Zimbabwe's currency makes a comeback, but many aren't impressed

ZWEDollarHARARE – Ten years ago, Zimbabwe scrapped its national currency after people began carting wheelbarrows of bills to pay for flour and milk.

Now the Zimbabwe dollar is back and most expect it to tank again.

Meanwhile, almost no one wants anything to do with it.

“I must have foreign currency to import my leather products," said Crispen Dembedza, 51, who runs a leather clothing shop in Harare’s central business district. "Without foreign currency I won’t be able to remain in business – I can't find any local suppliers (of my products) – and if they were any, they would not be able to meet demand.”

Late last month, Zimbabwe banned transactions paid with the US dollar, the Euro, the Pound and the South African Rand – in use for a decade following the crash of its currency – and brought back the Zimbabwean dollar.

The country’s finance minister Mthuli Ncube told parliament Monday the move was meant to instill discipline on the nation’s financial services sector and help the poor who lack access to foreign currency – businesses only want to be paid in US dollars, Euros, Pounds and Rand.
“There must be fiscal discipline and what we have now is fiscal discipline of the highest quality,” said Ncube.

It's also about national pride, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said, telling Bloomberg in an interview just before the introduction of the Zimbabwean dollar that all countries have their own currencies.

“I am not aware of any country which has no currency of its own…except for Zimbabwe… Even poor countries have currencies from what I hear…,” he said.

Now, the country’s central bank chief John Mangudya told the Washington Times that Zimbabwe would move swiftly to print money to close the gap created by the ban on foreign currencies. Mangudya was quick to allay fears of rising inflation saying the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe was aware of the consequences of printing money.

“We need about $400 million to allow people to access cash so we are going to print that money to cover the gap,” said Mangudya. “We will not print up to levels feared by some people.”

Meanwhile, Ncube said authorities had put in place measures that would ensure Zimbabwe’s currency would not suffer the depreciations in 2008.
Then, after decades of authoritarian rule under dictator Robert Mugabe – ousted in late 2017 – one of the African continent's most promising nations was reduced to economic ruin, with a collapse in its agriculture sector and hyperinflation that left people carrying buckets of cash to buy daily staples. The country has never fully recovered.

Currently, about 90 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, according to Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Three-quarters of Zimbabwe's almost 15 million people can barely afford necessities, living under the poverty line.

As a result of the economic situation, economists warned it was too soon to changeover to a national currency.

Felix Chari, a lecturer in commerce at Bindura University says the absence of sound and structural reforms and the treasury’s decision to abandon the multi-currency regime will put significant inflationary pressure on the economy.

“It’s premature to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar without instituting sound macro-economic fundamentals required in stabilizing Zimbabwe’s economy," he said. "The Zimbabwean dollar is vulnerable to inflation due to low levels of productivity and exports. Inflation will continue to rise as the Zimbabwean dollar devalues.”

On the street, that's already evident.

Following the government’s ban on transactions in foreign currency, some businesses reacted by hiking the prices of goods and services arguing that they were importing most of the raw materials and other finished products such as washing powder, tea bags, flour and leather among other commodities.

The price hikes are taking a toll on even those with employment: most struggle to pay their bills on low salaries.

Obert Masaraure, a teacher and leader of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe says he's not making it. He now earns about 400 Zimbabwean dollars a month, worth US $50 on the black market.

“As teachers we are now (unable) to go to work," he said referring to costs involved in getting to the workplace. "And now we are failing to take care of our families."

It's hit business, too, say local vendors.

“People have limited access to the Zimbabwe dollar so business is now very low compared to previous days when we were allowed to transact in foreign currency,” said Droba Moyowatidhii, 39, a shoe vendor in Harare.

The ban on foreign currency transactions comes at a time when Zimbabwe’s forex reserves were already drying up to the point where some worried about being able to import essentials like electricity from neighboring South Africa.

Naome Chakanya, an economist with the Labour and Economic Development Research Institute of Zimbabwe, predicts increasing instability in the economy in the near future.

“Most economic activities are going to go underground and what that means is that all these transactions are not going into official market," she said. "This makes people lose confidence and trust in authorities and the economy as policy changes are being made abruptly, without any (feedback).”

That's already happening. Dembedza and other businesspeople say they are already using the secondary, parallel – and underground – currency market to access US dollars and other foreign currency to stay afloat.

A former finance minister, Tendai Biti, who is now the deputy president of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, which refuses to recognize the narrow reelection of Mnangagwa in 2018, called the introduction of the Zimbabwe dollar illegal and says it's a disaster for the country.

"We do not have reserves that are necessary to support our local currency,” said Biti. "The currency is subject to political confidence and this country suffers from a (complete lack) of that. The forex ban is a disaster (and) Minister Ncube must repeal it."
Locals agree.

Jason Mukono, 33, a government employee, says he now has nothing to deposit in his bank account.

“I don’t go to the bank anymore because the few dollars that I earn as a monthly salary are not enough to buy me food for one week," he said, adding that he is borrowing money from friends to stay afloat and to get to work. "When pay day comes, I only go to the supermarket to buy a few essentials and then money is gone.”

Photo: July 1, 2019 - Harare, Zimbabwe - Prices of goods are rising almost daily in Zimbabwe after the new Zimbabwean dollar was introduced last month.
Credit: Frank Chikowore/ARA Network Inc. (07/01/19)

Story/photo published date: 07/08/19

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Malawians remain divided about thriving Chinese businesses in the country as election approaches

MLW040519HM001Lilongwe, Malawi – At 7 a.m., hundreds of women, teenagers and children flood the main streets of Mzuzu in the north, waiting for the Chinese-run shops to open an hour later.

Nearby, one of the city's main markets offering second-hand clothing shops, fruit and vegetable hawkers and food stalls are nearly deserted: A lone customer wandering through the aisles distracts the bored vendors as they scramble to lure him to buy.

Dozens of vendors here say they used to sell textiles and household goods before "the foreigners" came and killed their business. Almost 80 percent of the textile and household good shops in this city belong to the Chinese.

"We are closing down our shops because we can’t compete with the foreigners – they are more favored by the government than us,” said Jonathan Jere, president of Mzuzu Vendors Association, who sells rice and beans at the market. "We want them out of the country because they are depriving us (of sales).”

Addressing these complaints is a main part of the platform of the ruling party, whose president Peter Mutharika is up for reelection for a second term May 21.

And while targeting foreigners is not unusual for a politician running for reelection anywhere in the world, Mutharika's plan is: He says he will stop most foreign business from operating in Malawi to ensure Malawian small business get a fair shake.

"It has been a tendency for foreign investors coming in our country with a meaningless capital," said Mutharika. "Such investors only deprive the country’s growing businesses and in our manifesto we say all foreign investors with less than $250 million (to invest) shall not be allowed to run business in the country."

Facing competition from his vice president, Saulos Chilima, who formed a new party in November, and Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party, Mutharika is still the frontrunner by an estimated 20 percent. Meanwhile, the other leading candidates are not shying away from the foreign blame-game, with Chakwera and Chilima promising voters to reclaim land and businesses given to foreigners by government through corruption.

In fact, foreign business has become the topic of the election.

Like many countries especially in Africa, Malawi has seen an influx of Chinese traders dominating local markets – here, that started after the government cut its bilateral relationship with Taiwan in favor of China in 2007.

China, critics say, used Malawi’s lack of infrastructure development as a way to convince then-President Bingu Wa Mutharika – brother of the incumbent president Peter Mutharika – to dump Taiwan for Beijing. Afterward, the Chinese built roads, a stadium, a new parliament building, hotels. And along with those projects came hundreds of Chinese nationals.

Many of these have created large businesses. Others, however, have turned to selling chickens, home goods and textiles or vegetables.
Edison Bakali says he finally had to close his textile shop in Limbe Township in Blantyre in the south of the country two months ago because he barely sold anything.

"The coming of Chinese traders has completely killed our businesses," he said.

Even so, Ben Kaluwa, an economics professor at the University of Malawi, warns that Mutharika’s proposal would have serious repercussions for the country’s economy.

Malawi ranks among the world's least developed countries and its economy is heavily dependent on agriculture. More than 50 percent live under the poverty line while the average income is 1,180 a year, according to the World Bank.

In Malawi, Kaluwa says, foreign business is becoming a major employer of youth, accounting for almost 70 percent of the population. Each Chinese shop, he adds, employs up to six workers, mostly with a lack of education and qualifications. Local traders don't usually employ others.

Kaluwa argues that instead of chasing out foreign business, the government should promote exports and reducing taxes to help local business. At the same time, the measure is likely to stifle the investment Malawi needs to grow.

"While it is important to put in place such requirements for the protection of local traders, it is important to consider the trends of the country’s economic development, and the role that foreign businesses play in Malawi’s economy," he said. "Foreign investors especially Chinese shop operators have brought competition especially in the textile and electronic industries. People are now able to buy clothes and other goods from Chinese shops at cheaper price due to high competition."

That's exactly why Mzuzu resident Tionge Kumwenda wants the Chinese to remain.

“I prefer buying in Chinese shops because they are located along the (main) road and I’m able to buy different things such as clothes, plates and shoes within one shop at cheaper prices than those offered by local traders,” said Kumwenda.

Meanwhile, Kaluwa says the president's ploy to win votes will certainly backfire. "You can’t achieve (economic growth) without foreign businesses – that’s a total lie,” he said.

Lu Juang, a Chinese national who runs a shop in Lilongwe, says such a policy would force most foreign businesses out of Malawi.
“We are already paying huge taxes and rentals, regardless of the scale of our shops,” he said. "The business environment in Malawi is tough, and we are not making profits because we spend more to import the goods.”

Meanwhile, Isaac Kapena, a vendor trading in hardware products at Blantyre flea market, says Mutharika would better attract votes if he targeted corruption and not opposition party supporters regularly beaten up at rallies. In November, Mutharika himself was forced to return a $200,000 "donation" from an Asian businessman facing a corruption case in a multi-million dollar kickback scheme involving a contract to supply food to the Malawi police.

"We have never heard Mutharika ordering the arrest of his youths walking with machetes and other weapons along the streets, threatening or injuring supporters of other parties or causing violence at opposition rallies,” he said. “And have you seen the president firing or government and party officials involved in high profile corruption? These are the issues people will look at when deciding whether to re-elect him or not.”

Photo: May 4, 2019 - Mzuzu, Malawi - Jonathan Jere, a Mzuzu city based vendor closed his clothes shop to sell soft drinks and plastic bags because he could not make sales the former business. He claims foreign business operators have killed his business.
Credit: Henry Kijimwana Mhango/ ARA Network Inc. (05/04/19)

Story/photo publish date: 05/21/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

South Africa's incumbent president perseveres despite party's reputation

SAFRamaphosaJohannesburg - South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has spent the run up to May 8 elections traveling from city to city, stumping for himself and his African National Congress (ANC).

What's been notable, say analysts, commentators and even voters, is that during campaign appearances, he's often missing the party entourage, typical of his predecessors.

Some believe his almost solitary appearances are possibly part of an election strategy that is banking on how much voters like Ramaphosa even as disgust for the ANC is palpable and rampant.

"I will vote for Ramaphosa," said Ndou Paulina, 38, a cleaner in Johannesburg, echoing a common sentiment: "I trust (the ANC) now that Zuma is gone, Ramaphosa is better."

South Africans, who ended apartheid 25 years ago, will vote in the first election for Ramaphosa – who took over just over a year ago from scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma – and amid a major test for the party.

So far, most recent polls show that many voters fed up with the ANC in the 2016 local elections – and who abstained from voting – are planning to return to the ballot box: They predict the ANC will get more than 55 percent of the vote.

Ramaphosa, meanwhile, has consistently polled higher than 60 percent, a reflection that voters believe he delivered on many of his promises during his first year leading the country, says Ebrahim Fakir, an analyst and director of programs at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute in Johannesburg.

Even so, he added that the ANC needs to win more than 55 percent in order for Ramaphosa to continue his mandate.

"If the ANC falls below 55 percent, the knives are coming out for Ramaphosa," said Fakir. "He will (face) paranoia, policy volatility…There will be paralysis due to ANC conflicts impacting public institutions."

The party remains deeply divided after a fight over Zuma's successor in late 2017, when Ramaphosa took over, say analysts, as well as at odds over some of Ramaphosa's reforms.

Still, many want Ramaphosa to continue to tackle South Africa's issues. In the past year, he has won praise from many voters and the business community by appointing a new national director of public prosecutions, the top prosecutor's office, which also oversees the prosecution of public corruption that was until recently plagued by corruption itself.

He is also creating a unit within that agency to investigate corruption allegations arising from three current judicial inquiries into corruption at state agencies that he formed – a prior unit was disbanded more than a decade ago by the ANC while it was investigating President Zuma.
Many South Africans say they believe there is less corruption today than a year ago.

"Ramaphosa has managed to alleviate corruption somewhat already," said Dudu Khanyisa Risiba, 23, who works in data management. He motivates residents of this country to support small businesses. Things are way better…we need a president that we can trust and rely on. A president that thinks about his people. Now (after Zuma), we have peace."

Analysts praised some of his efforts especially his non-stop schedule of stumping for investments – from India to Saudi Arabia to China – securing pledges of billions in new investment. They also applaud him for replacing management at some state-owned companies plagued by debt, and allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

Ramaphosa says the economy is his top priority, jumpstarting growth from the low single-digits and avoiding a rating downgrade, as is security economic security for millions of South Africans living below the poverty line.

"We cannot be a nation of free people when so many still live in poverty," Ramaphosa said at a ceremony Saturday marking the anniversary of the end of Apartheid. "We need to focus all our attention and efforts on ensuring that all South Africans can equally experience the economic and social benefits of freedom."

Some believe he could have done more – especially to tackle the disfunction and corruption in the ANC over the past year. While he has fired some of Zuma's more inept ministers, he's been limited by internal squabbling within the ANC.

Ramaphosa hasn't fought the ANC's plan to appropriate land without compensation that has frightened investors. And the unemployment rate remains around 27 percent, even though last year's recession is over, and in spite of the creation of a jobs summit. He also hasn't tackled an enormous debt burden or a bloated bureaucracy. And the nation’s investment rating is on shaky ground.

