Saturday, 30 October 2010

Zimbabwe's blood diamonds

Zimbabwe is supposedly enjoying political stability under the coalition government formed in 2008. However, according to the UK's Channel 4's Unreported World programme, which Channel 4 describes as a "critically acclaimed foreign affairs series offering an insight into the lives of people in some of the most neglected parts of the planet", the reports from Zimbabwe are of a country still "gripped by terror and violence."

Reporter Ramita Navai and Alex Nott filmed undercover to investigate claims that gems from one of the world's biggest diamond fields are being used by Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF party to entrench their hold on power by buying the military's loyalty. (Navai is the same reporter whose story on the escalating violence in South Sudan I wrote about on this blog in November of last year). The current reports from Zimbabwe are against the backdrop of human rights abuses, which victims say are being perpetrated by the military and the police.

Filming covertly and secretly, (footage that was broadcast during the programme Friday evening), the team discovered a climate of fear reminiscent of the pre-coalition Mugabe years. Almost everyone Navai and Nott met was too terrified to talk about the diamond fields, including several members of the MDC party, which forms part of the coalition government. We see some people speak out, albeit at great personal risk. They detail stories of beatings, killings and rape connected to the diamond area. There were suggestions that powerful individuals within the government oversee and control these activities.

A military insider told the Unreported World team about how different Zimbabwean Army units are allowed to rotate through the fields to make profits from the diamonds in exchange for loyalty to president Mugabe. The serving officer claimed that syndicates of civilians are used by soldiers to mine illegally and they then sell the gems to middlemen. (In June last year, Human Rights Watch reporting on the same issue wrote about forced labour, torture and military massacres in the Marange district in Eastern Zimbabwe where the diamond fields are located. Click here for the HRW report).

The team followed the diamond trail, showing how smugglers move precious stones from the Marange fields across the border to the boom-town of Manica in neighbouring Mozambique. Filming secretly, they showed how the stones are purchased no questions asked, by Arabic speaking buyers who claim to be Lebanese. We are then informed that Manica, once a sleepy rural Mozambique village, is now buzzing with diamond buyers from around the world chasing after the flush of Marange diamonds from across the border. Its impossible to track the diamonds once they have been purchased from the smugglers, usually for meagre sums. From Manica the diamonds are absorbed into the international market and sold in upmarket and high street stores across the world.

The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS) a UN-backed industry watchdog has been tasked with ending the sale of conflict diamonds. Its function is to ensure that diamonds are not used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments. It is thought however that this definition is narrow and doubts have been expressed as to the effectiveness of the KPCS, as in this BBC report of June this year. For sure, the KPCS has not prevented the reported widespread looting and human rights abuses connected to Marange and there is the suggestion that it has failed to deal with the unfolding crisis.

Next month in Tel Aviv, Israel, the members of the KPCS meet for their annual summit to decide what to do next. The State of Israel is the current Chair. The Unreported World reporters indicated that at the time of filming, there were fears that the situation in Zimbabwe could precipitate the end of the Kimberley Process itself, as internal politics and in-fighting about how the watchdog should proceed may tear it apart. (This caught my attention and is something I will be investigating further).

vast natural resources found in the Marange district of Zimbabwe could potentially change the fortunes of a country whose economy has hit hard times. These reports however, despite the coalition government, confirm that Zimbabwe is a country still plagued by corruption and violence, a serious warning of what is to come ahead of the 2011 elections.

For those in the UK, Unreported World series 10 episode 15 'Zimbabwe's Blood Diamonds' is available on the Channel 4 website for the next 29 days. Click here to watch.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Westerners no longer swallow my story, says Kagame

In this video posted on YouTube by Olivier Nyirubugara a Rwandan journalist and PhD student in The Netherlands, we hear Rwanda's President Paul Kagame commenting on the increasing divergence of views between his administration and its Western partners, formerly known to be "unconditional supporters".

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Accepting yourself..

"It is difficult to understand homosexuality..", Zambia's President Rupiah Banda is reported to have said, during a meeting with Champions of an HIV-free Generation in Africa in Lusaka last week. Read the full story as reported by the Lusaka Times here.

