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Africa’s epidemic of mutual ignorance: Lessons from the Horn and East Africa – PART III

Africans need to talk to each other
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Rooble’s traumatic experience in Kampala—of extortion and segregation built around fear, stereotypes, and hatred emerging from child-like ignorance of Africans about other Africans—is similar to an experience underwent by Adam Kasule (not real names) a graduate student from Makerere University doing fieldwork in Hargeisa, Somaliland.  Please note that while these stories may not be similar in magnitude—Rooble’s was worse—both thrive on the same underlying reason: mutual regional ignorance.

As a graduate student from Makerere University (one of Africa’s oldest universities, this detail is important for the story), Adam had visited Somaliland for three years before 2015.  Often, he got his visa upon arrival at Egal International Airport where the standard stay period given at the airport is a month’s stay.  One then is advised to visit the Somaliland Ministry of Foreign Affairs for any extension of their visas.  Despite having no consulate in East Africa, Somaliland immigration sometimes, demanded that one produced a visa upon entry into the country.  One should have got this visa through a “sponsor,” a concept, which means having an invitation from a local contact.  The idea is that one has to have an institution that can claim to know them or be seen to be sponsoring their stay.

Upon applying for his extension, Adam often claimed being self-sponsored, and presented letters from his mother institution, Makerere University, which duly introduced him to the country. There had been no drama during earlier visits, perhaps because, Adam had presented a local contact, a sponsor.  However, on his third time as a visitor, things turned different.  Below is an extended narrative from his diary entry of an exchange and entire encounter with emigration officers on 12 October 2015 at their offices in Hargeisa.  He had been “arrested” after he visited the ministry to request for a visa extension.

“There is a Ugandan here who needs a visa extension? What do you say? Come read his letter, from, anha… Makerere University…” one of the officers who reviews applications was asking another on the phone.  This is what I gathered from my sketchy Somali.  He then turns to me:

“You have been travelling too much, hmm?” asked one of the officers, who had closely scanned my passport.

“Yes, not so much though” I said.

“When did you first come to Hargeisa?”

“2013.”

“Anha, what time?”

“You mean the dates? I do not recall but they are there in my passport.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m doing research. PhD research. Everything is contained in that letter in your hands,” he was holding onto my letter from Makerere University.

“Show me…”

“You mean, my research, well, I do not have it with me, unless you want to read the things I have been writing and materials I have photocopied, those are in my house.”

“Show me…what do you mean research?” he insisted.

“I do not understand the question, sir. What do you want me to show you?”

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a student.”

“No no no…is that truth?  Then how do you manage the economy…the ticket, going here and there…Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, and India…no way! All this money!

“Well, my university funds me.”

University! Is Makerere private or government?

“Government.”

“Then how can they pay you? No way!

“Well, I do not know what to tell you”

“The truth will come out when you go to jail,” he declared.

 

By then, one other officer had joined us.  He seemed interested in what was happening.  He had come with a printout of my info of entry and exit into Somaliland right from the first time I entered the country.

“You must be Al-Shabaab,” he noted pointing a warning finger at me.

Honestly, I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing hysterically. These Somalis are so ignorant about Al-Shabaab!  I said to myself.  At least one who accused me of being a spy for Nicholas Kay, the AMISOM [African Mission in Somalia] envoy in Mogadishu was better!

After an extended period of negotiation and after involving a couple of local friends, I am taken to the office of a more senior officer.   In the office of this elderly man, who was clearly their superior (and seemed to know Makerere better, and more knowledgeable about Al-Shabab) the junior officers had been ordered to return my passport and also grant me the period I had asked for.  He had even said hello to me, and smiled as he looked me direct in the eye.

