When World AIDS Day comes around each year, we memorialise those lost to the infectious disease, but also recognise that for many it is no longer a death sentence, certainly not an imminent one. People live longer and fuller lives after diagnosis than ever before. It remains, however, the biggest cause of death for African teens and “the second biggest killer for adolescents around the world” (UNICEF). The theme of World AIDS Day 2015 is: “Getting to zero; End AIDS by 2030.”
In the UK, a Kissing Booth in Soho Square was today spreading the message that “Kissing Doesn’t Spread HIV. Ignorance Does.”
Whilst HIV and AIDS are improving in the UK, and we congratulate ourselves on survival rates, better education, and great use of celebrities, social media, schools etc to combat residual ignorance – meanwhile, it remains Africa’s biggest killer – not terrorism and conflict. Fear and denial of homosexuality or MSM (Men who have sex with men) does not help. LGBT equalities, freedoms and awareness will help end the ignorance, but teaching safe sex and that heterosexual people, men and women, are the biggest at risk populations, is vital.
HIV Facts not Fear
Around 100,000 people are living with HIV in the UK
Only 1% of those in the UK with HIV died from AIDS
Only 0.3% in the UK go on to develop AIDS from HIV
UK people can expect a normal life expectancy with the disease
Some 34 million worldwide are living with HIV
Some 33 million worldwide since 1984 have died
Sub-Saharan Africa has the most serious HIV and AIDS epidemic in the world with 25m people, 5% of all adults
On World Aids Day HIV we are right to remind people that AIDS is no longer a death sentence in the UK. It remains, however, Africa’s biggest killer, not terrorism or conflict. There is a global imbalance in health prospects, life expectancy, sex education, drugs funding, and attitudes to the value of people’s lives of different races and nationalities.
On Africa Day it is worth reflecting on diversity as much as the so-called unity of the African Union. Africa may be a continent but it is far from united or content. Nor need it be. Diversity and difference, religious, economic and national identity struggle, are features of growth as much as peace and unity are. For now, discontent still rules whether in North Africa’s culturally Islamic Arab Spring countries or in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s continued issues. In between, Nigeria, Sudan and Kenya struggle with North-South divides, extremist groups and campaigns of terror. There are many Africas, not just one.
Whilst shaking off the shackles of historical European colonialism, no one African identity has emerged but dozens. Self-determination, battles for independence, and religious and tribal/civil wars have ensured that national identities and stable futures are still fighting for supremacy. Africa is still making and creating its modern history.
War and Conflict
Africa leads the world on at least one thing, its 161 conflicts in 26 African countries, half of the continent. Peace One Day? and prosperity are yet distant horizons. The poor, dispossessed, women and children are so often the innocent victims in conflict. Africa needs peace, but that is not the same as unity.
Africa Day, itself, celebrates the May 25 founding in Ethiopia, by 30 African leaders, of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963, which in 2002 became the African Union whose motto is “united and strong”. Its current chairperson is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and his statement today is AU president Robert Mugabe’s Africa Day statement 2015.
Geography and the Clash of Civilisations
When was the last time anyone thought of Egypt, ancient or modern, as part of Africa rather than part of the Middle East? Geographical unity is a false guide to religious, cultural and national identity unity. Again, when we talk of the ancient world Africa is usually forgotten, yet Egypt is African, Nubia too, and what about historical Mali and the medieval literary and learning centre of Timbuktu.
Arabic, English, French, and Swahili, may be the most well known African languages but many forget the 500 languages of Nigeria, or indeed the 2-3,000 across the whole of Africa making it the most diverse location on Earth, linguistically. South Africa has 11 official languages, more than anywhere else, only Somalia has just one. Most countries will speak ex-colonial languages alongside indigenous ones. 75% of Africa speaks over a dozen different languages but 25% speak hundreds more.
African Economics & Absolute Poverty
Many in African still survive – and that is a dubious description, on less than $1-$2 a day.
“Over the last 30 years, worldwide absolute poverty has fallen sharply (from about 40% to under 20%). But in African countries the percentage has barely fallen. Still today, over 40% of people living in sub-Saharan Africa live in absolute poverty.” Our Africa – Poverty
Nigeria, riven by conflict, violence, corruption, is nonetheless on target to continue to grow as Africa’s strongest economic nation, in the main due to oil.
