Part Way There: The agony and joy of being gay in Africa

By Frankie Edozien

Pride parade. (Reuters/Rogan Ward)

At an international conference on Black portraiture, imagery and depiction in Johannesburg, South Africa last November, I gave a presentation about the state of LGBT rights across the African continent. I told participants that I’d just come from New York, where, at the UN, the African bloc had spearheaded an effort to torpedo the work of the first-ever independent expert investigating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

They wanted to halt the work of Vitit Muntarbhorn of Thailand, a human rights expert who had completed a tour of duty in Syria, and was appointed to the post of Special Raconteur in September. He had already begun his work, but the group objected to his mandate, which was to investigate abuses directed against LGBTI people. With so much state-sanctioned abuse on the continent this wasn’t exactly a big surprise. However, the African nation bloc said it wanted a delay because “there is no international agreement on the definition of the concept of ‘sexual orientation and gender identity.’”

This assertion was so off the mark that the American ambassador at the time, Samantha Power, described it as patently false. She would later assert that violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity are “well established,” and have been referred to repeatedly in UN statements and resolutions, including in the General Assembly and Security Council. “In reality, this amendment has little to do with questions around the definition of sexual orientation and gender identity,” she said. “Instead, this amendment is rooted in a real disagreement over whether people of a certain sexual orientation and gender identity are, in fact, entitled to equal rights.”

During my presentation, I posed the same question to the scholars and participants in the room that Botswana, on behalf of the African group of nations, had posed to the UN General Assembly: “Should sexual orientation and gender identity be included in broader issues of human rights concerns?” Then I gave them the unsatisfying response that Botswana’s ambassador, Charles Thembani Ntwaagae, gave to the UN: “Those two notions are not, and should not be, linked to existing international human rights instruments.”

I told the audience that while the African bloc’s response was totally unsurprising, what stung was South Africa not raising an objection. I said that being in South Africa, with its great constitution that outlaws discrimination, was bittersweet at the moment because they had not done anything to halt this, but instead had gone along with their reactionary neighbors.

A month later, at a second hearing, and in a second attempt to quash the appointment, the African bloc, with their supporters in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, saw their efforts dashed for good as more nations rallied round to vote in favor of it, particularly countries from South America. The defeat was a clear sign that, while divisions remain, the world is coming to the view that discrimination has no place in the 21st century.

And this time South Africa broke ranks with the African bloc and made its position very clear to the world. Jerry Matjila, the South African ambassador said, “We will fight discrimination, everywhere, every time. We cannot discriminate against people because of their own lifestyle or intention. That we cannot do in South Africa.”

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Excerpted from Lives of Great Men (Team Angelica Publishing). Copyright 2017.

How a boutique Nigerian book publisher is breaking into the US market

The the first three books Cassava is publishing in the US. ((Cassava/Quartz))

For eons, piracy in African book publishing has been something that booksellers lived with and factored in as part of the climate of doing business. But when Nigeria’s Joint Admissions & Matriculation Board, the body that sets the examination for students who seek to gain admission into universities selected the 2009 novel ‘In Dependence’ as required reading, the publisher declined.

Cassava Republic Press turned down what should be a goldmine because the publishing director was fed up with pirates cashing in leaving little for authors and publishers. But after some cajoling, came up with a compromise.

“Since the students have to pay for their registration, we said why don’t they pay for our book too. Let’s add it to the registration fee and they collect the book,” Bibi Bakare-Yusuf, Cassava’s founder recounted. The book by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, already a strong seller, has since sold an additional 1.5 million original copies in the last two months.
In Nigeria, a country with millions of potential book buyers, publishing is a tough business. Many readers will happily pay for religious texts or textbooks but sometimes balk at paying for contemporary fiction or creative nonfiction. Yet local publishers like Parrésia, Ouida books, Farafina, and Cassava keep feeding Nigerians with high quality literary works, even with the ever looming piracy threat and unfavorable business environment.

Back in 2007 Cassava published the acclaimed writer, Teju Cole’s first book Every Day Is For The Thief unleashing his talent worldwide, and more recently nurtured Elnathan John’s Born on A Tuesday. The award-winning novel, Seasons of Crimson Blossoms by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, has also just been published worldwide by Cassava.

Bakare-Yusuf, 47, has always seen herself as a problem solver, and the coup with the examination board has paid off. “They’ve ordered 200,000 more so 1.7 million students have access to the book. When they have selected books like that in the past, publishers will sell 200,000 copies of that particular book when there are 1.8 million students who must read that book. Pirates go on to sell it,” Bakare-Yusuf, told Quartz.

Cassava Republic is now tackling the dearth of African writing among mainstream American readers by opening shop Stateside after successfully expanding to Europe last year. While British and American publishers have opened satellite operations in Africa for decades it is less common for an African publisher to launch in the West.

