Sunday, April 30, 2006

Mystery plane lands in CAR

The Central African Republic is an unstable country with a history of coups and mutinies. And being bordered by Chad (civil war and regime teetering on the brink), Sudan (civil war and genocide) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (generalized chaos and armed violence), it's not in the most stable part of the world either.

The country is run by Gen. François Bozizé, who came to power via a military insurrection and who legitimized his rule (in some people's eyes) by pseudo-democratic elections. However, an apparent rebel movement developed in the north of the country following those elections. So it's disturbing to learn that a plane of 50 armed men illegal landed in the north of the CAR, according to the country's foreign minister.

He said the plane had arrived from Sudan and was suspected of being linked to the rebellion in Chad.

The CAR government has said it will lodge a complaint with the African Union against Sudan.

The teetering Chadian regime of Idriss Déby backed Bozizé when he was in exile and during his military campaign that overthrew the CAR president Ange-Félix Patassé.

Friday, April 28, 2006

'Nothing but nets'

Kudos to Sports Illustrated magazine columnist Rick Reilly. His essays usually touch on sporting topics and personalities. His most recent column, however, touched on a topic which has nothing to do with sports but is much more important. He urged readers to donate money to the UN's anti-malaria campaign. The money will be used to buy mosquito nets treated with insecticide to be given to people in malaria-prone regions of Africa. Malaria still kills more people in Africa than any other cause, natural or man-made.

How much will go to buying nets, Reilly asks. All of it. Thanks to Ted Turner, who donated $1 billion to create the U.N. Foundation, which covers all the overhead, "every cent will go to nets," says Andrea Gay, the U.N. Foundation's Director of Children's Health.

In the four days since the column first appeared, readers have donated $160,000, thus saving the lives of 11,000 children and their families, according to the UN.

If you'd like to donate, click here.

(If for some reason, you object to the UN, you can also donate to Doctors Without Borders, or MSF, which has also done a lot of work in the fight against malaria.)

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bloggers on the airwaves

Sokari, author of the excellent Black Looks blog reports that she and a fellow blogger will be featured on the BBC's Network Africa program. The show, which will be about blogging, will air on Sunday and should be available online during most of next week.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Darfur genocide 'as bad as ever'

While the Sudanese regime insists everything is almost hunky dory in Darfur (where it's sponsoring and/or committing genocide), objective observers disagree.

The UN's humantarian chief Jan Egeland called the crisis 'as bad as ever.'

Even the International Committee of the Red Cross said that aid workers could not operate in large parts of Darfur because of ongoing fighting.

Curiously, the regime denied visas to a UN military assessment team hoping to analyze the situation on the ground ahead of a potential international peacekeeping mission in the region. Perhaps because they don't want any witnesses?

Of course, this is not new. Earlier this month, Egeland himself was denied entry into Darfur by the dictatorship for spurious reasons.

Yesterday, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on four Sudanese suspected of war crimes in the region. Two rebel leaders, a former air force chief and a pro-regime militia leader were subjected to a travel ban and foreign assets freeze.

A journalist corroborated Egeland's assessment.

In Darfur itself, a BBC correspondent has found evidence of continuing attacks on civilians by militias.


The BBC's Orla Guerin in Darfur met streams of civilians who said they were fleeing their remote village of Jogana.
They said they had been attacked by government aircraft and militiamen that were fighting rebel forces in the area.

[The] correspondent said she could hear the sound of bombing from 40km (25 miles) away.

That aircraft have been involved in so much of the violence gives lie to the government's claims that it's merely random chaos caused by militiamen on horseback.

African Union (AU) peacekeepers met the civilians and gave them water but did not intervene in the fighting.

No wonder the regime is resisting a stronger UN force that might interfere with their genocidal killing spree.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Two Ugandas

The UN's IRIN service has a look at Uganda entitled One Country, Different Realities.

Crossing the River Nile to enter northern Uganda is more than just a visible example of the immense power of the world's longest river but is also a testimony to the divide between two versions of the same country – a war-ravaged north and a much more prosperous south.

While the south of Uganda has improved greatly during the 20 years of Yoweri Museveni's rule, the long civil war in the north of the country is home to arguably the most nightmarish conflict in the world today.

1.7 million people live a meagre, pitiful existence in overcrowded camps for the internally displaced. As a result of the insecurity plaguing the surrounding countryside, nature has reclaimed much of northern Uganda. Those living in camps scattered throughout the region - who are farmers by tradition - rely on food distributions from aid agencies, with inadequate access to clean water, proper sanitation and adequate healthcare.

