Friday, December 31, 2004

Two films to look for

This year is the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide that cost nearly a million lives in the central African country. Hollywood recently released a film called Hotel Rwanda (CNN's review: here).

It's primarily about the real life Paul Rusesabagina, who was manager of the Hotel Mille-Collines, a luxury hotel in Rwanda's capital Kigali. He is reknown for saving the lives of well over 1000 Tutsis during the nightmarish middle of 1994. His courageous actions were explored in great detail in Philip Gourevitch's brilliant We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda ( review: here; it's the most powerful book I've ever read).

Hotel Rwanda is not only one of the best movies of the year; it is also probably the most important movie of the year.The film is not only one of the best movies of the year; it is also probably the most important movie of the year, concludes CNN.

It's definitely a film to see, in the unlikely event it appears at your local multiplex.

Another film on Rwanda to look for is entitled 100Days (official film website: here). 100Days has a more documentary feel, according to this review in The Boston Globe. Though lacking a big star like Hotel Rwanda's Nick Nolte, 100Days film suffers from distribution troubles.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Optimism squelched again in Côte d'Ivoire

There was much optimism in some quarters last week when Côte d'Ivoire's parliament finally approved long overdue revisions to the country's constitution. Those changes were part of the Marcoussis peace agreement which was supposed to end the country's civil war. The rebels started the war to protest discrimination and harassment of northerners (the region is mostly Muslim and has large numbers of laborers from neigboring countries) by the southern political elite (who are mostly Christian). The change was supposed to precede rebel disarmament.

The most notable change was to qualifications for the presidency. Future candidates would only need to have one parent born in Côte d'Ivoire, rather than the present requirement of both parents. (The present requirement is all the more absurd since any presidential candidate's parents would have been born in French West Africa). The change would pave the way for the candidacy of northern opposition leader Alasanne Ouatarra, who was trusted enough to be the country's first ever prime minister but who was excluded by present nationality rules.

However, there has been so much backsliding and duplicity by Côte d'Ivoire's politicians that optimism should only be granted cautiously: 'trust but verify,' to quote Ronald Reagan.

Accordingly, the country's head of state Laurent Gbagbo has crushed any optimism in its tracks by demanding a referendum on the changes. The UN's IRIN service reports: But holding a free and fair referendum in the divided West African country before then may well prove difficult and opposition leaders suspect that Gbagbo may try to manipulate such a vote to reject the amendment approved by parliament.

Whether Gbagbo has the will, or even the ability, to persuade his nominal followers, the fanatic and xenophobic 'Young Patriot' militias, is highly questionable.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Guebuza elected in Mozambique

Despite serious irregularities according to both the European Union and The Carter Center, Frelimo's Armando Guebuza was elected the new president of Mozambique. The candidate of the ruling party was credited with 63.74% of the vote while opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama of Renamo gained only 31.74%. Frelimo won a convincing majority of parliamentary seats: 160 to Frelimo's 90. Turnout was a very low 36%.

Despite reports that the irregularities did not significantly change the results, Renamo has promised to boycott the new parliament. In fact, the domestic Electoral Observatory said that correcting irregularities actually could cost Renamo two or three parliamentary seats in [the western province of] Tete.

Observers attribute Renamo's sharp decline since the 1999 elections to Dhlakama. The Renamo leader has apparently refused to build a strong party structure, in contrast to Frelimo, and his cult of personality is waning. In the most recent parliament, Frelimo had only a slim 17 seat advantage.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Exiled Taylor still making noise

Anyone who didn't expect the disgraced and disgraceful former Liberian dictator and indicted war criminal Charles Taylor to go gently into that good night will not be by this article in The Analyst. The December 2004 reports of the UN Panel of Experts report has revealed that it has evidence that former Liberian president Charles Taylor [in exile in Nigeria] is still receiving money from Liberia, reports the Monrovia publication, via

According to the experts using various sources, under condition of anonymity, it appears that "the financing of Charles Taylor is made in cash, using both male and female couriers. The couriers deliver the cash using international flights, but remittance is made via another intermediary in order to avoid a direct route." "In many cases there is no need to transfer any money in cash. The former president of Liberia will contact a 'friend' by phone and instruct him to give the required funds to a third party," the Panel's report said.

