Alex de Waal’s (PhD) viewpoint headlined, “Tana Forum Needs Complete Reboot” (Volume 17, Number 835, May 1, 2016) is an epic in bad taste. There are two broad angles from which one may respond to the essay. One is to return to an all too familiar debate about the politics of ownership and the nature of power relations between Africa and those who continue to seek control over it. Another is to look at what might just be the hidden transcript of personal acrimony and resentment that anyone even vaguely familiar with the inner workings of the Tana Forum would quickly detect from the piece as the prime motivation for the tirade.
Let us get it clear: De Waal accepts that the Tana Forum was an initiative developed within and managed by the Institute for Peace & Security Studies (IPSS) at Addis Abeba University, Ethiopia. He also recognised, thankfully too, the underlying imperative for the initiative: to provide a platform for frank debate about the many security challenges the continent faces.
Of course, for an initiative that is actually still very young, only five years, it is difficult to predict its future. To suggest, however, as De Waal quickly tried to do, that it is becoming ‘boring and lacking in form’ is too hasty and harsh. One may even debate, as he hinted, whether the announcement by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia during his closing remarks that his government will grant the Tana Secretariat the status of an international foundation, to be known as the Tana Foundation, is a good thing for the Tana vision. Even at that, such a debate about institutionalization is presumptuous for it cannot be conducted at the expense of the most important motivation for Tana itself, which is that Africans retain ownership, content and direction that the Forum should take.
I am convinced that De Waal’s intervention is actually little more than a patronizing attempt to snatch ownership of an initiative whose very basis for existence is for Africans to determine their own security priorities and how to respond to them. I believe it is well beyond his remit to espouse how the Tana Forum should be administered, what issues it should bring to the table and what the content (or shape) of the debate should look like.
But why does someone like him feel justified to pontificate about what Tana should be and how it should be organised?
The answer to this question strikes at the very core of the unfortunate relations of dominance, control and patriarchy that frames Africa’s relationship with the world, and perhaps the West’s relationship with the rest of us. Benefiting from the headwinds of regular research funding and disproportionate access to African politicians, scholars like him have become familiar faces on the continent, touting hurriedly imagined solutions to problems whose roots are sometimes to be found in the very centres of power from which they take off. It is quite easy to understand why this is the case: continental initiatives established with the best of intentions such as the Tana Forum risk becoming hostage to self-righteous individuals who seek to drive the agenda and superimpose their own exogenous discourse on the policies and processes through which they are generated.
Understandably, then, my first reaction reading the piece on my phone while trying to come to terms with the hot cup of coffee before me inside a Starbuck franchise in Bremen, Germany, was to ignore it. I knew, for sure that the piece would travel very far not just because of the power of the new media but also because of the author’s larger-than-life stature. Perhaps to underscore this power, stature, and reach, I had actually received the piece almost within minutes of release from a colleague based at Oxford University in England. It dawned on me, there and then, but with painful pity, that most of the people likely going to read it risk swallowing the bait; succumbing to what Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian novelist, in another context, had aptly described as “the danger of a single story.”
De Waal is no doubt familiar with the inner workings of the Tana Forum. Obviously, as he clearly demonstrated in the piece, he was there when the idea was hatched. This is precisely why one should worry about his decidedly misleading takeaways from the just-concluded event.
Coming almost on the heels of the event, one would even argue with some justification, that his piece might have been penned just before the event, waiting eagerly for a predetermined outcome – for it to flop. Otherwise, one would have expected that an insider of his calibre should have given candid feedback directly to the organisers, no matter how unpalatable. If not directly, he could have availed himself of the forms provided to all participants to freely share their thoughts about the event. To the extent that he failed to use these options, his piece carries only a dead-weight. It suggests, sadly, that when you are no longer in charge or driving a process you are then at liberty to cast aspersion on it.
No one should get me wrong: the just-concluded Tana might not have been a perfect pitch, but those are not for the reasons that the author of the piece offered without solicitation. I have had the privilege, only shared by a few, of attending all the yearly events since 2012. What no one can take away from the Tana Forum, then and now, and hopefully in the foreseeable future, is that it has come to stay as a platform for fresh debate around topical – and contentious – issues bordering on peace and security in Africa. These include issues that inter-governmental institutions such as the African Union (AU) tend to be reluctant bringing to the table.
Contrary to what De Waal and others might wish for Tana, no one should doubt that the space is necessary – and overdue – given the continent’s current place or status in global governance. I do not recall any meaningful contribution the author of the piece made before and during the event. Still, most of those that would now have the privilege of reading the piece cannot even begin to imagine what its author so bravely did to undermine the process leading to the same event. Not many would imagine, even, that after it all he still showed up in Bahir Dar.
The truth is of the matter is that De Waal tried, in vain, to run the event from his distant base, but failed. Once that did not work, he quickly coupled together this pull-it-down viewpoint as the next illogical step. I have no doubt at all that more will come, either from him or from his cohorts. I know this for sure as someone that previously served on the Technical Committee of the Tana Forum, and now also in the light of the active part I played in this last one. While I do not wish to take any credit, I still very much owe it a duty to those who worked tirelessly towards the success of this last event, and also those who attended and took important lessons back to their various destinations, to offer this rebuttal.
I would quickly only offer five reasons no one should take the piece by De Waal with more than a pinch of salt; except, of course, his co-travellers.