Monday, April 24, 2006

'Timbuktu for the timid'

Author Cynthia Barnes offers reflections on her trip to Timbuktu.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Nigeria (almost) debt-free

Many activists (including myself) have argued for a wholesale cancellation of debt owed African countries to the west and to international lending institutions. We've argued that African debt is illegitimate for many reasons and that the cancellation of debt would allow African governments to spend the money on more worthy areas such as health, education and physical infrastructure.

Now, it looks like our theory will be tested for the first time. Nigeria will become the first African country to settle its debts with other countries. The country will make a $4.6 billion payment to the Paris Club of lender nations which, under a negotiated agreement, will cancel the remainder of Nigeria's debts to the group. Nigeria still owes $5 billion to other lenders such as the World Bank and private lenders but it's a far cry from the $35 billion the country owed as recently as the 1990s.

This is certainly a good achievement by the Obasanjo administration. The next step is for it to take steps toward improving governance and fighting corruption so that the extra funds are spent in an appropriate way so as to raise the country's plummetting standards of living.

The country's yearly income has collapsed from US$1000 per person in 1980 to $390, despite being one of the world's largest oil producers.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

A pair of African books feted

Moses, Citizen and Me, Delia Jarrett-Macauley's novel about a child soldier in Sierra Leone, was awarded the Orwell Prize for political writing. It was the first novel to win the award since its inception 16 years ago. She wrote the book after hearing a report about a boy soldier who had been recruited to kill his grandparents during the civil war. She said she wanted to focus on the emotional ways in which the child soldiers respond to their situation.

A judge praised the novel for the way it dealt with a complex series of issues in 'a very balanced and humane way.'

A book about Britain's alleged gulag in Kenya, won the US Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya is Caroline Elkins' exploration into widespread British atrocities in Kenya to fight the Mau Mau-led independence movement.

She says that many thousands of Kenyans died in British detention camps during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. Her research also suggests British colonial officials exaggerated the number of people killed by the rebels.

The allegations in the book include rape, torture, murder and theft of property.

Official estimates say 11,000 Mau Mau were killed by British forces but Elkins estimates that tens, and possibly hundreds, of thousands of Kikuyu. She claims that both the Kenyan and British governments assiduously obstructed her research and covered up the atrocities. Though it's not clear why the post-independence Kenyan government, comprising primarily Mau Mau veterans, would have done so.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Call for suggestions (reprise)

A few weeks ago, I issued a call for ideas.

It's easy to get into a bit of a rut commenting on breaking news stories. However, at some point hopefully this month I am going to take a week-long break from this daily grind and offer a broader look at a handful of big issues that are having a serious impact on millions of people around the world but get little press coverage. Ones presently under consideration are:

-The small arms trade
-Child soldiers
-Street children
-Aid workers as targets of combattants
-'Asylum fatigue'
-How to help internally displaced people (as distinct from refugees)

So if any readers have others issues they'd like to suggest I study and write about, please leave a comment for me to take into consideration. Bear in mind I'm looking for issues to explore, not a particular conflict to focus on.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

African brain drain

Recently, African Union president Alpha Oumar Konaré attacked the 'brain drain' of skilled workers from Africa to the west.

This came a few days before the World Health Organization released a report detailing the flight of African-trained doctors to the west. The report indicated that 37 percent of doctors trained in South Africa are working in either Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Portugal, the United Kingdom or America.

In his speech, Konaré blamed western immigration policies which entice scientists and other highly educated workers. Algerian foreign minister Mohammed Bedjaoui opined that these policies were "simply depriving Africa of its right to development."

However, I'm afraid that Konaré and Bedjaoui are missing the point.

The 'brain drain' is first and foremost the result of domestic conditions in most African countries. The natural predisposition of human nature is remain in or near the place where one grew up, to remain around that which is familiar. It's only when living conditions at home become so intolerable do educated Africans consider looking abroad. After all, 'selective development policies' can only persuade those who are open to persuasion.

The lamentable effect of war, instability and corruption in Africa is hardly a secret. But the effect of these plagues is to destroy the domestic infrastructure. Not just physical infrastructure like roads and bridges. But intellectual infrastructure like universities, hospitals and science laboratories.

Because so many governments are spending so much money on wars (or rebuilding from wars) and are losing so much to corruption, investment in education, health training and science is negligble (even in percentage terms) compared to western countries. Africa was once blessed with some fantastic universities such as many in Nigeria as well as Uganda's Makerere. Most of these have decayed into decrepit shells of their former greatness due to the factors I just mentioned.

If an African doctor is dealing with filthy working conditions, limited access to medication and facilities and perhaps is payed irregularly, is it any wonder that the lure of good working conditions and regular pay is enough to entice him to another country?

