Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote — as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

Egypt: Aid and outsourcing

It's big business: US dominance in global arms sales

A bit more on the Egypt aid-and-repression quandary. Shana Marshall in Foreign Policy explains one reason the junta seems so confident that their anti-nonprofit antics wouldn’t result in a serious cutback in US assistance.  The aid isn’t just a feeding trough for the generals; it’s one for US weapons manufacturers too, since through it, the US government  effectively subsidizes Egypt to buy from them. Moreover, companies are using Egyptian cheap labor to make their weaponry. Why break such a profitable relationship?

In the United States, the aid program provides a large and predictable source of demand for weapons exporters, while in Cairo, collaborative military production with U.S. firms help subsidize the army’s commercial economic ventures.

Although domestic interest groups are rarely invoked in the debate over military aid to Egypt, the $1.3 billion in annual assistance represents a significant subsidy to U.S. weapons manufacturers. For instance, the General Dynamics manufacturing facility in Lima, Ohio where the M1A1 Abrams tank is built will not have more work orders from the U.S. Army until 2017 when the current M1 tank fleet is up for refurbishing. Egypt’s latest $1.3 billion order of 125 M1A1s (Cairo’s 11th order since the late 1980s) will keep those production lines open until 2014 building knock down kits that are then shipped and assembled in Egypt. Although shipping fully assembled tanks to Egypt would employ more U.S. workers, without the contract the Lima plant (in a crucial electoral swing state) would shutter its doors and General Dynamics’s bottom line would take a serious hit. Looming reductions in the U.S. defense budget have made General Dynamics and other defense producers even more concerned with keeping such funding channels open.

Egypt’s current Minister of Military Production Ali Sabri now boasts that over 95 percent of the M1A1 assembly takes place in Egypt’s military factories. While it’s true that most of the actual assembly takes place in Cairo (rather than Lima, Ohio), in the contemporary era of outsourcing the precise location of production is relatively unimportant from the defense firms’ perspective. The increasing indigenization of production in Egypt may imply the loss of U.S. jobs — but it is shareholder value (not work-hours for blue collar Americans) that dictates General Dynamics’s corporate planning. Transferring more work to Cairo likewise ensures that the Egyptian Army remains heavily invested in the project and continues to dedicate its aid dollars to procuring more tank kits. In fact, weapons manufacturers prefer contracts with such outsourcing components because they increase the per-unit price of equipment, and therefore also the firms’ revenue.

Let’s remember the international configurations of the security state, as well. The US transfers low-paying jobs to Egypt. It also transfers the means to control and repress workers, the unemployed, and the discontented. Those tear-gas canisters fired at demonstrators in Mohamed Mahmoud Street this autumn came from the US. Amnesty International found that, between 2005 and 2010, the US sold Egypt $1,658,994 in small arms, $4,131,033 in ammunition, and $2,446,683 in tear gas and riot control equipment. It was Egypt’s major supplier of the latter.

Tear gas in Cairo: (L) protesters point to "Made in USA" label on a canister, November 2011 (AFP/Khaled Desouki): (R): tear gas canister with 1990 expiration date, found by Mary Danial in protest area in Cairo (@bigpharoah)

(Hat tip: Issandr el-Amrani)

Egypt and the aid backlash: Lessons for the rest of the world

"Really, our aggression is just aid we offer poor countries that are always complaining about overpopulation!" 1970s cartoon by Ahmed Hegazi

Here at Harvard Law School, eleven out of ten students will wind up in corporate practice, meaning they may never even see the inside of a courthouse. They’ll drift from office to conference room for the rest of their working lives, sucking down money like baleen whales. A few young things will end up dabbling in criminal law — mostly to defend the corporate lawyers’ clients who skimmed a bit too much krill from the till. They’ll stand before the blind, full-breasted figure of Justice in rituals as precise, time-honored, and orderly as a French bedroom farce. I envy their innocence. But you can’t comprehend Justice in its full majesty and power from the statues; you need to see it dancing half-naked on a table like a Nevada stripper bitten by a tarantula. I’d love to take those kids by the hand and lead them into an Egyptian courtroom.

lady, come to Cairo and get down and jive

The first time I stepped into one, more than ten years ago, the contrast with my procedural expectations was considerable. The court of my imaginings was a sort of competitive petting zoo. This was a fight ring full of honey badgers with rabies. Everyone was screaming. Women ululated the zaghrata till the blood froze. The defendants stood in a cage to one side; the judge’s demeanor seemed modelled on Commodus at the Coliseum.   Was that sweat darkening the dust underfoot, or someone’s blood? I was not at all surprised when a friend of mine hurled himself at a reporter and tackled him to the floor. An hour more, and I’d have done the same myself.

