Goodluck Indeed: What’s really behind Nigeria’s kidnapped girls: a very weak president

MAY 8 2014

Like US president Barack Obama, Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan gave people hope.

After all, the story goes, he was the son of canoe makers who grew up without shoes in the Niger Delta area but lifted himself out of poverty through education.

Not just a university degree, but a PhD. He became a symbol that, no matter the circumstances of birth in Africa’s most populous country, one could rise to the highest levels of political success: the Aso Rock villa. That’s Nigeria’s “White House.”

Yet there were elements of luck too. Jonathan was twice a running mate who was elevated because his principals could not serve out their terms. As vice president, he kept a low profile but then his boss died in office, elevating him to the top job.

The tale of a poor man, not part of any political dynasty who rose to be president by the dint of his hard work and strokes of luck, played well in 2010.

Then it was time to govern. To deliver on promises made.

But things never seemed to get better for the average Nigerian, despite the booming oil-rich economy.

Back then, he promised to stabilize electricity in Nigeria—but the country still remains in darkness most nights and every citizen who can afford to buys a generator. Power cuts last for hours on end.

In early 2012, the president removed the subsidies that made it affordable for the Nigerian Everyman to buy gas for their cars and portable generators. Nationwide #Occupy Nigeria demonstrations paralyzed the country for five days.

A year later, he told CNN (to the bewilderment of many Nigerians) that should one inquire about the power situation, ordinary folks would agree that he had made great strides. His government had “kept faith.”

Was he completely out-of-touch? Hand he not been outside the presidential villa in any city at nighttime? Or had he simply morphed into a quintessential say-anything politician? The facts be damned?

Yet the reality was Nigeria was sliding backwards and his inner circle appeared to either shield him from that or simply not care.

Today the CIA World Factbook points out that 62% of Nigeria’s 170 million people live in extreme poverty. Seventy percent are below the poverty line. Government revenues are $23 billion-plus annually.

His cabinet members showcase excessive displays of wealth (likely from taxpayer coffers) such as buying armored BMWs and hiring private jets. Yet it is impossible for him to find fault or discipline them.

But when central banker Lamido Sanusi sounded the alarms bells that $50 billion is, well, missing from government accounts; he gets fired.

For Jonathan, the optics are rarely good and embarrassment isn’t even in the equation. And after months of unanswered questions, unwittingly, turns the matter into a joke.

He careened from crisis to crisis, but instead of solving problems, Nigerians have a leader who seems consumed with reelection in 2015.

Thus, he began the year pandering.

First to the religious right; he offered a draconian criminalization of citizens who are sexual minorities and anyone who has any association with them.

Then he fast-tracked the construction a new bridge over the River Niger, which residents have sought for decades as the current one is old and in disrepair.

Yet at the same time he backed criminalizing gays and made promises to deliver on infrastructure.

The reality: Highways remain dilapidated, airports continue to resemble crumbling abandoned edifices, and one job vacancy elicits thousands of applicants. Universities remain in shambles. And millions scrape by eking out a living that places them among the world’s poorest despite the nation’s wealth.

What happened to the promise and hope of leadership from Jonathan?

Much of Nigeria’s success stories—and there are many—are derived from the private sector and with the $510 billion economy now Africa’s largest. But still money is concentrated in the hands of the few while millions are mired in poverty. For all its growth and revenues, Jonathan’s government has no Emirates-style infrastructure achievements to show. Money has simply vanished.

It is against this backdrop that the terror group Boko Haram has been escalating its war on the Nigerian government. Northern Nigeria remains extremely poor. It is fertile ground for Boko Haram’s message: They claim western education is forbidden and say they want an Islamic state with strict adherence to the Koran.

So their modus operandi has been to create chaos.

Bombing churches, attacking and killing high school students, detonating bombs in car parks—and now abducting teenage girls.

Jonathan’s first response was to try to crush them militarily.

And he failed.

Then he seemed to shrug his shoulders and hope for the best. His attitude can, at best, be described as ineptitude—namely by not heeding the warnings that girls would be abducted after terrorists slaughtered young boys in another school a few months ago.

On April 14, members of the Boko Haram stormed a boarding school in Chibok, Bornu state, and took hundreds of girls by lorry into the dense forests near the country’s border with Chad.

