Sunday, December 30, 2012

CAR: Former renegade general seeks western intervention

The West does not always impose itself on the African continent. Some African rulers actually solicit western intervention in the continent. The president of Central African Republic (CAR), a former renegade general and rebel leader, sought French and American intervention to stop a rebellion that threatens his regime. 

It is an open secret that many people on the African continent and elsewhere blame the West for the perils of the African continent. Many critics argue that the West is an invisible hand engineering conflicts, corruption, poverty, disease and supporting dictatorships in Africa. According to an article on The Economist, titled Africa, oil and the West, a month rarely goes by without the discovery of oil deposits in Africa and only 5 of Africa's 55 countries are neither producing nor exploring for oil. Despite Africa's mineral, oil and agricultural wealth, a chunk of its people live below the poverty line and die of hunger while Western multinationals plunder their resources; sometimes with little or no corporate social responsibility - as in the case of Shell in the Niger Delta. As if the exploitation of resources is not enough, the international criminal justice system disproportionately targets Africans. It is partly against this backdrop that Africans are suspicious of the West - and rightly so.

However, many critics of the West lose sight of the fact that African leaders are partly and largely responsible for the sorry-state of affairs on the continent. Some have argued that our rulers are pressured by their western counterparts to submit to their demands. But a shameful request of Francois Bozize, president of Central African Republic (CAR), for American and French intervention in the central African country shows that some African leaders -without any pressure from the usual suspects - actually solicit western intervention.

On Thursday 27 December 2012, Francois Bozize expressly asked France, his country's former colonial master, and the U.S. to intervene in the internal affairs of CAR and help stop the advance of rebels seeking to overthrow his government. The president reportedly said "the French are our cousins. They should fix what is happening." [Source]

It is unheard of for the president of a sovereign country to expressly seek western intervention in his country's internal affairs. As a matter of fact, many countries that are truly independent abhor foreign intervention. Slain Muammar Gaddafi of Libya would attest to this - if he could.

The last time I checked, CAR became an independent state since August 1960. After more than 50 years of independence, the country should be able to fix what is happening. Unfortunately, misrule is dragging the country into instability and neo-colonialism.

President Bozize's request, in my opinion, is a disgrace to the continent and a source of embarrassment to its people - especially those who argue that African countries can handle their affairs. Bozize's request is an indication, that perhaps the West does not always impose itself on Africa - some African leaders actually solicit western intervention.

A quick search on the internet reveals that President Francois Bozize came to power through a bloody military coup that deposed a civilian government under President Ange-Felix Patasse in March 2003. Renegade general Francois Bozize, who reportedly served as army chief of staff under his predecessor, formed a "transitional government" and was affirmed as president after elections in 2005. He was re-elected in 2011 after a controversial election regarded as flawed. [Source]

Amnesty International reported in its 2012 annual report that Bozize's government imprisoned suspected critics together with their associates and family members. [Source] Freedom of expression is gagged under Bozize's rule and members of his security forces are accused of torture.

French and/or American intervention in the CAR to stop the rebels is not a lasting solution to the country's problems. President Francois Hollande of France rejected Bozize's call. Hollande reportedly said the days of French intervention in the internal affairs of a country are over. It remains to be seen whether France will keep its word in CAR and other countries in the region. According to an article published by the BBC, African governments with close ties to France have a poor record of governance, in terms of human rights, corruption and the concentration of power among a tiny ruling class. [Source] CAR - member of the so-called Francafrique - is, without a doubt, one of such countries with unhealthy ties to France.

The Seleka rebels who reportedly surrounded Bangui before Bozize cried out for help claim the government has broken its promises. President Bozize, a former rebel General, should return to the negotiation table and seek a political solution to the crisis. Military intervention by Western powers is not a sensible solution. President Bozize should also release prisoners of conscience, guarantee freedom of expression and put an end to torture and other ill-treatment as reported by Amnesty International.

*Photo of Francois Bozizi: LaMontagne.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Finland: Racially motivated hate crimes highest in 2011 than any time in decade

The majority of hate crimes reported to police in Finland in 2011 were racially motivated, and the police reportedly recorded the highest number of racially motivated hate crimes in 2011 than at any other time in more than 10 years.

The end of each year is always an interesting time. Besides holidays, parties and new year wishes and resolutions, many organizations and bodies release statistics that put events during the year or the previous year into perspective. One of such statistics, which I always look forward to, is Finland's hate crime statistics published by the Police College of Finland and the Ministry of Interior's Police Department. The 108-paged report published this year reviews hate crimes reported all across Finland in 2011. It reveals that in Finland, people are physically attacked on grounds of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability, and as a hate crime motivation in 2011, race won by a landslide.

