In developed areas, a whole range of service providing businesses is booming. Floor installation, home and carpet cleaning (have a look at carpet cleaning website www.carpetcleanersofconcord.com where professional carpet cleaning is becoming an option for the regular household, or www.fairfieldcarpetcleaningpros.com where they debate the benefits of hiring pro carpet cleaners for the lifespan of household carpeting), painting of all kinds, plumbing and many others. More people are employed and become specialized in various jobs and crafts.
Drug addiction affects millions of people worldwide, and the African continent doesn’t make an exception. Unlike the other continents, though, in Africa, not only drug addiction is a serious problem, but also drug trafficking. UN officials highlighted that drug trafficking in West and central Africa impacts economic growth, security, governance, and public health. All of these issues affect the treatment possibilities for drug abusers, as many of them both traffic and abuse drugs.
To name a number, north and central Africa represent 87% of all pharmaceutical opiates seized worldwide.
Taking a look at the details-what do the numbers say?
It goes without saying that drug addiction is a severe matter in Africa. Governments in various African regions have tried to tackle drug addiction, especially opioids like tramadol and codeine. It’s mostly young Africans who turn to opioids abuse. Just like in California some years ago, a large-scale corruption case at the most important pharmaceutical companies in Nigeria was revealed. Therefore, the government had to forbid the production and importation of syrups made with codeine.
Ghana, for instance, has tried to control opioid imports. Still, the measures depend a lot on transit routes in Benin (close to Ghana). Incidentally, Benin was declared the no. 2 largest destination for Indian tramadol back in 2016. Even though the government is trying, the efforts are far from being efficient. Nigerian officials managed to confiscate more than half a billion tablets of tramadol in just one month.
Currently, it seems that there are more than 34 million cannabis users and almost two million cocaine users in both central and western Africa (the numbers are for 2016). Narcotics are pricey in Africa, which is why opioids are very easy to obtain and affordable.
What options for treatment exist in Africa?
Despite the many economic problems, treatment centers are found across Africa, providing various types of help. Patients can enroll in Christian treatment centers, where religious-based treatment is provided for drug addiction. With 12-step programs being a big hit for many years, 12-step programs are developed in Africa, whereas centers addressing mental health issues and drug addiction are slowly being created.
Currently, some African hospitals comprise departments with psychiatry services for patients with drug/alcohol addiction or mental health conditions. For people who have no other option, these hospitals make a safe choice, even if the treatment may not be the best for your case.
Luxury rehab centers
it’s no secret that addiction knows no race, gender, social or financial status. The luxury rehab centers in Africa address patients willing to pay for the best care. Amenities and accommodation are over the top, and patients also get personalized treatment, access to various and holistic therapies for treating drug addiction. Healthy dieting with raw, vegan, non-GMO food is provided at some centers as part of the healing, such as at The Holistic Sanctuary. Clients also have access to the most innovative and proprietary protocols at this type of treatment center.
With outpatient treatment, patients can benefit from therapy and attend their daily job/family/personal responsibilities. Part-time treatment sessions are characteristic for the outpatient centers, providing help to patients with low to moderate addiction.
This type of help doesn’t give positive results in patients who have been struggling with addiction for years.
also known as inpatient centers, the residential facilities will ensure 24/7 care for the patients. They need to spend at least 28 days for the treatment to give results. It’s the best choice for people with moderate to severe drug addiction.
One last thought
Drug addiction is a severe problem in Africa, as much as in other areas of the world. Treatment centers are developing, and governments make efforts to put an end to it or prevent it. Patients seek professional help, which gives hope that soon enough, better results will happen.
In 1987, Blaise Compaoré overthrew Sankara and took over the presidency. 27 years later, Sankara’s ghost may be coming back to return the favour.
By Brian Peterson
30 years ago, on 4 August, 1984, the former French colony of the Upper Volta was re-baptised as ‘Burkina Faso’ amidst a revolutionary process that proved to be one of the most inspiring, yet ultimately tragic, episodes of modern African history.
In 1983, the young Captain Thomas Sankara had come to power in a popularly-supported coup d’état and − with broad support from leftist political parties, students, women, and peasants − initiated a range of ambitious projects, including the country’s name-change, that aimed to make the country more self-reliant and free of corruption. Sankara also sought to decentralise and democratise power in order to facilitate more participatory forms of governance, though elections for national offices were never attempted.
By many measures, this visionary project was enjoying a number of promising successes, but on 15 October 1987, Sankara’s experiment and life were cut short when a group of fellow soldiers, led by his former close ally Blaise Compaoré and backed by foreign powers, murdered him. Compaoré promptly took the reins of government effectively ending the revolution.
In the 27 years since Sankara’s overthrow, Compaoré has managed to keep a hold of power and largely ruled with impunity, though there have been periodic protest movements. Most notably, there were widespread demonstrations in 1998 after the journalist Norbert Zongo was killed, while 2011 also saw a marked rise in protests and mutinies.
And now, over the past year, the political opposition has reorganised itself once again and sharpened its message in anticipation of the presidential elections due in November 2015. So far, the most heated dispute has erupted over the issue of term limits. In 2000, the new Article 37 of the constitution reduced presidential terms from 7 to 5 years and imposed a two-term limit. Since then, Compaoré has been re-elected twice meaning that he would not be eligible to run again in 2015, but the ruling party is now calling for a referendum on the article.
It is in this fraught context that the streets of the capital Ouagadougou have become restive today and that the words and images of Thomas Sankara have been revitalised − his quotes declared at demonstrations, his face printed on posters and t-shirts, his revolutionary slogans such as “Homeland or Death, We will Overcome” remembered and recited. With a revived revolutionary spirit, the people have boldly taken up where Sankara left off, bringing to life his assertion in 1987, as rumours of a planned coup began to spread, that “Even if you kill me, thousands more Sankaras will be born.”
Spearheading the wider movement − dubbed ‘That’s Enough’ − has been the Balai Citoyen (“Citizen Broom”) collective and its main leaders, the reggae musician and radio host Sams’k Le Jah and rapper Smockey. The symbol of the broom represents both the neighbourhood cleaning groups that Sankara initiated and the need to clean the country of bad governance and corruption today. The protesters want Compaoré gone, and there’s a prevailing sense that they will not relent until this happens. The movement is peaceful and festive and inspired by the youth movement in Senegal known as Y’en a marre (“We’re fed up”) which played a role in forcing President Abdoulaye Wade from office in 2012.
The fall of Sankara
As many know, the name ‘Burkina Faso’ translates as “Land of Honest People” or “Land of Incorruptible People”, and this moniker seems to capture what it means to be Burkinabé – honest, hard-working, proud and free. The name additionally reflects the multi-ethnic vision and nation-building aspirations of Sankara in that it combined the Mooré word for ‘honest’ (Burkina) with the Jula word for ‘homeland’ (Faso).
But the name change was also a statement against imperialism. Speaking about the issue in Harlem, New York City, on 2 October 1984, Sankara explained: “We wanted to kill off Upper Volta in order to allow Burkina Faso to be reborn. For us, the name of Upper Volta symbolises colonialism.” On another occasion on French television Sankara expanded, saying: “Upper Volta doesn’t mean anything for anyone, particularly for us, the Burkinabés…. By contrast, Burkina Faso is a name drawn from the land itself, that has meaning in our language − the ‘Country of Honest Men.’”
In essence, the name change was about decolonising minds and freeing Burkina Faso from foreign cultural and economic domination, and many Burkinabés who lived through these revolutionary years remember feeling a new sense of pride in being from Burkina Faso and in having the dynamic and bold Thomas Sankara as their president. Outside the country, Sankara also became something of a revolutionary hero, being labelled the “African Che”, particularly among the youth. His famous adage, “Everything that man can imagine, he is capable of creating,” injected optimism and hope into many people’s lives.
True to the country’s new name, Sankara would live up to the highest standards of incorruptibility. At a time when most African heads-of-state used power to enrich themselves, Sankara set out to end the practice of employing political power for personal gain and lived a life of frugality and simplicity, dying with few possessions and scant money or real estate. Sankara also sought to end decades of French colonial and neo-colonial domination by reaching out to countries in the non-aligned world. His revolution restored the dignity of the people by giving them a political voice and through social and agrarian reforms. He addressed a wide array of problems with relentless vigour, ranging from environmental degradation, women’s rights, education, local cotton textile production, and public health. And while there were errors along the way, as Sankara frequently admitted himself, he persistently sought to correct them.
Following Sankara’s assassination, however, Compaoré did his best to turn all this on its head. He was quick to blame Sankara’s policies for all the country’s problems, promised to “rectify” the revolution, and used the media to defame him. And for decades now, Compaoré and his ruling party, the Congress for Democracy and Progress (CDP), has managed to keep the opposition at bay. This is partly due to Compaoré’s use of clientelist networks, though the fragmented nature of the opposition and wide proliferation of political parties have also enabled the CDP to dominate.
Meanwhile, the “Sankarist” parties have long lost their revolutionary edge. The most prominent leader among these groups, Bénéwendé Sankara (unrelated to Thomas), came second in the 2005 presidential election (albeit with less than 5% of the vote), but he has since seen his political fortunes wane. Furthermore, the social movement currently brewing in Burkina Faso has sought to distance itself from the old Sankarist parties anyhow as they view them as having tarnished Sankara’s image with their political opportunism.
Although the relations of force within Burkina Faso have been firmly in Compaoré’s favour since 1987, this may now be shifting on various fronts. Most notably, at the start of January 2014, 75 key political figures from Compaoré’s party resigned. A couple of weeks later, following a mass protest against the proposed referendum on Article 37, these former officials formed the People’s Movement for Progress (MPP).