Meanwhile, protests have been breaking out over the lack of jobs and services in settlements in Johannesburg and Cape Town, even as power shortages have become increasingly frequent.

"It's freaking scary this year, people don't know who to vote for…but anyone other than the ANC," said Dean Daleski, 29, a small business owner. "We all so tired of corruption. At the end of day, the ANC have been given so many opportunities to carry out the constitution but with so much mismanagement in the public domain, we have to give someone else a chance."

Those include Ramaphosa's two main rivals, Mmusi Maimane, head of the center-right Democratic Alliance, polling at 15 percent and Julius Malema, leader of the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, predicted to win about 10 percent.

Still, most say Ramaphosa has won enough trust with the public to keep the ANC in power after May 8. The key question is by how much of a margin, because that determines what comes next.

Ivor Sarakinsky, a professor at the Wits School of Governance in Johannesburg, says that if the ANC fails to get 50 percent of the vote, populism will rise, there will be an increase in conflict over positions and authority by the different parties and the government will be unable to move forward.

"(But) an ANC victory within the 56-61 percent range will enable Ramaphosa to begin a cleanup in government – if he chooses to do so," he said.

Photo: April 27, 2019 - Makhanda, South Africa - President Cyril Ramaphosa giving a speech during South Africa's National Freedom Day celebration in Miki Yili Stadium, Makhanda.
Credit: Courtesy of the official Twitter page of the Presidency of South Africa. (04/27/19)

Story/photo published date: 05/05/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Blunts, Dreadlocks and Prayers: Rastafarians in Kenya want to be recognized as a religion

KEN190127TO006NAIROBI, Kenya – Dressed in a red turban and black robe, Douglas Okello bowed and gazed at the portrait of Emperor Haile Selassie pinned up in his one-room mud shack in Kibera slum in Nairobi.

Then he prayed, and smoked a joint.

“I believe in Haile Selassie I, the Ethiopian emperor who will deliver us to the promised land,” said Okello, 28. “This is a calling from Jah, and a true Rastafari must smoke weed to cleanse his soul.”

Rastafari, increasingly popular in Kenya, is a faith that started in Jamaica in the 1930s following the coronation of Haile Selassie I as King of Ethiopia. Rastafaris regard Haile Selassie as God of the black race even though there is no central authority in the faith. They believe he will one day return all black people living in so-called exile – outside Africa – as the result of migration and the slave trade back to the continent.

To keep their faith, Rastafaris don’t cut their hair but grow it, uncombed, into dreadlocks. They smoke marijuana and reject materialist values. They practice a strict oneness with nature, eating only unprocessed foods.

Okello who has been a Rastafari for the past five years said he joined the movement after he developed aliking for reggae music while studying at the University of Nairobi. The reggae musicians singing about how black people were oppressed spoke to him, he said.

“I received a spirit that led me to start growing dreadlocks and learn how to smoke marijuana,” he said. “If you are a true Rastafarian, everything changes and you start to understand the Bible. I don’t consume animals nowadays.”

The faith has grown so much among the young in Kenya, its leaders say, that they have developed social media platforms to address issues affecting the youth. There are no official figures on Rastafaris in Kenya but estimates put the global figure at one million.

Last year, for example, the group, the Rastafarian Family Elders, estimates that more than 1,000 people shifted from Christianity to Rastafari in Nairobi’s Kibera slum alone. The Elders said the youths in the country have started realizing the religion favors their interests.

"Youths who are black have been oppressed since the days of colonization,” said Ras Malonza, one of the group leaders. "They were made slaves to whites and that’s the reason they found themselves in Jamaica,”

“Jamaica is hell to us and Ethiopia is our heaven,” he added. “Finally, we will be repatriated to Ethiopia which is our promised land by Haile Selassie. Black youths will no longer be oppressed and we will live in freedom and peace.”

Malonza, 43, who was a staunch Catholic, says he regrets the years he wasted not believing in Haile Selassie.

Instead, he says Rastafaris are the true believers, quoting Jeremiah 8:21: “For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold on me.”

“We are the only religion that follows the Bible,” added Malonza who confirmed that they will be celebrating the coronation of Haile Selassie on Nov. 1 this year. “It’s always a big day for us. Our God is black and the Bible confirms that.”

Anthony Maiga, a theologian and pastor for the United Methodist Church of Kenya in Nairobi said the faithful of the group trace Haile Selassie's lineage back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, and therefore to Jesus.He added that the faith is seeing rapid growth because many young people see themselves reflected in the language and behavior of Rastafaris.

“Youths love something that does not restrict them, like smoking and abusing drugs, listening to secular music and sharing things instead of working and paying for their own," said Maiga. "The sect encourages such behavior and obviously they are likely to get more youths.”

Like Jacob Maina, 35, who also lives in the slum, said he joined the faith because he was looking for freedom. Originally of the protestant faith, he said Christianity restricted him: He could not smoke marijuana, question oppressors or listen to his favorite reggae musician Bob Marley.

“I was actually in prison when I was a Christian,” he said. “Christianity condemns everything that youths enjoy. The Rastafari faith allows youths to live good life. We don’t give offering on Sabbath day and we are allowed to smoke marijuana and listen to reggae music.”

Rastafaris, meanwhile, do face discrimination and are viewed as criminals because of their pot smoking and their appearance, especially the dreadlocks, local leaders say. In Kenya, a neat and smart appearance is important socially.

Recently, a court in Nairobi ordered officials at Olympic High School in Kibera slum to admit a Rastafari student after she was refused due to her dreadlocks.

The Rastafari prophet, according to the Rastafarian Family Elders, Ras Lojuron, defended the student's right not to cut her hair citing prohibitions in the Bible, while accusing the school and other institutions of religious discrimination.

“It’s time for people to understand and respect our faith just as we respect other religions,” he said.

Meanwhile, Okello hopes society and especially the government stops its harassment and discrimination of Rastafaris.

“The police should treat us well,” he said. “We are a religion just like Christianity and Islam.”

Photo: Rastafarian family elders John Wambua (left) and Ras Malonza (right) at their social hall during prayers in the Kibera slums in Nairobi on January 23, 2019. The religious group has attracted thousands of youths across the country.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (01/23/19)

Story/photo publish date: 04/17/19

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

Sibling rivalry splits apart Uganda's Jewish community

UGA181117TO012By Tonny Onyulo

MBALE, Uganda – During a recent Shabbat service here, Rabbi Gershom Sizomu led dozens of worshippers in a prayer for unity. Women sang psalms. Children clapped. Men wearing yarmulkes played drums and guitars.

Locally known as Abayudaya or "the people of Judah,” they practice Conservative Judaism with an African flair. Existing for almost a century, a conflict is now splitting the community, pitting Sizomu’s supporters against his half-brother, Joab Jonadab Keki, who is Orthodox, in a fight that centers on Israel.

Members of the congregation say they hope the community survives the growing divide.

“We have been praying for peace for everyone, and looking to the north where Israel is,” said Jacob Owani, 35, after the service. “We only have one spiritual leader. His name is Rabbi Sizomu. Anyone doing something (to him) is evil, only wanting to set up another system to be able to get away with corrupt deeds.”

Keki, 59, has accused Rabbi Sizomu, 49, of mismanagement of the Abayudaya community’s funds and properties, including its synagogue, health clinic, school, the rabbi’s house and another residence. Rather than managing those assets on behalf of the community or using them to support charitable causes, he’s enriched himself, Keki says.

“My brother is a thief and corrupt,” said Keki. “He has stolen the properties of the community and assigned them to himself and his children. He has taken the health center and some properties meant to benefit the community. We will not accept our properties to be stolen by an individual.”

A member of parliament representing Bungokho North in the Mbale district, Sizomu dismissed the allegations. “He is not a good person,” Sizomu said. “He is a jealous brother.”

Located in Mbale, around 150 miles northeast of Kampala, the Abayudaya community of 2,000 people date from 1919, when the British tasked Semei Kakungulu with spreading Christianity in east Uganda. Instead, he favored the Hebrew Bible and founded a Jewish community. In the 1970s, the community dwindled to a few hundred members when Ugandan dictator Idi Amin outlawed it.

The Jewish Agency for Israel recognized the Abayudaya in 2016. But the Israeli government does not recognize them on the grounds that they didn’t convert under Orthodox rabbis. In June, Israeli's Interior Ministry denied the first and only request of a Ugandan Jew, Kibitz Yosef, to immigrate to Israel under the right of return, for example.

The conversion issue is at the heart of the conflict between Sizomu and Keki.

The Abayudaya practiced what they considered to be modern Orthodox Judaism until the early 2000s, when Conservative rabbis from the United States arrived in the region and founded the Stern Synagogue, in the village of Nabugoye, where Sizomu is now presiding rabbi. Having just completed his rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College in New York City, he began stepping up the pace of conversions from Orthodoxy to Conservatism.

But Sizomu’s cousin, Enosh Maniah, disputed the conversions, saying Israel did not recognize them. Maniah and others, including Keki, left the Conservative faction and opted instead to remain in Orthodoxy. “I chose to be Orthodox because I want to be recognized by the state of Israel,” said Keki. “I believe that my country is Israel. Orthodoxy is recognized by Israel.”

Today, Conservative Jews mostly live in Nabugoye.

The Orthodox community of around 350 people live in the nearby village of Putti, where they have hung Israeli flags from from their grass-thatched houses.

Most Putti residents are farmers who grow watermelons, onions, peppers and tomatoes. Nabugoye is a wealthier town, with a hospital, schools and other services that Putti lacks.

In recent years, as Israel recognition has become more important among some in the community, Keki has successfully converted a handful of Ugandan Jews back to Orthodoxy, angering Sizomu. “He wanted to convert everybody here to Orthodoxy,” said Sizomu. When I refused to allow him to do so, we became enemies. He has been going around telling lies to everyone he meets about me and the community.”

In Uganda, religious leaders celebrate when they gain more followers while those who are rejected lose face, said observers.

“If a person from other religion converts to become either Orthodox or Conservative then there’s always celebration,” said Rev. Rueben Mukasa, a Pentecostal pastor of the Assemblies of God who knows many Abayudaya. “Money and gifts are given to the person who has converted from being Conservative to Orthodox and vice versa. It’s all about who converts more people than the other.”

Recently, the conflict has escalated beyond matters of faith and identity, however.

Keki, who is the chair of the Council of Elders of the Jewish Community in Uganda, said Sizomu has pocketed funds sent to Uganda from Jews abroad, including the New York-based nonprofit Kulanu, which supports Jewish communities around the globe.

“We want to tell him to put religion aside and account for funds he has received from donors,” said Danielm Adeke, 58, a Keki follower. “We want him to resign as rabbi.”

Sizomu rejected those claims, saying Keki and his followers want a piece of the approximately $50,000 they receive annually through the Abayudaya Congregation, a non-governmental organization the two brothers founded before they split up. They foundation receives donations but now only services the Conservative community.

“We account for money we receive from donors to help our children go to school and also do some developments in the community,” said Rabin Were, who chairs the Abayudaya Congregation’s executive committee. “I don’t know why (Keki) is complaining – we have all the information available for him to see. He wanted to be among the signatories [executive committee members] but he was not elected. That’s where the problem started.”

Furthermore, said Sizomu, Keki mistakes his relatively good salary as a parliamentarian for money accrued by taking his community’s wealth. In fact, he added, he gives money to the community. “I use all my money to support the community and educate poor people,” Sizomu said. “I have even used my money to educate Joab’s children.”

Even so, critics point to the health clinic, as an example of malfeasance: It was built on Sizomu’s land with community funds. Sizomu had promised to transfer the land to the community, but has yet to do so, according to Ministry of Land records.

Sizomu’s retention of the land proves he’s absconding with community funds, said Keki.

But Sizomu said he planned to give the health clinic property to the community, but not under pressure, he said. “The land belongs to me and I’m willing to give it,” he said.

Sizomu also noted that the community purchased another nearby plot of land with the intention of giving him that land in return for the health clinic property. But that transfer has yet to happen.

Instead, Sizomu accuse his brother of greed, saying Keki and his followers are simply seeking money because they’re poorer than their Conservative peers.

“My brother and his followers are misguided by the appetite for money,” he said.

Meanwhile, Keki has filed an application in court to have the community’s election nullified and remove Sizomu as rabbi, saying Sizomu has operated the health clinic, school and other amenities so they cater to Conservatives rather than Orthodox Jews, who maintain stricter habits in following Jewish traditions.

“They [Keki and others] feel they are not part of the Abayudaya community and the rabbi [Sizomu] is controlling everything at the top,” said Kadambi Adudu, an official who represents the Ministry of Local Government in the region, explaining the conflict. “Keki wants to take the properties of the community. When his brother refuses, he accuses him of wanting to grab the properties. We have never received any complaints from anybody apart from Keki.”

Conservative community members that congregate every Saturday in Nabugoye to pray accused Keki of trying to divide the Abayudaya. They support Sizomu as their rabbi, they said. Anyone fighting him, they felt, was evil.

“He [Keki] is a mad person,” said Yekolamu Kasakya, 78, an elder of the community. “Joab does not respect anybody – He is very disrespectful. He does not have money. That is why he is fighting for the community’s properties."

Besides, he added, "We can’t have two leaders at the same time.”

Photo: A Jewish Ugandan woman carries Torah scrolls during a service the the Stern Synagogue in Nabagoye, Uganda, on Nov. 17, 2018.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ARA Network Inc. (11/17/18)

Photo/story publish date: 01/31/19

Two versions of this story were published in Forward and the Religion News Service.

Kenyans angered at government for latest Al-Shabab attack

KEN AlShabab AttackNAIROBI, Kenya – Grief-stricken Kenyans became angry as they visited the Chiromo Mortuary to discover whether their loved one has been killed in a terror attack that ended Wednesday.

“When will these terror attacks stop?” asked Margret Mwende, a small shop owner who was looking for her niece at the mortuary. “We have lost many of our relatives as a result of these attacks. We demand government’s action not just words and promises. How did they allow terrorists to cross our borders?”

Launched on Tuesday, the attack on the Dusit compound of luxury shops and hotels in the capital claimed at least 14 lives, according to the government. Five men armed with guns and explosives attacked the compound at night, holding around 176 hostages until security services intervened. An American and Briton were among those killed.

