African arts, culture + politics

Wants list


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) He’s on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, as well as his own website. And now newly re-elected Lagos state governor Babatunde Raji Fashola is encouraging his constituents to go online – to share their visions for Lagos.

At the time of writing, 332 Lagosians have logged on to I See Lagos to upload their photos and requests. Many dream of a constant power supply, affordable housing and good transport. Others have more specific wishes: from an end to the “illegal collection of money from bus drivers and conductors” to simply “C-Train. 15min 4rm Ogba to Aja”.

“What was really the driver behind this project was that we were in a political campaign period and just felt
we need to get people better engaged in what they want a government to do for them,” explained one of the project’s coordinators, Moji Rhodes. The I See Lagos team will be monitoring feedback over the next four years and inviting those who share their visions to high-profile events, such as Governor Fashola’s recent inauguration.

African arts, culture + politics

Inside An African Election


(, 2011) Words Carinya Sharples

“What we do we know about African elections other than they mostly go wrong?” It was this rather depressing question that drove director Jarreth Merz to go behind the camera and find out what an African election – the 2008 Ghanaian presidential election, to be specific – really looks like on the ground.

The remarkable thing about the resulting film, An African Election, though, is not what goes right or wrong but the unprecedented access Merz and his team have to the two main candidates, their people and (a first for any film crew) the Strong Room – where all Ghana’s election results are sent, where accusations fly and where presidents are made. Eventually.

How easy was it to get the politicians on board? “I think they are hungry to be shown and seen in a different light, bottom line,” says Merz. “They understood very early that this was different … We were embedded in all the major political parties and we built trust over time. So I think they got this sense of ‘they’re not in here to make us look bad’. That wasn’t the case but at the same time I told them they had no control of the footage … I didn’t want to make a political movie, so to speak.”

Director of An African Election, Jarreth Merz

Another point in Merz’s favour was his Swiss-Ghanaian stepdad’s connections to Ghanaian society and family links to the king of Ashante. Merz himself grew up between Ghana, Germany and Switzerland, later moving to the US to study directing and go in front of the lens in hit US TV series ER (as Charles Baruani) and The Passion of the Christ. But it was the death of his Nigerian father in 2007 that put into motion the chain of events that would lead to An African Election.

“I was the first born so I had to attend the funeral otherwise he couldn’t be buried … my brother [Kevin Merz, co-director of An African Election] came and we started a diary – just a family diary – which turned into a documentary called Glorious Exit. And I just realised I didn’t know anything about Nigeria. And then I wondered well, what do I know about Ghana where I spent my childhood? What do I know about Africa? The debates are always about colonialism and neo-colonialism… what about day to day life?” Returning to Ghana in search of his “roots”, Merz instead found a country on the brink of an all-important presidential election – and, quickly, the idea for the film was born.

An African Election begins with just 28 days to go until the elections. The two main candidates are swiftly introduced – John Atta Mills of the NDC and Nana Akufo-Addo of the ruling NPP – and the boxing match begins, each contender trying to knock out the opposition and give the crowds something to cheer about. It is the fifth election since multi-party democracy was re-introduced in 1992, so the Ghanaian people are not new to this sort of thing. Yet they’re anything but apathetic – something clear throughout the film, from the initial rallies to the vote counting, when crowds of observers watch the election officials hawk-eyed to make sure not a single vote is miscounted. “Politics is embedded in families [in Ghana],” explains Merz. “People speak about politics, they’re engaged. There’s an amazing political sensitivity. They understood very early on that they were the ones to decide, they wouldn’t let the politicians decide.”

Perhaps inevitably – for a documentary, not for Africa – the film cranks up the tension as accusations are made about electoral fraud. A car is suddenly pictured in flames, crowds gather on the darkened streets, rumours spread of “macho men” on motorbikes snatching ballot boxes before they’re counted. Is it real or exaggerated for impact? For Merz, his presence as a filmmaker obviously made him more aware of events: “This was like wow, the shit’s going to hit to fan. Other people were in their homes, they were having dinner. People watched the film and said there was no violence. I think that’s dangerous – we cannot take democracy in Ghana for granted.”

Now the film is out, Merz’s focus is getting it seen – not just at Western film festivals and cinemas but across Africa. When we spoke, Merz had just got back from Zimbabwe where An African Election had passed the censors and was being screened. “Harare Gardens open air was packed,” says Merz. “People were laughing. It was just insane. I think they thought it was an inspiring story, an African success story. It wasn’t just the good, it wasn’t just the bad – people recognised their own political leadership.”

