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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

ISIS pushes farther into West African country of Mali, raising fears of violence

21 April 2018, Bamako, Mali. The Djicoroni Para market in Mali's capital has given a new opportunity to Hamady Touré who now works here. The market is a secure place for Touré that is far away from his native region where ISIS affiliated groups endanger trade.BAMAKO, Mali - Hamady Touré, commercial agent, worries about his relatives who live in Menaka, a town around 730 miles northeast of Bamako, the Malian capital.

The Islamic State in the Sahel, a division of the terrorist organization, has been putting down roots in the months since its jihadists killed American soldiers in neighboring Niger in October 2017, according to Touré, government officials and others.

They join already an active chapter of Al Qaeda whose members drove a car bomb into a military base near Timbuktu, killing a United Nations peacekeeper and wounded seven French troops on April 14.

"Three days don’t go by without one hearing the news of an assassination by the terrorists,” said Touré, who helps companies find customers in the massive West African country. “There is something to be afraid of. The worst thing is that vehicles carrying civilians drive on explosive devices that the terrorists place.”

Malian Minister of Foreign Affairs Tiéman Hubert Coulibaly took the Islamic State threat seriously.

"The current momentum in the Middle East can have consequences for the stability of Mali and the rest of the Sahel region,” he said, adding that he was afraid Islamic State fighters might leave Iraq and Syria and redeploy in Africa.

Those fears are growing despite the international response to the terror threat in Mali.

Around five years ago, the UN sent 15,000 peacekeepers to Mali. France has 4,000 troops in the region. Five regional countries - Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – have created a joint force of 5,000 troops to secure their borders against rampaging militants, too.

Additionally, Malian officials and ethnic Tuareg rebels who sought more autonomy for their northern region singed a peace agreement in 2015, ending years of war. Today, many Tuareg militias that signed the 2015 agreement are helping in the fight against the Islamic State.

“The main target of these armed terrorists is none other than the local authorities and religious leaders,” said Fahad Almahmoud, spokesperson of the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-Defense Group, a Tuareg militia.

In their patrols near the border with Niger, the self-defense group and another Tuareg force, the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad recently claimed to have found the vehicle of the four American soldiers killed in Niger in late 2017. They circulated photos of the vehicle that appeared accurate. The groups are now discussing how to give the vehicle to U.S. authorities.

But opposition politician Tiébilé Dramé said the government needed to do more. Despite the international help, more terrorists appear to be moving into Mali while ordinary citizens are seeing little reason to believe in their leaders, he said.

"The fault is the current governance that is bad,” said Dramé. “More than 500 schools are closed in the center of the country because of insecurity.”

The security situation in Mali has been precarious for at least three years.

In November 2015, Islamist militants killed 20 people at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and a local terror group were blamed. Several local jihadist groups joined forces to create a bigger organization affiliated to Al Qaeda a year ago, too.

The terrorists have lost battles, too. Last month, they claimed to have killed a lieutenantof Adnan Abu Walid, leader of the Islamic State in the Sahel.Abu Walid has disseminated numerous jihadist propaganda videos in the region.

Critics have said the militias have too much power, too, however.

Last month, a UN report said the Tuareg Imghad and Allies Self-Defense Group and the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad conducted extra-judicial executions, illegal arrests and detentions, recruiting child soldiers and other human rights violations in the country’s north.

“It is necessary that both the Government and the armed groups investigate serious violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law committed by their structures and their members,” said Special Representative of the Secretary General Mongi Hamdi when the report was published. “This is in the interest of victims’ rights and for the reconciliation and establishment of a lasting peace in Mali.”

France recently proposed that the UN impose sanctions against warlords who impede the 2015 deal.

In the south, Malian army and Dozo hunters – a traditional armed group – stand accused of similar abuses against the Fulani ethnic community, a Muslim people with Arab roots who are often accused of harboring loyalties to extremists.

"The Malian army is making summary executions of civilians suspected of terrorism,” said Nouhoum Cissé, a member of a defense organization of ethnic Fulanis. “In the center of the country, when you have the appearance of a Fulani, you can be suspected of terrorism.”

For centuries, Malians and Fulanis lived together in harmony, said Cissé. Now they are poised to kill each other. He noted that terror attacks have also driven the Dogon, an indigenous people attached to African cults and values, to create self-defense militias, too. Dogon and Fulani groups have clashed as a result.

The chaos doesn’t strengthen Mali against militants, said Cissé.

“The question is who benefits from this situation. It does not benefit the Dogon. It does not benefit the Fulani,” said Cissé. “Those who benefit are the terrorist groups.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Education in Somalia starts with teachers

Somali students attend a class session. Somalia's Ministry of education, through the help of the Global Education Fund, is now training primary and secondary school teachers to improve the quality of education for its students.MOGADISHU, Somalia – Rahma Ali has a newfound sense of purpose.

