Thursday, August 30, 2007

Praise for the new Guinean prime minister

Despite a gargantuan challenge, An article in the pan-African weekly Jeune Afrique gives high marks to the new Guinean prime minister Lansana Kouyaté. The former diplomat was named head of government after a nationwide general strike earlier this year which targeted the regime of the country's strongman Gen. Lansana Conté.

Kouyaté was given the enormous task of giving first aid to a sclerotique state and to run an economy that has been choked by the general and his mafia.

Ibrahima Diakité, head of the National Council of Civil Society Organizations said, "[Kouyaté] came to address the economic situation which had been seriously affected years of plunder and waste... at present, he hasn't been able to change the system in terms of the administration, but he has kicked out the old barons, ministers, governors and prefects."

Kouyaté himself added that basic services, particularly water and electricity, are in the process of being re-established in places that had been deprived on them for dozens of years.

Even unions, at the heart of the social movement of January and February, praised the steps taken by the new government.

A union official, under cover of anonymity, said that the new government was progressively beginning to 'make its mark.'

"The new government is the most transparent we've had for 20 years," he added.

While the implementation of reforms is taking a little longer than expected, the transformation of a system paralyzed by over a decade of dysfunction will not happen overnight.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Glue sniffing street children in Nairobi

The excellent One World site has a report on the problem of children sniffing glue in Kenya's capital.

The Advocacy Project reports the shocking statistic that an estimated 60,000 children live on the streets of Nairobi, and almost all are addicted to some sort of inhalant.

The Project adds that Part of the problem is that the laws on inhalants are enforced less strictly than those regulating other drugs, such as marijuana. Anyone who sells an inhalant to a minor, knowing that it will be abused, is subject to three years in prison. But there has not been a single recorded arrest.

A Fellow for The Advocacy Project is keeping a blog of his work in this area.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tensions before Sierra Leone runoff

The Center for Global Development offers its analysis of the recent elections in Sierra Leone. The opposition All People's Congress won legislative elections and its standard bearer will face the outgoing vice-president, of the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party, in a presidential runoff.

However, departing president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, whose spent a mostly useless two terms in office, threatened to declare a national state of emergency if violence between APC and SLPP supporters did not stop. A draconian step, particularly considering the fact that no one has been killed in the clashes.


Monday, August 27, 2007

Kenyan president vetoes anti-media bill

You don't see presidents in Africa vetoing bills that often. Usually, heads of state arrange it so they have supplicant majorities in the national legislatures to do their bidding. So kudos to Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki for vetoing a controversial media bill that most analysts considered to be draconian.

Kibaki came under heavy criticism last year when the government launched an armed raid on an independent media organization, notes VOA.

It added that previously, his wife Lucy Kibaki stormed into a newspaper office and harassed journalists on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day.

Proponents of the bill argued that the Kenyan media are abusing its newfound freedom, but opponents contended that the media needed to be free to sort these things out themselves.

Update: In a rather surprising move, at least from the outside, Kibaki's re-election bid has been endorsed by his predecessor Daniel arap Moi. One wonders if this poisoned chalice isn't a cloak-and-dagger attempt to undermine Kibaki's campaign.

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Liberians in America to be expelled?

US National Public Radio had a pair of stories recently on Liberia. First, it reported that thousands of Liberians resident in the United States might be forced to return to the West African state next month. They came to the U.S. under a special immigration category known as Temporary Protected Status. TPS was first granted in 1991, as Liberia descended into a decade of brutal conflict. But with stability returning to the country, the status may be eliminated. Yet, Liberian government officials say they can't handle the return of such a large influx of returnees.


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Guinea to go nuclear?

After the discovery earlier this month of major uranium reserves in the country, the Guinean government has announced that it is seeking nuclear power as an antidote to the country's energy woes. The government said it wants to start talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

No word yet on if the Bush administration will threaten to launch a military aggression against Guinea if they start a nuclear energy program.

The government's plan is so farcical, I don't know what to make of it. Known as 'the water tower of West Africa,' Guinea has enormous potential to generate hydroelectric power. But the sector has been so badly mismanaged that access to electricity is the exception, rather than the norm.

Almost comically, When a government spokesman appeared on state television to announce Guinea's intention to seek nuclear power many people would have missed the news altogether because of yet another power cut .

They can't feed their people. They can't pay soldiers. It is second most corrupt regime in the world. It presides over the 3rd most unstable country on Earth not at war. The rule of law is non-existent.

