2024-01-29 19:59:40.000000 The Week in Women’s Football: NWSL preseason review – Alonso leaves Celtic for Houston

This week, as the NWSL teams start pre-season training for the 2024 season, we begin a multi-part look at some new signings—both domestic and international—on both the playing and coaching side, as well as other interesting news.

We examine Angel City FC, Chicago Red Stars, Houston Dash, Kansas City Current and North Carolina Courage. Over the next few weeks, we will look at other teams in the league, particularly the two expansion teams: the Utah Royals and Bay FC in the San Jose/San Francisco/Oakland, California area, as well as the 2024 draft.

2024 NWSL Team Updates and News

Angel City FC

On January 14, Angel City FC signed U-18 forward and South Korea 2023 Women’s National Team player Casey Phair (16) through the 2026 season, who comes to the club via the NWSL’s U-18 Entry mechanism. She is an inspired signing by the club and the league; she was the youngest player to ever in a WWC Finals. She will also be the youngest player on the Angel City side. She also was the first Korean-American (and first diaspora) to receive a call up to the senior South Korea Women’s National Team. Prior to joining the senior team, Phair competed with the U-17 team, compiling five goals in two games, including a hat trick against Hong Kong in a Women’s Asian Cup Qualifier. Phair was born in Korea Republic but grew up in New Hampshire and New Jersey in the Northeast U.S.


Sixteen-year-old Casey Phair grew up in the States and played for Korea Republic in the 2023 Women’s World Cup Finals.

Phair now has signed to play with the NWSL’s City FC in Los Angeles.

(Photo courtesy Angel City FC).

Phair talked about her professional signing: “It feels like a dream come true. The first time I came to Los Angeles was last September. I trained with Angel City and fell in love with the culture and LA. All of the players were super welcoming and I really enjoyed everything about the city.”

On January 24, the club signed another AFC international player in Japanese goalkeeper Hannah Stambaugh (25) from Omiya Ardija Ventus of the WE League for a $10,000 transfer fee. Stambaugh spent the past three seasons with Omiya Ardija Ventus, appearing in eight matches for the club and earning one clean sheet. Before that, she spent four seasons with INAC Kobe Leonessa in the then top tier (now second division) Nadeshiko League, where she made 28 match appearances. She had played internationally for Japan at the U-20 level.

On January 12, Angel City acquired midfielder Meggie Dougherty Howard (28) from the San Diego Wave FC in exchange for $40,000 in allocation money. Dougherty Howard played 17 games in all competitions with the San Diego Wave in 2023 for the NWSL Shield (regular season) winner, after signing with the club during the 2023 free agency window. Dougherty Howard spent two seasons with the Orlando Pride, appearing in 43 total matches for the Pride. Dougherty Howard, was drafted in the 2017 NWSL Draft out of the University of Florida by the Washington Spirit. Prior to being drafted, she competed on the Spirit Reserves 2015 and 2016 summer teams. With the University of Florida, she scored 14 goals and added 25 assists in 94 appearances.

Midfielder Madison Hammond has re-signed with the club through the 2025 season. Hammond was originally acquired via a trade with OL [now Seattle] Reign ahead of the club’s inaugural 2022 season. Last season, she scored 2 goals and had an 83% success rate on her passes, completing 567. Hammond spent two previous seasons with OL Reign, appearing in 20 games. Hammond, who is Navajo, San Felipe, and African American, is the first and only Native American woman to play in the NWSL and played collegiately at Wake Forest University.

French midfielder Clarisse Le Bihan has also signed a new contract with the club through 2024, with a mutual option for 2025. Le Bihan was acquired via transfer from Montpellier HSC of Division 1 Féminine in June 2022. In the past two seasons with ACFC, Le Bihan scored three goals and four assists in 41 total matches. Le Bihan spent six seasons with Montpellier, appearing in 109 total matches and scoring 29 goals. She has 16 caps with the French Women’s National Team, scoring four times. She also won a European Championship with the U-19 French Women’s National Team in 2013, was a member of the 2016 Olympic French Women’s National Team as a substitute, and played in the 2017 Euro Championships in the Netherlands.

Angel City acquired the rights to Costa Rican international Rachel ‘Rocky’ Rodriguez in exchange for $275,000 in allocation money from the Portland Thorns. Rodriguez appeared in 72 matches, across all competitions during her four seasons with the Thorns with seven goals and three assists. She was part of the 2022 NWSL Championship team, as well as winning the 2021 NWSL Shield, 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, 2021 Women’s International Champions Cup and 2020 NWSL Community Shield. She also played with Sky Blue FC, where she was selected No. 2 overall in the 2016 NWSL Draft and ended up as the 2016 NWSL Rookie of the Year. She has 45 goals in 85 caps with Costa Rica and was on their 2023 WWC Finals side and played at Penn State University.

On the coaching side, Angel City named Lee Nguyen as assistant coach and promoted Eleri Earnshaw from assistant coach to first assistant to head coach Becki Tweed. Nguyen was an assistant with the Washington Spirit in 2022 but quit the team after six months to resume his professional playing career in Vietnam. He spent last season as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Current under then interim head coach Caroline Sjoblom of Finland, who coached for years in Sweden. He played for years in Major League Soccer with over 250 games, and in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Vietnam. He also was capped by the U.S. Men’s National Team across eight seasons.

Earnshaw has been with the club since its inaugural season in 2022, when she began as a performance analyst before being promoted to assistant coach in 2023. Before joining ACFC, Earnshaw, a native of Wales, coached collegiately at Fordham University, LIU Brooklyn, and Yale University. She led the NJ/NY Gotham FC Reserves team to an undefeated season and WPSL Conference Championship in 2022. Earnshaw is currently pursuing a PhD in performance at Grand Canyon University in Arizona. She played at Iona College where she was a three-year captain under then-head coach and now Chelsea/U.S. WNT head coach Emma Hayes. She played professionally for Arsenal and represented the Welsh Women’s National Team at the senior and youth levels.

Chicago Red Stars

The Chicago Red Stars have signed U.S. international forward Mallory Swanson (25) to a historic long-term contract, as she will earn more than any player ever has in the league—she signed through the 2028 season. Swanson, who was a free agent, will earn about $2 million over the term of the agreement, according to
CBS Sports. Swanson joined the Red Stars in 2021 from Sky Blue FC (now New Jersey/New York Gotham FC) and scored 18 goals with 10 assists in 51 games across all competitions with the Illinois-based club. She played for new head coach Lorne Donaldson as a youth with Real Colorado. For the U.S. WNT, Swanson has been in the senior pool since she was 17-years-old.

