Democracy in West Africa
Understandably much less noted, but also of real significance, are two recent victories for democracy in West Africa.
With a series of local, parliamentary and presidential elections ending in December, Niger consolidated its position as one of the few predominantly Muslim democracies in the world. Its post-colonial history, like that of most West African countries, has been dominated by dictators and military coups, but free elections in 1999 brought to power a government with democratic legitimacy. Given the countrys history, many questioned whether it would prove enduring. Thus far it has. In the 2004 elections, the incumbent President was re-elected, but his party failed to win a Parliamentary majority. There is general agreement among foreign observers and Nigeriens alike that today Nigeriens enjoy basic freedoms and can participate fully in the political process.
In his inaugural address, President Bush made support for this sort of movement to democracy and freedom the organizing principle of American foreign policy.
To the surprise of many observers of contemporary African history (including your humble correspondent), the reaction of Togos West African neighbors was swift, strong and effective. Acting primarily through ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), currently chaired by Nigers President Mamadou Tandja, they suspended Togos membership in the organization, imposed an arms embargo and a travel ban on its leaders, recalled their Ambassadors, and made clear their determination to isolate the new Togolese regime. Within days, Faure resigned as President and elections were set for April 24.
This sort of vigorous collective action in support of democracy is unprecedented in contemporary Africa. It has been glaringly absent recently in southern Africa with regard to Zimbabwe.
Democrats worldwide can applaud these indicators that democracy continues to grow in the hitherto inhospitable soil of West Africa.
To those of us living abroad this is manifested in many ways, including the extraordinary measures we must take to protect ourselves from terrorists, as anyone who has attempted to enter an American Embassy recently can testify. But the sometimes vicious anti-Americanism of those we have long considered friends, especially Europeans, is even more hurtful than the hatred of Islamic extremist terrorists. Ive written elsewhere of the almost daily insults I hear on Radio France International. And in passing through Charles de Gaulle airport recently I was dismayed to see that one of the bestsellers displayed in a bookstore was 11 Septembre 2001: lEffroyable Imposture, a book that claims the 9/11 attacks were an appalling deception perpetrated by the U.S. Government to justify American imperialism.
Here in Niger, Ive found that many, maybe most, Europeans think Peace Corps is an intelligence organization. French and German volunteers will not associate with our Peace Corps Volunteers, even when they are stationed in the same small, remote town. (In sharp contrast, PCVs often have close relations with the Japanese volunteers.)
I was recently invited to a reception given by DED, the German volunteer organization, to celebrate its 25th anniversary in Niger. The Director was courteous in receiving me, but when I began mingling with the German volunteers and introducing myself as the Peace Corps Director, their coldness and negative body language was impossible to miss. I departed before the speeches.
In many years of working with Europeans as an American diplomat in Asia and Africa, up through the 1980s, I never felt this sort of hostility on a personal level.
Among Nigeriens, on the other hand, I dont sense a rise in anti-Americanism at all, even when they disagree with some of our policies. There are a few Islamic extremists and European-educated Niamey intellectuals who are anti-American, but they are neither numerous nor notably virulent. The vast majority of Nigeriens I encounter are warm and friendly, and they are especially hospitable to our Volunteers who live among them. Even though the cultural gap is much wider than with Europeans, it is somehow a lot easier to bridge.
I dont claim to fully understand the reasons for this difference, but I believe that 43 years of continuous Peace Corps presence in Niger has had a positive effect on Nigerien attitudes toward America.
A Volunteers View from Togo
She writes: I have never known such hospitality. Unlike a growing number of people, the Togolese love America. For the people of Tokpli, my home is a shining El Dorado, the same land of dreams and prosperity that has drawn immigrants for centuries.
Most Nigeriens have similar attitudes.
Hams to Niger
In nearly five years here, our personal visitors have been limited to our two daughters and a son-in-law.
For most Americans, even those few who could find it on a map, Niger is just too remote, too different, too lacking in modern amenities, too little known to even consider visiting.
Nigers isolation from the beaten path, however, constitutes its attraction for one small group of visitors. Ham radio operators compete in contests and collect awards for talking to other hams in as many different countries as possible. In ham terms, Niger is very rare and thus much sought after. There are currently only two active hams resident in the country: an American missionary in the Saharan oasis village of Tchintabaraden, and me.
For the past two years, a group of 10 enthusiastic British and American hams has come to Niamey to operate in one of the major international ham contests, held annually on a late November weekend. They bring along a truckload of radios and antennas, and set up a multi-transmitter station in a local hotel. I have been pleased to assist them as a local contact person and logistics facilitator.
Both years, they made contact with over 17,000 hams throughout the world during the 48-hour contest period.
Ive found it most enjoyable to visit with them and share some ham adventures.
Sadly for us, we hams are becoming an endangered species. Very few young people come into the hobby these days, since those who are technically inclined prefer computers. Most current hams are well into their twilight years, having entered the hobby in the 1940s, 50s and 60s when short-wave radio was still a cutting edge technology, and the ability to sit in your bedroom or basement ham shack and talk to someone on the other side of the world was truly thrilling. Those days are past, but we old timers still find the hobby fun.
Girls Soccer in Zinder
On Saturday, the field is nearly empty at 8:00 a.m. The sand is hilled and furrowed with the heavy footprints of collège (junior high school) and lycée (high school) students exercising in gym classes during the week. Slowly, the girls and coaches begin to arrive on foot and motorcycle from the town and bush, followed by spectators and kids selling bagged water out of coolers in wheelbarrows. Names are called and green and white uniform tops and black shorts are passed out. (The majority of the equipment used by the teams was donated by the U.S. Athens Olympic Womens Soccer Team with the help of former PCV Miguel Gomez.) The field is prepared by a few male students, and players return from the latrines in uniform, pointing and laughing excitedly at each other dressed out for the match.
The first female football game in Matameye is less than an hour away from starting and the news of girls playing football is on everyones lips. Two old Kantché men quietly converse, Girls, theres a girls football game in Matameye today.
The Kantché football team arrives in a bush taxi at 9:00 with nearly all of the young women (collège age) wearing knit caps instead of headscarves with their red and white uniforms. In a country that is over 90% Muslim, they keep their hats on during the game, even as the morning heats up: 80, 90, 100 degrees.
No shoes, no shin guards, no problem. These girls have a desire to play that surpasses any physical difficulties they encounter. With two, thirty-minute halves and a ten-minute halftime, the crowd and teams are electric the entire time. In the front row of chairs on the sidelines sits the elderly Maigari (traditional chief) of Kantché who jumps out of his seat to cheer on his towns football players. The Matameye school administrators and teachers are no less enthusiastic about their team that has been practicing twice a week for over two months preparing for this match. The Associate Peace Corps Director for Education in Niger, Assalama Sidi, diplomatically cheers on both teams.
Throughout the game, hundreds of kids--boys and girls--crowd the field wanting a closer look, and teachers chase them back with sticks so the players wont trip over the young spectators. Theres almost a goal on Matameye, but the ball bounces off of the stick goal post and is chased down to the other end of the field! Almost a goal on Kantché! The game intensifies as the clock runs down in the second half, and a fight nearly breaks out between a handful of girls from the two teams on the field, but the referee is able to cool things down. The crowd and coaches sigh, laugh, groan, yell.
The game ends: Score 0-0. For now, the football trophy will be shared--one week in Matameye, the next in Kantché. After lunch for the players and coaches, the coaches inform the two Peace Corps Volunteers working with the teams that there will be another match in a few weeks to a month in Kantché. They will raise the money themselves this time and encourage the girls to train even harder, both sides desperate for another match-up and a chance to take the trophy home full-time.