Tag Archives: democracy

A look inside Radio Democracy

For much of the past month I have been working with journalists at The Society for Radio Democracy 98.1fm in Freetown. Most people here refer to the station as 98.1, but its name is a nod to its origin. The station was set up 16 years ago, in the middle of the civil war. It first broadcast in secret, from a location near the airport. The aim was to promote democratic values and human rights. A mission that remains important today.

Arnold Elba hosts music request shows, including "TGIF" on Friday. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Arnold Elba hosts “TGIF” on Fridays. He gave me a shout-out on air last week.

Many of the employees are so young they can’t remember much of the war that ended in 2002. Some are paid $50 to $100 a month. Others are volunteers.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Keziah Gbondo, Arnold Elba and Mabel Kabba share a laugh on a conference call.

Stories are focused on human rights issues. Most programming is in the country’s de facto national language of Krio (Sierra Leonean Creole), with the aim of reaching as many people as possible.

News scripts are written in Krio. A language I am learning, slowly.

News scripts are written in Krio; a language I am learning, slowly.

The main local news content is aired at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.. Bulletins contain three or four stories, gathered by the station’s team of a dozen-or-so reporters and producers.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

The Society for Radio Democracy began broadcasting in response to a coup during the civil war.

Radio Democracy takes BBC World Service news bulletins at the top of most hours, and airs the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme at 1700 GMT. Freetown is on GMT all year ’round, because Daylight Saving is not observed in Sierra Leone.

Reverend Matthew Quattay is the court reporter and a Methodist Minister. He is a mentor for many of the younger staff members. Some of the women call him their “boyfriend.” He prefers the term “father.” One day he told me about a court case involving a man who allegedly tried to cut off the testicles of another man. The case had to be adjourned because the victim was in court and was in too much pain. After work that evening, Reverend Quattay went to deliver a sermon at his church.

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

Reverend Matthew Quattay and Keziah Gbondo

The headquarters are on Upper Waterloo Street in Freetown’s chaotic city centre, but all the action happens up the hill at the studios in New England Ville. The equipment is basic, when compared to a station in a developed country. USB keys replace the Internet and network drives. Employees often have to improvise to get a story/programme to air.

Equipment is old, and employees often have to improvise to get a programme/story to air.

The hot seat at Radio Democracy.

There is a real team spirit at the station. When Keziah Gbondo couldn’t go on a JHR reporting trip to Bombali District she gave her story to Mabel Kabba. The following week, Mabel gave one of her story ideas to Keziah.

The station's studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

The station’s studios are located above the city centre in the New England Ville complex.

To listen to podcasts and to read about what was on this morning’s episode of Good Morning Salone, click here.

Political Experts Debate Need for “African Spring”

A panel of experts on African politics squared off with students, teachers, civil servants, activists and politicians in a debate hosted by the BBC in Accra on Friday. The panel consisted of Ghanaian economist and author Dr. George Ayittey, Ugandan activist Anne Mugashi, South African political activist Kuseni Dlamini, and fellow Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the University of Ghana. A year following the beginning of North Africa’s “Arab Spring” revolutions, the debate focused on the possibility of similar uprisings in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ghana is one of only six sub-Saharan African countries where elections are considered to be free and fair. However, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East are the only regions in the world where democracy improved in 2011.

Dr. George Ayittey argued that Sub-Saharan Africa has already had its version of an Arab Spring in the 1990s. “If anything it is the Arab Spring that has to learn something from [Sub-Saharan] Africa,” he said.

Anne Mugashi, who coordinated Uganda’s “walk to work” protests, pointed out that a key difference between the Arab Spring and Sub-Saharan Africa’s revolutions of the 1990s is that the latter were led by a small group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries. “My understanding of the Arab Spring over a Spring for Africa is [that] the people themselves are responsible for the change rather than a set of people calling themselves revolutionaries,” she said.

Audience polls at both the beginning and end of the debate showed a majority believed an African Spring is unnecessary, a view that remained unchanged throughout the debate.  This sentiment was echoed by the comments of lawyer and lecturer from the African University College of Communications Mr. Ogochukwu C. Nweke, who questioned if the goal of higher levels of democracy sought by such revolutions is even right for sub-Saharan Africa.

“At what point are we going to discuss if democracy is the way for us to go? We need to figure out what works for us,” Nweke said. “What is the problem with people leading for 30 years or 40 years?”

