Dead, Again, in Ghana

obamamills

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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN  JULY 25 2012

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

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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

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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By FRANKIE EDOZIEN

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?

Maybe.

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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