Access denied: Visa Policies


Unequally Glocalised Worlds, Bamenda 2010 @Sjoerd Sijsma

I am in Cameroon, working with Marius, a student from central Africa. Cameroon, Buea, is for him a writing environment. The situation in Bangui does not allow him space to reflect and write. He should have been in the Netherlands. I am here because Marius’ visa for the Netherlands was refused four times over the past year. The repeated reason given at the French Embassy in Bangui: ‘this young man will probably not return to his homeland’. And this is where the story ends and begins. Marius has been accepted as a PhD student at Leiden University, we had produced all letters necessary. There was no reason to not give him the visa. We thought by confidently insisting on his application, and thus repeating it, the Embassy staff would realize their misjudgment. All other diplomatic efforts we tried failed. Marius reflects on it: ‘why do they deny me access to a world where I can learn more? Where I can develop myself into an academic so that I can help my country?’

I could not agree more. It is very unfortunate that the inequalities in our world are played out at this level. Are we not in the right corrupt position? A question that is raised by the recent convocation of the French Ambassador in Bangui, amongst others also for : « délivrance de visas en situation de conflit d’intérêts ».
As the responsible person in the visa demand I feel humiliated and hopeless.. As an academic the only thing I can do is to write and to visualize difficulties and inequalities that are the realities of every day for many young people in Africa, so that others know. One of such realities is Marius’.

And Marius is not alone. A Chadian friend told me how, when he went to pick up his visa for the Netherlands at the French Embassy in N’djaména, from all the (mainly) young men only one or two got a visa. His was also refused. Another case where all things were in order with the necessary letters of invitation, return ticket, insurance, but refused on the same grounds. This young artist – Rasta hair – has no fixed income but is always having assignments and is managing his own studio. One can imagine the authorities think: ‘Certainly a youth who wants to stay in Europe.’ He was invited to come to the Netherlands to finalize a film project with his Dutch colleague-cineastes and me. This is a film that might reach out to festivals and critical film competitions. But to get there we need to be able to join forces. The topic of this film is youth and inequality in the world and at home, and the socio-political dynamics this creates. The story of visas should probably be integrated into the project. I will have to travel again to Chad to work on this project; I am not denied a visa: I can freely go were my work and aspirations take me. That is how it should be.

Aspirations Denied
In many African countries we cannot deny that aspirations of young people are killed by the governance systems and economies. Many young men from countries such as the conflict ridden Central African Republic long for a life elsewhere. The images and stories about the ‘other’ world that are circulating on social media are alluring. Why not try? The situation at home is rather hopeless, so it would be good to go out.
The widespread protests that we see in many countries in West and Central Africa are related to the same feelings of ‘let’s try’. Of course each country has its own special dynamics, political structures, dictatorships and histories of violence, but there is a common denominator. Youth make up more than 60% of the population. Due to the rapid urbanization process the towns become large reservoirs of youth who have left the rural areas, at times forced because their land has been bought by Chinese, European or African businessmen with international relations, transforming the former farmers into cheap wage laborers. Hence, they take on small jobs in the urban economy and enter a new world, including the world of social media.

In some countries, like Chad, there are other ongoing processes that are, to say the least, unjust and incite people to protest. Here, the elites have been stealing from the people for decades while the population suffers from cuts in salary, rising prices, and impossibility to send children to school. Their consequent strikes make the economy even less performing. The poor get poorer and the rich richer.

When I record all this…. it is so logical that protests are rising and youth want to escape their situation. This is the case especially today because we are connected. The Marxist and pan-African writers like Fanon, Aime Cesare and DuBois, and the killed leaders Sankara and Lumumba, are alive again and referred to in Facebook posts. Protests in Africa and attempts by the youth to escape their situation will not stop until the present day leaders are gone, the international community comes to reason and inequalities have reduced tremendously.

Denying visa
Why deny these you men a visa? Do they not have the right to travel, without any explanation? Many of these young people will, like Marius’, come to learn, to work and to discover. Denying a visa to youth who have the right to be mobile is against justice.


Ugly contrasts in Chad


N’djaména, discussing possibilities of civil society @Mirjam

I returned from Chad on 19 February. I had been attending a conference on governance and citizenship organized by CRASH (Centre for Research in Anthropology and the Humanities). CRASH is a free space for research, as was shown also during the conference: there were discussions about civil society, the protests, state responses and the crisis that Chad has found itself in since the elections of April 2016. This was daring, for the situation in Chad is tense.

