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On 6 July 2018, Haiti exploded. By the tens of thousands, Haitians poured into the streets of Port-au-Prince to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. The protests were sparked by the government’s announcement that it would reduce or remove subsidies on fuel, leading to a rise of 38 percent in the price of gasoline, and that the price of kerosene would jump 50 percent to US $4.00 a gallon. The uprising spread across the country and lasted three days. Port-au-Prince was brought to a standstill. Protesters set up barricades in the streets, burned tires, and attacked stores owned by the rich. Luxury hotels in the Pétion-ville area were sacked by angry demonstrators.
In the immediate aftermath, the government rescinded the price increases (for now), and Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant – the same official who announced the fuel price hike – resigned. And a squad of US Marines was sent to Port-au-Prince, supposedly to increase security at the US Embassy, but also to send Haitians an ominous warning of what was to come should the protests continue.
The Moïse administration had waited until the World Cup to make the price hikes official, in the vain hope that Haitians would be so preoccupied with the festivities that they would ignore this attack on their already precarious standard of living. But the writing had been on the wall since February, when the new Moïse government reached an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on an austerity package in exchange for US $96 million in loans. Even after the protests, the IMF insisted that the steep price rise was necessary, but that the price increases should be introduced more gradually. Clearly, the end of this story has not yet been written.
The powerful and militant popular upsurge caught the mainstream US media by surprise. Having ignored months of continuous demonstrations against the stolen elections that brought the current Haitian government to power, media outlets like The New York Times and Miami Herald could only guess at the underlying causes of the rebellion. Cable News Network focused its reporting on the plight of US missionaries who were “trapped” in Haiti. Media coverage was replete with the usual racialised code words: “rioters”, “looters”, “violence”
What was missing from the headlines was the fact that the Moïse government was already operating under a cloud of popular suspicion and anger long before the uprising. Birthed via two elections so replete with fraud and voter suppression that they were denounced, as an “electoral coup” by opposition parties, the current Haitian government has no legitimacy among the population. The first round of elections in 2015 was annulled after weeks of mass protests backed by Fanmi Lavalas, the party of Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations were met by police clubs, chemical agents, tear gas and bullets, but the grassroots movement persisted, finally forcing the annulment, leading to a new round of presidential elections in October 2016. The new round was yet another charade, resulting in the inauguration of Jovenel Moïse as the new president in February 2017.
The electoral coup spawned a corrupt presidency. Even before being installed as president, Moïse was implicated in a money-laundering scheme after an investigation by Haiti’s banking watchdog agency. Dating back to 2012 when Moïse’s mentor, former president, Michel Martelly, was in power, money-laundering is said to have garnered Moïse over US $5 million. In one of his early acts as president, Moïse replaced the director of the investigating agency with one of his cronies for the purpose of suppressing the investigation.
Peasant organisers have also spoken out against Moïse’s expropriation of land for his banana plantation in northern Haiti. Not only did small farmers lose land; Moïse’s much-heralded banana exporting business now appears to have been a short-lived election image gimmick. In reality, US $25,000 was spent to export only one container of bananas worth US $10,000 to Germany. This is part of a pattern where government officials tout projects, get funding, take over land, and then pocket the money rather than develop the country’s agriculture or infrastructure.
In addition, a massive scandal has been brewing over the outright theft of US $3.8 billion in Petrocaribe loans given to Haiti by the Venezuelan government. Yes, US $3.8 billion. These funds were supposed to lower energy costs and fund education, agriculture and infrastructure, but they ended up instead in the coffers of government officials, including members of Parliament. “Where is the Petrocaribe money?” Haitians demanded in an anti-government demonstration on 24th August. Where is the money for hospitals desperate for supplies of blood and in need of new medical equipment? Where is the money for education, as families prepare to send their children back to schools with reduced or non-existent subsidies for school supplies and uniforms?
In the Artibonite region, the centre of Haitian agriculture, recent rains have led to dangerous floods due to neglected infrastructure, but sanitation workers have not yet been paid to clean up sewage canals and drains, while the hurricane season looms. In Port-au-Prince, police have burned down the stalls of market women, a particularly cruel form of gentrification tearing at the heart of Haiti’s economic life and the foundation of so many families’ ability to survive. Haiti’s prisons are now bursting at the seams, with one epidemic after another sweeping through overcrowded, nightmarish cages.
When Haitians took to the streets in July, they were demanding an end to all of this. In essence, they were letting the government know that there would be no peace without justice. They went far beyond the call to curtail the fuel price increase, insisting that the Moïse government had to step down. The protests were a reminder that Haiti’s popular movement — long the target of both the US government and the Haitian elite — remains viable and powerful. Despite two US-orchestrated coups against the administrations of former president Aristide, despite a sophisticated COINTELPRO-style campaign aimed at dividing and marginalising Fanmi Lavalas and its allies, despite 14 years of United Nations military occupation, despite stolen elections, and despite the grinding economic misery facing most Haitian families, the popular movement has persisted.
