In Central African Republic, International Women's Day Holds Deeper Significance

This year, I celebrated International Women’s Day in the Central African Republic (CAR). Like many African countries, CAR made an event of it. Organizations arranged special lunches for their female personnel. Women dressed in their finest bright African fabrics from headdress to matching ankle-length skirt. The public lawn in front of Norte-Dame Cathedral, the town’s main church, has set up stalls of food, beer and music, determined to carry the festivities on for the duration of the month.

Established 100 years ago to recognize the accomplishments of women, International Women's Day holds a deeper significance for CAR, which has witnessed an alarming increase in sexual violence against women in the past two years.

Source: The EconomistCAR has been mired in conflict since March 2013, when Seleka rebels took over the capital of Bangui and overthrew the government. In the two years since, the Muslim Seleka militia and the Christian Anti-Balaka militias have engaged in sectarian conflict, attacking one another and the general populace, destroying entire villages. 450,000 people have sought refuge in neighboring Sudan, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Of the 442,500 displaced within CAR, 1,750 Muslims are trapped in enclaves, unable to evacuate the country.

The compounded effects of armed conflict on women are well documented. Refugees and internally displaced persons, comprising 20% of the country’s 4.6 million population, are particularly vulnerable. While it is difficult to obtain statistics in a country lacking basic infrastructure such as banks, roads, jails or a government, an estimated one in every two women displaced or seeking refuge from CAR are survivors of sexual violence.

Rebel militias attack entire villages, targeting women and girls of all ages. One women’s treatment center in the capital city of Bangui sees up to 25 women a day, its waiting room filled with both grandmothers and girls as young as five years old.

The violence spans all regions of the country. This week, militias are targeting children in the southern area near the town of Mobaye. An estimated 2,500 children have fled to southern DRC to avoid  recruitment as child soldiers or sex slaves for the militia.

A UN Peacekeeper attempts to stop a rape protester (Photo: Ilya Gridneff/Bloomberg)In January, four Central African women staged an impromtu protest in the town of Bambari northeast of Bangui upon the arrival of a government delegation to manage the peace process. “Seleka rape us, Anti-Balaka rape us, it is too much, we are fed up,” one shouted, according to Bloomberg News.

International Women’s Day in CAR is not only a recognition of women’s accomplishments but also of the battle wounds women have endured during the country’s recent years of armed conflict.

A heartfelt “bonne fête to the resilient women of CAR.


Effervescent Africa in a Time of Elections

L'Afrique est en effervescent,” (Africa is effervescent), said a colleague the other day, referring to the current political protests in Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and dozens of other African nations. In the past few months, Africa has witnessed increasing public advocacy for fair electoral practices and presidential term limits.

Sparking this trend is the onset of elections in 30 African countries scheduled for 2015 and 2016, including Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Togo and Zambia.

Many of these countries have seen their fair share of public discontent. And while such disaccord might be chalked up to business as usual in Africa, positive signs abound that Africa is entering into a new era where government rule must increasingly be accountable to the public.

An opposition rally in Togo on December 14, 2014. Protests have occured daily since January. (Photo: Togo, the public appears fatigued with the ruling family’s 48-year reign. Since mid-December 2014, opposition groups such as the CAP 2015 political coalition and Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights are demanding constitutional and electoral reforms ahead of the March 2015 presidential poll to include a two-term presidential limit. Since early January, the protests have been occurring on a daily basis. This public demand for government reforms is a notable shift from the previous decades of fear that silenced the general populace from uttering a word contrary to the government.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Parliament hastily voted on and approved an electoral referendum mandating a pre-election national census on Saturday, January 17. A national census in the vast, highly-populated Central African country could take up to four years to complete. Opposition groups claim the referendum is an attempt to delay elections and keep President Joseph Kabila in power beyond his second term, set to end in 2016. Since the referendum was made, protests have ricocheted across the country, from the western capital of Kinshasa to Bukavu and Goma in the east. On January 23, International SOS issued a Stand By Alert for expatriates to be ready to evacuate in case of escalating violence during the protests.

It could be argued that the leaders of such African countries are carefully walking a political maneuvering tightrope, in which an increasingly vocal public has the ability to influence and even topple government power. While changing constitutions according to the whims of government leaders remains pervasive throughout the continent, some African leaders are now preceding with such activity cautiously, particularly in the recent aftermath of Burkina Faso’s ousting of President Blaise Campaoré in October 2014.

"Blaise [Campaoré] get out!" reads a sign at a protest in Burkina Faso days before the president fleed the country. (Photo: AFP Issouf Sanogo)Burkina Faso ruling party Congrès pour la démocratie et le progress attempted to reverse a constitutional amendment made in 2000 limiting presidents to two terms. The reversal would have enabled President Blaise Campaoré, in power since 1987, to seek a third term. Days before the parliament was to vote on the amendment, thousands of protesters publically expressed their discontent. Campaoré fled the country, leaving an interim in power until the November 2015 elections.

