Thursday, July 23, 2009

Amadou and Mariam

I first heard this dynamic duo from Mali at one of those listening kiosks at the Virgin record store in Paris. (Remember record stores? Apparently the French still have a liking for them.) Then I missed them when they came to Cambridge this summer. Lately I saw them in a compilation brought out by the folks at Starbuck's who I must say have decent taste at least in the opinion of this child of the 60's.)

Check out their MySpace page.

It's Africa's Downturn Next

In what he described as an impending ‘economic tsunami’ , Britain’s Development Minister Douglas Alexander has called upon the developed world not to forsake their promises and obligations to the world’s poor, regardless of the current state of the world economy. Speaking to the BBC yesterday Alexander warned that as many as 90 million people would be ‘pushed back’ into extreme poverty and that the very real gains in economic progress that many African countries have experience over the past few years would be in peril. His suggestion for action, in a move similar to one announced by Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, would be to set up special funds that would, in effect, be a special stimulus package for the world’s poor. Alexander also warned the developed world about the perils of protectionism and to encourage aid-on-top-of-trade to countries in the developing world.

These are bold and encouraging words coming from Britain, a country which has pledged to maintain its foreign aid commitments. The question for leaders of the G20 meeting London in April is whether the political risks of continuing their foreign aid outflows will be accepted by their constituents. Obviously, as the global crisis deepens, it will be harder and harder for Western politicians to continue to push foreign aid transfers through their legislatures, no matter how much pressure Bono or Jeffrey Sachs put on them.

On the ground in Africa, the effects of the global downturn were already being felt by the end of last last year as commodity prices fell and work was slowed or halted in Zambian copper mines and bauxite pits in Guinea. In countries with no social security or unemployment insurance and where private companies, not governments, supply essential services like energy, housing and health-care, the shutting of even a single mine can dramatically effect the lives of thousands of people.

We can certainly forgive the leaders of the G20 for turning their short-term focus on solving the international banking crisis and on stimulating their own economies. However, it must be said, that a real stress test of the moral character of the Western free-market system will take place when new aid budgets and trade policies are decided upon and announced in the coming years. After years of pounding the principles of free market economics and the glories of globalization into the heads of African leaders, it would be morally bankrupt to now turn our collective backs. Opponents of current policies might argue that this is a great opportunity for African leaders to wean themselves of foreign aid and begin to focus on developing real economies. There would certainly be nothing wrong with this outcome except that their dependence on natural resource exports and a lack of economic diversification make such a leap all but impossible in a world where commodity demand is shrinking and where trade barriers might start growing again.

Average Africans have much more to fear than fear itself. Who has the courage to stick by them?

(First published by the Harvard International Review, March 10th 2009)

Piggy Banks

On top of all the bad news surrounding international banking we can add to the list the findings of a just published report ( Undue Diligence : How Banks Do Business With Corrupt Regimes) from the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness.

The report, although dealing with somewhat dated material, nevertheless paints a devastating portrait of how some of the largest and formerly most prestigious international banks have been complicit in laundering the ill-gotten gains of the some of the world’s most unsavory regimes. Despite the existence of a whole host of regulations and public commitments to social responsibility on the part of institutions like Citibank, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, etc. the report condemns these institutions for doing the minimum amount of due-diligence and exploiting every loophole to avoid turning down lucrative deposits.

In my posting last week I made some comments about Equatorial Guinea which were responded to at length by someone from the EG Embassy in London. Although my Spanish is hardly fluent I was able to discern that I was being accused of slandering and perpetuating negative stereotypes about EG.

Lo and behold, but who should top the list of Global Witnesses’ list- of- shame but Equatorial Guinea and their partners in crime, first the now-defunct Riggs Bank, and more recently Barclays.

Management of the country’s vast oil wealth remains a ‘state secret’ according to President Teodoro Nguema Obiang. He has ruled since 1979 when he executed his brutal uncle to seize power, and has maintained his power through repression and human rights abuses. Members of Obiang’s family control key government ministries. Opposition parties are banned, and political prisoners are beaten and tortured in custody.