It seems to have been pretty much like that Sunday, when the Case of the NGO Workers went to trial in Cairo.  43 defendants, employees of five foreign nonprofits — 16 Americans, 16 Egyptians, along with Germans, Palestinians, and others — faced charges of undermining Egypt’s sovereignty: operating organizations without a license, bringing in money from abroad, and sending information to foreign countries.  Oh, yes, and a plot to dismember the country, since police found a map in one office that daringly showed Egypt divided into four zones. (It came off Wikipedia.)  Spectators and reporters mobbed the court. Fifteen lawyers showed up — out of that chaotic nowhere that usually means some prosecutor’s pocket — to claim they represented Egyptian citizens harmed by whatever the nonprofits had done. Half the audience chanted against the military regime. The other half, Salafists, demanded the foreigners be held as hostages till the blind Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman is freed from his American dungeon. The judge postponed the whole show and shebang for two months, till April 26. Nobody left happy.

all Egypt will be divided into four parts: the traitors' map, courtesy of http://inanities.org/2012/02/exclusive/

This case has been captivating everybody since the police raided 10 NGOs at the end of December, carting off computers, financial records, phones, and cash.   It captivates the US media because Americans were on trial. Unthinkable: Americans. While nine of the 16 accused US citizens got out of the country, seven –including an Obama Cabinet secretary’s son — huddled for refuge inside the American Embassy.  The resultant rage in Washington threatened the US’s massive aid package for Egypt, and the two countries’ longstanding alliance. Today, Egypt backed down, releasing the seven to a chartered flight at the airport, while pocketing as much as $300,000 each in bail. (The judges trying the case recused themselves in response, claiming improper political pressure.) This pretty much placates the United States, and the aid spigot is likely to turn on again; never mind the Egyptians still facing prison terms, or the Egyptian organizations raided and intimidated.

Some years back, when a Red Sea vessel sank and 1200 people drowned, the Colonel Blimpish right-wing writer John Derbyshire thought at first it might be a cruise ship packed with tourists. Then, “I learned that the ship was in fact a ferry, the victims all Egyptians. I lost interest at once, and stopped reading. I don’t care about Egyptians.” While it’s natural to take an interest in your own, few things are more contemptible than how Americans (and cranky Brits) notice history only when it’s happening to them.  Since a lot of history goes on elsewhere, this means that tourists and other travelers are its main protagonists, in the American view.  The Big Events are like dinner-theater performances where you come to watch and then get to join the show.

What happened to Lara Logan –raped near Tahrir more than a year ago — was terrible, but the fate of an assaulted American didn’t reveal some inner truth of Egypt’s revolution. And the US press reported the assault not to illuminate the sexual violence Egyptian women face, but to erase it. I feel sorry for the Cabinet secretary’s son, but Egyptian NGO workers have stared down state harassment for two decades. The 14 defendants who actually showed up for the trial are all Egyptian; but the US coverage is all about the absentees. (Meanwhile, by the way, John Derbyshire’s Stateside reputation easily bobbed back up despite his ballast of callousness. Last year, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’ most boring and conservative columnist, cited him as an authority … on Egypt.)

Abul Naga: Personally, I only want this much aid, no more

But Egyptianstoo, find the Americans’ plight captivating. It feeds the favorite cafe pastime: conspiracy theories. What the hell was the government thinking? The case was cooked up by Fayza Abul Naga, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation, one of the few holdovers the military junta kept in place directly from Mubarak’s last government.  A neatly coiffed figure vaguely resembling Meryl Streep’s latest Oscar-winning role, Abul Naga harassed NGOs under the previous regime, and is delighted to carry on under the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).  The current campaign has lent her a frenzied popularity as  a militant for Egypt’s sovereignty. She and the prosecutors have jabbed at all the xenophobic buttons, accusing the NGOs of “pandering to the U.S. Congress, Jewish lobbyists and American public opinion.” The malleable Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant party in the newly elected Parliament and an occasional SCAF antagonist, endorsed what it calls her “nationalist position” (despite the fact that it’s never opened the books on its own election funding, allegedly ponied up by Qatar).

Few Egyptians, though, see the logic to SCAF’s apparent support of the anti-US campaign. It endangered the aid trough at which the military has been feeding for more than thirty years.

Adapted from Jeremy M. Sharp, "Egypt in Transition," Congressional Research Service, 2011, at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/RL33003.pdf

The graph shows the disproportion between US economic aid, which has been shrinking for more than a decade (with a short spike in 2003, to reward Mubarak for his effective support of the Iraq War), and military aid, which has stayed constant. The military assistance, since the late 1970s, has been a massive bribe to Egypt not to use its military — particularly against the obvious object, Israel.  Since only so much money can be spent on unusable weapons, much of the aid greased the internal security apparatus — or lined the generals’ pockets, not just through direct embezzlement but by investment in a vast network of businesses under uniformed control.

Researchers estimate that the Egyptian military controls 25 to 40 percent of Egypt’s economy. Military firms dominate key sectors, including food (olive oil, water, pasta), cement and gasoline, vehicle production (joint ventures with Jeep to produce Cherokees and Wranglers), and construction.

The money oiling this empire would disappear if US aid dried up. Some speculate that Abul Naga has gone rogue, Sarah Palin-style, persecuting without SCAF’s permission. “This is a country of separate islands now,” one lawmaker said.  “The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Parliament, the generals of the military council — everyone is his own island.” Yet the Cabinet serves at the military’s pleasure; it’s hard to suppose a minister could attack their wallets without retaliation. Others, therefore, see a darker, Byzantine design on SCAF’s part.

The venerable Richard Falk sheds some light. Employees of five organizations were charged in Egypt: the US-based National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, Freedom House, and International Center for Journalists; and the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation. All the Americans work for the first three.  Falk points out that the NDI and NRI get all their money from the US government; Freedom House takes 80% of its funding there.

Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as “civil society institutions”, which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as “nongovernmental”, or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as “informal governmental organisations”. (IGOs)

Perhaps this is in fact the key to what’s happening. From one perspective, the fact that it’s effectively US government cash that SCAF is criminalizing– a little frosting on the big $1.5 billion birthday cake they get handed every year — makes their actions seem even stranger. But SCAF probably has a different fear: that the IGOs’ activities mean more and more US assistance will go to civil society, and less and less directly to Egypt’s rulers. Fayza started her campaign last March, when the US announced $65 million in aid to pro-democracy groups in Egypt. You can easily see SCAF wondering, not just: will that largesse be used against us? — but: is that coming out of our budget? (The minister reportedly told US officials that support for the civil society sector shouldn’t exceed $20 million.) The trial is a way of warning the US: We want things the old way. The money comes to us.

No, it's not. Stay home. We'll monitor YOU.

Falk calls attention to the Cold War roots of all three organizations, and warns of “disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government.” A U.S.expert concurs: “How would we react if a foreign country came here to teach us how to conduct elections?” Living in eastern Europe from 1990 to 1996, I saw IRI’s and NDI’s work at first hand. Together with the big German party foundations (Adenauer for the Christian Democrats, Friedrich Ebert for the Social Democrats, and Friedrich Naumann for the liberals — the Greens’ foundation was not yet hyperactive), they normalized politics in the countries where they operated. I don’t mean this in a good sense. Funding and training forces ideologically in line with their own preferences, they helped impose a Western-style left-right divide on societies that, in the wake of revolution, had been open to less stereotyped possibilities: anarchist parties, youth politics, environmental and feminist movements. (They didn’t succeed in stifling far-right extremists, given how far “normal” conservatism in the region had traditionally tended in a fascist direction.)  Undoubtedly they’ve tried to do the same in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s election triumph, though, has the paradoxical effect of ensuring Egyptian politics won’t be a simple left-right affair for some while. Free-market and socialist tendencies flourish on both sides of the secular-religious divide. This tends to muddy the economic arguments most urgent to a poor country; but it also makes the alleged foreign interference seem not sinister, merely ineffective.

Falk also recognizes the ominious implications to the Cairo case: that

the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights, so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realising the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

This is the explanation favored by the bien-pensant liberal in Egypt. Khaled Fahmy, professor at the American University of Cairo, writes:

The real target of Abouelnaga’s crusade is not foreign NGOs receiving foreign funding. Her real targets are human rights organizations that have been campaigning to defend basic freedoms before and after the 25 January revolution. The reason is simple: it is human rights organizations, more than official political parties or even the press, which have uncovered cases of police brutality under Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, which have defended helpless victims in numerous cases of outright injustice, and which have raised public awareness of basic and constitutional rights. … it is they who have sued the SCAF for allegedly conducting the notorious virginity tests on protesters; it is they who have been pressing the SCAF to restructure the security sector; and it is they who have highlighted and documented the SCAF’s bloody practices in Maspero, Mohamed Mahmoud Street, Cabinet Street, and Port Said.

This is true as far as it goes, yet flawed on two grounds.

First: I speak as a human rights activist: human rights groups’ work shouldn’t be exaggerated.  They document; they don’t mobilize.  The  abuses that brought Mubarak down, such as the killing of Khaled Said, were atrocities that exceeded the ambit of human rights documentation altogether, and became the iconic objects of popular campaigns.  Those campaigns did the hardest work. And without masses struggling and dying in Mohamed Mahmoud Street and Suez, there would have been nothing for the groups to document. Masses made the revolution. Documentation was a tool toward revolutionary ends, but not more than a tool — just as the middle-class methods of Facebook and Twitter didn’t cause the revolution, any more than Angry Birds.

There’s been a tendency (particularly fostered by foreign non-participants in the Arab Spring, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty) to expropriate last year’s revolts as “human rights revolutions,” suggesting neither “impure” political motivations nor insistent economic demands played their part. This is absurd.  If “civil society” as Fahmy describes it here had been tasked alone with overthrowing the former regime, Mubarak would be preparing for immortality in an official pyramid, and his son would be readying his coronation as the old man’s steward on Earth. Civil society — a concept argued and idealized from Hegel to Havel — is a vital force. But it’s not revolutionary, it’s regulative.  It guards the transparency and flexibility of an open political system; it criticizes the occlusions of a closed one. It lacks the strength, though, to turn a system upside down. Only social movements can do that. It’s understandable for academics, who spend most of their time in offices, to delude themselves that other people who possess offices are the unmoved movers of the world.  (Human Rights Watch, my old employer, subscribed to similar illusions; its leaders would no more have understood a social movement that they would have invited the cleaning ladies to dinner.)  But power is in the streets; a revolution is a moment when the disenfranchised and the wretched of the earth can seize authority, however ephemeral, from those cosseted by educations and air conditioners.

Second, pointing to the undoubted virtues of rights organizations doesn’t help explain why — as Abul Naga’s sudden popularity reveals — so many people hate them in Egypt.  Rights activists themselves seem startled by the fact. After all, they defend the poor and vulnerable; why, when the cash is down and the police are knocking at their doors, does much of the population treat them as alien interlopers? But what is left out of Fahmy’s analysis is the dirty little secret of Egyptian liberalism: class. Unspeakable yet irresistible as a nasty French postcard, it’s everywhere present but nowhere discussed.

One has to weed out myth from reality. Human rights activists in Egypt, as in most places, are overworked and underpaid. Some organizations, such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (offering legal support to victims of violations) and the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence (offering help to torture survivors) transcend both their express mandates and the old victim/savior dichotomy, are explicit in their political commitments, and see part of their labor as mobilizing people to act and struggle. Aida Seif el-Dawla of the latter said to me once, more or less, “Sometimes the best rehabilitation from torture is to fight back.”

