaza commemorating Senegal’s 1960 independence from France. A set of plastic chairs is arranged in a circle. Kémi Séba is standing at the centre, wearing a tightly cut purple boubou with an Africa symbol over the pocket. About 50 people are sitting or standing around him, listening to his rant against the CFA franc, the currency that Charles de Gaulle created in 1945 for the Colonies Françaises d’Afrique, only renaming it into Coopération Financière en Afrique after the wave of formal decolonisations in 1960, but still used in order for France to remain in control of its former colonies. Séba tells his listeners that de Gaulle adopted the CFA from the Nazis’ occupation of France and that during slavery the French also told them that they were better off as slaves, that they would get food every day and that liberation would be too risky. Hulo Guillabert, who is in the audience, responds: “No, we don’t give a shit if it is risky. We don’t want this CFA anymore. If that means we’ll die, we’ll die!” Gaïnde, also in the audience, explains: “If there are only a few of us here today, it is because we are already in the future. We no longer live in the past. We are the thinkers and actors of the avant-garde. We are already sovereign. We are already independent. Now we need to spread this message to get a critical mass.”

For Séba, the founder of Urgences Panafricanistes, it is clear that the struggle against the CFA cannot take place on a national level and needs to move gradually from sensitisations to mobilisation and to a boycott of French products. The franc zone includes a population of 150 million people across eight countries forming part of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo), as well as seven Central African countries forming part of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Cameroon, DR Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Chad) and the Comoros. The demonstrations on 7 January take place simultaneously in Abidjan, Bamako, Bohicon, Bologna, Brussels, Casamance, Dakar, Haiti, Kinshasa, London, Ouagadougou, Ouidah and Paris, a new pan-African map that, for now, mainly exists in online discussions among university students.

On 14 December 2016, Ali Laidi interviews Kako Nubukpo on his France 24 TV-show Intelligence Economique. Since his dismissal as minister in the Togolese government, Nubukpo is a frequent guest at talk shows and round tables on the CFA, promoting his new book Sortir l’Afrique de la servitude monétaire – A qui profite le franc CFA? (Freeing Africa from Monetary Servitude – Who profits from the CFA franc?) When he lists the negative aspects of the currency, one after the other, a disarming smile accompanies what must be a delicate topic for the audience. Preferring to speak of servitude instead of neo-colonialism and diplomatically calling for greater flexibility instead of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”, Nubukpo quickly convinces the moderator of his views. Towards the end of the show, Laidi himself ends up referring to the currency as an “incredible absurdity”.

A year earlier, at the occasion of the 55th anniversary of Chad’s independence in N’Djamena, Idriss Déby, Chad’s president since 1990 and graduate of Qaddhafi’s World Revolutionary Centre, announced unexpectedly that it is time to “cut a string that is preventing Africa from developing”, calling for the creation of a proper African currency that no longer relies on postcolonial mechanisms of domination. At first no one knew what to make of this statement by a Françafrique faithful. Was he trying to threaten French authorities because they did not support his 2016 re-election campaign? Was this connected to his country’s war against Boko Haram? Déby repeated his claims in a Jeune Afrique interview in February 2017, stating that “a revision of the terms of cooperation is absolutely necessary and unavoidable”. His pronouncements hover in the background of the ongoing discussion as a broken taboo, and an indication of the possibility of a change of mind in the current generation of African politicians.

What at first looked like the annual rehearsal of anti-CFA rhetoric has taken another discursive dimension after the currency’s 70th anniversary in 2015. The unlikely confluence of interests between Nubukpo, an economist-turned-academic, Déby, the autocratic ruler of Chad, and Séba, a professional pan Africanist with links to the Nation of Islam, has combined the technical and symbolic anti-CFA arguments to move the debate away from discussions about the possible effects of another devaluation – a concern that preoccupied the debate before – towards a complete abolition of the currency.

Kémi Séba’s anti-CFA project has been more successful than any other of his previous organisations, two of which were disbanded by the French government for anti-Semitism and inciting racial violence. Fashioning himself as a black radical in the line of Malcom X and Cheikh Anta Diop – with books such as Supra-Négritude and Black Nihilism – and having recently changed supremacist views for what he calls ethno-differencialism, Séba moved from France to Senegal to benefit from greater levels of freedom of expression.

Before his contract with the Togolese government, Kako Nubupko worked for the Central Bank of West African States (BCEAO) for three years before posts at business schools in Lyon, Oxford and Princeton. He has experienced the power and intellectual laziness of bureaucratic routine first hand. He is confident that a change of mentality is taking place – at least in the French administration. His talk about the strategies of the Asian Dragons, the disjuncture between South Korea and Senegal’s monetary policies, and the Millennium Development Goals, at times neatly fits into an African Rising discourse and has pushed the level of attention in French media significantly higher than the academic works of Nicolas Agbohou and Moussa Dembélé, who carried the discursive torch on the CFA franc up to 2014.

Around these figures, a larger conglomeration of politicians, artists, technocrats and activists has gathered across different continents, including people as diametrically opposed as the French right wing politician Marine Le Pen and Mamadou Koulibaly, former Ivorian Finance minister in Laurent Gbagbo’s government.

Currency Can Get You Killed

Historically, going against the CFA franc has come with a high price in Franco-African relations. Sylvanus Olympio, the first president of Togo, was assassinated in 1963 shortly after announcing his intention of creating his own currency. In the hours leading up to his murder, the French and American ambassadors to Togo exchanged phone calls, essentially extraditing him to Gnassingbé Eyadéma and the group of soldiers around him that was demobilised by the French colonial army and wanted a space in the new Togolese army. Eyadéma eventually became president in 1967 and, backed by France, remained in power until his death in 2005. Olympio’s death sentence was pronounced as early as his first meeting with Jacques Foccart, the “shadow man” of France’s Africa policy from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac. After their talk at the Elysée, Foccart simply said about Olympio: “He is not one of our friends”.

Half a century later, in 2011, the assassination of Muammar Qaddhafi is also, in part, linked to the CFA. The recent Wikileaks of Hillary Clinton’s emails revealed that Nicolas Sarkozy’s motivation for the military intervention in Libya was to prevent Qaddhafi from launching his own pan African currency backed by his reserves of 143 tons of gold and silver, prospectively ridding France of its dominance over francophone Africa. Laurent Gbagbo’s anti CFA stance, since his election campaign of 2000 to the bombing of his residence in 2011, eventually lead to his ICC detention in The Hague – the West’s current preferred means of political elimination of inconvenient African rulers.

In the context of Françafrique, the mafia-like network of French and African elites that grew out of Foccart’s network and still works to maintain France’s geopolitical, military, cultural and institutional dominance in its former colonies, the monetary system of the CFA functions as the cement holding these different spheres together. Although the CFA underwent several adjustments over the last 70 years, its main goal has remained the same: to preserve the value of the currency – by all means necessary.

The tools used for this include, in official economist language, a fixed exchange rate between the CFA franc and the euro set in stone at the equivalent of CFA655.957 to €1; the centralisation of 50 per cent of foreign exchange reserves at the French Treasury, to guarantee “unlimited convertibility” in France; the freedom of transfers within the area and the fixed parity between the two African sub-regions part of the CFA zone. A last unofficial principle holds that the French Central Bank has the veto right in all management decisions by BCEAO, based in Dakar, and the Bank of Central African States (BEAC), based in Yaoundé. The integration of the French franc into the eurozone in 1999 did not affect this arrangement at all. The CFA continues as an enclave in the new system as if nothing happened, like in colonial times when the metropole’s imperative was to import cheap primary resources from the colonies under the auspices of normal economic practice.

Protests against the CFA are not new. They have been around since its inception and resurface on a regular basis. Over the last seven decades, dependency theorists, liberal economists, Marxists and pan Africanists have created a canon of articles and books devoted to the critique of the CFA. Osendé Afana’s L’Economie De L’Ouest-Africain (1966), Pathé Diagne’s Pour l‘unité ouest-africaine (1972) and Joseph Tchundjang Pouemi’s Monnaie, Servitude et Liberte (1980) form part of that tradition. Nubukpo’s Sortir l’Afrique de la servitude monétaire is only the latest contribution forming the analytical background to the current protest.

In these works, the CFA still stands for a lack of sovereignty for the African member states. A state or a federation of states that cannot decide on its own when to raise or lower the value of its currency, to adjust to new developments by changing course, is devoid of any political capacity and has no way of bettering its economic position. It is, for example, a common-place notion that it would benefit Malian or Beninese cotton producers a great deal if the CFA franc were no longer overvalued through its tie to the euro.

In terms of hard socio-economic results, any economist would struggle to disprove the fact that the 15 countries that make up the franc zone are part of the poorest of Africa. In the terms of the UN data of reference for international organisations, seven out of eight UEMOA-countries (West African Economic and Monetary Union) are classified as “least developed countries,” with nine out of 10 people living on the equivalent of US$2 a day. Ivory Coast, the only exception and the largest contributor to BCEAO making up to 40 per cent of its resources, was a “heavily indebted poor country” according to the IMF before Alassane Ouattara, formerly of BCEAO and IMF, and the guardian of Françafrique, became president and received a debt cancellation gift from his former colleagues in New York.

Despite being in existence for seven decades, the CFA franc has done next to nothing for the regional integration of its member countries. The level of imports within the UEMOA (West African Economic and Monetary Union) is less than 15 per cent of their total imports, only four per cent in the case of CEMAC, the Central African equivalent – compared with 60 per cent within the EU zone, for example. This is not surprising since in the logic of extraversion there is no space for horizontal relations. Meanwhile, in terms of legal financial flows, French companies like Bolloré, Total, Societé Générale, BNP-Paribas, Orange and France Télécom get the main state tenders through the well-oiled channels of Françafrique and can operate without the risk of depreciating currency and with easy transfers back home. In terms of illegal financial flows (IFF), the free capital movement that is part of the CFA agreement leaves member countries no power to control the sums being transferred in and out of the country. On the IFF heat map, Ivory Coast is marked in deep red and, even more embarrassingly, BEAC governors were caught by Wikileaks transferring €500 million to the Societé Générale.

Moreover, the fact that the CFA agreement dictates that African countries have to deposit half of their foreign exchange reserves with the French treasury deprives these countries of vital resources to finance their own projects. The part of the interest on this money that France transfers back is declared as development aid. In 2005, it was reported that €72 billion had accumulated as reserves in the French treasury over the last 50 years. The amount equals a coverage rate of 110 per cent – when the agreement only prescribes a rate of 20 per cent.

What makes no economic sense to the CFA-critics is a source of pride for Ouattara, the most fervent defender of the CFA. Repeatedly referring to his credentials as former governor of BCEAO, the Ivorian president proclaimed in 2016: “I can assure you that the CFA has been well-managed by Africans”, citing as the main reason that the zone is one of the few that has a coverage rate of 100 per cent.

Kaku Nubukpo reads in this behaviour by the central banks a voluntary subjugation that can be explained by African rulers’ attempts to cast themselves as “good pupils of monetary orthodoxy” – to create the impression of a credible monetary zone in what is, by financial standards, an absolute catastrophe. The extraordinary high interest rates the African central banks place on credits given to businesses and their decision to prioritise keeping inflation levels low form part of the dogma of the 1980s. By limiting inflation levels to two per cent, the same way the European Central Bank does, the BCEAO follows the simple logic of “what is good for Europe is good for us”, which is particularly absurd given that, in times of crisis, the European Central Bank is the first bank to leave monetarist orthodoxy behind.

While technocrats, importers and urban elites might benefit from the CFA, buying imported products and property that does not lose its value, for the overwhelming number of people living in rural areas it would be better otherwise.


The only real public outcry across the CFA franc region came in 1994 when the French government of Edouard Balladur decided unilaterally to cut the value of the CFA in half, following structural adjustment pressures of the IMF and World Bank. The news reached the African heads of state while they were discussing the future of the already financially defunct continental airline, Air Afrique. It was up to Alassane Ouattara, then prime minister in the regime of Félix Houphouet-Boigny, Foccart’s best friend in Africa, to convince all the other presidents to sign off the devaluation. The official announcement by Balladour was that the “CFA franc was devalued in 1994 at the instigation of France, because we felt it was the best way to help these countries in their development”.

What was, politically, an embarrassment for the heads of state and unmasked their neocolonial dependence on France, had even more drastic consequences for the populations of the member states. People were completely unprepared for the devaluation and had their purchasing power effectively cut in half. The devaluation marked the beginning of an ongoing recession and the end of a period up to the mid-1980s in which the franc zone states saw relatively strong levels of economic growth and greater stability than neighbouring countries, Ghana and Nigeria.

Still, although the trauma of 1994 lives on, nothing has changed in the architecture of the currency.

The neat, neoliberal separation of economy, politics, culture and history forms part of the explanation why, with all the counter-arguments in place, the CFA is still around. From the brightly lit France 24 TV studios and the amazingly local sounding RFI Afrique broadcasts, to the weekly covers of the Jeune Afrique magazine carrying the posh image of the powerful big man in a suit, there is a complete world in which a “CFA fort”, a strong currency, appears completely natural and is even a source of pride.

In this world, it also makes sense to depict the contours of France hovering over West and Central Africa like holy spirit, as on the map of the 40th anniversary of the CFA. Or for a 2005 French law to be passed by parliament that reads: “School courses should recognise in particular the positive role of the French presence overseas, notably in north Africa.” Or for François Fillon, the current Republican candidate for the French presidential election to declare, on the same subject, that France cannot be sentenced “guilty for wanting to share its culture with the people of Africa”.

Trying to make sense of France’s inability to engage its colonial past and present, academics have reverted to psychoanalytical models to explain what Achille Mbembe calls the “long imperial winter” of France, referring to narcissism, a desire for apartheid, or just that: racism. To keep the marriage with such an abusive partner alive, the franc zone cannot but maintain the practice of servitude volontaire as a kind of masochism that keeps the cooperation alive.

The illusion that money is nothing but a means of exchange, a reflection of the objects that can be bought with it, or a precious metal with an intrinsic value, has been propagated by Euroliberalists who, since the end of the Second World War, want to keep currency debates as far away from politics as possible.

Anthropologists know that money has always functioned much like a semantic system that has historically more to do with appeasing social relations between human beings and the gods, through sacrifice or payments of debt, hence the etymological roots of to pay. Money does more than establish equivalences – it contains violence and its main social function is the construction of the state and a stabilisation of norms of consumption.

The coins and notes of the CFA efface any political reference, other than those to modernity itself. The separation between planes, satellite dishes, trains, @-signs and electromagnetic waves on the obverse part of the notes, and birds, fish, hippopotami and camels on the reverse leave a distance of modern civilisation that needs to be crossed from one part of the bill to the other.

When operating in this logic it also makes sense to accept the explanation given by the Central Bank of France – flanked by representatives of BCEAO and BEAC – in a recent press conference to the question why CFA franc notes, which are after all printed in France, cannot be exchanged in France. To avoid the threats of financial terrorism and the circulation of false money, it has opted to only accept modern means of financial transactions – in other words, electronic transfers to France. At last, the number itself has out-ruled all other symbols. And who wouldn’t want to be modern?


There is no agreement on a way forward among the activists and economists of the Front Anti CFA. There is no evidence that opting either for single currencies or other regional ones will, in any way, be better. What is clear, however, is that lack of political will has hindered projects such as the common ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) currency, lying dormant since 2005, or a similar project by the East African Community started in 2010. The way Germany dealt with Greece in proper colonial terms – accusing it of collective laziness and unreliability – in the recent crisis is a prominent example for demonstrating that a currency needs a union of solidarity across individual national markets.

So, if a natural disaster does not strike, it looks like, again, only change among the French bureaucrats is going to bring about a change in the CFA zone. France has for a long time been good at downplaying the benefits it draws from retaining its colonial ties. Chances are that, behind the curtain, the administrators are no longer sure whether it makes sense to keep the zone in place once a wider audience finds out what happens in its African pré-carré. Its main trade partners in Africa are Angola, Nigeria and South Africa. And they are using their own currencies in any case. A sign in that direction was that, for the first time since the time of decolonisation, and in the immediate aftermath of the wave of Front Anti CFA protests, the French foreign ministry issued a questionnaire to the African students of the Paris Institute of Political Science, the reproductive machine of the French political elite, to ask them what they think about the CFA.

This piece appears in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2017), an edition which aims to complicate the questions raised by food insecurity, to cook and serve them differently. To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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Chimurenganyana: Becoming Kwame Ture by Amandla Thomas-Johnson (Oct 2020) Wed, 21 Oct 2020 10:33:31 +0000 Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) was viewed by many during the civil rights […]

The post Chimurenganyana: Becoming Kwame Ture by Amandla Thomas-Johnson (Oct 2020) first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) was viewed by many during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s as the dashing and eloquent heir to Malcolm X. His call for Black Power and his fiery speeches led to his ascension as the foremost symbol of black militancy. But the threat posed to white America by the triumvirate of Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X would be suppressed as the decade declined to a close. Indeed, X and King would meet death at the escort of gunmen, in ‘65 and ‘68, respectively, and in ‘69, Carmichael would board a plane bound for Guinea, never to return on a permanent basis.

But Kwame Ture lived on for another 30 years and he was as politically active as he had been in the ‘60s. At the time of his death, Ture had become perhaps the foremost Pan-Africanist of his day. He co-founded (with Kwame Nkrumah) and led the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, arguably the most significant Pan-African political party in its heyday, and he established himself as the leading black advocate for Palestinian rights. Why do we know so little about the last 30 years of his life?

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FESTAC 77 BOOK (Oct 2019) Tue, 01 Oct 2019 11:40:01 +0000 Early in 1977, thousands of artists, writers, musicians, activists and scholars from Africa and the black diaspora assembled in Lagos for FESTAC ’77, the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. With a radically ambitious agenda underwritten by Nigeria’s newfound oil wealth, FESTAC ’77 would unfold as a complex, glorious and excessive culmination of a half-century of transatlantic and pan-Africanist cultural-political gatherings.

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Early in 1977, thousands of artists, writers, musicians, activists and scholars from Africa and the black diaspora assembled in Lagos for FESTAC ’77, the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. With a radically ambitious agenda underwritten by Nigeria’s newfound oil wealth, FESTAC ’77 would unfold as a complex, glorious and excessive culmination of a half-century of transatlantic and pan-Africanist cultural-political gatherings.

As told by Chimurenga, this is the first publication to address the planetary scale of FESTAC alongside the personal and artistic encounters it made possible. Featuring extensive unseen photographic and archival materials, interviews and new commissions, the book relays the stories, words and works of the festival’s extraordinary cast of characters.

With: Wole Soyinka, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Ahmed Sékou Touré, Archie Shepp, Miriam Makeba, Allioune Diop, Jeff Donaldson, Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Abdias do Nascimento, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Mario de Andrade, Ted Joans, Nadi Qamar,Carlos Moore, Ayi Kwei Armah, Ama Ata Aidoo, Johnny Dyani, Werewere Liking, Marilyn Nance, Barkley Hendricks, Mildred Thompson, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Jayne Cortez, Atukwei OkaiJonas Gwangwa, Theo Vincent, Lindsay Barrett, Gilberto de la Nuez, Sun Ra and many others.

And featuring new writing from: Akin Adesokan, Moses Serubiri, Harmony Holiday, Semeneh Ayalew, Hassan Musa, Emmanuel Iduma, Michael McMillan, Dominique Malaquais and Cedric Vincent, Molefe Pheto, Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, Hermano Penna, Alice Aterianus.

Published by Chimurenga and Afterall Books, in association with Asia Art Archive, the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College and RAW Material Company, 2019.

The FESTAC 77 publication is available for purchase through our online shop.

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The Chronic: Who Killed Kabila II Mon, 01 Apr 2019 08:07:33 +0000 On January 16, 2001, in the middle of the day, shots are heard in the Palais de Marbre,the residence of President Laurent-Désiré Kabila. The road bordering the presidential residence, usually closed from 6pm by a simple guarded barrier is blocked by tanks. 

The post The Chronic: Who Killed Kabila II first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

On January 16, 2001, in the middle of the day, shots are heard in the Palais de Marbre,the residence of President Laurent-Désiré Kabila. The road bordering the presidential residence, usually closed from 6pm by a simple guarded barrier is blocked by tanks.

At the Ngaliema hospital in Kinshasa, a helicopter lands and a body wrapped in a bloody sheet is off loaded. Non-essential medical personnel and patients are evacuated and the hospital clinic is surrounded by elite troops. No one enters or leaves. RFI (Radio France Internationale) reports on a serious incident at the presidential palace in Kinshasa.

Rumor, the main source of information in the Congolese capital, is set in motion…  

18 years after the assassination of Laurent-Désiré Kabila, rumours still proliferate. Suspects include: the Rwandan government; the French; Lebanese diamond dealers; the CIA; Robert Mugabe; Angolan security forces; the apartheid-era Defence Force; political rivals and rebel groups; Kabila’s own kadogos (child soldiers); family members and even musicians.

The geopolitics of those implicated tells its own story; the event came in the middle of the so-called African World War, a conflict that involved multiple regional players, including, most prominently, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

So, who killed Kabila? The new issue of the Chronic presents this query as the starting point for an in-depth investigation into power, territory and the creative imagination by writers from the Congo and other countries involved in the conflict.

The issue is the result of a three-year research project that included a 5-day intervention and installation at La Colonie (Paris), from December 13 – 17, 2017, which featured a live radio station and a research library, a conceptual inventory of the archive of this murder – all documented in a research catalogue.

As this research revealed, who killed Kabila is no mystery. It is not A or B or C. But rather A and B and C. All options are both true and necessary – it’s the coming together of all these individuals, groups and circumstances, on one day, within the proliferating course of the history, that does it.

Telling this story then, isn’t merely a matter of presenting multiple perspectives but rather of finding a medium able to capture the radical singularity of the event in its totality, including each singular, sometimes fantastical, historical fact, rumour or suspicion. We’ve heard plenty about the danger of the single story – in this issue we explore its power. We take inspiration from the Congolese musical imagination, its capacity for innovation and its potential to allow us to think “with the bodily senses, to write with the musicality of one’s own flesh.”

However, this editorial project doesn’t merely put music in context, it proposes music as the context, the paradigm for the writing. The single story we write borrows from the sebene – the upbeat, mostly instrumental part of Congolese rumba famously established by Franco (Luambo Makiadi), which consists in the lead guitarist playing short looping phrases with variations, supported or guided by the shouts of the atalaku (animateur) and driving, snare-based drumming.

The Invention of Africa by Franco & T.P.OK Jazz – Ntone Edjabe on the Pan African Space Station.

“Franco, c’est l’inventeur du sebene. Parce que… et à coté il y avait Nico Kasanda, le docteur Nico, qui lui avait plus de technique de guitare mais qui jouait très mélodique, et Luambo c’était le mec qui est vraiment le mec du quartier avec sa connaissance intuitive de la guitare il a inventé cet manière de faire des sorte de boucle rythmique. Sa manière de jouer c’est un boucle rythmique. Le même phrase rythmique qui revient tout le temps. Et c’est ça le sebene congolais. Et jusqu’à aujourd’hui nous fonctionnons par sebene. Même moi même.“

Interview on France Inter : « Le labo de Ray Lema du 16 mars 2014 »

Ray Lema shares more stories and sounds from his life in music with Bintou Simporé onboard the Pan African Space Station.
Recorded for PASS in Paris at the Fondation Cartier exhibition Beauté Congo – 1926-2015 – Congo Kitoko. For more visit

Similarly, to follow Ousmane Sembene’s method of using multi-location and polyphony as decolonial narrative tools, we invited writers from the countries directly involved and implicated in the events surrounding Kabila’s death (DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Angola, and a de-territorialised entity called AFDL) to write one story: the assassination of Kabila.

Working fluidly between fact and fiction, and featuring multiple forms of writing, the contributors – Yvonne Owuor, Antoine Vumilia Muhindo, Parselelo Kantai, Jihan El-Tahri, Daniel K. Kalinaki,  Kivu Ruhorahoza, Percy Zvomuya and Sinzo Aanza – use the event-scene of the shooting is their starting point to collectively tell the single story with its multiplication of plots and subplots that challenge history as a linear march, and tell not the sum but the derangement of its parts.

The issue thus performs an imaginative remapping that better accounts for the complex spatial, temporal, political, economic and cultural relations at play, as well the internal and external actors, organized into networks and nuclei – not only human actors but objects; music; images; texts, ghosts etc – and how these actors come together in time, space, relationships.

This edition of the Chimurenga Chronic is conceived as a sebene of the Congolese rumba – enjoy the dance!

The Chronic is a quarterly pan African gazette, published by Chimurenga.

This edition is part of a larger research project of the Chimurenga Library. It is produced with support from Heinrich Boll Foundation (Cape Town), and in collaboration with La Colonie (Paris), Cosmopolis Bienial/ Centre Pompidou (Paris), Marabouparken Konsthall (Stockholm) and Kalmar Konstmuseum.

For more information or to order your print or digital copy visit and/or contact Chimurenga on +27(0)21 4224168 or

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Rumble in the Nile Wed, 10 Jun 2015 14:22:00 +0000 The Nimeiri era remains one of the most beguiling and contradictory in the country’s history. It defined so much of what was to come.

The post Rumble in the Nile first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

By Jamal Mahjoub

The first house we lived in after moving to Khartoum had an air of danger to it. There was something there that didn’t feel right. A small rock garden by the entrance held over a dozen types of cactus. Some had big flat leaves, others furry yellow spines that stuck to your fingers and were impossible to remove. We were warned not to play there – for fear of scorpions. It could have been a scorpion that killed the duck we kept in the back garden. We liked to think it had been a snake after we discovered a sloughed-off skin, desiccated and translucent, on top of a dusty packing case in the disused garage. Our cat staggered in one morning foaming at the mouth with rabies. There were dark corners in that house and it was overshadowed by the ghost of the previous occupant, a man who had managed to electrocute himself by carrying a standing lamp out onto the damp lawn one evening to read by.

It was in that house, my father told me years later, that he had spent the night with some of the conspirators who were involved in the attempted coup of July 1971. He was close friends with several prominent members of the communist party, though he was not himself involved, which is probably why they chose to stay there. They spent the night smoking and drinking, making phone calls, waiting. In the morning he drove them around town in the family car to see what had happened. It soon became apparent that the coup had failed. Nimeiri had managed to mount a counter-coup and the plotters were being rounded up. Many were executed, others fled the country or went into hiding. My father came home that day prepared for the worst. He wrote out forward-dated cheques so that my mother would be able to survive while he was in prison. How far did he go, I wonder? Three months? Six? How long did he think he would be detained? It was out of character, reckless and the most overtly political thing he ever did in his life. The episode had a profound impact on him and his health.

When Jaafar Nimeiri first came to power he seemed invincible. We watched him, young and dynamic, on our old black-and-white Hitachi television, standing up in an open car, riding on the roof of a train, waving an ebony staff, clasping his hands together in fellowship. A man in constant motion. North, south, east, west. He was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Women ululated, men sang and everyone cheered. He was forever opening new development projects: irrigation schemes, engineering colleges, housing complexes. We saw him leaping over bulls that were laid down in the sand before him, their throats slit in sacrifice.

With the signing of the Addis Ababa Agreement of 1972, the civil war in the South came to an end. Not that we had really seen much of the war. It was distant and low-key and seemed more remote than the Palestinian struggle. We were subjected to daily propaganda messages about this struggle: revolutionary songs and images of Fedayeen fighters leaping over trenches, crawling under barbed wire. Palestinian women in rags came to our door asking for food. If we didn’t eat up our lunch, we would be reminded of the children starving in the refugee camps.

The South was a world away, inhabited by the lanky men we saw working on building sites. Wearing cut-off shorts slung over bony hips, they balanced sand in square-sided jerrycans on their heads as they climbed the flimsy scaffolding. It hardly registered that these people might be at war with us for a reason, for a lot of very old reasons.

Nimeiri led a charmed life. Later on he would convince himself that this was not accidental. Once, while leading a column of tanks in the South, he climbed down from the turret to walk back to the vehicle behind him to ask for some snuff. While he was standing there a shell landed on his tank, blowing it to pieces. He was a handsome man who bore a vague resemblance to the boxer Muhammad Ali, who was a hero all across Africa and was to meet George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974 for the famous “Rumble in the Jungle”. Nimeiri epitomised the progress of the nation. Through him we believed we were destined for greatness.

In civics class we learned how the country was developing. There were ambitious five-year plans for this and that. We memorised figures for the amounts of fish hauled from the Nile, for how many hectares of wheat and dura and sugar cane we produced. The photographs in the textbooks revealed a country to be proud of: fields of bobbing white cotton, shiny new factories. We would feed the world, become the breadbasket of Africa. We didn’t need oil. We had water and land enough to grow food for the entire continent.

A year after he came to power, Nimeiri nationalised everything in sight, beginning with the banks and foreign companies, and ending with restaurants and cinemas. He overhauled the administrative system, devolving power back to the nine provinces and away from the capital – a move that would come back to haunt him. The Addis Ababa treaty was the crowning achievement, bringing an end to a civil war that had been going on for 17 years, since before independence. The country was finally at peace with itself. Nimeiri had succeeded where all previous attempts, civil and military governments alike, had failed.

