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Overcoming apathy through participation? – (not) my talk at Personal Democracy Forum

Micah Sifry, one of the founders of the Personal Democracy Forum conference, asked me to focus my speech at his conference on some of the recent writing I’ve been doing on digital activism and theories of change. Given that provocation, I wrote out a talk that would take me roughly an hour to deliver. And given that I’ve got 7-10 minutes on stage on June 3rd at the end of a long and action-packed day, it seemed wise to post the whole talk here for anyone interested after hearing my abbreviated version.

As it turns out, I just talked to Micah, and this isn’t the talk he was hoping I would give. So I’ll come up with something. In the meantime, here’s this.

Normally, my role at conferences about democracy and digital innovation is to share hopeful news and success stories from sub-Saharan Africa. Fortunately, at PdF, we’ve got Ory Okolloh, one of the pioneers of social media for transparency on the continent and around the world, so I can let her give you the good news and I, for a change, can tell a depressing African story.

Equatorial Guinea probably isn’t the most corrupt nation in the world… though it’s in the bottom 10. It doesn’t have the worst human rights record… though the record is atrocious. It’s not the worst place in the world to be born, though it’s in the bottom twenty, and it’s got the remarkable distinction of having worsening infant mortality despite rapidly rising GDP per capita. Right now, the “average” Equatorial Guinean is wealthier than the average Dane, but a Equoguinean child is more likely to die in infancy than a Haitian child.

Where Equatorial Guinea leads the world is in absurdity. The country’s leader, Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo deposed his uncle in 1979 and has been “elected” with 97% and 95% of the vote in the most recent polls… probably because the opposition politicians who aren’t in prison are in exile in Spain. The main threat to Obiang’s rule isn’t being voted out – it’s a coup… and the country fends off a coup every couple of years, including one planned by British and South African mercenaries, using Zimbabwean guns, and funded in part by Margaret Thatcher’s son. And if that sounds like something out of a spy novel, it was – Frederick Forsyth’s “Dogs of War” was written about a coup in Equatorial Guinea and the attempted coups in 1973 and 2004 both closely followed the plans that Forsyth outlined.

The guy who’ll probably end up leading Equatorial Guinea is Obiang’s son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang – aka Teodorín – who works as the country’s agriculture and forestry minister. This post pays $5,000 a month – not a bad salary, but probably not enough to purchase this $35 million estate in Malibu (by some accounts, the most expensive property in that extraordinarily expensive town) or the $30 million Gulfstream jet that ferries him there.

The most absurd thing isn’t the 200 foot yacht that Teodorín is building – complete with on board shark tank – or that his girlfriend, the rapper Eve, broke up with him over rumors that his father is a cannibal… rumors that Teodoro Senior spreads to scare his political rivals. No, the absurd thing is that Equatorial Guinea is a valued ally of the United States.

It wasn’t always this way. In the early 1990s, the Clinton administration began questioning the wisdom of maintaining diplomatic relations with one of the world’s greatest kleptocracies. In 1996, the US closed its embassy. But in the wake of 9/11, it made sense for the US to court one of Africa’s largest oil producers… and in 2006, the US reopened an embassy in Malabo, and Condoleeza Rice declared Obiang “a good friend“.

obiangandobama

And lest you think things are different in the Obama administration, let me point out that the couple posing with the President and First Lady are President and First Lady Obiang.

At this point in the talk, you’re likely having one of two reactions. Either you’re deep into MEGO – My Eyes Glaze Over – territory, and glancing at your Blackberry, or you’re ready to start an “Arrest Teodorín Obiang” Facebook group. And actually, those two reactions are what I want to talk about, not the intricacies of Equoguinean politics… though any of you who know me know that I’ll gladly do that as well.

The only reason I know these sordid details about the Obiang family is that the good folks at Global Witness, an NGO focused on exposing corruption and conflict around natural resources, have been churning out piles of research on Equatorial Guinea as part of a campaign to get the US government to put the Obiangs on the list of corrupt government officials who are prevented from traveling to the US, and to name and shame the banks, lawyers and PR firms that allow Equatorial Guinea’s rulers to move money into the US.