Why? This is a movement that has sunk its roots deep — and it remains the central force in the country capable of building an alternative to corruption and repression. During the years that Lavalas governments were in power, more schools were built than in the entire previous history of Haiti. Health clinics sprouted up throughout the country, as the Aristide administrations spent unprecedented amounts on health care. When the earthquake hit in 2010, killing over 300,000 and forcing over one million people to live under tarps in desperately overcrowded camps, it was grassroots activists who immediately went to work with limited funds to set up mobile health clinics and provide food supplies.
In the wake of the devastation unleashed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016, Fanmi Lavalas organised caravans to provide aid to the affected regions. As living conditions have spiralled downwards, grassroots organisations have stood with the poor — backing striking teachers, garment workers and students, supporting market women as they defend themselves against government attack, increasing the reach of independent media to combat the lies of the elite-run radio and television stations that dominate Haiti’s airwaves.
One prime example of the movement’s vision for a democratic and inclusive Haiti can be seen in the work of the University of the Aristide Foundation (UniFA). Founded in 2001 as President Aristide began a new term in office, UniFA’s medical school was violently shut down after the 2004 coup, its campus taken over by US and United Nations occupying troops. When President Aristide and his wife and colleague Mildred Trouillot Aristide returned to Haiti in 2011 from forced exile in South Africa, he announced UniFA would be reopened and expanded. As promised, seven years to the day since the Aristides’ return, UniFA held its first graduation ceremony.
With over 1000 people in attendance, UniFA graduated 77 doctors, 46 nurses and 15 lawyers. Many of the graduates were recruited to the university from poor communities that have had little access to higher education. Already, UniFA doctors are working in areas that have rarely, if ever, seen a doctor before. With 1600 students now studying in the fields of medicine, nursing, law, engineering, physical therapy, and continuing education, this is only the beginning, a microcosm of the kinds of advances Haiti could make with a true people’s government in power. The contrast could not be more stark — education or militarism, democracy or authoritarian rule, inclusion or exclusion, development or corruption, self-determination or occupation. With the July uprising, the Haitian people have once again made known their choice.
* Robert Roth is an educator and Co-founder of Haiti Action Committee. He can be contacted at a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com>.
We are all living under a system so corrupt that to ask for a plate of rice and beans every day for every man, woman and child is to preach revolution – Jean Bertrand Aristide, Dignity, 1990.
The basic right to eat is at the very heart of Haiti’s struggle for democracy. Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the radical voice of Haiti’s poor, aptly characterised slavery when he wrote, “The role of slaves was to harvest coconuts, and the role of colonists was to eat the coconuts.” To Aristide, those who have food and those who don’t marks the vast chasm separating Haiti’s wealthy elite from millions of impoverished citizens.
The rich of my country, a tiny percentage of our population, sit at a vast table covered in white damask and overflowing with good food, while the rest of my countrymen and countrywomen are crowded under that table, hunched over in the dirt and starving. It is a violent situation, and one day the people under that table will rise up in righteousness, and knock the table of privilege over, and take what rightfully belongs to them.
It is no wonder that Haiti’s most popular party, Fanmi Lavalas chose the image of Haitian people seated around a dining table as its emblem, signifying the overthrow of privilege and the right of every Haitian to share the nation’s wealth. This is not mere symbolism. In its 1990 programme, the Lavalas party recognised the right to eat as one of three basic principles, along with the right to work and the right of the impoverished masses to demand what is owed them. In a very concrete way, Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, illustrated this commitment on the day of his 7th February 1991 inauguration, when he invited several hundred street children to join him for breakfast in the Palace garden.
“Haiti’s hunger crisis is no accident – it is the direct result of US economic policies imposed on rural Haiti beginning in the 1980s. The story of how the US undermined Haiti’s domestic rice industry explains why a nation of farmers can no longer feed itself.”
The story of rice
The story of Haitian rice begins in Africa, where rice has sustained African peoples for centuries. Rice was so basic to the West African diet that it was an essential provision on slave ships, accompanying captive Africans to Brazil, the Caribbean and the southern United States. Today, testament to ten million souls kidnapped from their homeland, every region touched by the African diaspora has its own unique version of rice and beans.
Rice cultivation in the United States is deeply rooted in slavery. Black Rice author Judith Carney writes, “Few Americans identify slavery with the cultivation of rice, yet rice was a major plantation crop during the first three centuries of settlement in the Americas… By the middle of the eighteenth century, rice plantations in South Carolina and the black slaves who worked them had created one of the most profitable economies in the world.” European settlers knew nothing about the complexities of growing, harvesting and threshing rice. But enslaved Africans did.
A basic staple of the Haitian diet, rice has been cultivated in Haiti since its 1804 independence. Until the 1980s, Haitian farmers produced most of the rice consumed in Haiti. Under the US-backed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier and the brutal military regimes that followed, domestic rice cultivation began to plummet. In the space of a few decades, Haiti became the world’s fourth largest market for American rice. By 2004, the value of US rice exports to Haiti amounted to US $80 million. How this colossal tragedy came about is a story of foreign intervention, government corruption, and corporate greed backed by ruthless repression.