The important role played by the unshakeable Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan, chairman of the Electoral Commission of Ghana, has also been commended far beyond African. “I got an email from a Superior Court judge in California who said he was a hero to him and his colleagues,” says Merz.

The focus now is on sourcing funding to take the film to Ghana and planning a “political safari project” to engage people at a grassroots level, using the film as a platform to start debates about democracy in, for example, universities. Then there’s Merz’s planned biopic on the famed Russian poet Alexander Pushkin (who was of African descent) and a documentary on how love is seen across Africa.

So how does Merz think the presidential winner, Atta Mills (surely not a spoiler?), is faring. “I think he’s doing pretty much the right things, he’s trying to stop this conscience of vengeance. He’s not the most sexy politician on this planet, the most charismatic, but he’s trying to reason with his party to consolidate.”  With the next round of elections due next year, Atta Mills’s got another fight on his hands.

An African Election is out in UK cinemas now. For more information visit

African arts, culture + politics

Vote with your tweet


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) How do you inspire apathetic young voters? By getting them to fill in their Twitter status. That was the idea behind a campaign by Vote or Quench that urged young Nigerians to tweet about how the upcoming election could change their country, using the hashtag IfNaijaVotes.The one-day action in January provoked a chorus of tweets; as well as trending locally, it was covered by Yahoo and USA Today while celebs such as US rapper Nas and Nigerian singer Nneka tweeted about it. Young voters also joined in via Facebook, smartphones and BlackBerry Messenger.

“We wanted people to donate their status, something that was easy,” says Vote or Quench founder Nosarieme Garrick. “We wanted people to be creative, to have fun with it.” It may have been fun, but there was an important message behind IfNaijaVotes: 70 per cent of Nigeria’s population is under 30, which could mean serious electoral bargaining power, if they take advantage of it.

Through its lively online hub of debate and information, Vote or Quench’s aim is for more 18-35 year olds to become aware of their voting power. “We’re not saying social media is the answer to all our problems,” says Garrick, “but it’s helping to fan the flames. It changes the idea of social activism.”

Vote or Quench is now recording video diaries of first-time voters and calling for a presidential debate on youth issues. In Nigeria’s last ballot, less than half of the electorate voted. With the help of Vote or Quench, that might be about to change.

African arts, culture + politics

Size matters


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) Africa is bigger than you think, and software pioneer Kai Krause has produced a map to prove it. Named The True Size Of Africa, Krause’s representation neatly undermines our preconceptions by demonstrating that Africa is considerably larger than it’s commonly believed to be. In reality, it takes up the same area as the US, China, India – what we think of as the world’s biggest countries – as well as much of Europe, combined.

Krause blames our bias, in part, on popular mapping projections, such as the Mercator, which dramatically distort the size of land masses. He even has a phrase for our geographical ignorance: ‘immappancy’ – as in illiteracy or innumeracy – and calls his diagram “a small contribution in the fight against rampant immappancy”.

Krause’s map has been criticised for not representing accurately the different countries’ shapes and proportions. However, the calculation was worked out using the area mass of each country (taken from Wikipedia) and comparing the total to that of Africa. As Kai himself points out in the accompanying explanation: “the graphical layout of this map is meant purely as a visualisation… the map purposefully uses the familiar shapes, as if you are ‘moving pieces’ in Google Maps”.

Now we just need someone to remind the world that Africa’s a continent, not a country.


The Mayor’s year


(The Pavement, 11 June 2009) This month marks the one-year anniversary of Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London. So what has he achieved? We look at what the Mayor has done to improve housing in London – and if he’s followed through on his key election promises.

AFFORDABLE HOMES PLEDGE:Work with the boroughs to build 50,000 more affordable homes by 2011 Action: Mr Johnson has gone back on his election pledge, changing 50,000 new homes to 50,000 more affordable homes. Empty homes that have been brought back into use, for example, could now be counted. Even the 50,000 target is looking shaky, with the Evening Standard reporting that Mr Johnson has admitted the recession could make the goal difficult to meet. Mr Johnson has also scrapped the obligation on local councils to guarantee that at least 50 per cent of their new housing will be affordable. Instead, individual targets are being decided with each borough.
RESPONSE: Adam Sampson, outgoing chief executive of Shelter, said in the Guardian (20th January 2009): “The inevitable result of this will be that boroughs will proceed to play pass the parcel with affordable housing supply, each arguing that while they support the overall target, they themselves should be exempt from it”.