Only after finally fed-up Nigerians pushed the world to intervene by simply saying #BringBackOurGirls online and in demonstrations around the world … finally Jonathan broke his weeks-old silence.

Only to admit he has no clue where the 276 girls are.

And Boko Haram’s feared leader, Abubakar Shekau, believed to be in the dense Sambisa forests continues to taunt Jonathan, saying he’s selling the girls.

Only then did his finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who spends considerable effort telling—some would say bamboozling—western press how wonderful her efforts have been in turning the economy around, decide the girls were worth mentioning.

The minister under who is coordinating Africa’s Davos, the current World Economic Forum for the continent, has been known to tell journalists how she could be earning a fat paycheck at the World Bank but she’s instead she’s doing the hard work in Nigeria with her boss, Jonathan.

Before flying to New York last week to get an accolade from Time magazine, she rattled off to journalists plans for the 6,000 military personnel to protect world leaders and Fortune 500 representatives in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, this week for the summit.

But of course there was no mention of the missing girls.

Only after the outcry of the ordinary people, with their supporters on Twitter around the world, did she now claim that she and president can’t sleep at night out of worry. (The optics are never good for these folks.)

And it is backfiring as international press now think of him as ineffective and leading a corrupt bunch.

Only after the outcry did Jonathan’s wife, Patience, display what seemed to be crocodile tears on national television. Then she promptly berated activists and women for demonstrating against her husband’s administration.

The writer Teju Cole, rightly dubbed her ‘The First Lady of Surrealistan.”

How is it possible that a government can only respond to such heinous crimes only after pressure from the outside world?

Would he have been so slow to act or even convey sympathy and empathy were these girls his daughters, his friends’ daughters, or children of the elite?

Time is running out for Jonathan to be an agent of change. He still has time to lead from the front, not behind. He still has time put people first—not just business interests to ensure he gets another term.

Once again, the president could actually take a page from Obama’s book. With elections looming in 2012, Hurricane Sandy struck and Obama and his team were all hands on deck. The election took care of itself.

If only Jonathan and his team would do the same. And act like they care? Maybe do something bold.

If only. Few are holding their breath. I’m not.

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After Fair Trade Coffee, Fair Trade Shea


A few of the estimated 16 million African women who pick shea nuts for a living are going to be making their case for fair trade to the giant corporations who buy their nuts in New York City on Monday.

These women — many of them making their first trip outside Africa — are the main attraction at the first-ever Shea Butter Trade Industry conference in North America.

They will rub shoulders in a midtown Manhattan hotel with cosmetic industry titans — the likes of L’Oréal, Kao (maker of Jergens brand products) and the Body Shop — as well as large-scale chocolatiers and confectioners.

In rural villages across West Africa, women use traditional methods to extract the fat from shea nuts, producing shea butter, a solid, whitish-yellow vegetable fat.

They use it for cooking and for skin care. This same fat is the main ingredient in the Body Shop’s best-selling Chocomania Body Butter and many other skin-care products.

For confectioners, specialty fats made from shea are used to make “cocoa butter equivalents” that give chocolate a higher melting point and a smoother texture.

You can see how one community in northern Ghana extracts shea butter here.

The women coming to New York want their corporate buyers to pay a fair price. They also want them to buy and use more shea in food products. Shea is currently used to make Kit Kat bars, Almond Joys, Milky Ways and other confections.

Antoine Turpin of IOI Loders Croklaan — a worldwide supplier of edible oils — says “shea is an important source of revenue to millions of women and their families across Africa. Empowering these women economically is crucial to the industry’s sustainability.”

That sustainability is in his interest too. His firm purchases an estimated 25 percent of all the shea nuts picked by women in West Africa for use in confectioneries.

Mr. Turpin will be explaining the supply chain, “from tree to chocolate,” on Monday and making a case for how shea can be used.

The conference organizers, the Global Shea Alliance, was first brought together by the West Africa Trade Hub, an offshoot of the United States Agency for International Development, in 2011.

Now it is an independent body, and this gathering is their coming out.

In the same way that the members up and down the supply chain involved in other global commodities, most famously coffee, have embraced fair trade, many stakeholders in the shea business hope to do the same.

“The Body Shop has used shea for over 19 years and we are firmly committed to using our learning to build a sustainable shea sector,” said Mark Davis, the company’s director of community fair trade. “Being a member of the Global Shea Alliance is critical to achieving that goal.”