And given the attitude of most African societies toward them, is it any wonder that educated gays and women in particular find the west a bit less inhospitable?

People generally don't leave their country if there are good opportunities abound at home. If Konaré and others really want to fight the 'brain drain,' maybe they should stop blaming the western boogeyman and figure out ways to improve working conditions for educated Africans to entice them to remain on the continent. The solution is not to slash opportunities for African professionals but to expand them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Driven from the markets

In some parts of Africa, it seems to be open season on street traders this week. The governments of both Malawi and Liberia have waged war against what they consider to be a scourge.

The Malawi government used tear gas to disperse a prayer meeting convoked to protest the ban on the hawkers. There were battles between vendors and police in the country's two main cities Lillongwe and Blantyre.

Liberian officials took it one step further. Police set fire to makeshift stalls in the eastern part of the capital Monrovia.

In both cases, the governments want traders to move to permanent structures well away from the city centers. They claim this will make the cities more orderly and reduce traffic congestion. But the vendors have rejected this, arguing they need to be where there customers are or else they won't make enough money to survive.

Bizarrely, the new police chief of Monrovia justified the action because "every human being in this country should have their rights; those who are walking on the sidewalks - poor people who do not have cars - have their rights; those who own cars, too, are supposed to ride the cars, it is their right."

What about the right to sell goods? What about the right to make a living?

It's all well and good to make city centers more clean and orderly. But the bottom line is that street traders serve a purpose. Most Malawians and Liberians do not have time to go well out of their way to distant markets on the edge of town; especially 'those poor people who do not have cars,' as the police chief put it.

So moving the vendors to out of the way places not only prevents them from scrapping out a meager existence but raises the cost of living for their customers as well.

This policy of 'out of sight, out of mind' does no favors to either the vendors or their customers. It's designed to make sure the poor are neither seen nor heard, so as not to trouble placid existence of the domestic elite or the foreign businessmen. And if everyone else can't make a living, oh well... at least there's order and cleanliness!

Monday, April 17, 2006

The secretary and her 'good friend' the ogre

Powerful countries often use high-minded rhetoric as a camouflage to justify decisions based solely on self-interest. This is not new. European colonialism was always justified with rationaliziations like 'The White Man's Burden' or 'la mission civilisatrice,' the civilizing mission. Those sounded a lot nobler than the more accurate 'Pillage of Asia's and Africa's natural resources via violence and forced labor.'

The US aggression against Iraq was no different. We were told it was about liberty, not about installing the beginnings of American economic dominance in the region. It was nicknamed 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' not 'Operation Seize the Oil' or 'Operation Dump the Guy Who Said Our President's Mama Wears Combat Boots.'

A noble pretense makes it a lot easier for people to swallow their doubts and get behind a war which they might consider dodgy. Even if 'pacification' becomes difficult, and they usually do in such colonial missions, the noble pretense allows people to say after the fact, "At least we meant well."

(Even though this self-delusion is morally untenable)

Yet, the noble pretense can become problematic: someone might take you seriously. They might not be aware that the noble pretense is meant as a one-time only deception rather than a universal rule. 'In this case...' undermines the strength of the noble pretense so it's usually omitted.

When someone does take your noble pretense seriously, it can make you look like a hypocrite. Those who subscribe to the noble pretense school typically denounce those who prefer realpolitik. But at least realpolitik isn't dishonest.

President Bush famously denounced the 'Axis of Evil' (according to him: Iran, Saddam's Iraq and North Korea). Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice added a collorary 'Outposts of Tyranny' which she identified as two remaining 'Axis of Evil' regimes along with Cuba, Belarus, Zimbabwe and Burma. Those six countries no doubt deserve condemnation for their lamentable human rights' records.

So it was thus interesting to read the blog of Foreign Policy magazine commenting on the recent meeting between Rice and the tyrant in charge of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema.

Sec. Rice and her 'good friend' Obiang were to have a full set of discussions about [their] bilateral relationship, about some innovative social programs that USAID is involved with and about the range of regional issues that [they] both confront.

Parade magazine ranked Obiang as the world's tenth worst dictator. This is fairly generous as I'd put him in the top (er... bottom?) four.

I wonder if Equatorial Guinea's nightmarish human rights' record (which is significantly worse than Robert Mugabe's 'outpost of tyranny' but without the bluster) was part of the talks. Given the country's position as one of Africa's emerging oil exporters, I doubt the set of discussions between the secretary and her 'good friend' were that 'full.'

