Thursday, March 31, 2005

Hunger makes for good politics in Mugabeland

A legislative electoral farce is taking place in Zimbabwe today. Most outside observers have said the election won't be free and fair. Some denounce this saying "Let's wait and see how election day and the counting go." However, this attitude is wrong headed. An election campaign is not fought solely on election day and in days after. So it's myopic to determine an election's fairness solely based on what happens on election day.

Even if the ruling regime of dictator Robert Mugabe (which runs the elections) doesn't engage in massive overt vote rigging, it will be extremely difficult for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to win. And this is not because Mugabe's ZANU-PF party is widely popular. Widespread political violence and intimidation usually doesn't help a ruling party's popularity, as does economic disaster and widespread hunger. Despite Mugabe's open contempt for the international community and use of foreigners as a scapegoat to distract the public's attention from the catastrophic domestic situation, the UN's World Food Program provided aid to 4.5 million Zimbabweans in 2004... over 35% of the population. That in a country that used to be the bread basket of southern Africa before Mugabe implemented disastrous policies to shore up his ailing political fortunes.

But the real enemy isn't hunger or inflation or repression of domestic opponents. It's British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He's responsible for all of Zimbabwe's ills, according to Mugabe. And since the opposition MDC is controlled by Blair, according to Mugabe's propaganda, they are evil too.

The election almost certainly won't be fair because, the MDC and outside observers claim:

-State-controlled radio and television, which have a monopoly, favour Zanu-PF;

-Until recently, they were often refused permission to hold rallies and their activists harassed;

-Food aid has been denied to opposition supporters, they say;

-Constituency boundaries have been changed to favour the ruling party.

Though admittedly many American states engage in the last of those trickeries.

Additionally, Zimbabweans living out of the country can not vote in the election unless they are soldiers are diplomats. In other words, those most likely to support Mugabe or be involved in his regime can vote. But those who've fled the country for economic and/or political reasons, the ones least likely to appreciate the regime, can not vote. Very convenient.

Furthermore, the parliament is rigged in favor of Mugabe's regime. The thug-in-chief gets to appoint 30 members of the 150 seat parliament. So for the opposition to gain a majority, they have to win 76 out of the 120 contested seats. They have to win a whopping 63.3%.of the contested seats in spite all the handicaps listed above and in spite of any ballot box stuffing, vote rigging or other chicanery that might occur.

Zimbabwe's future is bleak. Some hope that a Georgian or Ukranian or Serbian style popular uprising might topple the dictatorship... something called for last week by the Catholic archbishop of the southern city of Bulawayo. However, Mugabe's scapegoating of Tony Blair still resonates in many rural parts of the country. And, quite frankly, popular uprisings take a lot of energy and determination. People on the verge of hunger quite understandably focus their energies on the most basic needs.

Hunger does indeed make for good politics in Mugabe's Zimbabwe.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

"All that I am saying is do not cut"

While the campaign against female genital mutilation in Africa has made progress in some places, this piece makes clear that the fight is not so easy in other places.

When the president's wife sponsors the circumcision of 1,500 young girls to win votes for her husband, you know you've got a problem persuading ordinary people and the government that female genital mutilation (FGM) is a bad idea.

And when the woman who is now Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Women's Affairs, threatens to "sew up the mouths" of those who preach against FGM, you realise that you are facing a really big uphill struggle.

This is actually somewhat astonishing. While it's not surprising for high-ranking officials to, in practice, give a wink and a nod to FGM, most usually go through the formality of opposing it in words. That overtly defending FGM is seen as a vote winner is quite disturbing.

But that has not dissuaded Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a gynaecologist in Sierra Leone, from campaigning against the practice for 30 years, ignoring death threats and angry protestors storming her clinic.

A crudely performed operation to remove the clitoris from adolescent girls forms a key part of the initiation ceremonies held by powerful, women-only secret societies that prepare young girls for adult life, marriage and motherhood in the West African country
, reports the UN's IRIN service.

She explained the difficulties and misunderstandings that often accompany her work.

Koso-Thomas, who came to Sierra Leone from Nigeria, sees nothing wrong with such 'bundu' societies and their initiation ceremonies but, on medical grounds, she and a handful of other women's rights campaigners want the circumcision ritual replaced by something less brutal and hazardous.

