Monday, August 29, 2005

Guinea finally allows private broadcasters

Guinea has finally become the last West African country to allow private broadcasters. The head of state, Gen. Lansana Conté, issued his long awaited decree to liberalize the country's airwaves.

A few interesting notes on the text of the decree:

-Broadcasters can not be affiliated with a political party (I wonder if this applies to state radio and television). Nor can they be affiliated with any religion, region or ethnic group

-Nobody can own more than one radio broadcasting station and/or television broadcasting station at a time

Of course, broadcasters still have to apply to the government's National Council on Communications.

Interestingly, the decree was prefaced wit hthe following justifications...

In view of the constitution in its Articles 7, 21, 22;
In view of Law No 91/05/ CTRN of 23 December 1991 on the freedom of the press, radio, television and communication generally;

In view of Law No 91/06/CTRN of 23 December 1991 on the establishment of the National Council on Communication;

In view of Law No 95/018/CTRN of 18 May 1995 on regulating radio communications in the Republic of Guinea

If this was justfied or required by laws and the constitution promulgated a decade or more ago, then why did it take the regime so long to open the airwaves?

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Africa books in The Washington Post

The most recent books' section of The Washington Post has several reviews on Africa-themed works.

-Emily Wax looks at They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys From Sudan written by the three young men in question along with Judy A. Bernstein.

-Former assistant secretary of state for Africa Susan Rice reviews the new book by Michela Wrong on Eritrea and its colonial past, I Didn't Do It for You :How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation.

-Human Rights Watch Alison Desforges, who wrote a chilling report on the Rwandan genocide, takes a look at Jean Hatzfeld's Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Former Ivorian army chief threatens coup

More bad news for Côte d'Ivoire, as if the place didn't have enough problems with stability. The country's former army chief, Gen. Mathias Doué, has threatened to depose President Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo sacked Doué from his post last November. Doué is seen a political moderate and his removal surely pleased the radical, xenophobic Jeunes patriotes militias who are nominally aligned to Gbagbo.

Doué said that if the international community does not commit itself to getting rid of the president peacefully, he will do what it takes himself, reports Voice of America.

Meanwhile, former army spokesman Jules Yao Yao told the French News Agency Saturday, that many members of the army are prepared to fight against President Gbagbo.

Gbagbo alternates between conciliatory and hardline talk. This schizophrenia suggests that he's torn. Torn between the radical, violent xenophobes he's refused to distance himself from and what I suspect are his natural instincts toward moderation and pragmatism.

But what constitutes pragmatism in a no-win situation?

If he compromises, there's a strong chance he may be deposed, or even assassinated, by the radicals. That's exactly what happened to Rwandan strongman Juvénal Habyrimana when he signed a peace agreement with his country's rebels in 1993; and we all know what happened next. If he doesn't compromise (or resign), he risks being overthrown by the army.

And since the source of tension is far greater than him alone, the country's fundamental divisions wouldn't suddenly healed merely by a Gbagbo resignation..

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Think of the landless peasants!

Zimbabwe's land theft program was sold by Robert Mugabe's dictatorship as a way to redistribute land from white farmers to poor, landless black peasants. Sounds like a noble idea in theory. There really has been a serious problem with the distribution of land in Zimbabwe. In practice, however, the scheme has resulted as massive corruption, just as most observers expected.

The Zimbabwean newspaper is one of many sources to report that: Top army generals, government and Zanu (PF) officials looted most of the best land seized from whites, with some of them keeping as many a six farms each in clear breach of the government's one-man-one-farm policy.

Now, the regime is planning to give land to the country's soccer players, who recently won the southern African regional championship.

Soccer players, generals and high-ranking ruling party officials receiving farms.

So much for helping the landless peasants, eh?

I'm not sure how the poor in Zimbabwe benefit from massive corruption, 123 percent inflation and mind-boggling rates of unemployment. But they can be reassured to know that even though they're on the verge of starving, General So-and-So now has several farms.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Polisario releases last Moroccan POWs

The Western Sahara is one of the world's forgotten conflicts. When the Spanish colonizers left the territory in 1976, it was annexed by both Morocco and Mauritania. By 1979, the Mauritanians withdrew and Moroccans now occupy the entire territory and claim it as its own. The occupation provoked a long independence struggle by the armed group the Polisario Front. Self-determination is supported by a civilian group known by its French acronym ARSO, which wants a referendum.

(Part of me has always wondered why the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza long provoked vicious hostility and was used as the excuse for anti-Israeli vitriol but other regional occupations like Syria of Lebanon and Morocco of the Western Sahara, barely registered on Arab consciousness)

The Moroccan regime has long resisted calls for a self-determination referendum because it knows it would lose. I suppose if I'd lived under oppressive foreign occupation for nearly 20 years, I wouldn't be too friendly toward my occupiers either.