(Interestingly, the FP piece noted that while the mainstream media ignored the meeting between one of America's top diplomat and one of the world's worst dictators, the blogosphere, so often derided by self-described serious journalists, was right on top of the story. This demonstrates yet again that the mainstream media only follows foreign stories according to the administration of the day's priorities. Accordingly, in the press conference preceding the Rice-Obiang tete-a-tete, journalists asked questions about Iran but not a single one about Equatorial Guinea. They probably didn't have a clue where Equatorial Guinea is, let alone the fact that they were standing before one of the world's worst dictators.)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Third term for Obasanjo: recipe for a failed state?

Nigeria has been controversially described by some as the world's largest failed state. While it hasn't descended into total anarchy yet, if Nigeria were to collapse completely, it would be far worse than Somalia. And, it has been argued, worse than Iraq.

While the country's artificial construct, arbitrarily pieced together by British colonialists, hasn't helped, Nigeria's downfall since independence has varied from the merely inept and corrupt to the brutal and hugely corrupt.

This article in The Atlantic described the myriad of woes facing one of Africa's most economically and politically important countries.

Chief among the country's current woes is corruption. During the last twenty-five years, Nigeria earned more than $300 billion in oil revenues—but annual per capita income plummeted from $1,000 to $390. More than two-thirds of the population lives beneath the poverty line, subsisting on less than a dollar a day. The country's elites bear most of the blame. Since Nigeria gained independence, in 1960, its rulers—military and civilian alike—have systematically squandered or stolen some $400 billion in government money. According to a 2004 World Bank report, 80 percent of the country's oil wealth accrues to 1 percent of the population. As the journalist Karl Maier, whose This House Has Fallen stands as the authoritative work on modern Nigeria, has put it, Nigeria is a "criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe." Nigeria's similarities to Saudi Arabia are manifold: corruption, oil wealth, a burgeoning Muslim population, and value to the United States as an energy supplier. Osama bin Laden has called Nigeria "ripe for liberation."

In 1999, Olesegun Obasanjo was elected president of the federal republic. Though he was a former military ruler from the late 1970s (when he handed off to a democratically-elected civilian regime), he was viewed as a great democrat. He had been imprisoned for criticizing the nightmarish tyranny of Gen. Sani Abacha. He had even been a serious candidate to be the UN's secretary-general. As someone with democratic credentials AND ties to the military, he was seen as the ideal candidate to occupy the poisoned chalice that is the Nigerian presidency (he is already the country's longest serving democratically-elected leader).

Hoping to move on from the singular horror that was Abacha's rule, Obasanjo's inauguration was greeted by widespread national and international acclaim. He was re-elected in 2003.

Next month, Obasanjo will begin the final year of what should have been his final term in office. The constitution limits the president to two mandates.

However, there has been a fairly transparent campaign by Obasanjo's sycophants to remove this two-term limit and make him president-for-life.

(It's worth noting that the proposed constitutional change would also scrap the two-term limit for state governors)

Pres. Obasanjo has categorically refused to say he won't under any circumstances run for a third term. He's maintained the charade of saying he'll do whatever 'the people' (ie: his sycophants) want but no one believes this. He could easily have extinguished this dangerous course by saying he will retire in 2007 no matter what. But he didn't.

Olesegun Obasanjo will have served eight years as president of Nigeria. If he has done such a great job, he doesn't need four more years. If he has done a poor job, then he doesn't deserve four more years.

And frankly, his first two terms have been underwhelming. As the Atlantic article pointed out:

Nigeria appears to be de-developing, its hastily erected facade of modernity disintegrating and leaving city dwellers in particular struggling to survive in near-apocalyptic desolation. A drive across Lagos—the country's commercial capital and, with 13 million people, Africa's largest metropolis—reveals unmitigated chaos. The government has left roads to decay indefinitely. Thugs clear away the broken asphalt and then extract payments from drivers, using chunks of rubble to enforce their demands. Residents dig up the pavement to lay cables that tap illegally into state power lines. Armed robbers emerge from the slums to pillage cars stuck in gridlocks (aptly named "hold-ups" in regional slang) so impenetrable that the fourteen-mile trip from the airport to the city center can take four hours. Electricity blackouts of six to twelve hours a day are common. "Area boys" in loosely affiliated gangs dominate most of the city, extorting money from drivers and shop owners. Those who fail to pay up may be beaten or given a knife jab in the shoulder.

And while the hell that is Lagos is hardly representative of the country as a whole, urban jungles usually aren't, its dysfunction is very symbolic. As I learned when I lived in West Africa myself, infrastructure that's un- or under-maintained is far, far worse than no infrastructure at all. (This is why people in the countryside are generally much more self-sufficient than those in the cities)

And essentially, this is the worst thing about the third-term nonsense. Nigeria has many serious problems. Every minute wasted on arguing whether Obansajo should be crowned an emperor is a minute not spent on figuring out how to combat corruption, fight crime or pacify the folks in the Niger Delta. It's a huge distraction which isn't merely benign, but potentially ruinous.