This new opposition party is led by some of Compaoré’s closest former allies − including Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, Salif Diallo and Simon Compaoré (no relation of Blaise) − all of whom are skilled political operators. Kaboré, for instance, was president of the National Assembly from 2002 to 2012 and had been president of the ruling CDP before his defection. The MPP’s opposition to attempts to change Article 37 may well be self-serving, but it allies them with a social movement that places democratic, transparent governance and respect for the rule of law firmly centre stage.
Compaoré responded quickly to these events by establishing the Republican Front, a loose coalition of mostly pro-CDP parties that has been taking the argument to the people that it’s better to hold a referendum on Article 37 than hurl the country into chaos.
This year then, demonstrations and counter-demonstrations have been held as both the opposition and the Republican Front tour the country. In the likes of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second city, opposition parties have come together to form local Committees Against the Referendum (CCR) coordinating their tactics with leaders in Ouagadougou. Meanwhile Compaoré has taken his Republican Front on the road, organising mass rallies in the capital and, in a bid to impede his opponents as much as possible, has gone so far as to cancel the passports of MPP leaders.
A thousand Sankaras
Compaoré may well have several tricks up his sleeve, but one of his problems in all this is that the ghost of Thomas Sankara never disappeared. Despite Compaoré’s efforts, his predecessor’s ideas and inspiration would not be easily erased from history, and for many Burkinabés, it was the unceremonious manner in which their beloved leader was thrown into an unmarked grave and the dragging of his name through the dirt afterwards that stings the most. Fighting for the truth around his death is a question of dignity and respect for the man they see as having given his life for their country. For years, the issue was debated primarily within the context of the “Justice for Sankara” movement in France and on active social media networks, but it is now spilling out into the streets with renewed force.
In 2013, after years of pressure from opposition members, a French member of parliament called on the French government to open its archives and investigate Sankara’s death. In April 2014, however, the court in Ouagadougou ruled, after years of delay, that it would not allow DNA experts to access Sankara’s tomb in order to verify the identity of his body. In recent weeks, during an interview, Compaoré did finally confirm that “Thomas is buried in the Dagnoën cemetery in Ouaga,” but nothing more was revealed.
In the meantime, the ‘little Sankaras’ have come of age. As rapper Smockey said, quoting Sankara: “A mobilised and determined youth is not afraid of anything, even an atomic bomb.” And after years of fear and silence around his death, the time is ripe for the youth to pick up his legacy. Young Burkinabés listen to Sankara’s speeches on cassettes, watch videos about him on the internet, and are using this history as a weapon in their struggle today. Despite state efforts to suppress Sankara’s memory over the past three decades, the people have rediscovered the revolutionary patron saint who brought pride and dignity to Burkina Faso. This symbolic figure might be precisely what Burkinabés need to face the political challenges ahead, knowing full-well, as Sankara stated at the UN General Assembly in October of 1984, that, ultimately, “Freedom can only be won through struggle.”
By Timo Mueller
Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo:
Last month, a rare thing happened. A video made in the town of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) went viral. Moreover, featuring musicians, dancers, students, vendors and expatriates, the film wasn’t depicting the usual themes of grief and crisis associated with the region, but colourfully celebrating Goma’s fun, vibrant and joyful side.
The video was an adaptation of Pharrell Williams’ song ‘Happy’, whose 24- hour music video for the track had already inspired local artists across the world − from Abu Dhabi to Okinawa to Curaçao − to create their own versions. And on 7 June, Goma joined them.
Happy from Goma is the production of Kivu Entertainment Youth, an artisanal multimedia house led by Kelvin Batumike. Working with a dozen filmmakers, photographers, and graphic designers, Batumike’s objective is to promote local talent from all walks of life.
In his youth, Batumike started to experiment with music and soon recorded his first album with the help of the international NGOs War Child and UNICEF. Self-taught and determined, he continued to pursue his passion, recording jingles as well as mobilising other musicians in Goma.
“Local radio and television don’t really exploit the local scene and present ordinary life in Congo,” he says. “We want to megaphone what’s happening here.”
Talking to Batumike reminds me of Mapendo Sumuni, the owner of a small art house in Goma which was recently featured in Think Africa Press. Both have a burning desire to express themselves and be the masters of imagery in Goma, a town that is often synonymous with instability and conflict and which is located in a region that has been labelled the “rape capital of the world.” Sumuni’s vehicle for this is art, Batumike’s music and film.
Goma’s Amani Festival, in which 25,000 Gomatriciens congregated for three days of music, performances and fun this February, also fits into this category and, according to Batumike, has acted as encouragement for him. “[The event] ignited a spark of hope in Goma that we wanted to keep alive,” he says, his feelings seemingly echoing Happy’s refrain of: “Bring me down/Can’t nothing bring me down/My level’s too high.”
Since it was uploaded, Happy in Goma has been viewed over 35,000 times on Youtube and the some of the comments made below it speak volumes: “We have been through whatever we have been through but we came out of it alive and strong,” one commenter said, while another added “I am happy to see people of Goma smiling again. We will always be proud of what no one can take away: our happiness.” The video of course doesn’t negate the many problems still facing the unsettled region despite the defeat of the M23 rebels last November, but it does highlight the town’s resilience, the creativity of its youth, and Gomatriciens’ strong desire for change and hope.
Since the video was made, residents of Goma have also tried to keep its message going and launched a photo campaign expressing their pride of calling the city their own.
Furthermore, on 16 June, the Day of the African Child, the crew behind Happy in Goma organised a Happy Concert in the town and released a new version of ‘Happy’ in Swahili, called Tunafurai.
Research released by a coalition of African and UK partners reveals that Africa loses almost six and a half times the amount of money that it receives in aid.
By Judith Cavanagh
“It says something about this country. It says something about our standing in the world and our sense of duty in helping others… in short – it says something about the kind of people we are… And that makes me proud to be British.”
As exhibited by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who made the above comment on 8 June 2013, governments of wealthy countries like to tell tales of generous aid spending and a common responsibility to help those less fortunate in the world. But there is another story to tell. And it is not a story of what is given to continents such as Africa, but of what is taken away.
Research published today reveals that whilst the continent receives $30 billion in aid a year, this figure pales in comparison to the $192 billion leaving the continent via illicit financial flows, the repatriation of multinational company profits, debt repayments, loss of skilled workers, illegal logging and fishing, and the costs imposed as a result of climate change.
When these losses are compared to overall financial inflows – including not just aid but foreign investment and remittances − Africa is left with a $58 billion a year net loss. To put it in to context, that is over one and a half times the estimated $37 billion a year extra funding it would cost to deliver universal health coverage for everyone in the world.
These figures expose the true financial relationship of wealthy countries with Africa, a relationship that is seldom mentioned by politicians. It is a relationship in which the world doesn’t aid Africa, but in which Africa aids the world.
Debates on the role of wealthy governments in ending global poverty tend to focus on how much aid we should give. UK politicians, for example, line up to defend the aid budget in a time of austerity and increasing public hostility, while the media and NGOs often publically applaud them for doing so, reinforcing the image of the UK’s benevolence.
Yet despite years of public fundraising campaigns and aid ‘generosity’, we are still nowhere near to witnessing the end of global poverty. In fact, this aid obsession merely acts as a smokescreen that hides the true causes of global poverty and reinforces paternalistic notions of Africa as a poor and corrupt continent with helpless people in need of intervention from wealthy countries. It is a smokescreen that hides the fact that these wealthy governments often have a large role in causing the conditions that their ‘aid’ is supposed to help fix.
The current system is one that facilitates a perverse reality in which: companies are allowed to promote their ‘corporate social responsibility’ whilst routing profits though tax havens; wealthy philanthropists donate money whilst their companies dodge tax; and short-term fundraising tactics mean NGOs push the idea that donating a few pounds to charity will solve poverty whilst simultaneously ignoring the systemic injustices that keep Africa poor.
However, Africa is not poor, though its people are being kept in poverty by a combination of inequitable policies, huge disparities in power, and criminal activities perpetuated and sustained by wealthy elites, both inside and outside the continent.
For example, $35.3 billion a year is lost in illicit financial flows facilitated by the global network of tax havens. Tax havens jurisdictionally linked to the G8 countries or the EU are responsible for 70% of global tax haven investment, and the UK is at the heart of this with at least ten tax havens under its jurisdiction, or 11 if you count the City of London.
The illicit haemorrhaging of finance is most clear in resource-rich countries. Whilst it would be logical to assume that these countries would have lower levels of poverty, in fact the reverse tends to be true. Of the world’s poorest one billion people, one-third live in resource rich countries. Additionally, resource-rich countries account for 9 out of the 12 countries at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI), a measure of wealth, life expectancy and education, illustrating the impact of corruption facilitated through tax havens and secret corporate activities.
Action, not just aid
Real progress on global poverty requires that politicians stop hiding behind this aid propaganda and instead take concrete action to tackle the real causes of poverty. This includes urgent action to close down the UK’s network of tax havens, to tackle the looming debt crisis, to end the plundering of African resources, and to tackle climate change.
Politicians are only telling us half the story when it comes to the world’s financial relationship with Africa. It is time that we expose the aid myth and demand that politicians take responsibility for their part in sustaining global poverty. Change requires that countries be judged not just on their aid, but on their action.
Visit the Health Poverty Action website for more information and to read the full report.
The Dodd-Frank act has not only had limited effect on militant groups, it has also undermined artisanal miners’ livelihoods and local economies.
By Christoph Vogel
Goma/Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo:
In October 2013, after a year-and-a-half-long rebellion in which its forces managed to take control of several major cities and towns in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the M23 rebel group was finally dislodged.
Just a year previously, the militants had stormed Goma, the capital of North Kivu, and enjoyed a string of resounding victories over the Congolese army. In fact, even a few weeks before the rebels were pushed out, they looked well-rooted in their strongholds. But in the end, a well-planned and well-orchestrated attack, combining Congolese soldiers and UN forces, dealt the M23 a virtually fatal blow as they were forced to flee east.
