TIME Bowe Bergdahl

Guantanamo Detainee Exchanged for American POW Attempts a Return to Battle

Guantanamo Future
Charles Dharapak—AP A U.S. flag flies above buildings used for military tribunals for suspected terrorist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on Nov. 19, 2013.

A Taliban commander exchanged for the release of a POW attempts to return to the battlefield, raising questions about closing Guantanamo

When U.S. President Barack Obama agreed in May to exchange five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo Bay for Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. soldier who had been held captive for five years, his political opponents had a field day. They warned that the detainees risked returning to Afghanistan, and to militancy. Obama, with the backing of the government of Qatar that had agreed to host the men, promised that they would be kept far from the battlefield. Seems that the men may have had other ideas. According to CNN, U.S. military and intelligence officials now suspect that at least one of the detainees has made contact with Taliban associates in Afghanistan, suggesting that he, and perhaps the others, may be planning a return.

Considering that 29 percent of all U.S. detainees who were held in the Guantanamo detention center are either suspected of or confirmed to have returned to the fight, according to a March 2015 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. TIME’s Massimo Calabresi predicted as much back in June, just after Bergdahl was released. The recidivism rate, he wrote, “suggests that statistically at least one of the Taliban leaders will return to the field to fight Americans in Afghanistan, or elsewhere.”

At the time of the exchange, Taliban commanders who had been involved in Bergdahl’s capture, captivity and release, told TIME that the exchange — five of theirs for one of America’s — would encourage them to seek out more P.O.W.s. So far, that hasn’t happened. It’s not clear which of the five former detainees was reaching out to associates in Afghanistan, but as high-ranking commanders and former comrades-in-arms of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, any one of them could galvanize a movement that is slowly making gains in the wake of the U.S. drawdown in Afghanistan. Even if those plans have now been foiled, the incident may have one other far reaching consequence: as Obama attempts to close down Guantanamo for good, his opponents now have more ammunition for why he should not.

Read More: Behind the Scenes of Bowe Bergdahl’s Release

TIME portfolio

Meet Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces

These forces don’t pull their punches

In March 2013, photographer Lynsey Addario, along with TIME‘s Africa Bureau Chief Aryn Baker, gained access to Saudi Arabia’s highly secure and secretive Special Security Forces’ training grounds. They witnessed how the elite soldiers’ intense exercise regimen has prepared them to face all forms of terrorism or threats in the Kingdom. Following the death of King Abdullah, Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef, who leads his country’s counterterrorism program and oversees these forces, was named Deputy Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. He is now second-in-line to the throne.

Every country has its moment of reckoning. For Saudi Arabia, it was May 12, 2003, when heavily armed militants affiliated with al-Qaeda attacked residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 36, including nine Americans. That assault was just the beginning of a terror epidemic that unleashed car bombings, suicide attacks and targeted assassinations on a country that had known relative calm for nearly a decade. The number of attacks climaxed in 2004, when more than 60, including several foreigners, died throughout the country in a campaign of violence orchestrated by al-Qaeda militants bent on destroying the Saudi monarchy. The government responded by bolstering its Special Security Forces, crack anti-terror teams that work under the Ministry of Interior to root out terrorists in the Kingdom.

For three years, the Special Security Forces battled with militants in the country’s urban expanses, until the threat died down with the capture and killing of the al-Qaeda chief and hundreds of other militants in “pre-emptive” strikes in late 2006 and early 2007. Lessons learned from those early days now form the core of Saudi Arabia’s Special Security Forces curriculum. The forces, which number about 10,000, go through a rigorous training program designed to prepare soldiers for every possible contingency, from an attack on a VIP convoy to hostage search and recovery, bomb clearance, storming militant hideouts, pinpoint parachute landings, precision shooting and surveillance. In March 2013, TIME was granted rare access to a demonstration that put the newly trained recruits through their paces. “2003 to 2007 was a good lesson for us. The kind of training we have now reflects the new era of terrorism,” said Major Ahmad Hakimi, as he guided us through the purpose built facilities just outside Riyadh.