Like most of his type of losers, he launched a laughable tirade at those they believed to have caused their woes. Like all other colleagues, I vacated the Technical Committee (TC) of the Tana Forum after my two-year tenure ended but continued to support the initiative in myriad other ways. By the way, serving on the TC was purely pro bono. If anything, it took a heavy toll on everyone, especially those who have to leave the comfort of their homes in other parts of the world to attend its meetings in Addis Abeba.
In the period that De Waal and I were members, I do not have any recollection that he ever attended in person. He was, instead, more or less an absentee member, always ‘busy’ and joining by Skype. When he manages to come on the screen, he always carries on as if the comfort of his desk conferred a monopoly of knowledge. He argues and disagrees for the most part. Not that this was (or is) wrong, but he does so with such air and self-importance; and, of course, contempt for the opinion of others. I cannot speak for other colleagues at that time, but for me, it was partly a relief that my tenure ended, and his own sooner too.
This brings me to the other reason why no one should take De Waal’s piece seriously. When he served out his term, he desperately wanted the rule bent for him to continue. Anyone reading me would recall how tenure elongation has become the bane of politics in Africa. Perhaps someday, if the need arises, I might return to the disconnect between what scholars, like politicians, profess and what they actually do. When De Waal could not get tenure elongation, some of us watching at close range knew he would not go without a ruffle. For someone so accustomed to hobnobbing with and soliciting patronage from African leaders, being told that his term ended, just like that, was not good enough. Even the courtesy of continuing to support Tana, this time without a portfolio, was not pacifying enough.
This brings me to yet another reason not to take De Waal’s piece seriously: it revealed that he is only the bold one – for now, at least – among a handful others, that wishes Tana dead on arrival – for petty reasons. In my opinion, their singular desire is to control Tana and its agenda at all costs or dent its fledgling reputation if the former becomes difficult or impossible. What unites them is the desire to reap where they did not sow; or where they only sowed sparingly and from afar. They have suddenly seen the enormous potentials, now and in the future, of the new Tana Foundation. They are now repositioning themselves to run it at all cost, surely for the perks, access and visibility that is likely to come by doing so. But they miss the point: from where I stand, Tana is more of selfless – and mostly thankless – service than it is for self-aggrandizement.
My fingers are aching as I type away, still glued to my seat at the beverages franchise. I wish I could just stop here, satisfied perhaps that three (not five) reasons should already suffice. So, let me quickly offer the final two reasons that put the integrity of the piece – if less so that of its author – at stake.
The fourth one is that anyone reading the story by him would probably come away believing that he only watched the event from afar. On the contrary, he did not only attend in person but somehow also made sure that a video documentary sponsored by the World Peace Foundation (WFP), the outfit he runs in the United States, was shown to the audience.
When the video started, I quickly went to check the programme of events to see if it was listed. I was not surprised, and the records was already there on the website of the Tana Forum for anyone to verify. Of course, I had virtually memorized the agenda; I was probably one of the few that saw it from start to finish. Apart from the Head of the Tana Secretariat, Michelle Ndiaye, I am not sure many people poured over the agenda, or the entire content of this year’s Tana Forum, as much as I did. So, it truly beat me that someone that openly lamented that this year’s programme was overcrowded or that it left little or no room for debate, did not see anything wrong angling for a pet documentary, no matter how short, to be screened.
At last, I should return to my earlier point about how intolerance – even arrogance – now makes the after-thought essay material to be ignored. In the build-up to this year’s Tana, a number of colleagues had responded to our call for experts to write the background paper. By the way, De Waal had, one way or another, either directly or by proxy, contributed to – and earned money – writing background papers in the past. This year, however, the Tana Secretariat insisted that others should also be given a chance. It was decided that even if he were to be involved, it should rather be with two other colleagues.
My point here is not about those other eminent scholars who took their tasks seriously. When the first draft came, however, De Waal wrote several emails about the contributions of one of the colleagues, calling him all sorts of unprintable names. In my entire academic career spanning two-decades-and-half already, I have never read a colleague try to take another to the cleaners by so freely dispensing insults in that manner; and while at it, copying everyone on the emails, including the beneficiary. Thankfully, that colleague – a scholar of equal international repute who also currently serves as chair of one of the leading peace and security studies programmes in the United Kingdom, simply ignored the provocative emails.
Unfortunately, the colleague felt the Tana Secretariat did not protect him well enough from the abusive emails so he promptly excused himself from the assignment, and declined an earlier invitation to participate at the actual event. We were shocked, almost immediately, to receive an unsolicited email from De Waal offering to quickly write the entire section all over. With only a few weeks to Tana, the Secretariat decided instead to completely remove the section authored by De Waal. The Secretariat took this decision also because an independent peer reviewer we thought would broker the impasse actually returned a blind review of the draft noting that key portions he wrote lacked depth and rigour. So, when he came back to complain about this year’s Tana, it is important that readers know where he was coming from and draw their own conclusions.
Permit me to digress a bit to say that I learned many lessons from the above incidents and much more in the build-up to the last Tana. The lesson from this narrative is that it is sometimes better to rise above the pettiness and tantrums thrown before us and be focused on the task or goal to be accomplished. The wisdom is also well stated in the African proverb that says: if you allow every dog barking at you on the way to your farm to distract or scare you, do not expect to arrive early enough to tend to your crops.
In writing this rejoinder, I would like those who wish to hijack or distract Tana to mellow, or look elsewhere. A good example of a bad loser is that grumpy old man that wants to appear in every family picture. If he is not able to, he would feign the worst pathology of old age by absent-mindedly tearing up all the pictures he did not appear in or simply pass negative comments about everyone in the picture but himself.
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