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Music is a Weapon(?)

As Fela Anikulapo Kuti once said, music is the weapon. But how harmful is it?

In Kano, Nigeria’s second most populous state, the authorities apparently consider songs very dangerous. For the second time over the last two months, a singer has been arrested for the content of his lyrics. In the first incident, on June 17, Mohammad Yusuf Yakasai, popularly known as A.G.Y. was arrested and accused of releasing a song and video without the approval of the Kano State Board and criminal defamation of Governor Abdullahi Umar Ganduje. Some of the song’s lyrics criticized Ganduje, who had been surreptitiously filmed numerous times apparently taking bribes from public works contractors. Here is one the videos circulating. (I would welcome questions or comments regarding its authenticity or translation of specific comments.)

https://twitter.com/CITY1051/status/1057550261198176257

Leading human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and PEN (Nigeria), as well as think tanks such as the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja and the Center for International Policy in Washington criticized the sentence and his year-long detention. Article 39 of the Federal Constitution states “Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” I was honored to join the writer Wole Soyinka and the musician Femi Kuti in a letter calling for his unconditional release. The public pressure campaign worked, and he has been released.

In the second major incident in Kano, Yahaya Sherif Aminu was recently sentenced to death by hanging for insulting the Prophet Muhammad in a song he shared on WhatsApp. In the song, he praises an imam with the Tijaniya Muslim brotherhood. Salafi Muslims have often clashed with Tijaniya Sufi followers in Nigeria.

“Every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression, including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”

Article 39, Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended

Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Jama’atu Ahlussunnah Lid Da’awati Wal Jihad (aka Boko Haram) quickly released a video where he condemned the singer’s right to appeal the sentence. “He should just be killed. If you really sentenced him, we should only hear that you slaughtered him,” says a report by Aliyu Dahiru Aliyu in HumAngle analyzing the broadcast. Shekau criticized Kano as a den of infidels that should not be mistaken for an Islamic state, since it practices democracy. The sentence, carried out by a Shari’a court, is complicated since the constitutionality of state laws passed in 1999 and 2000 that extended Shari’a to criminal law, rather than limiting it to civil affairs, have never been decisively ruled upon by the Supreme Court.

Article 10 of the Constitution states, in full, “The Government of the Federation or of a State shall not adopt any religion as State Religion.” The application of Shari’a law to civil matters stems from a political compromise dating back to the colonial era. During the drafting of the 1979 constitution, northerners famously walked out over the Shari’a issue and nearly derailed the transition to the Second Republic. David Laitin analyzed this in a classic article in The Journal of Modern African Studies, and I discussed the compromise, revisited in 1999, in my book, Dictators and Democracy in African Development.

A historic symbol of northern unity, which I photographed in 2003.

A press statement by Amnesty International on August 13 called the sentence “a travesty of justice. There are serious concerns about the fairness of his trial; and the framing of the charges against him based on his Whatsapp messages. Furthermore the imposition of the death penalty following an unfair trial violates the right to life. Yahaya Sharif Aminu must be released immediately and unconditionally,” said Osai Ojigho, the Nigeria country director. Where does Mohammed Lai stand on Article 39? And how can Kano reconcile popular support for Shari’a (of some sort) with Article 10?

AsymmetryAsymmetry by Lisa Halliday


What great fun. If my shelves were not alphabetical, I would file this right next to Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot,” which also takes a lighthearted approach to the stumbling and passionate nature of young love. It’s nice to laugh out loud during the pandemonium of the pandemic.
The structure of the book is a little unconventional, and sometimes this drives me crazy but it was not a burden in this case though part of me desperately wants a book club to discuss the Iraqi story and the ending.

View all my reviews

Open Letter Against the Student Ban

We, faculty at institutions across the United States, condemn the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) decision, announced Monday July 6th, that stipulates that International Students with F-1 and M-1 visas, “attending schools operating entirely online may not take a full online course load and remain in the United States.” Further it states that students with F-1 visas may not take a fully online course load even if their university or college is adopting a hybrid model.

As universities and colleges do the work of figuring out how to keep our communities safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, while ensuring the integrity of our pedagogy, our administrators have made difficult decisions. To protect our staff, students and workers, some have chosen to go entirely online. And universities and colleges that have chosen a hybrid model may also be forced to go online, if the pandemic’s impact worsens. This ICE decision means that not only will our international students not be allowed to stay in the country, but that even if they do, they will not be allowed to make decisions to keep their family safe from the pandemic by taking an online course load. If universities change course based on this ICE decision, it would mean putting their other students and faculty at risk, forcing all back into classrooms during a pandemic.

