Sunday, July 30, 2006

Congo Decides 2006

Congratulations to voters of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as they vote in the first free elections in the country's history. May this usher in a long-hoped era of stability for the cursed country.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

DRC militias to disarm on elections' eve

Some good news on the eve of the hopefully historic vote in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which will be the closest thing to free elections the country's had since independence.

Three main militia groups in the eastern Ituri province have agreed to disarm and integrate into the Congolese national army. It is expected that the agreement will allow tens of thousands of people in the region to vote.

Huge logistical challenges remain. Africa's largest country will house over 50,000 polling stations, the full list of which hasn't even been made public yet.

The deputy head of the UN mission in the DRC has stated that the organization will need to remain in the country after the elections and expressed fears that peacekeepers would be hastily redeployed away from the central African nation to Lebanon.

But he praised the progress made in the DRC in the last four years.

"Look where we've come from four years ago: (then) the main protagonists for the presidential election were militia leaders who had divided up the country and their followers were killing each other in the hundreds," he said.

"Four years later, they've coexisted in a transitional government and they are now competing peacefully to lead the country."

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Changing the rules in Africa

National Public Radio's Africa correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault has a good blog piece on some of the strides being made in Africa.

(Quite why NPR thinks one correspondent based in Johannesburg can cover a continent as gigantic as Africa is beyond me, but in this age of budgets for non-Middle Eastern foreign news coverage being slashed to the bone, I suppose I should be happy they have one at all; they might be the only US broadcaster that does.)

There remain many problems on the continent: the worst being Darfur, northern Uganda and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. The crises in Somalia, Zimbabwe and Côte d'Ivoire aren't far behind.

Still, the tide may well be turning.

Hunter-Gault discusses the importance of the New Partnership for African Development. Nepad was imposed not by westerners but was conceived and advanced largely by three African presidents: South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade and Nigeria's Olesegun Obasanjo. Nepad set up a procedure where by governments would submit to a review of its governance practices by its peers. Hunter-Gault suggests that this peer review mechanism is part of the 'Changing the Rules in Africa.'

Previously, there was a policy of non-interference in the affairs of other countries. Far from being done by a wink-and-a-nod, this non-interference policy was explicitly stated in Article III of former the Organization of African Unity's charter. Back then, the group would've been more accurately called the Organization for African Dictators' Unity.

This has been turned on its head by Nepad. Granted, the peer review mechanism is voluntarily, but Hunter-Gault notes that about half of African countries have submitted themselves to the process.

Another example of the changing tide is the African People's Court I wrote about yesterday. For the first time, a pan-African entity gives equal standing to citizens and non-governmental organizations as it does to heads of state. The idea of governments or the pan-African institution itself having any responsibility to its citizens is a key evolution, one that we should hope will trickle down to national governments themselves.

Increasingly, African leaders are looking not for aid handouts but for fairer trade. They want Europe and the United States to reduce agricultural subsidies and trade barriers so that African raw materials such as cotton and cocoa can compete fairly on the international market. Even countries who are rebuilding from war, such as Liberia, are more interested in ideas than foreign cash.

Is there an African renaissance, as famously predicted by Pres. Mbeki almost a decade ago? Not yet. Not as long as there's genocide in Sudan, an impending one in Côte d'Ivoire and the deadliest conflict since World War II in the DRC. And for all the talk of 'African solutions to African problems,' Mbeki's been criminally silent on the Mugabe-made disaster in Zimbabwe.

But leaders are laying the pan-African groundwork that, if supported and respected, will provide a framework for future justice and stability on the continent.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

African people's court set up

The two areas that have in the front of the African news lately have been Somalia (which I discussed here) and the impending elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ably covered in The Salon blog and by the IRIN).

While these important issues along with the Ugandan peace talks and the intervention of Joseph Kony's mother have been in the headlines, one important development in continental justice seems to have slipped by with little attention.

Earlier this month, the African Union launched the historic African Court on Human and People's Rights.

