Saturday, September 30, 2006

UN refugee agency to close southeastern Guinea office

Good news for an area that's long overdue for a little. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Guinea hosted over a million refugees, mostly from the civil wars in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia and most located in the southeastern forest region of the country. The social and environmental impact on the region and on indigenous Guineans was enormous.

So I was pleased to read that the refugee crisis in the region had subsided so much that the UN High Commission for Refugees has decided to close its office in the southeastern city of Kissidougou (which is my adopted hometown).

But while La Guinée forestière was once bursting at the seams with refugees, only 39,000 remain in the entire country. The rest have been repatriated back to Sierra Leone, Liberia or Côte d'Ivoire.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Objective reporting means telling the whole truth

Earlier this month, I wrote about the western media's skewed portrait of Africa and attempts to offer a fairer picture of a complicated and nuanced continent.

There was even a conference on the subject recently in Johannesburg.

The western media typically focuses on bad news. On local and national issues too, not just African ones. "If it bleeds, it leads," goes the saying.

When I pick up my local paper, I tend to read bad news all around. Domestic violence. Political croynism. Influx of drugs into my area. So genocide in Africa isn't out of place in this narrative of negativity.

The difference is that people have first hand experience of their town, state and country to counterbalance the negativity. I know there are bad things going on around here. But I also know many examples of good things going on. Of people helping families whose houses burned down or whose kid has a serious illness. I know of countless smaller kindnesses that occur too. My personal experience acts as a counterbalance to the media's focus on negativity.

But very few westerners have that same first hand experience when it comes to Africa. Hence, there is nothing to counterbalance the media's portrayal.

I don't think the western media consciously tries to smear Africa. Though I think there is the consideration that appealing to liberal pity and guilt is good for ratings/circulation.

I just think the media are lazy. Too lazy to tell good news in a compelling way. Covering bad news is straight forward. Just pick a random war, genocide or famine. Interview random government, rebel and/or NGO officials. Throw in the most provocoative quotes. Add water and stir.

Covering good news is a lot less formulaic. Journalists have to do a little digging.

Western journalism in Africa is very top down. It's heavily reliant on interviewing high ranking official types in capitals or major cities. Quite often, the good news stories are with ordinary people in the smaller towns and villages. These people and places aren't even on the radar screens of most western journalists.

But they are on the radar screens of the really good ones. Radio Netherlands' Eric Beauchemin is a great example of how a western journalism can do justice in reporting on Africa.

His pieces focus not on the presidents and ministers and rebel leaders. They focus on simple, ordinary Africans. The AIDS orphan who, at 12 years old, has to care and provide for her younger siblings. Gay and women's rights activists fighting for fair treatment by government and scoiety. These people may be victims of injustice but they are not lazy and they do not passively accept their fate.

This is how excellent journalism is practiced. Take a broader issue and show how ordinary people deal with it. It takes a little more effort than just getting a quote or two from the information minister and the opposition leader.

Objectivity doesn't simply mean telling the truth. It means telling the whole truth.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Mandela named 'Ambassador of Conscience'

I was please to read that Nelson Mandela is going to receive an Ambassador of Conscience award, Amnesty International's highest honor. Mandela is probably one of the two or three greatest leaders of the 20th century. Not in Africa, but in the world.

South Africa is now the most important country in Africa, politically and economically. It has a stable government which respects the rule of law. But it's important to remember that this was not inevitable.

South Africa in the early and mid-90s was a very violent place. Brutality sponsored by the apartheid state was rampant before the country's first multiracial elections in 1994. Cynical, exploitative local politicians made things worse. The country could very easily have exploded into a full-fledged civil war among the black population. There could have been a genocide or massacres against South Africa's white Afrikaans' population. Or by them. After Mandela's ANC won the elections, the party could've purged the civil service of whites or stripped whites of citizenship or instituted apartheid in reverse.

Mandela wasn't the only African liberation leader to take power with great promise. When he became the country's prime minister in 1980, fellow liberation struggler Robert Mugabe was praised for his moderate, visionary leadership of Zimbabwe. But in Mugabe's case, this was a ruse. Three years later, after international attention had moved away from Zimbabawe, Mugabe launched a genocide against the southern Ndebele people, who largely opposed his regime. His more recent atrocities are well-documented.