SOCIAL HOUSING ACTION:Mr Johnson has shifted resources from social housing to ‘intermediate’ housing (eg, home ownership schemes). Previously the allocation was 70:30 in favour of social housing; now it is 60:40. RESPONSE: Jenny Jones, Green Party Assembly Member (20th November 2008): “By shifting the focus away from social rented housing and onto homes for middle income earners, the Mayor is cutting support for those in greatest need”.

EMPTY HOMES PLEDGE: Invest ¬£60m from the Regional Housing Pot to start renovating the capital’s 84,205 empty properties to help lowincome Londoners off waiting lists.
ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy has allocated £60m of the Targeted Funding Stream to bring empty homes back into use. It pledges that no more than one per cent of homes should stand empty and unused for over six months and there should be no financial incentives to leaving homes empty. An audit of derelict abandoned homes will also be undertaken.

PLEDGE 1: Release GLA-owned land and ¬£130m from the Regional Housing Pot to launch a new ‘First Steps Housing Scheme’, which will be open to first-time buyers frozen out of Government schemes.
PLEDGE 2: Increase shared ownership schemes for low-income families by a third.
ACTION: The Draft Housing strategy outlines plans to increase opportunities for low-cost home ownership by a third. As promised, ¬£130m will be earmarked to start the First Steps housing programme. Controversially the maximum household income of those eligible for discounted and low cost homes has been raised to ¬£72,000. RESPONSE: Rob Williams in the Guardian (22nd November 2008): “Quite frankly, if housing is so expensive that an income of ¬£72,000 cannot get someone on the “property ladder” then it is clear that prices must come down to earth.”

PLEDGE: Work with local councils to deliver more family-sized homes.
ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy aims that 42 per cent of social rented and 16 per cent of intermediate homes should have three bedrooms or more. The increase in overcrowding in the social rented sector should cease by 2012, the paper adds.

PLEDGE 1: Protect private tenants from unscrupulous landlords by publishing an online ‘Fair Rents Guide’. PLEDGE 2: Explore the possibility of a tenant deposit scheme with a guaranteed arbitration period of one month. ACTION: The Draft Housing Strategy outlines plans to set up the London Rents Map, a web-based guide giving details of rent sin the capital, and to raise awareness among tenants and landlords or Tenancy Deposit Schemes. However, no new tenancy deposit schemes are mentioned other than those that have been mandatory since April 2007 for all new and renewed tenancies with rents of up to ¬£25,000 a year. We will be interviewing Boris Johnson in a forthcoming issue.


Will Homeless Link make homelessness history?


(The Pavement, 21 May 2009) In November 2006, Homeless Link, the umbrella organisation for all frontline homeless agencies, published a 10-step guide outlining its pledge to end rough sleeping by 2012 and all homelessness in the UK by 2022. So how’s it going, and why are there two deadlines?

Gill Perkins, head of communications at Homeless Link, told The Pavement they see the 2012 target as “a milestone” on the way to achieving the end of homelessness by 2022. It’s also the intention, according to the guide (Ending homelessness: From vision to action), that the end to rough sleeping will happen “in time for the Olympics”. In terms of funding, money donated is not specifically directed to the campaign or donated on the condition of meeting the goals, says Ms Perkins, but goes towards the general work of Homeless Link’s members in tackling homelessness – “our raison d’etre”. In order to measure progress, the Homeless Link action plan included a ‘roadmap’ to ending homelessness.

The draft Mayor’s Housing strategy does say the mayor will support Homeless Link’s target to end rough sleeping by 2012; and housing minister Iain Wright just this month (April) unveiled the ‘Places of Change’ programme to “help end persistent rough sleeping and reduce rough sleeping to as close to zero as possible” – a commitment and an action plan, though not quite the full pledge to end rough sleeping by 2012. As well as the roadmap, Homeless Link’s action plan laid down 10 key areas covering prevention, support and accommodation that must to be tackled in order to achieve their goal. These included introducing an “effective legal safety net for everyone who is homeless” in line with Scotland’s plan to abolish the “priority need” test by 2012; “emergency interventions” such as family mediation services and rent deposit schemes in every council area; as well as early prevention techniques such as spotting people in vulnerable ‘transition’ periods and assessing and issuing warnings about new government policies which could lead to homelessness. A “doubts and quibbles” page also responded to potential criticisms of their campaign, such as “But homelessness is only part of the problem for many people. You can’t solve everything”. Homeless Link’s answer to that challenge concluded: “Beacons of excellence demonstrate that with careful design and adequate funding, services can help even the most chaotic people to move towards a better life.”