Ayittey argued that the traditional monarchy system of tribal chiefs is a form of democracy itself. “We have our own type of participatory democracy based on consensus in traditional Africa. You don’t have to vote to have a system of democracy,” he said.

However, Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government, and that this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

The number of elections in Sub-Saharan Africa has been on the rise since the 1990’s, but many of them are rigged and defeated incumbents often refuse to accept defeat. Dr. Michael Whyte Kpessa from the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana cautioned that democracy and nation building are not an event but a process. “You cannot begin and end these processes in a matter of two or three decades,” he said.

BBC host Alex Jakarta called Ghana “a country hailed as a model of democracy in Africa, a democracy that demonstrators across North Africa saw are sorely lacking in their own countries.” While Ghana’s elections may be considered free and fair, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of their democracy, such as accountable governance and low levels of political participation. Because of these shortcomings Ghana is categorized as a “Flawed Democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and ranked 78th by their 2011 Democracy Index.

Earlier in the week, political demonstrations held by the Alliance for Accountable Government in Accra called for the resignation of President John Atta Mills. The current administration has been criticized for the recent increases in fuel prices, the falling value of the cedi, and the ongoing Woyome contract scandal.

Malawi’s Vice President speaks out about protests

Vice President, Joyce Banda. Photo by Katie Lin.

Seated on the porch of her state residence in Blantyre, Malawi’s first female Vice President, Joyce  Banda, wraps a thick, white shawl around her shoulders and clasps her hands together, indicating that she’s ready to be interviewed.

There is a calmness about Mudi State Residence, with its towering trees and extensive gardens. In such a setting, it is difficult to imagine the starkly different atmosphere that engulfed Malawi’s commercial capital just one month ago.

On July 20, nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations against economic and administrative mismanagement took place, but it wasn’t long before these organized marches disintegrated into chaos and the country erupted into two days of rioting, widespread looting, and violent clashes between police and civilians.

The use of lethal force by police resulted in 19 deaths, dozens of injuries, and more than 500 arrests.

“Where Malawi is at [right now] is as a result of two or three years of frustration and pain and trying to reason with government – and government refusing to listen” Banda says.

Long plagued by fuel, electricity, water, and foreign-exchange shortages, Malawians presented President Bingu wa Mutharika and his administration with a 20-point petition on the day of the demonstrations. A dialogue between civil society organizers and the government to discuss the petition is scheduled for Sept. 17.

While Banda hopes this dialogue will yield viable solutions, she explains that the root of these problems lies within the political agenda of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP).

“The President wants his brother to take over from him,” Banda explains of the cause for tensions within the DPP.  “And that’s where [the problems] start from.”

In December 2010, the Vice President was expelled from the DPP for her stance against this unconstitutional succession process – and her strained relationship with Mutharika, her honourary “father” and mentor, only appears to be worsening.

Just two days after the protests, Mutharika threatened to arrest numerous political and civil society leaders – including Banda and leader of the opposition, John Tembo – accusing them of organizing the July 20 demonstrations to topple his administration.

Despite having been openly critical of the President’s constitutional breaches, Banda insists she did not organize or participate in the demonstrations.

“I called upon those that were going to exercise that right to march to march peacefully and not to destroy property. I asked the police to protect lives on the road. I also asked the leadership of this country to discuss matters that affect Malawians and resolve any problems peacefully.”

For Banda, Mutharika’s accusations are unwarranted.

“When I hear my name, top on the list of those who are wanted, to be persecuted or to be killed or to be smoked out … I’m surprised,” she explains, “because I don’t know what crime I have committed.”

“But if the crime is that I stood by Malawians when they suffered, when they protested, when they were not happy, then I am ready to be persecuted.”

Most recently, the People’s Party (PP), a political party formed by Banda and her supporters, officially registered and claims to have already gathered more than 1 million members, further strengthening speculation she is a strong presidential candidate for the 2014 national elections.

“Joyce Banda is a shrewd politician, both in terms of organizing and in terms of making an appeal when she speaks,” says political analyst Blessings Chisinga. “So when you look at the potential contenders for the 2014 elections, she is clearly a frontrunner.”

He explains that the emerging PP may offer a fresh and credible alternative for Malawians in the 2014 elections, as disillusionment towards the DPP grows and opposition parties enter a state of flux.

“Malawians are fed up and are very keen to welcome a new brand of politics.”

Malawi: reverting back to dictatorial roots?

