Farida Bemba Nabourema is a Togolese author and activist. Farida is also the co-founder of the Faure Must Go movement and is the Executive Director of the Togolese Civil League. In this three part interview, which was conducted via email, Farida discusses the struggle against the fifty year dictatorship in Togo, her work as an activist and writer, and unity among African people.
DWO: The years that Kwame Nkrumah spent studying in the United States were very influential for him. Not only did he experience American racism, but he also came into contact with many activists and scholars in the United States. It was during his time in the United States that Nkrumah was first introduced to the ideas of Marcus Garvey, which greatly influenced Nkrumah’s vision for a united Africa. Like Nkrumah, many political leaders and activists from Africa were influenced by their experiences living in America and Europe. In what ways has living in the United States influenced your activism? Did you experience any racism while you were living in America?
FN: I do not recall experiencing racism directly as an individual when I was living in the United States but my political consciousness allowed me to go beyond myself and identify racist structures that exist within the American society which make it harder for Black people to succeed and live than for many other races. I read a lot more about segregation as a teenager in Togo than I did while living in the United States. So I already came with my own prejudices about the United States and honestly I expected things to be worse for me as a Black girl than it ended up being. I went school at American University which only had 9% of Black students back then and it felt very funny in the beginning but the school is known for being on the liberal side so things weren’t bad at all. I might surprise you if I say that living in America enforced my struggle for democracy in Togo for two reasons. One: I so didn’t like living in the states that I told myself I must do everything possible to end dictatorship in Togo because I want to go home. And two: I have always felt like we Africans who have voluntarily migrated to the United States were able to do so because those who were forced to settle there as slaves fought for their liberation to ensure that we too can make the United States our home if we so wish. It was African Americans who fought hard for Africans to be included into the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program which is how the majority of Africans were able to migrate to the US during the past two decades. I felt and still feel like we need to reciprocate by fixing Africa and welcoming them home someday. Those of us who got a chance to benefit from the “American Dream” to some extent need to make Africa safe and habitable to all African descents who stood for us even when they didn’t have to.
DWO: Aside from the struggle in Togo, what other causes have you been involved in?
FN: I have fought the “Francafrique” system and still am fighting it. African countries that were colonized by the French have never truly been decolonized. We are still using a currency that was imposed on us by the French for which we are keeping 80% of our reserves in the French National Reserve for their own use. We are still paying colonial taxes and have signed a colonial pact with France which gives the French a priority over our market. This system has allowed France to withstand itself as a world power by milking our natural resources, heavily indebting us and, to sustain such injustice, the French give 100% support to the dictators who they either put in power or are helping maintain in power provided they give them what they want. I know that fighting the Gnassingbé regime is only a layer of our struggle because they were put and are kept in power by the French government. Many activists like myself were killed for making statements like this and people remind me of the danger that comes with standing against French neocolonialism but we can’t keep staring at the plague and call it a flu.
DWO: Who are some of your greatest influences as an activist?
FN: My father. He raised me as a warrior and he made me one. Then I have Toussaint Louverture. His courage inspires me tremendously and I dream to make Togo a safe haven for all Africans and Black descents as Louverture and Dessalines did with Haiti. Then I have lot of admiration for Sekou Toure for defying the French colonialists and choosing independence over subjugation. I quote him: “we prefer freedom in poverty to wealth in slavery” and that describes who I am and what I am about. I will rather be poor, and free, than allow my subjugation because freedom, at the end of the day, is the greatest wealth. Thomas Sankara is also a great inspiration and influence. He demonstrated that poverty is manmade and was able to accomplish in Burkina Faso, within four years, what no other African head of state was ever able to accomplish within their tenure.
DWO: What motivated you to become a writer?
FN: My father again. I started writing since I was a child. I use to be bullied as a kid and I would get so angry that it made me sick. So my father suggested that I write every time I am angry as a therapeutic solution. I followed his advice and for so many years I only wrote when I am angry and when I started blogging people felt that rage in my writings. Amazingly, most liked it and that’s how I started gaining followers because people were connected to my writings, related to my anger over the oppression we put up with and many will come to me to share their stories and ask me to write about it.
DWO: Aside from La Pression de l’Oppression have you published any other books? Do you plan to publish any more books in the future?
FN: I have not published any other book yet but I have one that is ready for publication. I am just waiting to do it at the right time when I can genuinely focus on its promotion.
DWO: You are critical of Robert Mugabe and you are also aware that your position on Mugabe is a controversial one because many people support Mugabe. I myself have gotten into serious discussions with both Africans and African Americans over Mugabe. I know many people supported his pro-African and anti-imperialistic rhetoric, while downplaying or ignoring some of his actual policies which have been very harmful for the people of Zimbabwe. How often do you run into this problem of people praising certain leaders for their rhetoric, while also ignoring their policies and actions?
