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The interplay between gender and culture

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Violence against women is still prevalent in many African countries. They continue to be discriminated, marginalized and subjected to harmful traditional practices which are embedded in the social structure since time immemorial. Most of the time an attempt to prosecute perpetrators of these practices would fail mainly because they are considered as the conservator of cultural values and traditions of the community. An effort of outlawing such discriminatory and harmful practices has also been equated with submission to neocolonial attitude or failure to consider cultural sensitivities of the African society.  In its extreme form, such line of debate is often based on the premise that culture and tradition should be posited at the crux given that they are the sole source of validity for any global moral order with respect to human rights. Proponents of universalism, on the other hand, argue that “the contents of human rights are universal and apply to every person irrespective of culture.”In this blog post, I will explore and analyze how and to what extent the African human right system attempts to accommodate both the doctrine of universality and cultural relativity in the context of African women’s rights.

The Cultural Relativism/ Universalism Dichotomy

It is not rare to hear from some African scholar that the notion of human right is a purely Western construct which does not consider African communitarian disposition. Even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR), which has attained the status of Customary international law, was never been backlash-free precisely because of the very limited participation of African countries in the drafting and deliberation process. As a matter fact, these adverse reactions cannot be lightly dismissed since African values are poorly represented in the declaration and most, if not all, African countries were under Western colonial power during the formation of UDHR. However, this could not be the ground to question the validity and significance of human right standards, neither can this be the reason to detract their universal enforceability. For Howard and Donnelly, however, ‘a particular type of liberal society’ is sinequa non for effective implementation of ‘modern’ human rights. Communitarian societies, they argued, are antithetical to the implementation and maintenance of human rights, because such social arrangement denies, among others, the autonomy of an individual and the irreducible moral equality of all persons. Matua, on the other hand, contends that such an attempt to create“hierarchy of cultures” does not adhere to human right doctrine of equality, diversity and difference.

For strong Universalists such as Howard-Hassmann, human rights should be the only standards by which we can weigh the validity of certain cultural norms. It follows that any culture which is not compatible with human rights standards ought to be cast aside. Less radical universalist like Stewart endorsed an evolutionary approach that allows cultures to evolve and change with time. On the opposite side of the spectrum, strong cultural relativist claims that “all culture and value systems are equally valid. Consequently, the moral codes of each society ought to be principal source of validity for universal human rights. In the same vein, relativist alleged that culture should take precedence over any other collective international moral judgments.

From the critical point of view, while universalism is perceived by some scholars as a manifestation of western imperialism, an attempt of homogenization and oblivious to genuine cultural nuances, there is also a concern that the arguments of cultural relativism are open to abuse by fundamentalists, economic and political elites (who are already in the position of privilege)and authoritarian governments. Because culture can be misconstrued as a justification to avoid renegotiation of well-established patriarchal social structure and can be brought to bear as a tactic to sustain the existing power relation. Despite these debates, it is self-evident that failure to consider different cultural circumstances in the promotion and protection of international human rights would result in a lack of legitimacy and acceptability. Notwithstanding, as Faulk rightly pointed out, hesitation to look different cultural norms through the lance of international human right standards would also result in “a regressive disposition towards the retention of cruel, brutal, and exploitative aspects of religious and cultural tradition”

Women’s Rights and recognition of culture and tradition in the ACHPR

African women have broken through multiple layers of alienation and repressions. The pervasiveness of discriminatory traditions and harmful traditional practices such as Female Genital Mutilation, polygamy, honor killing, marital rape and such like exposed millions of African women to grave human right violations and put them in disadvantaged positions for centuries. Cognizant of this fact, Article 2 the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Right (ACHPR) proclaimed that the enjoyment of rights provided in the charter shall not be discriminatory based on, inter alia sex. In the same token, Article 18(3) of the Charter impose an obligation on signatory states to “ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the rights of the woman and the child as stipulated in international declarations and conventions.” However, by virtue of Art. 17 of the same Charter member state are also duty bound to “protect and promote cultural and traditional values recognized by the community” In addition, Article 29 (7) the African Charter imposes an obligation on every individual to “preserve and strengthen positive cultural values of Africa.”   Even though, the reference which has been made to international instruments in Article 18 appears to be laudable, it can also be argued that equal recognition of cultural and traditional value is capable of legitimizing harmful and discriminatory practices that would be an impediment to the full enjoyment of women’s rights. It is also worth to mention that the word positive in Article 29 demonstrates that the recognition and promotion of African cultural values are warranted so long as these deeds are not antagonistic to the rights of women. Yet again, while the Charter is clear and straightforward with regard to protection and promotion of cultural rights, the issue of Gender equality is not explicitly addressed. Indeed, the main criticism regarding the interplay between culture and women’s human right in the framework of ACHPR is the latter’s failure to safeguard women’s right independently rather than conflating within the context of family. The fact that their right is situated in an article which deals with the rights of the child, the aged and disabled reaffirm the long-held traditional perception of women’s subordination.  Understandably, such criticism of the Charter for its failure to emancipating women from the context of family stems from the concern that the structure of traditional family in Africa depicts women as inferior. 

