Un acte ignominieux de Damantang Camara

Damantang Camara, greffier de justice, membre du Bureau politique national, du Comité central et du gouvernement, ancien président de l'Assemblée populaire nationale, membre de la Commission d'Enquête du Camp Boiro et du Tribunal Populaire Révolutionnaire EXTRA-JUDICIAIRE. (Photo extraite d'une pose d'un groupe souriant de ministres du PDG après la victoire du Hafia Football Club sur le Mouloudia d'Alger en 1979 pour la Coupe des Clubs champions d'Afrique. — T.S. Bah)
Damantang Camara, greffier de justice, membre du Bureau politique national, du Comité central et du gouvernement, ancien président de l’Assemblée populaire nationale, membre de la Commission d’Enquête du Camp Boiro et du Tribunal Populaire Révolutionnaire EXTRA-JUDICIAIRE. (Photo extraite d’une pose d’un groupe souriant de ministres du PDG après la victoire du Hafia Football Club sur le Mouloudia d’Alger en 1979 pour la Coupe des Clubs champions d’Afrique. — T.S. Bah)

Un visiteur de BlogGuinée a soumis une question écrite sur le rôle de Damantang Camara dans la dictature de Sékou Touré (1958-1984). Il est difficile de répondre à ce type d’interrogation étant donné le vide de mémoire et l’amnésie entretenus par les régimes guinéens successifs. Toutefois, un acte, gratuit et ignominieux, de Damantang Camara a survécu au silence complice sur les crimes des dirigeants et de nombreux militants du PDG. En effet lors d’une mission à Prague, il se permit une démarche choquante à l’encontre de Milena, l’épouse Tchèque de Thierno Mouctar Bah, qui était détenu alors depuis 1971, successivement au Camp Boiro et à la Prison civile de Kindia. Lire le texte plus bas.

Notes. (1) Il est de notoriété publique que Damantang Camara était un petit-fils de Lankama N’Valy Kamara,  kèlètigi (chef de guerre ou général) de l’empereur Samori Touré. N’Valy mourut en 1888 devant le siège de Sikasso, où périt aussi Kèmè Bourema, le chef de la cavalerie (sótigi) et frère cadet maternel de Samori. Lire  Ibrahima Khalil Fofana sur webMande.
(2) Lankama N’Valy dirigea la colonne expéditionnaire dépêchée par Samori pour réduire la révolte des Hubbu du Fitaba (1849-1875 environ). A propos des Hubbus lire sur webFuuta  Tierno Mamadou Bah, Louis Tauxier, section 1 et section 2, Paul Marty, entre autres.
(3) Le Conseil supérieur de l’Etat théocratique du Fuuta (Teekun Mawɗo) avait en 1870 approuvé la décision conjointe d’Almaami Ibrahima Sori Daara Ier (1843-1873, Branche Alfaya, 11e souverain) et d’Almaami Umaru (1842-1871, Branche Soriya, 10e souverain) de conférer à Samori le titre d’Almami (Lire Tierno M. Bah). Reconnaissant pour l’insigne honneur, le conquérant manding appuya militairement par la suite les campagnes des Almaami pour venir à bout des dissidents Hubbus.

Le contenu du récit ci-dessous était faux. Il relevait de l’imagination malveillante et, surtout, de l’esprit du Mal et de la Méchanceté incarné en Sékou Touré et en son émissaire, Damantang Camara. Car Mouctar fut libéré et il survécut une quinzaine d’années à ses bourreaux et persécuteurs. Mais lisons plutôt l’extrait suivant, qui expose le sadisme et la cruauté de soi-disant hommes d’Etat.

Tierno S. Bah


 Horreur

La nuit tombe sur la ville. Milena vient de rentrer de sa journée de travail au domicile du général canadien. Certes, le couple traite bien sa femme de ménage, mais l’employée souffre de maux de dos qui la tourmentent souvent. La sonnerie du téléphone l’arrache brusquement à ses pensées. C’est une voix à l’accent africain qui lui demande de venir à l’Hôtel International dès que possible.
— C’est de la part de qui ? demande Milena.
— Monsieur Camara Damantang voudrait vous voir. Pouvez-vous venir vers 19 heures ?
— Oui, j’arrive.
Milena raccroche, le coeur battant : Damantang veut la voir. C’est un membre influent du BPN 2 qui a été ministre de la Justice. Il a sûrement quelque chose d’important à lui dire. Mon Dieu ! faites qu’il m’annonce le retour des enfants ! Peut-être mes démarches auprès du président Husak ont-elles fini par aboutir ?