Ten years ago Labour pledged to reduce rough sleeping to “as close to zero as possible” and cut the number of those sleeping on the streets by two-thirds before 2002. They claim to have achieved this target; however, this has been challenged by a number of homeless groups – as well as many of our readers – who say the figures do not represent the reality on the streets or take into account the “hidden homeless” drifting between hostels and the streets.

This April, the Department for Communities and Local Government published a discussion paper entitled Rough sleeping 10 years on: From the streets to independent living and opportunity, and has said it intends to publish an updated rough sleeping strategy later this year to set out government policy for the next three years. The recent discussion paper briefly outlines what this strategy will likely include before listing “who’s on the streets”. According to the paper, the answer is “a continuing flow of ‘new’ rough sleepers”, “migrants without recourse to public funds” and “entrenched rough sleepers resistant to service provision”.

Homelessness has undoubtedly been back on the agenda in recent times; with MEPs signing a pledge to end rough sleeping by 2015, London mayoral candidates backing Homeless Link’s goal and the Iain Wright’s recent pledge. Ms Perkins notes “a renewed focus from the government on this major social issue”, although she agrees that “Obviously government has to support our campaign to get all the relevant agencies working together – no one group can do it alone”. This focus on group effort means involving the opposition party and working with people like shadow housing minister Grant Shapps, as well as central government, local authorities, related organisations and the departments of health and criminal justice.

The government’s part in ending homelessness, according to Homeless Link’s plan, ranges from statutory reforms such as ending the “16-hour rule” and amending the Homelessness Act, to instructing policy change in other areas, whether directing NHS trusts to never discharge homeless people from hospitals onto the streets or halving the number of evictions.

So does Homeless Link think they can succeed to meet its goals? “Yes”, says Ms Perkins. “As long as everyone comes to the party… It’s an ambitious goal, but worthwhile”.


Mayoral candidates: Boris Johnson interview


(The Pavement, 5 April 2008) He has been editor of The Spectator, MP and Shadow Minister of Higher Education, but to most people Boris Johnson is that Eton-educated Tory with the shock of blonde hair who goes on Have I got News For You? and makes ill-advised comments about Liverpool. Yet it appears someone has had a word in his ear and suggested that to have a serious pop at winning the crown of London mayor, it might be time to lose the jester’s hat. So there were friendly smiles but no buffoonish jokes as Boris strode into the sparsely decorated County Hall room, and stood on the map of London stuck presidential seal-like on the floor and emblazoned with his campaign slogan ‘Back Boris’.

When handed a copy of The Pavement, Mr Johnson immediately remembered a much earlier brush with homelessness. “Actually one of the first things I ever gave away money to was Shelter, at primary school…”

Thankfully the mayor’s budget holds more money than the average piggy bank. So how would Mr Johnson spend these funds to help homeless people in London? “The most important thing is to help homeless people get the accommodation they need,” he says. “That is why I want to get people into some of the 84,000 empty homes across London. The number of empty homes has risen considerably in the last few years, and the number of people on housing waiting lists has gone up 68 per cent. There is an obvious solution there, it seems to me”.

One of the first things Boris did in his campaign was to visit St Mungo’s in Chelsea. “We talked to a wonderful guy, Edwin, and heard his life story and how homelessness can overtake anybody,” says Mr Johnson. “Growing up, he was a well-off guy, then suddenly he hit the buffers, everything went wrong, and his personal life broke down. These things are often accompanied by some breakdown in emotional, personal lives as well, and suddenly there just seems no way out”.

As mayor, Mr Johnson says he would encourage charities like St Mungo’s, although he warns that while hostels are part of the solution, “in the long run we need to get people off waiting lists and into accommodation. That is why I think homeless people should vote for me if they could vote.” I explain that in fact homeless people can vote, simply by making a declaration of local connection. “Oh, can they? Good!”

The GLA Act, passed in October 2007, gives the mayor of London responsibility for the capital’s housing strategy and investment as well as the power to decide how London’s public money for affordable housing will be spent. And with the newspapers full of credit crunches, repossessions and soaring mortgage interest rates, it is no wonder housing is a big part of the Back Boris campaign.

