Uganda’s schooling system does not politically empower young people

Classroom. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2017

More than 20 years ago, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that:

The lack of education stops a great majority of Africans from being citizens in their own right.

However, in the two following decades, there have been very mixed results on how education enhances political empowerment in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some researchers found that in Kenya civic education programmes had positive effects on political participation and engagement. By contrast, other scholars argued that higher levels of education did not increase people’s propensity to pursue “easy” forms of political participation, such as voting in the case of Mali.

One country that is struggling with democracy is Uganda. The country’s political environment remains severely restricted under the regime of long-ruling President Yoweri Museveni. In 2019 Freedom House – an independent watchdog organisation dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world – downgraded Uganda from partly free to not free.

The signs of restricted free spaces are there. Civil activism has been dampened by a controversial NGO act, enacted in 2016, which severely limits political advocacy. A social media tax was also introduced in 2018 to boost government revenue and end “gossip” on 60 social media outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

My research project “Democratisation through Education” sought to gain a better understanding of what role schools play in the political empowerment of youth. Does education help young people to better understand how Uganda’s government and political system works? Do they engage in critical discussions in school about social, economic or political issues that affect society and their everyday lives?

In short, I was interested in whether, and how, educational institutions empower Ugandan youth to participate in society as active, informed, critical and responsible citizens.

I found that while the majority of respondents felt they critically reflected on some societal issues in school, their reported knowledge of national political institutions, and on how they would claim and advocate for their rights as citizens, was remarkably low.

Shaping political agency

Civic education was initially introduced into the Ugandan curriculum by the government in the mid-1980s. The intention was to engage the population in the nation-building process.

In 2017, I surveyed a total of 497 youth between the ages of 15 and 29 years (201 females and 296 males). They came from various secondary schools and universities across four regions; Central, North, North-East and South-West. In addition I conducted 37 interviews with actors from the government, civil society organisations, community based organisations, school officials, education planners, teaching professionals and local academics.

When my data collection took place, civic education had just been suspended from the formal curriculum. Civil society organisations I spoke to however felt that offering civic education at school would still be very relevant. At the same time, though they cautioned that it can be (and used to be) misused as a political propaganda mechanism and had to be approached very carefully.

By and large, young people’s responses suggest that Ugandan schools only make a very modest contribution in shaping political agency. Barely 51% of all respondents felt that they had a clear understanding of how Uganda’s political system or government works.

According to their responses, critical discussions about issues that affect society did take place in schools as part of formal lessons. But they tended not to revolve around “politics”. Instead, data from the survey revealed that these discussions focus on apolitical topics such as teenage pregnancies, early marriages or alcoholism. According to one male:

Discussions are mostly about how the world is diverse, composed of plants, animals, buildings, water, bodies, that societies are made of families.

Youth did seem to learn about their basic rights as citizens, such as the right to education. However, hardly any reflection or discussion appeared to take place in schools on why political, economic or societal grievances occur. Instead, according to some respondents, these discussions would be held at home or in their communities. In the words of one of the respondents:

It is hard to discuss…issues of society and the world because even teachers fear attacking the evils of the world and society so even as students we develop the fear because we are afraid of being singled out as less patriotic.

Patriotism seems to have a certain priority in schools. Paintings stating “be a patriot” were found on school compounds. Young people also mentioned “patriotic school clubs” with the purpose to serve the country by nurturing positive attitudes towards their country, themselves and work.

Gender differences

There were some striking gender differences per region.

For instance, in the central region (Kampala) only 32.6% of young women said they understood national politics compared to 61.6% of young men. This suggests that the quality of education – which appears to be better in urban areas – does not necessarily translate into better understandings of politics among girls.

On average, more than half of the respondents reported an interest in politics, though their interest levels varied significantly between gender and regions.

The lowest interest was reported by females in Kampala (34.6%). The highest by men in the South-West (75%). Unexpectedly, 69.7% of females in the North-East reported to be most interested in politics, significantly more than young men in the same region (55.1%). The North-East, known as Karamoja, is one of Uganda’s historically most marginalised and impoverished regions.

A political role

It is highly questionable whether schools are democratic change agents that stimulate individual political agency in Uganda. The bigger question probably is, should schools take on that role?

If yes, then it is important to acknowledge that educational institutions are embedded in and dependent on surrounding social, political and economic structures. In other words, the education sector alone is not the magic bullet for democratisation, economic growth or poverty alleviation. It can only make its contribution towards systemic change at large.

For this change to happen, there needs to be a shift in thinking among education sector planners and actors (not just in Uganda) about the purpose of education.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 18 December 2020.

“N.G.O. Nothing Going On.”

A Ugandan-Congolese Movie.


“Colonialism was easier to fight than the massive industry of NGOs in Africa.”

says Arnold Aganze, a Congolese writer and director of his latest movie: N.G.O. – Nothing Going On. The movie starts off as a light story about how two young Ugandan men, Tevo and Zizuke, hook up and party with mzungu (white/western) girls. When one of the girls offers to help her newfound Ugandan fling to support poor women and children in the slums, the movie takes a sudden twist. Instructed by one of their mentors (Mr. Heineken – a successful Ugandan NGO owner himself), Tevo and Zizuke quickly learn how to play the game when it comes to get a piece of that juicy NGO pie. In order to raise “funds” they pull out all the stops: from a project called “Popcorn for Hope” that is supposed to “empower women” and “build capacity”; to restyling a girl from the slums for a photo shoot, as her chosen outfit does not fit the “African image” for successful fundraising.