One of the alliance’s stated goals is that the women who pick the shea nuts get good prices but also deliver better quality product. They are coming to New York “to develop a strategy to empower the millions of women who collect shea nuts,” said Salima Makama, the association’s president.

Development consultants will join them.

A 2010 U.S.A.I.D. survey conducted in Burkina Faso found that for every $1,000 worth of shea nuts sold, an additional $1,580 in economic activity was generated for the village.
It’s estimated that shea exports from West Africa total $90 million to $200 million a year. The trees grow in the savannah region that lies south of the Sahel in an area totaling 3 million square kilometers, or 1.15 million square miles, and extends from Senegal to South Sudan.

This area is dry and generally flat. Shea trees appear to grow at random in the wild but are actually managed on parklands.

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Nollywood: Censored at Home, Available on the Internet

April 22, 2013, 3:24 pm



Nigeria’s movie industry — often dubbed Nollywood — has been a source of pride and escape for years for many of Nigeria’s 160 million residents.
But the recent banning of a Nigerian documentary on corruption and the country’s oil wealth, “Fuelling Poverty,” has left many crying foul.

“Fuelling Poverty,” a 30-minute film depicting the massive street protests in 2012 over the removal of billions of dollars in oil subsidies had been online for months before the director, Ishaya Bako, was told he could not screen it at home.

The film, which features Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka and civil rights activists, explores the siphoning of billions of dollars from government coffers to private companies.

It can be seen in its entirety here but is “prohibited from exhibition in Nigeria” according to officials from the National Film and Video Censors Board.

The film has been viewed more than 50,000 times on YouTube as of Tuesday.

The director told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that the board’s decision means no Nigerian cinemas or television stations can show the film. “I am so disappointed because all the information in the film is actually available on the Internet.”

CPJ officials urged a reversal. “Instead of banning the documentary “Fuelling Poverty,” authorities should look into the important questions it raises about corruption and impunity in the country’s oil sector and at the highest levels of government,” said Mohamed Keita of CPJ in a statement. “We urge Nigeria’s National Film and Video Censors Board to overturn this censorship order.”

Instead the board warned Mr. Bako that national security agents were on alert and a government spokesman told the Associated Press that this was done for “security reasons.”

“What is national security for Nigeria is different from that of the U.S.A.,” Tanko Abdullahi said. “We made that determination because of the content of the film. That’s why you have regulators.”

“Fuelling Poverty” was screened at the 20th New York African Film Festival this month and won the Best Documentary at the 2013 African Movie Academy Awards on April 20.

All the censor board’s members are appointed by the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan. Mr. Jonathan has grown increasingly unpopular with many who voted for him believing he’d usher in an era of change.

“We don’t have government. It’s a whole big banana republic,” Emmanuel Tom Ekin, a barber, says in the film. “They’ve been coming telling us story all the time, deceiving us. And right now, in our faces, they are still deceiving us.”

Last week many Nigerians who normally might be appalled shrugged off the comparison of Goodluck Jonathan’s name to a children’s book character on the American TV show, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire.

All this comes on the heels of journalists critical of the government being jailed on forgery charges. The Associated Press also points out that reporters who wrote about abuses by the military have been harassed by security agencies.

In spite of this, Nigeria’s film industry could get a boost next month if the film “Half of A Yellow Sun” is screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

The $8-million production featuring Hollywood stars Thandie Newton and Chiwetel Ejiofor marks the first true collaboration between Hollywood and Nigeria.

You can see a first look here.

The film, and book, examine a time in Nigeria’s history where more than 1 million people died during the Biafran war.

The conflict and the blockade of aid led to the formation of Médecins sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders.  To see more or leave a comment click here

Nigeria Abuzz Over Who Paid for Beyoncé Concert


Feb. 24 2013


Did the Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, divert $1 million from an anti-poverty program to finance a trip to Lagos by American pop stars Beyoncé Knowles and her husband Jay-Z?

A document recently released by SaharaReporters, a group of well-regarded and some famous Nigerian journalists, some of them dissidents forced to flee the country, seems to indicate that he did.

And the report has sparked an angry debate among Nigerians.

The charge is that in 2006 as governor of the oil-producing Bayelsa state, Mr. Jonathan robbed the very poor in his state to help pay the very rich Americans, to burnish Nigeria’s image abroad.