Ghana's Kwame N'Krumah and particularly Guinea's Sékou Touré were other independence leaders originally hailed as visionaries, who quickly became drunk with power after the international media focus shifted elsewhere.

This could've happened in South Africa. But it didn't. And that was due largely to the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela and the respect shown by his party members and by South Africans in general.

Twelve years after independence, N'Krumah had been overthrown by a military coup.

Twelve years after independence, Touré launched the first of several major purges against the Peul people.

Twelve years after liberation, South Africa's judiciary threw out corruption charges against a former ally turned rival of the president.

Sékou Touré would've just thrown him in Camp Boiro and let him starve to death. More prominent men suffered the same fate.

Why has South Africa turned out differently? Partly it was because the anti-apartheid struggle was internationalized in a way that the the 1950s anti-colonial struggles (Algeria excepted) were not. So its moral component was more heavily emphasized and thus harder to ignore once liberation was achieved. Additionally, we live in a much different era than in the 1960s when coups, wars and genocides in distant lands might pass without notice.

But partly it was because of the moral leadership of Nelson Mandela. In an era where it's easy to be cynical about politicians, it's reassuring to know that the rare statesman still exists. I can think of no one more deserving of this award.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Use of DDT endorsed to fight malaria

In recent years, there has been a debate raging about the use of the insecticide DDT against mosquitoes that carry the malaria parasite.

The PBS Newshour program describes the quandry this way:

DDT causes genetic problems in animals and has been linked to cancer in humans.

However, it is one of the most effective chemicals when it comes to killing the Anopheles mosquito, which carries the deadly malaria parasite.

Malaria kills more than one million people each year and 90 percent of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

However, use of DDT to kill the anopheles mosquito was opposed by the World Health Organization (WHO) for over three decades. But the WHO has endorsed a plan that called for tightly controlled spraying of the insecticide, only on walls and roofs of houses (as opposed to mass spraying outside).

The technique has also been cautiously endorsed by environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Sierra Club.

Indoor spraying can reduce malaria transmission by up to 90 percent, the WHO claims.

As I wrote earlier, malaria kills a million people a year and sickens as many as half a billion.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Guinean elites fight over who will captain the Titanic

If you were to believe the word on the street, Guinea's strongman Lansana Conté has been 'on the verge of death since the late 90s. His constitutional successor is Aboubacar Somparé, president both of the National Assembly and of Conté's PUP party. Whether that constitutional succession will be respected following his death (and no one assumes that Conté will leave office any other way) is an open question. A military junta, led by Conté himself, quickly seized power following the death of Guinea's only other head of state.

While le général-président remains ailing but very much alive, his fragile state means that internecene power struggles are rife. Guinéenews reports (in French) on the tug of war between Mamadou Sylla and Fodé Bangoura, two of Conté's closest allies.

Sylla is the richest and most influential businessman in the country. He is known as 'the PUP's moneyman' and 'the boss of bosses.' Bangoura is officially the minister of state in charge of presidential affairs but given Conté's illness and the vacancy in the prime minister's office, he is generally seen as de facto running the government.

Guinéenews cited local media reports indicating that Bangoura is essentially using state machinery to attack Sylla, accusing him of owing huge sums in back taxes. Perhaps Bangoura took a cue from Russia's Vladimir Putin in sicing the taxman on a political opponent.

While the political elites continue their petty squabbles over who will captain the Titanic, the misery for ordinary Guineans continues to skyrocket. As Guinéenews concludes: these struggles paralyze the government while the priority of Guineans is the fight against poverty.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

'The Koran said that Jammeh ought to run the country'

The two major US political parties hold quadrennial conventions to nominate their candidate for president. If an incumbent president is re-nominated, the crowds usually chant, "Four more years" to encourage his re-election. Supporters of Gambian head of state Yahya Jammeh might instead chant, "Four more decades!"

The strongman recently said that he envisioned himself running the tiny West African state for 'the next 40 years.'