“Teachers are key to the success of any education system,” said Ali, a teacher at Hamar Jajab Primary School in Mogadishu who recently completed a teacher training program with the Global Campaign of Education, an international coalition of education advocates and NGOs seeking to improve education in the developing world.

“It’s very hard to find someone in poor country like Somalia who has both the qualifications and the training to be a teacher,” she said. “But we are very happy to receive the training so that we can give our children a quality education.”

The outbreak of civil war in this East Africa nation in the early 1990s took a terrible toll on education in Somalia.

Only 30 percent of primary school-age children and 26 percent of secondary school-age kids attend classes, according to the UN Children's Fund, or UNICEF. Only 18 percent of children in rural households attend school.

Violence, poverty, lack of teachers and school facilities – including shortages of desks, books and other educations materials – are among the many hurdles to improving the Somali school system, according to the Lutheran World Federation, which supports 7,000 students, teachers, school staff and others in educational training programs.

Where children are learning, they’re often studying lessons that have little relationship to their peers throughout the country.

“There is not yet any national Somali curricula implemented, so every school and every state do a little bit as they like,” said Lennart Hernander, the federation’s representative in Somalia, Kenya and Djibouti. “There are no enough trained and untrained teachers. Most of the parents also have to pay for their children to attend school, which many of them cannot afford.”

But, as Ali’s experience illustrates, the tide is slowly turning.

Since August 2017, Somalia has been training primary and secondary school teachers with $33 million in funding from the Global Campaign for Education, an international coalition of education advocates and NGOs seeking to improve education in the developing world.

“We want to raise awareness of importance of teachers in quality education,” said Adam Mohamed, national coordinator of Somali Coalition for Education for All, a member of the campaign. “The teacher’s education policy document will help the country to acquire better quality teacher which is key for achieving quality education for all the Somali children.”

The training is providing crucial qualifications and training, give educators a chance to share their experience and help Somalia develop uniform rules and regulations for the teaching profession throughout the country, said Ali Afgoye, who oversees implementation of educational policies as director of the Somali Ministry of Education.

“It’s good program that ensures teachers earn qualification of teaching to deliver quality education to students,” said Afgoye.

Afgoye hoped teachers in the program would share insights from it. Somali officials were now building or renovating around schools. Tens of thousands of students were expected to come to classes in the next few years, he added.

The Global Campaign for Education is not the only teacher training occurring in Somalia.

The training has also spread to other parts of the country.

In the self-declared state of Somaliland – where violence is less frequent and the government is more stable – education ministry officials have been especially successful training more teachers, especially female teachers, to fight gender inequality in regional schools where only 3 percent of women are teachers.

The Somali Education Mministry’s Teachers Training Department has also trained at least 35 teachers in recent years.

“We are training teachers to make them more professional,” said Mohamed Abdi, a lecturer at the Banadir Teacher Training Institute in Mogadishu. “Teachers who are not well-trained cannot provide a quality education. They will fail students. Lack of trained teachers contributes to lower enrollment of students.”

The biggest challenge is finding qualified people to train as teachers, however, said Abdi.“Many of [Somalis] do not qualify to train as teachers, so we are forced to lower the entry grade so that we can have more,” he said.

But progress is being made. Somalis are embracing school as their country’s education system grows more robust.

“We are now confident to take our children to school because we have trained teachers,” said Hassan Mohamed, a father of six who has been taking his children to a madrassa, an Islamic religious school in Mogadishu. “Our children used to grow old in schools but still struggle to learn basic literacy and numeracy. Some of them used to drop out of school without being able to read or write properly.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media. 

Refugee students who fled from Gambia wish to return to rebuild their country

Kemo Bojang is a second year political science student of the University of The Gambia in the capital, Banjul. He believes that the regime change has opened the space for political discussion.FREETOWN, Sierra Leone and BANJUL, Gambia – It’s been more than a year since President Yahya Jammeh left office after 23 years in power.

His fall has given higher education in the tiny West African nation a new lease on life.

Kemo Bojang, a second-year political science student at the University of the Gambia, said he now feels like he can really learn about politics because the academic environment is open to free discussions.

“I am now proud to pursue my career as a political scientist,” said Bojang. “Before now it was impossible because several opposition politicians and students were pursued, arrested, killed and imprisoned. Their crimes were for expressing their political rights. Gambians can now express themselves freely without being harassed. Even our teachers can now channel their grievances to the government with frank deliberations.”

The University of the Gambia in Banjul is the only higher education institution in the country of 2 million people. Today, it’s halls and walkways are bustling with young people.

