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What Gambia and West Africa has taught the rest of Africa about democracy

As the world was recently witnessing a historic transfer of power from Barrack Obama to President Donald Trump, a political crisis was brewing in Gambia, West Africa in what had threatened to metamorphose into a bloodshed. 

With former President and arguably one of Africa’s most feared dictators Yahya Jammeh refusing to relinquish power after a momentous defeat, collaborative and diplomatic efforts finally saw Mr. Jammeh hounded out of office after 22 years of autocratic rule synonymous with plunder of public resources, misuse of state institutions and human rights abuses. 

Gambia is a classic case of the power citizens of a country possess when they exercise their civic and democratic right to vote, the triumph of the rule of law- irrespective of how long it takes, and how the possible it is for regional blocs to midwife and shape the destiny of member states if they have teeth to bite. 

From the power of the vote demonstrated by the Gambian people, to the integrity embraced by the electoral management to announce the will of the people which saw them flee their country for fear of their lives,  to the concerted efforts by the leadership of neighbouring countries to pressure Jammeh to cede power, Gambia has indeed spoken and inspired other countries where vote fraud, rigging and the blatant disregard of the will of the people by authoritarian regimes that it can never be business as usual. 

But what remains the most powerful show of solidarity in the Gambian case was the intervention of the West African regional bloc, Economic Community of West African States, ECOWAS, that has traditionally been known for its no nonsense stand in restoring peace and normalcy since its Nigerian- led interventions in the Liberia and Sierra Leone conflicts. 

When it appeared that Jammeh had no intentions of relinquishing power, the ECOWAS contingent moved in but gave Jammeh time to leave peacefully in what has been hailed by pundits as crucial in avoiding a bloodbath. It is perhaps one of the greatest lessons other regional blocs like the East African Community, EAC, and Intergovernmental Authority on Development, IGAD, can borrow a leaf from in addressing the Burundi, Somalia and South Sudan cases where disunity among member states and lack of political will continue to cost hundreds of lives and wanton destruction of property. It is actually possible to get rid of African dictators without bloodshed; Gambia just taught the rest of Africa how to. 

When You Open Your Heart to Patriotism, There Is No Room for Prejudice

So we had it – the most unintelligible, rambling, tawdry opening to the big guy’s Presidency which we all feared, and which none of us expected. Donald Trump is now king of the world – make no doubt about it, being President in a post-Cold-War era is the closest one can come to assuming a title and power of such Biblical proportions. He commands the most advanced military in the world. He is the head of the largest surveillance network in the world. He is in charge of the most enormous economy the world has ever seen. 

Although politics may simply be smoke and mirrors for more commanding and aggressive commercial interests, there is no doubt that political offices still hold immense power, both real and symbolic. What Trump does and says matters. What we do and say matters too. 

In this regard, I want to write about the people, today. Not about the tweets and the crowd sizes, not about Breitbart and Milo, not about the Nazis and the terrorists. I just want to write about the ordinary people, who live in socially-liberal, economically neoliberal, Western countries. 

For a long time, I’ve tried to recommend the idea that people need to be appealed to, and they need to be recognized as human beings, rather than simply demonized and cut-off. A decent example of this would be Pegida – although people in Pegida seem to me be following a completely misguided idea, I still try to recognize that there are human beings there, who have turned to this kind of belief for many reasons. One of those reasons is fear – another is anger. Another of those is, sometimes, complete racism. But just another reason is the failure of the left. 

What has the left failed to do? It’s failed to build a solid narrative which appeals to people’s better natures, and provides them with a rewarding, and encouraging sense of identity. Partially, this is economic: Many of these people come from former working class, lower-middle and middle class backgrounds. Partially, it is ethnic: the majority of these people are ethnically White European. Partially, it is to do with age: Much of these groups are made up of people between the ages of 35-70. In other words, these are ageing people, who tend to have limited work and educational opportunities, who are white.