In the aftermath of the group’s demise, analysts continued to try to understand the M23’s motivations as well as the reasons underpinning its eventual downfall. Regarding the rebels’ defeat, many cited the reforms within the Congolese army, the involvement of the UN’s beefed-up Force Intervention Brigade, and Rwanda’s possible withdrawal of support for the rebels.
These factors were broadly agreed upon, but some, such as John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, also pointed to another and more indirect factor. Amongst other things, Prendergast attributed the M23’s collapse on: “a series of actions designed to dry up the international market for so-called conflict minerals, which help fund the armed groups in Congo.”
The idea of ‘conflict minerals’ has gained a lot of traction in recent years and the basic line of argument maintains that eastern Congolese militants have long been supported, if not even motivated, by the presence of tantalum, tin, tungsten (the ‘3Ts’) and gold in the region. Advocates of this viewpoint, therefore, support stronger regulations over minerals, and many contend that the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, a piece of US legislation that requires companies to track and report their use of minerals from the eastern DRC in a bid to ensure that they are not ‘conflict minerals’, has helped to cut off this important lifeline for armed groups.
This emphasis on ‘conflict minerals’ being the driving force behind unrest in the Congo is particularly popular amongst various advocacy groups (including the Enough Project) and certain US legislators − the idea that smartphones and laptops wouldn’t function if not for the little bit of Congolese tantalite in them has also struck a chord with much of the public − but can we really attribute the fall of the once unstoppable M23 to a tightening of regulations?
The short answer seems to be no.
In fact, as Laura Seay, an expert on conflict in central Africa, has pointed out, the level of conflict in the region has actually increased since the implementation of the Dodd-Frank Act. Other research suggests that the amount of smuggled commodities from the eastern DRC has risen over recent years, partly to sidestep the Dodd-Frank regulations and because of a preceding mining ban. And some reports suggest that even in where pilot projects are being conducted by the Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi) − a mechanism designed to control the supply chain through a ‘closed pipeline’ that cuts out ‘illegal actors’ − armed interference remains a major risk.
There are various reasons why the association between minerals and conflict put forwards by certain advocacy groups and policy circles is overly simplistic if not misguided.
The most straightforward is simply that minerals have never been a root cause of the conflicts that have shattered the eastern DRC. Instead, instability has typically been driven by contests over land, identity and citizenship and the related struggles over power and external intervention. This does not mean that the ruthless exploitation of minerals has been a constant feature of rebellions − many armed groups have been partly sustained by revenue from these resources − but mining has rarely, if ever, been militants’ primary goal.
The M23, for instance, never sought physical access to mines; in fact, many of its commanders left areas where they had close mining access in order to join the rebels. And furthermore, as Seay explains, militants typically have diverse sources of income, including from taxing civilians and traffic, cross-border smuggling and trading many other legal and illegal commodities.
In short, making it harder to deal in minerals may make it slightly harder for rebel groups to sustain themselves, but mining is rarely if ever an end in itself for armed groups, and when rebels do engage in mining, minerals are just one of their many lifelines.
It seems clear that the Dodd-Frank Act is not the silver bullet some claim. However, while it may have only disrupted rebel groups to a fairly minor degree, its effect on the region has been deeply significant in other ways.
According to the most concrete estimates available, 8-10 million people in the eastern DRC are economically linked to artisanal mining, making the sector a lifeblood of the economy. These local actors say they were not consulted prior to the establishment of the Dodd-Frank Act and claim that their livelihoods have been severely undermined. And unlike for the rebels, alternative lifelines for artisanal miners are few and far between.
One problem is that the legislative change has not been accompanied by sufficient concrete action on the ground. US companies are required to ensure their minerals were legally extracted, yet initiatives aimed at improving traceability and certification − such as iTSCi process, Motorola’s ‘Solutions for Hope’ (SFH) and the ‘Conflict-Free Tin Initiative’ (CFTI) projects − have started in just a handful of sites. Regarding the minerals extracted from all the hundreds of other mines, potential buyers have tended to simply back away lest they fall foul of the new legislation, resulting in a de facto embargo on the majority of eastern Congo’s minerals. This in turn has led to mass unemployment and the collapse of local economies.
In several mining villages, civil society organisations and spokespeople for the creuseurs (artisanal miners) say they have been waiting in vain for years for to be included in traceability and certification initiatives. But in the meantime, mining production has either come to a halt or miners have looked for alternative options: usually either dealing with Asian traders who are less concerned by US legislation and OECD guidelines or engaging in smuggling, often in collusion with local armed actors. Both of these options come with unfavourably low mineral prices − partly because the iTSCi and other initiatives lead to buyer monopsonies − meaning that even creuseurs who do manage to find buyers struggle to make ends meet, while others are simply pushed out of business.
Many of those forced to leave the mining sector and with few other options for employment join or rejoin militias. Indeed, the initial phase of limited traceability and certification schemes between 2010 and 2012 coincided with an increase in combatant numbers, with some recruits citing the lack of economic prospects in mining as a reason for their joining, as seen in the video below.
The insufficient implementation of the initiatives on the ground has damaged local economies, but, in fact, even where traceability and certification schemes have begun, the results have been mixed. For example, in the single site where the iTSCi’s traceability scheme has so far been fully implemented − the tin mine of Nyabibwe, South Kivu − there have been technical problems linked to the chemical quality of the tin ore, logistical challenges, and the pits are frequently closed due to flooding. Despite being a flagship project for conflict-free minerals, Nyabibwe also remains marred by smuggling.
Furthermore, while a third of the few dozen ‘validated’ sites in the region have been classified as ‘conflict-free’ by the Congolese government, almost none has been ‘certified’ by the regional International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), meaning that dealing in the minerals is still very difficult.
Does all this mean that lobbyists, lawmakers, and practitioners should stop caring about Congolese minerals? Not at all. But it is clear that a new approach is necessary. The simplistic connection of militias and minerals (and even, with hugely questionable reasoning, sexual violence) has helped a great deal in getting the DRC into the focus of Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere, and it is true that belligerents have profited from resource extraction.
However, conflict minerals campaigns have failed to understand that mineral extraction is much more of a means for rebel groups than an end in itself. In addition false claims, for instance that armed actors are “no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed”, implying that they had been in all of them before, represent a fundamental misrepresentation of the complex Congolese reality.
It is indeed crucial that abuses and fraud in the DRC’s mining economy be tackled, but this, firstly, needs to be done carefully in a way that takes into account the multi-faceted local web of economic interaction, and secondly must be recognised to be one element in a intricate jigsaw and not the be all and end all.
Ultimately, if true peace and stability are to be established in the eastern DRC, the root causes, drivers and sustaining dynamics of the few dozen militias that remain in the region will need to be addressed. Resource extraction is a serious issue but it is a largely concomitant factor. Cleaning up the mineral sector is important but it should not be taken for a peace-building strategy. In addition, any effort made against ‘conflict minerals’ should first and foremost avoid adverse effects on the side of the miners and their dependents. After all, they are by and large the biggest group hit by the Dodd-Frank Act, not the militias.
Europe may express sympathy with African asylum seekers in word, but this is often contradicted by their actions in deed.
By Yohannes Woldemariam
Last month, at least 17 people drowned when a boat filled with hundreds of African migrants sank in on its way from Libya to Italy. The week before, at least 36 had died attempting to make the same treacherous journey in similarly overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels.
The accounts of African migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea are horrifying. But perhaps even more shocking is just how commonplace such stories have become. Over the course of just four days in May, for instance, the Italian navy rescued around 6,000 people as they attempted to cross to Europe in crammed boats; full and flimsy boats like those that faltered earlier this month are reportedly leaving Libya almost continuously; and there is no shortage of people from various parts of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East arriving at Africa’s northern shores to await their turns to attempt the voyage. The EU’s border agency Frontex suggests some 42,000 migrants have made the journey from North Africa to Italy this year, a sharp rise on the past two years. And this is before we even mention the tragedy last October when over 360 people drowned off the Italian island of Lampedusa.
When the worst happens and migrants die off the coasts of Libya or Italy, European countries often express sympathy and grief. After Lampedusa tragedy, for example, there was a high degree of soul-searching amongst European governments. However, as has often been the case, a momentary human concern soon evaporated and European countries soon restarted their well-worn strategies of rhetorically undermining the plight of asylum seekers through clever but disingenuous arguments, of emphasising the need to protect Fortress Europe from ‘invading African hordes’, and of trying as best they can to offload any burden that might come with protecting refugees onto poorer countries.
Keeping them out
One way in which Western countries justify their failure to protect asylum seekers and discredit the plights of migrants is through the notion of ‘asylum shopping’. This rhetoric works by implying that the people who reach European shores are not genuinely fleeing persecution, but are economic migrants attempting to enter other countries under the pretext of discrimination. True asylum seekers, it is suggested, would simply apply for refuge in the first country they reached.
This argument often plays well to domestic audiences but rarely takes account of the reality of many migrants’ situations. Firstly, the distinction between economic and political migrants is often a false one. The rhetoric suggests that some asylum seekers are ‘bogus’ because they were motivated by economic choices, but when it comes to the tens of millions of displaced people from across Africa, there is no meaningful distinction between economic discrimination and political discrimination, and little difference between economic refugees and political ones. The false dichotomy implies there is a choice involved in economic migration unlike in the face of political persecution, but the reality for those embarking on risky journeys to escape their homelands, there is no such choice.