1% on one side, 99% keep to the other

Still, most Egyptians regard “civil society” as a place of privilege and inanition, far from the burdens and terrors of daily life. And from the poor’s perspective, they’re right. How many workers sit in a comfortable chair in an office paid for by the US? Moreover, civil society itself — overwhelmingly staffed by the middle and upper-middle classes — reinforces the image. Many of its leaders have no idea how to speak to the lower orders, except to order them to clean something. The condescension of authority and the inflection of command come naturally. And each large desk or air conditioner produces its own pasha, sure of his superiority to those who sweat.

The two failures are connected, and are not just a matter of attitude or tone. Salaried civil society activists in Egypt don’t know how to relate to other classes; and this reinforces their difficulty in dealing with social movements, with people mobilizing for change. For most of them (there are, of course, treasured exceptions) the language of mobilization is a tongue Rosetta Stone doesn’t teach. This tongue-tiedness extends to many of the young, middle-class activists who populated Midan Tahrir. It was telling that this past summer, when it became clear that SCAF threatened all the Revolution’s achievements, their main answer was to return to the square and try to reinvigorate, on their own, the dream of classless commonality there. The effort was beautiful — I was there, in July and August, and the idealism of it was both exasperating and deeply moving– but it was remote from the rest of the country’s reality. At the same time, Muslim Brothers and Salafists were busy organizing among workers and peasants, doling out food and identifying voters. The voting showed the inevitable result.

What lessons can derive from all this?

One is: human rights are not enough. They can set the procedural norms for a changed society; but neither rights claims nor the activists who press them will, in themselves, achieve the changes that most need to happen — changes in the deep structure of societies and states, changes in how wealth is allotted and who allots it, who holds power and how. The spirit –no, not the spirit; the muscle and the nerve — of social movements is needed to accomplish that, and to amplify what rights activists do. Human rights groups have to learn to speak the languages of movements: not later, but now.

A second lesson is about aid and the dynamics of power it represents. It’s striking (and not a little self-defeating) how popular an anti-aid rhetoric is among Egyptians. Far from treating assistance as a just claim against a history of economic and political exploitation, they’re almost eager to forego it for a vaguer acquisition: dignity.

Al Azhar, the leading Sunni Islamic institute in Egypt, and a fundamentalist Salafist sheik, Mohammad Hassan, formed a group with the goal of raising up to $2 billion to replace any lost American aid. [No indication of how much would go to economic relief, and how much into the generals’ pockets.] Three days ago, the military-appointed Egyptian cabinet voted to support the effort, the Fund for Dignity and Pride, and many prominent Egyptians have pledged support. The fund has so far raised $10 million.

Some of this is the military’s vain gesturing, but some obviously strums a populist nerve. And the nerve twinges elsewhere too. The obvious analogue is the rhetoric roaring out of Africa, after the fiasco of David Cameron’s threat to tie aid to LGBT people’s human rights. The fiasco was disastrous. Loud promises to give up aid echoed from Tanzania to Zimbabwe. Legislators brought forward new and old bills against homosexuality in Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia. Cameron’s words backfired in a massive backlash — and worsened the hatred screaming against queers across the continent. The Egypt quandary further suggests that the link between aid and rights protection is complicated, requiring  tact and strategy. Aid can discredit rights movements as much as it can assist them.

We just wants the Precious for a little while. Just to make the nasty peoples stop!

As for “aid conditionality”: well, the nagging hypocrisy beneath human rights activists’ claim that they’re above practical politics is that, in fact, they love power.  They want it and dream of it in secret. Like Boromir lusting for the Ring, they know it can cause them the occasional inconvenience, but they’re convinced they’ll put it to good use. The fact they can’t acknowledge this love in public only makes the longing fester more. The fantasy of using aid leverage cleanly and simply, despite all the colonial implications and the economic impact, to make rights violations stop is one version of the festering. Instead of building and mobilizing a domestic constituency against the abuses, instead of struggling to create an international movement, the fantasy tells them that a few key governments on their side will put the squeeze on the abusers, and — like a pimple bursting — the evil will end. The extreme form of this is to invoke not money, but military might. Human Rights Watch campaigned hard for intervention in Libya last year, not so much because it seemed incontrovertible that otherwise a genocide would happen, but as a test case. If, for once, governments would bomb another state purely on the strength of  rights arguments, wouldn’t that show — for the first time and for all — that human rights had teeth? Wouldn’t it confirm that they and their exponents were a power to be reckoned with? A moral power, of course. Power almost always starts off announcing itself as moral. Then things change.

Human Rights Watch never much cared for achieving things by movement building. Its vision was always to get the right governments lined up on the right side, and go from there. That may work in certain places and for certain causes.  But in most of our lives and world, things happen through politics, and politics mean mobilization, and mobilization means cobbling together movements that voice and meet people’s needs in the concrete, not just the abstract. It’s a lesson a great many human rights groups still need to learn.

Ban homophobia in Africa: Ban Ki-Moon

Shoot for the Ki-Moon

At the opening of an African Union (AU) summit this morning, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon told assembled leaders to respect LGBT people’s human rights. The AFP says:

“One form of discrimination ignored or even sanctioned by many states for too long has been discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Ban said.