Meanwhile, the ruling family continues to enrich itself. At the end of 2006 Global Witness revealed that the president’s playboy son had bought a new $35 million dollar home in California. He has been reported as earning a $4,000 a month salary as the country’s Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.

But not to appear as unfairly picking on EG, it should be noted that Gabon, Republic of Congo, Angola, Charles Taylor’s Liberia, Turkmenistan and their cohort of international deposit-takers also make the list.

The main recommendation of the report is that now that the world seems to be getting serious about regulating shameless bankers it should also close all the loopholes and address all the convenient ambiguities which allow resource riches from desperately poor countries to find their way into international bank accounts - now matter how desperately these shattered institutions might need them.

(First Published March 22, 2009 in Harvard International Review)

Paul Kagame's Fan Club Grows

What do Bill Clinton, the Rev. Rick Warren, Harvard's Michael Porter, and Google's Eric Schmidt all have in common? According to Philip Gourevitch, writing in this week's New Yorker, they are all friends of Rwandan President Paul Kagame -- part of his "kitchen cabinet" of advisers. Like Stephen Kinzer of the New York Times, Gourevitch has definitively fallen under the spell of Kagame and his ambition to turn Rwanda into the Singapore of Central Africa.

There are, however, several assertions in this piece which are a bit dodgy, not least of which are Gourevitch's estimates of the numbers killed in the 1994 genocide. Most reports put the number at 800,000, with anywhere from 10-20 percent of those actually being moderate Hutus. Gourevitch simply says a million Tutsis.

That may seem like a minor quibble, but I think it reflects the underlying problem with Gourevitch's somewhat starry-eyed analysis. In his shattering accounts of the genocide published in 1998, Gourevitch brought us up close and personal with both victims and perpetrators. It was great reportage. Not much big picture needed.

At the time it seemed like a clear-cut case of good and evil, with Kagame coming across as George Washington, David Ben-Gurion and Gen. Patton rolled into one painfully thin looking Tutsi warlord. The problem is that even back then, Gourevitch seems to have bought Kagame's line that the mass killings occurring in the Congo -- some estimates say up to 5 million, mostly civilians -- many of which were being carried out by Rwandan troops or their proxies, were somehow justified because of the genocide.

Over the course of the latter conflict, Rwanda-based mining interests (which have yet to sign on to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative) have been accused of plundering the riches of neighboring Congo in the "fog of war" created by Rwanda's 15-year crusade to bring every last génocidaire to justice. No one can argue that the Rwandans have the right to seek justice. But for Gourevtich to take on face value Kagame's claim that his government didn't "supply anything" to the recently deposed Congolese-Tutsi militia leader Laurent Nkunda is disingenuous at best.

According to the Economist, the U.N. has plenty of evidence to the contrary, and one wonders why Gourevitch doesn't at least mention it -- never mind asking Kagame about it.

The best part of the article was the photo of Paul Kagame by brilliant South African photographer Pieter Hugo. Check out his other work here.

(First published May 1, 2009 in World Politics Review)

The World Bank's Little Book of Horrors

The World Bank's 2008 Little Data Book on Africa (.pdf) might also have been called the Little Book of Horrors. It describes a world of human beings living at the extremes of poverty and at the edge of a precarious existence, particularly children under five years old.

I ran some of the data from sub-Saharan countries where there are more than 200 deaths per thousand for under-5-year-olds to try to get some correlations between:

- The amounts of aid flowing into a country as a percentage of GDP.
- The per capita GDP.
- And the number of deaths per thousand for under-5-year-olds.

I found that there isn't much of one. Both oil-rich Angola and Equatorial Guinea, which both have less than 1 percent of aid as a percentage of GDP, have about the same deaths per thousand of children under five as countries which are much more aid dependent.