1984: Growth of US food aid undercuts Haitian farmers
Food aid played a key role in undermining Haiti’s domestic rice production. President Aristide observed, “What good does it do the peasant when the pastor feeds his children? For one night, he is grateful to the pastor, because that night he does not have to hear the whimpers of his children, starving. But the same free foreign rice the pastor feeds the peasant’s children is being sold on the market for less than the farmer’s own produce. The very food that the pastor feeds the peasant’s children is keeping the peasant in poverty, unable himself to feed his children.”
Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Caribbean Basin Initiative prompted a major increase in US food aid to Haiti. In 1984, Haiti received US $11 million in food aid; from 1985-1988, Haiti received US $54 million in food aid. The Caribbean Basin Initiative called for integrating Haiti into the global market by redirecting 30 percent of Haiti’s domestic food production towards export crops, a plan that United States Agency for International Development experts systematically carried out. The United States fully recognised that this would lead to widespread hunger in rural Haiti, as peasant land was converted to grow food for foreigners.
Food aid was supposed to compensate rural Haitians for this attack on their livelihood. Food aid benefits the big American companies who grow and transport it, but wrecks local economies. As cheap American food undersold Haitian farmers’ produce, domestic agriculture became even less sustainable. In effect, food aid created a dependence on foreign imports.
How was the United States able to impose its will on rural Haiti? At the time, Jean-Claude Duvalier, the son of Haiti’s infamous dictator, Francois Duvalier, ruled Haiti. Like his father, the younger Duvalier held onto power by controlling Haiti’s repressive security forces. He received millions in US aid intended to maintain US influence in the Caribbean as a bulwark against Cuba. The Reagan administration conditioned US aid on Duvalier’s support for the plan to restructure Haiti’s economy. Thus began the most massive foreign intervention in Haiti since the 1915-1934 American occupation.
1986: The game is rigged – Miami rice invades Haiti
“We cannot sell our rice…rice is coming in from Miami, and now we cannot live,” said Emanuel Georges, manning the barricade at L’Estère. Los Angeles Times, 21 December 1986
In February 1986, a popular uprising forced Baby-Doc Duvalier out of power. After he fled Haiti, raiding the treasury as he left, a military junta headed by General Henri Namphy took power. Predictably, the United States aligned with the junta and intensified measures to restructure Haiti’s economy. In 1987, Namphy received International Monetary Fund loans valued at US $24.6 million in exchange for agreeing to slash rice tariffs from 150 percent to 50 percent, the lowest in the Caribbean. He opened all of Haiti’s ports to commercial activity and agreed to stop what little support the government had offered Haitian farmers. Meanwhile, Haiti’s military elite saw an opportunity to make a profit smuggling American rice.
In the United States, the passage of the 1985 Farm Bill significantly boosted subsidies to American rice growers. By 1987, 40 percent of American rice growers’ profits came from the government. Heavily subsidized American rice could sell at prices far below the market value of Haitian rice. Haitian farmers never stood a chance against this unfair competition.
In Haiti, imported American rice is called “Miami rice” because it is shipped from Miami in sacks stamped “Miami, FLA.” By December 1987, Haiti’s rice production had shrunk to 75 percent of Haitian needs. Outraged Haitian peasants barricaded highways and ports for three months to protest the cheap American rice that had begun to flood Haitian markets. They attacked truckloads of Miami rice with machetes, picks and clubs, dumping rice onto the earth.
The late Fr. Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest and human rights advocate, later recalled this era: “In the 1980s, imported rice poured into Haiti, below the cost of what our farmers could produce it. Farmers lost their businesses. People from the countryside started losing their jobs and moving to the cities. After a few years of cheap imported rice, local production went way down.”
1990: Democracy brings hope
By 1990, the year Fr. Jean Bertrand Aristide was elected President in Haiti’s first democratic election, US rice imports outpaced domestic production. Aristide was the candidate of Haiti’s popular movement Lavalas. He won with 67 percent of the vote. His February 1991 inauguration marked a victory for Haiti’s poor majority after decades of Duvalier family dictatorships and military rule, signalling participation of the poor in a new social order. The new administration began to implement programmes in adult literacy, health care, and land redistribution; lobbied for a minimum wage hike; and proposed new roads and infrastructure.
Aristide enforced taxes on the wealthy, and dissolved the rural section chief infrastructure that empowered the paramilitary force known as “Tonton Macoute”. He closed Fort Dimanche, the dreaded Duvalier-era torture centre. The Aristide government met with a large coalition of farmers’ associations and unions and proposed buying all Haitian-grown rice in order to stabilise the price, limiting rice imports during periods between harvests.
1992: American Rice Inc. profits from Haiti’s bloody coup
Just seven months after his inauguration, President Aristide and the democratic government were overthrown in a bloody military coup led by General Raoul Cedras. Trained in the United States and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, Cedras commanded the Haitian Army. His regime unleashed the collective violence of Haiti’s repressive forces against its own people. From 1991-1994, nearly five thousand Lavalas activists and supporters of the constitutional government were massacred; many others were savagely tortured and imprisoned. Rape as a political weapon was widespread. Three hundred thousand Haitians were driven into hiding, while tens of thousands fled the country.