L’hôtel est situé dans le quartier Praha 6, non loin de l’appartement de Milena. Au milieu des bâtisses anciennes, l’établissement détonne un peu par l’air trop moderne de ses grandes baies vitrées, mais l’hôtel est luxueux : il faut reconnaître que la Révolution guinéenne traite bien ses émissaires. Le groom en livrée introduit Milena dans un petit salon attenant au hall d’entrée. Il n’y a personne. Les quelques minutes d’attente lui paraissent un siècle. Soudain, trois Africains sont là, devant elle. Le plus grand s’avance. C’est Damantang, immense et noir, qui la salue. Elle bégaie un bonjour inaudible. Il penche sa grande carcasse vers elle, lui prend la main et la serre longuement dans les siennes. Puis, tout en gardant cette main, il attire Milena vers le canapé, la fait asseoir et lui dit dans un souffle :
— Il vous faut être courageuse, Madame. Je suis venu vous présenter mes condoléances. Je connaissais bien votre mari.
Elle a l’estomac au bord des lèvres. Les larmes l’aveuglent et derrière un voile elle entend cet homme lui murmurer des paroles de réconfort.
Mais qu’est-ce qu’il raconte ?
Que son mari est mort sous la torture, oui, et qu’il a dû manger trois mois durant comme un chien lapant son écuelle puisqu’on lui avait coupé les deux mains ! Qu’il a fini par mourir et que cela valait mieux pour lui que de vivre ainsi … Que la terre lui soit légère ! Amin.
Milena est assommée. Muette de stupeur. Mouctar, finir comme un chien … Damantang la relève et la raccompagne avec beaucoup d’égards à la porte de l’hôtel. Elle va s’asseoir sur un banc de la place et pleure longtemps. Puis elle se rend compte qu’elle a même oublié de demander des nouvelles des enfants !
Comment a-t-elle pu laisser échapper l’occasion de la visite à Prague de ce grand dignitaire ? Elle n’a vu que son mari dans le trou, devant son assiette …
Revenir à l’hôtel ? Rappeler Damantang ? Oh ! non, c’est au-dessus de ses forces ce soir. Alors elle continue à pleurer, seule dans la nuit.

Extrait de Guinée, les cailloux de la mémoire, par Nadine Bari.

Bibliothèque en herbe

Prof. Djibril Tamsir Niane (cravate), ministre Siaka Barry, à sa droite Ms. Fifi Niane, Conakry, 14 mars 2017 (Source: Guinée7)
Prof. Djibril Tamsir Niane (cravate), ministre Siaka Barry, à sa droite Ms. Fifi Niane, Conakry, 14 mars 2017 (Source: Guinée7)

Guinée7 publie un reportage sur “la remise provisoire de la Bibliothèque Djibril Tamsir Niane”. Il n’est guère surprenant que ce site étale un projet financé par l’Etat. Après tout, son activité éditoriale est favorable au pouvoir en place.  Mais Le journaliste reste vague à ce sujet. Et les informations sur l’état d’avancement  du projet sont absentes. Dommage ! Par contre, il s’empresse d’aligner les noms grandiloquents des organisations bureaucratiques et budgétivores liées à l’initiative. On croit cependant rêver un instant d’un pays à l’économie ronflante.… Tenez :

  • Autorité de contrôle des Grands projets (ACGP)
  • Direction nationale des investissements publics (DNIP)
  • Direction nationale des Marchés publics

Et la liste est bouclée, bien sûr, par le ministère de la Culture, des Sports et du Patrimoine historique.

Alliant l’imprécision à la flatterie, l’article consacre le plus long paragraphe à l’engagement du président Pr. Alpha Condé “de réhabiliter (la bibliothèque) et même de l’agrandir et de la moderniser avec les dernières technologies”.
Le journaliste s’empresse ensuite d’indiquer que “les travaux de construction sont aujourd’hui achevés à près de 80%”.  Que reste-il-il donc à faire ? C’est malheureusement là où le bât blesse. Car il s’agit de :

  • La finition :  électrification, eau, peinture, etc.
  • L’aménagement : mobilier, équipement divers, décoration, sécurité, etc.
  • Le budget de fonctionnement et d’entretien
  • Le formation et le salaire du personnel
  • L’acquisition onéreuse de collections livres, périodiques, ebooks, etc.
  • La connexion en réseau
  • La création et l’administration du site web de la bibliothèque, etc.
Bibliothèque Djibril Tamsir Niane en construction à Conakry
Bibliothèque Djibril Tamsir Niane en construction à Conakry

On lit également que “la mission a fait quelques remarques sur le bâtiment”. Quelles remarques exactement ? Mystère !