“It prompted governments to treat people as second class citizens or even criminals,” he added. …

“Confronting these discriminations is a challenge, but we must not give up on the ideas of the universal declaration” of human rights, Ban told the summit.

Ban has shown more nerve over the years than I’d have thought possible at the beginning. Good for him.

(Un?)freedom tower: The HQ project

All this took place amid the inauguration of the African Union’s posh new headquarters in Addis Ababa — and that blingy building suggests why neither Ban’s admonitions, nor David Cameron’s threats, nor all the pious efforts of those who want to squeeze humanitarian aid in the name of human rights, may in the end amount to much.   The elaborate complex, a glossy imitation of the UN building towering over one of Africa’s poorest cities, cost between $120 million and $200 million (US), and was entirely constructed by China. China Daily quotes  “Zeng Huacheng, a special councilor to the AU headquarters project from China’s Ministry of Commerce”:

“The accessible height of the main office building is 99.9 meters, in reference to the founding date of the AU and the rise of the continent,” Zeng said. “The panoramic view of the conference center is like two hands holding each other, signifying the strengthening friendship between China and Africa.”

Asia Times goes into more detail:

In the thin air of Ethiopia’s low-slung, mostly ramshackle capital, a glittering tower complex is erupting from a warren of corrugated tin roof shacks that many locals call home. …

Though the CSCEC [China State Construction Engineering Corporation] describes its efforts there as “aiding” the African Union, make no mistake, it is building the facility wholesale. Stern-faced Chinese foreman command ever-smiling Ethiopian laborers who are working round the clock to finish the project at breakneck speed for its planned January 2012 inauguration. …

In anticipation of a hoped-for visit to Addis Ababa by President Hu Jintao for the new AU’s debut, [a Gabonese Diplomat]  stated: “We cannot thank China and it’s leaders enough for it …”

As China scours the continent for resources virtually unchallenged, this “gift” to the people of Africa will certainly come with strings attached. In a recent meeting with a high-ranking CSCEC official, Erastus Mwencha, a seasoned Kenyan diplomat who holds the deputy chair of the African Union Commission that oversees the project, hailed it in a recent press statement as a “permanent signature on African soil”.

When Asia Times Online visited the present AU headquarters hugging hilly Roosevelt Street, a representative of its Conflict Management Division lamented the depth of Chinese involvement both in Ethiopia and across the entire region. Africa’s sudden anti-democratic partner is engaged in a slew of road rehabilitation and construction endeavors in many parts of the country.

We are unbuilding socialism: The complex under construction

As I’ve pointed out here, Chinese aid for Africa — of which the new HQ is merely the biggest symbol — comes with few political conditions, certainly not rights-related ones. What accompanies it are economic expectations: that the continent will provide endless, cheap raw materials for China’s boom, as well as new markets for Chinese exports. That’s no good news for ordinary Africans, who’ll find their economies shunted every more firmly into a neocolonial niche of underdevelopment. But the elites who control the African Union’s governments will turn a profit.

As if in an emblem of this relationship, there weren’t even many African raw materials inserted into the building: Save them for export to Beijing!  “Even the furnishings were imported from China and paid for by the Chinese government,” a Ugandan blogger says sourly.   China Daily puts the best face on this:

To ensure construction quality, only the best materials were used and furniture was specifically designed and ordered.

“Details such as the height of a table and the color of a carpet were all discussed with representatives from the AU,” Zeng said.

The lack of political conditions doesn’t mean, though, that Africa’s integration into the Chinese co-unprosperity sphere comes without political consequences. That Ugandan blogger’s comments suggest how neocolonial dependency fosters both patriarchal power structures and cultural protectionism:

Where is the pride in us as Africans having this luxurious new home? Where I come from, and I believe many African men come from similar backgrounds, you are not considered a real man unless you have built your own house which you will call your home. Its only then that you can marry your wife and its only then that you are respected by everyone in the village. …

Yes, indeed, it’s a reflection of a new Africa …  An Africa without a culture, without a moral campus, an Africa without any pride, an Africa that can’t build their own home, an Africa that thrives on begging for food, for money and now for a home. An Africa that is shameful and disgraceful. An Africa that is empty and without a future, an Africa that is everyday selling its soul to powers foreign …

So congratulations to Ban Ki-Moon for speaking out. A glance at the balance sheets, however, shows there’s a long way to go.

More on Hillary and Barack

the marriage of true minds: any impediments?

A future torture victim sat next to me yesterday, on my flight from Paris to New York. She was in her twenties, and strung tight as piano wire, and professed to be half-German, half-Egyptian. She’d been subjected to a random search back at Charles de Gaulle. This put her in a state of steaming outrage, during which she emitted, to no one in particular, vocal and egregious threats: “I hope they bomb that airport. I hope everyone is killed. I feel like I am in Auschwitz.  How dare they serve Coca-Cola on this plane?”  Finally she wrote, in big black letters on a piece of paper, and pinned to the TV screen in front of her:

FUCK YOU
CHARLES DE GAULLE
HITLER’S AIRPORT AND
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
I hope you are blown to bits and
Everybody dies
Coke Kills

I huddled in the aisle seat, thinking in no special order: a) Given all the security, it’s impossible she has a bomb. b) Then why does she keep talking about it? c) Can the stewardesses see that note? d) I need more wine. e) If the stewardesses see this, she will be taken to Guantanamo. f) If we make an emergency landing so she can be taken to Guantanamo, my flight will be six hours late. g) Should I protest if she’s taken to Guantanamo? h) Do I want to go to Guantanamo? i) I need more wine.