Global Witness’s campaign is a classic, old-fashioned advocacy through information campaign. With the help of journalist Ken Silverstein, they compiled a 32-page report – downloadable from their site as a PDF – using information they found by tracing bank accounts and by mining other US goverment reports, including documents from the Justice Department which speculate that the younger Obiang’s assets have primarily been siphoned off from EG public funds. Silverstein wrote pieces in Harpers, the New York Times wrote an article based on the report, and Senator Carl Levin called hearings on corrupt foreign officials, producing a 330-page bipartisan report.

Perhaps that report will lead towards the State Department revoking Teodorín’s visa and to him selling his mansion to someone less corrupt. And perhaps his need to party somewhere other than the Playboy Mansion will lead, in the long run, to democratic elections in EG. In the meantime, there have been small, but symbolic victories, like persuading UNESCO to end a prize for research in the Life Sciences named for Obiang senior.

I picked Global Witness as an example of a traditional advocacy campaign for a couple of reasons. They’re as good as it gets in the field of research-driven advocacy. They’re focused on good, important problems. And they have a strong theory of change.

“Theory of change” is a term I never heard until I started working for foundations. One of the main problems you face working at a foundation is choosing between rival good ideas. You’ve got a pot of money, and nice, well-meaning people come to you with cool, clever ideas for changing the world. It’s worth unpacking the logic behind any project you would consider funding. What do we want to accomplish, in the long run, and how would this project advance those goals?

Global Witness offers a straightforward theory – change is made by government policymakers, who can influence other governments through trade and immigration policy. You influence the targeted policymakers through high-prestige media, and you gain the interest of those media outlets by offering them novel information.

You may have noticed that there’s not much room for participation in Global Witness’s theory of change. If you read the New York Times story on Teodorín’s Malibu mansion, it’s not especially clear what you, personally, could or should do. Visit their website, and while there’s an opportunity for you to give and support Global Witness’s work, there’s no opportunity to sign a petition, write a letter to your congressman, post a tweet or a Facebook update. This might indicate that Global Witness is somehow “behind the times”, doesn’t “get” the web2.0 revolution. Or it might indicate that they don’t see a great value in organizing a popular online movement around their issues, and believe that change comes from people in power, not from ordinary citizens.

This contrasts pretty sharply with how a lot of people in this room likely think about organizing. We’re intrigued by the idea that our hundreds or thousands of Twitter and Facebook friends could be mobilized and help us accomplish the changes we want to see transpire. We believe there’s power to tools that allow us to share ideas, passions and causes with friends and friends of friends. It’s worth asking whether or not we’re right.

So let’s start with a cautionary tale. When Iranian reformers took to the streets to protest rigged elections last year, many people in America showed solidarity and support online. Over a hundred thousand people became Mir Hossein Moussavi’s friend on Facebook. Tens of thousands of people turned their Twitter icons green. Others modified their Twitter settings to make it appear that they were posting from Tehran, in the hopes of making the task of censorship more difficult. Hundreds of people launched proxy servers, which they promoted online. Thousands of people obsessively retweeted news from Iran to their networks.

The net result? Well, online support likely helped ensure that CNN and other news networks covered the protests for longer than they otherwise might have. But US media attention didn’t keep protesters out of jail or prevent Iran from censoring the internet. There’s a case to be made that the actions taken by US supporters of the Green Movement were counterproductive – they added credence to the regime’s case that US and UK forces were attempting to topple the Iranian government and that the Green Movement was an external, not grassroots, domestic force. There’s also a case to be made that there’s nothing online activists could do in the face of a determined repressive government and that we shouldn’t have expected any change to come from online activism.

My friend and copanelist Evgeny Morozov is fond of the term “slacktivism” – he worries that we’ve made it so easy to be an activist (click here to turn your Twitter icon green!) that activism is often little more than a badge of affiliation. His fear is that if affiliative activism is this easy, we may never move on to more serious forms of engagement. I think there’s some justification behind this fear, but I don’t think that’s what happened in this case – I think people were willing to take action as activists: it’s just that the many of the actions people told them to take were somewhere in the spectrum between harmless and useless.

