Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Things Falling Apart

Legendary Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe recently caused a firestorm by rejecting the country's second highest award. The Commander of the Federal Republic honor was awarded to him by President Olesegun Obasanjo. Achebe rejected the award while criticizing the country's "dangerous state of affairs" and hoped that his action would serve as a "wake up call."

"The situation is getting worse and worse," he told the BBC, saying that President Olusegun Obasanjo bears primary responsibility. "Nigeria is a country that does not work," he said: "Schools, universities, roads, hospitals, water, the economy, security, life."

Achebe is author of many excellent works including the classic Things Fall Apart (which I'd highly recommend). His criticism was dismissed by an advisor to President Obasanjo who claimed that Achebe was unaware of the alleged progress made in the last five years because he lives and teaches in New York.

Following the Achebe controversy, BBC Online asked: Do you think intellectuals who live abroad have a right to comment so publicly on the countries they left behind? How much do they really know about ordinary life there? Or, with the modern, global media, are they just as well informed as people back home?

Such people absolutely have the right to comment. Achebe may be a Nigerian who lives abroad, like millions of others, but he is NOT a former Nigerian. In many cases, ex-patriates are the ONLY people who can speak out about incidents in their countries because of repression and censorship back home.

Let's face it: relatively few people choose to leave countries that are politically, economically and culturally vibrant. It's a natural human instinct to want to live in familiar surroundings and be around people who are like you. I'd be willing to bet that most Africans of the diaspora would rather be living back home, if conditions were more favorable.

In other words, ex-pats who criticize the goings on in their country do so rarely out of spite or arrogance. They typically do so because they want things to improve in their country. Almost all ex-pats have family still living in their home country. So to suggest that they have no stake in the fortunes of their country and should therefore just shut up is absurd.

Many BBC readers expressed that attitude that if Achebe thinks he's so smart, he should run for president of Nigeria himself. Unfortunately, this is a smokescreen that does nothing to address the real issues. If running for president were a pre-requisite for criticizing the president, then there'd be tens of millions of Americans on next month's ballot.

A BBC reader from Manchester (UK) took particular exception to Achebe's comment: I think Chinua Achebe has his reason's for refusing national honour but to say that Nigeria doesn't work I'm afraid is not only inaccurate but ignorant particularly of a man of his calibre. If the schools in Nigeria are so dysfunctional, then I wonder how Achebe himself got enough education to write a classic like 'Things Fall Apart' if we all took that attitude, how will things ever change for Africa?

I'm not sure how any ingenuous person COULD say that things run smoothly in Nigeria. Even amongst other West Africans, Nigeria is infamous for its permanent chaos. And West Africans know a little something about disorder.

Furthermore, the reader clearly doesn't understand basic Engilsh grammar. 'The schools in Nigeria are dysfunctional' is present tense. Achebe studied in schools in Nigeria over half a century ago. Unfortunately, it's the reader who takes the wrong attitude. Burying one's head in the sand and refusing to confront real problems is not the way to make things move forward in Africa.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Two reports you won't believe!

An astonishing report from Transparency International. The anti-corruption group claims that oil wealth 'can cause corruption.'

The report estimates that billions of dollars are lost to bribery in public purchasing, citing the oil sector in many nations as a particular problem, adds the BBC. Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen all had low scores.

TI's chief Peter Eigen notes that in the worst affected countries, "public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by revenues vanishing into the pockets of Western oil executives, middlemen and local officials."

Corruption and the oil industry?

Oil revenues not trickling down to benefit the lives of ordinary people?

It strains credulity!

Speaking of unbelievable reports, an audit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo revealed that managers of state companies earn up to $25,000 a month. A BBC correspondent in the capital, Kinshasa, says that most workers earn about $50 a month and many have not been paid for up to three years.

Corruption? In what was until recently Mobutu's Zaire?

You don't say!

On Monday, the foreign minister of Belgium, the former colonial power, said that he doubted whether DR Congo's political class were capable of ending corruption and organising elections due next year.

The foreign minister is really going out on a limb here, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

'If this isn't genocide, then what is?' [essay]

Some people insist that the crisis in Darfur, eastern Sudan, really isn't really genocide. Or that it isn't really a big deal. Or that it's a legitimate counter-insurgency method. Or that it's being exaggerated by the Bush administration to appeal to its Crusading supporters in the theocracy brigade. The Independent, arguably the British daily the most critical of President Bush over Iraq, ran an opinion column on Darfur entitled: "'If this isn't genocide, then what on Earth is?'"