But the Guinean government thinks it can run something as dangerous as nuclear power even though it hasn't proven competent in any other area (except keeping power and money in the hands of Lansana Conté's mafia)?

Frightening indeed.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

How drug piracy undermines anti-malaria efforts

The BBC World Service's Assignment has a half hour radio documentary on drug piracy and the counterfeit drugs which threaten to jeopardise the fight against malaria.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Schizophrenia in southern Africa

Former South African police minister Adriaan Vok plead guilty to plotting in 1989 to assassinate anti-apartheid activist Rev. Frank Chikane.

Last year, Vok made a public act of contrition by washing the feet of Rev. Chikane. Though he did appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during its activities, Vok did not testify about this particular crime and was thus not eligible for amnesty.

Because he cooperated with authorities, Vok received a 10-year suspended sentence.

Vok was prosecuted for attempting to kill a single individual. At the same time, one of the continent's most egregious criminals, responsible for destroying millions of lives, not just one, received received a hero's welcome at the SADC summit in Zambia. But far from being angry when it comes to Robert Mugabe, South African officials bent over backwards to suck up to the tyrant.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

The man who controls the eastern DRC

The UK Independent has a disturbing look at DR Congo rebel leader Laurent Nkunda who promises to obstruct the country's fragile peace process. Though he insists that he's only protecting the Tutsis in the eastern DRC.

Regardless, his influence is not to be underestimated.

Everything here is controlled by him," explains Dominic Bofondo, the administrator of Rutshuru, pointing on a map to the western half the territory he is meant to govern. "He has all his own tax collectors out there. We tried to send ours there but they were beaten and they fled. For the past four months, we have not been receiving any reports from our people."

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Friday, August 17, 2007

10 myths about Africa

For those of you who can read French, the pan-African weekly Jeune Afrique has a great piece demolishing 10 myths about Africa.

Among them: tribalism explains all conflicts, there are no entrepreneurs, all heads of state are corrupt and Africans are all polygamous.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Anti-gay barbarity in Nigeria, South Africa

A few times this year, I've written about the barbaric anti-gay witchhunt that seems to be sweeping through Nigeria. The federal government wants to ban not simply homosexual acts, which are already illegal. But they want to ban people from speaking about gay rights. And they want to "punish individuals who witness, celebrate with or support couples involved in homosexual relationships" with a 5 year prison term. Essentially, they want to imprison any citizen who treats gays as human beings.

Now, eighteen men in northern Nigeria may face death by stoning for alleged sodomy. The BBC reports that over a dozen Nigerian Muslims have already been sentenced to death by stoning, none have been carried out. [T]here have been two amputations in north-western Zamfara State which pioneered the introduction of the Islamic legal system in the country though the BBC doesn't indicate what was amputated.

South Africa, by contrast, has the first constitution in the world to specifically guarantee equal protection under the law for gay citizens. But societal attitudes remain extremely conservative. Human Rights Watch condemns the recent brutal murders of three lesbians in the country.

“Despite legal commitments to equality for all, lesbians in South African townships are still targeted for rape and murder,” said Jessica Stern, researcher in the LGBT Rights Program of Human Rights Watch. “Poverty, prejudice, homophobia and sexism are building a new pass system, where many women dare not walk openly on the street.”

Sadly, the hate crimes are not firsts. HRW indicates that the country is in the clutches of a 'climate of violent homophobia.'

African political elites often complain about the dehumanizing legacy of colonialism. And they spent many years agitating against the hideous apartheid system in South Africa and Rhodesia. But they are largely silent, if not eagerly approving, of aggressive homophobic state policy in places like Nigeria and Uganda.

If the three South African women had been murdered by whites because of their black skin, you can be sure there would've been continental, if not international, outrage. But since they were lesbians, their murders were seen as irrelevant, if not welcome.

I guess mindless hateful bigotry is acceptable so long it's based on one inate characteristic, but not another.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Does food aid hurt or help?

That is the question being asked by the charity CARE, reports The International Herald-Tribune.

I alluded to some of the problems in the food aid distribution system in an earlier essay and CARE's assessment bears this out.

CARE, one of the world's biggest charities, is walking away from about $45 million a year in federal funding, saying American food aid is not only plagued with inefficiencies, but may hurt some of the very poor people it aims to help.

Its decision, which has deeply divided the world of food aid, is focused on the practice of selling tons of American farm products in African countries that in some cases compete with the crops of struggling local farmers.