Like Ken Livingstone, Mr Johnson has pledged 50,000 new affordable homes in 2008-11 while also calling for protection of London’s green belt and an emphasis on quality as well as quantity. “Affordable must not mean second-best,” he says. “It must not mean high-rise council flats. It must not mean being cramped and overcrowded”. Despite these exacting standards, Boris reveals he is not averse to more ‘creative’ ideas. “There are lots of tricks that the current mayor is missing, like Hidden Homes.”

This is a scheme that has been run by Wandsworth Council since 2003. Mr Johnson applauds the council for doing a “fantastic job” finding homes in overlooked places. “They lifted the lid of an underground car park and turned it into lots of wonderful homes. There are 10,000 homes you could find like that”, he says, before mentioning “suburban tube stations” as another possible option.

For Mr Johnson, housing and homelessness are “two sides of the same coin”: Homelessness, he says is “a huge problem and you are dealing with people who have fallen through the housing net who feel completely hopeless and that there’s no one looking out for them”.

So does he back Homeless Link’s goal to eradicate rough sleeping by 2012? Or does he think this is Mr Livingstone being influenced by the upcoming Olympics in London? “I don’t know if it is linked to the Olympics,” he replies cautiously. “I certainly think it is sad there are so many rough sleepers and they deserve help and support.” He supports the target, but is wary of looking underhand. “We are not just doing it to make London look tidy for the Olympics,” he stresses. “We are doing it because we want to help people in their lives.”

However, Mr Johnson admits he is less up to speed with the issues over banning soup runs, a campaign recently put forward by Westminster Council. The scheme failed to obtain approval, and although Mr Johnson is “familiar with the controversy”, he wavers over who would get his support. “There seem to be two sides to the argument,” he says. “What John Bird has to say, I listen to with great respect and interest – I do not want to support measures that will unnecessarily keep people on the street. On the other hand, I do not want to snatch soup from the lips of hungry people. It would be pretty heartless to withhold it.” So which would it be? “We clearly need to work out what the best way forward there is. We will need to see how the Westminster experiment works,” he says.

He does, however, confirm that he is keen to support the voluntary sector and get money to worthy causes around London, like St Mungo’s. “I am also going to be setting up a Mayor’s Fund, which will be a big vehicle for getting money from the wealth-creating sector to the voluntary sector”. This will, he hopes, be a great thing for young people and the homeless, too.

Another hot topic surrounding homelessness in London is the increasing number of homeless people from particularly Central and Eastern Europe. What does Boris think of the situation many ‘A8s’ or A2 nationals (those from recent EU member states Romania and Bulgaria) find themselves in – powerless to claim benefits for a year, unable to find a job and left to fend for themselves on the streets?

“Obviously I hugely welcome the contribution that Polish immigrants have made, and people from all over the A8 countries; they are doing a fantastic job in London and they deserve support,” Mr Johnson enthuses. “But it would be a it would be a tragedy if people were coming to London and ending up in poverty and destitution, unable to get back to family who can look after them”. He cites his recent visit to the POSK centre in Hammersmith and his concern about the “growing” homelessness, despite networks and groups which support people within the Polish community.

Mr Johnson adds that he has a particular interest in the level of assistance provided for the number of ex-service men and women on the streets. Recent statistics suggest that one in four rough sleepers in London have a military background. Mr Johnson has pledged to introduce free bus travel for returning veterans of current wars. “I think it is about time that we did something for lots of people that are coming back from wars, which we may or may not agree with, and finding that the country they are fighting for is very cold and unwelcoming,” he says. “I think it would be a good thing to show some recognition of the sacrifices they have made.” He cannot resist adding: “I am pleased to see the mayor has now imitated us… he has had eight years to think of this, but has decided to do it as well – and about time too.”

During the interview he asks: “What’s your estimated of the number of rough sleepers in London?” and, when looking through The Pavement, “What’s the Soup Run Forum?” Perhaps Mr Johnson is keen to engage and learn more about the homeless community and the latest issues. He comments how every morning he cycles past the queue of people waiting outside St Martin’s in the Fields and wonders “what have they been doing all night?”

As we wind up the interview, The Pavement photographer asks Mr Johnson to pose with a copy of the magazine, which he does readily, flicking through the pages at the same time. He soon comes across the photo on the foot care page and with a cry of revulsion (“Ooh… aah… nasty!”), the serious politician demeanour slips and for a moment Mr Johnson is once again that young boy who did his bit for Shelter.