Editor’s Note: Interview by Rama Salla Dieng, Lecturer in African Studies and International Development at CAS (@drsaalajeng). This interview is the final of the #Talkingback African Feminisms in Dialogue Series which is a travelling series which appeared on the Review of African Political Economy Blog (ROAPE.net), on AfricaIsACountry and on Progressive InternationalYara Sallam (@yarasallam) is an Egyptian feminist and human rights activist based in Cairo. Yara has worked at various organizations, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), Nazra for Feminist Studies, and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). She has worked on diverse issues, including criminal justice, regional and international human rights mechanisms, transitional justice, freedom of religion and belief, and women human rights defenders.

Photo of Yara

Rama’s Note: Yara and I met thanks to a mutual friend from SOAS, Mohammed Mossallam . In this interview, I ask Yara about her pan-African convictions, her work as a human rights defender, her imprisonment under president El-Sisi. Yara shares with us how her feminist principles inspire her professional and activist work. She also talks about her book:  Even the Finest of Warriors, which is part of a series of personal articles on mental health, general exhaustion, in the context of documenting the struggle of women in the public space. Even the Finest of Warriors moves forth from the precept that our struggle in the public space is not dissociated from our struggle in the private one, and that our lives and our personal struggles with our surrounding circumstances are worthy of documentation.

1.     Hello Yara, it’s a pleasure to have this conversation with you. Could you please introduce yourself?

Thank you, Rama, the pleasure is mine. I’m an African Arab feminist and legal researcher from Egypt, currently living in Cairo. Since my graduation from law school in 2007, I worked on a variety of issues related to human rights and feminism including criminal justice, regional and international human rights mechanisms, transitional justice, freedom of religion and belief, and women human rights defenders. I enjoy the sun, the sea, scuba diving, listening to music, watching films, reading novels, working-out, and taking nice, long walks.

2.     What is your definition of feminism? And what influences and inspires your feminism?

It’s a good question to ask about ‘one’s’ definition of feminism. My feminism is a learning process and political activism for equality of all genders, considering different intersections that are contributing to inequality such as class, race, sexuality and gender identity, and disability. I’m inspired by the lives and work of women around me, whether they define themselves as feminists or not – and my first inspiration is my mother.

3.     What led you to your activist work? (Al Nosoor al Segheera)

I was a very active child and my mother was always trying to diversify my activities, and in 2000, when I was a teenager, I joined “al-Nosoor al-Sagheera” (The Young Eagles); an organisation working with children and adolescents to engage them with human and child rights. I believe since then and I’ve been interested in activism and human rights. I later went to law school and continued to be engaged in student activities that are also related to human rights.

4. In 2011, you worked as a legal assistant at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in The Gambia. Can you please tell us about this experience, and your pan-African convictions?

I’ve always felt I belonged more to the African continent than to the Arab region, which is interesting because as Egyptians we are raised more to think and connect with the Arab culture and our African identity is not really highlighted. With the exception of the Palestinian cause, I identify more with the African continent than the Arab region, although in terms of language I’m personally and professionally very invested in writing in Arabic and translating text to the latter.

After finishing my LL.M. degree in international human rights law in 2010, I was able to apply for university funds for an internship in the field of human rights. Back then, I had already been to The Gambia and attended a session of the ACHPR, in addition to studying the African human rights system during my masters. I loved Banjul as a city and I had faith in the development of a human rights system that is supportive to victims in the region. I also knew they were under-staffed and had no interns or staff who spoke Arabic so I thought I would be useful more than to go for an internship in one of the big international human rights organisations. I learned later that many universities send their graduate students for internships at the Commission which I think is a great idea. In a six months period, as a professional legal assistant in the Protection Department at the Secretariat, I drafted Admissibility decisions and Review Opinion, worked on State Reports, drafted presentations and resolutions, as well as other tasks assigned to me during my internship by the Secretary of the ACHPR. I learned a lot from my work at the Commission, both in the field of international law and in issues relevant to our African continent.

5. You received the Africa Human Rights Defender (HRD) award in 2013, what does it mean to be a HRD according to you and how has receiving this recognition influenced your work?

Being a woman human rights defender means to be dedicated and committed to working for the implementation and protection of all human rights to all people, without discrimination and with no hierarchy between different rights. It was an honour and a privilege to have been awarded the first North Africa Shield Award (2013) for my human rights work in Egypt from “African Defenders”; a Pan-African human rights defenders network. To have my work acknowledged by a Pan-African network meant that the work of North African defenders and feminists also counted for the region, which was a proof that I’m right to have faith and invest in working on the African human rights system, and with African feminist sisters. It basically meant that the feeling that I have, that I belong to the African human rights and feminist movement, is mutual. This recognition has definitely encouraged me to be more rooted in the continent’s human rights and feminist work and activism.

6. In a July 2013 blog post, you wrote: ‘What kind of force do we push into a movement if it’s based on despair and helplessness? My life, if it can have any meaning at all or if it will be ever remembered, I want it to be about hope, laughter, joy, passion and love for life. My revolution is the same.’ What are your thoughts on the so-called ‘Arab spring’(I use this term very reticently, maybe ‘Revolution of Dignity’, to use Aya Chebbi’s term, is more appropriate) in Egypt and other countries of the Maghreb?

I don’t like the term ‘Arab Spring’; revolutions are not a season, they take time and they are not linear. I believe each country in North Africa that went through revolutions and/or uprisings are in completely different stages, with different consequences too, right now so I cannot compare them to one another. Concerning Egypt, I think we are living through a moment of political defeat but I don’t believe this is the end of it. Anyone who witnessed the 25 January 2011 revolution has witnessed change, and no one can take that away. Governments can oppress the opposition, any independent voices and can try to close the public space, but they can’t reverse the lessons many generations learned throughout the first few years of the revolution. I think this is not the end of it, for me today is a moment of reflection, collective and self-care and healing, and tomorrow will bring something different. I have hope but I’m not stuck in the same tools that we used 10 years ago. 

7. In June 2014, you were arrested alongside other human rights activists, can you please tell us about the events that led to your arrest and your experience in prison? https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/the-case-of-yara-sallam-and-sanaa-seif-al-ettehadeya-palace-protest-case/

I was one of 23 protestors who were arrested for taking part in the first protest after President el-Sisi won the elections in 2014. Al-Ettehadeya protest was a peaceful protest against the protest law and calling for the release of all prisoners of conscience, regardless of their political affiliation, it was dispersed violently, and all of us faced trumped up charges. Our final sentence was 2 years in prison, 2 years of police probation and a fine, however, after 15 months we were released by a presidential pardon before el-Sisi addressed the UN General Assembly.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared my detention as arbitrary, and requested immediate compensation. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights also issued press releases on the case.

It is really difficult to answer a question about my experience in prison. It is a life-changing experience and I don’t regret it in any way. I learned a lot about myself and about life that I don’t think I would have ever learned any other way. Thoughts and reflections about my prison experience come in flashes, I wrote a few things on Mada Masr and other things on my personal blog. It was a difficult experience and I don’t think prison should be glorified in anyway, so I will borrow the words of the inspiring Egyptian activist Mahienour el-Masry, who is currently unjustly in prison for almost a year; “we don’t like prison, but we don’t fear it”.

8. Egyptian feminist novelist and psychatrist Nawal al-Saadawi made Time’s ‘100 women of the Year’ list. For her, prison was a rebirth. In 1981, she was jailed for “crimes against the state” for her outspoken views, including her criticism of female circumcision. For her, the sentence was a clear demonstration of the link between political power and patriarchy. With eyebrow pencil and a roll of toilet paper, she wrote of her experience: Memoirs From the Women’s Prison,published in 1983. Does this resonate with your own experience?

I read Nawal’s prison memoirs after coming out of prison, and for sure I found some common reflections. However, she, and other women activists were imprisoned under different circumstances. I do believe that prison as an institution, not only sentencing political detainees, is an expression of patriarchy that feminists should work against. Of course reading “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis grounded the way I felt about prison. Nawal’s prison conditions were similar to other political detainees during her prison time, and my experience was different, we were allowed to read books and write letters to our loved ones – with one condition of course, that nothing political is to be read or written. We also had family and friends visiting us. Our case was a very well-known case so we were privileged in terms of prison conditions. Things have worsened during the last few years, and right now it is even worse with the suspension of prison visits since 10 March under the pretext of Covid-19.

