Sunday, October 31, 2010

Finding a Path Back to Africa

A few weeks ago, I received the results of my DNA test back from African Ancestry, Inc. I had wanted to receive the results in time for a DNA reveal ceremony at the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation Africa Policy forum in Atlanta, Georgia, in September. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the materials to the company in time. That may have been best, though, since I wasn’t really sure how I felt about the results, and receiving them in private has given me time to think about it out of the spotlight.

I am not saying I am disappointed, because I’m not at all. The test results reveal that I am descended from the Tikar, Hausa and Fulani people now in Cameroon. I say now in Cameroon because no one can say with certainty where my ancestors were when they were kidnapped from Africa. This is where they are today. That’s close enough for me.

Unlike some who have gotten their DNA results and been disappointed because it wasn’t what they thought it would be, I had no results I was hoping to receive. Actor/Africa activist Isaiah Washington, whose DNA linked him to the Mende and Temne people of Sierra Leone, says that DNA has memory and once asked me and some other people where we felt most connected on the continent. My immediate answer was Kenya because of the work I have done there and the many friends I have. Also, I have been asked by Africans elsewhere on the continent whether I was Kenyan.

Of course, I also have been asked if I was Nigerian, and for awhile I did wonder if I was Yoruba like so many Nigerians I know. Upon further reflection, it occurred to me that I have done a lot of work on Angola and that I might be Umbundu because I have a connection to Angola. Talking to Isaiah, I once wondered if my results would lead to Sierra Leone, as they have for so many of us in the African Diaspora.

Learning that I am of Cameroonian heritage has been a revelation and a relief. It is a revelation because I didn’t expect it, and research shows that my people (at least the Tikar and Hausa part) migrated from Sudan long ago. So I am connected to a land on which I have spent much time helping to develop and implement policy.
These two groups are Bantu, while the Fulani are Nilotic. Thus, I am linked to the two major African ethnic ancestral groups.

It is a relief because I am adopted and always wanted to know about my heritage. However, I had no one who could tell me since my natural mother is deceased. I met my natural mother, but at the time it did not occur to me to ask her about our family history. I was nine years old at the time. Still, she did tell me in a way because I used the matrilineal test to find my path back to Africa. As African Ancestry officials will tell you, going through your mother’s line has a greater than 90% chance of leading back to the continent, while going through your father’s line has only a 65% chance of doing so. There are many reasons for this disparity that I will not go into at this time.

This 65% chance means that many who trace their heritage through their father’s line (only men can do this by the way) find that it often leads to Europe. This is what happened in Atlanta when Martin Luther King III and Dr. Julius Garvey (Marcus Garvey’s son) had their DNA tested. Their matrilineal tests led to Africa – King to the Mende people in Sierra Leone and Garvey to Fulanis with traces from various countries. But their patrilineal tests both led to Europe. Martin Luther King Jr.’s line led to Portugal, while Marcus Garvey’s led to Spain.

For some, this news about Diaspora heroes was deflating. There was concern that it could discredit the tests in the sense that many Diasporans would be discouraged from taking it. Had we known earlier, certainly we could have located a female relative of King and Garvey to test their matrilineal lineages. In future, this will be the prudent course for celebrities when we are trying to determine their parents’ lineage.

Nevertheless, any member of the Diaspora who finds a link to Spain or Portugal quite possibly is linked to the Moors, the Africans who conquered and ruled the Iberian Peninsula for centuries. Even so, we in the Diaspora have to acknowledge that most of us have European heritage as well as African. We should let no one tell us we should be more proud of the European linkage or more ashamed of it either. It is what it is. We determine ultimately who we are – not our ancestors. They and our parents give us the building blocks on which we construct our lives.

Whether we fail or succeed is mostly up to us. People have succeeded with problematic genetics and/or troubled upbringings. I hope that I have used well the genetics my birth mother gave me and the lessons my adopted mother provided.

So I am pleased to finally have my link definitively established to Africa. Knowing that you have African heritage generally is not the same as knowing specifically where your people are on the continent. Being a member of the African Diaspora feels more tangible to me now. I am proud to be of Cameroonian descent, although I feel no different today about championing the cause of Africa as a whole. I will continue to write about and advocate for Africa generally, as well as Cameroon specifically.