Four Cassava books will be available in bookstores across the US this spring in a distribution deal the Nigerian publisher brokered with partners. At the recent Pen World Voices literary festival in New York, Cassava writers, Manyika and Ibrahim joined authors the world over in showcasing new work.

Bakare-Yusuf: “The means of production must be owned by Africans.” (Edozien/Quartz)

The US and Britain are center of the Anglophone publishing world and even though she began Cassava Republic in 2003 in Nigeria’s capital Abuja, she knew right from the start that the new company would one day have to launch internationally. Bakare-Yusuf said she needed time to build up a viable African business. And then go global only after it became a publishing force to be reckoned with. So the New York expansion couldn’t happen until 2017, a year after London’s.

“[London and New York] give symbolic legitimization to African writing whether we like it or not and we are acutely aware if that. But we are always saying even if they are the centers for legitimization, the means of production must be owned by Africans.”

For the novelist Emmanuel Iduma, and a founder of the acclaimed Nigerian literary magazine, Saraba, Cassava was ideal for his follow up book to ‘The Sounds of Things to Come.’ His new work, ‘A Stranger’s Pose’ is part memoir, and part travelogue and even part flash fiction. It would be a hard sell to a traditional publisher, but Cassava instantly got it.

“I sensed that their recent model of distributing outside Nigeria, in the UK and US, would liberate writers like myself from the worry of selling books to publishers who weren’t interested in developing, at least in the immediate, a support structure for African literature,” Iduma said.

The art critic added that he then understood fully “they were not only interested in books that could do well in the market today, but books that contributed, in the long run, to an archive of storytelling and criticism by African writers.”

Cassava editors view themselves as discoverers, midwives, curators and archivists for African literature. But they want commercial success too.

Manyika, who first published with Cassava a decade ago, turned to them for her new work ‘Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun’ about a senior citizen in San Francisco exploring her sexuality. It’s a novel that has at its center an African immigrant. So the American strategy is simply, make the books available to African-American women, the Africans in diaspora many of who are in the middle class, and then the rest of America will follow.

“They want to see to see themselves reflected in what they are reading. They want to see different worlds and that gives them a sense of cultural confidence. Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Adichie, these authors were built by African-Americans and other black people and it’s after the fact (other) Americans picked them up,” Bakare-Yusuf added.

She believes that people of color constitute 85% of the world’s population and from a business perspective it is making Cassava sit up “and recast our gaze. From a business perspective Africa is the future.”

As Cassava Republic builds its market share in the US, plans are in the works to expand to Paris with a focus on selling translated works on her current writers.

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The Case of Nigeria’s Missing President


President-elect Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria arriving for his Inauguration in Abuja, in May. Credit Sunday Alamba/Associated Press

In April 2015, Muhammadu Buhari became the first opposition politician to defeat a sitting president in Nigeria, in a mostly free and fair election. Mr. Buhari, a former army general, who ruled Nigeria for 18 months from 1983 to 1985, had a reputation for being incorruptible and a disciplinarian.

When Mr. Buhari returned to the Aso Rock presidential villa, Nigerians were disgruntled by reports of widespread graft by government appointees, and public services were on the decline. His election was supposed to usher in change, but less than two years later, he has been acting as if tending to the country’s needs should come on his own schedule.

On Jan. 19, Mr. Buhari left for a 10-day holiday to London; it seemed odd to leave the warmth of Abuja for the misery of English winter. By early February, Nigerians were told that Mr. Buhari had extended his trip for unspecified medical tests. No return date was given. Who can begrudge a 74-year-old the medical tests he is said to be undergoing in London?

If only Mr. Buhari had invested in the human resources and infrastructure required to conduct such medical examinations and treatments in Nigeria. Every year around 60,000 Nigerians seek medical treatment abroad, mostly in India and Dubai. Women who have a choice will spend every penny for maternity services abroad. People in Lagos openly talk of hospitals rationing supplies for those who have to go there.
When he first took the reins of government from Goodluck Jonathan, who governed during an oil boom, Mr. Buhari lamented that he found an empty treasury, that Nigeria faced millions of dollars in debt and wasn’t even able to pay civil servant salaries.

As Africa’s largest oil producer, Nigeria was hit hard by the global collapse in oil prices; crude is responsible for more than 90 percent of its exports and 70 percent of its government revenues. Oil prices plunged sharply, from close to $100 a barrel in 2015 to about $70 a barrel now, after recently climbing again.

The measures Mr. Buhari took to reduce Nigeria’s dependence on oil may yet yield fruit. He has emphasized expanding agriculture and reviving a gargantuan but dormant steel manufacturing plant, linking it by a railway line to iron-ore mines, ports and customers.