9.     If you were to cite three life lessons that you have learned from being a lawyer and a human rights defender what would those be?

I’m not sure if I can call them life lessons but maybe what guides my work since the start of my activism and career. I am a strong believer of the importance of documentation, so this would be the first lesson I learned; not looking for immediate results and work to contribute in building a narrative and a body of evidence-based research so if we’re unable to achieve justice right now, when the moment comes we would be ready for it. I also learned to question myself more often than usual because I’m in a constant learning process and no matter how much I build into my experience, I still leave room for constructive doubts and questioning. My last, but not least in importance, is how important it is to pay attention to well-being and try to prevent long and repetitive burnout – because unfortunately I’m not sure we can prevent it completely, but it is important to reassess the type of work we expose ourselves to, as well as the workload.

10.    In your opinion, how has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted gender equality and human rights in Egypt?

There is no doubt that women, and persons with low income, are the most negatively impacted by the current pandemic. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights have been tracking that impact on different levels, but also the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance did a campaign on the stories of women in the days of pandemic, which I found very telling of the exacerbated impact of Covid-19 on existing inequalities.

11. Which three books (fiction or non-fiction) by young Egyptian writers would you recommend?

It is difficult for young Egyptian women to be able to publish books but I recommend “An Attempt To Remember My Face” by Salma al-Tarzi, “How to Mend: Motherhood and its ghosts”by Imane Mersal, and the periodicals of Ikhtyar.

12.  What is your self-care routine?

Well-being and self-care are issues that I’ve been struggling with during the last few years, and I tried to question this struggle with other women defenders, and wrote ‘Even the finest of Warriors’: about the different intersections that I’m able to grasp. For me, my family is my backbone so I try to make sure I meet my mother and sister at least once a week, and try to plan an annual holiday together. I also try to see my father and brother as much as I possibly can. I also usually don’t work evening time, unless there is an emergency or an exceptional event. I try to spend time by the sea, do scuba diving when there is a chance, I spend quality time with close friends, and try to enjoy art when it’s possible. Walks, bike rides, exercising, reading, and much more. I think there is no one constant routine, but more like things that I try to constantly have in my life.

Editor’s Note: This post is by Brooks Marmon, a final year PhD Student at the Centre of African Studies. Brooks’ doctoral research focuses on pan-Africanism and decolonisation in Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s and 60s . He first published this post on The George Washington University History News Network blog.

Ian Smith signs Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, 1965

Donald Trump has announced further immigration restrictions as a result of the public health emergency caused by COVID-19. The measures call for a temporary pause in the issue of green cards (permanent residency status) to individuals outside of the US. While the April 22 executive order does not go as far as many Trump supporters would have liked, it marks another gesture toward the consolidation of the protectionist, isolationist USA that Donald Trump has called for.

Trump has repeatedly expressed a desire to reduce foreign immigration. He infamously campaigned on the promise of building a wall on the Mexican border. Approaching his first anniversary in office, at an Oval Office meeting with lawmakers, Trump reportedly disparaged Haiti and African nations and pined for immigration from western European countries like Norway. At the beginning of this year, Trump moved to bar immigration from the most populous African country, Nigeria.

The Trump administration rejects charges of racist motivations underpinning these calls for curbs on immigration. However, its rhetoric and actions are firmly aligned with the anachronistic former white settler regimes in southern Africa.

Decades before Trump announced an ‘America First’ policy, right-wing politicians in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (colonial Zimbabwe) agitated for ‘Rhodesia First.’ As African decolonization gathered pace following the independence of Ghana in 1957, the colonial leaders of Rhodesia flailed about, seeking measures to assuage a white electorate perturbed by drastic political upheaval.

Promises to control black immigration formed a key component of this effort. Although often overlooked in favour of South Africa, its southernmost neighbour, Rhodesia was a regional powerhouse, attracting hundreds of thousands of African immigrants from across the subregion. Most of the colony’s white leaders (representing a population of about 200,000 whites) were themselves immigrants, hailing from the UK or South Africa. They were unnerved by the colony’s unequal racial demographics and sought to flatten racial disparities.

Alongside efforts to attract white immigrants of British extraction, Rhodesia’s rulers devoted considerable attention to keeping black foreigners out of the colony. In early 1959, the colony moved to bar new black immigrants from taking up jobs in Salisbury, the capital, and Bulawayo, the second city. This gesture came weeks after the monumental All-African Peoples’ Congress in Accra, Ghana, a major pan-African gathering, set the Rhodesian authorities on edge. In 1962, on the eve of an election campaign, the incumbent Prime Minister, Edgar Whitehead, floated the more stringent possibility of expelling all foreign migrant labourers from the colony. He believed that such a measure was necessary in the face of high unemployment amidst black Rhodesians.

Three years later, Southern Rhodesia entered a full-blown crisis when it unilaterally declared its independence from the United Kingdom. Although Rhodesia’s independence proclamation was modelled on the American Declaration of Independence, the renegade colony was a pariah state and never gained international recognition. In a broadcast announcing the manoeuvre, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith, one of southern Africa’s most notorious white rulers, noted that any attempts to economically sanction Rhodesia would first redound to the detriment of foreign African labourers residing in the colony.

Like Trump, Smith blustered and shifted blame onto others: “…if our economy should contract as the result of such actions taken by others then what jobs were available would have to be reserved for our own Africans, thus bringing hardship not only on our own people but on those from adjoining territories who works here.” He disingenuously maintained that Rhodesia held “nothing but goodwill and the best of intentions” toward Africa, unconvincing sentiments that Trump surrogates have also espoused. 

Smith’s aspirations of wider African friendship were resoundingly crushed by pan-African solidarity. Rhodesia’s neighbours banded together to form the Frontline States, an alliance that supported military efforts to oust the white government. The Organisation of African Unity also supported the overthrow of the minority government via armed struggle.

Media censorship skyrocketed amidst a state of emergency and the Rhodesian economy gradually deteriorated in the face of comprehensive international sanctions. Within a decade, support from the territory’s greatest ally, Apartheid South Africa, sagged as Rhodesia’s fate became clear. In the late 1970s thousands of once intransigent whites ‘took the gap’ and fled the colony, seeking greater security elsewhere. White rule collapsed under the pressure of international sanctions and guerrilla warfare. Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 and subsequently endured nearly 40 years of Robert Mugabe’s leadership.

Like Smith, Trump has also asserted an economic rationale behind his restrictions, stating, “it would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the [Corona] virus to be replaced with new immigrant labor flown in from abroad. We must first take care of the American worker.”  Peculiarly, Trump has even managed to mimic Smith’s penchant for insurrection by urging the ‘liberation’ of several states with Democratic governors.

Just as protectionism dominates Trump’s agenda, it was similarly at the heart of Rhodesian efforts to resist the ‘wind of change’ and preserve the economy by maintaining ‘civilised standards.’ Trump’s rhetoric and actions mirrors those of Rhodesia’s rulers who fought in vain to avert an overwhelming tide. It is unlikely that Trump himself is cognisant of these similarities. It might, however, be helpful for the country if the President and his supporters knew more about the fate of the ideological company they keep.

Editor’s Note: This post is by Dr. Kate Wright, Chancellor’s Fellow in the Cultural and Creative Industries, Centre of African Studies. It was first published on Africa is a Country,  a site of criticism, analysis and new writing.


NGOs have responded swiftly to widespread cost-cutting in Western media organizations by recruiting former journalists as communications officers, who regularly commission and produce video, audio, and photographs for placement in mainstream news. The effect of this shift on the coverage of sub-Saharan countries is a particular cause for concern because such news has long been believed to be dreadful, overly sporadic, negative, and riddled with stereotypical imagery and over-generalizations about “Africa.”