The enigma of who or what Nimeiri really was remains. When he first stepped onto the podium he was a young colonel inspired by Nasser. Like their Egyptian counterparts, the men of the Sudanese Free Officers Movement were driven by discontent. In the South they were fighting a war they could not win, while back in Khartoum the politicians bickered and quarrelled among themselves. The early years held great promise. Nimeiri had come, he declared, to sweep away all that had gone before. He signified modernity and change. Revolutionary purity would purge the system of favouritism, immorality and corruption. The old guard was replaced by new thinkers: academics, technocrats. It was to be about merit rather than personal influence, a radical notion in a society where family and tribal allegiance always trumped ideology.

The nation united behind him.

The Presidential Palace was renamed the People’s Palace. In the schoolyard we did Chinese calisthenics, raising our arms and bending our legs in time to the commands from a military man with a microphone. The nation was energised by socialism. When visiting heads of state arrived we were ushered out of class to stand by the roadside and cheer the presidential cortège. We were part of the collective spirit that united north and south, Christian and Muslim, east and west.

In those first five years Nimeiri went a long way towards setting the country on the path to achieving its potential, something we all dreamed of. He seemed like the embodiment of the promise that lay in the grand idea of a Sudan that was big enough to encompass its own internal contradictions. He came to symbolise the idea of belonging, of inclusiveness, of nationhood.

Behind the popular rhetoric, however, so much of what we wanted to believe turned out to be part of an elaborate fairy tale. Did we hear what we wanted to hear? What began as an adventure, a bold attempt to unite the nation and work towards the greater good of all, ended in pathetic failure. The broad scale of the vision was whittled down to war and starvation, to persecution, bitter recrimination, paranoia, cruelty, sectarianism and superstition.

The adventure was short-lived, but still, those early years remain a reminder of what might have been.

By the late 1970s Nimeiri had begun to believe in his own myth. He became more concerned with re-jigging his story than with making history. In a ghost-written book published in 1978, he claimed that Islam had always been at the core of his thinking. A patent lie, it was a vain attempt to realign himself. By then his health had begun to deteriorate. He suffered from arteriosclerosis and diabetes as well as liver damage from excessive drinking. Significantly, he also survived a number of coups and he came to believe divine intervention had saved his life. He had cheated death by changing his routine – it had to be more than good luck.

How quickly the euphoria of the early years evaporated. A gap emerged between the aspirations of the skilled middle classes and the opportunities available. People moved abroad, crossing the Red Sea for the oil-rich Gulf States. Islamism replaced socialism. In 1979 Hassan al-Turabi, in a move that presaged the Islamist takeover of 1989, was installed as minister of justice. State ownership gave way to economic liberalisation; liquid assets, shares, state land, petrol and gas were sold off. Corruption proliferated. Those closest to Nimeiri profited most. The Islamic banks were brought in. The great development plans vanished in a spiralling confusion of serious debt with bank loans for hundreds of millions of US dollars being borrowed at extortionate rates for projects that never materialised: refineries that were never built, cement factories that never arrived, helicopters delivered that no one had asked for.

Nasser’s death in 1970 marked the end of pan Arabism. The oil boom brought a level of wealth never dreamed of before to the Middle East. To many this new decadence was a betrayal of traditional values. Images of “oil sheikhs” at play in the West were viewed as shameful. They lent wings to a new wave of puritanism sweeping through the region. In Mecca, an apocalyptic sect of radicals seized the Sacred Mosque in a bid to redeem Islam. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat was gunned down in October 1981 by members of the Islamic Group, a radical faction guided by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the same blind imam who later passed through Khartoum only to surface in New Jersey linked to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Centre. Further afield, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and found themselves fighting the Mujahideen.

Nimeiri was ahead of the curve, already riding the Islamist wave. Twelve short years after the Addis Ababa Agreement he imposed Islam on the entire country, reignited the civil war and undid much of what had been achieved. Where he had once sought to eradicate the traditional Islamic parties, now he tried to achieve what they had never managed, what the Mahdi himself had led his followers into battle for 100 years earlier – a pure Islamic state on Earth. The coups, the ill health, everything seemed to be conspiring to push Nimeiri towards his mystic leanings. Like some latter-day King Lear, he descended into the madness of self-delusion, gradually whittling away the country’s political institutions to leave him the unchallenged master, the imam of all imams. His closest advisors were reduced to a secretive palace cabal of religious seers, magicians and soothsayers.

Under the newly imposed September Laws, a personal and brutal interpretation of Sharia, hundreds of people, many of them non-Muslims, were sentenced to amputation of their right hands or cross-amputation – where the right hand and left foot are both removed – for petty crimes. The Sudanese Bar Association concluded that the September Laws were “unconstitutional and not a true reflection of Islamic law”. It hardly made a difference. In an open letter to academics in 1983, Nimeiri likened himself to Haroun al-Rashid, the 8th-century caliph of Abbasid Baghdad. He ordered the release of 13,000 inmates from the city’s prisons. When he addressed them at Kober Prison, Nimeiri told them he had forgiven them, just as the Prophet Mohammed had forgiven the people of Mecca. In a country of saints and Sufis, the president had come to believe in his own divine mission.

In January 1984, a year before he was ousted, Time magazine summed up the state of affairs in the country. President Nimeiri had started the year, it said, by pouring a can of beer into the Nile – the first drop of five million dollars’ worth of alcohol (later estimated at 11 million). Thousands lining the river bank had cheered. Two weeks earlier, wrote the correspondent, a crowd of 500 had watched a thief have his right hand amputated. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of the 200 million acres of arable land in the country was being cultivated. Sudan was US$8 billion in debt and crippled by shortages of goods, skilled workers, even electricity.

In the South, the war was reborn as a religious jihad. At stake was the exploitation of two natural resources, water and oil. As Khartoum went back on its promises a hostile political climate emerged. The South saw its natural resources being lifted from under its very nose. Around the Bentiu area petroleum exploration that had been going on since 1978 suddenly turned serious. Preliminary reports estimated the potential for some 50,000 barrels a day (one-tenth of current figures) which would bring in around US$250 million a year. A refinery was being planned for the northern part of the country. Again, this was not reassuring. It reinforced the impression that the oil would be siphoned out of the South as fast as possible. In March 1984 John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army attacked Chevron’s oil installations and war returned to Sudan.

The Nimeiri era remains one of the most beguiling and contradictory in the country’s history. It defined so much of what was to come: the rise of Islamist politics, the loss of the South, the corruption, the cronyism. From bringing out the best in the nation Nimeiri left us with the worst. Of all the country’s rulers, he was the one who came closest to achieving the dream of a nation united, a nation that celebrated its diversity rather than suppressed it. Like all heroes, he was deeply flawed, convinced in the end that it was not the nation that came first, but himself. By the 1980s, age and mortality were catching up with him. In the end he succumbed, falling back on old prejudices, seeing his role as ruler as his God-given right. The decade is remembered now for the images of famine in Eritrea that turned Africa into a helpless child holding out an empty bowl. Africa was once again reduced to the notion of the continent as an unfathomable, endless catastrophe. It was a sad end.

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Who Killed Kabila I Fri, 01 Dec 2017 08:12:16 +0000 The Chimurenga Library is a research platform that seeks to re-imagine the library as a laboratory for extended curiosity, new adventures, critical thinking, daydreaming, socio-political involvement, partying and random perusal.

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From December 13 – 17, 2017, Chimurenga installed a library of books, films, and visual material mapping extensive research that ask “Who Killed Kabila“, as the starting point for an in-depth investigation into power, territory and the creative imagination. This book catalogues all the research material produced and collected for this installation.

The equation is simple: the length of a Congolese president’s reign is proportional to his/her willingness to honour the principle that the resources of the Congo belong to others. Mzee Kabila failed.

Who killed Kabila is no mystery either. It is not A or B or C. But rather A and B and C. All options are both true and necessary – it’s the coming together of all these individuals, groups and circumstances, on one day, within the proliferating course of the history, that does it.

So telling this story isn’t merely be a matter of presenting multiple perspectives but rather of finding a medium able to capture the radical singularity of the event in its totality, including each singular, sometimes fantastical, historical fact, rumour or suspicion.

We’ve heard plenty about the danger of the single story – we want to explore its power. We take inspiration from the Congolese musical imagination, its capacity for innovation and its potential to allow us to think “with the bodily senses, to write with the musicality of one’s own flesh” (Mbembe).

The catalogue is now available for sale in the Chimurenga shop.

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Chimurenganyana: Rumblin’ by Dominique Malaquais (June 2012) Wed, 30 May 2012 15:16:30 +0000 A text and image reflection on the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the […]

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A text and image reflection on the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the Muhammad Ali / George Foreman boxing match held in Kinshasa in 1974. Norman Mailer started The Fight, Dominique Malaquais punched back. Artwork by Kakudji.

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A Day in the Life of Idi Amin Mon, 27 May 2019 10:52:44 +0000 The hot dry breeze is lazy. It glides languorously collecting odd bits of paper, they tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground.

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by Binyavanga Wainaina

Monday. The hot dry breeze is lazy. It glides languorously collecting odd bits of paper, they tease the ground, threaten to take flight, tease the ground. Every so often there is a gathering of force and a tiny tornado whips the paper into the air, swirls dust around, dogs lift their ears, tongues lolling, then burrow their faces between their forelegs as the wind collapses, exhausted.

Children are in school, long lines of spittle reaching their desks as they try to keep awake. From the roof of the town, the giant hum of Menengai crater, it looks as if the flamingos are a giant cloth rising from the lake in a hot shimmering line and revealing blue, and falling and turning the lake pink again.

Vishal is at the library. His brother in school. Mr Shah at work.

Idi Amin Dada is hunched over Mrs Gupta Shah like an insistent question mark, jabbing.  She is chewing hard at a bit of blue-gold and red sari, trying to keep from screaming out loud; they had put on a movie video and set it loud to muffle the sounds.

On the screen Idi can see a pouty maiden at the edge of a cliff, and a man with a giant quiff of hair and sideburns sings in a shrill voice. She leaps off the cliff, and he follows her in a few seconds. They lie draped elegantly at the bottom of the valley; their fingers touch and they die, then the Hindi music escalates in intensity, goes beyond drama, beyond melodrama, and achieves genuine Bombay Belodrama.


This is Idi’s room, is also Idi’s afternoon workplace. Has been for fifteen years. This morning, every weekday morning, Idi drops Mr Shah at the Nakuru Grain Millers, the family business; then he drops the petulant Maharajah at school:  The Shah Preschool Academy.

The Maharajah’s mother begs him to get into the car. Mr Shah remains silent, fingers tap the steering wheel. If Vishnu was around, he would have something sarcastic to say. You going to cry now, Maharajah? The Maharaja starts crying.

As soon as the car leaves the factory gate in Industrial Area, yes sir, afende sir, Amin smiles at Mr Shah. The Maharajah wriggles to the front passenger seat of the Peugeot 504 fuel injection, eyes dry and happy.

Once or twice a week, if they have a few minutes, Idi stops at the kiosk near General Hospital where his Ugandan friend, Simon sells sweets, and buys 10 goody-goodys for the boy.

Simon punches Idi on the shoulder and announces his fame, as the crowds of sick look on, all waiting for some kind of attention at the hospital. Or the groups of young men who wait for somebody to park a car and pick out labour for a day of heaving things around for ten shillings, or slapping cement, or digging a pit latrine. It is a good place to have a kiosk. Somebody always needs a loaf of bread, or some milk. There are schools nearby too. And a church. The nurses. The railway. The path across the hospital, past the cemetery, and into town.

‘You see this man, you see this man, you know he was the Boxing Champion of Uganda, this man.’

They would get back into the car, the boy flushed with excitement. Sometimes Idi put his mouth on the boy’s stomach and made burping noises. Rajesh would laugh, and laugh until he would start to cry with joy.


Piles of freshly ironed clothes sat on a boat-shaped basin next to the bed, clothes Idi had ironed the night before. Vishal’s bookshelf had been moved to this room after he left for Oxford: the top shelf was full of Louis L’Amour cowboy thrillers; the bottom shelf held a copy of Heart of Darkness, scribbled all over with A-Level notes, and next to it sat V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.

Mrs Shah gave a low gnashing response that blew soft cardamom-flavoured wind into Idi’s ear.

He loved ironing. Every afternoon he would put on some Bollywood film, and turn the Shah family’s washing into crisp battalions of soldiers. He loved shrugging shirts into broad, identical shoulders, arranging them in wardrobes, watching them stand at attention. They were his to command. A Natural Leader, his sergeant had called him. The room was once a stable, but was now a Servant’s Quarter. At 6 pm exactly he would go to the shower, and smoke some weed mixed with loose tobacco.

Sometimes he dreamed of the embrace of a Luganda woman – sucking at his nerve endings like a fish; turning and twisting him around; smelling not of ginger but of steamed bananas and Nilo beer. Once he blew his whole salary on a woman he met at a bus-station who told him she was a sega.


The 1960s were full of landslides: as the British Administration screeched to a halt those that were waiting for a trajectory to come and grab hold of them were left stranded.

Everything changed for Idi. He had considered going back to Uganda, but he did not know what to do without a new commander. Sergeant Jones had died. Idi had enemies there. Akol – his junior – was close to Obote at independence. From the same village. He had hoped to get word of some opening, a friend in the right place. None had come.

In 1970, he was about to give up; was about to hitchhike to Uganda and sell illegal liquor in Arua like his mother had done, when he found a frail Indian man being pulverised by a 10-year-old parking boy outside the wholesale market, with market women cheering the boy.

He had rescued the man. Mr Shah. And he had got a job. It wasn’t bad. Mrs Shah was the same as Sergeant Jones: insistent, fanatical about time, a goddess of routine. Mr. Shah was polite. Idi had joined the army as soon as age would allow it. It was his way out of a life that seemed aimless. His mother had sold liquor, was a camp follower, had had several army officers. At thirteen, he had beaten up a thirty-year old Acholi private who had slapped his mother.

At fifteen he was six foot four, and when Sergeant Jones had seen him walking in Arua he had offered him a place in the army at once. Jones would spend hours with Idi in the boxing ring, teaching him new skills. He loved to punch Idi softly; to wipe sweat off Idi’s back; to test out Idi’s muscles. Always gruffly.

Idi loved to catch Mau Maus. One day, after winning a boxing match, he got drunk and came to the barracks with a prostitute. The sentry refused to let him in. Amin left him unconscious on the floor. Jones found him in the barracks the next morning. He slapped Idi twice. Hard.

Idi did not talk to anybody for days. Three days later, after he had won the Gilgil Barracks Boxing Crown for a second time, Jones patted him on the back, and Idi grinned widely and said:

‘Now I am the bull afande.’

‘You’re a good lad, Idi. A good lad.’


Mr Shah liked to spend the morning working on his novel:


He was already 1 000 words into the preface: It is the only way to make a National Profit from hundreds of years of British Rule: the more territory we control, the more we can dictate the cost of raw materials, the final profit will be manned by our rupees,  our shillings and our guns. Mother India should be Lords of the Commonwealth. Why let the English carry us on their backs! Why build afresh when we can inherit what is already there? The Desais will keep the books, the Amins will manage the farms. We can take the skills the British brought, and add them to the world.

His first-born son, Vishal, is disdainful of the book.

‘Xenophobic polemic Daddi-ji. V.S. says the Indian industrial revolution is petty and private. We are greedy. V.S. says we are ‘a society that is incapable of assessing itself, which asks no questions because ritual and myth have provided all the answers, that we are a society that has not learned ‘rebellion’. Maybe you need to read some real literature before writing this. The Russians…’

Since he came back from England, Vishal had treated his parents as if they were trinkets: colourful mantelpiece trinkets who chimed once in a while, could only be treated with contempt.

Last year at a birthday party, Vishal had composed a song which he liked to sing at birthday parties to scandalise everybody (except the Marxist Habajan Singh, who liked his mettle). He sang it to the tune of a nursery school song about a Kookaburra.

Duka-wallah sit by de ole Neem tree

Merry Merry King of da Street is he

Run Dukawallah run

Dukawallah burn

Dukawallah hide your cash and flee


It started with small things. She would scrub her heel with a stone, until it bled. It was better when they had had the shop. Ramesh did not come home any more for lunch. He ate fruit. They took turns. Now, she woke with a surging panic, as her days could not fill up. The house extensions were finished. At night it seemed, sometimes, that the earthworms were coming. They were shifting everything, turning up the earth, dark and whispering. The previous month four families on the street had left. Ramesh would not hear of it. Start again where? Then Vishal was gone. They sat there, on her wall, the certificates. For hockey. First place in Biology and Art. Duchess of Gloucester school, Pangani.

When she was twelve, she had wrestled her bigger brother to the ground. Her mother had found her pounding his face. She had stayed in her room for days, dreaming of becoming Sally, an Air Hostess. Jane, a Trauma Nurse.

Sitting for tea at Nakuru Sweet Mart with friends some days, she pinched herself under the table, harder and harder, and a satisfying tingle ran up her back as she dabbed her tears and said, they are so strong, these onions, fresh, as they talked about ways to hide gold.


Between 2 and 4 pm you can find Idi Amin at Nakuru Boxing Club. For years he has been the Nakuru Boxing Champion. He is getting older now, and some young bucks are challenging. Modesty Blaise Wekea is short. Very short. It is said he once lifted a plough over his head while working as a casual in the wheat fields of Masailand. He is copper-coloured to Idi’s black. It is his speed – the unbelievable speed of those bowed legs with thighs the size of a grown man’s waist. But there is something else. When Amin first exploded onto the Nakuru boxing scene people saw a future world champion, ‘Aii Alikuwa kama myama!’ he was like an animal: the discipline of the army added to his natural ferocity to make him unbeatable.

He had no wife; many lovers: yellow Gikuyu women desperately looking for a man with some skills – they complained that Gikuyu men were disdainful of frills, saw sex as a quick efficient drill; wira ni wira – work is work. Idi’s size, his soft and gentle eyes and wicked smile.

He has a son, in Ronda. Twin daughters in Naivasha. In ’57, in Kamirithu, a woman once came to the barracks, screaming. She unknotted her baby-kanga, and put the baby on the ground. She stood at the gates, tearing her clothes off, and screaming in Gikuyu as the men laughed. One of the guards tried to stop her, and she slapped him. Where is he? Where is he? Idi was away, in Kabete Police Post, drinking. The woman walked away, leaving the baby crying. She got to the fence of the forced village, was just about to walk through the ditch that surrounded it, dug by her and other women, when she turned and ran back. She picked the baby up, and walked away, past the village probably, they speculated, to Nairobi, where the orphans, the rejected, the divorced, the accused all disappeared. The city was now sealed by barbed wire and police posts, Gikuyus all but banned, but people got in, and people got out.

After his sparring session with a nervous young man with even larger limbs than his, a young man so scared he could probably kill in fear, Idi had a soda with an old friend.

Godwin, the only fellow Kakwa in Nakuru. Godwin Pojulu was a tailor for an Indian family: the Khans. Idi speaks his language badly; he spoke better in Luo and Acholi and Kiswahili, army languages. Here in Kenya, all of them were Nubians. Sudanese were only Nubians.

But when he was six or seven his mother had taken him to Yei town in Sudan – and he had fallen in love with the mango-lined avenues.  Children were generally a nuisance in the colonial Labour Lines of Arua; in his maternal grandfather’s home, just off Maridi road, five miles from Yei was heaven. He was free to run and play as far as he wanted. Adults would swell to accommodate him – he would eat in the homes of strangers.

Godwin speaks to him about Sudan. About Inyanya 1 – the war. About old heroic days; about rumour and gossip coming from Yei town. They would eat soda and mandazi and talk till the people left their offices and the surge of workers coming from the factories set Godwin to work.


At five-thirty, before the last sun, Idi heads to Eunice’s for supper. He loves that walk – the railway, with its long straight one-roomed homes, reminds him of his childhood in various labour lines, near various railways stations.

One-roomed homes – with kei apple green doors looking across at each other. He arrives at Eunice’s. Clothes flap on the line directly above him, and other clothes are being washed at one tap by young girls and wives.

The buildings are very old, some of the oldest in the country, as old as the railway – the origin and spine of what we now call Kenya. Green fungi well on the open pipes, and green tears stream down peeling walls. A toy safari-rally car leans by a wall streaked with the scribbles of children: OTC =Onyango Twende Choo.

Wire is shaped into the frame of a car and held together with thin strips cut from the inner tube of a car tyre, complete with a long steering wheel for a child to grip and run in any direction, making hooting and growling sounds. Railway children make the best wire cars – crouched and snarling, with steering that makes the wheels turn; with paper mudguards, number plates and springy aerials thrust from the back of the car.

In some of the ceilings, under the old corrugated iron roof, young men keep carrier pigeons and feathers are clustered in the roof drains.

Eunice is sprawled on the grass, elbow crossed over her eyes, sleeping and her whole body receiving the sun. The smell of fish, dry fish, cooking fish, and boiling, bitter green vegetables is everywhere. Two women are getting their hair plaited on the sparse patch of grass between the parallel single-room buildings. Both their heads are held at the knee by their hairdressers, legs wide open. There is a pile of discarded pea-pods, sukuma-wiki stems and potato peels next to the tap, covered with a large web of slime. Brackish, soapy water glides out into an open drain where ducklings swim. Ducks with mossy muddy bellies wander about. The women are talking, and don’t stop when they see him standing awkwardly near the tap. Eunice is still napping.

‘I have never seen someone like that one. Chu chu chuuu…all the time. Hizo piston zake hazikwisha.’

‘Ah – huyo hana brakes.’

They all laugh.

‘He is an engineer – a Goan. He has women all over the railway line. Here he has three in Njoro, and you know this is not even a proper station. So – he was here last night, and he brought a Burnt Forest malaya here – she looked Indian or ShellyShelly. They kept us up the whole night. Chuuchuuu. Even my son woke up, and came to my bed and asked who was screaming, and I said, ah, Daddy, that’s the train screaming. Can’t you hear. Choo chooo!’

All the women laugh.

Eunice. She is not young. In her fifties even. Straight, and lean with sharp buttocks outlined against her lesso, and very short gray hair, cut like a boy’s.

Her head is the pot gently placed on a long straight neck, where it rocks slowly from side to side; chipped and fading gold loop metal earrings wobble; hips and buttocks are a pendulum of tight flesh. Her back is perfectly straight.

She catches Idi’s eye and slips past the open door, where four quarters are carefully divided by old sarongs into four rooms.


The only person in the household who threatens Idi’s job is Vishal. Since Vishal came back from England, with a cockney accent and black power talk.

‘Daddi-ji, you need to read V.S. Naipaul. He understands the black man. He is a Supermasculine Menial Daddi-ji. Read Cleaver.’

That night, Mrs Gupta surprised her husband by defending Vishal. She was bent over, head between her thighs, hair over her face, brushing the back of it, metres long, as Ramesh railed, ‘Are we sending him to Cambridge to become a black man?’

Idi has been with the family now for fifteen years. Two years ago he cornered three thugs and beat them all up, and left with a knife-wound in his belly.

He is afraid of only one thing. The market. Those women. Whenever he is shopping there, for the Shahs, he can see their eyes measuring, and whispers surge when he turns his back to leave. One day, he heard Thief! Thief! And he started to run. The whole market, a moment ago, was a puddle of fast-moving ants, now it was an arrow, chasing to kill, an arrow surrounded by cheering crowds. He turned into the road to Section 58, and knew himself to be safe. He could see women in saris walking, gently gossiping and laughing. The invisible boundaries of colour still stood, fifteen years after independence.

Later, he wondered whether they were chasing him, or somebody else. He sends Godwin, when Memsahib is too preoccupied to go to buy vegetables.


Every Monday, at 5 pm, Mr Shah stops at George Karanja’s office near the Town Hall. George is an old friend. Karanja’s father arranged shelves for the family shop for many years. Ramesh’s father paid George’s school fees for primary school. George and Ramesh studied at Kenya Institute of Administration together. Ramesh left afterwards, to study economics in England. George entered the civil service.

They have tea, and talk about the old days. Kenyatta’s portrait is on the wall, red eyes burning and a flywhisk in hand. He leaves an envelope with the secretary, with four thousand shillings. George is a sleeping partner in the business.

They say George meets with the Mzee every Sunday, in that pavilion that faces the flamingos near Lake Nakuru, that place Kenyatta likes so much. Old women sing and dance for him, and he watches the sunset every Sunday. Ramesh does not know whether it is luck or George’s intervention that has kept his stock coming through the port, his business running, nobody walking in to claim it all. He does not ask.

They will rule this country one day, he thinks, those old Gikuyu market women, the singing women, with their coin-counting ways, so frugal.

‘In a subsistence economy,’ his father had once said, tugging his long beard, behind the shelf of the shop, as he received as barter a tin can of milk from an old Tugen man, who took away some tobacco and a tin whistle, ‘you can save everything you earn. Keep your spending subsistent,’ he said, ‘and your earning modern. Do you know what brought them all to the shops? Sugar. Sugar and tobacco. The missionaries used to give them free tea with a lot of sugar. They left home to look for work, first, to afford sugar, and tobacco.’


It had started recently with Memsahib.

Idi was on his way from the kitchen with a big mug of sweet tea, and had caught her wailing in the living room, a day after Vishal had gone to Oxford. He had tried to slide backwards slowly out of the room; but she had leapt at him and grabbed him and wept on his shoulder, leaving long snail-trails of snot on his khaki shirt. Her mood had changed abruptly, and she had attacked him: teeth and nails; her body incoherent.

This change, this new erratic thing to deal with troubles him. Most times, he does not mind being a House Boy.

This piece was first published in Chimurenga Volume 14 – Everyone Has Their Indian (April 2009). To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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THIRD CLASS CITY Mon, 05 Oct 2020 10:24:01 +0000 South Africa thinks that India owes it one for putting Gandhi through revolution school; India thinks South Africa owes it for sending him over to show the natives how it’s done.

The post THIRD CLASS CITY first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

by Achal Prabhala

I prayed for laughter, a life without hunger. I was answered with paradoxes.

It remains an enigma how it came to be that I was born smiling.

— Ben Okri, The Famished Road

In August 2005, Special Assignment ran a story on how corrupt police officers in Johannesburg were making the daily life of African immigrants pure hell. Newspapers gave the story breathless coverage, top police officials exploded under the ensuing media scrutiny and the city let out a collective gasp of disbelief – African immigrants! Police brutality! Here? My…God.

Concerned journalists quickly informed us that Nigerians were human beings too, some savvy Congolese gents informed the South African Parliament that foreigners wanted nothing more than to proselytise entrepreneurship. And then, almost as quickly as it had emerged, the cottage industry of righteous indignation was displaced to make way for that man of the masses Mr. Zuma and his black, bullet-proof Humvee.

Possessing a somewhat better memory than the South African Broadcasting Corporation, I remember another Special Assignment show from last year: the “degradation” of Port Elizabeth. It was a typically ambitious story, covering everything from decaying buildings to loud nightclubs to congregations of people in public places, and crowned by urbanology’s favourite symptom – “drugs.” Without so much as a blush, it confirmed that when good cities go bad, there’s usually a simple explanation: Nigerians.

As a subcontinental Indian once resident in South Africa, now back home, I can confirm that gushingly reproducing this thesis is not the favoured pastime of South African media alone. New Delhi’s leading organ, the Times of India (once a respectable newspaper, now one long advertorial) is filled with stories of drug busts – involving the invariable gang of Nigerians and an occasional Kenyan. Its not that I doubt Nigerian involvement in the drugs trade, yet I’m left indignant by headlines such as “Nigerian, 2 others held for drug peddling” – especially when the “2 others” happen to be Indian, and their approximately one thousand unnamed customers happen to be rich Indian kids.

But Delhi is not generally known for its sensitivity. Bangalore, the city I call home, is a lot more laid-back. It counts a population of about seven million, and hogs considerable column space as India’s Silicon Valley. Lately it’s become a pretty common noun. From Nebraska to New York, “Bangalored!” is the manner in which unemployed Americans describe the predicament of outsourcing. India’s middle-class English press loves to play this up. Hacks and hackers alike thrive on the colony-gives-it-back sentiment, and local politicians adore Kerry for saying, “If Bangalore can be completely wired, then so should all of America.”

I suppose billionaires make better role models than beggars, never mind that something like a third of Bangalore’s population lives in slums. Faced with abject poverty, the only thing that gets street children wired is a furtive sniff of glue. With all that campaign money, one would think that Kerry could have bought better information.

Thankfully, there are other stories here – like the foreign student, a longstanding fixture on Bangalore’s social scene. With its evidently temperate climate, its apparently temperate people, and an abundance of college seats, the young and the restless come from Palestine, Iran, Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria. In the early 1980s, in the thick of an import-substitution economy, when “foreign” meant making the impossibly expensive one-hour journey to Sri Lanka, African and Arab students were gaped at with admiration for their Western ways and blue jeans. African modernity hit its highest note in Bangalore when Osibisa rolled into town, drums, afros, and world peace in tow, sending the city into a delirium that would last several years.