The worst despotisms arise not from more mild dictatorships but from failed democratic experiments. Hitler's Third Reich did not arise immediately from the ashes of the Kaiser but from the weak Weimar experiment; Franco's from the undermined Spanish Republic. Côte d'Ivoire is a ways down that same path.

Authoritarian regimes, for their many faults, are often able to keep a lid on ethnic, nationalist and/or religious tension by sheer brutality. Democracies are generally less reliant on force. So if the political system is weak and politicians venal, democracies can exacerbate divisions rather than unite a country. Yugoslavs found that out in the early 90s; Iraqis are finding that out today.

Nigeria is a very fragile democracy and, critically, has weak institutions. At least civilian ones. The worst thing for developing strong institutions is to build a cult of personality around the singular Leader. If Obasanjo is allowed to become president-for-life, this is exactly what will happen. I've always said that the best thing Nelson Mandela did for South African democracy was to NOT allow himself to become president-for-life, to eschew the cult of personality trap that is building up around Obasanjo.

The situation in neighboring Republic of Benin is much different. That country's leader, Gen. Mathieu Kérékou, had ruled the country for 30 of the last 34 years. He was barred by the constitution to run in this year's election both because of term limits and because of an age limit. Yet rather than manipulating the constitution to ensure him staying in power until death, he did a funny thing: he announced his retirement. He could've forced through constitutional changes (or told or allowed his sycophants to do the same). But he didn't.

Instead, the well-qualified Dr. Yayi Boni was decisively elected as the new president of Benin and was sworn in last week to succeed Kérékou.

It wasn't the first time Kérékou had decided to put the best interests of the nation first. In the late 80s, after having been military ruler for a decade and a half, he appointed a national conference, made it sovereign and saw it strip him of many of his powers. When the ensuing presidential elections were held in 1991, he could've rigged them to ensure victory, but he lost and peacefully handed over to his bitter rival. (In 1996, he beat that same rival who also handed over without rancor after choosing not to rig the results)

Many of his countrymen think Pres. Obasanjo could learn a lot from Nigeria's tiny neighbor. Not coincidentally, no fears Benin will become the next failed state.

Update: One only needs to look at the increasing chaos in another of Nigeria's neighbors, Chad, to see the dangers of creating a life presidency.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Guinean political situation remains on the brink

The political situation in Guinea remains in flux. The sacking of reformist prime minister Cellou Dalien Diallo appears to be merely the start of what could become a prolonged succession crisis. The fact that the prime minister was given increased powers via a presidential decree only hours before he was fired has been described as an unprecedented failure of the control that has characterised [Gen. Lansana Conté's] rule by Reuters.

"One expects the unexpected in Guinea, but we have never before seen such inconsistency in a short space of time," said Richard Reeve, West Africa specialist at London-based think-tank Chatham House.

"What happened was surprising in terms of information chaos ... (and) remarkable because it sidestepped the people assumed to have political power."

An International Crisis Group report notes that while Guinean civil society and the political parties have taken the first step toward setting a new national agenda, average citizens still suffer under the combined weight of hunger, lack of electricity and water, decrepit communications infrastructure and lack of health and education services.

A successful general strike last month over low wages and high prices marked the first serious union agitation in Guinea in four decades. Despite this, the unions deplored Diallo's sacking as 'incomprehensible, indescribable and worrying.'

An All Africa column wondered 'Guinea: Is There a Captain Onboard?'

There is widespread fear that the nation is being held hostage by an unidentified group of individuals motivated by personal gain.

Though many believe that this has been the case for at least a decade.

In addition, there is rising concern that the political imbroglio unfolding in this nation, once regarded as an oasis of calm against the civil wars in neighboring countries, could lead to uncertain and dangerous scenarios.

Jean-Marie Doré, leader of the smaller opposition UPG party, has called for Conté's removal as head of state and for him to be replaced by his constitutional successor, National Assembly.president Aboubacar Sompaoré. Since Sompaoré is also the leader of Conté's ruling PUP party, this might be the only way to resolve Guinea's political paralysis short of a military coup.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A quarter century of madness, or how to destroy a country without resorting to war

Zimbabwe was once called the breadbasket of southern Africa. After 26 years of 'independence' under ironfist of madman Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean women now have the lowest life expectancy in the world at 34 years. The average Zimbabwean man can't hope to live much longer, an average of 37 years.

But while the quality of life so miserable that the average Zimbabwean can't expect to live half as long as the average Brit, it's nice to know lunatic Mugabe is still frothing at the mouth about Tony Blair.