A Women’s World Cup Champion with the 2019 USWNT, Swanson has made 88 appearances and scored 32 goals with 27 assists with the nats. Despite suffering an injury in April that sidelined the forward for the rest of the year and kept her out of the 2023 WWC Finals, Swanson was the United States’ top goal scorer with seven goals in six appearances. Swanson is married to Chicago Cubs baseball player Dansby Swanson.

The Chicago Red Stars have acquired defender Maximiliane Rall from FC Bayern München in the German Frauen-Bundesliga for an undisclosed transfer fee. Rall joins the Red Stars on a one-year contract through 2024, with a mutual option for 2025. Over three seasons, she made 40 appearances with Bayern, with 15 goals with four assists. She has been capped four times by Germany.

The Red Stars signed midfielder Chardonnay Curran to a two-year contract running through the 2025 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) season after acquiring her off of waivers. Curran spent two seasons (30 games) with the Kansas City Current after being drafted 17th overall in the 2022 NWSL Draft by from the University of Oregon.

The team boosted their defense by trading for former Washington Spirit defender Sam Staab (26) in exchange for their third overall pick in the 2024 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) Draft. Staab was a finalist for the NWSL’s 2023 Defender of Year award. Staab is also a three-time NWSL Ironwoman having played every available regular-season minute for the third time in her career.

The club also signed Shea Groom to a two-year contract. Groom is an experienced midfielder who spent four years with the Houston Dash. She played 61 matches with nine goals with seven assists across all competitions. She won the 2020 Challenge Cup and scored a goal in the championship match to give Houston a 2-0 win over Chicago to win the MVP honors. She won a NWSL title as a rookie in 2015 with Kansas City after playing at Texas A&M University. Over Groom’s nine years in the NWSL, the veteran has played for four teams, in 159 matches with 134 starts and scored 33 goals with 20 assists across all competitions.

The Chicago Red Stars have signed Finland international defender, Natalia Kuikka, to a three-year contract. Kuikka joins the club from Portland Thorns FC, where she played in 78 games in all competitions. She won a 2022 NWSL league title for the Thorns and helped the club win the 2021 Challenge Cup and the 2021 NWSL Shield. She has 84 caps for Finland and played in the EURO 2022 Finals. She is a four-time National Player of the Year for Finland (2017, 2020, 2021 and 2022). She played collegiately at Florida State University and with the Seattle Sounders Women of the WPSL in 2016. She won a Damallsvenskan title in 2020 with Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC (now BK Hacken).

On the coaching side, Chicago Red Stars have added Masaki Hemmi as assistant coach for the 2024 season. Hemmi joins from the United Soccer League club, New Mexico United, where he served as director of player personnel and first assistant coach. Hemmi also served as recruiting coordinator and assistant coach at the University of Denver. In 2021, Hemmi joined Japanese side, INAC Kobe of the WE League, as associate head coach to help players prepare for the Tokyo Olympics.

Houston Dash

NWSL veteran Japanese international Yuki Nagasato (36) signed a two year contract through the 2025 season with the Houston Dash. Nagasato has 104 NWSL regular season starts in 118 games, scoring 22 goals and tallying 25 assists. Nagasato joins the Dash after five combined seasons with the Chicago Red Stars from 2017-2020 and 2022-2023. Chicago made the playoffs in four of the five seasons she played for Chicago, reaching the NWSL Championship in 2019. She spent the 2021 NWSL regular season with Racing Louisville.

Nagasato said: “I am super excited to join this ambitious club and being part of the Space City community. As a veteran player I want to bring harmony, calmness and a winning mindset to the team, as well as bringing a trophy to Houston. I can’t wait to get started to work with all the talented players and coaching staff and play in front of the fans at Shell Energy Stadium!”

Nagasato has played around the world including a season with Brisbane Roar FC during the 2018-2019 offseason, scoring 5 goals in 10 matches in Australia. Prior to joining the NWSL in 2017, the striker played for FFC Frankfurt in the Frauen-Bundesliga, from 2015-2017 and scored eight goals in 35 appearances. Nagasato won the DFB-Pokal [German Cup], with Wolfsburg in 2015, where she scored four goals and made her Frauen-Bundesliga debut in 2010 for FFC Turbine Potsdam where she scored 48 goals in 71 appearances from 2010 to 2013 and the UEFA Champions League title in 2010. At Potsdam, the team won the Frauen-Bundesliga title in three consecutive campaigns from 2010-2012. From 2013 to 2014, Nagasato played for Chelsea in the Women’s Premier League in England, scoring 5 goals in 18 games. Nagasato made her professional debut for Nippon TV Beleza in Japan in 2002 and played with the team through the 2009 season, where she won six league championships and was one of the league’s leading scorers for the 2006 season.

She played for Japan from 2004 to 2016 before stepping away from the team following the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Nagasato made 132 appearances for the Japanese Women’s National Team and scored 58 goals. She won the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany and were runners-up in 2015 in Canada. She made her national team debut leading up to the 2004 Olympics. She also participated in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2008 Olympics.

The Dash acquired forward Cece Kizer plus a 2024 international roster spot in a trade with the Kansas City Current; the Dash sent Canadian international forward Nichelle Prince to the Current (see more below). Kizer previously played for the Dash from 2019-2020 and was a member of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup winning team. Over a season and a half with the Current, she appeared in 35 matches and scored 13 goals and added three assists.

On the coaching side, the Dash hired well-respected European men’s and women’s coach Fran Alonso as their new head coach. Alonso joins from Celtic FC Women in Scotland, who he guided to two Scottish Cup titles in 2022 and 2023 plus a Scottish Premier League Cup in 2021. Celtic finished second in the league to long-time powerhouse Glasgow City twice during the past three seasons.

During his time at Celtic, Alonso led the team to a 76-9-11 (W-D-L) record in the Scottish Women’s Premier League. He joined Celtic in 2020 as the first head coach of the women as they turned professional. Under Alonso, 12 Celtic players were named to their respective national team for the first time and nine players earned their first senior appearance.

He told the media: “I am very excited for the opportunity to join the Houston Dash and coach in the NWSL, one of the best leagues in the world. Houston is the perfect place for me. It will be a great honor and a huge responsibility for me, and I can’t wait to meet the players, technical staff and management and work with such a talented group of professionals. I am very confident that we will be able to implement a brave, exciting, dynamic and dominant style of play that can help the Dash build an identity on-and-off the field. I also look forward to connecting with the fans, our community in Houston, and creating something very special. We want to build a team that the city of Houston can be proud of.”

Alonso has also coached Lewes FC Women in England for one season and on the men’s side, was an assistant coach with Everton FC under Dutch coach Ronald Koeman in his first year with the club and then English coach Sam Allardyce as the team competed in the men’s English Premier League, while also assisting the Everton Ladies. Alonso was the first team technical coach under Maurico Pochettino with Southampton Football Club in the English Premier League from 2012-2014 and under Ronald Koeman from 2014-2016, while also serving as the technical director for Southampton Women FC.