Turning back to the central query of this blog post, despite its recognition of nondiscrimination, in a nutshell, I believe that the Charter overtly inclined to the promotion and protection of culture and traditions than the issue of gender justice and substantive equality of women. In that respect, the Charter has failed to reconcile universally recognized human rights of women and cultural rights of the community as its commitment to gender equality is much less than the emphasis that it gives to culture.  Nevertheless, as it will be discussed in the next section, it would be a mistake to assume that culture and women’s human right are always mutually exclusive or inevitably at odds.    

Culture and The Maputo Protocol

Despite its considerable contribution in setting global standards of women’s right, the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (‘CEDAW’)  has certain inadequacies, especially for African women. One of the limitations of the Convention is its cultural insensitiveness precisely because of the commonly held understanding that culture and women’s human right are always uncompromisable as the former is viewed as a barrier to realization and full enjoyment of the latter. The underlying purpose of Maputo Protocol is to rebut such perception by contextualizing the global standards to African local reality through internal dialogue and reform. The protocol, which is ratified by many African countries, is pioneering and transformative in many aspects. Apart from its comprehensive approach, the protocol is also known to be distinct in affording women’s right to peace, inheritance and abortion. Its comprehensiveness goes beyond the ACHPR and CEDAW in addressing the issue of women with HIV/AIDS, women in armed conflicts, elderly women and widows’ rights. Unlike CEDAW, the protocol does not face any difficulty in terms of legitimacy and creditability as it was initiated and drafted by African women themselves. It should, however, be noted that the Protocol  does not escape from criticism for its “lack of consistency in the language and uncertainty in its application” Its failure to represent the interest of rural African women is also raised as a shortcoming.

 I believe that the Protocol has remedied weaknesses of both the CEDAW and the African Charter in terms of accommodating universal rights of African women with cultural sensitivities of their community. On one hand, the protocol draws inspiration from global human right norms through ‘cut and mix’ approach, on the other hand, it has contextualized these norms to African reality. In that sense, it overcomes universalism/relativism dichotomy in the women’s right discourse. Most importantly, Article 17 of the protocol provides that “Women shall have the right to live in a positive cultural context and to participate at all levels in the determination of cultural policies.” Rather than being a mere subject of the discourse, this provision paves the way for African women to bea part of internal dialogue active participant in reforming discriminatory traditions and harmful cultural practices which are entrenched in the social structure. From this, it can be inferred that the Maputo Protocol reconciled the doctrine of universalism and cultural relativism in an appreciable extent.

Conclusion

The complex relationship between culture and women’s right should not be framed in “either-or” fashion. Because such formulation considers universalism and relativism as inherently conflicting parallel axioms which may not be compromised within women’s human right paradigm.  However, in an exceptionally heterogeneous continent like Africa, underestimating the role of culture in the development of modern human rights standards could be counterproductive as the former provides credibility and legitimacy to the latter. On the converse side, the transformative effect of global human right standards over oppressive and exploitive culture and traditions should not also be overlooked. From this standpoint, the attempt of African Charter to reconcile universally recognized rights of women with local cultural traditions appears to be unsuccessful as the commitment to gender equality is much less than the emphasis given to traditional values. It has also been noted that because of its western orientation CEDAW failed to appreciate cultural diversity and forget many African women who consider their communal identity to be a significant factor in their everyday experiences. The Maputo Protocol, on the other hand, exemplifies how, in the face of profound diversity, the bottom-up approaches anchored in local cultures can be productive in enhancing and reinforce women’s right.

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Africa

A Fault Line Named Farmajo

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Somalia, a country of many political fault lines that indicate looming earthquakes of great magnitude, now has a new one- the Farmajo fault. Mohmed Abdullahi Farmajo is the malignantly polarizing president of Somalia.

Two of the Farmajo fault’s severe foreshocks or preliminary shakers have occurred on Thursday 18 February and Friday 19 February. In the first one, government troops have attacked two former presidents and current candidates at a hotel where they were organizing to lead a peaceful march against Farmajo’s illegally delayed election the next day.