Yet, the Morrocan regime is also ham-strung by the fact that the Western Sahara has become such a cause for nationalist elements that the very survival of the country's monarchy might be threatened if the king ever agreed to Saharawi independence.

A provisional Western Sahara government proclaimed the independence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (known by its French acronym RASD).

The Moroccan annexation has never been recognized internationally and has even been explicitly rebuked by both the International Court of Justice and the UN Security Council. However the RASD government was admitted to the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) in 1984. Morocco promptly resigned from the OAU in protest and has never joined the AU.

Resolution to the conflict has long resisted international efforts at mediation, largely due to Morocco's refusal to agree to a fair referendum. The kingdom wants its own manipulated voter rolls used as the basis for such a vote while the Saharawi want a fair census conducted by outside observers.

However, despite the impasse, there has been a positive step recently. This week, the Polisario unilaterally release the last Moroccan prisoners of war it was holding. Hopefully, the Moroccans will respond with a similiar gesture of good faith. But given the domestic pressure on the monarchy to not cede an inch, it's hard to fathom where any progress on the conflict can be made.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Weah for president

This essay is part of a weekly feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

I was intrigued to read that George Weah announced his candidacy for president of Liberia. Weah is not only the sole African to be named world soccer's player of the year, but the only one (man or woman) to finish in the top three.

Weah is well-known and adored in Liberia (and abroad), not simply for being arguably the greatest African soccer player ever. He has made tremendous contributions to his country, not only with money but with time. He's served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, the UN's children's fund. He personally used his own money to fund the Liberian national soccer team for many years, when the then-dictatorship said it couldn't afford to. He lent his name to a campaign to demobilize and disarm Liberia's many child soldiers.

Naturally, some have derided the soccer player's presidential aspirations, even his cousin. Critics charge that he is uneducated. They add that he has no governmental experience, that he has no experience with the intricacies of politics.

All Weah has is integrity and character. Perhaps people in a country with as checkered a past as Liberia isn't used to leaders with those qualities, but they could sure use one with them now.

Weah is inexperienced in some ways. He has no experience burning villages. He has no experience killing and maiming people. He has no experience committing war crimes. He has no experience taking bribes, stealing from the national treasury or having people arbitrarily arrested.

What's most compelling about Weah is that unlike so many other candidates, he doesn't NEED to be head of state. He doesn't need the presidency for fame. He doesn't need it for popularity. He doesn't need it for self-aggrandizement. He doesn't need it to become rich. What possible reason, except committment to bettering his homeland, could he have for wanting the poisoned chalice that is the Liberian presidency?

What Liberia most needs now is needs someone who can unite the disparate groups to build some semblance of a state. I can't see how any narrow factional leader could do this more successfully than someone like Weah.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Tanja fiddles while Niger burns

Remember the famine in Niger and its West African neighbors that I've written about?

Apparently it's a figment of our collective imagination. It's an invention of humanitarian aid agencies who want to raise huge wads of cash at the expense of Niger's good name.

At least that's according to the nitwit who passes for the man in charge of the Niger. President Tanja Mamadou not only denied that there was a famine in his country, but went so far as to say, "The people of Niger look well-fed, as you can see."

Only a few weeks earlier, a Niger government official said to the BBC, "We have made an appeal since November and told the international community... We did not have any response."

In a radio interview, the official was very defensive. He said that hunger wasn't the government's fault, but that of the international community which has been slow to help.

This is a fair enough comment. But it raises some questions. Most notably:

-How can the government blast foreigners for not helping fast enough to prevent famine while simultaneously denying that there's the slightest risk of famine?

-How can the government blast foreigners for not doing enough to fight hunger when the government itself denies that hunger even exists? Is it any wonder outsiders are wary about pouring in money to fight a crisis which may or may not exist, depending on the government's political calculations of the day?

-If hunger is an invention of supposedly greedy non-governmental organizations, then how come thousands of people protested way back in June for the government to hand out free food?

President Tanja wondered why of the $45m (£25m) promised to Niger to help it deal with the food crisis, only $2.5m had been received by his government.

(Ethan, over at My Heart's in Accra blog offers this: according to Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index, Niger is ranked 122nd of 145 nations surveyed in terms of transparency

Ethan also has a fascinating analysis about what Google advertising rates say about words and what sort of public consciousness they provoke. The essay's hard to summarize but intriguing nonetheless so check it out for yourself)

President Tanja added, "We are experiencing like all the countries in the Sahel a food crisis due to the poor harvest and the locust attacks of 2004."

So it's not a famine but a food crisis. That's the source of his outrage?

Is this really the time for the president to be bothering himself with semantics?