That was then. Now, Bangalore is the nerve centre of the world’s economy and boarding the plane to Sunnyvale, California is about as exotic as driving a Toyota Corolla. But in its eagerness to accommodate the sudden influx of high-income foreigners, Bangalore’s middle-class seems to have misplaced a somewhat lowlier cosmopolitanism that always existed. Last December, I noticed an article on hair braiding in The Hindu, the staid newspaper beloved by South India’s old left. It harked back to an era of blasé worldliness, before we started treating the 15 Swedish families resident in Bangalore as a media event. The article – “Curious Curls” – explained the process and suggested options for young African women on the lookout for a compliant hair salon. It was written by John Patrick Ojwando – from Kenya, I would learn, and a PhD student in neighbouring Mysore – whose byline continued to appear regularly, on articles that had nothing to do with African students or braided hair.

The foreign student isn’t the story anymore. He is writing them. My friends told me that the city’s most sought-after yoga instructor was an Iranian Muslim. This was very civilised, and my ensuing happiness, somewhat rational. What was not quite explainable was my secret delight at seeing African names and faces pop up in society columns, or the mesmerised stare I levelled at a bevy of female African models who descended on a quiet bar that I went to last week, or the fascination I have with Hanes underwear, which (inexplicably) uses middle-aged African models in their Indian advertisements.

However, the truth is that African students still face plenty of hostility wherever they study in India, and the fact that the average South Indian complexion is not unlike its African counterpart means not very much – this is, after all, the largest regional market for Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely” skin cream.

And up there in the geopolitical trapeze, the Indian government is swinging about hoping to catch a Euro-American rope. Once, Nehru and Nyerere were ideological allies for an alternative planet, but the days of the Non-Aligned movement are over. Frontline magazine sums up the current state of Indo-African relations: “In recent years, African sensitivities have been repeatedly ignored by India as it single-mindedly seeks a power profile. No senior minister from the government turned up to sign the condolence book at the Sudanese Embassy after the death of John Garang. The previous National Democratic Alliance government was no better. Nobody bothered to turn up at the Tanzanian High Commission after the passing away of Julius Nyerere.”

Which basically means that we now treat other third-worlders with the contempt that they deserve. “Immigrant communities have always been open to unashamed pigeonholing and haranguing from the media, the state and its citizens,” writes Sonia Faleiro in Tehelka, a weekly newspaper that looks and reads like South Africa’s Mail & Guardian. In one of the few articles that actually asks Nigerians, Iranians and Nepalis to tell us how they’re treated here, Faleiro also finds out what we think of them: “Nigerians are drug peddlers, Nepalis will rob you in your sleep, Russians will sell their bodies for the right price and Bangladeshis are slum dwellers.”

An Indian surgeon who travelled to Durban for a conference wrote an article in The Hindu, lamenting that Gandhi’s former home in Phoenix is “neglected and unvisited,” finding its state of disrepair a huge disappointment. South Africa thinks that India owes it one for putting Gandhi through revolution school; India thinks South Africa owes it for sending him over to show the natives how it’s done. Now, as an admirer of Gandhi who feels no need to be apologetic about it, I’m wondering if the local reluctance to claim Gandhi as a struggle icon has anything to do with a complaint he made in 1896 – that Europeans in South Africa were equating Indians with the “raw kaffir, whose occupation is hunting and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with, and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

“We are all in the gutter,” Oscar Wilde said, “But some of us are looking at the stars.”

And doing it indolently and nakedly to boot. Bangalore wants to be Singapore when it grows up. Johannesburg wants to be San Francisco, London and Tokyo, all at once (this is not my imagination; it’s the city’s Vision 2030).  Both yearn to become hubs on the international conference circuit, though liberation has them confused about the profile of their ideal visitor: fat wallets a must, dark skin a plus. One thing I know for sure. Neither Bangalore nor Johannesburg wants to become like the other. Both cities are transfixed by the idea of being “world-class.”

And when citizens and city-planners from Johannesburg and Bangalore hop around the world for inspiration, the very last place they will think of visiting is Lagos. But this will be their loss. As Johannesburg frets about how to keep the slums where they are, faraway from the glittering malls, and Bangalore worries about how to move its slums so that it can build glittering malls, I imagine that master-planners in both cities are tossing in their sleep with a shared nightmare: the prospect of Lagosification. 

Of course, one wonders what it is exactly about Lagos that makes Johannesburg sweat. Safer streets? Less gun crime? Abundant services? Cheap food? Public transport? A thriving informal economy? A vibrant film industry? Bangalore’s fears are entirely different, since, strictly speaking, Lagos is a familiar city. What we don’t quite have is precisely what Lagos oozes from every pore: attitude. It’s why we say the word empowerment very softly – shhh, or people might actually realise what they can do.

For the record, I don’t live in a slum, and like most slum-dwellers, I wouldn’t want to if I could afford not to. I don’t like traffic jams, whether in Bangalore or Lagos, and when I’m away from Johannesburg, I frequently dream of its smooth highways. And occasionally, I like to shop in a controlled environment. But that’s it. Otherwise, I’m grateful I grew up in a city where I couldn’t escape the very poor, even if the authorities are doing their best to change that now. And I think it’s healthier to live with an acknowledgement that the world isn’t all middle-class, clean and aesthetically pleasing and never will be; that roads reek of urine because some people have no choice; that streets crowded with cyclists and buses are a good thing, for it means that people who can’t afford air-conditioned SUVs have the power to move.

The world-class city is a daunting prospect: it sounds like a club that won’t let me in without the right shoes. I prefer third-class cities, the kind you can feel stirring in Ajegunle, Yeoville and Shivajinagar. They’re shabby, comfortable places, equally welcoming of the poor, the rich and the alien; they shrug off the idea that they’re necessary evils with an easy grin. They lack that inflated sense of place that deludes the world-class city into taking itself seriously.

I can’t imagine that Bangalore will ever become as spatially segregated as Johannesburg is today, and I can’t see the Johannesburg status quo lasting forever. As one city wills itself into becoming London, and the other trips over itself to catch up with Singapore, I like to think that both cities might end up looking a lot more like each other, malls, stalls and all.

And partly responsible for this discomfiting democracy will be the Lagos germ – travelling undetected in conversations, slipping into cities through the imagination of its people, manifesting itself as a constant itch under the skin of a well-scrubbed world, inducing a condition that is as unpleasant, uplifting, disturbing, enjoyable and inevitable as necessary.

This article first appeared in print in Chimurenga Magazine 8 – We’re All Nigerian (December 2005).
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Islam between Françafrique and Afrabia Tue, 09 Jun 2015 22:50:56 +0000 Needless to say, Françafrique was not the only constellation of capital and culture on offer at the time of African political independence.

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By Wendell Hassan Marsh

Upon his invasion of Egypt in 1798, Napoleon had a message for those Muslims suffering under Ottoman dominion. He would liberate Egypt and Islam and make them liberal, modern. Using rhetorical formulae and forms of argumentation put together by his army of Orientalists, Napoleon superficially provided the material that his critics at home would use to argue that he had strayed from Christianity (and that some Muslims use today), that Ali Bonaparte had converted to Islam and placed the Islamic message at the centre of the republican idea. This reading fails to grasp the instrumentalisation of Islam that would characterise French imperial policy for a long time to come.

As historian David Robinson has argued, this instrumentalisation of Islam for the purpose of governing Muslim subjects is precisely what transformed France into a Muslim power over the course of the 19th century. Algeria was the laboratory in which the techniques and technologies of this instrumentalisation were worked out. Non-binding legal decrees were used to legitimate French rule and the sharīʿah in general was systematised so as to be useful to a rationalised colonial administration. Khalil’s Mukhtasar, an important guide to the dominant Maliki legal school, was translated into French and used by colonial administrators. In fact, an entire complex of translation through the training of interpreters and teachers was critical in making colonial control complete. Beyond language and law, France supported and sometimes organised a range of Islamic institutions that connected religious practice in its colonial possessions with the so-called Islamic heartlands, in order to make possible the kinds of relationships that could be beneficial to it while limiting others that were not. Finally, networks of clerics and religious associations in the form of Sufi brotherhoods were used to distribute state resources and serve as a general buffer between people and the colonial state.

This model of Islamic governance à la française was pioneered in Algeria, but it did not come into its own until the French incorporated West Africa into their sphere of Muslim possessions. Here a careful balance was kept between the administrative unity of north-western Africa and the political fragmentation that resulted from the construction of racialised concepts of Black Islam and Moorish Islam that developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This kept Islam, as much as the universalist religion would allow, local, vernacular, and administrative, that is, apolitical.

The forms of political violence that invoked the name of Islam during the recent attacks in Paris signal deep continuities with French imperialism. I do not mean this in a “chickens come home to roost” kind of way, but the political use of Islamic idioms and institutions were in many ways pioneered by the French and the strands of Islamism imbued by the neoliberalism of the day have as much in common with Western faith in the market as it differs. As Michel Houellebecq’s novel Soumission, which depicts the electoral victory of a moderate Islamist party on the masses of children of imperialism in 2022 France, the prospects of a liberal Islam are not so unimaginable. In fact, it has long been imagined by Africans, Arabs, and many of the French in between.   

Françafrique and Afrabia

Colonialism, as theorised by the likes of Samir Amin, meant the extroversion of African economies and societies, an orientation that left the periphery dependent on the centre.  On top of the material interests in exportation of raw resources and the consumption of refined products was also a trade in a corresponding veneer of specific ideas and cultural forms accumulated through the trajectory of Europe’s historical experience. While there was an important movement of migratory labour that would eventually provide antagonistic forces from below in both France and Africa, the most important movement of people that would result in the dominant ideology within French West African countries was the movement of would-be intellectuals from the colony to the metropole for their education and training. Their education in the French language and indoctrination into republican ideals made them a comprador managerial class that could do little to claim their own autonomy. In a way, the implicit deal was that in exchange for its wealth, Africa could claim to be part and parcel of the civilisation of the universal. It too could decorate its halls with Greco-Roman motifs and sport coats of arms reminiscent of mediaeval crusaders.

“Françafrique” has been used as a term to describe a particular kind of privileged relationship that tied France to its former colonial interests in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa. What does privilege mean between the subject and its coloniser, if not a euphemism used to smooth over structures of subordination and dependency that characterised the uniquely neocolonial moment in the 1960s and 1970s? Senegal enjoyed this dubious privilege more than any other former colonial possession, that is, except its primary competitor, the Ivoirian exception. In Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal alike, the colonial enterprise has famously been understood as a civilising mission. Embedded within the privileged relationship are the effects of a missionary activity that sought to impose modernity, a secularised Christianity. Unlike Côte d’Ivoire and its form of settler-colonialism – which saw the direct importation, application and appropriation of French civilisational frameworks, institutions and language – the administration of Senegal required that colonialists do something with the millennium-long presence of the civilisational content associated with Islam.

Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor, both embodied and enacted this relationship, this fusion of France and Afrique. Taken prisoner-of-war for the sake of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity à la française during World War II, Senghor maintained French citizenship and French interests while serving as the country’s leader for 20 years of nominal independence. It was in this position, situated between the French mainland and its dispersed former subjects, that Senghor advocated for a Frenchness that transcended territory in the form of the Francophonie, the French-speaking world. He would eventually be named an “Immortal” by the French Academy, an eternal protector of the French language and culture. A Catholic by conviction, Senghor dealt with Islam and its language, Arabic, as ambiguously as the colonial authorities that preceded him. Like the French, he used Islam and Arabic to mediate between the state and the hard-to-represent peasant masses outside of the civil society of the four communes of Dakar, Saint-Louis, Gorée and Rufisque, while being cautious of the risks of transnational linkages that Islam could help to channel and encourage.

Françafrique describes much more than a life history or even the ideology of a comprador bourgeoisie situated to profit from the preservation of structures of subordination; rather, it describes an orientation, an entire series of central references, political commitments, standards of value, idioms of expression, forms of action. Alternatively, or additionally, we can describe it as a circuit through which economic, political, and cultural capital flows. The orientation of francophone Africa is often discussed in the secular terms of republican laïcité and thus has often not had to consider the place of Islam, in the singular or plural, in the maintenance or resistance of that orientation. But is secularism not disenchanted Christianity? The French military re-entry into the Sahel after the Mali crisis, and its other adventures in the Muslim world, beg the question: what is the relationship of a so-called Islamic civilisation to the secular (Christian) modernity of Françafrique?

Needless to say, Françafrique was not the only constellation of capital and culture on offer at the time of African political independence. While the bureaucratic and intellectual elite ran through these well-established circuits between France and its colonies and neo-colonies, there have also been different circuits between African countries and Arab countries within Africa and in the Middle East that have long been developing and now achieving critical mass. Some circuits have had deep historical precedents, as “seeking knowledge” and pursuing trade have rendered Muslims, no matter their ethnic composition, highly mobile. This mobility was feared and suppressed during the colonial period even as French and British powers relied on Muslim intermediaries, thus creating isolated and vernacular articulations of Islam. These circuits transformed and multiplied after independence through funding, sending and receiving teachers and students, and establishing institutions. These forms of direct collaboration intensified with the oil boom of the 1970s and have exploded since the liberalisation of pseudo-socialist African countries in the 1990s and the hatchet jobs against African states by the Bretton Woods organisations.

Scholar Ousmane Kane has called these Africans who have received Arabo-Islamic education in their home countries and in Arab states, “non-Europhone intellectuals”. The growth of this body of educated people, often more comfortable in Arabic than in French and more faithful to Islam than committed to the articles of secular faith, has presented a challenge to a social structure and economy that privileges a relationship with the francophone world. Upon their return, former students have often had an orientation to the Arab world that has not been limited to ritual prayer. Scholars such as Réné Otayak have suggested this group might constitute a counter-elite that could lead people in a different direction with a critique of the West founded on a certain Afro-pessimism. It is true that many students returned resentful of the experience of racism and disillusioned with the worldly realities of once idealized Arabs living in society. But many of those returnees have nevertheless come back as nodes in networks that run through the Arab world more than the francophone one. While many so-called experts identify this elite as a vector of radicalisation, it is highly fragmented and its precise relationship with the local masses, the mainstream elite, and external actors in the Middle East and the West is highly differentiated and at times contradictory.

Since the decade of decolonisation, the world has indeed seen dramatic changes in its political economy. The ideological defeat of state socialism, which had dominated African politics until the end of the Cold War and the neoliberal onslaught in the early 1990s, meant political and economic liberalisation, that is, the multiplication of actors outside the state. That moment was also characterised by a Western willingness to launch incredible displays of force in the Middle East to ensure flows of oil. It was in this context that Ali Mazrui saw the strategic imperative to conceptualise a geographic orientation that would turn the Middle East and Africa away from the West and towards each other in order to produce a new ideology. The result was Afrabia, Mazrui’s critical geography in which Africa, or at least the large part of it for which Islam has been a part of its historical experience, is oriented towards the Arab and Islamic world and not the West, and serves as an intermediary for the non-Muslim parts of Africa in their relations with Arabs.

As a concept, Afrabia is neither without precedent, nor without historical basis. African and Arab intellectuals throughout the 20th century have been making arguments for natural, cultural, and political unity. Indeed, pan African theorists such as Edward Blyden and Dusé Muhammad Ali understood and argued for the connection of “the darker races of the world”, citing Islam as a sort of civilisational glue that could hold things together. Also, the tricontinentalism of the Bandung moment encouraged Afro-Arab solidarity along with many other anti-imperialist geopolitical configurations. Gamal Abdel Nasser famously saw Egypt as the centre of the three concentric circles of the Arab world, the Muslim world, and the African one that drew Egypt close to other nations in those configurations. The struggles of decolonisation in Africa had vital ties and networks of support in Arab countries. Furthermore, African states have tended to side with the hallmark Arab cause of Palestine. And as late as the mid 1980s the Arab think tank, the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, held a major conference and published an extensive report that tried to exhaust the “Africa question” for the Arab nation-states.

The problem that this theorisation has always run into, however, has been twofold. The first is that its reliance on the history of African and Arab interaction as proof of future possibilities is as weak as it is strong. This history includes as many lows as it does highs. For every proof of racial equality in a supposed Islamic history, there is a proof of paternalism and exploitation. For every Mansa Musa, there is a Zanj revolt. For every claim on an African Muslim empire, there is a claim of Arab conquest of that empire. The second, and most damning problem, is that the logic of these ideological configurations accepts the idea of civilisational difference and implicitly a hierarchy established on the basis of those differences. That hierarchy goes something like the following: the West is the best, Islam is next and Africa is what’s left. Just like the European thinkers who defined the overall framework for knowledge in the 19th century, Afro-Arab thinkers saw Islam as a civilisational mediator between the African and the modern. Islam itself was a channel that brought Africa forward. This framework of civilisation itself ensured the perpetual negation of Africa and continued contradiction between historical arguments and the means to make those arguments, thereby causing a fundamental ambiguity of political potentiality.

Mazrui, in an often cited essay on Africans and the Arabs in the “New World Order”, argues that there is a demographic imperative for a future reconciliation between Africans and Arabs, pointing out that the majority of the world’s “Arabs” live on the African continent, that the largest Arab countries are African territories, and that Africa is becoming a Muslim-majority continent. Mazrui uses the slippages and overlaps between these categories (African, Arab, Muslim) to effectively bolster his argument. He takes for granted the categories themselves and is uncritical of the contradictions that have emerged from a racialist organisation of modern knowledge. Hybrid ethnicities and languages that have materialised from histories of intense Afro-Arab interactions serve as the most important element in his argument for bridges of solidarity where barriers of modern geography have been thought to hold sway. While Mazrui’s preoccupations with blood and culture in the search for historical legitimacy are deeply problematic, the attempt to make the argument when he did in the early 1990s is interesting in the way in which it tries to generate an ideology with which to make emergent circuits of capital and culture between Africa and the Middle East meaningful.

Islamic liberalism and the Francophonie

The Muslim public intellectual and new voice for today’s Islamic liberalism Tariq Ramadan loves Africa, and has done for a long time. He has called it a horizon, a breath of air, an abode of roots and most of all of memory and tradition. His several speaking and organising trips to Senegal since at least 2012 have touched on such themes as Muslims in global capitalism, tolerance of homosexuality, and breaking ties of influence with neo-traditional religious leadership. One of his most documented visits was during the 2013 Colloque International des Musulmans de l’Espace Francophone (CIMEF). CIMEF is a biannual event that brings together Muslims from the French-speaking world, and has always been held in different French-speaking countries in West Africa since its inaugural event in 2000 in Côte d’Ivoire (the event has also been held in Bénin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo and Mali). The organisation around the conference ensures that it is conspicuously moderate, an Islam that the West can embrace. Neither fundamentalist nor less-than-orthodox Muslims are welcome. The Islam on offer is more a public Islam for liberal democracy than a political Islam that appears to contest it.

That the Swiss national of Egyptian origin would have so active a project in a former French colony is not so preposterous, considering the tradition from which Ramadan comes. Muhammad Abduh, one the most influential figures in the hall of fame of Muslim reformers, was an unapologetic liberal and a fan of France. It is said that after his travels to Paris with his mentor Jamal al-din al-Afghani he said, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” Coincidently, he saw this at the moment of France’s peak expansion as a Muslim power. Abduh was responsible for some of the first attempts to fuse Enlightenment ideas central to liberalism such as individual rights, rationalism and religious tolerance with Islamic faith, placing significant emphasis on accommodating technological progress through law. Reform was so critical, in Abduh’s opinion, because the Muslim world had to compete with Western capitalist imperialism. The choice seemed to be become modern on your own terms by making the Islamic tradition a resource, or become modern by poorly copying the West.

The discourse in Dakar and other parts of francophone Africa has not been all that different. During the 2013 CIMEF conference, the theme was the contribution of Islamic thought to the understanding of ethics, governance and power, and peace and security. Panels on ethics and “Islamic economics” and on bioethics and Islam, in particular, are touchstone topics for those reformist Muslims who take up a liberal discourse.  The conference theme is not so surprising when you consider that the organisation that sponsored the event is the Qatari Centre for Islamic Legislation and Ethics, the director of which is none other than Tariq Ramadan. Working within the tradition of liberal reform, Ramadan has made Muslim Africa an important sphere of activity for its expansion. The relationship of a Qatari funded Islamic liberalism to France and the Francophonie is up for further analysis. But it is important to mention that Qatar, an Arab gulf country with no history of French anything, has somehow managed to join the Francophonie. Perhaps we can describe it as an ideology with its constituting geographic poles in France and in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf.

An Afrabia that takes Qatar as its centre of Islamic anything is only one of many orientations that are currently competing for dominance. To be certain there is a resistance to this configuration. In autumn 2014, a different conference on Islam and the French-speaking world was held as part of the activities associated with the 15th summit of the Organisation of the Francophonie.  “Francophone Muslim Religiosity in the World” was organised through a collaboration of the Centre d’Étude des Religions at the Université Gaston Berger in Saint-Louis, the Institut Supérieur d’Étude des Religions et de Laïcité at the University of Lyon 2 and 3, and the University of Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. Though the two events seem to be more or less the same, the difference in circuits of support, collaboration and flows of initiative tell quite a tale.

CIMEF, organised by an Emirati organisation, took French to be simply the medium of reflection and exchange, focusing on specific problems of the ethical bases of law for Muslims. The 2014 conference’s primary thematic focus was the French language itself, proposing that French is a language of Islam, to borrow the wording of one of the lead organisers, Senegalese scholar Abdul Aziz Kébé. The first seems to have been more programmatic whereas the second seemed to be more of a local initiative within the French neocolonial framework. It’s hard to tell whether or not the former encouraged the latter or if there was any other form of relation between the two. But the differing themes, rosters of participants, and sources of support and collaboration suggest that the two conferences were opposed in some way. CIMEF used the French language to facilitate new circuits of the flows of economic and cultural capital whereas the francophone Muslim religiosity conference seemed to affirm old ones.

Modernisation theory supposed that religion would eventually disappear in the world as the global South became more developed and the liberal message of capitalism found its way into the hearts of people all over the world. The ideological alternative of socialism posed some challenges for the bourgeois ideology of liberalism, but was largely in agreement with it on the diminishing returns of religion. Paradoxically, the dominance of liberalism in the world today has encouraged a return to religion in political organisation and expression. This development is seen most vividly in Africa, where religious differences and their corresponding geopolitical orientations seem to substantiate Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the clash of civilisations and its bloody borders. But as we have seen, capitalism is ultimately indifferent to religion and can actually subsume religious differences in order to support its own expansion. Islam, whether a faith, a legal system, or a tradition, has functioned as both a mediator and a source of idioms and forms for diverse modern projects of differing ideological formations. The differing orientations of Françafrique and Afrabia are not symptomatic of a civilisational conflict, but rather configurations of different circuits vying to be the centre of capital and culture. Any conflict that emerges from that is not a civilisational one but emerges from the crisis internal to capitalism.

This article first appeared in print in Muzmin, an Arabic edition of the Chimurenga Chronic (July 2015).
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Ibadan, Soutin and the Puzzle of Bower’s Tower Tue, 15 Sep 2020 16:17:20 +0000 The jingle would survive the event, as the poetry of a battle-cry outlives a war, but that eventuality belonged in the future.

The post Ibadan, Soutin and the Puzzle of Bower’s Tower first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

(for Taiwo ‘Tarifomah’ Fatoki, in memoriam)

by Akin Adesokan


December in southwestern Nigeria is a thirsty, incandescent month, halfway through the dry season. The evening air is burnished to tinder-edged sharpness by the harmattan, cool, sandy wind blowing southward with imperceptible haste, eager to catch fire before it reaches the coast where humidity lies in wait like a spider to quell the happy-fly noise of the haughty breeze. These are the times of arson and brushfires, and you can sense it in the gaiety of public conduct, the upbeat display of enthusiasm that propels itself toward the disastrous with a little lack of care. It is not for nothing that the dying months of the year are called the ‘ember-months’. Mix this atmosphere with soccer, ‘good’ nationalism (as opposed to the bad varieties in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda), home advantage, and faith too deep to need work as supplement, and you have the unforgettable encounter between the IICC Shooting Stars FC of Ibadan and Zamalek FC of Egypt, in the second leg of the finals of the 1984 African Champions Club Cup, played at the National Stadium in Lagos on Saturday, December 8. Everyone and everything in Nigeria, and especially in Ibadan, home base of Soutin, as the team was admirably called, depended on this match. For weeks, especially for the last two weeks since the home team had lost the away-match in Cairo by two slim goals, national interest had begun to rise in the media – passionate, effusive and complacent, driven by the dead certainty that the current Soutin line-up was the best in the team’s long history. The excitement spilled into the streets, or rather spilled from the streets – it amounted to the same thing. Journalists were hard to tell apart from veterans of the supporters’ club. The air was dry all the time, and as we counted down to that fateful Saturday, radio and television jingles, posters, newspaper cartoons, loudspeaker-bedecked supporters’ vans prowling the streets, recorded-music stores partisan but businesslike, added to the sense of anticipation.

The most memorable, for me, was this jingle in Yoruba, a cross between wish, incantation and malediction, a gnomic Ase on the airwaves, periodically played by the culture-conscious official broadcast organ, Radio O-Y-O, based in Ibadan like the football team:

                   Egibiti o ri’ran osan o

                   Balubalu nt’afin o!

                   (May the Egyptians be blind this day

                   Blurry-blurry does the albino glimpse)

It was rumoured that the high-spirited supporters’ club, headed by Mr Ganiyu Elekuru (a.k.a. Baba Eleran, because he was a professional butcher), had even paid witchdoctors for charms and fetishes. Probably an idle rumour, but Mr Elekuru would go to any length to demonstrate his support for the team, which was so total and frightening it attained the condition of fanaticism. Two years before, during a match in Tanzania, it had taken the personal intervention of the Nigerian High Commissioner in Dar es Salaam to rescue Elekuru from a mob which suspected him of being a witchdoctor and would have lynched the daylight out of him. Writing these reflections today, in the shadow of reports of ritual killings of albinos in Tanzania, one has an uncanny sense of the futile attractions of the occult, of beliefs which do not have to be true before they acquire immense material force, indeed acquire such force because they do not have to be true. The jingle would survive the event, as the poetry of a battle-cry outlives a war, but that eventuality belonged in the future. On the evidence of this unsurpassable enthusiasm in Ibadan, Soutin had won the match and carried the elusive Sékou Touré Cup. The game being a national event, however, it would not be played in Ibadan. On to the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos; we’d reserve the partying afterwards for the legendary City of Seven Hills.

‘A War Encampment’

Founded in the mid-1820s as the base of bandits, soldiers, warlords and refugees fleeing the old cities in the aftermath of the fall of Oyo, the savannah empire which attained its peak in the eighteenth century, present-day Ibadan, capital of Oyo State, observed no architects even in its peripheral vision. Geographers and city planners have had many field days proclaiming the city’s singular identity, the breathless manner in which it developed with few of the features of the traditional Yoruba city. In the classical model of this urbanism, the main road of the town leads directly to the market, which is adjacent to the palace of the king and where, on occasion, residential quarters (compounds) converge with the farms and the smaller towns for business and social interaction. Ibadan has these features, but only as an afterthought – as the consequence of the trial-and-error process through which the war encampment became a town. The most famous figure at the time of the town’s second founding (the earlier Ibadan was first settled in the fifteenth century, according to history) was Oluyole, the Basorun or prime minister, who used the diminished power of the king of Oyo and the unfeasible old capital as a pretext to develop his own political base to the south. This soldier’s pioneering ways and quirks have earned the city its main alias; Ibadan is also known as ‘Oluyole’s homestead’. He was one of those incredible figures from the age of upheaval, the mean time when only the mean survived: Kurunmi of Ijaye, Generalissimo of the Yoruba confederate army; Ogedengbe of Ilesa; Somoye of Abeokuta; Aduloju of Ekiti; Kosoko of Lagos; Latoosa of Ibadan; and female notables like Efunroye Tinubu of Lagos and Efunsetan Aniwura of Ibadan. They were coevals of Samory Touré, Tippu Tip and Lobengula, in much the same way that Mohammed Farah Aideed, Charles Taylor and Laurent Nkunda could be today. If the Yoruba generals didn’t attain the global fame of their western and southern African peers, it was both because of the nature of the colonialism in Nigeria, and because the Yoruba wars were a resounding implosion: the warring brothers were spent from decades of attrition, and the British generals, aided by African missionaries, stepped in as providential mediators.

In the new military capital the civilian head would emerge with time to complement the soldierly echelons, but while the Basorun remained the embodiment of power, the market that developed, Ojaa’ba (Basorun’s Market), quickly assumed the character of the traditional market. Until the 1980s, there was no central king’s palace. The fortunes of the commercial structure mirroring those of the body politic, Ibadan’s rise as the base of military commanders in an age when soldiers thrived best became identified with the ethics of a republic. The civilian head became less irrelevant, first as the Bale when the establishment of the colonial Protectorate of Southern Nigeria clipped the wings of the 19th-century warlords, then as the Olubadan when the Richards Constitution (1946) chipped away some of the pomp of the Indirect Rule system under which the new Oyo empire had regained suzerainty. The ceremonial base of this civilian head shifted with the appointment of a new person, for the new Olubadan emerged not in the hereditary fashion of most Yoruba towns, but through a process of rising through the ranks in which a vacancy at the top created opportunity at the bottom. Thus, every male citizen of Ibadan (understood as belonging to any of the families of military commanders and their civilian allies who had settled the town) can aspire to the highest traditional office in the city, the kingly position of the Olubadan – if he wants it enough to work for it!

