Saturday, March 31, 2007

Ivorian rebel leader named prime minister

In a move that will hopefully end five years of war in Côte d'Ivoire, head of state Laurent Gbagbo has named former rebel leader Guillaume Soro as the country's new prime minister.

In a press conference, Gbagbo declared 'La guerre est finie.' The war is over.

Let's hope so!

Friday, March 30, 2007

A sweet product's sour side

Alternet posted an odd piece wondering if women enjoyed chocolate more than sex. Ironic, then, that the UK Independent published an article the same day on how that chocolate comes on to the lips of western women (and men). If the chocoholics read this article, they might lose their appetite.

The story may not be new, but it's precisely the lack of change that's making news. There was a big campaign several years ago to try to eradicate the use of child labor on cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire, which produces half of the world's chocolate.

Back in 2001, after an international outcry and a warning from the United States Congress, the global chocolate industry signed an agreement known as the Cocoa protocol. At first they promised to have made serious inroads towards ending the problem by July 2005. But they missed their targets, and Congress gave them three more years.
"That deadline came and went and we were very unhappy," said Eliot Engel, the Democrat congressman who initiated the protocol. "They now need to live up to that agreement. If they don't we'll make a decision in 2008.

The Independent reports that in Côte d'Ivoire, children carrying cocoa machetes are a common sight. They are kept out of school and many have untreated wounds on their legs. "I used to go to school," said Marc Yao Kwame, who works with his brother Fabrice on a remote farm. "But my father has no one to work on the farm, so he took me out of school. My mother's a long way from here. I haven't seen her for 10 years - since I was two years old."

Local officials reported that projects designed to take children off the cocoa farms and put them in school but, as one official put it, "We haven't seen any of the money."

Nestlé's slogan is 'Good food, good life.'

For whom?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Zim opposition leader kidnapped

Bob Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe is clearly near its end. But as I explained earlier, despotisms are often at their most oppressive at the end. A few weeks ago, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other key opposition figures were nakedly brutalized by Mugabe's thugs and yet another wave of violence against perceived opposition supporters saturated the country.

Even African leaders started to break their long silence about Mugabe's terror. The deputy foreign minister of South Africa, a government who'd been Bob's most sycophantic ally, said Zimbabwe was on the verge of meltdown. He warned that it was now difficult to see how the country could avoid a complete collapse.

Faced with the despots intransigence, Tsvangirai hinted that his Movement for Democratic Change were working with members of the ruling ZANU-PF to orchestrate an exit strategy for Mugabe.

"I'm sure that there is national convergence on such a roadmap being worked out between some of the ruling party members and the MDC," he said.

Western diplomats say that Zanu-PF power-brokers Emmerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru are both keen to replace Mr Mugabe as the party's candidate next year.

The surprising, if timid, about-face by Mbeki is seen as a sign by many that Pretoria does not want the embarassment of chaos in Zimbabwe in 2010 (to when Mugabe wants to postpone presidential elections), the year in which South Africa will host the prestigious soccer World Cup.

Interestingly, this piece in Foreign Policy magazine's blog cites a report by the International Crisis Group on Zimbabwe. It concludes that European and American sanctions on top officials in the regime (not the whole country) are working. ZANU-PF leaders cite their personal financial situations as motivation for wanting Mugabe out. “We have businesses which we worked hard over years to set up which are collapsing. It is about time we change course”, said a senior politburo member.

But not surprisingly, as Mugabe sees more and more writing on the wall, he ratchets up the violence to preserve his own selfish ownership of the country. Earlier today, his insecurity forces kidnapped opposition leader Tsvangirai, just before he'd been scheduled to give a news conference on the government's increasing war against its own people to the few journalists who are actually able to work in the country.