Update: in a clarification (sort of), President Tanja said a famine had a devastating effect on the nation, with huge numbers of people fleeing affected areas, setting up emergency camps and people dying every day but that he accepted there were shortages of food but this was not a famine.

Are you as confused as I? Given what almost appears to be willful muddling on the part of the government, is it any wonder outsiders have been slow to pour money into Niger's coffers? Would you have confidence that this government would spend the money wisely, given that can't even seem to decide if there's even a problem or not, given that they're more worried about semantics than the 'devastating effect' of hunger?

Further update: My friend in London reports: My friend Larry called his friends IN Agades [one of Niger's main cities] and they say things are grim...

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Museveni targets the press

After issuing his provocative, but carefully cloaked, insinuations of foul play in the death of Sudanese Vice-President John Garang, Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni is taking aim at those who do exactly the same thing... but in a more overt way. His regime arbitrarily shut down radio station 93.3 FM and threatened to do the same to two newspapers, The Monitor and The Observer.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Child soldiers

US National Public Radio's News and Notes with Ed Gordon ran an interview with journalist Jimmie Briggs who wrote Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Museveni stirs up trouble in Sudan

Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni is stirring up trouble again. The death of John Garang, the Sudanese vice-president and former rebel leader, was almost universally seen as an accident. Not only did Garang's movement, the SPLA/M, acknolwedge that his helicopter crash was an accident, but so did his widow Rebecca.

Museveni decided to inflame things by insisting that the cause of the crash was 'not clear'. The crash occured as Garang was returning to Sudan from a meeting with Museveni.

"Some people say accident, it may be an accident, it may be something else," he provocatively and without evidence told a group of mourners in southern Sudan.

As if Sudan didn't have enough trouble with the riots that followed Garang's death, the last thing it needs is Museveni criminally reckless comments. It's not entirely inconceivable, though highly unlikely in my estimation, that the Sudanese regime had a hand in Garang's death. However, if Museveni has the slightest evidence to that effect, he should present it.

There are few governments to whom I am less likely to give the benefit of the doubt than the genocidal regime in Khartoum (which I've attacked more times than I can count). But if Garang's movement AND his widow both accept that it was an accident, Museveni should refrain from reckless speculation unless he has something concrete to present. To simply imply as much without backing up his inflammatory assertions only serves to destabilize Uganda's already shaky northern neighbor.

Monday, August 08, 2005

RIP: Ould Taya's regime

With all the condemnation of the overthrow of Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya's regime in Mauritania, an article from the UN's IRIN service shows that Ould Taya's dictatorship should not be overly mourned.

In 1989, there were a series of border clashes between Mauritania and its southern neighbor Senegal. The regime of Ould Taya exploited the opportunity to expel some 65,000 black Mauritanians in what human rights' groups call an attempt to Arabize the country. About 20,000 black Mauritanians still live in refugee camps in northern Senegal.

Fatou Diop, 70 years old, said she still remembers leaving pots and pans on the fire when policemen came and forced her and her family from their village of Keur Massar.

Ould Taya's regime insisted that the refugees were free to return, but the refugees wanted compensation for the expulsions. Given that it was Ould Taya's regime that chased them out in the first place and given that Mauritania legally banned slavery only in 1981 and, by most accounts still tolerates the practice, it's little wonder many refugees aren't rushing to return.

While formal denunciation of military coups is right and proper and pressure on the new military regime in Mauritania to hold democratic elections is essential, no one should shed a tear for the fall of a repressive regime like Ould Taya's. If two years of international isolation is required to guide Mauritania to civilization, provided that actually is the result of this process, then it will have been worth it.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

'Secrets in the Sand'

The BBC World Service begins a fascinating series about increasing US military involvement in the Sahel countries and its potentially troubling implications for West Africa.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

The AU's priorities

The big news in Africa this week, aside frmo the death of Sudanese Vice-President John Garang, has been the military coup in the Sahara desert country of Mauritania. The regime of colonels, as some are calling it, overthrew the country's strongman Maaoya Sid'Ahmed Ould Taya. The colonels' pretext for seizing power was to put a definitive end to the oppressive activities of the defunct authority, which [the Mauritanian] people have suffered from during the past years. Ould Taya himself came to power in a military coup in 1984.

As expected, the African Union suspended Mauritania from the organization until the return of "constitutional order."

Unlike its pointless predecessor Organization for African Unity, the AU actually takes a strong stand against military coups. Those who perpetrate them are not welcome in continental bodies... unless they legitimize their coup via nominally democratic elections. Of course, this anti-coup rule was grandfathered in or else the AU would only have about a dozen members.

It's good that the AU deals strongly with coups. It's right and proper that you shouldn't seize power just because you have guns; and if you did, it's right and proper that the international community do what they can to punish you for it.