What appears to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy on how Ugandans screw mzungus over and over again (in all aspects of life); is at its core a deep critical reflection on the exponential growth of NGOs in the country – if not sub-Saharan African continent. The exact numbers of how many NGOs are currently registered in Uganda are unclear – but during conversations with local experts working in the industry, estimates range from 9.000 – 12.000. Of course, not all of them are operational and briefcase organizations multiply. It is an industry, according to Arnold, that perpetuates aid dependency, serves as a source of income while at the same time distorts our society and culture. In his critique, he refers to both Western and African NGOs alike. “I am as critical of my own society as I am of Western ones.”

For Arnold, those NGOs aim at creating a perfect society, which will never exist – neither within nor outside Africa. He continues “when a project fails and does not yield desired results, donors and NGOs simply cannot accept that failure, leave the village and move on. Instead they are writing new project proposals thereby creating new words for the exact same problem.” In Arnold’s opinion, it is the aid sector, most specifically NGOs, that are creating a picture of a poor, desperate and broken Africa. Against this backdrop, he felt the urge to tell his own story, as an African, and change the direction of that narrative.

Initially, Arnold wanted to shoot the movie in Eastern Congo where he experienced first-hand how for decades an invasion of NGOs (and aid agencies) did not bring about the change people were hoping for. As far as the filming was concerned, it was yet much easier to realize his project in Uganda. The entire budget for the movie did not exceed 2.000 USD and all actors (including Arnold himself) were not paid. “At first no one wanted to support us or even show the movie. A lot of those festivals where we could potentially organize a screening are sponsored by foreign NGOs.” Arnold got the impression that they did not feel comfortable with the content of the film and therefore declined. Similar reactions came from Ugandan organizations who argued that if they offered to help, they would shoot themselves in the foot. Eventually, Arnold and his team managed to screen the movie in several African countries and will be soon touring festivals in Europe. The film premiered at the oldest African film festival the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia in and has been screened at the: Africa International Film Festival in Nigeria; Uganda Film Festival; and the Cameroon International Film Festival. It won in the category “best feature film” at the Mashariki African Film Festival in Rwanda and at the Pan-African Film Festival Fespaco in Burkina Faso.

Towards the end of our meeting, the conversation drifts away from the actual topic and we chat about how Frantz Fanon influenced his thinking and work. Arnold tells me that he would have liked to live a few decades earlier and take an active part in overcoming the colonial struggle. In his view, this was an exciting moment of being black as there was a united Africa fighting for a specific cause. He concludes:

“Today only a few Africans are proud to be African and that is the actual problem we face.”

Confirmed screenings of N.G.O. – Nothing Going On will be held over the summer across Europe at the following festivals:

Truth | Lies: 9 May 2017 (Malta)

Cinemas d’Afrique: 16 – 21 May 2017 (France)

Cinemondes: 10 -17 June 2017 (France)

Helsinki African Film Festival: 7- 14 May 2017 (Finland)

Arnold also offers to show his film at universities. He wants to engage in particular students in a critical discussion about the humanitarian sector, development aid and the continuous portrayal of a single story about Africa. If you want to arrange for a screening at your institution, please get in touch with:

Uganda: Digging for Social Justice in Karamoja

Co-authored with Tenywa Aloysius Malagala.
How the poor provision of education for the Karamojong affects the community’s ability to advocate for their rights.

Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015
Nakabaat. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2015

Nestled amid the hills of the northeastern Ugandan-Kenyan border, a small Karamojong community in Nakabaat struggles to come to terms with a conflict-ridden past and the consequences of mineral resource exploitation by national and international companies. Uganda’s history of state formation was followed by anti-pastoralist policies and decades of drought, land disputes, and land dispossession, leaving the community deprived of food, water, healthcare facilities, and access to education. Locals from areas like Nakabaat have experienced cross-border conflicts for many years. However, what threatens the fragile peace today is no longer warrior nomads or border disputes but Karamoja’s nascent mining industry.

Although the area’s huge mineral deposits have the potential to revitalise the local economy, improve the living standards of a conflict-affected population, and foster processes of sustainable peace development, the region’s natural resources have fortified suffering, abject poverty, structural violence, and human rights abuses instead.

Karamoja remains one of the most underdeveloped sub regions in Uganda, and it displays the highest multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI) in the country: 79.1 per cent live in severe poverty compared to the 38.2 per cent national average. As such, the region remains extremely vulnerable to internal and external shocks, ranging from security, political, environmental, and health-related threats. Yet, Karamoja is rich in two assets: mineral resources (including tin, gold, iron, nickel, copper, cobalt, marble, limestone, graphite, gypsum, wolfram, uranium, and lithium) and cultural diversity (consisting of tribes from Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan).