Gabon oil province up in arms

Nigeria's Niger Delta isn't the only African region where people are protesting against the effects of oil company exploitation and the lack of a fair shake from oil revenues. In southwestern Gabon, residents are also up in arms, according to this article (in French) from the Inter Press Service.

Villages in the department of Ndoulou have united under an umbrella organization. The collective's spokesman said, "Villagers are beside themselves because of the government's unkept promises and not understanding why oil money doesn't benefit their communities or improve their standard of living."

Another village fumed, "We refuse to live in poverty, without electricity, while we could benefit from the oil manna to construct schools, health centers and roads to improve our daily lives."

The Canadian oil company Panafrican Energy evacuated its staff and suspended activities on November 27, following clashes between locals and gendarmes who were protecting their facilities.

IPS notes that for the last few years, the people of the oil-producing provinces of Gabon, who have been hit by an economic crisis, want to know where the oil-money is going.

"The absence of transparency in the management of the oil industry and the rise of pockets of poverty are signs that led one to think that other crises might arise once the oil fields are exhausted," warned Lucien Batchi, economics professor at the University of Libreville in the Gabonese capital.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

He's no Abdoulaye Wade

Côte d'Ivoire's National Assembly has FINALLY passed legislation designed to ease tensions in the divided country, a move that should've been done long ago according to the details of the Marcoussis peace agreement. The new measures include a constitutional change allowing presidential candidates with only one Ivorian parent to contest elections.

Discrimination against northerners by the government, which stood accused of equating 'Muslim' with 'foreigner' via its xenophobic 'Ivoirité', was at the heart of northern resentment and ultimately the civil war which has split the country.

These constitutional changes are a welcome step, though a concerted campaign by the country's head of state, Laurent Gbagbo, to reign in his allies in the hate media are equally important to calming the situation in the country.

Though his recent threat to pull out of the CFA franc zone, French-speaking West Africa's currency union, shows Gbagbo's two faces: one moderate telling the international community what it wants to hear, the other belligerent telling the borderline fascist 'Young Patriot' militiamen types what they want to hear. He made his threat as a means of punishing his fellow heads of state allegedly fueling the rebellion in his country.

"Let me tell you, no Côte d'Ivoire, no UEMOA (West African Economic and monetary Union). Some heads of our sub-region think as [long-time Ivorian leader Félix] Houphouet Boigny is no more alive they will weaken Cote d'Ivoire to take the lead, but let me tell you even if a 15 year old boy takes over in Côte d'Ivoire, we will still be leading the West African sub-region" Gbagbo said.

Statesman-like? I think not.

Gbagbo's rule has been a huge letdown to those who thought he might bring welcome change to the country after nearly 40 years of one party rule (which imprisoned him several times) followed by a brief military regime. Those who thought he might be another Mandela, or even another Abdoulaye Wade, have been bitterly disappointed. Now, the best we can hope for is that Côte d'Ivoire doesn't become another Rwanda.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

How to do a health campaign

Now this is how you do a vaccination campaign.

In a unique all-in-one pilot campaign launched on Monday, almost a million Togolese children are to be vaccinated free of charge against measles and polio as well as being given mosquito nets to fight malaria and pills to treat intestinal worms, reports the UN's IRIN service.

Authorities are targeting 866,725 children aged between nine months and five years. They will be given a shot against measles, a polio vaccination, a pill against intestinal worms and a mosquito net treated with repellent to protect them from the malaria-carrying insects. Togo's health authorities said 95 percent of the country’s small children aged between 9 months and five years would be vaccinated under the US$ 6 million scheme.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Gambia's Norbert Zongo?

It looks The Gambia may have its own Norbert Zongo, publisher of an independent Burkina Faso paper who was assassinated for doing reporting that threatened the country's military strongman.

One of the leading journalists in The Gambia was shot dead late last night. Deyda Hydara, 58, editor of The Point newspaper and correspondent for the AFP news agency was shot three times in the head, his colleague said, reported the BBC. He was sharply critical of a tough new press law which was passed this week. The private media has complained that the government is trying to muzzle it. In April, the printing press of another paper were burnt down.

The press law provided for jail terms for those found guilty of libel or sedition and the seizure of the homes of the editors of libellous newspapers.