It will be the continent's first court that gives states and people equal rights to challenge governments suspected of human rights violations or other infractions.

Eight years in the making since its creation on paper, the court can apply and rule on any international treaty or law ratified by the state in question, including treaties that do not themselves refer violators to a court. States, AU organs, individuals and non-governmental organisations [NGOs] can all ask for rulings.

Though it's easy to be cynical, this has to the potential to revolutionize justice in Africa. Rather than shipping dictators to Europe to stand trial or to ad hoc tribunals, there will be a single, regular court with a consistent mandate and rules. This will certainly lead to more effective implementation of justice than having to re-invent the wheel after every conflict.

Most international bodies only give standing to governments, some of whom are causing the problems in question in the first place. This court importantly gives equal standing to individuals and NGOs as to states. That means that dictators like Ben Ali, Obiang and Mugabe can no longer hide behind the fig leaf of national sovereignty to cover their gross human rights violations.

After all, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights has been voluntarily ratified by Tunisia, Equatorial Guinea, Zimbabwe and all 50 other members of the African Union.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Liberia's newest ambassador

Former US president Bill Clinton remains popular in many parts of Africa. Apparently, he's been named roving ambassador for Liberia by the country's leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Interestingly, Pres. Sirleaf continues to break the western stereotype of African leaders on bended knee begging for money with no strings attached. According to Foreign Policy:

Johnson-Sirleaf, who just completed her first six months in office, said at a donors' conference last week that her country isn't looking for fresh aid, but instead seeks new ideas for how to reconstruct.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

What? No caviar and crême brûlée?!

Apparently, the world's worst criminal is in a huff because the prison food at the Hague isn't up to his high standards. It's cute that he's so concerned about individual rights now that he's a detainee.

If anyone wants to donate money to send Taylor the finest chefs in Freetown haute cuisine, please contact his representatives in Liberia. Any donations of spit or bile, I'm sure much more numerous, can be sent directly to his prison cell.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Street pharmacies

As someone who'd never previously been outside North America, my time in Guinea and Senegal was greeted by many things I'd never seen before. One of the most curious things was the ambulant 'medicine' vendors that flourish in almost every market place. These 'pharmacists' selling drugs of questionable quality and effectiveness. Said one, "The only difference between these places and so-called modern pharmacies is the way the drugs are stored." Of course, the way drugs are stored can have a significant impact on their quality, especially in a place with a hot climate.

Naturally, this state of affairs does not please real pharmacists but there's not much that can be done.

"Medicine is 10 times more expensive in a (legal) pharmacy than at the 'street pharmacy'," explained a worker at the port of Conakry.

National Health Director Maay Barry said most Guineans shunned private practices, where treatment and medicine are too expensive for their purses, and had even turned their back on state hospitals, as patients have to wait for hours and comply with complex administrative formalities.

Though even the trade union representing African phramacists recently denounced the chasm between the average African's purchasing power and the cost of specialized medications.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The invasion

Today, a country sent troops into its neighbor, not for the first time. The neighbor's seat of government was seriously impacted by the intervention and its fragile regime's credibility undermined even more. The military action wasn't that surprising after the prime minister declared that the Islamists' presence was a threat to his own country's security.

Still, the Ethiopian incursion into Somalia is a curious thing. A militia run by Islamist courts controls almost all of Mogadishu and is threatening to overrun the entire country. The country does have an internationally recognized transitional national government (TNG) agreed upon at a national conference but it's weak and is presently seated at Baidoa, rather than the official capital of Mogadishu.

(Note: The northwest part of Somalia seceded from the mess some years ago and is now the Republic of Somaliland. Though it is a peaceful country with all the functioning institutions of a normal country, its sovereignty is not recognized by any other countries)

According to reports, the Islamists have brought much needed law and order to Mogadishu. Much like when the Taliban entered Kabul in 1996, the population was hopeful that Islamists would bring stability to the chaos.