The smart, well-meaning folks who set up tools to allow people to turn their Twitter icons green might have been more focused on tactics than on theories of change. They saw an opportunity to harness the powerful forces of social networks to show affiliation and support. Or their theory of change was that a broad show of support would have an influence on the Iranian regime. Unfortunately, affiliation and support don’t appear to be forces that are particular influential with the Ahmedinejad government.

Let’s assume for a minute that it’s possible to influence the Iranian government. Maybe strong condemnation of the Iranian election by conservative Islamic leaders around the world would have had an influence. It’s not clear that whatever levers would have been effective in Iran are ones that activists in the US could easily move. Even with a good theory of change for promoting reform in Iran, it’s possible that there’s a disconnect between what it’s easy – or perhaps what it’s possible – to do with networks and social media and what would actually be useful in achieving change on the ground.

I think this disconnect happens fairly often. As Evgeny has pointed out, it’s one thing to line up 1.7m Facebook followers to “Save the Children of Africa“. But those followers have raised less than $12,000… and money is one of the currencies nearly all social change organizations need and know how to use, while the power of over a million affiliated members may not be something they’re able to harness.

Does this disconnect – the idea that what social media can do might not be what activist organizations want or need – mean that Global Witness is right to ignore social media in their campaign to change Equatorial Guinea? I don’t think so. It’s much easier to influence people in positions of power when you’ve got a mass of constituents on your side. As Samantha Powers points out in A Problem From Hell, governments don’t act to prevent genocide unless there’s strong constituent pressure. Equatorial Guinea is the US’s third largest African oil supplier – it would take an awful lot of constituent pressure to change the status quo.

So perhaps Global Witness should line up a million Facebook friends who “like” their campaign against Teodorín in the hopes that the Levin hearings will produce tangible results. But they’d likely do better if they could figure out something constructive for those users to do.

Political theorist Benjamin Barber offers the observation that “People are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic”. You’re right to be apathetic in the face of the story I just told about Equatorial Guinea, because it’s not clear that there’s anything productive you can do. Basically, by sharing this story, I’ve roused emotions – be they anger, compassion or boredom – but given you nothing you can do. Susan Sontag believed that, “Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers.”

If Global Witness accepts this idea – that it’s not the passionate who get active, so much as it is the active who become passionate – what opportunities should they offer supporters? In other words, what currencies can social media bring to the table… and are those the ones that movement leaders really need?

Here’s what most organizations have learned to use social media for:

- Spread the word to an audience that is less sensitive to broadcast media and has a tendency to believe that “if it’s important, news will find me”. This ability to spread the message comes at the cost of loss of control – the further the message spreads, it’s less likely to be worded precisely the way you’d like it to be.

- Display public support, showing that an issue’s got a constituency. However, people in power are increasingly aware that online affiliation is pretty low-cost… a million Facebook “likes” isn’t equivalent to a million people willing to make a phone call to a legislator, for instance. That discount rate – from affiliated followers to participatory followers – can be quite sharp.

All well and good… but potentially useless if that awareness and public support isn’t harnessed to a theory of change that attempts to influence a decisionmaker, propose a policy change, demand an action. This sort of social media participation runs the risk of being primarily participation for participation’s sake, providing the sense of involvement that’s essential to combat apathy, but not tightly linked to change.

The good news, in my view, is that smarter campaigns are starting to implement deeper, more potent strategies for using social media:

- Filter the truly engaged to the top. If we assume that activism, as with almost everything else online, has a Pareto distribution, we might assume that for every 1000 relatively passive supporters, we might find 10 deeply engaged activists and one emerging movement leader. And if the contention that participation begets passion, this particular long tail might be a slippery slope upwards, yielding more leaders than the average movement.