"People got me wrong at first. When I was going to the communities and sensitising them, they thought I was against their society," Koso-Thomas told IRIN. "But it is as a doctor that I started campaigning and sensitising people about the health hazards, because I saw all the complications."

"The real meaning of the bundu society is very good," she said. "It is where they train young girls to become women: they teach them how to sing, dance and cook ... girls who don't go to school learn how to use herbs and treat illnesses; they are taught to respect others."

"All that I am saying is, 'Continue with this training, but do not cut.' This is my message," said the gynaecologist who has written a book about the practice of FGM in Sierra Leone.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

HIV on the rise in Guinea

For decades under the Sékou Touré dictatorship, Guinea was a closed country with people not easily able to leave the country and even less easily able to return. Ironically, one of the positive effects of this isolation was that the country had a relative low rate of HIV infection, unlike its more open, prosperous and immigrant-heavy neighbor Côte d'Ivoire.

But the virus apparently on the rise in Guinea, according to an IRIN article.

A new sentinel survey of pregnant women who underwent voluntary AIDS testing in maternity clincs, indicates that 4.3 percent of Guinea's adult population is infected with HIV, according to work done by the country's anti-AIDS council and the German development organization GTZ. That represents a big jump from the figure of 2.8 percent suggested by the previous sentinel survey carried out in 2001.

Though it's worth noting that testing was done in maternity clinics in the capital Conakry and the large interior cities Mamou, Labe, Kankan and N'Zérékoré.

However, health workers in Guinea told IRIN that it showed a big fluctuation in HIV prevalence rates between different parts of the West African country. While infection rates were generally higher in the main towns, they reached a peak of over 13 percent in the rural area around the southeastern town of Nzerekore, they noted.

There is a large refugee population in and around N'Zérékoré, as a result of the Liberian and Ivorian civil wars.

This 2000 documentary from Radio Netherlands, The Tattered Welcome Mat, explored the difficulties faced by Guineans in parts of the country inhabited by large populations of refugees.

Update: This feature on the UN's IRIN service also explores the problems caused by the refugee surge in the Guinean Forest region

Monday, March 28, 2005

Archbishop calls for Mugabe's departure

While I'm on the subject of Zimbabwe, the country's most prominent Catholic archbishop has called for his countrymen to rise up against dictator Robert Mugabe and "chase him away."

Archbishop Pius Ncube, from the opposition stronghold of Bulawayo, told a South African paper, "[A]s it is, people have been too soft with this government. So people should pluck up just a bit of courage and stand up against him and chase him away."

He insisted he was not advocating violence, but simply backing a peaceful uprising like that in Ukraine last year.

The dictatorship reacted in typical fashion to the archbishop's comments. "[Archbishop Ncube] is a mad, inveterate liar. He has been lying for the past two years. As an Archbishop, we expect him to tell the truth," frothed a ZANU-PF spokesman.

Making sure to stick to the regime's script, the spokesman added, "He, however, fits into the scheme of the British and Americans, who are calling for regime change and are feeding him with these wild ideas."

Then again, if I'd destroyed a country as thoroughly as Mugabe and his lackies, I'd be deathly afraid of a popular uprising too.

The pathetic saga of Jonathan Moyo

The rise and fall of Jonathan Moyo, former mouthpiece for Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe, is a fascinating saga.

Moyo used to be a vocal critic of Mugabe, but was eventually co-opted by the strongman. He quickly became Mugabe's apologist-in-chief, offering explanations, rationalizations, manipulations in ways that were quite, shall we say, creative. Along with Iraq's "Comical Ali" and former Liberian defense minister Daniel Chea, Moyo was truly one of the great Orwellian sycophants of our time.

When the ZANU-PF movement chose a vice-presidential candidate for Mugabe, Moyo fell afoul of the dictator by promoting a different candidate than the one Mugabe wanted. He was sacked as information minister and is now running for re-election to parliament as an independent in the upcoming election ruse.

Last week, Mugabe revealed at a campaign rally that he made his one-time spin doctor cry. "We asked him whether he wanted to stage a coup... and tears started flowing down his cheeks," Mugabe told a campaign rally for the ruling party. "No, Jonathan, you are clever, but you lack wisdom. You are educated, but you do not have wisdom."

There's something about this incident that seems to embody Zimbabwean politics. The pathetic suckup meekly pandering to the loud-mouthed bully. Mugabe expects his toadies to be totally submissive to his demands. Imagine his fury when he found out that Moyo was in it for himself.