Since August 2016, when I also visited Chad, things had changed quite a bit. The crisis had really settled in the country. Internet, then already cut for three months, was only back by the end of December 2016. After a long period without salary, December ending was the moment of payment, but most people received only half of what they used to (no primes). People could celebrate the New Year, but still, things were bad for all the families I visited. Visible in the streets: economic activity low, bars empty, and the stories were also clear. As negotiations with the unions opened, some people expressed their hope that this would help. But their hope seems in vain as there are deeper layers to the crisis, and the actions of the government are deepening emotions of loss. Back in the Netherlands after a week I heard that the students were resuming their strike.

Visit to Toukra, university campus
screenshot_20170301-172824On Wednesday 1 March, I was shocked by the posts on Facebook about the killing of children in a school in Walia, a southern quarter of N’Djamena; shot by police forces because they were protesting against the arrest on 28 February of 69 young people who were suspected of creating chaos during a campus visit of the Ministre de l’enseignement superieur (Minister of Higher Education) and his Senegalese colleague (25 February); already for a few months the students had protested regularly a.o. against the retreat of their stipends. One form of protest is the molest of government cars; as a student explained to me, this is their only way to express a voice for change. My friends in their thirties remembered this had been their acts as well when they were in college, two decades ago. Arresting these youngsters is not necessary, condemning them even for terrorist acts is worse. On 1 March, the 69 students were condemned for 1 month closed detention for outrage à l’autorité de l’Etat, plus each a ransom of 75 Euros.

Conflict at school: closure
On 10 February, just before I arrived in N’Djamena on the 12th, in Mongo, a city in central Chad, children were killed as well. A friend from Mongo witnessed what was happening. He came to see me in N’Djamena and told me his interpretation of the events: A conflict between two girls from different ethnic groups and one prejoratively insulting the other, became a bigger fight. The police went in and shot with real bullets; one child dead, others wounded. When the corpse was released from the hospital, the college children (lycée) grabbed the corpse and carried it to the military camp, to give it to the person who killed the child. The forces turned out again and killed another child and wounded more. The wounded are in the hospital in N’Djamena as the hospital in Mongo does not have the capacity to help them; the children are buried, schools are closed, no action from the ministers or government to calm the situation except repression. Other versions have been told: in an article of RFI it was related that the shooting was done by the son of one of the generals; however, the fact of the two deaths and many wounded is verified. The stories circulate and will not stop to divide the population.

Whose rights?
These children simply ask for their rights, but they are denied citizenship by their government. The conclusion of the CRASH conference about the difficulties of civil society in Chad are an everyday reality. And even worse: those who deserve citizenship are being killed.

L’UNESCO s’est trompée. Le Tchad a 70 ans de retard sur le plan educative? Donc en 1947? Trop peu. Si c’est 1947 d’un autre pays africain, le tchad est en 100 ans de retard. (text from FB post, 27-2-2017)

The story does not stop here: this academic year will be an année blanche at the university – no stipends, and no teachers to teach; a university complex that has no electricity, nor  internet connection, and education systems that are rated 70 years behind. The children in this education system protest and are killed. At the same moment, the chique hotels of N’Djamena receive the ‘salon d’étudiants d’Afrique’ (23-25 February) organized by a son of President Idriss Déby, who recently returned from France where he studied, and his friend. The guests that come from all over Africa are hosted without limits on expenditure.

Pendant trois jours, du 23 au 25 février 2017, les jeunes Africains auront l’occasion de rencontrer, directement, sur place, au palais du 15 janvier de N’Djamena, des responsables des prestigieuses écoles, universités ou instituts de formations africaines.

Although it is a good initiative, in principle, comments heard in N’Djamena are critical. ‘The country is in crisis and then these elites dare to spend all this money on the happy few’. In an interview the organiser replies to these critiques:

The doors are open for the poor students from Chad who suffer from the crisis.

He does not realize how this remark summarizes the ugly contrasts in Chad!

Cameroon Alert!


Text from a Facebook post 23 June 2016: Common lawyers rubbish new penal code Bill: A penal code that says ministers cannot be arrested or tried (immunity). A penal code that says any judge who tries  a minister and sentences him will be sent to jail. Wonders!!

Gradually we’re starting to get more information from West Cameroon, where a strike by lawyers has been evolving into a general strike among teachers and finally protestsscreenshot_20161212-085944 in several towns in this part of Cameroon that were met with violence by the State. Today, 12 December: A call is being made on the internet for declaring a Ghost Town in Southern Cameroon (see Facebook post); what will be the response? The essence of the argument in the protest is the imposition of the Francophone laws, teaching etc. on the Anglophones, a discourse that stands for so much more.