- Generate feedback… and critique. Jason Sadler’s 1 Million T Shirts for Africa project is a great cautionary tale about getting feedback from social media even if you weren’t seeking it. A well-meaning, if poorly considered, project for aid to Africa was rapidly critiqued by smart Afrophiles who study the pitfalls of the aid industry and pointed out that a large donation of t-shirts would do more economic damage to local manufacturers than it would benefit the poor. Sadler ended up changing his idea entirely and is now trying to figure out how to channel his energies towards more productive forms of aid… which raises the interesting question of how the project could have differed had he begun by engaging with the people who criticized the project via social media.

- Match problems to specific skill sets. For me, this is the most exciting part of Chris Hughes’s Jumo project – not using social media to show affiliation or to try to raise money, but to try to match organization needs and volunteer skill sets. Online volunteering sites like Nabuur.com have figured out that the challenge with this model is that you need to listen hard to the people you’re trying to benefit – in their case, communities in the developing world – as well as to the volunteers. What this implies for many organizations is that they need to define the problems could be addressed by volunteers.

While I’m skeptical of the power of social media to affect change simply by reaching new audiences and encouraging affiliation, I do think there’s a successful strategy that tries to use affiliation and reach to use social media to sustain media interest in issues beyond a specific news event. Equatorial Guinea doesn’t make it into the New York Times all that often – this is a function of the difficulty of reporting from there (a supply issue) and a perception that Africa stories don’t have much of an audience (a demand issue). Were we to launch our own Twitter campaign to call attention to Teodorín – perhaps a shark fin added to our icons – we wouldn’t put much direct pressure on Equatorial Guinea, but we would send a signal to the New York Times that we would read and amplify additional coverage of the country.

We may underestimate this importance of this power. Media coverage is driven in no small part by what editors perceive to be the interests and concerns of the audience. The twittersphere’s embrace of the Iran protests helped the story dominate the newshole in US media for a good part of two weeks… and the story might have dominated media longer had Michael Jackson’s death not refocused the mainstream and citizen media lenses. Demonstrating a demand for in-depth reporting on undercovered stories is a first step in shifting issues out of the shadows and in front of the spotlight.

But it’s only a first step. To channel that attention and push it towards constructive action, we need a plausible theory of change. We need to figure out who we’re asking to make a change, what we’re asking them to do and what will persuade them to change their behavior. And this is where online activism needs to get as smart about organizations like Global Witness as organizations need to get smart about social media.

I believe that the shift towards participation online means that movements that don’t invite our active participation are going to suffer and wither. It’s imperative to enable participation if you want people to react to your cause with anything but apathy. I also believe there’s a danger that the energy we’re capable of summoning through social media will dissipate without impact if we don’t learn from experienced, seasoned activists and build strategies that figure out who to target and why, not just novel new ways to gain attention. My fear is that, until we bridge this gap between what social media can offer for activists, and what activist movements need to create change, we run a risk of letting participation revert to apathy.


Babtounes, “democrazy” and the Tunisian elections

I’m reading Paul Collier’s controversial new “Wars, Guns and Votes” (NYTimes review), where the brilliant development economist addresses the uncomfortable question, “What if democracy doesn’t bring prosperity to very poor nations?” Collier’s research suggests that autocracies are more likely to protect citizens from political violence up to an income level of $2700 per capita, at which point democracies function better. I’m not deep enough into Collier’s book to address concerns about his thesis or suggested interventions – though I’m looking forward to reading these responses from Mutuma Ruteere in Kenya and from a team of development economists writing in the Boston Review - but I’m already struck by the power of Collier’s core argument.

Collier posits that what we see in many underdeveloped nations isn’t democracy but “democrazy”, an adoption of some of the most visible trappings of democracy (most notably elections) without the underlying structures (free press, independent electoral commissions, educated electorate, post-ethnic political structures) that make it possible to have functional elections. By overemphasizing the importance of elections (remember the Bush administration’s drive towards elections in Iraq, or the Obama administration’s push towards the deeply flawed Afghan election?), we may nurture political structures that aren’t democratic and which reward certain types of electoral fraud and abuse.