L’article continue en révélant  la raison réélle pour laquelle cette cérémonie a eu lieu : le fameux “événement culturel très important Conakry Capitale mondiale du livre”.

Depuis le début du mois le rouleau publicitaire s’est mis en marche, notamment dans Jeune Afrique, pour annoncer la mascarade suivie de “mamaya” que constitue cette charade de l’UNESCO et du gouvernement guinéen. Les deux partenaires collaborent dans cet effort de propagande. Il risque de leur retomber sur le nez. Car, privée de l’économie, du tissu industriel, et du pouvoir d’achat, Conakry ne saurait, au 21e siècle, être une capitale —même sous-régionale— du Livre. J’y reviendrai.

Gageure et/ou duperie ?

En attendant, Pr. Djibril Tamsir Niane doit continuer à compter sur la bienveillance de l’Etat pour rebâtir sa bibliothèque. Le ministre de la Culture, Siaka Barry, “a promis que les commandes pour l’équipement seront lancées dans les jours qui suivent pour que la BDTN et la Bibliothèque nationale soient fonctionnelles avant la fin avril”.
Est-ce une gageure ou une duperie ? Comment compte-t-on équiper une bibliothèque en moins de 45 jours. Quelle est la part du récipiendaire de l’ouvrage dans la sélection des produits et servir à financer et à acquérir ? Il en sait mieux que les jeunes bureaucrates venus lui rendre visite. (Il fut mon doyen à Faculté des sciences sociales de l’Institut Polytechnique dans les années 1960-70). Les autorités se rendent-elles compte que la concrétisation d’un tel projet exige un intense travail d’équipe, d’envergure nationale et internationale ? Une bibliothèque sans livre n’en est pas une. A-t-on lancé des appels d’offre et quels sont les fournisseurs soumissionnaires pour la livraison des ouvrages et du matériel de lecture ? Le building sera-t-il doté d’autonomie en courant électrique ? Pourquoi limiter  ses services à l’usage des seuls chercheurs et étudiants ? Et le grand public alors ?

Souffrance et patience sans illusions

L’article se termine par les remerciements du Pr. D. Tamsir Diane aux représentants du “Pr.” Alpha Condé, président de la république. Doyen Niane souligne que “c’est une première que l’Etat finance un privé à cette hauteur”. Cette phrase est lourde de sens. En filigrane, on décèle la souffrance, la patience mais non les illusions de ce grand intellectuel.
Ancien bagnard du Camp Boiro dans le faux Complot des Enseignants (1961), Pr. Niane sait, mieux que quiconque, que l’Etat guinéen étouffe tout ce qu’il étreint, et pourrit tout ce qu’il touche.
Dans l’interview intitulée “De Baro à Boiro” avec Lilyan Kesteloot — sa cadette et émintent professeure à l’Université C.A. Diop—, il révèle comment les résultats de ses précieuses recherches sur la culture baga en 1968-69 furent ruinés par la négligence de l’Etat. Idem pour ses pièces de théâtre, ou ses démarches vaines de  repèrage et de conservation des ports de la Traite des Noirs, du Rio Nunez (Boké) à la Méllacorée (Forécariah), en passant par le Konkouré à Dubréka.

Maryse Condé vivait avec sa famille à Conakry en 1960-61. Dans La vie sans fard, elle évoque la répression — violente et meurtrière — contre les élèves et la purge de l’élite enseignante par de lourdes peines de prison. Maryse s’acquite du devoir de mémoire avec la véracité d’un témoin oculaire et, en l’occurrence, avec la plume d’un génie littéraire.