The man who came to power via a military coup in 1994 added, "No coup d'Etat or election will make me lose my position. The Koran said that Jammeh ought to run the country."

"I will develop the regions that vote for me. But if you don't vote for me, then expect nothing," he warned, in a Mugabe-esque tone.

Most strongmen at least pretend to adhere to the facade of democracy, but at least Jammeh is honest enough to tell the world he's a dictator.

Jammeh held sham elections yesterday which he will win handily. After all, he's already promised that he won't let himself lose.

Friday, September 22, 2006

A cancer to return to the heart of Nigeria?

Is Nigeria the world's first militaro-democracy? In the 1999 elections, former military leader Gen. Olesegun Obasanjo ran for president and one. In the 2003 elections, Gen. Obasanjo faced off against another former junta chief Gen. Muhammadu Buhari. Now, one of the leading candidates for the 2007 polls is yet another former military leader, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (generally known by his initials IBB).

IBB recently expressed pride in his 8 years in power from 1985-93.

"In eight years, we made a lot of progress and development of this country and people also benefited," he told the BBC, ignoring charges of widespread human rights abuses and universally believed allegations of massive corruption.

IBB also claimed that the 1993 elections was "one of the best and freest elections that has ever been conducted in the country."

Despite calling the polls the 'best and freest elections that has ever been conducted in the country,' IBB annulled the results. The succeeding political crisis and military coup plunged Nigeria into the darkest period in its history since the Biafran War.

I guess this begs the question: is the development of democracy in Nigeria so stunted that in a country of 130 million inhabitants, the only people qualified to seek the federal republic's highest office are ex-military dictators who raped and plundered the country?

In Chile, Augusto Pinochet is constantly harrassed by the Chilean justice system. His buddy Jorge Videla of Argentina of 'dirty war' infamy spent many years in prison. Charles Taylor sits incarcerated in a cell in The Hague. Moussa Traoré will spend the rest of his life in a Malian jail for political and economic crimes.

Ibrahaim Badamasi Babangida may again be head of state of one of the continent's most important countries.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mugabe's war against artists

The Mugabe-created catastrophe in Zimbabwe is fairly well known. From police brutality to 1200 percent inflation last month to the regime's decision create 400,000 homeless people as political retribution to its manipulation of food aid for political reasons to outright politicide... anything the degenerate touches turns to lead. Or blood.

South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian has a piece on how the creative arts are no more immune than anyone else to the vicious repression of Mugabe and his thugs.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Highlife revival in Nigeria

The BBC's Lagos' correspondent has a nice piece about the revival of high life music in Nigeria. He noted that highlife was big in Nigeria in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s but gradually went into decline during the Biafran Civil War (1967-70) when many musicians joined the various armies. But some musicians and clubs in Nigeria's commercial capital are trying to bring highlife back into prominence.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

'Wizard of the Crow'

The literary show on my local public radio station has a good half hour interview with Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong'o for his new book Wizard of the Crow.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Instability in Addis

The Economist offers a brief look at the increasingly repressive and unstable regime in Ethiopia.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

'Another Africa' and its 'New News'

Black Looks blog points to a piece in Salon which excerpts the incomparable Chinua Achebe's Another Africa. The excerpt explores a theme common to Achebe's work: the cariciaturization of black Africa in the west. Whether it was the sensationalist novels of late 19th and early 20th centuries or the sensationalist TV programs of today. It seems everything we hear out of Africa is Achebe takes issue with this one-sided characterization.

I am presently reading New News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (who I wrote about here). Hunter-Gault, an African-American journalist who lives in Johannesburg, explored a similar theme in her book. The new news out of Africa, she concludes, is that forward strides are being made too.

We in the west get a very biased picture of Africa. Certainly, war, hunger, poverty, disease and corruption are a part of the African reality. A part. Not the whole thing. There are certainly bad things happening on the continent. Most of these things are worse in Africa than any other continent. But it's easy to be cynical. It's easy to either write off the continent. It's just as easy to patronize Africans as helpless children, instead of recognizing that the majority of them are far more innovative and resilient than you'll ever be. They have to be that way or they'd be dead. Of course, the reason most westerners see Africans as passive victims is because portraying them as proactive or entreprenurial isn't as good for ratings and circulation.