At first glance, the vast lands of Karamoja may appear vacant and unexploited. In reality, they are not—communities, not individuals, usually own the land. This clearly challenges any genuine attempts to identify rightful owners for consolation and compensation prior to engaging in mining activities. According to the latest report by Human Rights Watch (“How can we survive here?” 2014), there are currently three active mining companies in Karamoja engaged in different stages of the mining process. These include Jan Mangal Uganda Ltd (a Ugandan subsidiary of an Indian jewelry company), East African Mining Ltd (a Ugandan gold exploration company), and DAO Marble Ltd (a Kuwait-based group).

The report further highlights the difficulties of land rights and ownership and states that

“While Uganda’s mining law requires a surface rights agreement to be negotiated with land owners prior to active mining and payment of royalties to lawful landowners once revenues flow, the law does not require any communication or consent from the local population during exploration work.”

What makes matters even worse is the government’s resistance to implementing communal or collective land ownership based on the Karamojong’s communal tradition.

In a way, history repeats itself in Karamoja—only the exterior actors have changed. After colonial rule, the borders between Kenya and Sudan were redrawn, and the majority of the Karamojong’s grazing regions were left outside Uganda. The extent to which the long-term effects of externally imposed borders have caused civil unrest and conflict in the region remains a highly debated and often disputed point.

In pre-colonial Karamoja, political power was exercised over people and not over land or territory. In other words, the nature of semi-nomadic societal life rendered the whole notion of individual land ownership almost irrelevant. Any territorial claims would have endangered the very basis of survival for most pastoral communities. Upon independence, forceful attempts by Ugandan governments to settle Karamojong pastoralists have resulted in decades of conflict and widespread poverty. Today, the Karamojong’s lack of legal proof and land ownership puts them in significant jeopardy of experiencing rights abuses as mining activities continue to increase.

The small Karamojong community of Nakabaat serves as a prime example of how resource exploitation and land acquisition by mining companies increase structural violence and violate human rights. Disarmed by the Uganda People’s Defense Force, the community abandoned cattle herding (and raiding) to mine for small quantities of gold instead. Yet, between 2011 and 2014, their modest existence was severely disrupted when Jan Mangal Ltd entered their land.

Initially, Jan Mangal Ltd promised to develop and compensate the community in exchange for their gold-mining activities, but the company did not live up to its promises. When the community raised concerns about issues of land ownership, Jan Mangal Ltd asserted that the land belonged to the government. Four years down the line, the company has depleted the mine of its gold and has left the impoverished community behind. Miles of black pipes used to pump water into the mining site still remain and serve as a reminder of their activities. In a group interview, the community of Nakabaat claimed that throughout the period of Jan Mangal’s presence they were refused access to water from the pipes. Notably, Karamoja is one of the regions in Uganda that is most affected by frequent water shortages and drought.

These days, there are only traces of gold left at the site. Young Karamojong miners reveal that for one “point” (i.e. the size of a few sand corns) they earn 5.000 Uganda Shillings (UGX) or US$ 1.70, and one gram presently sells for UGX 50.000 or US$ 17. Ugandan businessmen from Kampala are their main clients. Sales figures are purely the result of chance, and there are periods when they sell no gold at all. A “point” of gold may easily take up to one day of mining and involve several members of the community. Fatalities occur frequently due to the poor set-up of the mining site.

Any local attempts to formally complain and report Jan Mangal Ltd have so far failed. Even when the community sought legal assistance from the International Federation of Women Lawyers, Jan Mangal neither responded nor attended meetings about the case.

Besides, communities such as Nakabaat simply lack educated individuals to advocate for their wants and needs, not to mention to engage in lucrative mining activities and businesses for themselves. When we asked community members how many of them attended school, only one young man raised his hand.

Karamoja has the highest percentage of Uganda’s population with either no schooling or incomplete primary education (79.8 % being female and 64.8% being male). Numerous efforts by the government in collaboration with international donors, aid agencies and civil society organisations are currently underway to increase educational attainment among the local people. These positive developments notwithstanding, it may take a time span of two generations until remote communities are able to advocate for their rights and needs.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

Freetown’s “Ajekuleh”: Where the Good, the Bad and the Ugly revive memories of a tragic past

Just sit and watch.

Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger
Ajekuleh Slave Tunnel. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2012

“There is no replacement for street sense”, a group of young men tell me while squeezing out the last drops of cheap whisky from little plastic bags.

It’s a hot, sunny, mid-summer afternoon. I find myself in the remains of a crumbling market hall situated downhill in a district called Belgium in Freetown. At first sight, the densely-crowded hall seems quite intimidating, disorganised and chaotic. Women with their babies hoisted onto their backs are selling food, soft drinks, alcohol, snacks and tobacco. Young men are trading knock-off designer footwear and shirts next to a group of males gambling for money.

“This is our casino.” explains a local.

Disabled men try to make their way between piles of cassava leaves and girls washing clothes in big colourful buckets. A tailor is diligently working on a sewing machine that seems to date back to the early 20th century. Sound waves of various music genres float in from all angles. Children are playing cheerfully on the fringes of the hall – next to garbage, loose chicken and a dirty little stream.