The quote was taken from Lord Alton, a member of the upper house of the British parliament, visited refugee camps in the region and reported his findings to the country's prime minister Tony Blair. He described that report as a catalogue of systematic violence driven by ethnic hatred and aided by the Sudanese regime.

Lord Alton continued: Three months ago, the UN described the situation in Darfur as "the world's worst humanitarian crisis". On my two-day visit, I found that nothing much has changed. The government of Sudan has reneged on its promise to disarm the Janjaweed. Their campaign has the sole objective of eradicating the black tribes and installing the Arabs in their place. If this isn't genocide, then it's difficult to imagine what on earth is... An immeasurable problem will be the impact of so many babies born due to rape. While the women eventually opened up about the attacks by the militias, they would not even discuss what the future holds for the children. "They want to dilute our blood," one woman said. "They hate black people." A traumatised, helpless mood of resignation simmers in the camps. Sometimes it boils over, as, for instance, at Otash camp, near Nyala, where a policeman was lynched. A woman had recognised him as one of those who massacred her family.

Unfortunately, the American and British governments are not in a position to directly intervene militarily. Their credibility is in tatters after the invasion of Iraq. Any western intervention would necessarily be seen as an imperial one, as yet another Crusade against a Muslim country. Sure, the Janjaweed militias' victims are also Muslim, but such distinctions are immaterial to those with a gigantic chip on their shoulder. It's easier to blame the West for all one's problems than to look in the mirror. It's easier to bemoan the lot of the Palestinians (who are oppressed by Westerners) than to shed a tear for the lot of Darfurians (who are oppressed by Arabs), because this more conveniently fits the 'Westerners hate Islam' world view.

Is this fair? No. But you can not ignore perception. And more importantly, you can not ignore the impact of perception on the probability of successfully achieving your objective.

The intervention in Darfur must be done by African Union forces. Not because I object to the use of American troops for humanitarian purposes in the most extreme causes. But because the use of American troops would cause more problems than it would solve, in this particular case. First, do no harm.

However, African Union (AU) forces are ready to do the job; the US should offer any logistical assistance they require. The main impediment, however, is the resistance of the Khartoum regime to those AU forces. This is hardly surprising: considering what they're sponsoring in Darfur, they don't want witnesses.

Pressure must be exerted on Sudan to allow an AU mission. Since the US has little leverage itself on Khartoum, the administration must pressure countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia to, in turn, pressure Sudan on this front. America's Arab "allies" have been criminally silent on the Darfur genocide, which is hardly surprising considering their own lamentable human rights' records.

AU chief Alpha Oumar Konaré wants the AU to have a different tradition from its sclerotic predecessor: the Organization for African Unity (OAU). The OAU placed national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs as its motto. Despite Konaré's wishes, there's precious little to suggest the AU will adopt a more relevant approach to dealing with Darfur than the OAU would have.

It appears that "Rwanda: never again" has become as empty a slogan as "The Holocaust: never again."

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

When genocide hits, a commission of inquiry will save the day! -- At least pay the guys with the guns

The situation in Darfur isn't getting any better. Last week, the UN's special envoy said Sudan's government has failed to keep its promise to end violence in its western Darfur region... Jan Pronk told the UN Security Council that attacks on civilians continued and that both pro-government forces and rebel groups had broken a truce... Mr Pronk said the Sudanese government had not stopped militia atrocities against civilians or brought the killers to justice. Mr Pronk said the army had continued its attacks, sometimes with helicopter gunships and neither the government nor the rebels had respected the ceasefire signed on 8 April.

So one might think: ok, the Security Council gave the Sudanese government a (probably undeserved) month to make strides toward improving the situation in Darfur, described by the US as genocide and by the European Parliament as tantamount to genocide" (whatever that distinction is). The regime clearly didn't rein in the militias they are almost universally believed to be arming and controlling. So it's time to slap long overdue sanctions on the Khartoum, right?

Not quite. That would be too harsh on a genocidal regime.

Instead, the preferred option is the choice of bureaucrats the world round: form a committee and study it further. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has appointed a 5-member panel to figure out whether genocide is taking place in Darfur. The commission has been given three months to report its verdict about events in the western Sudanese region.

