Politics and Society
Poverty doesn’t fall from the sky – it is manufactured: A Conversation with Muhammad Lamin and Coumba Toure
Sungu Oyoo sat down with Muhamad Lamin Saidykhan and Coumba Toure, co-ordinators of the Africans Rising movement for Justice, Peace and Dignity, in June 2018 to interview them about the just concluded 55th African Liberation Day (25th May 2018), a date which had also marked the one year anniversary of the launch of this movement.
Five years after the launch of Africans Rising, and four years after this interview, Muhammad Lamin Saidykhan is transitioning out of our Pan-African movement for Justice, Peace and Dignity and moving to other responsibilities that are of equal importance to our people’s struggles and their organising. The 2018 conversation with Coumba and Muhamad Lamin is being published for the first time in celebration of these two indefatigable fighters, and to honour Muhamad Lamin’s contribution to the Africans Rising movement over the past five years.
Sungu: 25th May was Africa Liberation Day. What was the significance of this day and how did you choose to spend it?
Lamin: African Liberation Day is a day to unite the people of Africa to fight the injustices they face wherever they are. This was a day to hold our leaders to account so they deliver better lives for our people. We used the day to create momentum for different African struggles, and amplify the stifled voices. It also was a day to reflect on the struggles started by our forefathers, on how to advance the struggles of our times, and to celebrate achievements in the African continent.
Coumba: 25th May is a day for us to bring together all the struggles and opportunities we have as Africans, both on the continent and in the diaspora. If this were a religious movement, you would have days of celebration that people share to show they hold the same beliefs. As a movement, we need more days and symbols that bring people together and enable us to see and cement the connections between us. On 25th May, Africans Rising had over 70 simultaneous events in 56 countries. Our vision is that in 5, or perhaps 10, years, African people will know this as a day of reflection.
Sungu: 25th May 2017 was also the first anniversary, let’s call it launch-versary, of Africans Rising. Could you tell me more about what Africans Rising is, and how it has evolved over this past year since its launch.
Lamin: Africans Rising is a continental wide grassroots movement of the people of Africa, both on the continent and in the diaspora. The movement is an umbrella that organizes, connects, and amplifies people’s voices, grassroots struggles and movements in Africa. In our first year of existence, we tested and piloted some activities that deliver on our founding charter – the Kilimanjaro declaration.
We launched solidarity missions and fact-finding missions to enable us to be responsive to crises in Africa, and not wait for ‘assistance’ from outside the continent whenever the continent is in crisis. These missions have enabled us to understand how to better support grassroots movements, and connect them with other Africans around the continent. We have started putting together an African Dignity Index to showcase how well the continent is performing in terms of respecting the dignity of the African person at the grassroots level.
Coumba: As Africans, we face many struggles both within and outside the continent – whether it’s struggles against our political leadership, around civic space or corruption, or whether it’s against corporations and external governments exploiting Africa and its people. These are challenges we live with, and whose consequences we know. But wherever those challenges are, there are people who are facing them, coming up with solutions, speaking truth to power, resisting, organizing, pulling people together and pushing for change to happen. Africans Rising comes in to bring all those people together, whether they are part of movements or organizations, whether they are registered or not, wherever they come from, or whatever methods they are using to fight injustice.
Sungu: What’s your personal vision for Africans Rising, and how do you think your experiences over the years will aid in achieving this vision?
Coumba: I come from an experience of organizing, voicing, and standing up to injustice. More importantly, my own engagements and struggles from childhood to adulthood are also about being a woman and a feminist. That’s where my personal drive, strength, and capacity to push comes from. It’s sometimes hard to fight the things you are raised with and that you face everywhere. But once you challenge those, you realize there’s nothing else you can’t challenge. You first have to be able to fight for yourself, before you can pull people together, or organise others.
Connecting and working with people inside and outside Africa has also made me push my thinking about what it means to be African, especially for Africans living outside of Africa. In this process, I’ve learnt many things about connecting people, organizing them, planning together, building movements and the possibilities around these. What we understand in movement building is that at every moment in time, there are people who do their part and others pick it up in the future. There has never been a point in history where injustices didn’t exist, and neither has there been a point in time when resistance didn’t exist. We have made a choice to be part of the resistance because the way Africans live and are portrayed today is a blatant injustice.