Protesters hold a sign that reads, “Bingu is shit” Photo by Elena Sosa Lerín

I arrived in Malawi three weeks ago – just in time to see ‘the warm heart of Africa’ break into chaos.

Violent protests swept across the small southeastern African nation last week, leaving 19 people dead and at least 98 injured after the police and army dispersed protesters by firing live bullets and teargas. Over 250 people were arrested, including three journalists.  The protesters dressed in red demanded the registration of President Bingu wa Mutharika, due to the high cost of living and fuel and forex shortages.

Despite the government issuing a ban on the protests, demonstrations began peacefully in the morning of July 20th ,  the same day as the President’s national lecture.  However, tensions grew after the President failed to address the protesters’ grievances.  By the afternoon, looters were targeting the businesses and properties of political allies of the President. Demonstrations were only planned for July 20th but protests and violence carried over to the next day.

Yet, while Malawians reach their breaking point, it seems that the country is, in fact, reverting back to its dictatorial roots. As Malawi faces a growing list of problems, it appears that the President – a once praised economist and leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) – has become a power-hungry autocrat.

This was evident in his government’s violent response to the nationwide protests.  On the eve of the demonstration, machete-wielding pro-DPP supporters drove around Blantyre in the ruling party’s trucks trying to intimidate those who planned to protest.  Groups of men scraped their knives against the pavement sending a menacing message to onlookers.

Nevertheless, thousands of Malawians took to the streets in most major urban centres across the country.  Mutharika responded by calling protesters, “Thugs and sons of Satan.” He warned protesters that if they went out into the streets again that, “This time I’ll go after you […] I’ll smoke you out.”

Despite these warnings, another anti-government protest is planned for August 17. Even before July 20th protests, freedom of speech and of the press seemed to be the first under Mutharika’s attack.

Chancellor College in Zomba was closed after lecturer Blessings Chinsinga, told students that Malawi’s government could encounter similar uprisings to the ones in Egypt and Tunisia due to fuel shortages in the country. Chinsinga was interrogated by police and later fired. The college remained closed for several months and was only partially reopened to teachers who wanted to return in July, but most classes remain cancelled.

The press also has to deal with growing restrictions, including a law that allowed the Minister of Information to shut down newspapers.

According to Amnesty International, eight journalists were beaten by the police during the protests. The same day, private radio stations suspiciously went off-air and various online publication offline.  However, government-run stations remained on-air.

Sharp criticism of the President and the DDP isn’t rare, but has often been met with a strong fist.

The British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, said he was promptly asked to leave after calling Mutharika “autocratic and intolerant of criticism” in a leaked cable – a costly dismissal for Malawi, as Britain recently canceled almost $40 million in aid to the country.

The United States also suspended a $350 million grant for Malawi’s energy sector after the government’s violent crackdown on protesters.

Malawi’s budget relies heavily on foreign donors.  The landlocked country gets 40% of its annual national budget from donor countries. To make up the difference the DPP raised taxes, which was a huge hit to the nation’s population as 75% of Malawians live on less than $2 a day.

To make matters worse, the cost of living in Malawi has been rising steadily due to fuel and foreign exchange shortages.

Malawians have plenty of reasons to fight: censorship of academics and the press, poor international relations and the high cost of living are just a few.

But most importantly they are fighting to defend the hard-fought democratic gains made since the country’s first democratic election in 1994, which removed dictator Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda from power.  Now, it seems, another egocentric and intolerant leader is stomping on those gains.

Gadhafi fever hits northern Ghana

Anti-western anger over NATO strikes in Libya has crossed the Sahara and sparked protests in northern Ghana.

Hundreds of people marched in Tamale on last month with placards that read: “We support (Moammar) Gadhafi” and “Stop the War on Islam.”

In the past several months, as rebels groups first protested and then fought Gadhafi’s forces, people in Tamale seemed supportive of the uprising.

In most conversations, Ghanaians had disdain for a man who has ruled Libya for four decades.

But last week’s fervour shows that regional and religious solidarity holds sway in many circles here too.

“The main point is that America, the UK and France, they should not be there,” said Mohammed Omar Sharif, a protest organizer in Tamale.

“They should leave Africa to Africans.”

Muslims are the majority in this region of Ghana. The call to prayer echoes across the city throughout the day and people pray on mats outside their shops in rows.

But the attitude towards non-Muslims is peaceful. Marrying Christians is permitted in some cases and the city’s mosques welcome non-Muslims interested in learning Islamic prayer.