The locals have nicknamed this area “Ajekuleh”. Everyone is welcome from every corner of the city. Ex-combatants mingle with students, the unemployed youth, artists, okada[1] drivers, prostitutes, ex-prostitutes, local politicians as well as formal and informal businessmen. They drink, smoke, eat, dance together, engage in passionate discussions about all sorts of issues and daily affairs. People also come just to sit down, relax and take a break from the busy life in Freetown. The fact that I was the only white person among them who also happened to be female did not seem to perturb anyone. A few shake my hand and ask for my name while others offer me cigarettes. Some are curious about the purpose of my visit but all of them ensure that I am sitting on the most comfortable part of a shaky bench.

“Simone, in this place you will find the good, the bad and the ugly. Just sit and watch,” whispers a local friend of mine. So I sit down and watch the daily routine of the Wild West in Freetown. In time, I hear stories about corrupt elders, how informal businesses are ruled by unwritten laws, how people educate themselves in the streets when they do not have the opportunity to attend school, how they have to bribe the police when raids are occasionally conducted in the area, and how ghettos here in Freetown differ in social strata, unofficial policies and style. All of this and much more, here in Ajekuleh, happens on historical soil.

A legacy

Less than 20 metres from my shaky bench, the relics of two slave tunnels revive a tragic past. Roughly 500 years ago, the Portuguese built a fort to trade gold and ivory. From 1550, the most profitable commodity became humans. After going through the slave tunnels, locals point out the manacles built into centuries-old walls. The condition of the homes next to the fort remains are abject. I can’t help but think of John Newton’s[2] 1788 tract: “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade” in which he wrote:

Their lodging-rooms below the deck, which are three (for the men, the boys and the women), besides a place for the sick, are sometimes more than five feet high, and sometimes less; and this height is divided towards the middle for the slaves lie in two rows, one above the other, on each side of the ship close to each other, like books upon a shelf. I have known them so close, that the shelf would not easily contain one more. And I have known a white man sent down, among the men to lay them in these rows to the greatest advantage, so that as little space as possible might be lost. (…) And every morning, perhaps, more instances than one are found, of the living and the dead, like the captives of Mezentius, fastened together.

More than 200 years later, many people call the long stretch of slums around the coast of Freetown their home. Areas such as Kroo Bay or Susan’s Bay are congested, overpopulated and can be extremely dangerous especially during rainy season. Children frequently get swept away by floods along with their houses. A young man in his mid-twenties tells me that he prefers to sleep in the streets during the rainy months as it is simply too dangerous to stay at home. Less than three months ago, he lost his dwelling and all his belongings in one night. He is still coming to terms with the loss but is nevertheless happy to be alive. Five people from the community did not survive. Various attempts to relocate inhabitants from the slums along the coast have failed so far.

Dealing with the past

I notice a couple of young men sitting inside the slave tunnels. Locals tell me they come here to eat, smoke, drink and carry out their informal businesses. Along with the market hall, it is another regular meeting point. It almost resembles a public park bench in the middle of the town.

“What kind of changes would they like to see in Ajekuleh?” I ask. Ideally, they would like to create an international business centre so that people can do business on a much larger scale, they tell me. Our location, standing inside the slave tunnels, is not much of an issue in our conversation. I wonder how they feel about the past? “Oh Simone, this happened a long time ago. We like you white people from the West!” they reply.

Throughout my stay, many locals repeatedly told me that Sierra Leoneans have a very short memory. I wonder how people feel about socialising with ex-combatants (from the country’s civil war in the 90s) on a daily basis – not only in Ajekuleh? “They are our brothers and sisters! We sympathise with them because they begged us for mercy and we forgave them.”

I kept on returning to Ajekuleh on occasion. I sat down, watched and listened. What struck me most is probably the tendency to overlook the bad, focus on the good and ignore the ugly when it comes to the Sierra Leonean relationship with the past.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE

[1] Motorbike

[2] Founder of the Wesleyan movement.


Far from being victims, women’s networks have led the way in campaigning for peace and justice

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.

Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008
Pray the Devil back to Hell. Movie Poster 2008

In 2011, the American Journal of Public Health estimated that 48 women are raped every hour in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Some experts have even suggested that the figure is much higher considering the number of unreported cases. Sadly, rape as a weapon of war is not exceptional in the Congo; rather it is pervasive in many fragile states. According to the Journal of Peace Research, roughly 75 per cent of all Liberian women were raped during the civil war. In the case of Bosnia, experts believe that between 20,000 to 50,000 were affected. In view of these shockingly high numbers, women are often portrayed as helpless and despairing victims. Strikingly, this often overlooks an important point.

Far more than victims

In politically suppressed and patriarchal societies, women risk speaking up and advocating their rights. In West Africa, for example, women cultivate peace, foster social cohesion and help rebuild war-torn societies. The war in Liberia serves as a case in point, when thousands of female protesters sang relentlessly until peace was finally negotiated. Other non-violent weapons included the threat to put a curse on the warring parties and a sex strike. Three years later, in 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president of the country and the first female elected head of state in Africa.

Likewise, in neighbouring Sierra Leone, the peacebuilding process has been shaped by various civilian initiatives brought to life and led by women: the Fifty/Fifty Group or the Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace are just a couple of examples. Their target is for women to take up 30 per cent of the seats in Parliament after the elections in November this year. Furthermore, the ambition is to raise this number to 50 per cent in five years’ time.