Lamin: I grew up with the belief that this continent cannot be a better place if we don’t make it better. I believe that no one will come from anywhere and develop Africa – it is up to us. I have worked with, organized with, and learnt from young people. More recently, I have been in the frontlines of various struggles in Africa and beyond. I was part of the Gambian revolution against Yayyah Jammeh, one of the longest-term dictators on the continent. We felt that if we didn’t organize ourselves, we would be stuck in the same situation forever. We had to do it for ourselves, our children, and grandchildren. The society and continent that we want will be built through struggle and firm organizing that cuts across generations, both present and future. Movement building is a continuous process, and generations have to do their part. I believe my generation has to deliver the Africa we want.
Sungu: (to Lamin)You mentioned your involvement in the struggle/revolution in Gambia. Do you think progress has been made there? What do you think remains to be done?
Lamin: I was born in an undemocratic country. As I grew up and started knowing myself and understanding society, there was no way to speak about the things I saw and thought as there existed no space to do so. It took us seven years of organizing young people, creating a network, building their capacity and self-confidence that we could collectively change Gambia. There are some progressive things coming up including a constitutional review committee, a commission on financial dealings by the former president and his enablers who bankrupted the economy before leaving, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look at all the atrocities and human rights violations that happened under the former regime which killed, disappeared and brutalized countless people. This new environment is interesting in that the government is allowing freedom of speech and assembly in some way, but a lot still remains to be done. A few weeks ago, the people of Faraba Banta in Gambia had their land grabbed by the Al-Kali (head of the village) and given to a mining company. When the villagers rose up in protest against this, two people were shot dead. As activists who have been in the frontlines of fighting injustice, we have to be unrelenting if we are to protect this young democracy.
Sungu: (to Coumba) You are a writer of children’s books. How do you re-imagine African literature and history vis-à-vis what is taught in our schools? And how do you think this can be integrated into the work of Africans Rising?
Coumba: I believe that one of my strongest engagements is in writing children’s books. It is how we shape the minds of our children that makes them ask questions, dare stand against power, dare to be on the side of justice. These things(values) need to be instilled early. The self-doubt that many Africans live with is connected to the fact that our education systems are designed to make us feel less as most of the standards and ways in which people are measured come from outside. My art involves giving Africans a base they can look to and see themselves, their parents and grandparents as people that deserve respect. Art is a different way of connecting people and advancing the struggle. It should be a welcome addition to other methods we use everyday.
Sungu: How do you see the movement growing? What would you want Africans Rising to achieve as a movement in ten years?
Coumba: I would waant Africans Rising to enable more connection between different movements and resistance on the continent and in the diaspora – both those who arrived through slavery and those arriving through migration. I see strong organizations and movements connected. It is unacceptable that in Cameroon today, we have killings going on, with the involvement of the government. If a certain number of people were to be killed in a single day by anybody in Europe for instance, the whole world would react. In an ideal situation, groups from across Africa should come together and say we need to put a stop to this (killings in Cameroon). We should be organized and influential, such that when we speak, people listen and actions are taken. The question however is whether we know and connect to one another as individuals, organizations and movements, and are able to create a fluidity of information and its flow among us.
Lamin: I would love to see an Africa where people power speaks. I would love to see an Africa where people are consciously aware of the power they hold individually and collectively. People using this power to hold governments to account, to push back against the plunder of resources, then using income from these resources for economic liberation. I want to see people speaking openly and ending dictatorships. I want to see Africans Rising connecting the struggles of the people of Africa, and amplifying the voices of the masses, both in Africa and the diaspora with a unity of purpose as stipulated in the Kilimanjaro Declaration.
Sungu: Sometime last year, the American President (Trump) referred to Africa as a shithole. What went through your mind on hearing these words?
Coumba: He (Trump) is somebody that in many ways I wouldn’t bother responding to. But we need to attack at the core the thoughts and ways that he is showing. I am completely against how he thinks the world should run. All human beings are born equal. We know and learn from history that deep injustices have been orchestrated and backed up by brutal power to put African countries in the situation they find themselves in today. Beyond slavery and colonialism, the systems in place around things like trade are factors that create the poverty on this continent. Poverty doesn’t fall from the sky, it is manufactured. Those responsible for creating it are many times outside the continent, and they have facilitators who live among us, and who benefit by getting some crumbs from them. When we are conscious of those things, then what he says doesn’t make sense. And we don’t know how conscious or learned he is. As Africans Rising, we said it was shameful that in 2018, the president of any country could utter such words.