As we went to press, we learned from the Swedish media that Pablo Pinones-Arce (42) has left Hammarby of Stockholm, Sweden, after leading their women’s side to the league and cup double in 2023 (joining the side in 2020), to join the Houston Dash at their technical director. He was capped by Sweden at the U-21 level and played for many years for Swedish sides, as well as spells in Denmark and India. One media source who follows the league feels that he is very good in working with players and a better role for him might ultimately be on the field. With the Dash’s constant turnover of coaches in recent years, that may be a possibility if Fran Alonso doesn’t work out or leaves for another position at some point.

Kansas City Current

The Kansas City Current have signed Brazilian international Beatriz Zaneratto João, better known as Bia, to a contract through the 2024 season with a club option for 2025. General manager Camille Ashton said: “Bia is an extraordinary talent that will impact our team immediately.” New head coach and former U.S. international head coach Vlatko Andonovski said: “Bia’s goal scoring ability, creativity in and around the box are extraordinary. She is a world-class forward, proven in club and country.”

Bia signed as a professional as a 13-year-old with Ferroviária in Brazil before transferring to Santos in 2010. She moved to Asia, first to Korea Republic powerhouse Incheon Hyundai Steel Red Angels, playing in 103 games and scoring 76 goals; she helped the side to seven consecutive WK League titles from 2013 to 2019. In 2020 she played nine games alongside new Current teammate and Malawian international Temwa Chawinga (25) at Wuhan Jianghan University in the Chinese Women’s Super League and scored seven goals before going back to Brazil, first on loan with Palmeiras and then permanently. Chawinga’s sister Tabitha (27) is still contracted to Wuhan but has spent the last two seasons in Europe, on loan first to Inter Milan and is now with Paris St. Germann.

Bia first started playing for Brazil’s youth international side at the age of 14, and was on the 2008 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup side in New Zealand. In 2011, she was capped at the senior level and currently has 103 appearances for Brazil, scoring 36 goals. She is a veteran of four FIFA World Cups (2011, 2015, 2019, 2023) and two Olympic games (2016, 2020).

The Kansas City Current acquired Canadian Olympic Gold Medal winning forward Nichelle Prince from the Houston Dash in exchange for forward Cece Kizer and an international slot for 2024. Prince was originally drafted by the Dash with the 28th overall pick in the 2017 NWSL College Draft; she played in 88 games and scored 12 times. For Canada she started playing internationally with their U-17 side in 2010. She was first capped at the senior level in 2013 and has 96 caps for her country with 16 goals and 12 assists. She has been part of the two World Cup teams (2019, 2023) and helped her country to a Bronze medal in the 2016 London Olympics and a Gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Sad news is that U.S. international and Current midfielder Samantha Mewis has retired from the game. She won the 2012 U-20 in Japan and 2019 Senior WWC in France. Mewis explained her decision to the media: “Unfortunately, my knee can no longer tolerate the impact that elite soccer requires. Though this isn’t what I wanted, this is the only path forward for me. I want to thank everyone who has been on my team throughout this journey. Soccer has put so many wonderful things in my life, but the most wonderful thing has been the people. To all my family, friends, teammates, and fans, I truly feel that we did this together and I’m extremely grateful.”

She is joining the media as editor-in-chief of the new women’s vertical, The Women’s Game, on the Men in Blazers Media Network.

She was a huge star at the domestic and international level. In 2021, while playing with Manchester City in the WSL, she was named #1 on ESPN FC’s list of the world’s best women’s soccer players. She won the FA Cup with City in 2020. Mewis won three NWSL titles, one with the Western New York Flash and two with the North Carolina Courage. In 2013, Mewis helped lead the UCLA Bruins to their first NCAA Championship.

In 2021, she had arthroscopic surgery after the Olympics and has had to stop playing as she then underwent major knee surgery in January of 2023. She has not played in the NWSL since two Challenge Cup games early in 2022 after being acquired by the club in a trade with the North Carolina Courage in late 2021, missing two full regular seasons. Sam Mewis would have been a shoe-in for the 2023 WWC Finals in New Zealand and Australia if she were healthy. In total, she made 83 appearances for the USA, scoring 24 goals and her final appearance for the national team was against Uzbekistan in April 2022.

North Carolina Courage end

In arguably the surprise internal move in the league during the off-season, the Courage sent the fifth overall pick in the 2024 NWSL Draft and $250,000 allocation money to the Washington Spirit for Ashley Sanchez. She has 25 full WNT caps for the U.S., with three goals and four assists, and was on the team that made the Round of 16 last summer at the Women’s World Cup.

Sanchez had 17 goals and eight assists across all competitions with the Spirit since joining the club in 2020. She helped the club to the 2021 NWSL Championship and a runner-up finish in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup.

The Courage made a major international signing with German Women’s National Team defender Felicitas ‘Feli’ Rauch (27) after the club paid a transfer fee to Frauen Bundesliga power Vfl Wolfsburg. She signed a two-year, guaranteed contract through the 2025 NWSL season. She has 36 caps with 4 goals for Germany’s full national team, including playing at the 2022 Women’s EUROS, where Germany finished runners-up to host side England, and 2023 Women’s World Cup Finals.

In Australia, she started in Germany’s opening match, a 6-0 win over Morocco before a training injury sidelined her for the remainder of the tournament as Germany crashed out of the tournament at the group stage. She’s played at the club level for the Frauen-Bundesliga superpower Wolfsburg since 2019, playing in 80 league games and scoring 8 times; this season she had a pair of assists in five matches played thus far. She’s helped the European giant to two Frauen-Bundesliga championships, four straight DFB Pokal Frauen titles, and a pair of runners-up finishes in the UEFA Women’s Champions League in 2019-20 and 2022-23. She started her career in 2010 at FFC Turbine Potsdam’s Academy (who were relegated last season), moved up to the second team in 2012 and then to the first team in 2014, playing in 89 games and scoring 22 times across five seasons.

The North Carolina Courage signed Canadian international and free agent forward Bianca St-Georges to a two-year, guaranteed contract through the 2025 NWSL season. The deal also includes a mutual option for 2026. The former West Virginia Mountaineer has spent her entire professional career in Chicago, drafted by the Red Stars in the third round of the 2019 NWSL Draft; she scored six goals and three assists in 44 games with the Red Stars.

In the 2023 regular season in Chicago, she had four goals and one assist in 21 regular season matches and one goal and one assist in Challenge Cup games. She has nine national team caps at the senior level for Canada and represented Canada at two FIFA youth tournaments.

