Stop for a minute and think of the saying attributed to the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus: “The only thing that is constant is change.” Then take a cursory look at the changes that have taken place in the last thirty five years, a period that coincides with the age of the Africa Faith & Justice Network (AFJN).
From historical standpoint, thirty five years is a very short time, indeed a blink of an eye. The Psalmist was much aware of how fast the times fly by when he exclaimed that to God a thousand years are like yesterday come and gone, not more that a watch in the night (Psalm 90:4). Yet in that blink of an eye, we have witnessed dazzling changes in so many areas of life and across the globe. We have seen transformations across Africa and within the United States.
A glance at the speed of innovative technological advances, emerging economic communities, population growth and demographic shifts, the impact of religion in the public square, social and geo-political changes across the globe can leave one breathless. Think of the cell phones, laptop computers, self-driven cars, drones, the information super highway, the advent of social media in its many varieties – Skype, facebook, tweeter, #tag, instagram, the birth of new nations, the dismantling of empires, emerging markets and numerous new players of power that have emerged in the public square. We have new alliances, mergers of corporations, new virtual empires, mega multinational corporations that are more powerful than many nation states; changes that are too numerous to enumerate. In this stunning rate of global change, let us take a focus on Africa and the United States, the two main regions of AFJN’s primary interests.
Thirty five years ago when the Africa Faith & Justice Network was founded, the social, political and economic environments in Africa and in the United States were very different. Namibia was under South Africa’s administration. One of Africa’s most distinguished sons, Madiba Nelson Mandela was in prison and apartheid was waxing strong and occupied much of AFJN’s advocacy energy. Mandela was listed as a terrorist by the United States government for seeking to live free in his ancestral land and his country of birth. The current ruling political party in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC) was banned in south Africa and branded as a terrorist organization by the United States. The thought of Mandela’s release from prison to become the president of a free Republic of South Africa was farfetched.
Eritrea and South Sudan did not exist as independent countries. Burkina Faso was Upper Volta, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was Zaire and the Africa Union was the Organization of African Unity. These are more than nominal changes, they carry with them certain values and vision as the Burkinabe have shown they are “upright people.” Then, Mobutu Sese Seko ruled his country, Zaire with an iron hand and served as the main agent of the United States against the Soviet Union in the Cold War battle within Africa. Many African countries had military rulers. Africa’s Great Lake region was relatively peaceful. No one could have imagined the senseless massacre that took place in Rwanda in 1994, or the invasion of Central African Republic by an “unknown” army.
The uprising of young people in North Africa aided by social media resulting in what has come to be termed the Arab uprising and its repercussion including the ousting of Egypt’s modern Pharaoh, President Mubarak was unthinkable. We could not have predicted that where armed men with guns and sophisticated weapons failed, a group of determined women in Burkina Faso, armed with very cute symbolic weapon, the spatula would succeed in bringing down a ruler who was gradually turning their country into a private property. Behold, and thanks to Burkinabe women, we now have the “spatula movement” or the balai citoyen. African farmers in rural areas could not imagine that they would be making telephone banking and other business transactions through electronic medium in an instant and from the comfort of their homes.
Thirty five years ago, Africa was the most prominent battle ground of the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. China as an economic force to be reckoned with on the global stage was unimaginable, especially given its brand of inward-looking communism at the time. In this new global age, multinational corporations battle for Africa’s resources while China has emerged as a challenge to the US and Europe’s dominance in Africa and globally.
Thirty five years ago, the United States Congress drove most US foreign policy agenda with inputs mainly from the intelligence agencies and the Pentagon. The prospects of a person of African descent being the president of the United States of America could only be fantasized and consigned to the poetic dream-speech of Martin Luther King Jr. We felt so secure within the United States boarders in many ways that the events of Tuesday, September 11, 2001 could only be thought of as fiction. Travel through the airport was a breeze as long as you had your boarding pass.