We knew it was going to be bad…an immigration rights demonstration in Washington, DC, February 16, 2017

This policy is discriminatory. It fails to take into account the profound social and financial investments that international students have made in their often difficult decisions to embark on their educational journeys in the United States. Like all students, international students have created relationships, rented apartments, and invested in communities as they work towards building their futures. For our graduate students, who may have moved here along with their families, and who receive university stipends, this poses additional obstacles around their education and stipends. This policy would uproot their lives during their studies, and force a return to their countries of origin with uncertain prospects. For countries with which the United States has an imposed travel ban, and in a moment of limited global mobility with increasing border restrictions, it is unclear if these students will be able, in the future, to return to the United States. In all of these ways, this policy comes at great financial and emotional expense to our students, and puts their futures in unnecessary limbo.

What’s more, this policy is economically dangerous for our country, particularly in the context of the current financial crisis. The almost one million international students in the United States are drivers of our national economy. The Commerce Department puts international student contributions to the United States economy at $45 billion in 2018. A 2019 report shows that 62% of all international students receive the majority of their funds from sources outside of the United States. And, not only do international students come with their own resources, but they also effectively subsidize higher education, making substantial contributions to the costs of public universities and their domestic students. Finally, international students make up the majority of graduate STEM enrollment, a crucial field in which the United States aims to become a “global leader.”

International students are students. They are also contributors to the growth of higher education in the US. We as educators reject the artificial distinction between foreign and domestic students, which undermines the pursuit of both knowledge and justice. We call on ICE to rescind its decision, and on our university leaders to join us in prioritizing this issue, advocating for our students, and coming up with a quick response that minimizes the impact on international students so they do not have to make the impossible choice to return to their home countries in the context of a global pandemic.

Signed,

Me, and more than 30,000 other professors in the US
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1J_ZDiO60RRcDuIGYJPLteHMX_MzRQhODWGvEQ1-CCv8/edit#gid=857544046

Black Lives Matter Protests

By Jean-Baptiste Guiatin (Burkina Faso)

Mr George Floyd’s death has sparked a wave of protests across America. U.S. main towns such as Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, New York City, San Antonio, Miami, Atlanta, Detroit, Salt Lake City, and of course Minneapolis, – the list is long – have been shaken by huge public demonstrations since George Floyd’s forceful arrest and subsequent death. As is well known in the U.S contemporary political history of race relations, George Floyd’s death is just the latest chapter of a huge volume of inequalities from which minorities have been suffering in America. America, a land of freedom and dream of self-achievement, is also a land of inequality. And George Floyd’s death simply reminds us that the history film of inequality is still here to be watched.

Outside the White House on June 3, 2020 (photo by Carl LeVan)

The U.S. film of inequality is still unfolding, all the more so as the U.S. political elite – especially the one in power today – does not seem to understand the significance of the anger-fuelled public demonstrations across America. Had they fully understood the significance of this public anger in the wake of George Floyd’s death they would not have taken controversial policies such as that of letting the military out to put a check on the demonstrations. Coming from a country where freedom of speech is a creed, this is totally unbelievable and should not be accepted. We all hope these authoritarian tendencies of the U.S. political leaders in power will not prevail.
Another surprising thing about the Black Lives Matter Protests in the United States is related to the silence of the African leaders. To the best of my knowledge – and I would be happy to be proved wrong – no African leader has condemned George Floyd’s death publicly. The natural question which some Africans may feel like asking is why Africa can ignore its diaspora so completely. For instance, the video of George Floyd’s arrest has been widely shared on social media in Burkina Faso among the elite; but it did neither provoke a public outrage nor prompt a civil society or political leader to come out and condemn the act. African leaders may have other fish to fry. However, it is my conviction that pleading the Afro-descendants’ cause and defending the ties which exist between Africa and its diaspora – past and present – is worth the effort, for history is strong, and in some cases, may be determinant. African leaders should not wait until they are in need of African diaspora’s support to turn a lovely and brotherly attention to the African Americans. Africans should not be forget that the founding fathers of Pan-Africanism are, in the large majority, Afro-descendants.

The author is a PhD student in Political Science at the Universite Ouaga II in Burkina Faso and an alum of American University.

Big Men Games

By Angelo Izama (Uganda)

As America grieved the passing of George Floyd,  Public Health England, the body of health professionals and scientists that advices the British government published a report on who was dying from the coronavirus. It concluded starkly that former subjects of the British Empire especially descended from Africa and Asia were leading the death toll. “ Death rates from COVID-19 were highest amongst people of Black and Asian ethnic groups” the report said adding that this was a departure from what had been happening previously. In some cases, the likelihood of death by Britain’s colored citizens was twice that of its “White British ethnicity” the report added. Much of this death had little to do with color but rather income.

