Friday, March 31, 2006

Can a civilian run Nigeria?

Beleaguered Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo has been rarely out of the news in recent months. Before the recent debacle concerning Charles Taylor, he was under pressure for attempts by his sycophants to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. Obasanjo is in his second term under the present constitution (he was a military ruler in the late 1970s).

The Nigerian Vanguard paper reported an article with the headline: 3rd term not on the cards —OBASANJO.

But a more careful reading of the president's words still leave room for reasonable skepticism. He said that a third term “is not on the card” for now. He did not categorically say, "I will not under any circumstance seek a third term."

Other African leaders, such as Guinea's Gen. Lansana Conté and the late Gnassingbé Éyadéma of Togo, have used such obfuscation intended to imply a categorical denial of third term desires when they had every intention of doing the opposite. When you hear sycophants proclaiming that Nigeria needs Obasanjo and that the country would fall apart without his luminous leadership, it makes you wonder if Nigeria is really a stable democracy with viable institutions or if it's heading down the road of becoming yet another cult of personality-based dictatorship.

In 2003, Obasanjo ran against another ex-military leader Muhammadu Buhari. Former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida is also widely believed to have 2007 presidential intentions. If he and Obasanjo run against each other, it will beg the question: is any civilian capable of running Nigeria? Or perhaps more accurately: is any civilian capable of rising through the party ranks to become a viable presidential candidate?

Given how badly the military men have done in most of the country's four and a half decades of independance, maybe they should be given a chance. Given that Nigeria has already had many military coups, an insane civil war, endemic corruption on an unimaginable scale and one particular dictatorship of savage brutality, it's hard to imagine that civilians could do any worse.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

One heck of a devaluation

How much has the Guinean franc depreciated since the arrival of Lansana Conté as Guinea's leader? The US dollar bought approximately this number of Guinean francs (FG)

Early 1986: 25 FG
After 1986 devaluation: 300 FG
1996: 1,000 FG
March 2006: 4,500 FG

(Sources: Jeune Afrique and my personal journal)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Charles Taylor caught

Thank goodness.

Update: Underscoring the continuing danger of the former warlord, the Special Court's prosecutor charged that Taylor was still trying to have Guinean leader Lansana Conté assassinated.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Charles Taylor disappears

Recently, Liberia requested that former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor be arrested and shipped to the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, which indicted him from war crimes.. Nigeria said Liberia should come take him themselves. While the diplomatic spat between Nigeria and Liberia went on, the Nigerian government supposedly put Taylor under de facto house arrest in his villa in southeast Nigeria, where he was staying in exile. Shock of shocks, Taylor has disappeared from the villa.

Taylor escaped? Who could've imagined such a possibility?

Humiliated Nigerian president Olesegun Obasanjo professed to be 'very shocked' and promised an investigation. Yet, if he'd arrested Taylor and put him on a plane directly to Sierra Leone like the Liberian government, like the UN Tribunal wanted and like international law required, this wouldn't have happened.

Human Rights Watch's West Africa chief rightly attacked Obasanjo: "This is a serious indictment of Nigeria's commitment to peace and security in Liberia, to seeing justice done for victims of the violence in Sierra Leone and to the fight against impunity throughout Africa."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Where's Chuck?

There was much rejoicing about a week and a half ago when Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked Nigeria to extradite her dictatorial predecessor Charles Taylor, but after a decade of following African affairs, I've learned to be cautious in such cases. Taylor has been indicted for war crimes by the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone, accused of having armed and funded the hideous Revolutionary United Front rebel group.

Taylor has been in exile in Nigeria after an internationally-brokered deal that led to his departure from power. Nigeria's president Olesegun Obasanjo had always promised to extradite Taylor if a request were made by a democratically-elected Liberian government.