Some scholars and practitioners are not thrilled by the prospect of NGOs becoming news producers, arguing that this allows them far too much editorial control over sub-Saharan coverage. They point to the problems already caused by journalists being “embedded” with aid agencies on field trips, including the simplification and decontextualization of complex events, such as the 1984 famine in Ethiopia. But other scholars and journalists stressed that times have changed, awareness of the risks of imperialistic rescue narratives is greater, and aid agencies now have the resources and extensive cross-border networks to empower local people to “tell their own stories”.

Debate on the issue has been heated, but until now it wasn’t based on much evidence. Aid-workers, journalists and researchers were at least talking with one another: but they tended to do so on the basis of their hopes, personal experiences, or isolated case studies.  That’s not a lot of use if you are trying to create detailed ethical and editorial policies for a news or non-governmental organization. What is even more problematic is that the whole debate has been framed in terms of some widespread assumptions which, frankly, do not stand up to scrutiny.

First, what do we actually know about the nature of Northern news organizations’ coverage of sub-Saharan countries? Media scholar, Martin Scott, recently knocked long-standing beliefs out of the park by analyzing the corpus of academic studies and “grey literature” about media representations of Africa. He found that researchers have been guilty of the same overly selective and negative attitude that they accuse journalists of: creating an overgeneralized “myth” about “media representations of Africa” on the basis of a remarkably narrow range of media, genres and topics, such as the Rwandan genocide and the Darfur crisis.

Secondly, most of the research into the effects of “NGO journalism” has focused on rapid-onset disasters, like famines or earthquakes. But we can’t really generalize about the effects of NGOs on journalism based on these kinds of news-making periods alone because international aid agencies, rather than other kinds of NGOs, are always going to come to the fore during rapid-onset ‘emergencies.’ Usually, these organizations are beneficiaries of agreements between news organizations and umbrella bodies of aid agencies, like the Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK, and other members of the Emergency Appeals Alliance around the world.

Much as we might wish otherwise, decontextualized and stereotypical imagery are likely to predominate in the media content provided by aid-workers to journalists in these kinds of circumstances. The reason for this is quite simple: starving babies still bring in the cash. Focusing on complex political struggles and armed conflicts, sadly, tends to deter donors, as well as creating problems for broadcasters committed to journalistic impartiality. Of course, this is highly problematic, but we can’t extrapolate much about NGOs’ involvement in the coverage of Africa beyond that.

For my new book, I decided to try and find out what happens outside of these kinds of emergency appeals.  Might NGOs other aid agencies have a better chance of placing their material in international news about Africa then? How might journalists use NGO material in these quieter news periods?  Were there significant differences between news outlets? After all, the Western news media is not monolithic. Fox News is not Al Jazeera. The Washington Post is not The Daily Mail.  Heart FM is not the BBC World Service, and so forth.

What I discovered was both less, and more, troubling than I expected. The good news is this:  journalists who use NGO material in African news are not the mindless drones that some would have you believe, uncritically and speedily reversioning any content that comes their way for the sake of saving time and money. They think about it, agonize, and argue over it internally. There are some surprisingly heated spats between journalists and NGOs over editorial control, and when journalists do use NGO material they are quite picky: only choosing material which they believe helps them meet their statutory, professional or moral obligations as journalists.

Although major aid agencies continued to dominate other NGOs when it comes to getting their work accepted by news organizations, their communications officers were far from being mercenary, money-grabbing spin-doctors. Even the work of the most highly commercialized agencies was characterized by protracted, and often profound, debates over the principles of dignity and the politics of voice. So outside of emergency appeals, NGOs didn’t usually place material in news outlets which perpetuated demeaning, decontextualized and stereotypical images of “Africa”.

In fact, few news items containing NGO content mentioned “Africa” at all, and some of the most negative news stories had important, progressive effects. Western journalists also used NGO content to tell more ‘positive’ stories about sub-Saharan countries, including material offered by African NGOs. Yet because they were so aware of critiques of Western news about “Africa”, Western journalists had a worrying tendency to oversteer: failing to properly research seemingly light, “positive” news stories from sub-Saharan NGOs which were fake.

Meanwhile, international aid-workers were so persuaded by their own rhetoric of empowerment and ‘giving voice’ that they failed to see the ways in which they (and the local fieldworkers they collaborated with), severely limited what vulnerable people could say, and sometimes even endangered them.  Whilst journalists remained convinced that they were maintaining their critical independence by making relatively minor editorial changes, such as altering straplines, or refusing to take material straight from NGOs with an obvious advocacy agenda. But this didn’t stop them from readily accepting it from the small pool of well-known, well-respected Western freelancers who regularly worked for both NGOs and news organizations.

Oddly enough, this short-sighted insularity tended to be exacerbated by the deliberative processes which journalists and NGO-workers used to legitimize their exchanges with each other. Over time, both sides start to alter what they thought of as ‘good work’ in their respective fields, in ways they didn’t fully recognize or reflect upon. This created a kind of dovetailing effect, in which international news organizations tended to favor the same kinds of NGOs over and over again, growing gradually closer in their world views and daily practices.

Despite the absence of obvious forms of poverty porn, the use of NGO material in news about sub-Saharan countries remains suspect, partly because it does not supplement other, varied sources of news about sub-Saharan countries. Instead, NGO content risks replacing other sources, at least in some international news outlets, which offered little other African news. Yet this colonization of African news by NGO content is invisible to Western audiences because it was only attributed half of the time.

Editor’s Note: Post by Brooks Marmon. Brooks is a 3rd-year PhD student at the Centre of African Studies (CAS), The University of Edinburgh.


The author at right with staff of the Bulawayo branch of the National Archives of Zimbabwe

On 10 November 2017, I arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe to begin what I hoped would be roughly a year of historical research in that country. I had not managed to secure the necessary clearance to access the national archives at that time, so was dearly trusting that with my feet on the ground, I could more effectively pursue the process than I had managed remotely.

Less than a week later, however, the country was rocked by a political change that would set a new dynamic for the nation and which loomed large over my entire period of research. This new environment also provided unexpected lessons for my own academic analyses – namely, the array of behaviour that political actors might exhibit during a period of crisis and how this behaviour has been recurrently used (very tenuously) in Zimbabwe to justify political attacks and remake legacies.

Although the process was somewhat protracted, Robert Mugabe, who had led the nation for nearly four decades, effectively lost power on 14 November when the military deployed against elements loyal to him and confined him to a loose house arrest. Months later, a circuitous route found him effectively endorsing the principal opposition party that had laboured against the last two decades or so of his rule.

I was in the country to research the political situation in colonial Zimbabwe in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the ‘winds of change’ blew across Africa. I sought to discover how broader developments across the continent played out in the Zimbabwean context amidst a time of great change and political tension.

Amongst several research pathways, I was particularly eager to learn more about lesser-acknowledged personalities, figures who had often been discarded by history for not being seen to be resolute in their convictions. Concurrent with this research, I was experiencing my own historical moment firsthand with a similar trend marking the end of the Mugabe era.

Mugabe’s fall and the rise of his former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, engendered a transformation, which witnessed the overt discarding of a carefully cultivated Zimbabwean militancy that emerged during the nationalist struggle of the 1960s and which was renewed by the land reform program of the 2000s. That, in the months after the coup, Mugabe himself tacitly endorsed his erstwhile former opposition, whom he had long derided as servants to neo-colonial interests, confirmed to me the value and need to cast a wide research net to understand all the actors who contribute to and shape transformative periods.

On the afternoon of 14 November, the first sign of an impending coup against Mugabe came with the news that tanks had been sighted heading towards central Harare during the day. Subsequently, the late-night news on the national broadcaster did not air, giving rise to all sorts of predictions. Into the early hours of the morning, I was hostage to my Twitter feed. I recall a number of reports about gunfire and explosions around central Harare – close to where I lodged. I discounted these as a thunderstorm – the only thunderstorm that I can recall taking place during nearly a year of residence in Harare.

Sleep eventually overtook me, and I awoke the next morning to news reports that were vague, but essentially noting that action had indeed been taken which indicated that the game was up for President Mugabe. I had an early interview set with a colonial era civil servant, an immigrant from Britain who had remained in the country. As I traipsed to the bus terminus, passing the street which housed parliament and a number of government buildings, I could see one of the tanks guarding an intersection, occasionally belching out black smoke. All pedestrians stayed well clear to the opposite side of the street.

