The Darfur Consortium

. . .

A concert and a heart for Darfur

(on the margins of the AU Summit)
- Is'haq Modibbo Kawu (who was in Accra, Ghana)

The setting was the Paloma Hotel, in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. The date: the 26th of June, 2007. The city of Accra itself was festooned with colours; the national colours of green, gold and red, were the dominant colours around trees, in public buildings, bill boards and in miniaturized sizes in taxis and other means of public transportation. The pictures of Africans Heads of State also appeared on the streets. Accra is at the heart of the 50th anniversary of Ghana's independence, and it is the host of the "Unity Conference" of the African Union, the AU.

But back at the conference Hall of the Paloma Hotel, journalists from local and foreign media were converging for a press briefing on one of the most topical events in Africa today, the conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur. The Media Foundation for West Africa is coordinating the major outing of a coalition of civil society organisations to help nudge the leaders of the African countries to become more proactive about the large scale human suffering in that part of the African continent. Darfur is a parable of African impotence in so many ways, and not least of all, the impotence of African media to report the burning issues of our continent from an African perspective.

The Media Foundation for West Africa is conscious of the fact that very few African media establishments have ever reported from Darfur. Most of the African media have reported the crisis through materials taken from the international wire services or the big media establishments of the western world. What reliance on the western media has done, is to leave a significant margin of doubt in the minds of many Africans about what exactly is unfolding in Darfur: the human suffering, the sacking of thousands of villagers, the encampment of millions of people in refuge camps and the exile of millions of others within the country and the neighbouring African countries, not to forget about the exportation of the war into other countries neighbouring Sudan.

Yes, there is a major human tragedy in Darfur, but the frames of western journalism often leave deep-seated scepticism with readers/listeners and viewers around the African continent. So when the Media Foundation for West Africa invited me to report the civil society events on the margins of the AU summit, it was informed by the fact that DAILY TRUST has been one of the few news organisation in Africa that has reported from Darfur, when Kabiru Yusuf and I visited the north and south of Darfur last year. So it was that the Paloma Hotel in Accra became the setting of the press conference that was organised by a coalition of Human Rights Groups dedicated to the pursuit of peace and the respect of human rights in the war-torn region of Darfur.

At the heart of the peace building press conference, was the expression of a commitment to the use of Art to express solidarity, while also underlining the seriousness of the issues arising from the tragedy of Darfur, in the words of the coalition which was at the heart of the events. The coalition of organisation for Darfur is called the Darfur Consortium, which was described by its head, Desmas Nkunda, a Ugandan journalist and activist, as a network of organisations to bring peace, justice and humanness to Darfur. The coalition said that it chose the Accra summit of the AU to raise alarm to the government of the Sudan "to stop killing, rapes, persecution and to listen to the United Nations and the African Union and to bring back the refugees home in Darfur."

The Darfur Consortium said that Ghana's pioneering role in the struggle for African independence made it the natural port of call for activists. The consortium he said, comprised of over 60 African and international organisations, whose demand was for the African leaders converging in Accra for the Unity Summit, to find the courage to tell the Sudanese government to "prevent another Rwanda-type genocide", by threatening Sudan with expulsion from the AU on account of the human tragedy of Darfur. Desmas held his listeners spell-bound, when he narrated his experience of covering the Rwandan genocide. He said that they entered one of the villages where people had been dead for three days, and the place was littered with decaying corpses. Somewhere along the streets, they found a five to six month old baby, still sucking the breast of its mother that had been dead for three days. They picked the flies-covered baby and he went further that the thought still haunts him to this day. He then dropped a poser: "Do we want a repeat of that in Darfur?"

To add poignancy to the occasion, Honourable Salim Mahmud Usman was introduced, as a member of parliament from Darfur. A lawyer and Human Rights activist, he said that he belonged to the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the Sudanese parliament. Honourable Salim said he belongs to the Fur Ethnic group in Darfur. Furthermore, he said that members of his own family have been detained and killed in Darfur. According to the Member of Parliament, "Darfur is the worst human suffering of its kind in the world today"; this he said was according to the United Nations. He said that 5 million African groups are being targeted in Darfur; 2.5 million live in camps; 2.5 million are in exile; 600,000 have been killed, while more than 3,000 villages have been destroyed. He said that the government of Sudan (GOS) uses Antonov planes and helicopter gunships for aerial bombing of villages in Darfur, after which the Janjaweed come to destroy, kill and burn.

Honourable Salim Mahmud Usman then outlined what he called the demands of Darfur. These are a) to be protected b) to how solidarity with its people c) to put pressure on the GOS to allow the introduction of the joint AU/UN forces, because, according to him, the AU forces on the ground in Darfur do not have effective power to stop the atrocities going on in Darfur. The human rights lawyer and politician went on to state that rape is a weapon of the war in Darfur, and so far, the perpetrators have not been brought to justice, because they are beyond the law. He said that justice is the only basis of deterrence to stop the war, arguing further, that the ICC system needed to be invoked in respect of the atrocities being perpetrated against the people of Darfur. The solidarity of African NGOs was particularly delightful for the Darfur politician, and he said that the involvement of creative African individuals like Wole Soyinka and Hugh Masekela in acts of solidarity would help to strengthen the case of the people of Darfur.