In three months time, the genocide will probably be over because there will be no one left to kill.


On the up side, technology from Ronald Reagan's Star Wars program is being used to help find water supplies, in Darfur and eastern Chad, where many of the Darfur reguees have fled.


The most important rule of being a tinpot dictator is this: if you pay no one else, pay the guys with the guns.

This seemingly obvious advice has been ignored by African strongmen around the continent. Most recently in Guinea-Bissau. Ironic, since Gen. Lansana Conté, the strongman of neighboring Guinea (Conakry), made the same blunder in 1996.

Last year, the armed forces chief Gen. Verissimo Correia Seabre overthrew the elected president Kumba Yala and installed a replacement. Except the authorities installed by the military, in their infinite wisdom, neglected to pay the men who made up the military. So they had themselves a little mutiny and killed Gen. Seabre. The mutinous soldiers are demanding pay they are owed for taking part in the United Nations' mission in Liberia... They say they have only received their first three months of service and accuse army chiefs of pocketing their salaries.


A Kenyan became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The 64 year old ecologist won, according to the Nobel Committee, for being in the "front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa." Not exactly the most traditional definition of 'peace,' but seemingly admirable work nonetheless.

However, she courted controversy with the absurd claim that the HIV virus "is created by a scientist for biological warfare."

"AIDS (is) not a curse from God to Africans or the black people," she said, according to the paper's account of the meeting published a day later.

Adding that AIDS "is a tool to control them designed by some evil-minded scientists, but we may not know who particularly did."

"Why is the rest of the world just watching, doing nothing while Africans are being wiped out? The rest of the world has abandoned us."

Her rant hardly squares with the reality that the fight against AIDS probably gets as much, if not more, attention in the West than every other developing world issue put together.


Finally, there is the shocking revelation that Africans feel let down by their governments. I wonder why.

The UN study surveyed a little more than half of the continent's 53 countries.

The most common complaints were the ones you'd expect: corruption, poor tax systems, run-down and unaccountable public services, weak parliaments and unreformed courts.

Yet results varied widely in different countries. In Ghana 75% trusted their authorities compared to 25% in Nigeria.

Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya and Swaziland were four of the poorest performing countries surveyed.

"These findings underpin the need for a capable, democratic state with strong institutions promoting the public interest," said UN Economic Commission for Africa head Kingsley Amoako, before sounding an optimistic note, "The political environment is being liberalised, human rights are better respected and women are playing a greater role in shaping the continent."

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Libya to join the Big Five? -- Intransigence wins again in Côte d'Ivoire

Good news as some of the 100,000 Liberian refugees still abroad after a decade and a half of fighting in the West African country have started returning home. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is starting an operation to repatriate those who escaped to neighbouring Sierra Leone and Ghana, reports the BBC. The return of refugees from northern neighbour Guinea, which has hosted some 150,000 Liberians, is due to get under way in November. This is good news for Guinea which, at the height of the Liberian and Sierra Leonian civil wars in the mid-90s, hosted as many as a half a million refugees.


The west's rapprochment with Libya's strongman Col. Muammar Gaddafi. has led to a logical conclusion. Now, the once (and most would argue still) rogue state is demanding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Foreign Minister Abdurrahman Mohamed Shalghem listed a series of Libya's achievements as reasons for inclusion, including abandoning its WMD programme.

Not mentioned in the "achievements" was Libya's role as a leader of formenting instability and conflict throughout West Africa. The Guide, along with his protégé in devastation Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, has helped sow the seeds that ruined the lives of millions of West Africans from Sierra Leone to Cote d'Ivoire, among others.

Libya got rid of weapons of mass destruction that might be used to harm Europe and North America. Before Prime Minister Blair and President Bush rush to nominate Gaddafi for the Nobel Peace Prize, they might wish to mention this whole undermining stability throughout West Africa thing that he's been doing for 15 years.


Most of Africa is clearly quite unfriendly to gays. Even aside from the rantings of ordinary lunatics like Zimbabwe's Bob Mugabe or his twin Sam Nujoma in Namibia. First, there's the story of the Ugandan radio station that was fined. Its egregious offense? Hosting homosexuals in a live talk show. Janet and Justin, it wasn't!