This was Zimbabwe’s first coup, but by and large, life seemed to continue as usual. Buses were running, most shops were open, and throughout the course of my research in the days before Mugabe officially resigned, I was able to continue to set appointments, none of which were cancelled and where the interview subjects were able to reflect on a much earlier period, without digressing too much to the ongoing developments. The most overt manifestation of the political crisis which had a direct impact on me was when I was not able to access the University of Zimbabwe campus bookstore, following a student demonstration.

This resolve to carry on, but with many also desiring genuine change, echoed the period of my research – where amidst major political developments, inhabitants (and the government) also sought to maintain (or project) a sense of normalcy in spite of widely prevailing uncertainty and during which the desires of many to make sacrifices to bring about a change for a more equitable society were often tempered by actions which mitigated against that goal. For example, several figures from my research, like Noel Mukono, John Chirimbani, James Chikerema, and Ndabaningi Sithole, who had played prominent roles in escalating the armed struggle against the minority government in the 1960s, subsequently entered into an agreement with the same government in the following decade, which preserved strong elements of white privilege.

I eventually obtained the necessary permit to access the Harare branch of the National Archives of Zimbabwe in March, which temporarily endeared me to the self – proclaimed ‘new dispensation’ – vocabulary introduced by the new administration to emphasise its distance from former President Mugabe.

During my period of fieldwork in Zimbabwe, I examined a large number of archival documents and interviewed approximately 40 individuals with memories of my period of study. But perhaps my greatest lessons came from the context around me, which allowed me to get a better grasp of the dynamics of a period sixty years previously, where I have also been struck by the manner in which a surge of activism co-existed with the mundane; a time when political figures often changed allegiances and allies, fell susceptible to accusations of being sell – outs, and rapidly reversed or realigned core beliefs.

Zimbabwe has experienced a number of crises since that time, each leaving an indelible impact. Mugabe’s government battled assiduously against the minority government that it replaced, and his successor had manoeuvred against him, with his supporters now creating distance between the two by referring to Zimbabwe’s ‘second republic.’ Verbal and physical attacks on ‘stooges’, individuals seen as being political sell outs, which came on the scene during my era of research, continue today, although they ring increasingly hollow.

While researchers are interested in the dynamics of conflict and confrontation, I was keenly aware that during my fieldwork, my own (selfish) overriding interest was that stability would prevail, despite the intellectual stimulation and sense of hope for a more open political environment wrought by the unexpected developments. This personal lesson was reinforced when tensions rose again during the national election at the end of July and Mugabe, in a bizarre presser where he lamented the poor state of his opulent home, stunned the world by embracing the opposition party he had once derided.

As I begin to write my thesis, the experience of living in Zimbabwe amidst a time when many political actors abruptly realigned and renounced old allegiances is an asset as I seek to analyse a number of seemingly contradictory and paradoxical moments in the history of colonial Zimbabwe.

Hopefully my personal lessons from Zimbabwe’s first coup, the realisation that was best for my research agenda could clash with the interests of others and witnessing firsthand the convenient discarding of long cherished rhetoric from political leaders like Mugabe who strove to appear unrelentingly unrepentant, will help ensure that my research more fully considers the aspirations and motivations of a range of political actors, including those who defy easy characterisation and whose later actions have been used to justify a retrospective erasure of their earlier militancy.

Zimbabwe’s history, both colonial and modern, denotes that there are no easy answers to complex crises. I trust that as a result of the monumental events during my fieldwork, my thesis is now better situated to acknowledge and interpret the complex dynamics that mark Zimbabwean politics and historiography.



Editor’s Note: Post by Dr. Kathryn Nash. Dr. Nash is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the Political Settlements Research Program (PSRP) at the University of Edinburgh Law School. She earned her PhD in Political and International Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

This article is a product of PSRP (www.politicalsettlements.org), funded by the Department for International Development (DFID), UK. However, the views expressed and information contained herein are not necessarily those of or endorsed by DFID, which can accept no responsibility for such views or information or for any reliance placed on them


Central African Republic (CAR) is in a state of crisis. Multiple rounds of conflict in the past two decades, the most recent of which began in 2012 and is still ongoing, have left the country reeling. Nearly one in four people in CAR is displaced, and the population is facing conflict and malnutrition with insufficient humanitarian assistance to meet all the needs of the population.[i] This is despite multiple political settlements and regional and international peacekeeping missions. What accounts for this near constant upheaval in spite of negotiated agreements and outside support to implement them and manage the conflict? Is it simply that the agreements did not address the core conflict issues, that outside support was insufficient, or that the conflict parties were not committed to peace? These all may have played a role, but they do not fully explain the dynamics in CAR.

Peace processes are initiatives that aim to bring an end to armed conflict through a political settlement.[ii] Achieving a political settlement is difficult with many settlements failing. Bell and Pospisil have highlighted the concept of political unsettlement, which has four primary characteristics, 1) the political settlement contains conflict instead of solving it; 2) the conflict is not temporary but rather long-lasting; 3) there are multiple sources of authority and legitimacy in the settlement from local to international actors; and 4) the transition is permanent and is often renegotiated through additional peace processes rather than through normal political processes.[iii] The peace processes to end conflict in CAR demonstrate the concept of political unsettlement as well as the complexity of peace process environments and the myriad of actors involved at different times, and in turn political unsettlement helps us to understand the continuing conflict.

Conflict and instability in CAR dates back much further than the 1990s, but this piece will focus on the conflicts and peace processes of the last two decades. In 1996, there were three successive army mutinies in the capital, Bangui. In response, a mediation mission was established at the Nineteenth Summit Meeting of Heads of State and Government of France and Africa held from 4 to 6 December 1996. The mission was made up of regional Heads of States, including Hadj Omar Bongo of Gabon, Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, Idriss Deby of Chad, and Alpha-Oimar Konare of Mali.[iv] It led to the establishment of an International Monitoring Committee and laid the groundwork for a series of agreements in early 1997 to end the persistent conflict in CAR.

A summit in Bangui from 11-18 January 1997 led to the Preliminary Agreement on a National Reconciliation Pact. The summit was held under the auspices of the International Monitoring Committee and chaired by General Amadou Toumani Touré. The signatories to the agreement were political parties, trade unions, and civil society organisations, and they committed to abide by the constitutional order and promote dialogue and reconciliation.[v]  The Bangui Accords were signed on 25 January 1997. The accords were comprised of two documents. The first was a declaration ending rebellious actions, and the second was a declaration by the president of CAR, the president of Gabon representing the region, and the Ambassador of France committing to maintaining the International Monitoring Committee and to setting up an inter-African force.[vi] The inter-African Force in Central African Republic (MISAB) was deployed in Bangui on 8 February 1997.[vii] The mandate for MISAB was to monitor and implement the Bangui Accords, to help restore peace and security, and to conduct disarmament.[viii] It would be replaced by the UN force in 1998. A final component of the set of agreements to address this crisis was an agreement dealing with the substantive conflict issues was signed in March 1998, over a year after the initial summit.[ix]

There was a brief respite in the active conflict. However, Ange-FélixPatassé was overthrown and replaced by François Bozizé in 2003, and beginning in 2004, there were rebellions involving several armed groups, notably the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FDPC), the Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR), and the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD). Peace processes in 2007 and 2008 sought to reach an agreement to end the conflict. The 2007 Birao Peace Agreement and Syrte Agreement set out ceasefire and other conditions among the Government of CAR, FDPC, and UFDR. The Community of Sahel-Saharan States (CEN-SAD) offered mediation and implementation support.[x] A similar ceasefire agreement with the government of CAR and the final rebel group, APRD, did not come to fruition until May 2008; this time, facilitated by the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (CEMAC).[xi]

These ceasefire agreements culminated in a Global Peace Agreement among all three rebel groups and the government of CAR in June 2008. The Global Peace Agreement built on the Birao Peace Agreement and Syrte Agreement and involved mediation support from both CEMAC and CEN-SAD. It contains amnesty and demobilization provisions and creates a principle of participation for representatives of the rebel groups in government affairs. The agreement also establishes a committee to monitor implementation comprised of representatives from the rebel groups, government of CAR, regional states, the UN, and International Organization of La Francophonie with the possibility to expand the committee to include representatives from other sub-regional and regional groups.[xii]

Most recently, the Seleka coalition of predominantly Muslim rebel groups formed in 2012 after the government’s failure to implement previous peace agreements, and in March 2013, they seized Bangui and deposed President Bozizé. The Anti-Balaka movement of predominantly Christian groups formed after the take-over of Bangui and launched offensives against Seleka forces. The humanitarian consequences were dire and multiple actors raised the alarm about possible atrocities along religious lines.[xiii] The Libreville Political Agreement created a government of national unity comprised of representatives from the presidential majority, opposition party, non-combatant political movements, Seleka coalition, and civil society. Another African sub-regional organization, the Economic Community of Central African States (CEEAC), was involved in the negotiation processes and monitoring the agreement’s implementation.[xiv] Following the Libreville Agreement, an interim constitution was drafted and signed in July 2013.[xv] However, the Libreville agreement did not hold, and peace processes are ongoing to this day.