In the battle for Mogadishu, the CIA backed warlords fighting the Islamist militias. Much like during the Cold War, Washington did care if it backed crooks and murderers so long as they were our crooks and murderers. But as the former Mujahadeen-turned-Taliban demonstrated, no one is obliged to remain our crooks and murderers forever.

This is a missed opportunity for the Bush administration to help bring back a sense of normalcy to the country. Rather than backing the thugs who called themselves anti-Islamist, Washington should've taken the chance to given as much support as possible to the TNG. Hard line fundamentalist regimes thrive in the vacuum of anarchy. That's why the Taliban and Somali Islamists (and for that matter, the Ayatollah in Iran) were so heartily welcomed when they first arrived.

The TNG has denied suggestions that it invited the Ethiopians to protect Baidoa; in fact, they deny that Ethopian troops are in the city at all. The Ethopians have promised to attack if the Islamists come anywhere near Baidoa.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

88 candles for Madiba

Yebo Gogo blog points out that yesterday was the 88th birthday of one of the greatest men of the 20th century. Happy (belated) birthday Nelson Mandela.

The looting of Katanga

According to Pambazuka News, Global Witness has issued a report on the massive looting that has taken place recently in Katanga, the southeastern province of the DR Congo.

According to the NGO, whose purpose is to monitor corruption and human rights abuses linked to resource exploitation, some $1 billion left Katanga during the year 2005. Bear in mind that's just for one single province of the country.

That amounts to about $18 for every single person in the entire country. That might not sound like a lot but the average Congolese's income is $100 per year.

And if that much money is being looted from a single province, albeit the most mineral rich one, imagine how much is being lost in the rest of the country.

If the theme sounds familiar, it should.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

50 years of Ghana

The Chicago Tribune has an interesting look at Ghana, nearly a half century after it became the first sub-Saharan African colony to win independence.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Konaré to step down as AU head

Though I seem to have missed this in the English-speaking press, Jeune Afrique reports that Alpha Oumar Konaré will not seek a second term as president of the African Union commission.

In his opening speech to the recent AU summit in Banjul, The Gambia, the former Malian president stated in passing, "In view of the report I have just submitted, my successor will find things in order in 15 months."

For a man so accustomed to pomp and circumstance and grand gestures, this was astonishingly low key.

Jeune Afrique notes that the 60 year old spent three frustrating and tiring years spent governing the ungovernable and for him, and above all for a certain idea of Africa, [his decision] rings as a sign of failure.

Konaré endured a baptism by fire. As AU head, he was a bit like UN chief Kofi Annan but without the prestige. There were many unresolved crises during his mandate: Somalia, Darfur, northern Uganda, the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, Côte d'Ivoire. The was much pressure to implement the famous 'African solutions to African problems' but much like with Annan and the UN, the AU and Konaré were inevitably blamed whenever there was a lack of will by the belligerent parties. In some cases, he was even undermined by the continent's powerful heads of state when he tried to uphold the organization's ideals; JA cites Konaré's refusal to recognize coups d'État in Mauritania and Central African Republic or the monarchical succession in Togo.

All in all, Konaré's term was filled with great expectations but limited results; bitter, parochial infighting undermining admirable goals. In a way, it's emblematic of pan-African organizations since 1963.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Guinea approves private radio stations but still on the verge of implosion

Guinea doesn't seem to be short of news lately.

On the good side, the government finally approved the licenses of three private radio stations: 'Soleil FM', 'Liberté FM' et 'Nostalgie FM.' This according to the country's information minister Boubacar Sylla. Guinea will become the last country in the sub-region to have private broadcasters, despite having nominal multipartyism and many private newspapers for over a decade. The ministry has not yet decided on frequencies for the new stations. The government is also reportedly in negotiations with Radio France Internationale on running an FM relay in the country of the Paris-based outfit.

However, with the country still reeling from the nine-day general strike last month, the political situation has just gotten even more tense. One of the country's opposition leaders has called head of state Gen. Lansana Conté 'unfit to govern.' Jean-Marie Doré, head of the country's third most prominent opposition party, has demanded that Conté either resign or be removed from office. According to Article 34 of the Guinean Constitution (original French here), the president of the Republic can be removed by the Supreme Court for medical reasons upon the request of the National Assembly.