Secondly, these arguments hugely misconstrue where most refugees actually end up. Despite the hysteria that sometimes accompanies debates around asylum seekers in the West, Western countries take on just a fraction of the world’s displaced persons. According to the UN Refugee Agency, of the 21 countries that hosted over 1 million refugees between 2003 and 2012, just one European country − France − made the list, which is in reality dominated by the likes of Pakistan, Iran, Kenya, Tanzania and Chad.
Thirdly, the notion that not applying for asylum in the first country reached constitutes ‘asylum shopping’ is similarly misguided. For example, many of those who are willing to risk their lives to reach Europe begin their journeys in the deeply repressive Eritrea, and for Eritreans there are few safe havens in the whole East African region, let alone in neighbouring countries.
Crossing over into Sudan, for example, is hugely unsafe. There are numerous human trafficking gangs that operate around refugee camps in the east, abducting displaced people to hold them for ransom, while security forces are known to kidnap Eritreans to return them home. Djibouti is also hostile to asylum seekers and often imprisons Eritreans claiming that they are security threats. Libya meanwhile has been a nightmare for African refugees both under the rule of Muammar Gaddafi and since his downfall, with many being discriminated against and violently targeted.
The unstable situations in Somalia, Egypt and South Sudan do not offer much better options for Eritrean asylum seekers, while Kenya − on the other side of Ethiopia − appears to be growing increasingly intolerant of its own mostly Somali refugee community. Finally, relations between Eritrea and Ethiopia are tense and Eritrean asylum seekers risk getting sucked into the low-level conflict that has continued between the two countries since the 1998-2000 border war.
For Eritreans fleeing their home countries therefore, seeking asylum in the first, second or even third country of arrival is simply not a viable option.
As well as disingenuous rhetoric that aims to undermine the legitimacy of asylum seekers, European countries also attempt to relieve themselves of the duty to protect refugees through more concrete measures. Some of these are more subtle, such as through the funding of large refugee camps outside their own borders, but some are far more direct.
Before Gaddafi’s overthrow, for example, Italy and several other European countries maintained close links with Libya, part of which were centred on cooperative measures to keep European shores free of migrants. Under the Italian-Libyan Friendship Pact of 2008, for instance, the two countries significantly strengthened border controls and Libya was encouraged to intercept potential migrants. Italy was to provide half the funding for the bolstered system as well as the companies that would be used for the initiatives, while the rest of the money was to be sought from the EU.
Under a 2009 agreement, Libya also agreed to allow Italian coastguard to stop boatloads of African migrants on the seas and forcibly return them to Libya. Italy was not required to conduct any screening of the travellers whatsoever − potentially in violation of international law − before they sent them to Libya where they faced a high chance of discrimination and abuse.
Europe’s reliance on Libyan complicity in holding back asylum seekers became particularly clear in the final days of Gaddafi’s regime when the threatened dictator warned that if he was deposed, “thousands of people from Libya will invade Europe and there will be no one to stop them.” In fact, Gaddafi made good on his promise when, in May 2011, Libyan authorities reportedly began putting non-Libyan citizens on boats and sending them north to Europe. According to one news report, “A spokesman for Gaddafi suggested that increased illegal immigration was the price European nations would pay for their military and political support of the rebels trying to topple Libya’s strongman.”
The way forwards
There are a number of things the world can do to begin correcting the iniquities of the global asylum system, the unfair burden it puts on certain countries and the huge gaps in its protection of the world’s most vulnerable people. This change can start with amendments to international treaties and conventions.
To begin with, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention is desperately out of date. 1951 is a long time ago and the world has changed dramatically since then in terms of communication access, mobility of individuals and the places from which most refugees derive. Most countries in Africa were still colonies in 1951, and although the convention was amended in 1967 to broaden its applicability to beyond Europe, little else has been amended over the past six decades. For example, the 1951 convention still has no clear provision for burden-sharing and defines refugees in outdated terms that make little sense in today’s world. As it stands, the convention fails to protect refugees. It was created in an environment that has changed dramatically, and reflects a time when the world was a bigger, more certain place and international flows of people were on a much smaller scale.
The Dublin Regulation, which contains the EU’s rules on allocating responsibility for processing asylum seekers, also needs to be reviewed and updated to give small countries such as Malta a fairer deal. According to Dublin II, which has its origins in a 1990 intergovernmental convention, the obligation to examine an asylum seeker’s request rests on the country where the application was first submitted. This puts an unfair burden on countries situated in the south and east of the EU.
Many asylum seekers would actually prefer to be elsewhere in the EU where they probably have relatives or contacts but legally, countries such as Malta, Greece, Italy and Spain are often obliged to keep them. These frontline countries have tended to respond by warehousing potential refugees and asylum seekers in often inhumane conditions or in some cases by engaging in ‘refoulement’ − the returning refugees to territories where their life or freedom may be threatened.
In 2004, the European Community produced its Qualification Directive, a European Union-wide approach to refugee protection that is broader in some ways than the 1951 Convention. However, it is nowhere near as generous as other regional guarantees such as the 1969 African Convention, the 1984 Cartagena Declaration of the Organization of American States or the 2001 Bangkok-Principles. Part of the reason for this difference is that Europe has treated refugee protection as part of its immigration policy − immigration law is about controlling entry; refugee law should be about offering protection.
Changing a few conventions will not protect asylum seekers and iron out the inequalities and problems in the global asylum system overnight, but it is a start. And an urgently need one at that. After all, if the world continues to rely on outdated definitions and treaties to deal with Africa’s migrants, stories of rickety boats carrying vulnerable people sinking in search of safer shores will not stop any time soon.
200,000 Ugandans have signed up to a company believing it will cure all their illnesses and help them make a fortune. But it is more likely to do the opposite.
By James Wan.
On the corner of a bumpy, red-soil road in the rural town of Iganga in eastern Uganda, there lies a small store. A handful of people mill around the entrance in the glaring sun, waiting their turn to enter. They are the main source of activity on this placid street, but their patient presence barely betrays the hubbub within.
Inside, almost a dozen people sit crammed on makeshift benches around two edges of the stifling room. Most of the remaining space is taken up by a shop counter, behind which are shelves piled high with vibrantly-coloured health products covered in Chinese characters.
A couple of customers compete with a baby wailing as they read out lists of products to the shop attendants who pick them off the shelves. Every now and then, the door in the corner opens. Someone steps out, usually holding a piece of paper, and the person sitting closest steps in.
Beyond that doorway is an even smaller room, windowless and illuminated by a single light. As I peer in, three people are undergoing diagnostic tests, a woman is standing on a machine that hums loudly as it vibrates, and a few more patients are waiting slumped along the wall.
Wasswa Zziwa Edrisa − or “Doctor Wasswa” as he is known here − stands in the centre wearing a fresh, chequered shirt on his back and an unwavering grin on his face. With the easy charm of a seasoned salesman and the swaggering self-assurance of Uganda’s national bird and symbol, the crested crane, Wasswa welcomes me in.
“I will show you how we help so many people,” he says, beaming. “Let me show you the machines.”
“This is one of the scanners,” he explains, pointing to a piece of kit that looks a bit like a 1970s radio. “It shows everything. We can see if you have diabetes, kidney deficiencies, liver problems, eye problems. Everything.”
Wasswa explains that the test works using a traditional Chinese understanding of the body whereby different points of the hand relate to different internal organs. We watch as an attendant prods a patient’s left palm with a metal tip, making a little meter light up. When the light goes green, he explains, it means that part of the body is fine, but if it goes orange it indicates a problem.
Next Wasswa points me to the corner where a woman is standing on a small machine and holding onto a pair of handlebars to which she is harnessed. Her whole body blurs in the dim light as the platform beneath her vibrates rapidly, its droning buzz filling the room.
Similar machines can be found in many gyms these days and are meant to help tone muscle, but the uses Wasswa presents are quite different.
“This is a blood circulation massager,” he announces. “You see how she sweats. It opens the vessels and deals with paralysis. It helps people with stroke.”
Wasswa then shows me another diagnostics machine, this one connected to a laptop. As the patient holds on to an appliance plugged into the computer, pictures of different organs flash up on the screen for a few seconds each as a dial next to it oscillates erratically. After a minute, a one-page document pops up, listing how well his organs are functioning.
In the airless room, Wasswa runs through a few more devices − a face pain remover, a blood pressure reducer, a necklace that removes radiation − before squeezing past bodies and chairs to get back to the first patient we met. By now his diagnostic test is complete. He tells me that he came to the store because of some mild pain around his mouth, but Wasswa breaks the news that there are more serious things about which he ought to be concerned.
“Ah, he has a problem with his spleen,” says Wasswa, nodding knowingly. “At times, he gets constipation and some swelling in the legs and arms. There is also some paralysis in the legs. He gets headaches. At times he feels dizziness. His brain arteries need to be detoxified. He has kidney deficiencies. He has bad chest pain. He has high cholesterol. He has poor circulation. And he has problems with his stomach.”
The roster of the young and healthy-looking patient’s conditions seems extreme, but Wasswa is not perturbed.
“He needs to improve his circulation by using our machines and he will need to take our products. If he uses them, he will be fine,” he reassures.
Back in the light and noise of the waiting-room-cum-pharmacy, Wasswa shows me some of these products. He picks goods off the shelves, ranging from capsules to toothpastes to body creams, and stacks them on the counter as he explains what they each do. “This takes away all the radiation in your body. This helps with diabetes. This treats ulcers. This is for slimming. This adds more white blood cells to your system. This is for people who are mentally disturbed,” he says.
“These medicines are good for everything,” he concludes finally, the pile of products on the counter now complete. “If you have cancer, we can help. If you have HIV, we can help. Even if you have a hernia or a tumour or appendicitis, you just take our products and they will disappear.”
Wasswa (right) piles TIENS products up on the counter of the store in Iganga.