They perceive that they are now on the losing side of history. Indeed, much of this perception is simply false – the gains made by minority groups do not preclude the privileges this group already has. But, this perception does have some grounding in reality – these people have been simply abandoned by technocratic neoliberalism, and furthermore, have been to some extent, sidelined by popular culture which treats them as stupid and backward. With no strong, united, internationalist alternative, no wonder these people went over to the dark side of nationalism. So much so, that we have the President of the United States of America saying: When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice. 

As if. His form of patriotism is prejudice. 

But the alternative does not need to be. The left needs to build bridges to these people, quickly, and offer them an alternative vision for the future – one which offers a more generous and encompassing view of nationhood, which doesn’t resort to crass stereotypes, and doesn’t use the language of the right. 

This means acknowledging and amending the wrongs of neoliberalism. It also means incorporating identity into the idea of a milieu – trying to build social solidarity through pluralism, and the understanding that our social spaces are made up of projections – that we can positively create harmonious social environments by thinking differently about ourselves and one another. This will help to counteract the idea that whites are losing to blacks, and build the idea that everyone is having a better time. 

Alas I get a knot in my stomach when I think about it – last year I thought there’s no way Trump would win or that Brexit would happen. And now I feel almost helpless in the face of possible victories for Wilders, Le Pen, Petry etc. But they will only win if the left fails to offer people a viable alternative to nationalist carnage. Such alternatives exist – we simply have to have the courage to undo the knots in our stomachs, and fight back. 

 

Pakistan: Defining moment for freedom of speech in digital age

Civil society activists in Pakistan are pretty much convinced the government forces are behind the suspicious disappearance of five prominent bloggers. This is seen as a defining moment for the country’s freedom of speech in the digital age.

These online activists namely Salman Haider, Ahmed Waqas Goraya, Asim Saeed, Ahmed Raza Naseer and Samar Abbas went missing on different dates earlier this month. Days after their disappearance, Pakistani living in the country and other different parts of the world who sensed a clear danger, raised loud calls for the safe and swift release of the bloggers.

The situation is pretty much alike that in Bangladesh where scores of online bloggers have been killed by extremists for their liberal views. The same seems to be happening in Pakistan where some forces from the far-right have already labelled the missing bloggers as ‘blasphemous’ which literally means ‘deserving death sentence’.

The freedom of speech and free press are hard-earned values in Pakistan, but are under constant threats. The country’s history in this regard is littered with blood, persecutions and curbs. Some civil society groups like the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) labour and journalists’ unions have been at the forefronts against these threats.

Many, however, are silence and not bothered by this because they believe it is ‘others’ issue. Such individuals and groups need to realize it is not the matter of some individuals with certain beliefs and ideas, but a question of basic human rights and freedoms.

Journalists in Pakistan have fought heard to win the limited freedom they have, and they need to make sure no one, including the government, snatch this liberty by force in the digital age.

Chelsea Manning to walk free; but there's more justice to be served

With just days left in his presidential term, President Obama has commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year jail sentence.

Manning had been serving her sentence in a maximum security prison after releasing information that pointed to potential crimes under international law and human rights violations by the U.S. military.

Manning’s release is long overdue. As Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA argues, „it is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice.”

“Instead of punishing the messenger, the U.S. government can send a strong signal to the world that it is serious about investigating the human rights violations exposed by the leaks and bringing all those suspected of criminal responsible to justice in fair trials,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

Manning was not allowed to present evidence that she had been acting in the public interest at trial, and was detained prior to her trial in conditions that the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture deemed to be cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. She was put in solitary confinement after a suicide attempt while serving her sentence. 

Along with this maltreatment, Manning began her gender transition following her sentencing, but was not provided „critical and appropriate treatment related to her gender identity at various points during her incarceration“, according to Amnesty International.

Manning’s released – scheduled for May this year – is good news for organisations like Amnesty fighting for justice for whistleblowers who act in the public interest.