There is no indication that Beyoncé and Jay Z, who thrilled crowds in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, knew that their visit could have been paid for, in part, by funds designated to ending abject poverty.

But when she performed this rendition of Nigeria’s national anthem, photos of Bayelsa state appeared on the screens behind her. You can see her thrill the audience above and here, singing live as it were.

This charge comes on the heels of reality star Kim Kardashian flying into Lagos for a Valentine’s Day event she “co-hosted” for a reported $500,000.

Her entire contribution was a brief appearance and a two-word greeting to the well-heeled crowd: “Hey Naija,” slang for “Hey, Nigeria. She took off immediately after. Folks are wondering where the money to fund her appearance came from.

While many Nigerians are outraged, Mr. Jonathan’s administration has remained mum on the issue. But Nigerian press accounts revealed this month that in recent years, the administration paid up to $60,000 to contract a American public relations and lobbying powerhouse.

As president, Mr. Jonathan has worked hard to try to burnish Nigeria’s image abroad, even as millions of Nigerians remain mired in poverty in his home state and the country at large.

Sahara Reporters points out that “according to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, 47 percent of Bayelsans live in poverty. The World Bank says that per capita gross domestic product in the Niger Delta is significantly below the country’s average. According to the state’s own 2005 development strategy, 80 percent of rural communities have no access to safe drinking water.”

Mr. Jonathan’s efforts — even his successful ones — are not always impressive. The January interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour from Davos, below and here, was not widely seen as one of his finer moments.

The Beyoncé concert was organized by Ndukka Obaigbena, a publisher whose efforts to wrangle money from government entities for his jamborees, as well as his high-profile media portrayals abroad have been called into question.

More importantly, the image of Nigeria as a haven for poverty and corruption on the continent — and terrorists — doesn’t appear to be on the verge of changing soon, as Britain sends bombers to Nigeria and the Obama administration sends drones next door.

But maybe through film, and soft power Nigeria can be rebranded. On Friday, on the eve of the Academy Awards, for the first time a Nigerian film from the country’s Nollywood industry was released in U.S. movie theaters.   To see more and comment click here.

Dead, Again, in Ghana


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All summer, Ghana’s capital, Accra, swirled with rumors of John Atta Mills’s ill health and death. The Ghanian president was rarely seen in public, except when a Nigerian cargo plane crash-landed in early June at the airport in Accra, killing 10 people.

After Mr. Mills toured the site, he retreated from public view, leaving his vice president, John Dramani Mahama, to attend public functions.

In barbershops and at roadside chop bars, and even on Facebook, speculation that he was near death was rife, much to the chagrin of his media team who quickly called local journalists to the airport to see him off on a previously unscheduled trip to New York. The photo-op, in which Mr. Mills declared he was not dead, only fueled the fire.

Still, Ghana’s minister for information, Fritz Baffour, told Rendezvous late last month that Mr. Mill’s health was fine except for the normal aches and pains of an aging former athlete.

“He has all the problems of old jocks,” the aide said. “He’s going into a very torturous circuit of campaigning. There’s no cause for alarm.” He attributed the rumors to political opponents. At the end of June, after a 10-trip consulting with doctors in New York, Mr. Mills jogged off a Delta Airlines flight into throngs of supporters, the picture of health. Then, on Tuesday came the news that he had lost a battle with throat cancer.

His untimely death isn’t likely to throw the country into a crisis, but in the months ahead its democratic institutions will be tested.

The fear in Ghana is that chaos could reign in a way that was averted four years ago, when Mr. Mills — who was known for his peaceful stabilizing influence — won the presidency by a razor-thin margin after a hard-fought campaign.One of his nicknames was “King of Peace,” and he wasn’t an aggressive, in-your-face- politician. That played a role in the effort to keep the country from falling into the kind of post-election clashes that have occurred in other countries in the region.

Mr. Mills, 68, was to have run for re-election this December against the same person he narrowly beat in 2008, Nana Akufo-Addo. He had secured the nomination of his party, the National Democratic Congress, to run for a second term, after beating back a primary challenge by a popular former first lady, Nana Konadu Agyemang-Rawlings. Ms. Agyemang-Rawlings and her husband, Jerry, were once staunch Mills supporters. Mr. Mills once served as a vice president to Mr. Rawlings. But recently, the Rawlings turned against him, accusing his team of mismanagement.