Since both the legislative and judicial bodies are packed with Conté allies and appointees, this is almost inconceivable... unless there is pressure on them from some unelected forces.

The power vacuum in the country continues to cause more and more problems in an increasingly sclerotic state. The International Crisis Group describes the 'fundamental decrepitude, verging on anarchy, at the centre of a government incapable of taking decisions,'

Further aggravating the succession issue is the deep fractures in Conté's PUP party. The PUP is usually described in the Guinean media as the 'presidential movement' rather than a party. And this gives some clues as to the divisions within the organization. It was founded around the person of Gen. Conté, who'd been military leader for about a decade at that time. The 'presidential movement' has little ideological foundations so it's not surprising that it's falling apart as the 'president' at the heart of the movement fades away.

If Conté dies or is removed, his constitutional successor is Aboubacar Sompaoré, who is both head of the National Assembly and of the PUP. However, he is reportedly opposed by the PUP's main financial backer businessman El Hadj Mamadou Sylla and by the movement's hardliners. It's also unclear the position of Fodé Bangoura, Conté's most prominent advisor who is seen by many as the de facto head of state because of the general's health. And there are certainly questions as to if the Guinean military, deeply divided itself, will respect any constitutional transition.

Friday, July 14, 2006

DDT to fight malaria?

Malaria remains one of the most serious and prevalent diseases in Africa and other parts of the developing world. Some have argued that a concerted campaign of using DDT to eliminate malarial mosquitoes is the attack the disease. However, recent research has shown that DDT is linked to development problems in the womb and exposure to it can lead to premature birth, low birthweight and to premature puberty among girls. Of course, malaria creates huge problems of its own. But all these should be weighed in the debate over DDT.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Elections in DRC: relevant to the people or legitimization of a client regime?

One African story I have not written much about is the impending elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). However, the giant DRC is clearly one of the most important countries on the continent. It's certainly the most resource rich. One World ran this interview with Congolese political scientist Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.

Nzongola-Ntalaja argues that the DRC continues to be threatened by western interference, as it has been for over a century. And he implies that the elections will mean little to ordinary Congolese.

The forthcoming election means more to the international community, which is spending heavily on it and even sending in European Union forces to supplement MONUC to ensure that it is being held, than to the Congolese people. The major powers of the world and the international organizations under their control would like to legitimize their current client regime in Kinshasa so they can continue unfettered to extract all the resources they need from the Congo.

The interview is an interesting read.

The Salon of News and Thought blog has some decent coverage of the elections and points to other sources as well.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Nigeria's oil center still without electricity

I've always advocated that if you want to be an informed citizen, you should rely on many media sources to get your information. BUT if you live in the US and can only choose one, I'd highly recommend The Week (website). This is because it's not one media source but many: it's a sort of world press review, publishing articles from countless different US and international press outlets.

The most recent issue cited an interesting editorial from the Nigerian paper This Day.

Bayelsa State is located in the heart of Nigeria's oil producing region. Yet like most of the Niger Delta, Bayelsa residents remain mired in poverty.

That's due in no small part to the massive environmental damage caused by oil exploiters such as Shell. Ecological devastation is pretty big deal for poor residents who rely on fishing an other subsistence activities for survival.

Yet despite putting up with the rape of its natural resources by foreign multinationals, Bayelsans haven't got much in return. The state home to one of Nigeria's largest deposits of crude oil doesn't even have electricity a half century after the 'godsend' black gold was discovered there.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Ending the imperial presidency

Via The Globalist, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf offers her vision for leadership in post-colonial Africa and how it applies to Liberia.

She warns that one of the challenges her government will face in rebuilding the country is the tradition of centralized and dictatorial rule that subordinated the state to the whims of an imperial Presidency with enormous power.