I was thinking of this as I looked at a project launched by my friend and colleague, Sami ben Gharbia. Sami is the head of Global Voices Advocacy, the free speech arm of Global Voices, and he’s a passionate advocate for political and human rights reform in his homeland, which he’s been exiled from. In anticipation of Tunisia’s presidential and parliamentary elections on October 25th, he’s launched Babtounes.com, a lovely tool to aggregate and visualize online conversations – most notably Twitter conversations – about the Tunisian elections. The tool uses a WordPress blog and Juitter to aggregate several searches against the Twitter database and give a one-stop shop for watching that online conversation.

Sami knows full well who’s going to win the election. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has held power since 1987, when as prime minister, he impeached Habib Bourguiba, the first president of an independent Tunisia. (Wikipedia uses the wonderful term “a medico-legal coup,” as Ben Ali had Bourguiba declared medically unfit to serve.) Ben Ali has “won” “elections” in 1999 and 2004, with margins of 99.66% and 94.48% of the vote, and his victory in 2009 will likely be by a similar majority.

An essay in the Arab Reform Bulletin by Hamadi Redissi helps explain why the election outcome isn’t much in doubt. The country’s electoral system gives 75% of parliamentary seats to a party that wins a simple majority in elections. Since Presidential and parliamentary elections are held simultaneously, you need only rig one election every five years and you’ve got unrivalled control of the country. You can use that control to limit candidate lists (Socialist challenger Dr. Mustapha Benjaafar was excluded from the 2009 election through interpretation of a requirement that a candidate be the elected leader of his party for two years before elections) – there are only three candidates running against Ben Ali, and two have made it clear that they’re not interested in being president, simply in demonstrating support for the electoral system. Being in power also gives you control of the state media, and allows you to oversee the election through the Interior Ministry – there is no independent electoral commission.

So, if the election is fait acompli, why watch? My guess is that Sami is watching so that we understand precisely how the election was stolen, so that activists can challenge the legitimacy of Ben Ali for another five years, and so that they can demand a reform before Ben Ali’s successor runs in 2014, or the old man changes the constitution to allow a sixth term. But the other reason might be to try to maintain interest in politics in the face of an electorate that has become – understandably – cynical and disinterested. Magharebia writes about the use of Facebook in Tunisian elections – that Ben Ali’s Facebook group has received only 6,000 members seems remarkably low to me. Perhaps it reflects the sort of disinterest expressed in this (deeply sarcastic) poem by Nakhlet Oued el-Bey (Translation by Mona Yahia for Magharebia):

The nation cast their votes transparently and with freedom of speech
Having discussed programs and issues of destiny.
Results were soon announced with no cheating or forgery.
Having gone through ballots,
It turns out that people’s main concern is bills
And their only wish is to save some dinars.
They are after a life with no thought or debate,
Except about the championship and who the Cup will go to.

Fair enough. There’s a lot more drama in the World Cup than there will be in the upcoming Tunisian elections. But that doesn’t excuse people who care about the future of human rights and democracy in North Africa from watching.


Gay sex scams – and community responses – in Ghana

A few years back, I was in Accra, Ghana with friends who’d helped me organize and fund Geekcorps – they were visiting our projects in the country, staying in one of the country’s nicer hotels on the beach outside of Accra. They received a phonecall one evening from someone who claimed he was the pimp of a prostitute the man had hired and he was demanding payment for his coworker’s services. My friend hadn’t hired a prostitute, and contacted the front desk of the hotel, who explained that this was a pretty common scam. The scammer hopes to reach a tourist who had hired a prostitute and saw himself as a potential target for extortion, or a person who hadn’t hired a prostitute but was sufficiently embarrased by the prospect of being confronted in a hotel lobby that he pays hush money.

The scam works because some tourists do come Accra to pay money for sex, and because some of these folks stay at nice hotels. And because prostitution is illegal, it’s a great opportunity for extortion – I suspect that there’s probably also a practice of following people from bars where prostitutes are common, then threatening to turn them into the police if extortion demands aren’t met. Finally, because sex is a subject most of us don’t like to talk about with strangers, it tends to leave us flustered and unsettled when accusations are made, leaving us more vulnerable to making poor decisions, like paying an extortion fee.