While Mr. Mills handily defeated the former first lady in the primaries, analysts have told reporters that they expect her to claim an automatic nomination now that he has died. But not everyone is keen on another Rawlings leading Ghana.

Alban Bagbin, Ghana’s health minister and a member of the NDC legal team, told Reuters the party will hold an extraordinary meeting to select a new candidate, including other high-profile leaders who may not have wanted to challenge Mr. Mills.

Mr. Mills oversaw the transformation of Ghana into an oil exporting country. He worked out a controversial $3-billion loan from China to speed up infrastructure development and secured a $600-million three-year loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2009. During his tenure, the Ghanaian currency, the cedi, lost value.

Mr. Mills was also somewhat of a darling to the United States. President Barack Obama visited Ghana in 2009 to show support for Mr. Mills and invited him to the White House, Camp David and the G20 summit in Chicago this year. He hailed him as a “strong advocate for human rights and for the fair treatment of all Ghanians.”

Mr. Akufo-Addo, who was already campaigning against Mr. Mills, and is also quite popular, has a significant head start on whoever his eventual opponent will be in December. Part of his summer was spent traveling and meeting world leaders.Other candidates could be John Dramani Mahama, 53, Mr. Mills’s vice president, who was sworn in as president hours after Mr. Mills’s death.

If Mr. Mahama is a candidate, he won’t have the luxury of time to show how he differs from Mr. Mills as some other vice presidents who succeeded their fallen principals have.  Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as president in 2010 after Umaru Yar’Adua died. And Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika and Guinea’s Malam Bacai Sanha died in office this year after proclaiming their health was fine.

Ghana, with its population or 24 million, remains one of the more stable countries in West Africa. A major cocoa producer, it has had a good record of power changing hands peacefully. Many will look to see if that tradition continues this year.

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Africa’s Second Female President Delivers


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JUNE 11 2012


ACCRA, Ghana — Well, that didn’t take too long.

Just weeks after Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, began her charm offensive to the West, the International Monetary Fund is about to hand her a $157 million check.

This loan comes hard on the heels of a $51 million cash infusion pumped into Malawi’s coffers by the British government. Since taking office in April, Mrs. Banda, 62, has devalued the currency by a third, a move her predecessor had resisted. She also vowed to decriminalize homosexuality. All this was done in a bid to entice donors back to Malawi.

Those donors and international partners who had deserted Malawi in recent times were pleased when she announced her decision to sell off the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 Mercedes Benz limousines.

Just a few months ago, the mother of two was the vice-president to Bingu wa Mutharika. It was he who bought the plane and declared it a necessity for the presidency back in 2009. “The jet that I purchased is not mine. It belongs to the nation,” he said then. “It will be used by 10, 11 other people coming after me. So that’s an asset.”

But that was not to be. He died of a heart attack in April and Mrs. Banda became Africa’s second female head of state.  She was quoted as saying she was happy to jettison the official jet with its nearly $341,657 annual maintenance costs and fly — gasp! — commercial.

“I can well use private airlines. I am already used to hitchhiking. ”While the I.M.F. loan is still subject to approval by its executive board, it looks likely to sail through.  Christine Lagarde, the head of the fund, recently indicated that she had Africa on her mind even when dealing with thorny issues like Europe’s fiscal crisis. In the controversial and attention-grabbing interview she said:

“No, I think more of the little kids from a school in a little village in Niger who get teaching two hours a day, sharing one chair for three of them, and who are very keen to get an education. I have them in my mind all the time. Because I think they need even more help than the people in Athens.”

Malawi is a poor country and desperately needs the cash to tackle fuel shortages and to run government programs. A $208 million cash injection could go a long way toward alleviating the poverty of 60 percent of the 15.4 million Malawians.  Mrs. Banda now has the credit line she longed for. Now all eyes will be on her to deliver in ways many men haven’t been able to there.

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African Style Goes Global, Despite Little Tangible Support From African Leaders

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ACCRA, Ghana — Every day on the downtown streets of Accra, debonair men and fashionable women can be seen proudly attired in Western-style skirts, shirts and slacks, all made from African prints by local tailors.

In recent years, local designers created ready-to-wear outfits with these prints. But today the quintessential British fashion emporium, Burberry, has taken similar patterns and built a collection in stores that takes “Accra style” global.