Nearly three decades ago, the writer Paul Wheatley described the distinctive Yoruba living quarters, the agboole (or compound, but literally, ‘a gathering of homes’) as ‘large permanent, compact aggregations’ of landholding corporate groups descended along agnatic lines whereby the male members of a group live with their families. These compounds constituted the regular homes and held much of the population of a given city around the precinct of the palace. He was thinking about the generic urban setting, and he allowed that relatively recent settlements like Ibadan and Abeokuta, while retaining the main features of this genre, differed in some significant ways. The traditional urban form developed over a long period of time, probably from the 15th century through the major upheavals of the early 19th century. There was a religious rationale for this spatial organisation, because the king was the spiritual head of the town and maintained control of the cult groups and their associated rituals and festivals. In the post-1820 format, a military elite displaced the religious powers significantly, especially in Ibadan, where the agboole retained the physical attributes of the tradition: the long rectangular structure fronted with a courtyard, behind which the living quarters are organised into compartments each belonging to a nucleated unit in the agnatic family. Due to the manner in which the city unfolded, the compounds were homesteads of war commanders who governed through a hierarchical system in which military prowess and personal ambition were the primary yardstick for advancement. This republican ethic is elastic, and its elasticity is a source of great indignation among many indigenes who count themselves as meriting special consideration on the basis of birth, as the scholar Ruth Watson found out while researching her book, Civil Disorder is the Disease of Ibadan. Yet this is what distinguishes Ibadan from any other Nigerian city – its corporate image as a traditional city-village with unimpeachable cosmopolitan credentials. The Yoruba compound, according to the architect David Aradeon, is a spatial distillation of the practice of tolerance, and Ibadan offers a fascinating example of this hypothesis. A distinct kind of nationalism, city-based and negotiable, is deep-seated in Ibadan. The rise and fame of the Shooting Stars FC between the 1970s and the 1990s reflect a successful, if sometimes irksome, management of this nationalism, and this is what differentiates it from the blood-spilling variety.


The Egyptians were no strangers to Soutin. Both teams had met at the semi-finals of the 1976 African Cup-Winners’ Championship, and the Ibadan side had won, going on to defeat Cameroon’s Tonnerre Kalara (of Yaoundé) in the finals, an encounter that has now become legend. (Fanatical supporters of Tonnerre Kalara attacked the Nigerian players with werepe, the powdery crusts of poison-bean which create painful, hours-long itches on contact with bare skin, and the team played throughout the inconvenience.) But there was no other meet in the next eight years. To get to the finals, Soutin had sailed past SEIB Diourbel of Senegal, overpowered their old Cameroonian antagonists, sunk the Maghrebi Fes of Morocco, and dispatched the little-known Semassi Sekode FC of Togo in the semis. Unlike their Nigerian opponents, Zamalek had never won a continental cup, although two Egyptian sides had won this particular championship three times before – Al-Ismaili in 1969 and 1970, and Al-Ahli in 1982.

The first leg of the finals was scheduled for Friday, November 23. It was a rainy day in Cairo. There was a small group of Nigerians in the stadium, and two of Nigeria’s famous sports commentators, Sebastian Offurum and Ernest Okonkwo, who had accompanied Soutin to Egypt, ran commentaries in drenched clothes. The match was broadcast on the radio in Ibadan, early in the afternoon. I huddled over a radio with a group of friends soon after the end of classes, with rapt interest and confidence in our side’s prowess. (I had begun to lean toward the more cosmopolitan Leventis United, Soutin’s arch-rival managed by John Mastoroudes, the Greek director of the department stores after which it was named. I went to school in Ibadan but spent more time reading the ‘Africa and the World’ columns of newspapers, and paid equal attention to the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the election of Ronald Reagan and the International Trade Fair in Lagos. However, while among friends I retained some enthusiasm for the hometeam, and this pleased my Cousin T enormously. At any rate, Soutin were representing the whole country, and it made sense to leave personal preferences aside.)

Rain was not the only obstacle. For one, the Nigerian side was deficient on one particular point that day. Their star player, ‘Mathematical’ Segun Odegbami, arguably the best Nigerian footballer of all time, had suffered an injury during the semi-finals, and watched the match from the sidelines. Rashidi Yekini, later to be famous as the scorer of Nigeria’s first goal at the 1994 World Cup in the US, filled in for him, and in spite of his best efforts, didn’t net any goals. In a dramatic moment, twenty minutes into the game, the commentators’ voices rose several octaves as the tall striker found himself deep inside Zamalek’s box, but his wide shot quelled that enthusiasm. The other obstacle was the crowd, which awoke with the renewed vigour of the home team during the second half. A slight defensive error by the left fullback, and a pass sailed down to the goal area, where an Egyptian striker was waiting with a header. From this curtain-raiser on, the decibel level of the noise in the stadium would not wane; it merely reinforced Zamalek’s aggression, which paid off with a bonus second goal – an undeserved penalty-kick awarded by the Gabonese referee in the 70th minute. Newspaper accounts of the match recorded that Soutin played well, with a superior command of the midfield and the left wing.

One afternoon in Albany, New York, I sat in a mid-scale restaurant near the Greyhound bus station and nodded to a casual conversation which had developed from a question I’d posed to jump-start some small-talk. It was a few days before the 2000 US general elections, and I had been intrigued by a Gore/Lieberman badge donned by an attendant. Then an African-American guy who fancied himself as possessing political opinion said with a gentle wave of the hand, ‘Hillary [Clinton] will get the black votes.’ No one had asked him, but he felt that as a sponge for mass-circulating views on an issue of great currency, he could weigh in on his own. The general public attitude in Nigeria toward the chances of Soutin before and after the first-leg match in Cairo was something of this nature. Not only did everyone have an opinion, he or she felt able to express it with a casualness which signified supreme confidence. In Ibadan in particular, it was not unusual to hear that all the city’s team needed was a draw in Cairo. Then they would return to Ibadan, and drown Zamalek in goals. Even after the loss, with two goals down, optimism endured with a few adjustments: all Soutin needed were two quick goals in the first half, and a resolve to play defence in the second, sending the match to a shoot-out. It would be a replay of the encounter of 1976, when Soutin had cancelled their goal deficit in the dying minutes, eventually triumphing during the penalty shoot-out. In this frame of mind did the Ibadan-based team return to Nigeria in late November to prepare for the final of finals.

‘Like broken china in the sun’

The map of Ibadan is difficult to visualise. You will have a hard time imagining it as a fearsome cat, the form in which Ireland appears to the anti-hero of Flann O’Brien’s The Poor Mouth, or of Florida as a pistol in the thriller of the 2000 recount. This is in part because the precise reaches of the city, excluding its outlying districts collectively tagged ‘Ibadan region’ by city planners, are hard to determine. It is also in part because even as we write the city is still growing, the outlying districts continue to be turned into citified residential areas in the relentless sprawl of urbanisation. On a map, however, the metropolitan core of the city, what used to constitute the Ibadan Municipal Government area with headquarters at the Mapo Hall across from Ojaa’ba, looks like a soft-rot peach gently pulped at the top end. It is the region demarcated by urban planning experts to define the areas which once constituted the original clusters of agboole. These are the sections where industrial activities are nil, and commercial and residential purposes are integrated in such a way that their separation is impossible, even in theory. They might have been called the musseques and the bidonvilles if we lived in the 19th century; and though we didn’t, their location at the city’s core rather than at its periphery, integrated with the bases of political, religious and economic powers, and their preindustrial rationality, too, might suggest a new way of using the old grammar of relations of wealth and prestige. For we know, from Cheik Anta Diop’s account in Precolonial Black Africa, that the exercise of caste privileges was inconceivable without the relational hierarchies of the preindustrial West African city, and considering the conservative alliances between kings and slaves, it was possible to have nobility without wealth. This style of urbanism, among other factors, precluded the formation of a revolutionary consciousness on the scale and character of the European city. Ibadan went without a master plan for a long time, until the dissolution of the Western Region in 1976 caused city planners to etch perspective into the fatty sprawl of the legendary godmother. With time, Ojaa’ba acquired the character of the classic Yoruba market, because at some point in the 1980s a permanent palace was constructed to retire the practice of the moveable palace. The result was a complex of traditional and westernised centres of governance mediated by the market. Modern residential arrangements in these parts of the city were closer in form to the agboole than to the rationalised built space of the so-called ‘elite quarters’, which formed the outer rings of a concentric circle.

The city is located approximately on longitude 3° 5´ east of the Greenwich Meridian and latitude 7° 23´ north of the Equator, at a distance of about 130 kilometres northeast of Lagos. In physical outlook, it is made up of ridges of laterite (rock-hills), the largest of which lie in the central part of the city, and with peaks at Mapo, Mokola, and Aremo. The remaining four of the seven hills celebrated in J.P. Bekederemo-Clark’s classic poem, the five-line ‘Ibadan’ (1965), whose enjambed last two lines supply the title of this section, are Oke-Ado, Oke-Are, Oke-Bola, and Oke’Badan, the rock-hill near Eleyele on the western outskirts. This last is never acknowledged as part of the poetic seven because it is not within the city, but as the legendary refuge of the founders of the first Ibadan it is revered and honoured annually as the goddess of fertility, during the licentious Oke’Badan Festival. The seventh hill is at Ojaa’gbo, a mile north of Mapo Hall, where Bower’s Tower was erected in 1936 in honour of the city’s first British Resident Officer, and from its height atop the natural elevation of around 275 metres above sea level, one can see the entire city by moving in a circumference. Situated right next to the old Rediffusion House, the Tower is locally named ‘Layipo’ because of the winding staircase by which one gains ascent to the top for a bird’s-eye view of Ibadan, and the naming embodies the city’s puzzle of cultural insiderism (á la Paul Gilroy), its subtle retort to arch-rivals like Oyo, Ijebu, and Lagos.

For Ibadan, eternal enmity is the price of eminence. Oluyole the Basorun did empty Oyo of political gravitas in the several decades between the fall of Old Oyo (1825) and the end of the Kiriji War (1886). But with the appointment of Captain William Ross as its Resident Officer in 1911, Oyo became so serviceable in the execution of the Indirect Rule system (the deployment of native institutions as the basis of colonial governance fashioned by Lord Fredrick Lugard) that Ibadan lost its pre-eminence as a political-military centre. Thereafter, it took the combination of the good offices of Henry Ward-Price (or evil, if you were an Oyo partisan) in the late 1930s, and the Richards Constitution of 1946 to enable Ibadan to engage in muscle-flexing with its ever-resentful uncle to the north.  Nonetheless, Ibadan’s rivalry with Oyo was a sibling tiff, compared to what transpired between it and Ijebu. As one of the allies in the confederate army which founded the second Ibadan and decisively vanquished the Fulani jihadist aggression in 1840, Ijebu became integrated into indigenous Ibadan, sub-ethnic Ijebu settling in the southern part of the city, the Isale-Ijebu area. Renowned for their astuteness as entrepreneurs, a class of prejudice when you take a closer look at it, the Ijebu were not much loved in Ibadan. Worse still, they could point to another base of nativity, their twin-towns of Ijebu-Ode and Ijebu-Igbo (in present-day Ogun State), and this opened their claims of being indigenes in Ibadan to question. To Ibadan natives, the Ijebu were at best native strangers, at worst interlopers.

The rivalry with Lagos was more recent and without the kind of nationalist passion which characterised Ibadan-Ijebu enmity. Lagos – cosmopolitan, showy, shallow, culturally bastardised, elegant and ruthless – was a more fitting claimant to cultural sophistication than Ibadan in late-colonial Nigeria, when modernisation equalled opportunities for professional and social advancement. Ijebu was also geographically closer to Lagos, and positioned itself as a natural ally of the country’s cultural and commercial capital, what with the inseparability of commerce and bureaucracy in the scheme of colonial ideology. For all its wildcat stance toward Oyo, Ibadan remains the bridgehead of Oyo-Yoruba (or ‘Yoruba proper’, as the Oyo historian Samuel Johnson would have it), the cultural template on which modern Yoruba was fashioned in terms of language, culture, and religion. It is the custodian of the ‘deep structures’ of Yoruba, closer to traditional values than the border-trading Ijebu and the coastal Lagosians, yet not as intermediate as the mid-level towns like Osogbo, Abeokuta, Ogbomoso, Ilesa, and so forth. The truth, of course, is that as in most matters relating to difference, all Yoruba sub-ethnic groups are variously branded according to what others determine as their distinctive social characteristics. The prejudices which define Ibadan for its cultural and geographical neighbours are shaped by these relationships, for which three factors are decisive in annealing into cultural certitudes.

The first is the ubiquity of facial scarifications, lineage-based marks of varying patterns etched on a person’s cheeks at infancy, usually during circumcision. This West African practice began long ago, but probably became popular in the era of the slave trade, when it was necessary to identify those who could not be sold into slavery, at least in theory. That, at any rate, was Ousmane Sembène’s point in the short story ‘Voltaïque’ (or ‘Tribal Scars’). There are at least twelve types among the Yoruba, from the simple pélé (three vertical marks) to the elaborate kéké covering the width of the face up to the temples and usually reserved for the families of professional circumcisers. Again, given the heterogeneity of Ibadan’s ethnic makeup from the 19th century, different lineages became indigenised with their marks, leading to what one may call the mass production of lineage-marks as a distinctive feature of a ‘proper’ Ibadan person. Like most features associated with social prestige, an absence of these marks used to signify a lack of authenticity. By contrast, the practice was not common in places like Lagos and Ijebu, and so it became a sign of too much authenticity – in contexts where an unscarred face was the norm.

Another factor in the normalisation of cultural bias is the problem with the stressed ‘S’. The Yoruba alphabet of twenty-five letters has two consonant sounds for the letter ‘S’, differentiated in the pronunciation of ‘shaw’ and ‘saw’. In everyday usage, however, the difference disappears when the speaker is of Ibadan stock. Thus it is not unusual to pronounce ‘Adesokan’ with the neutral ‘S’ or smuggle the stressed form into a word like ‘soil’, hence the expression ‘shons of the shoil’ which puts a derisive spin on claims of authenticity. In fact, the problem is not particular to Ibadan; outside of the southern and coastal settlements, the conflation of stressed and neutral ‘S’ is standard practice. The phonological differentiation is probably the result of the complex negotiations that produced modern Yoruba orthography, but again, Ibadan’s position as an amalgam of cultural groups and the butt of intra-ethnic rivalries makes it the target of such prejudices. There is a rich trove of jokes whose punch-lines turn on this speech habit. One in particular is the elaborate Q-and-A-format joke:

Omo-Ibadan, kinni sow?

Sow suoh…

(Denizen of Ibadan, what’s the show [i.e. what’s happening]?

Show is sure…)

When you add these two factors to the third, the process of benign stigmatisation is complete. Most censuses of Ibadan at the time these conceptions crystallised recorded that more than two-thirds of the city’s indigenous population were Muslims. In the context of Western education modelled on Christian mission schools and instruction in Western classics, this was not an idle fact. Christianity arrived in the mid-19th century, but Islam was much older and more adaptable to many of the people’s cultural practices. By the 1950s, when Ibadan’s position as the administrative headquarters of the Western region brought about increased development in the industrial, commercial and social spheres, the population of indigenous Ibadan children attending primary school was 20%, compared to 70% in rival regions like Ekiti and Ijebu. Thus, they tended to be less entrenched in the professions. To put it crudely, as a former governor of Oyo State did to his eternal regret, Ibadan indigenes didn’t go to school and couldn’t sway the scales in the modern scheme of things. Of all Ibadan’s rivals, the Ijebu were the most routinely singled out because they constituted a sizeable part of the population – unlike the distant Lagosians and the Oyo cousins. Not surprisingly, most of the satirical and abusive songs during the Oke’Badan carnival targeted the Ijebu, and also the police. Finding political focus in the figures of an Ijebu like Chief Obafemi Awolowo (1909–1987) and the legendary Ibadan politician Alhaji Adegoke Adelabu (1915–1955) in the early 1950s, the mutual suspicion threatened to explode into a ‘war’. Not only was Awolowo a Methodist and a successful lawyer, he also didn’t have facial marks like Adelabu, a Muslim whose aspiration toward a British law degree never materialised.

Above all, his aversion to earthy populism was not the reason he didn’t say ‘Up Soutin!’, in case you’re wondering what happened to the ‘h’ in ‘Shooting’.


The IICC in the full name of Shooting Stars FC stands for the Industrial Investment and Credit Corporation, a government-run limited liability company. The team used to be known as WNDC Sports Club (for Western Nigerian Development Corporation), with the alias ‘Oluyole Warriors’. It was actually founded by the expatriate partners of the corporation in the 1950s, but when a flamboyant football enthusiast named Lekan Salami became a director of the WNDC in the 1960s, his interest in the Ibadan District Amateur Football Association found a natural outlet in promoting the football team. With the political realism of national unity necessitated by the harrowing civil war (1967–1970), the 1970s marked the golden decade of football in Nigeria, and the Shooting Stars did battles with other city-identified teams. Raccah Rovers of Kano. Mighty Jets of Jos. Enugu Rangers. Bendel Insurance of Benin City. Stationery Stores of Lagos. These teams dominated the national league for over a decade. Whenever Soutin qualified for the finals of the Challenge Cup, Nigeria’s equivalent of the US Super Bowl, all footballing passions descended on either the Rangers or the Insurance. But the greatest rivals were the Stationery Stores, whom they rarely met at the finals. (Interestingly, Stores didn’t fare that well during the glorious years of the IICC. In the 1985 league fixtures, when Soutin’s chances of escaping relegation to the second division depended on the Stores beating the Flaming Flamingos of Benin, the decisive match ended in a draw. At a newsstand in my Lagos neighbourhood the following morning, I listened with mild resentment as the supporters of Stores, also known as Lagos Flamingos, exchanged cavalier repartee over a game that was simply a case of two flamingos playing… anyway, I was no longer an ardent Soutin fan. The Ibadan team dropped to Division Two for the first time that week, and remained there for a couple of years.)

An answer to the perpetual Soutin-Stores rivalry came in the early 1980s, when Leventis United was established. Another team based in Ibadan?! Didn’t Mr Mastoroudes get the memo about one-team domination, or was he looking for trouble? Taboo! Didn’t they tell him what happened to the Water Corporation, which, like a young wife menaced by a fierce rival, embarked on serial marriages, settling first in Oyo, then in Osogbo, and finally in Ilesa where it found peace in oblivion? By my third year in high school, my support for Soutin was waning. The Leventis line-up was youthful and Pan-African – half of the regulars were Ghanaians or southeastern Nigerians – in a way Soutin never cared to be. They didn’t rely on sheer brawn to win a match but had a style of cumulative passes organised around the control of the midfield which many would come to associate with Brazilian football. Whereas Soutin’s generational rivals were the Rangers, the Stores, and the Insurance, Leventis ruled the league with young teams like the Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, BCC Lions of Gboko, Femo Scorpions of Eruwa, Sharks of Port Harcourt, and the Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri. But my interlocutor was Cousin T, whose fanaticism would embarrass even Mr Elekuru, although I doubted that he attended any of the matches. He had only one response to any defence of Leventis:

“Koraa don’t have a say in Ibadan!”

(Middle-easterners, from Syrians, Lebanese to Greeks, even Indians, were lumped under that generic term, Koraa, derived from the fact that the Lebanese used to trade in corals in Nigeria. Like the Ijebu, they were resented in Ibadan, but they didn’t dabble in local politics.)

In the 1980s, before and after the historic clash with Zamalek of Egypt, Leventis United either lost a match against Soutin or faced reprisals from the fans. Soutin’s home games were played at the Liberty Stadium, and there was an implicit understanding (sanctioned by the Nigerian Football Association) that the other stadium in Ibadan, at Adamasingba, belonged to Leventis. But the best the new team could hope for, even in this home territory, was a draw. They had to allow their match to be forced into a draw. In case the rivalry seemed bitter and coarse, let us note that Chief Lekan Salami, de facto owner of Soutin after whom the stadium at Adamasingba was later named, was a very stylish man who dressed in flowing agbada or a safari suit for football matches, with a further distinction – he brought a talking-drum along! It was a practice he’d begun in the 1970s, when the great rivalries had racial or ethnic undertones. For example, in a match with the Raccah Rovers, a team based in Kano, the northern Nigerian city, Chief Salami said the following through his drumming:

Sabarumo soo loo gbon ni?

Waa sare!

Gambari soo loo gbon ni?

Waa sare!

(Sabarumo, are you so audacious?

You’ll soon flee!

Gambari, are you so audacious?

You’ll soon flee!)

Sabarumo is a Yoruba expression for Arabs – never mind that the Rovers were a Nigerian team – and the same tune applied when Sudanese, Tunisian or Egyptian teams were visiting. In Ibadan anyone living north of Oyo was a Gambari, though in fact the name belongs to the royal family in Ilorin. The drum was a complex instrument in this context, a dexterous rousing-tool-of-exclusion, since special training was required to decode its tunes. It reinforced a sense of identity among the supporters. When the drummer changed the tune to ‘Ibadan lo mo, o o mo Layipo’ (You may know Ibadan, but Layipo is beyond your grasp), encouraging the audience to singalong, every Soutin supporter knew what having a home meant. The local name for Bower’s Tower connotes discursive circuitousness and dissimulation: Ibadan the city may be transparent, but there’s more to reality than appearances, and it is the lot of the outsider to be denied access to insider info. Addressing an insult to a stranger who was not expected to understand it – what a confident way to affirm your place in the familiar world! When Soutin returned from Cairo in late November 1984, diehard fans like Mr Elekuru and Cousin T had put the disastrous loss behind them – it was more uplifting to aim for the second leg. Cousin T always said, in exonerating his darling team’s poor performance: ‘It is not every time that Odegbami wears top form [plays well].’ But the star player was missing in action in Egypt. This asymmetry between received wisdom and facts on the ground should have sent enough signals to the fans. After all, a bit of superstition wasn’t unknown in matters of sports.

‘Shons of the Shoil’: The Troika Plus One

Basorun Oluyole – Here is how the Reverend Samuel Johnson described Basorun Oluyole in his magisterial History of the Yorubas:

As a ruler he was arbitrary and oppressive and that was the cause of several civil wars at Ibadan. As a commander he was almost always successful although he had many narrow escapes. As an excuse for him, his was an age of anarchy and lawlessness, and a ruler who showed himself weak would soon be compelled to give place to another. He could endure no rival and was exceedingly ambitious, hence the two inexcusable flaws in his life history, the perfidy to his faithful friend Eleepo, and the disloyalty to the Alaafin, his uncle and sovereign.

He cannot be properly spoken of as a bloodthirsty tyrant because although sometimes inexorable, yet he was frequently merciful and forbearing. We may note for instance his treatment of those caught in the insurrection against him. In this respect he contrasted most favorably with his contemporary Kurunmi of Ijaye…

Oluyole was fond of husbandry; he had extensive plantations of okra, beans, vegetables, corn and yams, a separate farm for each, and whenever he had to take any to the market, no farmer was allowed to sell that particular article that day as he had sufficient to supply all the traders in the town and could undersell any farmer…’

Adegoke Adelabu – By the time of this controversial politician a hundred years after Oluyole, literacy was already an achievement in Ibadan, and many ambitious people could pen their own subjectivities. Self-acclaimed stormy-petrel of Ibadan politics, Adelabu had a predilection for jingoism, not unusual for public figures of his time and social inclination. He authored an iconoclastic ‘handbook of freedom for Nigerian nationalists’ titled African in Ebullition. ‘Lion of the West’ was a stalwart of the nationalist party, the National Council of Nigerian Citizens, NCNC, of which Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe was inspiration and leader.

Here is Adelabu describing his own book in 1951:

This book derives many illustrations from astronomy, physics, chemistry, geography, engineering, agronomy and mathematics. It employs copiously the language of art, civics, biology, sociology, music, literature and history. It is liberally spiced with Greek drama, Roman law, English idioms, American slangs, French logic, Indian mysticism and African folklore. It is an Ode to Liberty, a Guide to Nationalists, a Handbook of Freedom, a Grammar of Politics, a Revolutionary Manifesto, our Book of Revelation, an Encyclopaedia Nigeriana, the Voice of the People, a Challenge to Imperialism, an Indictment of Colonialism, an Abrogation of Gradualism, an Invitation to Youths, a Call to Arms, the Sacrament of Patriotism, a Psychoanalysis of the Nation, a Dissection of our Soul, an Answer to our Detractors, a Reaffirmation of Faith, a Plea for Unity, an Appeal for Understanding, a Rededication to the Struggle, a Bill of Rights, a Declaration of Independence…

Much of the book goes like that, and it is only a little over a hundred pages in length. Those who attended his political rallies in the 1950s claimed he spoke in similar vein. His rivalry with Awolowo, founder and leader of the Action Group, deepened the historical rivalry between Ibadan and Ijebu in the city, and days of violence in which Ijebu persons and property were singled out for attack followed his tragic death in a car accident in March 1958.

Lamidi Adedibu – A thuggish chief who could have become the Olubadan had he not died in June 2008, and who played an ignominious role in Nigerian politics during the second coming of General Olusegun Obasanjo as Nigeria’s president (1999–2007), Adedibu combined the worst aspects of his two predecessors, with a further touch of perfidy. Between 2003 and 2008 all politics in Oyo State revolved around him; on his say-so the parliament impeached the governor who refused to turn the state coffers over to the so-called ‘strongman of Ibadan politics’.

His memoir, a dictated narrative with the typically implacable title, What I Saw: On the Politics and Governance of Ibadanland and the Issue of June 12, 1993, was an exercise in self-mystification. June 12 is the metonym for the presidential elections of 1993, adjudged the fairest and freest in Nigeria’s history, but annulled by the military president, General Ibrahim Babangida (1985–1993). It was typical of Adedibu’s political myopia (he described himself ad nauseam as a ‘realist’) that he would establish a parallel between the politics of Ibadan and the historic elections of 1993. In Adedibully, a devastatingly witty profile published months before Adedibu died, the Nigerian poet Tade Ipadeola disclosed that the politician had taken that name early in his career as a declaration that he meant to best Adelabu’s renown. Prior to June 12, however, he had been put in gaol for flouting the national ban on politicking. Here is an excerpt from his uncanny account:

After interrogation, the security agents asked us to come back the second day. However, the day appointed by the police that we should report to them was the burial day of Chief Lekan Salami who had died a day before. Because I had to attend the burial ceremony of this illustrious son of Ibadan, I decided not to keep the appointment…

It was the only mention of the flamboyant drummer/supporter in the whole book. Two pages later, a full-page picture shows Chief Salami receiving a trophy from a match official. We are told that he does this on behalf of the WNDC. This mixture of sports, localised tragedies and national politics may appear unsystematic, but as a witness to the annual Oke’Badan carnival once observed, there was a method to the madness: the Islamic burial of a local champion provided an auspicious occasion to traduce the law. Chief Lekan Salami died in a car accident in March 1988. He was sixty at the time – a double tragedy: he died young, and African football lost a great supporter.

Plus One – Like most prejudices, those directed at Ibadan are constituted by blind spots. The Olubadan Isaac Akinyele (1955–1964) published a masterful Yoruba-language history of the city in 1911, when Johnson’s masterpiece was still a misplaced manuscript. It has been translated into English by his niece, Kemi Morgan; Akinyele’s own biography was in turn written, also in Yoruba, by Chief J.A. Ayorinde, who used to delight television viewers with his elegant quotations from Shakespeare. As an Episcopalian Ibadan indigene who belonged to the Action Group and embraced the city’s martial heritage with a Christian touch, Olubadan Akinyele was the crucial factor in the equation between Awolowo and Adelabu.. A city-village like no other, Ibadan is variously called ‘Harlem of Africa’, ‘the London of Negroland’ (a tinge of racial prejudice there), and the ‘largest indigenous city in sub-Saharan Africa’. Attaining its modern prestige in the 1950s, the city has suffered a series of decapitations as new states emerged to chip away some of its pomp as regional capital: in 1963, when the Midwest region was carved out; in 1967 with the creation of Lagos State; in 1976 with the creation of three new states; and with the creation of Osun State in 1991. These serial and partial transfers of human and material resources have naturally affected the city’s standing among its peers: Lagos, Kano and Port Harcourt now appear more important than Ibadan from the point of view of economic development. It is a state of affairs which reinforces the view of Ibadan as a large village, and turns fixations with facial marks and suchlike into markers of real ‘identity’. Things are this way, the skewed reasoning goes, because, after all, the ‘proper Ibadan’ cannot hold their own in the fast-moving scheme of things.