"Tsvangirai and a number of others we have not been able to identify have been taken by police in a bus. We don't know their whereabouts. We don't know if they have been charged," said an aide to the MDC chief.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

French air force bombs Central African Republic... again

One of the more beneath the radar conflict zones in the world is the northern part of the Central African Republic (CAR). This is probably in part because it borders the more high-profile war zones of Darfur and eastern Chad. But the CAR isn't doing much better.

Last November, French fighter jets bombed rebel positions in the northern CAR. More recently, an entire town was laid waste following clashes.

"Never before has the UN seen a town where 70% of houses have been torched," said the UN's humanitarian coordinator to the CAR.

The UN says that some 14,000 people have fled the town [of Birao] to live in the bush, while just 600 remain in their homes.

There are now some 250,000 displaced people in CAR - three times more than a year ago, the UN says.

While both rebels and the military regime blame each other, The BBC's Joseph Benamsse in the capital, Bangui, says it is clear that both regular troops and rebels are responsible for the destruction of Birao.

A female medical worker in the town added, "French jet fighters also contributed to the destruction as they hit some houses."

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Niger River under threat

South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian has a troubling piece on the severe ecological problems faced by the Niger River. The Niger is the most important river in West Africa, not only economically (fishing and commercial agriculture) but also for the water it provides from drinking and for subsistence farming.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Nigeria 'heading for anarchy'

Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka warns that Nigeria is heading for anarchy.

Interesting read.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Fighting erupts in DR Congo capital

Months after the Democratic Republic of the Congo's historic first democratic elections, there's been running battles in the capital Kinshasa. The government issued an arrest warrant against Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former militia leader and losing candidate in the presidential elections. Bemba, who is also a senator, is being accused of treason "in using the armed forces for his own ends," according to a Congolese government spokesman. Bemba denied wanting to overthrow incumbent president Joseph Kabila.

There were two days of heavy gun battles between government troops and militiamen loyal to Bemba. But the UN mission in the country, MONUC, reports that calm has returned to Kinshasa and that Bemba had taken refuge in the South African embassy.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A bear is most dangerous when it's dying

I'm presently reading a book about the attitudes of white southerners in the US in the years leading up to and during the civil rights' movement. This was a period of tremendous violence against blacks, predominantly because whites felt their privileged position threatened. Perversely, the privileged class felt that they, the whites, were the real victims. They felt that the civil rights' movement was driven by outside agitators who wanted to disturb the peaceful order of the elites and the submissive.

The dynamic was much the same in the dying days of white rule in South Africa. It was a little different, in that the ruling class was a numerical minority. But the fundamental dynamic remained the same: as the ruling class' hold on their elite status in society slipped away, their desperation turned to mindless violence to preserve the last vestiges of grandeur. When blacks gained equal rights, many formerly dominant whites whined (and continue to do so) about blacks gaining "special rights." Special rights like being treated as full-fledged citizens, as civilized human beings

I thought of these two cases as Bob Mugabe and his corrupt cronies desperately cling to power. While Mugabe's despotism is not based on skin color (though blacks are the main victims of his savagery), the oppression inflicted by his regime is just as criminal as apartheid's and segregation's.

The fact that Mugabe was one of the key player in supporting anti-apartheid forces in South Africa would be ironic, if his misrule weren't so destructive.

But just as in the southern US and in South Africa, Mugabe and his cronies are cranking up the violence in a desperate attempt to maintain their power.

While his assassination attempt on the main opposition leaders is hardly the first act of brutality against the regime's opponents, it is probably the most audacious. In the past, harassment against key opposition figures has been couched in pseudo-legal kangaroo trials. That the regime has gotten so brazen is a sign that it seems its thieving opulence threatened.

The crisis has been met by meek acquisence by both the African Union and by regional power South Africa.

The AU called for a 'constructive dialogue' and assured the world that it was watching events in Zimbabwe with 'great concern.'

The South African government, in line with its discredited 'quiet diplomacy' sham, got on its knees and pleaded with Bob to 'ensure that the rule of law including respect for rights of all Zimbabweans and opposition leaders is respected.'

