Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

The collapse of James Ibori

It wasn't until a few minutes in to the hearing that I realised that I was about to witness the full and total collapse of James Onafene Ibori.

I had come to Southwark Crown Court expecting to see a jury selected and sworn in and then the lengthy process of trying the former governor of Delta State would begin.

The trial was scheduled to last for three months. Mr Ibori was going to call 58 witnesses, we'd been told. I was expecting a lavish and punctillious defence from "this generation's finest legal mind" Nicholas Purnell QC.

The jury would have access to a bundle of documents weighing several kilos, on which there would be the details of complicated financial interactions and money laundering schemes. I would not have access to that information. I'd have to keep up.

But then the prosecutor Sasha Wass QC started telling the judge that they had agreed a new indictment to be presented to Mr Ibori. Then it became clear that he was going to be arraigned on the charges involved in a second trial, not scheduled to begin until next year.

It could mean only one thing. He was planning to plead guilty.

Almost every hearing has been well attended by Ibori's supporters, but today people pressed in to the door in an unruly mob an hour before court was due to start.

When they were eventually let in, when the seats were full inside and the court clerk tried to those without a seat to leave they looked at him like he had just cursed their mothers.

"This is the reason Nigeria is poor," said one Nigerian spectator (a lawyer who had -she said- worked with trial judge Anthony Pitts when he was a prosecutor).

"So unruly, and look at the lack of respect for court officers!" she tutted.
When Ibori said the word "guilty", the atmosphere became leaden and heavy, but my heart was pumping.

After he said the word "guilty" ten times, the prosecutor declaimed James Ibori, calling him "effectively a thief in office, a pretender in government who had plundered the public purse."

I'd met James Ibori twice before. the first time at the People's Democratic Party convention in 2006, when he held "president (s)elect" Umaru Yar'Adua's hands aloft in victory -hours before a vote was cast in his favour.

The second time was in 2008 when Yar'Adua's 2007 election came to the Election Petition Tribunal. It had been a jam to get in there too, but everyone parted for James Onafene Ibori. He was wearing his immaculate white starch-pressed baban riga, blue cap and terrible green crocodile skin clogs -mirroring exactly the dress style of the president.

That James Ibori was not the James Ibori they led down to the cells.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Baka: Music of the forest

Following on from the excellent documentary Baka: People of the forest, here's some of the music that these people make. Thanks to Stephen Slade for the link.

Beautiful and haunting.

Also recommended is the album Ceremonie du Bobe.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Boko Haram: A bleak assessment

A bleak assessment of the possibility of Nigeria swiftly dealing with Boko Haram comes from Dr Raufu Mustapha, from Oxford's Department of International Development.

At a lecture this week he told Nigeria watchers there was little prospect of a settlement with the group.

"How can you negotiate with someone who might kill you for disagreeing with him?" he said.

His direction for remedy; Address the problems that make young educated-but-not-connected men available for recruitment, and provide security and policing that is not totally contemptuous of human rights.

Meanwhile there have been more attacks every day.

A bleak future indeed.

(more on this soon)

Baka: People of the Rainforest

I just caught this extraordinary 1987 documentary about the Baka forest people of Cameroon, and I'm so glad. A friend recommended it and I forgot until just a few hours before it disappeared from the iPlayer.

It's the story of mother Deni, father Likano, their sons, four-year-old Ali, eight-year-old Yayi and the rest of their extended family.

For a lot of the film we see the Baka through four-year-old Ali's eyes as he learns about life in the forest from his mother and father.

The film follows them from the end of their annual three-month forest ramble, as they hunt and gather, and their return to their dry season camp until the rains come.

At their camp, things there get a bit heated as Babu, one of the younger men, declares his intention to take a second wife.

Likano, the father of the girl, doesn't like the idea. He becomes sick with anguish and accuses the suitor of cursing him.

Babu takes the "truth drug", a poisonous bark that will kill him if he is guilty of sorcery.

The village attempt to heal the rift by calling upon Jengi, the forest spirit, who comes to their camp and dances his way through the night, thrilling and scaring the villagers.

The film also captures their hunting and medicine practices, and the incredible search for honey; where Mawungu, one of the bravest men, climbs 40 meters into the forest canopy to hack out the nest of killer bees armed only with some smoking leaves and an axe.