The North Carolina Courage and free agent midfielder Dani Weatherholt have agreed to terms on a two-year, guaranteed contract through the 2025 NWSL season.. Weatherholt was originally drafted by the Orlando Pride in 2016 and has nearly 10,000 minutes of NWSL regular season experience across seven seasons. Weatherholt spent the last two seasons with her hometown Angel City FC after a selection in the 2022 expansion draft.

Weatherholt was selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft and made 74 appearances in four seasons with the Pride. Orlando then traded Weatherholt to Seattle Reign FC ahead of the 2021 season. With Angel City, she made 41 appearances across two seasons in Los Angeles. Weatherholt went on loan to Australian club Melbourne Victory during the 2018-19 offseason and made 12 appearances to help the club win the Premiership [regular season] title. She played collegiately at Santa Clara University in Northern California.

Emily Fox (25), who made the 2023 WWC last summer, joined Arsenal of the WSL in the off-season; she played three seasons in the league and has 39 caps since her debut in 2018. She left the Courage after one season, following two years with Racing Louisville and played collegiately at North Carolina State University. Her new club Arsenal is averaging 26,640 fans per match this season after 5 WSL matches and is on course to set world record for average attendance for women’s league sides.

Arsenal is well ahead of either of her past teams’ gates, with Racing averaging 5,999 last season while the Courage drew on average 5,384—both clubs were in the bottom third of NWSL teams on the attendance table. In the WSL, Arsenal‘s gates are almost double second place Manchester United (13,506), with the other 10 teams are averaging under 10,000 a game, with five clubs averaging less than 4,000 a game: Manchester City (3,617), Brighton and Hove Albion (3,408), Leicester City (2,219), Everton (1,415) and West Ham United (1,217).

Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham is on the global game of women’s football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey


Tertiary school management system like no other!

By Janet Karim

Racism is an adult disease and parents should stop spreading it through their children. – US civil rights advocate Ruby Bridges who was the first African American to attend an all-white school in segregated education system in southern USA

Children are the spitting image of who we (parents and other adults) demonstrate. We must take care of how we play life out in front or even behind them. Put on the best presentation of your life for them. Their future depends on the drama you parade in front of them. Janet Karim, 01.23.2034: theme for forthcoming book entitled Dear God, are You still there?

Let us face facts, let us get real, and let us properly recollect our history when we consider the third national resolution: one of the many prized jewels, former President H.Kamuzu Banda, left the country was the love for education. What to do about education was part of the famous three Gweru dreams of jailed nationalist Hastings Kamuzu Banda. Through the dream, Kamuzu recounted (as was his nature – if you forgot anything, he was always quick to remind you through his “as I have said many times before…..”) the dreams, among them University in Zomba (also recounted through Mbumba music “University kuZomba chifukwa cha aNgwazi, cheKamuzu!” Translation: University in Zomba because of the Ngwazi, Ngwazi!). Somewhere along the route to 2024 (our 60th anniversary of Independence, the country took a left turn, and many of the established items in the education bucket got thrown out, altered, or replaced. Oh Malawi! My Malawi!

During the 39 years that I knew Kamuzu, looking at his varied degrees (history, medicine, he may even have done some law, classical studies), I saw him as a Jack of all trades and Master of all trades. One had to learn how to fry an egg (sunny side up please!) and make coffee at the same time. Thus during his administration, some have called it the reign of terror (the European Reign of Terror was few thousand degrees higher than the Malawian one – another day), systems were established among them a heavily well-planned education system: primary education (later added the segment M’mela M’poyamba, equivalent of Nursery/Pre-School School), secondary school, and the tertiary school. Then there came the Kamuzu Academy with Latin, Classics, and music.

Outside the formal schooling, through population growth (2 million t0 current 21m), the government set up other schooling opportunities. Among these were the Government upgrading school in Mpemba, augmented by the Malawi Institute of Management, Women’s Magomero Training Centre, and the Malawi Young Pioneer Leadership Training Bases. There were also agricultural training activities, through links with the Republic of Taiwan.

A major boon to the learning process was the presence of the Malawi Book Service that secured books for learning on the international and local markets, making them easily accessible to learners country wide. Thanks to the Malawi Privatization Programme, the World Bank, and its cousin IMF) the MBS died at the dawn of democratic governance in 1995.

The 2024 tertiary education resolution is a plea for the country to introduce the Malawi Diplomatic Academy (MDA) to be coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, MIM, Mpemba Staff Training College, Ministry of Education, and the Human Resource Department. These departments will coordinate who the resource persons are, and provide space for the training of diplomats.

Before moving further into the deep pockets of the MDA, it must be borne in every person’s mind reading this article that every person who goes outside the country, speaks on behalf of Malawi or in a capacity to work with someone who is the representative, IS A DIPLOMAT.

It goes without saying, this fold of the diplomatic corps also envelopes the private sector. Although training for this group will not be as intense or lengthy as the frontline diplomats those people known as ambassadors, first secretaries, and attaches, the brief training in diplomacy is vital because whether sent by the government or a private company, immediately a delegate introduces himself or herself as a Malawian, his or her post as a diplomat is automated. All and anything you do or say will be thrown into the bag labeled “The Malawian delegate Did/Said This or That).

The Academy for diplomacy is self-sustaining and in fact could earn some income for the MOFA and the facilitators. Malawi has been sending diplomats since 1964; while the diplomats from then are not around, the ones that went abroad afterwards are here and can provide helpful facilitations for the MDA. Courses can be from three weeks (persons on the VIP or VVIP entourage), three months, six months, one year, and up to a two-year Masters Course. The MA is for the people that want to secure positions as career diplomats. These in between for various sessions and specializations like trade negotiations, health considerations. Malawians traveling outside the country on behalf of government or private companies or NGOs are all prospective clients of the MDA.

Can all the parliamentary drifters please get into Draft Mode and start drafting such a school into being please?

I am a product of the Banda Administration and his education for national development policy. I soaked in rain, heat and everything in between, listening to the voice of Malawi’s lone Mentor-in-Chief, who also was our President. I once listened to him drone and wax lyrical about Cicero (an Ancient Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and writer) during one of his Chichewa Public Lectures. I don’t remember anything being said by Kamuzu in Chichewa; everything he said was in English (with Tembo translating in Chichewa). I went to my dormitory at Chancellor College (current University of Malawi), did a little research (three books), wrote a paper for history, and got a distinction.

I told my friends I was going to pay more attention to Kamuzu. Before he was just a dictator who got rid of his challengers (they were not his enemies; they challenged him, THEN they became enemies), made harsh rules, caused me to almost make my children miss the thrill of holding a baby crocodile art Vic Falls (Kamuzu’s “I’ll make you meat for crocodiles” statement on my mind), and other Kamuzu things. When he flew into the past to dig up Chewa, Ngoni, ancient West African, global histories, he always helped me excel in writing my university courses.