In the report, hate crime is defined as:
"... a crime against a person, group, somebody's property, institution, or a representative of these, motivated by prejudice or hostility towards the victim's real or perceived ethnic or national origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, transgender identity or appearance, or disability." [Source]
The report, titled Poliisin Tietoon Tullut Viharikollisuus Suomessa 2011, reveals that Finland saw an increase in racism and racial abuse in 2011. Police recorded 918 crimes that were suspected to be motivated by hate - a 7 percent increase compared to 2010. According to the report, majority of the crimes, 86 percent, were racially motivated. The report brings to light the fact that most racist hate crimes were committed in the evening and at night in public outdoors such as streets, roads or market squares. Restaurants, bars and dance spaces were also racist crime scenes. A surprisingly high number (12 percent) of suspected hate crimes were committed in victims' residential areas and staircases. In this internet age, it is worthy to mention that the internet accounted for 2 percent of suspected hate crimes. Religious background motivated 6.6 percent of the cases, sexual orientation motivated 4.6 percent, disability motivated 2.6 percent and three hate crimes (0.3 percent) were motivated by victims' transgender identity.

Assault was the most common form of racially motivated hate crime between 2003 and 2011. (See page 55).

By municipality, Finland's capital city, Helsinki, accounted for the highest number of suspected racist crimes reported to the police in 2011, followed by Vantaa, Turku and Espoo. By region, racist powerhouses included, Länsi- and Itä-Uusimaa (with Helsinki as capital), keski-Suomi (with Jyväskylä as capital), Pirkanmaa (with Tampere as capital), Pohjois-Savo ( with Kuopio as capital), Etelä-Savo (with Mikkeli as capital), Pohjois Karjala (with Joensuu as capital), Varsinais-Suomi (Turku as capital) and Satakunta (Pori as capital). Looking at a map on page 53 of the report, central, eastern, western and southern Finland could be aptly described as hate crime hot spots.

Somalis, according to the report, were the most targeted group. This puts into perspective results of a poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat in 2011 that showed that Somalis are most affected by racism in Finland.

Following the publication of the police report, Yle reported that there were more cases of racism and related physical abuse in Finland in 2011 than at any other time in more than 10 years. [Source] The news report also pointed out that hate crime and racism are not recognized as criminal offences in Finland's criminal code. This puts into question the objective of the annual hate crime report published by the Police College of Finland and the Ministry of Interior's Police Department since 1998. Statistics should not be gathered for the sake of it. Hate crime statistics, which have been gathered for over a decade, should be used to push for legislation against hate crime. It is incomprehensible that the Criminal Code of Finland sanctions "ethnic agitation" (see Chapter 11, Section 10) and does not sanction racially motivated physical abuse or hate crime that could result from such agitation.

"Monitoring" hate crime and publishing yearly statistics without hate crime legislation to deter perpetrators does not make sense. Statistics are not a deterrent. There is a need for hate crimes to be recognized as criminal offences in the Criminal Code of Finland, especially in light of the 2011 hate crime report that paints the grimmest picture of racially motivated hate crimes in more than 10 years.

Racism is a real problem in Finland and there is a lack of political will or leadership to address the problem. This explains why a Member of Parliament of the "True" Finns Party, Teuvo Hakkarainen, could make a racial slur on his first day in parliament against people of African descent and get away it. In a country where racism and racially motivated abuse are not tolerated, he would have resigned. Perpetrators of racism face no real consequences.

Believe it or not - racism damages Finland's image and the image of its people.

My Google Analytics (GA), a service that gathers statistics about visits to a website, shows that internet users are curious about the state of racism in Finland and that many people are searching the internet for related information about Finland and Finns. Some users searching for information end up on my blog, and according to GA, keywords about Finland that landed people on my blog between 21 November 2012 and 21 December 2012 include: "finnish people are racist", "are finnish people racist", "finland racial law", "racism in finland", "finland racist" and "finland xenophobia". Perpetrators of racism might think they are damaging the lives of their victims, but they are also damaging the image of their country and how they and their compatriots, the majority of whom are not racist - in my opinion - are perceived internationally. Racism is a double-edged sword. It negatively impacts both the perpetrator and the victim.

Make no mistake, not all hate crimes are reported or brought to the attention of the police. It is therefore plausible to conclude that the figures published by the Police College of Finland and the Ministry of Interior's Police Department are not representative of the real situation on the ground.

*Photo: bikyamasr.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Desmond Tutu: Homophobia, just like Racism

"We cannot claim that our societies are free and equal as long as some among us are treated as inferior and denied even their basic human rights." ~ Desmond Tutu
A video message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu on "the role of leadership in the fight against homophobia" caught my attention on 13 December 2012. In the video, the retired Anglican Archbishop, anti-Apartheid icon and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate likened homophobia to racism and highlighted the importance of speaking out against the denigration, arrest, harassment, imprisonment, torture and killing of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender (LGBT) people around the world. The compelling YouTube video was shared by a friend on Facebook and I thought it wise to share the message, together with my thoughts on the subject, with a broader audience.