African Women and Gender Equality
The theme of Africa Day, this year, is the “Year of Women Empowerment and Development towards Africa’s Agenda 2063”. Gender equality is far off with Boko Haram continuing to kidnap young girls and make sex slaves or forced marriages of teenage women. Education is still not an equal right in many states and countries, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a health and human rights issue barely being tackled at all.
“a recognition of centuries of African women and women from the Diaspora to the struggles against slavery, racial and gender discrimination, and for the emancipation of our continent and African men and women everywhere.
Women and girls continue to play critical roles – paid and unpaid – in their families, communities, countries and regions, that directly impact on economies and societies.
Despite the constraints that they continue to face, we have made strides, as a result of different waves of struggles by the women’s movements. Since the historic Beijing Conference twenty years ago, and the recognition of women’s rights as human rights, we have seen progress on women’s representation, in the advancement of reproductive rights, on equal pay for equal work, on access to education and basic services.
At the same time, it is estimated that if real change happens at the same [pace], it will take us 80 years before reaching full gender parity.”
Unity and equality in Africa are a long way off, slow progress is being made and conflict in various forms continues to destabilise economic and cultural development. Individual hopes, educational and economic opportunity, health and women’s rights, are bigger issues than a surface unity this Africa Day. African rights are human rights and abuses remain ignored by pan-African and international communities. News stories, unless they be of thousands of migrants or hundreds of schoolgirls, go ignored or buried by the international news services. Africa needs greater news coverage and the spotlight of global media, as well as economic aid, in order to progress both human rights and economic development.
One year on from the 200+ Chibok girls capture by Boko Haram in Nigeria and the #BringBackOurGirls viral social media campaign, and there is still no news. Today, organisations and individuals around the world are trying to keep the media and political interest, as well as the girls, alive. The value of African lives and lack of international interest, alongside diplomatic and United Nations powerlessness, still means it is up to media and public channels to keep their fate an important issue.
365 Days On, Trending Hashtag
To keep the awareness current, a new hashtag campaign , alongside the old, has emerged to mark the lack of progress #365DaysOn.
The inaction has led to complaints about Hashtag diplomacy and foreign policy with some questioning whether Twitter or petitions can achieve anything at all? In terms of Human Rights campaigns it has made a difference in seeing various international violations of freedom or fair trials, both acknowledged, and sometimes ended:
The situation has contributed to the ousting of Goodluck Jonathan as President and the new incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, whilst saying that he would “do everything in its power to bring them home”, suggested that he could offer no promises and people shouldn’t get their hopes up.
Boko Haram brazenly added to the subdued expectations by saying that the girls had all [been] “converted to Islam” and “married off”.
Boko Haram still seem untouchable
Amnesty Internationalhave said that the Boko Haram militants have abducted 2,000 girls and young women in the last 15 months, forcing them to be cooks, sex slaves, wives, and fighters.
Nigeria, whilst on target to become Africa’s richest and fastest growing nation is also one of its most complex, and one were western influence is minimal. Indeed, Boko Haram’s very name means “Western education is forbidden”.
Islamic State (IS)
With Boko Haram and Al Shabab allying themselves with Islamic State it means that North Africa from Algeria to Sinai and Nigeria to Sudan, is under threat of extremist conquest and a massive increase in further human rights violations. Consolidation under a broad IS umbrella in Niger and Libya could see an extremist Islamist caliphate more a reality than a threat.
Ongoing battle & the Value of African Lives
Whilst IS and Boko Haram use the Quran as justification, Muslim leaders around the world also condemn their actions from the same texts. This remains, therefore, extremist ideology parading itself as religious purity or geographic gain. Bring Back Our Girls remains the rallying cry, but all African human rights issues and news stories need to be given similar prominence and awareness. African lives, when hundreds – if not thousands, die or go missing, should not be consigned to small-print inside page news, but be given the weight and international importance it needs.
International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation
The United Nations designated Friday 6 February 2015 a worldwide day of zero tolerance on FGM, and called for action to end FGM now before another 86 million girls under 15 (most are under 5) are cut against their will by 2030.
It is carried out at the behest of male patriarchal societies, and increasingly by medical practitioners not just by tribal societies. In some countries up to 75% of cases involve healthcare professionals (most often other women) against the primary rule of medical ethics – The Hippocratic Oath, primum non nocere – “first do not harm”.
