Thursday, 1 November 2012

Things that get you thinking..



I enjoy listening to the Professor Richard Dawkins speak..

Monday, 29 October 2012

Update Number Five


My last few days in Ghana were spent in Accra, but not before I had undertaken what I can only still think of as a difficult road journey to get there from Sunyani. The journey was difficult mainly because of the state of the roads in segments of the route. Stopping over for a while (and for a second time) in the city of Kumasi, my impression of the city as being the least attractive of the cities that I was privileged to visit in Ghana was only reinforced. Whoever it is that is charged with the responsibility for keeping the city’s streets clean deserves to lose their job, or their contract, because they are doing a very poor job indeed. Driving through the city centre was a nightmare not only because the area was overcrowded and the traffic was horrendous, but this was quite easily the dirtiest place that I encountered throughout my stay in Ghana. I couldn't get out of the city fast enough. 

But then once again Ghana redeemed herself when the coach in which we were travelling (George and me) pulled into a petrol station on the outskirts of Kumasi for a rest stop and the passengers all filed out in orderly fashion to use the spotless and very well maintained toilet facilities that were laid on for our use. It was difficult to make a connection between these excellent toilets and those ones that I had complained so vociferously about in my last update. However this reprieve wasn't to last long, for it was only a short while later and only a few kilometres down the Kumasi to Konongo-Odumase road that our coach came to an abrupt halt. And we remained stationary for nearly two hours too, apparently because some serious accident had occurred up the road ahead of us. No information was passed on to us, no explanation for the delay was provided and it seemed to me that none of the other passengers on the coach even realised that they were actually entitled to an explanation for the delay, or to be told the reason why they were being held up. Eventually, though, this information trickled down.

Some heavy-duty articulated vehicle had toppled over on its side in the middle of the road and having spewed all of its contents unto the road, made it impossible for traffic in either direction to progress until the debris had been cleared off the road surface and the wrecked vehicle moved to one side. Needless to say, all of this took several hours, for there was at least a one-kilometre-long queue of stalled traffic in front of us before we had even arrived at the scene. Even when we started to move, it was at a crawl, for several miles. And as if this unpleasant episode wasn't bad enough, we still had to contend with the stretch of very bad road around the town of Suhum about an hour later, that went on for miles and miles, which made an already difficult journey even more tedious than it needed to be. Finally and quite exhausted, (its amazing that we were so tired since we'd only been sitting in a coach), we arrived in Accra and fought our way through the city's very heavy traffic to the location where we were to stay for the next couple of days.  

How time flies when you have so much you want to see and do, yet so little time to see and do them. There was so much more I had wanted to see in Ghana, for starters all those touristy places like for example, the Elmina Castle. I didn't even get to see the sights in Accra itself, save for a brief visit to the Labadi beach. By the way, it was annoying that one was required to pay an entry fee to enter the beach area, and more so when there was nothing of any particular significance at the beach to justify having to pay just to be there. My flight back to England was only hours away and the appalling traffic conditions in Accra meant that it took hours just to get from one point in the city to another. 

What I could accomplish therefore during my brief stay in the city was limited, but I have resolved to return to Ghana sometime in the not too distant future, specifically to visit and spend time in Accra. I simply haven't seen enough of the place yet. There are people in Accra that I was looking forward to meeting too, whom I never had the chance to meet because I didn't have the time. And I feel really bad about that. But please guys do accept my apologies, I'll make up for it the next time I come. So with the awful traffic conditions in mind, I made sure to set out for the airport a good 5 hours before my flight. This was one flight I was not going to miss. 

The trip home - A person can only enter into the Departures area of the Accra airport terminal building by presenting both a passport and a ticket as proof that whosoever enters the building is a legitimate traveller. And although I understand the reasoning behind this strict policy, I cant but think of it as anything other than mean and unkind, because you are forced to bid only a perfunctory farewell to a loved one who was seeing you off at the airport, with whom you might have wished instead to share a lingering hug, (or perhaps even a kiss), as you parted from each other. And even so, you have no choice but to part under the watchful gaze of stern looking airport security personnel. 

Its even worse when you have several hours of waiting alone at the airport to do before your flight, since you've arrived early, hours which could easily have been spent enjoying the company of your loved one. So you get the picture of what actually happened to me when I found myself suddenly all alone in the departures lounge, clearing immigration and going through the usual security procedures. Thank goodness for mobile telephony, because although physically alone I was still able to keep in touch with George, who insisted on remaining behind outside the airport for a while after I had left him and entered the building.

And so my visit to Ghana ended and I made it onto the aircraft bound for Amsterdam. A quick phone call to say my goodbyes and settling into my seat for what was a night flight, I thought little of the rumbling in my stomach (and ignored it), as the aeroplane thundered down the runway, lifted into the air and the night lights of Accra spread out beneath us. But it was not long before that stomach rumble declared its malevolent intentions. It was not to be ignored! 

If you know of no one who has had diarrhoea while travelling on a 7-hour flight in a fully-loaded aeroplane with every seat occupied, look no further. It was absolutely horrendous having to trundle down the aisle every few minutes or so to use the toilet in the plane, cursing under my breath; wondering what the heck I'd had to eat on my last day in Accra that had landed me in this appalling situation; receiving those funny looks from fellow passengers and the plane's cabin crew; hoping desperately that there wouldn't be a queue for the toilet when I reached it, because after all there were close to 300 people on this aircraft, with perhaps six toilets between us. Thankfully this was at night and most people did eventually fall asleep in their seats. So there were visits I made to the toilet that went mostly unobserved. 

After a few hours into the flight the diarrhoea did settle down a bit, albeit temporarily, because shortly after touchdown in Amsterdam, while negotiating my route through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to reach my departure gate for my connecting flight to London, (for which I had to wait in Amsterdam for another four or more hours), the diarrhoea flared up again. So even while at the airport in Amsterdam, it was in and out of the toilet again, until I could bear it no longer and demanded to be shown to the airport's medical centre. Once there, I was promptly handed a high dosage of powerful anti-diarrhoeal medication by a very polite, black, Dutch lady doctor, who spoke halting English. Then I received a bill of just over 40 Euros, which I was informed included the fee for the doctor's consultation. The doctor assured me that I would feel better after taking the medication. And I did too, at least until I reached London and made my way home, but I didn't fully recover until at least after the second day after my arrival.

It was not a pleasant end to what had been a very interesting and enjoyable holiday, but it is the enjoyable parts of the holiday that I will focus on and which will remain embedded in my memory forever. In my mind I've already started toying with the idea of going off again to another interesting location. But will I visit Ghana again? Most definitely! I totally loved the place

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Update Number Four

Unplanned development is as prevalent in Ghana as it is in Nigeria, save for the scale of it, in which case Nigeria's may perhaps be greater than Ghana's. Nevertheless, even in Ghana, it is the case that most newly built homes are put up in areas where proper roads do not exist, nor is there any pipe-borne water to be connected to. And by the haphazard nature of the positioning of the electricity poles, it is possible to detect that even the electricity has been hurriedly connected to the locality.

In several of the areas that I have visited, houses (of questionable build-quality) have been constructed with seemingly no guidance whatsoever from any civic minicipal planning/building regulatory regime, nor with any regard to, or consideration for, things like safety, or access, as for example, access for the emergency services in the event of an emergency.
  
