20 June 2013

Africa: Youth Unite for a Better World

Photo: African Union
Children at the African Union.


All over the globe young people face similar and dissimilar problems: issues of oppression, economic, political and social injustice in various manifestations. They must globally mobilise with other progressive forces to transform not only their own lives but their own societies and the world

Mohamed Bouazizi and Bradley Manning remain powerful symbols of inspiration to progressive forces around the world - particularly young people globally - for their commitment to truth and social justice. Bouazizi was the 27-year-old Tunisian man who set himself alight on 17 December 2010 after being harassed by police for years. Perhaps it was the slap by a female municipal worker who confiscated his fruit and vegetable stall, in addition to the years of personal indignity before the inhumaneness and corruption of the authorities, that was the catalyst for his fatal action on that day. He will never know that he set in motion the Arab uprising and the related Occupy movements in many Western capitals which were led by thousands of young people who inspired hope for a different world. Manning was a 22-year-old American soldier when he leaked a trove of American state secrets to Wikileaks in 2010. He has spent 1,100 days incarcerated; much of that time in solitary confinement, among other forms of degrading treatment. He has pleaded guilty to 10 of the 21 charges facing him. The charge which faces a life sentence is that of 'aiding the enemy', which means, assisting al-Qaeda by making intelligence accessible on the internet.


As the black British journalist Gary Younge makes clear in his aptly titled article 'Hypocrisy lies at the heart of the trial of Bradley Manning,' [1] the documents leaked by Manning in 2009 revealed how the Americans were aware of the opulent and corrupt lifestyle of the former Tunisian President Ben Ali whilst ordinary Tunisians faced rising unemployment and inflation. Yet the Americans continued to back Ali 'preferring a dependable dictatorship to an unpredictable democracy.' [2] As Younge poignantly remarks: 'WikiLeaks did not cause these uprisings but it certainly informed them.' [3] On account of Wikileaks, Tunisians (and many other Africans) were now exposed to what they secretly knew the Americans were doing under the cover of democracy with the collaboration of their kleptocratic leaders - thanks to Manning. Yet, Manning is being vilified for being a whistleblower. As his court trial unfolds, it is disturbing that the country that prides itself as the paragon of democratic values on earth, believes there are some truths carried out in the name of the American government that must not be known to the people.

The American writer and journalist Chris Hedges argues: 'This trial is not simply the prosecution of a 25-year-old soldier who had the temerity to report to the outside world the indiscriminate slaughter, war crimes, torture and abuse that are carried out by our government and our occupation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a concerted effort by the security and surveillance state to extinguish what is left of a free press, one that has the constitutional right to expose crimes by those in power.' [4]

Moreover, 'The cowardice of The New York Times, El Pais, Der Spiegel and Le Monde, all of which used masses of the material Manning passed on to WikiLeaks and then callously turned their backs on him, is one of journalism's greatest shames.' [5] In March this year, the diminutive Manning told the military court that he could not reconcile his experience of the war in Iraq in which innocent lives were lost with the official version of the war. He said before the court, 'They [i.e. American soldiers] dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote 'dead bastards' unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.' [6]


Other examples of young people who acted out of a sense of injustice are the youth of Soweto. This year marks thirty-seven years since the Soweto uprising that took place on 16 June 1976 in South Africa. This tragic event led to over 500 young people being killed by the white apartheid state forces and was organised by the black youth of South Africa, many of them inspired by the ideology of Steve Biko's Black Consciousness Movement. The thousands of young schoolchildren who marched in protest against a decree by the racist South African government's Department of Bantu Education that Afrikaans had to be used as one of the languages of instruction in secondary schools was reflected in their moral indignation in audacious banners that read: 'If we must do Afrikaans, [Prime Minister] Vorster must do Zulu.'

It was a sense of injustice that also led to between 15,000-20,000 black people marching on 2 March 1981 through the streets of London - many of them young adults and teenagers after the tragic 'New Cross Massacre Fire' that took place in Deptford, London.' It took the lives of 14 black people at a 16th birthday party on 18 January earlier in the year. 'The Black Peoples' Day of Action March' was organised by the New Cross Massacre Action Committee chaired by the late John La Rose. To this day, many black people at the time and since believe the fire was not an act of arson which was the view of the British police, but a racially motivated attack with fatal consequences. To this day, the perpetrators have never been found to be charged. Since this racially motivated attack, young black people in the UK, such as Rolan Adams and Stephen Lawrence, have been victims of racist attacks by individuals. Other young black males such as Sean Grigg, Smiley Culture, Mark Duggan and many others have been murdered by the racist British police. The story in the United States of Aggression is not dissimilar, with the names of Ahmadou Diallo and Sean Bell who have been brutally murdered by the institutional racism of the American police force (among many others); the 17-year-old unarmed African American Trayvon Martin was viciously murdered in February 2012 in Sanford, Florida. These are some of the high profiled cases we know about, but there are others that do not reach the attention of the media but are no less important, tragic and are worthy of remembering.

Whether in deprived neighbourhoods of Afro-Brazilians, the UK or US, there is an issue of gang warfare and 'black on black violence' in which sections of young people of African parentage and African descent are engaged in. Days after Obama's inauguration in January this year, the 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton who marched with her school band as part of the ceremony was fatally gunned down on 29 January in a Chicago park in a case of mistaken identity. Shockingly she was the 42nd gun victim of Chicago in the month of January alone. In the previous year 500 homicides had taken place in Chicago. The city's gang problems are blamed on the proliferation of guns and socio-economic inequalities which are enlarged in the wider American society. [7]

According to the 'Black Star Project' there is a 'silent genocide' concerning 'the plight of black men in America' in which in all spheres - whether it be health, education, employment, legal redress and fairness - the chances and opportunities of black males are very low compared to other ethnicities. [8] The Project reports that, 'Blacks account for only 12% of the US population, but 44 % of all prisoners in the United States are Black.'[9] Michelle Alexander elaborates in her book 'The New Jim Crow' [10] that 'less than two decades after the War on Drugs began [around 1971], one in seven black men nationally lost the right to vote, and as many as one in four in those states with the highest African American disenfranchisement... ' [11] The author argues that America's War on Drugs has given rise to a mass prison industrial complex system that dominates the lives of communities of colour that is, African Americans and Latinos in the US. They - and particularly the young - have been disproportionately represented behind bars and on death throw in America. For example, Alexander points out that 'about 90 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense in Illinois are African American. White drug offenders are rarely arrested and when they are they are treated more favourably at every stage of the criminal justice process, including plea bargaining and sentencing. Whites are consistently more likely to avoid prison and felony charges, even when they are repeat offenders. Black offenders, by contrast, are routinely labelled felons and released into a permanent racial undercaste.' [12]

When in June 2008 Barack Obama gave a speech on Father's Day dedicated to the subject of fathers who are 'AWOL' before a black church congregation in his home town of Chicago, he did not have the honesty to acknowledge that many black males are denied a father because 'they are warehoused in prisons, locked in cages.' [13] There are parallels between the plights of many young black males in the US to their UK counterparts. If young black males in Britain are not leaving prison to the stigma and marginalisation of a prison record or youth offending institution, they are in mental institutions and under drugs for mental health problems, or they have had their chances of educational success blighted by being expelled from school or college when their white counterparts would have been treated more leniently for the same misconduct or crime.


The continent of Africa has the youngest population in the world; some 60 per cent of Africa's unemployed are reported to be between the ages of 15-24. A high rate of unemployment among Africa's youth has huge implications for political and social instability on the continent. In Somalia and Nigeria (and elsewhere around the world), the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the form of Al-Shabab and Boko Haram respectively, thrives in the swamp of poverty and unemployment. For example, more than half the population of Somalis are under 18. Unemployment rates for youth in Somalia are at an alarming 67 percent among all 14-29 year olds. [14] To address the problem of Islamic fundamentalism, the conditions that facilitate the rise of such extreme ideologies need to be addressed.

As the black political activist Lee Jasper points out in his piece entitled 'Black Youth, terrorism and the moral blindness', omitted from the British news coverage of the horrific murder of a British soldier in London in May this year, was 'the real lived experience of British black communities suffering the damaging effects of societal racism is a narrative that is largely missing from the mainstream British news agenda and completely absent from the Government's agenda.' [15] Jasper does not seek to justify the murderous acts but makes the argument 'that a minority of young black British people, be they of African or Caribbean descent, many of whom suffer deep economic exclusion, deep political marginalisation and acute social demonization from wider society, can be particularly susceptible to both violent criminality and sometimes, radical conversion by religious fanatics.' [16] It is also interesting that in the media concentration on defining the murder as an act of terrorism, there has been a profound disconnect and silence on the alleged motives of the suspects. Yet, in a video clip one of the young black men says: '[w]e swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. The British soldier is an eye for eye, tooth for a tooth.'

As the African American journalist Margaret Kimberley correctly points out, 'this killing [of the British soldier] was no more awful than those committed by the military from the U.S. or other NATO nations. Lee Rigby was decapitated in Woolwich but bombs and bullets decapitate. Babies in Fallujah, Iraq are born without heads because of the lingering effects of depleted uranium. In Gaza, the Israelis terrorize a civilian population with impunity, killing men, women and children, sometimes killing entire families who are all defenceless.' [17] The reality is that young Muslims in Western countries make a political connection between their faith and the politics of duplicity that dehumanises and degrades their religion whilst Western governments continue to prop up dictatorial regimes in Muslim countries. Are young Muslims not to see the hypocrisy in such positions? Is it not the case that American made drones authorized by the government of the Nobel Peace prize winner - Obama, kill innocent Yemenis, Afghans and Pakistanis encourages a climate of religious fanaticism among the youth of such countries? How can a Nobel Peace prize winner justify the use of drones in making peace?

Recently Obama gave an address on 19 May to 500 young African-Americans at the famous all-male historically black Morehouse college in Atlanta. As Ajamu Nangwaya argues, whilst 'The American Commander-in-Chief tried to pass off a personal responsibility bill of goods to his most loyal demographic group,' Obama remained silent on the socio-economic structural impediments to black men (and women) being able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. [18] While some delude themselves that a 'post-racial America' exists with the election of an African American president, the reality is that white supremacist thinking, sexism, racism continue to be barriers in the lives of people of colour. Education for liberation should give students the intellectual tools to critique society as well as seek new ways to change oppressive conditions. Instead, in much of the world, formal education functions to indoctrinate young people into conforming to a neoliberal, racist, patriarchal, capitalist and imperialist world order. It feeds them with the negative ideation values of competition, belief in the superiority of the market, imperial might is right to overthrow dictators (otherwise referred to as regime change, humanitarian intervention or Responsibility to Protect), consumerism and individualism as well as a disconnect between issues and problems of the world. Young people must be encouraged to mobilise with other young people around the world as well as progressive forces globally to transform not only their own lives but their own societies and the world. Technology in the form of the Internet and social media facilitates this possibility on an unprecedented scale.


Driven by poverty and unemployment, thousands of young Africans have traversed the scorching Sahara and the treacherous Mediterranean Sea to reach Lampedusa, near the coast of Italy. Since the uprising in Tunisia for example, there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of young male Tunisians fleeing the country. In October 2012 a fishing boat carrying between 100 to 140 young Tunisian men sank 12 nautical miles (22km) from its destination Lampedusa. Only 56 survived. [19]Despite the crackdown on arrivals by the Italian authorities, this has not discouraged desperate young male Tunisians who have been disillusioned by the new government's failure to provide jobs and a decent standard of living for ordinary Tunisians.

Similarly, many Ethiopian and Somali migrants to Yemen face discrimination in the host country. '[Ethiopian migrants] sit low on the domestic workers hierarchy and, along with other African nationals are discriminated against throughout the Gulf region where xenophobia and racism has found expression in the region's politics and government policies. The majority of migrants leave the security of their home, the love and comfort of their families, not because they want to, but because they have, they believe, no alternative. Overwhelmingly young, 18-30 years of age, from rural or semi-rural environments, poorly educated with many lacking basic literacy, driven by poverty the majority go in search of work, whist around 25% are estimated to be from political opposition parties.' [20]

The plight of Africans fleeing their countries in search of better economic opportunities is captured in the film entitled 'La Pirogue' (meaning wooden fishing boat) by the Senegalese film director Moussa Touré. The beautiful cinematography of the film captures the plight and message of the dozen or so Senegalese men who are all prepared to risk their lives in search of a better life abroad. Among them is a female stowaway, who remains undeterred by the fact that her husband died from such a journey and the young man who dreams of becoming a famous musician. The epic drama is dedicated to the more than 5000 Africans who have died attempting to make such a journey in the last decade in order to reverse the economic impoverishment of their families.

In South Africa unemployment figures are believed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), to be close to 40 peercent, in contrast to the official figure of 26 percent. [21] Among black youth the rate is 57 percent among township youth. [22] Just as in the UK and US, joblessness exacerbates, if not fuels gang warfare, and crime as it does in South Africa.

Since the capitalist crisis of 2007 and the harsh IMF economic austerity measures several Western governments have implemented as an ostensible solution, many young people in the West have been hit in similar ways to their counterparts in Africa that have suffered decades of bankrupt IMF and World Bank economic prescriptions. In late May young immigrants, among them Somalis, Afghans and Syrians, violently protested in an area south of central Stockholm when a 68 year old man was shot dead in his apartment by the Swedish police. It has been characterised as Sweden's worst 'riots' in years and tarnishes the reputation of the country as a place of tolerance and openness. The views from residents is that police harassment, racial jibes and lack of employment correspond with segregation, neglect and poverty that were also rooted in the uprisings of London in 2011 and Paris in 2005.

In late May the secretary-general, Bekele Geleta, of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) warned that unless European governments adopted measures to address the increasing unemployment and poverty in some areas of Europe, further social unrest was likely. [23] Following in the wake of this, it has been revealed that unemployment in the Eurozone has soared to a record high. 'Nearly one in four 16 to 24-year olds across the 17 nations in the single currency is now out of work, according to monthly figures published by the EU's data office, Eurostat.' [24] Across the 27 nation bloc of the EU, Greece has the highest jobless rate and with unemployment of young and older adults alike has been a growing homelessness. [25] However, in Greece, strong family ties have stemmed the tide of homelessness.


In countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), war has destabilised if not killed family members, as well as cast the stigma and shame of young family members having participated as child soldiers. As Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna narrates in her very interesting memoir, 'And Still Peace Did not Come' about the true stories of child soldiers in Liberia, many of them were like 9 year old Varlee who lived with his grandmother when the rebels threatened to kill and rape his elderly guardian. 'To save his grandmother, Varlee took up the AK-47. He fought for fourteen years, the entire duration of the war. Varlee grew from a boy to a man in the rebel army.' [26] Many child soldiers committed unspeakable atrocities because they were teenagers, gullible, drugged, indoctrinated and traumatized. As a radio journalist Kamara-Umunna's initiative of getting 'the boys' (as she called them) to participate in the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a programme called 'Straight from the Heart' involved the boys revealing the circumstances that led to their heinous deeds. The programme received condemnation from some Liberian citizens who were opposed to the project, however, it brought healing and understanding to others and many of those boys. Kamara-Umunna remained committed to the belief that reconciliation and forgiveness had to include embracing those who had perpetrated vile acts; that through acceptance of their vile deeds, such young men and women could find new ways to be useful and productive citizens in society. The issue of dealing with such child soldiers remains a pertinent one in post-conflict African countries if peace is to become a meaningful and permanent reality.


All over the African continent, African youth have been active in mobilising against the harsh Structural Adjustment programmes of the 1980s and 1990s; in the pro-democracy movements in the 1990s, the uprisings in North Africa and currently. Take for example the tragic case of Malawian Robert Chasowa who was a 25-year-old engineering student and political activist at the University of Malawi. He was chair of the student activist group, Youth for Democracy (YFD), that printed a weekly pro-democracy and newsletter called the 'Weekly Political Update' that was opposed to the government of President Bingu wa Mutharika. Chasowa's death was considered to be an act of suicide by the Malawian police who said Chasowa jumped to his death from a five storey building on 24 September 2011. However, post-mortem results report head injuries consistent with a blow to the head and no fractured limbs. Since assuming office in 2012 , President Joyce Banda who succeeded Mutharika, ordered an inquiry into Chasowa's death that has ruled that he was murdered. [27]

Chasowa represents a generation of politicized young Africans who will speak uncomfortable truths to the powerful and have tragically lost their lives in the process, along with those young Kenyan and Zimbabwean men and women who died during elections in 2008, alongside young Ethiopians who died in 2005 and Ivorians in 2010. There are also the young casualties and fatalities who died during during the uprisings in North Africa as well as in Bahrain and Yemen. Yet hope cannot be squashed, for on 2 June thousands of Ethiopians, including young Ethiopians dared to fill the streets of the capital, Addis Ababa and demand the release of jailed journalists and activists. The demonstration was the first since the 2005 mass killing of Ethiopians, again many of whom were young people, who challenged the re-election of Meles Zenawi's governing EPRDF.

Currently, in Turkey and Brazil young people are involved in protests against their respective government. Turkey has seen three weeks of protests that began in May and was ignited by environmental campaigners - among them young Turkish men and women - who were angered over plans to build on a park adjoining Taksim Square. The protest has grown into a movement against the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, presenting the greatest public challenge to his 10-year leadership. The prime minister appears to be taking a hard line stance against the thousands of protesters who have faced tear gas from the Turkish police. However, the resolve of protesters has remained firm. For example, for eight hours, a performance artist stood silently in a street in the capital of Instanbul before a portrait of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey after the street was previously cleared away. He has become known as the 'the standing man.' He said his aim was to make a stand against police preventing demonstrators from exercising their right to protest near the square. His stance has inspired many others around the country. [28] So far four people have died since the protest unfolded and over 5000 have been injured. [29]

In early June this year, thousands of Brazilians in Sao Paulo demonstrated against the increase in public transport fares. Young people were from the start involved in this agitation which has now changed to incorporate deep-seated grievances including police brutality, inequality, corruption, deteriorating public services and the extravagant preparations for next year's World Cup. According to one of the organisers of the protests, by the name of Paula Paiva Paulo, 'Far more than the rise in bus fares, this was a mostly peaceful demonstration against a broken transport system, insecurity and heavy investments being made in preparation for the mega sports events that are not mirrored by improvements of our precarious infrastructure.' [30]

The protests are reported to be the biggest since 1992 against the former government of President Fernando Collor de Mello with more than 100,000 in Rio, 50,000 in São Paulo and Belo Horizone, as well as many thousands elsewhere. [31] Many participants were encouraged to join in the protest after seeing images of police violence against protesters in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia last week.

According to journalist Johnathan Watts, senior government officials have been stunned by the magnitude of the demonstrations. In short, 'officials are struggling to grasp what is happening.' [32] The secretary general of Brazil's ruling Worker's Party, Gilberto Carvalho, said, at a congressional hearing 'It would be pretentious to say we understand what's going on... If we are not sensitive we'll be caught on the wrong side of history.'[33] It seems President Dilma Rousseff, successor to Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has praised the protesters by declaring in a televised speech on 18 June 2013, 'Brazil woke up stronger today. The size of yesterday's demonstrations shows the energy of our democracy, the strength of the voice of the streets and the civility of our population.' [34] It will be interesting to see the direction in which the protests lead; whether a momentum of campaigns are sustained by young activists and how the government responds as the World Cup draws nearer.