Around the world and in the United States, there was a massive outcry demanding the restoration of democracy and the return of President Aristide. Aside from the Vatican, few governments recognised the illegal Cedras regime, widely condemned for its sweeping human rights abuses. This did not stop American Rice Inc. from collaborating with the ruthless military regime to turn a profit. In September 1992, barely a year after the coup, American Rice Inc. negotiated a nine-year contract with the illegal Haitian government, importing American rice under its newly formed Rice Corporation of Haiti.
American Rice Inc. is a subsidiary of Erly Industries, a powerful international agribusiness. The company holds an almost monopolistic position in Haiti’s rice market. In the 1980’s American Rice Inc. imported rice under its brand Comet Rice, which constituted much of the Miami rice that ravaged Haitian rice production at the time.
In the 1990s, American Rice Inc. supplemented its profits in “legal” rice imports by smuggling rice to avoid paying import taxes. Lawrence Theriot, the Washington lobbyist for American Rice Inc., was a former director of Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative. He had powerful friends in Washington, DC like Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (Republican, North Carolina). In March 2000, the Haitian government fined the company US $1.4 million for evading Haiti’s customs duties. Jesse Helms retaliated by withholding US $30 million in US aid, and denying high-ranking Haitian officials visas to enter the United States. The American Securities Exchange Commission later found Theriot and two other American Rice Inc. executives guilty of corrupt foreign practices for smuggling rice into Haiti.
Bill Clinton’s crocodile tears
“The dilemma is, I believe, the classic dilemma of the poor; a choice between death and death. Either we enter a global economic system, in which we know we cannot survive, or, we refuse, and face death by slow starvation. With choices like these the urgency of finding a third way is clear. We must find some room to manoeuvre, some open space simply to survive.” – Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Eyes of the Heart, 2000.
Bill Clinton’s 1992 election took place during Haiti’s repressive Cedras regime, when President Aristide lived in exile in the United States. After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Clinton famously apologised for forcing Haiti to lower its rice tariffs during his administration. He acknowledged that he helped big Arkansas agro-businesses reap profits at the expense of Haiti’s rice farmers. But Clinton left a lot out of the story.
Clinton posed as mediator between the coup leaders and President Aristide to negotiate the return of Haiti’s democratically elected government. He took advantage of this role to use the threat of continued repression as a bargaining chip. While the US stalled, demanding more and more economic concessions – not-so-covert support for Haiti’s military regime – the junta continued murdering supporters of the constitutional government. Within this coerced context, Aristide resisted the US neoliberal plan. He insisted that discussions demanded by the financial institutions for the proposed sales of state-owned enterprises include benefits for the poor – opportunities for co-ownership, funding for health and education, reparations to the victims of the coup. Aristide would later refuse to move forward with privatisation, disband the Haitian military over strong US objections, raise the minimum wage and bring paramilitary leaders charged with extra-judicial killings to justice.
By the time President Aristide returned to Haiti, the collapse of the country’s rice production was a fait accompli, victim of a long and deliberate US campaign waged against Haitian farmers in collusion with successive Haitian dictators and military regimes. Imported Miami rice constituted 80 percent of Haiti’s domestic consumption. Rice smuggling was common, enabled by the corrupt Cedras regime, which accepted bribes instead of enforcing tariffs.
Nothing changed after Clinton’s apology either. Haiti’s 2010 earthquake became yet another business opportunity for foreign corporations to overrun Haiti’s economy, while food aid, callously tossed off trucks to desperate Haitians, meant more revenue for US corporations. Nor should we let Clinton off the hook for forcibly repatriating thousands of Haitian “boat people” fleeing tyranny under the junta, and intercepting 12,000 other refugees who were illegally imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.
Democracy and reparations
There are two opposing visions of Haiti’s future – one projected by Fanmi Lavalas benefits the poor majority; the other imposed by the United States and wealthy foreign nations enriches international corporations and the Haitian elite. What is clear is that Haiti’s people must prevail over foreign profits and the wealthy elite. This means real democracy and respect for Haitian sovereignty.
Democracy asks us to put the needs and rights of people at the centre of our endeavours. This means investing in people. Investing in people means first of all food, clean water, education and health care. These are basic human rights. It is the challenge of any real democracy to guarantee them – Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Eyes of the Heart.
* Leslie Mullin can be contacted at a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com>
I dream of it every night.
By day, it plagues my thoughts and torments my mind. Dreaming of that Moment comes in different versions; in one, I am rescued by my late great-grandfather, in another, it is by the President of Nigeria, and yet in another, I find myself running inside a bush with a gunshot wound to the stomach, holding on to my overflowing intestines.
I spend time trying to understand that Moment, but there might not be much to understand, simply because I was not thinking when it happened. I watched it happen right in front of me, almost as if I was not involved. Yet, it was all about me. What I said. What I did.