The democratically-elected Pres. Johnson Sirleaf has made that request yet mysteriously, Taylor remains in Nigeria. Why has he not been arrested and handed over to Liberian authorities, as required under the provisions of the international arrest warrant? Or at least why is he not under arrest under Liberian officials can come and collect him? He is within a guarded area in the city of Calabar but Calabar is on a peninsula and an escape by sea is hardly inconceivable. Charles Taylor is a wily, devious individual. He's made a lot of ill-gotten money for a lot of people, even after his removal from power. Those people are surely not keen to see him behind bars.

Pres. Obasanjo is under serious international pressure for attempts to make him president-for-life, for the country's massive corruption problem which he's failed to address and for the ecological disaster and resulting instability in the country's oil-producing Niger Delta region. His government has even attempted to ban anyone from promoting gay rights. He risks going the way of Kwame N'Krumah, a leader who became a continental demigod as his own country fell to pieces. If he lets Taylor escape the country, then even his increasingly tarnished international reputation will collapse.

Update: Looks like my skepticism was justified

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Guinean leader on his deathbed?

There is nervousness in Guinea following the evacuation of Gen. Lansana Conté to Geneva for medical reasons. The ailing head of state has had serious health problems resulting from acute diabetes and has rarely been seen in public in recent years. A spokesman for Conté's party insists that the medical procedures are routine, not an emergency. According to Guinéenews, Conté gave a very brief interview to state radio today. Or at least it was aired today.Radio France Internationale claimed that he was on a respirator.

After reports of Conté's visit to Switzerland, the Guinean opposition called for a government of national unity, that would organize new elections. They contend this is the only way to ensure a peaceful transition.

After the death of Guinea's only other head of state, the constitutional succession lasted only a week before a coup led by Conté seized power and installed a military regime.

Guinéenews also reported some disturbing news about divisions within the army itself as well as some large withdrawals of funds from the Guinean central bank for 'expenses of sovereignty.' It also stated that the French embassy had developed a crisis plan in case the need to evacuate French citizens from the country arose.

Conté is less than two weeks away from his 22nd anniversary in power.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Like father, like son

The small West African state of Togo is one of those countries, like the DR Congo and Syria, known as a monarchical republic. Togo was in the news last year when Gnassingbé II (offically known as Faure Gnassingbé) succeeded his father Gnassingbé I (Gnassingbé Éyadéma) as emperor of the so-called republic. He held sham elections which purported to validate his ascension to the throne but Togo has been forgotten by the international press since.

When he died, Gnassingbé I was Africa's longest serving head of state, having run Togo with an iron fist for 38 years. Apparently, Gnassingbé II has adopted some of his father's more muscular tactics.

Recently, his regime threatened Harry Olympio, one of the country's opposition leaders, for his alleged role in an attack on police headquarters last month. Or perhaps I should say, in an alleged attack on police headquarters.

"The security forces are on the look out for Harry Olympio," Lome State Prosecutor Robert Boubadi Bakai told reporters on Monday, reported the BBC.

Olympio's cousin Gilchrist heads another party and is the most prominent opposition leader.

There is long emnity between the two families. Gnassingbé I is widely believed to have personally murdered Gilchrist's father, Sylvanus Olympio, who was Togo's first president.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Taylor to face justice?

Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has formally asked Nigeria to extradite Charles Taylor. The disgraced former dictator has been in exile for the last few years after being forced out of office. The one-time warlord has been indicted for war crimes by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, where Taylor was accused of arming and funding that country's notorious rebel group, the RUF. It is a very good day for Africa that one of the continent's most infamous criminals may finally be subjected to long overdue justice.

Nigeria's president has repeatedly guaranteed to hand over Taylor upon the request of a democratically-elected Liberian leader. Now that this has occurred, all that is left is for President Obasanjo to keep his promise.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Instability and the Guinean economy

The recent general strike in Guinea brought international attention to the high costs of and deteriorating standards of living in the West African country. Inflation has caused the price of a bag of rice, the staple food, to double in the last two years.

The UN's IRIN news service ran a feature on another byproduct of this economic desperation.

Employment opportunities for the average young Guinean are limited, particularly in Nzerekore in the rural southeast, where for years thousands of young men operate as “volunteer” soldiers who supply their own uniforms, in the hope of one day getting a real military job and kit [uniform].