"The NGOs have been ignoring this evidence for years that there's a negative impact on the prices farmers receive," said [Peter] Matlon, [an agricultural economist based on Nairobi, Kenya] who is involved in a $150 million effort financed by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations to increase the productivity of African farmers.

CARE concluded that dumping surplus American food lowered prices paid to domestic farmers and thus undermined broader anti-poverty efforts.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

More media scrutiny of development aid

A column in The Christian Science Monitor calls for more critical reporting of the international aid business.

While there is plenty of reporting on corruption by governments themselves, the author claims that aid organizations themselves regularly cover up managerial dysfunction, including sexual harassment, by ignoring the actions of those responsible. This includes a UN agency director in Geneva lying about his age to stay in power longer, the misappropriation of US funds by private contractors in the Middle East, and the placement of inappropriate personnel in well-paid UN positions by in-house "mafiosi" to the detriment of more qualified individuals.

There are also turf wars among agencies supposedly designed to help the people.

Numerous projects, too, are poorly coordinated as a result of interagency UN rivalries or inappropriate expertise among contracted consultancy firms, and sometimes such initiatives are implemented for the wrong reasons.

But NGOs can be hesitant to criticize the strings that come with aid money, no matter how nonsensical they may be.

NGOs, which rely heavily on donor funding, can cite innumerable examples of aid that makes little sense, they are cautious about criticizing their benefactors. One aid administrator in London pointed out that even when known to be part of a questionable political agenda, "it's still your bottom line."

Some UN member states have presented a plan to revamp the international aid structure but the columnist concludes that Many member states, however, have too much to lose from a truly open UN.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

DRC's Children's Parliament

The Washington Post has an article on the Children's Parliament in the DR Congo. Not surprisingly, the men who've mostly screwed up the country could learn a lot from these kids.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Guinea-Bissau cabinet minister warns of famine risk; NGOs unsure

After reports that Guinea-Bissau had become Africa's first narco-state, authorities are now worried that a famine might strike the unstable West African state.

Guinea-Bissau's agriculture minister recently warned on national radio on the imminence of a famine in the country, particularly in rural communities. The declaration, according to Jeune Afrique, 'left the humanitarian agencies perplexed.'

A Food and Agriculture Organization spokesman acknowledged that the lack of rain was a cause for concern but that "at this stage, [the FAO] doesn't have enough information or precise details to determine the amplitude of the problem."

The World Food Program said it was 'closely following the evolution of the situation.'

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Does the IMF threaten African public health?

The Center for Global Development has a good analysis of whether the International Monetary Fund harms Africa's public health systems unnecessarily by restraining spending.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

FIFA: most African countries don't have safe stadia

In a worrying sign for African soccer fans, FIFA says that only most of the countries on the continent do not have stadiums safe enough to host World Cup qualifiers. The sport's international governing body inspected venues in 50 countries and found only 18 nations had stadiums that met its safety standards.

FIFA also launched a project to install the hideous artificial turf in at least one stadium in each African country.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

General elections in Sierra Leone

South Africa's SABC has a profile of the All People's Congress, one of Sierra Leone's main opposition party. The West African nation will hold general elections on Saturday.

Update: The Christian Science Monitor also has a piece on the country's first post-war elections since the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers. The Council on Foreign Relations has an analysis of Sierra Leone's troubled youth.

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Community radio stations in Liberia

The UN's IRIN news service reports on the struggle for survival faced by community radio stations in Liberia.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The US Farm Bill and its impact on Africa

Late last month, the US House of Representatives passed a big farm bill. Normally a bipartisan exercise in dolling out pork slop, this year's version is proving fairly controversial.

Farm subsidies are the biggest bone of contention in international trade talks. Developing countries ask why they are ordered by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization and western donor countries to have laissez-faire capitalism shoved down their throats while at the same time, North American and European governments lavish generous subsidies on their own powerful agricultural lobbies. Maybe the reason developing countries are skeptical of the free market is because they see that western countries don't seem to believe in them either.

But it's not as though the venerable family farmer, so lionized in American mythology, is benefitting from any of this. Oxfam points out that the 2007 Farm Bill is primarily designed to benefit big agrobusiness.