It's a good thing Bob still has legions of dreamy, pan-Africanist admirers across the continent who buy into his anti-imperialist smokescreen even though its sole purpose is to distract people from living standards which are collapsing faster than President Bush's approval rating. If not for these folks still stuck in the 1960s who think him another N'Krumah, Bob might face the same fate of another former West African leader: Charles Taylor.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Ugandan election not free and fair but still valid

"Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable."

I wonder if Uganda's strongman Yoweri Museveni is aware of the above quote by the late US president John F. Kennedy. Museveni, in total control of the country for two decades, has done his utmost to make peaceful change impossible.

Late last week, the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled on opposition challenges to the recent presidential election charade.

Was the election free and fair? The seven-member Supreme Court ruled UNANIMOUSLY that it was not.

Did the electoral commission comply with the law? Another unanimous NO verdict.

Should elections be annulled? Bizarrely, a majority of 4-3 voted NO.

So according to the high court, the elections were not free and fair. The electoral commission did not respect the law. But the elections should be maintained anyway.

Opposition leader Kizza Besigye has been accused of complicity with the armed opposition. But if the highest legal body in the land can rule that electoral law can be so grossly flouted without repercussion, how does anyone expect the opposition parties to buy into the concept of a peaceful change of government?!

Museveni should remember better than anyone else how thoroughly a civil war destroys a nation. Uganda was in ruins when he took over the country in 1986. He's done some good work stabilizing the country and improving the economy (except for the north of Uganda). This is hardly the time to destroy his legacy. Though I fear the unravelling may already be starting.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Concrete results of debt cancellation

I've always argued in favor of debt cancellation for African countries. I had no problem with the proviso that any country receiving such a cancellation should not be offered future loans, at least for a certain period of time. The money spent on repaying the debt and interest being repaid to the International Monetary Fund would be better served on improving such things as education, health care and infrastructure construction (and importantly, infrastructure maintenance), perhaps even microcredit projects.

Some argued that any such debt cancellation would be a waste of money because all African governments are irredeemably corrupt. They did so even though provisions could be quite easily added to the debt cancellation agreement between the country and the IMF so as to ensure that such savings were used for legitimate and dually agreed purposes. It's important not to take everything at face value. But there's an enormous difference between healthy skepticism and corrosive cynicism.

Most of these debts were granted to dictatorships. It's important to give to emerging African democracies the benefit of the doubt, even as you limit their room for future screwups. If the regimes steal the money or fall victim to cronyism, just shut off the tap immediately. If this had been done during the Cold War to the Mobutu regime or other dictatorships, these countries would never had accrued such enormous debts in the first place.

Cheap cycnism about debt cancellation is quite easy, but trying to improve things requires a little more persistence. Oxfam reports on how things can unfold if given the chance.

User fees were introduced in Zambia under IMF and World Bank pressure in the early 1990s, back when the two institutions were pressuring every country it could to adopt homogeneous neoliberal economic policies conceived in Washington and London without any regard for local specificities. Fortunately, the Zambian government finally reversed this disaster after the G8 countries erased about 40 percent of its debt.

The government of Zambia [last week] introduced free health care for people living in rural areas, scrapping fees which for years had made health care inaccessible for millions.
The move was made possible using money from the debt cancellation and aid increases agreed at the G8 in Gleneagles [Britain] last July, when Zambia received $4 billion of debt relief; money it is now investing in health and education.


Until today the average trip to a clinic would have cost more than double that amount, the equivalent of [an American worker having to pay $210] just to visit a clinic.

Zambia's national income is only $900 per person per year.

Zambia's per capita debt (before the debt relief) was $913 per person per year.

Bravo to the Zambian government! But imagine what the country could do for its people if most or all of the other 60 percent were forgiven.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Roaming charges: daylight robbery?

A London publication called Balancing Act has an interesting piece entitled: African Mobile Roaming Charges - One of the Last Forms of Legal Daylight Robbery.

Friday, April 07, 2006


It's easy to get into a bit of a rut commenting on breaking news stories. However, at some point probably this month I am going to take a week-long break from this daily grind and offer a broader look at a handful of big issues that are having a serious impact on millions of people around the world. A few that I already have in mind are:

-The small arms trade
-Child soldiers
-Humanitarian workers and civilians as intentional targets in 'modern' wars

The first two are definite. The third is a possibility.

However, I'd like to do six or seven in that week. So if any readers have issues they'd like to suggest I study and write about, please leave a comment for me to take into consideration. Bear in mind I'm looking for issues to explore, not a particular conflict to focus on.