This is not the first time Desmond Tutu has spoken out against homophobia. He was once asked by a student that if he could have one wish granted to reverse an injustice, what would it be? The archbishop said he would wish for the world to "end the persecution of people because of their sexual orientation, which is every bit as unjust as that crime against humanity, apartheid." [SourceIn July 2012, he called for an end to gay stigma to help tackle HIV.

It is no secret that homosexuality is [still] a taboo in many parts of Africa and beyond. It is criminalized in many countries, including Cameroon and Uganda.

In Cameroon, people are routinely arrested, persecuted and imprisoned on grounds of homosexuality or perceived homosexuality. In 2011, a Cameroonian, Roger Jean-Claude Mbede, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for homosexuality under Cameroon's controversial anti-homosexuality law. Although Roger Jean-Claude Mbede was released provisionally on  16 July 2012, his appeal is still pending and other people like him continue to live in the shadow of discrimination, persecution and imprisonment. In Uganda, an odious anti-gay bill designed to imposed harsher sanctions, including the death penalty, on homosexuality was proposed in 2009. Although the death penalty clause was dropped, the misguided bill is still expected to pass and poses a threat to the rights of the LGBT community in Uganda and beyond.

Repressive laws in many African countries are bad enough, but even more worrying is the deafening silence of people of good conscience, especially young people and those with the power to change perception.

Many young people either support archaic anti-homosexuality laws or lack the courage and confidence to speak out against homophobia for fear of being accused of promoting homosexuality or fear of being perceived as homosexual (as if only women promote women's rights or only Roma promote Roma rights or better still - as if only victims of human rights violations work for human rights). Many seem to be unaware that the defence of human rights is not about self interest.

Imagine a world where people lacked courage to fight against social ills like racism, gender inequality, slavery, colonialism or other human rights violations and prejudices that shame humanity. South Africa would still be stuck in the racist apartheid era and African-Americans would still be disenfranchised and relegated to the back of buses.

I am of African descent and I know what prejudice looks like. I know how it feels to be a minority and to be discriminated against. I would not wish it on anyone, including LGBT people. I abhor homophobia as much as I abhor xenophobia, racism, discrimination against women, discrimination against the Roma and other minority groups. I refuse to turn a blind eye on homophobia simply because I am "straight" and not affected by it. It beats my mind that some people can afford to condemn discrimination based on race and at the same time perpetuate or support discrimination based on other grounds.

No double standards.

It does not make sense to be against discrimination on grounds of race, gender, religion or what have you, and at the same time support discrimination based on sexual orientation. Desmond Tutu once wrote, "I could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination that homosexuals endure, even in our churches and faith groups." [Source]

Talking about churches and faith groups - they are the powerhouses of homophobia. Many people quote the Bible to justify hatred against LGBT people. Those who invoke the Bible to justify an injustice somehow forget that the same scripture says, "Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not and ye shall not be condemned." In the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, "The Jesus I worship is not likely to collaborate with those who vilify and persecute an already oppressed minority." [Source]

We all have a responsibility to speak out against homophobia and all other forms of prejudices, and to respect the rights and freedoms of all people, without discrimination of any kind.

*Photo: The Telegraph.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lunch with Finland's former President: lessons learnt

On 11.12.2012, at about 11:15 AM, I walked into a restaurant for lunch in Finland's capital city of Helsinki. I occupied a seat in the buffet area of the restaurant and immediately spotted Finland's former president - "Rouva Presidentti" - Tarja Halonen serving herself at the buffet table.While I was still trying to come to terms with her simplicity, she walked towards me and took a seat directly behind me. As a matter of fact, we literally robbed shoulders on her way from the buffet table. While my casual encounter with Mrs. President may sound normal to Finns, to me it was a pleasantly surprising and lesson-packed encounter.

Where I come from, you do not bump into presidents or former presidents by accident in an ordinary restaurant around town.

Loud sirens and long convoys of luxurious vehicles announce the arrival and departure of top officials like Tarja Halonen. Roads leading to a restaurant where a person of her stature dines would be cordoned off for hours by police and security personnel. Petty businesses and public transportation in and around the area would be paralyzed. The movement of ordinary people would be restricted in the vicinity. People would be intimidated and sometimes harassed by security for "trespassing" in the area.

