Friday, September 30, 2005


Earlier this week, Algeria held a referendum on a Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Allegedly 97% of voters approved the project with a reported 79% turnout... though the opposition and journalists dispute the latter figure. The opposition called for a boycott of the plan.

In 1992, the Algerian military cancelled elections that were about to be won by the Islamist FIS party and a state of emergency was declared. What followed was several years of a dirty war between the Islamist militants and the so-called forces of order. It is estimated that over 100,000 Algerians have been killed since the start of the insurgency and some 6000 have disappeared without a trace.

Bouteflika's plan gives a pardon to militants, except those who took part in mass murder, public bombings and rapes. It also offers compensation to the families of victims. The plan is controversial because gives a blanket amnesty to the Algerian military, the country's dominant institution. "The sovereign Algerian people reject any allegation aimed at holding the state responsible for the phenomena of the disappeared," the proposed charter says. Hardly anyone believes this deception.

Most notably, the Algerian plan eschews the reconciliation model of places like South Africa and Rwanda. Those places instituted truth and reconciliation commissions. Pardon was conditioned upon full disclosure of what happened. The truth was revealed and people were allowed to grieve and move on.

Bouteflika's crude attempt to buy off victims' families, or more specifically their memories, is a hard sell.

"I do not want the government to give me money to compensate the loss of my son," says one man. "I want it to tell me the truth, and why the security forces kidnapped him - not more but not less."

The Algerian model asks citizens to pretend the viciousness never happened. You can't forgive if you don't know what you're forgiving.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Senegal's powerful brotherhood

The BBC has a fascinating look at Senegal's powerful Sufi brotherhood.

Friday, September 23, 2005

AIDS causing agricultural crisis

It's well-known that AIDS is Africa's worst public health crisis (though malaria is a less well-known second). But the disease is also having devastating economic consequences as well. Scientists say that Africa's agricultural output has dropped dramatically since the onset of the pandemic. They noted that areas of cultivated land in parts of Kenya has dropped by 2/3 and that land still being farmed is often growing less nutritious and profitable crops.

Some 80% of Africans derive their livelihood from farming, so it is vital to the continent's economic growth.... In Rwanda, there has been a 60-80% fall in farm labour. In Burkina Faso, 20% of rural families reduced their agricultural work or even abandoned their farms because of Aids.

It's not a coincidence that the most AIDS-devastated region of the continent, southern Africa, is facing severe food shortages with over 10 million people needing food aid. The crisis has been exacerbated by drought.

I've read that in countries like Zambia, some employers even in commercial jobs routinely hire and train 3 people for every open position, on the expectation that the other 2 will either get sick or have to leave to care for a sick relative.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Africans gain little from outside investment

The BBC reports that African nations are gaining little benefit from foreign direct investment, according to a United Nations report.

Tens of billions of dollars have been invested into Africa's oil and mining industries but with little benefit to ordinary residents of the world's poorest continent. These extraction industries generate low tax revenues and often carry devastating environmental consequences, notes the BBC. The much-touted spillover effect, that direct investment creates broad growth and jobs, has been negligible.

Both Tanzania and Ghana receive as little as 5% of the value of their gold exports, noted the UN document.

The Angola Press Agency noted that although oil and diamond extraction accounts for 57 percent of the nation's gross domestic product, it employs 1 percent of the country's manpower.

The UN report also called governments to encourage companies to do their value-adding (such as diamond processing or oil refining) on the continent rather than abroad.

However, governments need to create conditions to foster this additional investment by fighting corruption and improving security conditions.

Update: Of course if governments insisted on basic environmental standards for these industries, it would not only preserve agricultural production, public health and general quality of life, but enhance internal stability and security.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

'Africa's peace seekers'

The Christian Science Monitor is running a series of Africans who have implicated themselves in trying to resolve some of the continent's great conflicts. This portrait takes a look at Kenyan Gen. Lazaro Sumbeiywo who worked tireless to help broker peace in the civil war in southern Sudan, Africa's longest running conflict until a peace deal was signed a few months ago.

"General Sumbeiywo should win the Nobel Peace Prize," says former Sen. John Danforth, who was President Bush's special envoy to Sudan from 2001 to 2004. "His ability to stay there in the talks and be an honest broker - and to listen to all the back and forth over such a long period of time - was essential, and was very largely responsible for the result," says Senator Danforth by phone from St. Louis.

The general had many sessions with Sudan's various warring parties. While most wars invoke the pretext of religion or ethnicity or nationalism/patriotism, they're ultimately about something else. Those meetings helped Sumbeiywo see that, beyond anything else, the conflict was about one simple issue: "who is in control." War, he says, is about "power."