But thousands of the university’s students fled between 2016 and 2017 when Jammeh began cracking down on demonstrations against his regime. The crisis came to a head when Jammeh said he would resign in December 2016. But then he changed his mind. Under pressure from Gambia’s neighbors – including the Economic Community of West African States’ threat of military intervention – he left office in January 2017.

Police regularly arrested and harassed students who dared to protest the regime. An untold number of students and other protesters and dissents disappeared. Most are presumed dead.

Current President Adama Barrow has pledged to investigate their fates. He’s also promised to probe the April 2000 killing of 14 students by riot police after they protested the killing of a colleague and rape of female student.

Students are now returning to the university now, however.

Bakary Jadama, 29, a graduate student in business at the university while also operating a cleaning business in Serakunda, a coastal district near Banjul, returned to the Gambia last year after fleeing to neighboring Senegal to avoid violence.

“I now have confidence in the Government to invest because the circulation of cash is visible and there is freedom,” he said. “Before now, cash was just concentrated in the hands of Jammeh and his close allies. Businesses were forcefully closed without any explanation.”

Jadama was among many Gambians who returned after Barrow said he would ensure their safety if they would come home to rebuild their nation.

That appeal motivated Lamin Drammeh, 34, to return home to pursue a management course at a private business school in Banjul.

“When I was in Senegal, I never felt comfortable. Other Gambians there were not either,” said Drammeh. “But since I returned home, I am now fulfilled and determined that the Gambia is now open and free for all to explore.”

The international community is also stepping in.

In late February, the Chinese government provided 23 scholarships for Gambian undergraduate and graduate students to study in China.

But some Gambians think the country needs to focus on developing its domestic educational capacity.

Janet Bajang Young runs a theatre in Banjul. She believes the change in regime is an opportunity to use theatre to promote civil rights and girl’s education. The government previously banned theatre performances that raised critical issues in society. Officials either refused to issue a permit for performances or arrested actors and producers.

“My desire is to train a group of young girls to use theatre and raise people’s awareness levels on girls’ education and gender-based violence,” she said. “We will do this through personal interaction in schools, markets, community centres to ensure it filters right down. We still see men battering their kids and wives. Some men still think girls should not be sent to school. This is a key challenge we will try to reduce.”

Ibrahim Ceesay, 40, is an English teacher at a Catholic school in Banjul. He was hopeful that teachers would be empowered to improve Gambian schools under current President Barrow.

“Under the former regime, even though we were dissatisfied with the conditions of service, we were not allowed to voice our concerns,” said Ceesat. “Our union meetings were dispersed several times by the police and we were always afraid to raise issues around our welfare. Now we can advocate and discuss with Government on what’s best for the development of the sector. That in itself is a step forward.”

Echoing Ceesay’s thoughts, Bojang noted that most professors at the University of the Gambia were foreign. He also felt that the country needed to develop its native potential more.

“That tells you the education sector in this country was not open for all to participate freely,” he said. “Now my hope is after graduation, I will be able to influence society positively and involve in governance discuss without persecution.”

Some students are already thinking about expanding higher education in the Gambia.

Ousman Diatta, 28, a second-year communications student, wants a broader selection of courses. That might mean the country needs another university or at least new programs, he said.

“One university for the whole Gambia is not enough,” said Diatta. “There has to be competition with specialized and modern courses in development and information technology. If that happens, we will see more youth potentials coming from the Gambia.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar. 

Kenyan refugee students defy odds with high scores on national examination

Young girls here are inspired to work hard in their studies and pass exams after some of their peers emerged as top scorers in Kenya’s national exams this year.KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya – Refugee students here and in the neighboring Dadaab refugee camp defied the odds to score high grades in the 2017 Kenya’s national examination for primary and secondary school students.

Their achievements are inspiring others to study with the hope one day attending university.

“I worked hard in class despite insufficient teachers and learning equipment at the school,” he said Somali native Abdiweli Hussein, 20, a refugee in Kenya since 2008 who scored 67 points out of possible 84 in Kenya’s secondary school exams. “Life as a refugee is hard but one needs to focus in studies to achieve their dreams.”

Hussein, who now wants to pursue petroleum engineering at the university, said his success was not easy.

“I don’t know where my parents are,” said Hussein. “I was brought here by my aunt.”

But hard work, drive and passion helped him to achieve his dream.

“I’m very grateful for scoring such high marks despite all the difficulties and challenges that come with being in a refugee camp,” he said. “I want to encourage other refugees to work hard in class because it’s the only way they can change their lives.”

His classmate and fellow Somali, Abdirahman Abdi, 19, scored 73 points out of 84.

Both attend Waberi High School in the Dadaab camp, where more than 235,000 refugees and asylum seekers live. Dadaab is part of a cluster of camps that comprise the largest refugee facility in the world.