(This column in South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian has a good analysis of the Mbeki government's impotent, servile relationship with Mugabe)

I'm sure these two declarations are making Bob tremble in his jackboots. In fact, he responded by telling his critics to 'go hang.'

Traditionally, most African leaders have been loathe to criticize Bob because of his role in the anti-colonial struggles in both Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Africa. Apparently that gives him carte blanche to replace white-led oppression with black-led oppression. But not all prominent Africans are quite so cowed by bully Bob.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a prominent anti-apartheid campaigner in his own right, denounced this complacency by saying that African leaders should "hang [their] heads in shame."

The Nobel Peace laureate asked, "How can what is happening... elicit hardly a word of concern let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa?"

Adding, "What more has to happen before we who are leaders, religious and political, of our mother Africa are moved to cry out 'Enough is enough'? Do we really care about human rights, do we care that people of flesh and blood, fellow Africans are being treated like rubbish, almost worse than they were ever treated by rabid racists?"

Even the head of the main South African trade union alliance, a close ally of the ruling African National Congress, bemoaned the obvious failure of Mbeki's 'silent diplomacy.'

Ghana's president John Kufuor bemoaned the current state of affairs as “tragedy for the people of Zimbabwe.”

Zambia's president Levy Mwanawasa compared Zimbabwe to a "sinking Titanic." He should know. Zambia is Zimbabwe's northern neighbor and thus a likely destination of many fleeing the disastrous political and economic in Mugabeland.

Mwanaswasa admitted that while Zambia had also tried quiet diplomacy, "the twist of events in the troubled country necessitates the adoption of a new approach."

"Quiet diplomacy has failed to help solve the political chaos and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe," he added.

He is the first leader in southern Africa to speak candidly on the crisis.

Some argue that Mbeki has no influence on Mugabe; that he can advise the despot, but not pressure. This piece belies such suggestions.

The Daily Mail and Guardian reports that Under apparent pressure from South Africa, President Robert Mugabe will submit himself to a popular presidential election in 2008 rather than extend his term for another two years.

Mbeki didn't want controversial elections in Zimbabwe to embarass him during South Africa's 2010 hosting of the world's most popular sporting event, the soccer World Cup.

Though that same article interestingly reported that Insiders say Mugabe no longer has a firm grip on power and that securocrats are running the show. Last week’s brutal beating and torture of opposition MDC activists has further exposed growing fissures within government and the party, with key dissenters blocking further unconstitutional action.

Update: Further evidence of how desperate the brutal regime is. They have imported some 2500 mercenaries(paramilitary police) from Angola to back their own apparently divided insecurity forces.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

You can't win for losing

As awareness of the effects of climate change increase, Europeans are becoming more conscious of the impact of their actions on the environment. There is a campaign in Europe to urge consumers to buy locally made goods and locally produced food. Europeans are also being urged to vacation closer to home. There are because the transport of consumer items and of people is seen as a key contributor to climate change. Additionally, European Union leaders agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions substantially by 2020.

This should please Africans. Africa is the continent already most adversely affected by climate change.

Yet, this piece lambastes the campaign, claiming it will destroy Africa's tourist and agricultural export industries.

Some people will whine about whatever's done or not done. The west is blasted for contributing to climate change that hurts Africa, but when Europe tries to take actions to mitigate this problem, it's blasted for that too.

Maybe the populist whiners can figure out what they want the west to do. But I guess it's easier to instead of criticizing everything instead of coming up with constructive solutions.

However, some are taking the bull by the horns and addressing problems proactively. Radio Netherlands has a good piece on how some African cities are better managing their urban settings.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Ivorian peace plan inches forward, none too soon

In the wake of the (at least) seventh Ivorian peace accord, there are some moderately hopeful signs.

Today, head of state Laurent Gbagbo signed a decree creating a new national military structure that will integrate rebel forces.

