Tuesday, April 29, 2003

In recent months, I have certainly been very critical of President Bush and especially his advisors. I do not need to repeat myself as to why. However, I have to give credit where credit is due. Occassionally, the administration does get something right.

Last Friday, the president signed the Clean Diamonds Trading Act passed by Congress. This law brings the US in line with the international Kimberly Process.

The Kimberly Process was initiated to combat the scourge of 'blood diamonds.' The export of diamonds from conflict zones have been used to fund some of the African continent's most brutal civil wars, especially ones in Angola and Sierra Leone which have recently ended (one hopes).

The alleged 'blood diamond' links between Sierra Leone's RUF rebels and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda probably didn't hurt the efforts by humanitarian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to convince Congress and the president as to the importance of this legislation. Given that Americans buy as much as 70% of the world's diamonds, passage of this law was particularly important.

You also may remember the commitment the president made in his state of the union address concerning funding for programs to fight the AIDS pandemic in Africa. Some called it a cynical move to soften up moderates and progressives (that along with the call for funding hydrogen fuel cells research) in the speech before launching his hard-line rhetoric against Iraq.

The president was scheduled to announced today support for a $15 billion plan to fight AIDS/HIV around the world, however the plan is being targeted by conservatives who want to derail the initiative. As you might expect, hard-liners object to programs that include needle exchanges, contraception and other things that many conservatives object to. We may shortly be able to gauge the depth and sincereity of the president's commitment to this issue.

Hopefully, the president will find it as beneficial to spend a multi-billion dollar amount fighting the world's worst disease as he found it to spend a multi-billion dollar amount fighting one of the world's worst dictators.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Even in the best of times, the American media's coverage of foreign affairs is of little value. For years, consistent media coverage of international issues was pretty much limited to the Middle East (with the occassional sidetrip to the Balkans). Sure, there could be mass popular uprisings in Latin America, a famine menace in eastern and southern Africa and the threat of war between nuclear powers Pakistan and India, but one person burning an American flag in Gaza was sure to garner 10 times more media attention.

The conquest of Iraq has only exacerbated that problem. If you want to have a good idea about what's going on in the world outside the US and Middle East, you must read, watch or listen to non-American media sources. It's that simple. The American media simply doesn't do the job, especially television; this is all the more ironic given that we have a trio of "news channels" with 24 hours a day to fill! Sadly, they've become a classic example of the principle, "More information, less informed."

But fear not, faithful readers. The Popeye Chicken press review service will not let you down. Below, are some stories you likely did NOT hear about in the "mainstream" American media.

-Nigerian elections. Last weekend, Africa's most populous nation held presidential elections. After spending most of its history under military rule, this is the first time a democratically-elected government organized elections. It was pretty much a two-man race between the incumbent President Gen. Olesegun Obansanjo and former head of state Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Both are former military heads of state (in the late 70s and mid 80s respectively). The voting passed off relatively peacefully in most parts of the country. Gen. Obasanjo has been all but declared the official winner. The opposition alleged massive fraud. International observers lauded the peacefulness of the voting but in at least half a dozen states, fraud was so widespread as to make the result not credible. In one state, the incumbent was credited with over 99.9% of the official vote. It remains to be seen how the opposition will respond. This election may tarnish the international image of Pres. Obasanjo, who gained a reputation not only as a democrat (in 1979, his military regime handed over power to a civilian elected administration) but also as a pan-African statesman implicated in many continental projects, including the African development project NEPAD. His domestic image has already been tarnished largely by his inability to get the chronically broken country working again. It was always going to be a momumental task, given that corruption was so deeply rooted throughout Nigerian society after 40 years of mostly military dictatorship. But some resent the time he spent on grand continental ideas at the expense of fixing domestic problems. [For more info, see: The BBC's report or The BBC's Q&A on the elections].

-Big sugar vs. the World Health Organization. The World Health Organization (WHO) is the body responsible for public health on the planet, as the name suggests. It is involved in coordinating vaccination efforts, the fight against infectious diseases and just about anything else related to public health. It does not implement these things, for the most part; that is left to national health ministries (or the private systems). However, the WHO is responsible for coordinating these efforts, issuing guidelines on public health, doing research and the like. Recently, they issued a report suggesting that sugar should form no more than 10% of a person's diet. As you might expect, the American sugar industry sees things differently. No brownie points for guessing if the thinks the number should be higher or lower... 25%. According to the sugar lobby, this number was reached by the National Academy of Sciences' Food Nutrition board in Sept. 2002. The radio version of this report suggested that the sugar lobby was going to put pressure on Washington to slash or eliminate the United States' contribution to the WHO. [For more info, see, BBC news report, WHO report on diet and chronic disease or Sugar lobby's reaction to WHO guidelines].

-Threat of famine in eastern and southern Africa. A threat to international peace and security, according to the executive director of the World Food Program, in an address to the UN Security Council. He notes that the WFP's humanitarian operation in Iraq will spend $1.3 billion over 6 months to feed 27 million people. He pointed out that over 40 million people in eastern and southern Africa were "in greater peril." If even 5% of those 40 million die, it would surely be more than the number killed at the hands of Saddam's regime and the "collateral damange" of the American invasion put together.
Yet, there is little hope of any massive humanitarian intervention by either the militaristic United States or self-righteous Western Europeans to address this crisis. The WFP's director asked, "How is it we routinely accept a level of suffering and hopelessness in Africa we would never accept in any other part of the world?" Indeed. [For more info, see: the text of the WFP director's address to the UN Security Council at AllAfrica.com].

-Peace in the DR Congo?. A few weeks ago, a(nother) peace accord was signed to end the 5 year old civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire). The war is believed to be the deadliest war in the world ever fought since the end of World War II. Over 3 million people are estimated to have died as a direct or indirect result of the hostilities. The war, not surprisingly, is about natural resources and the revenue generated from them. The DRC has one of the largest mineral caches in the world. Diamonds, copper, gold. You name it, it's there. Natural resources are the bane of many an African country. The most stable countries tend to be the ones with few resources, like Senegal and Benin. No one wants to literally fight for peanuts (Senegal's main cash crop). The DRC has to be one of the most ungovernable countries in the world. Covered by enormously thick forests, it has few roads and a harsh tropical climate. Most notably, it is a gigantic territory approximately the size of western Europe. It is quite possibly ungovernable by modern standards, but "national" pride will preclude it from being broken up into more manageable states.

This is ironic. Many Africans complain, quite rightly, about the historical legacy of colonialism. They note how at the Berlin Conference of the 1880s divided Africa up amongst the European empires, borders were drawn arbitrarily and without regard to preserving the unity of different ethnic groups. Yet, when most African countries gained their independances in the late 50s and early 60s, these arbitrary borders were never discussed. In fact, the sanctity of those arbitrary borders was a founding principle of the continental Organization of African Unity. Secessionist movements in Biafra (eastern Nigeria), Katanga (eastern DRC) and Eritrea (eastern Ethiopia) were fought viciously and with widespread continental support. When Ethiopia finally granted independence to Eritrea, according to a provision of their new constitution, it was hugely controversial but right. I'm afraid only innovative thinking of that kind might possibly end the miserable situation long imposed on the Congolese people. Yet the Congolese are sorely lacking such innovative leaders that could pull it off. [For more info, see: Christian Science Monitor article].

-South African cemeteries overflowing due to AIDS deaths. A disease that's cost a few more lives than the couple hundred caused by SARS. [For more info, see: AllAfrica.com].

-Ethiopia faces social services collapse due to AIDS. Ditto. [For more info, see: Daily Mail and Guardian of South Africa.

-Legalize torture. In order to better regulate it, says civil libertarian guru Alan Dershowitz. Not sure I agree with it but it gives you something to think about. [For more info, see: Radio Netherlands].

Thursday, April 10, 2003

I saw a National Geographic/PBS documentary last night on blood diamonds. It's an issue I've followed for some time, but images are still very powerful.

For those of you who don't know, in some countries, rebel groups exploit the illicit diamond trade to subsidize their rebellion. As a result, campaigners trying to curb this illegal trade have dubbed these gems "blood diamonds" or "conflict diamonds" in an attempt to stigmatize the diamond industry into self-regulation. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia and Angola are just three of the countries that have been hit by this scourge. But the epicenter of the blood diamond question has long been the West African country of Sierra Leone.

I have a personal interest in that country for two reasons. It borders and has close ties to Guinea, a country I lived in for two years, and Sierra Leone's stability directly affects Guinea's stability. Additionally, I have several Sierra Leonian friends who had to flee the diamond-fueled civil war that ravaged their country throughout most of the 1990s.

Numerous non-governmental organizations [NGOs] worked throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s to bring the blood diamond issue to public light. As a result of their efforts, they successfully pressured the diamond industry to participate what became known as the Kimberly Process. This was a process which would institute a standardized certification process in the diamond world. Diamond exporting countries would have to certify that diamonds leaving their country legally were mined in an appropriate way. Crucially, diamond importing countries were required to ensure that they only permitted legally certified diamonds into their markets.

The Peace Corps "alumni" group Friends of Sierra Leone [FOSL] is one of that NGOs that have spearheaded the effort to persuade Congress to pass the Clean Diamonds Trade Act, in order to bring the US into the Kimberly Process.. Friends of Guinea, an organization I'm a part of, has been involved in a very secondary role; you could say we were part of anti-blood diamonds "coalition of the willing."

I'm happy to report that the excellent and tireless work of FOSL and others has resulted in the House of Representatives overwhelmingly (419-2) approving passage of the Clean Diamonds Act. The Senate is expected to take up a similiar bill soon. I have not heard if President Bush intends to sign the bill, though I can't see why he wouldn't. The fact that al-Qaeda has been linked to the blood diamond trade in Sierra Leone should help.

This bill (nor the whole Kimberly Process) will totally choke off blood diamonds. However, considering that half the world's diamond jewelry is purchased in the United States, the Clean Diamonds Trading Act is certainly an enormously important step in stopping this scourge.

Learn more
Global Witness: an organization that works "to highlight the links between the exploitation of natural resources and human rights abuses." The focus primarily on the link between such abuses and timber, diamonds and oil.

American Radio Works did an excellent series on conflict diamonds, the marketing-driven mystique of diamonds and the trade in diamonds.

Radio Netherlands English service's dossier on Sierra Leone.

AFP article on the passage of the bill

Tuesday, April 08, 2003

At the end, I include actions you can take about this issue.

From: The BBC

DR Congo: Africa's worst war
The four-and-a-half year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] has been described as the worst since World War II.
An estimated 3.3 million people have died as a result of the war making it the "tragedy of modern times", according to a report issued by the International Rescue Committee aid agency.

The IRC said that only about 10% of the victims died violently, with the vast majority dying from starvation and disease due to the activities of the various armed groups operating in the country.

"This is a humanitarian catastrophe of horrid and shocking proportions... Yet, the crisis has received scant attention from international donors and the media," says IRC President George Rupp.

Africa's worst ever war began following the invasion of the north and east of the country by Rwanda and Uganda, to, as they said, prevent armed groups attacking them from Congo's territory.

This brought in armies, which have now left, from other countries to fight on the side of the Congolese Government.

However, ethnic clashes between the Hema and Lendu in the troubled north-eastern province of Ituri remain a potential stumbling block to peace.

The IRC's report was released as the United States and Britain condemned a massacre of some 1,000 villagers in Ituri province.

The reported massacre near Bunia last Thursday, came just a day after a peace agreement was signed in South Africa marking the end of 19 months of talks between the government, opposition parties, civil groups, militia and rebels.

The US has called on Uganda to exercise its responsibility to protect civilians in Ituri where the killings occurred and to ensure that no violations of human rights or atrocities are committed.

On Monday, a Ugandan army spokesman denied any involvement in the massacre, saying his troops had been at least 15 km away.

Both US and UK have also called on all parties in the conflict to cease hostilities immediately and support a committee set up to end the fighting and make the area safe.

The committee resumed talks on Monday, despite the massacre.

On Monday, President Kabila was sworn-in as a transitional head of state for a period of two years before elections.

A new transitional government should be formed soon, including representatives of rebel groups who control eastern DR Congo but they were not present at Monday's ceremony in the capital, Kinshasa.

On Tuesday, Reuters news agency reported that people in Ituri were fearful of reprisal attacks.

"This is really hell. We are not secure, even here . Anything could happen," Emmanuel Ralonji said in Bunia, not far from the scene of the massacres.

[end of quoted article]

What can you do?

-One World, an excellent humanitarian non-governmental organization (NGO) website
-MONURC, the UN mission in the DRC.

-IRC, the International Rescue Committee, author of the report in question.
-ICRC, the International Committees of the Red Cross.
-MSF, aka Doctors Without Borders.

To whomever you think might be interested in this. As I've said before, you can't be form an opinion or act about something if you don't know it's happening. Obviously, the American corporate media isn't covering much else besides Iraq and when they do, it's on critical issues like Michael Jackson and American Idol. So if you want to inform people about this, word of mouth and the Internet are the way to go.

Monday, April 07, 2003

Part of this blog's mission is to give out information about and comment on stuff that is happening is regions of the world poorly covered (or not at all) by the North American and European medias. Places that are off the beaten path, if you will. It's based on the premise that you can't form an opinion about something that you don't even know is occurring.

In that spirit, below is an article about the destabilizing activities of Liberian warlord/dictator Charles Taylor by the British non-governmental organization (NGO) Global Witness.

This is a sensitive subject to me because one of the countries Taylor wishes to destabilize is the Republic of Guinea, a place where I lived for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer. I lived there during the worst period of Liberia's own civil war, a war where Taylor's troops (many of them child soldiers) committed most of the worst atrocities. He's already supported the limb-hacking Revolutionary United Front rebels which destroyed Sierra Leone and he's accused of back the rebels now in control of much of Ivory Coast. He's already destabilized two of Liberia's three neighbors. Guinea's next on the list.

Here's hoping the Hague can make room in Milosevic's cell for Taylor.

Source: UN Integrated Regional Information Network via AllAfrica.com

Global Witness Accuses Liberia of Destabilising Neighbours

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks
April 1, 2003
Posted to the web April 1, 2003
An international non-governmental organisation (NGO) has accused Liberia's government of destabilising West Africa by supporting and arming rebels in Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone. In a report issued on Monday, Global Witness also accused the government of Liberian President Charles Taylor of regularly importing weapons in violation of UN sanctions.
The report, titled: 'The Usual Suspects: Liberia's Weapons and Mercenaries in Cote d'Ivoire and Sierra Leone' charges that Liberia's government has been backing two rebel groups that operate in the west of Cote d'Ivoire since late November 2002: the Popular Movement of the Ivorian Great West (MPIGO) and the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP). Liberia, it added, planned to use mercenaries to destabilise Sierra Leone.
Global Witness urged the UN Security Council to renew existing sanctions against Liberia - which cover the sale of weapons to Monrovia and trade in its diamonds - and to extend them to include Liberian timber. The timber industry, it said, continued to be the Liberian government's primary source of financial and logistical access to international markets for weapons and mercenaries.
"We have uncovered information showing the Liberian government is still actively involved in the illegal arms trade, and is the driving force behind the training, arming and deployment of the Ivorian rebel groups MPIGO and MJP, with Liberian President Charles Taylor calling the shots from Monrovia," said Alice Blondel, a Global Witness campaigner. "The 'usual suspects', including President Charles Taylor and former RUF commander Sam 'Maskita' Bockarie, who have been involved in previous regional insecurities, are now involved in the Cote d'Ivoire crisis and are planning to undermine the fragile peace in Sierra Leone".
According to the report, the Liberian timber industry provided the government with the means necessary to maintain its supplies of fighting forces and illegal arms, which, Global Witness said, it receives from eastern Europe via France, Libya and Nigeria.
Cote d'Ivoire's MPIGO and MJP rebels, the NGO said, were made up mainly of Liberian and Sierra Leonean mercenaries. It added that the MPIGO and MJP fighters were organised in Liberia before deployment into Cote d'Ivoire, and were commanded by close associates of Taylor.
And in Sierra Leone, Liberia's government is now implementing a destabilisation strategy so as to disrupt the operations of the Special Court, "by which President Charles Taylor and other key figures in Liberia expect to be indicted for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's civil war", the NGO said.
Global Witness is an NGO that works to expose the link between natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses. It operates in areas where environmentally destructive trade is funding conflict or human rights violations.
[The report can be found at http://www.globalwitness.org/reports ]


It's not just the American media who cover the news of some regions of the world poorly or not at all. Last week, the factions of the war, often known as Africa's First World War, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] signed a peace accord in South Africa. The accord called for the implementation of a national unity government, future elections and, of course, an end to hostilities.

According to the Belgium paper La Libre Belgique, "The RBTF [Belgian state television] only required a few seconds to report on the accord signed on April 1 in Sun City, South Africa, between the Kabila government and the rebel factions. A brief report. In the guise of images, a map of the region. As if to say that the event wasn't worth sending a journalist to the area or even an after-the-fact analysis. But even if weapons are still heard in the east of the Congo, in Ituri province, this accord is a strong symbolic gesture for the population who has continued to pay a high price in tribute to the different warlords in that region of central Africa."

One is wise to be skeptical of this 1000th peace accord. However, this episode demonstrates clearly the power of imagery. It's almost impossible to send cameramen to the isolated and distant jungles of eastern Congo. Much easier to send reporters to follow in the footsteps of wherever western troops are located. The European and North American publics are thus much more informed about the problems of Iraq or Kosovo or Bosnia, but hardly at all about the estimated 2 million deaths attributable (directly and indirectly) to the war in the DRC since the beginning of the conflict 5 years ago.

You often hear the rationalization that the western public isn't interested in foreign news except when their country's nationals are somehow involved. How can the public be interested or disinterested in something it doesn't even know is in the process of consuming an entire region? It's impossible to get indignant about something you don't even know is occurring!

The full text of the article in question (in French) can be found by clicking here.

Today is the 9th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, which started on April 7, 1994. It is estimated that between 800,000 and 1 million people were killed in massacres that lasted approximately 100 days. There was a large push, particularly by neighboring states, for internationally sanctioned intervention to stop the slaughter (as provided for in the anti-genocide treaty). However, such intervention was blocked by France, Belgium and the United States, each for differing reasons.

This despite the fact that all were signatories of the anti-genocide convention. This despite the fact that it was East African nations themselves who were going to volunteer their own troops to do the actual intervention (they just wanted to LEASE EQUIPMENT from the US, but Washington refused). The only intervention was done by France, in an operation whose primary, if unstated, goal was to allow officials from the genocidal regime (threatened by a rebellion) to flee the country into the eastern Congo (then Zaire). This is because the genocidal regime had long been friendly with France and was one of its "client-states."

The genocide started less than a year after the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. A ceremony in which speaker after speaker, including then Pres. Bill Clinton, solemnly declared 'never again.'

For an excellent article on the topic, read Bystanders to genocide, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in September 2001 (a month when the massacre of 3000 people was decried as an atrocious crime against humanity; imagine one of those every 10 hours). The author of the article was Samantha Power, whose most recent, excellent, book is entitled A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Who am I? What is the nature of this blog? Do I always start my essays with questions?

My nickname is Popeye Chicken, for an obscure reason (as goes it with most nicknames) which I will not bore you with. Though I can affirm that it has nothing to do with the fast food place of the same name.

I am a 29 year old man who lives in upstate New York. In addition to composing short stories and essays, I am a freelance writer. One of the reasons I have created this blog to further promoting my work, with the hopes that some visitors will be interested in publishing it. Or at the very least, I hope to give people a perspective that they might not read elsewhere. My work has already appeared in such publications as The Clarkson Integrator, ça va?, The Chronicle and Mano Vision, a West African magazine based in London.

After graduating from Clarkson University, I served for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer math teacher in the Republic of Guinea, West Africa. As a result, I follow very closely the affairs of the African continent in general and the West African sub-region in particular.

I have decided to dedicate this blog to discussion of the social affairs, politics and culture of sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is a breathtakingly diverse continent and one I care about greatly. I've consecrated this blog to discussion of African issues because western media coverage of the continent is almost non-existent, except when it comes to the most extreme tragedies. While war, famine and AIDS devastates the life of far too many people on the continent, I hope to bring a different perspective. To compliment the bad news with THE OTHER SIDE of the picture. The Africa that works. Highlighting how the majority of people on the continent live in relative harmony with each other, help each other and the like. Some think that by presenting the positive aspects is to deny the existence of the bad things or to whitewash them. I disagree. I believe both are essential to a greater understanding of what's going on in various African countries. You need to know what's wrong before you can try to fix it. But it also gives hope to offer examples of things that have been fixed. Or that were never broken in the first place.

I expect to translate many of my English writings into French (and vice versa). If you are interested in the French version of my Africa writings, go to: http://popeyeafrique.blogspot.com

You can contact me directly at: popeyeckn@yahoo.com.