I was thinking about this story because Global Voices ran a fantastic piece on a disturbing new phenomenon happening online in Ghana and Kenya – gay personal ads designed to recruit robbery and kidnapping victims. A website for gay and lesbian traveller to Ghana, quoted in the story, explains that this has become a lucrative business for internet scammers:

…there are some Internet cafes that are *completely* devoted to this type of activity. It is truly a business, with finders fees paid for arranging a meeting with a foreigner, and 11 and 12 year old year-old boys watching pornography en masse and learning how to chat ‘gay’. On the Internet, anybody can be anything, so you really do not know who you are chatting with.

Some scams focus on building online relationships, then asking for money for help in an emergency. Others try to entice foreigners to Ghana, engage in sex with their victims, then call the police, sometimes presenting the used condoms as evidence – the scammer might ask the victim for a payment to avoid police involvement, or might share the bribe provided to the police. The most dangerous ones – and the ones more likely to be focused on local victims – propose meetings in out of the way places (often in Tema, a city near Accra that’s generally unfamiliar to most Accra residents) and then rob the victims when they arrive. Because homosexual sex is illegal in Ghana (as it is in many African nations) there’s little resource to the law after one of these robberies. As Haute Haiku suggests in the post on Global Voices, this type of scam is particularly likely to ensare gay people who are just coming out and trying to discover the gay scene.

A number of websites discuss this phenomenon in Ghana and Kenya and offer worthwhile, practical advice. Other take a more direct approach – Fakers2Go offers a photo gallery and profiles of men believed to be scammers posting their profiles on gay dating sites, and asks anyone else victimized to post information on the website as well.

The Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya (GALCK) is trying to determine the extent of blackmailing schemes, asking victims to call a hotline and report anonymously. They report that victims have been asked for sums of money ranging from $6 to $25,000. Because GALCK is so involved with this issue and willing to defend victims in court, scammers have evidently taken to asking potential victims if they’ve heard of the organization and backing off if they have.

It strikes me that this story can be read either as an extremely depressing narrative about how human beings treat one another over the Internet, or as a testament to the power of virtual communities. I’ve written and spoken in the past about 419 scams as evidence that the connections we can build over the Internet are at least as likely to be negative as positive ones. It’s no surprise to most of us that random individuals we’ve never met before they contact us on the Internet seldom mean us well. But gay dating sites are a slightly different story – they’re designed to introduce people who’ve never met before, and there is, I suspect, an assumption of a common ruleset for people participating within the community (i.e., if you’re here, you’re probably gay and looking to meet someone.) This sort of community norm may be a dangerous thing in open spaces like the Internet – if you’re assuming that everyone’s motives on the site are the same as yours, you’re susceptible to attack by someone abusing the site for fraud.

But it’s the response by groups like GALCK and Fakers2Go that strikes me as extremely encouraging. Imagine if eBay had begun without a feedback mechanism and a community, say of record collectors, began monitoring bad trades and developing a website to identify scammers. Scammers would surely change names, but there would likely evolve a “whitelist” of known participants in the community who hadn’t defrauded people, as well as blacklists, and there might emerge a karma system more nuanced than eBay’s positive/negative method targetted to the specific needs of a community. (It’s pretty common in record collecting to buy a record that isn’t quite the condition it was advertised as being in. Is this a mostly satisfactory transaction? A completely bad one? Disagreement on condition between buyer and seller or a form of fraud? A community based rating system might address these issues…)

I’ll be interested to see whether community sites emerge to try to police and mitigate the dangers of gay sex scams. The relative anonymity of the internet, the dangers of the scams and the benefits of removing predators from a community seems like the perfect recipe for this sort of community policing – I’d expect to see dating sites encourage this sort of policing as well. What would be more disappointing – but certainly possible – is dating sites eliminating profiles from Kenya and Ghana in the hopes of protecting people from scams at the expense of actual gay individuals in these countries looking to meet people.