“It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women and girls. The practice also violates their rights to health, security and physical integrity, their right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and their right to life when the procedure results in death.” – United Nations
Prevalence of FGM
Despite laws against it, and blatant after-the-fact evidence that is occurs on UK soil, and not just in African and elsewhere, female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C) still happens. In 7 countries 85%-98% of girls are cut, with Somalia being the most extensive practitioner.
Some 140 million women and girls throughout the world are thought to be living with FGM, including some 200-500,000 in the USA and an estimated 66,000, 103,000 or 137,000 in England and Wales (2011 figures). It still goes on in at least 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Illegal but not Prosecuted
In the UK the first court case of its kind brought against medics and others involved has just failed to reach a prosecution. Another woman was arrested in the last few days trying to take her 8 year old daughter abroad, presumably to engage someone to carry out the intervention, the child was taken into care.
It has been illegal in the UK for nearly 30 years without a single successful prosecution. In Egypt it’s been against the law for only 7 years, but it has had its first guilty case just last month.
Whilst it has been rightly called “barbaric”, even primitive, is can be a distraction to use this term. Amnesty International counsel against it, though others think we should call a spade a spade, or a barbaric scalpel.
“Barbaric” may mean “uncultured, uncivilized, uneducated” or even “foreign, strange, brutal” from its earliest Greek and Latin origins, but some societies practising it do so in full knowledge of what they do, and as part of their culture, or coming of age ceremonies.
FGM Origins and Geographical Spread
It was present as far apart as Australian aboriginal tribes and Tsarist Russia in a Christian sect called the Skoptsy. They practiced castration and cutting of men and women as necessary for salvation – a complete misreading of some biblical texts in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The early church father Origen, was said to have castrated himself too.
Indeed, there are reports that the ancient Egyptians and Romans did it themselves, highly civilised cultures by some measures. FGM and female circumcision pre-date the Quran, in fact they are not mentioned in it. Its practice may have related to controlling slave women, and through the slave trade spread across sub-Saharan Africa via Arab and other traders. Some early descriptions seem to be of early surgeries on intersex people with either an enlarged clitoris or large labia. To this day genitals and even gender are still defined by size.
Whatever its origins, in a supposedly post-slavery era (though we are not there on that count yet either) it remains used in traditions and cultures that are innately sexist where men and marriage define and control status, pleasure, and purity. Virginity and FGM remain prerequisites for some African marriages thus forcing mothers into being accomplices in the practice, in order to find marriages for their daughters and avoid the social and economic exclusion of not being married off.
Zero Tolerance to End FGM
Zero tolerance rather than a phased ending of FGM is the only way to bring about its demise, irrespective of cultural excuses, rather than setting some future date for it to end by. It is abuse, explained by culture and tradition but never justified by it. Mothers and medics, being coerced into collusion breaks their sacred vows to first, do no harm, to their child or patient. We need education of mothers, medics and girls, as much as legal action, to raise awareness that this is an unacceptable practice that must end.
An early version of this article was first published here.
Images courtesy of Pixabay and do not imply people illustrated are affected by FGM
The extremist war of terror in Nigeria continues to claim more victims. Reports are coming in of around 600 more schoolgirls being captured. In April around 280 schoolgirls were abducted and in May several attacks killed dozens in the villages of northern Nigeria and over 120 died from two bombs in the central Nigerian million-plus population cosmopolitan city of Jos, J-town, or “Tin City”. Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.
Two decades of escalating violence
Jos has been the scene of intra-community violence since 1994 between its Christian, Muslim, and minority residents, killing thousands of people, hardly the “home of peace and tourism” as the Plateau State is known.
Over the last 5 months more than 2000 people have been killed in Nigerian violence and thousands more displaced, according to Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). From 2009-2013 under 4000 were killed, so there has been a definite escalation in the violence. Perhaps, this may be a response to Nigeria’s belated heavy-handed response to Boko Haram that has included alleged deaths in custody of probably over 1000 suspected Boko Haram fighters last year. Leaked information from a senior Nigerian army officer suggested 950 had died in the first half of 2013 alone. Back in 2009, Boko Haram’s then leader, Mohammed Yusuf, was killed in police custody after a police raid.