Regionally, organisations such as the West African NGO network, WIPNET (Women in Peacebuilding Programme) provide training and strengthen the capacities of local movements. Since 2004, about 400 women’s organisations have benefited from their work.

Globally, women campaign for equal and full participation in efforts to create and maintain international peace and security. For instance, the NGOWG (NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security), located next to the United Nations Secretariat in New York City, is comprised of 17 international non-governmental organisations. Their focus is on conflict-affected countries on the Security Council’s agenda. In each country, local groups identify women’s needs and concerns on the ground, which are then formulated into a common agenda at headquarter level.

Despite all these positive achievements and initiatives from diverse civilian spheres at the political and juridical levels, women are still often excluded from negotiations and crucial events. According to a UN report, in 24 major peace processes between 1992 and 2010, only 2.5 per cent of the signatories, 3.2 per cent of the mediators, 5.5 per cent of witnesses and 7.6 per cent of negotiators were women. Likewise, the OECD reports that only 20 per cent of aid allocated for peace and security in fragile states integrates a gender equality dimension. Yet, DFID’s operational plan (2011-2015) of the Policy Division for Governance and Fragile States holds that the “discrimination and lack of opportunities faced by girls and women requires a specific focus.”

These facts are even more disappointing considering the numerous instruments created in past decades by the international community to advance women’s rights in fragile states. In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) followed by the Declaration on the Participation of Women in Promoting International Peace and Cooperation in 1981. Four world conferences on women were organised—in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). The latter led to the introduction of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and successive Security Council resolutions, starting with resolution 1325 in 2000 for women’s participation in all aspects of peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding.  Resolution 1325 subsequently led to four more between 2008-2010*.  There have also been several reports from the Secretary General, workshops and high-level stakeholder meetings on women, peace and security.

While rhetoric on enhancing women’s rights and participation in fragile states is pervasive, de-facto implementation remains slow.


Sarah Taylor, Executive Coordinator of the NGOWG highlighted the difficulty of obtaining funds for the schemes of women’s rights activists as one of the reasons why action on women’s rights is so sluggish. More financial and political resources are needed for early warning systems to monitor and report rights violations. Even if funds are made available, more long-term commitment is required, as things simply do not change overnight. In addition, many women’s rights activists work in remote and dangerous areas. Funding their activities involves certain risks, which many donors are not willing to take.

Likewise, many fragile states experience serious shortcomings in laws and practices to protect women’s rights. Weak local justice systems and impunity for perpetuators are common in post-conflict societies.

Advancing women’s rights is therefore not a movement lacking ideas, initiative or instruments; women are able to take matters into their own hands. Nevertheless, they still often remain excluded from important peacebuilding processes.

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE


*The imperative of resolution 1325 fed into four subsequent resolutions, namely, 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1889 (2009) and 1960 (2010)

Virtually Constructing Awareness Campaigns – Restrictions of ‘Viral’ Global Public Discourse #Kony2012

If a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist – it is very exclusionary in its nature.

Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children
Stop Kony 2012 Poster. Invisible Children

“When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically; when any incident you like, in any place you like, at any time you like, becomes accessible as fast as you like; when you can simultaneously “experience” an assassination attempt against a king in France and a symphony concert in Tokyo; when time is nothing but speed, instantaneity, and simultaneity, and time as history has vanished from all Dasein [Being] of all peoples; when a boxer counts as the great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a specter over all this uproar the question: what for?—where to?—and what then?”  (Heidegger)

The majority of large INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) regularly update their online communities on developmental work and pressing needs on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Most prominently, Invisible Children urged millions of people to take part in a global awareness campaign in order to chase one of the most notorious criminals worldwide: Joseph Kony. Reactions to the film have differed enormously. The UK-based INGO, PeaceDirect criticised the campaign as out of context and without any local ownership. For Justice in Conflict author, Mark Kersten, the film does not offer an accurate portrayal of the actual conflict in Uganda as the problem is far more complicated than simply stopping Joseph Kony (for more details see also CTV News interview). On 12 March, the Guardian published a graph by Charlie Morton called ‘Phony 2012’, revealing that in 2011 about US $ 1.7 million was spent on Invisible Children staff and only 1 % of all funds raised will in fact directly reach the Ugandan people. Yet, according to Luis Moreno Ocampo (the International Criminal Court Chief Prosecutor), the media crusade had ‘mobilised the world’ and Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie has called for ‘Ugandan warlord’s arrest’. The question is: Can a viral video change the world?

Hence, the focus of this blog post is not about the ethics, politics or strategies of the Kony2012 campaign as such which has already been discussed by so many others. Rather, it will deal with whether more attention should be paid to the exclusionary nature of awareness campaigns in cyberspace. Put simply, can we truly “mobilise the world” for a particular cause – virtually – through social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube? In a Habermasian lens – does such a thing as a “global” public sphere even exist? Notably, Habermas’ accounts of the public sphere are a reflection of societies in western liberal mass-welfare democracies. Bluntly transferring his notions to a global level will certainly result in some conceptual flaws. In a quick experiment to explore the usefulness of the term at global level, one can more or less argue that a global public sphere emerges out of dialogue, discourse and exchange – the same is true of cyberspace. Global public discourse then acquires a transformative or emanicpatory nature parallel to, and in concert with, global state structures. Access to such a global and virtual public sphere would, in principle, be open to all citizens in that populace (in re-interpretation of Habermas account):

“(…) act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicise their opinions freely. When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. (1989, 231)”

More than 20 years later, his definition has gained a completely new dimension through advanced media technologies and social media platforms. The Internet has become a medium which is assumed to be non-exclusionary, egalitarian and democratic.

