July 2007 Interview: Firoze Manji

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Firoze Manji is the editor of Pambazuka News, a weekly electronic newsletter and forum for social justice in Africa. Pambazuka is actually very similar to Blackademics, except they only focus on Africa and they reach about 400,000 more people than we do-but we’re working on that. Manji is the former African program director for Amnesty International. He has more than 30 years of experience in international development, health and human rights. The nephew of some old philosopher by the name of Karl Marx, Manji carries the torch as a brilliant social activist, critical thinker and Blackademic. The perfect scholar to round off our first full year of interviews. I hope I’m not mis-pronouncing your name, brother Dr. Firoze Manji.

Pierce Freelon: You ended your presentation talking about the relationship between Iraq and Darfur, saying that the connections between Iraq and Darfur in terms of-it’s been going on about the same amount of time, the same amount of people have been killed-yet one is called genocide and another is called insurgency and counter-insurgency. So I was wondering if you could go on and make that point that you were suggesting about why we classify Darfur as a genocide and what are the implications there.

Firoze Manji: Well, It’s surprising. Why it’s important is that when Rwanda genocide was happening the Americans refused to called it genocide, they messed about. The International community more or less ignored it. So the question becomes then, why do some things get called genocide and others don’t. Bush was very quick to call Darfur genocide. Well, if you call that a genocide then let’s look at the comparative situation in Iraq where you have approximately the same number of people killed. It’s been carried out by paramilitaries who are supported by official government sources who are carrying out attacks against groups of people, not individuals. If you draw what’s happening in Darfur and what’s happening in Iraq, the same situations are comparable yet one gets called genocide, the other counter insurgency. I think the problem is, that by calling Darfur in that sense, what it does-it does not give credence to the political formations in Darfur and in Sudan who have their own political agenda which have been carried out. And by taking the politics out of a situation of mass killings, you essentially de-politicize it and you render it into a humanitarian concern which allows you to then do whatever you like, the international NGO’s to come in and do good, etc. But if that is the case, then Iraq, how come it’s not treated as a humanitarian crisis? But I think things are changing. What I’ve heard, from the short time that I’ve been in the United States is senior people saying, well the war in Iraq is lost. Well that’s at least an admission that this was a war.

PF: Right, okay, my next question. Talk about what you’ve been able to accomplish with Pambazuka, in terms of breaching the digital divide and engaging in activism outside of the Internet. Specifically with Blackademics being a Jr. version of what you’re trying to accomplish, I was wondering if you could talk about that and the role of media and Internet, really in the 21st century freedom struggle.

FM: What most people don’t realize is that in most of Africa, access to the web is really problematic. If you try to get onto a website, it will cost you per-minute, very highly. Africans pay approximately 15 times per kilobyte more than do their counterparts in the US or Europe. People therefore cannot spend lots of time on the web. It costs too much and it’s very slow. You can sit there waiting for 20 seconds for a new page to appear. And that means that people are not getting access to the information that’s around. But more importantly, it prevents them from forming communities, solidarity across the continent and across, globally. So realizing this and realizing that actually email is much easier for people to receive, we’ve worked from the basis of saying well, let’s use an email-based newsletter. And we started the idea back in December, 2000 with 300 subscribers, and today we estimate we reach about half a million people. Both in terms of the website and in terms of the newsletter. It’s become a very influential newsletter. Debates on social justice the organizing of campaigns and so on. But we still face this problem. Less than 2% of Africa’s population has access to the Internet, so we still aren’t talking to everyone. So one of the things we’re seriously considering is to say well, we have to make one further step to bridge the digital divide and maybe we come out as a newspaper, as well as being electronic. And so we’re looking at putting together a newsletter which we will distribute on the streets and allow people to do that. And that’s bridging the digital divide and what’s curious is that where as the rest of the media world has been desperately trying to work out how to go from print into electronic, we are casually going from electronic, back to print.

PF: Okay, aaight last question. You talked about the AU has a meeting in Ghana coming up in June and July of this summer, 2007, I’ll actually be in Ghana around that time so I was wondering if you could talk about that and just the whole idea behind the meaning. You’ve said a couple times “United States of Africa” as something they’re going to discuss there. Please.

FM: Well, there’s a poignancy. 2007 is allegedly the year of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British Slave trade. It’s also the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence and Ghana was a critical outlet for the sale of slaves, so there’s a real poignancy there. There’s been a long discussion about how do we establish a continental government. How do we setup solidarity between African countries? If you look at trade for example. You know 90% of trade happens between Europe and the US and Africa not across from Uganda to Kenya. There’s hardly any trade between African countries and that needs to be changed. If you travel from one country to another-you’re disenfranchised. It’s easier for somebody to go to Europe than it is to cross the boarder to a neighboring state. So there are some real potential advantages. The key issue is, if there is going to be that kind of formation, can it just be a super structural formation? All that will mean is that there some of our less than responsible governments are basically talking to a group of other less than responsible governments. So the question is, does it provide a fantastic opportunity for us to open a dialogue and debate, saying well, if we’re going to have unity at the top, why don’t we create unity on the ground? What kind of links between trade unions, between student organizations, between civil society organizations, between professional associations, between farmer’s organizations and so on. To forge unity on the ground level holds that formation to account. Because if we don’t do that it’s going to become even less accountable because nobody ever gets to the African Union meetings, nobody will get to the union government.

PF: Alright. Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

FM: Okay, my pleasure.

PF: Make sure you check out the Blackademics on September 15th. We’ll be publishing an annual review of the past years landmarks, posts and interviews.

See yall next month. Peace.

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