Various changes to our tertiary education are mind boggling:

1.      Make primary school students learn in their vernacular. NO

2.      Bring Malawi Book Service back. YES

3.      CHANGE OF Polytechnic to Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences. NO because of the acronym MUBAS.

4.      Change MUBAS at Malawi Polytechnics and Business University MAPOBU. YES

5.      Introduce the MOFA Malawi Diplomatic Academy. YES

Malawi at 60 years of independence and 30 of democratic governance, must leap into the next levels of development. The foundations were laid. If you did not know, now you know!


Serbia’s Suspicious Election

Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Europe, Featured, Headlines, Human Rights, LGBTQ, Press Freedom, TerraViva United Nations


Credit: Vladimir Zivojinovic/Getty Images

LONDON, Jan 26 2024 (IPS) – Serbia’s December 2023 elections saw the ruling party retain power – but amid a great deal of controversy.

Civil society has cried foul about irregularities in the parliamentary election, but particularly the municipal election in the capital, Belgrade. In recent times Belgrade has been a hotbed of anti-government protests. That’s one of the reasons it’s suspicious that the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came first in the city election.

Allegations are that the SNS had ruling party supporters from outside Belgrade temporarily register as city residents so they could cast votes. On election day, civil society observers documented large-scale movements of people into Belgrade, from regions where municipal elections weren’t being held and from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. Civil society documented irregularities at 14 per cent of Belgrade voting stations. Many in civil society believe this made the crucial difference in stopping the opposition winning.

The main opposition coalition, Serbia Against Violence (SPN), which made gains but finished second, has rejected the results. It’s calling for a rerun, with proper safeguards to prevent any repeat of irregularities.

Thousands have taken to the streets of Belgrade to protest about electoral manipulation, rejecting the violation of the most basic principle of democracy – that the people being governed have the right to elect their representatives.

A history of violations

The SNS has held power since 2012. It blends economic neoliberalism with social conservatism and populism, and has presided over declining respect for civic space and media freedoms. In recent years, Serbian environmental activists have been subjected to physical attacks. President Aleksandar Vučić attempted to ban the 2022 EuroPride LGBTQI+ rights march. Journalists have faced public vilification, intimidation and harassment. Far-right nationalist and anti-rights groups have flourished and also target LGBTQI+ people, civil society and journalists.

The SNS has a history of electoral irregularities. The December 2023 vote was a snap election, called just over a year and a half since the previous vote in April 2022, which re-elected Vučić as president. In 2022, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) pointed to an ‘uneven playing field’, characterised by close ties between major media outlets and the government, misuse of public resources, irregularities in campaign financing and pressure on public sector staff to support the SNS.

These same problems were seen in December 2023. Again, the OSCE concluded there’d been systemic SNS advantages. Civil society observers found evidence of vote buying, political pressure on voters, breaches of voting security and pressure on election observers. During the campaign, civil society groups were vilified, opposition officials were subjected to physical and verbal attacks and opposition rallies were prevented.

But the ruling party has denied everything. It’s slurred civil society for calling out irregularities, accusing activists of trying to destabilise Serbia.

Backdrop of protests

The latest vote was called following months of protests against the government. These were sparked by anger at two mass shootings in May 2023 in which 17 people were killed.

The shootings focused attention on the high number of weapons still in circulation after the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia and the growing normalisation of violence, including by the government and its supporters.

Protesters accused state media of promoting violence and called for leadership changes. They also demanded political resignations, including of education minister Branko Ružić, who disgracefully tried to blame the killings on ‘western values’ before being forced to quit. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić blamed foreign intelligence services for fuelling protests. State media poured abuse on protesters.

These might have seemed odd circumstances for the SNS to call elections. But election campaigns have historically played to Vučić’s strengths as a campaigner and give him some powerful levers, with normal government activities on hold and the machinery of the state and associated media at his disposal.

Only this time it seems the SNS didn’t think all its advantages would be quite enough and, in Belgrade at least, upped its electoral manipulation to the point where it became hard to ignore.

East and west

There’s little pressure from Serbia’s partners to both east and west. Its far-right and socially conservative forces are staunchly pro-Russia, drawing on ideas of a greater Slavic identity. Russian connections run deep. In the last census, 85 per cent of people identified themselves as affiliated with the Serbian Orthodox Church, strongly in the sway of its Russian counterpart, in turn closely integrated with Russia’s repressive machinery.

The Serbian government relies on Russian support to prevent international recognition of Kosovo. Russian officials were only too happy to characterise post-election protests as western attempts at unrest, while Prime Minister Brnabić thanked Russian intelligence services for providing information on planned opposition activities.

But states that sit between the EU and Russia are being lured on both sides. Serbia is an EU membership candidate. The EU wants to keep it onside and stop it drifting closer to Russia, so EU states have offered little criticism.

Serbia keeps performing its balancing act, gravitating towards Russia while doing just enough to keep in with the EU. In the 2022 UN resolution on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it voted to condemn Russia’s aggression and suspend it from the Human Rights Council. But it’s resisted calls to impose sanctions on Russia and in 2022 signed a deal with Russia to consult on foreign policy issues.

The European Parliament is at least prepared to voice concerns. In a recent debate, many of its members pointed to irregularities and its observation mission noted problems including media bias, phantom voters and vilification of election observers.

Other EU institutions should acknowledge what happened in Belgrade. They should raise concerns about electoral manipulation and defend democracy in Serbia. To do so, they need to support and work with civil society. An independent and enabled civil society will bring much-needed scrutiny and accountability. This must be non-negotiable for the EU.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.


Chiwetel Ejiofor Talks “The Connection to Community” In His Sophomore Sundance Feature ‘Rob Peace’

Five years after he made his directorial debut at Sundance, actor and filmmaker Chiwetel Ejiofor returned to the fest Monday with his sophomore feature, Rob Peace. The film is based on Jeff Hobbs’ 2014 book The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace and tells the true story of a Peace, who grew up in Orange, New Jersey and went on to attend Yale majoring in biochemistry.

In the film, Peace sells marijuana at Yale to earn money that he uses to help overturn his father’s murder conviction, and expresses his desires to return the neighborhood where he grew up.

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Speaking ahead of the fest, Ejiofor points out that “within the African American experience, the connection to home, the connection to place, the connection to community is somehow less valid.” He continues: “Anybody who actually tries to reinstitute themselves within that community is somehow failing, on some level.”

THR‘s Sundance review adds to this sentiment, reading,: “Rob didn’t see anything wrong with his community. He had no desire to leave, and part of the tragedy of Rob Peace is that few people seemed to wonder why.”

