AFRICA 3.0: When traffic is more than traffic, and the Rotary club is a refuge

How traffic jams, speaking in tongues, neighbourhood watches, and even dreadlocks can be political proxy battlegrounds in Africa

ONE of the biggest headaches of living in a city is traffic jams; that’s true everywhere in the world. But in Africa, there’s a specific reason why sitting in traffic can raise your blood pressure dangerously high.

Rush hour traffic isn’t so bad – it’s expected, unfolds predictably, and is over in a couple of hours (in the smaller cities, at least).

But what can make you want to slit your wrists in frustration is when one powerful individual is responsible for bringing thousands of cars to a halt.

Usually, it’s a president, governor, or powerful person of that kind. The trouble isn’t so much in letting them pass – it’s the lack of planning and foresight on the part of the police department responsible for clearing the way.

In Nairobi, for example, instead of traffic police closing off and opening up traffic flow as the president moves, what police are fond of doing is closing off the entire route, even before the motorcade sets off. It means that a section of the whole city can unnecessarily be on lockdown for one or two hours, stuck on the same spot for no discernible reason.

In Lagos, every two-bit oga worth his name has a police escort vehicle blaring sirens as part of his motorcade, ostensibly for “security”, but really, it’s to bully people off the road and make way for the Big Man.

Traffic brings out the worst in many of us, but in the African context, it is probably most harrowing experience a member of the middle class faces every day – especially if it is “created” by some powerful individual somewhere.

In that context, traffic ceases to be a mere pile-up of cars. It’s an arena for the exercise of power and influence.

Still, traffic is not an annoyance everyone can afford. Africa has some of the lowest rates of car ownership – Kenya has just 9 cars for every 1,000 people, Nigeria has 13, Cote d’Ivoire 16, Zimbabwe 45, and South Africa 103. By contrast there’s nearly 500 cars for every 1,000 people in Europe.

So merely owning a car is a sign of some financial means in Africa. But “man-made” traffic serves as a reminder that even though you have money, you don’t have that much power.

This power imbalance invariably creates much tension. The human psyche cannot endure instability for long, so people look for ways to resolve it.

In the 1970s and 80s, for example, as African economies were sliding into decline and the political space was constricting every day, people shifted the “power goal posts” away from politics (because they knew they could never win there), into other “proxy” arenas.

Because politics in Africa often takes such a sharp, ethnic tenor, the fortunes of the middle class can rise and fall with the regime of the day – much more than of the poor, whose lot can remain depressingly constant no matter who’s in power.

In Kenya, for example, founding president Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu, and his deputy Jaramogi Odinga – whom he would later fall out with – was a Luo.

In 1969, Kikuyus, who represented 20% of the population, held 30% of senior government bureaucratic jobs; Luos, who were 14% of the population, held 10.8% of the posts, writes Sally H. Jacobs in her biography of Barack Obama Sr., The Other Barack.

But three years later, when the Kenyatta-Odinga feud had reached a nadir, 41% of senior posts were held by Kikuyus, while Luos now held 8.6% of the jobs.

Church service in Douala, Cameroon. (Photo/Flickr/Jake Stimpson)

One of the proxy arenas where people shifted their power plays was the church. The 1980s saw an explosion in evangelical Christianity in Africa, with baptisms in the Holy Spirit and all-night prayer vigils springing up everywhere you would look in Africa.

Chimamanda Adichie, Binyavanga Wainaina and others have written about how this “spiritual warfare” was an attempt to take back some power, particularly for educated and relatively middle-class people, who could no longer guarantee their families a secure or comfortable life.

Another proxy arena was sport. On notorious apartheid prison Robben Island, prisoners started a football league among themselves called Makana Football Association, run strictly by FIFA’s Laws of the Game – one of the few books in the prison library.

The league was a multi-team, two division league run with fanatical attention to detail and formality in writing constitutions, forming committees, imposing disciplinary sanctions, training referees and logging results.

You might ask why inmates of apartheid’s most infamous prison would take football so seriously.

But that’s the point – it wasn’t just a physical and psychological release, but also gave them a space of their own, “a means to demonstrate that they could govern themselves – and by implication, the country,” says this review of a book on Makana F.A. titled More Than Just A Game.

In Idi Amin’s Uganda, as well, sports was an arena that gave room for expression, one that was meritocratic in a way that you couldn’t find in politics, or even in business – during his eight-year rule, Amin confiscated property, chased away 60,000 Asian Ugandans, murdered dissidents with impunity, and pretty much singlehandedly decimated the economy.

But Amin was not just an avid sports fan, but a sportsman himself – he was Uganda’s light heavyweight boxing champion from 1951 to 1960, he was also a swimmer and rugby player.

Ugandan John Mugabi (L) lands a punch against Marvin Hagler during a 1986 fight in Las Vegas, Nevada. Uganda was Africa’s boxing champion in the 1970s, at one point even ranked third in the world after the US and Cuba. 

That gave a very unique position to a publication called the Sports Recorder. It was a sports newspaper, but subtly political too, and around which a group of progressive intellectuals grouped. And the country’s two main football clubs then, Express and KCC, were taken over by leftist nationalist managers who could no longer be openly political active, but sought to exploit Amin’s partiality to sports to get some kind of immunity. Still, the dictator’s regime was wise enough to the “subversion” and banned Express FC.

In Kenya, in the one-party era, president Daniel arap Moi banned “tribal” football clubs, mainly because they had become rallying points for communities marginalised by his regime.

And, of course, there is music. Some of the most unforgettable music created in Africa comes from its darkest times and from painful places, sounds like those of Miriam Makeba and Vusi Mahlasela, socially conscious musicians who spoke out against apartheid.

In Nigeria, the incomparable Fela Kuti was a thorn in the flesh of the Nigerian authorities. His music protested government corruption, military brutality, and neocolonialism, and was arrested numerous times. At one point his recording studio and self-declared commune Kalakuta Republic was stormed by 1,000 Nigerian soldiers and burned to the ground.

Today, middle class Africans are likely to retreat from voting and from the political arena in general, particularly if they are living in an authoritarian or quasi-democracy.

Often misunderstood as apathy, it’s actually a form of protest, albeit passive-aggressive – many educated middle class people see participating in an election in semi-democracy as futile, though your vote will be counted as part of the voter turnout.

So better-educated citizens choose to disengage from politics to avoid giving the exercise a veneer of legitimacy.

But they are not completely aloof. They take their children to private schools, where they are vigorously involved in parents-teachers associations (PTAs). In some cities, the middle class areas are organised in neighbourhood or residents’ associations, which take care of things like security, garbage collection and even water and electricity. And, in many countries, they find refuge in Rotary clubs, which have enjoyed a boom in Africa in the last two decades.

How strongly people take ownership of “their spaces” can be surprisingly fierce.

In Nairobi a few months ago, a mother sued her son’s school for his right to wear his hair in dreadlocks. The school’s dress code – a private, relatively expensive, British curriculum school – allows girls, but not boys to wear locks. 

She eventually lost the case, but not before putting up a very spirited fight. If you thought it was all just about hair, you’d be wrong.

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