As information minister, Moyo passed repressive anti-media laws and engineered general harassment of journalists. I'm sure what's left of a free press in Zimbabwe is shedding tears over Moyo's plight.

Mugabe alleges that Moyo met an army commander and hinted he may have been plotting a coup. Yet, Moyo not only remains free but is running for office. Others have been beaten, tried and jailed for far less severe offenses than alleged treason. It's very curious why Moyo isn't suffering the same fate.

I wonder what he knows.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Charles Taylor 'remains a threat to peace'

Remember back when warlord and former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor fled into exile in disgrace, rather than be overthrown by rebels? Nigeria offered him residency under the pretense that it would be a service to peace in Liberia. There were widespread calls for Nigeria President Olesegun Obasanjo to hand over Taylor to the Sierra Leone War Crimes Tribunal, which had indicted Taylor as a war criminal. Encouraging stability in Liberia and West Africa was sufficient excuse to give indicted war criminal Taylor immunity/impunity.

This article (in French) in Le Monde paints a different picture. David Crane, prosecutor for the Sierra Leone tribunal, said of Taylor, "Since his departure from Liberia, he remains a menace to peace and security in the region."

Described in the West African press as 'one of the greatest predators of Africa,' Charles Taylor is accused of crimes against humanity and of violation of humanitarian law by the special court, reports Le Monde. Taylor has to respond to crimes committed in Sierra Leone where he had given his support to the Revolutionary United Front rebels (RUF).

The French daily added: In spring 2004, the [UN] Security Council asked states to freeze [Taylor's] assets and those of his circle, guilty of having 'pillaged the resources of Liberia and transfered their booty out of the country.

Indicted war criminal Taylor remains undisturbed, if largely out of the public eye, in Nigeria.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Nujoma bows out

For the first time since independence in 1990, Namibia has a president other than Sam Nujoma. Hifikepunye Pohamba has been sworn in to replace the man generally considered to be the father of Namibia's independance.

TheMalau, over at the Salon of News and Thoughts blog, lauds the change. "Peaceful transition of power... now that's a cool concept!" he raves.

Although the process was not perfect in Namibia, it was good enough for a democracy of only 15 years of full independence... we could learn that it is doable, and that it does not need to be perfect at the first try.

He pretty much encapsulates my thoughts in a nutshell. This was not the true test of a democracy. After all, both Pohamba and Nujoma belong to the same SWAPO party, which retains control of the state. In fact, Nujoma remains president of SWAPO, despite no longer being president of the Republic.

However, this is a laudable move by Nujoma. I've often said that the greatest gift Nelson Mandela gave to South Africa was to serve only one term. In doing so, he sent the message that he was not indispensible, that he was not country. Too many African leaders peddle the propaganda that the state will collapse without their omniscient and omnipotent wisdom. In ceding power, Nujoma, like Mandela, sent his countrymen the message that they live in a mature country that is not solely dependent on a single man.

The charismatic Nujoma has often been compared to Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. They do share a few superficial traits. They both have publicly attacked gays, invoke anti-imperalist rhetoric whenever possible, have a great deal of charisma and are both former guerilla leaders. I believe they are friends.

But there are significant differences between the two. The main difference is that for his bellicose rhetoric, Sam Nujoma generally respected basic democratic norms and press freedom. There were no massacres in opposition heartlands, no mass arbitrary arrests, no use of food aid as a political weapon, no broad assault on the rule of law.

Another main difference is that SWAPO has evolved into an actual party that represents its membership and is not automatically beholden to its leader. In fact, there was a move by some to force through a constitutional amendment that would've allowed Nujoma to serve more terms as president. The party was independent minded enough to reject the effort. In Zimbabwe, ZANU-PF essentially remains an instrument of Mugabe.

Most expect that Pohamba will continue Namibia on the same path. However, most expected the same from Zambia's Levy Mwanawasa and Malwai's Bingu wa Mutharika and were quite surprised at the results.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Kagame Jr in the CAR?

On 11 March, I wrote an essay entitled Once a military strongman, always a military strongman on the Central African Republic's junta leader Gen. François Bozizé.

As if he read my essay and wanted to conform to my sterotype, Gen. Bozizé then proceded to fire his national unity government vice-president, the veteran opposition leader Abel Goumba.

