Mark Weston

About Mark Weston

Mark Weston is a writer, researcher and policy adviser, and the author of The Ringtone and the Drum: Travels in the World's Poorest Countries.

How to Tackle Coronavirus in Slums

Western governments, following the example of China, have adopted broadly similar approaches to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. After initial hesitation, and once infection rates and deaths have reached sufficiently alarming levels, they have enforced country-wide lockdowns.

Lower-income countries are beginning to copy this model. Rwanda, South Africa, and India are on full lockdown; Kenya and Sudan on partial lockdown. Measures implemented by other low-income countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America grow stricter by the day.

A one-size-fits-all approach, however, risks overlooking the enormous differences between rich and poor countries with regard to living conditions, social mores, and the availability of resources and services.

In particular, the large number of low-income country residents who live in informal settlements, or slums, will be ill-served by measures that rely on the stockpiling of food, the availability of savings, the ability to work from home, and the need to keep your distance even from close relatives.

In these environments, staying at home can itself be a risk. Cramped, often poorly-ventilated dwellings housing large numbers of people are potential petri dishes for COVID-19. Queuing to use shared toilets or draw water from wells or boreholes, using crowded public transport, or simply walking past others in narrow lanes heighten the risk of exposure.

If informal settlements are locked down and their inhabitants lose access to work, food, and other essentials, there will be a risk not only of the coronavirus ravaging communities that contain large numbers of individuals who are vulnerable to its most serious effects, but of exacerbating malnutrition, increasing the risk of other diseases and plunging millions of people into – or further into – long-term poverty.

Policymakers need tailored rather than uniform approaches to tackling COVID-19 in informal settlements. Here are eight ideas for doing it differently:

1. Adapt to the context: Just as measures that work to combat COVID-19 in high-income countries will not necessarily be suitable for the developing world, so will blanket measures covering all informal settlements likely be ineffective. A Brazilian favela is very different to a slum in rural Tanzania. An informal settlement in Ouagadougou is different to a Turkish gecekondu or refugee camp.

In rural areas, for example, residents of informal settlements will be better able to implement social distancing measures to contain COVID-19 than their urban counterparts. They will be better able to grow their own food in the event of a prolonged lockdown. Residents of urban slums, on the other hand, may be protected from the virus to some extent by their relative youthfulness and their higher education levels, although vulnerable elderly residents of urban settlements may be more likely to live alone and have weaker support networks than their rural cousins.

There are many other differences between informal settlements that will affect the response to the virus. These relate to the physical environment, the climate, population size, cultural and linguistic factors, crime rates and the presence of gangs, the relationship with the state, intergenerational relationships, and so on. Policies including resource provision, educational messaging, and training and support for community leaders will only be effective if they are adapted to the characteristics of each settlement.

2. Test and tailor education messages: Educating the residents of informal settlements on how to avoid infection, what to do if infected, and how to care for the sick are critical tasks in environments where state-provided healthcare is largely or completely absent.

Education messages must be appropriate to their audience. They need to speak their language (in urban slums in particular, residents often hail from a number of different ethnic groups or countries and speak many different languages), respond to their concerns, take account of available resources, use media that slum residents use, and counter false information. To transmit messages effectively, moreover, trusted messengers must be deployed, and their buy-in secured.

While some messages – such as the value of regular handwashing – are universally appropriate (at least where people can access soap) and can be delivered immediately, others will need testing and refining over time.

For example, early messages on HIV/AIDS in Africa so alarmed people that they created enormous stigma around those suspected of having the virus. This made people more reluctant to present for testing and helped the disease to spread more quickly. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, researchers discovered that government health workers, who in the early days had been charged with delivering prevention education, were not trusted in many informal settlements. In Sudan, myths around the coronavirus include the protective effect of mangoes, ice-cream, and previous use of chloroquine for malaria treatment, while Donald Trump’s claim that the virus was a hoax has persuaded many that they have nothing to fear.

Only research can show educators the level of existing knowledge in different populations and help them develop culturally-appropriate messages that will help combat rather than aggravate the virus. And only research can show them who is best placed to deliver resonant messages in each context and to different population groups within each context.

3. Don’t expect to eliminate risk: People living in informal settlements have much more contact with others than those who live in formal settlements – research in Delhi found they have 50% greater contact duration per day than non-slum residents. Policies that aim to eliminate COVID-19 transmission will therefore need to be so draconian that all other activities must cease, and for households that only bring in enough income each day to buy a day’s supply of food, the risks of such confinement will be impossible to bear for long.