The program was "contrary to public morality and is not in compliance with the existing law," according the head of the Ugandan broadcasting council, who added that it promoted homosexuality as "an acceptable way of life".

The station was fined $1000 and forced to make a public apology.

But this pales in comparison to the brutality suffered by a leading Sierra Leonian gay rights activist, who was assassinated recently. Before her murder, she was repeatedly raped, stabbed and had her neck broken by people who broke into her office.

"The authorities in Sierra Leone must investigate this crime fairly and fully," said the head of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights Project at Human Rights Watch. "They must send a message to a frightened lesbian and gay community that violence against them will not go unpunished."

Is this any less savage than anything perpertrated by the Revolutionary United Front or other combattants before the country's war crimes court?


Intransigence has once again reared its ugly head in Cote d'Ivoire. A special session of parliament closed without approving a series of political reforms which were meant to pave the way for disarmament, according to the UN's IRIN service. An agreement signed by President Laurent Gbagbo, the parliamentary opposition and rebels occupying the north of the country in the Ghanaian capital Accra on July 30 committed all sides to legislating long delayed political reforms by the end of August. It also established 15 October as the starting date for disarmament. When the end of August came and went with no reforms on the statute book, diplomats reinterpreted the deal to mean that the legislation - sought by the rebels, but resisted by Gbagbo and his Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) party - should be passed by the end of September. However, a special session of parliament, summoned on 11 August to legislate the reform package, was brought to a close on 28 September with just one very minor measure approved - a law approving state funding for political parties and their election campaigns.

Either Gbagbo is unwilling to push his allies to enforce the agreements he signed and they approved or he's unable to do so. In other words, he's either an obstructionist or a figure head who's influence has disappeared. Neither bodes well for the country.


Finally, the BBC World Service's Big Question program explores the nature and nuances of international development aid. Does aid reduce poverty? Most interviewed concluded that it could, if done right. But they also noted that if the aid system was distributed or organized poorly, that it would actually make things worse. Most acknowledged that more money wasn't necessarily the answer.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Genocide in Darfur: an invention of Washington? [essay]

The Observer is one of at least a few to report claims that downplay the extent of the crisis in Darfur, eastern Sudan. American warnings that Darfur is heading for an apocalyptic humanitarian catastrophe have been widely exaggerated by administration officials, it is alleged by international aid workers in Sudan. Washington's desire for a regime change in Khartoum has biased their reports, it is claimed, writes the British paper.

This is odd since most humanitarian aid organizations have been screaming at the top of their lungs to sensitize people to the disaster in Darfur.

It's part of the knee-jerk mentality of some people that whatever the US government advocates is automatically wrong. I'm as critical of the Bush administration as anyone but in this particular case, they happen to be right. Right to condemn genocide. Right to denounce ethnic cleansing. Right to try to help avert a famine. Right to deplore a man-made humanitarian catastrophe.

Some people hate President Bush so much that, in their minds, agreeing with him on anything is tantamount to endorsing his election bid. But I don't see how any self-described progressive could have a problem with condemning any of those things. Especially since it's usually progressives most voiceferously trying to bring attention to those things.

And even if you mistrust the intentions of the Bush administration, how do you explain the findings of the United Nations (with whom the Bush administration has had strained relations)? The UN called it "the world's worst humanitarian crisis" not long ago. How do you explain Amnesty International's findings? How do you explain Human Rights Watch's findings? What about The International Crisis Group? The BBC found an aid worker who came to different conclusions then the ones cited by The Observer.

Maybe they're all in collusion.

Or maybe the BBC news department wants Sudan's oil too!

Or maybe you should instead ask yourself how these diverse organizations, who rarely agree on anything, came to the same conclusions on Darfur.

The Observer continued: The nutritional survey of Sudan's Darfur region, by the UN World Food Programme, says that although there are still high levels of malnutrition among under-fives in some areas, the crisis is being brought under control. 'It's not disastrous,' said one of those involved in the WFP survey, 'although it certainly was a disaster earlier this year, and if humanitarian assistance declines, this will have very serious negative consequences.'

If the crisis is indeed being brought under control, then perhaps it's precisely BECAUSE of drum beating by Washington, the UN, HRW and many others. Should an entity be criticized because its screaming may have prevented an even greater catastrophe? I think not.

If you think the genocide in Darfur and resulting man-made humanitarian crisis might be an invention of Washington, click here.