Air France handled things surprisingly well, as it happens. Nobody was wrestled to the floor or cuffed. Instead, a senior, marmoreally-coiffed French woman shunted me from my seat and lectured the passenger for almost an hour. I heard snatches of the one-way conversation: “You can of course think zat. But you cannot say it on an airplane. And you cannot expose it zat way for others to zee.” There is nothing like a dressing-down from une française soignée to put even incipient psychosis in its place. The note vanished, the writer calmed down, the plane landed on time, and no one seemed to go Gitmoward. I desperately hope someone was waiting past customs with Valium, and not an orange jumpsuit.

I’d meant to spend the flight thinking about the Obama administration’s new LGBT human rights initiative; and instead I worried about whether seat 27b had a ticket to a Caribbean prison. Yet this made sense somehow. How progressive are the Obamaites in talking about human rights!  They meet with rights NGOs and flatter their fragile egos; they support the touchy issues, the women and the queers; they speechify. But Guantanamo is still there. The military tribunals still promise to happen in a slow parody of justice. Drones still descend from the sky, with a blue whine beyond appeal, to kill people we don’t like. It’s nice to be part of the class that merits concern, not cages; protection, not jet-fueled murder. This administration does demonstrate more real action on human rights than its bloody predecessor.  But the action is just selective enough to leave you wondering why you were singled out, when so many others still suffer the vast yet individuated violence. As Samuel Beckett wrote, musing on the two miscreants crucified on either side of Christ: “Do not despair: one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume: one of the thieves was damned.”

Reading some of the US responses to Clinton’s speech only reinforces this queasy feeling. Take gay activist-at-large Wayne Besen, who writes:

A historic address of this magnitude was desperately needed to counter the rising tide of backwards and barbaric nations that had recently been persecuting LGBT people to distract from their glaring problems. …

The list of countries that recently declared war on sexual minorities include Russia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Uganda, Iran, and Zimbabwe. For the contemptible despots who run these underachieving nations, fomenting homophobia makes political sense. .. [S]omething drastic needed to happen to turn back the tide of violence and discrimination that plagued these “loser nations.”

Or, as Besen intones elsewhere,

The LGBT community rarely thrives in backward places that promote ignorance over education and medieval views over modernity. As these intellectual swamps sink, sexual minorities make ideal targets… [P]laces that are leaders in passing anti-gay laws are losers in virtually every other category that defines successful, civilized societies.

I can’t imagine how you could even communicate to Besen that the gays in  “loser nations” like Nigeria or Uganda don’t really like having their countries called “backward and barbaric.”  Besen wouldn’t get it: he’d counter, But the gays are civilized!  It’s the other Cameroonians who live in trees! In other words, he understands why the gays in loser lands deserve to be singled out: they’re better than their compatriots, more successful, more unbarbaric, more like us.

Why would that be so? Well, possibly the foreign gays have a cultural leg up, and have gotten book-learned and Westernized by reading … oh, for instance, Wayne Besen, who’s available on the Internet even in darkest Russia. Or possibly it goes deeper, it’s in the chromosomes, and even in Cameroon the gays are genetically predisposed to be like “us,” park-cruising rather than tree-dwelling, forwards rather than backwards.

Except that isn’t so. As far as a) the chromosomes go, there are plenty of theories about the genetic roots of gayness, but none of them argue it’s linked to a gene for intelligence or Western-ness. And if you tried to contend that, there’d be Wayne Besen to disprove it: clearly not the brainiest fish in the primal soup, and a permanent dilution in the gay gene pool. Moreover, as far as b) culture is involved, I can testify that the lesbians and gays in foreign countries really don’t read Besen ever, at all. Maybe this is evidence for a) after all — maybe their intelligence genetically disinclines them to study him; but then you have to deal with Besen disproving the theory again, because after all he’s gay and he reads himself. Or you’d think so.

By a fearful symmetry, though, the forward Besen and the “backward” lands he criticizes match each other. His rant exactly echoes how the offending parties he condemns rage against the initiative. There, too, people know why Clinton singles out the queers: they’re infiltrating agents of the West, objects of its special and invasive interest. The rhetoric is entirely predictable, because it’s been used so much before. “Africa new frontier for West’s gay rights crusade,” one African news source headlines. In Nigeria, now finalising a draconian bill to ban public expression around homosexuality, legislators rushed to assert their independence:

“Why would America want to dictate to a sovereign country which law to make and which one not to make? How can the depraved ways of a minority become the standard for law making in Nigeria?”

And so on.

Then there’s the question of just how the Obama administration will support LGBT rights elsewhere in the world. Clinton’s speech and the president’s memorandum are rather vague on the techniques. This leaves considerable white space to be filled in by the imagination. On the right, various voices already kvetch because Obama isn’t willing to send the army out to protect the gays. On the neoconservative Commentary site, Abe Greenwald complains:

At the end of this year, the United States will cease to be a military presence in Iraq. Here’s whose influence will grow in Iraq once the U.S. leaves: Al-Qaeda, whose new leader once shot a male teenage rape victim in the head for the “crime” of homosexuality. … Who else stays on in Iraq after the pro-LGBT president has pulled out American forces? Iran, world leader in the public hanging of gay teens.