The Washington, DC side of Friendship Heights, June 1, 2020.

In short wealth was health. The essential workers that formed the frontline of Britain’s COVID19, the nurses, drivers and janitors were a colored defense around its White privileged citizens.  The report reminded me of another take on “Why COVID19 was killing Black People” a podcast featuring  Arline Geronimus hosted by Kai Wright appropriately named the “United States of Anxiety”. Geronimus is the Public Health academic who came up with the term “weathering” to explain why black people in America suffer negative health outcomes because of the constant unmitigated stress related directed to systemic discrimination and race-related hazards such as the image of Floyd, unarmed choking to death.

This is to say that it seems understandable now why Floyd, killed in the year of the coronavirus, transformed from victim to martyr as  institutionalized racist violence, which in ordinary times might have passed as the common fate of black men, became emblematic of the burden of socio-economic injustice.

“ And still I see no changes; can’t a brother get a little peace? It’s a war on the streets and a war in the Middle East. Instead of a war on poverty they’ve got a war on drugs so the police can bother me” Tupac Shakur.

–Tupac Shakur

Racism is inequality.

 It is not a competition between people’s but rather a competition for resources and opportunities. As seen from the British report the structure of inequality that is repugnant today and embodied in the George Floyd protests was built on slavery and the exploitation of other races.

But inequality is a condition that is also colorblind. Black people continue to suffer not because the world is filled with racists. Colored people outnumber white people after all.  The indignities associated with the “knee on the neck” of the underprivileged are unleashed sometimes more viciously by people of the same color.

As a “witness” to the race and inequality crisis in America, it is disturbing to see how race color blinds many Africans to the true social burden of race as inequality. It is disturbing to observe just how many African countries, aided by external advisors from the Northern Hemisphere, are working hard to perfect the Victorian model of socio-economic development based on the crude engineering of classes, the stripping of land and natural resources, dirty industrialization, immoral investor capital and so forth.

I had the urge to read Charles Dicken’s Hard Times which I learned in secondary school in Uganda, not as literature, as it was taught to us but rather as history in repetition. Kampala, the Ugandan capital, may as well be Coketown.

On most days the city is as polluted as Beijing or Mumbai. On its overcrowded streets the greatest value is placed on money as a desperate underclass of cheap labor is presided over by shameless corruption of the establishment elite who in Dickensian fashion socialize the costs of each and every crisis and privatize the benefits. As Floyd lay breathless many Ugandans too were short of breath – but at the near daily news of corruption, the kind that has come to define the country’s coronavirus response. Without money or social capital most citizens are likely to lead shorter miserable lives in the cities while the countryside is the scene of a civil war over land, forests and rivers.

Our version of Victorian progress also fetishes “ peace and security” as well as “order” and gives carte blanche to the ruling establishment to write the rules of economic progress if not in “racist” terms at least, in the terms of its cousin – ethnic chauvinism. No report shall be produced on the ethnography of the frontline health workers, security personnel, drivers and so forth that have seen an uptick of COVID19 infections for they would reveal their own poorly held secrets about the emerging social order.

The Middle-Income national project – articulated with Victorian gusto stands as testimony about how the race question has not moved beyond color to the root of the problem – a systemic defense of inequality. Colonial Britain and its well-oiled system of extraction helped expand slavery. In fact, the last race crisis in Uganda was the expulsion of Indians by Idi Amin in 1972, a decade after the civil rights movement gained foothold in America and as race riots threatened the peace. These Indian clerical and commercial class were trafficked out of their continent initially as cheap and indentured labor for the British Imperial East Africa Company, the local branch of the imperial behemoth.

Ironically – official racism in India was crafted by General Lord Charles Cornwalis who accepted the defeat of the British in America on behalf of the Crown – thus presiding over the independence of the United States. Later posted to India he oversaw the whitening of the colonial administration and official class discrimination. Cornwalis so-called reforms excluded “ the children of British men who had Indian wives from employment in the company ( British East India Company) and later purged Anglo-Indians entirely from key branches of “civil, military and marine” of BEIC except as “pipers, drummers, bandsmen and farriers”. With time the discrimination of Anglo-Indians “reduced them to community of “minor clerks, postmen and train drivers” ( the essential workers of the time).

These formed the emerging commercial and clerical Indian class found their place atop the Africans in Uganda that exploded as racist tension under Idi Amin.