What could I have done differently for that Moment not to have been?
Nothing. In life, things happen that one has little control over. It is like asking “what could I have done differently to not be hungry right now?” Not a thing. I am hungry because I am human and when a human being is not fed for three days, she feels hungry. Or what could I have done differently to not shiver in this biting cold? Not one thing. When a human being has only a piece of wrapper tied around her chest in a cold, dark forest, she will shiver.
I shiver. My body shivers, my heart shivers, but my soul stands strong. My mind is fixed on one thing, that nothing could have changed that Moment.
Yet, the pain that Moment brings is real; the crushed hopes of never running into my mother’s outstretched arms, images of my father once rubbing my head with his two hands, patting my back lovingly, and asking if I am alright. Desolate expectations of scooping up my beloved brother, Nathaniel, in my arms and swirling him round and round, until he never wants to be swirled again and begs to be let down.
I would let him down only after his toothy smile almost became fixated, and his eyes began to widen; then would I set him on the floor and sit with him.
Mother would proceed to bend and sit on the bare floor with us, to fully share in our joy, but Father would urge her to get up and bring what food she had prepared.
I am famished, but not for food. I am famished for the feeling of love from my family and friends. Famished from the feeling of security that my life was before the night we were lured inside the back of a fake army truck and driven deep inside the forest. Famished, yes, but nothing that food can satisfy.
My poor mother’s knees will be cracked and sore from kneeling to pray. Her eyes and lips will be swollen from crying and biting. I pray she does not starve to death fasting for my deliverance. Nathaniel, his unending questions about my absence, directed at Mother, will be like pouring kerosene on burning firewood. Papa will hold his head high and worry in a way that tries to be strong for Mother, saying over and over to her that I shall soon be released. His pains will be tinged with pride, for my refusal to renounce my faith. As if that was a conscious decision I had to make. Truth be told, I did not think about what I said or what I did that day. I was just being me, Leah Sharibu.
It began when it got to my turn to climb into the back of the truck taking us back home to Dapchi. I stood before the truck and stretched my right hand towards the man who would help each girl climb on to the back of the truck. My soul uttered, “Thank you, Jesus.” I did not realise it, but my lips did the same, too.
“What did you say?” the man asked, quickly moving the machine gun he held with his left hand over to the right hand.
“Nothing, sir.” I replied, for I did not really say anything, in the sense of his asking.
He transferred his machine gun back to his left hand and stretched out his right arm, I held out my right hand to hold his, to be helped on to the truck, like all the girls before me did. He drew his hand farther back and with a force I have only seen on TV wrestling shows, slapped my face five times. He would go on to kick me out of the way and continue helping other girls climb the truck.
I stood up and reached out my hand to him, begging for help getting on the back of the truck. I was kicked back again. I kept standing up, and kept being kicked back. I vomited, first, water, then a thick yellow-green substance. The last substance I threw up was blood, vomited after he helped the last girl climb the truck, for as he locked the truck, I staggered to him and held out my hand to be helped onto the back of the truck. He raised his leg and kicked. I vomited blood and passed out, not from pain, but from the sight of my fellow captives being driven home. Why? He could have let me go home to hug my family and then shot me right in front of them. I will be mourned, buried and remembered.
It must have been many months since that Moment. In this cold, dark place, I have no knowledge of daylight or darkness. Once in a while, a hand slips in and passes a cold plate of bread and pap. There is a small bucket of water with a cup. I feel my way to it and drink. Besides is a bucket for relieving myself. When I am not sleeping, I sit still on the bed, or I walk around the room singing, praying, reciting scriptures, fully assured that even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for the Lord is with me.
*Doctor Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu is a researcher, teacher, non-fiction and fiction writer, and a public intellectual.
This is not the old style political colonialism, but the one we call “commercial colonialism”: the control exercised by powerful foreign (mainly Western and Chinese) commercial and financial interests across Africa. Independence did not end all colonialism, only political colonialism or colonial government. But commercial colonialism merely carried on uninterrupted, and it is not only a major factor in continuing poverty in Africa, but also in helping to keep all Africa’s corrupt, oppressive governments in power – and that is the most dangerous of these factors.
At the moment, Western commercial colonialism is not as prominent in Zimbabwe as in most other African countries. One of the few good things Mugabe did was to greatly reduce Western or White control over businesses in Zimbabwe (but he made a massive error in not ensuring they were replaced by strong, viable Black Zimbabwean businesses, most prominently in agriculture, and it is that which caused Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown).
However, the situation is about to change. Mnangagwa’s drive for Western investment to rebuild Zimbabwe will open the doors to commercial colonialism in Zimbabwe unless he ensures that this investment will actually benefit ordinary Zimbabweans. This must be specified because the way it has been used across Africa so far has been incredibly counterproductive to the vast majority of Africa’s citizens, and largely benefits only the mainly corrupt elite and a tiny percentage of Black African business people.