The prints and fabrics ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa have long inspired European and American high fashion, but Burberry’s Prorsum collection is the most prominent.

Ironically, this African design moment comes at a time when Ghana has gone from having 44 textile manufacturers to just four, employing a scant 2,500 people down from about 30,000.

In an interview with Italian Vogue, Ghana’s president, John Atta Mills, said, “I really believe in the textile industry and I’m firmly convinced it can revitalize the country. Ghana is totally open to fashion, which is part of our history, and I think there’s a lot of untapped talent in this country. We need to return to the golden years.”

The golden years have been eroded by prints now made in China with Ghanaian patterns.

“We have very strict laws that impede the Chinese from bringing cotton fabrics into our country with Ghanaian patterns printed in China. If we find them, they are burned at the border,” Mr. Mills said before having his photo taken for Vogue.

The current May-June edition of L’Uomo Vogue is entirely dedicated to African fashion and also includes an interview and photo spread with Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan.

Mr. Jonathan understands the power of images and was happy to tout his efforts at re-branding Nigeria to the magazine: “You know our designers. They’re talented and very creative.”

Indeed, Nigeria’s commercial hub, Lagos, hosts an exciting fashion week, even though it lacks substantial government support and is bedeviled by power failures and other infrastructure challenges.

Last March, Lagos Fashion Week provided an international platform for local talent and lured the Ghanaian designer Ozwald Boateng to Africa from his Saville Row outpost in London.

As the IHT’s Suzy Menkes noted recently, designers around the continent are leaping into fashion’s mainstream with quality and creativity. If harnessed properly, they have the potential to spark huge economic growth in these countries.

For continental designers to go global, they have to toot their own horns loudly and hope someone hears. This is exactly what has been going on for the past three days in Soweto, South Africa’s famous township outside Johannesburg.

The organizer of Soweto Fashion Week, Stephen Manzini, 23, raised about $7,500 for a bare-bones operation showcasing 16 designers, some inspired by Nelson Mandela’s pre-inaugaration wardrobe.

“We refused to be stopped because we don’t have funding,” Mr. Manzini told The Associated Press.

It was local fashion showcases like these that caught the eye of Theo Omambala, a former model whose Ubuntu International project showcased smaller Ugandan, South African and Nigerian designers during the 2011 and 2012 London Fashion Weeks.

Organizers say a new initiative, dubbed Theo’s Vision: La Haute Culture (TVLHC), aims to repeat that, but this time in New York, expanded to designers from various countries.

Last year larger designers and jewelers from Nigeria got exposure to buyers and retailers worldwide when they were spotlighted at the Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week in a “Made in Africa” segment sponsored by Arise magazine.

Yet, despite appearances by West African leaders in Vogue, and the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, appealing for support of African designers, there seems little chance of an effort from Ghana and Nigeria to push local talent onto the world stage — or even to commit to creating an international shopping hub in Abuja, Lagos or Accra.

Something akin to Los Angeles’s Rodeo Drive, or Paris’s Avenue Montaigne. A destination where boutiques can feature high-end local and foreign designers, the ones fashionable wealthy Nigerians wear.

Neither West African president made any tangible promises to Africa’s designers before smiling for the cameras. To see more and leave a comment click here.

A Female President Demands Equal Rights for Africa’s Gays

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MAY 20 1012

ACCRA, Ghana — The endorsement of marriage rights for same-sex couples by Barack Obama, the African-descended president of the United States, has struck some observers as a political calculation, others as courageous and some here in Africa as outrageous.

But might Mr. Obama’s words have also inspired an African head of state to change her country’s course?


Just nine days after Mr. Obama’s announcement that he supports same-sex marriage rights, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, denounced the continued persecution of gays and lesbians in her country. “Indecency and unnatural acts laws shall be repealed,” Mrs. Banda said in her first state-of-the-nation speech on Friday, according to The Associated Press.

There are certainly other motivations pushing Mrs. Banda to support gay equality. In her address, for instance, she noted that her government seeks to normalize relations with “our traditional development partners who were uncomfortable with our bad laws.”

Malawi is a small country, with up to 60 percent of its 15.4 million people living below the poverty line. So when Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain recently threatened to cut off aid to countries that violate the civil rights of gays and lesbians, it likely resonated with Mrs. Banda. One of her very first acts was to devalue the currency by a third to appease the International Monetary Fund and restore funding.