Birds of a feather flock together

I see that Zimbabwean strongman Bob Mugabe is in talks with his counterpart in Equatorial Guinea Teodoro Obiang Nguema to get Equato-Guinean oil. Obiang is arguably Africa's most repressive dictator and Mugabe its most flamboyant.

The proposed deal would be a boon to both autocrats, who have faced severe international criticism for their hideous human rights' records. Mugabe is in the process of destroying a once prosperous country. Obiang is trying to ensure that his country never achieves prosperity in the first place. The tiny and closed Equatorial Guinea, called by some 'the North Korea of Africa,' is the continent's third largest oil producer.

Zimbabwe is suffering chronic fuel shortages, the result of a foreign exchange crisis.

The two despots likely became close after Mugabe arrested a number of people alleged to have formented a coup plot against Obiang.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

When 'Never Again' happened again

Though I normally only post one article a day, I would be remiss if I let this pass by without mention.

Today is the 12th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide during which at least 800,000 people were murdered. It was one of the world's worst atrocities of the century and certainly the worst to be covered during the age of cable news television. It occured a year, almost to the week, after politicians and dignitaries in Washington solemnly promised 'Never again' while inaugurating the Holocaust Memorial Museum.

In 2004, I wrote a long series of essays on the occasion of the 10th anniversary which gave a lot of information and background about the genocide.

They are as follows (yes, I know the images do not work):

-Ten years later (an intro)
-Pre-genocide history
-How the genocide unfolded
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 1)
-Myths and realities about the genocide (Part 2)
-The genocide's orphans
-Hate media and their role in the genocide
-International law and American law on genocide
-Post-genocide justice
-The post-genocide government
-Lessons and conclusions

Guinean PM sacked amidst signs of a power struggle

Signs of an apparent power struggle have broken out in Guinea, according to the UN's IRIN news service. On Tuesday evening, state radio twice reported on a decree by head of state Gen. Lansana Conté that would've significantly increased the powers of the prime minister Cellou Dalien Diallo.

But on Wednesday morning, state radio announced that the decree had been voided and that the government was 'maintained as it was before 4th April.'

Later, it announced that the prime minister had been fired 'for serious misconduct.'

Diallo had been in Conté's cabinet for a decade and was held in high regard by international institutions. But speculation persisted that Conté's inner circle did not appreciate Diallo's reformist tendencies.

His predecessor, François Fall, resigned claiming that his reforms were being undermined political meddling and corruption around Conté.

Update: In a move harkening back to the bad old days of the despot Sékou Touré, the regime has suspended distribution of the magazine Jeune Afrique. The pan-African weekly, which often fell afoul of Touré's dictatorship, was banned after publishing an article detailing how sick Conté was and saying he was 'no longer but an instrument in the hands of his inner circle.'

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The culture of denial in Niamey

The government of Sudan isn't the only government acting like it has something to hide.

As most of you probably remember, there was a famine (or 'food emergency,' as the euphemism goes) in the West African country of Niger last year. Since it was a bad news story out of Africa, it not surprisingly received a lot of international media attention.

Apparently, there's another hunger crisis this year in the Sahel nation.

And President Tandja Mamadou wants to ensure that no more press attention reflects unflatteringly on him or his government. So he decided to withdraw permission from the BBC to report on the hunger crisis.

The government had granted permission to report on the issue and then quickly yanked it after one story. The BBC reported:

Officials said international and local media would not be allowed to do stories about the food situation as they did not want that subject touched.

And that:

Officials said they had no problem with our story, but the government did not want foreign or local media to report about food supplies or malnutrition.


Aid workers say there is a culture of denial at the highest levels and they worry that donors may forget the suffering in Niger if the government stops them from seeing it.

My original theory was that the government simply didn't want any reporting on the issue because it would've made them look incompetent or unprepared; the same crisis occuring for a second consecutive year. But I've heard a competing theory that the government is jealous of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) because they received a lot of the praise for addressing last year's famine and the government felt it didn't get enough credit.

Either way, Pres. Tandja and his government should be ashamed of themselves. When people die, it will be on what passes for his conscience!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

UN humanitarian chief refused entry into Darfur

The UN's Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland has been denied permission to enter Darfur by the Sudanese military regime.

Sudan's permanent mission at the UN in New York indicated over the weekend that Egeland would not be welcome in Darfur or in the capital, Khartoum.

Reportedly, this occured AFTER Egeland had received prior assurances from the regime that he could indeed visit Darfur, as he has done several times in the past.

The regime offered a number of lame excuses such as that his visit coincided with a holiday to honor the Prophet Mohammed and thus he should come back another time. Presumably, they knew the timing of this holiday before they authorized his visit in the first place. The regime also said it would be a bad idea for him to visit Darfur because Egeland happens to hail from Norway and a couple of Norwegian publications were involved in the Mohammed cartoons firestorm.