About to exacerbate that is Theresa May’s recent tour of Africa, pledging to heavily promote the United Kingdom (UK)’s business and financial interests in Africa. However, very noticeably, she said nothing about helping Africa to export more to the UK and, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation, “she was ‘unashamed’ that it had to work in the UK’s own interests”.
If our warning sounds like scaremongering or a conspiracy theory, the African Union (AU), in its Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want, supports it. The AU is absolutely clear and unequivocal that no African nation can progress at the rate required “to catch up” with the West unless commercial colonialism is destroyed. It wants all foreign (mainly, of course, Western and Chinese) aid cut by 75 percent by 2023 – only five years away – and African investment to replace 75 percent to 90 percent of all foreign investment. And it wants Africa to become “self-reliant” (i.e., to become free of foreign dependency – again of course mainly the West and China), using such statements as:
“Africa financing its own development”… “the importance of African unity and solidarity in the face of continued external interference”… “minimise Africa’s dependence on the global financial system”
And the AU shows African nations exactly how to achieve this.
The vital point about Agenda 2063 is that every African nation including Zimbabwe has signed up to it. Yet our government is totally ignoring it.
Far from commercial colonialism helping to eradicate poverty, it has actually helped to prolong it for far longer than it should have done.
First, many Western multinational corporations could have paid their African staff and workers the same rates as their employees in the West many years ago – some from as long ago as our independence. Or, if they genuinely were unable to pay full Western rates, at least a great deal more than they do now. In fact, if they attempted to pay their employees in their own countries as badly as they pay us in Africa, they would be prosecuted for breaking the law.
Western investments also are based on paying Africans at poverty rates. When David Barber, one of the authors, attempted to set up a business in two African countries based on paying African workers and staff at Western rates (as opposed to African poverty rates), all investors including African ones refused to back him, even though most of them were prepared to do so if he agreed to pay typical African poverty wages. Both governments also forced him to give up his attempts.
Western multinational corporations and investors are assisted in this exploitation by the United Nations (UN), the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), any one of which could stop this any time they wanted to.
In fact, and very much more worryingly, Western non-governmental organisations, the UN, the World Bank and the IMF – the organisations most dedicated to ending poverty in Africa – also pay Africans far less than Westerners.
Second, commercial colonialism is actively helping to keep Africa’s corrupt, oppressive governments in power. Yet, of course, these are the governments least interested in taking their citizens out of poverty, and the West knows it.
For example, despite Mugabe’s rants against “Western imperialism”, “Western imperialism” has given our government US $16 billion since independence. That is nearly half a billion US dollars a year! For the last nine years, they have increased that to US $3/4 billion a year.
On top of that, we have received huge sums of money and aid from Western non-governmental organisations and China. Just for 2016-2018, China promised Zimbabwe US $4 billion.
So where has all that money gone?
Far from “Western imperialism” causing our problems, it has been remarkably generous to us, and it continues to be so. The only thing that went wrong is that we, the citizens of Zimbabwe, did not see the money because Mugabe and other corrupt people in our country took it.
The reason the West and China support the worst possible governments we could have is to preserve the status quo at all costs, because that is vital to their continuing exploitation of us.
Finally, we should point out that keeping us in poverty is vital to commercial colonialism surviving and flourishing. If we were to become prosperous citizens, we would soon see commercial colonialism for what it is, and do what the AU wants us to do – drive it out.
It is also well-recognised that the only thing corrupt, oppressive governments cannot stand against are prosperous businesses, middle and working classes because they simply will not tolerate such governments.
* David Barber and Tendai Ruben Mbofana are Co-Principals of The Arise-Africa Initiative
* This article first appeared on The Zimbabwean as a reaction to the newspaper’s editorial piece: see https://www.thezimbabwean.co/2018/08/china-accused-of-colonialism/ accessed on 16 September 2018.
The late Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, who was for many years the Secretary General of the Pan-African Movement, and a great intellectual, used to end his weekly “Thursday Postcard” with the following words: “Don’t agonise, organise”!
The birth and rise to prominence of social movements of young people, including raptivists, hip-hop musicians, artivists, and other movements for rights and change across the continent, particularly since the “Arab Spring” of 2010-2011 seems to be an indication that African youth are beginning to heed that wise counsel. Beginning at the country level, where they establish their firm anchorage, these movements also inspire and support each other, particularly in times of trouble (their leaders and militants are in some countries often harassed, detained, and subjected to enormous pressure). They have now begun to form a much better structured network among themselves.