A Somali militant group linked to Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, claimed responsibility for the attack, reported the SITE Intelligence Group.
The incident was reminiscent of Al Shabab’s attack two miles away on the Westgate shopping center in 2013. The militants killed 67 people during that attack and siege, which lasted more than three days.

Al Shababb also attacked Garissa University in Kenya, killing 148 people, in 2015.

Experts praised Kenya’s security agencies for acquiring lessons from the Westgate Mall attack that allowed for a good response that ended the Dusit attack with a minimal life lost.

“There was quick response and coordinated efforts by security agencies to arrest the situation,” said Francis Maina, a former colonel in the Kenyan army who is now a security analyst.

But Maina faulted the government's strategy to confront the terror threat since Kenyan soldiers entered Somalia in 2011 in a bid to stabilize its war-torn neighbor. Leaders have also failed to comprehensively implement existing security laws that might help counter-terrorism officials, he added.

“The government needs a more unified homeland security structure to ensure efficiency when it comes to sharing of intelligence among all security agencies,” said Maina. “This will allow security agencies to response immediately in case of attacks.”

Michael Ouma, 28, a taxi driver who had left the hotel minutes before the attack wondered how terrorists had managed to enter the hotel without notice. The hotel is only around two miles away from the Westgate Mall, he added.

"I really thank God for saving me,” said Ouma. “It wasn't my day to die. I heard that the client I dropped was shot dead as he made his way to the hotel. It was shocking and traumatizing. Our government needs to do something."

In his address from the State House on Wednesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta vowed to crack down on terror. He assured all Kenyans and visitors of their safety in the country, saying multiple security efforts are underway to defeat terrorist groups.

“We’ll seek out all those involved in planning, functioning and execution of the act,” said Kenyatta. “But my heart goes out to innocent men and women violated by the senseless violence.”

Families at the mortuary needed the consolation.

One unidentified woman broke down in tears at the mortuary after she was informed by relevant authority that her loved one was dead.

“Why! Why! Why! Why!” she shouted as family brought her into the building. “You didn’t deserve to die like this, and it hurts me. God help me!”

Photo: Screenshot of Kenyan soldiers monitoring the area where the attack on Dusit luxury compound happened.
Credit: Courtesy of Kenya CitizenTV YouTube channel. (01/15/2019)

Story/photo publish date: 01/16/2019

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Mali’s slave descendants want law criminalizing slavery

ML181216002SDBAMAKO, Mali – Hamey Coulibaly’s neighbors threatened to kill him when he publicly renounced his slave status, forcing the father of seven to flee his home in Troukoumbe, a village of the southwestern part of Mali in September. He now lives in hiding in the West African country’s capital.

“How long this suffering will continue?” he said. “I’m worried about the future, about my relatives living in humiliation in my village because I decided to stand against slavery. Only god can help us.”

Coulibaly is one of the 800,000 slaves in Mali who mostly live in the country’s southwestern and northern regions. He’s a member of the Bambara minority, one of the groups that often live in servitude in the southwest under ethnic Soninke masters. In the north, Touareg tend to own members of the minority Bella community.

Living under an institution that dates to before the 11th Century, Malian slaves can’t run for elected office, marry non-slaves and must labor as domestics. “You don’t have the right to be an imam and lead prayers in the mosques, even if you are the most educated in Islamic culture,” said Hamey, who also left his two wives behind at home.

Slavery is hereditary in Mali. It’s persistence and the ongoing violence against those caught seeking to escape servitude reflects the deep-seated roots of the practice, said Idrissa. But, as the US and Europe show, cultural practices like slavery can change, he added. Technically, slavery is banned in Mali. Lawmakers have been considering criminalizing it for almost three years.

“What’s happening now to slave descendants in Soninke communities must outrage every Malian,” said Idissa Aklinine, an analyst for the Bamako-based Coalition of Civil Society, a human right defense group. “President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta needs to hear from those who denounce slavery. Then he can order his services to investigate the allegations of antislavery movements.”

Last November, hope rose amidst Malian slaves when United States suspended aid to Mauritania under the African Growth Opportunity Act, citing that country’s lack of progress in combating slavery. “We need strong actions, like what did the Trump administration in Mauritania,” said Idrissa. “World leaders must join with America.”

Officials defended the government’s caution, saying officials were focusing on a fighting against Islamist insurgents and armed groups of Touareg separatists.

“People must understand that the government and the ministry of Justice are aware of the necessity to pass a law criminalizing slavery,” said Boubacar Traoré, a staff member of the Malian ministry of Justice. “The delay, in my view point, may be due to the country’s insecurity and its political instability which are challenging authorities for several years.”

Hamey’s troubles started last summer when he joined the local chapter of Gambana, a European antislavery movement that operates in Mali, Gambia, Mauritania and other West African countries. On September, he travelled around with Gambana activists, declaring they had sloughed off the yoke of slavery while drawing attention to the harsh life they endured.

When he returned home, his neighbors – both masters and slaves who supported bondage – were angry.

Men destroyed Hamey’s home and held his 80-year-old mother hostage for a day while forcing his brother to pull goat skins, a menial job in Mali that is reserved for slaves. The family’s peanut farm failed due to the attack, further impoverishing them.

“I can’t understand why we are going through all these abuses,” he said. “It seems we are not citizens of the same country.”

Abdoulaye Mako, the vice-president of Temedt, an antislavery association based in northern Mali, where separatists have been fighting for independence from the central government for seven years, said the situation is tense now. Violence had become common in 66 villages in the southwest in the region.

Abdoulaye’s association decided to sue the ringleaders of mobs who had organized violence against Hamey and his family and the 66 other villages in the region where anti-slavery campaigners have been more active recently. He and other Temedt activists went to the village and read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the public square. Their demonstration sparked a riot as locals attacked them with machetes and clubs.

“They didn’t want to hear that people are born equal,” said Mako. “Suddenly there were murmurs and some started to bitten slave descendants around them. There was blood everywhere.”

The lawsuit helped lead to arrest a man in Bamako who posted a video on the Internet calling to kill antislavery campaigners. But none of the Troukoumbe villagers have been arrested.

Coulibaly recently heard that a crowd lynched his Gambana colleague Lassa Coulibaly in Kerwane, a southwestern village. Save supporters tied Lassa up and dragged him on the ground. He survived but suffered serious injuries.

Coulibaly feared what would happen if his masters found him in Bamako.

“If they know that I’m living in this place, they will kill me,” he said.

Photo: December 14, 2018 - Bamako, Mali - Slave descendant Abdoulaye Mako, the vice-president of Temedt, an antislavery association, stands near a vehicle which burnt days after the crackdown of an antislavery conference on September 23 in the village of Trougoumbe, South-West of Mali. Slavery supporters had sprinkled the vehicle with gasoline.
Credit: Soumaila Diarra/ARA Network Inc (12/14/18)

Story/photo publish date: 01/13/19

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

Christians in Uganda demand protection from Muslim extremists

UGA151127TO003MBALE, Uganda – Sleeping on a hospital bed at Budaka Health Centre in eastern Uganda, 12-year-old Emmanuel Nyaiti writhed in pain as he explained how Muslim extremists recently attacked him for refusing to convert to Islam.

“’Islam is a good religion,’ they said. ‘Please convert. We’ll not kill you, and you will go to paradise,” Nyaiti recalled.

Nyaiti was walking home from his grandmother’s house when four men ambushed him and spirited him to a cassava plantation where they tortured him, including attempting to strangle him to death. One was named Ali, while another was named Abdul, he said. They wound up leaving him for dead.

“Ali convinced me to convert and become a Muslim, but I declined. They started pushing me on the ground threatening to kill me if I don’t accept Islam,” he said. “One of the attackers hit me with a sharp object on my neck and I became unconscious. I remember them saying they have killed me.”

Nyaiti is one among millions of Christians in this East African nation who face unprecedented levels of persecution from Islamist extremists.

Christians in Eastern Uganda are among those in their faith who the most serious dangers in the world, according to World Watch Monitor, a group that tracks persecutions of Christians. The charity counted at least two incidents of Muslims killing Christians as well as vandalism of at least two churches.

Concentrated largely in the country’s east, Muslims comprise around 14 percent of Uganda’s largely Christian population of 42 million.
But more than 1.6 million Anglicans and almost 800,000 Catholics converted to Islam, Pentecostal Christianity or traditional African beliefs, according to the 2014 Ugandan census, the most recent survey, which did not break down which faith receive which converts.
Muslims said their community is growing fast.

“Muslims are 25 per cent of the total population and not 13.7 per cent,” Hajj Mutumba, spokesperson of Uganda Muslim Supreme Council told local media recently. “We have two to four wives and we are producing about six children in a space of two to three years.”
In eastern Uganda, Islamist extremists have intensified their campaign to convert more people to Islam.

Many of those extremists belong to the Alliance of Democratic Forces, a Democratic Republic of Congo-based group of Muslim Ugandans who have fought an insurgency against their country’s central government in Kampala, noted World Watch Monitor. The alliance has helped stoke anti-Christian feelings in the region while calling has called for Sharia law in Uganda.

“Ugandan Muslims were not intolerant in the past,” wrote World Watch Monitor. “But those who sympathize with ADF are preaching the idea of having an Islamic state in Uganda (and in a part of the DRC), and this is taking away the culture of tolerance.”

In June, a group of Muslims attacked Christian preachers seeking to convert Muslims in Iganga in eastern Uganda during a so-called “crusade” where Christians publicly profess their faith in Jesus and invite others to join their faith.

Muslims in the town accused the Christians of mocking Islam by publicly saying Jesus was the son of God.

“They became very angry and began throwing rocks at Christians, chanting ‘Allah akbar,’" said Pastor Moses Saku. “Many Christians were injured during the incident.”

Such altercations have become common, said Saku.

“I witnessed an incident here where a Christian woman was brutally attacked with a machete by her Muslim husband for refusing to convert to Islam,” said Saku. “We continue to condemn the incident and urge our Muslim brothers to respect other religions and uphold freedom of worship.”

Muslims, however, dismissed the allegations, saying they have warned their Christians neighbors not to make provocative statements that offend them. “We have now declared a Jihad against them,” said Abubakar Yusuf, 55, a Muslim teacher. “We are not going to allow anybody to despise Islamic teachings at their church or crusade. We will seek revenge.”

Pastor Saku and millions of other Christians across Uganda are now demanding government protection.

“We cannot continue to live in fear of preaching the gospel and telling people the truth that Jesus is the son of God,” said Saku. “As Christians, we need protection from the government because our Muslim brothers are very angry when they hear the truth. But we have never abused Muslims or Allah during our preaching.”

Police said they were still investigating the details and circumstances behind the attack on the churches, crusades and people using provocative statements on others.

Pastor Saku said the police needed to make some arrest to scare some Muslims who are attacking Christians. “They need to arrest these people,” he said. “We cannot live like refugees in our own country where we cannot worship and preach the gospel freely.”

Photo: November 27, 2015- Kampala, Uganda. Choir practice goes into high gear ahead of the Pope's visit to Munyonyo Martyrs Shrine near Kampala. The choristers were the first Church choir to sing for Pope Francis during his visit in Uganda in November 2015.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ARA Network Inc. (11/27/2015)

Story/photo publish date: 12/24/2018

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.

J'accuse: long-serving president accused for further delaying upcoming elections in Congo

Kabila Congo2By Tonny Onyulo

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – As this troubled country prepares for general elections on December 23, many fear election violence following a recent attack on an opposition leader that left three people dead.

“We are afraid. Police are everywhere,” said Martin Ngoyi, a taxi driver. “They are arresting and shooting anyone that opposes the government’s candidate. We can’t vote in such environment. We need help.”
Last week, three people died in Lubumbashi in the country’s southeast during a campaign rally featuring leading opposition presidential candidate Martin Fayulu. Security forces sprayed Fayulu’s convoy with tear gas and live ammunition, reportedly killing three and seriously injuring hundreds of others.
“The government doesn’t want any opposition leader to campaign,” said Fayulu. “They shot at us and my convoy. We cannot campaign.  Why is the government afraid?”
The violence has raised questions about the credibility of the vote and President Joseph Kabila’s intentions. Technically, Kabila’s term ended in December 2016. But he remained in power, citing the country’s instability. He has since tapped his former interior minister, Emmanuel Shadary, as his successor while officials in his government have taken steps to prevent rivals from challenging Shadary.
In August, election officials barred former Bemba, a former vice president, and Katumbi from running. Bemba faces war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court, while Katumbi was blocked from entering the country to register as a candidate. Both now support Fayulu.
A total of 20 opposition candidates are also running. They all question if Kabila is really going to give up power.
Kabila, 47, took control of the country in 2001, ten days after the assassination of his father, President Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who had overthrown dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Voters elected the younger Kabila as president in 2006. In 2011, he was re-elected to a second term.
Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political scientist at Kenyatta University in Kenya, said the outgoing President Kabila would do everything in his power to support Shadary in order to retain his grip on government.
“I think Kabila’s decision to step aside won’t change anything in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s power dynamics,” he said. “Kabila is going to continue ruling his country but behind the scenes. They are very close with Shadary and nothing is going to change.”
Opposition candidates have especially questioned the credibility of electronic voting machines which are being used for the first time in the country. The South Korean-made technology features a touch screen where voters can pick their preferred candidate.
“The system is perfect and it will prevent fraud and also provide a faster tally of votes across various parts of the country,” said Jean-Pierre Kalamba, who oversees the Independent National Electoral Commission. “There’s nothing to worry about. The system has also cut costs and it’s effective.”
Opposition leaders disagree.
“Kabila and his government want to manipulate the machine and fix the vote in favor of their preferred candidate,” said Fayulu. “We are not going to allow this to happen. I know I’m headed for victory because I have people’s support.”
According to a recent poll, 36 percent of voters support opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi, the son of a veteran opposition leader. Vital Kamerhe came in second with 17 percent. Shadary garnered 16 percent. Fayulu had 8 percent. The country’s constitution states that whoever gets the highest number of votes wins.
Shadary insists on claiming that he is the frontrunner.
“I know I’m winning. Ask me by what margin,” he said. “When you look around you can see by yourself that we have massive support across the country. We are campaigning and we’ll continue.”
Wakesa cast doubt on those assertions but noted that his confidence might reflect his knowledge of how Kabila is working behind the scenes on his behalf. 
“Shadary is not well known around the country and elsewhere,” Wakesa said. “He has no support and he lacks finances to campaign. But the government is going to step in with all its mechanisms to ensure he wins the elections. There is no way any other candidate can win this election with the African style of politics.”
Tshisekedi is the candidate to beat if the contest is free and fair, said Wakesa. His father ran against Kabila in 2011, but lost after he won only 32 percent to the incumbent’s 42 percent. He unsuccessfully challenged the election results in court, but the attempt advanced his image as a fighter. The elder Tshisekedi died last year.
On Tuesday, the UN Security Council urged all parties to reject violence and engage peacefully and constructively in the electoral process to ensure transparent, peaceful and credible elections.
"While welcoming the progress in the technical preparation of the polls, the members of the Security Council are worried” about violence marring the final days the electoral campaign, a U.N. statement said.
The Security Council asked all sides "to continue to reject violence of any kind, exercise maximum restraint in their actions and ... refrain from provocations such as violence and violent speeches and to address their differences peacefully," the statement added.
Ngoyi, a taxi driver, agreed.
“We want a conducive environment before the vote takes place,’ said Ngoyi. “We also want police to restrain from intimidating supporters of opposition candidates. We want a free and fair poll.” 