Lamin: Movements, organizations and all conscious Africans have condemned Trump’s remarks. I view his remarks as a reminder of the need to organise ourselves better, take charge of our own resources and cut back on donor aid that makes us slaves and followers instead of helping us progress. We must drive towards economic emancipation and liberation. If we do not take charge of our own destiny, we may continue to receive such insults in future.
Sungu: (to Lamin)You mentioned economic emancipation. A study by the Global Financial Index(GFI) shows Africa lost somewhere between $854 billion and $1.8 trillion between 1970 and 2008 as a result of Illicit Financial Flows from the continent. What is the cost of this to Africa?
Lamin: We do not have systems that protect the interest of Africa in the negotiation of trade agreements and signing of treaties. We need to be aware of history. We need to be aware that these people took our people to go build their nations, then enslaved us politically. Right now they are working on using our mindset, and making our governments sign agreements that will enable them to steal billions of dollars from the continent. The report you mention is a clear manifestation of the need to put in place proper systems. We need to put in place a leadership that will help build systems, structures and policies that protect and put the interests of Africa first. We have to continuously organize, make our leaders aware that we know what is happening, and demand for open systems and governance.
Sungu: (to Coumba) What can Africa do to reverse this?
Coumba: We must share information and knowledge about what is happening. Things like illicit financial flows happen at high levels, and in ways that are out of sight for most people – for example in banks. We need to get this information out and package it in ways that people understand. People must be able to connect how mismanagement of resources for instance translates to lack of proper health systems.
What’s hurting us the most is that there are a lot of people who do not know exactly what’s going on. People are going about their lives trying to survive but basic knowledge like who is taking away our riches and who is facilitating that remains unclear to many. If our people were aware of such processes, and would find ways of protecting themselves. We must have a mass of conscious people who can stand together as Africans Rising, if we are to reverse such happenings.
Sungu: African leaders recently agreed to work together towards making Africa a free trade area. How do you see this impacting the continent?
Coumba: I think it’s important that our governments have come together on this. However, Africa is not just rich in goods, diamonds and oil. It is also rich in people, and they are the most important part of Africa. Our foremost demand is that our people should live in peace, justice and dignity. This should be followed by freedom of movement of people. Some say that if we trade and make money then things will be fine. But trade does not necessarily bring about justice and peace. We could trade and generate as much wealth as we want, but if there’s no justice, all this wealth will be accumulated by a few people leaving the rest of us on the side. The people should be at the center of thinking of African governments.
Lamin: We need a borderless United Africa of the people where people move around freely. An Africa where governments deliver services to the people, and people do not have to emigrate to other continents because they can access everything they need right here on the continent, including jobs. We must start from free movement of people, because the free movement of goods might have some hidden individual and corporate interests. The mutual agreement that was signed needs to be supported based on the interests of African people.
Sungu: How would you describe the mobilization around the 25th of May? Were there any lessons learnt or feedback received with regard to that day? What does this look like?
Coumba: Information is still coming to us. Organizing in 56 countries, mostly through volunteers and partners is not that simple. That mobilization marked the beginning of our work. We are now going back to those who participated on the 25th of May and even those who did not make it, pulling them together, and slowly building a community that can stand as one.
Lamin: The diversity of organizing, and the members reached in different parts of the world has many lessons we can draw from. How we engage volunteers also has great learnings we continue to draw from. This movement needs to build its base on the spirit of voluntarism so that people commit time or resources, however little, for the growth of the movement. The mobilization on the 25th of May is a model on how we can build solidarity for different struggles across the continent. e.g. in Cameroon, Togo and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sungu: Where do you see Africa in 20, or let’s say, 30 years?
Coumba: There are different scenarios, some gloomy, some optimistic, and some somewhere in between. I consciously choose to go with the optimistic ones, not because I’m headless or not aware of what’s going on, but because I know that for change to happen, we have to be able to clearly envision the best that we want. I see an Africa that is borderless. I see an Africa that has changed the way it educates its children. I see an Africa with systems that holds its leadership to account.
I don’t see the end of struggle, but instead see an Africa where the majority are conscious and engaged in the struggle for justice.
Lamin: I yearn for an Africa that is putting the interests of the people first. An Africa where people are in charge of their destinies and are freely organizing against injustices. An Africa that believes that this continent is blessed and has the resources to develop itself and doesn’t depend on donor funding.
Sungu: Thank you Lamin and Coumba. I look forward to many more such enriching conversations over the course of these coming years. Many thanks!!
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