From 23 to 27 July 2018, the Université Populaire de l’Engagement Citoyen (UPEC) (Popular University of Citizens’ Engagement) launched its first edition, at La Place du Souvenir (Place of Remembrance), in Dakar, Senegal. A venue carefully chosen, situated on the Corniche at the corner of the Aimé Césaire Street, this place “is the receptacle of the memory of black people, its martyrs, activists and symbol of African dignity. A place of rendez-vous for giving and receiving the black people [on the continent] and the diaspora, the place of the African remembrance is a framework of convergences of communication and cultural, scientific and intellectual exchanges but also documentation on the great historical figures and intellectuals of the black world.”[[i]]
While walking on the Remembrance Place, you can see pictures and short sentences describing some of the most influential Africans. From Kwame N’Krumah to Marcus Garvey, Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Cheikh Anta Diop or Malcolm X, they all bring you to reflect on Africa and Black People’s struggles. Adding to that, a gigantesque Map of Africa overlooking the ocean rests at the end of the square, providing a breath-taking scenery which again forces the reflection on Africa’s history, and where we are standing now. Which kind of legacy did most of these influential pan-Africanists leave us? How are we keeping their passion, reflection and struggle for the emancipation, well-being, and dignity of Africans alive?
These reflections are at the centre of the UPEC, which is a kind of “summer school” initiated and run by citizens movements, gave the opportunity to African social movements to discuss their countries’ challenges and Africa’s future. But before diving into UPEC details, let us take a step back to understand what motivated the creation of this continental event.
Background: Beyond protest
In January 2011, after recurrent power cuts happening in the country, a group of young Senegalese (engaged artists, journalists, an executive banker, an information technology expert) discussed about their country’s issues and challenges and decided to break with fatalism. On 18 January 2011 precisely, Y’en a Marre (Enough is Enough) Movement was launched at the Place of Remembrance. Corruption, nepotism, political patronage were at the heart of the political context. [[ii]] Fed up with President Abdoulaye Wade, who was 85 at that time, the group promoting democracy and good governance by engaging the Senegalese people through its music, drew international attention in 2012 for helping to vote Wade out of power, after he announced that he would be running for an unconstitutional third term. [[iii]]
The movement, described as social, civil, non-partisan and secular, gained a lot of support because they were talking to the people directly, and believed in the power of the youth. They played a major role in mobilising the people of Senegal, particularly the youth, to vote out Abdoulaye Wade. [[iv]]
Y’en a Marre, alongside with Le Balai Citoyen [[v]] (the Citizen Broom) from Burkina Faso, which played a leading role in the mass movement that “swept” away President Blaise Compaoré in 2014, inspired other youth around the continent to start their own social movements. In recent years, African social movements have experienced an effervescence animated by young people. Citizens’ mobilisations in several African countries, such as Senegal, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar to name a few, have questioned and revolutionised democratic processes.
These citizens’ movements are often born on the eve of elections and stand up against constitutional changes and the will of certain elites to perpetuate themselves in power. They bring citizens together to discuss about and denounce social, economic, political and environmental issues they are facing in their countries. Some movements have succeeded in making the revolutionary change in regimes that they wanted out – example of Y’en a Marre, Le Balai Citoyen, and #GambiaHasDecided –, but are now facing new challenges concerning the aftermath of the revolution, while others are still struggling to strengthen themselves and are facing strong repression from their governments.
The need for a continental solidarity between these movements arose a couple of years ago, when citizens’ movements from The Gambia, Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Republic of Congo, Chad, Madagascar, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Senegal met in December 2016 at the Gorée Institute, allowing the movements to agree on the creation of a pan-African framework of actions. Thus, was born the pan-African platform gathering citizens’ movements of the continent, which promotes five central axes: 1) Solidarity of actions between the movements of the different countries; 2) Impulse of an African citizen conscience and reinforcement of the image of the African citizen movements; 3) Strengthen the action and advocacy capacities of the movements of citizens; 4) Development of fast and flexible financing mechanisms independently guaranteed by a common fund; 5) Creation of an African Summit of Citizen Engagement.[[vi]]
Based on that fifth axe, the continental platform, composed of social movements scattered throughout the African continent, with sometimes restrictions on the means of communication or simply lacking opportunities to meet, decided to formally create the African Summit of Citizen Engagement. Led by Y’en a Marre, La Lucha (DRC) and Wake Up Madagascar, the first edition of the UPEC, with the theme “Citizenship and the Right to Decide”, was launched in July 2018. It aimed to bring together actors of social change coming from social movements, such as activists, artists, journalists, civil society actors, and students, all driven by the same desire for a positive evolution of their country, and especially for the continent, in one place, during one week.
The event attracted 100 participants composed of 30 different African social movements from 23 countries and the diaspora, including Troisième Voie from Comoros; Sindumuja from Burundi; #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall from South Africa; Filimbi from DRC; Iyina from Chad; Project South and Black Lives Matter from the United States of America; Wake Up Madagascar; La Lucha from DRC; Claudy Siar from Radio Couleurs Tropicales; Ras le Bol from the Republic of Congo; Our Destiny from Cameroon; Balai Citoyen from Burkina Faso; Gom Sa Boppa from The Gambia; Anataban from South Sudan; and En Aucun Cas from Togo.
The Kenyan activist Boniface Mwangi and the Burundian singer Khadja Nin participated in discussions as well. Different artists performed during the opening ceremony such as Ismaël Lô and Awadi from Senegal; and some of them, in addition of performing also participated to discussions such as Tiken Jah Fakoly from Côte d’Ivoire, Killa Ace from the Gambia, Smockey from Le Balai Citoyen, Caylah from Wake-Up Madagascar, Valsero from Our Destiny or Croque Mort from Iyina, to name a few.