Standing up for sexual minorities and publicly attempting to decriminalize homosexuality hasn’t been a priority of the current crop of elected African leaders. Last summer, after increased visibility and vilification of Ghana’s gays and lesbians, President John Atta Mills proudly rejected Mr. Cameron’s call for decriminalization, to the cheers of many here.

Mr. Mills said, “I, as president, will never initiate or support any attempt to legalize homosexuality in Ghana.” And even in South Africa, a beacon of gay rights internationally, activists are fighting a proposal from the House of Traditional Leaders to remove the term “sexual orientation” from section 9(3) of the South African Constitution, which prohibits discrimination against myriad categories of citizens.

So Mrs. Banda, 62, a mother of two, is bucking a trend. And the reaction to her proposals will be interesting. African culture generally demands respect for elders and mothers, so rebukes may not be easily forthcoming.

Still, it will take an act of Parliament to change those “bad laws,” and whether she can convince lawmakers to do so is an open question.  Two years ago, Malawi made international headlines when two men were sentenced to 14 years in prison for celebrating their union. That ruling was widely condemned by Western nations and international organizations — including donors. Mrs. Banda’s predecessor ultimately pardoned the couple

Then-President Bingu wa Mutharika, nonetheless, declared they had “committed a crime against our culture, against our religion, and against our laws.”  Mrs. Banda’s is not an isolated voice, however. Last year, Botswana’s former president Festus Mogae, who championed providing H.I.V. medication to all who needed it, joined an African elder statesman, Kenneth Kaunda, a former Zambian president, to urge decriminalization of homosexuality.

They went to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, in June 2011 as part of their campaign to reduce H.I.V. transmission. “We can preach about behavioral change, but as long as we confine gays and lesbians into dark corners because of our inflexibility to accommodate them, the battle on H.I.V. and AIDS can never be won,” Mr. Mogae said. He admitted to the BBC that he hadn’t risked losing an election by trumpeting gay rights during his years in office, from 1998 to 2008, but he said he had never sought to arrest gays either.

Mr. Kaunda, who was in office from 1964 to 1991, said, “We are not only condemning African leaders who are criminalizing same-sex marriage, but we are urging them to start recognizing these people, for the sake of H.I.V. and AIDS.”

Mrs. Banda is the first African leader to respond with action. She was Mr. Mutharika’s vice president when he died in office in April. She stepped in to serve out his term, which ends in 2014.

In Ghana, Mr. Obama’s words were soothing to the small but vocal community of gay rights activists. And around the continent, and in the West, gay and lesbian Africans are increasingly tossing off the veil to proclaim their right to exist.

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‘Comfort Women’ Controversy Comes to New York


NEW YORK — Every Wednesday since January 1992, protestors have held a demonstration outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul demanding an official apology and compensation from the Japanese government for women held in soldier brothels during World War II.

Now, a New York lawmaker’s proposal to memorialize the plight of the women, often called sex slaves, through a monument and a street in a largely Asian neighborhood of New York City, has brought the passions here.

The legislator, Peter A. Koo, a Hong Kong immigrant, and 50 other lawmakers on the New York City Council have been flooded with letters from angry Japanese from around the world.

Renaming a street is one of the ultimate municipal honors in New York and while largely a symbolic gesture, it has been known to cause tumult, anger and anguish from time to time.

Historians have said the “comfort women” were largely Korean and Chinese women and while Japan has apologized for any mistreatment the women suffered, it has denied that women were forced to act as prostitutes or sex slaves.

One Japanese opponent of the proposed New York monument wrote in a letter dated April 29, 2012, “the term ‘comfort women’ refers simply to prostitutes in wartime. But Koreans have been promoting a false version of history that Japan abducted hundreds of thousands of Korean women ….This is for practical and logical reasons, a fictitious version of history.”

The letter writers contend that Mr. Koo is smearing the Japanese in order to appeal to Korean New Yorkers, whose votes he needs to return him to another term in City Hall.

Mr. Koo, a wealthy businessman who owns several pharmacies, remains undeterred. He is asking constituents to present him with options for which street in Flushing to rename and where exactly the monument should be placed.

He told Rendezvous through his chief of staff, James McClelland, that he will “continue to meet with community leaders and discuss this issue further. Together we are committed to finding a fitting and respectful way to remember these women.”