But Ibadan is…

In the mid-1990s, at the peak of the state of emergency superintended by brutal soldiers and marked by an extreme form of destitution which turned self-respecting but hungry citizens into beggars by decoy, a visitor walking through the motor-park would encounter a woman wiry with want or age panning for coins. She conducted herself with a disarming blend of grace, intimacy and importunity, and one had to lack manners to behold that quietly charming demeanour, and refuse to give. Then a certain parvenu arrived, in the manner of parvenus, almost out of nowhere, styling himself ‘The-Wealthy-One-Who-Uses-His-Money-To-Dispense-Kindness’. On Fridays, after the Muslim Jumaat service, the hungry folk thronged his sprawling house along Iwo Road and got treated, so the legend goes, to a meal of amala-gbegiri-kundi, a combo as ‘national’ to Ibadan as thiembu-dien is to Dakar. It followed that Adedibu too would be identified with this genre of kindness, and that his reactionary and anti-democratic amala politics attracted rather than repelled the Ibadan folk in a long season of hunger and warped perspective. That partly explained the grovelling of virtually all politicians before this ‘strongman’, and the largely intellectual character of the opposition to his terror.

Besides Adedibu and the parvenu merchant of second-hand automobiles, there was yet another Ibadan indigene, a staunch supporter of General Sani Abacha in those days. He unabashedly used his emergency newspaper as a propaganda tool of that regime of repression, and so was highly resented by those who, though hungry, banked their integrity. Then, in November 1999, with the military back in the barracks, during the graduation ceremonies at the University of Ibadan, restless students ambushed this influential man’s car, resolving to tear him into pieces for his bad politics. Security agents got wind of the plot and smuggled him out through the back roads, or bundled him into the trunk of his car, but it is significant that this happened at all, and that the setting was a university campus, the bastion of opposition to Adedibu’s alimentary populism.

So, Ibadan ain’t, either.

Its map may be tricky to the eye, but the aura, its brimming-over abundance of an aura, is far from ineffable or timeless. Ojaa’ba with its airy smell of lafun, the cassava flour, of iru, fermented locust seeds used as condiment, and of dried meat, called kundi; Gege with the whiff of butchered-animal entrails in its air; Bodija redolent of ground peppers, hen-coops and thawing mackerels; horny danfo drivers letting go of their libidinal frustrations on their horns, like ’Trane on tenor sax, from Mokola past Oniyanrin and Yeosa through Orita-Merin; the impertinent bus conductors more at home in the wiles of Gbagi-Ogunpa-Dugbe than wherever they called home; the once-famous Cocoa House at Dugbe, so high your cap fell off with the effort of glimpsing its peak. And the names, names so resonant with incantatory grace it would be common to call rose by an alias: Mapo, Beere, Yemetu-Igosun, Yemetu-Alaadorin, Yemetu-Adeoyo, Yemetu-Alawada, Alli-Iwo, Total Garden, Orita-Mefa, Agodi, Ikolaba, Idi-Ape, Monatan, Iwo-Road, Gate, Oje, Alafara-Oje, Alafara-Olubadan, Orita-Aperin, Adekile, Odo-Oye, Alakia, Agugu, Koloko, Ogbere-tio-ya, Odo-Ona-Elewe, Challenge, Ring-Road, Onireke, Iyaganku, Irefin, Itutaba, Beyerunka, Ori-Eeru, Foko, Agbeni, Alekuso, Gbenla, Oke-Seni, Oke-Ofa-Atipe, Oke-Ofa-Babaasale, Oke-Padre, Ayeye, Idi-Ikan, Inalende, Ode-Oolo, Labo, Elekuro, Eleta, Ile-Titun, Idi-Isin, Oke-Oluokun, Molete, Oranmiyan, Imalefalafia, Oke-Ado, Kudeti…

The city has both an oriki, as befits any Yoruba entity worth its existence, and an anthem that speaks to its status as a modern city with national aspirations. Haunt of masters of the eloquent Verb, homestead of Oluyole, where the thief gets the better of the owner, the stranger prospers more than the native, and the bandit-ruler, forswearing strife, makes captives of an entire town, for no one exists without some blemish, and civil strife is Ibadan’s eternal affliction. An affliction with its soothing moments, during the masquerade parades in June, when Alapala battles Paje in the street, their hardy followers tearing mutual skins with razor-sharp whips, Alapansanpa prowls the entire city in ungovernable fury until he arrives at the Olubadan’s palace, ringleaders of Abidi-Elege and Alemojagba air their sponsoring families’ realpolitik in public, and the most revered of them all, Oloolu, lord of Ode-Aje, revels in inscrutable self-regard, until an irreverent mullah dares to pull off the veil. It is still Nigeria’s publishing capital, and the first television station and the first university in West Africa were established there. It boasts a number of important research institutes whose current fortunes may or may not reflect those of the country, like the world-famous centre for tropical agriculture. It is called ‘Harlem of Africa’ because between 1951 and 1966, some of the leading lights of contemporary arts and letters such as Ulli Beier, Es’kia Mphahlele, Wole Soyinka, Geoffrey Axworthy, Chinua Achebe, Dennis Williams, Gerd Meuer, Tchicaya U’Tamsi, Jacob Lawrence, Mabel Segun and Robert July coincided in Ibadan, drawn thither by the university and the Mbari Club in the vicinity of today’s Lekan Salami Stadium. It is home to Nigeria’s only surviving colonial-era newspaper, Nigerian Tribune, founded by Awolowo, and the IICC Shooting Stars FC, to whose story it is now time to return.


Soutin left ibadan for the second-leg match in Lagos ten days early, on a Thursday. December in southwestern Nigeria is a thirsty, incandescent month, and you could feel the excitement of the impending football match in the texture of the evening air, burnished to tinder-edged sharpness by the harmattan. While the players worked out at their training-camp inside the Trade Fair Complex west of Lagos, Ibadan remained agog with exhilaration. Jingles, hortatory public announcements, parades flavoured with evangelical drama, ruled the airwaves. Committee meetings aimed at ensuring success went apace with plans for post-victory parties. The military governor of Oyo State (the country’s civilian government having been booted out of power the previous December) probably instructed the director of sports, the coach and individual players to bring the Sékou Touré Cup to Ibadan or else…! (This, by the way, was the year of the Guinean strongman’s demise.) I distinctly remember a cartoon on the back page of Daily Sketch, another Ibadan daily, in which a meteor (or a star) crashed down on the head of a Zamalek player. The caption read: ‘Hey! Something is Shooting me Down!’

All appeared set. Odegbami, Soutin’s star player, had spent the last several weeks recuperating, and he looked fit enough to play. The coach, Adegboye Onigbinde, who later coached the Nigerian national team during the 2002 World Cup, hoped to bag a convincing win as a belated 40th-birthday present for his wife. The supporters’ club moved home to Lagos. Fans from different parts of the country came too, and the stadium began to fill up as early as 10:00 a.m. Pool aficionados knew that only the English league fixtures were worth banking on, but they placed bets on the match in Lagos all the same – old habits died hard. Everything and everyone was ready.

In ninety minutes, it would be over, and Soutin would shut down Western Avenue, the road leading to the stadium, with a victory dance.

In reality, the team was not ready.

Odegbami was not quite fit, but that match would be unthinkable without him. So he strode onto the pitch and played.

Felix Owolabi, the team’s irrepressible left-winger, could not play for technical reasons. He had bagged three yellow cards, and only on Wednesday, when a letter arrived from the headquarters of the African Football Confederation (CAF), did he realise this.

Much of the playing was concentrated on the right flank, largely because Owolabi’s shoe was too big for the replacement’s foot.

Buoyed by home support and convinced of technical superiority, Soutin went for broke and played like bravehearts.

Toward the end of the first half, a play-within-the-play unfolded. Zamalek’s goal-keeper, Abdel Maamour, started relying on delay tactics by holding on to the ball for longer than necessary. Whereupon Odegbami attacked and retrieved the ball from him for a successful shot at goal.

The Malawian referee had his hands pointed toward the centre, but he changed his mind after a protest by Egyptian players.

Then the unthinkable happened: Ogbein Fawole, an otherwise reliable defender, headed the ball back to the goalkeeper to deflect the aggression of a Zamalek attacker. The keeper was out-of-position. An own goal had occurred. The stadium went dead. It was 76 minutes into the game.

Moments later, another Zamalek player handled the ball inside the 18-yard box. Hope sprang eternal. But the striker couldn’t find the net. Another penalty offered itself soon after that, but the result was the same.

Finally the 90 minutes were over. Fans trooped out of the stadium, mournful and dejected. Days of passionate postgame analysis would follow, none too useful. We read in the papers and heard on the television that Soutin had not prepared well for the game. The coach was wrong to trust tactics of brawn and overwhelming raw power. One analyst speculated that the pitch at the National Stadium was rough, unlike the grassy turf at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan. Another wrote that ‘the Stars were not tactically and strategically equipped to make the difference. They lacked the ammunition to shoot down their opponents.’ The Daily Sketch cartoonist clearly saw matters differently, having seen them earlier.

Fans went home. The Soutin players were abandoned at the stadium that night. The following morning. The following night. Three days and counting.

The worst was yet to come – or had arrived prior to that sentence of abandonment. On Sunday morning, December 9, the military governor ordered the dissolution of the team. Insult upon injury. It is doubtful that IICC Shooting Stars ever recovered from that action.


In the late 1980s, Soutin changed its name to the Shooting Stars Sports Club (or 3SC), with the general objective of functioning as a sports holding company catering to football, track-and-field sports, and so on. By 1991, the 3SC stabilised somewhat, and managed to emerge as Nigeria’s representatives at the CAF Cup the following year. The opponents were the Nakivubo Villa of Uganda. The finals were played at the stadium named after Chief Salami, and the Nigerian team won. Many people had moved on. The 1984 captain, Taiwo Ogunjobi, had retired, as had Odegbami (who never played another game after the disaster of December 9). Leventis United reigned and fell, disbanded by its owners in 1988. The current manager of the team is another Ibadan indigene, Mutiu Adepoju (Headmaster), who headed home Nigeria’s first goal against Spain in France ’98. Mr Elekuru died in 2006, at the age of 78. Cousin T is also no more; he died in 1989.

Ojaa’ba thrives, but a more inscrutable market has risen at Bodija, near the University of Ibadan. Military governors/administrators follow in quick succession, mirroring the rapidity of the baton passing from General Babangida to General Abacha. A certain Colonel Ike Nwosu comes to call the shots in Oyo State. He brings out an edict that prohibits the use of malleable measures for retailing grains and other dry goods, because it is believed that retailers cheat that way. To enforce the new rule, he orders the mass production of plastic containers, imprinted with Nigeria’s coat of arms as proof of authenticity. The market, the zone of occult instability where the people spin their spidery webs in Frantz Fanon’s enigmatic postulation, is both rational and warm. ‘Ike’ is the Yoruba word for plastic, lacking the fragility of a plate, so the military strongman seems to have hit on an elastic idea of buttonholing the folk consciousness to the import of his innovations. But the denizens of the market, the same folks who partake of free meals of amala-gbegiri-kundi on Friday afternoons, have a different idea. When left for minutes in hot water, the official plastic measurement shrinks in size.

The soldier ruled Ibadan, but could he grasp Layipo?

This story features in the Chimurenga 14 – Everyone Has Their Indian (April 2009) .
To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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Chimurenganyana: When You Kill Us, We Rule! by Keziah Jones (June 2009) Wed, 27 May 2009 09:53:38 +0000 Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Last Interview by Keziah Jones was first published in […]

The post Chimurenganyana: When You Kill Us, We Rule! by Keziah Jones (June 2009) first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Last Interview by Keziah Jones was first published in Chimurenga 8: We’re all Nigerian! (2005)

The post Chimurenganyana: When You Kill Us, We Rule! by Keziah Jones (June 2009) first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

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Where Terror Lies Tue, 15 Sep 2020 10:27:34 +0000 The rhetoric of ‘radical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, of ‘global jihad’ and ‘terror’ is, ironically, historical and recoverable from the irrational.

The post Where Terror Lies first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

By Rustum Kozain

It was some time after the August 1996 killing of gang leader Rashaad Staggie by members of the anti-crime organisation, People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad), in Cape Town. A Muslim funeral procession, on its way to bury a fallen Pagad member, was making it’s way across Liesbeeck Parkway about 50m from where I lived in a rented ground-floor flat. I was standing on the stoep, watching the procession, knowing it to be a funeral, but wondering whose it might be.

It was a large procession, of maybe 1,500 men, most wearing a variety of fezzes and koffias – the headdress recognised as ‘Muslim’ in South Africa but others wearing the black-and-white or red-and-white scarves generally associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. One of my neighbours, a white woman in her late 30s, was standing on her stoep a few metres away, hand to her mouth, visibly perturbed by a sight that should have been familiar to her at least through media images from the 1980s, when the Muslim burials of activists were highly politicised and publicised events. (Although reporting on political gatherings was prohibited by the state of emergency laws at the time, covering the events of a ‘funeral’ could slip through loopholes.) I don’t know where the Pagad procession started but, at the crossing where I saw it, the men were still a few kilometres away from the Observatory cemetery. I imagine that, like the funerals of anti-Apartheid activists, Pagad had decided to politicise the funeral by having an extended procession, a procession which could advertise Pagad through several neighbourhoods, manipulating, in other words, the public gaze.

As I switched between looking at my gawping neighbour and at the procession, I felt at once familiar with the procession as Muslim custom and ritual and, at the same time, complicit with my neighbour estranged, as if it was something exotic, neither connected to my experience from childhood, nor to common newspaper and television images of the funerals of Muslim anti-Apartheid activists. Instead, I ‘recognised’ it as more in keeping with CNN or BBC, news coverage, with their images from that vague region of Muslim rebellion known as ‘the Middle East’. I was experiencing the Pagad procession as mediatised by the northern, anglophone image-makers and producers of meaning that enjoy global reach.

Pagad as a phenomenon seems to be riven by this ambiguity: a local event that seems to have more in consonance with something elsewhere than even an own national tradition. In the killing of Rashaad Staggie (shot then set alight), Pagad shared something more tangible than slogans with the anti-Apartheid struggle, during which those suspected of spying or otherwise collaborating with the regime were sometimes ‘necklaced’ (petrol-soaked tyre placed around a person’s neck and set alight).

Exacerbating this ambiguity is an ambivalence that vigilantism inspires in law-abiding citizens. We want to celebrate a baddie getting their just desserts, yet, being law-abiding and therefore successfully manufactured as subjects of the modern nation state, we are fearful of the implications and consequences of vigilantism. The state is required by its citizens to regulate life to the mutual benefit of all citizens. By its nature, vigilantism accuses the state of failures in this regard. But because it goes further than protest and makes manifest this accusation in action, it steps outside the bounds of the acceptable as sanctioned by the state.

Apart from the vigilante’s immediate target in the criminal, vigilantism confronts the state with an act of violence. When violence has to be used, we want the state to take care of it. And often we believe in this principle despite overwhelming evidence that the state cannot and/or will not perform its duties. Vigilantism is thus cast beyond the pale, and not in the realm of ‘citizen justice’. Yet, many of us might not bat an eyelid when someone beats up a burglar caught red-handed or manhandles a street child for being a ‘public nuisance’. Vigilantism in general, and Pagad specifically, blurs the line between legitimate and non-legitimate acts of violence. But where lies a reasonable demarcation? More than double-meanings, what are the multiple valences that emanate from Pagad, the confusions and contradictions around a local phenomenon taken up in – and itself buying into – some global spectre of… who’s invention?

If I perceived the procession through the modalities of images from elsewhere, what are the other lines that might be said to come together in Pagad as a local node of a global network of lines? Who are the meaning makers? When is something ‘global’ and when is something ‘globalised’ – made to be or framed as global?

The killing of Rashaad Staggie is an instructive example to explore. His murder was the chaotic and atavistic culmination of a march by Pagad to confront him and his brother, Rashied, both leaders of the Hard Livings gang.  Pagad had been actively organising as an anti-crime movement in the context of escalating gang violence, other criminal activity and more effective drug distribution – a tide that the South African Police Service (SAPS) could not stem.

While Pagad would eventually garner members from working-class areas, an anecdote by a gangster suggests that the anti-crime organisation was probably formed in middle-class neighbourhoods and as a result of founding members’ relatives or children being caught up in drug addiction. Ted Legget quotes the story in which Jackie Lonte, leader of the Americans gang, and purported also to have introduced crack cocaine to the Cape Flats, would keep users’ possessions when they ran up debts:

They had to pawn their cars and their guns and so on. These were the kids of rich Muslim Indian families. Many occasions they would get phone calls from Jackie Lonte or his men to demand money from the parents of these kids, whom he held captive at one of his venues and if they didn’t pay… then he would threaten the families. So Jackie was in Ecstasy, speed – all kinds of drugs and so Jackie was the reason why Pagad was formed.

This chimes with separate anecdotes I’ve heard, at that time, about the popularity of crack cocaine among middle-class Muslim youth in Cape Town.

The SAPS had been monitoring Pagad for some time but did not consider the organisation as a threat to ‘law and order’ and effectively ignored it. Within months of the  murder of Staggie, however, Pagad had broadened its scope to include acts of ‘urban terror’. In addition to the mounting tally of dead gangsters, Pagad was reportedly responsible for setting off bombs at synagogues and businesses such as Planet Hollywood restaurant (symbolic of the US) and gay nightclubs, as well as police stations (where more and more of their members were ending up). And because of broad, scatter-shot references to Islam taken as informing their agenda, Pagad was soon placed on the US list of ‘terrorist organisations’. If Pagad made it onto the US list of ‘terrorist organisations’, what other ‘global’ forces – other than discourses – are in effect?

The killing of Rashaad Staggie itself happened on impulse, but seemed to have been fashioned for its drama. It happened during night time and the marchers arrived at the gang’s base in Salt River where a stand-off ensued. Many of the protesters were wearing fezzes, with their faces veiled by handkerchiefs or ‘PLO scarves’. The one brother, Rashied Staggie, was reportedly holed up in the house with fellow gang members. During the stand-off, Rashaad Staggie arrived and members of Pagad mobbed his vehicle, attempting to drag him from it. In this struggle, someone shot him in his head, he fell from his vehicle and, while paramedics were attending to him, a petrol bomb was lobbed at him, setting him on fire. Engulfed by flames, he struggled to his feet and ran a few metres, around the corner into another street. There, a few Pagad members got to him. The footage, televised on South African news bulletins, shows him on the ground and being assaulted with what looks like a pick axe handle. Some of his attackers give him a last few kicks. Throughout the recording of the event, one can hear scattered takbirs (exclamations of ‘Allahu-akbar’) amidst the general confusion.

The images of Staggie stumbling to his feet and running to disappear around a corner, all while engulfed in flames in the half-lit night time streets of Salt River, are dramatic and play on the ambivalent nature of our human relationship with the grotesque: we are at once compelled, fascinated and gripped, but also repelled by the atavism that mobs can produce.

To the ‘reasonable man’ of modern liberal-democratic law, this violence is atavistic because it ruptures the skein of civility that the modern nation state and its subjects depend on for their survival. It explodes beyond the normal, beyond the everyday. When protests thus erupt or violence ensues, it is often described as the product of an irrationality that results from the loss of individuality. Such a critique of ‘mobs’ appeals to the individual, the locus of rationality (‘the reasonable man’) and the bulwark of liberal democracy. Denigrating the actions of the crowd as irrational denudes them of political meaning and, also, polices the boundary that defines the citizen as rational, reminding non-participants of the limits of citizenship. Responsible citizens, in short, do not behave like that. Such a critique also discourages mass action by robbing the violence of its ‘sense’, draining it of its politics and context.

But the activist Ashwin Desai insists on returning that irrationality to the domain of conscious political activity. Instead of splitting off irrational behaviour of the crowd from the political impulse that drives a protest action, he proposes a dynamic continuum between ‘instrumental mob action’, such as the protest march to address grievances, and expressive action (violence that often erupts) as the cathartic release of aggression. In this way, the ‘irrational’ behaviour of a crowd retains a meaning connected to the political action that causes the protest in the first place. The meaning of the violence remains consonant with whatever critique of society underpins a protest action. Violence, for instance, is often born in desperation.

The same can be said for ‘vigilantism’, a word that casts Pagad beyond the legitimate and one that the organisation has rejected as a descriptor. The easiest way to contain meaning (the epistemological integrity of the state) when such violence erupts is for the producers of that meaning – state agents and institutions and the liberal media – to draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate violence. The word ‘vigilante’ casts that violence outside the schema of allowable meaning, into the illegitimate, the irrational. The same mechanism allows for the slippage between words like ‘guerrilla’, ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’.

This happens also as part of state and society’s attempts to understand the violence, to make sense of it. Effectively we can only understand the violence by mis-understanding it and calling it irrational. Yet, meaning has to be seen to be made, at the very least as an expression of control over events that call the state into question. Partly driven by Pagad’s own iconography and haphazard reaching to Islam as an ideological driving force, it was not difficult to misname it under the guise of making sense of it.

Initially, Pagad insisted that it wasn’t a Muslim organisation. It had members who were non-Muslim. But the majority of its members were Muslim, as were most of its leaders or public speakers. Its website sports a constitution that is framed by a quote from the Quran.  In public, there was the iconography of fezzes and scarves, as well as slogans referencing the 1991 Gulf War, Afghanistan (where the Taliban was in ascendancy amid a thick, confusing muddle created by US funding), the Palestinian struggle, jihad and so on. As different factions within Pagad vied for power, there were also accusations and counter-accusations around the involvement of Qibla, an anti-apartheid organisation inspired in part by the 1979 revolution in Iran and during the anti-apartheid struggle allied to the Pan-Africanist Congress. During the 1980s, its founders were jailed for having sent cadres to Libya for training. Soon, Pagad was naming targets beyond drugs and gangsters, targets easily and predictably associated with a radical (and often fundamentalist) Islamic agenda: gays, Zionism, the US.

Through its own pronouncements then, Pagad was drawing associations with what it identified as global Islamic issues, no matter the haphazard nature of the pronouncements, nor the fact that it may not have understood the complexity and variety of the political struggles it was referencing. If it was reaching for a sense of a global Islamic allegiance, it was mostly by mimicry. Masjidul Quds in Gatesville, Cape Town, for instance, where pre-march Pagad meetings usually took place, mimics the architecture of the Al-Aqsa mosque and complex in Jerusalem (The Arabic name of the city is Beit Al-Quds, roughly ‘house of the holy’), including replicating the gilded Dome of the Rock. But such mimicry could also be unsullied by irony. The organisation Muslims Against Illegitimate Leaders (Mail), which may have shared members with Pagad, reportedly was trying to recruit fighters for the Taliban. However fragmentary and tangential Pagad’s own references to the terms of this particular discourse may have been, it ended up as part of a rhetoric about Islamic terrorism.

The terms of this rhetoric lie in the same domain as ‘vigilantism’ and the irrational because ‘terrorism’ also exists beyond the pale of the legitimate. And when it comes to acts of terror considered to be inspired by Islam, the liberal state and its meaning-makers have an easy task. With Islam, the irrational becomes supra-irrational because political activity that finds a vocabulary in Islam is viewed with a prejudice that views anything Islamic as pre-modern, static and essential, the antithesis of the ever-evolving ‘reasonable man’ of liberal democracies. It is as if all Muslims carry some inexplicable, unchanging characteristic of Islam in their very DNA, something essential that makes them prone to express their disagreement through violence. And by this inexplicable characteristic, Islamic ‘terrorism’ may be explained.

But the rhetoric of ‘radical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ Islam, of ‘global jihad’ and ‘terror’ is, ironically, historical and recoverable from the irrational. Or, a consideration of the historical origins of this rhetoric shows that the irrational lies exactly on the other side, the side that polices the boundary between legitimate and illegitimate, and rational and irrational.

The ironies multiply and deepen when one considers the Taliban as a product of the brutalisation wrought on Afghanistan by the mujahideen in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of the communist government in 1992. In fact, a consideration of the background to the rise of the Taliban shows how deep the irony really goes because Pagad’s references to a global ‘jihad’ frames them, Pagad, as ultimately suckered into an ideological creation of US Cold War policy.

The US’s involvement in Afghanistan through the CIA runs deep, as Mahmood Mamdani shows in his article, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A political perspective on culture and terrorism’. Wanting to contain both the influence of the New Iran and the USSR in the region, the US not only funded the mujahideen, who were rebelling against an oppressive government (and who, incidentally, were also much romanticised by South African Muslims during the 1980s), but created the terms on which this proxy war was to be fought. Funding from the US (as well as Saudi Arabia and the UK) was used to turn the mujahideen into Islamic guerrillas by turning madrassahs into political schools and training grounds. Central to this was the idea of jihad and, in its Cold War stance, the US saw an opportunity to transform this local conflict into a transnational anti-Soviet war by Muslim states. Upshot: the birth of global jihad as a weapon, ultimately, in the US arsenal against the ‘evil empire’ (Ronald Reagan’s caricature of the USSR) and the birth of politicised, neo-fundamentalist Islam.

By using religious terms, the US could depend on a global force of Muslims ready to stand up to atheist communism. To appeal even more to this global umma (the ‘community’ of Islam, which Muslims consider as transnational), a Saudi prince to lead this jihad or crusade would be needed (the majority Sunni Muslims fawn over the Saudis because they are the ‘custodians’ of Islam’s holiest places). The CIA couldn’t find a Saudi prince. Enter Osama bin-Laden, who was, after all, connected to the Saudi Royal house. Al-Qaeda, literally ‘base’, was the name of a servicing camp for Arab mujahideen. And the mujahideen struggle in Afghanistan was globalised partly through the active recruitment, by the CIA, of fighters from other Muslim countries.

The rhetoric of holy war – and our sense of it in modern times – is thus set in motion by the CIA. As Mahmood Mamdani states in his article:

The Islamic world had not seen an armed jihad for centuries. Now the CIA was determined to create one, to put a version of tradition at the service of politics. Thus was the tradition of jihad – of a just war with a religious sanction, nonexistent in the last 400 years – revived with U.S. help in the 1980s.

Of further interest is the fact that only opium, and only for small regional markets, was produced in Afghanistan before the arrival of the CIA. Yet, two years after its involvement with the mujahideen, Afghanistan had become the top heroin producer in the world, supplying 60 per cent of US demand. And, moreover, this holy war becomes globalised as foreign mujahideen veterans returned to their home countries, from Algeria to Indonesia. The central irony here is the place of 9/11 in a holy war manufactured by the US. One can say that the US had a hand in 9/11 without being dismissed as a ‘Truther’. Where, indeed, does terror lie?

The framing of political activity by Muslim groupings as motivated by something essential in the ‘Muslim character’ (Muslims hate the west and its freedoms and modernity) rather than as actual political activity around material issues (oppressive regimes propped up by the US) is ahistorical. Inevitably, there are real political and economic reasons behind such activity and, in Muslim countries, it is inevitable that mobilisation will use the vocabulary of a familiar discourse, Islam. Even the CIA in Afghanistan did this:  the political agenda was the US’s fight with the USSR, but the mujahideen were mobilised using Islam. George W. Bush claimed that his God told him to attack Iraq. Bin Laden, a former CIA ‘asset’, turned against the US because of the establishment of a US army base in Saudi Arabia (considered holy land) and its support of Israel, and framed these grievances with Islamic vocabulary.

When one then again considers Pagad, its framing as Islamically inspired – by itself or by US intelligence agencies – does not tell all of its grievances. Its initial impulses – anti-crime, anti-drug – need further contextualising. The mid-1990s saw the end of apartheid and South Africa rapidly opening up to the global economy. A mixture of factors saw an increase in the unemployment rate during the 1990s (and rising even higher afterwards). These included, among others, government policies to liberalise the economy, which led to competition with cheaper imports closing down some local industries (like garment manufacturing in the Western Cape). The black and ‘coloured’ working class especially remained the hardest hit.

The relaxing of border controls and an un-trained, underpaid, and largely non-committal police force meant that South Africa also became an easy market and routing point for foreign criminals bringing in contraband substances. Drugs other than the ‘traditional’ mandrax and marijuana soon became more easily available in Cape Town, more cheaply, especially cocaine and its derivative, crack. In the shadow economy based on illegal drugs, competition increased, which at first saw local gangsters warring over turf. But, as if mimicking the neoliberal post-apartheid state, the local gangsters set out to corporatise. Colin Stansfield, the late leader of a renowned Cape Town outfit known as The Firm, believed that the turf wars were bad for business and sought to end them by having the gangs work together. This would also provide the basis for bulk buying from suppliers: cheaper prices could be negotiated and the selling price could be fixed. Thus The Firm was incorporated in 1996, a parallel and local engagement with the terms and habitual behaviours of the global neo-liberal economy, and mimicking the behaviour of legitimate business corporations.

Pagad as a response to corporatised gangsterism is one structurally similar to various movements responding to the ravages of that same global economy, legitimate or not, producing and being produced, like the mujahideen, by a discourse whose terror lies elsewhere. On some level, Pagad may then be considered a response, in a minor key, to local manifestations or effects of this Washington consensus, perhaps even foreshadowing or prefiguring the events of 9/11

Gabeba Baderoon describes, in her PhD thesis, the Pagad phenomenon as the site at which the ‘indigenisation of the international discourse on Islam’ takes place. But this discourse on Islam, as Mamdani shows, bears the mark of the beast. The line which is meant to demarcate clearly the division between legitimate and illegitimate politics is smudged. The centre, indeed, cannot hold. How long can the liberal state keep on recuperating its own irrationality by projecting it onto an other? How long will the liberal state still make sense?