Both sides say they have also reached agreement on an identification programme to give Ivorian identity papers to millions who do not have them.

There have been so many peace accords, most Ivorians are not ready to pop the champagne corks yet. But this is a hopeful step and one that comes none too soon.

Amnesty International reports that sexual violence has skyrocketed in the country.

As is too often the case, Fighters from all sides have used sexual violence as part of a deliberate strategy to instil terror in and to humiliate the population, according to the UK-based organization.

Though the group points out that there was some politically-motivated sexual violence even before the start of the country's civil war in 2002.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mugabe's thugs try to assassinate opposition leaders; Mbeki shrugs

Whenever I write about Bob Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, I always have to consult a thesaurus. My lexicon of words I commonly used does not contain enough synonyms for 'savage' for me to write a complete essay on Mugabe. Even the use of the word 'thugs' in the title seems grossly understated.

Zimbabwean insecurity forces savagely attacked a protest prayer meeting yesterday. An alliance of opposition, civic, church leaders and student and anti-government groups had gathered in prayer but the criminal police force brutalized them. After being arrested, main opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and five other prominent opposition figures were reportedly beaten and tortured in custody by Mugabe's forces of disorder. The opposition claim that the depravity amounted to attempted murder. Tsvangirai is hospitalized and is in serious condition.

"This is not consistent with the normal police brutality we have witnessed. The injuries were deliberate and an attempt to assassinate him," said Eliphas Mukonoweshure, another top opposition official.

The mere fact that there is something called 'normal police brutality' demonstrates how deviant and venal the Zimbabwean thugocracy has become.

Opponents of President Robert Mugabe blame him for acute food shortages, record inflation of about 1 600 percent -- the highest in the world -- and repression and corruption.

The servile government in neighboring South Africa continued its sickening acquiesence to Mugabe's barbarity by meekly asking them to respect the rule of law and human rights. This is approximately the 2894th time they've made such an obseqious plea.

No word on if the phrases "pretty please" and "with sugar on top" were used by the South Africans.

(A grotesque picture of what Tsvangirai looks act like being beaten by Mugabe's degenerates can be found here. Warning: it isn't pretty)

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Femi Kuti

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the death of Africa's most legendary musician, the great Fela Anikulapo Kuti. South Africa's Daily Mail and Guardian has a portrait of his eldest son Femi Kuti, an excellent musician in his own right.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Worsening situation in the Central African Republic

While much of the world's 'Africa' attention is rightly focused on Darfur, there's a disturbing and underreported conflict in the near by Central African Republic.

A rebellion is causing havoc and insecurity in the northeastern region of the CAR, which borders the Sudan. Some fear that the region is going to run out of food this year. Others claim that the national army's soldiers are exacerbating insecurity more than they are quelling it.

The conflict is also awakening the scourge of child soldiers in the country.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Lake Chad 'dying'

Lake Chad is one of Africa's largest and most important lakes. It's also dying, as this BBC piece explains.

Experts are warning that the lake, which was once Africa's third largest inland water body, could shrink to a mere pond in two decades.

German and American scientists blamed global warming and human activity, such as dams.

The fishing industry in towns around Lake Chad is in crisis. Locals also report that birds and other animals are also dying. The decreased water amounts also severely affects pastoralists.

In a mere 40 years, the surface of the lake has shrunk by a mind-boggling 80 percent.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Happy birthday Ghana

This blog is named Black Star Journal. As Africaphiles will probably guess, the title refers to the black star in the center of Ghana's flag, which has come to symbolize pan-African idealism. Today, Ghana celebrates its Golden Jubilee.

On this date in 1957, Ghana won independence from Britiain, becoming the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to break free from European colonialism.

At the time, Ghana joined Ethiopia and Liberia as black Africa's only independent countries. Within 20 years, virtually all of Africa had gained political indepedence. Ghana served as a beacon of hope for Africans in other colonies. The success of their struggle to control their own destinies was hardly assured at the time.