Le drame et la menace sont présents, palpables. Ils sont agrravés par l’absence des acteurs du secteur privé. Eux qui sont toujours prêts à financer la construction de stades sportifs et l’organisation de soirées dansantes. Mais qui ne prêtent pas leur concours à la construction de ce maillon de l’infrastructure de l’éducation et de la formation de Guinée. Je veux parler des sociétés minières, des entreprises commerciales, des opérateurs économiques, des ONG, etc.
Inexorablement, le temps fait son oeuvre. Les dictateurs se sont succédés et ont sévi sur la Guinée. Les populations  ont en pris de terribles coups. Le pays  relèvera-t-il ? Peut-être. Mais il faudra, entre autres, qu’elle mette mieux à profit l’expérience du Pr. Niane et de sa génération d’éducateurs encore en vie :

  • Ibrahima Kaba
  • Mountagha Baldé
  • Yansané Sékou Moukké
  • Mamadou Kolon Diallo
  • Thierno Diallo
  • Bahi Seck ……………………

Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps !… Ni l’inauguration éventuelle de la bibliothèque Djibril Tamsir Niane, ni “Conakry, capitale mondiale du Livre”, n’effaceront les ruines causée, durant le demi-siècle écoulé, par l’Etat guinéen, prédateur de la Culture et de l’Education, et archennemi du Savoir.

Tierno S. Bah

Kenya’s legal colonial paradox

In 2007-08 Kenya experienced bloody post-electoral violence that claimed more than 1,300 lives and displaced 600,000 people. The conflict pit against each others the partisans of political formations, including the Kenya African Union (KANU) led by Uhuru Kenyatta, the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) of Raila Odinga, etc.

President Uhuru Kenyatta
President Uhuru Kenyatta

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the International Criminal Court indicted the winner of the presidential election, Mr. Kenyatta. The charges alleged “crimes against humanity, including murder, deportation or forcible transfer of population, rape, persecution and other inhumane acts.” However, faced with the Kenyan authorities refusal to turn over “evidence vital to the case,” the chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, asked the Court to withdraw the case in 2013.  Regardless, Mr. Kenyatta has ever since been resentful about his indictment. As a result, he has spent a great deal of energy, state resources and political pressure to weaken the ICC. First, he ended Kenya’s membership in the court. Then, he lobbied heavily among heads of state and at the African Union’s meetings for a global continental departure from the ICC. It appears though that his efforts were in vain. In an editorial piece, titled “In Africa, Seeking a License to Kill,” Rev. Desmond Tutu rebuked and condemned Mr. Kenyatta’s maneuver.
Low and behold, it turns out that today colonial era laws still deny Kenyan citizens some of their fundamental rights. Such are the facts laid out in Mercy Muendo‘s, article below, titled “Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws.”
Upon reading the article, I am more than ever convinced that, instead of waging a loosing anti-ICC crusade —it got even lonelier following The Gambia’s recent return to the court —, Mr. Kenyatta ought to clean up his own yard, first.

Tierno S. Bah


Kenyans are still oppressed by archaic colonial laws

It’s been 54 years since Kenya got her independence and yet there are still a number of archaic, colonial and discriminatory laws on the statute books. From archival research I have done it’s clear that these laws are used to exploit, frustrate and intimidate Kenyans by restricting their right to movement, association and the use of private property.

They also make it difficult for ordinary Kenyans to make a living by imposing steep permit fees on informal businesses.

These laws were inherited from the colonial British government and used to be within the purview of local government municipalities under the Local Government Act. This act was repealed when municipalities were replaced by counties after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution.

Currently, these laws are contained in county rules and regulations, criminalizing a good number of activities, including making any kind of noise on the streets, committing acts contrary to public decency, washing, repairing or dismantling any vehicle in non-designated areas (unless in an emergency) and loitering aimlessly at night.

The colonial laws served a central purpose – segregation. Africans and Asians could be prosecuted for doing anything that the white settlers deemed to be a breach of public order, public health or security.

Violating human rights

Many of these archaic laws also restrict citizens’ use of shared or public space. Some of them grant the police powers to arrest offenders without warrant, and to prosecute them under the Penal Code.

Offences like the ones mentioned above are classified as petty crimes that can attract fines and prison terms.

Some have argued that these laws are being abused because they restrict freedom of movement and the right to a fair hearing.

A few of them also hinder the growth of the economy. For example, hawking without a permit is against the law. To get a permit, traders must pay steep fees to various government authorities. This requirement is a deterrent to trade and infringes on the social economic rights of citizens.

Another example is the law that makes it a crime to loiter at night. This law was initially put on the books to deter people from soliciting for sexual favours, or visiting unlicensed establishments. It has however become a means for state agents to harass anyone walking on the streets at night.

Genesis of archaic laws

The laws can be traced back to legal ordinances that were passed by the colonial government between 1923 and 1934.

The 1925 Vagrancy (Amendment) Ordinance restricted movement of Africans after 6pm, especially if they did not have a registered address.