"Under the guise of saving the family farm, Democrats and Republicans have turned the farm safety net into a slop bucket for American corporate welfare," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

“The House Farm Bill makes minimal progress for nutrition, conservation, and rural development programs but ignores the rare opportunity to finally overhaul US trade distorting subsidies that benefit large, corporate operations at the expense of family farmers and rural communities," he added.

One of the most egregious subsidies goes to the US cotton industry, which particularly hurts farmers in West Africa. Oxfam notes that 12,500 American cotton producers receive some $3 billion in subsidies. That means that the average cotton farmer receives around $240,000 in taxpayer handout. Yet the typical American is more outraged by a single mother with three kids receiving a tiny fraction of this in welfare benefits to feed her family.

This op-ed piece in The Christian Science Monitor calls for the elimination of farm subsidies. They help giant corporations, not small-time family farmers and result in higher taxes and prices for consumers.

The author notes that yes, some family farmers continue to struggle. But if subsidies were really designed to alleviate farmer poverty, then lawmakers could guarantee every full-time farmer an income of 185 percent of the federal poverty level ($38,203 for a family of four) for under $5 billion annually – one-fifth the current cost of farm subsidies.
Instead, federal farm policies specifically bypass family farmers. Subsidies are paid per acre, so the largest (and most profitable) agribusinesses automatically receive the biggest checks. Consequently, commercial farmers – who report an average annual income of $200,000 and a net worth of nearly $2 million – collect the majority of farm subsidies. Fortune 500 companies, celebrity "hobby farmers," and even some members of Congress collect millions of dollars under this program.

The author also re-states a claim made that farm subsidies contribute to serious health problems and rising healthcare costs by subsidizing corn and soy (from which sugars and fats are derived) rather than healthier fruits and vegetables.

Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand represents a major dairy producing area of New York, which actually does have some small farmers. She argues that the Farm Bill represented progress, particularly for those who support organic and local farming.

She points out that provisions in the bill would

-direct the USDA [US Department of Agriculture] to provide loans to businesses that promote buying and distributing within 400 miles of the farms where the product was produced. This provision will specifically help agricultural businesses in the Northeast because of the large markets in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Promoting local distribution also helps to keep local economies strong and prices low because consumers don’t have to pay the high cost of transporting products long distances.

-offer $50 million in grants and free technical assistance to farmers that want to transition from traditional farming to organic farming. Many of New York’s farmers are operating on the financial edge and can not afford the high investment that is required to transition to organic. This amendment addresses that need and will help keep many of our small farms in business. Further, the organic market has been growing exponentially recently – especially in New York City – and the Upstate economy can benefit immensely from this increased demand.

Organic farmers presently pay more for federal crop insurance, for no apparent reason. There is no statistical evidence that organic crops are any more prone to natural disasters than pesticide laced ones. NPR report notes that a provision in the farm bill would force the USDA to justify this higher rate or else stop charging it.

There is one proposal making the rounds that international charities have wanted for years. When there's a humanitarian emergency abroad, the US government typically ships surplus food from this country over to the affected area. This might seem logical on the surface but it creates many serious problems.

In many crisis locations, food is available locally or regionally, but not in the particular area where the emergency occurs. For example, there was recently a hunger emergency in eastern Kenya. There was sufficient food available in other parts of Kenya but poor infrastructure made distribution of the food difficult. And the government of Kenya didn't have the resources to buy or transport it.

Flooding the area with free food from abroad depresses prices for locally grown food. This causes further hardship for local farmers and thus deepens the cycle of poverty. It also takes several weeks or even months to get the food from the US to the affected areas.

"It does not make sense to the average American, to the average African -- probably to the average anyone -- that the best way to get food to someone who is hungry a continent away is to buy it in the U.S., process it in the U.S., ship it on a U.S. ship and hopefully a couple months later, it would actually arrive to where it's needed," notes Erin Tunney, from the non-governmental organization Bread for the World.

This delay has severe repercussions in emergency situations. Additionally, this hideously inefficient process creates unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, wastes energy and adds significantly to the cost of the assistance picked up by the US taxpayer.

Furthermore, this practice encourages agricultural overproduction in the US, thus lowering market prices and increasing the dependency on subsidies.

A new plan would set aside $25 million for a pilot program to test buying food in poor countries for both emergency and long-term aid.

In buying food locally, help would reach those who need it faster and thus save lives. It would be a boon to local agriculture and help farmers escape the cycle of poverty, thus reducing their own and their country's dependency on foreign aid. It would also discourage wasteful overproduction in US agriculture.