What's striking is that these two oil-rich countries boast per capita GDPs far above the average -- less than $300 -- for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, with Angola at $1,069 and Equatorial Guinea at an astounding $7,470. If a measure of a country's performance is how it uses its wealth to protect its young, then both Angola and Equatorial Guinea have to be rated as failures, as they have the same or slightly worse mortality rates for under-5-year-olds than Liberia (per capita GDP $134) and Mali (per capita GDP $290.)

What's striking is that in the band of countries with under-five mortality rates greater than 200 per thousand, the amount of aid as a percentage of GDP runs from .3 percent to 43.8 percent. This suggests that massive amounts of aid in Africa might be good for some things but not necessarily for reaching one's 6th birthday.

(First published April 29th in World Politics Review)

South Africa Due for a Chuckle

For a really good analysis of the challenges facing South Africa in the now inaugurated "Jacob Zuma era," take a look at this piece by South African author/journalist William Gumede. Unlike his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who was something of a stick in the mud, Zuma promises to be a boon for political satirists and cartoonists.

The controversial South African cartoonist, Zapiro, has already gotten a head start with his infamous caricature of Zuma that includes a shower head embedded in Zuma's skull, a reference to Zuma's remark that he never worries about getting AIDS because he showers after having sex.

For another example of South African political humor, yesterday, I asked a friend in South Africa for her views on the election. This is what I got back. (DA refers to the opposition liberal party, Democratic Alliance, headed by white South African, Helen Zille):

A woman in a hot air balloon realized she was lost. She lowered her altitude and spotted a man in a boat below. She shouted to him, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man consulted his portable GPS and replied, "You're in a hot air balloon, approximately 30 feet above a ground elevation of 2346 feet above sea level. You are at 31 degrees, 14.97 minutes north latitude and 100 degrees, 49.09 minutes west longitude."

She rolled her eyes and said, "You must be a DA supporter!"

"I am," replied the man. "How did you know?"

"Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to do with your information, and I'm still lost. Frankly, you've not been much help to me."

The man smiled and responded, "You must be an ANC government official"

"I am," replied the balloonist. "How did you know?"

"Well," said the man, "you don't know where you are or where you are going. You've risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise that you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. You're in exactly the same position you were in before we met, but somehow, now it's my fault."

(First published April 27th, World Politics Review)

The Sheen Comes off Kagame

What did the BBC do for Rwanda's information minister, Louise Mushikiwabo, to suspend their programs and call them "a real poison with regards to the reconciliation of the Rwandan people" yesterday?

The Beeb broadcast an interview with former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu, now living in Belgium, who said that as a Hutu, he could never apologize for the 1994 Genocide. (A Rwandan government spokesperson was invited to participate in the program, but declined.)

This is not the first time that Mushikiwabo has taken issue with the BBC. Last August, according to a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mushikiwabo threatened to shut down both the BBC and the Voice of America if they didn't stop their "non-factual" reporting.

None of this should come as a surprise. In his hagiographic profile of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, "A Thousnad Hills," NY Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer points out that Kagame's role models are autocratric rulers like Singapore's Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia's Mohammad Mahatir.

Friends of Kagame's Rwanda, like Kinzer, suggest that all this censorship is necessary -- in the short term at least -- to keep harmony in a society that was traumatized by the 1994 genocide and whose faultlines remain volatile. Organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House don't quite see it that way, and have consistently complained that social harmony in Rwanda is being achieved through the abregation of human rights.

Much of what Paul Kagame has done in Rwanda is admirable and no doubt necessary. But after Rwanda's dubious adventures in the Congo and the steady diet of repressive measures that Rwandans have been subjected to, some of the sheen is coming off his image. In France, Kagame is officially viewed as a criminal, on a par with the perpetrators of the genocide, because of the heavy-handed revenge his soldiers took on defenseless Hutu civilians.

U.S. policymakers will likely never take this line on Kagame, stemming in part from U.S. guilt over inaction during the genocide. But that's no reason to ignore ugly incidents of censorship and repression.