But there is still work to be done.

Amnesty says Edward Snowden should be next on President Obama’s pardon list.

They also point out that „Manning’s sentence of 35 years was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public“.

And still those implicated by the materials Manning release have not been brought to justice.

After Spain, anti-eviction activism flares up in Ireland

Eight years after the financial crisis rocked Europe, a major anti-eviction movement has finally erupted in Ireland, where housing activists are following the example seen in Spain by carrying out a series of actions aimed to prevent banks and vulture funds from continuing to evict tenants.

Inspired by the success of the Spanish Anti-Eviction Platform (PAH), an active movement which has successfully raised awareness of this issue in Spain, a group of Irish housing activists occupied an abandoned ten-storey building in December in the centre of Dublin giving shelter to 40 of the city’s homeless. However, the occupation of Dublin’s Apollo House, a former home to the civil service, didn’t manage to last more than a month. A court ruling approved demolition and residents were forcibly evicted from the historic building. This consequently sparked a protest movement across Ireland over the right to adequate housing.

According to official figures, there are currently 7,000 homeless people in Ireland and among them 2,500 are children. These shocking statistics are decried by activists, when accompanied by the fact that 20,000 buildings stand empty in Dublin alone. 

Apollo House has become a perfect example of the Irish authorities mismanaging the crisis. The building is owned by the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), created in 2009 by the Government to administer toxic assets from bank bailouts. However, rather than using its assets to alleviate the national housing crisis, NAMA (which is known as a bad bank) has sold off more than 200,000 million euros worth of property holdings to North American vulture funds.

 

After the headline-grabbing occupation, now some activists are trying to go one step further and tackle home evictions through a new bill put forward by the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit party. Due for debate today in the Irish parliament, the bill aims to end legal loopholes used to evict tenants and to guarantee access to housing.

 

Cyprus shows reconciliation is not always impossible

Cyprus may well unite in 2017. After 43 years of ethnic division, Greek and Turkish Cypriots have dared to dream and think about the possibility of reuniting a country which has been distressed by political division, foreign-policy games, and international fears. For many years, Cyprus‘ uneasy balance between division and co-existence that at times threatened to spark an enormous international conflict.

However, that could change this year: Last week, Nicos Anastasiades, who heads the island’s internationally recognised Greek-run south, and Mustafa Akinci, who leads its Turkish-run north, met in Geneva to concretely discuss possible reunification. Indeed, they discussed territorial alignment, as well as property rights and even troop presence. 

Although still far from a deal, this has given Nicosians unprecedented hope: No talks have ever proceeded to such detail, with such strong political will. The Guardian reports: “This time people aren’t afraid to be optimistic,” said Andreas Mesarites, a Greek Cypriot brand strategist. “This time it feels different.”

While it’s too early to say whether the minefields will really be cleared, and something of a regular life will spring up in Cyprus, the fact that any momentum has been built with this problem feels like an enormous deal. With the changing politics of Western liberal democracies, and more autocratic states hardening their defences, it seemed the world was reverting to a kind of status quo, if not regressing exactly. The Cyprus negotiations demonstrate that progress is possible when there is will behind it – something the world needed to be reminded. 

Although the issues are completely different, we wait to see whether the Israel-Palestine conflict finds renewed vigour for the two-state solution, or more likely, whether backed by Trump and an aggressively right-wing Israeli executive, settlements continue to be built, lives continue to be destroyed and the world regresses just that little bit more into the dark ages. 

Image: Cyprus in 2003, BBC

 

 

The Taliban crossing all limits

In a string of brutal moves this week, the Taliban issued a video of two American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) professors who were abducted from Kabul last year.

In this video, American Kevin King and Australian Tim Weeks can be seen appealing to the U.S. government to release Taliban fighters in exchange for their liberty. With this blatant approach, the militants have once again proved they have literally no respect for civilians, let alone foreign teachers who risked their lives to come from other parts of the world to share knowledge and wisdom with the Afghan nation that has been deprived by the rages of war for the past many decades.  

