Category Archives: Democracy

Peace Corps’s Grassroots Diplomacy Done Right in Africa

The above video is an example of the finest of volunteers produced by the U.S. Peace Corps. I served with Baktash Ahadi (Mozambique 2004-2006) and saw him embody the three goals of the organization: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of peoples served, to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. As his TED Talk demonstrates, Mozambique was a better place, and he was a better person, because he was there. So, why isn’t the program everywhere in Africa?

Although Nigeria has a domestic Peace Corps staffed by young Nigerians, the United States has had a very tenuous relationship regarding PC since the founding of the American program in 1961 under John F. Kennedy. The international outreach program was plagued by a problems in its first year in Nigeria, when anti-colonial sentiment was running high. In the first months, a young volunteer dropped a postcard to her friend describing squalid living conditions there. A fellow student picked it up and upon its release, University of Ibaban students accused the volunteers of being American spies intent on a neocolonial agenda. Such political tensions remained until the program was then closed down in Nigeria in 1976. It again operated briefly from 1992-1995. Since then, there have been no substantive talks to reinstate the volunteer program there.

There are certainly challenges that the Peace Corps faces that must give us pause.  It does not tend to go to the neediest countries, hence its continued programs in Costa Rica, Bulgaria, Romania, etc., and a lack of presence in most of central Africa. Volunteers are young and inexperienced (for who else has the luxury of giving up their entire U.S. life?). I can personally attest to the disappointing medical care available to volunteers. I witnessed volunteers who faced mental health challenges living out in the bush all on their own. (However, admittedly, our 20s are often not the most stable of times anyway, and many a post-graduates in the U.S. faces their own personal stumbling blocks even at home.)

But, ultimately, I do believe the pros outweigh the cons, if only for the immeasurable and profound symbolic force that is the Peace Corps. Development and measurable impact aside, it says an immense amount about the American psyche that we can even produce thousands of young people willing to go live in poverty of their own volition. It says an immense amount about U.S. values that we spend tax money on such a program. I truly believe that Peace Corps helps improve the view of Americans in most countries that it operates in, reducing potential military expenditure based on potential tensions. In Mozambique, it makes rural villagers feel good that they are worthy of a college educated American’s talents and time. It makes them feel they matter.

I have heard the sentiment that Nigeria is too corrupt to host a U.S. Peace Corps program, and that the rate of kidnapping for ransom of foreigners is too high. There is the argument that Nigeria is too far removed from independence, that if the U.S. doesn’t implement a program in the years following independent statehood, then the country becomes intractably entrenched in its ways.

My feeling is that if the Peace Corps doesn’t go exactly where the challenges are, exactly where it is most needed, what is the purpose of the program at all?

 

What If You Held An African Summit And No Africans Could Come?

From NPR’s 

Photo illustration by David Malan

The African Global Economic and Development Summit took place at the University of Southern California from March 16th to 18th.

None of the approximately 60 invited guests from Africa were able to attend.

The problem was that none of the African delegates were able to get U.S. visas.

Humphrey Mutaasa from the mayor’s office in Kampala, Uganda, had organized a delegation of 11 business leaders from Uganda to attend the African Global Economic and Development Summit at the University of Southern California.

He says it was a very high level group of leaders from private businesses, the Ugandan ministry of trade, chambers of commerce and the Kampala mayor’s office.

“The delegation that was coming from Uganda to that summit was very, very disappointed,” he says.

The conference was first held in 2013 and seeks to strengthen business ties between U.S. investors and African companies, says summit chairwoman Mary Flowers.

Visa problems have been an issue before, she says. In the past, she says roughly 40 percent of African invitees are unable to get the papers they need to attend, mainly due to a combination of red tape and bureaucracy.

“This year we were thinking there are going to be some rejections but some will still come,” she says. “But it was 100 percent blocked across the board.”

It’s hard to find out exactly why.

Delegations were invited from 12 countries across the continent. None of them were from the three African nations (Libya, Somalia and Sudan) covered by President Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel from 6 majority Muslim countries.

Flowers speculates new vetting procedures put in place by the Trump administration are discriminating against travelers from Africa.

“Obviously because this has never happened before,” she says of the inability of anyone to come.

The White House has called for “enhanced screening and vetting of applications for visas” worldwide as part of stepped up efforts to keep out terrorists.