Common Lawyers strike
It started with the strike of the Anglophone Common Lawyers. I witnessed through the eyes of a former student from Leiden the long process leading up to the strike: the first steps were made this summer. It went from a peaceful protest to a harsh and violent encounter between the lawyers and the government. On Thursday 10 November 2016, several lawyers in Buea were beaten, and their wigs and gowns seized.

From a Facebook Post summarizing the process, beginning December:

Hello Prof. Mirjam! The Common Law Lawyers of Anglophone extraction have been on strike across the entire Common law jurisdictions of the North West and South West regions. This is on account of the systemic extinction of the Common Law principles by officials of ‘La République’. Prior to this strike action we had tabled a series of demands to the head of state. It is a shame that instead of responding to our demands, the government turned a deaf ear and instead employs its traditional policy of divide and rule as a means of frustrating our cause.
Consequently, we have resorted to remain resolute, determined and steadfast to our cause. We are henceforth synergizing with other unions to advance the cause.

Cameroon on fire?
Are the protests that we are witnessing today an outcry over years of neglect and oppression? And will they finally lead to change in Cameroon? For long, journalists and academics have been wondering why there was not more protest in Cameroon. I asked this question several times to my Cameroonian friends whose answers would vary; from ‘we do not like conflict’ to ‘oppression is too harsh’. Are today’s protests a turn in Cameroonian history? Will the Anglophone grievances be picked up by the Francophones who suffer similar marginality, who are also neglected by the state and have a ruler whose family has been bathing in wealth for the past 34 years? The splitting of the country in Francophone and Anglophone parts at independence (1961) has ever since served as a language to formulate anger and to search for justice.


@From the blog post of Vera Bakker

I cite from a friend’s detailed report to me (in the week of 12 December). He was writing this in a cybercafé while the protests were ongoing on 30 November 2016:

But the unique aspect of the union of French speaking and English speaking Cameroonians is that it was not one through a formal union treaty. It was an informal arrangement between the peoples of the Cameroons who only share the commonality of German colonization from 1884 to 1916 who decided to cohabitate from October 1961. That is why the union has been described as a ‘Tontine Union’ in reference to the commonly found informal associations which function on the basis of unwritten agreements.

We preach no violence. At least not before peaceful options have been exhausted! But it was high time we got Yaoundé to understand that we have inalienable rights. It was high time we got Yaoundé  to understand that we are all children of God, made in his own image and lines. That we have been recognized by the international community as a people; and so we stand side by side with them as two peoples equal in status. That, flowing from that, we shall never again glorify the status of second class citizens.

Deep roots
Walter Nkwi, University Professor in Buea,  shared his analysis with me per e-mail (12 December 2016):
‘(…) Of course the problem of Bamenda [the anglophone capital of the North West Region, MdB] cannot be explained in a single email. It has deep historical roots and cannot be separated from the political upheavals of the 1990s. Over the years, the city has been abandoned by the ruling government to the extent that there is virtually no road.fb_img_1481529808525
This time around the story started with the lawyers who insisted that the government should translate the OHADA Law, which is a business law for the whole of French Africa. Interestingly this law has been there since 1999 or so. Apart from the translation the lawyers also demanded that the government should withdraw all the Francophone magistrates, who cannot pass and write judgment in English, from the Anglophone courts. This was also because the government had been insensitive to the fact that while the Francophones are trained in civil law the Anglophones were trained in common law. After a persistent plea to the government and the government stubbornness to listen to their plight they now called a strike.
In the midst of the strike, Anglophone teachers of secondary and higher education called a strike, firstly, in solidarity with the lawyers and also because the francophone had adulterated the English education; University of Buea [the capital of the anglophone South West Region, MdB] and Bamenda joined and all now are asking for a federal system of government while others are asking for complete secession with the francophone government. An attempt to diffuse this problem by the Prime Minister in Bamenda failed. This led to a rally in Buea to preach national unity by the CPDM [main political party, of president Paul Biya, MdB] stakeholders. This was happening just after Frundi [opposition leader, central in the riots in the 1990s] had visited Buea to attend the students who had gone on rampage on 28 November demanding for their bonuses, also known as the Presidential excellent award. Their names were omitted at the level of the Ministry of Higher Education and the university authorities were still in the process of getting the problem resolved. However, in Buea the rally “went well” but the attendance was very timid.
The CPDM delegation left for Bamenda where they met stiff resistance from the population, mostly the youths who put up barricades, blocking all the entrances into the city. The military replied with grenades and life bullets and in the confusion some youths were killed. The other youths resorted to burning down the electric and telephone poles as well as the police station at the Meta quarters and military cars. CPDM vote holders were even taken hostage at Ayaba hotel, one of the big hotels in Bamenda.
Bamenda, Buea and Cameroon at large are very tense. Anything can start at any time. The personnel of the University of Buea has been on strike for one month now and nothing is moving. Administrators have abandoned their offices and once in a while the police, in full combat gear, comes round. Nobody can say what will happen next. Like during the French revolution of 1789.  All the ingredients for a great outburst in Cameroon are present. There is an inefficient and corrupt government; a dismembered civil society; a very high level of unemployment; an efficient military; popular masses suffering from the main base of the state; a lousy 300 parties democracy; inadequate health facilities; inadequate portable water; very poor road infrastructure etc. All need a single spark to set everything alight. The conflagration can come at any time.