(First Published April 27, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Bring Zuma His Machine-Gun

There were long odds against the corruption case of African National Congress leader Jacob Zuma going to trial in the midst of his bid to win the presidency in upcoming South African elections. As I have written in previous posts, the ANC is starting to bear an eerie resemblance to political parties elsewhere on the continent, in both its sense of entitlement as well as its manipulation of democratic processes.

But now that South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority has decided not to pursue the case, the former head of the authority's elite Scorpions anti-corruption unit, Leonard McCarthy, is now in the hot seat. McCarthy, who currently leads an anti-corruption unit at the World Bank, was allegedly caught on tape discussing the timing of the release of incriminating evidence against Zuma with former South African president and Zuma rival, Thabo Mbeki. If true, McCarthy may have not only blown his biggest investigation from his time as head of the Scorpions, he may also have put his new World Bank post in jeopardy.

Whatever their outcome, the upcoming elections are surely ones to watch. Zuma is a firebrand populist who, with the weight of an impending prosecution lifted off his shoulders, may decide it's time for a little payback. With a campaign song entitled Bring Me My Machine Gun, Zuma is certainly a man with a plan.

(First published April 8th in World Politics Review)

Niger Delta Once Again on the Brink

Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua proposed amnesty last Thursday for Niger Delta rebels willing to lay down their arms. The move has all the trapping of an attempt to deflect international criticism of what's to come: There are reports that the Nigerian army's special Niger Delta Joint Task Force is gearing up for what looks like a new attempt -- codenamed Operation Restore Hope -- to clamp down on the militant activity which has disrupted Nigeria's oil output by about a million barrels per day. (Even taking into account recent declines in the price of oil, that's real money.)

However, with promptness and restraint, spokespeople for MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta), the largest and best-organized of the rebel groups, have suggested that it is the government that should be asking for amnesty. For their part, they would not agree to any kind of peace talks unless they were internationally managed and mediated by a respected global figure.

For an administration that has not exactly shown much imagination in terms of new directions or initiatives for Nigeria's 150 million inhabitants, the Niger Delta might be the most difficult and risky issue to tackle. The Niger Delta rebels have been gaining strength and acting with impunity for several years. As things currently stand, falling oil prices represent a greater threat to them than the Nigerian army.

Even if the army did manage to establish an operational center in the Delta, militant community leaders could easily use the thousands of disaffected youth who form a shadow army of resistance to harass it.

Until Yar-Adua's government comes up with a comprehensive program for the fair and transparent distribution of oil wealth into the communities of the Delta, MEND and MEND-wannabes are going to be taking hostages, bunkering oil and blowing things up, no matter what the army attempts to do. The rebels don't want amnesty, they want justice. But anarchy might suit them just as well.

(First published April 6, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Al - Bashir Among Friends

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir certainly thumbed his nose at the International Criminal Court (ICC) with his whirlwind round of whistle-stops in Egypt, Eritrea and Libya last week. Now in a further bit of political theatre, he is in Doha, Qatar this week, along with most -- but not all -- of the leaders of the Arab League. Notably absent is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarek, who is still fuming with the Qataris over disagreements surrounding the recent Gaza crisis and also by the fact that the Iranians were invited.

Al-Bashir's presence in Doha will also be something of an embarrassment for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, also a guest at the conference. Ban must dance delicately around the issue of the Security Council-inspired ICC indictment against al-Bashir, and the fact that al-Bashir is still the head of a U.N. member state.

Qatar is a U.S. ally and host to a large U.S. military presence. But along with most other Arab states, the Qataris have not signed the treaty that would authorize them to turn over al-Bashir. No matter how irksome al-Bashir's presence might be to the U.S., the State Department is unlikely to put much pressure on the Qataris regarding al-Bashir, since there is too much at stake for U.S. strategic interests in keeping Qatar in the friend column.

ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has dismissed al-Bashir's forays out of Sudan as acts of desperation, claiming that the Sudanese leader "can't travel far." Nevertheless it is clear that al-Bashir, unlike other indictees, has strong international support as well as the backing of superpower China. The show of support for al-Bashir in Doha does not seem so much an act of desperation as a carefully orchestrated public relations move to show the people of Sudan that he is still in charge. More importantly, it is meant to demonstrate to Moreno-Ocampo, who al-Bashir has characterized as a "neo-colonialist," that the rule-of-law is not a universal concept.

President Barack Obama has said he will review the U.S.' reluctance to sign on to the ICC, which the Bush administration characterized as contrary to America's interests and constitutional prerogatives. American adhesion will go a long way toward adding teeth to the ICC's jurisdiction. In the meantime, each time al-Bashir pops out of Sudan, the ICC will seem more like a talk-shop and less the global sheriff it would like to be.

(First published March 30, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Sarkozy's African Diplomacy

PARIS -- French President Niocolas Sarkozy made a whistle-stop at the Congolese parliament yesterday, in the midst of his three-nation tour of Central Africa. Last January, he ruffled feathers in Kinshasha by suggesting that Congo needed to share its mineral wealth with Rwanda as a step towards bringing peace to the Kivu region.

This time around, he soothed Congolese egos by praising President Kabila's breakthrough peace initiative with Rwanda's President Paul Kagame, which has resulted in a significant decline in violence in the region. He also suggested that Congo, with all its mineral wealth, could play a regional the leadership role.

Lest we forget what the visit is all about, though, Sarko's retinue is comprised of several business leaders, including the head of Areva, one of France's largest uranium processors. A country that gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear power -- (18 percent of which it exports -- can hardly let all of Congo's uranium fall into foreign hands (China's for instance).

It's not clear whether Sarkozy will also seek to mend fences with Rwandan President Kagame in their feud of mutual recriminations over the causes of, and culpability, for the Rwandan genocide. French newspaper Le Monde certainly doesn't help things by continuing to refer to the Rwandan leader as "Tutsi President Paul Kagame."

Hopefully President Sarkozy was able to take in a concert at the Kinshasha Symphony Orchestra before he left town.

(First published in World Politics Review, March 27, 2009)

Liberia's 'Guarantors of Instability'

MONROVIA, Liberia -- I haven't read Paul Collier's new book, "Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places," but I did catch Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth's review in the Sunday Times. Sitting here in Monrovia, a chill went up my spine, because according to Roth/Collier, Liberia has many of the elements that are guarantors of instability: a weak press, poor performing legal structures, ineffectual civic institutions, high levels of corruption and extreme poverty.

There is no doubt that the Sirleaf government is legitimate, even in the eyes of its harshest critics. Its big test, however, will come in the elections of 2011, when the opposition points out at all the things it hasn't achieved, and resuscitates the volatile issue of "national identity."

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will likely win the election in 2011 if she chooses to run. For the sake of ordinary Liberians, it will be much better if the results are a well-validated landslide. As we have seen in other developing country's elections, which are documented in Collier's book, the election process itself can exacerbate ethnic tensions that easily bubble over into bloodshed. (Last week's deadly political riots between rival political groups in Sierra Leone are a grim example.)

Collier's thesis seems to be that elections themselves are never necessarily a sign of stable structures, and in many cases are quite the opposite. This will obviously be something of a slap in the face to all the international aid groups that have seemingly been wasting their donors' money on counterproductive election-promotion activities. Collier believes that elections in fragile democracies will only take hold if foreign actors guarantee the results and protect the legitimate government from subsequent coups, even if it means military intervention. Without this stick, the carrot of grabbing power will always be too sweet for the losers to ignore.

(First published in World Politics Review, March 25th 2009)

US Liberians Rejoice, Their Countrymen Worry

MONROVIA, Liberia -- While steering us through the melee of downtown traffic yesterday, a Liberian friend who runs a local NGO casually remarked that if the United States were to relax its visa restrictions, everyone in Liberia would pack their bags and head Stateside. I think he was only half-kidding.