The facility boasts a massive, foam-covered and bullet proof shooting arena with adjustable housing configurations, to mimic urban house clearing. The adjoining warehouse features an entire airplane fuselage so commandos can practice combatting would-be hijackers. Outside recruits practice dropping from helicopters into fake compounds, in the style of the bin Laden capture. They climb up and rappel down water towers and practice hand-to-hand combat with designated “enemies.” They don’t pull their punches either—learning to take a gut punch is part of the training.

Basic military training lasts three months, followed by another month of basic security training and an additional specialization that can last for anything from two months to seven. There is a strong focus on explosives, and Hakimi seemed to take particular delight in having his visitors inadvertently set off pyrotechnic “bombs” triggered by every day objects, from the tab on a can of Pepsi to a doctored Koran or a small briefcase. None of the disguised bombs were invented, he explained. Militants had used each at one time or another in the Kingdom, to devastating effect. “It’s important to realize that anything has the potential to set off a bomb. We have to be aware,” he said.

Saudi society is strictly segregated along gender lines. Even when it comes to security issues, female police deal with women and male police, men. I asked if there were any women in counterterrorism training. Hakimi laughed, and pointed out that there would be no need in Saudi society. So what happens in the case of female terrorists? I asked. Hakimi, our voluble guide with an answer for everything, was momentarily stumped. “I guess,” he allowed, “we deal with terrorists as terrorists. It doesn’t matter when they are trying to harm our nation.”

Lynsey Addario, a frequent TIME contributor, is a photographer represented by Getty Images Reportage.

Michelle Molloy, who edited this photo essay, is a senior international photo editor at TIME.

TIME Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama Unveiled in Saudi: A Style Statement, Not a Political Statement

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.
Carolyn Kaster—AP President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama participate in a delegation receiving line with new Saudi Arabian King, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, right, in Riyadh, Jan. 27, 2015.

Correction appended Jan. 29

There is nothing quite as contentious as the headscarf issue when it comes to women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, at least where western observers are concerned. So when U.S. first lady Michelle Obama went to pay her respects after the death of Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh with her hair uncovered, social media lit up with both praise and opprobrium. “Michelle Obama shouldve stayed in Airforce One as a sign of boycott rather than flouting rules of another country #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled” tweeted @Random_Arora. “She was a guest in another country &culture. She should make no judgements, but show proper respect at a funeral.2 #Michelle_Obama_NotVeiled,” wrote @MonaBadah.

The thing is, Obama wasn’t really flouting any rules when she chose not to wear a headscarf. While foreign female visitors to the Kingdom are expected to wear long, loose fitting garments as a sign of respect — Obama obliged with a long coat over dark trousers — the headscarf is optional. The muttawa, or religious police, might growl menacingly, but there is nothing legally wrong with going uncovered for non-Muslims. Doing so may draw unwanted attention, and the ire of conservatives, but most Saudis treat the headscarf as a sign of piety, or at least feigned piety for public consumption.

When it comes to women’s rights in the kingdom, the headscarf is the least of any Saudi activist’s worries. She is more likely to be concerned about the right to drive, the right to vote, the right to keep her children after asking for divorce and the right to travel, marry and work without express permission from a male guardian. So maybe if Obama had driven to the funeral herself, it would have been worth a stir. Instead, she did as several other notable female visitors to the Kingdom, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice among them, have done before: dressing respectfully without compromising their own personal sense of style. It’s not like Mr. Obama decided to don a thobe and shemagh for the occasion.

Correction: The original version of this story mischaracterised Obama’s visit to Riyadh. It was to offer condolences for the Saudi King.

TIME Nigeria

Stable Elections in Nigeria Threatened by Boko Haram’s Latest Attacks

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan to discuss peaceful elections at the State House in Lagos, Nigeria on Jan. 25, 2015.
Akintunde Akinleye—AFP/Getty Images US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan to discuss peaceful elections at the State House in Lagos, Nigeria on Jan. 25, 2015.