Photo: President Joseph Kabila during an inter-institutional meeting on October 19, 2018, at the Cité de l'Union Africaine
Credit: Courtesy of the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Official Twitter page 10/19/2018 
Story/photo publish date: 12/20/18
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

<div class="article_intro_wrap"><img src="/images/FRA14231aa001.jpg" width="179" height="129" style="border: 1px solid #000000; float: left;" />PARIS — A bloody day in the heart of the City of Light left some of France’s best-known journalists dead and police tracking down the native Islamist terrorists suspected of carrying out the murders to avenge what they said were insults to the founder of their faith. One suspect surrendered and two others were missing.

<p>The well-coordinated early-morning attack on the editorial offices of the Charlie Hebdo targeted the editor of the bitingly satiric weekly, Stephane Charbonnier, nine colleagues and a security guard, all murdered in cold blood by masked assailants who reportedly called out the names of their victims as they were shot.<br /><a href="/http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/jan/7/terror-assault-at-paris-newspaper-leaves-12-dead/" style="font-size: 11px;"><span style="color: #3366ff;"><strong><br />Read more at The Washington Times</strong></span></a>



In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Christians flock to churches, pray for peaceful polls

Kabila CongoBUKAVU, Democratic Republic of Congo –On a recent Sunday morning in this central Africa nation, worshippers at the United Methodist Church in Bukavu where among thousands of Christians flocked to church to pray for peace ahead of this month’s elections.

Congregants donning white and red attire feared that violence was possible when voters go to the polls on December 23.

“We don’t want this nation to shed blood of innocent people because of elections,” said parishioner Laurent Kabengele, after Sunday service. “We have no choice but to pray for peace. The tension is everywhere and we must pray and fast for God’s protection.”

Violent protests have erupted here periodically since December 2016, when President Joseph Kabila refused to give up power in accordance with a deal brokered by the Catholic Church. Technically, his second and final five-year term was supposed to end under the country’s constitution.

“We want elections to be free and fair so that our people can live in harmony,” said Rev. Clement Kingombe of the United Methodist Church. “We are going to have several other prayer events so that our members can have time to speak to God so that He intervenes and save our country.”

Election officials suspended the vote because, they said, insurrectionist violence in the central Kasai region was impeding voter registration. Catholic clergy organized protests against their decision, resulting in the deaths of dozens in Kinshasa when security forces clashed with protesting youths and priests.

Then, surprisingly, Kabila, who has ruled the country since his father's assassination in 2001, agreed in August to step down and allow the country to have the first democratic transfer of power.

Tensions have calmed in the Central African nation since then. But Kabila’s move to name his former interior minister, Emmanuel Shadary, as his successor and his alleged moves to block other potential opposition presidential candidates from participate in the vote has raised eyebrows on his intensions in the elections.

In August, election officials former Vice President Jeane- Pierre Bemba from running because he faces war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court. The country’s top court approved the move. Moses Katumbi, another top opposition leader was blocked from entering the country to register as a candidate.

Opposition leaders are also worried about the credibility of electronic voting machines which are being used for the first time in the country. They say the government will manipulate the system in favor of their candidate, Shadary. Argentina has used the same South Korean-made technology but stopped because of security issues that made them vulnerable to hackers.

“Our objective is to achieve credible elections,” said Martin Fayulu, a leading opposition candidate. “For now, we doubt the new voting machine because it’s more vulnerable to vote-rigging than paper and ink.”
Government officials have dismissed those concerns.

“We are sure we will win, by what margin is up to the people. It is enough to look at our adversaries to understand we will win for sure,” government spokesman Lambert Mende told reporters in Kinchasa on November 23.

The Catholic Church has also continued to demand for a free and fair vote, and a peaceful transition of power, too. Its flock comprises around 40 percent of the country’s population of 81 million, according to the World Bank.

Recently, hundreds of parishioners flocked to an early morning mass in the Our Lady of the Congo cathedral in Kinshasa to pray for a valid election and commemorate those who died during protests against Kabila.

“We are not tired in our demands for free and fair elections,” Isidor Ndaywel said after the mass. “We’ll continue to push the government to conduct a democratic election so that our country remains peaceful.”

In September, Jonas Tshiombela, a spokesman for the Catholic Lay Committee, a group ofactivists, told local media that the country was not ready for the elections until the government assures citizens of a free and fair vote. Tshiombela vowed to continue pushing the government to provide a safer environment for the elections.

“This the main point of our fight,” he said. “The contest is filled with uncertainties and irregularities and under such conditions a credible and fair election can’t be held.”

But parishioner Kabengelesaid that he believed that prayers can change the situation.
“Let us ask for God’s favor ahead of the elections,” he said. “We have nowhere else to go. This is our country.”

Photo: The President of the Republic H.E. Joseph Kabila Kabange presiding over Friday, November 16, 2018 in Kisangani the ceremony marking the end of the training of 3600 new police officers (Joseph Kabila Promotion) from the Lokusa and Kapalata Centres (Tshopo Province)
Credit: Courtesy of the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Official Twitter page 11/16/2018

Story/photo publish date: 12/20/18

Nigeria fears the emergence of a Shiite Boko Haram

NGR180902AA001 ABUJA, Nigeria – Two years ago, Mala Mohammed was stunned to learn of the murder of a friend in the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Potiskum, a city in northeastern Nigeria.

“We spoke only about five minutes before,” Mohammed, a student at Bayero University Kano said of Modu Bukar, a local leader of the Movement. “He has just said the late evening prayer and was just chatting with some people outside when gunmen shot and killed him.”

Mohammed, 24, also belongs to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a radical group led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a Shiite cleric who has called for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Africa’s most populous country.

Authorities investigated the shooting. But Mohammed and others believe they will never find a suspect because they say it was an extrajudicial killing – a security officer executing the religious leader without due process.

That and other developments involving the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in recent years have worried analysts who say the group could follow in the footsteps of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram, a militant group that has wrought havoc in northeastern Nigeria for years, killing people indiscriminately and displacing thousands.

The alleged extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 and other leaders led to a full-scale uprising in northern Nigeria.

And as with Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces arrested Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky known as Sheik Zakzaky in 2015 after 350 of his followers clashed with Nigerian troops in Zaria in northwestern Nigeria.

Since then, Zakzaky and his wife have been in detention on charges of murder. Even though a court ordered him released in December 2016, the government has refused to let him go, stirring anger among his followers who say he is being detained illegally.

“It is quite possible for the Islamic Movement of Nigeria to transform into militancy like the Boko Haram,” said Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Muslim Rights Concern, an advocacy group for Nigerian Muslims. “There is a serious security implications for the continued detention of Zakzaki.”

Still, Zakzaky’s followers insist they are just trying to get justice.

“We have been maltreated, oppressed and many of us have been killed by the police including Sheikh Umar Sokoto,” said Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum of the Movement, a branch of the group based at universities, referring to an Islamic Movement of Nigeria leader whom police shot and killed during a protest in January.

And members insist they are not violent.

“In the entire existence of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which spans over a period of 40 years, no member of the group was accused of carrying illegal weapon,” said Sidi Sani, a disciple of Sheik Zakzaky for nearly three decades who lost two brothers in Zaria, a city in northwestern Nigeria. “Our struggle was not built on the foundation of militancy. Even our leader said members will not carry arms.”

Following on the Nigerian court order, the religious leader’s son, Mohammed Ibrahim Zakzaky, the only surviving son following the killing of three of his brothers in Zaria, petitioned the Nigerian Bar Association to compel the Nigerian justice minister to advise President Muhammadu Buhari to release his parents.

But, in an apparent response to that request, President Buhari stunned the audience during his speech at the bar association’s 2018 annual conference when he urged legal practitioners in the country to seek to prioritize national security above the rule of law.

“The rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” said Buhari, who ruled the country as a military dictator in the 1980s. “The individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favor of the greater good of society.”

In June, the Middle East Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank, claimed that members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria received military training from Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon.

“Tall men, in long, traditional African garb specific to northern Nigeria are sometimes spotted in Dahieh, a predominantly Shiite suburb south of Beirut where Hezbollah runs a cultural center,” wrote the Institute in an analysis. “The Shiite Nigerians initially receive a religious training before a military one that is provided in two camps in the Lebanese Bekaa.”

Muslim Rights Concern’s Akintola said though his group initially rose in defense of Zakzaky after the 2015 incident, but he and his colleagues changed their minds.

“It was revealed to me that Movement has become a huge security threat, the cause of discomfort, with bullies intimidating fellow Muslims,” said Akintola. “For these reasons, we found that in good conscience, we could not continue fighting their cause.”

Meanwhile, fears continue to mount over the activities of the group in Nigeria even as the crackdown continues.

In April this year, police killed a Movement follower after a fight erupted when authorities sought to prevent the group from using the Unity Fountain in Abuja as a venue for sit-ins to protest the detention of their leader.

Movement members say they will continue to fight.

“Our struggle has been carried out in Lebanon, Syria and Iran,” said Mohammed. “It’s now ongoing in Nigeria and Ghana.”

Photo: July 12, 2018 - Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria participate in a protest rally in Abuja seeking the release of their leader who has been in held in detention for an alleged murder.
Credit: Auwal Ahmad/ ARA Network Inc.

Story/photo publish date: September 24, 2018

A version of this story was published by Religion News Service.

Nigerians fear the rise of another insurgency group after Islamic leader's prolonged detention

NGR180802AA002ABUJA, Nigeria – Two years ago, Mala Mohammed was stunned to learn of the murder of a friend in the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Potiskum, a city in northeastern Nigeria.

“We spoke only about five minutes before,” Mohammed, a student at Bayero University Kano said of Modu Bukar, a local leader of the Movement. “He has just said the late evening prayer and was just chatting with some people outside when gunmen shot and killed him.”

Mohammed, 24, also belongs to the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, a radical group led by Sheikh Ibrahim Zakzaky, a Shiite cleric who has called for an Iranian-style Islamic revolution in Africa’s most populous country.

Authorities investigated the shooting. But Mohammed and others believe they will never find a suspect because they say it was an extrajudicial killing – a security officer executing the religious leader without due process.

That and other developments involving the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in recent years have worried analysts who say the group could follow in the footsteps of the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram, a militant group that has wrought havoc in northeastern Nigeria for years, killing people indiscriminately and displacing thousands.

The alleged extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf in 2009 and other leaders led to a full-scale uprising in northern Nigeria.

And as with Boko Haram, Nigerian security forces arrested Ibrahim Yaqoub El Zakzaky known as Sheik Zakzaky in 2015 after 350 of his followers clashed with Nigerian troops in Zaria in northwestern Nigeria.

Since then, Zakzaky and his wife have been in detention on charges of murder. Even though a court ordered him released in December 2016, the government has refused to let him go, stirring anger among his followers who say he is being detained illegally.

“It is quite possible for the Islamic Movement of Nigeria to transform into militancy like the Boko Haram,” said Professor Ishaq Akintola, director of the Muslim Rights Concern, an advocacy group for Nigerian Muslims. “There is a serious security implications for the continued detention of Zakzaki.”

Still, Zakzaky’s followers insist they are just trying to get justice.

“We have been maltreated, oppressed and many of us have been killed by the police including Sheikh Umar Sokoto,” said Abdullahi Musa, secretary of the Academic Forum of the Movement, a branch of the group based at universities, referring to an Islamic Movement of Nigeria leader whom police shot and killed during a protest in January.

And members insist they are not violent.

“In the entire existence of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, which spans over a period of 40 years, no member of the group was accused of carrying illegal weapon,” said Sidi Sani, a disciple of Sheik Zakzaky for nearly three decades who lost two brothers in Zaria, a city in northwestern Nigeria. “Our struggle was not built on the foundation of militancy. Even our leader said members will not carry arms.”

Following on the Nigerian court order, the religious leader’s son, Mohammed Ibrahim Zakzaky, the only surviving son following the killing of three of his brothers in Zaria, petitioned the Nigerian Bar Association to compel the Nigerian justice minister to advise President Muhammadu Buhari to release his parents.

But, in an apparent response to that request, President Buhari stunned the audience during his speech at the bar association’s 2018 annual conference when he urged legal practitioners in the country to seek to prioritize national security above the rule of law.

“The rule of law must be subject to the supremacy of the nation’s security and national interest,” said Buhari, who ruled the country as a military dictator in the 1980s. “The individual rights of those allegedly responsible must take second place in favor of the greater good of society.”

In June, the Middle East Institute, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank, claimed that members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria received military training from Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist political party and militant group based in Lebanon.

“Tall men, in long, traditional African garb specific to northern Nigeria are sometimes spotted in Dahieh, a predominantly Shiite suburb south of Beirut where Hezbollah runs a cultural center,” wrote the Institute in an analysis. “The Shiite Nigerians initially receive a religious training before a military one that is provided in two camps in the Lebanese Bekaa.”