 

My main interest in the Adam’s story is that he was not only called an Al-Shabaab member, but also a spy for AMISOM’s Nicholas Kay.  There are a couple of lessons here especially relating to the ignorance discussed in this three-part essay, and how this ignorance often ends in smouldering hostilities that complicate regional conversation. For instance, although non-Somali nationals are claimed to work with Al-Shabaab, it seems evident that Kasule’s interrogators do not understand the workings of Al-Shabaab.  From the way they handled a man who walked into their offices requesting for a visa extension, it seemed rather extreme, if not ignorant, calling him Al-Shabaab. It is also evident that in the remark about Makerere University being a government university, and assumed as one that cannot fund a student’s graduate work, the immigration officers were reading Makerere University through their local lenses.  One could say that since Somaliland is just recovering from the ravages of war, this absence of knowledge about the other East African countries and their workings is understandable. But this excuse falls short once it is applied to other East African countries where despite the calm they still homogenise and criminalise entire communities.

When Ugandan security rush to conclude that Rooble has Al-Shabaab connections because of his British accent, and Hargeisa’s immigration connects a Makerere graduate student to Al-Shabaab it does not only suggest the absence of knowledge about a major security threat in the region on either side but also about each other as a people.  In the security swoops that happened in Kampala in 2014, one of the arrests happened because people were concerned about the fact that their neighbours spoke a language they could not understand, while authorities would announce to journalists that they were taking long to bring the Somali suspects to court because they lacked “trusted and competent interpreters,” of the Somali language.

We can note that Adam’s story is one of the few East Africans doing postgraduate fieldwork across the border.  In other words, whatever his study project is, his work could be placed in a sort of an “East Africa-Horn of Africa project” that strengthens the beyond border conversation; and such a project is crucially needed. Mutual ignorance has stifled regional engagement, fuelled mutual suspicion, and given criminal groups and individuals—local and international—the space and requisite ingredients to operate. My contention is that as political sciences and security studies research continue to appreciate the contribution of the everyday people to the making of history, it should be extended into the praxis of culture, literature and business.  Popular cultural knowledge production—about and consumable by the everyday people—ought to be a core component of regional integration efforts, regional security and business initiatives.  This often takes the shape of music, literature in all its different forms, myth, and everyday forms of artistic expression, which do make visible the ways in which one community imagines itself.  Because of their popular cultural nature, that is, because they are often crafted artistically enabling them to travel wide and get easily seen and disseminated, they make visible, to the everyday people, the everyday struggles of one community and its internal contradictions, which strengthens the “beyond boundary” relations. These then have the power to ease tensions, dispel stereotypes, and make people-people connections possible. In other words, Africans need to talk to each other.

In Somalia and Somaliland, one is treated to several jokes about Somaliland, Somalia, Al-Shabaab, the diaspora communities, and the entire region.  As opposed to the official narratives often carried in the media, these popular cultural materials make visible the internal critic in Somalia, differences and points of unity among the everyday people, which challenge homogenised perceptions and ease the atmosphere of tension. The story of the cartoonist Amin Amir, under the label Amina Arts is an outstanding example. Amir’s cartoons are widely shared among the Somali online community. They are renowned for their uncompromising and satirical commentary about the politics in the Somali regions, focusing especially on the internal contradictions of politicians and the challenges of the everyday people.  Many times, they have implicated the region including especially Kenya and Ethiopia for contributing to the mess in the Somalia regions.  These radically destabilise the homogenised view of Somalia, let alone, the Somalia seen through the eyes of Al-Shabaab.

In talking to each, Africans cultural and media entrepreneurs ought to privilege voices such as Amin Amir, Dr Jamac Musse Jamac of the Hargeisa Cultural Centre (HCC) and Hargeisa International Book Fair (HIBF) where African countries are invited annually to showcase their literature to the Somalis.  The traditional dance group, at Ndere Centre in Kampala, or the Gorilla naming ceremony in Rwanda ought to embody a regional hue—where these groups and events could be organised in the neighbouring countries. It ought to be noted that the rise of Bongo Flavour music in Tanzania—and its spread across East—has made Tanzania more comprehensible to the region. The same is true about Lingala music from DRC spreading to all of East Africa.  Africans need to speak to each other and reduce tensions among each other.

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