Further Reading

Gabeba Baderoon, 2004, Oblique Figures: Representations of Islam in South African Media and Culture (unpublished PhD thesis: University of Cape Town)

Patrick Bond, 2004, ‘South Africa’s Frustrating Decade of Freedom: From Racial to Class Apartheid’. Monthly Review, 55 (10)

Anneli Botha, 2001, ‘The Prime Suspects? The Metamorphosis of Pagad’, in Fear in the City: Urban Terrorism in South Africa. Monograph 63, Institute for Security Studies

Ashwin Desai, 2004, ‘The Cape of Good Dope? A post-apartheid story of gangs and vigilantes’ (unpublished case study for UKZN project: Globalisation, Marginalisation and New Social Movements in post-Apartheid South Africa)

Ted Legget, (no date) ‘Terugskiet: Growing up on the street corners of Manenberg, South Africa’. Children in Organised Armed Violence report,

Ewen MacAskill, 2005, ‘George Bush: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”’, The Guardian, 7 Oct.

Mahmood Mamdani, 2002, ‘Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism’, in American Anthropologist, 104 (3)

South African History Online, ‘People Against Gangsterism and Drugs’

This story features in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2013) .
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Nigeria’s Superstar Men Of God Tue, 08 Sep 2020 13:37:31 +0000 Who needs the God of the bible with his promises of trials and tribulations, crosses and paths of repentance? Yemisi Aribisala listens to the sermons, counts the money, watches the high-flying life of Nigeria’s mega-preachers and wonders.

The post Nigeria's Superstar Men Of God first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

Who needs the God of the bible with his promises of trials and tribulations, crosses and paths of repentance? Yemisi Aribisala listens to the sermons, counts the money, watches the high-flying life of Nigeria’s mega-preachers and wonders.

I had been a member of my church for four years when I began to feel a need to write about Nigerian men of God. The need was overwhelming. It crawled up the back of my neck when I tried to sleep at night. It glued me to my seat in church when the Pastor said ‘turn to your neighbour and say…’

I turned not. I said nothing. I froze, provocatively waiting for the neighbour to find someone else to play-act with. I did not come to this local assembly to play neighbours, to be indoctrinated through the repetition of bizarre mantras in an American accent: ‘Tell your neighbourrrr Neighbourrrr you’rrrrre the man, you’rrrr the man…’

The pastor stalks the stage, his long legs spanning the lilac-blue carpeting; his destination is the glass pulpit at the centre. He is tall and good-looking, neat as a pin, and at least a head taller than most of his congregation. He is 42 years old, with his head clean-shaven. He is always meticulously groomed and his clothes are expensive. Some of his shirts are monogrammed. He wears a diamond-studded watch, a gold tie pin and bracelet. Some of his suits have been custom-made by Ermenegildo Zegna, the fourthgeneration Italian designer famous for dressing Hollywood superstars for the Oscar ceremonies. I google Ermenegildo Zegna. I want to understand what sort of person wears Zegna. The search yields interesting results: Adrien Brody, Kiefer Sutherland, Ted Danson and Valery Gergiev, among others. The problem is, these people are nobodies in Nigeria. They are incongruous parallels to our men of God, our superstars: TD Jakes, Chris Oyakhilome, Bishop Oyedepo, Chris Okotie, Paul Adefarasin, JT Kalejaiye, Ayo Oritsejafor. The pastor speaks with an American accent; which may very well underscore the obsession with which he relates with his American spiritual father and role model, TD Jakes, or a legacy of his student years in the US. He is intense, charismatic and flamboyant. His wife, an attractive woman in her early 30s, sits elegantly to his right on the stage. She is nodding ardently, a silk scarf spread across her knees to modestly hide her legs. She has created a fashion trend. Two other pastors’ wives are similarly dressed, down to the scarves covering their knees.

Why is appearance so important that it should be the first point of description for the Nigerian man of God? It is especially so, because in the intriguing world of godly superstardom, appearance is everything. The Nigerian man of God is not in time-honoured garb like Rowan Williams, Desmond Tutu or the Pope. He is more like Pierce Brosnan, not as himself, but as the suave James Bond. Nelson Mandela, in his generously patterned shirts, would be in danger of looking shoddy beside the Nigerian superstar man of God. Thabo Mbeki, in neat pin stripes might pass, but then again, he might be too sartorially modest.

Daily Bread

‘If you know that He woke you up this morning… He took you outa’ yo’ bed… Some people died in their sleep… Some people couldn’t get up to walk to their cars… He put food on yo’ table… Clothes on yo’ back…’

The pastor’s congregation calls him Baba, freely conceding his God-appointed role as head, spiritual leader, and general overseer of his ministry and the souls of all who call the church theirs. Sometimes, the church is more aptly called ‘his church’. The congregation is readily cued by his opening words. People are on their feet, in acknowledgement of his presence. They clap and cheer fervently. The title of his sermon is ‘Give Me My Daily Bread’.

‘Give me my daily bread…! Want you to help me and look at three or four people and say: “I want my bread.”’

The congregation choruses obediently: ‘I want my bread,’ each person turning to the people closest to them.

‘I wanna talk about bread and get out of your way really quickly… Jesus said in the third declaration, when you pray, ask this day for this day’s bread. You’re gon’ need bread to stay strong for life, and by bread I’m talking about natural bread. You need a car so that you ain’t worn out and fatigued by riding that Danfo.’ The congregation cheers loudly.

‘Oh you ain’t listening to me tonight! You need a husband so that you don’t have to cry yourself to sleep at thirty-seven every night of your life and drench your pillow like as if it was a washing machine. You need some money, some money in your pocket so that you don’t have to die in a para-para face-me-I-face-you. You need some BREAD to survive! How many of you need a car right now?’

The response is enthusiastic.

‘When Jesus talks about bread, he talks about bread, and he is not going to drop a car out of the sky for you. That means if you are going to get a car, you are going to get it in a spiritual dimension first, and the spiritual dimension ain’t going to look like a car. It’s going to be my words that I speak to you… All the time you are listening to a preacher, you think it’s the preacher preaching but you didn’t know it was Jehovah… Thank God for this preacher. It would have been a lovely experience to hear the Master preach-uh.’

The pastor has the habit of exhaling audibly on the last word of some of his sentences. Perhaps this is for emphasis, or maybe it is just another trait of the Nigerian man of God’s whole-hearted adoption of American Christianity. The nature of his sermons might suggest that he is grooming an emotional congregation; that he does not appropriately de-emphasise his role in relation to that of the Almighty, but they do not suggest that he is carried away by his own spirituality. His intelligence and clarity of purpose are not in question, even if obscured in the song and dance of his church services. He can get the responses that he wants from his congregation because he knows it intimately. He knows it as a cohesive unit, in its disparate, individual constituent parts and as an organic part of the larger Nigerian community.

He knows for example that students make up about 70 per cent his congregation. They have no income, but are nevertheless the life of the party. These youngsters believe that there is a job somewhere with their name on it; that the car and the house will materialise out of wherever; that, in general, life will somehow work out. Mortality is a distant subject. They are happy, loud, optimistic, fundamental to an upbeat church environment, and crucial to attracting the more mature membership.

The elders occupy the first few rows in the church. They are an indistinctively categorised group of older members or major founders. They make up about 2 per cent of the membership, and own real estate in Nigeria, Europe, the US and, lately, in South Africa. They have more than two cars, possibly more than three, stocks, deposit accounts and substantial savings in foreign currency.

About 15 per cent of members of the congregation are identifiable by their hardworking shoes and Sunday best. They are faithful church attendees, who give their offerings, however little, faithfully. They tithe if they work. Sometimes they come to church without the means of getting back home. The people in this group take every word the Pastor says to the bank.

The remainder is the face of the church, or what has in recent times been termed the strategic target market: Christian male, married or unmarried, about 35 years old, driving the clean secondhand car, or, if he has the heart for monthly hirepurchase payments, the latest Volkswagen Passat or Bora. He makes a taxable income of several hundred-thousand naira a month, is able to afford a few middle-range suits and TM Lewin or Thomas Pink shirts, rents a home on Lagos Island, or not too far across the Third Mainland Bridge at Magodo, Gbagada or Ikeja GRA. He is able to travel to Europe or the US once a year. He speaks English well, sometimes with a carefully-cultivated English or American accent. He understands his place.

He might have a European or American university degree. He might have a job at the bank, in an oil company or in the telecom sector. He might at some point stumble on the odd government contract or into oil speculation and be promoted to de-facto elder in the church. He might change the wife of his youth or forget his parents in the village, but he won’t forget his church and his pastor. His potential is his major selling point. Even if he never amounts to much more than the slow corporate climber, he has the steady income, the attractiveness of youth, eligibility for marriage and the capacity to father children. With just the right balance of cynicism and ambition, he is the archetypal well-adjusted Nigerian, successfully managing the Nigerian environment. He is in no danger of losing his religion.

If the congregation lags in their shouts of ‘Preach it Pastor’, whistle blowing, hand clapping or random whooping, the pastor eggs them on. ‘Oooh, you don’t wanna help me up in here!’ he urges.

The congregation picks up the end of his sentence and draws it out in a long interlude of clapping and cheering. He calms them down again, teasingly reprimanding that there is no need to get excited. ‘We just talking!’ he declares. As a rule, as the sermon progresses, he becomes more insistent in tone and analogies. It is necessary to conclude in a way that leaves everyone concerned satisfied. The analogies that he employs do not significantly change from one Sunday to the next. The state of the Nigerian economy has not improved in the past 20 years.

The hardships of the Nigerian environment have undoubtedly driven Nigerians to an increasing fervour in the practice of religion. The progression from there is often downhill to the loud boisterousness of a marketplace dominated by large numbers of self-regarding and mechanical devotees. The hagglers are aggressive because they are convinced the stakes are high. Some say it’s about rescuing the souls of men from hell, and showing the way to a God-appointed prosperity here on earth, prosperity of the soul, mind and body.

Sceptics, on the other hand, say the whole business is about money. Even if this were true, it would only be so for the leadership, because the money does go up, but rarely comes down. Still, religious leadership is not only about money. It is also about influence, power, the allure of being God, or at least being idolised and made comparable to God; about having otherwise intelligent people hanging onto your every word, believing that you have the delegated power to bless and curse, to define who they are, who they will marry and if they will succeed.

Another motive is the anticipated prosperity bestowed by a Father Christmas figure, whose answer to every question and every request is a resounding ‘Yes’. Yet, this prosperity is not freely given. Father Christmas demands love, time, tithes, offerings, building funds and allegiance to the representative man of God. Most importantly, the Nigerian Christian is obliged to help build the numbers in his church. He has to obey the laws and demands tied to his well-being, good health, survival and prosperity in the precarious Nigerian environment.

Nigerian Christianity in all its aggressive insularity may be largely about money and power, but it is also about the fear of God and his representatives, about the need to understand the surreal contradictions of living in a country that imports tooth picks, Swiss lace and leg of lamb, where a good number of the citizens cannot afford N800 worth of drugs for malaria fever. It is more fundamentally about the need to make sense of Nigerian life.

‘How will you, good fathers, if your son asks you for bread, give him a stone? Pay attention to that! How will you, fathers, if your son asks you for bread, give him a stone! When Jesus says something obvious, hmmm, pay attention because he is not trying to be obvious, he is trying to give you revelation.’

Cash Cow

The sermon is drawing to a conclusion. The role of God as a father who provides his child’s needs is an image that cannot be easily flawed in our country. ‘The World in 2005’, a special edition of The Economist, which rated countries for quality of life, placed Nigeria in 108th place, three from the bottom, only higher than Haiti and Zimbabwe. Nigeria’s current GDP is US$214 billion, most of it from crude oil. It has a per capita income of $1,600, vast numbers of underemployed and an inflationary rate of 9 per cent. Against this background, men of God are highlighted; they present the success stories of ambitious and charismatic men from ordinary backgrounds, bringing together groups of other men and women as churches, generating tax-free fortunes, comfortable homes, luxury cars, paid utilities and full expense paid trips overseas. No wonder the prosperity doctrine has turned out to be an extremely profitable product.

‘I know that if my son asks me for bread I’m not going to give him a stone, but that means pay close attention to what the Master just said. What is a stone? A stone is hard! When you ask God for bread, he might give you something that looks and feels like a stone, but it is not a stone! In other words, when I give you the bread, it may feel hard, life may seem HAAARD, life may seem impossible, the bread coming into your life may seem like it can never happen… How can you tell me with my janitor job, I’m going to get a Mercedes, it’s hard! It’s HAAAARD! How can YOU tell me that maybe with five or six or seven thousand people who are mostly under 35 that we’ll be able to put down $76,000 every week to pay for the [church] building… It’s HAAARD! It’s a stone… that means you are going to have to acquire discernment to know bread when it looks like a stone…’

The pastor preaches three out of four services on most Sundays. His sermons can be charitably defined as mollifying, a safe balance between the truth of the bible and what will keep the congregation coming back. Most Nigerian Christians understand well the contradictions in the lives of their men of God, especially in terms of what is professed, the lifestyle and the tenets of the bible. In exchange for looking the other way and not touching the anointed of God, the flock must also be allowed their failings, their comparatively moderate flaws in integrity; a little sin here and there.

‘But I don’t want you to be only earthly in your requisition. I want you to be spiritual and recognise that everything that is physical is born from the spiritual. So I want you to be so hooked up to the bread of life, the bread of life, the bread of life… You are an executive. Executives don’t ride around in Danfos. You are part of the board room of the Master’s ministry. You are part of his head honchos, his senior counsel, and if you start walking in your place with him, he is going to make sure that all that you need on a daily basis you have. One car! The car needed to go into the shop today and they told me they needed to keep it overnight, but I have daily bread [other cars]. If I didn’t have daily bread, I wouldn’t be able to find a way to get to church tonight… and you have to appreciate what is called executive time… Executives can’t waste time, that’s why they have drivers, that’s why there’s got to be leather on your seats and not sardine. That’s why the fellow sitting beside you is supposed to be your personal assistant and not four other people who pay N10 to squeeze on a three-person bench. You need bread… Look at somebody and say I WAN MA BREAD. Do you know that a husband is included in bread?’

In 2004, the Charity Commission in the UK placed a Nigerian church in London, the Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC), in receivership. The Commission gave its reasons as a lack of financial transparency on the part of the church and possible misapplication of funds by its trustees. An investigation was launched after the head of the church, Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo, allegedly took 10 per cent of the church’s annual income of £7,4 million.

The most telling response from the church was from one spokesperson who said: ‘Unless the Charity Commission is prepared to remove KPMG without delay and take account of our church culture, we feel that we will have no other course of action than to walk away from the charity so that we can run our church without compromising our Christian beliefs.’

When, allegedly, KPMG would not round up its investigation quickly, because it had found a cash cow that could be milked endlessly with the permission of the Charity Commission, KICC moved from London to Ghana, then to Nigeria, abandoning its then £25 million in assets. Perhaps the spokeswoman was unwittingly validating the fact that the Nigerian church culture compels Nigerians to give large sums of money to a money doubling God, in the belief that he will make them rich, and that the man of God is the physical guarantee of just how rich they will be made. A more implicating inference from her statement is that Nigerian culture allows men of God to do as they wish with money given by church congregations. In Nigeria, there is no Charity Commission to act as watchdog over the actions of religious leaders and dissenting voices are easily silenced by an enduring threat of bad things happening to people who question representatives of divinity.

Class Warfare

In March 2005, Pastor Paul Adefarasin overseer of The House on the Rock Church, gives copies of a book, Loyalty and Disloyalty, to a small group of men that he meets before dawn on Thursday mornings. They are a type of caucus that allows him to keep his finger on the pulse of that very important group in his congregation; the upwardly mobile thirtysomethings.

On first sighting, the book is harmless enough. It is written by a Ghanaian medical doctor and church overseer, Heward Mills, whose congregation at some time showed signs of a loss of confidence in his leadership. He came to the conclusion that a church must be run in a strict and hierarchical manner in order to be successful. Mills’ church, Lighthouse Chapel International, boasts of branches in more than 25 countries in Africa, Europe, North America and Australasia. In his book, Mills lists ways of identifying rebels in the church for the purposes of excommunicating them. He defines the spirit behind this initial symptom of rebellion as ‘the spirit of Lucifer… the spirit that tries to replace and take over rightful authority… I want you to learn right here, that all these things are impossible. You cannot replace God. And you cannot succeed in fighting your own father [the overseer of a church]. God will not help you and, in fact, he will fight against you. All nature, including the wild ravens and eagles of the air, will fight against you.’

He concludes the section on identifying a rebel by declaring ‘rebellion is as witchcraft. The biblical punishment for witchcraft is execution: “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22: 18.’

Words such as traitor, insurrectionist, mutineer, rebel, separatists and refractory anarchist are commonplace in Mills’s book. Actions that might be considered rebellious toward the overseer of a church are defined in the book as challenging the overseer, suggesting that he might not be right, not taking down notes as he is preaching, not buying his recorded preaching on tape, not smiling, clapping, shouting or saying amen when he is preaching, not being happy with the overseer’s wealth and blessings.

Pastor Paul guards his Thursday group jealously, and is particular about the material that he gives them. The defence, made on his behalf by members of the group, that he might not have read Mills’s book before presenting it to the group comes across as completely implausible. This is a group that he is cultivating into the backbone of his vision, a Millennium Temple with facilities for social welfare programs and seating for his 7,000 and growing congregation. It is significant that Mills’s book or its distribution is not at all extraordinary in the context of the Nigerian church. It is, in fact, emblematic of the relationship of the shepherd and the sheep that exists between pastors and their congregations.

The Nigerian Christian congregation, especially the ambitious thirtysomethings, who are not only precious to the church agenda but are also eulogised as the hope of Nigeria, have to be psychologically won over. Otherwise, the wheels upstairs would be turning with questions about a fascinating kind of superstardom: pastors wearing the most expensive clothes and driving the most expensive cars; flying in private airline jets; riding in security convoys; purchasing the highest number of first class tickets; offering themselves attractive honorariums for visiting each other’s churches; demanding travel management contracts reminiscent of Jennifer Lopez; making prolific media appearances; and living with family scandals, dirty politics and extra-marital affairs. The Nigerian congregation does not seem to be asking why the Nigerian man of God remains elitist. If God means to bless all of us as he has blessed pastors, why is it taking so long? And what is the possibility of it happening to us when we are so busy paying for the life of the man of God?

In April 2005, after Benny Hinn Ministries sponsored an evangelistic crusade in Nigeria, it was alleged that Hinn left the country disheartened by the worship of men of God by churchgoers. Bishop (Dr) Joseph Olanrewaju Obembe, the Nigerian co-ordinator of the crusade replied sarcastically: ‘Well, it was not the first time Benny Hinn would leave Nigeria in anger. When he was brought here 15 years ago by Archbishop Benson Idahosa, he also left in anger. He was so eager to leave Nigeria that he even flew economy class.’

In 2003, Reverend Chris Okotie, leader of the Household of God declared that God had ordained him President of Nigeria. According to the January edition of Source Magazine, he demanded Nl0 million respectively from specific members of his church to fund his political aspirations. He was defeated at the polls and further disgraced by accusations of extramarital affairs with members of his church. When the tabloid, City People, accused him of lavishing a flat, a Mercedes Benz, jewellery worth millions of naira and cash gifts on a particular member of his church, he was alleged to reply that he was just helping her out.

Reverend Okotie drives in a convoy of three SUVs; the one he rides in, a Hummer, was given as a gift by his congregation. In a three-page interview in ‘The Glitterati’ column of ThisDay, a Nigerian daily, he declared: ‘I know that Reverend Chris Okotie would eventually emerge as the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, so that Nigerians would breathe a sigh of relief. I want them to know that the names that they hear being touted back and forth are ordinary names… I am an endowed Nigerian, gifted, and Nigerians know what I am capable of doing. On a good day, on a level playing ground, none of them can compare with me in terms of popularity and the love that I have for this country.’

The interview was Reverend Okotie’s way of announcing his intention to campaign for presidential election.

Chris Oyakhilome of Christ Embassy, one of the most popular Pentecostal church leaders in Nigeria, renowned for huge televised crusades and miracle services and probably a more plausible candidate for the Nigerian presidency, spent the better part of 2001 in a media battle with Reverend Okotie. The Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria unsuccessfully attempted to make peace between the two, or at least to get them off the media. Christians and non-Christians expressed disgust at publicly aired arguments between the two leaders. Many Christians felt that neither of the parties accurately represented the Christian. Many non-Christians felt both parties very accurately represented the Christian, especially leaders of Nigerian Pentecostal churches.

In 2004, a member of Oyakhilome’s 10 000-member church, a cashier with the Ikeja Sheraton Hotels and Towers, donated millions of naira to the church – perhaps an everyday event in the context of a Nigerian church, until it was suggested that the church was under no obligation to query the members of its congregation on the sources of suspicious money. It was also suggested that even if there was a possibility that it was stolen money, the church was under no obligation to return the money to its rightful owner. The 2004 attempt by the National Broadcasting Commission to ban the advertisement of miracles on television would have damaged Oyakhilome’s ministry substantially. He is really best known for a hit programme on Nigerian television called Atmosphere for Miracles, a serialised documentary on the miracles he has performed. The examples are endless and increasingly routine. Nigerian Christians, and followers of men of God, are described as stupid and gullible; their reaction to blatant manipulation by men of God, knee-jerk, naive, lazy or obtuse. This is a simplistic statement made without reference to the uniqueness of our upbringing and training to defer to authority figures and rich people. If the typical Nigerian church is essentially a personality cult, then one must look beneath simplistic generalisations at the underlying dynamics now prevalent in our culture; the existential issues, fear and intimidation maybe. We must look beyond plain stupidity.

Almost a Basket Case 

Deji Thomas provides an insight into some of the dynamics of the relationship between pastors and members of their congregations. Thomas is one of those people whose reputation seems to contradict his real-life persona. He is known to be uncompromising and vociferous and people are usually taken aback by his fearless and confrontational nature, because he is diminutive. For three-and-a-half years Thomas worked as personal assistant to Pastor Paul Adefarasin, of the House on the Rock Church. There was no avoiding the fact that his personality had made him completely unsuitable for the job. He was too strident in his protests, too independent in his thinking, much too non-conformist in his views. His father is a university professor and had allowed Thomas and his siblings the freedom of expression in a time when their Yoruba peers were being taught by their parents to be submissive and unobtrusive in the presence of authority figures.

Bizarrely, Pastor Paul had hired him without a formal interview. In fact, he had been so excited about hiring him that he had peremptorily rounded off interviews that were then being conducted to find him an assistant. If at the end of three years Pastor Paul was dissatisfied with Thomas, he didn’t express as much. He even seemed reasonably satisfied with the quality of his work. Thomas, on the other hand, was at the end of his rope. His health was suffering. He was desperate to resign. Perhaps a major issue was that he had got close enough to a Nigerian man of God to see the contradictions. Thomas admitted that men of God need to be allowed their humanity. He spoke from experience that the Nigerian congregation needs a visual god, in a very literal way. He described people who would lie, bribe and physically assault aides to get close to a pastor. The fawning, the daily adulation, the gifts of money, houses, cars, all unsolicited, all apart from the free access to God’s money that these pastors have. It would be hard for anyone in their position not to morally compromise themselves.

Thomas resigned from his position in January 2003. Pastor Paul arranged an inquest, which reviewed a four-page document containing charges, and listened to testimonies against him by several witnesses. It was claimed that other resignations from the office at the same time as Thomas’s showed that there was an attempt to ‘break away’ a segment of the church. The main charge was rebellion against the church. Pastor Paul believed that Thomas should have informed the leadership that the other people resigning were preparing to do so. Thomas maintained that it was not his business to inform on anyone else’s intent.

The inquest took place in Pastor Paul’s office and lasted more than six hours. Members of the church leadership were in attendance. It ended with the determination of Thomas’s guilt and Pastor Paul carrying out the symbolic act of washing his hands in a bowl of water; washing his hands of Thomas. As punishment for the alleged rebellion, Thomas was forbidden from attending any of the House on the Rock church services worldwide and select members of the Church were advised to cut off all contact with him. Thomas claims that as the inquisition was winding up, Pastor Paul reiterated a threat he had made on several other occasions: no one who leaves House on the Rock succeeds after leaving. Thomas described the way that statement psychologically affected himself and his wife, Bukola: ‘We would panic when basic things that virtually everyone experiences at some time or the other, like flat tires, illnesses, happened to us. What broke that terror hold for us was reaching the place of realisation that our lives were not in the hands of any man, but in God’s.’

The months following the trial defined the end of the relationship between Pastor Paul and Deji Thomas, and a battle of wills that disrupted relationships with friends and family. It would seem that Pastor Paul had followed Heward Mills’s recommendations to the letter. Idiosyncratic people just did not have a place in the House on the Rock, and there was no place for insubordination or contradiction of the man of God.

It has been said that former US president George W Bush is a quintessential bornagain Christian. This could simply be because during his term he was one of the most visible Christians in the world. Newsweek of March 2003 asked and answered the question: would Iraq be a ‘just war’ in Christian terms, as laid out by Augustine in the fourth century and  amplified by Aquinas, Luther and others? Bush satisfied himself that it would be.

It was interesting to hear Bush’s name mentioned in the same sentence as Augustine, Aquinas and Martin Luther, and to hear his categorical declarations of war in the name of Jesus. Bush’s presidency has been defined as the most resolutely ‘faith-based’ in modern times, and an enterprise founded, supported and guided by trust in the temporal and spiritual power of God. Here perhaps is the perfect comparison for the superstar man of God: well-dressed, supported with an articulate public relations infrastructure, rich, powerful, lord over the most powerful constituent entity in the world, with a God agenda dangerously ensconced in personal ambition. Eugene H Peterson’s warning resonates: ‘The moment a person (or government or religious organisation) is convinced that God is either ordering or sanctioning a cause or project, anything goes. The history, worldwide, of religion fuelled hate, killing and oppression is staggering.’

Spiritual Favour

The city of Lagos has most visibly developed along a 15km artery of the Lekki-Epe Expressway. It is representative of the movement of money in Nigeria: housing estates, outlets and office complexes as physical manifestations of mergers and acquisitions in oil and gas; malls, supermarkets, fast food outlets, private schools, university campuses and possibly the first private cemetery in Africa. It is possible to drive the 15km in a reasonable 20 minutes, and in that time literally drive past 50 churches. Some of these churches are known to generate several million naira in revenue every Sunday.

Nigeria is one of the most religious countries in the world. Every Sunday, millions of Nigerians fill innumerable churches. Every Friday, half of the country shuts down in observance of the Muslim Sabbath. Nigeria is also number two on Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries.

Many of my fellow Christians express no alarm about Nigerian churches as prototypes of the Nigerian system and feel that it makes no difference that there is an agenda to make a few people rich through the contributions of many. They believe that if an intelligent Christian is pushed far enough, he will assert his right to individual worship and that there is no lasting harm in manipulations by the men of God.

At the risk of losing my faith in the Nigerian church, I have begun to ask what the real relevance of Christianity is in Nigeria, especially the unglamorous Christianity of carrying crosses, following paths of repentance, seeking a God of love, and endlessly turning the another cheek. Will Nigerian men of God and congregations cease deceiving themselves and do the millions of Nigerians who profess Christianity make a difference to a precarious economy? Will the biblically proscribed need for integrity in our relationship with God and other human beings gain its rightful place in the church? Is there a danger in giving more and more power to men who believe it is their Godgiven right to determine the course of other people’s lives? What will happen if it becomes difficult to continue to control people with the threat of a God who avenges insubordination to his representatives? Will men of God then find ‘more effective’ means of keeping people under control and keeping themselves relevant? It is hard to predict which way the church will go, especially if its leadership continues to drive it in the egocentric, live-the-American-dream direction that it has for the past 20 years. It seems that for as long as Nigerians remain chronically superstitious, as long as the economy teeters and as long as Church is ‘good business’, we will have our superstars, our Big Men, embodying the essence of our desires not only to thrive, but to live the good life, not through merit, but through spiritual favour.

For as long as superstar men of God can promise us the ability to master our environment, live well, marry well, and afford good health, then they will have satisfied all the parameters for our belief in them.

Who then needs the God of the bible with his high standards, his promises of trials and tribulations, crosses and paths of repentance? Who will want Him?

This story features in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2013) .
To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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MOLOTOV COCKTAIL Mon, 08 Jul 2019 14:31:16 +0000 First published in 2007 Molotov Cocktail initially appeared to be a contradictory […]

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First published in 2007 Molotov Cocktail initially appeared to be a contradictory mix, on one side there was its incendiary title, cover art of a hand poised to throw a lit petrol bomb, and the provocative subtitle , Dismantling the Master’s House Brick by Brick. Then this in the first editorial: “Molotov Cocktai broadly backs the principles and policies of the African National Congress. We believe that discussing the ANC with insight and generosity will be more interesting and productive than condemning the party out of ignorance.” A revolutionary magazine aimed at defending “the powers that be” with word bombs?