A State Department official on background tells NPR that they can’t comment on any individual visa applications but says all applications are screened on a case-by-case basis. And the eligibility requirements for getting a visa haven’t changed.

Some of the African delegates to the summit say their visa applications were denied because they didn’t show a compelling reason why they would return home after the event. Others say bureaucratic hurdles were so big that they were not able to submit a visa application in the first place.

Humphrey Mutaasa in Kampala says the online application is complicated. You can’t even see how long the process will take until after you’ve paid a $160 application fee at a local bank. Then you have to wait a day to get a confirmation code to book an interview at the U.S. embassy.

“Then when you’ve finished that and you have the codes from the bank … there are the challenges of internet connectivity,” he says. “When you get online then the calendar [from the Embassy] will tell you the whole of February, there are no appointments, You can only secure an appointment after the 15th of March.”

Which meant he wouldn’t have a ruling on his visa until after the three day conference had concluded.

The end result of this year’s visa outcome, says Flowers, is going to be fewer connections between American business and the continent.

“I don’t know whether there’s some secret message going to the U.S. embassies in these African countries but it’s ridiculous,” she says. “The [visa] process was already somewhat discriminatory against the African nations in the past. We don’t know what the story is now but I do hope that America remains open to the world.”

One of My Presentations on Women’s Protests

Below is an excerpt from part of a talk I gave on women’s role in Nigerian protests against oil extraction. Oil activities are blamed for environmental destruction, police violence, corruption, and lack of economic growth.

One of my research findings on Niger Delta oil politics was what I termed “positional arbitrage.” This means that local chiefs and male elites used their positions to help incite protests against oil companies and the government at times, as they were well positioned to gain from women’s demonstrations.

The talk also covers some other details about the oil reform movement in the region.

Are U.S. border officials really qualified to test IT knowledge?

The following story has just emerged about a Nigerian software engineer who was made to answer computer engineering questions at New York’s JFK airport, as a way of testing the validity of his work visa to enter the U.S. This is a bizarre and untested way of confirming the validity of a visa, a product of the new “Wild West” of U.S. immigration policy.

It is troubling because it targets a highly skilled professional with the ability to fruitfully contribute to the American economy and human capital. To have been hired by this American firm, Celestine Omin must have valuable IT acumen. To impede his work for a U.S. company is a detriment to the American IT sector, the  spread of knowledge across borders, and the millions of consumers who benefit from IT development. The story is below.

                               ____________________________________

US immigration officials force Nigerian software engineer to complete written test to prove his computer knowledge

It looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like: ‘Questions to ask a software engineer’

US immigration officials forced a Nigerian software engineer to complete a written test on binary search trees to prove his computer knowledge.

Customs and Border Protection officers, took Celestine Omin, 28, into a room for further

He told them he worked for Andela, a tech start-up with offices in New York, Lagos, Nairobi and San Francisco, which claims to take “the most talented developers on the African continent” and link them with potential US employers.

The firm has offices in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, San Francisco, New York and the Nigerian city of Lagos, which was visited by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

One of the  officers then presented him with  a piece of paper and a pen and told to answer these two questions to prove he is actually a software engineer:

“Write a function to check if a Binary Search Tree is balanced.”

“What is an abstract class, and why do you need it?”

In computer science, binary search trees are a particular type of data structure that store items such as numbers or names.

Omin told Linkedin that he thought the questions could have multiple answers and looked to him like someone with no technical background Googled something like: “Questions to ask a software engineer.”

After spending about 10 minutes working on them, he handed in his answers only to be told they were wrong.

As time passed, he said that he expected to be sent home to Nigeria, only for the official to let him go.

“He said, ‘Look, I am going to let you go, but you don’t look convincing to me,’” Omin said. “I didn’t say anything back. I just walked out.”

It later emerged that the officers had phoned Andela to verify his story.