Security in the southeast of the country, know as La Guinée forestière, has been shaky for some time. The region borders both Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d'Ivoire. Which means that throughout the last 17 years, the region has bordered at least one country in civil war. Over the last decade, Guinea has played host to one million refugees, according to the government.

In late 2000, there was a brief invasion of the Guéckédou and Kissidougou prefectures by a supposed Guinean dissident group apparently backed by indicted war criminal harles Taylor, who was Liberia's dictator at the time.

Crime, deforestation and tensions between Guineans and refugees have all skyrocketed. This is understandable considering the fact that the already meager resources were been spread even more thinly. There is also some resentment that international NGOs offer a lot of programs and assistance to refugees while indigineous Guineans receive little help from anyone.

Adding to the insecurity is the presence of these armed, poorly trained 'volunteers.'

The UN estimates there are some 4,000 volunteer soldiers in Guinea’s lush “region forestiere”, or forest region. In the main town Nzerekore, volunteer soldiers can been seen dotted about the streets working as quasi-formal security for some of the many UN agencies and NGOs that have operations there, in return for a small allowance and money for uniforms.

However, given the pitiful state of the Guinean economy, it's not surprising that these 'volunteers' are so easily enticed.

In an April 2005 report, Human Rights Watch identified lack of job opportunities as a major impediment to breaking the cycle of war in West Africa, where “regional warriors” can hop from one conflict to another in return for a few dollars, or perhaps the promise of looting.


“Job creation and job opportunities are a problem in Sierra Leone now and I’m sure that they will become a problem in Liberia,” said [the International Rescue Committee's Sarah] Ward. “These Guinean communities have been negatively impacted by the arrival of these refugees and we need to help them as refugees and humanitarian assistance leave, too.”

Monday, March 13, 2006

Nigeria: worse than Iraq?

A rather alarmist article in the monthly magazine The Atlantic speculates on the possible implosion of Nigeria and the possible reaction of the US government in the world's sixth largest oil producer.

I'd like to think Nigeria's collapse is unthinkable. Since President Olesegun Obasanjo took power in 1999, the facade of stability has returned to Nigeria. The country has regular elections. Obasanjo's Nigeria is no doubt significantly freer politically than under his monstrous predecessor Gen. Sani Abacha. Or for that matter, under nearly any of his predcessors since independence.

However, it seems there is something fundamentally rotten at the core of Nigeria, something that isn't glossed over simply by regular elections. By all accounts, corruption and cronyism have thoroughly saturated not just government and politics, but business and society as a whole. Nigeria is not the only country with massive corruption at the top, but when corruption as a culture (as opposed to limited incidents of malfeasence) permeates all levels of society, it is a parasite that comprehensively weakens the health of a nation and makes it more vulnerable to diseases like ethnocentrism and religious extremism. The question is this: to what degree is corruption still seen as an unacceptable deviancy and to what degree has it become a way of life?

And if Obasanjo tries to make himself president-for-life (or uses the facade of allowing his allies to engineer that outcome), it could be a serious blow to creaky Nigeria. Already, the country's Catholic bishops has come out against constitutional changes that would allow the life presidency.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Ali Farka Touré: 1939-2006

I was saddened to read of the passing of Ali Farka Touré. The Malian was one of Africa's best and most famous musicians. He won a Grammy for his album Talking Timbuktu, which he made with Ry Cooder. But his albums Niafunké and Radio Mali were even better, in my opinion, if less well-known. One of the reasons I loved his sound was that while the music of many other African artists popular in the west is overproduced, Ali Farka Touré's music was very simple and organic. The greatest complement I can pay his music is that whenever I heard it, I was instantly transported back to my small West African village.

He had been recently named mayor of his home village Niafunké. It's worth noting that despite international reknown, he chose to remain in the dusty and generally unpleasant Sahel rather than moving to New York or Paris. While there, he tried to use his fame to improve the lives of his fellow villagers. He was also active in supporting young, up and coming Malian musicians.

