Yet another thing Sweden does better than us: party conferences

Let's move all the politicians to an island in the Baltic. No, it's not as bad as it sounds, writes Ben Duckworth. . .

Imagine if this year's party conference season was cancelled and we started again. The public won't notice, but it will upset the Westminster calendar. Let's try it anyway because this whole conference thing isn't working any more. We can forget stories about councillors sleeping in their cars due to the expense of attending a city centre venue.

Instead, give every party represented in the House of Commons one day. Just 24 hours to nail the party leader's speech and announce some new policies. And lay the days on consecutively, organised by a rota. You could open up with Respect on a Sunday so George Galloway gets this political mini-season started with some of his own-brand, fiery oratory, then follow with the Conservatives on Monday, the SNP on Tuesday and so on. It can be a glorious, hectic mish-mash as parties work out how best to fill their brief moment in the spotlight.

Oh, and this will all be hosted in the same place – somewhere nice with pleasant surroundings and good food. Perhaps an island to ensure people feel far away from the Westminster hothouse. All events will be free and open to be attended by anyone who wants to come. Finally, we're going to hold it in the summer because the weather should be better and it will help politicians lighten up.

This grand plan might sound ludicrous but this is how it actually works in Sweden. Almedalsveckan 2013 begins this weekend on the island of Gotland – a quick flight from Stockholm or a three hour ferry trip. It is a political Glastonbury for the Swedish establishment. In the first week of the traditional Swedish summer holiday, they decamp to this festival en masse. “All the party leaders are here. It's impossible not to come,” says Karin Pettersson, political editor of Sweden's biggest selling daily newspaper Aftonbladet. Unsurprisingly, politicians and journalists quite like the idea of meeting up in a pretty medieval town which also serves as a glamorous stop-off on the European summer yacht tour.

The events at Almedalsveckan are free and open to anyone. There are no concrete barriers or high fences that are now synonymous with British party conferences. You don't need to pay for any passes or fill out lengthy forms to attend – while you wonder if the security services will start checking your emails and rifling through your bins. The attendance levels for Almedalsveckan increase every year. Last year 17,000 people turned up. But the reason for its huge growth in visitor numbers is not down to public accessibility, as admirable as that is.

Regular attendees don't see growing droves of average Swedes making a pilgrimage across the Baltic Sea. Members of the public who do wander around watching the seminars and debates are likely to already be on Gotland, a popular holiday destination. Adding to the politicians and journalists are the many company representatives, PR consultants and lobbyists who spot the obvious opportunity to mingle with every important politician in Sweden in one place. This includes all the regional and local politicians as well as the national parliamentarians. “It offers opportunities you would never get in Stockholm,” one lobbyist and veteran attendee of Almedalsveckan tells me. He remembers first visiting in the 1990s when the attendees numbered under 1,000.

Some of the complaints about Almedalsveckan sound familiar. “What has happened in the last few years is that PR consultants and companies have kidnapped the week so they now outnumber political people by 20 to one,” says Pettersson. The parties' closely stage manage their events. Pettersson has to look back to 2005, when senior Social Democrats fell out over a welfare issue, to remember a serious story breaking unexpectedly while the week took place. Otherwise, Almedalsveckan has a clear, well-established news cycle – the party leaders will finish their speeches in time for evening bulletins and deadlines. Despite occassional attempted sabotage from rivals, each day belongs to an individual party.

Also, the accompanying evening dinners and drinks receptions are becoming ever more exclusive. Gotland's capital, Visby, has some lovely restaurants which are happy to accept those lobbying and media expenses. The schmoozing is taken just as seriously in Sweden as in Britain.

So Almedalsveckan is not without its faults. The festival works because, for a country that “doesn't do charismatic politicians” as one Swedish commentator describes it, the format seems ideal. The structure of Almedalsveckan ensures that the political parties with MPs in the Rikstag – Sweden's Parliament – each enjoy their media focus. The daily changeover between parties creates a fast-moving event that doesn't outstay its welcome. It is their political party of the year. An eight day blast and it is all over until next year. The comparison with the lumbering, drawn-out, fenced-off world of our party conferences is stark.

Gotland in the 1960s. Photograph: Olof Sjöholm/Wikimedia Commons

Ben Duckworth is a freelance journalist and former editor of Total Politics magazine.