Post-independence, the ordinance became the Vagrancy Act, which was repealed in 1997. The Vagrancy Act inspired the Public Order Act, which restricts movement of Africans during the day, but only in the special circumstances that are outlined in the Public Security (Control of Movement) Regulations.

This legislation is similar to the Sundown Town rules under the Jim Crow discrimination law in the United States. A California-posted sign in the 1930s said it all: “Nigger, Don’t Let The Sun Set On YOU In Hawthorne.” — T.S. Bah

The Witchcraft Ordinance of 1925, which formed the basis for the Witchcraft Act, outlawed any practices that were deemed uncivilised by colonial standards. The provisions of the Act are ambiguous and a clear definition of witchcraft is not given. This has made it easy for authorities to prosecute a wide range of cultural practices under the banner of witchcraft.

Rationale behind punitive laws

The idea behind most of the targeted legislation enacted by the colonialists was to separate whites from people of other races, including Asians. For example, in 1929 settlers in the white suburbs of Muthaiga in Nairobi raised an objection when the Governor announced plans to merge their suburban township with greater Nairobi.

That would have meant that they would have had to mingle with locals from Eastleigh and other native townships, which were mostly black. As a caveat to joining the greater Nairobi Township, the Muthaiga Township committee developed standard rules and regulations to govern small townships.

These rules and regulations were applied to other administrative townships such as Mombasa and Eldoret.

White townships would only join larger municipalities if the Muthaiga rules applied across the board.

The Muthaiga rules allowed white townships to control and police public space, which was a clever way to restrict the presence and movement of Asians and Africans in the suburbs.

Variations of these rules remain on the books to date. The current Nairobi county rules and regulations require residents to pay different rates to the county administration depending on their location.

In addition, the county rules demand that dog owners must be licensed, a requirement that limits the number of city dwellers who can own dogs. This rule can be read as discriminatory because the vast majority of lower-income earners now find themselves unable to keep a dog in the city. Indeed, discrimination was the basis of the colonial legal framework.

Can oppressive laws be legal?

Strictly speaking, these discriminatory rules and regulations were unlawful because they were not grounded in statutory or common law. Indeed, they were quasi-criminal and would have been unacceptable in Great Britain.

Ironically, because such rules and regulations didn’t exist in Great Britain, criminal charges could not be brought against white settlers for enforcing them.

To curtail freedom of movement and enjoyment of public space by non-whites the settlers created categories of persons known as “vagrants”, “vagabonds”, “barbarians”, “savages” and “Asians”.

These were the persons targeted by the loitering, noisemaking, defilement of public space, defacing of property, and anti-hawking laws. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment.

Anyone found loitering, anyone who was homeless or found in the wrong abode, making noise on the wrong streets, sleeping in public or hawking superstitious material or paraphernalia would be detained after trial.

Police had the powers to arrest and detain offenders in a concentration camp, detention or rehabilitation center, or prison without a warrant.

This is the same legal framework that was inherited by the independence government and the very same one that has been passed down to the county governments.

The Public Order Act allows police powers to arrest without warrant anyone found in a public gathering, meeting or procession which is likely to breach the peace or cause public disorder. This is the current position under sections 5 and 8 of the Act.

This law, which was used by the colonial government to deter or disband uprisings or rebellions, has been regularly abused in independent Kenya.

At the end of the day Kenyans must ask themselves why successive governments have allowed the oppression of citizens to continue by allowing colonial laws to remain on the books.


The Conversation

In Memoriam D. W. Arnott (1915-2004)

D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula
D.W. Arnott. The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula

This article creates the webAfriqa homage and tribute to the memory of Professor David W. Arnott (1915-2004), foremost linguist, researcher, teacher and publisher on Pular/Fulfulde, the language of the Fulbe/Halpular of West and Central Africa. It is reproduces the obituary written in 2004 par Philip J. Jaggar. David Arnott belonged in the category of colonial administrators who managed to balance their official duties with in-depth social and cultural investigation of the societies their countries ruled. I publish quite a log of them throughout the webAfriqa Portal: Vieillard, Dieterlen, Delafosse, Person, Francis-Lacroix, Germain, etc.
The plan is to contributed to disseminate as much as possible the intellectual legacy of Arnott’s. Therefore, the links below are just part of the initial batch :

Tierno S. Bah


D. W. Arnott was a distinguished scholar and teacher of West African languages, principally Fulani (also known as Fula, Fulfulde and Pulaar) and Tiv, David Whitehorn Arnott, Africanist: born London 23 June 1915; Lecturer, then Reader, Africa Department, School of Oriental and African Studies 1951-66, Professor of West African Languages 1966-77 (Emeritus); married 1942 Kathleen Coulson (two daughters); died Bedale, North Yorkshire 10 March 2004.