Nigerian militants laid siege to military bases in the northern capital of Maiduguri on Sunday, raising questions about the army’s ability to combat the insurgency

As campaign season ramps up ahead of Nigerian general elections on February 14th, President Goodluck Jonathan has sought to downplay an insurgency in the country’s northeast that has been raging almost as long as he has been in power. The rise of Boko Haram, a Nigeria-based militant Islamist group best known for vicious attacks on military targets and its penchant for kidnapping women and girls and conscripting men and boys, has stymied Jonathan’s government since the former vice-president ascended to the presidency in 2010.

The insurgency has killed an estimated 11,000, according to the Council on Foreign Relation’s Nigeria Security Tracker. Unable to defeat it, the Jonathan campaign has chosen to all but ignore it as the president asks his people for an additional four-year term. But that strategy backfired on Saturday night, as militants swept into the strategic northern capital of Maiduguri just hours after Jonathan stumped for support from city residents.

The militants, who reportedly infiltrated the city of two million disguised as travelers on local buses, laid siege to key military installations and battled into Sunday. The Nigerian army eventually beat them back, but the fact that they were able to penetrate the city undetected raises questions about the military’s ability to defeat the movement, and, as the country’s Commander-in-Chief, Jonathan’s commitment to the fight.

Even as the insurgents retreated in Maiduguri, others looted, killed and abducted residents in a string of attacks on unguarded villages about 200 kilometers away, according to local authorities. As with previous attacks, such as an assault on a military base and several nearby villages that started Jan. 3 and killed scores, the government response has been muted.

Amnesty International, which has been closely documenting Boko Haram’s expansion, warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in a statement released Sunday, noting that the capital had already seen a massive influx of rural residents fleeing the violence over the past several months. “These ongoing attacks by Boko Haram are significant and grim news. We believe hundreds of thousands of civilians are now at grave risk,” said Africa Director Netsanet Belay. “People in and around Maiduguri need immediate protection. If the military doesn’t succeed in stopping Boko Haram’s advance they may be trapped with nowhere else to turn. The government’s failure to protect residents of Maiduguri at this time could lead to a disastrous humanitarian crisis.”

Boko Haram’s increasing boldness comes at a delicate time for Nigeria, which is just three weeks away from an election that promises to be the closest in the country’s short democratic history. Jonathan is up against former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, who has made security the main issue in his campaign platform. Elections in Nigeria are invariably accompanied by violence — the 2011 elections saw some 800 killed in post-polling fighting when Buhari lost to Jonathan — and fears are rife that Boko Haram could take advantage of the instability to sow further discord, or advance while the security services are distracted.

The United States has expressed concerns that the elections could usher in a new wave of violence, particularly if allegations of rigging by either side are widespread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Lagos on Sunday to reiterate the U.S.’s desire to see clean elections. “This will be the largest democratic election on the continent,” Kerry said at a press conference following meetings with the two main candidates. “Given the stakes, it’s absolutely critical that these elections be conducted peacefully — that they are credible, transparent and accountable.” But obstacles are rife: some 25 million registered voters have yet to receive their biometric voter identity cards. There is not yet a system in place for an estimated one million internally displaced to cast their votes. And the ongoing violence in the northeast could prevent voters in what is traditionally a Buhari stronghold from coming to the polls.

On Jan. 22, Jonathan’s national security adviser Sambo Dasuki suggested at a meeting of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at London’s Chatham House that the elections be postponed, but such a delay risks prolonging the instability and prevents a unified response against Boko Haram. On the same day, government spokesman Mike Omeri announced that Nigeria was considering bringing home some 3,000 soldiers deployed in international peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa to help secure the elections and combat the insurgency. But the military’s inability to combat Boko Haram has less to do with numbers than a longstanding history of alleged corruption within the leadership ranks, a lack of adequate weaponry and logistical supplies, unpaid salaries and poor training, according to several military analysts and frustrated soldiers. Dasuki, in his Jan. 22 Chatham House comments, defended the military leadership and instead blamed cowardice among the troops for Boko Haram’s advance. “We have people who use every excuse in this world not to fight. We’ve had a lot of people who we believe joined because they wanted a job, not because they wanted a career in the military. And it’s most of them who are running away and telling stories,” he said.