Muslim Rights Concern’s Akintola said though his group initially rose in defense of Zakzaky after the 2015 incident, but he and his colleagues changed their minds.

“It was revealed to me that Movement has become a huge security threat, the cause of discomfort, with bullies intimidating fellow Muslims,” said Akintola. “For these reasons, we found that in good conscience, we could not continue fighting their cause.”

Meanwhile, fears continue to mount over the activities of the group in Nigeria even as the crackdown continues.

In April this year, police killed a Movement follower after a fight erupted when authorities sought to prevent the group from using the Unity Fountain in Abuja as a venue for sit-ins to protest the detention of their leader.

Movement members say they will continue to fight.

“Our struggle has been carried out in Lebanon, Syria and Iran,” said Mohammed. “It’s now ongoing in Nigeria and Ghana.”

Photo: April 4, 2018. Abuja, Nigeria. Members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria protest against the prolonged detention of their leader, Sheik Ibrahim Zakzaky, over alleged murder charges.
Credit: Auwal Ahmad/ ARA Network Inc. (04/04/18)

Story/photo published date: 09/24/18

A version of this story was published in Religious News Service.

A cry for help

KEN180402TO005SAMBURU, Kenya – As she sat outside her hut making jewellery to sell to tourists, 9-year-old Joyce Lempeei pleaded with well-wishers to rescue her from an early marriage that she said her parents arranged without her consent.

“It pains me a lot,” said Lempeei as she broke down in tears. “I want someone to help me move out of this marriage so that I can go back to school.”

Lempeei’s husband “beaded” her when she he was 20 and she was seven years old. He placed traditional beads around her neck, declaring his possession of her, and gave her family a dowry of cattle, goats and sheep to her parents.

They were married against her will in early 2017.

Beading in the Samburu tribe of northern Kenya is a form of enslavement that allows sex between family members or people from other families. Girls as young as six can be beaded by the warriors. The ritual lets the men engage in sexual intercourse with young girls even when they do not intend to marry them.

“The culture prepares these young girls for marriage in the future,” said Erick Lengolos, an elder in the community. “But we do not allow these young girls to get pregnant. In case of pregnancy we advise them to abort because we consider the baby as an outcast, being born as a result of people of the same family sleeping together.”

In Lempeei’s case, Lengolos said she was lucky because the warrior who placed red beads on her neck was from a different family. He went ahead and married her unlike other young girls who are abandoned by warriors because they come from the same family.

Lempeei is one among thousands of Samburu girls living here in the dry heartland of northern Kenya around 350 miles from Nairobi.

A few miles from Lempeei’s home, Agnes Lenjagu, another another victim of beading, said a close family relative approached her parents in 2016 with red Samburu beads and placed the necklace around her neck.

A few months later, she was pregnant and aborted the baby taking poisonous herbs, as access to health care is minimal in the region.
The warrior abandoned her and married another girl from a different family, she said.

“I felt very bad because my parents allowed it to happen,” said Lenjagu, who is now 13. “My mother built a hut for us where we used to sleep with the warrior. I was not allowed to go back to school, and later the (warrior) went ahead and got another lady, leaving me alone.”

Child beading is a major cultural practice found in the Samburu community. But now religious leaders are battling to end the menace.

Last month, Father Francis Limo Riwa, a priest of the Diocese of Meru in northern Kenya, rescued a Samburu girl from an early marriage after he negotiated with elders to return the dowry the man had given the girl’s parents. The dowry was eight cows and $500.

The girl, Lilian Nabaru, was married when she was 12 years old in 2015 to a 50 year old man called Tutten Lenewalubene. She was his fourth wife. Though the old man allowed Nabaru to continue with her education, the girl had to spend the school holiday in her matrimonial home with the man.

“I didn’t know the girl was married,” said the bearded priest who founded several schools in northern Kenya to help orphans and poor nomadic children access education. “I confronted the older man and told him that he had two options: either to release the girl or allow us to call the police and begin prosecution.”

Lenewalubene finally agreed to set the girl free from marriage but demanded his cows and money back. Father Riwa said the girl would continue with her education and called upon the elders to disband the culture and allow girls to go to school.

“I want to urge the government to sensitize the community on basic rights and elders to allow girls to access education,” said Riwa, who said he has rescued hundreds of other “beaded” girls in the region. “We’ll continue to save other girls against this brutal act that denies them basic rights.”

Local leaders had no comment about the plight of Samburu girls. But observers said the politicians in the region are afraid to go against the elders will because they fear being rejected at the poll come elections.

“They can’t do more about the issue. It’s our culture and they embrace it,” said Lengolos, the elder. “Our leaders in the government and political office got their wives the same we are doing right now. How can they fight the culture that gave them wives?”

Meanwhile, Lempeei is waiting for help. She needs to go back to school and achieve her dream of becoming a teacher. But anyone who is willing to save the girl will have to pay back dowry, said elders.

“I can’t help myself. I will be disobeying my parents,” she said. “But I want to go school and still be a small girl.”

Photo: A young girl in Samburu makes bead jewelry. Many here practice female genital mutilation. But traditionalists from neighboring Uganda have now shifted to circumcising married women due to the strict government laws.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (06/13/18)

Story/photo published date: 09/11/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.

A long-simmering conflict threatens to finish what Boko Haram started

NGR181208AA0001ABUJA, Nigeria – Isa Salisu ran almost a mile non-stop to escape his attackers at a military checkpoint in Jos, a large city in north-central Nigeria.

“Three of us were returning from the cattle market,” said Salisu, a 20-year old herder, recalling how he and two friends were driving from Bukuru, a city around 150 miles from Abuja in north-central Nigeria, to their home in Barkin Ladi closer to the capital. “Our vehicle was ambushed.”

Knife-wielding youths belonging to the Berom, a Christian ethnic group of farmers, attacked Salisu’s car. The other two didn’t make it. They were hacked to death. Salisu and his friends were Muslim members of the Fulani ethnic group who mostly raise cattle.

The attack was another incident a budding religious war that could grow far worse than the conflict against the Boko Haram, the Islamic State affiliated terrorist group that rampaged across the country’s remote north for almost a decade until Nigerian forces finally launched a serious campaign against them two years ago.

But the Boko Haram insurgency pushed herders south into farming regions. That has set off competition for land and resources.

Conflicts between herders – mostly ethnic Fulani herders who are Muslims and Berom and other farmers who are predominantly Christians – have already claimed 3000 lives in north and north-central Nigeria, according to government statistics.

In April, the United States Agency for International Development organized a three-day conference in Abuja, Nigeria’a federal capital where leaders and farmers as well as religious and ethnic leaders identified a proliferation of arms, diminishing farmlands and grazing pastures due to climate change and incendiary media coverage of religious clashes as escalating tensions between farmers and herders.

Like with the Boko Haram menace, the government has been too slow to push back on those trends and quell the carnage, said critics.

“There are various factors responsible for these conflicts, but mostly it’s due to the inability of government to take decisive action,” said Nurudeen Kyaagba, a researcher with the Kaduna-based African Research and Development Agency, a think-tank seeking to find lasting solutions to conflicts between farmers and herders in the West African country, the most populous on the continent.

The latest large-scale violence occurred in June when a group of Fulani attacked Gashish, a Berom community. Around 300 were killed. Barely able to escape to safety, Francis Chong, president of the Gashish Youth Development Association, said his two brothers died in the violence. “The herdsmen took positions, surrounding the entire villages,” he said.

Berom youths responded by blockading sections of the busy Jos-Abuja expressway to avenge the death of their kinsmen. They attacked commuters identified as Muslims like Salisu.

The Nigerian government signed onto a protocol for the free movement of people with the Economic Community of West African States, which allows herders from 15 countries in the region to cross each other’s borders or relocate within their respective countries. But Chong claimed President Muhammadu Buhari and other officials were not acting to smooth relations between newcomers and those already on the land.

For Comrade Peter Ahemba, president of the Tiv Youth Organization, an umbrella body for youths of the Tiv, an ethnic group of Christian farmers from Nasarawa, the conflict started when the local legislature passed the Anti-Open Grazing Law, which bars herdsmen from locating anywhere they please. The herdsmen responded by assaulting farmers on their own land.

“This crisis, aside from the killings and loss of lives, affected our economic activities,” said Ahemba. “Our people have not been able to access their farms because of the destruction of houses and the fear that is still prevailing.”

The UN Security Council recently issued a statement condemning the conflict and calling for action.

“These attacks have had a devastating humanitarian impact including through the displacement of a large number of civilians in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, and represent a threat to the stability and peace of West and Central Africa,” the statement said.

Alhaji Muhammed Hussaini, local leader of a Fulani herder’s welfare group, the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria, agreed that the government needed to do something. Christian thieves have been stealing his members’ cattle, he said. The Fulani have no recourse but to take matters into their own hands, he said.

“Injustice is the major cause of this lingering crisis,” said Hussaini. “Certain criminal elements both within the Fulani and natives who connive to rustle cows. Once a Fulani man loses his cows, he knows no peace because for him cattle is only means of livelihood.”

According to Hussaini, the Fulani community had lost more than 500 of their kinsmen since 2012 and more than 20,000 cows to rustlers.
Salisu feared the conflict would escalate from arguments over land to a full-blown West African religious war.

“I can’t see myself return home now,” said Salisu, who escaped with a knife wound on his chest and now lives with relatives in Jos. “I can only go back to Barkin Ladi if our security is guaranteed.”

Photo: August 11, 2018 - Lafia, Nasarawa State - Regina Gideon, 35 and a farmer sitting with her two children. She was displaced from her village, Ihuman in Awe Local Government Area of Nasarawa State, North Central Nigeria after armed herders sacked her ancestral home.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ ARA Network Inc. (08/11/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/30/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

Refugee school becomes one of Uganda's top institutions

UGA180422PB003KYANGWALI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – When he arrived in this United Nations camp Western Uganda in 1991, Joseph Munyambaza attended poor schools.

Eighteen years later, he and other young Congolese refugees wanted to help children also faced dismal education prospects. So they started a school called COBURWAS – a combination of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, or the countries of origin for many of the refugees in the camp. Today, COBURWAS has 530 primary and secondary students.

“We studied in overcrowded schools and were taught by unqualified teachers,” said Joseph Munyambaza, 27, co-founder of COBURWAS. “The school started to create homelike environment for the most vulnerable children in the community to access education.”

Munyambaza and his colleagues used to work for farmers to raise money to buy textbooks, exercise books and other basic needs to outfit COBURWAS.

Today, the school is one of the best performing schools in Uganda, ranking among the top four schools in the country on national examinations, according to the Ugandan Education Ministry. The school has also been designated an Ashoka Changemaker School – a designation by a U.S. nonprofit that recognizes innovative education – and its students have received awards from the American Refugee Council and other organizations.

COBURWAS has moved more than 800 students into secondary school. More than 40 of its students now attend universities around the world. Five have earned their university degrees and have returned to work fulltime in the camp.

“We recognize the power of education as a pathway out of poverty, as well as a means to heal conflict, create social cohesion, and spur economic growth,” said Munyambaza, who fled North Kivu, in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC, when he was six.

The camp, which was started 20 years ago due to the ongoing violence in neighboring countries, has about 40,000 refugees. Though the camp has a number of United Nations and government-funded free schools, their quality is often poor. With too few trained teachers, their graduation rates are low, and their students rarely qualify to go on to high school.

“The UNHCR schools around here are free but students rarely pass exams,” said John Nitakiye, a refugee representative at the camp. “Most students don’t proceed to the next level of education and some drop-out of school before they can even sit for their final exams.”

Nitakiye said UNHCR schools do not give children any meal, which discourages students to attend classes. Many close in the middle of the day after only a few hours of instruction.

“How do you expect students to pass exams in such an environment even if there’s free education?” he asked. “We appeal to donors to help our children access to quality education by improving the education standards at the camp.”

In contrast, the COBURWAS starts classes before 7:30am and attendance is close to 100 percent, said Munyambaza. Children here know how education is important to their lives. The candidates sit quietly in classrooms. The school has a nurse to provide basic healthcare to children. She also provides sanitary materials to girls in upper primary.

“We feed our children and we give them special attention. They get breakfast, lunch and many of children end up having dinner,” said Munyambaza, a graduate from Westminster College in Missouri in the United States. “Our teachers are very qualified that’s the reason we produce the best students. We believe that our children will grow to be leaders and so we treat them in the best way we can.”

Students at the school feel the same way and many here are motivated to excel despite being refugees.

“I want to work hard, pass exams and be like him [Munyambaza],” said Susan Uwineza, a 19-year-old refugee from Rwanda who arrived at the camp in early 2000s with her parents. “When other refugees excel in education and they succeed in life it really motivates us. We realize that through education you can never be called a refugee forever.”

COBURWAS Primary School charges around $20 annually. Other private schools in the camp charge from $20 to $100 a year for school fees.
Children whose parents can afford only a percentage of the school’s fees are asked to make in-kind contributions.

The school has land where parents grow food, and produces crops such as maize, beans, yams, sugar cane, and vegetables. Many refugees also rear chickens, goats, sheep or cattle on land alottments. Most parents contribute these foodstuffs to the school to help feed their children.

“Parents’ contribution though may look small; it helps us to feed children throughout the year without depending on any external donations,” said John Bosco, the head teacher at COBURWAS Primary School. “We work with donors and friends to cover part of the teachers’ salaries and new expansion of the school structures.”

Children who cannot afford anything attend for free.

However, refugees at the camp said the school was not admitting many children because of what they said was a lack of resources.

“We want our children to be admitted at the school so that they can also enjoy better education,” said Nitakiye. “But the teachers at the school keep on telling us that they have no space to accommodate many students. They need to improve on that.”

But Munyambaza said that was only one of the challenges he and the school were facing.

“We also see a need to help more children but we do not have enough resources to do so,” he said. “We are trying to reach more children by supporting primary and early childhood education programs started by our alumni but the need are still big.”

Prisca Bwiza contributed to this story

Photo: Students at COBURWAS primary school pose for a photo. Most of the students here are able to access free education. The school was started by four Congolese refugees.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/22/18)

Story/photo published date: 08/09/18

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar.