I guess that’s just the way I am.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Putting Foreign Investors Above Nationals

Last year, I wrote about the long-term leasing of African land by governments who brought in foreign investors to cultivate agricultural land for the benefit of foreign citizens at the expense of locals. In the wake of global food price increases, these foreign investors are protecting the interests of their people through “agricultural outsourcing” schemes, but the African governments leasing their land expect that there will be benefits produced by these deals that aren’t as apparent to their countrymen.

The procurement of African land by foreigners isn’t new, of course. The European colonial powers appropriated entire countries in the 19th century. African economies were programmed to produce basic products for the colonial powers. The Industrial Revolution passed Africa by because Great Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany and Spain had no interest in enabling their colonies to produce their own value-added products, especially in agriculture.

The 2008 world food price rise – reaching the highest levels since the 1970s – led many nations unable to grow sufficient food to look for avenues to provide for their own food needs. Certainly, there were African governments who also feared being unable to produce sufficient food. Nigeria and Zambia brought in displaced white Zimbabwean farmers and their production skills, but many other African governments evidently felt they needed outside expertise. It would seem that making a deal to let outsiders produce food for their own market was acceptable to African governments because of the portion to be provided for African markets and the anticipated infrastructure improvements that would result. According to the Oakland Institute, which produced a report on the global land grab crisis, 50 million hectares of African land have been leased to foreign investors.

Unfortunately, those assumptions fail to allow for capacity building for African farmers and exclude local investors from buying and cultivating land in their own country. A case in point is the Government of Ethiopia, which is in the midst of a massive leasing of its agricultural lands to foreign interests. According to the Indian Ocean Newsletter, about 600,000 hectares of Ethiopian land (approximately 1.48 million acres) has been leased to foreign investors and the plan is to lease more than three million hectares of Ethiopian land by 2013.

The newsletter states that the land, largely in the southwestern Gambella region, was listed as wasteland, but it was useful to the Anuaks who live there. The Anuaks have been at odds with the Government of Ethiopia for some time. In December 2003, 424 Anuaks were killed in Gambella by government security forces. There almost no accountability of the government forces involved in what was described as a massacre. Actually, over the subsequent two years there were allegations of government extrajudicial killings, rape, imprisonment and disappearances. According to Anuak sources, more than 1,000 Anuaks were killed during this period.

Now it seems that Anuaks are being targeted again as they are reportedly being moved off their lands so they can be leased to foreign interests. Karuturi Global Ltd., the largest Indian company operating in Ethiopia, reportedly is negotiating the lease of 300,000 hectares of land in Gambella to grow corn, palm oil, sugar cane, etc. Saudi magnate Mohamed Hussein Al Amoudi has sold the Ethiopian government on a plan to produce cereal s such as rice to minimize imports. His company, Saudi Star Agricultural Development wants to cultivate half a million hectares of Ethiopian land within the next ten years.

The Indian Ocean Newsletter reports that the government in Addis Ababa has withdrawn from regional governments the right of conveying leases of more than 1,000 hectares. Ostensibly, this is to address the problem of corruption, but it also happens to take away any local involvement in the allocations of land. Meanwhile, Anuaks are being moved off their lands to other areas, and arrests of those who oppose these leasing arrangements reportedly have started.

As the Oakland Institute points out in its report, Africa needs investment in agriculture, such as better seeds and other inputs, extension services, education on conservation techniques and the enhancement of farming techniques generally. However, what Ethiopia and other African countries are doing is bypassing the African farmer in favor of foreign farmers operating on plantations. In the short run, production will certainly increase, and unless the deals are completely one-sided, African governments surely will receive agricultural products and likely enhanced infrastructure. However, the people of these countries will be bystanders in this process and will not develop better skills at growing food for their own families or for their countrymen and neighbors in surrounding countries.

Unless African governments insist on the employment of African farmers and allow Africans the opportunity to buy the land they would lease, the largest share of the benefits from these deals will be enjoyed by foreigners. That is a very short-sighted plan on how to develop one’s country.

When the colonial powers seized African lands in the 19th century, they did so at the barrel of a gun, often through divide and conquer strategies. This time, African governments are voluntarily signing away their land and the future of their people. The world’s hungriest continent will rue the day that it turned over its agricultural production to outsiders whose main interest is in producing food for their own people.