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Monday, August 06, 2007

French judiciary liberates genocide suspects

Relations between France and Rwanda got even frostier recently when the French judiciary released from custody two prominent genocide suspects that Rwanda had been trying to extradite since 1995.

The Rwandan regime attacked the French decision, noting that the two were the subject of international arrest warrants.

Charles Murigande, Rwandan foreign minister, said that France has undermined the integrity of the International Criminal Court to which it is a signatory.

“We are shocked and displeased, of course, by this decision, but it is not surprising that all these people have been living unhindered in France, benefiting from the protection of France for the last 12 years. Let me tell you that before International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) issued the international arrest warrants, we had done the same before. We had requested the extradition and all these efforts fell on deaf ears from France. So, it appears that it is the same old story of protecting people who are involved in genocide in Rwanda,” Murigande said.

He said France’s action smacks in the face of its espoused values.

“What may be shocking is to see France undermining an international tribunal that was put in place by the UN Security Council. And yet France is a permanent member of the Security Council,” he said.

Murigande added that if France did not want to extradite the pair two Rwanda, they could do so to the UN-run International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Arusha, Tanzania.

The row came only a few months after a book revealed that France allegedly played a more active role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide than previously believed.

French troops advised Rwandan Hutu extremists how to hide their gruesome work from spy satellites, according to Andrew Wallis, author of the book Silent Witness.

Wallis said some troops became aggravated by corpses floating on rivers -- images picked up by spy satellites.

"So the French soldiers were telling them you have to slit off the bellies of these Tutsi that you kill so that they sink and satellites do not see them," Wallis told Reuters in Kigali.


Wallis said the French role went far beyond arms deals with the pro-Hutu government, saying that before and during the genocide, French special forces armed and trained soldiers who later become the militias that carried out most of the killing.

"Their role is fairly clearly marked, their role is that of accomplice to the genocide crime," Wallis said.

Rwanda broke diplomatic relations with France late last year when a French judge issued arrest warrants for nine aides of the current head of state, who were accused of killing the country's previous dictator.

So men accused of playing key roles in the genocide and deaths of hundreds (or more) of innocent people are free men. But the French judiciary is more concerned with guys who allegedly targeted a single dictator.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

Fighting slavery in Mauritania

A friend of my family's recently went to Mauritania as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It will be interesting to see how the ardent young feminist handles it. She spent time in the very macho country of El Salvador, so she's probably more ready than most. But Mauritania is one of the most closed societies in the world.

Mauritania banned slavery only in 1980. But it's still believed to be practiced despite the legal abolition.

The new government in the country is proposing a law that would toughen penalties for slavery. The act would be punishable by up to 10 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

However, the domestic anti-slavery NGO SOS Esclaves says the current proposal does not specify contemporary aspects of slavery, such as forced marriage, indentured labor or debt bondage and that 10 years of prison is inadequate.

Observers warn that the new law will be pointless if it remains largely unenforced, like the previous law.

Bernard Freamon, an Islamic legal researcher at Yale University, says slavery will continue even with the new law if there is no strict enforcement.

"The legitimacy of a law like that is going to be undermined, if the people charged with enforcing the law perceive it as something just designed to make people in the human rights community feel better," he noted.

Freamon says some Muslims wrongly interpret the Koran to justify slavery. He says slavery will end only when religious leaders publicly denounce slavery.

"It will disappear because each of the scholars will go back to their mosques, their local imams [local religious leaders]," he added. "They will issue an edict that will be very persuasive and authoritative in terms of the local Muslims in that community."

Freamon adds modern day slavery will also exist as long as there are people desperate for food, health care and housing.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Konaré rebukes Sarkozy

A spat has erupted between African Union head Alpha Oumar Konaré and French president Nicolas Sarkozy. The Namibian newspaper has a good resumé of the debate.

Sarkozy asked university students in Dakar, "Do you want to end the arbitrary corruption, violence? That money is invested instead of being embezzled. Do you want the rule of law? It is up to you to take the decision and if you decide so, France will be by your side like an unwavering friend."

This, of course, would be a first for France in Africa.

Konaré hit back at the condescending attitude of the French leader. The AU chief said he agreed with Sarkozy on corruption, violence and immigration, 'young people are aware of that and many of them have been fighting these things for a long time'.

A top leader in the French Socialist Party attacked Sarkozy for giving patronizing lectures to Africans on development while at the same time 'stealing Africa's best minds through the policy of selective immigration'.

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