In nearby Kakuma refugee camp, 14-year-old Magot Thuch Ayii, a South Sudanese, scored 413 out of 500 in Kenya’s primary school exam, becoming one of the top students in the country. Magot was a student at the Cush Primary School.

Over a million candidates registered for the Kenya’s primary school exams while more than 615,000 took the secondary school tests. The Ministry of Education oversees the exams. Kenya adopted the exams in 1985 after education reforms that established students tracks that include eight years of primary education, four of secondary education and then university study for the best students.

Refugees here and elsewhere in Kenya’s camps have been performing well in both examinations despite the trauma they go through as refugees, said UNHCR officials who run schools in the camps.

“They perform very well despite numerous gaps such as insufficient teaching and learning materials, untrained teachers and overcrowded classrooms,” said Hure Mohammed, the UNHCR’s education officer at Kakuma. “Refugees can perform very well if they are provided with the right school environment and adequate resources.”

Last year’s performance by refugee students has especially inspired other candidates in the camps to study this year’s national examinations.

“I’m prepared and I will pass this year’s exams with high marks,” said Edwin Thon, a primary school student in Kakuma. “Refugees can also become top performers.”

But Samuel Zeleke, 44, a parent in Kakuma Camp, lamented that opportunities, even for the best students, are limited. He appealed to donors and other development groups to sponsor higher education for refugees.

“We’re happy because our children are performing very well,” said the father of seven. “But our children lack scholarship to continue with their education and they end up teaching primary and secondary schools as untrained teachers.

Hure agreed. Limited access to Kenyan secondary schools and few scholarship opportunities continue to pose a challenge to young refugees, he said.

But Thon is determined to work hard and excel in the exams despite all the challenges within the camp.

“I know that I’m going to excel,” he said. “I want to be at the top so that I can get a scholarship.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar.

Refugee numbers don't match and UN funds are missing in Uganda

UGA170930TO003BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda – Sitting outside her tent in this sprawling camp in northern Uganda, 40-year-old Martha Atong was angry.

She and others were going hungry as Ugandan officials stood accused of inflating refugee figures to pocket millions in humanitarian aid funding.

“I’m suffering with my children because of them,” said the mother of four. “Many of us will die of hunger due to lack of food as they enrich themselves using the money meant for us.”

Atong’s plight is probably far from over. American, British and European leaders are threatening to withhold humanitarian funding to Uganda over the corruption allegations, according to the said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The East African nation hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 14 camps.

But during a recent camp inspection, UN officials found 7,000 people where Ugandan overseers reported 26,000 needing aid, leading to questions about where the funding for the missing 19,000 refugees was going. The fraud has been allegedly occurring for at least a year.

“There’s concern that the numbers are not accurate,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Teresa Ongalo in Uganda’s capital last month. “What we have received from donors is an indication that until we’re able to verify the numbers they will withhold funding.”

In northwestern Uganda, the news sparked anger in the Bidi Bidi camp, which has now become the second largest refugee camp in the world with more than 285,000 refugees.

“We are not receiving enough food because some officials are eating money meant for refugees,” said Charles Lujang, a refugee representative at the camp. “They are using our name to enrich themselves. They should be arrested and jailed.”

The Ugandan government has suspended four camp officials pending an investigation. Investigators are determining whether funding, food and other relief items were sold, used for bribes or involved in trafficking refugee girls.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said he would severely punish anyone found guilty.

“The ones who are stealing refugee money will go to jail,” said Museveni, who has ruled this landlocked nation for more than three decades. “They bring shame to Uganda. Because to steal what is meant for refugees, what is meant for desperate people, so, these thieves they will pay.”

The Ugandan government, with support from the UNHCR and the World Food Program, has launched a large-scale biometric data system to verify the identities of refugees in the country. Similar systems have already cataloged 4.4 million refugees in 48 other countries, said UNHCR.

Slated for completion in September, the system will collect fingerprints and eye scans of more than 1 million refugees, according the UNHCR. Refugees will then receive ration cards.

“This is important to us to increase the accountability and transparency not only to the government and UNHCR and partners, but also the donors who are very key in our operation,” said Douglas Asiimwe, Uganda’s refugee protection officer.

But Atong and others they can’t wait so long. Fleeing after she lost her husband to civil war in South Sudan, Atong said the drop-off in aid has forced camp overseers to cut her food rations.

“We are starving, our children are crying (of hunger),” she said. “We nowadays don’t see convoy of trucks carrying food aid coming to the camp. The situation is getting worse and we need help.”

Uganda has been a notable and generous host for refugees from elsewhere in the recent past. Upon receiving refugee status, refugees are given plots of land to cultivate, settle and integrate with local host communities.