What will these leasing governments do during the term of these 50-year or 99-year leases when their foreign partners are unwilling or unable to provide the amount of agricultural products due to a slumping global economy or another food price spike?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Walking Apartheid Avenue

In Washington, D.C., there is a subway station known as Farragut West, it is two blocks from the World Bank headquarters. World Bank employees of African descent call this two-block stretch “Apartheid Avenue” because the white World Bank managers who leave this station to go to work there in one building, while black employees go to another building. Whites and Asians at the World Bank have little limit to their ability to advance, but the blacks stay in the positions they are given and are expected to be happy to be there at all.

Now you might say that there are blacks in high positions at the Bank, and you would be right. Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is Managing Director at the Bank, and Obiageli Ezekwesili is Vice President for the Bank’s Africa region. However, to say that such high-level appointments mean that the World Bank has a color-blind environment is like saying the United States has achieved a color-blind society because Barack Obama was elected President. Very few of us would believe the latter, and there is no more reason to believe the former.

Three decades ago, the Washington Post ran an article that documented underrepresentation by black employees at the World Bank. In June 2009, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) issued a subsequent report on racial discrimination at the World Bank that showed very little progress has been made since then, and internal mechanisms to redress racial discrimination grievances were found to be part of the problem.

“GAP reviewed the Bank’s Tribunal decisions since 1996 in racial discrimination disputes. Our review found that the Tribunal failed to find discrimination in any of the 21 racial discrimination cases it reviewed over the past 12 years,” the report stated. “Given the fact that a series of studies have found systematic discrimination within the institution, and that the Bank’s own data reveal the racial differentials cited earlier, this record at the Tribunal is disturbing.”

According to the Bank’s data, between 1996 and 2009, a cutback led to three out of five black employees in just one department being let go, and neither of the two remaining blacks were promoted. Meanwhile, only four of 18 Asians were let go, while five were promoted. Only one of 12 whites was dismissed, and seven were promoted. Even looking at these numbers in just one department, World Bank grievance hearing officials see no pattern of discrimination.

GAP’s Beatrice Edwards, writing in Foreign Policy in Focus last year, said the failures to properly investigate and adjudicate racial discrimination at the Bank “translate into an environment of lawlessness and impunity where breathtakingly racist incidents can still occur.”

Dr. Yonas Biru knows that all too well. Until earlier this year, he was performing managerial duties at the Bank. His supervisors had brought back a retired white employee rather than allow him to head the project that he was partially managing. When the white manager proved incapable of doing his job, Dr. Biru was assigned more of his duties than he already was performing. When the man retired again, Dr. Biru was once more denied the promotion. The original excuse was that an outside agency made that decision, but it was discovered that this explanation was untrue.

When Dr. Biru protested, Bank officials apparently decided to get rid of him. Scholars working on his project were scheduled to deliver their reports in June of this year as contracted, but he was asked to summarize these reports weeks earlier. When he couldn’t comply, he was fired.

In his racial discrimination grievance, Dr. Biru noted that he had performed managerial functions and was qualified for the job. He cited his uniformly outstanding reviews and the testimony of the scholars that he had managed their work. At the Administrative Tribunal hearing, Bank managers said they only rated Dr. Biru so highly as an encouragement for him to do better. They said the scholars couldn’t be believed that Dr. Biru had managed them because they were biased by being managed by him. Dr. Biru faces a final decision on his case by Bank appeals officials next Friday.

The World Bank has declared that Africa is the Bank’s top priority, and of the requested US$50 billion plus in funding for the Bank’s International Development Association financing facility, half will go to Africa projects. With Western donors cutting back on aid because of the global recession, the World Bank is becoming increasingly important to Africa. But if Africa’s children are treated so poorly by Bank officials, how much faith can we put in any programs supposedly intended to help the continent?

Immunity should not be confused with impunity. We may not be able to sue them in court for such blatant discrimination, but we are not without recourse. No agency that depends on donor funding should take that funding for granted. Racism should never be rewarded, and World Bank officials should keep that in mind. For anyone who wants to voice their opinion to the Bank on this issue, call 1-202-473-1000 or send an e-mail to

Friday, October 8, 2010

Palm Oil Policy on Slippery Slope

When governments and international institutions make policy on where spending will be directed, they must take a number of factors into account. Sometimes these factors conflict to the detriment of one policy goal or another. Such is the case with the World Bank’s investment policies affecting palm oil production. Health and environmental issues clash with poverty reduction strategies. In this case, Africa stands to lose because of the perceived sins of others.