He was one of the last members of a generation of internationally renowned British Africanists/linguists whose early and formative experience of Africa, with its immense and complex variety of peoples and languages, derived from the late colonial era.

Born in London in 1915, the elder son of a Scottish father, Robert, and mother, Nora, David Whitehorn Arnott was educated at Sheringham House School and St Paul’s School in London, before going on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he read Classics and won a “half-blue” for water polo. He received his PhD from London University in 1961, writing his dissertation on “The Tense System in Gombe Fula”.

Following graduation in 1939 Arnott joined the Colonial Administrative Service as a district officer in northern Nigeria, where he was posted to Bauchi, Benue and Zaria Provinces, often touring rural areas on a horse or by push bike. His (classical) language background helped him to learn some of the major languages in the area — Fulani, Tiv, and Hausa — and the first two in particular were to become his languages of published scientific investigation.

It was on board ship in a wartime convoy to Cape Town that Arnott met his wife-to-be, Kathleen Coulson, who was at the time a Methodist missionary in Ibadan, Nigeria. They married in Ibadan in 1942, and Kathleen became his constant companion on most of his subsequent postings in Benue and Zaria provinces, together with their two small daughters, Margaret and Rosemary.

From 1951 to 1977, David Arnott was a member of the Africa Department at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), London University, as Lecturer, then Reader, and was appointed Professor of West African Languages in 1966. He spent 1955-56 on research leave in West Africa, conducting a detailed linguistic survey of the many diverse dialects of Fulani, travelling from Nigeria across the southern Saharan edges of Niger, Dahomey (now Benin), Upper Volta, French Sudan (Burkina Faso and Mali), and eventually to Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea. Many of his research notes from this period are deposited in the Soas library (along with other notes, documents and teaching materials relating mainly to Tiv and Hausa poetry and songs).

He was Visiting Professor at University College, Ibadan (1961) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1963), and attended various African language and Unesco congresses in Africa, Europe, and the United States. Between 1970 and 1972 he made a number of visits to Kano, Nigeria, to teach at Abdullahi Bayero College (now Bayero University, Kano), where he also supervised (as Acting Director) the setting up of the Centre for the Study of Nigerian Languages, and I remember a mutual colleague once expressing genuine astonishment that “David never seemed to have made any real enemies”. This was a measure of his integrity, patience and even-handed professionalism, and the high regard in which he was held.

Arnott established his international reputation with his research on Fula(ni), a widely used language of the massive Niger-Congo family which is spoken (as a first language) by an estimated eight million people scattered throughout much of West and Central Africa, from Mauritania and Senegal to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Chad (as well as the Sudan), many of them nomadic cattle herders.

Between 1956 and 1998 he produced almost 30 (mainly linguistic) publications on Fulani and in 1970 published his magnum opus, The Nominal and Verbal Systems of Fula (an expansion of his PhD dissertation), supplementing earlier works by his predecessors, the leading British and German scholars F.W. Taylor and August Klingenheben. In this major study of the Gombe (north-east Nigeria) dialect, he described, in clear and succinct terms, the complex system of 20 or more so-called “noun classes” (a classificatory system widespread throughout the Niger-Congo family which marks singular/plural pairs, often distinguishing humans, animals, plants, mass nouns and liquids). The book also advanced our understanding of the (verbal) tense- aspect and conjugational system of Fulani. His published research encompassed, too, Fulani literature and music.

In addition to Fulani, Arnott also worked on Tiv, another Niger-Congo language mainly spoken in east/central Nigeria, and from the late 1950s onwards he wrote more than 10 articles, including several innovative treatments of Tiv tone and verbal conjugations, in addition to a paper comparing the noun-class systems of Fulani and Tiv (“Some Reflections on the Content of Individual Classes in Fula and Tiv”, La Classification Nominale dans les Langues Négro-Africaines, 1967). Some of his carefully transcribed Tiv data and insightful analyses were subsequently used by theoretical linguists following the generative (“autosegmental”) approach to sound systems. (His colleague at Soas the renowned Africanist R.C. Abraham had already published grammars and a dictionary of Tiv in the 1930s and 1940s.)

