So far in 2014: Events that caused Africa big heartbreaks, outrage, or raised eyebrows

There is nothing new under the African sun, goes the saying by cynics. But some things still manage to cause uproar.

LITTLE shocks Africa these days, but every so often something comes along that causes more than quirked eyebrows and that “nothing new under the sun” shrug.

Anno Domini 2014 has not disappointed so far, weighing in with its fair share of what we shall call “uproar-causing” events, essentially those which we talk about more animatedly. We look at some of them—in random order.

1. In Somalia, woman stoned to death for polyandry

One can always bet on militants to ruin what otherwise looks like the most peaceful of days. So it was that news arrived on Saturday that a Somali woman had been stoned to death in an Islamist Al Shabaab-controlled part of the country for secretly marrying several husbands. Witnesses said the woman was buried up to her neck and pelted with rocks and stones by hooded men in front of a large crowd in the southern coastal district of Barawe.

“The woman married four husbands and confessed to the crime. I questioned her several times while she was in prison and she told me she was mentally fit. All the four husbands were questioned and they have confirmed that they had married her,” Islamic court judge Sheik Mohamud Abu Abdullah told the gathering. The woman, 33-year-old Safiyo Ahmed Jumale, was executed on Friday in front of dozens of onlookers. 

And there we have two puzzling things about these militants. They claim to be carrying out God/Allah’s will, but they are shy about showing their faces - they always wear hoods to beheadings and stones. And, in nearly all cases involving men and women, these Islamic Courts can be relied to rule against the women women.

2: The Oscar Pistorius verdict

That athlete Oscar Pistorius 27, killed his girlfriend, 29-year-old Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentines Day last year was not in doubt. 

Pistorius said he mistook her for an intruder when he shot four times through the locked door of a small toilet cubicle in which she was hiding.

Beamed into South African living rooms, the case captivated international media, with the inevitable comparison to that of American OJ Simpson, another star athlete who was charged with killing the woman he loved 20 years ago.

But it was the decision that judge Thokozile Masipa came to that stoked local uproar—he was this month found guilty of culpable homicide, the South African equivalent of manslaughter, but acquitted of murder. Masipa found that the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt that Pistorius intended to kill Steenkamp.

Her parents have since expressed anger and disbelief, with a book expected in November, while legal pundits and the media continue to avidly debate the case’s merits. The athlete will be sentenced on October 13 and could feasibly be jailed for up to 15 years, although a shorter sentence is expected.

3:  “Prophet” TB Joshua in the limelight again 

South Africa was again up in arms when at least 84 of its nationals died in Nigeria following the collapse of a guesthouse owned by influential televangelist TB Joshua on September 12. 

Eighty-six people in total have so far been confirmed dead by emergency workers, with 131 rescued.

At least 349 South Africans were believed to have been visiting the wealthy self-proclaimed preacher’s church. Joshua regularly draws in mega crowds and high-profile African leaders including presidents, and his followers refer to him as “The Prophet” in part due to his claim that he can foresee disasters. 

Commentators and Lagos state authorities believe that the addition of more floors to the guesthouse at his Synagogue Church of All Nations was to blame. 

But it was the church’s attempt to link the deadly collapse to the presence of a low-flying aircraft that got the goat of most South Africans, in addition to claims that rivalry between Africa’s biggest economies was getting in the way of the rescue effort.

Nigeria president Goodluck Jonathan last week visited the site, showered condolences on the “prophet”,  and in what critics say seemed like an afterthought, promised to investigate the tragedy. He is a regular congregant of the church.

4: Arms cash mystery - in a preacher’s jet

Staying with relations between the two countries, Abuja is fighting to clear the air after South African authorities impounded $9.3 million in cash aboard a private jet owned by a preacher—there they go again. 

The cash was allegedly meant  by the Nigerian government to buy arms, but the whole concept of carrying such a large undeclared sum in cash via private charter has led to claims of criminality and shocked many Nigerians, leading to chaotic scenes in Nigeria’s parliament, mainly from the opposition.

Government public relations sources have sought to explain the incident as being in line with global trends, as commentators noted the country faces restrictions in buying arms from some countries.

The plane is reportedly linked to Pastor Ayo Oritsejafor, of the Christian Association of Nigeria.  

5: The Chibok girls abduction saga rumbles on

Nigeria on its own is never too far from African drama. September 14 marked the fifth month since the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls from the Chibok area of north-eastern Nigeria. 

The kidnapping, by militants of Boko Haram—the extremist group that has been fighting to establish an Islamic state in the north—catapulted the insurgency to international attention, despite having been active since 2009.

A resulting #Bringbackourgirls movement has been one of the most successful awareness campaigns on the social media scene.

The Nigerian army insists it knows where the girls are, but is being careful so as to protect them, and President Goodluck Jonathan in his address to the UN General Assembly last week said the abduction had “attracted empathy and support for Nigerian across the globe” and that the authorities were “working assiduously to free our daughters…”.  

It has also attracted global outrage over the girls plight, fuelled by a perception that election politics might have had a hand in their delayed rescue.

6: Irrational responses to spread of Ebola

West Africa has this year borne the brunt of the Ebola, a viral illness with a high fatality rate that sometimes reaches 90%. Close to 6,000 people in the region have been sickened in the world’s largest outbreak so far, while nearly 3,000 have died, the majority in just three countries—Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. 