New York City would not be the only place in the United States to install a monument honoring the women. The first city to do so was a small New Jersey town with a majority-Korean population. That monument was erected in Palisades Park, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, in 2010.

In December, two Korean women who said they were forced into prostitution by Japan visited the monument. The Record, a local newspaper, quoted Yongsoo Lee, then-83, as saying, “The Japanese government is waiting for us to die, one by one, because all the victims are so old and there aren’t many victims in Korea.”

“They call us ‘comfort women,’ but the term ‘comfort women’ is such a bad word. I’m not a ‘comfort woman.’ I am Yongsoo Lee. ‘Comfort women’ is a term that the Japanese government gave us, and they say that we voluntarily became comfort women to make money … and that’s not true.”

This week, The Record reported, “four officials from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Par­ty claimed that there is no proof sex slaves existed and asked for the mon­ument’s removal, saying it portrayed historical inaccuracies, Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo said.”

Japanese officials offered to fund youth programs, donate books on Japanese culture to the Palisades Park library, and plant cherry trees in the town, if the monument were removed, the paper reported. It also reported that Japanese officials denied making any such offer — a denial that Fumio Iwai, the Japanese deputy consul general in New York, repeated in a letter to the International Herald Tribune dated June 29, 2012.

According to The Record’s story, the Korean women’s trip last year to Palisades Park was sponsored by the Korean American Voters’ Council, “a non-profit with offices in Hackensack and Flushing, N.Y.”

The Flushing neighborhood where the latest monument is proposed has been welcoming the world to New York since the World Fair was held there in 1965. The America grand slam tennis event, the U.S. Open is also held in Flushing Meadow.

A letter sent to New York City Councilman Vincent Ignizio.

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Occupy Wall Street Brings May Day to America


NEW YORK — For decades, workers in Europe, South America and China have been celebrated with an official holiday on May Day.

The United States, however, has not followed suit. (And Britain and Canada have tried to wash out the holiday’s leftist hues.) Even though the day’s origins date to a riot in Chicago in 1886 known as the Haymarket massacre, labor is celebrated Stateside in early September.

Socialists and trade union movements have long used May Day as a protest day. And on Tuesday, May 1, the Occupy movement will attempt to bring 125 U.S. cities to a standstill in commemoration of International Workers Day.

The Occupy Wall Street movement is orchestrating what its supporters hope will be a nationwide general strike with students, workers and everyone who is an employee skipping work.

Their lofty goals also include urging people not to buy anything that day. It has been billed as “A Day Without the 99 Percent.”

The protesters are pressing for economic justice while railing against large corporations that are perceived as not paying their fair share of taxes, an example which of Charles Duhigg and David Kocieniewski detailed in The Times on Sunday.

The Occupy movement, which began late last summer, remained boisterous through the fall until many occupiers were ejected from parks around the country and it became too cold to continue to camp outside. Now, rising temperatures are drawing more and more of the disgruntled out of hibernation.

For the Big Apple, numerous protests and marches are planned to disrupt business as usual on Wall Street. New York’s billionaire mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, said Sunday that the city’s police force is ready and city officials are prepared to protect the rights of demonstrators.

But he warned: “They don’t have a right to disrupt other people and keep other people from protesting or just going about their business, and we will do as we normally do — find the right balance.”

The mayor, who made his fortune on Wall Street before founding Bloomberg L.P., advised demonstrators to try being entrepreneurial. “Go out and try to do something and make it better. Help kids get a better education, start a business. There’s a lot of things — lot of ways you can volunteer and help make this city better and this country better.”

Protest organizers, who say they are leaderless, didn’t immediately respond to Rendezvous’ request for comment, but they are putting together a slew of educational workshops Tuesday billed as the “Free University.”

University lecturers are being asked to move their classes to a Manhattan park as part of the skills-building process.

The May Day actions will kick off other demonstrations, most notably around the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit meeting in Chicago. Some 28 world leaders are expected at the NATO gathering a> on May 20.

When it was first announced that a Group of 8 meeting would precede the NATO conference, antiwar groups and other protesters had hoped for a chance to have multiple protests while the world’s eyes are on Chicago.

But President Barack Obama has moved the G-8 summit meeting to Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. Occupy supporters will also head there.

Whether the plan succeeds or flops, it remains unclear if it will spark any change. To see more click here