Education targeted by terror
Much of the violence appears indiscriminate, even if at times it has been directed at Christian or Muslim, churches or mosques, it often ends up being directed at schools, colleges, markets, wherever civilians gather and indiscriminate violence can have its most terrifying effect.
“Attacks against schoolchildren, teachers and school buildings demonstrate an absolute disregard for the right to life and the right to education.” – Lucy Freeman, Amnesty International’s deputy Africa director.
The full report by Amnesty on the terrorising of education in Nigeria makes one wonder whether Boko Haram would go to Taliban-like extremes of restricting access to education, especially of teenage girls. Indeed, Boko Haram in Hausa allegedly means “Western education is sin/prohibited (haram)”. The boko element can also mean “fraud”, “bogus” or “inauthentic”. Even locals, are not entirely sure what it means! It is less of a mouthful than its Arabic title: Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad, or “Congregation of the People of Tradition for Proselytism and Jihad”.
Complicated causes, not just religious
The apparent war between religions and ideologies masks more basic rivalries over resources, land, power, and tribal identities. Religion just exacerbates the incendiary melting pot.
Benjamin A Kwashi, the Anglican Archbishop of Jos, has said that:
“those who have in the past used violence to settle political issues, economic issues, social matters, intertribal disagreements, or any issue for that matter, now continue to use that same path of violence and cover it up with religion.”
An excellent Al Jazeera report into the origins and rise of Boko Haram concluded that:
“Unabated violence, a feeling of marginalisation by the federal government, unemployment and poverty however remain the primary seeds of discontent…” – Yvonne Ndege and Azad Essa, Al Jazeera
Ethnic or Economic Tensions?
Chris Kwaja is a lecturer and researcher at the Centre for Conflict Management at the University of Jos in Nigeria and writes:
“[A]s is often the case with identity conflicts in Africa…socially constructed stereotypes…are manipulated to trigger and drive violence in Jos. They veil deeper institutional factors within Nigerian law that are abused and exploited to deny citizens access to resources, basic rights, and participation in political processes—factors that, left unaddressed, have the potential to trigger violence across the country.” (p2)
“The ethnic or religious dimensions of the conflict have subsequently been misconstrued as the primary driver of violence when, in fact, disenfranchisement, inequality, and other practical fears are the root causes.” (p4)
Nigeria is as riven and driven by identity politics, ethnic “indigene” and/or religious affiliation as many xenophobic groups are racist against black Africans in the predominantly white West.
“In a survey conducted by Ellsworth in 1999, titled Re-imagined Communities, it was discovered that ethnicity and religious attachment are the two top ranked identity makers for a vast majority of Nigerians than other indices such as National, ECOWAS and African. The xenophobic tendencies that quietly run in our system is further compounded when the religious card is flashed, as is typical of Christian/ Muslim conflicts throughout most of the north, which is usually about anything (politics, economic control and competition after scarce resources, ethnicity).” Rotimi Maye, Nigeria and Indigeneship Question
Invariably, the victims are drawn from all religions and not just one, and from multiple indigenous and immigrant ethnic groups, of which Nigeria has some 500, 70% made up of Hausa, Yoruba, Igbo, and Falani.
Nigeria has, this year, become Africa’s largest nation and economy, and is now ranked 26th in the world, thanks, in part, to its oil wealth, mainly in the south – something that is also fought over. Not only is Africa a divided continent by perhaps 3000 languages and ethnic groups, so too it is divided by wealth and opportunity, health and oil.
Boko Haram origins, Sharia law
Almost half of Nigeria, mainly in the north, now has some form of Sharia law. Over the last decade the extremist Islamist group Boko Haram has sought to impose Sharia and depose the existing rule of law. It is even against other muslims and one of its founding leaders firmly believed in a flat earth fundamentalism. Many Nigerian Muslim groups have condemned it. One Nigerian Muslim leader, The Sultan of Sokoto Sa’adu Abubakar, called Boko Haram “anti-Islamic” and “an embarrassment to Islam”.