The scale of the outbreak has galvanised a major international effort to prevent it from crossing more borders and becoming a pandemic.

The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has modelled that without additional interventions, Ebola would continue to double “approximately every 20 days”.

These interventions include public health awareness messages, with the dearth of information among the affected communities blamed for the continued spread of the virus, which health authorities say has been underreported by a factor of up to 2.5. 

Part of this has been caused by mistrust, leading to people hiding victims and bodies from the authorities, and thus leading to further infections. But there was wide outrage when a team of eight healthworkers and journalists were last week killed in Guinea while on a public message mission. 

Locals, who have not seen Ebola in the region before, have associated the terrifying disease with the presence of foreigners and outsiders, highlighting local attitudes that pose a challenge to reining in the virus.

7: The plight of journalists jailed in Egypt  

In June Australian Peter Greste, Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were convicted of aiding the terror-listed Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news that portrayed Egypt as being in a state of “civil war”.

In a case that sparked international outrage, Greste and Fahmy received seven-year jail terms, while Mohamed was sentenced to 10 years. Eleven other defendants tried in absentia were given 10-year terms.

The journalists, who work for Al Jazeera, were arrested in December in Cairo and have been imprisoned since. They deny the charges and have seen high-profile campaigns for their release—including by US President Barack Obama, but which has so far borne little fruit.  

8: Enjoy the African hunt, but beware

On a continent where game meat is a delicacy in many places, and a thriving poaching trade continues, “outsiders” have to their detriment found that uproar over the hunting of African wildlife—even legally—can have major consequences. 

Conservationists on the continent are often very effective at banging the drum, and have seen even a king lose his throne partly over his controversial safari escapades in Africa.  

King Juan Carlos of Spain in June abdicated after 39 years as monarch, following a string of scandals that included a lavish elephant hunting trip he took to Botswana in 2012. 

Hunting of African game also cost a Belgian beauty queen her crown in July after she posted a picture on Facebook of herself posing with a dead antelope she hunted in Africa, after signing a deal with a cosmetics firm that prides itself as being animal friendly. 

The sense of outrage over African sport-hunting developed when American TV personality Melissa Bachman proudly posted pictures of her kill after hunting down a male lion in South Africa, which in itself wasn’t illegal. But, that is the point; because it is legal doesn’t mean it won’t offend.

8: Sudan’s “apostate” woman

Meriam Yahia Ibrahim Ishag will thank global condemnation of Sudanese authorities for her freedom this year following her arrest and sentencing to hang for allegedly renouncing her faith.

According to Sudan’s predominant version of Sunni Islam, Meriam cannot convert as her father, who left the family, was Muslim. She however maintained she was never Muslim having been raised by her Christian mother. 

Her daughter Maya was born while she was in prison in May. Intense international pressure led to the setting aside of her conviction, and she is now in the United States. Her husband, a Christian, holds American citizenship. 

Her journey led to a meeting with the Pope, who thanked her “for her witness to faith”.

10:  President Jammeh thinks gays are vermin

Pro-gay rights campaigners have been busy this year whipping up support as a number of African leaders signed what activists view as homophobic laws.

Gambian president Yahya Jammeh is poised it sign into law that was passed this month by the country’s parliament that  criminalises homosexuality and punishes gay people with life imprisonment. 

But the real uproar came earlier in February when Jammeh, who makes no bones about his opposition to sexual minorities, compared homosexuals to “vermin”.

“We will fight these vermin called homosexuals or gays the same way we are fighting malaria-causing mosquitoes, if not more aggressively,” he said in February, during a speech on state television to mark the 49th anniversary of the country’s independence from Britain. 

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni was to later sign a much-criticised “anti-gays” law that prescribed life imprisonment for homosexuals. The country’s constitutional court overturned the law, ruling it had been wrongly passed in parliament, while Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan this year signed a law prohibiting same-sex marriages.

11: Zimbabwe’s fastest doctorate?

Zimbabwe First Lady, the dreadlocked (she keeps them covered most of the time) Dr Grace Mugabe, is attracting fury—at least from the braver section of the country’s academic community—after she received a doctorate of philosophy degree, despite there being no records of her having attended class, done a dissertation or even had a masters degree.

Part of the mystery seems to have been solved, because her husband, Robert Mugabe, 90, is the chancellor of the awarding institution, the University of Zimbabwe. Her academic exploits are thought to be linked to his succession. She is believed to have set her eyes on high office, and bitter rival Joise Mujuru is also a doctorate holder, with no questions about her qualification. 

Grace’s award is seen as an attempt to build her a national profile. But few in the country’s academic community are seeing it this way and want an explanation from the institution.

12. Terrible time to be an elephant or rhino

July and August were traumatic months for conservationists in Africa, and
indeed the world. But they were even worse for elephants and rhinos. First a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said ivory-seeking poachers have killed 100,000 African elephants in just three years.

In central Africa, the hardest-hit part of the continent, the regional elephant population has declined by 64% in a decade.

As a result, Africa’s elephants are thought to have reached a tipping point: more are being killed each year than are being born.

That study came out shortly after reports that more than 500 rhino killed by poachers in South Africa in 2014.

Official figures suggest this year will be deadliest yet for rhino, breaking 2013 record of 1,004 deaths

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