Thirty five years ago, the US had a large presence of missionaries in Africa, and many of them were leaders of their religious communities in Africa. Today, most of these religious communities are lead by their African born members and as a bonus to the US missionary for their activities, about two thousand African born clergy and women religious currently serve as missionaries in various capacities throughout the United Sates.
An African Proverb notes that “When the music changes, so does the dance.” To know that the music has changed, one has to first understand the rhythm of the music and the dance style the music calls for. So here are we thirty five years since the founding of the Africa Faith & Justice Network. It is certainly obvious that a lot has changed. But what is it that has changed that calls us to take a close look at the context that we are engaging policy and advocacy issues? How do we respond effectively to the current players in the public square on both sides of the Atlantic, in the United States and in Africa such that we truly serve the needs of people impacted by these modern players? How do we change the dance, given that the political and economic music have certainly changed?
Thirty five years ago, the United States government drove policy agenda issues in relation to Africa. Today, most US policies towards Africa are driven mainly by corporations with deep pockets, policies that are mostly geared to greatly benefit these corporations at the expense of the African people; yet to the person who does not read the fine prints both in Africa and the United States; these policies appear as if we in the United States, out of our own benevolence are reaching out to help Africans emerge from poverty conditions and create a buoyant economy and a healthy life. The outcome these “helps” tells a very different story.
Thirty five years ago, United States companies conducted business with Africa mainly from the US and subject to US laws. In a global world, these corporations have devised ways to side track US laws by setting up subsidiary companies incorporated in various African countries with the participation of African elite. These subsidiaries, disguised as homegrown corporations with African faces, easily facilitate the stealing of resources out of Africa and the blatant exploitation of the African people, especially those in rural areas.
Business corporations now constitute the major new agents of colonization of Africa. Some corporations active in Africa have banks accounts that surpass the annual budgets of many African countries. Their mastery at profit making and their ability to prop up and sustain strong men with African faces taken from local communities, while monetizing local communities have reached new heights. Many African leaders think these corporations are in their countries to promote the welfare of their people. Yet what obtains is that despite the “helps” from corporations, many Africans are poorer today than they were thirty five years ago. In the meantime, a small elite group has become super wealthy.
Many African leaders seem not to understand that business corporations do not get into business to do charity. President Trump was right when he remarked during the last UN General Assembly that people are going to Africa to make a lot of money. They get into business to make profit; a reason they are appropriately registered as “for-profit organizations”. There is nothing wrong making profits, but we find shady lopsided deals that are clearly disadvantageous to African communities, deals crafted by legal experts to facilitate land-grabbing, resource extraction and trade manipulation, techniques to fleece the unsuspecting. Many African communities have lost their ancestral lands, water sources and means of livelihoods. Families have been displaced in Africa not due to prevalent conflicts but by land grabbers. And, despite the US military assistance, Al Shabab, Boko Haram and other groups are terrorizing communities across the continent than before. What are we not doing right? Why do these groups emerge, who and how are they sustained?
Within this context, and with the conviction that the challenges African countries face are mostly a problem of governance and that true power belongs to the community, the Africa Faith & Justice Network undertakes Just Governance Project aimed at promoting inclusive citizenship participation in governance. We work to build the capacity of local communities to have a sense of ownership of the governance of their nations, such that they can promote the rule of law and justice, have the framework to hold their leaders accountable and create a better future for their children. We believe too that knowledge by itself is empowering, and as an African proverb put it, “when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion” so AFJN also conducts citizenship education, and taps into a thirst for justice among Africans, especially among the younger generation, to build a coalition that channels them in the right direction. In doing so, we awaken communities and groups to work together to build a just society through peaceful process.
Presented at the 35th Anniversary of the Africa Faith and Justice Network (AFJN), September 14, 2018, Dirksen Senate Office Building, Washington DC
By Aniedi Okure, OP, Executive Director, Africa Faith and Justice Network