But while mass self-isolation may be undesirable, more limited containment measures can help reduce transmission. Banning large gatherings at weddings and funerals; persuading religious leaders to postpone services, or at least to hold them outdoors or stagger them to reduce attendance; closing video halls and bars (perhaps allowing the latter to sell take-outs only); and educating people to stand as far as possible apart while queuing are obvious first steps.

Temporary measures to isolate cohorts of people – whereby individuals group themselves into the smallest possible unit that can provide each member with essential provisions and services – can also slow transmission. In Europe, the predominant cohort unit is the household, but in informal settlements it might encompass a house, a compound, a street, a block or even a district or village.

Such cohort units could assign specific dwellings for those at high risk of COVID-19 infection (a measure known as targeted quarantining), those who are infected and in need of care, and those who have to leave the unit to work. They could also develop rota systems to reduce the number of members who go out to the market or to fetch water, dispose of sewage, collect mobile payments, or use public transport.

The number of entry points to these units should be minimised – in Brazil, gangs have placed soap by public water fountains at the entrance to favelas, with signs urging those who enter to wash their hands – while outdoor areas can be assigned for limited numbers of outsiders to visit relatives inside the unit, as well as for unit meetings to be held. With larger units, such as whole villages, travel between them should be prohibited except in emergencies, while mobile food distribution points can serve those that struggle to sustain themselves. In both cases, when a member falls sick the entire unit should self-isolate for 14 days, with food, water, and sewage services provided from outside.

4. Focus resources on the vulnerable: The governments of countries that have large slum populations are generally strapped for resources. Targeting education messages, regular testing, treatment, and isolation strategies at pregnant women, the elderly (in slums, those aged over 60), and those with known or suspected chronic underlying conditions is a more realistic approach than aiming to protect the whole community from the disease.

Families with more than one room or house, too, could be encouraged to allocate a living area to high-risk household members before the virus hits, and taught to use infection control methods to prevent the entry into that area of the virus.

5. Enlist and support community leaders: Community leaders are best placed to advise on the appropriate isolation units and on the measures and constraints that might be accepted by the inhabitants of each informal settlement. This is particularly important in slums where the state has limited legitimacy and capacity.

Such figures may include local chiefs or councillors, religious leaders, medical and other professionals, businesspeople, traditional healers or youth group leaders, and will vary depending on the settlement. Most informal settlements have some form of community-based organisation or residents’ association, and the acceptability of coronavirus control measures will be greatly enhanced if they have these groups’ support.

Community leaders can play a role in disseminating education messages, identifying and isolating suspected cases, enforcing rules such as social distancing in queues and limited movement between units, and distributing protective equipment such as masks, soaps, and hand sanitisers.

They can also develop measures of their own, which may be more appropriate to the local context than broad-based policies developed by central governments. Sudan’s Neighbourhood Resistance Committees, which were instrumental in ousting the dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, have been making and distributing hand sanitisers using alcohol originally intended for use in illicit liquor. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, groups of young men used plastic bags and rice sacks to make their own personal protective equipment for conducting safe burials.

But community groups should not be expected to go it alone. Local and national governments, NGOs, businesses, diaspora groups, and the international community must support them with materials – soap and hand sanitisers, educational posters and leaflets, testing equipment and so on; with basic services – free water, waste disposal, food provision for those unable to feed themselves, and mobile clinics to complement a slum’s existing health centres; and with training to give them the knowledge and skills they need to identify those most at risk of severe COVID-19, recognise symptoms, deliver information, and organise the care and quarantining of those who fall sick.

6. Don’t forget human rights: Coronavirus lockdowns in Rwanda and India have already seen citizens killed by the police for breaking curfews. Residents of informal settlements often have a troubled relationship with state institutions, and beating people to death for going out to buy milk is unlikely to improve matters.

If populations are to comply with COVID-19 measures, they will have to trust those who are enforcing them. Without trust, and if governments trample human rights in their efforts to contain the disease, rules will be ignored and the virus will spread more quickly.

Engaging community leaders to help implement and enforce the response to the virus will ensure that rights are upheld, while regular consultations with slum residents will apprise external actors of both their concerns and their suggestions for fairer ways of implementing policies.