Houses seem to be built for two main reasons. Firstly, a house is built to fulfill what is seen as a requirement in the life of a truly successful person, to have his/her own home built from scratch. Secondly, much of the home building seems to be done for the purpose of exploiting what is in fact a severe housing deficit, by building substandard homes to be rented to hapless tenants, given the shortage of housing in general and the dearth of decent housing in particular.

The fact is that an inordinately large number of Ghanaians still live in housing that can best be described as inadequate. However, it must be said that there are also some very nice and well built homes, although often times these are located in places where you might wish you were wearing hiking boots (due to the awful state in which what passes for a road is in), as you navigate the terrain to reach such homes.

Water in many areas I have visited is not pipe-borne and is almost always supplied from a well dug at the time the building is constructed. In the more well-to-do households, the water from the well is pumped by an electric pump into an overhead tank, from which it is then distributed through the home assisted by gravity. The hope always is for the electricity supply to remain uninterrupted, for when it is interrupted, which happens often, its becomes impossible for the water to be pumped into the tank. As for what obtains in the less well-off homes, well, let me leave that to your imagination.
   
Toilets - I do not understand why all of my neighbours need to know about it every time I go to use the toilet. But apparently some feel differently about this, since this is precisely what happens in large parts of Ghana, where the idea of public toilets appears to have been embraced with a degree of enthusiasm that many of us living in some other places would be unfamiliar with.

I heard an alarming statistic the other day on Ghanaian television, when some wise person while lamenting the generally poor sanitary conditions in the said public toilets, made the comment that 5 million Ghanaians do not have a toilet in their homes. Wow!  Strolling through the village to have a poo on the other side of town seems to be the reality, a fact of life, for many people here. It seems that many here can see nothing wrong with having to do this and don't seem to know any reason why they should have a toilet in their homes for their own private and exclusive use.

But then if public toilets is the way to go and if this is what you want to do, isn't ensuring that those public toilets are carefully maintained and kept scrupulously clean the only way to justify their existence?

I think there's a desperate need for legislation in Ghana making it compulsory for every home, and especially every newly built home, to have a toilet of its own. In my humble opinion, the culture of relying so heavily on public toilet facilities is outmoded and outdated and ought to have no place in the 21st century. It is even worse when you have to pay to use a public toilet that is merely a pit latrine, is filthy and offers only bits of old newspaper in place of toilet paper. Phew, that needed to be said, so there!

Transportation - Getting from place to place within a Ghanaian city isn't that difficult, what with the tidy and orderly row of taxis at the various designated points, each row for a specific destination. For example, taxis destined for say, Dumasua, line up in a row with the taxi at the very front bearing a DUMASUA sign on its roof, which indicates to the would-be passenger that this is the taxi to be boarded. It is a shared taxi that carries four passengers, but I understand that the taxis are also available to be chartered for exclusive use. Anyway, as soon as the shared taxi has filled all of its seats and destination sign is moved on to the roof of the taxi immediately following it in the row, it sets out (often being driven incredibly dangerously) on its rickety, bone-jarring, wobbly way, with not a seat belt in sight. From the very first day I arrived in this country, I've wondered everyday why there aren't more accidents on the roads..

And the taxis in Sunyani, the city the environs of where I've been for much of my stay in Ghana, are mostly old Opel and Vauxhall models, a fact that itself was a bit of a surprise to me. Even more surprising was when Kofi, the talkative taxi driver with whom I'd struck up something of a friendship, explained that almost all of the commercial vehicles in Ghana have been converted to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG), yes, the same gas used for cooking, (or is it liquefied petroleum gas LPG? I'm not entirely sure what the difference is). Anyway, this gas is said to be considerably less expensive than petrol and runs just as well, therefore its use makes commercial sense. Kofi, who showed me the tank for the gas that had been fitted into his taxi's boot, went on to explain how the conversion from petrol to gas is carried out. I thought this a wonderful idea and was quite impressed, but not having much knowledge about public transportation myself, wondered if this technology is being adopted more widely worldwide. And if not, why not?

Getting around the city may be easy, but getting around Ghana the country, from city to city, certainly is not. More about this in the next update, as I make my way through Ghana to Accra to catch my flight back home..

Friday, 19 October 2012

Melting ice cap: What has Greenland got to lose - or gain?



Interesting report from the Channel 4 News. Read the story on the Channel 4 News website here

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Update Number Three

I should start this update with an astonishing set of statistics. I see this is an addendum to my previous update, when I drew the comparison between Ghana and Nigeria on the percentages of their respective populations that are living below the international poverty line. 

According to the CIA's World Fact Book , the percentage of people in Ghana living in poverty in 2007 was 28.5% and according to World Bank figures, 28.59% in 2006. By contrast, the figures for Nigeria in 2010 were 67.98% living on less than $1.25 per day and 84.49% of the population living on less than $2 per day.

I thought this quite shocking for several reasons, but especially so given that Nigeria's oil export earnings alone amount to over $45 billion a year. Nigeria is the largest oil and gas producer in sub Saharan Africa and the country has been a major oil producer for more than fifty years. Its even more disturbing when one sees that only very few other countries have a higher percentage of their populations still living in poverty today, such countries as East Timor, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Madagascar. And Nigeria conspicuously, albeit incongruously, has been placed by the numbers among and alongside these 'poorest countries in the world'. You can't but wonder whether policy makers in Nigeria are aware of these shameful statistics, or even if they were aware, if they care at all.

But lest I forget, this is an update about my visit to the country Ghana. Therefore, I must resist the urge to embark on a literary rampage, pouring out my frustrations about my homeland Nigeria and the state in which the country is. So back to Ghana it is then.  

Its now week three in Ghana and I've realised that my distinctly western style and manner has worked to my disadvantage many times in my deep desire to go completely native. So I've made the conscious decision to ditch the RayBan-style light-sensitive reactions specs, which look like really cool sunglasses, (when the reality is that they are prescription spectacles with thick lenses without which I could barely see a thing). 

Thank goodness for the "buy one get a second pair free" deal that the opticians Specsavers were doing, which I seized upon shortly before I embarked on my trip to Africa. So yes, I do have a second, non-trendy pair that make me look straight-laced, plain and schoolteacher-ish. (No disrespect to schoolteachers intended). And then the clothing. I've dumped fancy t-shirts and shorts for the fetching, brightly coloured shirts, made of locally produced ankara cloth, sewn by local tailors and commonly worn proudly by many locals. Jeans are truly universal and mine have stayed, but the sum effect of the transformation in my appearance is to make me blend in more readily, although there's still the problem with the local language, of which I have been able only to acquire a few words. Twi is not an easy language to learn.

Fufu Bar - I had never heard of a 'fufu bar' until i arrived in Ghana a few weeks ago. The fufu bar is akin to what in Nigeria would be referred to as a 'pepper-soup joint'. To be more accurate though, I'd have to describe the fufu bar as a cross between a pepper-soup joint and a 'buka' or 'mama-put'. Well, you'd know what I was talking about if you were already familiar with Nigeria, but for those who aren't, I shall describe my experiences at the fufu bar and draw comparisons as I go along with the Nigerian establishments I referred to. But then this of course is about Ghana, not Nigeria and we must not lose sight of that.