Typically The government said the law was needed to make journalists more responsible. Responsible being a code word for compliant.

One newspaper accused state security service attack of being behind the attack.

New Guinean PM appointed, but to what effect?

The Guinean leader Gen. Lansana Conté has finally appointed a new prime minister after an eight-month gap. The previous head of government, François Fall, submitted his shock resignation in April protesting that his political and economic reforms were being blocked, complaining that the head of state vetoed everything.

According to Fall, Conté had blocked efforts to reform the economy, tackle growing corruption, renegotiate Guinea's external debt, launch a new dialogue with the European Union and clean up the justice system. Fall went into exile in France to guarantee his safety before announcing he was standing down and the government did not actually acknowledge his defection.

There is little to suggest that Fall's succesor, former fisheries minister Cellou Dalien Diallo, will have any more success in modernizing the crubmling Guinean state. Too many entrenched interests, those linked to Conté and his entourage, control the economy.

But rising social discontent in the country makes reform all the more urgent. This year alone, there have been strikes and riots about a shortage of rice, unpaid salaries, skyrocketing electricity bills and living conditions for university students.

But the political situation is in suspended animation as all main actors are waiting for le général-président, who's 70 and can't walk unassisted, to die. There is no obvious successor to the man who's ruled with an iron fist for twenty years.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

State-sponsored murder banned in Senegal

While New York's state legislature is holding hearings to re-instate the death penalty (overturned by the state's highest court on a technical flaw), the national parliament in West Africa's Republic of Senegal recently voted to abolish state-sponsored and -implemented murder. This is a welcome move, even though Senegal hasn't actually carried out a formal execution since 1967. President Abdoulaye Wade has promised to sign the legislation this week.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

'All opposition movements are democratic' and other temporary situations

Chippla, over at his blog, comments on the profilgate ways of Africa's last absolute monarch. Swaziland's King Mswati III, has bought DaimlerChrysler's flagship Maybach 62 luxury car worth $500,000... King Mswati never seems to be short of surprises when it comes to displaying affluence and wealth in the most bizarre of ways.

But to Chippla, the more interesting part of the story is this. Only three other people in Southern Africa own this luxury car according to the report. They are Cyril Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale and Patrice Motsepe, three long-time activists of the African National Congress.

He opines Black empowerment 'doesn't seem to be a bad thing' especially when it creates billionaires and multi-millionaires out of former ANC activists and loyalists, some of whom were die-hard socialists turned market capitalists. Indeed market capitalism only seems to make sense when one benefits directly from it.

This reminds me of a comment by a Guinean friend of mine, who was a teaching colleague when I lived in that country. He noted, "Toute opposition est démocrate." All opposition movements are democratic. Or claim to be. But once they get in power, all bets are off. The same thing applies here. Ramaphose and others were devout socialists while they were part of 'the struggle.' But owning a $500,000 automobile is hardly an expression of solidarity with the masses, implicit in the ANC's professed values.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Rwanda maintains effective military control in eastern DR Congo: UN

Rwanda maintains military control over part of eastern DR Congo.

That's according to confidential UN documents obtained by the BBC.

The British broadcaster notes The alleged control - which Rwanda denies - is through proxy Congolese forces used by Rwanda... The papers say Rwanda maintains what the UN calls "Rwandan military structure of control" over parts of DR Congo through the use of proxy Congolese forces.
These forces are powerful.

In June, a renegade Congolese army chief seized the strategic Congolese town of Bukavu, on the border with Rwanda, in a move which led to widespread unrest throughout DR Congo.

According to the UN documents, the renegade Congolese army commander was "the military chief" of the Rwandan military structure of control and that, as recently as late last month, this structure remained in place.

The documents' conclusions were drawn even before recent reports that official Rwandan Army troops had yet again invaded Congolese territory.

Rwanda angrily denies any such allegations but asserts its right to pursue anti-Rwandan government rebels which have bases in DR Congo.