7. Empower the youth: Although less vulnerable than their elders to severe coronavirus, young people in informal settlements will need support to maintain their livelihoods. Some governments, such as the state government of Uttar Pradesh in India, can afford to pay people not to work, at least in the short term. In Sudan, donations from the diaspora have been used by the Sudanese Professionals Association, a trade union, to persuade street vendors to stay at home.

Most governments in countries with large slum populations cannot afford such policies. It may be cost effective, however, to pay young people to provide services during the epidemic. Youth underemployment is rife in many slums, and young people can be recruited to deliver provisions to the sick or to self-isolating units, to police toilet and borehole queues, to assist with waste disposal and water delivery, to transmit educational messages to their peers, to impart lessons to children whose schools have shut down, and to perform many other tasks.

In this way the virus can be an opportunity to unleash the potential of young slum residents, giving them cash while the epidemic persists and much-needed capital to set up their own businesses in its wake. Their entrepreneurialism and creativity should also be rewarded – those who come up with new ways of tackling the virus and its effects should be given cash rewards. Young women, too, will be empowered by such strategies and will devise new ideas of their own for use both during and after the epidemic.

8. Don’t forget long-term challenges: For the majority of people living in informal settlements, COVID-19 will be far from the biggest health threat they have faced. It is important to continue to provide services to prevent, detect, and treat other communicable and non-communicable diseases, regardless of whether they are aggravated by COVID-19.

To reduce the burden on health services, the provision of non-essential services could be postponed until the coronavirus epidemic has subsided, while shuttered schools could be opened up to treat people with minor health issues, to deliver childhood vaccination programmes, or to attend to those with conditions that might be exacerbated by COVID-19. Opening up more healthcare delivery points will also reduce the footfall of those who may be infected with the virus (in some countries, there have been reports of crowds of people queuing outside hospitals with suspected fevers, for example), thereby reducing transmission.

At the same time, residents of informal settlements have many other long-term challenges to deal with, which risk being neglected if resources are diverted to COVID-19 control. Cutting education budgets, for example, would have serious long-term consequences – including health consequences – for slum residents. Neglecting sanitation, environmental, microfinance, and other programmes will also pose grave risks.

The coronavirus is one challenge among many for those living in the world’s informal settlements. Balancing the response to it with broader healthcare and other development priorities will be essential if their long-term resilience to such threats is to be strengthened rather than dismantled.

Book review: Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”

Book review

If you’ve ever written a book about Guinea-Bissau, you will know that popular interest in this remote little West African country is scant. Your oeuvre is unlikely to be spotted flying off the shelves of WHSmiths, even less likely to feature prominently on airport bookshops’ lists of Great Holiday Reads. The few journalists who write about the place trot out the old saw about no president having completed his term in office, and then move on to less somnolent parts of the continent.

But Guinea-Bissau, as a few eminent Africanists have noticed, provides an instructive example of how the survival into the post-colonial era of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s extractive political and economic institutions continues to impede Africa’s development half a century after independence. Among these Africanists is one of the most brilliant of them all, Patrick Chabal, whose Africa Works is an essential read for anyone trying to understand how and why so many of the continent’s Big Men have endured in power for so long. Chabal also wrote extensively on Guinea-Bissau, including a biography of one of the Big Men’s nemeses, Amílcar Cabral, who after leading his country to independence from Portugal would become another of Africa’s doomed figures of hope.

Patrick Chabal died before his final work could be completed. But ‘Guinea-Bissau: Micro-State to “Narco-State”’, co-edited with another Guinea-Bissau enthusiast Toby Green, is a worthy handing over of the baton (disclosure: Toby kindly reviewed and provided a blurb for my own, less academically rigorous book on the country). The book’s ten chapters, written by an assortment of academics from Guinea-Bissau, its diaspora and elsewhere, provide a thorough and clearly argued analysis of why the country remains one of the poorest in the world four decades after shrugging off the colonial yoke; of why it has been subjected to such venal leaders (most notoriously the thuggish Nino Vieira); and of how foreign meddling during and after colonialism contributed to the hollowing out of the institutions of government, exacerbated local ethnic and religious divides, and weakened this primarily agricultural society’s resilience. Continue reading

How English-medium education is hobbling Tanzania’s children

Imagine yourself as a 12-year-old. Perhaps you’ve just squeezed your first zit or been crippled by your first crush. You’ve also just graduated from primary school, and are about to begin secondary.