Goumba had the audacity to sign a petition complaining of fraud during Sunday's vote. Observers do not consider Goumba to be a serious contender for president, although, according to one local politician, "I suspect the fact that he refused to join the coalition to elect Bozize was what cost him the vice-presidency".

The general is ahead in counting following the presidential elections of 13 March. Hardly surprising after strongarm tactics like excluding several serious contenders to his throne.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Sudanese regime outed by Janjaweed leader

As regular readers will know, genocide (or massive crimes against humanity, if you prefer) has been taking place in the eastern Sudanese region of Darfur. Government sponsored Janjaweed militia have massacred tens of thousands of people... at the very least. The resulting humanitarian situation is clearly one of the worst in the world. Some fear the scale of the humanitarian crisis is being underestimated. This is being aggravated by the threats against international aid agencies by the Janjaweed genociders, threats which have provoked the withdrawal of foreign UN workers from the region.

One constant has been the vigorous denials by the Sudanese regime of Gen. Omar el-Bashir that they are in any way linked to the militias. The militias are just a ragtag bunch of bandits, according to the regime. This is contrary to what nearly everyone else says. And now, it's contrary to what the the alleged Janjaweed leader himself said.

A top militia leader says the Sudan government backed and directed Janjaweed activities in northern Darfur, reported Human Rights Watch, in a video released earlier this month.

Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal states that the government of Sudan directed all military activities of the militia forces he had recruited. "All of the people in the field are led by top army commanders," adding quite explicitly that "These people get their orders from the Western command center, and from Khartoum."

The organization added that Darfur government documents in the possession of Human Rights Watch refer to official Sudanese government support for Musa Hilal. In a memo dated February 13, 2004 from the office of a sub-locality in North Darfur, the authorities urge all "security units in the locality" to "allow the activities of the mujahedeen and the volunteers under the command of Sheikh Musa Hilal to proceed in the areas of [North Darfur] and to secure their vital needs."

Friday, March 18, 2005

Mugabe attacks the firefighters, while Zimbabwe burns

While most world attention on Zimbabwe is rightly focused on the oppression of the Mugabe regime, UNICEF is warning the international community not to forget about the country's AIDS crisis.

The director of the international children's fund Carol Bellamy said international sanctions aimed at President Robert Mugabe were also impacting on Zimbabwe's children. Every eighth child in Zimbabwe dies before the age of five. That death rate was up 50 percent since 1990. Every 15 minutes a Zimbabwean child dies from HIV and AIDS. One million orphans had also lost their parents to the [pandemic].

Donor funding has dropped significantly, probably due to justifiable concern over the repression and corruption of the Mugabe regime.

It means Zimbabwe receives an average of just $4 per HIV-infected person compared with $74 elsewhere, she added, according to the BBC.

It's a terrible paradox for the international community and for domestic Zimbabwean anti-AIDS groups. It would be easy to say something like, "Sanctions should punish the regime, not the citizens," but it's hard to figure out how to make that happen in practice. Only last week, the regime itself launched a campaign against the very non-governmental organizations who might led the fight against the scourge.

So how does the international community, castigated for its lack of funding, and NGOs operating in Zimbabwe move forward on the issue when it's faced with the active hostility of the regime in Harare?

Thursday, March 17, 2005

IBB '07?

Chippla, one of my favorite blogs, is in no doubt of the ambitions of former Nigerian head of state Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. Though Nigeria was always a difficult country to govern, "IBB", brought repression and corruption to new levels during his spell as military dictator from 1985-93. He was only surpassed in that regard by his demonic successor, Gen. Sani Abacha.

While, Chippla and most other people view IBB as the man who began the destruction of Nigeria, has a different take.

Do you know that a collection of words today will definitely form history tomorrow? This question reminds me of a man who had performed series of operations that bailed a nation out of the doldrum and his name will ring forever in the ears of his people even if he had some vulnerable manners – people will still continue to echo the good and reject the bad manners in such a person.

The website calls him, not only 'a hero,' but a 'Defender of Human Right & Democracy.' It notes that IBB gave some books on human rights to US President Ronald Reagan (who surely needed them) and followed these human rights gestures [sic] with yet another. He set up a two-party system for Nigeria to replace the chaotic several parties that contributed to the demise of the previous two republics.