This small store in eastern Uganda employs a handful of staff and, according to Wasswa, receives dozens of patients each day. Wasswa is also frequently heard on local radio advertising his services and has made quite a name for himself in the area. He was previously a school teacher and says his parents were “peasants”, but now, in his 30s, he is anything but. These days, Wasswa drives a shiny four-wheel drive, wears sharp suits and even goes on jet-setting trips around the world. All this makes him quite the exception in Iganga, but across Uganda, this young ‘doctor’ is by no means a solo pioneer and his store is by no means unique.
Similar stores can found all across the country, from Kasese in the west to Soroti in the east, and from Gulu in the north to Entebbe in the south. There are four such outlets in Kampala alone. These stores offer the same diagnostic tests, stock the same range of products, and above all their doors, there hangs the same innocuous green and orange sign which reads: “TIENS: Together We Share Health And Wealth.”
TIENS − also known as Tianshi − is a multinational company based 10,000 miles away in the Chinese metropolis of Tianjin. It was founded in 1995 by Li Jinyuan, who has since become a billionaire from the venture. The company has established branches in 110 countries including 16 in Africa, employs over 10,000 staff globally, and reportedly enjoys net profits worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
TIENS first began tapping into the Ugandan market in 2003 and it has grown steadily ever since. There are now around 30 stores across the country, TIENS distributors regularly engage in outreach programmes to rural communities, and according to the company’s national chairperson, Kibuuka Mazinga Ambrose, TIENS-Uganda has an annual turnover of around $6 million.
The company has even bought the most prominent advertising spot on the Health Ministry’s official calendar, a particularly brazen move given that none of its outlets are registered health facilities.
Patients who come to TIENS seek help for a whole range of conditions − from malaria to paralysis − but they tend to tell similar stories of how they arrived here. Typically, they say that they first went to public facilities (some told me they had even visited two or three), but were either not seen to or found the treatment ineffective. TIENS is almost always a last resort. But in a country whose healthcare infrastructure is riddled with chronic problems and which, by some measures, ranks as one of the worst in the world, the last resort is often one that needs to be taken.
In many areas of Uganda, public health facilities are virtually inaccessible, while those who do manage to reach them may find their walls crumbling, their clinics under-staffed, and their shelves bereft of drugs. Although the government has promised to invest more in the sector, much of the country’s healthcare infrastructure is in decay. Doctors and nurses are over-worked and underpaid, and although services are meant to be free, in reality patients face many hidden costs.
In this context, stores like Wasswa’s − with its quick turnaround, attentive staff and fully-stocked shelves − offer an appealing alternative. The always conclusive diagnostic tests are highly convenient; attendants’ claims about the healing powers of TIENS products may well be reassuring; and many patients say the fact the medicines travelled thousands of miles from China suggest they must work.
Many customers who use TIENS products also insist that they do work.
A patient uses a “blood circulation massager.” In gyms, these are known as Power Plates.
On the Friday morning after my tour of Wasswa’s clinic, the courtyard next to the outlet is packed. Over a hundred people sit on plastic chairs facing forwards while latecomers lean against the back wall. A red tarpaulin sheet shields the crammed attendees from the sun and gives the whole atmosphere an eerie pink hue.
‘Doctor Julius’, a man in his late-30s with an intense glare and impatient demeanour, stands at the front. He has just finished explaining the healing powers of TIENS toothpaste − which as well as cleaning teeth, can be used to treat ulcers, angina and skin problems amongst many other conditions − and he invites attendees who have used the product to give testimony. Four hands go up immediately.
“I had terrible problems with my teeth,” says the first speaker. “I went to see doctors but a new tooth had to be uprooted every week. When I started to use TIENS toothpaste, the pain went away.”
The next patient tells a very similar story before two mothers relay how the toothpaste cleared up their respective children’s skin rashes and burns.
Every now and then over the next few hours, many more attendees are invited to recount their experiences of using TIENS products. We hear how a man with back pain can now walk, how another man was cured of vertigo, and how a woman’s child was once bed-ridden but is now running around. At one point, Wasswa looks particularly pleased as a mother tells of how her young son − who she had taken to three separate public healthcare facilities before he was cured of cerebral malaria by TIENS − now wants to change his name to ‘Doctor Wasswa’.
“You see, these products work,” Wasswa announces after one of the testimonies. “At hospitals, they will ask you how you feel, but here, we tell you how you feel. At hospitals, they treat signs and symptoms. Here, we treat causes. At hospitals, they give you medicines made from chemicals which are harmful and can give you ulcers. Here, we use herbal medicines which have no side-effects.”
“This is real,” he continues. “This is Chinese herbal medicine based on 5,000 years of traditional medicine and it works.”
A patient gets tested by a TIENS attendant.
In Kampala, I test this out for myself. I visit a couple of the company’s stores, nestled in the city centre’s endless bustling plazas, and in one of them, managed by an intense man named Frank, I get tested.
Frank, the self-declared “best in the business” at doing diagnostic tests, seems thrilled at my presence and bundles me across to the end of the room. He sits me down and pulls across a thin curtain to give us a modicum of privacy from the handful of waiting patients. He takes out a battered looking hand-held device, pushes a 9-volt battery into its back and plugs a wire into it that branches into two metal tips. He gives me one of the electrified points to hold in my right hand and says he will use the other to press points on my left palm. With a grave look on his face, Frank instructs me to tell him when I feel a tingling. This seems to be a more basic version of the first test I’d seen in Iganga.
To begin with, I report whenever I feel something, which is every single time the tip touches my hand, completing the basic electric circuit. Frank nods excitedly when I do so and explains that I have a serious problem in whichever part of my body he is testing. After a while, however, I decide to stop reporting every time I feel a tingling. Frank lets me get away with one, but after that he frowns when I stay silent and simply keeps the metal point on my hand until I give in, sometimes rubbing my hand and even licking the metal tip if I am being particularly resistant.
In the end, Frank writes out a list of around 25 health conditions including “liver disorder,” “STROKE,” and “enteric fever [aka severe typhoid],” and prescribes a roster of products that comes to over USH 1 million ($400).
Before committing to his costly regimen, I decide to get a second opinion.
In the bright, clean reception of Beijing Clinic, a private health facility in Kampala, I relate my experience to a young Ugandan doctor, who trained and qualified in China, specialising in traditional Chinese medicine. The doctor, who prefers not to be named, laughs as I explain the machines I saw in Iganga and the test I underwent in Kampala. “No machine can test all those things like they claim,” he says.
Next, I show him the TIENS Information Guide, a booklet from which it seems Julius and Wasswa get most of their information. On page 3 of the booklet, a short disclaimer warns: “Tianshi Company does not make any medical claims whatsoever.” However, the next 60 pages are filled with bold declarations about the powers of its products and instructions on how to treat different diseases.
“Whatever this is, it is not Chinese medicine,” says the Chinese-trained doctor with a combination of amusement and incredulity. He chuckles as he reads how TIENS medicines are supposed to treat about a dozen different conditions each, from preventing cancer to reversing impotence to promoting “the growth of children’s reproductive organs.”
However, the doctor’s amusement soon turns to horror as he reaches the section of the booklet advising distributors on what steps to take when patients are suffering from different diseases. TIENS customers are typically encouraged to undergo diagnostic tests in store, but most who go to TIENS have previously been to hospital and know some of the conditions from which they are suffering. The company guide offers clear and easy instructions on what they should be prescribed.
Of the few hundred conditions listed − which span from AIDS to Yellow Fever − a handful include the recommendation to ‘see a doctor’. But the rest just list a few products to be taken.
“This is a death sentence,” mutters the doctor, falling silent.
One of the most repeated claims by TIENS distributors is that because the products are ‘herbal’, they have no side-effects. This assertion is used to elevate them above Western medicines, which they say are made from chemicals and so can be harmful, but the claim is also used to suggest that there are no dangers involved in taking them.
“Even if I tell you to swallow one and you swallow four, there will be no problems,” Wasswa had insisted. But when put to the Chinese-trained doctor in Beijing Clinic, he just shakes his head. “That is a flat out lie,” he says.
He recalls that last year, he was consulted by police after a man suffering from kidney problems died suddenly from liver failure. A toxicology report found that he had had a toxic overdose and it was suggested that the TIENS supplements the patient had been taking without his doctor’s knowledge had either caused additional problems or reacted badly with other medicines. The man’s family could not afford to get a more detailed medical report, however, and declined to take the matter further.
At another private clinic in Kampala, Dr Wen, a highly-regarded practitioner with three decades experience, is similarly concerned. “This is not medicine,” he says, “but it is still dangerous. Everything has side-effects. Even herbal medicines and herbal supplements used wrongly can kill.”
I contacted Uganda’s Health Minister, Ruhakana Rugunda, repeatedly for comment, but received no reply.
Apart from the story of the kidney patient, I didn’t come across other rumours of deaths, but cases of the products not working as miraculously as promised were easy to find. After all, TIENS products are not medicines. Some of the company’s goods have been registered with Uganda’s National Drugs Authority, but as ‘food & dietary supplements’. In fact, stories of TIENS products not fully working were even common amongst some of TIENS most ardent fans.
Back in Iganga, with the courtyard seminar over and Wasswa busy talking to a small circle of attendees eager to hear more, Sarah*, 25, moves towards the back of the courtyard closer to where I am sitting.
During the seminar, she had given testimony telling of how she’d taken her baby boy, who was suffering from sickle cell anaemia, to several hospitals before she came to TIENS. Many of those who told their stories directed them matter-of-factly at Julius or Wasswa, but Sarah had turned to face the crowd and spoken passionately as she’d explained how the products worked wonders.
Asked a few more questions after the symposium, however, her story reveals itself to be far less straightforward. It transpires that her son is still ill. So ill, in fact, that she recently quit her nursing job to look after him full-time. Sarah nevertheless insists that the TIENS medicines work and says the reason her son is still suffering is because his treatment is incomplete. She bought half the products the boy needs for a full recovery but is struggling to find the money to purchase the rest.