While in Lagos, Kerry reiterated the U.S.’s continued backing for Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. But that support comes with caveats: the Nigerian government must ensure that the upcoming elections will be fair and transparent. “Bottom line, we want to do more,” he said. “But our ability to do more will depend to some degree on the full measure of credibility, accountability, transparency, and peacefulness of this election.” But doing more won’t help if Nigeria’s current leadership, both miltary and civilian, don’t want to do more to help themselves.

TIME Boko Haram

Boko Haram Militants Are Back on the Attack in Nigeria as a Presidential Election Looms

A second bloody attack in the northeastern town of Baga coincides with the launch of Goodluck Jonathan’s Presidential campaign. What that means for the election season.

As thousands of supporters clad in the red, white and green of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party thronged the formal launch rally of his reelection campaign in Lagos on Thursday, thousands more were fleeing for their lives in the country’s northeast, where an ongoing militant offensive, launched on Jan. 3, has killed scores. Such twinned scenes of jubilation and carnage are likely to be a regular feature in Nigeria over the coming weeks, as the country gears up for Presidential and general elections on Feb. 14,—even as the Boko Haram militant group gains ground in a campaign that took more than 10,000 lives last year, and has driven more than 1.5 million people from their homes.

Residents of Baga, a small town on the shores of Lake Chad, and some sixteen surrounding villages fled on foot or by boat as members of Boko Haram razed buildings and stalked the streets in search of government supporters, according to local officials. “These towns are just gone, burned down,” Borno State Senator Ahmed Zanna told NBC News via telephone. “The whole area is covered in bodies.”

The offensive started on Jan. 3 with a daring raid on a multinational military base near Baga that had been established to combat crime in the lawless border region where Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon meet. It has since been repurposed to address the growing regional threat of Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group that got its start in northeastern Nigeria in 2002 and has used kidnapping—most notably of more than 200 schoolgirls last year—as an effective tactic. The base fell to the militants early Sunday morning, Jan 4, after several hours of intense fighting.

The second assault, which started in Baga itself on Jan. 6, appears to be an attempt by the rebels to assert their authority in an area of divided loyalties, according to Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy based in London. “Boko Haram has frequently attacked communities perceived to support the government,” he says. “The use of violence is designed to drive community fear and compliance in order to further Boko Haram’s agenda.”

While that agenda has little to do with the elections on the surface—as staunch Islamist militants, Boko Haram, like other radical Salafist groups, does not believe in elections or democratic rule—attacks like this one will contribute to a general climate of fear that could result in a low turnout in the election, or a closing of the polls in the northeast all together. Despite the increasing violence, Nigeria’s national election commission has said it will not postpone the elections. This could lead to post-campaign turmoil, if the opposition All Progressives Congress party, which has stronger support among the Muslim-dominated north, feels that the outcome has been skewed against them. Violence could erupt, as it did in the wake of the contested 2011 elections that brought Jonathan to power.

The Baga attacks aren’t necessarily tied to the elections, says Barclay, but they will play into the general conditions that could make the election season more volatile. More attacks should be expected, he adds. “Boko Haram will be a key player in the 2015 elections. It will seek to disrupt the elections by staging targeted attacks and by seeking to incite broader religious violence.” The group played a similar role during the 2011 elections, but “in 2015 Boko Haram has far greater military capability than it did back then,” he says. “It will use those capabilities to stage attacks which impact both on local-level politics, but also potentially on the national scene.”

One of the principal reasons that Boko Haram has managed to grow in strength and reach over the past few years is because political disputes have sapped the will of the Nigerian government to fight back, according to Jacob Zenn, an analyst of African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation, a DC- based research and analysis institute with a focus on terrorism. “There is a real lack of unified political will, making it difficult to develop a comprehensive and coordinated strategy to combat Boko Haram,” he says by telephone from Abuja, the Nigerian capital. “Until taking care of Boko Haram becomes a priority over concerns about the elections, there will be no way to contain the threat.”