So the regime is worried about this non-issue but isn't the least bit concerned about the genocide and enormous humanitarian crisis on its own soil. Humanitarian services are being undermined by insecurity and the regime is blocking a potential UN peacekeeping mission that would help the NGOs do their jobs. But at least the regime is still mindful of cartoons. I'm glad they have their priorities straight!

I'm sure they wouldn't be trying to hide the fact that the International Organization for Migration has recently said that the violence in Darfur is 'as bad as ever' and 'has a good chance of getting worse.'

I wonder if these accomplices to genocide think anyone is being fooled.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Unlike his victims, Taylor gets his day in court

Today, vile scum Charles Taylor will appear before the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone to answer his indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

(Regular readers of this blog will know that I've taken a special interest in this case because I personally have friends and aquaintances who lost relatives, homes and liveliehoods because of Taylor's terrorists. So when I call him 'vile scum,' I make no apologies for the ad hominem)

The BBC reports that the charges against him are as follows:

(abbreviations: WC=war crimes; CAH=crimes against humanity; VIHL=other serious violations of international humanitarian law)

Terrorising the civilian population and collective punishments
1 Acts of terrorism (WC)

Unlawful killings

2 Murder (CAH)

3 Violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder (WC)

Sexual violence

4 Rape (CAH)

5 Sexual slavery and any other form of sexual violence (CAH)

6 Outrages upon personal dignity (WC)

Physical violence

7 Violence to life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular cruel treatment (WC)

8 Other inhumane acts (CAH)

Use of child soldiers

9 Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities (VIHL)

Abductions and forced labour

10 Enslavement (CAH)


11 Pillage (WC)

Some are upset about suggestions that the Taylor trial be moved to The Hague. Some blame this on 'western interference.' However, it was the president of Liberia herself, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, that made that request, calling the Dutch-based court 'more conducive.'

Some people would've preferred Taylor be allowed to remain in exile and impunity in Nigeria so as to 'ensure the peace' of Liberia. This was a false choice. Pres. Sirleaf said that the decision to extradite Taylor was a 'hard decision which ensures the long-term safety of the Liberian people and the security of the state.'

As if to underscore the CONTINUING menace represented by Taylor to the nation he once terrorized more directly, Liberian state security arrested a number of former Taylor generals following reports (admittedly by a one-time rival of Taylor) of an alleged plan to destabilize the government.

Some complain that Pres. Sirleaf was forced into calling for Taylor's extradition only because of pressure from the Bush administration, saying that future badly needed development aid was linked to justice for Taylor. Some argue that while Taylor's extradition was a good thing, the way in which it was forced upon her was tawdry. I tend to see a different view.

As rarely as I agree with the Bush administration, they were right on this one (it was bound to happen eventually). I suspect that Pres. Sirleaf wanted to extradite Taylor from the beginning. After all, she and her supporters were long harassed by Dictator Taylor; in fact, she might well have won the presidency back in 1997 had Taylor not blackmailed the country into choosing him ('vote for me or I'll take the country back to war'). I suspect she wanted to extradite Taylor anyway because of this and because of the continuing threat he represented to the country but she couldn't because Taylor still had strong influence on the Liberian political scene. My guess is that she secretly appreciated the public pressure from the Bush administration because it deflected a lot of the heat that would otherwise have been directed at the new president of a fragile government.

Some complain that the big, bad international community (ie: the evil west who is responsible for 110 percent of Africa's problems) is picking on the former Liberian saint. Why are they picking on poor, innocent Taylor when there are so many other people who did bad things during those wars? For one thing, a court can not prosecute everybody at once. And it makes only sense to start with the most culpable, with the leaders.

Some complain that the Special Court is going after only Taylor, and thus it amounts to 'victors' justice.' This is simply not true. The Special Court has 11 people; 2 of whom are now dead, 1 of whom is still at large and the rest of whom are in custody. Victors' justice? The first person to stand trial was not a rebel, but Sam Hinga Norman, the leader of a PRO-government Sierra Leone militia. His trial is controversial since many in Sierra Leone see him as a patriot and a war hero for combatting the hideous RUF rebels.

And just what exactly did Taylor do to become the world's worst war criminal? The Associated Press' West Africa correspondent during the early 1990s offers her memories. This is but a mere sample of the madness provoked by Taylor's megalomania.

This article from TIME magazine's archive's offers another perspective.

Update: A Liberian woman writing in The New York Times offers her memories of when Taylor's homicidal goons kidnapped her sister. The title of the piece says it all: A Story in Which Only the Happy Ending Is Unusual .