And, in 2012, when Obama withdraws surge troops from Afghanistan against the advice of our military commanders, what exactly does he think Afghan homosexuals will face in the resurgent Taliban (the same Taliban Hillary Clinton is trying desperately to strike deals with)? The answer is known: they will face something called “death by falling walls.” …

Although George W. Bush is vilified by many in the gay community for talking about the sanctity of marriage, the freedom agenda he instituted did more for global human rights—gay or otherwise—than any speech or memo that might warm your heart.

Never mind that Bush’s own Texas has, statistically, almost certainly killed more teenage gay offenders in recent years than Iran. The point is: the best way to protect human rights is to invade and conquer countries. We’ve already got our hands on Texas. What about the others? By not listing an axis of homophobic evil — bauxite-rich Jamaica! oil-endowed Iran! — Obama failed to make the case for future action. He didn’t even use the homophobes to prolong the invasions we’ve already got going on.

If diplomacy for the neocons is merely a preamble to bombing, for many US and European gays it’s a synonym for money. And in this equation they’re aided by the brouhaha over David Cameron’s incredibly ill-handled statements on LGBT rights and foreign aid last month. This fiasco — threats that Cameron bandied about without even the pretense of a strategy, then tried to abandon after half of Africa reacted in fury — has imprinted itself on the imaginings of activists and reporters alike. If you have an agenda, why not enforce it with cash? Even the US and UK headlines on Clinton’s speech suggested an aid linkage. “U.S. to Use Foreign Aid to Promote Gay Rights Abroad,” the New York Times said.Gay rights must be criterion for US aid allocations, instructs Obama,” the Guardian reported. And of course the chronically inaccurate sporadically truthful blogger Paul Canning spun that spin: “Obama admin to ‘leverage’ foreign aid for LGBT Rights.”

As always, pursuing exactly what Canning says gives an insight into a whole mindset, of which he is the sum, the symbol, and the White Whale. He embraces multitudes, the way a blank piece of paper contains all the dumb things that could be written on it. Canning is very attached to the idea of “leverage,” so much so that when @iglhrc tweeted, “Significantly, neither the memo nor Clinton’s speech said LGBT rights would become a condition for foreign assistance,” his beak bit back:

“It says ‘leverage foreign assistance to protect human rights and advance nondiscrimination’. Sounds like conditionality to me!”

But it’s true; neither Clinton nor Obama said a syllable about conditionality. The word “leverage,” which Canning rolls lusciously on his tongue, comes not from the Clinton speech or the Obama memo, but from the fact sheet the White House press office put out to summarize things for reporters. It has no official weight.  The president’s directive instead ordered:

 Agencies involved with foreign aid, assistance, and development shall enhance their ongoing efforts to ensure regular Federal Government engagement with governments, citizens, civil society, and the private sector in order to build respect for the human rights of LGBT persons.

“Ongoing efforts” doesn’t sound like a completely new policy — rather, like existing conversations more aggressively pursued. The US has a very spotty record on linking aid to any human rights issue; ask any Egyptian about America’s long support for the military, or any Palestinian about … well, anything. It would be a peculiar and skewed occurrence if the administration launched a first-ever policy of general aid conditionality in the specific and limited sphere of LGBT rights. And most likely, it won’t happen. The idea of “leverage,” and of supporting LGBT rights at the domestic level, will most likely involve private and particular conversations. Any public aspect is adequately embodied by Clinton’s proposal to launch a fund for LGBT rights advocacy.

Canning, however, wants broad aid conditionality; it gives him a sense of agency; it makes him feel that his emails to the UK Foreign and Colonial Office bear immediate fruit in action, in treasuries trembling and programs withering on the vine. Much as the neocons see diplomacy as war pursued by ineffective means, Canning sees it as money given or withheld under a convenient cover. In either case, the Obama statement becomes a field of dreams, a place where imaginings about Northern power get printed or palimpsested on the global South. It’s fun, it’s fertile, but it’s not quite real.

Trying to look realistically at what Clinton and Obama actually said, I still see occasion for optimism.  The contrast with Cameron’s recent blather is telling. Cameron came up with a quick-fix bit of rhetoric, not to benefit LGBT activists anywhere else in the world, but to silence the Peter Tatchells and Kaleidoscope Trusts, noisy Brits who wanted to see their country dominating the Commonwealth in the cause of justice and freedom. It meant nothing except short-term political gain, and when he got burned loudly enough by the stubborn ex-colonized, he flailed ineptly, trying to dog-paddle backwards and away.  There is, by contrast, little domestic political gain Obama and Clinton can extract from their move; the LGBT vote is largely on the administration’s side already. On Clinton’s part, and I suspect on Obama’s also, there’s a sincere commitment. Her speech was intelligent; it reflected an engagement not just with the issue itself but with the reflexive opposition it inspires. They’re trying to develop a strategy, not just a posture. The reaction from the usual suspects — such as Ghana, Uganda, Tanzania — whlle vocal, has actually been subdued by comparison with the Cameron affair, and this also, I think, displays a feeling that there is something substantive here that can’t simply be shouted out of existence.