In addition to Fulani and Tiv, Arnott taught undergraduate Hausa-language classes at Soas for many years, together with F.W. (“Freddie”) Parsons, the pre-eminent Hausa scholar of his era, and Jack Carnochan and Courtenay Gidley. He also pioneered the academic study of Hausa poetry at Soas, publishing several articles on the subject, and encouraged the establishment of an academic pathway in African oral literature.

The early 1960s were a time when the available language-teaching materials were relatively sparse (we had basically to make do with cyclostyled handouts), but he overcame these resource problems by organising class lessons with great care and attention, displaying a welcome ability to synthesise and explain language facts and patterns in a simple and coherent manner. He supervised a number of PhD dissertations on West African languages (and literature), including the first linguistic study of the Hausa language written by a native Hausa speaker, M.K.M. Galadanci (1969). He was genuinely liked and admired by his students.

David Arnott was a quiet man of deep faith who was devoted to his family. Following his retirement he and Kathleen moved to Moffat in Dumfriesshire (his father had been born in the county). In 1992 they moved again, to Bedale in North Yorkshire (where he joined the local church and golf club), in order to be nearer to their two daughters, and grandchildren.

Philip J. Jaggar
The Independent

Slavery: Carson, Trump, and the Misuse of American History

Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development
Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary, Housing and Urban Development

I am re-posting here Jelani Cobb’s article (The New Yorker) written around the blunder of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Dr. Ben Carson, whereby he compared African slaves to immigrants. This is the same person who, out of the blue, claimed in 2013 that: “Obamacare is really … the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.” The +20 million people who got insurance thanks to the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) would beg to differ.
Anyhow, Dr. Carson will, most likely, not become president of the United States. The world will thus be probably a better place. Because despite his  acknowledged skills as a neurosurgeon, Carson is a mediocre student of history. Should he want to remedy that self-inflicted intellectual handicap, he would have to rethink slavery. And first of all, he must admit that the Slave Trade is “America’s Original Sin.” Consequently, it was not some migratory itch or urge that uprooted millions of Africans and dumped them on the shores of the “New World.” On the contrary, they were taken out and across the Atlantic Ocean in chains. Upon landing, and as Edward E. Baptist put it best, they toiled, from dawn to dusk and in sweat, tears and blood, for the “Making of American Capitalism.”

Tierno S. Bah


In referring to slaves as “immigrants,” Ben Carson followed a long-standing American tradition of eliding the ugliness that is part of the country’s history.

Earlier this week, Ben Carson, the somnolent surgeon dispatched to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of the Trump Administration, created a stir when he referred to enslaved black people—stolen, trafficked, and sold into that status—as “immigrants” and spoke of their dreams for their children and grandchildren. In the ensuing hail of criticism, Carson doubled down, saying that it was possible for someone to be an involuntary immigrant. Carson’s defenses centered upon strict adherence to the definition of the word “immigrant” as a person who leaves one country to take up residence in another. This is roughly akin to arguing that it is technically possible to refer to a kidnapping victim as a “house guest,” presuming the latter term refers to a temporary visitor to one’s home. Carson had already displayed a propensity for gaffes during his maladroit Presidential candidacy, and it might be easy to dismiss his latest one as the least concerning element of having a neurosurgeon with no relevant experience in charge of housing policy were it not a stand-in for a broader set of concerns about the Trump Administration.

A week earlier, Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of Education, had described historically black colleges and universities as pioneers in school choice—a view that can only co-exist with reality if we airbrush segregation into a kind of level playing field in which ex-slaves opted to attend all-black institutions rather than being driven to them as a result of efforts to preserve the supposed sanctity of white ones. The Trump Administration is not alone in proffering this rosy view of American racial history. Last week, in a story about changes being made at Thomas Jefferson‘s estate, Monticello, the Washington Post referred to Sally Hemings, the enslaved black woman who bore several of Jefferson’s children, as his “mistress”—a term that implies far more autonomy and consent than is possible when a woman is a man’s legal property. Last fall, the textbook publisher McGraw-Hill faced criticism for a section of a history book that stated, “The Atlantic Slave Trade between the 1500s and 1800s brought millions of workers from Africa to the southern United States to work on agricultural plantations.” The word “worker” typically carries the connotation of remuneration rather than lifelong forced labor and chattel slavery.

One part of the issue here is the eliding of the ugliness of the slave past in this country. This phenomenon is neither novel nor particularly surprising. The unwillingness to confront this narrative is tied not simply to the miasma of race but to something more subtle and, in the current atmosphere, more potentially treacherous: the reluctance to countenance anything that runs contrary to the habitual optimism and self-anointed sense of the exceptionalism of American life. It is this state-sanctioned sunniness from which the view of the present as a middle ground between an admirable past and a halcyon future springs. But the only way to sustain that sort of optimism is by not looking too closely at the past. And thus the past can serve only as an imperfect guide to the troubles of the present.

