Wednesday, 23 September 2015

PALAVER TREE COMMENTARY: Behind Burkina Faso’s Coups, Is Every African Leader’s Unlearnt Lesson…

By Okore Scheaffer
African presidents are known for their allergy to the word ‘limit’ in any capacity. Many of them don’t clearly understand this five letter word that has cost most of them a peaceful retirement. Creating not only a breed of entitled loathed heads of state but also those with insatiable limitations.
Burkina Faso is just one example among an array of states where the people have grown wary and exasperated. Even with its economic growth, Burkina Faso remains at the very bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index, making it one of the world’s poorest states. Many university graduates struggle to find work and often blame corruption for their difficulties. How many Africans go through this?
Ousted President Blaise Compaoré had cast his leadership on stone for 27 years after the assassination of Thomas Sankara by ensuring he had a presidential guard of an elite unit comprising of 1,300 soldiers loyal to him. He set it up to ensure his own protection in the wake of the 1987 killing of his predecessor, and close ally, Thomas Sankara during a coup which led to Mr Compaoré taking over.
The Bukinabes had had copious amounts of the repetitive change narrative that wasn’t yielding fruits. It was time in 2014 to stand up for something new and distinctive after an unchanging 27-year rule that seemingly wasn’t going to come to an end. They had reached their limits. There’s always so much that people can take and for how long. Most African leaders forget so spectacularly that they are governing humans, not puppets.
African leaders tend to be oblivious to the fact that everything has an end even a good thing. There’s a sense of ultimate, absolute and overall entitlement that they’re filled with once they seat at the epicenter of power. They unanimously disregard the source of their power and impose upon themselves the title of savior whom no one can oppose.
The belief they religiously spread around is how their various states cannot function without them and how they are the only one’s bequeathed with the erudition of leadership. This is utter gibberish that by now many of them should imbibe. No African state is immune to a coup and certainly no African leader is irreplaceable.
It is a sign of failure to assume that as a leader you are the only one fit to steer forth a state. It is a lie that no one is buying anymore no matter how cheap you’re selling. Burkina Faso represents most (if not all) African states whose leaders ascended to the nucleus of power through gutter politics and under table dealings.
The people you shield yourself against have grown too loud to be shut down, too aware to be ridiculed and too impoverished to be side lined. It’s only a matter of time before many other states go through the breaking point that others have reached. Our problems are similar as Africans and our solutions will eventually follow a similar trail.
Leaders like Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo – Equatorial Guinea (35 years), José Eduardo dos Santos – Angola (35 years), Robert Mugabe – Zimbabwe (34 years), Paul Biya – Cameroon (32 years), Yoweri Museveni – Uganda (28 years), Omar al-Bashir – Sudan (25 years), Idriss Déby – Chad (23 years), Isaias Afwerki – Eritrea (23 years), Yahya Jammeh – The Gambia (20 years), and Denis Sassou Nguesso – Republic of Congo (17 years) are the longest serving in the continent.
It’s humorous sometimes that the youngest continent has the longest/oldest serving heads of state. But when the laughter dies down you start to see the disease that’s eating into the fabric of leadership. That only in Africa do the leaders believe they should only step down when death knocks their doors! It’s like taking candy from a toddler, only this candy represents an entire continent held hostage.
Pierre Nkurunziza has successfully accomplished binding Burundi to his umbilical cord while Mr. Paul Kagame is pushing for an extension of his term. I open my mouth, raise my brows, throw my hands in the air and gasp. Clearly we aren’t learning from history. One day all those who have been neglected by regimes will have their say and that day, history won’t be negotiated on round tables behind closed doors. Africans are breaking mental chains.
Originally published in SIASAPLACE.COM. Republished here with permission.
© Okore Scheaffer @scheafferoo

Saturday, 12 September 2015

PALAVER TREE COMMENTARY – Wood Carving Endangered

Queen Idia Mask Head (Image source: The Nation)

•We need to save the Benin phenomenon for its cultural and commercial values

It may indeed be a sign of changing times that a land noted for its fascinating sculptural treasures made in various media is reportedly facing a crisis of sorts in the production of wood carvings. It is a cause for concern that Benin in Edo State, which formed the core of a famous ancient kingdom, may be losing its distinctive wood-carving capacity. This may well be true of carvings in other media too.

What makes the development particularly deserving of attention is that it is the wood carvers themselves that are sounding the alarm. A concerned university-trained Benin sculptor, Mr. Festus Enofe, who provided a history of the problem, was quoted in a report as saying: “Wood carving used to be carried out by Wood Guild called Igbesanmwan, when it was under the control of the Oba of Benin. Then, the carvers were working for the Oba. It was a part-time work, as the carvers did their farming occupation to survive.”

Enofe said: “After the Guild era, when carving became commercialized, it was booming – tourists were coming to Benin to buy carved works – but it has dropped now.” He blamed this on, among other things, the lack of an enabling environment for carvers. “There are no incentives, no encouragement to those involved in producing artworks,” he said. For a country that aspires to gain from cultural tourism locally and internationally, this is not the path to follow.

Other factors in this narrative of decline, according to Enofe, include negative taxes imposed on art patrons at the country’s international airports where customs officials allegedly often seize contemporary artworks under the mistaken impression that they are antiquities.   Enofe also said: “Religion is a barrier to artwork. These days, people tend to see carvings as images of demons, which can attract bad spirits. It is an erroneous perception.”

Perhaps more fundamentally, another Benin sculptor, Mr. Emmanuel Uwumwonse, identified a critical learning gap as a contributory factor endangering the wood-carving trade. According to him, “When we started learning, we normally did it after school hours, especially during holidays. We went to the workshop to work with our father, to raise our school fees. These days, you hardly see children doing that. Children no longer do so because they do not see any future in sculpture.”

Clearly, modern conditions and consequences are at the heart of the problem. The economy of culture has not been modernized in tune with new realities. The truth is that the age-old traditional craft can no longer be realistically practiced in the old ways. The practitioners need new perspectives and fresh approaches.

Furthermore, the promotion of culture requires promotional space that is sustained by the relevant authorities. The importance of an enabling environment for the craft to thrive cannot be overemphasized.

Certainly, it is not that carving has gone out of fashion, considering that art schools and centres in the country still teach the skill and students still learn it.  The missing link is that the structures of cultural promotion are weak and wobbly.

It is counter-productive that the concept of Arts Endowment Fund remains largely alien to official cultural managers at the various levels of administration in the country. That is the right path to take.  As things stand, the fortune of fine art and artists, and by extension, the performing arts and artistes, is unduly tied to narrow commercialism which stifles a desirable flowering of talents.

It is a noteworthy testimony to the rich artistic ambience of the old Benin Kingdom that the internationally celebrated Queen Idia Mask Head, symbol of the 1977 African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos, is credited to Benin sculptural tradition. The original artifact was among those carted away by British invaders in the 19th century, and a replica had to be produced for the festival.

Regrettably, this richly creative tradition has been impoverished over time and may yet further decline without urgent remedial steps

Originally published as The Nation Editorial