The revelation has angered leaders of neighboring nations who have accused the UNHCR of deliberately fabricating figures of refugees from their countries to seek funding for the agency. That funding could have been used for aid to countries repatriating their citizens, to help them get settled and promote economic development, the leaders said.

“UNHCR has refused to recognize that some Burundian refugees have returned home and was using inflated numbers to seek aid,” said Terence Ntahiraja, assistant interior minister for Burundi, one of the world's poorest nations that is struggling to emerge from a 12-year ethnic-based civil war.

Atong was more concerned about the short-term.

“I desperately need food to feed my starving children,” she said. “Those who are causing these problems should be hanged because they are playing with people’s lives.”

Photo: September 30, 2017 - Refugees from South Sudan relax in the Palabek Refugee Camp in northern Uganda. Many here are growing more hungry after UNHCR cut their food ratio from 12kg to 6kg.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (09/30/17)

Story/photo publish date: 03/22/18

A version of this story was published in USA Today.

Nigerians still angered at government efforts to fight Boko Haram, despite release of kidnapped girls

Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria, 19 March, 2018. Parents of the missing Dapchi girls press the government to quickly rescue their daughters. | Photo: Ali Abare Abubakar)ABUJA, Nigeria – The release of around more than 100 kidnapped schoolgirls on Wednesday did little to quell the anger than many Nigerians feel toward their government over the Boko Haram militants who are running rampant in the country’s remote northeast.

Boko Haram militants kidnapped the students from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi last month. Nigerian authorities said the Islamic State-affiliated fighters brought the girls back to Dapchi after “back channel” talks that did not involve ransom money.

The girls’ parents were elated.
"I can confirm to you that, together with the released girls, we are on our way to the general hospital," said Bashir Manzo, chairman of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association.
But not everyone was celebrating.
Nata Sharibu said his daughter was one of the few students still in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.
“My daughter is alive but they cannot release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also jubilant because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”
Others wanted to know more about the government’s talks with the jihadists.
"Lots of questions need to be answered by the Nigerian government," said Jeff Okoroafor, political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, a citizen's rights group. "We need to know the details of how Boko Haram returned the girls. Were there conditions attached? Why didn't they return the Chibok girls alongside the Dapchi girls?"
Okoroafor referred to the Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, a town around 170 miles away from Dapchi. Around 80 of those girls have escaped or been released.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly claimed that government forces have brought the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram to heel.
But Alhaji Baba Shehu said the Dapchi incident suggested that Buhari’s assurances were hollow. 
"The issue of defeating Boko Haram flies in the face of this latest abduction," said Shehu, 40, who is secretary of the Yobe State Civil Society Network, an activist group. "For us in Dapchi, the insurgency has just started."
Dapchi parents said Buhari lulled Nigerians into a false sense of security when he claimed Boko Haram was no longer a threat.
"We were misled into thinking we are safe," said Aisha Bukar, 35, who's 14-year-old daughter, Aisa Kachalla Bukar, is among the missing girls. "They lied to us that Boko Haram has been defeated and now we can't find our daughters."
On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a damning report that said Nigerian forces failed to heed warnings of a Boko Haram convoy that was heading toward Dapchi before the kidnappings.
“The Nigerian authorities must investigate the inexcusable security lapses that allowed this abduction to take place without any tangible attempt to prevent it,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director. “The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago. Despite being repeatedly told that Boko Haram fighters were heading to Dapchi, it appears that the police and military did nothing to avert the abduction.”
Amnesty International’s report said Boko Haram militants asked directions to military facilities, local government offices and the girls’ school. Police fled as they approached, the report said. The Nigerian government has also failed to communicate developments in the investigation to parents and the public, the report added.
Instead, parents of the missing girls say the government told them for days that the girls had been rescued, only to backtrack. The government has little presence on the ground, they added. "We haven't seen anything,” said Kachalla Bukar, a member of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association. “We haven't seen much of military presence."
The Bring Back Our Girls group that attracted global recognition in the wake of the Chibok girls’ abduction expressed shock and disappointment over the government’s failures at Dapchi. 
The group's co-convener and Nigeria's former education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, has threatened to sue the Nigerian government unless they can secure the release of the Chibok girls who remain with the militants. 
"It's intolerable and unacceptable that the same manner of abduction took place," said Ezekwesili. "Government has failed in its primary responsibility to protect the citizens."
Boko Haram militants have staged other attacks, too. Recently, they attacked Rann, a village in nearby Borno State. A United Nations staffer and two workers with the International Organization for Migration were killed in the attack. 
But former Nigerian Senator Saidu Umar Kumo absolved President Buhari of blame, saying Buhari also said Boko Haram was a danger. Many Nigerians unfortunately engaged in wishful thinking when the president said Nigerian troops had made progress against the militants.
"President Buhari never said Boko Haram was defeated completely," said Kumo, who is a member of Buhari’s All Nigeria People's Party. "All Buhari said was that the insurgents have been weakened but they can still pose a threat."