Monday, September 11, 2006

'Democracy in the rough'

The show Wide Angle, on US public television, will air a documentary on the recent elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The program airs tomorrow evening (Tuesday Sept. 12) on most local PBS affiliates.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Lawlessness to fight lawlessness in a former failed state

Liberia recently had elections that were supposed to usher in an era of stability. After all, the country has spent most of the last 17 years ravaged by chaos and violence so while the overall situation is improving, it's still fragile. Given that, you'd think authorities in the country would be extra careful.

So imagine my stuperfication when I read that the Liberian police is encouraging people to form vigiliante groups to help fight a crime wave.

Isn't unchecked violence what caused the country's nearly two decade nightmare in the first place?

Bear in mind that after 17 years of rampant violence, the international community spent a huge amount of time and money patiently disarming uncontrolled young men with guns. For the police to actually encourage people to commit extrajudicial killings is irresponsibility bordering on criminal.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Are you now, or have you ever been, a homosexual? (pt. 2)

Sexual McCarthyism is alive and well in many parts of Africa. Sure, homosexual acts are banned in most African countries but it's more than that. After all, private sexual acts between consenting, unrelated adults of the same gender were illegal in some parts of the US until only a few years ago. In some African countries, things are much worse for gays and lesbians.

Nigeria's government, supposedly led by one of Africa's statesmen, is actually trying to ban free speech for gay rights activists. Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe and former Namibian president Sam Nujoma have angrily compared gays to pigs and dogs; both are former leaders of 'liberation' movements.

Earlier this year, Cameroon launched a gay witchhunt by publishing the names of alleged homosexuals.

A few days ago, a Ugandan paper has done the same thing. This is a troubling devlopment in a country run by a strongman who's also used vitriolic language to regularly denounce homosexual men and women.

"For years, President Yoweri Museveni's government routinely threatens and vilifies lesbians and gays, and subjects sexual rights activists to harassment," said [Human Rights' Watch's] Jessica Stern.

When not confronted by official government harassment and state sponsored homophobia, many gays and lesbians in Africa are subject to violence and even death at the hands of 'vigilantes'.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Health catastrophe brings down Ivorian government

Côte d'Ivoire has lurched from crisis to crisis ever since the Christmas Eve 1999 military coup (which itself was precipitated by xenophobic policies in the mid-90s by the civilian regime). The military regime was removed via popular pressure and a civilian government replaced it. But that government re-adopted the xenophobic policies of the previous civlian regime and provoked a civil war which has split the country since 2002.

A number of ceasefires and peace agreements have been signed but the most recent accord installed a national unity government. It was run by a neutral prime minister and comprised ministers from both the nationalist and rebel camps. There's been quite a bit of political tension and mistrust between nationalist and rebel ministers but the most recent crisis is down to corruption and incompetence.

Yesterday, the entire transitional government was dissolved following a health and ecological catastrophe in which toxic waste was dumped in various residential areas in the country's largest city Abidjan.

Hundreds of people have sought treatment in Abidjan hospitals after breathing the noxious, toxic fumes. The Health Ministry said three people had died and 1,500 others had suffered ill effects from the waste, reports the UN's IRIN news service.

"We do not know yet the extent of the catastrophe, but what the politicians understand is that the consequences on the population are very serious," a Western diplomat said. "There is a gap between the politicians and the population. They feel utterly helpless, abandoned by the authorities who do nothing for the country, only for themselves."

President Laurent Gbagbo, whose mandate officially ends next month, has asked Prime Minister Charles Konan Banny to remain in his post and form a new government but opposition groups have said they want no part of a new cabinet.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Shame on CAF

African soccer outlets made a big deal this week about Angola being awarded hosting privileges for the 2010 African Nations Cup (CAN) by the African soccer confederation. What was overlooked is much more distubring news: international pariahs will host the two succeeding Nations Cups.