“While Boko Haram is a religious organisation, it is almost impossible to separate the activities of the group with the political, economic and territorial struggles in northern Nigeria which, in spite of a secular consitution, is often divided on religious lines. Established in 2002 in Maiduguri, Boko Haram spent 2002-2009 consolidating its base, spreading its disdain for Western education and government corruption, culminating in the creation of alternative schools and attacking symbols of state power…” – Al Jazeera report
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a Somali-born feminist, activist and founder of the eponymously named AHA Foundation which seeks to protect women in the West from being subjected to religious or cultural oppressions including forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and honour violence. For her the conflict in Nigeria, at least that part for which Boko Haram can be held responsible, is about religion – or rather the patriarchal putting down of women, and jihadist suspicion of the liberal West. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, Ali wrote that:
“The kidnapping of the schoolgirls throws into bold relief a central part of what the jihadists are about: the oppression of women. Boko Haram sincerely believes that girls are better off enslaved than educated. The terrorists’ mission is no different from that of the Taliban assassin who shot and nearly killed 15-year-old Pakistani Malala Yousafzai—as she rode a school bus home in 2012—because she advocated girls’ education. As I know from experience, nothing is more anathema to the jihadists than equal and educated women.”
#BringBackOurGirls, Western ignorance about Africa
Boko Haram were behind the kidnapping of some 276 Chibok schoolgirls last month which attracted international attention with the social media Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls. Again, somewhat indiscriminate as though the majority were Christian, several were Muslim, around 50 have subsequently escaped. Indeed, some images used to highlight their plight were not even of the kidnapped girls, or even Nigerian.
The West only kicked up a fuss when it was schoolgirls that were kidnapped, much as Live Aid in the 1980s fed off the famine of Africa’s starving using emotional images to stir up interest in a continent we were otherwise willing to ignore. US television networks ignored Boko Haram this last year despite 1500+ recent killings because African lives are worth less or, perhaps, even considered worthless. News stories for just 4 missing British sailors, a child-saving cat, or the latest UKIP xenophobic “Bongo-Bongo land” own-goal, dominate over any news from the “Dark Continent“, a reference originally not to race or colour, but to Africa’s remote and mysterious unknowns. To this day, for many, it remains a great unknown.
“The more Westerners learn about Africa from Africans, the better.” – Robert Bates
“Unfortunately…most westerners form their opinions of Africa based on the reporting and news in their own countries” – Louise Mushikiwabo
In a 2010 Guardian article, Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s Foreign Minister, went on to say that “In a globalised world we need to know more about each other than ever and the absence of genuine engagement only serves to exacerbate suspicion, and may affect the lives of the very citizens whom we all ultimately serve.” This could apply to any ethnic or ideological group, not only Africa and its 53 nations and thousands of languages.
Indeed, to every headline there is often a complex contextual backstory, no less so than in Nigeria. For instance, this AllAfrica report by Margaret Kimberley, editor and senior columnist at Black Agenda Report, cites the background to the Boko Haram kidnapping:
“Boko Haram members were detained by the police in 2011 and 2012 and that the group swore revenge. Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau said in one of his many videos, “Since you are now holding our women, just wait and see what will happen to your own women… to your own wives according to sharia law.” The kidnappings of the past two years are a direct result of the government’s mistreatment of its people and its failed efforts to fight Boko Haram.” – Margaret Kimberley, Nigeria: How Not to ‘Bring Back Our Girls’
Nigeria’s oxymoronically named President Goodluck Jonathan has described them as “enemies of human progress and civilisation”, a “tragic assault on human freedom”.
President Jonathan, whose wife is called Patience, are Christians from the Ijaw people of southern Nigeria. He holds a Masters degree and a PhD in Zoology and prior to entering politics and becoming President had worked in education and environmental protection. His people, the Ijaws, since the late 1990s had been involved in mainly peaceful protest against the oil companies‘ exploitation of their homeland and suffered state and military crackdowns of their actions.
Nigeria has all the potential to become an economic powerhouse – if it can control its ethnic and religious tensions, not to mention the international oil company exploitation and corruption. The President has faced calls to resign over the handling of, and seeming inaction over, the schoolgirls kidnapping. One critic wrote:
“It is all because those at the helm in the nation attach no value to the lives of others”.
That may well be true, but the “zero value” attached to human lives can surely be laid at the door of Boko Haram and others too. In the past Jonathan has instituted peaceful and progressive policies, so one hopes he will continue to reform and stabilise the country, and face his critics with renewed action on issues that divide the nation. Nigeria’s leader needs to be a leader of the people and of all its peoples. [Update: Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is over and #365DaysOn we are now closer on #BringBackOurGirls]