Of course, many people in Nigeria’s government, military and civil society believe that if the elections go smoothly, “the new government will be able to prioritize the fight,” says Zenn. “However, if there is a period of post-election tension and infighting, it could make countering Boko Haram even more difficult.” That may be just what Boko Haram has in mind as it makes every effort to undermine security in the northeast, ensuring that elections don’t happen at all.

TIME central african republic

One of Joseph Kony’s Top Commanders Just Surrendered to U.S./African Union

The leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels Joseph Kony (seated C), surrounded by his officers, addresses his first news conference in 20 years of rebellion in Nabanga, Sudan, on Aug. 1, 2006.
Adam Pletts—Reuters The leader of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army rebels Joseph Kony (seated C), surrounded by his officers, addresses his first news conference in 20 years of rebellion in Nabanga, Sudan, on Aug. 1, 2006.

Dominic Ongwen could have information about the movements of Joseph Kony

At 10 he was forced to become a child soldier and he rose to become a commander of child soldiers. Now Dominic Ongwen, a senior commander in Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army [LRA], a cult-like rebel group that started in Uganda, has surrendered to members of a joint military task force run by the United States and the African Union.

According to U. S. State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, U.S. officials have yet to confirm that Ongwen, who declared his defection from the group in the Central African Republic on Tuesday, is who he says he is, but Ugandan army spokesman Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda trumpeted a rare success in the region-wide hunt for the group best known for amputating the limbs of detractors and turning young children into soldiers and sex slaves. “This is great news,” says Kasper Agger, the Uganda-based field researcher for the Enough Project, a Washington D.C.- based human rights advocacy organization that has been tracking the Lords Resistance Army across Uganda, South Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic. But whether or not Ongwen’s defection will lead to the eventual capture of Kony “is the million dollar question,” says Agger. “We can hope that he has vital information to share, but nailing down Kony at a specific time and place is still very difficult.”

According to Psaki, the defection of Ongwen, 35, would “represent a historic blow to the LRA’s command structure.” Ongwen, who was abducted by the LRA on his way to school according to Agger of the Enough Project, quickly made his way up the ranks to become a brigade commander, collecting multiple charges of grievous human rights abuses along the way. In 2005 the International Criminal Court in The Hague indicted Ongwen for seven counts of crimes against humanity including murder, pillaging and enslavement.

Ongwen’s defection, says Agger, may be a sign of weakening leadership within the organization, but it is also possible that the commander may have had a falling out with Kony and was in fact fleeing for his life. “We do know that he had been increasingly marginalized over the past few years,” says Agger, but Kony also has a tendency to pull commanders back into the fold as younger, less experienced soldiers die off. “So he could still have some useful information.” Ongwen’s defection may be a “victory along the road” says Agger, but it is no reason to rest in the hunt for Kony. “If anything, it’s an encouragement to keep up the pressure, to make sure that we see this through to the end, and that the Lords Resistance Army is truly finished.”

TIME Nigeria

Everything to Know About Boko Haram’s Advance in Nigeria

Image taken from a video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, Oct. 31, 2014.
AP Image taken from a video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, Oct. 31, 2014.

The fall of the Baga military base in north eastern Nigeria caps a slew of successes for the Islamist group

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram has roared back into the headlines in recent days, with a series of bold attacks on remote villages in the country’s northeast, culminating with an assault on a multinational military base near a town called Baga on the shores of Lake Chad over the weekend.

Refugees fled on boats, while the last bastion of government control in the northern part of Borno State erupted into flames. As the uptick in attacks seems poised to disrupt the upcoming Presidential elections slated for Feb. 14, here’s everything you need to know about Boko Haram’s advance, and why its ambitions extend way beyond kidnapping schoolgirls:

Why are we seeing so many attacks in Nigeria’s northeast?