While there have been some positive signs of development -- newly paved roads, more businesses and that most potent sign of economic empowerment, sushi bars -- the situation for most Liberians seems pretty precarious.

Last Thursday, Ellen Margarethe Løj, the U.N. special representative for Liberia, painted a pretty cautionary picture for anyone thinking that Liberia was fully on the road to recovery. Løj did characterize the current security situation as "relatively stable." But she pointed to the possible consequences an economic downturn will have on the seemingly intractable problem of unemployed youth, who she believes may be easy prey for criminal gangs or coup-plotters.

Løj also pointed out the instability within all three of Liberia's neighbors: Guinea, Ivory Coast, and now Sierra Leone as a consequence of last week's political rioting in Freetown. It is impossible to isolate Liberia from its neighbors, but thankfully the U.N. seems to be committed to maintaining its sizable peacekeeping presence here at least through the next elections in 2011.

On the other hand, the news for the sizable Liberian community in the U.S. is decidedly more upbeat. Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an executive order extending the stay of some 3500 Liberians who were set for deportation when their Temporary Protected Status was set to run out on March 31. There are tens of thousands of Liberians living in the United States legally, and thousands more who are flying under the radar. In any case, those under the TPS statute, which was previously renewed by former President Bush, can breathe easier for at least another year.

For their fellow countrymen back home, who met yesterday's news either with indifference or a slight sigh of envy, the breathing is not getting any easier: Too many of them are standing under storm clouds without an umbrella.

(First published in World Politics Review March 23, 2009)

Liberia Tunes Into China

MONROVIA, Liberia -- One of the most interesting developments in post-war Liberia over the past three years has been the emergence of the Chinese presence. In addition to building themselves a lavish new embassy, the Chinese have been making major investments in education and infrastructure. On the way in from the airport last night, I passed several road crews working under flood lights, each with a nattily dressed Chinese foreman guiding the effort.

Another of their more visible projects is a $4 million investment in the rebuilding of the Liberian government's radio broadcasting network. In exchange for all the new towers and transmitters, the Chinese are permitted to broadcast their English language China Radio International programming throughout the country. The only other nationwide broadcasts are those from the U.N. military mission and from the Liberian government itself. No independent media has the resources for country-wide coverage.

One of the benefits of the Chinese programming is that you get to hear voices like Zhang Ming, a senior member of the Institute of World Economics and Politics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He was expressing the growing concern in China about the amount of U.S. debt on their books and suggested that China might like to swap some of their $739 billion in treasury bonds for shares in the partially nationalized banks. (Why not let some state socialist pros show us how its done?) He also said they would like to diversify their debt portfolio but the options, except for the Euro-market, are not very tantalizing. He was speaking like a man with a boat-anchor attached to his neck, with the anchor itself perched unsteadily on the bow.

As for the Liberians, self-described as America's "best friends in Africa," their general attitude towards the U.S. financial debacle is one of sympathy. But I get the impression that the implications for them haven't sunk in yet.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have yet to organize their team for Africa, but one of their top priorities has to be how we are going to strategically respond to China's moves throughout the continent and how we are going to engage with countries like Liberia that clearly need help wherever they can get it.. This week's politically motivated rioting in next-door Sierra Leone and the coup in Madagascar are ominous reminders for Liberians, who want to believe that their most serious troubles are behind them. They also don't want to believe that the financial debacle in the U.S. means we are going to abandon them once again.

(First published in World Politics Review March 19th, 2009)

Madagascar's Real-Life Blood Feud

Most Americans know about Madagascar, located in the Indian ocean off the coast of Africa, from the eponymous Disney animal movie featuring the feuding lemurs and fossas. Indeed, the fauna of the world's 4th-largest island is spectacular. The human side of Madagascar, on the other hand, is not such a fun place these days.