I joined a discussion sparked by the remarks of the Zambian president on an online forum for LGBTI Nigerians. This was the first comment on the president's words:

C: "Yes, it is difficult for me to understand homosexuality. I have accepted it. Truth be told, it is difficult to understand heterosexuality. Its acceptance, on the other hand, has been taken for granted (by the majority). There, lies the difference!"

Responding to this comment someone else stated:

N: "Well, in all honesty, I think it is more difficult to understand homosexuality than it is to understand heterosexuality. Even many of us who have feelings of same-sex attraction, have some difficulty in understanding our own sexual feelings.

Our confusion and perturbation are compounded by the unfavourable impression of homosexuality that most people around us have, most of those people being heterosexual and therefore having no need to make the effort to seek to understand why some other individuals might be sexually attracted to members of their own gender. Being in the minority and surrounded by all this negativity, it is unsurprising that many gay men think of their sexuality as an unwelcome burden. When one considers the arguments often advanced by homophobes, such as "homosexuality is against the order of nature", "God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve" and about procreation, etc., one sees that heterosexuality can easily be thought to be normal, whereas homosexuality is [thought to be] abnormal and difficult to understand.

I think it is rather arrogant for we humans to think that it is we who should dictate to Mother Nature what is normal and what is not. But herein lies the crux of the matter. Most people are not affected by homosexuality and therefore have no need (or desire) to learn of it, read about it and expand their knowledge concerning it. Hence we find that homosexuality is not understood, and even so to a greater degree in the less well-informed societies of the world as in Zambia where this president was speaking."

Then this comment followed:

EB: "The difference is not at all difficult to understand when one has grown in his thinking and manhood to be a lover of his kind. It is not as though, this man chose his destiny. Much easier life would be, if he could unknowingly follow the dreadful path of hate and intolerance that informs most of his society, from the highest courts of corrupt America to the simplest civilizations of our remaining primitive origins. But some men, after awful agony, accept themselves as different beings altogether from the rest and open themselves to love of all life."

I agree with the second comment. Homosexuality is not readily explainable. He who has no real cause to seek an explanation for it (and thus a better understanding of it) eg., the heterosexual person, will have little or no understanding. And even more so when his mind has been corrupted by homophobic doctrine that propounds the false notions that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identities are sick and sinful. It should not surprise us when President Banda tells us that he cannot understand homosexuality.

When you think about it, even the gay men and women in society are born and raised in the same circumstances as the heterosexual majority. They too have been exposed to the same influences that have caused many among the heterosexual majority to hold strong anti-gay views. Hence we find that among gay people, self-loathing is common. The recent spate of gay-teen suicides in the US is a case in point.

What then is the way forward for the gay person? Well, EB in the third comment above puts it neatly. Agony is unavoidable; pain caused to self and to others is inescapable. But in the end one must truly accept oneself as being different. I cannot imagine living a life of denial and pretence, a life of lies and constantly looking over the shoulder. There are even those who dislike themselves so intensely that they vent their frustration and anger on other gay people, the ones who have attained the maturity of mind to boldly accept themselves for who they are. It is trite that many of the loudest anti-gay voices are the voices of unfulfilled, unhappy gay men. EB in his comment stated it aptly: "..But some men, after awful agony, accept themselves as different beings altogether from the rest, and open themselves to love of all life."

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

On this and on that..

Some weeks ago I walked away from my job. I had endured the job for long enough and the time came when I'd had enough and I acted almost on impulse. Walking out felt good, as if it was the right thing to do. It was exhilarating knowing that I would no more have to put up with what had caused me to be unhappy with the job in the first place. And although I knew not what I would be doing thereafter I left nevertheless, trusting my instinct.

Since then, a lot has happened. I have now reverted to my former employment status, self-employed. My professional regulatory body will not allow me to practise on my own, since I'm facing some disciplinary action brought on by the actions of my erstwhile partner at my former firm, which is now defunct. However, I've been able to work out a fee-sharing arrangement with a different firm that allows me to do my own work, (through the firm of course). Giving up half of one's fee cannot be easy for anyone, as you probably can imagine. But it is necessary that one should pull one's own weight within a firm in order to have some clout. Also when one considers the firm's overheads, contributing my bit can only be a good thing.

