We should know: #FreeNadjo #FreeSolloh

Pondering…
Sonja Barend, the celebrated host of Dutch TV shows until 10 years ago, has written an honest memory of her youth, in which the search for her father and his Jewish identity is central. This father she never knew is one of the many Jewish men who disappeared during the second World War in the Netherlands. Her mother was the one to open the door for the policemen and answered yes on their question if her husband was in. They brought him to the Scheveningen prison in June 1942. He would stay in this prison for radicals and resisters of the German regime during 6 months, before being deported to the concentration camp Auschwitz where he died on an unknown day in 1943. Why this happened and how it happened – all not known. In her intimate reflections on her imagined father Sonja wonders about the people who then lived next to him and who should have known about these deportations, and on that moment that her mother said ‘Yes’. The main question in recent autobiographical literature memorizing WW II is: ‘should we have known?’. In a publication of 2012 Bart van der Boom raises the question if ‘ordinary’ Dutchmen in the war could have known. And if so, were they able to understand the severity, that was unimaginable. People lived their lives based on experienced history and this was simply too strange. The book led to fervent debates. The end of WW II is 72 years ago. The ‘not seeing’ has become a collective traumatic memory.

This part of Dutch history comes to my mind when reading the comments of the Chadian diaspora on the situation in Chad. We live in 2017 in a world full of communication technology, that allows us to see more than 72 years ago, but do we really see what is happening under authoritarian regimes, or maybe a better question: do we want to see?

iyina red

Symbol of the resistance movement Iyina in Chad as it appeared in whatsapp and messenger pictures

Arrests of young leaders
The arrests in Chad of youth leader Palmer Nadjo Kaina on 6 April and nine days later of Bertrand Solloh are not widely known to the world. These are just examples of many other arrests in Chad and elsewhere. Who notices these arrests? Why are they relatively silenced? Nadjo is leader of the youth movement Iyina (meaning ‘we are tired’ in local Arabic) and Solloh is responsible for Iyina’s communication and a member of ‘Tournons la page pour la démocratie en Afrique’ (Let’s turn the page for democracy in Africa). Both are civil society organisations that have become active (again) around the presidential elections of April 2016. The reasons for the arrests are vague. Nadjo, who was arrested two times already in 2015 and in 2016, has been accused of a possible disturbance of the public order by organizing a manifestation on the 10th of April, the day of the severely criticized elections in 2016. Iyina invited Chadians to remember this day and to wear the color red. Solloh was accused of participating in this organization. Other members of Iyina subsequently went in hiding or even left the country. For more than two weeks nobody knew where Nadjo and Solloh were. Even the Minister of Justice responded that he was not aware of the situation of these young people. Their lawyers had no access to them. Only on the 24th of April they reappeared in the capital city’s prison with the announcement of their possible judgment the day after. On the 27th they heard a requisitory of 5 years against them; the verdict will be on 4 May.

Were they detained in the prisons of the ANS, the secret police, or in the new prison Amsinéné in N’Djamena?  The conditions in these prisons are not well known. The last reports of Amnesty on these conditions date from 2012. A recent master’s thesis of the University of N’Djamena from 2016 reports about injustices. Isn’t it ironic that this happens when a new film on the prisons and actions of the DDS (former secret police) under the previous president of Chad, Hissein Habré, has just been released, and whose creator, the well-known Chadian cineast Mahamat Haroun Saleh, has been nominated Minister of Culture? Nadjo and Solloh are part of a new generation of political detainees in Chad.

(Not) knowing
News about the young men is not part of daily talk in N’Djamena. Those who open their mouth fear to be arrested. ‘They all left, I might be arrested’ is one of the comments of a friend and member of Iyina. Spreading fear is one of the results of the attitude of the government who also arrests, interrogates and sometimes then liberates, like the 60 youngsters who protested/manifested on the 10th of April acting in answer to the call of Iyina. These are brave actions ending in intimidation and I can imagine that it is difficult or even impossible to escape feelings of fear. As some Chadians claim: we are living the horrible times of the DDS again. Many people prefer to keep silent.

The only sphere where it seems possible for Chadians to comment and denounce acts of the Chadian government is on social media. The blog forum Yadaari and Makaila-blog posted a few blogs about the situation. Sporadically Twitter refers to the situation in Chad: the hashtags #FreeNadjo and #FreeSollo, or #FreeSolloh were born in the tweets of Laurent Duarte, coordinator of the international movement ‘Tournons la Page’. But it is especially on Facebook that comments and actions are announced. These Facebook Posts are mostly from the hands of diaspora activists, who also organize manifestations in Paris and elsewhere. Screenshot_20170422-155902The content of their posts is not only about facts, but as well about the laxity of the Chadian population who they urge to take their destiny in their own hands. A regular commentator is the Strasbourg based journalist Tahirou Hissein Daga. Although the frustration of these Facebook users who find themselves outside the country and feel something needs to change is understandable, the question is if they are  justified? What would they do in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation? But also if you live your daily life, does one really see? They are probably not right in the accusation of people who live in difficult circumstances in Chad. Being inside and act is not easy and reminds me of the situation during World War II, with which I opened this blog post. But those who are outside, like the diaspora and hence the international actors, they can see!

We should know
It is only after a long silence that the international community picks up this news, though still sporadically. To find their announcements and articles one has to be interested in Chad. The action that has become somehow public was the request and short report of Amnesty International and some publications on RFI (French news agency). Recently there was a denouncement of these arrests and a call for liberation in a common call. Why is the world not more active in denouncing these human rights violations? Did we not learn from our WWII history? Must we wait, like then, for 72 years to analyze an authoritarian rule and its atrocities? This, while there is enough information to know that there is clearly a violation of human rights? In this case we cannot argue that we did not know, on the contrary: we should have known.