Ghana's founding leader Kwame Nkrumah was one of the standard bearers of pan-Africanism, the idea of uniting all Africans and those of the diaspora into a united community. His vision was for all countries on the continent to eventually join into a United States of Africa.

While Nkrumah was a great visionary of pan-Africanism, he wasn't a particularly good leader of Ghana. Like many leaders, he was good at the big ideas but not so good at translating them into the nitty gritty of governance. (Are you taking notes Presidents Obasanjo and Wade?)

The pan-African optimism of the late 50s and early 60s quickly evaporated. Nkrumah was overthrown in a coup. Sylvanus Olympio and Patrice Lumumba were assassinated. Sékou Touré's regime quickly descended into a nightmarish police state. Nigeria erupted in civil war. The continent was split into 50+ countries with as many ruling cliques who didn't fancy giving up their power and privilege. At least not voluntarily.

Ghana was very unstable and sometimes violent in the 25 years following Nkrumah's overthrow. But the country was stabilized in the latter part of the rule of the controversial Jerry John Rawlings. A peaceful handover of power occurred in 2000 after opposition leader John Kufour defeated Rawlings' handpicked successor.

The always opinionated Rawlings didn't share his disgust at his party's loss of power but he did hand over. Though the former head of state clearly remains bitter at the fact that after 20 years of unquestioned power, Ghanaians snubbed him by not electing his dauphin. He refused an invitation to attend the 50th anniversary celebrations. The man widely accused of massive human rights, especially in the early 80s, sniffed that the Kufour administration was covering up alleged cases of torture and extrajudicial killings. Strangely, the human rights organizations which normally chronicle such things don't mention anything about these mythical abuses. Perhaps Rawlings is just upset that at this high profile anniversary, he is, for once, not at the center of attention.

Ghana is certainly not without its share of problems today. But it is now seen as one of the most economically and politically stable countries on the continent. After 50 turbulent years, it has returned to its place as one of the beacons of hope for Africa.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ivorian Peace Deal, part VII

Marcoussis. Pretoria. Accra. What do these three names have in common?

They are the locations where previous peace deals to end the Côte d'Ivoire civil war were signed.

(I think three previous peace accords were signed in Accra and two in Marcoussis)

Now, you can add Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou to the list. A peace deal was signed there yesterday between the Ivorian head of state Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro.

So I'm a bit skeptical that this peace agreement will hold where the previous six did not. I suppose it's easy to be skeptical. Signing a peace of paper is easy. But upholding the principles expressed on that piece of paper is a lot harder. And so far, there hasn't been much political good faith demonstrated in Côte d'Ivoire.

Some are more optimistic. "What is different this time is that the two major protagonists have agreed, and have negotiated directly," explained Dr Mohammed ibn-Chambas, head of the West African regional body ECOWAS. Gbagbo and Soro were both personally involved in the deliberations.

Also, the involvement of Burkina Faso is seen as a plus. The Pandora's Box of 'Ivoirité,' the nasty xenophobia that was whipped up starting in the mid-90s, was almost exclusively directed at Burkinbè migrant workers in Côte d'Ivoire.

There are also hints that Soro would be named prime minster.

I suppose one has to allow a shred of optimism. Côte d'Ivoire is a key country and economy in West Africa. Let's hope that both sides, particularly the nationalist xenophobic 'Jeunes patriotes' thugs nominally behind Gbagbo, give this agreement a chance to work.

Friday, March 02, 2007

The anti-landmine campaign and its legacy

Almost ten years ago, the international treaty to ban landmines was signed in Ottawa, presumably because of the leadership shown on the issue by Canada's then-foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy.

While Axworthy provided the impetus on the governmental level, the movement was really headed by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. The ICBL is a coalition of over 1400 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) cooperating on this issue. The ICBL and its then-coordinator Jody Williams were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.