While all this was happening, I came down with the worst flu I've ever had, with a chest infection and sinusitis to boot, causing the worst one-sided headaches I've ever suffered. In fact on one occasion, I was forced to pull up on the busy motorway for about half an hour, not trusting myself to be able to summon the concentration needed to navigate safely home through the traffic. I had a fever and the severe headache refused to go away, despite having overdosed on Cocodamol. But since I desperately craved my bed, I eventually had to brave it and forge ahead regardless, until I clambered up the stairs of my building and staggered through my front door.

You're probably wondering what I was doing driving around when I was so sick. Well, I am no longer an employee, so it is impossible to call in sick to the office. Also, I still had to attend for all of my client appointments, attend court, attend meetings and so on, even while coughing, sneezing and wheezing..and of course spreading the germs around. Anyway, the good news is that at the time of writing this I feel a lot better, even if I can't help thinking that the effects of the illness would have been considerably less, had I the luxury of being able to afford to take a week off work..

Then the Commonwealth Games in Delhi came along and provided us with some comfort in the evenings. Thank goodness for the BBC Red Button, which allows you to watch all the action you missed while you were out. I was particularly interested in the athletics. Now bad publicity is something that we Nigerians are perfectly familiar with, (not that being accustomed to it makes it any less unpleasant). So it didn't particularly come as a surprise the hullabaloo over the winner of the 100m women, Nigeria's Oludamola Osayomi being disqualified and losing her gold medal, having tested positive for Methylhexanamine a nasal decongestant, which only made it into the list of banned substances for athletes in the summer of this year.

That Osayomi was awarded the gold medal in somewhat controversial circumstances anyway, meant that its loss was not as painful as it would have been otherwise. My main concern was to see that Nigeria won more medals than Kenya at the Games. So I was terribly glad to see that despite the loss of Osayomi's gold, Nigeria was placed 6th versus Kenya's 7th place on the Medals Table, although I must admit that I always looked forward to seeing Kenya's Ezekiel Kemboi and Vincent Koskei on the track... PS. Well, the Commonwealth Games medals table has changed. Kenya is now placed 6th with 12 gold medals and Nigeria is at 9th place with 11.

And then there is the story of the Chilean miners, a story that has been making it unto the news for months now, usually as a side story about what for most of us, would have seemed like a mishap that befell some unfortunate people in a far off place. Last night I got out of bed in the middle of the night. Sleep failed to find me for some reason, although my guess is that the culprit was my persistent worrying about the financial side of things, (now that I do not receive a regular wage). Anyway, there I was at 2.35am perched on the sofa, turning on the TV, mug of lemon tea cupped in my hands. The pictures on the screen were of a paramedic (I later learned he's in fact a mine rescue expert) being strapped into the Fenix capsule before it began its first manned journey down into the bowels of the Earth at the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Chilean Atacama. I noted that all the major news channels were showing the same pictures, so I selected one, sat back and watched.

It would have been quite unnatural not to have become transfixed on the screen as I was for the next four hours, as I watched miner after miner being pulled out. The Chileans I think, have done a marvellous job in organising this feat, albeit with technical assistance from abroad. What strikes me most is how media-savvy the Chile government has demonstrated that it is, streaming live pictures from the cavern inside the Earth where these miners have been entombed for all of 69 days, the country's mining minister Laurence Golborne tweeting constantly about the rescue operation as it progressed (click here for his Twitter page). I think it is ingenious for the Chile authorities to have arranged for the orchestrated reunions of the rescued miners with their families to take place in the full glare of klieg lights and TV cameras.

As I type this, 15 miners have already been rescued and with much of the rest of the world, I am greatly impressed with the way this rescue operation has progressed. It was only a few days ago that in casual conversation with some friends, I was saying that had those miners died when the mine collapsed in early August, none of us would be talking about them now. Instead, they are now expected to become celebrities, recipients of substantial payouts in compensation. One can only wonder what the effects of their sudden celebrity status would be on each of them, some of whom we are told already faced somewhat complicated circumstances in their personal lives.

And then of course I've recently received an invitation from Rolex to participate in a two-day event to honour the first five winners of their Young Laureates Programme taking place at one of Europe's leading institutions Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland on 9-11 November 2010, where I am informed some of the world's foremost scientists, explorers, environmentalists, doctors and educators will be gathered. Interestingly, two of the young laureates are Africans, one a Nigerian. And I am still scratching my head, wondering if I really should accept the invitation and go over to Lausanne, Switzerland, unsure if I am deserving of this honour..