The film holds parallels — especially a commitment to community — with Ejiofor’s first feature, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. That film tells the true story of a young man in Wimbe, Malawi who refuses to give up on his family farm, devastated by drought and famine, instead building a windmill to restart village’s water pump.

Ejiofor talked to THR about the similarities between his directorial works and the importance of filming on location in New Jersey in New Jersey.

How did you find the book?

I read the book not long after it came out. Robert spoke to me in terms of all of the different intersections that he was dealing with. He’s three years younger than me, and a lot of his experiences, thoughts and feelings, I really related. I felt that I really understood. He felt like a character of my time. It was sort of coincidental that, a few a few years later, Rebecca Hart and Antoine Fuqua approached me having seen my first film, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, about getting involved in the film version of this.

What did you want potential audiences to see in Rob’s story?

He grew up in this period of time where we have this idea of social mobility, and he was at the absolute intersection of education and housing and the criminal justice system. There is this idea of how people move through these spaces and are still true to their own community. Here was this very brilliant young man who is trying to juggle all of these thoughts. Rob was maintaining a full, proper, honest connection to who he was. [He was] able to navigate these complex social spaces that are set up, in some way, to his detriment. He was, to some degree, unable to do this, as well. It really speaks to larger circumstances of race, housing, education, and criminal justice.

There’s still this associated blame placed on people; there’s language and ideology that suggests that an idea of not being able to find your way out. As if, within the African American experience, the connection to home, the connection to place, the connection to community is somehow less valid. What Rob is experiencing and the world that he works in, seems to me, entirely legitimate. And somehow the way that those [communities] are discussed, especially if the community is impoverished, it’s as if escaping that said community is the ultimate goal. And anybody who actually tries to reinstitute themselves within that community is somehow failing, on some level. This is not really applied to any other social or economic or racial group. It is quite specific in the African American communities.

Did you film on location in New Jersey?

It was really important to shoot where all of the things happened, as much as possible. So much of it is centered in that experience of East Orange. We shot in houses in East Orange, and you’re relying hugely on the goodwill of the community, especially when it’s running late, and there’s generators everywhere with blaring lights. People really supported the project, and a lot of people were very aware of Rob and his journey and what happened to him.

How did you find your lead?

It was a difficult process until it becomes very, very simple. For me, it was all about interpretation— how people see how people see Rob. Whether they perceive him as somebody who is trying to fit into these different spaces, or whether they see him as a the same stable, solid, individual who is believably in all of these spaces. That proves to be a sticking point. The perception is that there is a, for want of a better expression, a code switching that people lean into. There is the idea that he was playing up these different parts of his personality, or these different parts of his circumstances, which I didn’t believe was true. He felt very at ease in very different spaces. He felt like he was able to move through different places as one person. Jay [Will] came out of the COVID years at Juilliard, so he didn’t really have a showcase. There were some clips of him from school that you could access online. But as soon as I started to see him interact with this material, I was very aware that he was somebody who was capturing all sides of this character without forcing anything. I just believed him in all of these spaces.

This is you second feature as a director. What did you learn from this production that you will be taking with you into your future directing work?

What really struck me was, when watching the film from the first assembly, I started to see the similarities in both films. There is the ton and pacing of scenes, and similar interpersonal relationships. You become aware, as a writer-director, that these are part of how you see the world and therefore how you relay it, artistically. And you can’t really know that until you start seeing more of your own work. It’s an enjoyable feeling to start to see [the connections] and maybe then, when I’m directing in the future, I will lean more into that.


Funda Fest 26 puts black Rhode Islanders Center Stage

By Kevin Fitzpatrick

For three weeks out of the year, Rhode Islanders are afforded the opportunity to celebrate an art so fundamental to the human experience that one might forget it’s an art at all: storytelling.

Funda Fest, now in its 26th year, is an annual exhibition of some of the greatest black story tellers in Rhode Island and beyond. The festival’s storytellers draw from cultural roots in Colonial America, the Caribbean, Mali, South Africa, South Providence, and anywhere one can find members of the black diaspora. And it’s all happening now.

Funda means “to learn” in Zulu. It’s a word Valerie Tutson, executive director and co-founder of Funda Fest and the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS), which organizes the event every year, brought back with her from a trip to South Africa, during which time she was considering how she might emulate the festivals of the National Association of Black Storytellers here in Rhode Island. With the help of Ramona Bass-Kolobe, an original cast member of the Rites and Reasons Theatre at Brown’s Department of Africana Studies, and other local storytellers, as well as a grant from the Rhode Island Foundation, Funda Fest was born.

“Our first year we had invited four artists. And we had one school that we visited and we did two shows,” Tutson said of the festival’s beginnings. “So it was kind of like a little weekend, a long weekend with four artists. This year, we have three weekends all across Rhode Island. And we have more than 26 artists who will be performing.”

RIBS and Funda Fest operated for most of their two decades as a volunteer run non-profit, and while the organization remained solvent for all that time, the turbulence in the country which resulted from both the pandemic and the protests following the killing by police of George Floyd, Tutson and RIBS chose to consider the organization’s longevity.

“I think we got to experience sort of a racial reckoning, and we’re, oh my gosh, what’s happening with black nonprofits in the state?” Tutson asked. “You know, there was this awareness that you know, less than 3% of our nonprofits in Rhode Island are run by people of color.”

In the following years up unto the present, RIBS has taken on a full-time executive director, Tutson, as well as a business manager. In addition to the festival, they now host storytelling camps for kids during February, April, and summer vacations in concert with the Rhode Island Department of Education. They will also be launching a “legacy program” aimed to teach adults storytelling skills.

Tutson herself is an accomplished storyteller with a deep well of cultural memory. She has performed around the country and internationally, drawing on tales of the black experience in American history, and stories from south and west Africa. She sees the role of storytelling in every culture, and particularly in black culture, as essential to learning one’s values and “how to be in the world.”

“Sometimes those historical stories or even the folktales give you real insight into the cultural values that have survived,” Tutson says. “And if we kind of had access to those, I tend to think we wouldn’t be so crazy right now. You know? We would understand our place in humanity, not just our moment in time.”

The inaugural event of Funda Fest 26 was a party held in the Rites and Reasons Theatre, a black box in which many of RIBS’ most prominent members trained, performed, and learned the craft of storytelling. The shadow of one man in particular looms large over the party goers. A man whose name adorns the entrance to the theatre. A man who, during a lull in the music, the storytellers would take time to tell stories about: George Houston Bass.

Ramona Bass-Kolobe was a student at Brown when African American students staged a walkout, demanding a deeper commitment from the university to students of color. She was also a student two years later when Houston Bass, a prolific playwright and director, was hired to teach theatre and Afro-American (now called Africana) Studies. She would also later go on to marry the man.