Monday, September 12, 2005

The art of peacekeeping in the DR Congo

"Peacekeeping is an art. It's harder than fighting a war…. Sometimes I feel that my hands are bound behind my back and I'm dragging a ball and chain from my leg." --Maj. Gen. Patrick Cammaert, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The Los Angeles Times ran an an instructive article on the problems faced by United Nations' peackeepers in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). They are charged with surveying an uneasy pseudo-peace in an area considered by some as the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

The UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (known as MONUC) comprises some 16,000 troops which sounds like a lot until you consider that the DRC is the size of western Europe; by contrast, there are about 150,000 coalition forces in Iraq, which is about 1/5 the size of the DRC... and even they're having problems providing stability.

One of the main problems with UN peacekeeping missions is their voluntary nature. The Security Council may authorize a huge peacekeeping force but it's up to member states to supply troops to that mission. If the mission only draws a fraction of the troops it needs and is authorized, it has to make due.

The other main difficulty faced by MONUC is also common to many UN missions: a weak and sometimes ambiguous mandate. The Security Council is often hesitant to authorize a strong mandate that might actually allow the mission to function properly. Security Council members sometimes fear that an aggressive mandate might endanger a fragile peace... though often, it's a weak mandate that does exactly that. Sometimes, Security Council members oppose a strong mandate on principle; some don't oppose on principle the idea of a UN mission having a strong mandate, while others may not want friendly regimes or rebel groups to face consequences.

If they are given a strong mandate and try to take strong action to enforce peace treaty terms, UN missions are accused of 'taking sides.' If they don't take strong action, they are accused of negligence, of being useless, of allowing another Rwanda. (The UN mission in Rwanda was shackled by a mandate of non-action imposed by the US, Belgium and France)

MONUC's particular mission is complicated by a sex scandal that rocked some of their peacekeepers from Nepal and elsewhere. Sexual violence is a tragic fact of war in all places, but it's even worse when done by so-called peacekeepers. The UN has issued stringent new guidelines on peacekeeper conduct; some of the Nepalese soldiers have already been convicted in a court martial. But the damage to trust in MONUC by civilians in some parts of the country will be hard to reverse. Just like in Abu Ghraib, a few bad apples can spoil the pot.

In reality, the main problem is that MONUC is a mission for peacekeeping, not peacemaking. It can not impose peace and stability any better than, say, the US military in Afghanistan... even though the latter has carte blanche to do pretty much whatever it wants without the nuisance of a 'mandate.'

It's even trickier when you consider the fact that most Congolese do want peace, stability and security and therefore resent that fact that maybe 30,000 militia members can ruin the lives of millions of civilians.

Update: The link to the LA Times article has expired but it was reprinted here in The Boston Globe.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Mugabe turns Zim into one giant prison camp

Mugabe turns Zim into one giant Guantanamo Bay

Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe has rammed through constitutional amendments to legitimize his dictatorial control. One clause will strengthen the government's control over the land seizures, which has been hampered by judges questioning the program's legality. The program seizes land without compensation from white farmers and distributes them primarily to Mugabe cronies. The changes will eliminate judicial recourse for victims.

Another allows the regime to arbitrarily seize passports of anyone deemed to be a 'threat to national security' (critic). This will also be able to be done without judicial recourse.

The bill also reintroduces the Senate, which was abolished in 1987. Critics say this will allow the president to appoint more people to parliament.

And it also includes a proposal to bring private schools under state control.

The Bush administration condemned the changes.

"Some of the changes, as well as the process used to implement these changes in the constitution, are troubling," said a State Department spokesman. "Overall, without cataloguing all of these, let me say that it's a sad step backwards for personal freedom, as well as the rule of law."

Taking away people's freedoms without judicial recourse or any external oversight? Is Mugabe trying to turn Zim into a one giant Guantanamo Bay?

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Uganda: a former AIDS success story?

For a long time, Uganda was viewed as a success story in the fight against the AIDS pandemic. The country had an HIV infection rate of 20 percent in the mid-1980s but that has been reduced to 7 percent today, according to the UN.

But that progress has been called into question recently. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (AIDS and malaria being Africa's two leading causes of death) has suspended anti-AIDS grants to Uganda. The suspension was a result of what the Global Fund called 'evidence of serious mismanagement.'

Shortfalls were created when grants were converted from US dollars to Ugandan shillings.