The main act of the press conference, was the introduction of one of the greatest African musicians, the South African, Hugh Masekela to the pressmen and other people who came for the event. Masekela had been named a Goodwill Ambassador on the Darfur crisis. He promptly rejected the "goodwill' tag, preferring to be what he called "an angry ambassador" on the situation in Darfur. Masekela was very glad to be in Ghana at the behest of rights-based organisations in Ghana working with Darfur-based groups like the Darfur consortium. He then gave a historical account of his own involvement with music, but especially his development as a socially-conscious and crusading musicians.

In the narration, Hugh Masekela was sent to study music in 1960, by the great musicians, Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte. At that time, Belafonte was the biggest fund raiser for the civil rights movement in the USA and Makeba was the greatest voice for African freedom. By 1963, Masekela had finished his study and wanted to go back to South Africa to teach music. The background to that was the clamp down on the liberation movement, and Mandela and other leaders of the ANC had been sentenced to life imprisonment. Belafonte told Hugh Masekela that it was not the time to return to South Africa. The best thing to do was to stay behind in the United States, become a very popular artist, in order to use that platform of popularity to tell the world about the plight of the people of South Africa and their struggle against apartheid. By 1968, Masekela had fulfilled the promise of his talent to become a very popular musician and true to his commitment, he started to employ his music to engage in the struggle.

Masekela told his audience in Accra, that the people are the basic resource for an artist and the peoples' struggle should always underline the work of the artist. Individual success, he said is fleeting, but when an artist is with the people, he endures in their hearts. For Masekela, while it is true that the vote was won in 1994 to end apartheid in South Africa, killings were still taking place in different parts of the Africa continent. For Hugh Masekela, the artificial boundaries drawn by colonialism should not be the business of an African artist, but he should respond to the developments around him and not be deadened by the "barbiturates" which the world of the media today dish out to kill consciousness. People go to London and Johannesburg to shop and forget that people in our world continue to suffer.

Hugh Masekela believes that the time has come for African to say "no more"! We have to turn Africa around. "In my capacity, I will try to help popularise the cause of Darfur as I popularise the struggle of the South African people." Masekela was not done; "Rwanda makes us cringe with guilt because we were not there for them, eating our ice cream on the beaches. We must be there for the people of Darfur, and help to get back their freedom. I will be there for the people of Darfur". He said further that he had thought that Rwanda was horrible injustice, but he believes Darfur is terrible and we must instil a sense of outrage in the people. "We have become too comfortable in our confront zones". On a final note, Masekela reminded his audience, which was predominantly African; that "we come from an excellent past which we must do everything to reclaim in the conditions of the present. I urge you to join us."

After a very engaging question and answer session, the members of the Darfur consortium left for the ministry of foreign affairs to hold a meeting with the Ghanaian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mr Nana Akufo Addo to discuss the perspectives of the NGO community on the situation in Darfur, with the hope to be able to mobilise the Ghanaian hosts of the AU summit, for a pro-active movements by the continental body, on the situation in Darfur. The message mirrored what had been said earlier at the press conference. Sudan is a big blot on Africa's conscience and working together, governments and all groups of Africans have a role to play for the civilian population of Darfur to achieve peace, and to get the people to return to their homes. As Africans we have to put an end to the abysmal post-independence record in Africa, by finding better ways to develop the African countries.

The Sudanese MP, Salim Mahmoud Usman, reiterated that there was the need to enhance the protection of the people in Darfur, because, according to him, the government was still attacking villages, and AU forces cannot stop the atrocities. They occur in their presence, while he argued further that ethnic cleansing was still taking place. The most alarming claim he made, was that the depopulated areas of Darfur were being taken over by people from Niger, Chad and Mauritania,
amongst others. He called for the review of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA), saying that since it was signed, conditions have worsened on the ground. It was his belief that there would have to come a time to invoke the statutes of the international criminal court to try those who have committed atrocities against the people of Darfur. At the end of the presentations, the foreign minister was informed that a resolution of the coalition of African NGOs as well as the Darfur-based NGOs would be presented for the consideration of the summit.

In his response, the Ghanaian Foreign Minister said the issues in Darfur are already well known, stressing that the main points include protection for the people and the problems of international law and justice as they affect the crisis in Darfur. Mr. Nana Akuffo Addo went further that the Abuja process (the DPA) was deadlocked, but Ghana continues to be proactively involved in the process, with its troops being amongst the African forces deployed on the ground in Darfur. He assured that he would take the message of the Darfur delegation to the appropriate place and also do his best to ensure that Darfur remains on the front burners of developments at the African summit. The delegation posed for pictures with the foreign minister and returned to the Paloma Hotel for lunch, full of optimism that a significant milestone had been reached with the level of publicity given to the Darfur issue. Everybody was now waiting for the concert for Darfur slated for Wednesday night at the National Theatre in Accra.