But is this really the case for campaigns such as Kony 2012? Beyond the excitement of pursuing international criminal justice through mass-civilian advocacy, one crucial question stands out at the fringes of this endeavour: How are these virtual campaigns absorbed domestically in countries such as the Democratic Republic of  Congo, Central African Republic, Southern Sudan or Uganda (all areas in which Kony has operated or operates)? How can their voices be heard – virtually?

Many studies and academic literature have focused on the issue of “aid absorption capacity” in LDCs (Least Developed Countries). Strikingly, not much attention is paid to how the influence of communication and information technologies is in fact absorbed and internalised in countries ranked at the bottom of the Human Development Index (HDI). In other words, how does the Kony 2012 movement and the numerous online initiatives and campaigns run by numerous INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) affect domestic public discourse in the LDCs in question? Who among the broader population in these countries has access to social media platforms such as Facebook and can make use of advanced media and communication technology and thus launch his or her own campaign?

In a short assessment, one major indicator is certainly the illiteracy rate within LDCs. Citing a UNESCO fact sheet from 2011, “In 2009, the global adult literacy rate was 83.7%, compared to 89.3% for youth. The region of South and West Asia is home to more than half of the world’s illiterate population (51.8%). In total, 21.4% of all illiterate adults live in sub-Saharan Africa.” Notably, adult literacy rates were below 50% in the following sub-Saharan countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. According to the HDI 2011, in countries in which the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) operates or operated, the literacy rate of both sexes above 15 years of age is:

  • Central African Republic: 55.2 %
  • Democratic Republic of Congo: 66.8 %
  • Southern Sudan: (not listed)
  • Uganda: 71.4 %

One could argue now that the Kony 2012 campaign is based on a film and the issue of illiteracy is only secondary. Still, taking Central African Republic as an example, 44.8 % of the population are not able to understand written information, google the video online or comment on it. In this regard, media absorption capacity in LDCs is also limited because of:

Language barriers: Especially in rural areas where not everyone is fluent or fully understands English (or in the case of other campaigns/countries, French or other western languages).

Restricted access to computers and costs: Access to a computer or other advanced media communication tools are still a privilege in all LDCs. For example, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the standard hourly rate to use the internet is about 5,000 Leones,  equivalent to USD 1.35. This is 15 cents more than the average person earns per day.

Thus, if a global civilian discourse and consequently public sphere ought to exist  – it is very exclusionary in its nature. As well-intended as many of these campaigns are, they take place in a “virtually” isolated global public debate from the very local civilian sphere.  The “what for” is only one out of so many other important aspects. More attention needs to be paid to the “where to” as marginalised civilian spheres should not be excluded from the global discourse and should also have a “viral” voice. However, what is even more essential is the “what then”…?

This article was originally published by: Africa at LSE


Habermas, Jürgen (1986): On society and politics – a reader, edit. by Seidman Martin, Beacon Press,Boston

Habermas, Jürgen (1996): Between Facts and Norms, Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, translated by William Rehg, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Heidegger, Martin (1959): Introduction to metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press

Barefoot Soldiers for Social Justice, Food Security and Peace (Sierra Leone)

Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.

War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011
War Widows. Photo: OPARD SL 2011

It took me two attempts until I finally reached Yoni Chiefdom also known as Mile 91, which is 2 and a half hours car drive away from Freetown. Rainy season was just about to start in early July 2011 and my poor knowledge of local travel connections taught me the unforgettable lesson that it is certainly cheaper, but not advisable, to travel outside Freetown by motorbike – despite the ongoing road constructions.

When I at last reach Mile 91, a well-spoken, middle-aged man receives me: Mr. Ahmed Muckson Sessay, Director of OPARD-SL (Organization for Peace, Reconciliation and Development – Sierra Leone).  That I had to reschedule our interview three times does not prevent him from welcoming me warmheartedly.

OPARD-SL started off as a voluntary organization in 1999 initiated by local farmers to help promote peace during the decade long vicious civil war in Sierra Leone. The need to do so was very pressing indeed: Between 1994 and 2000 the rebels attacked Mile 91 in total 19 times and soon the region (in particular the nearby town Masiaka) became a strategic junction which (in BBC’s correspondent Mark Doyle’s words) ‘changed hands between the various armed factions countless times.’

Given that a few community members knew some of the rebels, OPARD-SL was able to initiate early talks with the RUF (Revolutionary United Front). Later, the organization would also serve as a mediator amongst all warring parties. ‘We were barefoot soldiers trying to negotiate peace’ – said Mr. Muckson Sessay.

While talking about the current work of his organization, he ensures that I get a copy of a letter dating back to 10 January 2001, written by UNAMSILs (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone) then Commanding Officer Colonel Khushal Thakur. Although an official document, Colonel Thakur addresses Mr. Muckson Sessay amicably and in handwritten script as My dear Bro. Muckson – a subtle indication of the unique interpersonal ties that are only built in situations of the highest distress and emergency.