His music is truly a joy to listen to.

Note: A humorous anecdote. A few years ago, my sister and her boyfriend were over. I had Talking Timbuktu (which Farka Touré recorded with Ry Cooder) in my CD player. My sister's boyfriend saw the album cover and asked, "Who's that guy with Ry Cooder?" I laughed and said, "That's funny because when I first saw the cover, I wondered who was that guy with Ali Farka Touré." We both chuckled.

Monday, March 06, 2006

View from a mud hut

The Globalist has an interesting account of life in Burkina Faso. Newly arrived Peace Corps Volunteer Nathalie Boittin writes of her experiences in the West African country.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The exception to the rule

Something unusual is going on in Benin. The tiny West African country has presidential elections scheduled for this Sunday, 5 March.

The 72 year old incumbent president Mathieu Kérékou is not running because of a constitutional clause which requires candidates be 70 years old or less.

Oh wait, this is 21st century Africa. I misspoke.

Kérékou is not running DESPITE a constitutional ban.

Unlike his homologues in Tunisia, Guinea, Uganda, Togo, Burkina Faso, neither Kérékou nor his allies tried to ram through a constitutional amendment allowing him to serve as president-for-life.

I can only applaud Kérékou for this decision to finally step aside.

He has been the country's head of state for about 30 of the last 35 years. Too many other heads of state have deluded themselves into believing that their nation would collapse into chaos if the reins of state were denied their omniscience.

In reality, to deem a single man indispensible to the fortunes of his country is an admission of hideous failure. It's an admission that the leader has done a miserable job guiding the state toward self-sufficiency, institutional stability and political maturity.

Kérékou could've tried to clling to power for life, like Bongo, Biya, Museveni, Obiang, Mubarak, Ben Ali, Mugabe, Conté, Sassou and apparently Obansanjo. But he chose a far more honorable path.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Kenyan police launch aggression against newspaper, TV offices

Today, heavily armed Kenyan police invaded the offices of The Standard newspaper and KTN television station.

Before the raids, three Standard journalists were charged with the vague 'crime' of publishing alarming statements.

The paper has been very critical of increasingly hapless-looking President Mwai Kbaki and his government, which has come under fire for their inability or refusal to tackle the country's massive corruption problem.

(Perhaps because they are more concerned about attacking journalists than crooks in the state machinery)

Internal Security Minister John Michuki defended the shocking assault on press freedom by a supposedly reformist democratic government with the menacing words, "When you rattle a snake you must be ready to be bitten."

He also cited the typical excuse when thuggish governments threaten and harass those who refuse to carry their water: state security.

Nearly 30 countries have condemned this shameful aggression.

Yet another betrayal by yet another government that was inaugurated with such promise. How depressing!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

General strike in Guinea targets high cost of living

Guinea has been hit by a widespread general strike, which by some account has involved around 80 percent of the country's formal workforce.

The unions are protesting against sharp increases in the cost of living and that wages have not kept pace.

One person was reported killed and several injured in the suburbs of the capital Conakry during the second day of the strike on Tuesday.

The cost of the staple food rice has doubled in the last two years to 100,000 Guinean Francs (FG) or about US$22. In some places, rice costs as much as 120,000 FG a sack.

The average civil servant only makes 150,000 FG per month, according to a union leader. Or barely more than a dollar a day.

And they are paid better than most workers in the country.

Guinea is a perfect example of how bad governance can ruin what should be at last a middle-income country. And it also shows the widespread trickle down effects of massive graft. There is so much corruption, cronyism and general incompetence at the very top of the Guinean regime that huge chunks of the government's revenues are eaten up at the upper echelons.

Ordinary functionnaries are left with barely enough money in the month to buy a single bag of rice. And that doesn't count any other expenses. Is it any surprise that these low level bureaucrats demand bribes to get a drivers' license or a phone line? Bribes that will be used by these small fish not to buy BMWs or fancy houses but to feed, clothe and house their families.