The second one occurred on Friday when the government fired indiscriminately at a peacefully marching citizens led by Farmajo’s former prime minister, former ministers and a few other candidates. An estimate of twenty people was reported dead or seriously injured

That was the most callous act that any leader or ruler could have ordered at a time of high political volatility. It is the opinion of this author that that has ended Farmajo’s political future. He severely wounded himself in his first reckless attack and committed suicide in his second.

Nature of the Violation

According to Article 19 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights:  

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

And, according to Article 20:

(1)   Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association

(2)   No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

These universal rights coupled with the freedoms expressed in Somalia’s provisional constitution, affirm that those whose Friday march was violently aborted had the right to protest and chant ‘Doorasho diid dooni meyno!’ which means we don’t want election refuser. No one should be bullied, violently attacked, injured, or killed for their verbal expressions of discontent.      

What was witnessed in Mogadishu in that bloody protest was something not seen in a number of decades. The protesters were not those often seen in the streets of Mogadishu- IDPs and other poor women draped in the Somali flags who are stationed in street corners, under the baking sun, to get paid a few dollars at the end of the day, and children shouting slogans that they do not understand.

Any government that resorts to violence in order to silence its opposition, activists, or dissidents inevitably loses its legitimacy. So more often than not, such government’s days become numbered.

Anyone who has been following my commentaries on Somalia knows that I neither support nor think the opposition (any one of the 14 presidential candidates) could help save this nation that is sinking deeply into quicksand of distrust, for that requires more than election. Yet, I—like many others who have no horse in this bloody race—am committed to defend their right to publicly and privately express their political views. 

 Spin Doctors of Halane

The aforementioned Friday violence occurred within a walking distance from Halane (Somalia’s Green Zone) and key actors in that compound were well aware, at least for a few days before the event, that an anti-Farmajo protest would led by a coalition of presidential candidates who felt scorned and disenfranchised by the ‘Madaxweynaha uu xiligiisu dhamaaday’ or the President whose term has ended.

In reaction, the UN Assistance Mission in Somalia (UNSOM) @UNSOM offered this solution “The UN in #Somalia notes that the clashes in #Mogadishu underscore the urgent need for Federal Government and Federal Member State leaders to come together to reach political agreement on the implementation of the 17 September electoral model.”

The U.S. Embassy in Somalia followed with a paraphrased version of the same statement from another planet. ” We urge an end to all violence and remind all parties of their commitment to immediately conclude an FGS-FMS agreement on #election implementation.”

Interestingly, the referenced ‘electoral model’ is at the heart of the presidential candidates’ grievance. They were denied to be part of it. These statements on behalf of the U.N. and U.S. were adding insult to an injury. As a result, the coalition of presidential candidates reasserted their position of not considering Farmajo as a legal president and that they would continue protesting until he comes back to his senses.

In solidarity with the disenfranchised presidential candidates, both the leader of Puntland federal-state and Jubbaland federal-state (who were at odds with Farmajo for long) have declared said agreement null and void. The 19 February bloody event has killed 17 September agreement.

In a no hold barred televised speech, President Said Abdullahi Deni of Puntland said “We are not going to a conference with Farmajo…” He described Farmajo as a “dictator” who has been dividing the country, and warned against regression into a renewed civil war.   

Recommendations

1)      Allow the candidates and all others who want to march to do so freely, and all domestic and foreign stakeholders should support their right to do so

2)      Farmajo must be pressured to step aside without being barred of participation in the election- a constitutional right that he cannot be denied

3)      The 2009 precedent should not be followed. When then controversial president, Abdullahi Yusuf, was pressured to step aside, his Prime Minister, Nur Adde, was asked to lead the country while a new government was being formed in Djibouti. Nur Adde was not seen as partisan as the current Prime Minister, Mohamed Hussein Roble, who recently declared to unilaterally conduct elections without Puntland and Jubbaland       

4)      Since no official in the Executive or the Lower and the Upper House branches has a mandate to lead the country while stakeholders are negotiating the right model of election and implementing it, the Speaker of the Upper House, Abdi Hashi, should be entrusted with that responsibility for the following reasons:

a)      He is a tower of patriotism among the current politicians

b)      He is the oldest, most ethical, and indeed most credible member of the parliament

c)      He is the only leader who has been playing by the rules

d)      He is the only one who refrained from the cut-throat politics that kept all others in a state of hyper-paranoia

e)      He is one of the Senators who represent Somaliland in the clan-based federal system

f)       He represents one of the four ‘major clans’ in the so-called 4.5 system that never held the presidency, even transitionally

g)      Once a new parliament is elected and a new president is elected or selected, Speaker Hashi clears the way for that new president

The Farmajo fault should not be underestimated. His prolonged stay could wholly tribalize the issue and subsequently make matters worse. Though the clan rhetoric has not been absent, so far the dichotomous divide between the political elite is not fueled by clan politics. Certain foreign actors possess more political leverage than the clans.