No mention of IBB's annullment of the 1993 presidential elections, which were to be the culmination of that supposed democratization process.

Then again, Nigeria's miltiary is still very powerful in the country's fairly new democracy, even if an overt military coup is almost unthinkable (especially in the light of the Togo situation). However, in a country run by the military for the overwhelming majority of its history, it's little surprise that so many former soldiers are involved in politics. The most recent democratic presidential election pitted... two former military heads of state.

Monday, March 14, 2005

So what else is new?

Newsflash: Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe is repressing [groups] that don't toe his line.

Some variation of this could be the title of pretty much any entry written about Zimbabwe in recent years. After harassing usual suspects like the press and the opposition (one and the same according to Bob), Mugabe and his mafia are going after non-governmental organizations [NGOs].

State-controlled media cites unnamed sources as saying there are fears that some funds [spent by NGOs] have been channelled to the opposition or sold on the black market... The government has repeatedly accused NGOs of interfering in national affairs and supporting the opposition, reports the BBC.

According to Bob and company, offering food aid to regions of the country where the opposition is strong constitutes 'supporting the opposition.'

Last year, a law was passed introducing a licence for all NGOs.

The same treatment that was reserved for the press.

Foreign human rights groups were also banned from working in Zimbabwe.


The list of NGOs published by the state-controlled Herald newspaper includes well-known international agencies such as Save the Children, World Vision and Care.

Subversive organizations all.

The NGOs are being threatened with existing legislation, but the Zimbabwean government is preparing to promulgate a new law which will impose much greater restrictions on their activities.

I'm not sure why they'd bother. The law is merely incidental the the regime's activities anyway.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The former 'Switzerland of Africa' searches for a turning point

The BBC's Elizabeth Blunt offers her musings on Togo's attempts to get out of the shadow of the late strongman Gnassingbé Eyadéma.

While neighbors Ghana and Nigeria languished in economic crises, Togo was doing quite well.

Eyadema had his faults, but he left the commanding heights of the economy strictly alone. "The Switzerland of Africa!" claimed his officials with enthusiasm, writes Blunt. Everywhere there was French food, and if the government had anything to do with it, champagne. The businesswomen in the market got so rich they drove Mercedes, Togo's famous Nana Benz.

A quarter century later, Nigeria's slowly moving in the right direction and Ghana is considered a model African country. Togo's capital, by contrast, is dilapidated and dusty. The Nana Benz were complaining loud and long, and no one complains longer or louder than a West African market woman with a grievance. There were no customers any more, no money. The printed cloth is still piled high in the market. Duty free whisky is still less than half the price it is in Scotland, but no one is buying.

But the upcoming elections may signal a chance to free the country from the control of Eyadéma and his clan. But only if they reject (and are allowed to reject) his son, Gnassingbé II, at the polls.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

In Rwanda, perfect is not an option

On Wednesday, I praised the work of the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. The next day, similiar justice began in Rwanda, with the opening of the Gacaca courts.

Gacaca are community based courts, based on traditional practices that promote reconciliation between the perpetrator and the community. Though significantly different from western-style punitive justice, the gacaca are necessary to deal with the over 100,000 people accused of genocide or related acts that still languish in Rwanda's jails... nearly 11 years after the horror.

Focusing on confession and apology, the Gacaca courts are also intended to facilitate national reconciliation as those who confess and plead guilty could have their sentences reduced, notes the UN's IRIN service. Gacaca, meaning grass in the local Kinyarwanda language, was traditionally used by village communities who would gather on a patch of grass to resolve conflicts among families, employing the heads of each household as judges.

Gacacas will focus mainly on the underlings, as national courts and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (located in Arusha, Tanzania) deal with the higher ups. "They have started with suspects who fall under category two, who include mainly people that took orders to kill from their superior," Anastase Balinda, head of documentation in the national service of the Gacaca jurisdictions, told IRIN. Trials started in 751 village courts where for the past two years thousands of suspects have been questioned by locally elected judges, sitting as investigative panels.

Some human rights groups question the due process safeguards of the gacaca. Many fear the mob mentality may taint some gacaca or that the accused will face undue pressure to confess. Others worry of a whitewash, as the gacaca are apparently not allowed to consider crimes committed by the then-rebel RPA (now the RPF ruling party).