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Scarred lands: visiting the villages Boko Haram left behind reveals the toxic legacy of terrorism

The progress and challenges of Nigerian communities rebuilding after Boko Haram’s insurgency begins to wane.

“Sometimes it’s when I go to bed that what happened comes back to me.” Two years ago, Boko Haram militants stormed into 23-year-old John Amida’s home late at night in a village in Gwoza, Borno State, northeast Nigeria. Shielding his eyes with his hands from the torchlight saved his life. He shows me the mark in the centre of his forearm where the bullet aimed for his head went instead.

“All my friends were either killed or abducted,” he says. “I don’t try to forget what happened because it’s not possible; it’s with you even when it is not in your mind. The best thing is just to keep on living every day.”

After a broadly effective 18-month military campaign, Boko Haram remains a deadly yet waning force. Many communities once occupied by Boko Haram are now liberated. In Adamawa, just south of Borno, over 630,000 people previously displaced by Boko Haram have returned home.

With them, over 170,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) now live in camps, or – like John and his family – in host communities. He and his family live in a home vacated and lent to them by a local. All over Adamawa, IDPs live in homes shared with residents or given to them temporarily in exchange for help, crops or token sums of rent.

Adamawa is a serene, largely rural, mountainous state. Even deep into the dry season, driving through the roads that cut between its vast countryside, its land is incredibly scenic. But within local communities, in more rural, isolated villages north of the state’s capital, Yola, the picture is more complicated.

Gombi, a small town a few hours’ drive from Yola, was recaptured from Boko Haram in late 2014. Much of what was destroyed in the insurgency – shops and small businesses – have been rebuilt or replaced. The local government buildings have been largely restored. The impact is still visible but, according to locals, decreasingly so.

But in less urban areas, like in Garaha, a village in Adamawa, rebuilt homes sit next to broken, abandoned houses, churches, mosques and buildings blackened by the fires that damaged them. Local government officials say the damage across Adamawa by the insurgency has set the state’s development back by a decade. Funding for rebuilding the state, which local governments complain is insufficient, is concentrated on urban areas.

According to Chief Suleimanu, a traditional ruler in Garaha, mental health issues are widespread but few are financially able to access support. While some people have been able to move on, others are still dealing with the consequences.

“Many couples and families have separated,” he tells me, detailing how in some couples one partner feels attached to their home while the other can’t face returning, or feel there is little to return to.

“The same with the children, some of the young people have gone to bigger cities like Kano or Abuja because of a lack of opportunities.”

Many returnees, who left camps in Cameroon to come back to Adamawa, are from families who have lived in their villages for generations. Their ancestral roots anchor them to their homes because their farmland is their main source of income. Non-agriculture-based industries provide few jobs. For many people, fleeing their homes meant abandoning their livelihoods.

As of 2015, 52 per cent of people in Nigeria lived in rural areas. Their relative isolation is a blessing and a curse. Larger rural spaces provide them with adequate land to cultivate their crops – but it also leaves them exposed.

During Boko Haram attacks on Garaha through to early 2015, there was minimal protection from security forces who often take hours to arrive.

For many people living in rural Adamawa, life is getting harder and easier at the same time. Armed herdsmen, mainly from the Fulani ethnicity have become a greater threat across Nigeria, partly due to tensions between land ownership and cattle grazing.

According to locals, killings by herdsmen have increased this year. But villages are addressing their vulnerability. Armed vigilantes, some of which formed due to the lack of military protection against Boko Haram, are increasing. The police services are often too far away or too under-resourced to protect them. But some vigilantes now have more weapons and vehicles due to help from state services and locals. It is not an ideal solution but it has made places like Garaha safer.

With this new-found relative safety, villagers have begun farming again. With cash grants and donated tools from charities like Tearfund, it has been easier for thousands of people to begin cultivating land. In many villages there are small, lively recreation centres where young people play snooker and watch sport. Many of their places of worship have been rebuilt.

But the situation is grimmer in communities where such charities are not present.  Without resources, state or non-government help, rebuilding is a real challenge.

Adamawa is a state maxing on its credit of hospitality, relative safety and appreciation of agriculture. A recession in Nigeria and a severe food crisis in the northeast have added pressures on returnees and IDPs. Liberated communities will need more help and attention before they truly feel free.

Emmanuel Akinwotu is a journalist based between Lagos and London who writes about Africa, migration, and specialises in Nigeria.