Gabon and Equatorial Guinea will co-host the 2012 tournament. Equatorial Guinea is run by one of the two or three most despotic regimes in the entire world; it's in the same league as Burma and North Korea. It's also one of the poorest countries in Africa with virtually non-existent infrastructure, despite the recent discovery of huge oil reservoirs. Shame on CAF! Equatorial Guinea's dictatorship should spend its oil revenues not on soccer stadiums but on alleviating the desperate poverty of its people.

Libya, whose reputation for respecting human rights benefits only in comparison to Equatorial Guinea's, was awarded the 2014 edition.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Guinean regime rejects national conference

The Guinean government has rejected calls for a national conference made by some civil society organizations in the country. The national conference would have reviewed the Guinean constitution and the entire structure of the government. Unlike some other West African countries which now have stable multiparty democracies, Guinea never held a national conference in the early 90s when the end of the Cold War forced a wave of democratization (some real, some fake) through much of Africa. The country is in an extremely precarious state as it's held hostage by the ailing head of state Gen. Lansana Conté who refuses to resign despite being clearly unable to run the country.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Genocide in Darfur to get worse?

In case you've forgotten about it, there's still a genocide going on in Darfur, western Sudan.

The underequipped and underfunded African Union peacekeeping force is leaving the country.

The AU wants to turn over the mission to the United Nations. The UN Security Council approved the sending of some 20,000 blue helmets to Darfur but Khartoum has rejected the resolution to bring peace to western Sudan.

"The Sudanese people will not consent to any resolution that will violate its sovereignty," the official Suna news agency quoted the government as saying, despite having accepted a resolution that would send 10,000 UN peacekeepers to southern Sudan to monitor the peace agreement signed in that part of the country.

Instead, the regime has decided to send some 10,000 troops from Sudan's national army to 'bring peace' to Darfur. Human rights groups have attacked this decision, contending that regime-sponsored militias are the ones perpetrating the genocide in the first place!

Perhaps trying to complete the genocide before international observers arrive, the regime has launched a new offensive in Darfur.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I Spy

Some might think that there are frosty relations between the US and Zimbabawe's strongman Robert Mugabe. Don't forget that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice referred to Mugabe's regime as an 'outpost of tyranny.'

But maybe when all is said and done, maybe the Bush administration has more influence on Harare than anyone realizes. After all, where do you think Mugabe got this inspiration for this?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Homophobia: the new apartheid

The whole concept of treating gay men and lesbians as normal human beings has taken off in many parts of the western world. More so in Western Europe and Canada than in the hyperreligious US and macho Australia. But it's still far less dangerous to be gay in the latter two places than it used to be. I wonder when such a mentality will filter across the oceans into Africa. My experience on the continent found West Africans to amazingly warm and welcoming to outsiders. Homophobia stands as a stark exception.

I noticed that Ghana's government recently banned a conference for gays and lesbians that was due to take place in the country later this month.

"Government does not condone any such activity which violently offends the culture, morality and heritage of the entire people of Ghana," said the information minister. "Unnatural carnal knowledge is illegal under our criminal code. Homosexuality, lesbianism and bestiality are therefore offences under the laws of Ghana."

Whenever I see comments like this, I can only think of what life used to be life in the American South.

I know some people vehemently object to comparisons between skin color and sexual orientation but the comparisons are appropriate if you ask me. Both have political overtones, though neither should. Neither is an attribute one chooses.

The fact is that slavery was an integral part of the traditions of the American South. Treating black people as third-class citizens was a pillar of southern heritage; the region would've developed in a completely different way had it been otherwise.

Those who agitated for equal rights for blacks were seen as violently offending southern culture. Many were beaten or lynched, just as many African gays and lesbians are beaten or murdered.

Just as immoral segregation was state policy in most of the American South, homophobia is state policy in most African countries. Not only are gay acts illegal, but some even want to criminalize speech advocating tolerance of homosexuals. Not content with simply banning gay rights, some even want to criminalize SPEECH which contends that gays are normal human beings.

The parallels between homophobia and American segregation and South African apartheid are plain to see.

Update: Apparently Zanzibar, birthplace of the late singer Freddie Mercury, is following Ghana's example.