The week was organised around three axes, namely Teaching and Reflection on Citizen Engagement; “Ted Talks” giving a stand to social movements sharing their experiences; and Social Movements’ Advocacy and Cultural activities, such as the opening ceremony concert, and group photos of activists holding up placards with messages destined to African elites hanging on to power.
Afrotopia, or our own continental Wakanda?
During teaching and reflections sessions, professors such as Zachariah Mampilly, Saïd Abbas, Jason Stearns, Felwin Sarr (author of a great book titled Afrotopia), and activist Pascal Kambale engaged the participants in Africa’s challenges, its revolutions and the history of social movements. The names of Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and other prominent pan-Africanists (Fathers of Pan-Africanism) kept coming back in the discussions. How would be Africa if these “Fathers” were still alive? The past is the foundation of any country and continent’s history, and it is always useful to build on it and learn from it in order to move forward consciously.
But it was highlighted that we often speak about Africa either in its past tense, or future tense, which by installing Africa in the future, we are saying that its present is deficit. We spend our time looking at what others have, and not what we have now, and what we can do now. How do we want Africa to be now? An emancipatory political project at the continental level is needed. The utopia, according to Felwin Sarr, is the first action in the emancipatory project. Nothing can be done without utopia because it first solves what is the space of the imaginary. There has been lack of utopia and projects in Africa. It is important therefore to rehabilitate the civilisational project, and ask the question: what kind of society do we want to build?
One important actor to develop and implement such projects are social movements. But they also need to be transformative politically, socially, physically and mentally. There is an urgency to seek a moral revolution on the continent, and to do it; social movements need to project their own “Wakanda”[[vii]]. It is not possible to reform from outside, change has to come from the inside. To trust other people to come and fix African countries will inevitably lead to problems, lack of ownership and identity. Only Africans can change the course of events happening on the continent, not outsiders. African leaders often, if not always, rely on foreign aid accompanied by specific agendas, which are not in the interest of African citizens.
According to Pascal Kambale, economic answers are frequently given to political problems, and they are based on foreign interests. The question of whether or not the economic realm will take precedence over, or be led by the political realm, will determine the future of African democracies. Political problems need to be addressed with political answers. In order to do that, social movements need to mobilise citizens, and voices that are forgotten and missing during elections, and therefore to propose political projects.
As much as most social movements want to stay away from the political scene, whether they want it or not, they do politics on a daily basis. There is need for them to develop political projects in order to propose alternative models that place people at the centre of their membership and programmes, and therefore help create new political leaders that would have social movements backgrounds when, and if, they enrol in politics.
But the question remains: which kind of society are social movements projecting when addressing citizens? Which kind of economic and political frames are they proposing that are different from the current ones? What vocabulary are they using to capture citizens’ attention? Mobilising citizens has been one of the biggest challenges of social movements. There is need to explain to people “why” social movements and activists are mobilising, and often risking their lives, and to connect the purpose of the action to emotional activities, such as concerts, which often lead to emotions and can more easily connect citizens to the “why”.
These challenges and discussions underscored the importance of a continental solidarity between social movements and the need to share knowledge and experience of what has been done, and what still needs to be done. It sets the path for the formal creation of the African continental platform. During the last day of the UPEC, the continental platform called Afrikki, where the Azimiyo la Dakar (Dakar’s Declaration in Kiswahili) was been read and shared with the media, was formally launched. This platform is composed of a Steering Committee that will work on everything related to the formalisation of the platform, the next General Assembly of African social movements, and the next UPEC. It will also be the focal point to contact when activists are in danger in order to create chains of solidarity and reactions with other social movements.
In conclusion, the first edition of the UPEC can be considered a success. It brought 100 participants coming from different parts of the continent, with different backgrounds, experiences, strengths and means of action, but having the same passion and love for their countries and continent. The next UPEC will face greater demands, new challenges, and will have to adapt to the different remarks and suggestions shared during the inaugural edition. For example, few spaces were given to artists to formally express themselves and share what they have done and continue doing to alleviate their communities, when both social movements and artists should work hand in hand.
The platform would need also to expand itself to Africa’s Anglophone countries, which were underrepresented during the first UPEC, and including more women and grassroots citizens in the event would also be in order. But one thing is certain; they all have the will and strength to work together for a continental awakening and citizens’ control of society’s spheres, all for the sake of a healthy and peaceful Africa.
*Amandine Rushenguziminega is Programme Associate at TrustAfrica. Follow her @AmIrigoga
[iii] World Policy Website, “Changing Senegal Through Rap: Y En A Marre”, by Atul Bhattarai, 10 March 2016, https://worldpolicy.org/2016/03/10/changing-senegal-through-rap-yen-a-marre-2/ accessed on 11 September 2018
[vii] An African utopia of good governance and technological superiority that forms the core of Black Panther, a recent, extremely popular Hollywood movie.