There is also a cameo appearance from the awesome honey badger.

Its an amazing feat of film making.

The creator of the film, its director and cameraman, Phil Agland recently returned to the area to shoot a follow up, 25 years after the original.

Unfortunately I missed that follow up film, because I am an idiot. But something tells me that things have not gone incredibly well for the Baka in the intervening years. There is this incredibly moving clip of them watching the movie for the first time.

It makes me think of the stories of the Tellem people in Mali, the hunter gatherers who lived on the Bandiagara escarpment before the Bambara arrived, fleeing the Songhai empire. The Tellem were called pygmies too, and were said to have magic powers. They lived in mud huts that were only reachable by climbing the giant creepers that covered the cliffs at the time, a feat the larger Bambara were not capable of.

The Tellem intermarried with the Bambara and their descendants are known as the Dogon, but it is also said that the Tellem were pushed out as the forest was chopped down for farmland and the desert encroached.

It is said they were pushed south, toward Cameroon, although I'm sure there were plenty of forest people there already, and that might not even be true. Maybe they just disappeared.

I'd love to speak to Mr Agland about his film, to discover how he actually did it (I'm assuming it was filmed on 16mm celluloid stock). How he gained their trust and got them to open up their lives.

I have some questions about how structured some of the elements are in the narrative. It seems extraordinary that he should have been able to shoot a forest cat eating an antelope and Deni's reaction as she worries about where her children are when the cat's around.

In one scene in particular where Likano and Deni are bickering about who should fix the hut during a rainstorm ("Its leaking" "You fix it, it's on your side") it occurred to me that they are being filmed going to sleep with very bright lights on for the cameras. How did that affect their behaviour?

I read elsewhere that they spent two years with the family just getting to know them, before filming a thing.

In the clip I saw of the follow up film it is revealed the daughter you see born at the end of the first film was named Camera.

I'm totally bowled over by this film.

Some of the most moving scenes are when the camera just watches Deni and we see her concern over what is the best thing to do for her children.

Or when Likano is teaching his son about chimpanzees, compared to his anguish at the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Or when Ali, looking at his baby sister, asks his father to throw the new baby away.

It just goes to show that even deep in the rainforest, our common concerns -at their roots- are all the same.

You can buy the video (VHS!) here from, unfortunately not the British version, narrated by the brilliant Ian Holm, but the American one narrated by Denzel Washington

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Bomb squad fatalism


This is one of the most horrifying things I've seen in Nigeria.

This video shows Kaduna Bomb Squad Officer Sunday Badang walk up to a bag suspected to be a bomb and poke it with a stick, with horrifying consequences.

Saharareporters are saying that this officers life could have been saved by the use of a $17,000 armour suit.

I'm not so sure of that. Firstly, in the Thai example they show the bomb is in the confines of a car, and the car could have taken some of the power of the blast. The Kaduna bomb was out in the open. Officer Badang would have been subject to the full force of the blast.

It can't be discounted that Officer Badang went because he was ordered to by a superior officer.

But there is something else. If Officer Badang didn't believe it was entirely safe to go out and poke the bag with a stick, would he have done it without further precaution? Or at the very least... some trepidation?

The Daily Trust reported Kaduna police commander Aminu Lawal said:

“If you were at the scene, you would have seen that the officer did not just go to defuse the explosive. He and his colleagues have tested the polythene bag and the area with bomb detectors before he went to defuse it. What he has done was commendable because his action has saved many innocent lives.
“The officer is a well-trained and highly competent personnel. He was involved in defusing bombs at many places here in Kaduna. You journalists can testify to that because you were witnesses when he defused some bombs at Gonin Gora and other places.
Contrary to the belief in some quarters that Badang has acted foolishly, his colleagues said the deceased took all the necessary precautions before he went close to the bomb.
“It was after he was convinced that the leather contained no explosive that he went to see the content. It was unfortunate that he was deceived by our instrument.”

Clearly this is a different definition of the phrase "all necessary precautions", from the one in common use across the rest of the world as we know it.

Even if the machinery used for a test came back with a negative for explosive residue on the bag, clearly that's not a reason to walk up and poke it with a stick without taking further precautions than ones shown in Officer Badang's death.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect that if you spoke to bomb squad officers around the world, you would find few who would go to a suspected device as Officer Badang did, even if a test had been done and returned negative.