It's always curious when someone insists they have the right to do something illegal and controversial like this but deny actually doing it.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Eniymba repeats as African champions

Props to Nigerian soccer club Eniymba. Last year, they became the first Nigerian club to win Africa's premier club competition. This year, they became the first club since the 1968, and only the second ever, to repeat as African champions, after beating Etoile du Sahel on penalties after a 2-2 aggregate scoreline. The match was played in the Nigerian capital Abuja, after the African confederation CAF determined Eniymba's home stadium was too small to host such a high profile match.

Though apparently that didn't damped the enthusiasm of the supporters who made the trip. After the match, fans poured onto the pitch and ripped up advertising hoardings as officials and players ran to the dressing rooms. The presentation of the trophy was delayed by an hour as police struggled to restore order but there were no reports of serious incidents after the match,, reported the BBC.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Kufour wins Ghana elections; Rawlings distraught

Ghana's president John Kufour was re-elected to a second term, winning a majority 52.75% in the first round of Tuesday's general election. His main rival, Prof. John Atta Mills, trailed behind by eight points. The election was widely regarded as free and fair by observers and turnout was extremely high, over 83%.

Though, Mills' National Democratic Congress party may demand a recount. Kufour's campaign manager wondered why Mills did not want to concede defeat when it was clear that [Kufour] was winning and said Prof. Atta Mills won the respect of all Ghanaians when he conceded defeat four years ago, according to The Accra Daily Mail.

[Update: Mills apparently conceded defeat earlier today]

Possibly the most Orwellian incident from the election campaign came, not surprisingly, from the country's former leader. Jerry John Rawlings, who's never far from the cameras and microphones. He accused Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo of interfering in Ghana's electoral process. Specifically, he alleged that the Nigerian government brought in soldiers to help get the incumbent President John Agyekum Kufuor re-elected through manipulation, according to Nigerian paper This Day (via Atta Mills was Rawlings' vice president and was strongly backed by Rawlings in both the 2000 and 2004 elections.

Here's the kicker, Rawlings said, "For the first time in the history of this country, a very corrupt, dictatorial, brutal and primitive government is going to be removed, not by a coup d'etat, but by the electoral box."

Anyone familiar with the legacy of his 20 years in power, especially the savage early years, wishes that Rawlings would've allowed a very corrupt, dictatorial, brutal and primitive government be removed by the electoral box in the early 80s.

An interesting tidbit from the results was noted innoucously by the BBC World Service's Focus on Africa. One of the Focus reporters mentioned that despite Kufour's big win, a few of his ministers went down to defeat in parliamentary elections, including Education Minister Elizabeth Ohene. The reporter didn't mention that Ohene was the long time editor on the very same Focus on Africa show, as well as a regular on other BBC Africa programs.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

More of the same from Harare

Zimbabwe's regime apparently feels its slacking off in the harassment and repression domain. The country's parliament passed a bill which bans international human rights groups from operating in the country.

Stands to reason. Bob Mugabe and his mafia have pretty much banned rights in Zimbabwe, so why not ban rights' groups.

The importance of access to clean water

I live in a region of upstate New York that has abundant water. There are tons of lakes and rivers around here. We get a good amount of snow in the winters and a fair amount of rain in the spring (and this summer, as well, when it rained nearly every day). We almost never have water restrictions like they do in the western US. I can take long showers and don't have to boil drinking water. People can water their lawns and fill their pools.

This appeal in the UK Independent reminds me that not everyone can take water for granted. Mali is in the ever expanding Sahel, a semi-arid region in West Africa that separates the Sahara desert from the coastal rain forests. Except the Sahel is becoming increasingly arid and is threatened by full-fledged desertification.

The Independent notes that For years, the water-carriers of Mali have walked for miles through the brush for a drink that can kill. Malaria, from mosquitoes breeding in stagnant water, and water-borne diseases such as cholera are almost endemic in the country.

Hamidou Maïga, the representative of the British charity WaterAid in Mali, tells of a village near the border with Burkina Faso he visited a few years ago, where the water was infected with guinea worm in the rainy season. The worms enter the body through the water, and can grow up to 3ft long then break through the skin, often through the feet. Some victims have more than 20 worms erupting painfully from their bodies... Mr Maïga says the solution to eradicating guinea worm was simple: clean water. "Four years later, a standpipe was put in. Now, there are no cases of guinea worm."