In gold-rich Cameroon, it's the Chinese vs. villagers – guess who's winning?

CMR150218CL002DOUALA, Cameroon – Sidonie Maboue pulled her hands out of the muddy water and sat down on a piece of fabric next to the bags of gravel that she and three of her 12 children filled that day.

"This gravel will be crushed, then sifted,” said the 45-year-old widow as she prepared to nurse her eight-month-old baby who had been strapped to her back. “If we’re lucky, we can find gold, but it's difficult."

In a good month, she earns around $2.80 for her efforts.

Maboue works in the Kaye quarry, an abandoned gold mine dug by Chinese miners. Around her, a hundred people noisily search for the yellow metal in the pits in Ngoe Ngoe, a village in East Cameroon with around 2,600 inhabitants.

Women haul the earth, crush the gravel and tend to the mechanized pumps that keep the holes from filling with water. Women and children collect the gravel from the muddy waters.

Last year, Maboue nearly lost her life when a hole collapsed at another open-air mine near Kaye where she was planning to collect gold. She takes these risks to feed her children, she said.

"If I do not do that, how are we going to live?” she asked. “Since the death of my husband, I am the father and mother of the house.”

In that accident, nine prospectors were buried under almost 33 feet of earth in the mine excavated by Lu and Lang, a Chinese mining company banned from operating in Cameroon in April because it lacked a license.

The Ngoe Ngoe village leader, Yaya Moussa, remembered the tragedy.

"The Chinese arrived with (Cameroonian) law enforcement to drive the villagers out of the mine sites to better exploit our resources," he explained. "So the villagers were forced to come in the night, in the absence of the Chinese, to extract gold and find food for their families. It was during one of these nocturnal outings that the earth fell on them."

Cameroonian law only permits local artisanal miners to search for gold using pans and other rudimentary equipment. But in recent years, Chinese operators who practice semi-mechanized artisanal exploitation with mechanical shovels and loaders, machines and chemical to wash of gravel and other approaches have altered the landscape significantly.

But local elites in Cameroon partner with the Chinese miners, according to the Center for Education, Training and Support to Development Initiatives in Cameroon, an NGO based in Yokadouma.

"They (the elites) are collecting photocopies of ID cards from villagers on the pretext of wanting to bring in companies that will provide water, electricity and jobs to the village," said Victor Amougou, the center’s coordinator. "With 10 photocopies, this elite can obtain 40 artisanal mining authorizations equivalent to 40 hectares of land.”

Once the local Cameroonian obtains permission to mine, said Amougou, he or she signs a contract with a Chinese operator to run the mine. The Chinese, in turn, bribe mining authorities and other officials so they can begin work.

The law also states that mining operators must close their holes after completing their digs. Chinese companies usually abandon their giant pits, leaving behind dangerous areas where people and domestic animals might fall and drown. The Chinese companies also pollute rivers with their chemicals and mining runoff, said Chief Moussa.

Last year, 50 people died in abandoned open mining holes in the Ngoura, Bétaré Oya and Ngoe Ngoe localities in eastern Cameroon, according to the calculations of the Forests and Rural Development, a Cameroon-based NGO environmental group. Around 250 mining sites opened between 2012 and 2014 have not been filled, the group added.

"It's been a while since the Chinese entered my field and started mining gold without my advice," said Philiphine Boh, a farmer and mother of five who said Chinese miners had destroyed her land. "The Chinese told me that it is the authority that sent them to exploit gold and that they will give me $130. I said that this money is insignificant for a field of one hectare that they spoiled. I have nothing left.”

Locals rarely gain much from the Chinese investment in their region, others added.

"When the Chinese saw that a Nagbata (an artisan miner in the local language) discovered gold, they chased everyone from the quarry " said Mahamadou Abdoulaye, 42, who holds a card entitling him to artisan mining. "The government must intervene because these Chinese are threatening us.”

Cameroonian government mining officials said they are trying to address the situation, by using drones to investigate claims of other illegal mines, according to two officials who asked their names remain anonymous because they did not have permission to speak to the press. They also said Lu and Lang did not have permission to work in the country.

Lu and Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

Still, the precedent was set more than a decade ago: The semi-mechanized artisanal mining was conducted for the first time in Cameroon in 2007 when the government requested that a South Korean company, C & K Mining, rescue 13 tons of gold that was likely to be washed away as officials pumped water into the impoundment behind Lom Pangar dam in eastern Cameroon.

The authorities said the move would violate mining laws but said the situation was an emergency. The move served as a precedent for unscrupulous Chinese companies to engage in semi-mechanized artisanal mining.

Amougou and others said Lu and Lang is now operating a mine in Colomine in eastern Cameroon.

"The mining sector is a mafia," said Amougou. "This crime does not benefit Cameroon or Cameroonians, perhaps an elite who would have received 5 to 10 million CFA francs ($9,376 to $18,755). It's shocking."

Photo: NGOE NGOE VILLAGE, EAST CAMEROON - Women and children wade in the muddy waters of a mine site abandoned by Chinese farmers in the hope of collecting gold for their small daily wages. Credit: Christian Locka, 2/15/18

Story/photo publish date: 7/31/18

A version of this story was published in Public Radio International

Zimbabweans feel their vote will matter now that Mugabe is out

ZWEMnangawa18HARARE, Zimbabwe – For the first time in her life, Nancy Siyakurima, 23, feels like her vote will matter.

"It’s the election of my lifetime,” said Siyakurima, who said she has not decided who to support in Zimbabwe’s presidential and parliamentary elections on July 30. “I am going to decide how the country is governed. I am really excited.”

Siyakurima will be among the millions casting ballots in their first election since strongman Robert Mugabe was ousted last year as president of the southern African country after 37 years in power.

The frontrunner in the race is Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, the leader of the coup d’état against Mugabe and a mentee of the former president who is from the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, or ZANU–PF. Since he seized control, he’s attempted to liberalize the country’s economy and media after years of tight government control.

Seeking to woo foreign investment, he’s also promised not to seize white-owned farms as Mugabe did in 2000 and afterwards, a policy that at the time was supposed to redress grievances against poor Africans during British colonial rule.

“I know of some chiefs who have moved from one farm to another – then they run it down,” Mnangagwa told a crowd of white voters in the affluent suburb of Borrowdale on July 21. “Then he leaves that farm and he is issued another one. He runs it down. That time is gone.”

Moves like those demonstrate that Mnangagwa is a force of positive change who is trying to unify the country, said supporters.

"President Mnangagwa has brought freedom to Zimbabwe,” said Ronald Machokoto, a 38-year-old voter in the capital. “We can now express our political views freely."

"If you look at the mega deals that he has signed since he got into power, you will realize that the country is poised for a major economic boom," he added. "We have to give him time to revive the country's economy.”

After nearly four decades of authoritarian rule under Mugabe, one of the African continent's most promising nations was reduced to economic ruin, having seen a collapse in its agriculture sector and hyper inflation that left people carrying buckets of cash to buy daily staples. Currently, about 90 percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed, according to Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

Still, Mnangagwa's focus on the economy in his time in office is not expected to ride a tidal wave of support to victory.

His main rival, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC), noted that Mnangagwa’s nickname is the “crocodile” due to his brutality when he was Mugabe’s right-hand man.

Chamisa, 40, is former minister of information communication technology under Mugabe in a cabinet that included opposition parties. whose duties included overseeing the country’s phone and postal systems. He and his supporters push back against claims that Mnangagwa has transformed the country by loosening censorship and reversing Mugabe’s suppression of free speech and the press, saying the government could curb basic freedoms in the country at any time.

Chamisa supporters agree.

"Zanu PF has been in power for 38 years – I do not think that they have anything new to offer,” said Liberty Khona, 31, from Domboshava, a village north of Harare. “Mnangagwa worked hand in glove with Mugabe since independence. He carries no hope for us. This country requires a new pair of hands.”

South Africa-based pollster Afrobarometer recently predicted that Mnangagwa would garner around 40 percent of the vote. The main opposition leader, Chamisa, was on track to receiving 37 percent. If neither Mnangagwa nor Chemisa win at least half of the vote, a runoff will occur.

Vivid Gwede, an independent political analyst and information officer at the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, said the incumbent faces an uphill battle but enjoys the backing of military leaders who sanctioned the coup against Mugabe.

“Mnangagwa faces the huge task of convincing Zimbabweans that he has what it takes to revive the country's economy,” Gwede said. “He has failed to do that since he took office in November last year. He keeps making promises to the people but forgetting that he is in power. Chamisa can capitalize on that."

"But what is important is whether the military will allow a smooth transfer of power in the event that Chamisa win in these elections,” Gwede added.

Tensions are on the rise. In a recent statement that didn’t mention specific political parties, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that voter coercion was becoming widespread in the countryside.

Last month, a bomb exploded shortly after Mnangagwa left the stage of a campaign rally in southern city of Bulawayo. The president was unscathed but at least eight people were injured.

“We remain concerned however at the increasing number of reports, particularly in some rural areas, of voter intimidation, threats of violence, harassment and coercion, including people being forced to attend political rallies,” said the commissioner’s spokesperson, Liz Throssell.

Blaming the ZANU-PF for the coercion, 24-year-old Joanna Mamombe, one of the MDC Alliance youngest candidates for parliament, said voters needed to teach Mugabe’s circle a lesson.

"This is an election is for the young generation – we cannot be bystanders,” said Mamombe. “This is why I decided to play a part. This country requires office bearers whose hands are clean.”

John Dyer reported from Boston.

Photo: July 21, 2018 - Harare, Zimbabwe - President and Zanu PF candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa during an election rally in the capital Harare. 
Credit: Courtesy of the President of Zimbabwe's official Twitter profile. (07/21/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/30/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

A new test for post-Mugabe Zimbabwe

ZWEMnangawa18HARARE, Zimbabwe – Zimbabweans have high hopes for Monday’s elections, the first since the military ousted strongman Robert Mugabe late last year.

Supporters of incumbent President Emmerson Mnangagwa said he will improve the country’s moribund economy and respect civil rights because he already took the bold move of leading the coup d’état that ended Mugabe’s 37 years in power.

“He [Mnangagwa] is going to bring some changes,” said Hilda Shumba, a 43-year-old former high school teacher who is now unemployed. “So far he has done a lot in the short space of time. He will solve the cash crisis and banks will again be full of money."

"I expect to get a job and good living," she added. "I think Zimbabwe will be prosperous once again.”

But Tatenda Chaza, 24, said Mnangagwa’s past was tainted. A former Mugabe deputy who now leads the former president’s political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF, the incumbent was nicknamed the “crocodile” for his brutality under Mugabe’s regime.

“I want the new government to fight corruption, and I don’t expect ZANU-PF to win because they are the mothers of all the corruption in this country,” said Chaza, who has not yet decided which opposition party will win his vote.

South African pollster Afrobarometer recently predicted Mnangagwa would win around 40 percent of the vote while his main challenger, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, would garner around 37 percent. If neither reaches the 50 percent threshold, the country would hold a runoff.

The election is close because ZANU-PF no longer holds the same respect among voters like in the early 1980s when Mugabe, now 92, spearheaded Zimbabwe’s independence from Britain, said Pedzisai Ruhanya, a political analyst and executive director at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

Instead, voters younger than 50 with few memories of independence now comprise around 60 percent of the electorate. They associate ZANU-PF politicians with the collapse of agriculture, double-digit unemployment, suppression of civil rights and crooked officials.

“That demographic that has been affected by the past 20 years of economic meltdown and political turmoil,” said Ruhanya. “Most of them have no jobs. So those people will vote with their stomachs, they will vote with their mouths. They will vote looking for jobs, looking some someone who will bring jobs, who will bring employment, who will bring food on the table. This election is one about livelihoods.”

Meanwhile, fears of violence mar the ballot.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recently warned against voter coercion. “We remain concerned however at the increasing number of reports, particularly in some rural areas, of voter intimidation, threats of violence, harassment and coercion, including people being forced to attend political rallies,” said the commissioner’s spokesperson Liz Throssell, who didn’t identify any specific parties.

In June, Mnangagwa was nearly killed when a bomb exploded after a political rally in a stadium in Bulawayo in southwestern Zimbabwe. The president avoided harm but eight were injured.

The African Union will be observing the elections. Already, though, Chamisa and others have charged ZANU-PF officials of trying to rig the vote.

“We demand a voters roll in electronic format and the law says that the electoral commission must provide the exact voters roll that will be used during an election,” said Chamisa, a former cabinet minister who oversees the country’s post office and telecommunications network in a coalition government that included opposition parties.

If Chamisa wins, Ruhanya added, the big question will be the military’s response.

“If these elections were to be free and fair, if there is no chicanery, we will have a problem of transition where the military will come in,” said Ruhanya. “The problem we have is a militarized state and the role of the military in the electoral and public affairs of the state.”

ZANU-PF spokesman Paul Mangwana dismissed those fears, saying the party and government had changed under Mnangagwa.

"I can't talk of Mugabe right now. Let bygones be bygones," he said. "We need to focus on what the future holds for Zimbabwe. We are tried and tested leadership."

But Hardwork Mugota said he would vote for Chamisa precisely because the incumbent’s leadership has failed.

“When Mnangagwa came into power, he made many promises. But he hasn’t delivered on any of them,” said Mugota, 44, who said he can’t find a job even though he’s trained as an aircraft engineer. “He promised to apprehend criminals surrounding the president. He hasn’t delivered on that one.”

Frank Chikowore contributed reporting from Harare.

Photo: July 21, 2018 - Harare, Zimbabwe - President and Zanu PF candidate Emmerson Mnangagwa during an election rally in the capital Harare.
Credit: Courtesy of the President of Zimbabwe's official Twitter profile. (07/21/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/26/18

A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.

As girls getting 'the cut' decline, married women getting the procedure rise

KEN180402TO006KAMPALA, Uganda –Gladys Chemtai, 27, says she felt relief after recently undergoing the "cut" recently.

That's because the procedure, better known as female genital mutilation (FGM), now gives her standing in her village of Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda.

“I’m very happy because I’m now a full and respected woman in this community,” said Chemtai, mother of two, smartly dressed in a red and black robe. “I can speak in a meeting and people listen to me. I now enjoy the privileges of being a (proper) woman of this community.”