“This is my womb,” Bass-Kolobe said as she sat in the black box, holding her cane between her legs as her daughter, contemporaries, and former students listened on. “Before I came into this room, and this became my womb, I was part of a group of black students at Brown who were doing black theater and we said ‘Oh, this is black theatre! But we want somebody to come show us the way.’ And so George Houston Bass graciously agreed to come up and guide us on the journey of not just reading plays out of a book, because he told us the plays you need to do are the plays that come out of your people and your mind and your community. And so we said ‘Well, what does that look like?’ And he said ‘Go start doing the research!’”

Houston Bass encouraged his students to go out into the communities of Providence and collect stories, from which they would create performances. From this formula, Rites and Reasons Theatre was born, and the traditions established there would go on to influence the performances seen at Funda Fest today.

Performances like those of Len Cabral, another founder of RIBS, director of Providence Inner City Arts, and 46 years a storyteller. Cabral often works with educators to help them develop storytelling skills as a daily learning aid in the classroom. He was gracious enough to explain his methods during the party. 

“I do the approach of three E’s — entertainment, education, and engagement,” he says. He explains that of the three, the last is most crucial of all. “Without engagement, there’s no entertainment happening. There’s no education … The most important thing is engage your listeners. Then you can take them places.”

“Say I’m telling a story to a group of third-graders,” Cabral continues. “I’ll ask them a question they know the answer to. I’ll say ‘Do rabbits have short or long tails?’ I know they’re gonna say ‘Short!’ And I’ll say ‘Well NOW they do!’ Then I’ll go like this …”

Cabral leans in close, and drops his voice low and, conspiratorially, he begins, “Long ago … Just that movement tells the audience ‘You’re gonna tell us a secret!’”

Cabral will be hosting Funda Fest’s Liar’s Contest this year on Feb. 2 at the Cape Verdean Club in East Providence. The contest is an opportunity for non-professional storytellers to try their hand at spinning a yarn. Participants will have five minutes to tell a family friendly lie, to be judged on Originality, Delivery, and Audience Response, for a first place prize of $200.

Rachel Briggs, an elementary school science teacher in Providence, uses those same skills to enrich and enliven her classes.

 “[Storytelling] can be so useful in the classroom for every subject,” she says. “Every subject, you can break off into a story. Or you get take the information that we’re giving to students and fix it in a way that it creates a story, and it’s so more it more meaningful! When we relate it to something at their age level, it just makes sense, because kids know stories. Whether they’re reading or not they’ll know stories, they can’t help it.”

Briggs often uses her skills as a storyteller and a science teacher to highlight black scientists who haven’t received the celebration they deserve. She gives an example: Granville T. Woods. Woods was an African American inventor who lived during the latter half of the 19th century, who held over 50 patents.

“So I focus on those comprehension questions,” she says of her process. “What, when, where, how, and why do we care about him?”

“I don’t get hung up on dates, because I feel like those are fillers that kids will pick up on later on,” she continues. “What’s more important is who he was. Where he started, in terms of the place and the time and how he got to be the adult he was. His persistence. He was in a time where no black man would be recognized for what he was doing. But he still did it.”

Like Cabral, Briggs says engagement is most important of all, and there’s cognitive science backing the claim. “I was reading this book about culturally responsive teaching, and it turns out the brain, once it gets information, it takes 20 seconds before the brain decides whether or not it will continue engaging in what you’re talking about. So storytelling from the start, you have to be engaging, so that the audience wants to go further with you in the story.”

Briggs performed in the first act of Funda Fest 26’s first evening performance “Storytelling for Grown Folk” at the Southside Cultural Center Of Rhode Island in Providence on Saturday, Jan. 20. She, along with Tutson, Bass-Kolobe, and a few others from RIBS’ “Mothers” each took a turn telling stories from history, or their own lives.

Briggs told an uplifting story about her own choice to rise above the opinions and perceptions of others. Bass-Kolobe told of a trip she took with her husband to Botswana, and her sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous encounters with packs of urban baboons. Tutson took on a story of a woman escaping slavery and her journey from Alabama all the way into Canada with her dog in tow.

Award-winning playwright, poet, and performer David Gonzalez was the evening’s headliner. He chose to perform the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice through the lens of 20th century black musicians who had influenced him throughout his life: Lightnin’ Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Sonny Terry and Brownie Mcghee, a long list of those whom he calls “The Real S—.”

Before he began, he apologized for an illness in his throat and what effect it may have on his performance. Then he launched into a perfect, lightning quick stretch of scat and air-saxophone. His retelling of Orpheus, the greatest musician in the world and Eurydice, his wife who was bitten by a snake and snatched away to the underworld on their wedding night, was sharp, elegant, hilarious and tear-wrenching, punctuated with acapella snippets of those musicians he loved so much. He rarely seemed to take a breath and neither did the audience. Engagement, Briggs and Cabral would point out.

“Sometimes I call storytelling ‘poor theater,’” Gonzalez said after the show. “In that we are the orchestra. We are the stage. We are the light. We are the sound. We are the lyricist. We’re the book-writer where, you know, it’s all in there. And my style personally is, you know, I’m coming at music and movement. So I really tried to bring those elements into my voice, into my gestural vocabulary, into creating a world that is sort of theatrically enchanting.”

Speaking more on the thesis of his performance, Gonzales said, “For me, black music has been a guiding light in terms of personal expression, creative courage, discipline, generosity, soulful fun, community and a secular kind of spirituality. You hear somebody like Stevie Wonder, and you hear it, you hear it, hear it in great black music. It’s the integration of spirit and soul, heart, hard work, and it moves through that space.”

Such masters will be putting their craft on display throughout the rest of the festival. Production Manager Marlon Carey is particularly excited to have invited Dr. Amina Blackwood Meeks to perform, in collaboration with the Jamaican Association of Rhode Island.

Meeks is an award-winning writer, actress, storyteller and advocate from Jamaica who was compared by different people at the party to such stars among folklorists as Miss Lou and Zora Neale Hurston. Carey notes she is also an instrumental part of the push to make Jamaican Patois the official language of Jamaica. Meeks will be at multiple events throughout Funda Fest, the first of which will be at an event titled Afro/Caribbean Storytelling in South County South Kingston High School on Jan. 25.

Carey, an immigrant from Jamaica himself living in the United States since childhood, has become an expert on the unique phenomenon of black storytelling in Rhode Island through work with numerous organizations in Providence. He spoke of a project he was hired to do with the Womens’ Project at Brown, for which he had an opportunity to research Rhode Island’s deep embroilment in the Atlantic slave trade.

“Rhode Island was one vertex on the triangle trade,” Carey said. “So this has a rich history of the diaspora.”