These peace processes illustrate the concept of political unsettlement and how agreements can fail and regress as well as build on previous attempts. Multiple peace processes in CAR over the last two decades have tried to contain the conflict using peace agreements through mechanisms such a national dialogue processes or governments of national unity. These conflicts have been long-lasting and often over the same core issues, and there have also been many actors at all levels, from the local to the international, engaged in the processes. The UN and France along with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) or the AU and sub-regional organizations have been directly engaged in peace agreement negotiations. While much of the support has been complementary, some of it, especially from sub-regional organizations and neighbouring states, has been overlapping or even competing. Finally, when the process breaks down, the settlement is usually renegotiated not through normal political means but through peace processes and often after a resurgence in violence.

Instead of fully resolving these issues, the political settlements have contained the conflict and sought to manage it through transitional processes and with outside support. However, this is not a condemnation of these peace processes. Some conflicts cannot be fully resolved through a peace process, and the concept of political unsettlement illustrates that political settlements can be used to contain conflict and make progress towards a comprehensive peace even if individual agreements are unable to achieve that outcome.


All peace agreements taken from the PA-X Peace Agreements Database and Access Tool, Version 1. Developed by the Political Settlements Research Programme at the University of Edinburgh. https://peaceagreements.org.


[i] United Nations, “Central African Republic crisis ‘breaks my heart’ says senior UN aid official,” accessed 9 November 2018, https://news.un.org/en/story/2018/05/1010801.

[ii] For additional information on peace processes, see: Conciliation Resources, “Peace Processes,” https://www.c-r.org/downloads/CR_Peace_processes.pdf.

[iii] Bell, Christine and Pospisil, Jan, Navigating Inclusion in Transitions from Conflict: The Formalised Political Unsettlement (February 10, 2017). Journal of International Development, 29:5 (2017); Edinburgh School of Law Research Paper No. 2017/04. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2922470 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2922470

[iv] Central African Republic, “Preliminary Agreement on a National Reconciliation Pact,” 18 January 1997, https://peaceagreements.org/view/488.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Central African Republic, “Declaration on the End of the Rebellious Action, Bangui (Bangui Accords),” 25 January 1997, https://peaceagreements.org/view/598/; Central African Republic, “Declaration of Heads of State, Bangui (Bangui Accords),” 25 January 1997, https://peaceagreements.org/view/3.

[vii] United Nations, “Central African Republic – MINURCA Background,” accessed 5 November 2018, https://peacekeeping.un.org/mission/past/minurcaB.htm.

[viii] Central African Republic, “Mandate established by the Countries designated by the 19th Summit of France and Africa, for the inter-African Supervision Mission for the Bangui Agreements,” 3 March 1997, https://peaceagreements.org/view/443.

[ix] Central African Republic, “National Reconciliation Pact (Bangui National Reconciliation Conference),” 05 March 1998, https://peaceagreements.org/view/464.

[x] Central African Republic, “Accord de Paix entre le Gouvernement de la République Centrafricaine et les Mouvements Politico-Militaires ci-après designés: FDPC et UFDR (Syrte Agreement),” 2 February 2007, https://peaceagreements.org/view/676; Central African Republic, “Accord de Paix de Birao,” 01 April 2007, https://peaceagreements.org/view/760.

[xi] Central African Republic, “Accord de cessez le feu et de paix entre le Gouvernement de la République Centrafricaine et le mouvement politique et militaire Centrafricain APRD, 09 May 2008, https://peaceagreements.org/view/670/.

[xii] Central African Republic, “Accord de Paix Global entre le Gouvernement de la République Centrafricaine et les Mouvements Politico-Militaires Centrafricains ,” 21 June 2008, https://peaceagreements.org/view/669.

[xiii] Council on Foreign Relations, “Violence in the Central African Republic,” accessed 6 November 2018, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/violence-in-the-central-african-republic.

[xiv] Central African Republic, “Accord politique de Libreville sur la résolution de la crise politico-sécuritaire en République Centrafricaine,” 11 January 2013, https://peaceagreements.org/view/809.

[xv] Central African Republic, “Transitional National Charter (Interim Constitution),” 18 July 2013, https://peaceagreements.org/view/1659.

Editor’s Note: Post by Clayton Boeyink. Clayton is a PhD Candidate in International Development. He is generously funded by the Leverhulme Trust Perfect Storm Scholarship. This essay is a reflection of his experiences as an academic and a policy researcher.


       Recently I had the privileged (and frenzied) opportunity to be part of a consultancy team with academics from the University of Dar es Salaam and my supervisor from the University of Edinburgh, Dr. Jean-Benoît Falisse. For this project, we conducted a qualitative socio-economic assessment for three refugee camps and the surrounding host communities in Western Tanzania on behalf of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Despite a tight schedule, and an even tighter deadline for the report of our research, this process has been a validation of why I chose to do a PhD in International Development at Edinburgh. It has also been a lesson and ethnography in its own right. This consultancy, and my PhD research in general, will begin what I will call an academic-development dialectic, whereby I attempt to hold in tension the rigour and critical nature of academia with the goal to ‘impact’ (a dreaded word by some academics) policy for displaced populations. The remainder of this post will unpack what this means to me, and how I have arrived at this mindset.

        My career following undergrad in 2010 was rooted firmly in social work. Beginning with supporting children with severe mental illness and adults with disabilities, I eventually settled in the refugee resettlement system in my home state of Iowa. I had consecutive jobs teaching English, finding employment, and starting a mental health programme for refugees, among others. These jobs in refugee resettlement were the best jobs I ever had. After being in the resettlement field, I learnt that those that are resettled to the US (typically less than 100,000 each year) are just a drop in the bucket in the global refugee population, which is currently over 20 million. I wanted to learn about and advocate for ‘the other side’, if you will. I carried this social work mindset — a vocation to do what I can to support marginalised and oppressed populations — while also knowing there are problematic ‘white-saviour’ pitfalls wrapped in neo-colonialism that I was determined to do my utmost to avoid.[i] My solution to this conundrum was to go back to school and learn as much as I could to ‘do no harm.’[ii] In 2014/2015 I decided to enroll in the University of Edinburgh’s MSc Africa and International Development. I went undecided whether or not I would try to get a start in the international development industry as a practitioner, or continue in academia — I’ve already signaled my choice, but want to explain why.

       My very rough and non-methodologically rigorous estimate is that 90% of my peers were looking for careers in development, 8% wanted to continue to a PhD and 2% wanted to start a raw vegan gluten free dessert company in Edinburgh.[iii] For the 90%, many complained that the lecturers were mostly development-agnostic or even development-atheist. At times it felt that the faculty were forced to teach about something they did not believe in. What I mean by this is that many lecturers taught or introduced readings that primarily critiqued or deconstructed development, while offering few courses that taught how to practice it well. This is not a blanket statement about all faculty members, but rather a general feeling communicated by my peers. This was not problematic for me, however; but was rather a crucial part of the dialectic of being a good development practitioner. During the masters course, I was introduced to development critique such as the seminal work of James Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine as well Liisa Malkki’s pioneering research in the field of forced migration.[iv] In my opinion, their research, warning of the problematic of ‘depoliticization’ and ‘dehistoricization’ of development and humanitarianism respectively, would only make a practitioner more effective by learning of the importance of context and nuance. This work was deeply illuminating to me, demonstrated the difficult political realities of development. On the other hand, there is a case to be made for more hands-on learning about monitoring and evaluation and other ‘development tools’, in addition to the offered course Key Skills in Development Practice.[v] Both of these approaches, critique and praxis, are valid and necessary for the majority of masters students who want to someday practice development. There is, however, merit in striking a balance between the two extremes of blind naïveté of ‘do-gooderism’ and hopeless pessimism that brand development as a practice in futility at best and damaging at worst.