Now 'Twi" the language of the Akan people of the part of Ghana where I currently am, is a language which just like 'Yoruba' its Nigerian cousin, seemingly may only be spoken by shouting. In other words, it appears to me, the onlooker, that anything spoken or said in the Twi language (and indeed the Yoruba language for that matter), must be shouted in order for it to be understood. I've only made this observation or remark so as to set the backdrop for the sound (or noise) at the fufu bar, where Twi was the only language being spoken (shouted) in communications between patrons and bar staff and amongst the patrons themselves. It didn't help matters (in fact it energised the already very noisy chatter), that Ghana's national soccer team the Black Stars, were billed to play a major qualifying match against the Malawi national side later that day.

And in the middle of all of this was seated poor little me, not comprehending a single word of what was being said (or shouted) all around me, save for when the familiar name of a famous footballer was uttered. But then there was George, seated beside me, all the time at my side as he had been since I stepped off the plane and out through the 'arrivals' gate at the airport weeks ago, his attention constantly focused on me, watching for and responding to every facial expression, answering every question my curious and inquisitive mind could throw at him, meeting my every need, offering me a place of safety from all that uncertainty, a place of warmth and comfort even during those violent night-time tropical thunderstorms that have characterised my stay here thus far..

Then finally the fufu arrives and is served in a large earthenware bowl, which I am kindly informed is known in the local language as potayua. The fufu itself looks a bit like the pounded yam of Nigeria, which I enjoy so very much when well prepared and served with a tasty, leafy sauce such as egusi or edikang ikong. But at this fufu bar, the fufu sat in what can best be described as a pool of 'light soup'. I'd heard of light soup long before I ever saw or tasted it and I'd always been curious to know what it was. But as it turned out, light soup is the same thing as what is known as pepper-soup in Nigeria. Indeed, light soup is what I'd always had (and enjoyed immensely) at that Ghanaian restaurant in Dalston, London, although I had thought that it was pepper-soup that I was having. So you see, there's little difference between pepper-soup and light soup.

The only difference if at all, is the way each is eaten in Ghana and in Nigeria respectively. In Ghana, light soup is eaten in the way that in Nigeria the more substantial sauces such as egusi are eaten. In Nigeria, pepper-soup is eaten with a spoon and can be sipped like tea. Indeed, pepper-soup is often slurped when its hot, much in the same way that a person who doesn't know better slurps his tea from his cup or mug. Please can you imagine having pounded yam with pepper-soup? Or to describe it more vividly, just imagine your lump of pounded yam sitting in the middle bowl of pepper soup? I couldn't do it and had to give up on the fufu in the end. But I sipped (and drank) the light soup as best as I could. The 'bush meat' that came with the soup was an absolute delight though, and between George and I, not a single piece of it was left behind.

This report on the fufu bar would be incomplete without a comment or two on the assortment of drinks on offer, all alcoholic and all locally produced. First of all, there was something called kasapreko that looked a bit like a stout, but which I'm reliably informed is consumed in copious quantities and used by the bar's patrons to boost their appetites. Then there was "Alomo Bitters'. It must be bitter, I thought, so "no, thank you very much". And then the usual suspects, akpeteshie  and  burukutu, homemade gin and homemade brew (beer) respectively. But just in case you've started wondering, I had only a glass of water to wash down the light  soup and bush meat.

In the next update I shall be discussing my thoughts on more substantial issues like housing, roads and yes, the toilets in Ghana.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Update Number Two

The vibe in Ghana is of peace and stability. Stability here is so consistent, it almost can be taken for granted and life can become predictable. And just as I do when I'm in England, I do feel very safe here.

On the news yesterday was the report about the two dozen or so students murdered in cold blood by "unknown gunmen" in Nigeria, and it was easy for me to see immediately that such an incident could hardly occur in Ghana, where issues surrounding upholding the rule of law and maintaining law and order seem to have been worked out exquisitely.

First off, the Ghana policeman is the best looking policeman on the African continent by a mile. Gosh, you can't but admire him in his ultra smart uniform! But the Ghana Police Service does not only have the smartest uniforms, it is also one of the more well disciplined and effective police forces in Africa, and certainly more so than their Nigerian counterpart. I make comparisons with Nigeria because of the similar histories both countries share; sister countries with much in common.

Then there is also the fact that in Ghana, things are better organised generally. I watched and listened to what was a very impressive parliamentary debate yesterday, relating to the creation of additional constituencies in the run-up to the country's forthcoming elections in December. The arguments put forward by the MPs for and against were not only compelling, they were extremely well articulated as well, such that it was impossible to come away from from viewing this without feeling that in Ghana they are bang on target and have really got the fundamentals and basics perfectly right. They have developed a system of democratic government that actually works and they seem to have put in place a solid foundation for a prosperous and successful future, with revenues from oil soon to be pouring in too.

The outcomes are in the figures and the numbers. As of 2011, in the UNDP's Human Development Index (HDI) Ghana was classed as a Medium Human Development country, in the same category with countries such as Botswana, Egypt, South Africa and India. Nigeria on the other hand and despite her immense wealth, languishes in the Low Human Development country category, in the same category with countries like Chad, Liberia and Mali. Even when expressed as a percentage of the population, in Nigeria there are significantly more people living below the international poverty line (which is roughly about $1.25 per day, as revised by the World Bank in 2008), than there are in Ghana. This is a clear indication that Ghana manages her resources more carefully and much better than Nigeria does, given that Nigeria is the significantly wealthier of the two. And this all said, I know which of the two countries I would think of as being safer to invest my hard earned resources, meagre though they might be, if faced with having to make that choice.

Before I end this update, I will just add that for the last three days the electricity power supply to the place where I am located was shut off. Only this morning, after two hellish, sweaty nights without the joys of having a fan to lull you to sleep, has the power been restored.


  • Yes I know its been all serious and full of praise for Ghana in this update, but no, what I have on my mind concerning my experiences so far  in Ghana is certainly not just praise. More updates to come.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Update Number One

Its nice to be awoken in the early morning by the sound of a cock crowing. Its refreshing and remarkably earthy and reminds you of just how close to nature you've been in the last few days. It becomes even nicer when you realise shortly after you wake, that the cockerel was only performing a brief solo and that he's in fact the lead singer in an orchestra of birds, as you hear and listen to the amazing dawn chorus of the birds in full flow.

Its not that pleasant however when you are brought round prematurely from your afternoon nap by the loud "Thud", "Thud" of next door's lady-of-the-house pounding foofoo with a mortar and pestle, with gusto, almost as if the taste of the foofoo depends upon just how vigorously it is pounded in the mortar!

Another thing, I'm pretty glad that I gave up smoking, because had I still been a smoker I'd be tearing out my hair in frustration by now. I have not seen a single person with a cigarette in their hand since I arrived in Ghana last week, neither have I seen a single cigarette being sold in any shop or store. I've even gone so far as to search with my eyes for discarded cigarette butts by the roadside, but have not discovered a single butt as yet. Oh of course I know that there must be some people here who do smoke, but they must be very few indeed, next to being almost completely unnoticeable, invisible.

What a far cry from Europe, a continent where the smell of tobacco smoke hangs heavily over entire city districts; where housewives hang out of windows in high rise apartment buildings puffing away at a cigarette held daintily in one hand, mobile phone clutched to ear with the other, (for the gossip must continue, even while making the effort to spare the toddler in the flat the burden of second-hand smoke inhalation); a continent where workers routinely skive off their duty posts when at work, to go for that "crafty fag".