FN: I run into it quite often and I understand where they are coming from. Our struggle has multiple layers but at the end of the day, deep down, we are not fighting for democracy. We are fighting for the freedom of our people from all form of oppression and democracy is a tool to reach that freedom. Some people stop at the first layer: fighting foreign/colonial powers. I see myself there but I also see myself fighting beyond the colonial powers. We’ve had anti-colonialism leaders in Africa like Sedar Senghor from Senegal who abused their people even more when they rose to power. These people didn’t come in because they believed in equality and social justice but because they felt entitled and believed it should be them profiting from the abuse of their people. In Togo, for example, there were former slaves who returned from Brazil who established themselves along the West African coast only to become slave traders themselves. They didn’t come as former slaves to liberate their people from colonialism but to enrich themselves and profit from the abusive system. I am not saying that Mugabe is that kind of leader and I have a lot of respect and consideration for some of his achievements in Zimbabwe. But the problem with Mugabe is that he has refused to acknowledge his limitations and not only wanted to maintain himself in power for life, but also comported himself at some point as a king. At some point he felt so entitled and was no longer serving the interest of the people. Any leader who believes there cannot be a better leader than himself is not a good leader. Leaders should strive to prepare stronger successors.
DWO: You have said before that the problem in Africa is not the leadership, but the citizenry. I think African people have been so mentally colonized that very often we passively accept things that we should not accept. I recently launched a movement called the Movement for Restoring the African Mind. This movement seeks to address the wrongheaded thinking that so many of us have. Is this something that you have had to address in your own activism?
FN: I think it is wrong to try to address to the wrongheadedness of people as you put it. It rarely works. It is an impossible mission to try to undo the mindset of adults who were born and raised in a system that trained them to be submissive. You will waste time, energy and effort and be lucky if you survive. What you need to focus on is the young people. Millions are born every year and millions become teenagers and new adults every year. I founded the Faure Must Go movement in 2011 when I was 20 years old. I didn’t waste my time talking to older folks who were convinced that nothing can move this regime. I was talking to the younger ones either as young as myself or much younger. The kids that were 13, 15, 18 in 2011 are the young adults that are driving this revolution today and the elders tag along because they do not want to be left out. I always say that if I was able to become an activist at age 13 then children should not be excluded from politics. It prepares them to be resilient adults who know what they want and go for it. And at that age we are naturally curious so we welcome knowledge and process information faster. Do not try to fix the minds that are already corrupt. Tap into the fresh ones that have not yet been deformed. By 2050 Africa will have the youngest population in the world and right now we already 60% that are under age 30. We need to be prepared to work with children as they come and put them on the right track.
DWO: When I saw you criticizing Yemi Alade for singing the praises of the dictatorship in Togo it reminded me of the behaviors of some of our artists in the diaspora. I have been very critical of the role that some musicians have played in helping to maintain the oppression of African people here in the diaspora. In the Caribbean there have been situations in which artists have been rewarded by political parties for singing the praises of those parties, no matter how corrupt the political parties that they support may be. And in the United States artists typically are less political in the content of their music, but often times their music promotes very negative or stereotypical images that degrade African Americans and promote the type of wrongheaded mentalities that I mentioned. So for us in the diaspora the musicians have become a serious part of the problem because they promote the type of things that we are fighting against. Based on what you have observed do you see the same problem in Africa in which certain artists play a role in helping to support the institutions and people that oppress Africans?
FN: Artists and athletes have helped promote tyrants in the past and this phenomenon continues. They are what my father will call “nutritional artists” which means they do it for their belly, for the money. Luckily in Togo, and I believe it is the same everywhere else, people did not buy into such propaganda and most of the time it backfired on the artists. However, we have also had artists that contributed to the liberation of their people through their arts. Just a month ago a convoy of musicians were attacked by militaries in Togo and one of them was shot. So we’ve had artists on both sides. Those who share the pain of their communities and work for its betterment even if it means putting their career or life on the line and those who are into it just for the money.
DWO: What would you say is your greatest achievement as an activist so far?
FN: Faure Must Go. When I said Faure Must Go almost 8 years ago, people called me all sort of names in Togo. Many thought I was crazy or foolish but I did not give up. I faced the attacks, fought them, kept preaching and today it became the slogan of the struggle. Even those who cannot spell it say it. I burst into laughter when I read a sign: “Faure Must Go”. Togo is a French speaking country and most people cannot read or write English. But I chose Faure Must Go not the French version Faure Doit Partir which I could have done. I chose Faure Must Go because the French are going with him and I am proud that I have defied the system at all levels. Faure Must Go would have died if I quit and it cost me so much more than I will ever be willing to reveal for the sake of my family. But today I am very proud that millions of people, the vast majority of my people can say it, write it, chant it, and wear it without fear of retribution.