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

On Gamu again..

I was invited on to the BBC World Service this evening, on their programme World Have Your Say when we talked about Gamu the Zimbabwean teenager and X-Factor contestant who has now been requested by the UK immigration authorities to voluntarily leave the United Kingdom, or be subjected to forcible removal from the country or possible deportation to Zimbabwe. Her mother's application for an extension of her visa was refused and Gamu as a dependant under her mother's application is affected, just as much as her mother and her two younger brothers by the UK Border Agency's decision.

Last weekend Gamu was axed from the ITV talent contest when one of the judges on the show, Cheryl Cole (Tweedy), made her decision in favour of two other contestants who, it is widely believed, were less deserving than Gamu. The decision has given rise to a furore and there is even a Facebook campaign supported by nearly a quarter of a million people clamouring for the singer to be allowed to stay in the UK and continue in the show. Claims have been made that Ms Tweedy's decision was influenced by the looming visa crisis surrounding Gamu and any potential impact this might have on the show if she were allowed to continue as a contestant. It has been rumoured that UK Border Agency officials met with X-Factor bosses before the decision was made.

Widely reported is the fact that Nokuthula, Gamu's mum was refused by the immigration authority because she did not satisfy the criteria laid down by the UK Immigration Rules and therefore she, like every other such person, must depart from the country as soon as her visa expires. This is the reason given for the refusal in most of the reports I have seen. Not so widely reported however is the allegation in the publication New Zimbabwe, citing The Sun. The report is that the order to leave the country was the "result of an investigation into £16,000 in benefits wrongly claimed by the [Gamu's] mother". The mother is said to have received benefits and tax credits for her children - but her visa rules strictly forbid her from any state payouts.

While I do subscribe to the notion that immigration rules are universal and must be applied in a consistent manner to every person, I do also believe that there is an inherent discretion vested in the Secretary of State for the Home Department to grant leave to remain outside the immigration rules, especially in particularly compelling circumstances, even if that leave is limited leave, i.e., for a limited period. I take the view that Gamu's case is one of a kind and one in which this discretion ought to be exercised favourably. It is obvious to many of us that her departure from the X-Factor has been caused by her immigration difficulties. But it is apparent to us too that X-Factor 2010 is greatly diminished without Gamu as a contestant. Requiring her to leave the UK is not in the public interest.

Interestingly when I had my chance to state my view to a worldwide audience on the BBC World Service this evening, I found that while on air I was tongue tied. Very strange indeed, given that running out of words does not happen to me very often, as I seem always to have something to say..

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Nigeria at 50

Last Friday the 1st of October, Nigeria my country celebrated fifty years of independence from Great Britain. I, like many other Nigerians, acknowledge the fact that our country has not had much to show for the fifty years of her existence. But let us take a closer look..

Being as diverse as Nigeria is, the country merely surviving as a united nation for all of fifty years is itself a significant achievement. In this special report in the New African (among several similar reports), it is suggested that many Nigerians are disappointed, because going by its immense oil wealth, great population and intellectual acumen, (not to mention that most of the country's land is potentially arable), the country has failed to fulfil her potential as the engine of growth that carries West Africa and indeed Africa, into economic prosperity as Japan has done for the Far East. Well, my view is that what these critics often fail to acknowledge is that countries like Japan (and South Korea) do not face the same challenges that Nigeria has had to contend with.

Japan is a country populated by a homogeneous Japanese people who have inhabited that country's islands continuously, uninterrupted and have existed as a nation for centuries. This description applies to the Koreans too. Nigeria on the other hand did not come into existence as a recognisable political entity until towards the end of the 19th Century, when parts of the country that we now know as Nigeria were taken over by imperialist Britain. It was Britain's colonial officials who presumably for the purpose of easing their administration of those territories, later arranged for the amalgamation of (what was to them) various colonial territories.

The country of Nigeria is an artificial creation. It is an amalgam of different peoples and cultures (and their lands); an amalgamation for which the consent of those most affected was never sought, nor was it ever given. An appropriate analogy would be a hypothetical European state made up of Hungarians, Romanians, Czechs, Greeks and we can toss in a sprinkling of Slovaks and Albanians for good measure, where this artificial state has been foisted on the people and none of them are given a say in whether or not they should coexist as a single nation, but they must proceed nevertheless..

