The Congolese Diaspora

Meeting with representatives of the Congolese community in Paris

Paris   Several times in the meeting of the ACORN International staff and leadership in Paris, Mathieu Ilunga Kankonde, a member of the national board of the ACORN/Alliance Citoyenne in France and locally in Grenoble, had raised the question of how we might expand to help develop organizing in his home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had always answered briefly about the level of resources required and the long term commitment necessary, but mainly we had postponed the question until we attended a meeting he was organizing with leaders of the Congolese community in Paris before we were to leave the city.

The meeting took a while to come together, but before it was over, there were ten men who came to hear about ACORN and discuss their issues and interests for work both in the Congo as well as efforts to connect Congolese in what they called diaspora. I was interested in these connections. Recently, I had met several of our members from Ottawa at the ACORN Canada convention who were from the Congo as well as Gabon, on the western coast of Africa. They had been willing to tape videos for our members and leaders in France and Cameroon of their great experiences with ACORN Canada. Even before the meeting began, Mathieu texted a close friend who was now in Chicago for additional ACORN information. A quick Google search indicated there were over 200,000 Congolese in France now.

Mathieu Kandonde, an ACORN/Alliance leader from Grenoble prepares to start the meetiing

Several of the men had come by at various times during the weekend meeting for several hours to listen and get a better idea of ACORN. Others were interested in learning more for the first time. After Mathieu gave an opening introduction based on his experience over recent years, and I briefly outlined where we worked and some intersections of interest to the diaspora, like our campaign to lower the cost of remittances or money transfers, I solicited questions and comments from the group.

There were a range of opinions. Some were concerned about the political situation in the Congo and erosion of what they saw as democratic principles, including the fact that the President was still in office though his term had ended. Many were bothered by the level of self-interest and corruption in public life that had alienated so many people from participation. Some thought there needed to be new political parties or that existing parties needed to be reformed. I wondered if these men saw themselves as Lenins at the Finland Station at this room on top of a cafe along a Paris boulevard.

pictures at the end of the meeting

Others commented with anger over the exploitation by transnational companies from the France, Britain, and the United States of the Congo’s wealth and natural resources. They felt there was a trail of blood and bodies on their history that also clouded their future. They seemed more desperate to find a megaphone that could channel their voices and speak to their grievances than an organization that could empower them, but the dialogue was frank and open.

No decisions were made, and none were expected. There are probably a lot of names for conversations like this, but in organizing, we have always called it “testing.” These meetings open some doors, and close others, but under any circumstances they are necessary, and they point directions to the future, even if not taken.

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Out of Cameroon, the Rest of the Story

Douala traffic jam

Douala traffic jam

Washington   As one of our veteran participants wrote me when he got home, “I didn’t think any Organizers’ Forum could beat Egypt, but Cameroon did!” In Cairo we could feel a revolution slipping away, less than a year after it began. In Cameroon, we could feel that change was inevitable, even as we often bumped against the hard edge of the state.

Cameroon is not an easy country. Douala is a low slung, large sprawling city buzzing with activity from the predawn to the wee hours with taxis honking and motorcycles and cars clogging every piece of pavement. When I say Cameroon had hard edges, I’m not talking about the fact that our hotel had no hot water, occasional internet, and usually no toilet seats. People just shrugged and said “C’est Cameroon,” and we did, too. Nor am oblivious to the fact that even as we stood around the airport with no seats on the concourse that locals commented on how much things had improved in recent years with fewer police and the removal of the 10,000 franc exit fee. I’m really talking about how arbitrary and capricious state power in an autocracy can be, because that’s what’s important to people in Cameroon.

Eels for sale in the market

Eels for sale in the market

Every day of our meetings we had between 15 and 20 organizers with us from all over Africa, the USA, Canada, and France, but as importantly to us were the organizers that were turned away without reason at the airport. Two ACORN Kenya organizers flew in from Nairobi only to be turned back at customs despite all the expense of yellow fever shots, visas, and plane fares. The same happened to our organizer from Sierra Leone. Amazingly, a fourth organizer who had flown for days from Cambodia was also turned back, as the police said, “it’s another one for the same meeting,” as he was rebuffed. All of this was after excruciating study of the websites, discussions with embassies and countless government officials in Yaoundé, the capital, and Douala, to ensure that we had crossed every “t” and dotted every “i,” these four organizers were simply denied entry to the country once they had arrived.

The procedures in Cameroon indicate that if there is no embassy in your country where you can apply online or in person, a visa is available at the airport. There are some additional letters of invitation required, but nothing that seemed exceptional, until they arrived and suddenly heard the claim that weekend that an official signature was required from someone in Yaoundé. Not only was this sudden requirement seemingly fabricated at the last moment, but since it was the weekend, it was impossible to fulfill, and there was no flexibility as our people were deported immediately. Sure this was expensive and cost us thousands, but even worse, these organizers were not allowed to participate in this historic meeting.

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Another episode at the airport involved a row with the police when they were part of a random tourist show and swarmed two of our delegation to seize the cellphone, and force a lengthy argument to finally get it returned. Or, take the security guard that would not allow bags to go on the concourse without a bribe.

People talked to us in meeting after meeting about a transition coming in central and western Africa from the generation of dictators, and we were all optimistic as we met so many people and were inspired by their work and courage that change was coming, and it would be soon. At the same time it was impossible to ignore that people still lived with one eye always looking over their shoulder at a government that used state power without regard for rules or whatever. In one meeting after another we were told that fear was the one “given” in every public interaction, as well as being the cloud over the coming elections and all facets of everyday life.

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In Cameroon, we could never forget that every time we brushed up against the state, we came away bruised. Change can’t come fast enough.

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Making Big Plans for Expanding Organizing in Africa

Making Plans

Making Plans

Douala   After six straight days of meetings, almost nonstop, for the Organizers’ Forum in Cameroon, we spent the last two days in critically serious conversations with all of the ACORN-allied organizers and organizations in attendance including ACORN Kenya on Skype until there was a power outage in Nairobi. It was a historic meeting for all of us, and if we can hit the marks we’re setting, it would be indescribably exciting!

The first day we spent a lot of time sharing experiences, country to country. Our partner ReAct had implanted the organizing model developed by ACORN and used by the Alliance Citoyenne in France with great success. Membership had soared, particularly in Cameroon and Liberia as the organization transitioned from largely a campaign-oriented program to a deeply rooted, membership organization in each country in the villages surrounded by Bollore rubber and palm oil plantations. Despite all of the progress, the organizers and many of the local leaders who had participated in various meetings of the Forum felt that we needed some clear victories with the company and needed to accelerate our actions and activity to final force them to be accountable to their promises and agreements. We also needed move the campaign to other battlefields nationally and internationally. ACORN committed to helping with this expansion.

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Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct, in opening the last day of strategy, training, and planning meetings, framed the discussion of our expansion in Africa as adding “pillars” to hold up the foundation of our mass organizing strategy. The first pillar was already in place especially in Liberia, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast with our growing base in the plantations as well as the work in Nairobi over recent years. But, as Adrien laid out the summary of our discussions, we now needed to develop the other pillars that were critical in the ACORN experience in building community-based organizations in the larger cities where we were working and potentially organizing informal workers’ associations and unions as we had done in the USA and India.

More specifically that meant beginning to identify human and financial resources to dramatically expand our organizing in Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, and also a chokepoint for the Bollore campaign. We set early 2017 as the launch date. We also targeted Abidjan, an even larger city in the Ivory Coast for early in 2017, using Cameroon as a training city for our Francophone organizers, and hoping to launch there between spring and summer, if we can put the pieces together. On the Anglophone side, we are integrating the ACORN Kenya operation more closely with the rest of our work in Africa, and exploring opportunities to develop a training capacity between there and South Africa potentially, but time will tell. In the planning meeting for Liberia, organizers there identified potential opportunities that might be available to organizer street vendors given the constant threats in Monrovia to a central market with 4000 sellers constantly under threat. Finishing the day, we also looked at the emerging prospects for our domestic workers’ union finally being resourced for launch in early 2017 in Morocco, which is also likely the site for the 2017 Organizers’ Forum, as well as training opportunities that could also develop more organizing prospects in Tunisia.

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When it was over we were spent. The one picture that we didn’t take was Adrien, Jill O’Reilly, ACORN Canada’s head organizer in Ottawa and Quebec, and myself sprawling out on the concourse of the Douala airport on the stools with our gear across the floor exhausted, but exhilarated as we continued making plans, looking up travel schedules for the next visits, and moving to the next steps to make all of this happen, exhausted, but exhilarated as we drug ourselves to the gates and flights back home.

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The Election Gauntlet of Cameroon

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Phillipe Nanga, head of an election observation NGO

Douala    Make no mistake. Any notion that Cameroon is a democracy is the same as believing that an obstacle course is the same as a straight road. Yes, there are parties. Yes, there are elections. But, there is no even playing field, so whatever one might want to call this form of government, no matter how you shake-and-bake it, there’s nothing particularly fair about it. It is no surprise that the existing president has been in office for more than 34 years, is 84 years old, and is expected to stand for another seven-year term in 2018.

We spent some time early in the Organizers’ Forum in a visit with Phillipe Nanga, the head of Un Monde Avenir, the World to Come, a fair elections NGO, and his staff, who gave us a good sense of the problem and a crash course in the election obstacles and voter suppression. They work closely with Elections Cameroon, called EleCam, a state agency that is responsible for registering voters. There is nothing easy about voter registration. I’m not saying that they invented difficult registration, but I will say that the system is reminiscent of the process used by many southern states even at the dawn of the 1970’s in the USA. A graphic illustration over his head went through their steps of training election observers down to protection of the ballot box. I asked Nanga if ballot box theft was common, and he answered without hesitation, yes.

difficult election process

difficult election process

To register you either have to personally go into the EleCam office nearest you and successfully present your documents or someone employed by EleCam has to somehow come to you in a meeting, rally, market, or some such. The reason EleCam is a good partner for Un Monde Avenir is that they are on a quota for registrations by the government so anything that is organized for them, makes their jobs easier, and allows them to keep their jobs. Voting of course requires an ID, but a national ID is required to do everything in Cameroon, so that is not an obstacle here since everyone has one. More than half of the population is under 19 years old, so, not surprisingly, you cannot register to vote until you are 20 years old. Un Monde Avenir has been focusing on registering youth. We were told by their staff that they had registered 100 people so far this year.

Of the 23,130,708 people in the population as of June 2015, 5, 981,226 were registered. There are no accurate figures but a solid estimate would mean that between 40 and 45% of the eligible voters in the population are not registered to vote: a very large voting pool! When those who are successful in registering are allowed to vote, a fair number do so. 68% of the eligible voters in fact did vote in the 2011 presidential election, the last time they had a chance.

leader of largest opposition party

leader of largest opposition party

We spoke to two leaders of parties in Cameroon, one was the leader of the largest, Elembe Lobe Abel. His party, SDF, has close to a score of national parliamentarians in each house and more than 800 local office holders in the country. I asked him how he saw his party’s prospects in the election expected sometime in 2018. He answered that for any opposition party to have a chance, the constitution would have to allow for a runoff. The winner is now “first past the post,” which always favors an incumbent. He felt the only way anyone would have a chance without a change in the no-runoff election would be if the existing president somehow declined to run. Interesting to the Forum delegates was Abel’s description of Bollore as a criminally, corrupt corporation in Cameroon.

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

head of the CPP party and Cameroon Obasso

We also spoke to the dynamic head of another large party CPP which is also interesting in that it has a political, but nonpartisan operation called Cameroon Obasso or Cameroon Let’s Go which operates almost like a community organization with various marginal populations. They are also part of an amalgamation called Stand Up for Cameroon, which has attracted wide support. She had run for president in 2011. She was more focused on the transition or, said another way, the inevitable death of the existing president, when the country would have the opportunity for change.

There are hundreds of parties in Cameroon. The law also prevents them from fusing or cross endorsing, so each is on its own in the fight for democracy against great odds in Cameroon.

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Rough Road for Unions in Cameroon

DSCN1852Douala   About 30 years ago in the 1990s there was a “liberalization” in Cameroon. Citizens were given freedom of expression, the total autocracy was diluted, and they gained freedom of association, including the ability to form unions. There is a labor code. The state does actively involve itself in labor-management disputes. In talking to workers who had the experience of organizing unions even in recent years, make no mistake though, this is not an easy road to travel.

We met at length with a leader of the teachers’ union branch that has been involved in trying to win recognition for a union of more than 740 parochial school teachers in the Archdiocese of Douala. Listening to the story of his own career as a teacher, it was no surprise that they had sought a union. He had been a teacher in the Catholic system for 42 years and his top pay was 38,000 francs per month or about $65 USD monthly, less than $1000 per year.

They began organizing in 2012. It took them two years to receive the necessary filings from the state for their organization. A first reaction to their unionization by the diocese was to fire all 65 of their leadership delegates. A strike then lasted six weeks before they were back to work without many concessions, and 14 of their leaders were still not reinstated and continued not to be paid.

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They had enrolled more than half of the teachers in their union and sought to win recognition, move pay to 50,000 francs per month, get some minimal benefits, win seniority pay and some pay recognition for additional degrees, an end to arbitrary transfers, and better conditions in the schools. Meetings with school management were fruitless even though the system reportedly produced more than a billion francs per year in surplus revenue. They struck again for two days on November 11th, 2015. 654 of the 750 odd teachers participated in the strike. They went back to work after two days waiting for a new governmental minister to be appointed and the Bishop to return from Europe. The government sided with their demands for an increase to 50000 francs monthly and more than a dozen of their other conditions. Management promised to comply, but did nothing other than raise pay to 50000 francs monthly. Seeing no action, they struck again in the middle of March. Of their eighteen demands, the Archbishop had claimed he had met them all in a letter to the state, but the union knew only two had been met.

They are now before the labor court trying to win compliance given the state’s support. Meanwhile nothing more has changed. More promises are not kept, and more than a dozen leaders are still off the job. No ending to this struggle is in sight, and no happy ending seems possible at this point.

We heard similar stories from a member of the shipyard workers union. We listened to three student union leaders tell of having been jailed for challenging the imposition of a new fee for a student ID after the costs for schooling had been set by the university. The president has to register with a human rights organization in France whenever he travels and avoids any nighttime travel feeling that they are still under threat from the government for their protests on fees and housing.

Unions do not even exist by and large among informal workers, and they constitute 80% or more of the employment.

No one was giving up, but there was also little optimism in the room.

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Visiting the Villages in between the Socfin-Bollore Plantations

DSCN1814Douala    Visiting the members of our affiliates in the villages along the plantations where they lived in Koungue and Mbambou was always going to be a highlight of this Organizers’ Forum and ACORN International dialogue in Cameroon, but I had not realized as fully until we left the paved road and entered the water-filled potholes of the endless orange-clay dirt track how much our delegation was going to get a sense of being in the very footsteps of the daily experience of our organizers working with the chapters, village to village, trying to win justice from Scofin-Bollore and its palm oil plantation land grabbing.

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After we squeezed 16 people into the allegedly 19-person van about 45 minutes late from Douala, we were on our way, but of course that basically meant we puttered into the morning traffic jam of the city for more than an hour. As uncomfortable and close-quartered as the van was, it might still have been a step up from the normal way the organizers when to the field. Their trips involved a moto ride on the rear end of a motorcycle from the city to the river off-road, then a boat across the river before picking up a second moto ride to the villages. It was quicker that way than the way we were going, but it had a separate set of risks and challenges obviously.

We are in the rainy season. Everyone it seemed had heard the huge crack of thunder in the middle of the night and then the monsoon-level downpour for more than an hour. It rained intermittently throughout our day along the palm oil plantations and villages in-between, making the road slow going as we bounced along.

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Our first meetings in Koungue found a crowd waiting for us in the front room of our leader’s house there, even though we were an hour late. We waited for the chief to begin. Working with the local village chiefs, some of whom are elected, while others are hereditary, and some are in dispute, is one of the challenges, since the company tries to force the organization and any individual dispute through the local chief, some of whom they have played strong roles in electing. In the meeting we heard what is becoming the usual litany of complaints. More broken promises. More bad faith meetings and constant delays.

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Members and leaders were caught in a tactical bind. Socfin-Bollore only responded to direct action, but each action involved risks, and even when producing more negotiations, simply led to more broken promises. The original negotiations had come after hundreds of members blockaded the roads not allowing the company trucks to pass. Police had threatened leaders since then with arrest and endless jail sentences. This company was committed to exploitation, and seemed to believe as long as it could keep the disputes out in the countryside where it was just their iron fists against the villagers’ solidarity, they could continue to operate with impunity, including polluting the streams and rivers, promising to deliver potable water and fix water pumps, and not following through on these promises either.

Our day was destined to be one of stops-and-starts, anxious meetings filled with frustration, anger, and hope coupled with long drives between villages and visits. Lunch with one of the members became dinner, and as we left in a drizzling rain once again, it seemed our long day was ending, and our jobs had been done for another day.

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But, welcome to organizing and Africa, the trailing car suddenly lost power along the starlit road. Attempts at repair were futile. A moto driver found a rope up the road and after it broke several times, the van was able to pull it the 5 miles or so to the highway over the rough terrain. We couldn’t abandon the car, because all of the locals were convinced the driver would be robbed, beaten, and possibly killed, and the car stripped. After more disputes over pay, somehow miraculously on the highway, squeezed between passing 18-wheelers, the van was able to get the car to a service station he trusted another 5 miles down the road. The battery had now lost its charge in the car, so a makeshift set of cables was fashioned on the parking lot to enable the windows to be closed, and a bunch of our guys pushed the car to a hiding place.

After a day that began at 7am, we pulled into the hotel finally at 10:45 pm, after another amazing day of exhilaration, anger, hope, waiting, and traveling to meet our members near and far.

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