In what is amounting to a blood feud in which over 100 people have died, President Marc Ravalomanana refuses to cede power to Andry Rajoelina, the upstart former mayor of Antananarivo, the island's capital. (Rajoelina is also a former DJ and media owner.) For the moment, the military has been trying to stay somewhat fair and balanced. But should the conflict linger, the general staff is likely to divide into factions, with growing support for the overthrow efforts by Rajoelina.

By African standards, this is a pretty tame affair. But for Madagascar, a place of recent political instability but decent economic growth, the conflict is a disaster. Looming near the bottom of the world's poverty tables, Madagascar has recently been benefiting from major investments from mining giant Rio Tinto and energy behemoth Exxon Mobil. In addition, in a move that has sparked some of the protests, the government of Ravalomanana has leased 3 million acres of prime farmland -- about half the size of Belgium -- to Korean super-conglomerate Daewoo.

The Rio Tinto Mineral Sands project is the largest foreign investment in the island's history. It has, however, come under a withering attack by environmental group Friends of the Earth and London-based Panos. Exxon Mobil also came under some heat from Greenpeace last year for allegedly killing melon-headed whales with its advanced echo sounding equipment and will surely face more environmental challenges once it begins drilling in earnest.

The feud between the president and the upstart mayor seems to be more about personal egos and power needs than anything else. The basis for the criticism of the president seems to surround his lavish life style and "lack of caring" for the island's almost 20 million poor. Depending upon which way the army swings, the mayor could find himself assuming power in the coming weeks or be forced into exile.

As in so many poor African countries, power is a zero-sum game about control of the country's riches. No matter who comes out on top, it is not likely to affect the lives of Madagascar's poor. The only real effect will be to slow down investments, and to drive away the tourists who would like to see the lemurs and fossas in person but who will now have to content themselves with the Disney version.

(First published in World Politics Review March 16, 2009)

Development by Assassination in Guinea-Bissau

Reporting from Guinea-Bissau in Tuesday's NY Times, Lydia Polgreen cites an anonymous diplomat to the effect that as far as the locals are concerned, the tit-for-tat killings of the president and the head of the Army last week may "be the best shot at stability that Guinea-Bissau has had in a long time."

That is an astounding assertion. How bad must a country be for the killing of its two most powerful figures to be a cause for optimism? But Guinea-Bissau is no ordinary place. Ranked fifth from the bottom in terms of poverty and with no natural resources to speak of, the government's economic development plan seems to have been to forge alliances with Colombian drug traffickers who wanted new routes to move their product into Europe. Taking advantage of the archipelago's coastline and lack of any meaningful oversight, the South American, Nigerian and Asian drug gangs have all conspired to turn Guinea-Bissau into the world's first narco-state. (See Joe Kirschke's WPR series from September 2008: Part I here, Part II here, Part III here.)

Whether the killings were caused by tribal rivalries or were contract hits ordered by the drug barons, the bottom line is that the country's new leaders will have to decide quickly how they are going to deal with a destitute population, a non-existent economy and a drug pipeline estimated to be almost a billion a year.

(First published March 12, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Road Deaths Are a Way of Life in Africa

The tragic highway accident last Friday that killed Susan Tsvangirai and injured her husband, Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, is under investigation by officials from Tsvangirai's party, the Movement for Democratic Change. Early indications, however, are that the accident was the result of bad luck and worse timing for all involved, not foul play. The bitter irony, as reported in the New York Times, is that the truck that swerved head on into the Tsvangirai's SUV to aovid a pot hole was delivering anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS treatment -- the kind of mission that Tsvangarai has consistently encouraged.

Accidents of this type are horrifyingly frequent across the continent. They are caused by a perfect storm of poor roads, defective vehicles and aggressive or incompetent driving. As a U.S. Dept of Transportation report illustrates, the bloody reality is that while Africa has only 4 percent of the world's vehicles, it accounts for 10 percent of international road fatalities. Compare that to the so-called developed world of Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan, which accounts for only 14 percent of road fatalities despite owning 44 percent of the world's cars. This is a staggering difference. Only the Middle East even comes close to Africa's numbers.