       Flash-forward to today and I am one foot further in academia and halfway through my PhD. I spent about 7 months of fieldwork in Western Tanzania, primarily in Nyarugusu refugee camp. This camp was created in 1996 at the onset of First Congo War. Until 2015, this camp has been made up of Congolese. In 2015, the camp doubled in size from about 66,000 Congolese to 130,000 total refugees, with the arrival of Burundians fleeing political crisis caused by President Pierre Nkurunziza overstaying his constitutional term limit. I was drawn to this camp because the World Food Programme (WFP) was in the midst of piloting a cash transfer project to distribute cash, instead of its traditional food aid, there. UNHCR and WFP are moving more toward this model in nearly all refugee contexts around the world, and I wanted to investigate the implications of this shift.[vi] I hired Nyarugusu residents to be research assistants, and we established relationships with 70 households split between Congolese and Burundian populations. We followed up bi-weekly to create ‘financial diaries’, which would record all their financial transactions for a year. I chose this methodology introduced in the book, Portfolios of the Poor, because it offered a more in-depth and relational way at exploring finances than one-off surveys can. Unfortunately, during my second week doing research in the camp, the Government of Tanzania shut down this programme in order to incite refugees to return to their countries of origin. This forced me to broaden my research to the livelihood strategies and cash-flow in the camp and the host community more generally. There are lessons here on improvisation in research that will need to be discussed in a future blog post.

  While building connections during research, the doors opened to do the aforementioned UNHCR consultancy. This afforded me the opportunity to practice the academic-development dialectic in new ways. A large part of my research investigates the various logics of actors in the camp, from refugees, the Government of Tanzania, and the humanitarian practitioners. I largely considered my research ‘ethnographish’ because I was not allowed to live in the camp for security reasons, and stood apart so starkly as a white, middle-class, educated, American male. This positionality inevitably made me stand apart from informants due to our power and privilege imbalances. My best efforts to mitigate this was through repeated household visits and relationship building. For the research consultancy, however, I could truly wear the participant observation hat, while simultaneously attempting to produce good work on UNHCR’s behalf with the goal to positively affect livelihood policy in Tanzania. I gained a plethora of insights in this role by participating in the previously mentioned frenzied pace of research. For two weeks, we conducted three focus group discussions a day, and in one day, I interviewed 16 individuals. I believe the most interviews in a day I did while independently researching was 6 or 7, so I thought that was over the top. The academic in me was at times horrified at the problematic sampling methodology we were forced to employ due to the short timeframe. The compressed schedule meant individual interviews lasted 15-25 minutes. This traded off the depth I was afforded in my longer-term fieldwork, where interviews typically lasted between one and two hours. Also, we relied on UNHCR and partners to mobilize informants on our behalf, which came nowhere close to randomness or representativeness. Moreover, it was frustrating to have to edit out some sensitive information from the report, especially those that are critical of the government and provide insights into illicit activities such as leaving the camp without a permit or accusations of bribery. Even this was dialectic, however, as there was some negotiation between UNHCR and us researchers as to what ultimately was included in the report. UNHCR is in a tenuous position vis-à-vis the Tanzanian state, and has to tread lightly in its reportage, while at the same time continuing to advocate for increased refugee rights and protection. It gave a deeper understanding of the work of and some empathy for development/humanitarian actors who depoliticize and dehistoricize because I actively participated in it, while simultaneously doing my best to mitigate it. By being contracted under UNHCR, I came to better realize some of the challenges and tensions these organisations face.

      This dialectic is similar to what Karen Jacobsen and Loren Landau describe as the ‘dual imperative’ in forced migration studies that strives for research that is academically sound and policy-relevant.[vii] This is easier to do in my PhD because I had 7 months of fieldwork, and nearly a year of guided preparation in my first year of PhD study. The contrast between doctoral research and two weeks of fieldwork for the UNHCR consultancy is stark. To me it is a finding unto itself in my PhD, that these are the conditions that development actors/humanitarians plan livelihood interventions and policy. It should be no wonder that in these frenzied and contracted environments sculpted by donor conditions, that context and politics can fall by the wayside. This is not an excuse or justification for the system, but rather a reflection of its reality. The development industry is largely dichotomised as people who are either academics or practitioners/policy-makers. I see it rather as a spectrum that, at its best, will hold a dialectic conversation between these supposed poles. I have yet to choose where I will fall within this spectrum in my own career, but I am grateful for this recent consultancy experience, and potentially others to inform where I go moving forward. Regardless of which direction I go, it will always be an internal point of tension between my ideals about academic integrity and efficacy and positive impact and advocacy.


[i] For an explanation of ‘white-saviour’ see Teju Cole’s article: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/

[ii] Mackenzie, C., McDowell, C., & Pittaway, E. (2007). Beyond ‘Do No Harm’: The Challenge of Constructing Ethical Relationships in Refugee Research. Journal of Refugee Studies, 20(2), 299-319.

[iii] Please support my friend Martina’s delicious food business at https://www.rawsmary.co.uk. Very tasty.

[iv] Malkki, L. (1996). Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization. Cultural Anthropology, 11(3), pp. 377-404.

[v] This course description found at: http://www.drps.ed.ac.uk/16-17/dpt/cxpgsp11348.htm ‘It brings together social science research methods (e.g. interviewing, participatory methods) with more targeted practical development methods (e.g. monitoring and evaluation, programme evaluation, policy analysis).’

[vi] UNHCR. 2017. “Opening Statement At The 68Th Session Of The Executive Committee Of The High Commissioner’s Programme.”

[vii] Jacobsen, K. and Landau, L. (2003). The Dual Imperative in Refugee Research: Some Methodological and Ethical Considerations in Social Science Research on Forced Migration. Disasters, 27(3), pp. 185-206.

Editor’s Note: Post by Rachel Bedoian (MSc African Studies, 2017).  Rachel is working towards a career in the study of livestock and ecological sustainability of common grazing resources. Through the University of Botswana, Ohio University, and the University of Edinburgh, she has conducted research in Botswana and northern Namibia. The current essay is from her MSc research.

CAS_blog_entry_Rachel_BedoianOpen Kalahari Thornveld Commonage in Lake Oponono Village, Oshana Region, Former Ovamboland, Namibia

Upon independence in 1990, Namibia’s popularly-elected South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) government attempted to reduce massive racial wealth inequities in the state’s population following a century of German and South African colonial rule. On the eve of independence the most productive tracts of agricultural land were owned by white Afrikaner farmers and most rural black Namibians working in agriculture either rented small plots from these farmers or were employed as waged farm labourers. In 1995 the first Act of Namibian land reform was passed. Aimed at redistributing commercial farmland through a government ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ policy, the Commercial (Agricultural) Land Reform Act hoped to address the racial disparities in commercial farm ownership, which dominated the rural landscapes of central and southern Namibia.

The academic and political attention received by the Namibian commercial land reform act has often overshadowed the importance of Namibia’s second land reform act, which affects a far larger portion of the black Namibian population. The 2002 Communal Land Reform Act (CLRA) set up statutory governing frameworks and tenure policies within the former Bantustan reserves, which consisted of customarily allocated land. The Act created legal structures and de jure (statutory) processes governing homestead plot allocation and tenure security. These areas, commonly called communal areas or communal lands, are lands vested in the Namibian state. They cover the very same physical areas set up through the 1964 Odendaal Commission as Bantustans under South African occupation. Today, local village Traditional Authorities and headmen retain de facto (customary) powers over these communal lands and facilitate the customary processes of land allocation operating under the indirect oversight of tribal chiefs. In many instances, these chiefs and headmen customarily govern their villages freely. Their customary law does not conflict with national and regional statutory law. However, in the area of land allocation, they now share their powers with those of the regional and national Ministries of Land Reform.