Tarja Halonen "demystifies" the presidency. She is testament to the fact that presidents, former presidents, first ladies, members of parliament, ministers, governors and other high-level officials are public servants and when they leave office, they do not carry it with them. Their role is to serve the people, not make life difficult and unbearable for them. Government officials are not gods and people who elect them should not be forced to treat them as such. Their presence in public spaces should not be cause for intimidation, rather they should inspire good.

Workers eat in the restaurant in question on a daily basis during lunch break. They were not shut out of the restaurant or forced to change their daily routine because a former president came for lunch in the same restaurant. I bet Tarja Halonen would not like that to happen.

Leaders and government officials, especially in the developing world, who command fear rather than respect have a lesson to learn from Finland's Tarja Halonen. She is not defined by her office or the position she once held. She occupied the highest office in Finland for two terms (eight years) (UPDATE: 12 years), [Source] dined and interacted with some of the most powerful people in the world and made decisions in the interest of one of the most advanced countries in the world. She was even named by Forbes among the world's 100 Most Powerful Women in 2009. [Source] However, she was not corrupted by power, neither did she let it get into her head. She remains a respected and admired citizen - even without flash -  and continues to inspire future leaders to keep it simple. After all, "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

This encounter convinced me that power does not corrupt everyone. Tyranny is a choice.

There are lessons to be learnt from daily experiences, and my encounter with Finland's former president is one of them. Hopefully, the next generation of leaders, especially in Africa where power corrupts, will learn from such daily experiences abroad and help demystify top government posts when they rise to the occasion. The world is in need of leaders who serve the people, not "leaders" who expect to be served and feared. Good leaders are not feared.

It is worth mentioning that this is not the first time I am impressed by Tarja Halonen. She first earned by respect and admiration when she acknowledged the rise of racism and xenophobia in Finland and spoke out against it - in a country where there is a muted response by public officials and politicians to the social ill, despite the real threat it poses.

*Photo: Yle.

Friday, December 7, 2012

In honor of 95 years of Finnish Independence

Finland is a great country in many respects. The Nordic country of 5.4 million people has graced the top spot in many international rankings. After 95 years of independence, Finland has a lot to show for its self-governance.

In 2010, Newsweek magazine ranked Finland the best country to live in - in terms of living conditions. The Global Gender Gap Report 2012 published by the World Economic Forum reveals that Finland is a leader in promoting gender equality. The Republic of Finland occupies second place in a ranking of 135 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index 2012. (See page 8 of the report). Finland ranked third, third, second, second, third, third on the index in 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006 respectively. In the field of education, Finland's education system is ranked best in the developed world, according to a 2012 report published by Pearson. In its 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, Transparency International placed Finland at the top of the list of the world's least-corrupt countries.

Although at the moment smartphone giant Nokia is struggling to keep its head above water as its cash pile dwindles, it is worth highlighting that it is a Finnish invention.

Celebrations marking 95 years of Finnish independence are well-deserved. Finland has come a long way since independence from the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland.

The Finnish Declaration of Independence was adopted on 6 December 1917. [Source] The country has shown resilience - bouncing back from a gloomy colonial era under the Swedish Empire and the Russian Empire, and a bitter civil war that was fought from January to May 1918. [Source] Finland now stands tall as a force to reckon with in the region.

However, it is worthy to note that while the majority of native Finns enjoy freedom and opportunities that come with [real] independence, all is not well for all groups of people in Finland - especially immigrants and visible minorities. The threat of right-wing extremism, hostility towards Muslims and anti-immigration sentiments is real. Anti-immigration groups like Perussuomalaiset (PS), Suomen Sisu and others have hijacked public debate - spreading racism, prejudice, far-right ideologies and "blind nationalism".

Finland still has a lot of work to do in the field of diversity and equal opportunities for all without discrimination of any kind on grounds of race, color, ethnic or national origin and other grounds. Social and professional exclusion of certain groups of people because of what they look like or where they come from is obsolete.

Some people may wonder why I (a Cameroonian from West Africa) am concerned about the state of affairs in a country in northern Europe.

Well, it turns out I have two beautiful kids of Finnish nationality - by birth (Perustuslain 5 §). In the eyes of some people, they look different and they might be treated differently by a growing number of far-right ideologists. I therefore have a dog in the fight for equality in Finland. I will like to see my children judged for who they are not where their father comes from.
Lapsieni vuoksi toivon, että yhtenä päivänä kaikki Suomessa asuvat ihmiset nauttivat tasa-arvoa ja yhdenvertaisuutta, ilman syrjintää etnisen alkuperän, ihon värin, sukupuolisen tai muun henkilöön liittyvän syyn perusteella.
On the bright side, 6 November is a well-deserved Independence Day. Given its history, Finland has come a long way but the country should not lose sight of the fact that there is still a lot of work to be done to foster equality, diversity, mutual respect and acceptance. In the words of Maya Angelou: "It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength."

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