I have told you in trust my mind.’

Walter permitted me to publish this text that hardly contains his anger but is also an analysis that needs to reach the eyes of the readers.


World Refugee Day: CAR refugees in urban Congo: potential counter voices?

Co-author: Catherina Wilson, PhD researcher in the project ‘Connecting in Times of Duress’,

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Catherina meeting refugee students from CAR.

Metropolitan Urban Congo. The city attracts people – this is almost a law, unescapable. Yet a rule that one cannot really understand for the African city, that is often disorganized, has lots of filth, unhealthy living conditions, but still. In this respect Kinshasa, the capital of DR Congo, beats all cities: 13 million people try to make a living in a town where electricity is a blessing and a curse, because the way it operates is lethal. The electricity cables hanging above the head of the ordinary citizen, who is simply drinking a beer, walking to the market or transporting petrol on a motor bike. Each of these activities can end in a disaster if the cables fall, the cabin explodes or if rain conduces electricity to where it should not go and electrocutes a person. In this 13 million city that expands over a large territory, transport is necessary to bring workers to their work, market women to their markets, and citizens to the city centre to settle bills and other official papers. The roads are often bumpy, transport is uncomfortable and relatively expensive. Walking is too often the only option, even though the dirty roads, where pools of stagnant water that generates malaria and the waste of the city assembles, provoke accidents and produce illness. Nevertheless, the city attracts people who want to make something of their lives. For youth, Kinshasa is an opportunity to earn money, to escape the unbearable boredom of rural life, to a more exciting being, to be connected to other worlds, arousing both curiosity and anxieties. The city is a concentration of connectivity, of markets and business, and those who wish, try to (re)create their life in the city – misery being only a side effect.

UNHCR camp near Libenge.

UNHCR camp near the town Libenge.

Student refugees
In DR Congo motivations of movement are often related to political conflict. In the last year, Kinshasa has received hundreds of Central African refugees fleeing the clashes between the government and rebel groups from the North. These groups have instigated a bloodstained conflict that continues today in Bangui and elsewhere in the Central African Republic. Mediation for this specific group of refugees in Kinshasa is done by the Commission Nationale pour les Réfugiés (CNR, the National Commission for Refugees) and the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR. Hence we discuss here urban refugees, who fled Bangui, the capital of the CAR, about a year ago, through refugee camps along the CAR-Congo border, via impossible roads and waterways to Kinshasa. A journey that took them up to two months. The youth we present here are the urban educated, often from a relatively wealthy and middle class background; students that never had the idea that the refugee status would fall upon them one day. Without disregarding their hardships as a refugee, the horrible things they must have witnessed in CAR/Bangui, their struggle with the circus of UNHCR, all of these experiences will become an ineffaceable part of their identities and carve out a future that neither they nor their parents had foreseen, but: a future nevertheless. This moment in CAR-politics will prove to be a vital conjunction for the youth of Bangui. And it might plant a seed to grow counter voices.

UNHCR selection of 50 ‘chosen’ ones
The first thing the student refugees were confronted with after their long journey was the way in which the CNR & UNHCR in Kinshasa interpreted refugee assistance: in order to receive assistance they had to go back to the refugee camps in the North of Congo; urban refugees have no clear rights. One of the leading figures in the refugee community and a former student association’s leader commented: ‘In the camps there is nothing that can help us further. No possibility to follow higher education and no way to find a small job. So for us it is no option to return to the camps’. He had better expectations for Kinshasa. They did not make the long journey – for which they sold their phones and laptops – to simply return to that despondency.
During the year they have been in Kinshasa, the struggle with the UNHCR and the NCR has been harsh. On arrival they were acknowledged as refugees, but instead of helping their cause forward, it brought them into an impossible fight. The first encounter was when they had to move out of the house that was given to them, without any alternative. Their protest against this decision was broken by the police who even tortured some of the refugees to such a level that they have become handicapped, also as a consequence of the bad treatment they received in the hospital. They feel that their rights are completely crushed. The battle continued until June 6, when the UNHCR finally gave them an answer: unfortunately, less favourable than they had hoped for. The refugees will not be given the opportunity to go to school or university, and most will have to create their own life. The UNHCR did however select 50 of them who are confined to a ‘gift’ of 650 dollar that should help them start a new life. Is this an arbitrary ‘divide and rule’ policy? The leader of the refugee association (that was created with the help of the UNHCR), one of the 50 chosen ones, told us they would not accept this offer and insist on furthering their struggle. On 20 June, World Refugee Day, they will make themselves heard again.