World Bank officials created in 1991 a strategy to reduce deforestation in developing countries. This policy has been unable thus far to achieve balance between alleviating poverty and facilitating environmental stability. Environmental activists have long noted environmental problems and biodiversity losses due to the palm oil business in Indonesia and Malaysia, the top two global producers of palm oil. Together, they produce 83% of global palm oil supplies.

Oil palms are an industrial plantation crop in Indonesia and Malaysia and are often grown on cleared rainforest land or in peat-swamp forests. Over the past four decades, the area planted with oil pal in Indonesia alone has expanded more than thirty-fold. In Malaysia, this area has grown twelve-fold. Moreover, Both countries have seen their lists of endangered animals balloon. In Indonesia, of the more than 400 land mammal species, 15 are critically endangered and another 125 are threatened. In Malaysia, of the nearly 300 land mammal species, six are endangered and 41 are threatened.

In the case of Africa, it has not been shown that environmental degradation due to palm tree cultivation is such a threat. Nevertheless, a global shift in palm oil policy would impact Africa as much as any country growing palm trees for palm oil trade. The World Bank is the largest single donor to sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture sector, providing US$1 billion in assistance this year. With at least two-thirds of African engaged in the agriculture sector, any product abandonment could be disastrous at a time when African countries are struggling to weather the global downturn that has hit commodities particularly hard.

Several African countries currently produce palm oil on a commercial scale. Nigeria is the largest African producer of palm oil and the world’s third leading palm oil producer behind only Indonesia and Malaysia. Even so, Nigeria is still a net importer of palm oil, which is a common cooking ingredient in much of tropical Africa.

Early on in the colonial era, palm oil was considered of lower quality than olive oil, which was available from European sources. Consequently, its use remained largely confined to West Africa. However, the Industrial Revolution led British traders to seek out palm oil as an industrial lubricant. Palm oil later came to be used as an ingredient in soap, such as Unilever’s “Sunlight Soap” and American brand Palmolive soaps.

As one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats, palm oil has increasingly been used in food products outside Africa, including not only cooking oil, but also mayonnaise and salad oil. That attractive color in your French fries likely is due to the use of palm oil. The debate about its health implications is pretty much a wash.

A 2009 study at Universiti Sains Malaysia indicated that of all vegetable oils, palm oil is “a healthy source of edible oil.” The World Health Organization and other health groups have alleged that palm oil contributes to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease, but a joint University of California-Nestlé Research Center study concludes that research on how specific saturated fats contribute to coronary artery disease is inconclusive.

Palm oil has been found to have the lowest production cost of the major oils. It is estimated that by 2050, the global demand for edible oils will be about 240 million tons – nearly twice the 2008 level of consumption. Palm oil has the added benefit of being useful in the creation of biodiesel fuel. Heightened production of palm oil in Africa could satisfy both food and fuel demands.

Thus, the benefit of palm oil as a job producer in Africa is enormous.
Unfortunately, at a time when African countries, such as Uganda and Liberia, are expanding cultivation of palm trees for palm oil production, support for such projects may dry up (so to speak) due to decisions made for reasons not fully borne out by the facts. In Benin, the non-governmental organization Nature Tropicale continues to make the claim that biofuels will compete with food production and contribute to drainage problems in sensitive lands without convincing proof of either allegation. Programs such as Sierra Leone’s use of palm oil profits to finance Magbenteh Hospital in Makeni are ignored or downplayed.

The Institute for Public Policy Analysis (IPPA), a Nigerian think tank, has done a report calling on the World Bank to come down on the side of increased African palm oil production for both food production and job creation. IPPA organized a letter to World Bank President Robert Zoellick urging the Bank not to abandon support for palm oil production.

“We believe the surest way to cut poverty and protect our natural environment is by raising living standards and creating economic prosperity in poor countries. By cutting off much needed funding for palm oil producers, the World Bank threatens to generate poverty and economic dependency, instead of reducing it, a strategy that goes against the very ideals of the institution,” the letter states.