I've been located in a place that thinks of itself as a suburb of a regional capital city, but which in reality is little more than a small, rural village that just happens to be geographically located a few miles from the regional capital city. The thought that came to my mind immediately upon my arrival here was of the similarity of this place to my ancestral home village of Twon Brass in far away Bayelsa State, Nigeria. The pervasive smell hanging in the air in both places is the aroma of woodsmoke, from the open-air wood fires commonly used for cooking. Unlike in Twon Brass where the woodsmoke smell is flavoured with the aroma of smoked fish because the prevalent occupation there is fishing, here in this place in Ghana where farming is the main occupation, the woodsmoke is complemented by the musty aroma of milled maize and cassava. The woodsmoke aside, the aroma of the homemade alcoholic spirit akpeteshie, also known as ogogoro, kaikai, (or atuwor in Twon Brass) hangs in the air. 

Another point of similarity between the people of the two places is their fondness for a big, noisy, raucous funeral, or "finral" as they say in Ghana.                

Let me conclude this update by saying that I have been searching, but in vain, for red peppers since my arrival here. Alarmingly, I was unable even to convince the lady who sold me some fine, large green peppers at the market, that there are in fact peppers of that size and shape but which are red in colour. She was incredulous and said she'd never seen such nor even heard of such peppers. So there I was standing in the middle of the market, confused, bewildered, scratching my head, but am now determined to get to the bottom of this and find out the reason for the absence in Ghana's Brong Ahafo Region of any knowledge of the existence of red peppers. I must now shut down this computer and get myself into town. Later then..

Friday, 28 September 2012

In Pictures

 Street and market scenes





                                        The approaching elections                          
Funeral alley

All pics taken this afternoon in Sunyani, the capital city of Ghana's Brong Ahafo Region.

Ghana: First impressions..

I find that in Ghana people are calmer, less noisy and generally more gentle than people in Nigeria. But the roads in Ghana are just as perilous and the driving just as crazy as in Nigeria. Indeed, Ghana is every bit as chaotic as Nigeria is. So far, I have found one or two bright sparks though. The impressively well organised rest stop on the Accra - Kumasi highway for one, which made a 225km journey that took 7 hours to complete, much less nightmarish for me than it could have been. The highway itself is a good road in the most part, but our progress was severely impeded in those parts of the road that go for miles around the town of Suhum, which are bad, very bad. The person in charge of roads in Ghana really needs to sit up and do something about that road please.

And then there is Kotoka International Airport, whose capacity was practically overwhelmed when three planeloads of passengers arrived within minutes of each other. That airport, in my view, is failing to meet the expectations of those like me who think highly of Ghana, including several foreign visitors who arrived at the same time as I did, and especially those arriving in the country for the first time. 

I spent the day yesterday completing the difficult journey by road from Accra to Sunyani in the Brong Ahafo Region, well, only if sitting in a reasonably comfortable air-conditioned coach qualifies to be described as a "difficult journey". :) My tour continues and I expect to be posting updates from time to time or whenever I get the chance..

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Miwako

Hers is in the only name that I still remember of all the dozens of nurses who cared for me, looked after me and nursed me all those years ago when I was gravely ill and in hospital. And hers is a name that I will not forget, not ever.

For Miwako, I would have been just another one of the multitude of patients that she had the job of caring for. But for me, she wasn't just another nurse. She was different, special, unique; she was my Japanese angel; the one who lit up the room each morning when she entered to wake me, clean me up, change the sheets, tidy up, serve my breakfast and feed me, while soothing and encouraging me at the same time with her sweet voice and calm but warm demeanour. 

And then she would prepare me for the day's interminable prodding and probing by the hordes of doctors, consultants, specialists of all shade and hue, many of who would end up sticking one tube or other into almost every available orifice in my by then withered and very ill body. And then those annoying phlebotomists who would turn up with enormous needles, prick my arms and burrow into my emaciated flesh in their daily quest for blood samples, an act which they persisted in until my veins almost totally collapsed in protest! The word 'miserable' does not sufficiently describe how I felt during this very grim episode in my life, an episode that lasted for months. 

But through all of this, there was Miwako. She was by no means the only nurse who worked on the ward and the nurses worked in shifts too. So there were long periods when she was not on the ward at all; periods when I longed dearly to see her and have her by my bedside, handling me gently, as was her way. And even on the mornings when she arrived on the ward, (she seemed only to work the day shift, for I have no recollection of having her around during those long, lonely, awful nights), she would enter my room in the midst of a group of nurses with whom she was meant to work together as a team. But even in the midst of her colleagues, Miwako stood out. She was radiant and she shone. And on seeing her, my hitherto crestfallen spirit would lift instantly. And it would seem to me as if it was just Miwako and I in the room, as if none of the other nurses even existed. 

Then Miwako would smile at me and in my mind, which obviously was by then quite delirious through illness, I would have extraordinary visions of strolling through the park, hand in hand with a fragrant Miwako, singing sweet songs to her, telling her how good she had been to me. Then I would be rudely brought down to earth and back to the reality on the ward, when I was abruptly shuffled from one end of the bed to the other by the nurses in their bid to change the sheets! But thankfully Miwako would still be there, in the room with me, fussing about, tending to my every need. And by her just being there, strangely, I would feel reassured that I was going to get over this illness and that everything would be alright in the end. 

Everything did turn out well in the end, thanks to the expertise of the doctors in whose care I was and thanks to the excellent nursing care that I received. Ten years on, I do not remember the names of any of the doctors, save for the consultant with whom I was required to maintain follow-up sessions after my discharge. I suppose it is a testament to how much of a good nurse Miwako is (or was to me) that I still remember her and think about her as often as I do. I have been back to the ward to express my gratitude to the nurses recently, but the staff were almost all new faces. I would have loved very much for Miwako to know just how much the  kindness that she showed meant to me and how much it contributed to my recovery. I don't know if she'll get to read this, or even if she will remember me at all. But all the same, to all those Miwakos out there who touch people's lives in a special way, thank you.             

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Julian Assange asylum: Ecuador is right to stand up to the US

An excellent take on the Julian Assange asylum story.

Ecuador has now made its decision: to grant political asylum to Julian Assange. This comes in the wake of an incident that should dispel remaining doubts about the motives behind the UK/Swedish attempts to extradite WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. On Wednesday, the UK government made an unprecedented threat to invade Ecuador's embassy if Assange is not handed over. Such an assault would be so extreme in violating international law and diplomatic conventions that it is difficult to even find an example of a democratic government even making such a threat, let alone carrying it out. 

When Ecuadorian foreign minister Ricardo Patiño, in an angry and defiant response, released the written threats to the public, the UK government tried to backtrack and say it wasn't a threat to invade the embassy (which is another country's sovereign territory). But what else can we possibly make of this wording from a letter delivered by a British official?

"You need to be aware that there is a legal base in the UK, the Diplomatic and Consular Premises Act 1987, that would allow us to take actions in order to arrest Mr Assange in the current premises of the embassy. We sincerely hope that we do not reach that point, but if you are not capable of resolving this matter of Mr Assange's presence in your premises, this is an open option for us." 

Is there anyone in their right mind who believes that the UK government would make such an unprecedented threat if this were just about an ordinary foreign citizen wanted for questioning – not criminal charges or a trial – by a foreign government? 

Ecuador's decision to grant political asylum to Assange was both predictable and reasonable. But it is also a ground-breaking case that has considerable historic significance. 