Chemtai is one of the tens of thousands of married women in this part of the country who are secretly undergoing circumcision – a crude surgery often done in unsanitary conditions involving the removal of the labia and most of the clitoris – which is illegal in Uganda.

A survey last September by the Ugandan Reproductive Educative and Community Health Programme (REACH) on prevalence of FGM in eastern Uganda showed that while 24 percent of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 have undergone the procedure, 76 percent of women between 25 and 35 have had it recently.

That number is expected to rise.

“Although the practice of circumcising young girls is slowly declining, the trend has now changed to circumcising married women,” said Beatrice Chelangat, executive director of REACH, at an event announcing the survey in September.

A law passed in 2010 prohibits the practice for girls and women, describing it as "crude, outdated and an infringement on the rights of the girl child." Locals say the law had a real impact.

“We are not cutting young girls anymore because they are at risk of experiencing heavy bleeding that may result to death,” said Jane Cherotich, a traditional healer based in the village of Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda who has been performing FGM for 15 years. “When a girl gets injured or dies during the procedure then the authorities arrest everyone including their parents. We are now focusing on married women because whatever happens to them, they take responsibility. Besides, no one knows about it.”

Even so, an estimated 100,000 girls in Kapchorwa, Kween, and Bukwo districts of eastern Uganda are at risk of undergoing FGM, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) country warned in September.

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 200 million girls and women have been circumcised in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia where FGM is most prevalent.

In eastern Uganda where the Sabiny tribe dominates, girls used to be circumcised between the ages of 9 and 14, after which they were married off. But after the 2010 ban and ensuing crackdown by authorities, many were left uncircumcised.

Now, these women are under pressure from their husbands, mothers-in-law -- and society -- to undergo the procedure as the tribal culture dictates: Members of the community say an uncircumcised woman is not fit to be married, is undeserving of respect and should be shunned.

“We have to undergo the cut to become full women," said Chemtai. "You can’t serve food (to elders) or talk to elders in a meeting when you are not circumcised. They will abuse you and curse you.” 

As a result, the tribe found a solution, she added.

“The elders are now allowing young girls to first get married before they can undergo the procedure because of the government strict rules," she said. "It’s mandatory to be circumcised after marriage to be accepted by the community.”

Members of the tribe say that laws against the practice won't stop it. It's necessary, they add, not just because it's part of their culture that sets their tribe apart but also because it initiates girls into womanhood and shapes the morality of women during marriage.

“The practice cannot end soon because it’s our culture and we love it,” said Cherotich. “We are going only to circumcise those who are willing to take part in the procedure. We are targeting mature married women who understand the culture of our community and the importance of circumcision.”

John Kibet, 30, said he wanted his wife Chemtai to undergo the procedure because he wanted her to fit into their society. As a result, he reluctantly waited until they were married.

“I wanted to get a girl who was already cut as our culture dictates but it was impossible – most young girls here are not circumcised because their parents fear that they will be arrested if they force them to undergo the procedure," he said. "So I allowed my wife to be circumcised so that she can be accepted by the community.”

Meanwhile, local government officials have vowed to crack down on women and their husbands who are carrying out the practice in secret.

“It’s against the law to carry out female genital mutilation on any person,” said Kato Cherop, a local government official in Kapchorwa. “A person who carries out female genital mutilation or does it on herself commits an offence and can be imprisonment for up to 10 years.”

But Chemtai laugh it off.

“It’s impossible, they know,” she said. “FGM is mandatory…How will they know that a married woman is cut?”

Photo: Maasai girls in Kenya practice female genital mutilation. But traditionalists from neighboring Uganda have now shifted to circumcising married women due to the strict government laws.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/02/18)

Story/photo published date: 07/20/18

A version of this story was published in Public Radio International.

Mobile phones helping education in Somaliland

Residents of Elwak town in southern Somalia listen to local officials from the Ministry of Education on the importance of using their cellphones to boost the quality of education the area. (Doreen Ajiambo|ARA Network Inc.)HARGEISA, Somalia – Around the world, teachers discourage their pupils from using their cellphones in class, fearing that the devices distract from students' education.

But in Africa, mobile phones are actually playing a vital role in expanding access to education.

Every month, the Somaliland Ministry of Education, the department responsible for educating students in Somaliland, an autonomous region of Somalia, surveys tens of thousands of children and their parents on their mobile phones about the quality of local education. Their feedback is then captured in monthly reports called “community scorecards” that are shared with local officials and discussed at regular meetings with parents, administrators and others.

“Mobile phones are very vital here, they are everything to us,” said Fatma Farah, 32, a mother of four who lives in Borama, where around 200 families regularly use the service. Three of Fatma's children are in primary school. “We can contribute to the education welfare of our children and it makes a difference. The system is helping parents, teachers and local officials to ensure students get quality education.”

Last year, parents, students and teachers at Ahmed Salan School in Borama complained to the ministry of education that there were not enough textbooks in their school via using their phones. Almost as if placing an order on eBay or Amazon, the ministry sent textbooks shortly thereafter.

“We value the parent’s contributions because it’s crucial to ensuring children get quality education and other basic services,” said Abdishakur Omar, a local education ministry representative. “We act promptly to any challenges they raise during the meetings and all questions shared via mobile phones.”

In 2016, teachers at the Borama Girls Primary School used their phones to inundate the ministry with requests for more classrooms amid a spike in student enrollment so dramatic that and classes were being held outdoors. The ministry of education promptly constructed and renovated classrooms, built a library and installed new toilets and drinking water taps for the kids.

“For us mobile phones are key to improving the quality of education in our schools,” said Hassan Abdi, a teacher at Borama Girls Primary School. “With phones we are able to communicate effectively to students, parents and local officials. We are able to know the number of students in school and track down those who are absent.”

Parents have also used the scorecard system to complain about officials’ lack of response to poor student attendance and discrimination against girls. Officials are still trying to address those problems, but until then, the scorecard serves as a record of the complaints that they can’t ignore, said parents and teachers.

“The ministry is now able to directly get the correct and timely information on the quality of education from parents, teachers and students and implement them," said Abdi Ahmed, a teacher at Bursade Secondary School in northwestern Somaliland. "I think you can now see the difference when there was no mobile phones and right now. Parents are now taking their children to school and more are graduating because of this collaboration between the locals and government through mobile phones.”

Such progress is good news in a region that has faced significant challenges. When Somaliland declared independence in 1991, the infrastructure in the eastern Horn of Africa along the Red Sea had been completely destroyed by three years of armed struggle with Somalia’s dictator, Siyad Barre.

Since then, the autonomous state has tried to revive the collapsed educational system with help from the United Nations and other international organizations, achieving myriad successes regarding the development of education in the country since 1998.

But there are still challenges.

There aren't enough trained teachers or classrooms to accommodate thousands of students. Schools lack funding, resources and learning materials and proper curricula.

To counter all these challenges, the Somaliland Ministry of Education has been transferring functions, authority, responsibilities and financial resources to district administrations so that locals can easily access the educational services at a local level. The introduction of the mobile phone system has helped achieve those goals, said.

“Community members have been able to raise pertinent issues that concern education of our children and as officials we have been able to implement them,” said Omar.

Somaliland has been using the system since 2008, a technological trend that can be seen elsewhere across the continent.

In Uganda, around 150,000 parents and others use U-report, a free mobile messaging tool, to report on whether textbooks and other materials have been delivered to schools as promised, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, thousands of students in primary and secondary schools access educational materials, quizzes and even live discussions with teachers on their phones.

The explosion of mobile phone use made the trend possible.

Around 90 percent of Somalis have mobile phones, according to the World Bank. Mobile banking, finance and cash-less payments are widespread. In Somaliland, people make around 34 digital financial transactions a month, one of the highest rates in the world, according mobile-phone company Telesom.

Somalia’s mobile phone network has managed to function despite the lack of guidance or regulations from the central government since 1991, when a dictatorial regime was overthrown after more than 20 years in power, sparking civil war and Somaliland’s separation. More recently, Al Shabab militants linked to Al Qaeda have sought to destroy the network.

The network has proved invaluable for dealing with the growth of Somaliland’s education system, said teachers and officials. Since the year 2000, enrollment in primary education in Somaliland has grown from 12,000 to more than 200,000 students, while secondary education enrolment has grown from 450 students in 1999 to more than 100,000 in 2016, according to the Somaliland Education Ministry.

“Our education standards have improved since the system started working,” said 18-year-old Ahmed Mohamed Noor, a student at Sheikh Ali Jowhar Secondary School in Borama. “This is making most students to become confident in class and also contributes much to our performance.”

A version of this story can be found on Al-Fanar Media.

Boko Haram returns kidnapped girls, but few still remain

NGR180322AA001LAGOS, Nigeria — Boko Haram extremists returned a majority of the 110 girls kidnapped from their school a month ago even as dozens remain missing, the Nigerian government said Wednesday.

Early Wednesday morning, Boko Haram fighters drove into the northern town of Dapchi in nine vans and dropped the girls off just after Nigerian soldiers were withdrawn, according to Alhaji Baba Shehu, a resident of the town, and other witnesses.

"(Some) girls all ran away to their home before being counted," he said, adding it was unclear how many of the girls were returned. "Still, we are happy. God has answered our prayers and our daughters are back."

The government reported that 76 of the 110 girls had been freed. Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said the release was obtained through "back-channel efforts," "a pause in operations" and with the help of "some friends of the country." He added that the negotiations for the release of the remaining girls was still ongoing.

A month ago, Boko Haram attacked the Government Girls Science Technical College attended by the girls, part of an ongoing campaign in northern Nigeria to terrorize schools and villages: The group's name means “Western education is forbidden” in the Hausa language.

As they dropped the girls off Wednesday, they told residents: “This is a warning to you all,” according to the Associated Press. “We did it out of pity. And don’t ever put your daughters in school again.”

The government earlier this week had already moved to close down boarding schools in the area out of fear of further kidnappings.
Meanwhile, parents headed for the town, hopeful that their child was among those freed.

Hajiya Aisa Bukar, 35 whose daughter Aisha Kachalla was among those that returned, said she was moved beyond words to see her daughter.
"I'm more than excited," Bukar said. "I'm so happy to be with my daughter."

Bukar said she took her daughter to a hospital in Dapchi before the arrival of the Nigerian military who took the girls into their custody.
In the past month, there has been growing anger among residents and parents over the way the government had handled the kidnapping: It initially denied the students were abducted, then told parents the day after the kidnappings the girls had mostly been released.

On Tuesday, an Amnesty International report accusing the Nigerian military of failing to listen to multiple warnings of an imminent attack fueled that fury in Dapchi – a report the military called false.

Last year, the Nigerian army claimed the militants had been defeated in military terms, although not eliminated.

Parents and residents are also upset because four years ago, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls, 100 of whom remain missing from a school in Chibok, 170 miles away, sparking the viral #Bring Back Our Girls campaign.

It shouldn't have happened again, parents said. Meanwhile, it's clear that the militants are far from defeated.

Bukar said she was on ground to witness the arrival of the Boko Haram convey of vans who dropped the girls around the Dapchi market square. They were clearly unafraid and in control, she noted.

"One of them waved a black flag with Islamic inscription," she said. "They stopped to take pictures with our youth."

Photos: March 22, 2018 - Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria - Aisha Bukar Kachalla, one of the recently released Dapchi girls in warm embrace during family reunion.
Credit: Ali Abare Abubakar/ ARA Network Inc. (03/22/18)

Story/photo publish date: 03/21/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Holy Rhymes: Kenyan priest suspended for rapping

Father Paul Ogalo entertains his congregation with the rap. He is wooing them to the faith and to get them in profit earning activities to benefit the society. (Photo: Tonny Onyulo|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – On a recent Sunday morning, the sun shone brightly over St Monica’s Catholic Church in Rapogi village in western Kenya. The house of worship was packed wall to wall. The choir’s singing filled the nave. Everyone waited for their favorite priest to appear.

Soon, Father Paul Ogalo appeared at the pulpit dressed in flowing white robes and began to preach to the multitude of worshippers.

“God is great and through Him we can defeat drug abuse, food insecurity, diseases and environmental issues,” he declared amid cheers from worshippers. “We should all come together as youths and discuss activities that benefit the society.”

It seemed like a normal mass in Kenya, where worship can border on the boisterous.

But immediately after the sermon, 45-year-old Ogalo transformed the venue into a concert space – he changed his vestments to black shorts and a white shirt and began to rap, pacing around the pulpit with microphone at hand.
“Yeah! Yeah! Please come to Jesus, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest….youths come to Jesus, youths come Jesus…Ah!” he rapped as his audience – young people, elders, nuns – go wild.

Ogalo is an ordained Catholic priest who uses rap to preach the gospel.

His methods are controversial. Critics like Bishop Philip Anyolo, who is chairman of Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Ogalo had been suspended from celebrating public mass for one year as of June 18. During that time, he can celebrate private masses but not conduct regular services.

“Rap music is not part of our liturgy. People come to church for worship not rap music,” Anyolo said. “He can do the rap outside but not during the liturgy mass. He is a man who was ordained to be priest and offer leadership and worship for the people, not drama. We have only suspended him for one year to examine himself and come back reformed.”

But Father Ogalo defended himself, saying church doctrine does not oppose rap or any other kind of music or dance to preach the gospel. He said he changed his way of preaching in 2007 after several youths died in stampede in a concert in Nairobi, including one youth from his village. The youths had gone to seek entertainment that they could have experienced in church.

“I’m not doing anything wrong because the church doctrines do not oppose the use of music to preach the gospel to the youths,” he said. “I began to rap so that I could reach many youths with the gospel of Jesus Chris.”

A recent survey on alcohol and drug abuse conducted by the country’s National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse showed a high use of drugs and alcohol among schoolchildren

Ogalo said his preaching style will help eliminate such vices. His rapping is drawing more youths to join the church. That, in turn, will have a positive impact to the society, he said.

“My music is saving millions of youths,” Ogalo said in an interview. “I encourage youths to come to church where they can sing, rap and dance for Jesus Christ as they engage in activities that will change their lives because youths are the leaders of tomorrow.”