In his letter, Colonel Thakur then expresses his sincere gratitude for Mr. Muckson Sessay’s: ‘[…] active mediation and indulgence [which] reinvigorated and revitalized the sagging relationship between the RUF and UNAMSIL. This subsequently facilitated in strengthening the ties and retrieval of UN equipment captured by RUF in May 2000.’

The colonel’s letter is an example of the probably darkest hours in the history of UNAMSIL when the RUF broke the Lomé deal and, amongst other incidents, took around 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. The events could not have been more embarrassing – instead of the UN disarming the rebels, the rebels disarmed the UN. This was eventually resolved through a massive international intervention (most notably the British backing and reinforcing of UNAMSIL troops). But, this often leaves one major aspect overlooked: Pacifying Sierra Leone was preceded and constantly influenced by a series of civil society initiatives. Mile 91, is just one out of many examples where ordinary Sierra Leonean’s proved their courage and their restless convictions for peace.

According to Mr. Muckson Sessay, OPARD-SL’s efforts during and after the conflict were never really acknowledged in official peace ceremonies.  What reminds of OPARD-SL’s endeavors, however, is UNAMSIL’s letter in Muckson Sessay’s office and a peace monument an hour and half hours motorbike ride away from the village.

What has happened to Mile 91 and thus OPARD-SL ten years after the conflict?

For Mr. Muckson Sessay peacebuilding and development processes are intertwined and cannot be separated from each other. In the past few years OPARD-SL’s focus shifted (in a nutshell) to food security, environmental protection, organic farming, economic empowerment of women and youth, education for the underprivileged, water sanitation and health care. In the long road from destruction to reconstruction OPARD-SL received inter alia funds from the U.S., Canada or the UNPBF (United Nations Peacebuilding Fund). Yet, in 2011 the organization is unsure how to further sustain itself. He wishes that his community had the faculties to create better incentives to keep the youth in town but also increase their interest in farming.

The core challenge for small towns and villages is certainly the rural-urban migration flow.  In the UNHABITAT report ‘The State of African Cities 2010’ it is indicated that 38.40 percent of all Sierra Leoneans live in urban areas (most notably Freetown). UNHABITAT further estimates that by 2050 this figure will change to 62.44 percent.

Mr. Muckson Sessay is not alone when stressing that this trend undermines not only food security in rural areas but also leaves the old and aged without any care behind. The Sierra Leonean journalist Madieu Jalloh further holds: ‘(…) to say that agriculture is vital to Sierra Leone’s economic growth is an understatement’.

Ten years after the conflict and despite widespread support from the international community, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries worldwide. Looking at UNICEF’s statistics, every fourth child under the age of 5 is underweight, in other words, 40% of all deaths amongst children in Sierra Leone are caused by malnutrition.

After my long conversation with Mr. Muckson Sessay I am rushing to my next interview with a local civil society organization called ‘Women’s Partnership for Justice and Peace’ (WPJP, based in Bo). Without mentioning my Mile 91 impressions a WPJP staff member immediately refers to the problem of food shortage in rural areas and concludes: ‘Peace is food, you cannot have peace when you are hungry.’

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS

Voices to the Youth – ‘We can see the light but we are not working’ (Sierra Leone)

Youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life.

S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011
S.L.F. Street Life Family. Photo: Simone Datzberger 2011

Freetown – In the middle of a community near to Belairpark, only five minutes motorbike ride from the city centre, the daily challenges of poverty lead to the formation of a support organisation. In Freetown, necessity definitely begets ingenuity. A club called ‘Street Life Family’, in short S.L.F., uplifts young men who have lost almost everything except for their dignity, hope, and each other. ‘Together as One’ – is the motto of the club, which builds on mutual respect, unity and team spirit. S.L.F. was founded, in 2000, by Mr. Ahamedi Tijan Kabbah – also known as ‘Grandpa’ – under the initial name ‘Peacemakers’. Yet S.L.F. is not a political Grassroots Movement as such, but, an informal social support system for all of its members. Struggling with the consequences of the conflict and poverty himself, Mr. Kabbah simply reached out to the youth of the community with the message: ‘Let us be together’.  Eleven years later it is hard to estimate – even for S.L.F. members – how many people are de-facto part of the club in which members often come and go. The core of S.L.F. though, consists of about 50 young men who live either on the street or share a small room with a couple of other friends or members, sometimes at the compound or somewhere else in the nearby slums. Some of them have jobs, some are unemployed, some are artists or students and some simply describe themselves as ‘Jacks of all trades’. No matter how they generate their income, all S.L.F. members contribute at least a very small amount of their money to the club. Every evening one can find a big cast iron pot full of rice at the S.L.F. compound. In rotating shifts one member prepares the food for the entire club. For some it is the only meal they will have per day.  But that is only a small part of club life and initiatives. Taking the road uphill Belair Park to Mr. Kabbah’s house one can see a handful of young men working hard to build a road with only a few tools. Everyone in the community knows that the funds to build this particular road were already allocated and then misappropriated twice.  Now these young men undertake the job for free, earning nothing but the occasional tips from passing cars and motorbikes.