Part of the problem is related to demographic shifts. WaterAid believes nearly half of the 12 million population of Mali lack access to safe water, and often have no choice but to drink from polluted sources such as unprotected wells and ponds. Nafadji, on the north-western outskirts of Bamako, used to have one waterpoint for 4,500 people. Pressure has increased on the supply as people move closer to the towns and build "temporary" houses which eventually become permanent. Working with the city water board, a community health centre and a non-governmental organisation, WaterAid now provides water, sanitation and hygiene to four districts of Bamako. One waterpoint now serves 500 inhabitants in Nafadji.

Sanitation is another issue, especially where lack of water makes it difficult simply to wash your hands. In Mali, only 15 per cent of the 12 million population have adequate sanitation facilities. In some villages, only the head man has a walled latrine. Traditional latrines are unspeakable. In rural areas, almost a quarter have no set lavatory. [one woman] says: "There was often dirty water in the street, so we ended up walking in stagnant water. Before we had proper latrines, the old ones would sometimes overflow so we were walking in the runoff from the latrines too."

Even when I was in Guinea, I took water for granted. I lived in the southeastern rain forest, where it rained every day for eight months of the year. My village was fortunate enough to have a deep-borne water pump (installed by the German development agency GTZ); villagers told me sickness had gone down significantly in the few years (at the time) since the pump was installed. In other regions of Guinea, notably the northeastern part that borders Mali, water is not quite so plentiful and access to clean water not so easy.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A bloody row

The South African blood service destroyed a donation made by Thabo Mbeki because the president is black. This has provoked indignation in South Africa.

The reality, as usual, is a bit more nuanced.

Mbeki did donate blood in 2001, but he refused to fill out an obligatory questionnaire. It's a questionnaire that every other South African blood donor has to answer. It's surely similiar to the one I have to answer before I donate blood.

What sort of pomposity causes one to think one immune from such necessary and universally applied steps and then blame it on racism? Perhaps the pomposity of a president of the republic.

Since South Africa has one of the highest HIV rates in the world, prudence on the part of blood officials should be applauded, not condemned. ALL donations from people who don't fill out questionnaires should be destroyed. Even from heads of state.

Though it was right to destroy Mbeki's blood for refusing to provide information every other blood donor must provide, the South African blood service DID screw up by leaking the fact to a newspaper. For this inexcusable ethical lapse, it rightly apologized to the president.

Abiola, over at Foreign Dispatches, speculates that the South African leader's refusal to fill out the obligatory questionnaire that involves questions on sexual activity along with Mbeki's refusal to accept the existence of a link between HIV and AIDS has something to do with his own health status.

I have no idea if this conjecture is true, but it would certainly explain some of Mbeki's bizarre behavior.

Monday, December 06, 2004

News briefs

No complaint against French 'massacre'
You might remember the worldwide scandal of French 'peacekeepers' violently repressing anti-French demonstrations in the Côte d'Ivoire commercial capital of Abidjan. There was even a video circulated purporting to show French soldiers shooting unarmed civilians. The Ivorian government, keen to keep anti-French sentiment smoldering, reacted hysterically to this incident. They claim that 57 Ivorians were killed and over 2200 were injured. Yet despite the horrible toll of this alleged massacre, I now read that the Ivorian government is denying that it will file a complaint against France in the International Court of Justice. Now if France's actions were really so horrific, wouldn't the regime of Laurent Gbagbo (who has its own reasons for encouraging French-bashing) be eager to embarass the French? Or perhaps if complete evidence were presented before a legal body, the conclusions might be different than what has surged around Abidjan and the blogosphere.

Landmines impede reconstruction
While the AIDS scourge rightly received a lot of attention this week, there is another major menace in many African countries. This UN article explains how much of a threat landmines remain in many African countries, even long after conflicts are over. "Landmines continue to be the main impediment to post-conflict reconstruction and development in our countries," said one African Union official. "Ridding the continent of this invisible and indiscriminate weapon is crucial for creating conditions for peace, security, stability and development in Africa, as well as reconciling and healing societies from the trauma of conflict."