His style of preaching has certainly excited Catholics throughout Kenya.

His congregation at Rapogi parish calls him ‘Father Masaa’ while youths and others across the country call him Paul S.W.I.T. meaning “Paul Sees the World in Turmoil.” When Ogalo oversaw services, hundreds of youths filled the church while others stood outside the church, glimpsing him through the window.

“I really love the way he preaches, he has changed my life forever,” said Joel Odis, 23, a recovering drug addict. “He uses the language the youths understand. When I met him, he advised me to stop taking alcohol and drugs and engage in activities that build my future.”

Some clergy agreed with Ogalo’s suspension.

“I don’t support what he is doing,” said a priest in a Homa Bay who asked not to have his name published. “We cannot turn our churches into social gathering where people dance and entertain themselves. We should respect the house of God.

Dickson Onyango, 30, another member of the Rapogi parish, thought it was a shame that Ogalo couldn’t take up the mic in the service of God.

“I can’t miss a mass service if Father Paul Ogalo is leading the mass,” Onyango said. “He makes the service entertaining and you can’t sleep in church. He is the person we need as youths.

He particularly liked the priest’s green sensibility.

“He’s using rap music to reach out to the millions of youths and also to educate people on the importance of conserving the environment through tree planting and need to embrace farming,” said Onyango.

A version of this story can be found in Religion News Service.

Fearing Al Shabab, Somali parents pull children out of schools

June 2013 - Somali guard in Mogadishu souq. (Photo by: Ernest Sipes|ARA Network Inc.)NAIROBI – Pain, anguish and desperation still lace Maalim Mohamud voice as he talks about his 13-year old son Ismael.
Ismael Haji disappeared mysteriously on his way home from school in the town of Baidoa in southern Somalia two years ago.

“I still feel the pain as a parent. I can’t believe that I will never see him again,” said Mohamud, 45, a father of five who now lives in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. “He was the hope of this family and we loved him. We miss him so much.”

Mohamud says he suspects that al-Shabaab militants kidnapped Ismael with three other students from Baidoa primary school. The Al Qaeda-linked terror group regularly enters villages and demands that families give up their children. If parents resist, the militants often capture youngsters and force them to join their ranks.

“We suspect that they were kidnapped by al-Shabaab soldiers because they have been ordering us to hand over our children as young as seven years to help them fight,” he said.

Mohamud’s predicament is only one of many cases of child kidnappings that are becoming a major concern in the country which has experienced three decades of civil war.

Children between the ages of nine and 15 are increasingly facing horrific abuse in war-torn Somalia as al-Shabaab forcibly recruits young fighters to help fight against Somali and international troops, according to Human Rights Watch. The jihadists subject the children to "indoctrination and military training," the group says.

In January, Somali soldiers with the support from the American troops stationed in Somalia conducted a raid on an al-Shabaab camp and freed at least 32 child soldiers. The team of U.S. Special Forces offered both tactical and technical assistance to the Somali troops in the raid in the Middle Shabelle region in southern Somalia.

In February, Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman, information minister for the Somali federal government told Reuters that the abductions illustrate how Somali troops and their allies are making headway against the terrorists. “It is unfortunate that terrorists are recruiting children to their twisted ideology,” said Osman. “It showed how desperate the terrorists are, as they are losing the war and people are rejecting terror."

Still, the prospect of a press gang abducting their children has led parents of hundreds of children to keep them out of schools where they might be vulnerable. Other kids have left school as their families have left villages in remote areas and moved to major cities like Kismayu and Mogadishu to escape al-Shabaab.

Bashir Abdalla, 16, who now works as a waiter in Mogadishu, was forced to leave his home in town of Berdale in southern Somalia when the militants threatened to kill everyone in his family if he wasn't willing to train and defend his country as a jihadist.

Abdalla was in 10th grade at the time. He said friends who had escaped from an al-Shabaab military training camp told him that children like him join fighting units in their mid-teens after three months of training.

“I was very scared for my life and I had to run to Mogadishu and look for a job,” said Abdalla who is now living with his aunt. “I had to drop out of school because I knew they will kill me and my family. I was very worried.”

Human Rights watch said more children are likely to drop out of school and flee their rural homes if nothing is done to save children from this East African nation.

“Al-Shabaab’s ruthless recruitment campaign is taking rural children from their parents so they can serve this militant armed group,” said Laetitia Bader, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “To escape that cruel fate, many children have fled school or their homes.”

Elders in the south, or community leaders with vast decision-making powers, are deeply worried over the situation, saying the future of their communities are in jeopardy.

“We’ll have no male children in the region if the trend continues,” warned Ahmed Aden, 65, an elder from Bay who now lives in Mogadishu. “We are losing our sons every day because they are being killed by the hundreds. Our children are not going to school and their future is uncertain.”

Al-Shabaab has been battling the UN-backed government in Somalia for years. The group has carried out a string of attacks in neighboring Kenya, including the Garissa University attack that left 148 students dead in April 2015. The group has been pushed out of most of the large cities it once controlled, like the port city of Kismayo, but it remains a potent threat.

In early March, a bomb exploded near a security checkpoint outside parliament in Mogadishu, killing two soldiers. In October last year, more than 300 people were killed in Mogadishu after twin car explosions, making it the deadliest attack in the country's recent history. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for both attacks.

But as African Union Mission to Somalia is expected to withdraw its 22,000 troops by 2020, residents in this east African country are worried about the future.

“Foreign soldiers should not leave Somalia. They should in fact increase the number so that they can defeat al-Shabaab," said Mohamud. "I cannot wish anyone to go through the anguish I have been through.”

A version of this story can be found in Public Radio International.

Protecting Babar: Kenyan children learn about elephant conservation

KEN180428TO014SAMBURU, Kenya — Wearing traditional brightly colored beads and robes, a group of warriors recently sang and danced in this central Kenyan region as part of an event to encourage the protection of elephants and rhinos.

“There will be no more poaching in my area,” said James Ntopai, 25, a Samburu warrior and a project coordinator of Kenyan Kids on Safari, a conservation program for children. “The community now understands the importance of conserving elephants and other wildlife.”

Kenyan Kids on Safari provides Kenya's youth with the opportunity to join tourists, medical volunteers and others on safari to experience the local fauna. The idea is to discourage poaching fueled by the high prices of elephant ivory and rhino in the United States, Europe and China. Ivory is used for piano keys, billiard balls, jewelry and, in China, identification chops, or stamps used to sign official documents. Rhino horns are an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.

“When these kids get the opportunity to view wildlife they realize that they are not enemies with the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo because this wildlife brings many tourists to their lands,” said Ntopai. “We train these kids to become conservationists because they are future leaders who will determine the fate of Kenyan wildlife reserves for the world.”

Killing elephants is illegal in Kenya. A government crackdown has reduced the number of elephant deaths to 60 last year from 96 in 2016. The number of rhino killings moved from 14 to nine in the same period, according to the Kenyan government.

But, the carnage continues. The elephant population in Kenya has dropped to 415,000 – or 110,000 fewer than a decade ago, officials said. According to the World Wildlife Federation, black rhino populations in Kenya and nearby countries have risen from 2,600 in 1997 to more than 5,000 today due to conservation efforts. But hundreds of thousands once roamed the region.

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also takes care of young elephants abandoned by their parents after they fall into watering holes dug by locals that the animals can't escape. Some members also search for and destroy elephant traps laid by poachers. Others report suspicious people in national parks to the authorities.

Officials said targeting kids and warriors in the fight against poaching and wildlife conservation could help end the slaughter of elephants and other wildlife.

“If we train kids on conservation we are going to win the war against poaching,” said Samburu National Reserve warden Gabriel Lepariyo. “When kids grow up they will be able to conserve the wildlife.”

Rather than gain money through poaching, Lepariyo works to convince local tribespeople that they could benefit from a booming sustainable tourism industry if they safeguard wildlife. “I want to encourage the community to keep the wildlife as their source of income in future,” he said.

Wildlife-based tourism generates nearly $10 million annually, or around 14 percent of Kenya’s gross domestic product, according to Kenya’s government report released last year. One in 10 Kenyans works in the wildlife tourism sector, the report added.

Now, said Todd Cromwell, the founder of Kenyan Kids on Safari, it was time for the African continent to concentrate on children if they were to save elephants and other wildlife. Many parents now teach their children to fear big animals as threats to their crops and competitors for grasslands where livestock graze.

“The savior to protecting these elephants is kids,” Cromwell said. “We are educating local kids in wildlife conservation to become ambassadors. If they are all well-trained then there will no poaching in future. They will not allow it to happen.”

Kenyan KIDS on Safari also offers education scholarships to Samburu and Maasai kids, provides toilets for local communities, drills boreholes for water and erects solar panels to bring electricity to remote villages.

“We want to empower them so that they can understand how the world looks like,” Cromwell said. “Our aim is to ensure that they protect the wildlife at all cost. They will have the lights to scare wildlife at night instead of attacking them. If their kids get an education, then they will understand the importance of conserving wildlife.”

Many kids who attended a recent Kenyan KIDS on Safari training program said they were going to start wildlife clubs in their schools to teach others what they had learned.

“I love elephant because he looks innocent,” said 13-year-old Dave Sambaya. “I will tell my friends to stop killing elephants and to love wildlife because it brings us tourists.”

Ntopai vowed to do the same in his village.

“I encourage the young kids and all of you to continue spreading the word about conserving the wildlife,” he said. “When we invest in kids there will be no poaching.”

Photo: Pastoral kids receive training on how to conserve wildlife in Samburu, northern Kenya.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (04/28/18)

Story/photo published date: 06/07/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

A language divide disrupts education for some in Cameroon

CMR18032018CL003DOUALA, Cameroon—Pertula Ngeng Yuh wants to take the exams she must pass to receive her country’s General Certificate of Education and graduate to secondary school. But the 15-year-old girl must wait at least two more years. She’s now taking the first of three years’ worth of “ordinary level” courses before she can take the exams.

“In my new class, children are younger than those like me who come from the English-speaking side,” she said, referring to the language divide in this predominantly French-speaking Central African nation.

Pertula and her mother fled to this coastal city more than a year ago to escape an increasingly violent conflict in Cameroon’s English-speaking Northwest Region, where a crackdown on protests by Anglophones escalated into military clashes between armed secessionist groups and government troops.

The tensions along the language divide have become so intense that many young Cameroonians have fled to neighboring countries in Africa, and some have even joined the thousands of Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans who have migrated to Europe seeking a new life.

For Pertula, relocating to Douala was a setback educationally.

In September 2016, she started taking ordinary-level courses at Wum Catholic Mission School in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest Region. A few weeks after classes started, however, teachers in the region went on strike to protest discrimination against English-speaking Cameroonians. More militant protesters later threatened to burn down the school if it opened.

“People warned us that if we went to school they would burn our school,” recalled Pertula. “Later, they burnt the French section of the school. Students stopped going.”

Pertula’s mother, Sen Stella, had already paid her daughter’s school fees and bought books. But in Douala, where Pertula and her mother now live in a single room, school fees are almost five times higher– around $200 a year. The teenager needed to save money for nearly two years before she could enroll in school. She now attends the College of Hopes, Arts and Science in Douala, where she’s started her ordinary-level studies from the beginning.

Stella also needs to pay for her daughter’s transportation to school as well as meals. “All those things are heavy on me as a single mother,” she said.

The family’s plight is not unique.

“With all that happens in English-speaking areas, children are lost,” said Marcial Mbebi, a leader in the Cameroon Federation of Education Unions, a teacher’s labor group. “The student is entitled to 900 hours of classes in a school year. When you cannot cover those hours, there is a problem. We advise parents to do private classes at home to catch up.”

That option is impossible for Pertula, who often performs odd jobs to help her mother pay for school. Still, she plans to go back to northwestern Cameroon as soon as possible.

“If school reopens in Bamenda, I will go back because here we have only computer and science lab, but in Wum, we have all the labs,” she said, adding that she intends to study literature and someday become a journalist.

But there is little reason to go back today.

After more than a year of protests and clashes that have claimed at least 150 lives, according to a recent United Nations report, most schools in largely English-speaking Northwest Cameroon remain closed, the Internet is shut down in many areas, and dissidents remain in prison and continue to demand equal rights.

For years, Anglophone regions in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions have been underprivileged, compared to Francophone areas, according to the U.N. report. English-speaking Cameroonians complain that they have been shut out of jobs in education, the judicial system and government. More than 40,000 have fled to Nigeria in the past year, according to local aid officials. It’s not clear how many are internally displaced or have fled elsewhere.

John, a 25-year-old English-speaking Cameroonian who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, has been living on the Greek island of Lesbos for more than a year now. He was in his third year of studying engineering in Bamenda when he got arrested during a protest. He managed to escape and now is stuck in Greece, where he’s waiting for refugee asylum status.

“My father is a contractor,” said John. “I worked in his business since I was 17, first as a builder. No one believed I was the son of the boss. After a few years, he took me to work on marketing and designing, and supervising. I worked while studying engineering. I wanted to do greater things than him.”

He earns money translating between English and French. But ultimately he’d like to leave Greece and go to Canada and resume his studies there.

Rather than trying to remain in school elsewhere in their home country or fleeing abroad, some Anglophone Cameroonians have pursued other options like learning a trade.

Itoe Julius, 16, fled the English-speaking Southwest Region and went to Douala, where he began working in an auto repair shop. He hopes to learn enough to open his own mechanics’ business in less than a year.

“Every time the boss unmounts an engine, he asks me to come and see how we do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, the violence that forces people like Julius to flee their homes continues. More than two dozen people were killed in a firefight between government troops and unidentified gunmen in the town of Menka in northwestern Cameroon on May 25, Reuters reported. The exact circumstances of the clash were not clear, but the death toll makes the incident one of the deadliest in the conflict so far.

Photo: March 19, 2018 - Douala, Cameroon - Grace Yeah taught for ten years at a catholic mission school in Nord West (Anglophone). When the crisis started, the school was closed and she waited for many months hoping that things will change. She left and currently works in a restaurant in Cameroon's economic capital.
Credit: Christian Locka/ ARA Network Inc. (03/18/18)

Story/photo publish date: 05/30/18

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar Media.
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