Nigeria is not one of the included in US President Donald Trump’s executive order barring travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

The U.S. Travel Ban on Muslims, Nigeria, and Why It’s Such a Bad Idea

Although Nigeria has little potential (at this point) to make the U.S. travel ban, Trump’s Executive Order signed last week is bad news for everyone. There is great potential that it will last beyond the initial 90 days. I don’t believe Nigeria would ever be considered for the ban, despite the coverage of the 2012 “Underwear Bomber” and Boko Haram’s activities. The oil-based trade relationship between the countries is too important (5% of all U.S. oil comes from Nigeria). Trade in oil is also the reason that Saudi Arabia is not on the travel ban list, despite the large role of Saudi attackers in 9/11. Additionally, the travel ban gives preference to visas for Christians, which comprise a large number of Nigerian applications.

However, about a quarter million Americans claim Nigerian ancestry. Some of those may well be trying to bring family members to the U.S. There are tiers of prioritization of family-based visas, from Family First (minor children of citizens) to Family Fourth (brothers and sisters of citizens). I found a report from last year showing that Africans make up just under 4% of all family visa requests, far eclipsed by those from Central America. Here is the list by region:

list.PNG

To visually show you African applications compared to other regions:

chart

Although this may seem like a low number of application, Yomi Kazeem points out that Nigeria “may be caught in diplomatic cross-hairs of Trump’s ‘America First’ visa policies. In 2015, Nigeria accounted for 32% of the nearly half a million non-immigrant American visas issued to nationals of African countries and received more visas than the four other countries that make up the top five in Africa when combined.”

He also argues that with the understanding of reciprocity, Nigeria and any other country has the capacity to treat American visa applicants in the same manner that the U.S. treats their foreign citizens. Securing my Nigerian visas was an incredibly difficult feat several years ago, and I can’t imagine what it will be like if there are any more demands on applicants.

Why the Travel Ban Makes No Sense At All:

Although The Executive Order currently only includes three African countries—Somalia, Sudan, and Libya—it is disastrous on so many levels across the globe.  It endangers U.S. citizens by fostering animosity among those who are already anti-American, and alienating potential Muslim allies. (Why would pro-democracy Afghanis or Iraqis support our cause on the ground now?) It stokes the irrational fears of Americans who fail to recognize that less than 70 Americans have been killed on U.S. soil by terrorism (attackers included) since 9/11. Most clearly, it denies refugee status to those who would otherwise become important actors in the U.S. economy, and instead created furthers the burden on our ally countries in already-taxed Europe. Or worse, it forces immigrants and refugees back to the very countries that are an environment that is ripe for radicalization.  It is much safer for Americans to have teenage boys from Syria trying to build a life in the U.S. than leaving them to the Aleppo streets, where their options for radicalization are infinitely greater.

Did I yet mention how the travel ban creates a “brain drain” for us as we lose thousands of talented PhDs, scientists, engineers, and technology experts from the Middle East?  The U.S. is now turning away people who could find the cure for cancer, create more energy efficient buildings, and revolutionize the way we understand the world. Even if the ban is lifted after 90 days, many may not want to return to a hostile environment.

Ethical and legal implications aside, the travel ban is inherently…irrational, in both the everyday and the economic sense.Then again, no one ever claimed that a politics of fear makes sense.

African Immigration’s Future in the Age of Trump

The number of African immigrants arriving to the United States has roughly doubled each decade since the 1970s. There are almost 2 million African immigrants currently living in the U.S., accounting for about 4.5% of the immigrant population. Although this is not a large number, they have the fastest growth rate of any immigrant group.  Almost half of all Africans are Muslim, which means a notable portion of the African immigrants arriving to the U.S. each year are too. This is significant considering Trump’s stance on Muslims in the United States.

Under a Trump administration, there would certainly be a reduction in the number of refugee and asylum statuses granted, including to Muslims seeking protection from fundamentalism in their home countries. The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, almost 40,000. Most of them were from the Middle East, however, and I have not been able to find numbers on African Muslim refugees. Trump argues that allowing Muslims into the U.S. puts the country at risk for terrorist attacks, although there is no evidence that this is true.  Anecdotally, terrorist attacks on U.S. soil have been perpetrated by those on student visas or those with long-time ties, including citizenship.

Cutting off a safety route to Muslims who are seeking to separate themselves from the homelands that have oppressed them is exactly the opposite of what a security-minded Trump should be doing to minimize terrorism.  By allowing Muslims to enter the U.S., we strengthen ties to global Islamic communities, improve our image, and separate disaffected Muslims from the places that foster malcontent towards Americans. African countries from which the U.S. would be wise to accept more immigrants include those with growing extremist tendencies, e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, and Mali. Barring such individuals’ entry into the U.S. system keeps them in fundamentalist locations, where they can then live with a much more jaded view of the West.