A version of this story has been published in The Washington Times.

By Ali Abare Ábubakar

ABUJA, Nigeria – The release of around more than 100 kidnapped schoolgirls on Wednesday did little to quell the anger than many Nigerians feel toward their government over the Boko Haram militants who are running rampant in the country’s remote northeast.

Boko Haram militants kidnapped the students from the Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi last month. Nigerian authorities said the Islamic State-affiliated fighters brought the girls back to Dapchi after “back channel” talks that did not involve ransom money.

The girls’ parents were elated.

"I can confirm to you that, together with the released girls, we are on our way to the general hospital," said Bashir Manzo, chairman of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association.

But not everyone was celebrating.

Nata Sharibu said his daughter was one of the few students still in captivity because she refused to convert to Islam.

“My daughter is alive but they cannot release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They gave her the option of converting in order to be released but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also jubilant because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”

Others wanted to know more about the government’s talks with the jihadists.

"Lots of questions need to be answered by the Nigerian government," said Jeff Okoroafor, political analyst in Abuja and head of Opinion Nigeria, a citizen's rights group. "We need to know the details of how Boko Haram returned the girls. Were there conditions attached? Why didn't they return the Chibok girls alongside the Dapchi girls?"

Okoroafor referred to the Boko Haram’s 2014 abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, a town around 170 miles away from Dapchi. Around 80 of those girls have escaped or been released.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly claimed that government forces have brought the Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram to heel.

But Alhaji Baba Shehu said the Dapchi incident suggested that Buhari’s assurances were hollow.

"The issue of defeating Boko Haram flies in the face of this latest abduction," said Shehu, 40, who is secretary of the Yobe State Civil Society Network, an activist group. "For us in Dapchi, the insurgency has just started."

Dapchi parents said Buhari lulled Nigerians into a false sense of security when he claimed Boko Haram was no longer a threat.

"We were misled into thinking we are safe," said Aisha Bukar, 35, who's 14-year-old daughter, Aisa Kachalla Bukar, is among the missing girls. "They lied to us that Boko Haram has been defeated and now we can't find our daughters."

On Tuesday, Amnesty International issued a damning report that said Nigerian forces failed to heed warnings of a Boko Haram convoy that was heading toward Dapchi before the kidnappings.


“The Nigerian authorities must investigate the inexcusable security lapses that allowed this abduction to take place without any tangible attempt to prevent it,” said Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s Nigeria Director. “The Nigerian authorities have failed in their duty to protect civilians, just as they did in Chibok four years ago. Despite being repeatedly told that Boko Haram fighters were heading to Dapchi, it appears that the police and military did nothing to avert the abduction.”

Amnesty International’s report said Boko Haram militants asked directions to military facilities, local government offices and the girls’ school. Police fled as they approached, the report said. The Nigerian government has also failed to communicate developments in the investigation to parents and the public, the report added.

Instead, parents of the missing girls say the government told them for days that the girls had been rescued, only to backtrack. The government has little presence on the ground, they added. "We haven't seen anything,” said Kachalla Bukar, a member of the Dapchi Girls Parent's Association. “We haven't seen much of military presence."


The Bring Back Our Girls group that attracted global recognition in the wake of the Chibok girls’ abduction expressed shock and disappointment over the government’s failures at Dapchi. 

The group's co-convener and Nigeria's former education minister, Oby Ezekwesili, has threatened to sue the Nigerian government unless they can secure the release of the Chibok girls who remain with the militants. 

"It's intolerable and unacceptable that the same manner of abduction took place," said Ezekwesili. "Government has failed in its primary responsibility to protect the citizens."

Boko Haram militants have staged other attacks, too. Recently, they attacked Rann, a village in nearby Borno State. A United Nations staffer and two workers with the International Organization for Migration were killed in the attack. 

But former Nigerian Senator Saidu Umar Kumo absolved President Buhari of blame, saying Buhari also said Boko Haram was a danger. Many Nigerians unfortunately engaged in wishful thinking when the president said Nigerian troops had made progress against the militants.

"President Buhari never said Boko Haram was defeated completely," said Kumo, who is a member of Buhari’s All Nigeria People's Party. "All Buhari said was that the insurgents have been weakened but they can still pose a threat."

Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram refuses to convert to Islam

Dapchi, Yobe State, Northeastern Nigeria. March 22, 2018. Aisha Bukar Kachalla, one of the recently released Dapchi girls in warm embrace during family reunion.Abuja—Fifteen year-old Leah Sharibu likes biology, hanging out with friends and wants to be a doctor – but for the moment, she's also the only girl kidnapped a month ago still being held by Boko Haram – because she refused to convert to Islam.

Now, there's growing fury in Africa's most populous nation: A growing backlash against the government and Boko Haram has spawned a day of prayer, threats of court action and even a new hashtag going viral – #DapchiGirls.

Nigerians, quite simply, want Boko Haram to bring back the girl.

"It's unacceptable that the girl is yet to return to her parents," said Esther Mzaga, housewife in an Abuja suburb, as she expressed dismay over the inability of the Nigerian government to secure Leah's release. "The government must do everything to bring her back."

In mid-February, militants from Boko Haram, which loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden," raided the Government Girls Science Technical College in Dapchi in the northeastern Yobe State of Nigeria and took 110 girls hostage.

The extremists returned most of the girls to the town – about five reportedly died – dropping them off in the middle of the night in town under an agreement with the government that included withdrawing Nigerian soldiers.

But they kept Leah, says her father Nathan Sharibu.

“My daughter is alive but they wouldn't release her because she is a Christian,” said Sharibu. “They told her they would release her if she converted but she said she will never become a Muslim. I am very sad, but I am also overjoyed because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”

Now the pressure is growing intense for the group to release the student – or at least the government to do something about it.

Olapade Agoro, chairman of the National Action Council, an opposition political party, threatened to drag President Muhammadu Buhari to the International Criminal Court in The Hague if the government doesn't secure her release. He says he believes that the government's negotiations favored Muslims – Leah was the only Christian student taken.

“President Buhari should engage his negotiating machinery to get Leah released unconditionally… since it is obvious that the federal government negotiated to get the other Dapchi students released," he added. "Nigerians deserve to know, if it was part of the negotiation that only those who are Muslims or ready to embrace Islam would be released by the Boko Haram."

He also offered to switch places with Leah.

“It is unfortunate that Leah is being subjected to further physical and psychological trauma because she insisted on holding on to her religious faith," added Agoro. “It has now become a crime to be a Christian in Nigeria.”

President Muhammadu Buhari, meanwhile, is already under fire for the kidnapping: He has for almost a year said Boko Haram was defeated. Now, he said he would redouble the government's efforts to bring back Leah including declaring an amnesty for those who surrendered from the militant group.

"Leah Sharibu will not be abandoned," he said.

Still, hopes were dashed over the weekend after Nigeria's chief of police said Boko Haram was going to return her. They didn't.

As a result, churches across the country marked Sunday as a day of national prayer for Leah's release, with more special prayer days planned if she isn't returned.

“We are concerned that the negotiators engaged by the federal government could not secure the release of Leah Sharibu because she insisted on not renouncing her faith and converting to Islam," said Rev. Samson Ayokunle of the Christian Association of Nigeria, adding that Christians must be fervent in their prayers in churches so that God may answer and facilitate her return.

The kidnapping was reminiscent of one four years ago when almost 300 girls were taken from their school in nearby Chibok, sparking the worldwide #Bringbackourgirls campaign that also attracted celebrities and former first lady Michele Obama to speak out.

Although the majority of those girls have rejoined their families, are still missing.

Now the #BringBackOurGirls campaign says they will sue the government for more information, also on the Dapchi kidnapping.

"Our immense pleasure at the return of most of our #DapchiGirls notwithstanding, the questions we posed to the government of Nigeria still stand, as well as our notice to commence legal action," said Sesugh Akume, the campaign's spokesman.

Her parents, meanwhile, can't forget how their hopes were dashed last week when Leah was not among the girls returned.

“My heart was broken when I searched through the released girls and could not set my eyes on my dear daughter, Leah,” said her mother, Rebecca Sharibu, as tears streamed down her face. She fainted soon after and had to be hospitalized.

She recounted what happened according to Leah's classmates the last time they saw her – just as they were being released.

“What her school mates told me was that my daughter was told she must recite the Kalima Shahada (the Islamic profession of faith), and said she does not know how to recite it, that she was not brought up as a Muslim…so they told her that if she didn’t know how to recite it, then she should come down from the vehicle," she recalled. "She had already boarded alongside others that were ready to come home. They said my daughter would only be brought back home the day she knows how to recite Kalima shahada."

Her parents, meanwhile, also liked to reminisce about Leah, the eldest of two children, and how she loves bright colors, especially gold, and is an affectionate, lively, happy child who adores reading and chemistry.

She also loves to help with chores, said Rebecca Sharibu, as she sat within her compound – a small fenced off home fenced in a corner of Dapchi — with two cooking pots steaming next to her on charcoal stoves.