White racism is the system that violently defends privilege as a white monopoly against other colors. It also succeeds by presenting the race question as a competition between people and not resources and opportunities. The latter would expose, especially in America, how unfair the economic system is across color lines, across genders and so forth.

So, racism is the political ally of the wealthy and the social philosophy of unaccountable capitalism. Many Africans offended by the George Floyd affair recall the pain of racist violence and exploitation that came with the experience of colonialization. Black America, and the experience of recent migrants continue that tragedy.

 In his 1964 speech “ The ballot or bullet” ( given two years after Uganda attained its “independence” from Britain) Malcom X, outlined three dimensions of the race question in America.

Firstly, he argued that while black people should turn increasingly to their own solutions in America, they should learn from their African brothers/sisters and other non-White people to see that White Supremacy as a system can only be replaced not changed. “Revolutions are bloody” he said referencing amongst others America’s own bloody rebellion against the yoke of British Imperialism.

Later he would revise this to say that a “bloodless” revolution was possible in the United States if the black man was paid his full dues and not treated as a 20th century slave in a country were his labor was exploited that had visited him with violent indignities mostly for the color of his skin. He also argued that the political value of black votes was important to both leading parties, the democrats and republicans. However, beyond that the White Establishment, in both parties, had no further interest.

In other words, elections, such as the one that will be held in November, in which Donald Trump, seen now by many as a racist White president, may lose ( or win) but either result, as in the past may not lead to a resolution of the race question.

The third point that Malcolm X made was with regard to the humanity of the race issue. While arguing correctly that racial justice is about human rights – something that is resonating right now with the George Floyd protests, he envisioned justice for black people as something only possible through impartial institutions.  

Outside Steven Mnuchin’s office, on June 1, 2020.

The killing of unarmed black men ( and other types of violence) by armed angry white men and their institutional accomplices is an assault on humanity itself as seen from the reaction not just across color lines but around the world.

“You don’t take your case to the criminal- you take your criminal to court” said Malcolm X. Some voices now argue that this moment now with George Floyds reluctant martyrdom is the one that will change racial attitudes, appealing to our common humanity and helping usher the bloodless revolution that Malcolm demanded.

We are the new court of collective anguish and action that can turn the tide.

There is obviously a reason that centuries of racism has persisted. It is a resilient system. The 8 minutes 46 seconds that led to Floyd’s last breath will not change it. It is resilient so, because racism is incidental to and not the cause of this violence. If black people had not been trafficked from Africa to work in the early plantation economies today some other minority would be under the boot of Derek Chauvin. The real violence is the entrenched inequality in America ( and elsewhere) in which ironically less angry whites are overrepresented. The one percent, versus the next 25 percent versus the rest is at the heart of the problem.

This is possibly why the two-party system, as Malcolm argued, cannot fix racism by votes. The choice on the ballot is of angry white men.

This rigged system (others may call it broken) has people angry of all races. If we transfer our empathy to the white militia roaming around enacting racial violence and longing for the freedom to lynch blacks again – we can clearly see that the system has failed them too. Which is why they are angry.

Ethnic militias defending the Big Man’s tribe, many paid with ineffectual government programs and lip service are ironically an everyday sight in many African countries. So is the sickening whataboutism that supports the multiple bogeymen that corrupt Big Men like Donald Trump set up – so that the real business of this privileged corner of white privilege, and its black equivalents, that sits atop this massive inequality, namely wanton corruption, can go unimpeded.

Early in the morning of June 1, 2020, workers — mostly minority — were hard at work sandblasting and cleaning up damaged stores.

Angry (and poorer) white men who are ensconced in far-right ideas and groups do have a right to be angry. They have been lied to. The system that they see as representing them, one in which economic, political and social categories are color coded does not stand to scrutiny. Corrupt politicians just paint a target on the backs of any minority as well as foreign enemies, real and invented to complete the trick.

The burning and looting in some US cities too tragically will benefit the same system.

It serves as a guilty cleanse. This type of periodic violence has one other use – it allows for establishment politicians (on both sides) to step in to announce band-aid programs, the type of happy tokenism that buys more runway for the system to continue. These programs are not designed to work but to establish a limit of what can be shared from the table of privilege. Many are responsible for the ring of policies that keep minorities in their place.

Angelo Izama is a prolific author who serves on the board of the Leo Africa Institute, which provides young leaders with skills and training to become “positive change makers.”

If the Africa of the recent past is to be invoked – the tools against entrenched and unfair systems are never violence. Egypt, Tunisia and recently Sudan all fell not because the oppressors in those countries were unable to use violence to suppress protest. They did so because the economy collapsed around the corrupt system.

To see changes, it is the economy that needs reform.