Borno State has long been a hotbed for Boko Haram supporters. Since the Islamist group started gaining strength in 2011, the militants and the military have traded control of many of the area’s small towns and military bases in a chess-like series of feints and retreats that have left the region perpetually on edge. “The militants build their capabilities by raiding police bases and armories for vehicles and weapons, then the military beats them back,” says Roddy Barclay, senior Africa analyst at Control Risks, a political risk consultancy.

But the military’s heavy-handed tactics, from arbitrary arrests and detention to extrajudicial executions, have alienated the local population. When a military operation is over, the militants move back in to remind local communities that they are the real source of authority. Even though Boko Haram also traffics in fear and intimidation, says Barclay, they have the local advantage. “[The most recent attack in] Baga is part of the cycle of violence that draws on local grievances to accelerate recruitment to the militant cause,” he says. The more the military responds, the more fresh recruits flock to Boko Haram.

Where will Boko Haram go next?

Boko Haram’s leaders have set their sites on the state capital Maiduguri, which they lost to government forces in 2011. Such a defeat would be a devastating blow for the Nigerian government, which suffered a major setback last year when militants launched a daring raid on the main military barracks. It is not clear that Boko Haram has the capacity, manpower and weapons to retake the town – at least for now. But they do have the capability to launch devastating suicide attacks, a method that they have used to great effect several times over the past 6 months.

Could the threat spread beyond Nigeria’s borders?

Boko Haram shares many characteristics of transnational terror groups; it adheres to the strict Salafist ideology of governance by Islamic law, and controls an estimated 30-35,000 square kilometers, roughly the same amount of terrain as Syria and Iraq’s Islamic State. It has also launched small scale operations in Cameroon and Chad in what some analysts have described as an attempt to establish Islamic rule across a region once contained within the borders of the historic Kanem-Borno Empire.

For the moment, though, it seems largely focused on its immediate region, in the country’s impoverished north-east. But even if the group’s activities have minimal impact outside that region, the symbolic weight is immense, says Peter Pham, Africa Director for the Washington D.C.-based Atlantic Center policy institute. “Nigeria is the regional power, and if its government is proven impotent in the face of the insurgency, that could have a spillover effect on other countries in the region,” which are equally threatened by Islamist uprisings.

And its domestic threat shouldn’t be understated, says Pham. “You have Africa’s most populous nation and its largest economy. And now it’s coping with a hollowing out of the state – the government can’t control its territory, resources are being diverted to combat the insurgency, and there is the reputational harm as well. Lagos may be a world away, but if terror attacks are the main news item coming out of the country, it won’t help the investment climate. “

What role will Boko Haram play in the upcoming Presidential elections?

Boko Haram has already denounced the elections as “un-Islamic.” Barclay, of Control Risks, predicts a surge in violent attacks in the weeks leading up to February’s vote. The result will be two-fold: along with the spread of terror, elections will not be be held in some areas due to the security risks, undermining the legitimacy of the candidate that secures the presidency — likely to be the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. “Even if the election meets the legal requirements, it would still be a hollow victory,” says Pham. Jonathan’s campaign doesn’t need the three northern states most impacted by the insurgency to win, but if residents don’t turn out to vote for fears of an attack, it would shrink his mandate, says Pham. “That would not only weaken his hand in terms of dealing with the Boko Haram crisis, but also with the looming threat of declining oil prices” — Nigeria’s largest export.

And what happened to the kidnapped girls of Chibok?

Despite an ongoing government search, with U.S. assistance, none of the girls kidnapped last spring have been recovered. Most likely they have been forcibly married off to militants, or used as camp hands. Some local media outlets speculate that they could be part of a recent surge in female suicide bombers. But Boko Haram didn’t stop with the girls; for a militant group plagued by military losses, kidnapping is part of the growth strategy. Hundreds of men, women and boys have been kidnapped over the past year; the Baga offense started with the forced conscription of some 40 young men after a sermon at the local mosque, according to CNN. Hundreds more are likely to be abducted before the Chibok girls are ever found.