“If Leah were home, she and her little brother would attend to everything in this compound – she would not let me do anything," she said.

But she wants answers now, as well as her daughter.

“My concern, question to the government is that since we were told that the negotiation was done for all the schoolgirls, why did government accept that only my daughter be left behind when others’ were freed and even brought home," she asked. "So I am begging the federal government, if they negotiated as if they loved all the girls as their own, then they should do everything to help release my own girl."

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.

Cameroon residents fear for their safety as gang violence intensifies

November, 13, 2017. Congo district, Douala, Cameroon. Young people sitting for some on motorcycles under a banner of awareness against crime and consumption of narcotics.DOUALA, Cameroon – If he steps the wrong way, Thierry Essiane feels an excruciating pain in his left thigh where he was stabbed in July as he tried to stop a street fight.

"We could not watch this gruesome show without reacting,” said the 23-year-old motorcycle taxi driver. “We also grabbed knives to fight. One of them wanted to stab me in the belly. I dodged, but the knife went into my left thigh.”

The perpetrators fled but not before they wounded some onlookers and stole items from nearby stalls. When police arrived on the scene, they stopped a furious mob from lynching a man who didn't escape and was accused of bringing the gang to the neighborhood.

"While the police were escorting the man to their vehicle, someone in the crowd threw a large stone and he fell to the ground.” said Hélène Delli, a 38-year-old local resident. “He was bleeding and was taken to a hospital.”

In Douala, the economic capital of this central African country, this scene is becoming increasingly common as young men armed with knives, machetes and sticks roam the streets, often murdering, looting and raping in conflicts with other gangs.

In this case, the attacker was a child who was probably younger than 15, and a refugee, say authorities – Cameroon host almost 350,000 refugees from the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Chad and Mali.

After a coalition of Muslim rebels called the Seleka overthrew Central African Republic President François Bozizé in 2013, for example, around 230,000 Central African refugees fled to Cameroon, according to the UN.

Also, tens of thousands of Nigerians fled Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram militants who have been running rampant in their country. Cameroon forcibly returned 100,000 of them back home in recent years, garnering criticism from human rights groups.

They and other refugees came to the once-tranquil streets of Douala in hopes of finding jobs and other opportunities. But the breakdown of security in their sprawling communities has led to gangs perpetually fighting in tit-for-tat conflicts.

“There are some who avenge one of their own who has been attacked,” Beti Minyono Dominique, commander in chief of the Douala security forces in Cité-Cicam, a district where the gangs are concentrated. “Then there are those who are paid by people who want to settle accounts with their enemies or opponents. The majority of these aggressors are foreigners.”

It's become a major issue in the city, say locals.

"The phenomenon of gangs is a gangrene that is flourishing," said Henriette Ekwe, a political analyst, newspaper publisher and founder of the Cameroon’s chapter of Transparency International, a corruption and governance watchdog group. "A gendarmerie officer recently confided to me that without knowing the layout of certain neighborhoods, law enforcement officials become easy prey to bandits.”

There are no official figures on gangs. But security forces have arrested hundreds in street fights that led to several murders and hundreds of injuries in Douala this year, said local officials. But law enforcement rarely produces results. Police recently rounded up dozens of young suspected gang members but later released them for lack of evidence.

Neighborhood gang leaders who did not want to be quoted said hundreds of men were in street gangs in each neighborhood of the city of 3 million. They said they could easily bribe their way out of jail.

Benoit Yapelendji is a refugee from the Central African Republican. A former member of the anti-Balaka, a Christian militia in the Central African Republic that opposes the Seleka, he joined a gang of around 10 fellow refugees in Cité-Cicam.

"We do not attack people," said the 17-year-old horse taxi driver, caressing his dreadlocks. "We live here as a family with the brothers of West Africa, too – even the police are in the family. Someone can come and ask us to help solve a problem. Everyone comes out with his equipment. Me, I take my machete to do the work.”

In the Central African Republic, Yapelendji was working in a vehicle repair shop in Bangui when civil war erupted at home. The eldest of four children, two of whom were killed by Muslim militiamen, he takes drugs before street fighting.

"It's cocaine that gives us the strength and courage to fight," he said.

Meanwhile, police are now concerned over vigilantes getting together and lynching gang members – a whole new escalation in the street wars.

“To respect human rights, law enforcement forces refuse to brutalize suspects,” said Dominique. “But some people take this attitude as a sign of weakness.”

Most residents, meanwhile, say they have experienced gang violence and just want it to stop.

"Two boys came into the hair salon and asked for our mobile phones,” said Martine Essombe, who said she handed over her phone immediately. “Outside, other young people were taking old people out of their homes to beat them up, saying they were avenging their friend. Frankly, we're not safe anymore."

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