“We have been here for five months, the people who promised to take care of us have forsaken their promise, we are here with no help or hope, The American University of Afghanistan and the U.S. government have sent representatives to talk to the Taliban, but they could not reach an agreement”, Tim Weeks says while literally crying in the video.

“I ask you please to raise your voice for me when I have no voice to help me”, he pleads.

Kevin King can be seen in similar appalling state while requesting the U.S. government to ensure release of the Taliban fighters from the Bagram Base and the Pul-e-Charki prison in Kabul. The two specifically beg the U.S. president-elect Donald Trump to ensure their safe release.

Ensuring safe release of Tim and Kevin is absolutely crucial, but the civilized world needs not to fall in the Taliban’s trap. It should be made absolutely clear to the Taliban that such war tactics that deliberately put the lives of such innocent people at risk for some sort of bargain is absolutely not acceptable.

Those countries with some sorts of ties/ contacts with the Taliban like Pakistan, and now Iran and Russia should take the lead in convincing the militants that if they want to reach an ultimate peace deal to bring an end to the Afghan conflict, and become part of the future set-up they should not drag civilians and not to mention the academic and other institution of public welfare into the conflict.

Four human rights bloggers abducted in Pakistan

Four campaigners for human rights and religious freedom have gone missing in Pakistan.

The four men, Salman Haider, a well-known poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer, went missing or were taken away from different cities between January 4 and January 7.

All four were critical of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to share their views.

As Human Rights Watch says, „their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement. While the Pakistani interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, directed the police on January 7 to speed up efforts to locate Haider, whom the government says it is not holding, a broader effort is needed to uncover the whereabouts and well-being of all four men.“

The government’s refusal to provide information on the whereabouts of a person taken into custody amounts to an enforced disappearance, says Human Rights Watch, which is a serious violation of international human rights law.

„‚Disappearances‘ place individuals outside the protection of the law and make them more vulnerable to torture and other abuses.“

Pakistan has a long history of intimidating or gagging dissenting voices.

Pakistani and international human rights groups have reported on the intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of activists and journalists.

Lisboetas priced out by tourism surge

Lisbon is the latest destination discovered by mass tourism. Although recent, the phenomena is already drastically changing the dynamics of the Portuguese capital, especially in the historic quarter.

In the past three years, residents have observed hotels, short stay apartments and souvenir shops taking over the city´s traditional neighbourhoods, such as Alfama, Baixa and Bairro Alto. Consequently, locals have been priced out by the hike in house prices, often forced to relocate in the less-desirable outskirts, a process typical in gentrification.

Some argue that the rise in tourism in Lisbon has led to economic recovery and job creation. Areas of historical heritage which for many years have been left abandoned are now being regenerated and rejuvenated, witnessing an influx of more affluent people reusing buildings for bars and restaurants, offices and living spaces.

Nevertheless such redevelopment shouldn´t come at the expense of existing residents. Complaints are now commonly heard over landlords evicting people in order to earn more lucratively from incoming tourists. Whilst, entire blocks of flats have been converted into flats for short-term renting, fuelled by the success of companies like Airbnb, finding houses for long-term renting in the centre has become almost an impossibility.

The phenomena is not new, which people from cities such as London, Venice, Amsterdam, Berlin or Barcelona know all so well. The Catalan capital, home to 2 million people, receives 7.5 million tourists each year. To prevent the city from becoming a “souvenir shop for tourists”, mayor Ada Colau, a former housing activist, has implemented measures that include the freezing of new licences for hotels and private apartments. In Berlin, new rent-control legislation is also trying to halt uncontrollably rising prices.

Now these same worries have landed in the Portuguese capital. It’s hoped that Lisbon city councillors can learn from other European cities so that they can manage regeneration in a sustainable way, avoiding an irreversible process of gentrification while maintaining Lisbon’s identity and culture.