The Voice of America has a brief piece on how successful the treaty has been. Though it notes that most of the world's top military powers have refused to sign the treaty including the United States, China, Pakistan, India, Russia and most countries in the Middle East.

While the failure of the US to adhere to these basic standards of making warfare slightly less savage is a disappointment, the ICBL's legacy has been enormous. The international development agenda was once dominated by governments, some anti-democratic, others in hoc to financial and commercial interests. Essentially, few entities existed to look at development from an unbiased perspective, with the interest of the ordinary masses of people in mind.

The ICBL was really the first time I'm aware of that NGOs were able to wage a huge advocacy campaign that ultimately resulted in the adoption of a major international treaty. This, along with the 'blood diamonds' campaign that followed shortly thereafter, have essentially become the template for NGOs can have an impact on the international agenda.

NGO power still pales in comparison to the obscene influence of multinational behemoths. Big corporations have plenty of money to grease the skids, while NGOs only have moral authority. But at least there's now a way by which the agenda of ordinary people can actually be heard... and once in a while even advances.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Celluloid heroes

Last Sunday, Forest Whitaker won the Oscar for Best Actor at Hollywood's Academy Awards. Whitaker won for his role in 'The Last King of Scotland' where he played Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

Whitaker's award was viewed with some pride in Uganda, where the film was shot. I found this a bit odd. Ugandans should feel shame that their society allowed Amin to rise to power and maintain his insanity for seven years. Ugandans should feel shame that it required the intervention of foreigners (the Tanzanian army) to overthrow Amin, rather than a domestic popular uprising.

I'm not a big fan of the crap Hollywood usually puts out but Whitaker's one of my favorite actors, so I'm pleased his work was rewarded. However, his win prompted an interesting discussion about how African stories are told to western audiences.

It's not a revelation that most western news reporting about Africa focuses on misery. As the widely admired black American journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault points out in her excellent recent book, western reporting from Africa focuses on the four D's: death, disaster, despair and disease. Westerners are fed a lot of heartwrenching or infuriating tales of death in Africa and little about life on the continent. Movies, which are inherently fiction, are even more skewed in this regard.

Almsot all popular Hollywood films with Africa as a setting focus on this misery. Brutal dictators ('The Last King'). Uncontrollable disease ('Congo'). Grotesque exploitation and its horrors ('Blood Diamond'). Racial tension (any film about apartheid South Africa). The only films that eschew this model are the ones where the star is Africa's nature, its landscapes, its animals (either in a romantic or nightmarish way) and the travails or westerners who live there... movies where actual African people with actual lives are irrelevant, or at least incidental ('I Dreamed of Africa,' 'Out of Africa').

Even in those rare movies where a good, moral black African is the protagonist, it must be set amidst horror ('Hotel Rwanda').

Basically, in any film set in the continent, Africa must be exotic. The Africans who live there (when they're actual drawn as serious characters) must be either evil monsters or sit passively while oppressed by the powers that be. Africans with normal desires, like educating their kids or feeding their families, don't make these films. Exotic, nightmarish or romantic, these make good stories. Pandering to audiences' preconceptions makes a good story. Well, not a good story, but a profitable one.

And even stories made by African cineastes can't always avoid the financial consideration. Most such films are made with the backing of (mostly) European money. Investors want a story that's going to appeal to European filmgoers. Therefore, these films usually include themes that are easily digestible. Modernity vs progress. The nobility of tradition. Exile. Filmmakers are often pressured to modify their work in such a way that European filmgoers can identify with them, even if it's not the story the filmmaker wants to tell.

Sadly, the lack of domestic cinematic infrastructure in Africa means that the interests of western financiers and filmgoers will continue to be an essential consideration. Even the movie houses that do exist in Africa tend to show mostly Hollywood or Indian flicks.

This discussion comes at a particularly opportune time, as we're in the middle of the bienniel FESPACO film festival in Burkina Faso.

The BBC's Network Africa has a bunch of interviews with some of the key figures at Africa's most important film festival.