The Accra National Theatre is an imposing expression of the post modern and African motifs, and an elegant building in every sense. It was the setting for the night of a concert of solidarity for Darfur. It took a while for the hall to fill up, but everybody was expectant, that it was going to be a night of very good music, which in turn would provide the ambience to send a message or two about the problems of the people of Darfur. The underlining theme was solidarity, arried
on the wave of the notes of very good music. The speeches came from Professor Kwame Karikari of the Media Foundation for West Africa, who underlined the central theme of search for peace for the people of the Darfur region and the culpability of the government of Sudan in the atrocities being committed against the people of Darfur. There was the striving poetry of Professor Kofi Anyidoho and other soul string speeches from the Archbishop of Accra and the representative of the Muslim community in Accra, who called for a balanced attitude of seeking peace between both the government and the rebel groups in Darfur. The Darfur consortium restated its commitments and the Nigerian activist, Rotimi Sankore as well as the secretary general of the Nigeria Labour Congress, Comrade John Odah, his Ghanaian Trades Union Congress colleague all came to the stage to present words of solidarity with the struggle of the people of Darfur.

If the speeches were well received, there could be no gainsaying the fact that it was the music that was at the heart of the night. First were a number of tunes by a backing group which was the appetiser for the evening. Then the Ghanaian band Gonje came on the stage, with their traditional ensemble and a fidelity to African traditional dresses and a sound that explored the world of tradition and crosses into the modern with a seamless fluidity, which kept people dancing around the hall. If Gonje's sound worked up our bodies, more was to come from the very popular Ghanaian artist, Amandzeba. He presented a creative balance between form and content, could keep people on their toes with his modern music which was in the reggae, afro funk and other forms. But politics was central to his messages. In one of the songs presented that night, he sang that "Mister George is lost in the Bush; Mr Tony's vision is blurred and yet African leaders follow them"! The message was not lost on the audience and that drew a huge applause. He took his act a step further, by going behind the stage to change his costume and this time returned to the stage wearing a dress which carried pictures of the architect of Ghana's victory against colonialism, Doctor Kwame Nkrumah. It was very poignant. If we want to be free, we have to bring back the vision of Kwame Nkrumah!

There could not be a better prelude to the appearance of Hugh Masekela on the stage. The man who drew an expectant crowd to the national theatre was finally out to perform and everybody was held in awe. This was afterall, one of the greatest musicians in all of Africa. Hugh Masekela is advancing in age, but his energy, his dynamism and his commitment are still as potent as ever. He came on stage hitting evocative notes on a gong, as if calling for the presence of the spirits of Africa to come and partake in the night's event. He remembered Africa's different points of struggle against injustice, including the manner Africans from different African countries were sucked into the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, to extract profit for the great companies of the capitalist world. The miners lived in single sex hostels and had been brought from Zambia, Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe and even places further afield, in trains. That inspired his song, Stimela. People were now on their toes and around me, they were dancing, shuffling and shouting. I joined in all these as I also took a lot of photographs. But who could resist the urge to dance, when Masekela performed Orlando Julius' Asiko, a Yoruba song that became very popular with Masekela in the 1970s. "Eyin Omo Africa, ee ye! Emura sise, ee ye! Ema s'ole, ee ye! (You Africans, work hard! Don't be lazy!!) It was a call and response song which people responded to. I was in the company of three colleagues, an Ethiopian, an Egyptian and a Spaniard, and these three ladies can really dance! Masekela then told story of his collaboration with Fela Anikulapo Kuti in Lagos. Fela was clearly a hero that Hugh Masekela admired intensely, and he brought the hall to a near-crazy pitch when he performed Fela's Lady. "if you call am woman, African woman no go gree, she go say ooh, she go say I be lady o"! It's a very popular song around the world, and here in its West African home, the response was even more ecstatic and joyous as one would have expected. Hugh Masekela's last piece of the night was his well known tribute to Nelson Mandela. It said "Bring back Mandela to Soweto;" it's equally very popular and the dancing was no les joyous and the atmosphere was exceedingly infectious. Hugh Masekela promised to do a song in a future album that will be dedicated to the plight of the people of Darfur. The Sudanese MP told me much later, that such a song will be taken to the camps in Darfur and it would become a major item of solidarity for the people of Darfur. That belongs in the future, but tonight at least, the National Theatre of Ghana became the point of musical expression of solidarity at a level which left everybody truly happy and sober at the same time. This was because while everybody enjoyed the music nobody forgot that what triggered the concert were the tragic scenarios unfolding in Darfur. It became clear just how effective art can be as a vessel for conveying feelings in a struggle against injustice. It was a wonderful way to be on the margins of Africa's Unity Summit in Accra, Ghana.

The trip was sponsored by the Media Foundation for West Africa.

Written by Kawu Modibbo ([email protected])


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