The story was also a reminder for me of what Global Voices is able to do that can be difficult for other media outlets to replicate. Because we’ve got an author who’s integrated into the African GBLT community, we were able to find a topic of community discussion that hasn’t crossed into mainstream media yet. While this story has been amplified by a gay-focused blog, I’ll be very interested to see whether it crosses over into mainstream media.


Mugabe heckled: a new day for Parliament in Zimbabwe?

Once you’ve thrown an election, the preferred next step is to return matters to normalcy, dissipating the anger of those who opposed you by making your leadership appear routine and inevitable. That’s been Robert Mugabe’s plan in Zimbabwe. As talks about a power-sharing government have dragged on, Mugabe’s moved forward to reconvene parliament, on schedule, perhaps hoping to return to a state where legislators solemly rubber-stamp his legislation.

The opposition has opposed reconvening parliament, as it’s counter to the memorandum of understanding ZANU-PF and MDC signed in July, agreeing to hold talks on all matters of substance before resuming the process of governing. Some MDC (opposed to Mugabe, now the ruling party in parliament) parliamentarians have suggested boycotting Parliament rather than allowing it to become a rubber stamp, taking to the streets in acts of civil disobedience.

They’ve tried something quite different, and so far, it’s going surprisingly well. Parliament elected Lovemore Moyo, the chairman of MDC, as parliament speaker, a powerful position, by a significant majority. The speaker can control what gets debated and when, a powerful advantage, and may be able to keep certain legislation off the table – it augurs a new parliamentary climate for Mugabe, one where the Parliament can block his legislation, procedurally or substantively.

But that probably didn’t prepare Uncle Bob for the reception he got when he opened parliamentary session today. Appearing in full regalia, accompanied by a 21-gun salute and a military flyover, Mugabe was jeered and heckled during his address. MDC members refused to stand to acknowledge him, and as he spoke, they shouted him down as he made particularly egregious statements (declaring that all parties had been responsible for election violence, and that Zimbabwe had now “moved beyond it”, for instance).

The defiance, which included signing the MDC anthem “ZANU is Rotten”, is unprecedented in Zimbabwean politics. One of the surprising aspcts of Zimbabwean politics is the extent to which institutions and procedures are respected, even when outcomes have been rigged. It’s very unlikely that Mugabe expected this reception. As a commentator on BBC radio pointed out this morning, state-controlled television simply didn’t know what to do: should they cut away from the speech, disrespecting the (alleged) President) or should they continue to broadcast the dissent of MDC protesters?

Let’s assume that MDC’s defiance continues. The showdown is likely to be over budgetary issues, when Mugabe’s government tries to pass measures to continue paying salaries to security, army and intelligence forces. (A currency in free-fall requires frequent changes in budgeting.) If MDC refuses these budget changes – as they likely will – a showdown seems inevitable.

Two things to watch for:

- In a parliamentary system like Zimbabwe’s, the President can call for new elections at any time. If Mugabe concludes that he cannot govern with this parliament, it’s possible he’ll call new elections and attempt to intimidate opponents as he did in the run-off, hoping to regain parliamentary control. This would take some time, and the country would be effectively paralyzed in the interim.

- The parliamentary majority currently stands at 12 individuals. It’s possible that intimidation, detention or violence could erode this majority. I would expect to see systematic harrasment of MDC MPs, including arrests and possibly farm burnings or kidnappings. While I sincerely hope this isn’t the case, Zim watchers should pay close attention to any of these reports, as they might point to a pattern designed to create a majority without forming a new parliament.


Update: Alas, there’s really no need to wait and see what happens next.
The New York Times reports late night door knocks on the hotel rooms of legislators, and attempts to arrest 8 opposition MPs for a number of alleged crimes. CNN reports five arrests of opposition MPs since Monday.


Tribe

I had dinner with my parents, my sister and her wife Friday night. The topic of conversation, as I suspect it was around many family dinner tables, was the Iowa caucuses, the first step in the almost interminable process of selecting US presidential candidates.

I was thrilled that Obama was able to beat out presumtive front-runner Hillary Clinton and wondered aloud whether the victory of an African-American candidate in lily-white Iowa meant that the US had made major progress against pervasive racism. (I’m far from the only one to ask this question.)