Not all countries are taking notes on Burkina Faso however. In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza’s campaign for a third term has seen little public resistance. Increasingly repressive measures in the past year, including assassination attempts on journalists, violent crackdowns on opposition group gatherings, and even banning the Burundian pastime of running groups, have left a public shrouded in fear. 

Nonetheless Burkina Faso joins a growing list of African nations that respect electoral term limits, rendering countries like Burundi political outliers. In 2005, Benin President Mathieu Kerekou retired after unsuccessfully seeking an unconstitutional third term, to which voter constituents adapted the slogan, “Ne touche pas ma constitution.” (Hands off my constitution.) And in 2001, both Ghana President Jerry Rawling and Zambia President Frederick Chiluba caved to mounting public opposition, abandoning pursuit of a third term and retiring from office.

Regardless of whether public opposition across Africa will result in lasting change, this trend indicates a voting citizenry increasingly buying into and defending the democratic process.

“The next 12-18 months are going to be critical for democracy and elections across Africa,” said former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs at roundtable discussion hosted by the National Democratic Institute in Washington D.C.

With a public increasingly providing democratic oversight to its governments, the Togo, DRC and Burkina Faso examples offer hope that African nations are on the cusp of making significant gains in institutionalizing democratic processes. This is a new, effervescent Africa, one in the midst of change.


One Year in West Africa

This week marks one year in West Africa. Always being on the go, I know a small amount about a large number of places. And while I no longer see rural areas as much as I’d like, the cities I’ve visited offer much insight to a region whose urbanization has more than quadrupled in the past few decades. Here are some superficial observations captured in brief:

Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire

Beautiful Abidjan (Photo: UN/Basile Zoma)Abidjan is an illustration of contradictions. Despite its vastness, copious volumes of traffic and the post-conflict atmosphere, there’s something special about this city. With its tree-lined curvy roads, a lagoon bordered by forest and skyscrapers and an evident affluence mixed into the local African flavor, it’s no surprise that Abidjan used to be called, “The Paris of Africa.” During my most recent one-week trip there, the electricity went out only once whereas in other West African countries it goes out everyday, several times a day. One expat I met didn't even have a generator at home, something that is an absolute necessity in Côte d'Ivoire's neighboring countries.

Signs abound however of recent conflict: Bullet holes in walls, sandbags and cement blockades left behind by foreign armed forces and the ever-continuing presence of UN Peacekeepers, milling about town in their blue caps. Many international and local actors continue to address residual tensions through peacebuilding activities and awareness campaigns. The passing traveler might not see all this when interacting with Abidjaners. The level of politesse and kindness from Abidjan’s people is a formidable display of the capacity for resilience. One can only imagine how the city might have been if the conflicts had never occurred.

Accra, Ghana

One-third of Accra's population lives in slums (Photo: is a moving, shaking city, where one can zip from one end of town to the next at all hours of the day. It’s also one of the most developed cities in Africa. One can pamper themself here: spa treatments, swim in pools at five-star hotels, browse contemporary and traditional art galleries, dance salsa, listen to live jazz and dine at sushi restaurants. Accra is enjoying the economic boom of a country headed towards BRIC status. Every couple months I visit, a handful of new restaurants and businesses has cropped up. In fact, many expats and middle class Ghanaians live this incubated life, never seeing how one third of Accra residents live. 

Lomé, Togo

In my limited time spent in Lomé, I noted three things. First, there are many English speakers. Lomé’s 20-minute proximity to the Ghanaian border has resulted in a large volume of business activity between the two countries. Many educated Togolese have studied and/or lived in English-speaking Ghana at some point. Second, there appeared to be a general fear and frustration with a government perceived to be difficult and oppressive. Third, I found people to be very kind and warm. Even the busiest “grand chef” of an office would speak with me until I cut off the conversation, then walk me out to my car and wave as I drove away. Conversation would wrap up with a sweetly delivered, “Au plaisir!” (It was a pleasure.) Yes, I’m a sucker for politesse.

Cotonou, Bénin

Cotonou is basically a beach village with city aspects. The soil is sandy and the air filled with ocean. Motorcycles and big shipping trucks congest busy intersections, while fishing communities mobilize to pull in 50-meter-long nets from the ocean. Benin is also the shipping importation hub for used vehicles that are, in turn, transported throughout West Africa. Both African and non-African expats alike find the Beninois to be very difficult. Benin is consistently ranked one of the least happy countries in the world, an odd phenomenon considering its relative economic prosperity and political stability compared to other least happy countries.

Abuja, Nigeria

For the first time visitor, Nigeria is a bewildering place, where the volumes of everything are set to maximum. Abuja is a little like Las Vegas with African complexities. Twenty-five years ago, Abuja the capital did not exist. It was a small semi-arid town, consisting of Gwari villages. In the 1970s the oil industry boomed and the country decided to move its capital from Lagos to Abuja. Today it is a sprawling, multi-ethnic metropolis, with neatly planned converging and diverging highways and a display of new wealth like none other in Africa. I touched upon this in a long ago written post. Despite my initial bewilderment, I’ve grown to appreciate Nigeria for it’s richness in history, it’s complexity and the direct, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature of people who just come right out and say if there's a problem and then forget about it the next day.


Nigeria: A Newcomer’s First Impressions

After several years of living in Africa, I never thought I’d say this, but I’m having a bit of culture shock.

I’ve been in Nigeria for a little over a week. And it would appear that this country is rather like sub-Saharan Africa on steroids. The volume of voices a little louder, the tolerance for n’importe quoi greater and the prevalence of enterprising crime more frequent. Nigerians like to think that they are “the Americans of Africa,” – Noisy. Impolite. Industrious. Resilient.

However, such generalizations are never fair or accurate. As I'm quickly learning, this is a vast, multi-dimensional country encompassing a wide spectrum of cultures, socio-economic levels, belief systems, languages and climates. Based on my very limited experience in country, here are some observations.

Nigeria (red) is 1.3 times the size of Texas (blue, left) and 1.5 times the size of France (blue, right).

First of all, Nigeria is gigantic. This past week, I flew from Abuja in the center of the country, to Owerri in Imo State. While it might seem like a small distance on the map, the flight was one hour. Here are a couple size comparators to put things in perspective.

Naturally the sheer geographical size of Nigeria translates to climate variations. A scorching sun, dry heat and savannah grasslands embrace the nation’s capital, Abuja. Meanwhile, the southeast is graced with slightly cooler temperature, greater humidity and lush tropical vegetation. This week, the average temperature in Abuja is 35C/95F, in Owerri 30C/86F.

Nigeria hosts vast array of ethnic diversity. Between 250 and 500 ethnic groups lie within the country’s borders, including the Hausa and Fulani 29%, Yoruba 21%, Igbo 18%, Ijaw 10%, Kanuri 4%, Ibibio 3.5% and Tiv 2.5%. Of the main languages illustrated in this map, there are an estimated 500 dialects.

Main languages of Nigeria (Photo: Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection)

English is also widely spoken throughout the country. But those with an American accent be warned! You’ll be more easily understood if you imitate a British accent. "I’d like a bottle of wha-tuh." "I read the news pay-puh."

The range of economic levels in Nigeria is as vast as its cultures. On the African continent, Nigeria’s GDP is second only to South Africa’s and is expected surpass its southern rival within the next decade. Nigeria boasts a 6% growth rate compared to South Africa’s 2%.

Despite the perception of its market being risk prone, Nigeria is ripe for investment. Forbes magazine recently compared the country’s economy to Brazil’s, "rich in petroleum but blessed with an abundance of other resources and a population that is only now starting to live up to their potential as consumers."

Signs of affluence are clearly visible in Abuja. Million-dollar cars pepper the streets and designer bags the likes of New York’s Fifth Avenue grace women’s shoulders. Last month, Lagos hosted its third annual Fashion and Design Week, an event sponsored by several multi-national companies that showcased the work of Nigerian designers to the new, wealthy elite with Naira (Nigerian currency) burning in their pockets.

Abuja's ridiculous highways (Photo: beyond the petrol-financed, intertwining highways of Abuja and the glitz of Lagos lie a host of slums and people living in poverty. Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics determined that in 2010 61% of the country was living in poverty. That rate is increasing annually.

Lack of affordable housing in Abuja and other major cities has pushed much of the working class into overcrowded settlements, lacking latrines and running water. The UN Agency for Human Settlement estimates that half the country (71 million people) live in slums.

Indeed such rifts have caused great factions in Nigerian society. This, however, is a topic best saved for next time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I’m off to have my di-nuh (dinner).


Brief Thoughts on Typhoon Haiyan

While I've never been to the Visays Region where Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, it behooves me to say a few things about this catastrophic storm and its aftermath.

The Washington Post, which seems to like maps as much as I, published a collection of 8 maps, visualizing why the destruction of Typhoon Haiyan was so insurmountable. One image was particularly profound in demonstrating Typhoon Haiyan's monstrosity:

Philippines (in red) and the storm, shown to scale with the U.S. (Image: The New Republic)The largess of the storm covered an area nearly equivalent to the entirety of U.S. states south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Typhoon Haiyan was felt throughout the archipelago's 3,000-plus islands. And as it hit the Philippines, the storm had escalated to category 5.

Perhaps this will be a wake up call for the Philippine government to take a more active role in ensuring that its people are better prepared for storms to come.

There's a Filipino proverb that says: As long as there is life, there is still hope.