These are all hypothetical concerns because, although Trump will be arguably the most powerful head of state in the world, bureaucracies are still bureaucracies. He will (hopefully) still have to make such inhospitable immigration changes within the confines of a government slow to change.  He will be bolstered by a Republican Congress, but it is yet to be determined how much GOP support he will enjoy. Since he is divisive among his own party at this point, he may very well get in his own way when it comes to realizing his goals of isolating Muslims from the American mainstream. Let’s hope that is actually the case, that he, and his ill-chosen words, is his own greatest obstacle. If not, if he does what he claims he wants to do, American-Muslim relations can only become more precarious.

 

Africa’s Future in the Age of Trump

Humanitarian efforts in Comoros

Most Africans don’t seem to find great hope for their continent in the outcome of the U.S. presidential election.   I’m not convinced that Africa is of much concern to the future American President, but his win creates direct and indirect economic effects across the continent beyond just the disrupted world markets following the election results.

Africa may be much more on its own economically under Trump than it has been under previous American administrations. It is unclear what Trump will do with the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act, which offers tangible incentives for African countries to continue their efforts to open their economies and build free markets. As of now, he appears only interested in fostering relationships with world economies that can benefit the U.S. immediately through trade. This may be good news to Nigerians, who enjoy the largest economy on the continent, but less promising for growing economies such as that of Ghana.

Trump’s probable business-like emphasis on what the U.S. can gain from African relationships does not bode well for human rights practices. I would presume that American financial gain would be foremost in Trump’s mind during negotiations, far more than concerns over human rights practices. This is troubling since the U.S. benefits economically from some African countries with disturbing human rights records.  Equatorial Guinea is the 6th largest oil producer in Africa and 3rd largest supplier of African oil to the U.S. Yet, President Obiang has been in office since his coup in 1979, and the country has been plagued by reports of underground torture of dissidents, extrajudicial killings, repression of the press, and high level corruption. Similar human rights challenges exist in Angola, Algeria, and Sudan, which are also top ten oil producers in Africa, and with whom the U.S. has trade arrangements. I am also concerned for human rights standards in Central Africa, which are large mineral producers, if the robustness of their economies is more valuable to Trump’s administration than their human rights practices.

This potential fostering of relations with countries with dubious human rights records would come at a troubling time, when African countries are withdrawing or threatening to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.

In terms of humanitarian aid, it certainly wouldn’t increase under Trump, and would most likely fall into decline. The U.S. currently gives around $12 billion per year in aid to Africa. It is less than 1% of the U.S. annual budget, which is very little and less than many European countries donate. To his credit, Trump has spoken in favor of the Bush-era PEPFAR program, which has given millions to help fight communicable diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria across the continent. These funds have been wide spread across countries, and I helped put some of that money to good use as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique in 2005. We implemented a nationwide girls’ empowerment conference in Maputo using much needed PEPFAR funds.

For most, a reduction in aid to Africa would be unequivocally bad. There are nations that rely for almost 100% of their national budgets on international aid, producing nearly nothing, e.g. Central Africa Republic (CAR). Conditional economic aid to Africa has been heralded as helpful to democracy in some places, e.g. Uganda. U.S. aid also acts as a potent antidote to the immense investments that China is making in the continent, investments which certainly do not come with conditions. (Many blame China for allowing Sudanese genocide under Omar al-Bashir, as China has great business investments in Sudan and thus blocked UN intervention that could have stopped the Darfur killings.) Trump would certainly not take the time or effort to fight for conditions to American economic aid.

However, there are anti-aid advocates who highlight the lack of evidence that economic aid actually helps pull countries out of poverty at all. In fact, Angus Deaton, Nobel Prize winner in economics, represents a growing body of scholars and policymakers who believe the developed world may actually be corrupting those more impoverished nations’ governments and slowing their overall growth.  They say that economic aid allows lackluster leaders to stay in power when they would otherwise be ousted for their performance; also, aid replaces revenue flow that should come from taxes, which are a fundamental building block of strong democracy. These folks argue that economic aid simply creates dependency. If you agree with this idea, then a Trump presidency may be a positive. His disinterest in the continent could create the conditions for self-sufficiency.