First, the merits of the case: Assange clearly has a well-founded fear of persecution if he were to be extradited to Sweden. It is pretty much acknowledged that he would be immediately thrown in jail. Since he is not charged with any crime, and the Swedish government has no legitimate reason to bring him to Sweden, this by itself is a form of persecution. 

We can infer that the Swedes have no legitimate reason for the extradition, since they were repeatedly offered the opportunity to question him in the UK, but rejected it, and have also refused to even put forth a reason for this refusal. A few weeks ago the Ecuadorian government offered to allow Assange to be questioned in its London embassy, where Assange has been residing since 19 June, but the Swedish government refused – again without offering a reason. This was an act of bad faith in the negotiating process that has taken place between governments to resolve the situation. 

Former Stockholm chief district prosecutor Sven-Erik Alhem also made it clear that the Swedish government had no legitimate reason to seek Assange's extradition when he testified that the decision of the Swedish government to extradite Assange is "unreasonable and unprofessional, as well as unfair and disproportionate", because he could be easily questioned in the UK. 

But, most importantly, the government of Ecuador agreed with Assange that he had a reasonable fear of a second extradition to the United States, and persecution here for his activities as a journalist. The evidence for this was strong. Some examples: an ongoing investigation of Assange and WikiLeaks in the US; evidence that an indictment had already been prepared; statements by important public officials such as Democratic senator Diane Feinstein that he should be prosecuted for espionage, which carries a potential death penalty or life imprisonment. 

Why is this case so significant? It is probably the first time that a citizen fleeing political persecution by the US has been granted political asylum by a democratic government seeking to uphold international human rights conventions. This is a pretty big deal, because for more than 60 years the US has portrayed itself as a proponent of human rights internationally – especially during the cold war. And many people have sought and received asylum in the US. 

The idea of the US government as a human rights defender, which was believed mostly in the US and allied countries, was premised on a disregard for the human rights of the victims of US wars and foreign policy, such as the 3 million Vietnamese or more than one million Iraqis who were killed, and millions of others displaced, wounded, or abused because of US actions. That idea – that the US should be judged only on what it does within its borders – is losing support as the world grows more multipolar economically and politically, Washington loses power and influence, and its wars, invasions, and occupations are seen by fewer people as legitimate. 

At the same time, over the past decade, the US's own human rights situation has deteriorated. Of course prior to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, millions of African-Americans in the southern states didn't have the right to vote, and lacked other civil rights – and the consequent international embarrassment was part of what allowed the civil rights movement to succeed. But at least by the end of that decade, the US could be seen as a positive example internally in terms of the rule of law, due process and the protection of civil rights and liberties. 

Today, the US claims the legal right to indefinitely detain its citizens; the president can order the assassination of a citizen without so much as even a hearing; the government can spy on its citizens without a court order; and its officials are immune from prosecution for war crimes. It doesn't help that the US has less than 5% of the world's population but almost a quarter of its prison inmates, many of them victims of a "war on drugs" that is rapidly losing legitimacy in the rest of the world. Assange's successful pursuit of asylum from the US is another blow to Washington's international reputation. At the same time, it shows how important it is to have democratic governments that are independent of the US and – unlike Sweden and the UK – will not collaborate in the persecution of a journalist for the sake of expediency. Hopefully other governments will let the UK know that threats to invade another country's embassy put them outside the bounds of law-abiding nations. 

It is interesting to watch pro-Washington journalists and their sources look for self-serving reasons that they can attribute to the government of Ecuador for granting asylum. Correa wants to portray himself as a champion of free speech, they say; or he wants to strike a blow to the US, or put himself forward as an international leader. But this is ridiculous. 

[Ecuador's President] Correa didn't want this mess and it has been a lose-lose situation for him from the beginning. He has suffered increased tension with three countries that are diplomatically important to Ecuador – the US, UK and Sweden. The US is Ecuador's largest trading partner and has several times threatened to cut off trade preferences that support thousands of Ecuadorian jobs. And since most of the major international media has been hostile to Assange from the beginning, they have used the asylum request to attack Ecuador, accusing the government of a "crackdown" on the media at home. As I have noted elsewhere, this is a gross exaggeration and misrepresentation of Ecuador, which has an uncensored media that is mostly opposed to the government. And for most of the world, these misleading news reports are all that they will hear or read about Ecuador for a long time. 

Correa made this decision because it was the only ethical thing to do. And any of the independent, democratic governments of South America would have done the same. If only the world's biggest media organisations had the same ethics and commitment to freedom of speech and the press. 

Now we will see if the UK government will respect international law and human rights conventions and allow Assange safe passage to Ecuador.

By Mark Weisbrot and appearing in The Guardian newspaper here

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A stalker..

Its been over two years when I first observed that a certain individual who lives in the same city as I do, has been frequently performing Google searches with the search word "anengiyefa", my name, a search that would inevitably lead him to this blog. 

Anyone who owns a blog knows how to keep track of his visitors, so I have noticed every single visit this individual has made to this blog. I can tell that this has been the same person, because he consistently uses the same IP address. I can also tell that this person has something to do with the London Borough of Merton Adult & Community Learning and/or the Borough of Lambeth. And I say this person is a "he", because its safe to assume that this is a man, since much of the time, women are more sensible than this person has shown himself to be. 

Save for some mild curiosity as to who this might be who apparently has such great interest in me, these visits haven't bothered me that much. His last visit was yesterday at 3:21pm, when he arrived on the blog via my Twitter account, having used the link to this blog that appears on that account. So it is clear that he checks out my Twitter updates as well. The visit previous to yesterday's was sometime last week, when he arrived on the blog having done a Google search using the search words "latest news on anengiyefa" . It was when I saw this that I reckoned I'd have to speak up about this and write this post, since I know that sooner or later he would invariably stop by and get to read what I have to say.

I am not inaccessible and we both live in London. My email address appears on the right hand column of this blog. Rather than creeping around in the shadows constantly doing Google searches for me spanning over a period of years, it isn't that difficult to drop me an email. You might even get to chat with me, if you're lucky :). No really, this is now becoming a bit creepy and is starting to make me feel slightly uneasy.. 

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Romantic men, 1920s  Word Game
Word Game 
For the most part, gay men in the far distant past didn't use words like "lover" or phrases like "he is my boyfriend." Rather, signs of intimacy or a relationship were more subtle.


Gay Drag-Cakewalk Dance, 1900

Drag-Cakewalk Dance, 1900



 Comic Postcard-1930s

Comic Postcard-1930s 
Yes, it is unflattering in its depiction of African people. Yes, it is a caricature. Yes, it is a stereotype. Yes, it is undoubtedly RACIST! The postcard is from the 1930s. It dates back to a time when Europe disregarded ethnic and tribal boundaries and divided Africa up into colonies where land and people were exploited. 

More adult oriented postcards from the era that were distributed privately among like minded individuals were more risqué than the above card. In their depictions of same-sex behaviour, typically shown were African males with huge sexual appendages dominating willing European males----a preferred iconography largely still in existence today. (Side Note: In gay mainstream and general mainstream media, there is a phobia of showing men of African descent romantically involved with one another; and, few are willing to challenge the phobia). 