One hopes the Bank will listen to reasoned appeals from the continent and make the distinction between documented problems in Asian palm oil production and mere speculation about what increased African palm oil production could cause. Reality should trump possibilities for the sake of African people and global consumers.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Three Paths to Dual Citizenship

For the past six years, I have worked on the issue of dual citizenship for members of the Africa Diaspora. Anthony Archer, an attorney and professor at the University of California Dominguez Hills, who became interested in the issue as the result of attending a Leon H. Sullivan Summit, has been with me on this journey from the beginning. He wrote a paper on the subject that provides background on this increasingly relevant subject. He joined me in the task force I organized a year ago for the Sullivan Foundation, along with Faruq Muhammad and I. Nia Rogers of the UNIA/African Communities League; Dr. Lisa Aubrey of Arizona State University; Paula Coleman, Tendai Johnson and Eurica Huggins of the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute, and more recently, Dr. David Horne of the University of California Northridge.

What I have found through this work is that there are three predominant and equally legitimate paths for the pursuit of citizenship in an African country, while maintaining citizenship in the United States. Each of us has our preferences, but on our task force, we respect the decisions made by individuals unless their concepts are so unworkable that they would not only fail, but could lead others to failure as well.

For example, during the second of our two workshops on dual citizenship in Atlanta, Georgia, the other day (the first was in Washington, D.C., two weeks earlier), a woman identifying herself as an “ambassador” said all one needed was a letter from the president of an African country or even a governor to travel to any African country and to obtain land.

First of all, what airline would allow you to get on a plane from America or Europe these days with no visa where required from the country to which you are visiting? Even if you did manage to take the flight to a country with no visa (one can obtain them sometimes at the airport), no letter will get you into a country without permission. Ask yourself this, all countries have a process of obtaining a visa to enter unless they require no visas for residents of selected countries, so why would a government circumvent their own visa system?

As for land, yes, members of the Diaspora were dispossessed of land their ancestors owned or might have owned had they not been kidnapped into slavery. However, to imagine that you can walk into a country and claim land from a government or from people who legitimately own it is not only absurd, it is incredibly selfish.
This kind of magical thinking is why our task force pursues three paths we consider legitimate and reasonable.

First, with the introduction of DNA testing by companies such as African Ancestry,
members of the African Diaspora can now pursue citizenship in countries in which those from their ethnic group now reside. The test, which draws on DNA data from throughout Africa, shows you where the specific branch of your ethnic group resides today. It will not tell you where they were when your ancestors were stolen away, but then the borders established by the colonial powers were and are artificial and do not reflect the normal migration patterns that have held for millennia.

We believe this DNA testing can be further certified by African scientists if necessary so that African governments will find the results conclusive for the purpose of honoring the Right of Return. This international code was codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, giving any person the right to return and re-enter his country of origin. Without conclusive evidence that we came from a specific country, it has been difficult for members of the traditional African Diaspora to successfully invoke the Right of Return. Now we have science in our corner.

Second, African leaders have called on members of the African Diaspora to come to their country to help rebuild for the future. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana made this call in the late 1950s, and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf made the appeal this year. For more than 50 years now, members of the Diaspora, without any proof of ethnic linkage to Ghana, went there to become a part of Ghanaian society. Others went to Tanzania because of their respect for what then-President Julius Nyrere was trying to accomplish.

While many in those countries appreciated their efforts at building businesses and employing people, most Diasporan émigrés have not been able to become citizens in the country to which they have devoted so much of their time and energy. That is an injustice that must be corrected.

Third, the UNIA/African Communities League is following the path set by the late Honorable Marcus Garvey back in the 1920s. At that time, only Liberia, Ethiopia, South Africa and Egypt were free from colonial rule. Mr. Garvey was the only leader at the time working to unite Africa and its Diaspora, and his organization has built a tradition over time on that. To abandon tradition because there are new alternative methods of approach is like walking on the beach and having your footprints washed away by the time: you have no record of where you came from and your successors have no path to follow.

The UNIA/ACL approach is to continue to represent the African Diaspora, especially the traditional Diaspora, in pursuing citizenship, land and acculturation for those becoming part of an African society. For any Diasporan who wants organizational support along the way in pursuing dual citizenship, Marcus Garvey’s organization offers that guiding hand.

The Sullivan Foundation dual citizenship task force recognizes that there is more than one path to a goal, and we intend to achieve our goal by any means necessary that are legal, ethical and effective.