The gacaca system is not perfect. Yet perfect is not an option in the present circumstances. There are 100,000 people still in Rwandan jails. Close to a million people perished during the 1994 genocide and countless others fled into exile, including a disproportionate of the educated elite of which the official legal system is comprised. Trying the 100,000 accused through the 'normal' legal system would take forever and they would remain in jail indefinitely. Is that fair?

Given the lack of serious alternatives, the gacaca, however imperfect, is clearly the best way to expedite justice in Rwanda and help the country move forward.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Once a military strongman, always a military strongman

General elections are scheduled for Sunday in the Central African Republic. The head of state, Gen. François Bozizé, is the favorite among the 11 eligible presidential candidates.

Mr Bozize was roundly condemned internationally when he seized power in a military coup, but he has gradually gained approval at home after restoring security to the capital, paying wage arrears and launching an anti-corruption drive, notes the BBC.

Gen. Bozizé has apparently done his best to exclude serious contenders to his throne, notes this piece (in French) from the Kinshasa paper Le Potentiel, in neighboring DR Congo.

Central African authorities have already barred from the presidential race Ange-Félix Patassé, the country's only democratically-elected (not to be confused with democratic-acting) leader who was overthrown in the coup that installed Bozizé. Now, Jean Jacques Démafouth is also being barred from re-entering the country. Both actions are in violation of the Libreville accords, the protocol which was supposed to guide the CAR back to democracy.

Once a military strongman, always a military strongman, as they say.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The problems of the independent press in Guinea

This piece (in French) from Guineenews fears for the future of the independent press in Guinea. The primary cause cited is collapse fo the country's currency. It now takes over 2800 Guinean Francs (FG) to buy an American dollar; ten years ago, it only took around 1000. Guineenews notes that the higher cost of paper, ink and other materials gives Guinean newspapers the highest price in the subregion and, accordingly, the lowest circulation. Even the state paper Horoya, the country's only daily, disappears at times for financial reasons.

Though on the political side, defenders of the press were happy to see the demise of Moussa Sampil, the much-loathed security minister who lost his post on Tuesday in a cabinet reshuffle.

Sampil became the latest minister to pique the ire of the press and the opposition when he ordered the arrest of many people after an alleged attempt to kill the [Guinean head of state Gen. Lansana Conté] in January. These included a lawyer and a journalist, prompting both groups to campaign against him, noted the BBC. A knowledgeable source at the presidency told our correspondent that the continuing boycott by lawyers of court sessions, and the projection by the local press of Mr Sampil as the government's "black sheep", hastened his departure.

"Sampil is gone. It is good for press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights in this country," raved one journalist, who perhaps should know better. The Conté regime has has long adopted a Jeckyll-and-Hyde approach to the independent press, alternatively tolerating and harassing journalists. Conté has replaced despises security ministers before and this has never changed the fundamental outlook of the regime.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Sierra Leone war criminals on trial

Last summer, the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone has begun work. Back in the 1990s, the Revolutionary United Front rebels destroyed the small West African country. Though they didn't bother pretending to have any sort of ideology or political demands, the RUF prosecuted one of the most vicious and savage wars the 'modern' world has seen. Their most infamous signature was using a scythe to chop off the arms or hands of their victims (be they 80 years old or 2 years old, combattant or civilian). They were deeply implicated in the blood diamonds trade, which was used to finance the mass terror. They kidnapped children to be used soldiers, some as young as ten, drugged them up and gave them Kalashnikovs to terrorize everyone in site. They forced many children to kill their own family members in order to diminish the likelihood of desertion, essentially turning the social structure upside down. And that's not counting the cold-blooded murder, pillaging, gang rape and sexual slavery. Northern Uganda's so-called Lord's Resistance Army apparently took inspiration from the RUF.

Earlier this week, the tribunal started hearing the cases against three prominent members of the 1997-98 AFRC military government, which really wasn't little better than the RUF. The three were accused of murder, rape, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers.

These people were scum of the worst kind who inflicted incomprehensible suffering on innocent bystanders. Give them the justice they so savagely stole from their victims and let them rot in jail cells for the rest of their pathetic lives.