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African problems require African solutions

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In order to strengthen political dialogue and promote economic relations, Professor Robert Dussey, Minister of Foreign Affairs, African Integration and Togolese Abroad, held diplomatic talks on February 16, 2021 with his Russian counterpart Minister Sergey Lavrov in St. Petersburg. According to reports, Professor Dussey’s visit was on the invitation by Moscow, and came on exactly one year after their last meeting February 15 in Munich.

After their closed-door discussion, Lavrov told the joint news conference that there is a mutual interest in intensifying and deepening the entire scope of bilateral ties, including trade, the economy and investment, and have agreed to look for specific opportunities for joint projects in areas such as energy, natural resources, infrastructure, transport, and agriculture.

Regarding issues on the African continent, Lavrov re-emphasized that African problems (of which there are many) require African solutions. “We strongly support the African Union, the G5 Sahel, and the sub-regional organizations in Africa, in their efforts to resolve numerous local conflicts and crises. We specifically focus on supporting the fight against terrorism, which poses a real threat, including for our friends in Togo and other coastal countries in the region of the Gulf of Guinea,” he said.

In fact and as always, Lavrov reiterated Russia’s commitment to continue to act actively in pursuing peace and, to this end, called for the peaceful settlement of all kinds of differences, and reaffirmed support for sustainable development there in Africa.

Regarding issues from the last summit held in Sochi, Lavrov stressed: “We are interested in developing the resolutions of the Russia-Africa summit. We spoke in detail about the implementation of these agreements. The coronavirus pandemic has required adjustments. Nevertheless, the results on implementing the Sochi agreements are obvious. This year we will actively continue these efforts.”

The Association for Economic Cooperation with the African States was created in Russia following the 2019 Sochi summit. It includes representatives from the related departments and major Russian companies. The Russia-Africa Partnership Forum, which is a political association, was created, its secretariat is located at the Russian Foreign Ministry. The primary tasks of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum includes preparation and organization of the next Russia-Africa summit scheduled for 2022. The venue to be chosen by African leaders.

“We are still slightly behind other states, but trade between Russia and the African countries has been growing quite rapidly lately. I think we will soon make up for the time we lost in the years when, at the dawn of the new Russian statehood, we were too busy to maintain proper ties with Africa. A very strong foundation was laid in Soviet times, though,” Lavrov said further at the news conference about the current situation with relations between Russia and Africa.

It has always been the wish of both Russia and Africa to have an excellent quality of cooperation and partnership relations between the two regions and to diversify and deepen them as best as possible in order to provide an appreciable geopolitical influence and strategic power balance in Africa.

Russia and Togo, as with many other African countries, have had long time-tested relations over the years. The most recent high-level meetings were between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe during sidelined bilateral meeting in October 2019, when Gnassingbe participated in the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, and on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in July 2018.

With an estimated population of about 7.9 million, Togo is among the smallest countries in Africa. Its economy depends highly on agriculture. Togo pursues an active foreign policy and participates in many international organizations. Relations between Togo and neighboring states are generally good. It is particularly active in West African regional affairs and in the African Union.

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Russia offers 300 million doses of Sputnik V vaccine to Africa

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As African countries continue to experience increasing coronavirus infections, with the overall number of cases exceeding 3.79 million mid-February, Russia is stepping in to supply 300 million doses of Sputnik V vaccine through the African Union (AU). It an effort to assist to stop further spread of the pandemic on the continent.

An official release said that the Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, set up by the African Union to acquire additional vaccine doses so that Africa can attain a target immunization of 60%, has received an offer of 300 million Sputnik V vaccines from the Russian Federation. This includes a financing package for any member states wishing to secure this vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Task Team advises that the 270 million doses previously secured from AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnsons were all taken up by the first allocation phase deadline through the African Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP). With these additional 300 million Sputnik V vaccines, AMSP accelerates online COVID-19 vaccines pre-orders for the 55 African Union member states.

The Sputnik V vaccine from the Russian Federation is now available on the AMSP for the consideration of our AU Member States, says Dr John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC). Bilateral and private sector partnerships such as these aid our efforts to bringing the COVID-19 pandemic to an end.