Most experts ascribe the dramatic drop to word of mouth and the country's emphasis on condom usage. While any discussion of HIV/AIDS is taboo in most African countries, there's been an unusual culture of openness about the pandemic; many give credit to the very top, where the country's leader Yoweri Museveni has spoken frankly about HIV/AIDS and about what needs to be done to counter it.

It's thus worrying that Museveni's regime appears to be backing away from this successful effort. Many blame the Bush administration for pressuring Museveni's regime to place sole emphasis on abstinence. This allegation is denied by both Uganda and Washington.

However, many organizations and news outlets have documented a concerted anti-condom effort recently in Uganda. The UN envoy for AIDS in Africa recently blasted the Bush administration for pushing its dangerous dogma. The US-inspired policy has led to a severe shortage of condoms in Uganda.

Human Rights Watch reports that the Ugandan first lady, a leading proponent of abstinence only 'education,' has called for a 'virgin census' (you can't make this stuff up). She also accused condom distribution organizations of 'pushing them [young people] to go into sex.' The strongman himself lashed out against condoms as inappropriate for Ugandans and suggested that condom distribution encouraged promiscuity among young people.

The organization added: In numerous interviews, Human Rights Watch found that an exclusive focus on sexual abstinence as an HIV prevention strategy failed to account for the lived experiences of countless Ugandans. “I got HIV in marriage. I was faithful in my relationship,” said one Ugandan woman, expressing a common predicament. Indeed, the suggestion that marriage provides a safeguard against HIV may amount to a death sentence for women and girls. Ugandan women face a high risk of HIV in marriage as a result of polygyny and infidelity among their husbands, combined with human rights abuses such as domestic violence, marital rape, and wife inheritance (whereby a widow is forced to marry the brother of her late husband).

Some link 'abstinence only' to Uganda's dramatic drop in HIV/AIDS rates, however Uganda did not start pushing 'abstinence only' until 2001 (the year the Bush administration took power) when the US started aggressively pushing the program. By 2001, the huge drop in infection rates had already occurred.

Some of us think that's a good thing.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Angola 2010?

I see Angola is bidding to host the 2010 African Nations Cup soccer championships.

Given the utter devastation caused by 35 years of nearly non-stop civil war, I'm thrilled that the social situation must so fantastic and poverty so non-existent that the Angolan government feels the luxury to spend tens of millions of dollars on constructing a handful of new soccer stadia.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Chadian government finally sacks Habré-era suspects

Human rights groups offered restrained praise for the government of Chad for finally sacking officials suspected of torture and other human rights abuses during the regime of Hissène Habré in the 1980s.

Activists from Human Rights Watch and Chadian rights groups -- who had been calling for the sacking, arrest and conviction of Habre-era officials for almost 15 years -- are describing last week’s dismissals as a small, first and long overdue step.

Habré was Chad's dictator from 1982-1990 and it is believed that some 40,000 opponents were either murdered or tortured under his regime.

Human Rights Watch says there are at least 35 other officials from the former regime who still hold a wide range of posts - including in the military and security forces - under Deby and whom they would like to see brought to justice. A Chadian government official told IRIN that the six officials had been removed by internal decree, but he would not comment on why the decision was made at this time.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The DRC's 'tained gold

The Christian Science Monitor has a good article on mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its plethora of natural resources has been far more of a curse than a benefit for the people living DRC, which was the site of one of the worst mass atrocities in history when it was the Congo Free State under the personal control of Belgium's King Leopold II.

While the DRC may have its nominal political independence, life is still largely misery for its inhabitants and the quest for natural resources fuels war, violence and exploitation.

But now there are growing efforts to halt the region's resource-related troubles. A June report by the international group Human Rights Watch shed light on the role of local militias, which apparently have ties to neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. They were using proceeds from gold mining to buy weapons to further their battle over control of the most productive mining areas, the report said. In the process, they killed thousands of civilians and extorted many poor local miners, reports the CSM. A major force preventing a breakdown - and allowing miners like Eric to make money for themselves - is the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, which now has a battalion in Mongbwalu, in northeastern DRC.

Nevertheless, the digging continues. The war destroyed most other employment options, so many locals go to "the holes." Many diggers are ex-militia members, including young men and boys, who use picks and shovels now. At one mine near Mongbwalu, roughly 40 percent of the workers are under 18. About 25 percent are 12 to 14 years old.
Each miner gets paid in mine muck, usually three buckets for a full day's work, and all the gold that may or may not be in it.

One 12-year-old, who didn't give his name, says he works only for himself. "Both my parents were killed in the war," he says, walking along with a bucket of mud balanced on his head.