What is your forecast for Africa under a Trump Presidency?

Are certain African leaders anticipating their own bad behavior?

The African Union is still considering a mass withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which would be disastrous for human rights.  The ICC can prosecute individuals for international crimes such as genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, particularly in circumstances in which the country of the crime is unable or unwilling to do so.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on testimony against Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo at the ICC in the Hague, Netherlands. He is the Congolese former Vice President and ALC leader who ordered mass rapes and killings in the Central African Republic from 2002-2003. His trial was historic because it was the first time that an individual was charged with sexual violence as a stand alone crime. Previously, charges of mass rape have been embedded under the umbrella of other wartime violence in general. It was an important step forward for women’s rights.

This sort of progress would not have occurred outside the framework of the ICC. The AU currently demands that sitting heads of state be immune from ICC charges, but such actors are exactly those who are least likely to face justice in their home countries.  The ICC is most relevant precisely for them.  Are such leaders making a bid to withdraw simply in anticipation of their own potential bad behavior in the future?

Dissertation on Niger Delta women and the oil movement published

My dissertation is available online. If you are unable to access it because you are outside the academic network, please feel free to contact me for a copy. I am an avid supporter of open, author-permitted access to publications.

ABSTRACT:

Since the discovery of oil in the Niger Delta in 1958, there has been an ongoing low-level conflict among foreign oil companies, the federal government, and rural community members in southern Nigeria. Armed insurgents and small cadres of male protesters have resisted oil activities, demanding environmental cleanup, employment, and local compensation for extractive operations. In 2002, however, large groups of women began engaging in peaceful protests against oil companies and the state, making the same demands as men. Current work describes these women as coming together autonomously to assert their rights in the face of corporation exploitation.  This project challenges such accounts and investigates how common perceptions of law and politics inform women’s role in the oil reform movement.

Employing constructivist grounded theory, this dissertation argues that women’s protests were largely a product of local elite male politicking among oil companies and federal and state governments. The first finding is that local chiefs, acting as brokers engaging in “positional arbitrage,” urge women to protest because it reinforces their own traditional rule.  In this sense, women have not implemented new tactics in the movement but instead are the new tactics. Secondly, Niger Delta women see law as innately good but identify individuals as the corrupting force that thwarts law’s potential for positive change. Women also perceive a binary between local and state law, thus allowing chiefs to act as gatekeepers between women and the state. As a qualitative case study, the project uses in-depth interviews, direct observations, and archival documentation to analyze a series of all-female demonstrations that occurred around oil extraction sites in Rivers State from 2002-2012. Ultimately, these findings welcome a more critical look at social movements by identifying ways in which apparent episodes of resistance may actually be reconfigurations of existing power arrangements.

Methodology:

 

 

grounded theory

For a link to my final dissertation, please see:

http://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1666393541.html?FMT=ABS

Why Bad Leaders Are Inherited, And What We can Do About It

This is an excellent post by a friend that touches upon the lack of women in leadership as a whole, whether it be in the U.S. or Nigeria. I would add that because men have historically held positions of political power, they enjoy the “incumbent advantage,” which is well studied in the U.S. Those (male) politicans currently in office enjoy a more expansive socio-professional network, a potential ability to time elections in their favor, and greater name recognition (regardless of performance). Additionally, incumbents also have easier access to campaign funds and state resources that can be used to bolster their own campaigns, if even indirectly. These dynamics would make for an uphill battle in changing the gender ratios of government seats.

incumbency

How would the incumbent advantage take form in African politics?

ChewyChunks

Sociologists and economists try to explain why the people choose such poor leaders. They argue it’s due to the appeal of the narcissist, or because we’re really not self-aware, or because leaders have always been men and men are just deficient at important leadership qualities. While these all contribute, I think evolution offers the most intriguing insights.

First, let me give these other views a fair hearing.

Groups do tend to choose people who rate high on the narcissist scale, in part because those people are the most aggressive self-promoters, and contend that they are the most qualified of all, a prediction that more competent leaders would be unable to refute. Narcissists to seek leadership positions because they are obsessed with having power. Yet in a variety of studies, narcissistic leaders do no better or worse than any one else as leaders. That helps explain our…

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