The postcard above is evidently different in what it shows. The card is non-erotic. All the subjects in the card are African. In the midst of largely heterosexual couplings, one gay couple is featured prominently holding hands as they lovingly look at one another without so much as a disapproving glance from the straight couples. Outside the way the Africans are drawn with buffoonish facial features, the postcard is supposed to comically depict a “sentimental” slice of daily African life within some unknown colony. Same-sex relationships in Africa is nothing new, as anthropological and ethnographic observations predating European colonialism reveal. There once was a time when same-sex behaviour was accepted as part of the larger arc of human expression and not frowned upon. Same-sex behaviour could be accepted and even valued in Africa’s many ethnic tribes. Under the intellectual and Judo-Christian influences of a Europe claiming to have only the best interest of the people always in mind, much of this acceptance and valuation disappeared. One of the myriad reasons used for colonial domination was the so-called immorality of the land’s people----e.g. evidence of homosexuality. 

After the colonial powers left, much of Africa chose to keep foreign customs or laws morally frowning on or criminalizing same-sex desiring folk. Observed and oral histories that were evidence of a tolerance or an outright full embracing of same-sex desiring behaviour, became largely denied and forgotten, to be replaced by the intolerable homophobia that make for today’s headline news around the world in a now “free” Africa.  Source

(UPDATE) Explosion Rocks Abuja Shopping Center | Sahara Reporters


Sahara Reporters has learned that a car bomb has exploded near the Banex Plaza in Abuja, Nigeria. The car exploded in front of Park 'N Shop at Shefiff Plaza, close to Banex Plaza in Wuse 2. FCT police commissioner is there at the moment, as the police put up barricades around the area. No one is allowed to take pictures at the moment. 
Unconfirmed reports state that one person has been injured. However, according to the latest statement from Police Spokesman Frank Mba, no causualties, injuries, or property damage has been recorded. 

Below is an official statement from Nigeria Police Forces in Abuja: continue reading

Blog Author's Note: There is little that is unusual about this report. Reports such as this have been coming out of Nigeria almost daily, for years now. What has provoked my ire though, is the general response there has been to these incidents.

Nigerians seem to be obsessed with their 'God'. Nearly all the comments made by readers in response to the story when it was originally posted on Facebook by Sahara Reporters, make one reference or the other to God. Examples: "God knows the faceless who are killing innocents, God's judgement will prevail" "God is watching and he will surely intervene" "God knows everything" "God will reveal the perpetrators of this evil act" "May God be our saviour" etc, etc. And interestingly, on the other side of the divide too, the actual perpetrators of the violence are themselves using their belief in their God or Allah, or whatever you wish to call him, as a convenient cover story for their heinous crimes.

In my humble opinion, only a desperate people who are left with no tangible hope, will cling to their 'belief in God' and think of this as the only way out of their situation. Even the authorities in Nigeria now openly call on God to come and intervene in a situation they have clearly lost control over. But is the situation in Nigeria really a matter for God? 

Friday, 22 June 2012

Another fascinating Nigerian story..

The Nigerian Government transferred N120billion ($801million) to a company, Malabu Oil and Gas, with a fake address and which has been involved in illegality right from its inception, an ongoing PREMIUM TIMES investigation has shown. 
The company subsequently transferred the money to other phony companies with falsified addresses in what the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission described as a “cloudy scene associated with fraudulent dealings.” 
PREMIUM TIMES  had reported how Mohammed Adoke, the Attorney General of the Federation; and Yerima Ngama, the Minister of State for Finance, on August 16, 201,1 hurriedly and secretly authorised the transfer of the money from a Nigerian government account with JP Morgan International Bank, into Malabu accounts, a day before the resumption of the Finance Minister and former World Bank Managing Director, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.  
Further investigations by this newspaper has however shown that as at the time the FG was transferring such a huge sum  to Malabu, the company was engaged in criminality as it had not only registered using a fictitious character, it also maintains a fake address  with the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). Continue reading..

Blog Author's Note: Going through the readers' comments in the Premium Times where this story was originally published, it is evident that there are those who question the veracity of the facts that this story is made up of. However, I know Mr Agidee in person, the partner at Souki-Novel Properties who is mentioned in the story and I have even done some some work with him in the early 1990s at that firm. I am also aware of his complaint to the Corporate Affairs Commission, the registry of companies in Nigeria, in relation to the other company of a similar name, which is now alleged to be a bogus company, and said to be the recipient of an enormous sum of public money as part of a dodgy deal. This story in the Premium Times although written in the characteristic Nigerian journalistic style, does tell of the extent of the graft that the supposed leaders of that country are capable of. 

Thursday, 14 June 2012

How to behave when accused of corruption in Nigeria | Daily Times Nigeria

How to behave when accused of corruption in Nigeria | Daily Times Nigeria

Well, enjoyable reading is all that this is, insofar as no positive outcome is ever likely to emanate from it. Not in Nigeria anyway. And that's part of the Nigerian problem, lots of talking and writing, yet very little ever changes, and real change continues to be ever so elusive..

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Monday, 30 April 2012

Reality catching up with Northern Nigeria, says Bishop Kukah


Activist and head of Catholic Diocese of Sokoto State, Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah, has declared that the reality of undervelopment is catching up with Northern Nigerian in comparison with the South.
Kukah was speaking on “Power without authority: Leadership crisis in Nigeria”, at a Nigerian Leadership Initiative (NLI) lecture in Abuja.
In a summary of his speech SaharaReporters obtained in Abuja, Kukah said that the North has so many challenges of development and it is “daybreak because the reality of the situation is obvious.”

He said while Nigeria has consistently produced office-holders, it has not produced leaders, as different people have assumed control by accident, and without preparation. 
He also observed that while the problems of this nation were not caused by President Goodluck Jonathan, it is remarkable that the rot that is being dug out in the National Assembly is happening during his time.

Turning specifically to the North, he said, “Clearly, my message for my brothers and sisters in the north is to ask ourselves, ‘what is happening?’” he said.  “And the north must also appreciate the fact that the return of government to the north in whatever shape or form is not going to solve our problem, and will not be the solution to the problem. And it’s daybreak, because the reality of the situation is obvious. This is where I feel quite disappointed by some of the utterances I have heard. I heard somebody like Alhaji Adamu Ciroma saying that the problem now is that: ‘we need a Danfodiyo to come.’”

He urged Nigerians not to give up.  “There is hope in Nigeria. I am a Bishop, I market hope. But let us be realistic, what I have seen in the Southwest. The Southwest states have developed a roadmap of where they are heading- a critical question I ask myself is: where is northern Nigeria? The north has literally and increasingly perceived to be a liability to the rest of Nigeria.

“The whole notion that somehow, by some dysfunctional philosophy, we can still line up and say: it is our turn to govern Nigeria, that is not the way the rest of the world is going. I appeal to us to appreciate the fact that the problems of this nation were not caused by President Goodluck Jonathan. But I think what is also quite fascinating is that the rot that is being dug out in the National Assembly is happening during his time.”