Two young Africans, Burkinabé young inventor, Moctar Dembele and his colleague, Burundian Gerard Niyondiko both won in April this year the Global Science Venture Competition (GSVC) for creating an anti-malaria repellent soap from different herbs. Dembele explained that what motivated their creation was the desire to have a simple solution to an often fatal illness but one in which poor people could access cheaply. [35] As the African continent accounts for 85 percent of malaria cases and 90 percent of malaria deaths worldwide, these young inventors are to be highly commended. Needless to say they are also potent role models as to the potentials of African youth when harnessed for positive ends in a nurturing environment.

There is also the case of 24-year-old Esther Mbabazi, who is Rwanda's first female pilot who when interviewed said, there are occasions she does not announce she is the pilot for fear of scarring some of her passengers who are nervous when flying and may have their nerves exacerbated by knowing that a female is in the driving seat of a plane. [36] The young Rwandan also said some of the passengers were at times very proud to know that the pilot is female when on occasion she announced herself.

Another incredible inspiration comes from 13-year-old Kenyan Richard Turere, herding his cows in his father's savannah and was challenged by how to prevent lions from killing the livestock. He discovered that lions are scarred by moving lights. The teenager came upon the simple invention of using an old battery, small torch, transformer and indicator box to create a flashing light that has since then prevented the lions from killing his father's livestock. This young engineer has gone on to install the simple device among his neighbours and other communities in Kenya.[37]

Surely if the financial resources that are diverted into paying off Africa's debt, bailing out banks, imposing austerity programmes in the West, buying drones that end up killing innocent people - could be invested in young people in particular - there could be millions more Dembeles, Niyondikos, Mbabazis and Tureres all over this world?

Ama Biney is Acting Editor-in-Chief of Pambazuka News


1. Gary Younge, http://tinyurl.com/mmsxsl7

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Chris Hedges, http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/we_are_bradley_manning_20130303/

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Guardian on Hadiya Pendleton, http://tinyurl.com/ngpkuom, accessed 2 June 2013

8. http://tinyurl.com/pgogjj9

9. Ibid.

10. See Michelle Alexander, 'The New Jim Crow Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness', 2010, p. 188.

11. Ibid.

12.Ibid, p. 184.

13.Ibid, p. 175.

14. http://tinyurl.com/qf53bme, accessed 1 June 2013

15. Lee Jasper, 'Black Youth, terrorism and the moral blindness' in http://tinyurl.com/o5oww65, accessed 1 June 2013

16. Ibid.

17. Margaret Kimberley, http://tinyurl.com/pr5prsn, accessed 30 May 2013

18. Ajamu Nangwaya http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/comment/87602

19. Tunisian story from BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-19848935 accessed 23 May 2013

20. G. Peebles, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/12/28/desperately-seeking-a-future/ accessed 28 May 2013

21. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/jun/27/southafrica?INTCMP=SRCH accessed 2 June 2013

22. Ibid.

23. 'Unrest may spread across European, warns Red Cross chief' in The Independent, UK, 25 May 2013, p. 38.

24. 'Eurozone crisis: one in four youths is jobless' in The Independent, UK, 1 June 2013, front page.

25. Ibid.

26. See 'And Still Peace Did Not Come' by Agnes Fallah Kamara-Umunna, 2011, p. 158.

27. See http://tinyurl.com/q2vbmw4, accessed 3 June 2012

28. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22949632 accessed 20 June 2013

29. Ibid.

30. See http://tinyurl.com/nvcdcra, accessed 20 June 2013

31. Ibid.

32. See http://tinyurl.com/nrg6z8u, accessed 20 June 2013

33. See http://tinyurl.com/nrg6z8u, accessed 20 June 2013

34. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/18/brazil-protests-authorities-back-foot accessed 20 June 2013

35. See http://newsone.com/2407143/moctar-dembele-gerard-niyondiko-faso-soap/ accessed 2 June 2013

36. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01611ws accessed 2 June 2013

37. See http://tinyurl.com/czeqm5m, accessed 2 June 2013

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