Robert, 30, tells a similar tale. He too claims to be a firm believer in the healing powers of TIENS, and acted as my translator throughout the seminar, seemingly on Wasswa’s instruction. Robert says that he came to TIENS with kidney problems and maintains the products worked where hospital treatments failed. Like Sarah’s son, however, he admits that he is still in pain. Firstly, he attributes this to the fact that his kidney treatment is incomplete; he too has had financial difficulties. Secondly, he explains that the TIENS diagnostic test revealed his kidneys are not his only problem; while his original condition may have improved, he now knows he is suffering from other conditions that need to be cured too.
Sarah and Robert reveal that they have each spent USH 460,000 ($180) on products so far, paying in instalments from what they could borrow or scrape together. Sarah says she needs USH 500,000 ($200) more to complete her son’s treatment, but doesn’t know where the money will come from given that she is now jobless and that the father of her son is in school. Robert says he needs around USH 200,000 ($80) more, but says that as a “peasant”, he too will struggle.
“I haven’t balanced it well,” he says, “but I hope it will balance out soon. I am still feeling pain.”
Attendees gather to listen to Wasswa in the courtyard in Iganga.
It is not a coincidence that Robert, Sarah and a few others who spoke to me had all purchased exactly USH 460,000 worth of products. Nor is it an inexplicable peculiarity that individuals with no reliable source of income had shelled out what little they had, and more, on TIENS products. After all, TIENS is more than just a supplier of health supplements.
In the symposium in Iganga, once Julius had waxed lyrical about various products, it was time for Wasswa to take over the stage to talk about another benefit of TIENS. Though not before Julius had the opportunity to rouse the crowd.
After finishing his demonstration of TIENS’ disease-curing sanitary pads, Julius put down the product and strolled ponderously along the front of the courtyard before turning to face the audience. “Tianshi!” he shouted suddenly. “Together we share!” came back the reply on cue, a hundred voices amplified by the concrete walls. “Tianshi!” Julius proclaimed a second time, a little louder. “One dream!” came the soaring response. “Tianshi!” yelled the doctor a third time. “The best of all!!” bellowed the crowd.
Next, Julius taught the audience a new trick. Since all points in ours palms relate to different internal organs, he explained, clapping stimulates the whole body and works as a kind of “first aid.” He held his hands apart and, together with the crowd, clapped out a rhythm that crackled across the courtyard. Julius explained that the louder you clap, the greater the benefits to your internal organs, before holding out his hands and going again. And again.
Finally, looking satisfied, Julius completed his session and handed over to Wasswa.
“TIENS is not just good for your health,” the salesman proclaimed, taking to the stage, “it is also good for your wealth. If you register with TIENS, they will start to pay you. You come here for treatment, but over time, you will start to get a salary.”
Over the next few minutes, Wasswa explained that this is what he had done and that he was not only receiving thousands of dollars every month now, but had been taken on international trips by the company, received huge cash bonuses and been given a brand new car.
“When you reach a certain level, you start earning,” he said. “And it does not matter if you have no qualifications or education. TIENS does not care if you are educated. TIENS only cares how many products you buy and how many people you recruit.”
Wasswa said these words with a weighty earnestness, but they were not news to half the courtyard. Robert, Sarah and many others around them − all recognisable by the golden lion-shaped badges they were wearing − were not just TIENS patients, but members and distributors already. They were here on Wasswa’s instructions to give testimony and help convince others to join too. For these returning members, TIENS is not just a medical supplier, but a livelihood, an investment, and a chance to follow in Wasswa’s jet-setting footsteps.
Sitting behind his desk at the TIENS-Uganda headquarters, located at the top of King Fahd Plaza on a busy street in Kampala, Kibuuka Mazinga Ambrose is delighted to explain how the business model works in more detail.
“Anyone can join,” says the company chairperson, wearing a bright yellow TIENS-branded cap. “All you need to do is pay a small initial fee of $20.” Once you have done this, you can buy products at wholesale prices and sell them on at a profit. However, this is just the start, he says. You don’t get rich by selling a few bottles of herbal supplements. Under TIENS’ model, there are eight ranks and you need to move up the levels to really start enjoying the benefits.
The first few levels can be reached simply by buying more products, which essentially brings with it a small discount on goods. However, to get to the bigger rewards, you need to start recruiting others. This way, you receive a commission whenever they make purchases and also get rewarded if they recruit their own followers.
The more people you recruit and the more they recruit in turn, the higher you move up the rankings, and soon you can just sit back and watch as the commissions roll in. Furthermore, once you’ve reached the 8-star level and keep growing your network, you will eventually become a Bronze Lion, then a Silver Lion, then a Gold Lion, and enjoy rewards of cash prizes, international trips, a brand new 4×4 car, a luxury yacht, a private jet, and finally a “Luxurious Villa Palace.”
“It’s all about growing your network; their success is your success,” says Ambrose cheerily. “TIENS does not care who you are. Anyone can do it, and there is no limit on what you can earn.”
As the TIENS Guide puts it, joining the company means: “You stop struggling financially,” there is “little risk of losing”, and “if you work for 5 years you can retire.”
The TIENS-Uganda Information Guide explaining the business model.
According the company website, over 200,000 Ugandans have joined TIENS, eclipsing even the number of government school teachers in the country.
Given Uganda’s high rates of unemployment − youth unemployment is over 80% according to some estimates − the appeal of membership is clear to see. Decent jobs are scarce and rags-to-riches stories like Wasswa’s are even scarcer.
Furthermore, the company’s image is significantly helped by the Ugandan government. Not only does TIENS advertise on the Health Ministry’s calendar, but according to Wasswa, around ten MPs are members of the company and at the Iganga seminar, Stephen Wante, the mayor of Bugembe, made a guest appearance. In 2011 meanwhile, Vice-President Edward Ssekandi officiated a ceremony in which a distributor was awarded a car and organised for TIENS to donate some of its products to a government health centre. A photograph of the Ssekandi shaking hands with TIENS’ president also has pride of place on the company website.
However, despite all of TIENS’ promises of wealth and perceived legitimacy, actually making money from the scheme is virtually impossible. At the TIENS headquarters, where members can print out their balance sheets, many leave the office holding spreadsheets indicating that they are owed almost nothing, if anything at all. Meanwhile, back in Iganga, several members who had joined several months ago, attended every biweekly seminar, bought lots of products, and gone on recruitment drives, revealed that they had not earned any notable income either. It seems many others have also abandoned the scheme after finding they could not make it work.
According to most TIENS members − both those who are profiting and those who aren’t − the reason for these failures is simple: the individual did not work hard enough. When I asked Sarah why she thought she hadn’t made any money after being a member for five months, for example, she hesitated before Robert helpfully chipped in to say “it means she is not performing well.” Yet Robert had barely received any income either, despite having been a member for six months and having recruited nine people. Other members who had yet to make money also suggested their situation was down to bad luck or poor performance.
This feeling was perhaps most starkly expressed after the seminar as I spoke to Wasswa within earshot of three members, all of whom had been distributors for up to six months yet not come anywhere close to getting a decent income. I asked Wasswa how long it typically takes to break even. “Some people can take a month, but sometimes maybe two months,” he replied. What if someone has been working hard but hasn’t started getting an income after 6 months, I followed up. “Six months?” Wasswa exclaimed. “No, it’s rare. Very rare. If someone is serious, they should be on a high level and earning well after six months.”
I looked over at the three recruits who all just stared at the floor, looking sheepish and, I thought, ashamed.
The pharmacy in one of the stores in Kampala.
The reality, however, is that failure under TIENS is not the individual’s fault. In fact, for the vast majority of members, the business model is designed to fail. TIENS in Uganda appears to be little more than thin-veiled pyramid scheme.
Recruiters emphasise that to join, all you need to do is pay a $20 membership fee. But in reality that is only the start. Members have to buy products to move up the rankings and then continue to buy goods to keep their accounts open.
Members could make money selling these products, but the idea of shifting all these goods is a non-starter. Not only does each distributor have to compete with 200,000 other sellers as well as 30 well-established stores, but it doesn’t even make economic sense for customers to buy from individual members when they could sign up to TIENS themselves and get much lower prices anyway.
This is perhaps why Wasswa and other recruiters barely even mention selling products and why the emphasis instead is very heavily on “growing your network.” The incentives for signing up new members are higher than those for sales; the training sessions teach recruits how to sell membership rather than goods; and the TIENS Guide’s main piece of practical advice is a 6-step plan of how to “make a name list of at least 100 in a shortest time possible.”
If not from selling products to the public then, the bulk of the money in the TIENS system comes members’ own pockets as they pay to join, pay to move up the rankings, and pay to keep their accounts open. And it is this same money that finances top-level distributors’ huge salaries, shiny new cars and trips around the world. Given all the money in the system comes from members, the only way this tiny elite profits is because the rest of Uganda’s 200,000 members do not.
TIENS refer to itself as a ‘multi-level marketing’, but in reality it seems to be an unsustainable and fraudulent pyramid scheme designed to extract money from the many to pay the salaries of a few.
I later contacted Ambrose, Wasswa and Jamba George, another 8-star recruiter, for their response to these allegations, but they all declined. The manager of TIENS-Uganda, a Chinese expatriate, and the company’s global headquarters in Tianjin did not make a comment either.
It should also be noted that TIENS is not just in Uganda, nor is it the only scheme of its kind. The American firms Forever Living and GNLD also deal in health supplements and follow a multi-level marketing model, while TIENS’ presence on the continent seems to be particularly strong in West Africa, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. It is further notable that TIENS has offices in many Western countries, though the products there seem to be marketed more directly as mere food supplements.