In his 1948 essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero,” Robert Warshow wrote about the mid-century efforts to pressure studios to stop producing their profitable gangster movies. The concerns focussed partly upon the violence of the films but more directly upon the fear that these films offered a fundamentally pessimistic view of life and were therefore un-American. There is a neat through-line from those critics to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” idealism to the shopworn rhetoric of nearly every aspirant to even local public office that the nation’s “best days are ahead of us.” We are largely adherents of the state religion of optimism—and not of a particularly mature version of it, either. This was part of the reason Donald Trump’s sermons of doom were seen as so discordant throughout last year’s campaign. He offered followers a diet of catastrophe, all of it looming immediately if not already under way. He told an entire nation, in the most transparently demagogic of his statements, that he was the only one who could save it from imminent peril. And he was nonetheless elected President of the United States.

Strangely enough, many of us opted to respond to Trump’s weapons-grade pessimism in the most optimistic way possible, conjuring best-case scenarios in which he would simply be a modern version of Richard Nixon, or perhaps of Andrew Jackson. But he is neither of these. Last summer, as his rallies tipped toward violence and the rhetoric seemed increasingly jarring, it was common to hear alarmed commentators speak of us all being in “uncharted waters.” This was naïve, and, often enough, self-serving. For many of us, particularly those who reckon with the history of race, the true fear was not that we were on some unmapped terrain but that we were passing landmarks that were disconcertingly familiar. In response to the increasingly authoritarian tones of the executive branch, we plumbed the history of Europe in the twentieth century for clues and turned to the writings of Czeslaw Milosz and George Orwell. We might well have turned to the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and James Baldwin for the more direct, domestic version of this question but looked abroad, at least in part, as a result of our tacit consensus that tragedy is a foreign locale. It has been selectively forgotten that traits of authoritarianism neatly overlap with traits of racism visible in the recent American past.

The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present. In 1935, when Sinclair Lewis wrote “It Can’t Happen Here,” it already was happening here, and had been since the end of Reconstruction. In 1942, the N.A.A.C.P. declared a “Double V” campaign—an attempt to defeat Fascism abroad and its domestic corollary of American racism.

Similarly, it was common in the days immediately following September 11th to hear it referred to as the nation’s first large-scale experience with terrorism—or at least the worst since the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, staged by Timothy McVeigh. But the nation’s first anti-terrorism law was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, designed to stall the attempts to terrorize emancipated slaves out of political participation. McVeigh’s bombing, which claimed the lives of a hundred and sixty-eight people, was not the worst act of terrorism in the United States at that point—it was not even the worst act of terrorism in the history of Oklahoma. Seventy-four years earlier, in what became known as the Tulsa Race Riot, the city’s black population was attacked and aerially bombed; at least three hundred people were killed. Such myopia thrives in the present and confounds the reasoning of the director of the FBI, James Comey, who refused to declare Dylann Roof’s murder of nine black congregants in a South Carolina church, done in hopes of sparking a race war, as an act of terrorism—a designation he did not withhold from Omar Mateen’s murderous actions in the Pulse night club, in Orlando.

The American capacity for tragedy is much broader and far more robust than Americans—most of us, anyway—recognize. Our sense of ourselves as exceptional, of our country as a place where we habitually avert the worst-case scenario, is therefore a profound liability in times like the present. The result is a failure to recognize the parameters of human behavior and, consequently, the signs of danger as they become apparent to others who are not crippled by such optimism. A belief that we are exempt from the true horrors of human behavior and the accompanying false sense of security have led to nearly risible responses to Trumpism.

It has become a cliché of each February to present the argument that “black history is American history,” yet that shopworn ideal has new relevance. A society with a fuller sense of history and its own capacity for tragedy would have spotted Trump’s zero-sum hustle from many miles in the distance. Without it, though, it’s easy to mistake the overblown tribulations he sold his followers for candor, not a con. The sense of history as a chart of increasing bounties enabled tremendous progress but has left Americans—most of us, anyway—uniquely unsuited to look at ourselves as we truly are and at history for what it is. Our failure to reckon with this past and the centrality of race within it has led us to broadly mistake the clichés of history for novelties of current events.

Jelani Cobb
The New Yorker