Conakry: la poubelle
Guinea's only satirical newspaper often refers to the capital as 'Conakry la poubelle':(Conakry the trash can) because of the city's nastiness. This article from Angola Press reports how Matoto municipal council in the capital Conakry has pledged to give the district a face lift to improve its sanitation for the good health of the 800,000 people living there... Everyday the city`s communes produce between 600 and 800 tons of household refuse, according to the World Bank-funded Waste Transfer Pilot Service (SPTD) that took over the Urban Services Pilot Unit. Conakry is by far the most digusting city I've ever been too.

Should he stay or should he go?
The headline for this article in Cameroun's Le Quotidien Mutations made me laugh. Central African Republic citizens recently voted on a new constitution. The headline quoted the CAR's military leader François Bozizé speaking of his potential future election prospects: "Me, candidate? We'll see." If he doesn't run, I'm sure 2/3 of Central Africans will die of shock.

Profession: voter
Mozambique recently held presidential elections. In the wake of poor turnout, the country's outgoing president Joaquim Chissano made a bizarre suggestion to improve voter participation: paying voters. At first, I merely rolled my eyes at the absurdity. But there's a fine, and not always easily distinguishable, line between absurd and unconventional. The more I thought about it, the more I concluded it was an idea worth considering. So much money is spent on development assistance. Much of that money is wasted via corruption or inefficiency. Paying voters, even a modest sum, would ensure that at least some aid went directly to ordinary citizens. I'm not saying this is a panacea, nor would voter salaries be any more immune to corruption than other programs. But it's an idea I'm not so quick to dismiss out of hand for the context of developing countries.

Friday, December 03, 2004

'Expanded self-defense'

As much as I hate to say anything that might give aid and comfort to the American neo-conservatives... their criticisms of Jacques Chirac's integrity were correct. Chirac is a slimeball and always has been. Remember: back in 2002, he was in a run-off election against right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen. The left reluctantly voted for the center-right Chirac with the motto, "Vote for the crook, not the fascist." Former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, who beat KKK leader David Duke under similiar circumstances in the early 90s, would've been proud.

So the neo-cons' criticisms of Chirac weren't exactly original and had less to do with any interest in Chirac or French society as such than with the French leader's opposition to the Iraq war they wanted so much.

Chirac opposed the Iraq invasion because of selfish interests. Bush wanted the Iraq invasion for selfish interests. The hypocrisy of the neo-cons' criticisms were that they claimed the former while refusing to recognize the latter. Opponents always act selfishly; our motives are always pure as the white snow.

Chirac was right about the war, even if it was for the wrong reasons. The neo-cons were right about Chirac, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

In watching how Chirac's government works, it's vaguely reassuring to know that the US isn't the only country to have corrupt hypocrites in charge.

French soldiers are in Cote d'Ivoire (West Africa) as part of a UN peacekeeping mission. Cote d'Ivoire was, for a long time, France's premier client state in Africa. The peacekeepers were in the country to mediate an uneasy truce between the government and northern rebels; both parties agreed to peacekeepers and both have since soured on the peacekeepers.

The Ivorian government re-started the civil war by bombing the rebel-controlled north. They also bombed a military base with French peacekeepers. Accidentally, said the Ivorian government; a claim believed by exactly no one. The French unwisely responded by destroying the Ivorian air force and by repressing an anti-French demonstration in the country's commercial capital Abidjan. The Ivorian government and its militia allies had long used French-bashing to whip xenophobic and nationalistic sentiment which naturally led to violence against French residents and French-owned businesses.

The repression of the anti-French marches has probably had the most lasting effect. There are unsubstantiated rumors that French soldiers fired on unarmed protesters in an unprovoked manner. Several Ivorians were left dead. Whether or not the 'unprovoked' and 'unarmed' parts are actually true is almost irrelevant; pro-government types believe it's true and act accordingly.

The French government justified these very un-peacekeeping-like actions very strangely. The French minister of defense said that in such situations, the French military reserved the right to use 'la légitime défense élargie.' A curious phrase that means 'expanded self-defense.'

I'm wondering what exactly is the substantive distinction between 'expanded self-defense' and President Bush's equally dubious doctrine of 'pre-emption.'

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Straight talk on AIDS day

Today is World AIDS day. I've written before on AIDS, which is presently the greatest menace to humanity by far. I won't drown you with more numbers. You can find out about those at the UNAIDS organization's website.