My sister-in-law wasn’t buying it. An African-American woman in a same-sex marriage, she encounters lots more prejudice and racism in daily life than I do. (Yes, even in liberal, gay-friendly Massachusetts, where we all live.) As she talked about her sense that Obama can’t win primaries in the South, I found myself thinking of a blogpost I’d read earlier that day.

Lower Manhattanite, writing on the Group News Blog, offered his visceral reaction to Obama’s victory in Iowa – the profound fear that the Senator would be struck down by an assassin’s bullet.

Mom was all of 21 when Malcolm was killed uptown. She and my dad knew him well. This was resonating deeply in her, and I could hear the upset in her voice. We lived around the corner on 115th Street from the Mosque they fire-bombed in “retaliation” the next day. Ascendant Black men at rostrums was going to hit my mom funny no matter what. And she was not wrong for the trepidation she felt.

“Are any Black people watching this tonight just enjoying the history of all this? Or are they all as nervous as we are?”, I asked her.

I don’t know if you’ll ever really understand it and why it comes so quickly to the fore for Black folks. I guess, you need only to look at not distant, but recent American history and how deadly cruel it has been to Black people on the cusp of busting a door wide open. In my lifetime, Malcolm X was cut down. Medgar Evers was blown away. Martin Luther King’s flame was sniper’s bullet snuffed. Never mind all the back-room, black-bag shit the U.S. government ran on folks who stood tough locally like Chicago’s Fred Hampton and others.

We have developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to the repeated sight of our best and brightest being blown away like so many dandelion bits in the wind.

And so we talked for a while about how much harder it is to be hopeful about racism in America when you’re not white. And my sister talked about the strength of Huckabee as a candidate and her fear that an evangelical candidate might be unstoppable in a national election.

And I realized that we were talking about tribalism.

My Kenyan friends, both home and abroad, have been highly critical of Northern media’s coverage of the political violence in Kenya. Friends are upset that the situation is immediately compared to the genocide in Rwanda. And they’re frustrated that coverage often falls into an African news trap – “Oh well, it’s all about ancient tribal hatred – nothing we can do about it.”

My friend Binyavanga Wainaina has an op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times, titled “No Country for Old Hatreds“, which does an excellent job of combatting that narrative. He points out that Kenya has a much more coherent national identity than many African nations, and that ethnic politics have lost out to pan-ethnic movements in the past. He notes, “Mr. Odinga and President Kibaki are not really ethnic leaders, but in the days since the disputed election they have stoked tribal paranoia and used it to cement electoral loyalty.”

In other words, the crisis in Kenya is not about Kikuyu versus Luo – thought some of the resulting violence may be. It’s about a leader who’s failed to implement the changes he’s promised and his desire to keep power, and the attempts of an opposition leader to build the narrative of a people’s revolution and gain international support. And both sides are taking advantage of one of the oldest possible narratives: tribe.

Tribe is a narrative that makes intuitive sense to people. Birds of a feather do flock together, in a phenomenon that social scientists call “homophily“. It makes sense that tribes tend to vote together as well. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Kenya is likely to survive this crisis, and it will survive for reasons that Bankelele suggested in a post a few days ago:

- Neighbors talking to one another about maintaining their many years of peace
- Neighbors setting up watch out groups and liaising with the local police
- Neighbors taking in and sheltering friends, relative and strangers
- Police officers talking down residents this morning who had hoped to march to Uhuru Park.
- Local leaders and MP’s talking to their constituents – preaching non violence.
- Neighbors standing together and ignoring the sparks from outsiders

It’s too easy to dismiss African political stories as the legacy of tribalism. Assuming that people will behave a certain way because of ancient hatreds, of in- and out-groups denies people political agency.

Kinda like my family and I were doing the other night as we talked about the Iowa caucuses.

Kenya can survive what it’s facing now by rejecting the simple narrative of tribe amd seizing the moment. Binyavanga argues, “The moment is now to make a solid thing called Kenya.” Maybe, just maybe, it’s possible for America to seize that moment, too.


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