“Nigeria has consistently produced office holders but not leaders. Nigeria has produced through different processes, men and women who came to power and office largely by accident. Check out the list: Tafawa Balewa-Ironsi-Gowon-Murtala-Obasanjo-Shagari-Buhari-Babangida-Shonekan-Abacha-Abdusalam-Obasanjo-Yar’adua-Jonathan. None of these great men came to office with any degree of preparation or experience in governance.
Analysing the patterns of ascent to power in Nigeria, he noted that only four of the eight Nigerian Heads of State have been civilians. “The others have come to power through military conspiracy and coups. There is hardly anyone who has not come to power through very controversial circumstances, framed in allegations of electoral fraud and so on. If truth were told, these circumstances of accident and chance in coming to power have taken a toll on issues of authority and legitimacy. Good governance relates to the strategies and mechanisms adopted by state for the delivery of public, social and political good. The duty and responsibility of every state is to deliver these services to its citizens or those who legitimately enter its territories.
Bishop Kukah then offered the following questions about the nature of the Nigerian polity today.  “Can the nation’s apparatus of security contain internal threat and dissent? Do citizens feel secure as individuals, families or communities? Do they feel secure in their homes, their places of work or worship? Are their properties protected either by the state or other mediating agencies? Do the security agencies enjoy respect and co-operation among the citizens? Do citizens enjoy protection under the Constitution? Has a culture of transfer of power by constitutional means become acceptable in the country? How does the country’s legal system work? What again, is the cost of justice and do citizens generally feel that the law protects them? How do individuals, families and communities assess the rule of law? How much does justice cost the weakest members of society? Are all citizens equal before the law? Do citizens understand the constitution as a secular document with a sacred ring to it? Does the government respect Court judgment?”
Reblogged from Sahara Reporters

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Where to begin..

Its been a while since I've written on this blog and I wont even attempt to make excuses for my prolonged absence. Let it be sufficient for me to just say that my absence has been due to circumstances over which I had little control; but the good news is that I'm back, for good. I did miss writing on this blog though, because I've since realised that it has provided me with an outlet for expressing all those thoughts, feelings and emotions needing to be expressed, and to a broader spectrum of people than would otherwise be possible. 


Even during the period of my absence I would from time to time check up on the blog, and it was with a considerable amount of consternation that I observed the blog's visitor numbers steadily decline, such that these days, visitor numbers per day are significantly less than what they were just a few months ago. This surely is unacceptable to me and I have now set myself the task of restoring those visitor numbers to what they used to be.


Well, having said that, its been over a week since I've been preparing my mind and working on something to write about. But to no avail. Its not so much a case of me not knowing what to write about, but rather, one of having an overload of issues to discuss and not knowing where to start. It wasn't that long ago that words simply flowed off my fingertips without much effort. Now I find myself struggling with the task of rallying thoughts and feelings, and marshalling them into the written form; into a blog post. 


The world did not suddenly became a less interesting place, nor did I abruptly become even slightly less enchanted or fascinated by it. But I suppose there's a price that one must pay for temporarily abandoning writing. Its almost as if I'm having to start all over again. I tell myself however that if I did it before, so certainly I can do it again..  

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Feeling rather silly..

I feel compelled to say something about how I'm feeling this day and I could think of no better way than to set it out in a blog post.

John has been away in Ghana. And since we've been apart, we've made a point of staying in touch by telephone, speaking at least once daily, many times even more frequently. Last Thursday evening, we held our usual bedtime pillow-talk, agreeing afterwards to speak again in the evening of the next day, Friday. On Friday afternoon however, I received an important email about something I've been working on for a while and about which I needed to make a swift decision. I wanted to speak to someone about it and seek their opinion so I telephoned John, as anyone would their partner.

"The number you have dialled is currently switched off, please try again later", came the polite electronic woman's voice at the other end of the line. Okay, I reasoned, he's switched off his phone because he's engaged somewhere, doing something that cannot be done while holding a telephone conversation at the same time. It was mid afternoon, so I thought I'd give it a couple of hours and try again, but not before sending a text message asking John to get in touch urgently. It would be very much unlike John to receive such a text message from me and not call me back as soon he received it. So I sat back and waited, and waited, and waited..

Several hours later and well into the evening, I still hadn't heard from John, so I dialled his number again, only to hear once again that his number was switched off. Slightly alarming no doubt, but I'll give it a while and try again, I said to myself. To cut a long story short, I dialled John's number no less than twenty times between around 9pm and 1am. And his phone continued to be switched off. It was then that the panic started to set in and my fertile imagination went on overdrive; all manner of calamitous eventualities; gunshots, screams, ambulance sirens, each taking turns to explode inside my head during what turned out to be a sweaty, restless, sleepless Friday night! What had happened to John? Why had he not responded to my text messages, of which by which time I'd sent about ten? Why was his phone switched off all day long?

By Saturday morning, I'd almost completely broken down. Its been four years that John and I have been together, but there had never been the occasion for me to obtain the contact details of any of his relatives in Ghana. There was no one that I could ring up to find out what had happened, if at all. In the morning I dialled John's number again several times, time after time receiving the same polite automated message urging me to "try again later", a message that by this time had become quite depressing and upsetting to hear.

I'd stored letters, cards and notes that John had penned to me over the years. I retrieved all of them, together with the few photos of him that I have in my possession, staring at the photos, fingering the letters and notes, reading them, over and over, deeply distraught, crying, sometimes loudly wailing, wondering what my neighbours would be thinking as they heard a grown man cry, wondering what happened to John, this most precious part of my life..

The answer to my question, when it finally came, turned out to be so mundane and simple that I was left feeling rather silly for having reacted in the way that I'd done. At about 1pm on Saturday I braved it and dialled John's number again. And his phone rang! And his voice came on! And the anguish and turmoil of the several previous hours melted away in an instant! It happened that at the time of our chat on Thursday, the battery on his phone was very low, but he had not been able to charge the battery because there had been a power outage in the district of Accra where he was. His battery had gone completely flat and the electricity power was not restored until just a few minutes before I had called him on Saturday afternoon. He had just put his phone on the charger and had not even had the opportunity to respond to my texts before his phone rang. Now I'm utterly embarrassed..

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Is Syria being misreported?

One-Sided Reporting is Facilitating Escalation

Six Ways the Media Has Misreported Syria

by AFSHIN MEHRPOUYA

As in the case of Libya, from NY Times to Fox News, from Guardian to National Post and from Le Monde to Le Figaro, the Western mainstream media’s coverage of the Syrian conflict has been mostly simplistic and black & white with a Hollywoodian good (opposition) and evil (Syrian government) story. The basic storyline reported is: “The dictatorial Syrian government is torturing and killing Syrian protestors and civilians including women and children and that the Western counties and the Arab League want to protect these Syrian civilians”. These outlets use any information that supports their stance regardless of its source and quality, and dismiss or ignore any information that brings it to question.

The bloody suppression of protestors by the Syrian government and also instability resulting from the armed insurgency aggravated by a complex set of foreign forces, each with its own set of vested interests, have resulted in significant suffering for the people of Syria. Western media’s unquestioning, consensual, biased and melodramatic coverage of the Syrian events risks moving this conflict to a full blown war with grave consequences for the Syrian people and the region.

Here are the six ways that the Western media, across the board, have been uncritical and misleading in their coverage of the Syrian conflict:

1. What do the majority of Syrians want?

In the mainstream Western media coverage, there is an implicit assumption rarely questioned that the majority of the Syrians support the armed insurgency and that they want immediate departure of Bashar Assad. However, the only opinion poll that has been carried out by the Qatar based YouGovSiraj, since the start of the conflict claims that about 55%[1] of Syrians do not want immediate departure of Assad. The methodology for this poll is not robust. In addition, this stance might be not due to support for Assad rather, because the Syrian people are afraid of instability and civil war or because some believe in the reform intentions of Assad and still others because they might be benefiting from the existing regime. The 89% backing of the new Syrian constitution in the recent referendum with a turnout of 57% was also dismissed because of the ongoing violence on the ground and lack of independent supervision on the referendum[2].