We all know that where artificial states have been created in Europe, those states have not stood the test of time. Yugoslavia fell apart spectacularly, leaving a trail of bloodshed in its wake. Even today there are still tensions between the Bosnians and the Serbs in Bosnia Herzegovina and between the Serbs and Kosovo. When communism unravelled in the Soviet Union, the Soviet state crumbled into its various component parts. The artificial states of East Germany and West Germany did not survive for fifty years. So in this sense, fifty years of Nigeria as a united nation is indeed a success story. Ours is a country of over 150 million people, where more than 250 languages are spoken with a corresponding number of ethnic groups. Yet, rather than breaking up or falling apart, the country's unity is strong and she has even fought (and won) a civil war to stay united.

However, I would not wish for us by getting carried away with our sense of achievement to fail to recognise that as a country we have and continue to fail in many respects. There has been a failure by us Nigerians in our minds to accord to our nation the exalted position that she deserves. This is part of the reason why those in positions of power think little of the consequences of their actions when they siphon substantial portions of the nation's financial resources for their own personal benefit, transferring the same to financial institutions overseas, whereas millions of their compatriots wallow in deprivation and poverty.

Regardless of the fact that there are very wealthy people living in Nigeria, it is still the case that most Nigerian citizens with disabilities are not provided for in an organised manner. Many are still condemned to a life of begging in the streets. And since a society is only as strong as its weakest member, the Nigerian society is not a strong one. The fancy buildings, the expensive cars and houses in Lekki and Abuja notwithstanding, the majority of the country's population continue to live below the poverty line. Since the days of my childhood, the problem of erratic electricity supply to the nation's population rather than improving has in fact worsened even further. Out of poverty, people continue to die of malaria, a disease which we all know is 100% curable; life expectancy at birth (which is a measure of the quality of life of a society) has been in steady decline in Nigeria since 2003.

The nation's resources belong to all of the nation's people and it is towards the improvement of the quality of life of its people that the nation's resources must be invested. There has been a failure by successive governments in Nigeria to recognise that the well-being of the people that it governs is the primary responsibility of any government, anywhere. There is a need for the reviving of the patriotic spirit in Nigeria, even among the leadership. I am envious of the way others are proud of their country. I wish to be proud of mine too..

Monday, 4 October 2010

Wonderful Gamuchirai

Zimbabwe's Nehanda Radio recently reported that young Gamuchirai (Gamu) Nhengu's dream of winning the UK's talent show, The X-Factor, is hanging in the balance because her mother's application to extend her visa in the UK has been refused. The report states that Gamu passport has been seized by the UK immigration authorities and will not be released to her unless her mother's appeal against the visa refusal is successful. This for me, however, is not the real story..

Gamu is tipped by bookmakers as one of the forerunners to win the ITV talent show, after she wowed the crowd at the Glasgow auditions a while ago with her rendition of Katrina and the Waves hit, 'Walking on Sunshine'. I'd heard people talk about this Zimbabwean teenager, but had not heard her sing until this evening when I stumbled upon the X-Factor show on television, although, frankly, watching X-Factor is not something I would normally be doing with myself on a Sunday evening. Gamu came on, sang and I was totally captivated..

I have since learned that Gamu's mum, Nokuthula, 38, left Zimbabwe eight years ago and settled in Tilicoultry, Clackmannanshire, Scotland with her daughter and her two sons, Milton, 12 and Marty, 10. She is in Scotland under a work-permit visa, which also covers her children as her dependants.

Gamu was just three when her dad died in Zimbabwe and her mum struggled financially to bring up her children. Mum Nokuthula eventually made the heartbreaking decision to leave the children behind in Zimbabwe and travel to the UK to study for a degree at Stirling University. Three years later the family were reunited in Scotland and Gamu told the X-Factor audition audience in Glasgow that she just wanted to give something back to her mum. Gamu has dedicated her success in the show to the people of Scotland, without whose help she says, "it would not have been possible.. I regard myself as a Scottish contestant, because this country has been so good to me. I have loads of great friends and loads of good people around me. It has been great.."

Here Gamu is singing jazz at "Learning at BBC Scotland"..

And here at the Praise Gathering Concert at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh..