Saturday, February 28, 2004

A columnist in the East African weekly deplores what he calls the back to Africa crowd. L. Muthoni Wanyeki fumes at various types of black Americans who hold the conservative, distorted and unabashedly patriarchal version of Islam followed by African American groups such as the Nation of Islam. Second, the reverence accorded to the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie by followers of Marcus Garvey. He adds the nuance that there are new back-to-Africa variants. Those unashamedly being capitalised on by states such as Ghana and Senegal who, with their forts and other remnants of the transatlantic slave trade, target African Americans as a niche tourism market. And he notes that the newest troops back to the 'motherland' are those wearing clean-cut, wear crisp suits and head start-up firms, venture capital outfits or African branches of American multinationals, particularly in South Africa. They have no time for nationalist fervour, let alone "traditional spiritual practices." He opines South Africa also continues to provide causes for those with sensitive souls. Children orphaned as a result of Aids, for example - throwing a Christmas party for them is just the thing!

A The Somaliland Times article headlines USAID Official Says Somaliland Is A Good Place For Investment. Somaliland is a self-declared republic in the northwestern third of the former Somalia; it has a function central government but is not officially recognized by the international community. The Times article reports Mr. [Andrew] Sisson [head of USAID for East and Central Africa], who lauded Somaliland for achieving a lot since the end of the war in rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, houses and in building democracy. He said they “hope to do more in the future [in Somaliland]”, adding, “from what we have seen and heard from friends, we will encourage our policymakers in Washington to take even more interest in development assistance in Somaliland”.

The World Food programme has begun distributing food aid to survivors of last week's attack on a northern Ugandan refugee camp. The camp, which once housed 4000 people is now empty. [R]ebels from Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) surrounded the camp, lighting the roofs of the cramped huts and creating a fire which lasted all night, according to the BBC.

A senior UN official has condemned a boycott of polio vaccations by several northern Nigerian states. "It is unforgivable to allow still more children to be paralysed because of... baseless rumours," said UN Children's Fund head Carol Bellamy. The BBC says Some Muslim clerics say the vaccine is a western plot to make women infertile.

In a previous posting, a reader asked why I seemed to have an obsession with Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe. There are probably groups who do worse things than Mugabe's ZANU-PF cult, but they tend to be rebel groups. Mugabe and his cohorts have the benefits of diplomatic niceities, ambassadorships and invitations to official conferences, to say nothing of unlimited access to the state treasury. He also has the high profile, public backing of otherwise respectable and democratic leaders like Olesegun Obasanjo and Thabo Mbeki, the presidents of Nigeria and South Africa respectively. Although other thugs may be a bit worse, none of them are considered an 'emminence grise' or grand old man of their region, let alone a would-be spokesman for developing countries (a misnomer when applied to Zimbabwe).

Perhaps the most galling thing is that Mugabe and his thugs probably couldn't destroy the country any faster if it was their conscious plan to do so. When acceeding to independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had great infrastructure, good schools and roads and a solid economy. Although Mugabe imposed some pretty horrific repression in the south of the country (opposition territory) in the early 80s, eventually he co-opted them. They also built decent educational and health systems. There was some corruption and harassment but basically the social situation was fairly decent when Mugabe and ZANU-PF were unchallenged masters of the land.

But in the late 90s, people started getting sick of economic stagnation and political asphyxiation. Mugabe tried to ram through a constitution that would legally give him near dictatorial powers but the opposition united and amazingly, the constitution was rejected. I say amazingly because usually even an actual No vote would normally be transformed into a Yes result by, um, creative vote counting. But they expected to win so handily that they didn't bother to rig the results beforehand.

The defeat infuriated Mugabe and he's been on the rampage ever since. Mugabe's critics called him a Marxist, but really his tactics are more Stalinist. Sheer terror. Little to do with economics and everything to do with maintaining power at any cost. Although his seizure of white owned farms has gained the most publicity in the west, this only scratches the surface of the nightmare that is Zimbabwe.

They have indoctrination camps set up to brainwash young people. The regime stands accused ofmanipulating international food to punish political opponents. This along with more "garden variety" crimes like torture, intimidation and surveillance of nearly every independent political and social organization and a war against what little remains of the local free press. They effectively banished all international media from the country, since they obviously want no foreign witnesses to the nightmare. Despite this, the BBC managed to make a documentary about the regime's torture training camps.

And excellent article detailing the horrors of Mugabe can be founding by clicking here. It's an interview with Samantha Power, the excellent author of the must-read book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.

So the reason Mugabe infuriates me is because, more than nearly any other basket case in the world, Zimbabwe could be so much better. Even if its rulers were merely negligent.

By all accounts, most Zimbabweans are so good-natured and resilient that they deserve 1000 times better. Living in Africa is how I learned that patience is not always a virtue. One of the reasons many African countries are in such bad shape is because Africans tend to be (and I know this is a huge generalization) very good at adapting to whatever situation arises. In one sense, this is an ability without which they wouldn't survive or would at least go crazy. However, the fact that they rarely reach the boiling point means that they put up with too much. They, the ones not doing anything wrong, who adapt rather than the thieving thugs who call themselves rulers. The people rarely get so pissed off that they just throw the bums out. To a certain extent, there's something to be said for good old fashioned Western impatience.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Sorry about the long gap in pieces but I've been a bit busy the last few weeks.

One of the more notable stories in that time was the admission by Malawian president Bakili Muluzi that his brother died of AIDS three years ago. Malawi has one of the most serious HIV-AIDS crises in the world and Muluzi's announcement was made to coincide with the announcement of the government's first (and overdue) policy on dealing with the pandemic.

An essay from Abderrahim Sabir of Human Rights Education Associates slammed the visit of Tunisian strong man Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to the White House last week. The North African country was once one of the most, if not the most modern, progressive societies in the Arab world with a strong educational system and free press. But that changed shortly after Ben Ali took power in 1987, according to Sabir. Between 1989-1992, Ben Ali cracked down on Islamic and nationalist dissidents and arrested over 80,000 people. Torture was routinely used and more than 60 leaders died in obscure conditions, probably as a result of torture. Tunisia has not been the same since. It has, to the surprise and dismay of all Tunisians and friends of Tunisia, become one of the most repressive regimes in the Arab world. Daniel Brumberg, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, places Tunisia as somewhere between Libya and Saudi Arabia on the political spectrum. Human rights organizations estimate there are over 600 known political prisoners in jail since 1991. Many have been in solitary confinement for the past 13 years in clear contravention of international laws and human rights treaties...Tunisia’s press is now considered one of the most muzzled and controlled media in the Arab world. Recognized non-governmental organizations and political parties are not allowed to hold meetings without prior permission from the ministry of interior. Such permissions are almost never granted. Ben Ali is one of the Bush administration's coalition of the willing in the "war for freedom."

Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is at it again. First, he rejected the idea of talks with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). He again accused the MDC of being "dictated to from abroad" adding that "The devil is the devil... we have no idea of supping with the devil." The BBC notes More than half of Zimbabwe's population - six million people - needs food aid and the economy is in a severe recession, with inflation running at more than 600%. Mr Mugabe blames a western plot designed to remove him, and years of drought. No word yet if Mugabe blames Tony Blair for the drought too.

The Daily News is in trouble again. After being shut down earlier this month by the Supreme Court, Zimbabwe's only independent daily newspaper let go most of its employees because it couldn't pay their wages. The paper's head hopes to be able to rehire staff members if the paper wins its legal battle and resumes publishing.

Mugabe's spirtual protege is becoming impatient. Tired of the supposedly "cimbersome" willing buyer-willing seller program, the Namibian government announced plans to expropriate commercial farms, in an effort to speed up land reform. Prime Minister Theo-Ben Gurirab, making the announcement on [Namibian] NBC radio and television, said farmers who lost their farms would be justly compensated as provided for in the Namibian Constitution, according to The Namibian newspaper. At the Swapo [ruling] Party congress two years ago, President Sam Nujoma said the willing-buyer-willing-seller policy would be revisited if it failed to serve its purpose.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Somaliland is a self-declared republic in the northwestern third of what used to be Somalia. I think only one or two countries recognize it as an independent country and none of the major international bodies like the UN or the African Union. The country has intrigued me because unlike its former national partner Somalia, Somaliland is calm, peaceful, holds elections, has a free press and order generally reigns. Yet, the international community refuses to recognize its independence for fear of setting some kind of precedent. As a result, Somaliland can't receive foreign aid or ambassadors. I assume they have trouble traveling due to the question of passports (do other countries recognize Somalialand documents?). Yet it has achieved everything the world wishes the rest of Somalia would. A column in The Somaliland Times bemoans this state of affairs and cites Somaliland as a model for its neighbor. The future of Somalia is dark, and the only light in the tunnel is Somaliland, which in contrast to Somalia has shown the world a new method of solving armed conflict and got up from the ruins of war without help from the outside world. Somaliland is enjoying peace and has reversed the situation. Somaliland has created a solid base for social, economic and political justice, after securing peace and stability in the country. The piece concludes by urging the world community to recognize Somaliland as sovereign state. Recognizing Somaliland will help end the human suffering of Somalia. There is no other way out.

The new International Criminal Court has announced it will launch a probe into the northern Ugandan rebells. The ICC's first every inquiry will investigate claims of atrocities committed by the so-called Lord's Resistance Army in the east African nation. This occured after Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni filed a formal complaint with the body. The LRA has been fighting Museveni's government since 1986, ostensibly in a bid to replace it with an administration that would enforce the biblical Ten Commandments. But the rebel group is best known for its attacks against civilians and the abduction of some 20,000 children, who are forced to fight in rebel ranks or to serve as concubines for LRA commanders. The war has killed and maimed thousands of people and displaced over 1.2 million others in northern Uganda. The conflict has been described by a UN official as the world's worst forgotten humanitarian crisis, noted AFP.

The most prominent former rebel leader in Cote d'Ivoire has announced he will not stand in presidential elections. Guillaume Soro, communications minister in a national unity government, stated he would not stand in the poll scheduled for next year. BBC correspondents say his leadership of the New Forces has been increasingly challenged by one of its military chiefs, Ibrahim Coulibaly.

In Zimbabwe, MP dismissed on Tuesday assertions that talks between the ruling Zanu-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were taking place, according to The Daily Mail and Guardian. He declared it unacceptable that South African President Thabo Mbeki had stated that talks were occuring. "Whatever President Thabo Mbeki's agenda is in Zimbabwe, I hope to dear God it is in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe," Roy Bennett, a senior MDC official, said. This would be a welcome change.

The East African reported a bizarre story of 'Drunk and Disorderly' ChimpsAttacking Ugandan Children. Chimpanzees in western Uganda are increasingly raiding illegal brewing operations in forested river valleys and getting drunk on the country beer. Once intoxicated, they become hostile and attack and at times kill human children, parks officials say, the weekly reported. A scientist noted that the technique used by the chimps to kill or maim the children mirrored the way they tear apart other prey, suggesting that they snatched the children to eat them. "In most cases they bite off the limbs first before disembowelling them, just as they would the red colombus monkey, which is among their favourite prey," he said.

And finally, the final of the African Nations Cup will feature a first ever North African derby. Hosts Tunisia and fellow Magrhebians Morocco will meet in the final of African soccer's signature event. Long time underachievers, Morocco reaches the final for the first time since winning the tournament for the only time in 1976. Tunisia has never lifted the continental trophy despite being beaten finalists in 1965 (when they also hosted the tournament) and in 1996.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

How evil were the one or two percent who spent the last 14 years destroying Liberia? For many reasons, the recruitment and gratitutious use of child soldiers is the most insidious and destructive aspect of the Liberan and Sierra Leonian wars.

BBC journalist Mark Doyle, a West Africa veteran, described the conflict in the following way. Entering the world of Liberia's child soldiers is a disturbing experience. Normal moral values are put to one side. Children as young as eight or nine are forcibly recruited, or in some cases volunteer to avenge violent deaths in their own families. They fire rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles, often killing other children in rival militias.

A report from the group Human Rights Watch has extensive testimony from the estimated 15,000 children who have been engaged in combat. They include children who used war names derived from their actions, names like "Laughing and Killing" or "The Castrator". During a recent trip to Liberia, I came across a group of former teenage fighters boasting about their exploits in a marketplace in the eastern Liberian town of Zwedru. They had fought for a rebel group against the government of the now exiled President Charles Taylor, many saying they used powerful assault weapons like AK-47s.

One youth gave his fighter's name, "Bread and Butter". I asked him if he had killed any of Taylor's forces.
"Yes, I fired them immediately," he said, laughing.

"How many did you kill?" I asked.

"I killed many."

One youth gave his fighter's name, "Bread and Butter". I asked him if he had killed any of Taylor's forces.

"Yes, I fired them immediately," he said, laughing.

"How many did you kill?" I asked.

"I killed many."

Bear in mind that we're not talking about young men who are 15 1/2; we're taking about boys who are 12 or 10 or sometimes as young as 8. Bear in mind that the use of small children as soldiers in these two wars was not an accidental byproduct of a long war. It was a conscious strategy by warlords.

These brutes recognized the natural invulnerability that most children feel. They exploited this by drugging or brutalizing the boys so they could be better molded into efficient, fearless and (critically) mindless killers.

War is by its very nature destructive. By making young children complicit in the savagery, it increases the social destruction exponentially. Those who promoted the active use of small boys as soldiers should be put in the dock faster than you can say "Saddam Hussein."

To learn more
-Radio Netherlands' dossier on child soldiers in Liberia
-Radio Netherlands' dossier on child soldiers in Sierra Leone
-Human Rights Watch campaign against the use of child soldiers
-War Child, an organization helping rehabilitate child soldiers

Liberia was on the international agenda, however briefly, last week. First, donors at an international conference pledge US$500 million to help re-build the country and re-habilitate fighters. Let's hope that the money actually arrives, especially considering how instability in Liberia eventually spilled over the borders into Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. A few days early, the group Human Rights Watch reported that the disarmament and rehabilitation of thousands of child soldiers in Liberia was vital to establishing peace, noting that much of the Liberian wars consisted of children shooting at other children.

Rwanda has ended its state radio monopoly. Last week. the government of Paul Kagame has authorized five new private radio stations to start broadcasting. This is a very sensitive topic in the country since private stations, now referred to as hate radio, played a critical part in the execution of the 1994 genocide. Two months ago, three high ranking members of the most infamous hate radio station were given long prison sentences for their role in inciting the massacres. Since 1994, only the state radio station and foreign broadcasters were allowed to broadcast inside Rwanda.

In a somewhat surprising remark Democratic Republic of Congo leader Joseph Kabila said international troops can leave this year. The Congolese leader said the security situation in the country was improving so fast that the 10,000 member United Nations' force will soon no longer be needed.

A disturbing item from an already instable country. A senior member of Ivory Coast's former rebels has been shot dead. The incident occurred amid reports of divisions within the New Forces movement. The BBC reported A statement by the rebels said Chief Adams Coulibaly was shot dead by accident in the northern town of Korhogo. Correspondents say there are fears that the rebel leader was shot by his colleagues within the movement.