You haven’t learnt that much during your first years in school – the teaching is so bad that half your colleagues failed to graduate. From primary school. Class sizes averaging 50 and sometimes hitting 200 didn’t help, nor having to share a textbook with four other students.

Often there weren’t enough chairs or desks in class, so you would have to stand all day at the back in the 35-degree heat (the fans overhead never turned). Your teachers were poorly paid and trained, demotivated, often absent, and when they did teach they used such antiquated methods that all you ever did was copy down whatever they wrote on the blackboard and, if you had the time or energy to study in the evenings, try to learn it by heart without ever understanding what it meant.

Not surprising, then, that some of your 12-year-old peers can barely read a word in your own language, much less a whole sentence. And forget other languages – although the study of English was obligatory in primary school, the teacher masked his weak grasp of his subject by conducting lessons entirely in your mother tongue. Since you could barely read or write in that, there was little hope that you’d be able to do so in a language of which you knew nothing.

So you’re getting ready to start secondary school, probably feeling a little daunted after just scraping through primary. Possibly feeling more daunted still because the rest of your schooling is to be conducted not in your own language, the language you’ve been working hard to familiarise yourself with for the past few years (it is itself not the language of your tribe, and not always spoken at home), but in English, a language neither you nor anyone you know speaks.

And you won’t just be studying the subject of English in English – this might actually be useful, or it would be if your teacher were better trained – but all other subjects too. And if you thought your English teacher had a weak knowledge of English, wait until you hear how your biology teacher speaks it, or your maths teacher. Most of the time they won’t bother, of course: they admit to using the local lingua franca – in Tanzania’s case, Kiswahili – reasonably arguing that since their students don’t understand English there’s no point trying to educate them in it.

But the textbooks you share with your colleagues are written in English. Your homework is supposed to be written in English. All the exams you take are in English. Throughout your secondary school career, therefore, you will be taught in one language but expected to produce the outputs you need in order to progress through the levels in another.

In theory, increasing your exposure to English makes sense. It’s the most important global language, after all, and while research shows that you will learn more effectively in primary school if you’re taught in your mother tongue, it also shows that young people can learn a second language well if they are confident in their first language and if it is introduced gradually, “in carefully managed stages”.

There is nothing gradual or careful about the introduction of English in Tanzania. English is supposed to replace Kiswahili wholesale. Students have a six-week English crash course before they begin secondary school, delivered by a teacher who has been through the same dysfunctional system. After that they are left to fend for themselves. The old-fashioned teaching methods, with a distant disciplinarian handing down diktats to cowed and silent subjects from the front of the classroom, allow no scope for thrashing out an understanding during an interactive discussion.

Teaching is bad enough in Kiswahili – asking teachers to use an unfamiliar language makes it worse. Asking children to learn in one language while they take exams in a different language that they can’t speak is likely to be a fundamental reason why 60,000 drop out of secondary school every year, why only 12% complete lower secondary education when they should, and why only 1.9% enrol in upper secondary school.

Before Tanzania’s last election, in October 2015, the ruling party suggested that it would ditch English-medium education and revert to using Kiswahili at secondary as well as primary level. No progress has been made on this pledge, and the new government has had little to say about it. This was one of the previous administration’s better ideas. Tanzanian students are hobbled by the current system. Teaching English well as a subject and teaching everything else better in Kiswahili will free them to realise their potential.

[This article first appeared on Daily Maverick, and is reproduced here with permission]

Embrace immigrants, whatever you vote on Thursday

A couple of weeks ago, realising that it was struggling to make a convincing economic case for Britain to leave the European Union, the Brexit campaign switched the focus of its message to the threat posed to Britain by immigration. Almost immediately, Vote Leave surged in the polls. The bookmakers’ odds against Britain leaving the EU plummeted, from 5-1 in May to around 7-4 last week. The Leave campaign had found the Philosopher’s Stone.

Leave or remain, therefore, immigration matters to Britons – whatever happens on 23 June, concern over it will not go away. But while the case against immigration has been made repeatedly and vehemently by the Leave campaign and an often-rabid tabloid press, few prominent figures, and nobody in the Remain campaign, have put forward a cogent case in its favour. Boris Johnson, a descendant of immigrants who is now the leader of the Brexiteers, claimed in 2013: ‘I am probably the only politician I know of who is willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.’ Now that Johnson has changed his mind, there is nobody left to make the case.