Nkengasong is worried that vaccine apartheid will have dire consequences for Africans in the near future. According to him, the continent needed to be taken along by the developed world as they vigorously roll out inoculation efforts. Africa’s rollout has been relatively slower with over a third of African countries yet to receive doses.

About Africa’s lack of vaccines, he said:“That is absolutely one of our greatest concerns, that the vaccine situation will continue to exacerbate the inequality gap that exists in the world especially the north – south divide. My greatest fear is that once the United States and Europe get the vaccine, they begin to impose the need to have vaccine certificate to travel and that is extremely complicated for Africans to travel across the world.”

Nkengasongadded:“Africa has to team up with development partners to achieve its 60% continent-wide vaccination in the next two years. I think that is why we should as a collective of the continent, and of course, in partnership with the developed world make sure that Africa has a timely access to vaccines to meet our vaccination targets.”

While details, including clinical and technical information, are now accessible on the Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP), Sputnik V vaccines will be available for a period of 12 months commencing by May 2021.

The African Union member states that wish to secure funding should approach the African Export-Import Bank through their Central Banks, as has been the case with the other vaccines that have been on offer. The lender approved US$2 billion for participating suppliers, allowing the finalization of supply contracts.

According to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), Sputnik V is one of the world’s top three coronavirus vaccines in terms of the number of approvals issued by government regulators.

Sputnik V had been approved in Russia, Belarus, Argentina, Bolivia, Serbia, Algeria, Palestine, Venezuela, Paraguay, Turkmenistan, Hungary, UAE, Iran, Republic of Guinea, Tunisia, Armenia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Republika Srpska (entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina), Lebanon, Myanmar, Pakistan, Mongolia, Bahrain, Montenegro, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Gabon and San Marino.

Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, has said that Sputnik V has a number of key advantages:

• Efficacy of Sputnik V is 91.6% as confirmed by the data published in the Lancet, one of the world’s oldest and most respected medical journals; It is one of only three vaccines in the world with efficacy of over 90%; Sputnik V provides full protection against severe cases of COVID-19.

• The Sputnik V vaccine is based on a proven and well-studied platform of human adenoviral vectors, which cause the common cold and have been around for thousands of years.

• Sputnik V uses two different vectors for the two shots in a course of vaccination, providing immunity with a longer duration than vaccines using the same delivery mechanism for both shots.

• The safety, efficacy and lack of negative long-term effects of adenoviral vaccines have been proven by more than 250 clinical studies over two decades.

• The developers of the Sputnik V vaccine are working collaboratively with AstraZeneca on a joint clinical trial to improve the efficacy of AstraZeneca vaccine.

• There are no strong allergies caused by Sputnik V.

• The price of Sputnik V is less than $10 per shot, making it affordable around the world.

Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) is Russia’s sovereign wealth fund established in 2011 to make equity co-investments, primarily in Russia, alongside reputable international financial and strategic investors. RDIF acts as a catalyst for direct investment in the Russian economy. RDIF’s management company is based in Moscow.

About the Afreximbank: The African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) is a Pan-African multilateral financial institution with the mandate of financing and promoting intra-and extra-African trade. Afreximbank was established in October 1993 and owned by African governments, the African Development Bank and other African multilateral financial institutions as well as African and non-African public and private investors. The Bank was established under two constitutive documents, an Agreement signed by member states, which confers on the Bank the status of an international organization, and a Charter signed by all Shareholders, which governs its corporate structure and operations.

About the Africa CDC: Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), is a specialized technical institution of the African Union that strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions as well as partnerships to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.

About the AVATT: The African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), was established by African Union Chair, President Cyril Ramaphosa, as a component in support of the Africa Vaccine Strategy that was endorsed by the AU Bureau of Heads of State and Government on 20th of August 2020. The AVATT is chaired by President Ramaphosa and includes African Union Commission Chairperson Moussa FakiMahamat, Dr. Zweli Lawrence Mkhize, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, Professor Benedict Oramah, H.E. Amira Elfadil, Dr. John Nkengasong and others, as to be nominated by the Chair of the African Union and the Chairperson of the Commission.

About the AMSP: The Africa Medical Supplies Platform (AMSP) is a non-profit initiative launched by the African Union as an immediate, integrated and practical response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The online platform was developed under the leadership of the African Union Special Envoy, Strive Masiyiwa and powered by Janngo on behalf of the African Union’s Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and in partnership with African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) with the support of leading African and international Institutions, Foundations and Corporations as well as Governments of China, Canada and France.

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