He continued, “If more than half of the voyages that left from America to go enslave individuals left from Rhode Island, that must mean that everybody who was on a ship needed sails. Sails are made here; you’re going to need provisions. Butter, wool, you talked about coffee, you talk about the manacles.”

He brought up the Sally, a slave ship owned by the Brown family in the 18th century on which over 100 enslaved people were murdered by the captain, died of disease, starvation or suicide on just one deadly voyage. Carey pointed out that it was not only the Browns who had a stake in that voyage. Average Rhode Islanders also took out bonds on the Sally’s voyages.

Enslaved people always lived in Rhode Island, Carey said. Financiers exploited their labor to do book work. They were seen on Providence streets shopping for their captors or working at skilled labor in cooper shops building barrels. Their labor was used to build Brown.

“All of this Ivy League prestige is built, literally built by people volunteering their enslaved individuals for a piece of the pie,” Carey said.

“And if you’ve never been on the receiving end of the reverberation of that kind of pressure and all that you can’t tell somebody to get over it,” Carey said. “You can’t say ‘aren’t we actually done with that yet? We’re so far past that.’”

All that said, Carey looks to times in America’s history when people of all races have stood together, and that too needs to be recognized.

“We still need to grow and we can get together on this,” he said. “Because if I look at the Dr. Martin Luther King pictures, there are lots of black and white arm in arm in arm. He’s holding hands with a white priest. You know, he’s holding hands with the Jews are there supporting him.”

“This is part of what RIBS does is to tell the stories, to share them, and have us figure out how we can understand that it is our collective story,” Carey said. “That it’s American history. Not black history. There is no American history without black history, we need to hold that together and move forward on that level and not continue any separations.”

In 2023 RIBS and Funda Fest were selected by the Rhode Island Foundation to receive a $100,000 seeded endowment fund. The fund, which will continue to grow over the years as the organization develops, will help to ensure RIBS’ ability to continue telling a more complete history of Rhode Island, the United States, and the world well into the future.

Tutson expressed her gratefulness for the investment in RIBS’ future in true form, with a story. “There is a storyteller who teaches us a song from Malawi and the greeting is ‘I see you, I see with my eyes and my heart in front of me and I greet you with respect.’ It feels as if we’ve been seen.”

Funda Fest will be holding performances as well as film screenings until Feb. 3. For details, tickets and RSVP info, visit fundafest.org.


Is Bangladesh Sleep Walking to Dictatorship ?

Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Democracy, Economy & Trade, Headlines, TerraViva United Nations


ROME, Jan 22 2024 (IPS) – The parliamentary elections held in Bangladesh on 7 January, 2024, has created much controversy in the country, terming it an “election of the Awami League (AL) government, for the AL government and by the AL government”, by many. Internationally, China and India have congratulated the government for victory and organization of a fair election. But, several western countries have termed it as unsatisfactory. However, irrespective of the diverse views, everyone agrees that it was not participatory elections. Voter turn out was significantly low and it was boycotted by the main opposition Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

Saifullah Syed

Prior to the election, the USA and several western countries indicated that failure to hold fair and free election will have consequences. As a result, Bangladesh’s policy analysts are concerned and discussing the likely implications of the election on the economy and in particular the garment industry.

While international push back are legitimate concerns, what is more worrisome is that Bangladesh may be unwittingly sleep walking to dictatorship under one party rule. Several commentators are suggesting that Sheikh Hasina is becoming an authoritarian ruler from being a champion of democracy and the AL is projecting itself as the sole guarantor of independence, sovereignty and secularism. Everyone else is out there to turn it into a hot bed of Islamic extremism. Such rationales alluding to moral right to rule are perfect ingredients for sleepwalking into dictatorship.

The one-party dictatorships are generally more stable and perverse and the elections legitimizes one party dictatorship by presenting an image of democracy.

History teaches us that one party rule or dictatorship goes against the basic foundation of Bengali values. However, successful moves to stop it can only be launched by understanding why and how it is emerging.

Democracy in Bangladesh

Bangladesh initiated non-party caretaker government (CGT) system for running elections as per demand of the AL in 1991. By all accounts the 1991 election was fair and the CGT worked satisfactorily to hold general elections also in 1996 and 2001. Interestingly, in 1991 the BNP won and in 1996 the AL won and in 2001 the BNP won again.

What went wrong thereafter ? The system ran into difficulties in 2006 due to BNP’s refusal to follow the rules governing the CTG . This led to political crisis of 2006-2008 and brought the military into power. However, a fair election was finally held in 2008 and the AL achieved overwhelming victory. Since then, the AL started getting emboldened and in 2011 it abolished the CTG system. Consequently, BNP launched movement to restore the CTG and started refusing to participate in elections unless it is done. The AL is adamantly refusing to reintroduce CTG, saying it is unconstitutional.

Therefore, it would seem that the core challenge facing our democratic system is two-fold: how to convince AL to introduce the CTG? or how to convince BNP to participate in elections under the ruling government? These challenges may appear easily resolvable through dialogue. Unfortunately, the two parties are mired in deep animosity. For AL, the founder of BNP is linked to the cruel murder of the founder of Bangladesh and his family and the current leader of BNP is accused of master minding the grenade attack on a AL rally on 21 August 2004, killing 24 people and injuring about 200. For the BNP, it has zero trust in AL and considers ditching of the current party leader, Begum Khaleda Zia – with the name Zia, as its existential threat.

Can the civil society or the international community mediate a solution ? Unfortunately, civil society is fragmented along party lines and partly lost its neutrality during the 2006-2008 crisis, when some components stepped into politics. The international community is also divided between the East and the West and a vast majority in the country believes that their call for democracy is motivated by geo-political interests.

Who will blink first ?

Judging from the past, neither is likely to give in under the present leadership. Hence, to save democracy in Bangladesh, everyone concerned needs to come out of hybernation and build a national consensus. BNP leadership must answer for the accusations and face the consequences. Its stalwart leaders should ensure that, instead of slavish subordination. The civil society should shade political color and influence of the ‘funders’, and the international community should accept local dynamics and realities. If all concerned fail to put the country first it will not bode well for democracy in Bangladesh.

The Bengali people will surely rise against one party rule. Success of rebellion will be shaped by the leadership it fosters. Any leadership tainted by criminal accusations and historical misdeeds will fail to obtain broad-based support. People may give the ‘benefit of doubt’ to civil crimes, but may not for criminal crimes, even if portrayed as ‘politically motivated’. Partisan support alone cannot bring down a one party dictatorship. A broad-based national movement is essential. It cannot happen under leadership tainted by criminal accusations. For a democratic Bangladesh, the country needs an opposition led by people who are not and cannot be tainted by criminal accusations and offer AL the moral high ground by default.

The author is a former UN official who was Chief of Policy Assistance Branch for Asia and the Pacific of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

IPS UN Bureau