Now all that's needed is for them to be joined by former Liberian warlord and dictator Charles Taylor, who's in cushy exile in Nigeria.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

South African film wins at FESPACO

Every other February, the small, hot and dry West African country of Burkina Faso hosts one of the world's top film festival. The FESPACO film festival, held in Burkina's capital Ouagadougou, brings together the small, but vibrant, African film community. This year, the winner of the top prize, l'Etalon d'or de Yennenga was the film Drum, by the South African director Zola Maseko.

The film centres on a determined reporter and his clashes with the apartheid regime, notes the BBC. The hero of Drum is the fun loving, hard-drinking philanderer, Henry Nxumalo, a magazine reporter. Nxumalo's enterprising reportage leads him into direct conflict with South Africa's apartheid machinery with fatal consequences.

Drum is only the second English-language film to win FESPACO's top prize since 1989. The African film industry is most vibrant in West and North Africa, which are predominantly French- and Arab-speaking respectively.

Second prize went to the Moroccan film, La Chambre Noire, a film about the tortures and extra judicial imprisonment in 1970s Morocco, part of the period referred as 'The Years of Lead' in the country.

Tasuma Le Feu, a comedy by Burkinabe director Kollo Sanou carried the third prize. It tells the story of an elderly ex-serviceman, Tasuma, who fought for France but was still waiting for his pension years later. Fed up with waiting Tasuma holds the district administrator hostage and forces him to dictate a letter to French President General Charles de Gaulle - who unknown to Tasuma is long dead.

In conjunction with the festival, Burkina Faso's most famous cineaste Gaston Kaboré (who directed such wonderful films as Wend Kuuni and Zan Boko) has decided to use his money to open up the country's first film school.

In a related story, Le Monde has an interview (in French) with the legendary Senegalese director and poet Sembène Ousmane.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Slavery in Niger

One of the more bizarre stories of the weekend came from the Sahel country of Niger. The country's government had organized a special ceremony during which 7000 slaves were to be granted freedom, only to cancel the event on the pretext that slavery did not exist in the country.

It begs the question: why would the government organize an event in the first place for something that allegedly did not exist? What about the 7000 slaves who were to be granted their freedom? Did they suddenly vanish from the Earth? Did their slave masters suddenly see the Abolitionist light? Did slavery suddenly disappear between the time the government decided to sponsor this event and the time it cancelled the event?

Some 43,000 people are slaves in Niger, according to most accounts.

Except, of course, according to the Niger government. They apparently believe that the number went from a significant amount (when they felt the need to sponsor the anti-slavery event) to zero in the course of a few months.

Slavery and the slave trade were officially banned by Niger's parliament only in May 2003.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The leopard can't change his spots, but can an appeaser?

South African President Thabo Mbeki has further discredited himself on the Zimbabwe situation by stating that this month's parliamentary elections in the country would be free and fair.

"Things like the independent electoral commission, things like access to the public media, things like the absence of violence and intimidation, those matters have been addressed," Mr Mbeki said on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the main opposition MDC party was "stunned" to hear of Mbeki's comments. "He [Mbeki] probably knows things that those of us who are on the ground do not know," he tartly commented.

The spokesman noted that although state media were running paid MDC ads, state media news coverage was given exclusively to the ruling ZANU-PF party. He added that those who attacked MDC activists usually went unpunished, while opposition rallies were rarely authorised and Zanu-PF was allowed to campaign freely.

Given the long history of thuggery (when not outright massacres, like in the early 1980s) as state policy of the Mugabe regime and given Mugabe's open contempt for international, even African, standards of basic decency, it's very hard to believe that Bob and his mafia have suddenly bought into the

Unlike most other African leaders, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade has rejected the ostrich approach with regard to the crisis created by Mugabe. Though I'm sure he'd be derided as a stooge of Tony Blair by Bob and his apologists.

Had Mbeki not had a long history of appeasing the Mugabe regime, then perhaps his conclusions of "progress" in Zimbabwe might be taken seriously.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

UN peacekeepers attack militias in DR Congo

The UN peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (known as MONUC) have attacked militiamen in the northeast of the country. The attack follows the killing of nine Bangladeshi peacekeepers in the area last week. MONUC denied that the attack was in revenge for the killing of the peacekeepers though some local critics have been calling, to no avail, for stronger UN action for a while.

In a related story, the interim central goverment reportedly arrested several leaders of the militia group accused of killing the Bangladeshis. It's unclear how militia leaders based in Kinshasa could be responsible for killing peacekeepers in Ituri, which is several thousand miles away.