As an immigrant myself, formerly to Spain and more recently to Tanzania, I would urge those fearful of immigration to reconsider. Migration is one of the good things about the EU, not one of its flaws. Regardless of Thursday’s result, Britain will be a poorer place if it closes its doors.

The ethical case for immigration to rich countries is easily made. Those of us who were born in Britain won life’s lottery. We were about five times more likely to have been born in a developing country than in the developed world, with atrocious healthcare, bad schools and no jobs. We were as likely to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo as in Britain, and to have our lives racked by war and disease, our life expectancy slashed by 20 years, and our incomes (and our purchasing power) reduced by 99%.

But we were born in Britain, and having benefited from such a stroke of luck, many of us wish to exclude everyone else from sharing in our booty. At least part of the reason why Britain is rich and developing countries poor is because it enslaved and colonised some of them, plundering their resources and destroying the lives of their most talented people. Even if this were not the case, however (or if you disagree with this analysis), it still seems incoherent for a society that values equality of opportunity to limit this to those born within its borders. It is akin to allowing only winners of the National Lottery to get jobs, while everyone else must languish in poverty. Yes, there are only so many jobs to go around (although as job-rich, immigrant-rich America shows, migrants create jobs as well as filling them), and integrating new arrivals is difficult and will take time, but unless we value somebody born in a distant corner of Britain more highly than someone born in a different corner of the globe just because he or she is a lottery winner like us, our aspiration – as Christians or devotees of other faiths, as democrats or egalitarians, or simply as unselfish, big-spirited people – should be to share the opportunities, not hoard them.

Many won’t be convinced by this, but what of a less high-minded argument? Immigrants create jobs and do the jobs native workers don’t want to do, but they also take jobs, with low-wage native workers particularly vulnerable to being undercut by new arrivals. The net economic effect on receiving countries is disputed, with the balance of research suggesting it’s broadly positive but not by much. There is a strong case for compensating the small minority of domestic workers who suffer from immigration, just as there is a strong case for providing safety nets to those whose jobs are taken by cheaper workers overseas, or for those whose jobs disappear under the advance of new technologies.

But the effect on migrants themselves is almost never mentioned in such discussions. Migrants are people too, and the economic impact of migration on migrants is enormously positive. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t leave their homes and their often very close-knit families to do it. And as well as improving their own living standards, economic migration also improves the lives of those they leave behind. Migrants – be they from Poland, Ireland or Senegal – send money back to their families, to feed and clothe them, to help them in times of distress, to put their younger relatives through school, or to help them set up businesses. Many migrants eventually go back to their home countries and start businesses themselves. All this spurs the economic development of these countries, and economic development of other countries helps Britain. It means, for example, that British exporters will have more and wealthier customers, and that British consumers will have access to cheaper, better goods. By making countries more stable, it means Britain won’t have to send troops to tackle conflicts or have to accommodate large numbers of refugees from such conflicts. It means Britain won’t have to spend so much on overseas aid (aid to poor countries from rich countries is already dwarfed by migrants’ remittances, and unlike aid this money goes directly into poor people’s hands). And in the long run, it will probably mean less immigration to Britain, too.

As well as being a migrant myself, I have a second personal interest in this topic. Like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, I am the husband of an immigrant. Farage’s wife is German, mine Turkish, of that tribe whose vilification (by a campaign led by a descendant of Turks, Boris Johnson) helped swing the polls in Brexit’s favour. My wife’s opportunities in life increased greatly when she moved to Britain, and she now works as an English teacher and teacher trainer overseas. Turkey, contrary to what the Leave campaigners want you to believe, has no chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future. But keeping Britain’s doors open to people like her from both inside and outside the EU is not only the right thing to do, it’s the sensible thing to do.

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

Why Witchcraft Works

lakevUkerewe, the island in the Tanzanian half of Lake Victoria where I am currently spending a few months, is famous for witchcraft. Witches are found in every village, in every street. They earn a living by selling curses. If you want to punish a friend or destroy an enemy, you pay a witch to smite him with some misfortune – illness, injury, impoverishment, death. Because these things are so common anyway, it is easy for witches to claim that it was the curse that did the damage, and easy therefore for them to stay in business. And there begins the vicious circle – bad things sustain belief in witchcraft, belief in witchcraft absolves you (or your government) of any responsibility for your lot, so more bad things happen, and the witches grow ever more powerful.