Back in the courtyard in Iganga, Robert is listing the products he was prescribed six months ago. Like so many others faced with Uganda’s struggling healthcare system, Robert ended up seeking alternatives and eventually ended up at Wasswa’s busy but welcoming clinic.
The products worked, Robert insists. Up to a point. He just wishes, he says, that he could finish the treatment and be fully cured of his kidney problems as well as the other health conditions detected by the diagnostic test he underwent. But he cannot afford it.
Robert has no other jobs − he says there are hardly any jobs available in the area − and has five children to support. When he joined the company half a year ago, he thought TIENS was the answer to all his prayers, but he is still in pain and deeper in debt.
“Money is a problem, he says. “It is not easy to recruit people and I spend USH12,000 ($5) every week on transport to come to these seminars.”
I ask him why he is still part of the company despite losing money each week. He pauses for a moment before answering, “I believe I will balance my accounts soon. And I am close to moving up to the next level when I will be able to earn more.”
He explains that a technical misunderstanding delayed him moving up a rank, but that it should be sorted out soon. I point out that even if he moves up a level and earns slightly more than now, he will still be earning a tiny fraction of what he has invested. He nods in agreement, but adds, with a faint smile, “But with TIENS, time is on your side.”
But what if it still doesn’t work out, I push. What if Wasswa is the exception that proves the rule? What if it never works out?
Robert looks me in the eye for a few seconds before gazing out across the courtyard where a few groups of attendees are still standing around chatting.
“If the money defeats me, ” he says quietly, turning back to me, “I will disappear.”
*some names have been changed to protect interviewees’ identities.
Photographs by James Wan.
This article was made possible by a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of Witwatersrand.
Amendment [12/06]: A paragraph about the network sizes required to move up the rankings was removed because some of the figures didn’t take into account the fact there are alternative options for promotion.
The little-understood practice of misinvoicing or re-invoicing relies on legal grey areas and financial secrecy and costs the continent dearly.
By Brian LeBlanc
Lately, the media has been replete with stories about how Africa is losing billions of dollars a year through a process called “trade misinvoicing.” The concept of trade misinvoicing is simple: companies and their agents deliberately alter the prices of their exports and imports in order to justify moving money out of, or into, a country illicitly.
The practice is very common in Africa. To name just a couple instances, it has allegedly been used to avoid paying import duties on sugar in Kenya and to shift taxable income out of Zambia and into tax havens abroad.
The amount Africa loses to trade misinvoicing is astounding. Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a Washington, DC-based think tank, estimates that $286 billion worth of capital was extracted out of Africa using this process over the past decade. Between 2002 and 2011, due to illicit financial flows, sub-Saharan Africa lost 5.7% of it’s GDP, a 20.2% increase. Of these illicit financial flows, 62% were due to misinvoicing.
The good news is the issue of trade misinvoicing has found its way to the forefront of development talks.
Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and former South African President Thabo Mbeki are just a few African heavyweights who have been trying to urge the international community to begin addressing the problem of illicit financial flows and trade misinvoicing.
It’s not just “poor governance”
Whereas the impact of trade misinvoicing is becoming well known, exactly how it is done is not entirely understood. This is a problem, considering the extremely technical nature of the issue. If public policy decisions are going to be implemented to address trade misinvoicing, a firm understanding of its mechanics is absolutely necessary.
To start, the biggest myth associated with trade misinvoicing is that it is entirely explained by corruption and poor governance.
Not only is this a false narrative, but it has no readily implemented solution. It also puts the onus entirely on the country being impacted, and fails to acknowledge the role the West plays in facilitating such transactions.
The truth behind trade misinvoicing is that it is a two-way street. The global shadow financial system, propped up by tax havens and financial secrecy, is equally responsible for the propagation of trade misinvoicing in Africa. This system of offshore banks, anonymous accounts, and shell companies is largely created by developed countries in the West.
This isn’t to say corruption doesn’t play a role. Yes, it may be easy in many African countries to pay a bribe to a customs official to get them to look the other way when a company is attempting to misinvoice a trade transaction; however, the advent of tax havens has made this largely unnecessary.
Why get your hands dirty when there is an easier, less-obviously-criminal means available? To quote Raymond Baker, the President of GFI and a member of the UNECA High Level Panel on Illicit Flows: “on-the-dock trade misinvoicing like this simply doesn’t happen.”
How it works
How do companies misinvoice trade then? One of the most widely used processes is called “re-invoicing,” which sidesteps quid pro quo bribery and corruption and utilizes legal grey areas and financial secrecy to do all the dirty work.
Instead of defining re-invoicing myself, here is a word-for-word definition given by a company (operating out of a tax haven) which exists specifically to assist companies who wish to misinvoice trade. In fact, a simple Google search of “re-invoicing” produces hundreds of results of companies openly advertising such practices. Here is just one example:
“Re-invoicing is the use of a tax haven corporation to act as an intermediary between an onshore business and his customers outside his home country. The profits of this intermediary corporation and the onshore business allow the accumulation of some, or all, profits on transactions to be accrued to the offshore company.”
In other words, companies have sent the process of trade misinvoicing offshore. By the time the goods reach the docks, the prices have already been manipulated. No need to pay a bribe.
The process can be extremely lucrative for the actor doing the misinvoicing. Although the price varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, many re-invoicing companies often only charge a 2% commission fee on the profits shifted in such a manner. Additionally, tax haven jurisdictions generally have little-to-no corporate taxes, which makes the proceeds from re-invoicing tax-free. Compare that to a 35% corporate tax rate in many African countries and you can understand the appeal of shifting capital through re-invoicing.
Let’s assume the following scenario: imagine a hypothetical Zambian exporter of copper arranges a deal with a buyer in the United States worth $1,000,000. Now, let’s assume that the Zambian company only wishes to report $600,000 to government officials to circumvent paying mining royalties and corporate income tax.
First, the Zambian exporter sets up a shell company in Switzerland which (because of anonymity) cannot be traced back to him. By doing so, any transaction the Zambian exporter conducts with the shell company will look like trade with an unrelated party. Thus, even if the Zambian government suspects some wrongdoing, it will be very difficult, or impossible, to tie the Zambian exporter to the shell company in Switzerland.
Second, the exporter then uses the shell company to purchase the copper from the exporter in Zambia for a value of $600,000, $400,000 less than the true value of the copper. An invoice that shows receipt for the $600,000 copper sale is then forwarded on to Zambia tax collectors.
Third, the shell company in Switzerland then re-sells the copper to the ultimate buyer in the United States for the agreed-upon $1,000,000. The importer is instructed to make a payment to the shell company, and the goods are sent directly from Zambia to the United States without ever even passing through Switzerland.
Thus, the Zambian exporter lowered its taxable revenue from $1,000,000 to $600,000. The remaining $400,000 remains hidden in Switzerland where it is untaxed and unutilized for development purposes.
How to stop it
Under the international standard of the arm’s-length principle, the price of a good sold between two related parties must be comparable to what the price the good would have been sold for had the two parties been unrelated. If not, such as in the above example, tax and customs officials have the authority to ignore the declared price and assess taxes and tariffs based instead on the arm’s-length price of the good. Zambia adopted the arm’s-length principle in 1999, but does that mean trade misinvoicing is a thing of the past for the country?
Not in the slightest. Many of these transactions occur through anonymous shell companies, hiding the fact that two companies may be related. Even if a Zambian government official detects that a particular trade transaction is misinvoiced, there is no way for that government official to see through a shell company to identify its beneficial owner.
Therefore, there needs to be a multilateral effort to disclose the beneficial owners of shell companies operating in tax haven jurisdictions. Until then, companies will continue to hide behind them to misinvoicing trade offshore.
Misinvoicing is not just a sharp business practice, but a way of spiriting out of the continent billions of dollars that should be put to work in social and economic investments. Until something is done about the network of offshore jurisdictions and financial secrecy at a global level, Africa will struggle far harder than it should have to in order to achieve social and economic development.
By Mohammed Ademo.
Addis Ababa is growing fast and set to expand further, pitting the government against Oromo activists, seeking to protect their rights.
Ethnic Oromo students in Ethiopia are ratcheting up opposition to the territorial expansion of the Horn of Africa nation’s capital, Addis Ababa. Thousands of students at all eight regional universities in Oromia, the largest of Ethiopia’s federal states, turned in recent days to demand an immediate halt to the city’s so-called “Integrated Development Master Plan,” unveiled earlier this month.
Today, Tuesday 29 April, an estimated 25,000 people, including residents of Ambo town in central Oromia, participated in a city wide demonstration, in the largest show of opposition to the government’s plans to date. A handful of students have been injured and others arrested in protests at the campuses of Jimma, Haromaya, Ambo, Wollega, Metu, Bule Hora, Adama and Maddawalabu universities, according to local reports.
Once dubbed a “sleeping beauty,” by Emperor Haile Selassie, Addis Ababa is an awakening city on the move. Vertically, buoyed by a growing economy and rural to urban migration, there is construction almost on every block — so much so that locals refer to it as “a city under construction.” The country’s first light rail transit which will connect several inner city neighbourhoods, being constructed with the help of the China Railway Group Ltd, is reported to be 60% complete. Horizontally, over the last decade, not least due to an uptick in investment from returning Ethiopian expats from the U.S. and Western Europe, the city has expanded at a breakneck pace to swallow many surrounding towns.
Addis Ababa’s rapid urban sprawl is also getting noticed abroad. In 2013, it’s the only African city to make the Lonely Planet’s annual list of “top 10 cities to visit.” In April 2014, in its annual Global Cities Index, New York-based consultancy A.T. Kearney named Addis Ababa, “the third most likely city to advance its global positioning” in sub-Saharan Africa, only after Johannesburg and Nairobi. If it maintains the pace of development seen over the last five years, Kearney added, “the Ethiopian capital is also among the cities closing in fastest on the world leaders.”