Partially, yes. Edited by James Sanders (initially with the help of Ronald Suresh Roberts and later alone) Molotov Cocktail captures the ambiguities of contemporary post apartheid South Africa, where despite the change of political power the majority of the media is still owned by a small white minority. As the editorial in the second issue explains, “In South Africa, many newspapers and magazines adopt a pose of neutrality that is essentially oppositional. Some of this derives from the ‘anti-apartheid’ history of the mining press but it is really a cover for a political agenda that attempts to impose an illiberal narrative onto news and politics. The print media has not transformed quickly enough and we hope to speed it along.”

With that in mind Molotov Cocktail took a deliberately intellectual approach, defining itself as, “a platform where South African intellectuals will debate issues and engage in serious discussions about the direction that our country should take.” It has featured everything from archival documents including long-lost SACP biographies and back issues of the SADF’s Paratus, to new writing on cultural schizophrenia, oil, opposition, Zimbabwe, ‘apartheid’ in Israel, meeting a Nazi in SA, polo in Plett, Post-Polokwane: the new ANC, banking, crime and succession.

It also includes news, controversial profiles, satire, political gossip, book and film reviews, detailed media analysis and some literary critique. Graphics often take the form of illustrations, posters, political cartoons, power organograms and “how to” guides, including of course, “How to make a Molotov Cocktail“.

Significantly, the magazine silenced critics who saw it as Pro-Mbeki mouthpiece by maintaining its editorial stance despite Mbeki’s electoral defeat at the ANC conference in 2007.

To date the magazine has brought out 5 issues and established itself as a one of the few independent print voices, offering alternative news, views, critique and satire that challenge the mainstream media.


James Sanders, Ronald Suresh Roberts, Adam Rumball, Zanele Mashinini, Yasmin Sooka, Sindiso Mnisi, Izzy Grove, Eeben Barlow, Lancelot du Preez, Richard Gott, Peter Hallward, Piers Pigou, Eusebius McKaiser, Sasha Polakow-Suransky, Lester Sands, Adam Rumball, Nicholas Tee, Dan Mare, Jonathan Bloche, Phillip Dexter and Thato Mofokeng.


  • Nose Week 1993
  • The Media magazine


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The Meaning of Being Numerous Wed, 05 Aug 2020 08:37:50 +0000 The man who sets up the bomb is long gone before it goes off.

The post The Meaning of Being Numerous first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

Lina Mounzer 

The man who sets up the bomb is long gone before it goes off. 

It is a standard, 50 kg TNT explosive, fitting neatly into the trunk of a car. If the car is heavy enough, a 1982 Mercedes, blue-green say, like this one, the slight heaviness of the back wouldn’t even be visible to the naked eye. The components are easily available to one who knows the right people, and he would have known all the right people. Some things bought off the black market. Some things from a mechanic he knows somewhere, or better yet, from an electrical store, where he doesn’t have to talk to the owner as he assembles all the necessary wiring. 

He has his own trajectory of what brought him there. He is just a part of the larger machine, like the fuse, or the timer. The living part of the bomb, but just a part nevertheless. If it were not him, that night wearing his father’s old sweater and a baseball cap he stole from a dead American Marine, it would have been someone else. Any number of slouched, nameless boys, driving that Mercedes and leaving it parked on a residential street on the last day of winter. I am more interested in what happens afterwards. 

The bomb goes off at 6:03 pm on a Monday night in March 1984, on a street in Haret Hreik, in West Beirut. 

There are exactly 63 casualties, and 129 wounded. Of the casualties, 54 die instantly, and the other seven die of complications either in the hospital, or on the way there. I think often about those two words: casualties and complications. The first is so flippant – it can’t help but bring to mind a whole host of other associations: casual dress, casual shoes, casual atmosphere. Two letters away from instructions to keep it simple, uncomplicated. The other, which starts off far less serious (for after all, in a situation like this, wounded means hope, means a chance of survival), soon finds itself up against obstacles that bar its way forward. Obstacles like a blood clot, say, or irreversible brain damage, or a microscopic tear in the tight cellular structure of an internal organ that bleeds its way into the body and eventually stops the heart.

The heart. The biggest complication of all.

There are other wounded who die years later, like the man who survives the initial blast, but whose legs are left behind in the rubble. Unable to work after that, he dies three years later of a heart attack caused by immobility and an increasing number of arguments with his wife, who has to take care of the kids and the house and all their various, fathomless needs without help from anyone. But he doesn’t count. Initially, he qualifies as a survivor. A survivor: someone whose very effortless, instinctive act of breathing and functioning is elevated to a status, a badge of abiding sustenance. You are no longer merely living, like all the other breathing, eating, defecating people around you. You have lived through something, and that notion of being a survivor will always remind you that your life is now clustered in some quantum way around one single moment in time, one particular episode in history, that defines everything fundamental about you from that time onwards. Whatever it does to your life afterwards, you don’t count as a casualty unless you die as a direct result of shrapnel or falling rubble.

But what counts as shrapnel, for someone such as me, tracing the trajectory of this bomb throughout the years? How do you measure the resonance of a bomb?

With a detonation of 50 kg, glass can shatter up to three blocks away from the initial site. Or, to put it in more technical terms: the major damage is incurred in the nucleus of the blast site, with damage growing exponentially less pronounced with every concentric ripple of the radius, limited to pounds per square inch times weight squared by mass over distance times pi.

But the resonance of bombs has a tricky way of escaping math equations and reverberating into people’s lives in all sorts of unexpected ways. 

Two blocks away from the bombsite, a mother is putting her ten-month old son to bed when the bomb explodes. The glass in his nursery shatters, but his crib is nowhere near the window, because his mother has known, at least, to take that precaution in a country where bombs go off unexpectedly. Neither of them is hurt, but the shock of the sound causes the child to shit his diaper and he screams wildly into the evening, inconsolable. For two years after that, he will refuse to sleep unless his mother presses her body around his and rocks him physically into slumber. Forever afterwards, he will flinch whenever he hears any loud noise – a door slamming, glass breaking, thunder, fireworks. In fact, he has a terrible anxiety about fireworks, and on New Years Eve in 2000, when the city ushers in a new millennium with twelve tons of colorful explosives, and he is thoroughly drunk and uninhibited for the first time in his seventeen years of life, he will unexpectedly shit his pants again, earning him the ridicule of all his friends and turning away from him the girl he has been waiting all year to kiss. To make up for that shame, he will propose to the first girl who is kind enough to like him, and he will have a car-crash of a marriage, driven to the ground by the deep-down knowledge that he does not, in actuality, love his wife, and that he was merely settling for the first person willing to settle for him.

Three blocks away from the bombsite, a teenage girl is masturbating for the first time when it goes off. In fact, it goes off the very second she gets off. From then on, nothing will make her come quite like the combination of electric fright and lust she feels at that moment. This will drive her to trying to recreate a scenario in which she can experience true mortal terror at the moment of orgasm, which will eventually lead to her accidental death at a hotel in London in 2007, under circumstances mostly inexplicable to the cops that arrive on the scene.

You could call all of these casualties of the war. What happens after the bomb goes off: this is what I am interested in. What happens to the uncounted, the ones who don’t end up in the newspaper as names reduced to statistics. 

This is the story of one explosion. It could have been any one of them. I’ve tried to write about the war a lot, to reconstruct it for myself. The only place to start is with one explosion. To trace its shrapnel through the years. Anything bigger is too much. Anything bigger threatens to overwhelm. 

What we all had in common was one explosion. It could have been one of many but I like to think it was this one: the same one. There’s a nice narrative cohesion in that, and it appeals to me. Because really there is no way to make sense of the war, of what happened. But there are physics and mechanics to an explosion. An arc of destruction. And then the inevitable reconstruction. One does not happen without the other. There is no crater that remains unfilled, no matter how haphazardly. No building that doesn’t get patched up, if only for function, and no life that doesn’t try to leave the rubble behind and forge onwards into the daily business of survival. 

Is the reconstruction of events part of that same drive? To forge ahead, to settle the past into its sediment and try to build something new, even when what we long for most is there in what is left behind?

See, everyone who has not lived it assumes that the pain of war will be extraordinary. It’s a way for people to distance themselves from the unthinkable, perhaps. Those who have not lived it approach it with a sort of reverence that masquerades as respect but comes dangerously close to indifference. “I couldn’t possibly understand,” they say, and so they don’t even try. And of course, there are those stories, the ones that boggle the mind with their concentration of tragedy and their occasional illuminations towards a heroism that speaks to life at its extremities. But the truth is, the things that cause pain are mundane and universal. A broken heart, failed ambition, the things one holds sacred that are never honored enough: all these can cripple a person worse than physical injury. And exile. Who amongst us has not experienced the sweet-twist woes of exile? For every moment is an exile from the one before it, every new day is an exile from the past. The law is simple, in every move forward, there is something left behind, and even pain, in the leaving, is elevated to awesome proportions because it is a moment that will never return, never be relived in its perfect, present completeness in the same way.  

What is left behind in the rubble of the past. That is the most unknowable thing. So know this, then. Two minutes before the bomb goes off, a boy falls off a wall on the other end of West Beirut. Two hours after it goes off, a father slams his glass down and makes a final decision. And in the instant it goes off, one man’s career is made, but his life is destroyed in the process. These are the stories I am interested in, from this one bomb.

The first cannot possibly imagine that the bomb will eventually kill him. The second thinks he is doing his best because he has no other choice. And the third, well, the third is the most difficult of all. Maybe because he will be the one who brings them all back together in the end.

One bomb out of 3,641 detonated over fifteen years of civil war. I am counting here only the car bombs – no bullets, no RPGs, no landmines, no experimental explosives dropped from fighter jets. After all, there must be some method to scientific research. 

Three lives then, and how they spark forward in time from that singular moment. Resonance. That’s what you actually hear, if you survive an explosion. Not the blast itself. Now listen. It’s about to go off in the distance of the past. 

This story features in the Chimurenga Chronic (April 2013) .
To purchase in print or as a PDF head to our online shop.

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LAMALIF Mon, 08 Jul 2019 14:24:46 +0000 Published in Morocco in 1966, Lamalif took its title from two Arabic […]

The post LAMALIF first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

Published in Morocco in 1966, Lamalif took its title from two Arabic letters that form the word “la”, meaning “no”. This sly wordplay encapsulated the magazine’s objective. Launched after the defeat of the Moroccan opposition (Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires) by the monarchy, Lamalif was a form of challenge. “The goal in this tragic situation was not to lose hope, to build an alternative,” explained the founders, Zakia Daoud and Mohamed Loghlam.

Throughout its 22 years existence, Lamalif was characterised by its intellectual rigour and radical political stance. Covering social, cultural and economical issues, all from a political perspective it established itself as “a space for reflection and a force of significant challenge.” Its ideological debates amongst journalists, economists, academics, politicians and revolutionaries became global intellectual references and proved seminal in the development of many of Mocrocco’s best thinkers and writers. Its focus on arts and culture was equally influential. Lamalif‘s covers frequently featured work by artists and its writings on film contributed to the rise of Moroccan cinema in the 1970s.

Lamalif was however never exclusionary and it soon established a wide and diverse readership. Ironically it was this success that led to the publications ultimate demise. Its popularity and outspoken stance soon attracted the ire of the authorities and it didn’t take long before Daoud was “regarded as Public Enemy.” After years of threats, censorship and seizures, Lamalif was finally forced to shut down in 1988.

traduction française par Scarlett Antonio

Publi au Maroc en 1966, Lamalif a pris son nom des deux lettres de l’alphabet arabe qui forment le mot “la”, signifiant “non”. Ce jeu de mots malin résumait l’objectif du magazine. Lancé après la défaite de l’opposition marocaine (Union socialiste des Forces Populaires) par la monarchie, Lamalif était une forme de défit. “Le but dans cette tragique situation n’était pas de perdre espoir, de construire une alternative,” expliquaient les fondateurs, Zakia Daoud et Mohamed Loghlam.

Pendant ces 22 ans d’existence, Lamalif était caractérisé par sa rigueur intellectuelle et sa position politique radicale. Reportant sur les problèmes sociaux, culturels et économiques, d’un point de vue politique, il s’est affermi comme “un espace pour la réflexion et une force de défit considérable.”

Ses débats idéologiques parmi les journalistes, économistes, académiciens, politiciens et révolutionnaires devinrent des références intellectuelles mondiales et ont prouvé être fructueux dans le développement de nombreux écrivains et meilleurs penseurs marocains. Son intérêt sur les arts et la culture était également influents. Les reportages de Lamalif mettaient fréquemment en vedette le travail fait par des artistes et ses articles sur les films ont contribué à l’essor du cinéma marocain dans les années 1970.

Lamalif n’a néanmoins jamais été exclusif et s’est vite établi une place parmi un grand nombre de lecteurs différents. Ironiquement, ce fut ce succès qui mena les publications à leur ultime fin. Sa popularité et sa position de franc-parler attira la colère des autorités et il n’a pas fallu attendre longtemps avant que Daoud soit “considéré comme l’Ennemi Publique.” Après des années de menaces, de censures et saisies, Lamalif fut forcé de fermer définitivement en 1988.


Jean Gourmelin, Abdellah Laraoui, Paul Pascon, Abdelkebir Khatibi, Abdallah Laroui, Fathallah Oualalou Oualalou, Abdelaali Benamour, Habib El Malki, Khalid Alioua, Bruno Etienne, Mohammed Jibril, Mohammed Tozy, Aboubakr Jamai, Salim Jay, Najib Boudraa


  • Almaghrib(1937)
  • Jeune Afrique (1960)
  • Al Mouharrir(1962)
  • Addoustour(1963)
  • Souffles (1966)
  • Anoual
  • TelQuel (2001), which founder Ahmed Reda Benchemsi initially wanted to call Lamalifin tribute.


  • Lamalif on Wikipedia
  • Zakya Daoud, Les Années Lamalif, Tarik Editions, 2007
  • Laila Lalami, “The Lamalif Years”, February 15, 2007
  • Abdeslam Kadiri, “Portrait. Les mille vies de Zakya Daoud”, TelQuel, 2005.
  • “An interview with Zakia Daoud”, APN, March 9, 2007
  • “Rétrospectivee : Il était une fois la presse”, TelQuel

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Urbanism Beyond Architecture – African Cities as Infrastructure Wed, 29 Jan 2020 10:05:03 +0000 Vyjayanthi Rao, in conversation with Filip de Boeck & Abdou Maliq Simone […]

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Vyjayanthi Rao, in conversation with Filip de Boeck & Abdou Maliq Simone

In Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, Filip de Boeck writes:

In spite of the fact that an analysis of the different physical sites through which the city exists and invents itself helps us to better understand the specific ways in which the materiality of the infrastructure generates particular sets of relations in the city, I would submit that in the end, in a city like Kinshasa, it is not, or not primarily, the material infrastructure or the built form that makes the city a city.  The city, in a way, exists beyond its architecture . . . the infrastructure and architecture that function best in Kinshasa are almost totally invisible on a material level.

This understanding of the city, expressed so succinctly by de Boeck, is shared by all three of us. But as anthropologists speaking to architects, we are also concerned with exploring the relation between visibility and invisibility and with the ‘networks of concrete becoming,’as Simone puts it, at once engaging and going beyond the artifice of material infrastructure and physical site.  Built form may be, as de Boeck states, ‘produced randomly in human sites as living space.’As urban studies have taken a ‘southern turn,’with an increasing number of works in mainstream urban studies focusing on cities of the global south, this contrast between built form and living space is indeed critical. But equally central, it seems, are questions of global scale and the possible political and spatial descriptions of particular cities, especially these cities of the southern hemisphere, at the global scale.

For this conversation, we take as our point of departure the multiple uses deriving from the Latin root capitalis (chief, principal, in the sense of sovereign power), which is both the root of capital as well as of capitellum, meaning small head, or the top of the column in the architectural sense.By juxtaposing these multiple uses, we enter into a contradiction: we are speaking both about the sense of a vanguard and of fixing, of that which tops off and shows off the solidity of the architecture as well as that which circulates and controls the expression of sovereign power in the political sense insofar as it is able to circulate. 

We are especially concerned with where we can situate ‘networks of concrete becoming,’ both in terms of forms of accumulation and in terms of the possibilities for articulating political power in a continent that is increasingly subjected to global flows of finance capital, resource extraction and migration. We found that the best place to begin was with the transformations of the physical environment of African cities. While Simone unpacks the developments in and around Dakar and their political effects on other Senegalese cities, speculating on the causes of such massive investments in construction, de Boeck reflects on the intensification of urbanity without architecture throughout Congo, in part as a result of the diamond trade. The relationship between what de Boeck calls the ‘ejaculation’ of wealth and the accentuation of non-investment in the physical space of Kinshasa is contrasted, for example, with the imaginary ‘urban planning’ encouraged by the various churches that have gained enormous popular appeal in the Congo. Can a conventional understanding of architecture sustain the weight of this imaginary planning? Can one think of the city outside of material forms of representation and aspiration such as those of architecture? These questions also motivate de Boeck’s explorations of Kinshasa at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale and his more recent exhibition, Kinshasa, The Imaginary City, in Johannesburg (2006).

Non-investment in material terms might also be linked to a return of the colonial comptoir economy, the economy of the trading post and the generativity of certain kinds of urban performance.  These performances center around the ‘hunter’s landscape,’ in which capital works only through its incessant expenditure and circulation rather than through a logic of accumulation and maximization of profit. It works, in other words, through the creation of social networks that make investments work for the urban hunter. In this landscape, colonial histories seem to endure inasmuch as the city continues to be seen as a site of exclusion by the vast majority of the people who developed Kinshasa outside its colonial boundaries. It is therefore a place where everything that comes from elsewhere – from outside the ludic spaces of social networks in formation – is thought of as being there to be ‘ripped off.’

Thus, the concentration of political power in the realm of the capital city is challenged by its circulation in and through diverse spaces and amid those networks that constitute the invisible architecture of connections of the contemporary African city. The physical aspect of the city, especially as the signal of a growing densification and convergence of trajectories, has, however, also become crucial. A history of Dakar, from its origins in the comptoir economy and its territorial incorporation into France that defined its relations with the other cities in the Senegalese metropolitan system, reveals these new trajectories.  These trajectories are at once global in their reach—controlled by actors from the Senegalese Murid Diaspora as well as the Lebanese Diaspora—while also having effects at the level of the nation, expressed in the investments that new actors from the hinterland are making into the landscape of Dakar, gaining new visibility for their activities. 

We explore here these dispersals of capital (financial and human) and their relation to these capital cities (Dakar, Kinshasa, Khartoum) and in the peculiar relations that cities like Lagos have to capital in both senses, economic and political.  In other words, we try to open the question of the location of capital in this conversation. In so doing, we attend to other forms of invisibility as well.  For what happens in the course of the circulation of capital across Africa is the generation of capital and of urbanity outside of known forms, outside of the structuring contexts of architecture and the planned insertion of material infrastructure.  “These cities are often invisible to the outside world,” de Boeck says, because “they function in ways that we are not used to seeing and therefore go unnoticed.” Thus we face the question, “where should capital/the capital city be located?” by asking, “what is the scene/site of urban action?”  We face the question, “what conduits of access are being developed in order to facilitate investment, expansion, accumulation or “ejaculation” of capital?” by asking, “what forms of social complexity are being explored in the development of these conduits?”  What sort of etiquette is being developed by residents of these cities in the drive of their residents to becoming visible in order to enable social being?  We turn to situations of boundary maintenance in Abidjan and in Khartoum, and we also turn to the emergent play of aspirations that reach for under-coded territories. Recent Malaysian investments in Senegalese social housing in the name of an ethical Islamic practice as well as Chinese investment in a transcontinental railway system represent gestures of a new kind of global play. In this conversation, we think these contradictions between the material and the non-material, the visible and the invisible, the push for material infrastructure in Africa and elsewhere today and the relationship that this push articulates between political power and capital, in the sense of the ‘topped off,’ aligned and accumulated stashes of wealth in its multiple forms.

Vyjayanthi Rao


Imaginary Urban Plans

Vyjayanthi Rao:  What are the spatial expressions of capital in contemporary Africa? How do these expressions relate to expressions of political and subjective power?

Abdou Maliq Simone:  Currently, in Dakar, you have the rather recent and still opaque project of building a new capital, for the moment designated as ‘Dubai sur Atlantique,’ some sixty kilometers to the north.  Partly this reflects the generalization of the reinvented logic of the entrepôt associated with Dubai; partly it emerges from the fact that there exists a kind of conurbation that leaves Dakar and then begins to link what were some major small cities like Thies and M’bour. In some ways you have this residue of a kind of colonial bifurcation. Fifty years ago, Dakar started to become too overcrowded, becoming too much of a threat to certain kinds of order and processes. Dense quarters were displaced to Pikine and Guediwaye, and that in some ways, culturally, became the real Dakar. Outside of colonial specifications, these areas reflected many of the tensions of urban spaces attempting to articulate temporal and spatial divergence. The same for Freetown, the same for Conakry, the same for Dakar and to a limited extent for Abidjan, you have coastal capitals where, geo-morphically, it’s quite limited in how they can grow. You have this kind of concentration in these very limited physical spaces. It becomes impossible to navigate. This kind of trajectory of expansion then makes it quite physically difficult to access the centers of power and centers of commerce. So, in terms of President Abdoulaye Wade saying we can no longer have the airport where we have it, we can no longer have ministries where we have them, we have to relocate, we have to bring them out to make them more accessible, to recenter, to reconstitute somehow the gravitational field of the capital means in one sense this old reiteration of new grand, grand works. Still, the former center, Plateau, continues to be a huge building site. You still see these immense kinds of constructions taking place there.

Filip deBoeck:  It’s incredible.  I just drove through it a couple of weeks ago.  Whose money is driving this?

AMS:  In some sense the appearance of continuous development signals a certain availability of this area to investment of all kind, and this plurality itself can constitute a platform for real occupation.  Whatever is put up will in the end be used in some way.  So residents in Dakar don’t usually have the sense that this is something that’s being inflated. Spaces are being bought.  There’s a market.  People are buying these things: office space, apartment space…

VR: In other words, it’s somehow not virtual?

AMS:  I can’t say for sure, but there’s a kind of popular understanding that there are real buyers for these things, real occupancy.

FdeB:  I think that is the difference with a place like Congo.  Clearly in Senegal or in Dakar, you have a middle class or upper middle class of people, merchants with financial means who are doing their own trade and commerce and investing in their own city. In Congo, such a local middle class is absent, and there are, of course, historical reasons for that. For a long time the whole country was run by a small group, a power elite around Mobutu. There was no middle ground between the very poor and the very rich.

Mobutu’s downfall created a void in that respect. Those with money left. In Kinshasa, as a result, the housing market just collapsed. Those who remained in the city could afford to buy housing. Today, real estate is booming again as never before, but the boom is not caused primarily by Congolese. The capital flowing into the city comes through ex-pats and foreigners. The latter often Lebanese—people from outside, who start to redevelop the city but only to a certain and very minimal extent.

VR: What about the diamond trade in the early 1990s and the kind of wealth it generated?  Was it at all reflected in what was happening to the physical space of Kinshasa?  

FdeB:  Well, on the one hand, it just accentuated the level of non-investment in physical space because all of that money would leave. Very little of it would be invested in infrastructure.  On the other hand, it did have a huge impact in other ways because the informal diamond economy allowed for local actors to all of a sudden gain access to a lot of money. People, often youngsters, would go to Angola to dig diamonds, and often they would come back with $1,000, $10,000 or even $100,000.

VR:  What would they do with this newly generated wealth?

FdeB:  Well, most of the time it was very quickly ejected and spent—kind of ejaculated, really, all over the place. Few were those who invested it in building, in houses, in plots of land. But some areas of certain neighbourhoods in Kinshasa did witness a modest construction boom thanks to that kind of money. But already, when you talk about the capital of Kinshasa, the question immediately is, the capital for whom? or who defined what the capital is, and who has access to it?  In Dakar, it was merely a discussion of where should it be.  In Congo, the colonial city really emerged as a non-place. It was defined as a ‘centre extra-coutumier,’ that is, the city placed itself right from the start outside of all locally existing cultural, social, and political frameworks. In the postcolonial period, Kinshasa became a major political centre. But in recent years, even that role has slightly changed. In the late 1990s we saw how regional players (Rwanda, among others) tried hard to make the capital move eastward, away from a Francophone sphere of influence. In the end that hasn’t worked, if only because of the sheer size and weight of Kinshasa as a cultural centre. And it has, of course, also remained an important political centre, but contrary to an earlier period, it is perhaps no longer exclusively the only political centre. There are other centres of power as well. With the Kabila dynasty, Lubumbashi, for example, has once again become more important.

And, second, the capital, already when the city was founded or when it grew out of really a comptoir economy, it was a trading post originally and then transformed into a huge labour camp.  The city that the Belgian colonial administration developed was a deeply segregated one, certainly in terms of race but also in terms of gender, for example. Basically, it was a depot of cheap labour force. Access to the city was strictly controlled. The city itself was dual: there was ‘la Ville,’ the exclusively white, colonial heart of the city, and then there was “la Cité,” the vast, indigenous peripheral city, inhabited by Congolese. The city in itself has always maintained a state of exclusion, even today. For example, where the colonial borders of the city end today, the real city starts, much like Pikine. But in Kinshasa, you have a colonial city with a very small heart, which stopped growing in 1960, when Kinshasa’s population did not exceed 400,000. Afterward, 4 million to 6 million people have been added onto that, but in areas that have not been urbanized along formal lines.

Today, one of the access points into the old colonial Ville is marked by a statue, which Father Kabila erected in memory of Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister after independence. The statue itself is of a Lumumba who stands with one hand raised. And there are all kinds of popular interpretations of that statue.  First of all, in Congo, there is no real culture of statuary in public places, so its sudden appearance generated all kinds of comments. Painted in gold, the huge and heavy statue reminds one of the former Soviet Union’s aesthetics.  The first remarks people made were, “This is going to be heavy to move and steal when another wave of looting sweeps through the city.” And second, “why is he standing there with his hand like this?”  He’s basically saying, “Stop, you can’t get into the city.”  To all of the multitudes who live in the peripheral city that has become the real city, the statue says, “You’re not allowed to come in.” It’s basically perceived as the government denying access to all these people who want to get into the city but who are not allowed to, who can’t afford to, who can’t make use of it, who are blocked and excluded.

The areas and neighbourhoods that extend beyond the statue are referred to as ‘La Chine populaire,’ or the Peoples Republic of China, because they are so populous.  They are called “Bana terre rouge,” or the children of the red earth, in reference to the dusty and un-asphalted roads in those areas.  The people living there have never had a real sense of the colonial city as their own. Very often, I think, they don’t feel as if the city belongs to them.  It’s not their city. 

Father Kabila, I believe, understood that very well and tried to decentralize the urban space, much like Wade. As an alternative to the Central Market in the colonial centre, Kabila ordered another market to be built in the city’s newer periphery. But even then that market picks up only very slowly because people do not really consider it their own: it is a top-down government initiative.  It has been there now for almost ten years, and the feeling about that market is not good. People start working and functioning around the market, but the market itself as a constructed space by the government has never really been fully adopted.

So that other city, that peripheral city that is the real city, has developed according to its own notion of what capital might mean, or what forms of accumulation might mean. In order to exist socially in a city like Kinshasa, expenditure, circulation, and conspicuous consumption are far more important than accumulation or maximalization of profit. Accumulation requires a directionality, a teleology, a specific temporality which is not the temporality of the city today. The city, on the contrary, is a space of the sudden, the unforeseen, the unexpected and fleeting moment. In order to survive in it, one has to know how to capture that moment. It is this praxis of capture and seizure that determines life and survival in the city, which itself is often compared to the space of the forest. As such, the city does not function according to a standard capitalist logic as we know it. The city, essentially, is a hunter’s landscape. In order to survive in this forest-city, one has to be a good hunter, that is, know how to seize an opportunity and know how to make that known. The new figures of success within the city, whether it be preachers, politicians, or musicians, are, in a very real sense, the city’s best hunters: those who know how to capture wealth, inject it again in social networks, and gain social weight through it.

That also means that the urbanscape is not so much shaped by the dynamics of modernity but rather that it is constantly infused with all kinds of other notions and moralities that often have longstanding, rural roots.

The practices of seizure and immediate expenditure make for the fact that there is no build-up of any surplus; the notion of accumulation is absent. Everything you have or everything that is sold in the market is everything that can be contained by one’s belly, everything that can be eaten and digested immediately in the moment.  There is no use in buying ten cans of something because you don’t know whether on the tenth day you will still be there to drink it.  So you buy what you need in the moment. You don’t buy a whole bar of soap, but you buy just a third of it, enough to wash yourself with this one time.  You don’t buy a whole pack of cigarettes; you buy just one or even half of one cigarette.  And so all the heaps of foodstuffs that you see at the market are measured by the quantity of the belly, the quantity of the stomach.  Capital in that sense starts to mean something else; it becomes something else, away from standard notions of accumulation.