The Communal Land Reform Act grants land tenure rights to persons with ancestral tribal claims in a specific village, and in the Former Ovamboland, these claims were primarily based upon an Ovambo matrilineal inheritance structure. Persons with valid claims can reside on and exploit the resources of a homestead plot of fifty hectares (raised from a maximum of twenty hectares in 2015) or may apply for a larger leasehold plot of up to one hundred hectares (raised from a maximum of fifty). Those granted both customary and statutory tenure of homestead plots are able to cultivate and use their plot, but the sale of plots is not legal without specific permission from local headmen and direct approval from the regional Minister of Land Reform.

I conducted my field research in the communal areas of the Former Ovamboland, where there are vast tracts of unallocated and commonly shared Kalahari thornveld grassland. These large areas of land are intended to be for the shared use of village residents and are legally safeguarded as a public resource that cannot be privatized, sold or otherwise accumulated and cordoned off to prevent common access by residents, as stipulated in the CLRA. These grassland areas are intended for exploitation by village residents as a means of contributing to their livelihoods, and are primarily used for cattle and small stock grazing. However, ‘land grabbing’ of these areas of grazing commonage has become a growing local and national concern, as non-resident urban elites stock large numbers of cattle for revenue- creation purposes and fence off large portions of the commonage. These activities are resulting in the shrinkage of the size of common grazing area and a decline in the soil and vegetation quality of the commonage pastures.

Much of Namibia is too dry to support large stock, but rangelands in the Former Ovamboland enjoy a higher ecological carrying capacity than those of other regions, and are thus able to support cattle in varying numbers. Most resident pastoralists in communal areas own and herd thirty or fewer heads of cattle and utilise the open commonage as their main source of pasture. By comparison, most urban elites stocking cattle on the commonage have one hundred heads of cattle, with some grazing upwards of three hundred. Perhaps of greatest concern is that while much commonage continues to be captured by fencing, it is not the case that these fenced areas become grazing areas for the cattle of elite farmers for the majority of the year. Instead, these fenced areas are used only during the annual dry season (January to March) and during times of drought. For the rest of the year (April to December), the cattle stock of urban elite farmers continue to graze on the remaining open commons alongside the small numbers of cattle belonging to resident. Therefore, elite farmers with large herds not only capture and remove large portions of common grazing land from collective use by small-scale local pastoralists, they also continue to degrade the remaining open commonage by allowing their large herds to continue grazing upon it for the majority of each year.

Common grazing areas face this elite capture more and more frequently, and this capture is maintained primarily through corruption on the part of regional chiefs and/or local Traditional Authorities (TAs) and their headmen. Cattle-holding elites additionally enforce grazing land capture by applying a variety of intimidation tactics on local pastoralists. These tactics generally include verbal and implied physical threats but also exist in more subtle and unstated entrenched structures of power. As one man said: ‘you do not want to piss off the rich man’, the implication being that a rich man can destroy your life if he so pleases, and this is especially the case when national government officials and locally-powerful urbanites are those one would be ‘pissing off’. This intimidation largely works. The fact that the number of fences cut or cattle stolen is shockingly low in most areas of Ovamboland attests to it.

Progress is perhaps being made, and two separate verdicts, in 2015 and 2016, found the fencing of commonage to be explicitly in violation of the CLRA, which contains a provision safeguarding the open-access of common grazing. However, these verdicts have yet to be enforced fully since their rendering, and the vast majority of fences both remain standing and their legitimacy unchallenged. At the conclusion of my fieldwork, I spoke to communal land researcher John Hazam at the pro-bono and class action Legal Assistance Centre in Windhoek. A former employee of the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Hazam told me his greatest lament about the recent verdicts and the lack of follow-up action was that in Namibia ‘the wheels of justice turn slowly.’ It remains to be seen if these recently rendered verdicts demanding the removal of illegal fences on commonage will be enforced fully at the national, regional and customary levels.


Related Readings

1. Alden Wily, L.A., 2008. Custom and commonage in Africa rethinking the orthodoxies. Land use policy, 25(1), pp.43-52. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264837707000191

2. Cousins, B. and Scoones, I., 2010. Contested paradigms of ‘viability’ in redistributive land reform: perspectives from southern Africa. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 37(1), pp.31-66. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150903498739

3. Devereux, S., 1996. Fuzzy entitlements and common property resources: struggles over rights to communal land in Namibia. Available at: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/3346/wp44.pdf?sequence=1

4. Lohmann, D., Falk, T., Geissler, K., Blaum, N. and Jeltsch, F., 2014. Determinants of semi-arid rangeland management in a land reform setting in Namibia. Journal of arid environments, 100, pp.23-30. Available at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140196313001754?via%3Dihub

5. Mendelsohn, J., 2008. Customary and legislative aspects of land registration and management on communal land in Namibia. Ministry of Land and Resettlement and European Union, Windhoek. Available at: https://landportal.info/sites/default/files/mendelsohn_j_land_registration_and_management_on_communal_land_in_namibia.pdf

6. Mendelsohn, J.M., El Obeid, S. and Roberts, C., 2000. A profile of north-central Namibia. Gamsberg Macmillan Publishers.

7. Odendaal, W., 2011. Elite land grabbing in Namibian communal areas and its impac on subsistence farmers’ livelihoods. (a) Available at: http://repository.uwc.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10566/601/PB%2033.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

8. Republic of Namibia. 2002. Communal Land Reform Act of 2002 (Act Number 5, 2002). The Government Gazette of the Republic of Namibia. Windhoek, Namibia. Available at: Legal Assistance Centre. www.lac.org.na/laws/pdf/communallandreformact.pdf

9. Republic of Namibia Ministry of Land Reform. 2014. A Decade of Communal Land Reform in Namibia. Available at: https://www.deutsche-digitale-bibliothek.de/binary/D7CBGQXC4HB36DQDVMD57YMHILWSXI2R/full/1.pdf

10. Tapscott, C. and Hangula, L., 1994. Fencing of communal range land in northern Namibia: social and ecological implications (No. 6). Social Sciences Division, Multidisciplinary Research Centre, University of Namibia.

11. Verlinden, A. and Kruger, A.S., 2007. Changing grazing systems in central north Namibia. Land degradation & development, 18(2), pp.179-197.

12. Werner, W. 2011. ‘What Has Happened Has Happened’: The Complexity of Fencing in Namibia’s Communal Areas. Available at: http://www.osisa.org/sites/default/files/fencing.pdf


Editor’s Note: Post by Declan Murray, a final-year PhD student. The following visual blog post is from his doctoral research. 

Small solar-powered lighting systems are providing more affordable and environmentally friendly energy access to millions of people living off-grid in sub-Saharan Africa.  My research explores what happens when these new technologies break down.  A large component of my fieldwork was spent with electronic repairmen in a small town in the south of Kenya’s Rift Valley.  These photos were taken in August 2017.


Image 1

Image 1: Evans (pictured) is an apprentice to David, who rents this workshop, in the business of repairing electronic devices.  Yet, when it comes to mobile sports betting it is Evans who teaches David.  Every day begins with listening to gospel music and placing bets on football matches around the world.


Image 2

Image 2: Kefa (top right) holds down a re-soldered wire on the circuit board while the customer (bottom left), to whom the solar lantern belongs, holds the battery. I like the contrast of the hands in this picture.  Kefa’s hands, like the bench he is working on, show the burns, dust, and scratches sustained from the thousands of electronics he has repaired.  Meanwhile, the customer’s are obviously accustomed to a less manual labour.


Image 3

Image 3: This is Rono’s soldering iron.  The most vital tool in an electronic repairman’s inventory, the soldering iron, is normally heated by electricity. But without a grid connection in his wooden kiosk, Rono heats his iron in a kerosene stove.


Image 4

Image 4: Yusuf’s workshop is full of old electronics. Inside that he does most of his work on this chair out the front.  Having recently become the pastor of a local church, Yusuf wants to move away from what he sees as the dishonesty of the repair business, where repairmen over-charge on components and deliberately hide their work from less knowledgeable customers.