Founded in 1886 by emperor Menelik II and his wife Empress Taytu Betul, Addis Ababa sits at the heart of the Oromia Regional State. According to the country’s constitution, while semi-autonomous, Addis Ababa is treated as a federal district with special privileges granted to the Oromia region, for which it also serves as the capital.
The Addis Ababa City Administration, the official governing body, has its own police, city council, budget and other public functions overseen by a mayor. The overlapping, vague territorial jurisdictions have always been the subject of controversy. Now contentions threaten to plunge the country into further unrest.
Home to an estimated 4 million people, Addis Ababa offers Ethiopia one of the few gateways to the outside world. The state-run Ethiopian airlines, one of the most profitable in Africa, serves 80 international cities with daily flights from Addis to Europe, different parts of Africa, the United States, Canada, Asia and the Middle East.
In addition to being the seat of the continental African Union, the city hosts a number of United Nations regional offices, including the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. There are also more than 100 international missions and foreign embassies based in Addis, earning it the nickname of ‘Africa’s diplomatic capital.’ All these attributes require the city to continually grow to meet the needs and expectations of a global city.
City officials insist the new “master plan”, the 10th iteration since Addis Ababa began using modern city master plans in 1936, will mitigate the city’s disorganised growth and guide efforts to modernize it over the next 25 years.
According to leaked documents, the proposed plan will expand Addis Ababa’s boundaries to 1.1 million hectares, covering an area more than 20 times its current size. Under this plan, 36 surrounding Oromia towns and cities will come under Addis Ababa’s jurisdiction. Oromo students, opposition and activists say the plan will undermine Oromia’s constitutionally granted special interest.
A history of problematic growth
Addis Ababa’s spatial growth has always been contentious. The Oromo, original inhabitants of the land, have social, economic and historical ties to the city. Addis Ababa, which they call Finfinne, was conquered through invasion in 19th century. Since its founding, the city grew by leaps and bounds. But the expansion came at the expense of local farmers whose livelihoods and culture was uprooted in the process. At the time of its founding, the city grew “haphazardly” around the imperial palace, residences of other government officials and churches. Later, population and economic growth invited uncontrolled development of high-income, residential areas — still almost without any formal planning.
While the encroaching forces of urbanisation pushed out many Oromo farmers to surrounding towns and villages, those who remained behind were forced to learn a new language and embrace a city that did not value their existence. The city’s rulers then sought to erase the historical and cultural values of its indigenous people, including through the changing of original Oromo names.
Ultimately, this one-time bountiful farm and pasture land from which it draws the name Addis Ababa – meaning ‘new flower’ – where Oromos made laws under the shades of giant sycamore trees, grew foreign to them by the day. It is this traumatic sense of displacement that elicits deep passions, resentment and resistance from the Oromo community. The Oromo are Ethiopia’s single largest ethnic group, numbering over 25 million – around 35% of the total population – according to the 2007 census.
Ethiopia’s constitution makes a pivot to Addis Ababa’s unique place among the Oromo. Article 49 (5) of the constitution stipulates, “the special interest of the state of Oromia with respect to supply of services, the utilisation of resources and joint administrative matters.”
The Transitional Government of Ethiopia, which drafted the constitution, was fully cognisant of the potential conflicts of interest arising from Addis Ababa’s unbridled expansion, when it decided “to limit its expansion to the place where it was before 1991 and to give due attention to its vertical growth,” according to Feyera Abdissa, an urban researcher at Addis Ababa University.
But in the city’s 1997-2001 master plan, which has been in effect over the last decade, the city planners determined vertical growth posed key urbanisation challenges. In addition, most of Addis Ababa’s poor cannot afford to construct high-rise dwellings as per the new building standards. Officials also noted that the city’s relatively developed infrastructure and access to markets attract the private investment necessary to bolster its coffers; the opening up to privatisation contributed to an upswing in investment. According to Abdissa, during this period, “54% of the total private investment applications submitted in the country requested to invest in and around Addis Ababa.” In order to meet the demand, city administration converted large tracts of forest and farmland in surrounding sub-cities into swelling urban dwellings, displacing local Oromo residents.
In 2001, in what many saw as a conspiracy from federal authorities, the Oromia regional government decided to relocate its seat 100 km away, arguing that Addis Ababa was too “inconvenient” to develop the language, culture and history. The decision led to Oromia-wide protests and a brutal government crackdown, which left at least a dozen people, including high school students, dead. Hundreds of people were also arrested. In 2005, regional authorities reversed the decision amid internal pressures and protracted protests in the intervening years.
But the current opposition to the city’s expansion goes far beyond questions of self-rule. Each time Addis Ababa grew horizontally, it did so by absorbing surrounding Oromo sub-cities and villages. Many of the cities at the outskirts of the capital today, including Dukem, Gelan, Legetafo, Sendafa, Sululta, Burayu, Holeta and Sebeta, were one-time industrious Oromo farmlands. While these cities enjoy a level of cooperation with Addis Ababa on security and other issues of mutual interest, they have all but lost their Oromo identity. If the proposed master plan is implemented, these cities will come directly under Addis Ababa City Administration — thereby the federal government, further complicating the jurisdictional issue.
Among many other compromises made possible by Ethiopia’s ethnic federalism, each state has adopted the use of its native tongue as the official language of education, business and public service. In theory, the country’s constitution also grants autonomous self-rule to regional states. Under this arrangement, each state makes its own laws and levy and collect taxes.
In contrast, municipalities that fall under federal jurisdiction, including Addis, are governed by their own city administrations and use Amharic, Ethiopia’s federal working language. For the Oromo, as in the past, the seceding of surrounding towns to Addis means a loss of their language and culture once more, even if today’s driving forces of urbanisation differ from the 19th century imperialist expansion.
As seen from its recent residential expansions into sub-cities on the peripheries such as Kotebe, Bole Bulbula, Bole Medhanialem, Makanisa and Keranyo, the semi-agrarian community, including small, informal business owners, were given few options. The city’s new code requires building high-rises that are beyond their subsistence means. Unable to comply with the new city development code, the locals were pressured into selling their land at very low prices and eke out a living in a city that faces chronic unemployment. As a result, the horizontal expansion and displacement of livelihoods turned a one time self-sufficient community into street beggars and day labourers.
Activists fear that the latest expansion is part of a grand plan to contain a resurgent Oromo nationalism. As witnessed during the 2001 protests, any attempt to alter Addis Ababa’s administrative limits, unites Oromos across religious, regional and political divides. Unless halted, with a steam of opposition already gathering in and outside of the country, the ongoing of protests show ominous signs.
In a glimpse of the fervent opposition that could quickly turn deadly, within weeks after the plan was unveiled, two young and upcoming Oromo artists have released new music singles lamenting the city’s historic social and cultural heritage. One of the singers, Jafar Yusef, 23, was arrested three days after releasing his musical rendition — and has reportedly been tortured. Despite the growing opposition, however, the Addis Ababa municipal authority is vowing to forge ahead with the plan, which they say was developed in consultation with a team of international and local urban planners. Federal Special Forces, known as Liyyu police, who have previously been implicated in serious human rights violations, have been dispatched to college towns to disperse the protests. Soldiers in military fatigues have laid siege to several campuses, preventing students from leaving, according to eyewitness reports.
Trouble at the top while those at the bottom lack the basic necessities
The city administration is also riddled by a crippling legacy of corruption, massive inefficiency and poor service delivery. Its homeless loiter in the crowded streets that are shared by cars, pedestrians and animals alike. There are few subsidised housing projects for poor and low-income families. Many of the residents lack clean drinking water, healthcare and basic education. While some progress had been made to upgrade the city’s squatter settlements, the city is full of dilapidated shacks. Despite poor drainage system and other infrastructural deficiencies, studies show that there is a general disregard for health and environmental hazards in Ethiopia’s urban redevelopment scheme.
A lot of these social and economic problems are caused by the city’s poorly conceived but dramatic urban expansion. In the last two-decades, in an effort to transform the city into a competitive metropolis, there have been an uptick in the construction of high-rise buildings, luxury hotels and condominiums, which displaced poorer inhabitants, including Oromo farmers. “No one is ensuring the displaced people find new homes, and there are no studies about what his happening to them,” Mara Gittleman of Tufts University observed.
Regardless, the outcome of the current controversy will likely test Ethiopia’s commitment to ethnic federalism. The advance of the proposed master plan would mean further estrangement between the Oromo masses and Oromia regional government. Long seen as a puppet of the federal regime, with substantial investment in cultural and infrastructural development, regional leaders are only beginning to sway public opinion. Allowing the master plan to proceed would engender that progress and prove suicidal for the Oromo Peoples’ Democratic Organization (OPDO), the Oromo element in Ethiopia’s ruling coalition. In the short run, the mounting public outcry may not hold much sway. The country’s one-time vibrant opposition is disarray and the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has almost complete control of the political system.
The opposition to the expansion plans does not pose an immediate electoral threat to the EPRDF who, controlling the system as they do, are likely to claim an easy victory in next year’s elections. However, opposition, and the government’s possible aggressive response to it, could make Oromo-government relations more difficult. The government now has a choice: violently crackdown on protestors, labelling them ‘anti-development’, or engage with them as stakeholders representing historically marginalised communities. Ethiopia’s federal constitution suggests the latter course of action; sadly, recent history may suggest the former.
Correction 29/4/14: The article originally stated that Jafar Yusef was 29, rather than 23. This has been changed.
Correction 15/5/14: The article originally referred to Bule Hora as Bolu Hora. This has now been changed. We are grateful to the reader who pointed this out.