Remembering Bangui.

Remembering Bangui.

Future intellectuals of their country
In the meantime the struggle to survive and further their dreams continues: ‘After all, we are the future intellectuals of our country ’. Another refugee young man exclaims: ‘Why do they not see that we are the future, why is there no regulation to make us the people we want to become?’ Integration in Kinshasa is difficult. The refugees are real foreigners and feel the difference with their home town every day. In their memories, life in CAR was so much better; in terms of transport: the taxis are recognizable, ‘Here you have to guess’, and the food was so abundant, ‘Here food is difficult and expensive’, and ‘We do not speak Lingala’ (the lingua franca in Kinshasa) and: ‘It is difficult to find a job here’. However, when we walk through the neighborhood where the refugees were first housed (but where they moved out), it becomes clear that the Kinois do not entirely reject them. Church women help the young men to find food. The girls of the neighbourhood were fond of these newcomers (as the first baby girl born out of a union between a girl from Kinshasa and a CAR refugee attests). The student refugees do stop at several houses to greet people, who have helped them and became their friends.

Photo: Mirjam de Bruijn

‘Photo-minute’, refugee-photographer who prints pictures instantly.

Some of the refugee students do find their way in Kinshasa and four of them live together in a simple two-room studio, coated with some plastic chairs, a small cupboard with some kitchen utensils, a sleeping room with two mattresses on the floor under a mosquito net, some books and lots of clothing, because even in refuge, one needs to be dressed well – even though refugees, in the eyes of the UNHCR at least, are not supposed to be well-dressed. The first of the students now works as ‘photo-minute’. He was able to buy a camera and a small printer with money he made in Brazzaville by selling phone credit. He now walks along the bustling sidewalks of Kinshasa in order to make pictures that he prints instantly. He lives together with the secretary of the refugee committee who runs up and down the entire day visiting fellow refugees, listening to their complaints, organizing meetings and talking to the UNHCR/CNR. His brother is also in the house and helps the photographer. A fourth young man stays with them. He has a long history of illness, and should undergo heart surgery that cannot be paid for. During his stay in hospital he learned to sew bags out of beads and tries to make a living out of it. These students are thus fending for themselves and in the meanwhile learning new skills, in order to survive tough circumstances. ‘Yes, what we have learned is a real school’, another comments. They also become well informed about the working of politics, and the working of their societies in international contexts, which makes them even more dedicated to become who they want to become.

Determined to take up their lives
Two students are determined to cross over to Brazzaville in order to continue to Cameroon where they want to further their study. If necessary they will not travel with their refugee papers. The secretary continues fighting. His family may help him financially. The photographer is determined not to get stuck in this mess, but he cannot expect assistance from his siblings. He will take up life and fight his way. In metropolitan Kinshasa he might be able to make enough money to go back to university. The refugee world, the capricious behavior of the CNR and UNHCR, the urban environment, it will all become part of their identity, but will they ever become Kinois? These young men are at a crossroad: confronted with a metropolis and all its insanity and opportunities, confronted with the immobility of the refugee status, confronted with a fight for their lives without the protected environment of their parents’ home.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Compound in Kinshasa.

Seeds for new counter voices
But while these educated urban refugees experience the ups and downs of one of Africa’s biggest cities and the impossibility of being a refugee in it, they are also freed from the parental jug and free to become who they want to be, leading them to be more articulated and explicit, and inviting them to give their lives a new turn. Just like the Chadian youth comes to Bangui ‘pour se défouler’ (to go on a spree), the Central African urban refugees in Kinshasa too can become someone else. The secretary’s life here has an added value in Kinshasa. Of course he was active in Bangui before the crisis, but his motivation in Kinshasa is somehow different, as it hurts him to see his compatriots suffer and nobody caring about it. By writing letters to the CNR, and visiting his fellow refugees, he knows their problems, their whereabouts. He too tries to fight injustice, and his life takes a new course. These new forms of anger and the political activities that arise from it may indeed mean a ‘new direction in life’ potentially planting the seed for a new, fresh counter voice.