The devil partly lies in the absence of detail, and in the scope this opens for disaster. Obama’s memo offers the agencies few patterns or directions for action. They’re supposed to come up with their own plans, and no one knows what that will add up to.  A dozen or so Southern LGBT activists were flown to Geneva to sit and applaud Clinton’s speech; the main measure of success will be whether they, and their innumerable colleagues elsewhere, continue to be consulted on what the US government should do in their countries. What if aid conditionality really does rear its head — what if an ill-conceived proposal for tying all funds to repeal of a sodomy law moves publicly out of the embassy in some unfortunate nation? What if a particular post decides on loud, press-release-based advocacy that backfires and stigmatizes local LGBT groups as servants of a foreign power?

In June 2011, the US Embassy in Islamabad took a pointer from Obama’s proclamation celebrating US Pride that May, where he’d perorated that “we rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.” The embassy hosted what it called “Islamabad’s first ever gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) Pride Celebration,” to show

continued U.S. Embassy support for human rights, including LGBT rights, in Pakistan at a time when those rights are increasingly under attack from extremist elements throughout Pakistani society.  Over 75 people attended including Mission Officers, U.S. military representatives, foreign diplomats, and leaders of Pakistani LGBT advocacy groups. … Addressing the Pakistani LGBT activists, the Chargé, while acknowledging that the struggle for GLBT rights in Pakistan is still beginning, said “I want to be clear: the U.S. Embassy is here to support you and stand by your side every step of the way.”

That’s from the embassy’s press release. “Every step?” Well, except for steps outside the embassy walls.  It didn’t occur to them that announcing the country’s “first-ever” Pride from behind the turrets of a fortified compound, guarded against a public enraged by American assassinations and bombs, sent a not-very-indigenous message. A South Asian blogger remarked:

Within a few days, the streets of major urban cities of Pakistan … were hailed with the students and political workers of Jamaat-e-Islami, a religious political party, chanting slogans at their highest pitches against homosexuals and America. For them it was a golden opportunity to kill both ‘the evils with a single stone’. Banners were displayed in major cities, especially in the federal capital, within a few days demanding persecution of gays and accusing Americans of propagating and imposing this ‘westernized’ idea. The lash back didn’t remain limited to the Jamaat-e-Islami only but sooner most of the political parties joined this bandwagon to form a coalition against the government for their menial political interests. …

Unthankfully, all the sensational and flowery claptrap peddled around this event turned out to be a disaster for the budding underground Pakistani LGBT movement as the US Embassy conveniently over[looked] the repercussions this event would have brought in an already critical country which is fighting against terrorism and radicalization while sacrificing its peace, its liberty, its sovereignty and countless lives of its law enforcement agencies and civilians alike.

protesting US Pride in Pakistan

The idiocy of all this seems obvious; but it wasn’t obvious to the diplomats involved. With an only-broadly sketched plan, there’s ample leeway for an embassy or two to try this catastrophic kind of thing again.

But the devil lies also in the way that Clinton’s initiative necessarily entangles LGBT movements around the world — mostly progressive, mostly loud in their opposition to unjust and oppressive domination, many resolutely radical — with the US, its rights record, its power, and its imperialism.  And the truth is, this may be terrible, but we are at a point where such imbrication could no longer be avoided. We’re stuck with being fully a part of the world we live in, and with trying to maintain our ideals and values despite, not through and with, our friends.

When I started lobbying the UN about fifteen years ago, queers had no power. Nobody offered them the slightest regard; nobody noticed their politics or positions; with the possible and partial exception of the Dutch, there wasn’t a single country willing to make even a rhetorical genuflection to the rights of LGBT people as a serious issue anywhere in its foreign policy.  This absence of clout was wonderful, inspiring. The lightness of being it brought was not only bearable, it was beautiful, an afflatus of innocence that bore one ecstatically aloft in places the merely practical could never reach. Trying to advocate in this atmosphere of glorious irrelevance, one was never corrupted by the blandishments of power; no one wanted your support, so there was not the least temptation to sell it. In powerlessness lies moral purity; the former is the latter’s fount and succor. One can easily be absolute for truth and right when nobody pays attention.

Now, of course, there are states that pay attention to us. And for better or for worse, we have to deal with their histories and practices, their virtues and their sins, because these affect us. If we don’t watch out, they will all become our own. When South Africa sponsors us at the UN Human Rights Council, we have to recognize that it is seen as an imperial power on much of the continent it underpins. When the US speaks out on our behalf, our future words thrum with the undertone of its assertions, like a basso ostinato. The echoes of its peculiar idealism and its failures, its invasions and its abuses, from Martin Luther King to Rumsfeld, from Guatemala to Abu Ghraib, are disharmonies that will resound in what we say and do. We have to decide when to speak with them and when to speak against them, and reserve and exercise the right to the latter as well as the former.

We can’t, as movements, reject all those who want to aid us. Maturity means negotiating, not denying, these obstacles. Politics means accepting the burden of having — however little — power. But we also have to be willing to stand up to our friends and risk their enmity in the name of what we see as truth, instead of clapping hands mechanically and taking handouts with uncritical gratitude. Indeed, nobody needs to be grateful for Hillary and Barack’s support. Never thank others for recognizing human rights, unless their case is such that they show real courage or risk some tangible  cost in the act. Otherwise, they’re doing nothing more than their duty, to you and to the world. And a duty demands no recompense. Acknowledge it, but feel no obligation. You owe nothing in return.

Instead, each movement in each country needs to figure out whether it will accept America’s new assistance, and if so, how to do so on its own terms. Hillary and Barack’s one-two performance carries opportunities. More largely, though, and in the ethical sphere, it offers a renewed challenge: to maintain values in the face of power.