That’s what made last month’s protests so out of the ordinary.They were an uncharacteristic display of suspicion towards the West.

“[The Libyan war] is an attack on Islam,” said Sharif.

The fact that the rebels fighting Gadhafi are Muslims too and that they requested help from the West didn’t faze Sharif; he dismissed them as trouble makers.

“Nobody in the world likes rebels,” he said. “And these are not [the West’s] rebels. So why are they there?”

“They said Gadhafi is killing people. But now that (NATO) is there, they are killing even more people.”

If the Western powers pull out, peace and harmony would surely come, he said.

“Gadhafi’s people, they are more,” he said. “There are more of them. So they should let them be.”

Last month, the New York Times reported that pro-Gadhafi mercenary recruitment groups were popping up in Mali, hoping to go to Libya and join the fight.

But Sharif says he doesn’t know about any Ghanaians crossing the desert to support the dictator.

“I don’t know about that one,” said Sharif. “We are fighting with our prayers to god. As for going over there, we have not sent people there. Not yet.”

Local newspapers report that around 16,000 Ghanaians have returned from Libya since the fighting began.

The repatriated Ghanaians will likely shape opinions here too as they begin telling family and friends about their experiences.

On the same day as the protests, a young man came into the radio station where I’m working, Diamond FM.

He had been working in Libya and just got home, surprising friends who work here.

After a few hugs, the inevitable question came up.

“So are you Benghazi or Gadhafi?” said a co-worker here at Diamond.

“Oh, I’m Gadhafi,” he said.

They share a laugh, which, like the protest itself, shows how healthy Ghana’s democracy is when it comes to political differences.

“Farting law” causing stink, while democratic crisis hits Malawi

Malawi is starting to look more like it did during the days of dictatorship-rule, say human rights activists in the country.

While recent international media interest has been limited to the country’s so called ‘farting law,’ aconfusing law about public flatulence, there is more serious news happening in this small African country.

A decade-long delay of local elections, an expansion of police powers, the government giving itself the power to ban newspapers and the refusal to legalize homosexuality are some of the issues drawing the ire of critics.  Now a fuel shortage is leading human rights activists to say basic needs cannot be met.

A protest was to take place last week against the shortage of petrol in the country, but police temporarily detained organizers and placed heavily armed officers at meeting points.

Human rights activists say the fuel crisis means goods and services cannot move, grounding the economy to a halt and leaving citizens without the ability to support themselves.

“This is the worst crisis in this country,” says Malawi Watch Director Billy Banda. “There are so many Malawians . . . that have died because of this crisis,” explaining that emergency vehicles and medicinal drugs are facing serious challenges in getting around. Officials could not confirm the number of deaths.

Minister of Justice, George Chaponda, says the protesters have to follow the right procedures in order to demonstrate, suggesting the proper channels were not informed.

The suppression of the protest is the latest in the series of moves by government of President Bingu wa Mutharika causing widespread consternation.

“We may be taking Malawi ten, twenty years backwards,” says Mavuto Bamusi, one of the protest organizers who was detained. Bamusi is also executive director of the Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC), an umbrella group of NGOs. “We may be taking our political systems into some sort of political absolutism, or indeed, some form of parliamentary dictatorship.”

These moves have prompted action from donors. The German government has suspended a disbursement of 2.5 million Euro, a 50 per cent cut in funding sighting “concerns over human rights and freedom of the press.” The United States has also announced that about $350 million USD allotted for Malawi will not be released. And the Norweigan government is now revoking a donation, saying funds were not spent on what they were supposed to be.

Representatives of Germany, the US and Norway have been joined by France, Iceland, Ireland, Japan and the UK in issuing a strongly worded joint release stating they are concerned about “good governance and respect for human rights” in the country.

The government is defending itself and standing up to foreign donors, saying Malawi is a sovereign state that will not change its laws under the pressure of foreign governments.

It also says its laws are misunderstood, sighting both the publication law and the law about “fowling the air.”

“Some people want to paint a bad picture of this country,” in order to hinder development, says Chaponda.

Bamusi says the government is making laws “contrary to the spirit of our constitution,” adding that parliament is becoming “a rubber stamp of the executive  (which) is a blow to democracy.”

But Chaponda insists the government’s laws are healthy for the country. “In ten years,” he believes, Malawi will be “out of the poverty trap.”