But the Nigerian police disagree. Why should the Nigerian definition of "all necessary precautions" be so much different to the rest of the world?

A Nigerian friend, when I shared this video on Facebook, said:

"Here's what I think - never mind who's asking: life out here is so desperate that fatalism has become cultural for us. Unfortunately, for us, death has lost its horror - completely stripped of its mystery!"

I think my friend is right, a degree of fatalism has come to live in the hearts of many Nigerians. It manifests itself in the many things that people do every day in Nigeria, which to an outsider appear to be devoid of what we might call "common sense".

But that is slightly different than saying "life is cheap" or suggesting that people in Nigeria don't care for their lives or the lives of others. Far from it.

In Nigeria, culturally, the belief in charms with the magical power to protect, is common; among the educated as well as the illiterate.

To me, investing power in a totemic object of protection is an indication that you value life, but that the forces that influence it are wild and unknowable.

If what the police commander says can be trusted, this officer's mistaken belief that the bag did not carry explosives comes from a faith he placed in the test for explosive residue they carried out on the bag.

Has this officer simply placed an unconditional belief, not in a charms but in a piece of western-provided machinery, and bypassed what you or I might identify as "common sense"?

When people's charms don't work, the reaction from others is that somehow they were not invoked correctly by the user, not that the concept of the charm itself was misplaced, and there really is nothing to be done.

In the video we briefly see Officer Badang's colleagues, looking away, not really knowing what to do.

It has been suggested to me that they might be in shock, and that is true.

But to me, the faces of the onlooking policemen say one thing: Nothing to be done.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Lost Kingdoms of Africa

I'm enjoying this new series of the BBC 4 programme Lost Kingdoms Of Africa. Gus Casley-Hayford explores the remnants of historical artifacts and living culture from a number of old African empires.

Its great to have a programme like this, reassessing African history and bringing up really interesting stories.

But there are some things that are a bit grating. Firstly if Casely-Hayford wants to really become a revisionist historian for maligned empires, he really could do better than employing the same tropes of TV documentary making that the establishment uses. -OK Gus, I know you're a cool dude in your Indiana Jones hat, but why bother pretending you speak isiZulu? (See pic above).

And secondly, in the film about the Zulu empire, the first part of the programme was dedicated to showing how brutal they were, how Shaka went around conscripting 14-year-old boys into the army. Even in the portrayals of him that were sympathetic, it was clear he was pretty brutal.

Discipline in Shaka Zulu's army was simple: Do what I say or die.

Any other group who stood in their way was obliterated. Whole ways of life were annihilated...

And yet when the British Empire comes and overpowers them with the Gatling Gun, they kill off "the glorious Zulu Empire"? Doesn't that sound like the type of classification you're trying to revise, Gus?

Lost Kingdoms of Africa is on BBC4

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Congolese riots in Brussels

Just after the Congolese elections in December, opposition supporters went on the rampage in Brussels, smashing up the Congolese embassy, some other buildings downtown and what looked to be a bank headquarters. They also smashed up business in Little Congo, around Place St Boniface. No I hadn't heard about it either...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

One intriguing artifact...

Here's an interesting thing at the Musee Africain in Tervuren, a carving depicting what appears to be a woman leading another woman home in chains, then the captive woman seems to be giving the captor... err oral pleasure, while the woman's husband seems to be, err pleasing himself.
But again no context or explanation as to what this might be from the museum.

Masque de ceremonies initiat

Here is a classic example of why the museum does need to change. This mask, and countless others like it, are just marked "Mask pour ceremonies de initiat - Sud Congo". No context, no explanation of how it was acquired, or ideas about who wore it, when and why. It's just a trophy taken from a savage people.

The Africa Museum Brussels

This is the museum that was built to celebrate King Leopold's "civilising mission" in the Congo.
It's having a "farewell" exhibition, as it is about to close for several years to undergo a refurbishment.
One of the things they will be addressing is the tone of some of the displays, which portray african culture as primitive and savage and the influence of the Belgians as civilising.
After visiting, I hope they keep some of those cabinets intact as an illustration of their attitude of the time.
It would be a great injustice to whitewash the past with a thoroughly modern museum; full of contemporary attitudes to anthropology and artifacts that made no recognition of what the historical attitudes of the coloniser were.
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