Dr Susan Hunter, author of Black Death: AIDS in Africa*, notes that a historic graph of world population would note three great dips; they coincide with the black death that plague Europe in the Middle Ages, the genocide of the North American Indians after the Spanish conquest and the explosion of the AIDS pandemic.

[*-For more information on the book, click here]

Hunter's book tells the untold story of AIDS in Africa, home to 80 percent of the 40 million people in the world currently infected with HIV. She weaves together the history of colonialism in Africa, an insider's take on the reluctance of drug companies to provide cheap medication and vaccines in poor countries, and personal anecdotes from the 20 years she spent in Africa working on the AIDS crisis.

Last night, the BBC World Service's World Today program aired an extended interview with President Festus Mogae of Botswana; the southern African nation, one of the richest and most stable on the continent, has the highest HIV rate in the world.

It was one of the most astonishing interviews I'd ever hard. While most people have come to expect politicians to equivocate, spin or at least gloss over shortcomings, President Mogae's frankness blew me away. He admitted that his country's policies weren't having the desired effect in slowing the HIV rate. He admitted that the messages of the anti-HIV campaign weren't being heeded. He admitted that the program of offering retroviral drugs to those infected wasn't financially sustainable in the long term, even if it did some good. What else could be done? "We have to say things like 'abstain or die'," said the president.

In Africa, many leaders have been reticent to talk about HIV-AIDS. Former Zambian leader waited until after the scourge had a stranglehold on his country to admit publicly his son had AIDS. South Africa's president Thabo Mbeki seems to think the virus is some sort of fiction and what scientists call HIV is really diseases caused by poverty.

The only country where HIV-AIDS has been seriously rolled back is Uganda. And that was in no small part due to the candor of Uganda's president who made fighting the scourge a national priority. Even to the point of tackling taboos head on. Though there is no single magic bullet for fighting the pandemic, President Mogae's straight talk is a welcome step.

Coup plot in Eq. Guinea: a little perspective, please

Chippla, whose blog I enjoy reading, has written quite a bit about the alleged attempted coup against the dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea. The story has gained a bit of press attention because one of the accused is the son of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

Equatorial Guinea is one of the world's worst human rights abuser [Human Rights Watch among others]. It's dictator, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, has been likened to Idi Amin, but without the charisma. Some comparison!

Even the trial of the alleged coup plotters was 'seriously flawed' [Amnesty Intl]

Ironic since Obiang himself came to power via a coup plot against none other than his uncle.

But none of this seems to trouble Chippla, who's more focused on allegations western involvement.

First, there were reports that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw knew of the Equatorial Guinea coup plot weeks before the mercenaries were arrested. Not that he was involved in the coup plot, only that he know and didn't mention it to the dictator.

Most recently, a BBC story was relayed by Chippla, who wrote:

The previous Spanish government of Jose-Maria Aznar was involved in the planning of the aborted coup! Well, that's according to the BBC, which interviewed the National Security Adviser of Equatorial Guinea

He really should've written: "That's according to the National Security Advisor of Equatorial Guinea, as interviewed by the BBC."

Obiang runs arguably the most repressive regime in Africa. While Chippla may disagree with the concept of overthrowing leaders just because they're bad guys (and he barely acknowledges this in the most passing way), it astonishes me that he would report comments from the regime unchallenged and without even the merest hint of skepticism.

For all he professed restraint ("Passing any judgment at this stage may be premature until the veracity of this claim is ascertained"), it's clear he believes Spanish involvement was likely ("all I'd like to say is that this was modern Spain at its best working... to protect its most selfish of interests in its former colony. Equatorial Guinea could likely have become just another client state had the coup been successful")

It's classic example of the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" paradox faced by Africaphiles in the west (yes, there are a few). If the west does something (Spain allegedly in Eq. Guinea, Britain in Sierra Leone), it's automatically accused of meddling exclusively for selfish interests. If the west does nothing, critics scream apoplectically that it's racist for abandoning poor Africans (Darfur, Rwanda).

If Chippla is willing to condemn repeatedly westerns for their alleged involvement in this apparent plot, perhaps he could spare a thought for the Equato-Guineans who are tortured, repressed or constrained to exile by Obiang's dicatorship. I'd imagine the coup plot is the least of their worries.