Mr. Buhari curbed the Central Bank’s independence and refused to allow the currency, naira, be determined by market forces, pegging it at about 35 percent higher than one would get on the black market. Nigerians significantly reduced banking transactions because on the streets their dollars were worth more.
It incited a severe scarcity in foreign exchange that hasn’t abated yet. Nigerians weren’t able to purchase things abroad or pay tuition fees for students in Europe, the United States and elsewere in Africa.

Even though the president relented a bit by easing restrictions and allowing market forces to determine the value of currency, “Buharinomics” hasn’t made life easier. For a time Nigerians couldn’t even use debit cards abroad. Of course, stock markets tanked. Today you can get five different exchange rates in one day. Thousands of Nigerians have lost their jobs.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that Nigeria’s economy under Mr. Buhari’s leadership has fallen to its worst levels since the early 2000s, with a 15 percent drop in gross domestic product. Yet there lies some hope, with the I.M.F. predicting 0.8 percent growth this year.

But power supply remains erratic; the prices of rice, kerosene and bread have gone up; and tens of thousands of young people remain unemployed. Inflation and recession are constant conversation topics as staples begin to disappear from the dining table. Businesses are firing employees they can no longer afford. And this week anti-government protests broke out in Lagos and Abuja over economic woes.

President Buhari is from the predominantly Muslim north, and the protests erupting among predominantly Christian southerners are a reminder of Nigeria’s fragile ethnic fault line. Things are particularly fraught in the Niger Delta. The area remains impoverished, and past governments, including Mr. Buhari’s in the 1980s, have done little to change that.

Angry militants have been sabotaging and blowing up oil pipelines; Nigeria lost $100 billion to sabotage in 2016 alone. Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president, traveled to the delta last week to establish a truce and soothe tempers.

In the north, the violent Boko Haram extremist group isn’t yet vanquished. As a candidate, Mr. Buhari had promised to tame Boko Haram, and he has reclaimed areas it controlled under his predecessor. In probably his greatest success to date, he has galvanized a demoralized military and pushed the group out of large swaths of the Nigerian northeast that seemed to have been ceded to them by his predecessor.

But Mr. Buhari’s absence has emboldened the terrorist group to unleash fresh attacks near Chibok, where nearly 300 girls were abducted in 2014. Mr. Buhari has also been silent about allegations that the nomadic Fulani herdsmen are raping and killing southerners.

Mr. Buhari should know the effect of his silence. In 2010, President Umaru Yar’Adua left Abuja for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He returned months later on life support, to die at home. The secrecy was galling then, and it is now. Mr. Buhari’s phone conversation with President Trump has helped assuage rumors of his death. Yet his refusal to address Nigerians is a matter of serious concern.

Last year, Mr. Buhari went to Britain for treatment of an ear infection. A Lagos businessman tells me many feel he’s back there for the same reason: his inability to hear the voice of the people of Nigeria. President Buhari ought to reach out to the people. Our patience is wearing thin.

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By Chike Frankie Edozien


It’s taken twelve hours on a ‘luxury’ bus to get here. My noise cancellation headphones block the relentless gospel music the driver favours. I rock to my heathen divas – Tina, Mariah, Beyoncé – and look out the window, watching the Ghanaian landscape change from verdant to sparse.

My first impression of Tamale is that it’s dry, dusty and low rise; not like overcrowded Accra. The Twi murmurings there are replaced here by smatterings of Hausa and Dagbani. I haven’t crossed a border but I feel I am in a different country. I’ve journeyed up north in search of women.  Those dynamic women who, after trudging for miles at dawn, picking up shea nuts, process them into butter by hand.

This butter is used in confectionary products, but is better known for properties that nourish hair and skin. It is now a key ingredient in the cosmetics trade. The women who pick shea have rarely had a chance to go to school, but shea income pays for their children to stay in school. One of those ‘shea babies,’ now an adult, is helping me navigate the terrain.

His name is Will and he’s a heartthrob. I’ve come to write a journalistic piece on economic development and my focus is now derailed. I’m distracted and ‘Heartthrob Will’ is the culprit. We converse about shea but veer off into other things.  I’m not sure how old Will is, but he estimates he’s thirty-seven. Like many Gonja people, he doesn’t have a birth certificate. He was born in a hut near Navrongo and uses a national holiday here as a birthday, putting that down on forms and also celebrating himself on that day, like other people do.

Will has made sure his own children were born in a hospital, where births are customarily recorded. Today he’s a clerk for a non-governmental organisation, with dreams of owning a coffeehouse. He’s been married, divorced, and married again. He remains a babe magnet. The women hover. It’s easy to see why. He’s skinny and very dark, but his smile and savvy fashion make him stand out among the other tall dark men in Tamale. He favors form-fitting Tee’s, jeans and sneakers in a place where traditional dress is often de rigueur. He has a full head of hair and delights in sporting mohawks, with shaved-in lines. The goatee and a high watt smile emphasise his deep dimples. He oozes vitality in a laid back Tamale. I’ve found a dandy.

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