TIME Africa

Africa Fashion Week Showcases the Continent’s Best Talent

The growing trend of Fashion Weeks across the African continent challenges the notion that global fashion starts in the northern hemisphere

The lights dim on the catwalk as a capacity crowd quiets in anticipation. A pounding drum rhythm builds suspense as, backstage, stylists swarm the waiting models, applying last-minute dabs of foundation, glittering lip-gloss and bursts of hair spray. Next to the catwalk, professional photographers jostle for space with fashion bloggers preparing to snap candids with raised iPhones.

The scene could come from any of Europe or America’s frenzied fashion shows, but for two key differences: the models are mostly black and the designers all African. Welcome to Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg, an annual event that offers a sharp rebuttal to the idea that international fashion begins and ends in the northern hemisphere. “When it comes to fashion design, Africa is the next frontier,” says Precious Moloi-Motsepe, a women’s health doctor and wife of South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe who founded African Fashion International, which organizes the event, in 2007.

Now in its sixth year, Fashion Week Africa—which recently picked up Mercedes Benz’s sponsorship in a sign of its growing prominence (the company also sponsors fashion weeks in Australia, Russia and Mexico)—is a showcase for Africa’s top designers. Headlining designer David Tlale of South Africa makes regular appearances at New York’s fashion week, while Mozambican Taibo Bacar and South African Hendrik Vermeulen wowed audiences in Milan and Rome earlier this year.

The message from Johannesburg is clear: Africa is no longer just a source for ethnic inspiration and fashion shoots, but a fount of original talent that may just give the established global brands a fresh dose of creativity, Tlale tells TIME. “The industry needs fresh blood. Armani is tired. Galliano is trying to resuscitate himself. McQueen is gone. Gucci is failing to reinvigorate and Prada needs a new creative team. It’s time for the big fashion investors to start looking to Africa. Not appropriating our themes, but taking on our design talent.”

The first obstacle may be overcoming expectations. When Tlale, arguably Africa’s best-known designer, first showed in Paris in 2007, reviewers needled him about his line’s lack of leopard print. It still happens today. “There is so much more happening in Africa than animal prints,” he groans. “The time for showcasing the big five is over.” He is talking about the big five safari animals, but he could just as easily be referencing Africa’s big five fashion clichés: Mandela shirts, animal skins, vibrant Ghanaian fabrics, Ndebele beadwork and the red plaid and beaded collars of the Maasai.

Take the clothes on the catwalk in Johannesburg on Oct. 29 to Nov. 2: from diaphanous trench coats to daring hotpants, they have nary a whiff of the African stereotype. Tribal motifs made an appearance, but they were translated into muted knitwear that could almost pass as Nordic.

As much as international fashion design could use a jolt of African creativity, Africa, which has become dependent on imported fashion, needs the economic stimulus of domestic production. In South Africa, the clothing manufacturing sector used to be the country’s biggest employer, even more than mining, according to Anita Stanbury, of the South African Fashion Council. But in the early 2000s changes in the law allowed Chinese imports to take over, and the industry all but collapsed. South Africa’s fashion weeks, of which there are six year round, are one way to encourage interest, and investment, in local production. South African fashion retailers only buy 25% of their product locally, says Stanbury. If they bought 40%, the number of clothing manufacturing jobs in South Africa would nearly double, from 80,000 to 150,000. “That is a huge reason why we should support the domestic fashion scene,” says Stanbury. “It gives us the opportunity to pull people out of poverty, and make them consumers in the market.”

The domestic economic benefit is one of the main reasons Moloi-Motsepe started with fashion, but pride plays a part as well. She believes it’s time for African fashion to take its place in the spotlight. “We see ourselves as global fashion players,” says Moloi-Motsepe. Just as she pairs Prada with creations by local designers, she is waiting for the day she spots a Londoner mixing Stella McCartney with Tlale. Global fashion, she says, would be better for the cross-pollination.

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