Nonetheless, given the West’s backing of the Syrian opposition is based on the “will of the Syrian people”, for the media it is essential to expose and debate such polls and try to establish what the majority of the Syrians want before adopting a position on behalf of the Syrian people.

2. Is the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the militarized insurgency representative of the Syrian opposition?

The opposition is primarily represented by Syrian National Council (SNC) headed by a Syrian expatriate professor, Burhan Ghalioun who is based in Paris[3]. This organization which is run mostly by expatriates has been demanding foreign intervention in Syria and it rejects any sort of dialog with the Syrian government. Several independent media outlets and other Syrian opposition groups[4] have questioned SNC’s lack of transparency about its members, funding and foreign links and whether it is a legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition[5][6]. Another organization claiming to represent the opposition is the Syrian Opposition Coordination body operated from inside Syria which is against foreign intervention and is for a dialog-based solution after an end is put to the violence and the political prisoners are freed. In addition, several militarized groups operate inside Syria such as Free Syrian Army who have been engaged in an armed conflict with the Syrian army and also have been attacking government buildings and other assets. These militia are reported to be a mix of deserting soldiers, foreign mercenaries and armed civilians[7] and they are armed by cross border smuggled arms allegedly funded/provided by foreign governments including those of Saudi Arabia[8], Qatar[9].

All these organizations are non-transparent and little is known about who runs them and who they are accountable to. The media has an important unfulfilled role in exposing the governance of these organizations and their internal and foreign political sidings and ideological agenda. Currently there is no proof that such organizations represent the will of the majority or a significant part of the Syrian people or the opposition.

3. How many casualties and killed by whom?

There have been casualties due to government suppression of civilian protests, due to armed conflict between government soldiers and armed militia and also due to reprisals and bombings by the armed militias. The number of total victims reported by the UN Human Rights Council which is now at 7,500, is regularly used by the Western media to refer to the extent of the repression in Syria. However, no breakdown is provided as to what percentage of this number represents civilians, what part opposition armed forces and what percentage soldiers. The UN has estimated that as of Feb 15, 2012, 1,345 Syrian soldiers have been so far killed in the conflict[10]. This is a strong indication that what is happening in Syria is an armed insurgency verging on civil war and not only a government “killing and torturing its people”. The violence perpetrated by both sides was exposed in the report prepared by Arab League monitors, which is the only existing first-hand account of what is happening on the ground [11]. However this report was mostly ignored because it did not back the black and white account of the Arab League and the Western media. The Western media should show more responsibility in its use of casualty numbers, because such numbers are highly influential in driving international public opinion about the conflict.

4. Are the information sources unbiased and credible?

Operation of foreign journalists in Syria is limited by safety concerns. Consequently the Western media has been using other sources, mainly the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights and other opposition sources. Sometimes the media simply cites “activists” or a new largely unknown entity named “Local Coordination Councils” as the source for information without further detailing its sources. Syrian Observatory on for Human Rights (SOHR), which is the most common source, was originally run by a single person (Rami Abdulrahman) from Coventry, UK. SOHR has been recently contested by a competing organization with the same name. There is an ongoing bitter fight between the two SOHRs over who is the “authentic” SOHR [12]. The latter SOHR blames the former of links with the Syrian regime and of over-reporting of soldiers’ and security officers’ death. The former SOHR states that it wants the “bloodshed to stop” and that it is against foreign intervention, while the latter states that it supports a no-fly-zone in Syria. Obviously all such opaque organizations, which are openly against the Syrian regime, have an interest in biased and inflated reporting of the casualties in the conflict. High quality journalism necessitates thorough verification of sources and including the account of both sides of the conflict to ensure a balanced coverage. However, so far the Western media has unquestioningly used the numbers and coverage of these organizations in a one-sided manner without sufficient questioning.

5. What are the interests of countries pushing for regime change and foreign intervention?

The current conflict in Syria is smeared and complicated by the interference of a long list of foreign stakeholders each with its own political agenda. Some of these interests are[13][14]:

Saudi Arabia and other GCC countriesUS and Europe: Replacing a Alaawite (Shiite) run government allied with Iran with a Sunni government more aligned with the GCC – On December 2, 2011, head of SNC, Ghalioun, said that if his party takes over Syria it would end the military relationship to Iran and cut off arms supplies to Hezbollah and Hamas, and establish ties with Israel; Distracting the international media from repression of peaceful opposition in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia[15]; Removing a government allied with Iran which will help decrease the Iranian influence in the region; Removing a government with a mostly independent or anti-Western / Israel line of politics

Israel: Removing a government allied with Iran and Hezbollah. Syria is a key country bordering with Israel with an open pro-Palestinian agenda – Ghalioun announced that his future government will cut its military ties with Iran and Hizbollah[16]; and Distracting the Middle Eastern media coverage from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Russia: Stopping the fast expansion of US allied governments in the Middle East (after Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya) and loss of one of the last of its allied Middle Eastern governments where it also has its last offshore military based

Iran: Protecting one of the last of its allied countries in the region. If the Syrian government falls, Iran would face increased isolation and pressure and risk of foreign intervention backed by the GCC, Israel and the West.

Turkey: Maintaining its influence in the post Assad regime which has geopolitical importance for Turkey

The media has so far been shallow in its coverage of the goals of the nations that are playing an active role in this conflict. The simple story is that all these governments want to “protect Syrian civilians”. However the complex mesh of vested interests is mostly left unexposed.

6. What are the “democratic credentials of the countries who want to take democracy to Syria?

One key block of countries pushing for military intervention and regime change in Syria has been the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It is important to remember that most GCC countries including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are run by totalitarian regimes[17] facing local protests. Saudi Arabia recently sent troops to Bahrain to suppress peaceful protests [18]. The Western media should do a better job in debating the legitimacy of such actors in pushing for democratic change and for protecting civilians in Syria.

As in the case of Libya, this one-sided coverage of the Syrian conflict is facilitating the escalation of the conflict towards a civil war and foreign military intervention which might serve the short-term interests of many foreign countries and forces but would be disastrous for the people of Syria. The Western media has a significant and grave moral responsibility to move from the current one-sided and biased media lynching of the Syrian government to a more balanced, nuanced and comprehensive approach.

Afshin Mehrpouya is an independent writer on Middle East politics and social issues. He is a university professor in Paris, France. He can be reached at mehrpouya_pl@gmail.com
Notes.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17155349
[2] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57385423/west-calls-syrian-referendum-a-sham/
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burhan_Ghalioun
[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/01/us-syria-opposition-idUSTRE8200SA20120301
[5] http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=767&Itemid=74&jumival=8027
[6] The Real News Network – The Syrian Opposition and the External Players; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEQeWU7Gm8c
[7] http://www.sunday-guardian.com/analysis/assads-troops-close-in-on-foreign-mercenaries
[8] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/feb/24/saudi-arabia-backs-arming-syrian-opposition
[9] http://www.chicagotribune.com/topic/
[10] http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session19/A-HRC-19-69.pdf
[11] http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/Report_of_Arab_League_Observer_Mission.pdf
[12] http://www.globalresearch.ca/PrintArticle.php?articleId=29518
[13] http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/NB04Ak01.html
[14] http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=767&Itemid=74&jumival=8027
[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011%E2%80%932012_Saudi_Arabian_protests
[16] http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204397704577070850124861954.html
[17] http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2010
[18] http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3164933.htm