In 2007 and without any external support or funds thus far S.L.F. even created its own school called ‘Bomba Adult Education Center’. The idea came from Mr. Alusane S. Dumbya a local artist, play writer, poet, narrator and cartoonist. Lectures are held three times per week by Mr. Dumbya himself and other teachers. Everyone is welcome to join in – S.L.F. as well as non S.L.F. members. To their delight sometimes even workers from the streets of Freetown spontaneously come by and participate in classes. Lectures taught are about ‘general knowledge of all aspects’ according to Mr. Dumbya. One of his latest classes for instance focused on the ‘Lost Legends of Sierra Leone’. The key message of this particular class: Sierra Leone is not poor of natural, human and cultural resources, but, mismanaged.

Sierra Leone – Amongst the international community the country is often referred to as a ‘success’ story in its process of recovery from a vicious civil war and a transition to peace.  People are indeed tired of fighting. Their frustration about slow development and the on-going and widespread corruption, however, remains. Almost ten years after the war people are still living by the day, in fact, 63% of the population has less than $ 1.25 as disposable income per day. Current life expectancy is estimated at 48.2 years, almost half of the population is illiterate, child mortality rates are high and every fifth women dies from preventable complications during birth or pregnancy.  Talking to people living in the slums of Freetown they say that they still feel that in part things are slowly changing to the better in the form of road construction and electricity. Nonetheless, the latter is often unreliable and their core concerns seem unresolved. While pointing to the flashing lights from residential areas in the hills surrounding Freetown Mr. Kabbah says: ‘We can see the lights but we are not working.’ Sierra Leone has one of the highest youth unemployment rates worldwide. It is estimated that approximately 60% – 70% of young people don’t have a job or any prospects for a regular and stable income, and consequently better life.  And even for those who manage to find employment, wages are so low that it hardly leads to any major improvement. Not surprisingly local labour units are weak – lacking capacity and rights.

How do young people cope with all these challenges, constant uncertainties and most of all powerlessness to change their own situation? One major source for encouragement and strength are certainly their clubs. There is hardly a young adult in Sierra Leone who does not belong to a specific club or group. The purpose of these clubs varies from dancing, making music to sports or any other social activities like contests or public events.  Some clubs are for leisure activities only, others, like S.L.F., are the only social support network they have. Interviewing youth from different clubs and backgrounds they all agree that clubs are a major contributor to sustaining the peace in the country, in so much that they bring unity amongst the youth. One S.L.F. member adds that ‘We [the club] have to be at peace with ourselves first in order to bring peace to the other communities’.  Yet, such a peaceful coexistence of all youth clubs in Freetown was not always the case.

A notable proportion of clubs in the city associate themselves with a specific movement. So, Central Freetown belongs to the ‘Blues’ (also known as CCC – Cent Cost Crips), West Freetown to the ‘Reds’ (also known as RFM – Red Flag Movement) and East Freetown to the ‘Blacks’ (also known as Kekeke or Black Leos). In terms of membership (thus number of local clubs affiliated to one movement) the CCC movement is the biggest one – followed by the RFM and then the Black Leos. Recently a new movement (yellow and black) emerged in the South-Eastern part of the town but the three other groups signal clearly that they still have to work on growing the number of members and gaining respect.  In the past gang fights or ‘beefing’ as they call it, occurred quite often. Presently all the movements are proud of having established a culture of discussion and declared a ‘cold war’ between all the parties involved. Negotiations were initiated in November 2010 by the CCCs together with the help of the Minster of Internal Affairs and Local Government Mr. Dauda Kamara. Each movement burned down their flags and granted the other group the right to spray their initials on the walls in the territory of the others. However, eight months later it seems that this peace process is built on a very shaky ground. Although Minister Kamara’s successful attempt in ‘gang fight mediation’ is highly appreciated amongst all groups, their daily frustrations persist. In a group interview with the head of the CCCs, a young men who calls himself ‘Gangster Number 1’ and about 30 other members it is made clear that the expectations of the Blues were not met.  From the moment they stopped the ‘beefing’ in the streets they felt left alone again. No further signal with regards to support or help for a better development of their ‘blue community’ has since reached them. More concretely, if they don’t see their lives transformed in the near future, they would not exclude that the ‘beefing’ might start again. On top, the CCCs are not alone with their dissatisfaction. A group of students who belong to the RFM equally state: ‘If things won’t change for the youth in next 2-3 years we’ll go mad.’ Opinions differ enormously whether a potential re-occurrence of gang fights might constitute a potential threat to the peace process of the country. For some local Civil Society Organisations, it is a phenomenon that can be found in any other big city around the world, for others it can have a destabilising impact which shouldn’t be underestimated at all.

The reality is that the youth in Freetown are bubbling over with hope for a better life. But if their situation remains unchanged it is only a question of time before fights re-occur. ‘Sometimes I think god just fools me’, said a young man belonging to the RFM. and S.L.F. grandfather Mr. Kabbah seems also very concerned. ‘I don’t want to see the youth to lose their head’ he says in reference to the challenges and frustrations they face. Considering their past and daily struggles it is absolutely impressive that the majority did not.

This article was originally published by: LSE IDEAS and Africa at LSE