Image 5

Image 5: Solar lanterns, like this d.light S200, are arriving more and more often to repair workshops like Richard’s, but with replacement parts almost impossible to come by, many are simply left unrepaired. Priority is rather given to minibus radios and church keyboards, which provide higher profits.


Electronic repairmen like those I have worked with in Kenya offer a vital support infrastructure to people in countries across sub-Saharan Africa.  Although a dirty and dusty job, I sometimes wonder if, as proponents of clean technologies such as solar power, they are not doing as much for the environment.


Patrick Kwasi Brobbey is a PhD student at the Centre of African Studies and a Research Fellow with the French Institute for Research in Africa (Nairobi). He is currently engaged in fieldwork in Kenya.  His update on the political situation there ahead of the national election today follows.

Pan-Africanism 2

Patrick Kwasi Brobbey


On 8 August 2017, Kenyans will go to the polls to elect their national leaders. The presidential election is the highlight of this exercise. Eight candidates are vying for the presidency, but only two – incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta and his longtime political rival Raila Odinga – are considered realistic presidential hopefuls.

To win, a candidate must secure at least 50 percent plus one of the total votes cast, in addition to 25 percent of the votes from half of Kenya’s 47 counties. Kenyatta and Odinga lead grand coalitions of political parties. According to varying public opinion polls, either one of them is capable of winning the race.

Whereas the Kenyatta-led Jubilee Party emphasizes infrastructural development aimed at stimulating economic development, the Odinga-led National Super Alliance (NASA) assures equal access to state resources and government and social inclusion.

The electoral process and outcome will test the social, political and economic structures of the country.

The Stakes in the Elections

Competitive politics in contemporary Kenya can be traced back to 1992, when the country transitioned from a de jure one-party state to a multiparty democracy. Apart from the 2002 and 2013 general elections that have been touted as relatively peaceful, all elections held after the transition to multiparty democracy have been marred by intense violence. The factors proffered by analysts for the post-2007 electoral conflict that resulted in over 1000 deaths and the internal displacement of many others still prevail.

Ethnicity and Electoral Politics

Although Articles 91 and 92 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya oblige political parties to have a national character and desist from actions that undermine the stability of the country, politicians have been attempting to circumvent these constitutional provisions. Both NASA and Jubilee have identified plans to pursue an inclusive party structure. Nonetheless, their actions point to their desire to exploit ethnicity to solicit votes. The election period has seen the Kenyatta government declare the Makonde and Kenyans of Asian descent (“Muindis”) the country’s 43rd and 44th “tribes” respectively. The timing and future consequences of this conferment are, however, questionable. Can this action (and the economic promises made to the Makonde) be equated to vote buying? The Makonde, who currently reside in informal settlements, have requested that government resettles them in a permanent area. How this demand would interact with the intractable controversies surrounding land ownership in Kenya is uncertain.

There are also instances of clear manipulation of interethnic dissent. At least eight legislators have been indicted for inciting hatred. A court found MP Junet Mohamed, director of the Orange Democratic Movement’s (Odinga’s party) elections, complicit of encouraging discrimination against the people of Nyeri. An examination of a 10 January campaign message of the running mate of Kenyatta, Vice President William Ruto, in his homeland depicts him stirring ethnic Kalenjin feelings against other ethnicities. Such modes of campaigning threaten social cohesion, a precursor of national unity.

 Divergent Usage of Technology

The race to the polls has revealed the inconsistent impacts of technological tools. The Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system adopted by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), the official electoral management body of Kenya, in the 2013 elections was widely welcomed for being more effective and secured against rigging. Yet, the system experienced significant failure that disenfranchised some electorate in that election. Regardless, civil society and the main opposition party still prefer registering voters and transferring election results electronically, provided the electronic systems are thoroughly tested. They have argued that the IEBC’s manual backup system is prone to tampering.

Social networking has become a key focus of the elections. Through social media platforms, such as Google’s Kenya Elections Hub, Ushahidi, Uchaguzi, Umati, and PeaceTXT, Kenyans living in different corners of the country managed to forge a common identity in 2013. This helped facilitate social trust and national peace.  The use of social media has increased since then. A 2016 Pew Research Center report maintains, 82 percent of adult Kenyans are on electronic social networks, meaning that true and false information can easily reach people across the country. A number of the aforementioned platforms remain active. Others, including Uwajibikaji-pamoja and CountryTrak, have been activated to further stimulate accountability and transparency in the electoral process.

A joint Geopoll-Portland survey conducted in Kenya shows 90 percent of “Kenyans have seen or heard false news in 2017.” Last month, deceptive videos designed to look like BBC and CNN news stories were circulated through social media. The videos had bogus poll results showing the Jubilee flag bearer in the lead.

Just as technology can be employed to produce and share deceptive information about politicians so can it be used to circulate fabricated news about the electoral process and results, either to discredit electoral governance institutions or advance other political interests. Fortunately, the Geopoll-Portland study credits Kenyans for being able to detect falsehood.

Credibility of Electoral Governance Institutions

Kenya’s electoral governance institutions, i.e. the IEBC and judiciary, were revamped after the adoption of the 2010 Kenyan Constitution as part of the effort to find a lasting solution to the country’s recurrent electoral violence, but events leading up to the 8 August elections have raised doubts about the credibility of these institutions. The IEBC faces over 300 lawsuits going into the elections. It has been faulted for not thoroughly cleaning up the electoral register, insufficiently cracking down on electoral malpractices and failing to develop a trustworthy backup system to complement the Biometric Voter Registration and Electronic Voter Identification systems, and for awarding the ballot printing contract to a firm purportedly linked to the incumbent president, among other condemnations. The judiciary has ruled in favor of the IEBC in some of these legal disputes, but that may not necessarily alter the views of the petitioners and their supporters.

President Kenyatta has also criticized the judiciary for condoning a deliberate opposition ploy to delay the elections. These criticisms can polarize the public’s confidence in a judicial system meant to resolve electoral disputes. To some Kenyans, the President’s utterance is a plot to subvert judicial independence. To others, the comment reflects genuine concerns and do not undermine the autonomy of the institution. People that conceive electoral governance institutions as lacking credibility may reject the results of the elections and, frighteningly, refuse the Judiciary’s intervention.

Electoral Tensions

Stakeholders have become apprehensive. This is partially because of the lingering memories of the violence experienced after the 2007 elections. The unparalleled competitiveness of this year’s elections, perceptions of impunity surrounding these elections, NASA’s worries about the fairness of the IEBC, recorded incidences of election-related violence, and the hotly contested county-level elections also explain the widespread uneasiness, according to Professor Dorina Bekoe of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

The anxiety has caused the movement of non-indigenes of certain territories to areas dominated by members of their ethnic groups and the stocking up of foodstuff and other essential items.

It has also taken its toll on the economy. Serious business dealings have come to a standstill, with financiers halting their investments and neighboring states diverting their shipments from Mombasa to Tanzanian ports. U.S. and U.K. governments have issued travel warnings about the possibility of disturbances. Tourism in Kenya will suffer from this advisory.

The much-anticipated Kenyan elections take place today. Irrespective of the fact that the vulnerabilities of the past continue to haunt this exercise, there is hope that the country will pull back from the brink of a nationwide electoral violence.

Matthew Pflaum is a MSc student in Africa & International Development.  Here he writes about his work-based placement in the East Region of Cameroon with MBOSCUDA.


Figure 1. A large church in central Yaoundé, and a banner for National Unity Day.


I arrived in Yaoundé, Cameroon on May 20th. I had only realized the previous day that this is an auspicious date in Cameroonian history – national unification day. In 1972, the Anglophone regions (two) and Francophone regions (eight) joined and unified, making the country a unitary rather than a federated state. It is one of the biggest holidays and festivals in the country, and Yaoundé, the country’s capital, was expected to be wild. Unfortunately, I missed most of the festivities as I arrived in the evening.

I am interested in pastoralists and nomads, and my work in Cameroon involves learning about land rights, marginalisation, and other issues related to Mbororo pastoralists in the country. Continue Reading »