President Sirleaf notes that dismantling the imperial presidency is a key first step toward putting down true democratic roots in the country.

Monday, July 10, 2006

A little comic relief

According to The Gambia's dictator, his country is a superpower. A superpower 'in its ability to provide comfort, solace and inspiration to all humanity for the benefit of mankind.'

I'm not sure political opponents or the press would share Mahatma Jammeh's view of the country.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

'He who brings kola, brings life'

The BBC World Service African Perspective program has an interesting documentary on the history of kola nuts. The piece on how the caravans of kola nuts grew to prominence and left their mark on modern day Nigeria.

Note: The link above will only be valid through 14 July

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Death of Two Sons

Micah Schaffer, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea, has produced what looks like a fascinating feature length documentary called Death of Two Sons. It explores the deaths of Amadou Diallo and Jesse Thyne. Diallo was a Guinean living in New York City whose inexplicable death at the hands of the police provoked national outrage. Thyne was a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Diallo's village shortly after the Guinean's death. He was killed in a grizzly traffic accident a year later. That too provoked a public uprising against the extremely unsafe road conditions in Guinea.

(Sadly, such tragedy is not limited to the West African nation. The World Health Organization expects road accidents to be one of the three leading causes of death in developing countries by 2020.)

The documentary promises to look at many difficult questions, such as those of race, justice and public revolt against the very different systemic problems that led to Amadou's and Jesse's deaths.

The work also reminds us that before we are Guineans or Americans or any other nationality, we are first and foremost human beings.

More information about the film can be found at its website:

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

ICC opposes amnesty offer to Kony

The Ugandan regime has controversially offered an amnesty to warlord and indicted war criminal Joseph Kony. The world's worst war criminal not presently in custody is head of a terrorist group which calls itself rebels and is widely accused of hideous atrocities and crimes against humanity.

Thanks to Kony's grotesquely misnamed Lord's Resistance army, northern Uganda is one of the most dangerous places in the world. Kony denies that his men (and boys and girls) have committed any war crimes whatsoever.

Despite the Ugandan government amnesty offer, the International Criminal Court maintains that its international arrest warrant for Kony is still valid. This is good, since past amnesty offers in Africa have been little more than short term bandaids.

The ICC's announcement will likely please Kony's victims, many of whom are not thrilled by the regime's offer.

Click here to learn more about child soldiers and other young victims of the conflict in northern Uganda.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Not the land of milk and honey

I admit I was surprised to read this piece at the BBC's website.

While in Washington, the Beeb's correspondent in Sudan's capital, informed President Bush that things were not going so well in the southern part of the African country, 18 months after a peace deal was signed.

"That is not the information I'm getting," [Bush] told the BBC's Khartoum reporter Alfred Taban, who was in Washington to receive an award.

Taban spent more than a quarter hour talking with the president. "He asked me if the peace agreement was working and I said, 'Mr President, it is not working,' and he was very surprised," the reporter explained.

When the president said that this was not what he had been informed, our reporter said he told Mr Bush: "Well, whatever information you're getting, that peace agreement is not being implemented by the government in Khartoum."
He went on to tell the president that people in southern Sudan were still waiting to see improvements to their lives.

"There's no water, there's no electricity, nothing in Juba," our correspondent said, describing life in the capital of south Sudan.

During the discussion Mr Bush called one of his aides and asked to be given more details on southern Sudan.

"He appeared to be taking it very seriously," our reporter said, describing the president's manner as warm and welcoming, despite the intimidating surroundings.

On one hand, it's certainly creditable that the president didn't brush off the reporter's comments and apparently wasn't complacent about the disturbing information shared with him.

On the other hand, it raises serious questions about the quality of intelligence being provided to the chief executive. Are the problems with the intelligence agencies themselves or in the way they are being filtered before they reach the president's desk? In the wake of the Iraq debacle and the mythical WMDs, it's an important question that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Regardless, if the president can find out that I bought dinner with my debit card last night, he certainly should not be learning something this obvious from a ordinary journalist.