And Chad is just an example. It is part of a larger tendency of authoritarian rule in different countries in the world. Some cases are well known and widely discussed, others are relatively silenced as is the case for Chad.

It is important to alert the international community by revealing the facts, and also by recalling the collective memory of WW II; by realizing that similar things are now happening in the world; realizing that we might be able to play a role to diminish the misery of the people in Chad, to diminish the risk of traumatic collective memories. We live in a global world, the realities of Chad should also be ours.

Memories of Lumumba: Victimhood and Redemption

This is a guest blog written by Meike de Goede, lecturer at Leiden University.

On Victimhood and Redemption – Lumumba and historic imagery in the Congo

fig67_webTshibumba Kanda Matulu, Democratic Republic of the CongoThe Historic Death of Lumumba, Mpolo and Okito, on January 1961, not dated

In her recent blogpost ‘Legendary Words’, Mirjam de Bruijn asks the important question what today’s critical voices in Africa do with the words of people like Lumumba, Sankara and Fanon, inspirational heroes and activists of a past generation. When I lived in Kinshasa, I learned from young people, ngo workers, political activists, but also members of the political elites, police and army, and business elites that Lumumba is indeed an important symbol that practically all Congolese people carry in their hearts and minds. But it is not his words that have made such a lasting impression. In a recent article I argued that, instead, it is his death and the meaning of his death in Congolese history that carries the symbolic value. His death that has become almost like an original sin of independent Congo and from which people seek redemption ever since.

The symbolism of the tragedy of Lumumba is deeply Christian. In Congolese visual art he is often portrayed with the three crosses of Golgotha on the background. He died to save the people of the Congo. The fact that there are no physical remains of his body thus adds to the symbolic value of Lumumba as messiah. In the eyes of many Congolese, former colonial power Belgium and its American allies killed Lumumba because they did not want Congo to be truly free. Lumumba was claiming that true freedom when he uttered that impromptu speech on Independence Day and thus had to die.

For the people of Congo today, what happened to Lumumba remains an important lesson about how the world works. And people are constantly reminded that this remains to be so. The fight for true freedom, for redemption from this original sin, remains the political struggle for the Congolese for a genuine independence. The perpetual misery that the country has known since its independence is framed in this meta narrative of perpetual victimhood of foreign domination. According to this view on history, Mobutu was a pawn of Western powers, Rwandese intervention in 1996 was instrumentalized by Western powers through its pawn Rwanda, and the perpetual conflict ever since is only the latest in a series of strategies to prevent Congo from being truly sovereign and for the people to profit from the country’s wealth. Lumumba thus represents the perpetual relations of domination and subordination between the powerful western world and Africa, and the almost impossible quest for redemption.

Identifying with Lumumba the saviour of the dignity and freedom of the Congo is therefore almost a necessary discourse for anybody that advocates real change in this troubled country. When Laurent-Désiré Kabila (a self-proclaimed Lumumbist freedom fighter) was shot dead, a popular comment was that he was ‘shot by his body guard, remote controlled by the West’. Laurent-Désiré Kabila was very unpopular with Western powers, and claimed that his toppling of Mobutu was the completion of the struggle for independence. A few years later he was dead, in the eyes of many Congolese, it was history repeating itself.

Besides the power of the words that Lumumba spoke, the imagery of Lumumba is a truly powerful narrative of perpetual victimhood that frames people’s understanding of their relations with the rest of the world and with the whole industry of development aid and peacebuilding that has swarmed the country in recent decades.

Paradoxically, the imagery of Lumumba simultaneously claims and denies agency. People find inspiration to claim true freedom and dignity, and to break the dark cloud of victimhood that hangs over Congo ever since the death of Lumumba, to fight for redemption. This is a truly effective populist political discourse that any aspiring political leader will draw on. On the other hand, it is a narrative that essentially emphasises the lack of agency to determine one’s own destiny and the inability to ever escape the perpetual misery of an all-powerful west that continues to dominate Congo using whatever means necessary. It is a narrative of victimhood, a promise of heroic victimhood that succeeds in redeeming Congolese people, and a warning of tragic victimhood that can essentially never escape victimhood. As such it has become a paradoxical narrative that enables current President Kabila to argue that he is fighting to reclaim Congolese dignity, while people simultaneously know that he can actually not achieve this, or he will pay for it with his life. Even opposition members told me that they understood that President Kabila has his hands tied – ‘look what happened to his father’.

The tragedy of Lumumba has thus become the tragedy of the country and its people as a whole – captured in a ruthless game of power and money in which they are only objects. They cannot control their destiny, claim and exercise their sovereignty. Herein lies the true tragedy of the history of Lumumba for Congo today – the narrative perpetuates a position of victimhood and make people believe they lack agency, to take control over their lives and make the changes they so desperately need and deserve. The events with Lumumba have left the Congolese with a fundamental distrust with the rest of the world. A meta narrative that is so strong, and that people see constantly repeated throughout the course of history, that people have lost the confidence that they can escape from it, trusting neither western donors nor Congolese political elites. But it is also a narrative that continues to call for redemption and that gives people hope when redemption seems possible. It is at such moments that Lumumba becomes an inspiration for political action. Congo is at a crossroads, again. Will people use the imagery of Lumumba to strive for redemption, to escape from perpetual subjection to bad-governance and to claim the agency to establish democracy, good governance and the true, genuine freedom that Lumumba represents?