However, the AU needs to expand on this. Military coups are not the only violation of "constitutional order" that can happen. Constitutions (not only in Africa) are violated all the time. Judicial decisions are ignored. Active military men serve as president, even when it's constitutionally forbidden. People are thrown into re-education camps because they support the opposition. Elections are rigged. People's homes are destroyed under the pretext of "cleanup." Rarely are such monstrosities condemned by the AU. Even when those crimes create hundreds of thousands of homeless, the AU can't be bothered.

To wit, South African President Thabo Mbeki was reported to be furious at the Mauritania coup. Mbeki said that there is a lot of anger in Africa about the use of unconstitutional means to change governments, according to the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Yet Mbeki is the chief apologist for Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe. Mugabe crimes are too numerous to mention here (though I detailed some of them here and here), but they all seem more serious than a group of military men jettisoning another group of military men.

And Mugabe's only the most pompous example. What about Ivorian leader Laurent Gbagbo's tolerence and perhaps use of xenophobic militia/criminal gangs acting in his name? What about Rwandan leader Paul Kagame's assiduous efforts to muzzle all opposition? What about the "state of emergency" that's been in place in Egypt for the last quarter century? What about Eritrean leader Isiais Afewarki's war on the press? What about alleged slavery in Niger? What has the AU said about these things? Do they not represent an assault on the "constitutional order"?

They still have slavery in Mauritania but what gets the AU hot and bothered is when the country replaces one autocratic regime with a slightly less autocratic regime. Sorry if I'm underwhelmed.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Coup in Mauritania

Reports from Nouakchott indicate that the Mauritanian military has overthrown the country's leader Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. The head of state was out of the country at the time attending the funeral of Saudi King Fahd. The armed forces formed a new governing Military Council for Justice and Democracy, which is said would rule the country for two years and then leave after free elections. Ould Taya himself came to power following a 1984 coup. Outsiders will carefully observe the actions of the new military council because Ould Taya used Islamic extremism to justify many political crackdowns and because Mauritania is officially an Islamic republic.

Great photo exhibit

Black Looks blog links to an excellent online exhibit featuring photographs of Africans in Africa.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

How to help anti-hunger efforts

Last week, I encouraged readers to make a donation to the World Food Program or some other organization to help them with the famine in Niger and potential famine in Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

After a drought and an invasion of locusts, the UN and other agencies warned LAST YEAR that the Sahel countries would face food shortages and appealed for money. Yet the UN's emegency relief coordinator noted last week that the international community has put more money into the Niger relief effort over the past 10 days than it had during the previous 10 months.

In the wake of these food emegencies, international organizations are re-visiting their whole approach to fighting hunger. Some are calling for organizations to build up a surplus of money, a savings account if you will, that it can tap into when these food emergencies start to happen. By building up an emergency fund, organizations could react to situations before they became crises.

The conventional wisdom, until now, is that famines don't occur in democracies. I believe someone even won a Nobel Prize in economics a few years ago based on that theory. The infamous famine in Ethiopia was precipitated in no small part by the disastrous policies of the dictatorial Derg regime. The food emergency in Zimbabwe, formerly the bread basket of southern Africa, is not unrelated to strongman Robert Mugabe's program of stealing land from white farmers to give to his cronies; it's being compounded by the regime's alleged manipulation of international food aid for political purposes.

However, Niger is a democracy. A young democracy, but a democracy nonetheless. They have free elections. They have protests. They have a free press. The latter has been critical about what is seen as the government's slow response to the food crisis (the government counters that it's been making international appeals since last year). So is Mali. So are the southern African countries of Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, where there is also a drought-provoked food crisis.

Developing an emergency fund is a good idea. The trick is getting enough money to build that emergency fund in the first place. Ordinary people tend to be fairly generous AFTER they see pictures of starving children broadcast into their living room, but usually not until that point.

Props to Ethan over at ...My Heart's in Accra blog. I encouraged people to make a one-time donation. But Ethan pointed a way that those so inclined can make a regular monthly donation to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to help build up that fund so they can respond to emergencies in a timely manner. MSF has a program called Field Partners where they make an automatic deduction from your checking account or credit card as a donation. They have options from $60 a month ($2 a day) even down to $7.50 a month (25 cents a day). Click here for more info. Please consider it.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Being envoy to Somalia more appealing than Guinean prime ministership

I was interested to read that François Fall is the new UN envoy to Somalia As you may remember, Fall was prime minister of Guinea but resigned dramatically last May, while abroad, complaining that head of state Gen. Lansana Conté hadn't given him enough power to actually reform the crumbling Guinean ship of state. It's telling that Fall felt he could get more done as an envoy to Somalia than as Gen. Conté's head of government.