VR:  If notions of accumulation are displaced from the logic of capital in the urban practices of the Kinois, is there a different sense or understanding of investment as well?

FdeB:  Well, there is a lot of investment in social relations and in one’s self-realization through these relations, but far less investment in material infrastructure.  Not in buildings, not in a city that is still perceived as something that is not fully ours after all those decades. And since it is not fully ours, it means there isn’t a sense of responsibility about it: the material infrastructure and everything that comes from above and from outside is there to be ripped off, to be captured and taken advantage of, whether legally or illegally. The term now is kisanola, or ‘combing your hair.’ ‘Combing’ in the sense people now give to it means stealing, looting, ripping off.  If I, as a white person, walk through the street, people will make the kisanola sign, by which they indicate ‘You are there to be ripped off,’ basically because I don’t belong there and can therefore be taken advantage of without any moral objections or feelings of guilt or wrongdoing. Similarly, a money changer in the street might advertise ‘double kisanola.’ meaning, ‘Here you will be ripped off twice.’ It indicates that the money changer you are dealing with knows what he is doing, that he is shrewd and streetwise. Paradoxically, the fact that he is not to be trusted is a sign you can trust that guy. Another image people use is that of an injection. In order to socially exist and survive in this urban environment, one has to know how to stick a needle into someone and suck the victim’s blood. So that’s the way in which capital moves in the city, that’s what it is about.  It’s not about accumulating; it’s not about maximizing.  It is not about having but about being, not about possessing but about consuming, about singularizing oneself by immediately putting capital in constant circulation.

VR:   If these actions do not have a standard capitalist notion of investment, which is typically directed toward future profitability and to something that might materialize at some other point in time, then what kinds of future are being imagined by the Kinois?

FdeB:  Such a sense is emerging today but in the religious sphere, where money has come to mean something very specific. Within Pentecostalism and other ‘prosperity churches,’ you see how the switch toward a capitalist notion of money and of accumulation is made. There you also witness the introduction of new notions of individualization. These churches turn away from older collective identities based on kinship or ethnic belonging. Within that new religious public sphere these former group identities are disfavoured. On the contrary, one becomes an authentic Christian as an individual and through one’s own work and effort.  And that’s the constant message of these churches. Here one witnesses the introduction of a new subject formation, the introduction also, of a new work ethos and of new notions of accumulation. In these churches accumulation is no longer something that is socially negative. It is, on the contrary, something that is favoured, even though the fruits of that labour and accumulation are often not harvested instantly in this life. When people give money and goods to the church and to their preacher, they do so because they believe that God will multiply these gifts and return it to them. During Masses and prayer meetings the believers often listen to testimonies by people who died and were resuscitated through the force of prayer. Often, they report back to the church community about what they witnessed in Paradise: “Everything that we give to the church, everything that we give to the preacher, is being invested for you in heaven,” they would say. “And with the money you give they are already building your house and your villa in paradise.  When you die, your house will be there, a house that you were never able to afford here on earth.”  So ‘giving’ in this religious context has become an investment in real estate, even though that real estate is located in heaven. In this sense, the churches do contribute to a new form of urban planning, but it is an imaginary urban planning in the hereafter.

In those churches, within these new forms of Christian fundamentalism, you clearly see how the switch is made from the notion of the gift toward a notion of capital, with all of the fallout that it produces too—because it means that stress is put on individual success and not on group solidarity.  And it means that the notion of the group, of what ‘family’ is, for example, is being redefined at the moment away from the reality of the extended family toward the new and more restrictive notion of the nuclear family. In the process, people whom one would have defined as kin before are now being labelled as outsiders, strangers, or even witches. These are radically new geographies of inclusion and exclusion that emerge within the urban locale and redefine the boundaries between inside and outside, kin and stranger, endogamous and exogamous.

A city like Kinshasa has really become the fault line where these two different logics—the logic of gift- and kin-based reciprocity and the logic of money—meet, so far without really merging, and that produces huge upheavals.

VR: In the book, you talked about the idea of the jungle, and how it’s becoming part of the landscape of the city. The growth of the city seems to be premised upon the encompassing of this forest through new forms of action such as those in the religious sphere.

FdeB: Well, as I said, it’s again about the hunter. In the forest, in order to survive, you have to know how to hunt. In the city, in order to survive, you have to know how to hunt. Well, that means, what does the hunter do when he goes hunting?  He comes back with meat and then distributes it according to specific roles and rules that indicate what one should give to one’s maternal uncle, first wife, the owner of the gun, the owner of the land where you shot the animal on, and so on and so forth. And that’s how he makes that capital gain, in this case, work for him. He gains in social prestige by investing in social capital.

In order to survive in the city, you have to do the same thing.  You have to constantly make sure that you create and invest in certain networks, which are no longer the network of the household, maybe, or of your ethnic group or your village, but different kinds of associations, different kinds of groups of cooperation—maybe a gang, maybe all kinds of groups.  But you constantly have to invest, you constantly have to be present, constantly have to exchange, constantly be “in touch” with others.  In order to survive in the city, you have to know how to do that.

When people speak of the city as forest, they refer to a specific kind of forest.  It’s a forest in which you can become modern, where you can attain and access a certain modernity, even if it’s only in imaginary or oneiric form. I gave the example of the church, but the bar is another concrete example of a space where you can do that, and the church and the bar overlap to a certain extent.  They are basically the same ludic spaces.

VR:  I was also interested when you talked about the hollowing out of political power in Kinshasa—the colonial Kinshasa, not the other Kinshasa that has developed later on—and the concentration of that power in other cities, like Lubumbashi. What is the relationship between these various concentrations and expressions of power?  What is the kind of impact they have on the landscape of the capital city?

AMS: Looking at some of the overlaps and divergences of Dakar may be somewhat interesting.  Because one has to keep in mind that Dakar and other Senegalese towns were actual—

FdeB: Those were comptoirs.

AMS: They were comptoirs and also part of France at one point.  Dakar was literally integrated into French territory and done so in a way to mark the strong divide between the city, the urban and the hinterland.  The hinterland was the province of the Marabout, a kind of religious power that had to be contained, that had to be marked.  I don’t know a lot about that history, but it is a clear history with ramifications to this day.  In some ways, outside of Kinshasa is a hinterland that is teeming with certain possibilities.  It teems with both an excess of life and death.  Whereas outside of Dakar is increasingly a hinterland that is over.  It’s wasted.

But what’s interesting, too, is the fact that you have Touba.  It was a religious city and was at one time exempt from taxation and had no kind of local municipal structures. The buying and selling all was concentrated as a kind of terrain of the Murid social structure and also exempt from certain kinds of applications of customs law. 

Touba really grew a lot through trade, so it was a kind of entrepôt masked as sacred city.  Then, when people began to realize that it was a sort of booming commercial centre on the basis of illegal trade, there was the attempt to domesticate it in some way.  The domestication, the complex negotiations to bring its urban economy, which was not just an economy of Touba, but a transnational economy— that somehow symbolically and administratively was administered from Touba.  The complicated negotiations to try to bring it into the ambit of the state meant that certain deals had to be worked out.  And an important deal was that Plateau, the commercial, administrative, colonial centre of Dakar, became—through many different policies, many different deals—increasingly available to the Murids.  So, the Murids began to take over.  They began to take over certain Lebanese commercial interests, particularly that kind of intermediary between wholesaling and retailing.  What was interesting is that the Dakar’s urban economy in some ways became an extension of Touba.  But you have then a kind of indigenous entrepreneurship that really is within an urban economy and is really strong, unlike in many other places. 

FdeB:  That’s really different from Congo. I mean, in terms of indigenous entrepreneurship, what has worked well in the past decades are those parts of the country that knew how to evade Kinshasa. A very good example are the Nande cultivators and traders of coffee in a secondary city such as Butembo, in eastern Congo, who through their own networks managed to really inscribe themselves in transnational commercial movements which link them to Dubai and Asia. Very wealthy, a whole new form of urbanization, a kind of very provincial urbanism, all of it because they are not under the control of the capital city and know how to evade the state.  Otherwise, it would never have happened.  The real urban growth and the notion itself of urbanity often develops, I would say, outside of Kinshasa, as long as it’s not controlled by the capital.

The same is true of the diamond trade.  Even though materially they do not represent much, little diamond towns that spring up along the border with Angola, for example, or the gold mining towns in the East – those are the places where the idea of capitalism and urbanity is most fully generated.  But again, materially, these cities and towns do not correspond to the form of what we think of as a city.  And yet they are much more urban in a way in their dynamics than what goes on in the ‘real’ city. 

AMS:  In Senegal, in some ways, the predominant mode of urban accumulation can be attributed to what goes on outside of Senegal.  There’s nothing within the nation of Senegal itself that could account for the kind of—

FdeB:  No, but within Senegal, there are local autochthonous groups that have the capacity and strength to impose themselves and become key players and control that game. In Congo, you often don’t have these, in that sense. Whether small trade and commerce or industrial activities in the fields of mining or wood-logging today, these activities often were and still are not in Congolese hands but are controlled by the Lebanese for example or the Chinese, for that matter.  Even in the early years of Kinshasa’s existence, the trade was not in Congolese hands but was often controlled by what were called the ‘Coastmen’: people coming from Freetown or Dakar or later the Greeks and the Portuguese and now the Lebanese and the Pakistanis and so on. 

When it comes to the broader geopolitical game, I mean, why is Uganda there?  Why is Rwanda there?  It seems to be Congo’s fate to always be exploited by and profited from outsiders.  Congolese, even the Congolese government, tries to get its hands on some of the crumbles that fall off the table, but it never fully controls the game, it seems to me. Whereas these Murid are in control of what they’re doing, to some extent.

AMS:  And increasingly so. 

FdeB:  And increasingly so, yes, increasingly taking over the state.

AMS:  So that sort of division, of keeping the state separate from capital, Dakar separate from Touba—

VR:  In practical terms, it seems to be blurring.  This relation between the capital city as the expression of political power and as the space for capital as economic field of operation —

AMS:  It’s not there.  For example, during the periods of intense religious ceremony in Touba, you can walk down the main street of Dakar and have almost no traffic.  Otherwise, streets in Dakar, where I used to live not far from Plateau, which used to be a 10-minute taxi ride, today takes an hour and a half.

FdeB:  Absolutely.  Or even longer now, because of the road works.

AMS:  But also because there are limited feeder roads, because of the increased densification.  In some ways, what accounts for that kind of densification?  All right, many of the Lebanese have gone away, have been displaced.  So they go, but many of the Lebanese also continue to have important kinds of economic circuits.  As they’re displaced from certain kinds of economic activities but because of the ways that many of those Lebanese networks were implicated within the socialist party, they simply take another form of accumulation, which is through extending their real estate. So, you have these big Lebanese investments in building.

Now, the Murid are also capable of doing that.  I mean, its not that the particular form of economic activity is anything different from a kind of corporate structure. They do that as well. But there is something important about the market.  There is something important about the logic of the way in which the market operates, as an intensely mutable form.  There’s something very material about the way that this market operates: small traders who are more than small traders, of shifting alliances that are made visible, of a form of visibility where people can watch, observe, see what’s going on, who’s dealing with whom.  But that has to be serviced, so you have big trucks coming in and traffic.

It becomes a densification by virtue of multiplying these trajectories in a way that’s partly symbolic, partly a kind of nerve centre. The antecedents want to reproduce themselves spatially, yet veer off and transform into a sort of Murid version of corporate headquarters—big buildings, because they’re investing in that as well—and also the way in which Dakar is increasingly implicated in other economies elsewhere.  For example, the political crises of Abidjan during the past several years has meant key corporations, multilaterals, move from Abidjan to Dakar.

But what’s also interesting is the attempt to host the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Dakar, something that was supposed to have already taken place.  It has been postponed now three times.  Wade always says the reason for this delay is because Dakar needs adequate infrastructure in order to sufficiently host the meeting.  For him, that means the construction of eight new five-star hotels on the Corniche.

In some ways the infrastructure of hosting this meeting already exists.  It already exists in tourist areas outside the city.  But in some ways, that’s too much a kind of budget tourism, bordering on some sleazy activities that can’t really be the site to host an Islamic meeting.  Maybe any other meeting could take place there.  But because this is the Organization of Islamic Conference and as the basis of accumulation of the Murids, Senegal has always in some sense been marginal to the rest of the Islamic world, there is some perceived need to use this gathering as a way of normalizing Senegal’s relationships with the Muslim world. 

Not that Senegal itself hasn’t always been seen as part of the Muslim world.  But increasingly, as the Murids assume more political and economic power and then become available as an expression of a certain kind of national cohesion, signalling the distinctiveness of Senegal as a nation but also its integration into a larger theatre of operations.  “We’re Muslims, we’re clearly Muslims, we take Islam seriously.” Singularity is very much wrapped up historically into a sense of national identity, a sense of national cohesion.

In some ways, the hosting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference signals almost the normalization of Senegal’s position within the Islamic world, so it has to be done right.  But to be done right means that you have to make this big intervention into the built environment. The money is coming from Dubai, from Kuwait.  These hotels basically belong to them, and what is their interest? What is the interest of the Emirates in the Gulf?  The financially ambiguous role of Dubai World and its real estate arm, Limitless, in the proposed construction of the new capital simply accentuates the impression that the country is being brought into a particular field of orbit that is being elaborated through major urban and financial engineering projects managed by Gulf companies across the Maghreb.

Somehow there’s something about locating what will be Gulf-owned pieces of real estate on the Corniche, facing the Atlantic in the westernmost Islamic country.  A six-hour flight from New York—there’s something about that.

FdeB:  Are you saying this, or is this the way this has been perceived?

AMS:  On the street in Dakar, there’s this kind of talk, you know?

FdeB:  Like we’re in the middle of—

AMS:  All I’m saying is that when you look at the relationship between capital and the capital city, the kind of project of centralizing, the kind of expression of the capital, of the national cohesion—

VR:  The way I’m hearing it is that there’s some relationship between being aligned to these other sorts of flows—from Dubai or elsewhere—on the one hand, and to the regeneration of the city, of the nation on the other hand, which cannot any longer be expressed without this alignment?  Without this movement toward bringing those elements into the space of the city—in a very concrete expression. The buildings almost become that medium as it were, where—

AMS:  Yes, but combined with a very old story too. Wade is a very old guy.  He’s in his early 80s. He’s just begun his last term in office at what may be a high political price for the country. He knows that time is running out, and he’s waited to be in power for a long, long time, and somehow the notion of the grands travaux, the big works—

FdeB:  Very French.  Like a French President.

AMS:  To make the mark, to leave the trace, with also very old ideas about making Senegal really a modern nation—that’s reflected in this.  It’s an old story.

Invisible Infrastructure

VR: Turning to a related but different question, I want you both to elaborate why the notion of invisibility seems so analytically central to thinking about the contemporary African city? 

FdeB: The question seems to be the things that Maliq was talking about: urban networks and how people move through the city, make use of the city, and create the city and generate the city while doing so.  How can you capture that? How can you start to understand, capture, contain, and represent urban life?  How do you represent an urban reality like that? You cannot. All the means that we have at our disposal to do so, whether it’s writing or whether it’s photography, seem to be in a way not sufficient.

VR: So the question is also about epistemology having to do with the urban as object. It seems that writing about invisibility is a productive way of describing what’s happening in African cities.  And part of the interest is also to understand whether those forms of description are particular only to Africa or if they can travel to other urban conditions.

FdeB:  Well, invisibility can mean many things. There is invisibility on many levels, of course.  There is the fact that these cities are invisible to the outside world because people don’t know much about African cities.  There is the fact that these cities function in ways we’re not used to, and that we therefore do not see, that go unnoticed.  There is the fact that forms of urban planning and so on continue in very much literally invisible ways, like the urbanization that I was talking about – urbanizing in Paradise rather than the real life.  Invisibility might mean a number of things.

AMS:  I agree.  As part of this New School grant, there has been this project in Douala for the past eighteen months.  One piece of that was to have a working group of young, middle-class kids in a middle-class area of Douala, Bonamoussadi.  They meet once every two weeks for eighteen months.  This notion of invisibility was something that was on their minds as well.  It was a word that was used, it was a concern that they had, it was a very particular kind of concern because these are middle-class kids.  They come from families that are civil servants or lawyers or teachers, professors, business people, and live in a quarter of Douala that has maybe 300,000 people.  It’s not small; it’s a significant chunk of the city.

When they talked about the changes that they have seen taking place over the past couple of years, the discussion started on the level of something very visible.  That is, the changes in the built environment and the way in which there was this popularity of a certain kind of tile that was being put on the houses. Old houses were being torn down, and on the façades of these new ones that were being built was a particular kind of tile—white tile.  They started to talk about the way in which this was a kind of uneasy thing, an unsettling thing, for them because it had these connotations of the cemetery, the mortuary, of death—the kind of the white that you would put on graves.  

They would talk about the façade as some kind of death.  In many of the new constructions, people would spend so much money putting the tile on the façade that they didn’t have enough money left over to furnish the house inside.  You’d have these beautiful, nice façades but inside something that—

FdeB:  Emptiness.

AMS:  Emptiness. So, again, sort of intensifying this kind of connotation of death.  They would see their neighbours, but the concern was, “Okay, this is the built environment, it’s a nice house, but who is inside?”  This thing about being visible in the built environment was also a kind of concern about with whom do we live?  The sense about living with people you don’t quite know. 

And then, of course, the notion of the living dead—those who are able to operate in the city without being interrupted, whose operations cannot be made visible, rendered visible. We don’t know how someone’s gotten their money.  All of a sudden they have a lot of money, or all of a sudden someone loses a lot of money.  Or all of a sudden, people move from a house without anyone knowing.

In some ways, their concern was “Okay, we’re all sort of middle class in this boat.  We all have sort of narratives about how we got here.  My mother, my father, they went to university . . .” But they would talk about going to shop at a new mall, a new supermarket.  They would talk about the anxiety of with whom would you be shopping, because you never know who it is that these people are.  So the concern was always to make that which is invisible visible—to interrupt it, to trip it up, to find ways of trying to slow down possible neighbours who could operate with such speed through the city that they wouldn’t be visible.  How do you make them visible?  How do you trip them up?  How do you set up roadblocks?

They then went on to talk about what people they knew were actually doing to try to trip them up.  The stories get quite complicated and quite political and involve other territories and people in the city that they would never deal with.  The notion sometimes of visibility and invisibility is a concern that people themselves raise. It’s a kind of language that they themselves bring, so it’s not an analytical thing necessarily imposed.  It can be that, but…

FdeB:  It’s a natural thing that comes out of the reality that people inhabit.  In Kinshasa, the same.  The relationship between visibility and invisibility is a very weird one, in a way, because on the one hand, in order to exist socially in the city it is all about being as visible as possible. It’s about appearance.  That’s why you have that whole popular urban culture of sape and elegance, about the clothes you wear. It’s about knowing how to put yourself on stage, and it’s the only way to acquire social weight and impose yourself in public space. All of a sudden there is this person emerging, this preacher, politician, musician, or businessman, very theatrical and very physically present, although you never see how he got there. The modes in which visibility was achieved remained rather invisible.

Performing Urbanity

VR: So are there particular forms of etiquette associated with becoming visible?

AMS: I am thinking about the work I did in Lagos, which was some time ago.  It was in a particular neighbourhood in Lagos, which was very peculiar to Lagos, very particular to Lagos. There, the questions of visibility and invisibility were largely about witnessing. How do you turn yourself into a receiver of the kinds of information that might be useful to you in order to know how to insert yourself into some kind of emerging deal or scenario? Because all that this neighbourhood had was its deals: the deals that didn’t take place inside but always outside.  There was always this kind of incessant process of visiting each other, showing up, visiting, making oneself visible, to go to a store where other people are showing up. But then as other people are showing up, how do you not insist upon your agenda? How don’t you dominate this space, this scene, but how do you become visible and almost disappear in the face of others who are also there, in some sense, for the same agenda?

Because this was largely a Hausa neighbourhood within a Yoruba city—or a Muslim place, West African Muslim place—it wasn’t that there weren’t visible associations and visible rules and visible representatives of the emir and his business interests.  Somehow, in order to make the thing work, people had to put together new crews with new kinds of skills, with different kinds of experiences and trades than in the past, because you’re trying to take on something new. You’re trying to configure new kinds of deals now, you’re trying to go to new cities, you’re trying to buy new commodities, you’re trying to relate to other kinds of syndicates.  

So, I want to put together a new crew, but how do I do that?  But also, how do I not enter?  It’s complicated because this is a spatial arena that knew it had to survive in some way because Babandiga and the military wanted to seize it because it’s an interlocked, an interstitial zone between Lagos island and Victoria.  It was ceded by the British to the Hausa as a kind of space of operation, so there are very visible solidarities that had to be maintained.  You can’t include everyone, but you can’t be seen excluding people in particular.  How do you create the sense that your new crews are in some sense self-selected, that you’re not the one who’s excluding?

So it is just a complicated kind of elaboration of a social etiquette in a way, a kind of business practice that had to keep channels of information open, had to not keep secrets, but had to have an informational economy where you minimized competition. It was all done through these quotidian practices of having sites that apparently didn’t sell much of anything but were places of reception. There’s a way of managing an economy of visibility and invisibility, where the two had to be brought together in some kind of functional calibration and recalibrated all of the time.

Within the larger scope of Lagos, given the fact that there are usually eight people to a room, always in very dense quarters, how can you keep something to yourself?  How can you keep something away?  Is there, in any sense, privacy?  Privacy doesn’t really exist spatially.  It has to be a calibration of not seeing what you see, and also seeing what you don’t see, because you have to be able to see.

Even in the everyday cognition of this kind of density, visibility and invisibility are day-to-day matters.

FdeB: But you also need to be invisible or to know how to disappear and reappear at a good time. 

AMS:  Timeliness.

FdeB:  Time is very important. 

AMS:  The calculations of acting in a timely matter…

FdeB:  That’s why everybody also seems to be waiting all of the time, I think.

AMS:  Given the sort of big-man or big-woman syndrome, particularly in a place like Lagos, you need a protector, you need a patron, you need someone you can have recourse to, you can appeal to, who can arbitrate, who can make a decision so that you don’t have to: “Okay, I know the one that I appeal to, that I regard, that I owe, that I depend on …”

This person has a lot of other people around. What happens if we all show up at the same time?  How do we know how not to all show up at the same time?   

VR:  How do we know not to crowd the space?

AMS:  To crowd, yes.

AMS:  In this one area I lived in when I was living in Khartoum, people from Darfur were living with people from the South in a complicated relationship with lots of tension but lots of complementarities. As the area was growing, so were demands for space and services.  But it was always interesting because the households from Darfur were saying, “Implement Sharia. We want Sharia, we want to live in terms of Islamic law.  We want this to apply to ourselves.”

And so these people working in the area—local NGOs, activists—were always concerned that in some way this would create a legalistic divide with people from the South, who would not fall under Sharia law.  The people from Darfur were saying, “No, you don’t have to apply it.  But we want to live under it. Please make it applicable for us; we want it.”  There was always the concern that this would polarize relationships more and really intensify conflict.

But because people from Darfur would then say, “No, this is not the point. We want Sharia for us. We want to mark the difference with our neighbours even more, because it will allow us to deal with them in a much easier way.”  When I then do all these other things, it’s not that I’m doing it as part of my zone of operation, but I’m becoming part of their zone of operation. So I’m then exempt; I don’t have to implicate myself. I can retain my sense of being a good Muslim, because that’s my operation in their zone.

In some ways, the desire for the legalistic divide wasn’t a desire to cut off contact but, quite on the contrary, to maintain a sense of a certain kind of integrity.

VR:  It seems that there is an interesting contradiction here with laws in the municipal, urban planning sense, and these other understandings of law, which don’t quite territorialize in the same way, which are universal at some level. In other words, not quite cutting off or zoning behaviour and restricting it to a particular sphere of operation; instead, which allow universalization, based on that which is mobile, which can be carried around, through the person, through their ability to act and be governed by a set of invisible structures, rather than visible barriers of the ways in which cities are normally understood: barriers of neighbourhoods or barriers of access or transportation, infrastructure of various kinds, and so on.

FdeB:  But at the same time [these barriers] do exist.

AMS:  This is the claim that’s made by my friend Ousman Dembele, who is an urban geographer in Abidjan. If you’re in Kumasi [a quarter of Abidjan is largely populated by Ivorians from the North of the country] and the kids are stuck in Kumasi for the most part because surrounding them if you go to Marcory, it’s dangerous territory. You could be killed, you could be beaten up.  These territories of operation depend on where you’re from, your religion, your region, and your political affiliation. The territorialization is really strong.

But what Dembele describes is that in some ways it’s impossible for this kind of strict territorialization to be maintained. Somehow there’s a sense of boundaries, and the boundaries are dividing lines but also works-in-progress. They become spaces of revision, trying to come up with new terms of connection. But, of course, this is somewhat invisible work. He claims that at these boundaries, there’s a lot of boundary maintenance work taking place.  The maintenance is not to keep the division in place necessarily, but to work out what are the terms through which there is interchange. It’s impossible for people to stay put necessarily.

We know that there’s a lot about urban life that increasingly enables the capacity to stay within segregated spaces but, we know, also risks atrophy overall.  It risks the kind of urbanizing trajectories that an urban system needs in order to be able to function. We also know that these kinds of spaces of segregation are dysfunctional in some ways.  In some way, the boundary becomes a kind of place where it’s transgressed, not just about transgression, but about trying to come up with something that you don’t necessarily commit yourself to, which is continuously revised, worked out—a language, a terrain of transaction itself.

Dembele claims that the relationship between contiguous areas with very different histories of inhabitation, where everyone is an enemy to each other, when you look at it as a kind of system, that system can’t function just simply by being. There are these points of intersection at boundaries, but you can’t make them too visible because you know that people might be looking, you could be killed. There’s something else that does take place.


The Capacity for Networking

VR: If we were to return to our original point of departure and think about the problem of the visible again, we have to also confront these various global trajectories of investment in Africa that are increasingly visible now. 

AMS: The Chinese will probably end up putting in one billion dollars to Lagos, and much of that will go to the cultivation of a kind of Chinese entrepôt.  I’m not sure if this is still the case, but at one point this was to be the site of Chinese personnel, of services, businesses and residents—of those that are responsible for managing West Africa. 

It is almost like a large, gated community, but it is also more than just a kind of residential facility. So what happens?  Always the thing is that unlike colonial relationships of the past, where the ability to operate was predicated on all of these other, ancillary activities like civilizing missions and destructive—

VR: The display of excessive power…

AMS: Yes, but this is: “We’ll leave you alone if you leave us alone.” It’s a kind of capacitation of a kind of parallel play, of a quid pro quo.  You allow us to bring our engineering teams, our staff, our personnel; you allow us to evacuate particular kinds of resources, again using our infrastructure, then we will pay you for the right to have done that. Part of that payment is, once again, investment in infrastructure. This is a kind of connection that will have really massive implications.

VR:  Yes, that’s something that I want to hear more about, especially in the light our discussion about the operation of very low-end Chinese merchants or retailers in places like Douala and smaller towns in Africa—the ways in which they integrate themselves into local networks, markets, and economic flows, and so on.  How do you think this massive infrastructural investment and capacitation that arises from that is different from the operation of these merchants?  Or maybe it’s not different.  What is it going to do to the shape of the city or the future of the city? 

For example, I’m thinking of the way that Khartoum is being transformed, not from the West but from India, from China, and not in the traditional forms of trade, which are historic.  You have had Indian merchants in Africa for centuries, coming in through the Indian Ocean trade, and similarly the Chinese as well.  But this is something new.  This is Capital, with a big ‘C,’ coming in from the East.  That’s not so much built of these human networks, but built of something more inhuman, a creation of an inhuman platform.  It probably has great ethical implications for the way that architecture, especially, inserts itself into the city.

AMS:  Yes.  The Malaysians, for example, wanted to make this deal with Wade where they would build 30,000 units of social housing, but they had to be built within one year, and it had to be done under particular kinds of conditions. And in some ways, it was. It was a Malaysian company that specializes in quick housing construction for lower-end consumption, from which they think they can profit.  It has antecedents in a particular kind of Malaysian aspiration, which is that Malaysia can embody a kind of progressive, Islamic capitalism that is able to take certain kinds of risks but yet has an interaction with other fields of possibility.

It’s still a playing field. In Cabo Verde, Irish investors want to build 15,000 units of retirement housing for European investment. In some ways, there is this sense that there is no place that can’t be inhabited, there is no place that can’t be potentially occupied, there is no place that is in some ways off-limits.  Because you still have these kinds of undercoded territories, they also can become playgrounds for ideas and aspirations and of a variety of different external actors. 

The Chinese juggernaut is the most dominant, the most visible kind of actor in this, but there are others.VR: It’s perhaps appropriate to end here with this gesture toward these singular projects that have great potential for generating urbanism beyond the city in ways that are perhaps different from those projects for renovating the capital city that we began with.  Thanks very much to both of you for your time and energy.

This article first appeared in African Cities Reader I: Pan-African Practices (published April 2010), and is available for purchase at our online shop.

The post Urbanism Beyond Architecture - African Cities as Infrastructure first appeared on The Chimurenga Chronic.

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