Most of the horror stories that make the round among colleagues who travel frequently to Africa do not involve crime or exotic diseases. Instead they are tales of near-death experiences involving cars whose engines simply fall out or whose brakes give way, at night while traveling at high speeds on unlit, pot-holed roads. Most of the vehicles one finds in a place like Liberia -- unless you work for the Toyota Land Cruiser-laden U.N. or some well-heeled NGO -- are cast-offs or hand-me-downs from the U.S. or Europe, well past their expiration date before they were ever put into a container and shipped to Monrovia.

The situation has gotten so drastic that the Liberian legislature recommended that no car over 10 years old be imported into the country. Like almost every law in Liberia, people will find ways of skirting it. Meaning Africa will most likely remain at the head of the road-fatality tables for the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, while the chances of dying in a traffic accident in Africa are high, the likelihood of being the victim of a political assassination in Zimbabwe is actually pretty low. According to World Almanac figures (via Wikipedia), modern Zimbabwe has only had one high-profile political assassination of note, back in 1983, and the victim was not even a Zimbabwean citizen.

Of course, road fatalities and political assassinations are both seriously under-reported. That should give pause to both Zimbabwe's motorists as well as opponents of President Mugabe.

(First published March 9, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Human Rights vs. Human Life in Sudan

In 2007, author David Reiff wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he said, in reference to the situation in Darfur, that at some point the interests of humanitarians and human rights advocates will diverge. In Khartoum yesterday, that is exactly what happened.

While organizations like Save Darfur content and Amnesty International were trumpeting their victory, baseline humanitarian organizations like Oxfam and MSF International scrambled to distance themselves from the ICC indictment. The simple reason is that the man under indictment, President al-Bashir, had just ordered the expulsion of almost all foreign NGOs.

Reiff argued that in their quest for the holy-grail of justice, foreign human rights activists often lose sight of the needs of people on the ground. What's more, they often see things which just aren't there. For example, writing two years ago, which was well into the Darfur crisis, Reiff said that "some of the mainline relief NGOs, notably Doctors Without Borders, . . . disputed the assertion that what's going on in Darfur is, in fact, genocide."

The counterargument runs that humanitarians, in their dedication to saving lives at all costs, often overlook the bigger picture, leading them to oppose options, like military interventions, that might more quickly resolve the crisis.

Obviously, in the mind of the Sudanese government, there has been collusion going on between the two camps. Rather than expend the effort to parse everything out, the humanitarian baby is getting tossed out with the human rights bathwater.

I've been in on these debates in university lecture halls, where the call for "muscular humanitariansm" gets the crowd's blood boiling. But now seeing what the consequences are in the real world makes me shudder.

There is not going to be a military intervention in the Sudan anytime soon, and organizations like the African Union and the People's Republic of China are going to scream bloody murder to get the ICC to back down. In the end they just might succeed.

As usual, the lives of the innocent hang in the balance.

(First published Mar 6, 2009 in World Politics Review)

African Leaders Reject Bashir Indictment

The International Criminal Court indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes yesterday, but not on the more dramatic charge of genocide. The indictment did not meet with universal approval among Africa's leaders, nor, strangely enough, with the son of the Rev. Billy Graham.

According to a quick survey conducted by the French newspaper Le Monde, there were serious misgivings about the indictment coming from all corners of the continent.

According to the article, Jean Ping, chairman of the African Union Commission, called the indictment a "threat to peace in Sudan." He went on to say that he felt that the rules of conflict were not being applied fairly, using Iraq, Gaza, Colombia and the Caucasus as examples. His position was shared by Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who said the ICC seemed to be "only after Africans." The Ugandan foreign minister said that the warrant should be suspended "in order to find a compromise between assigning punishment and finding peace." The government of Ethiopia, Sudan's neighbor, simply stated that the indictment "doesn't help the peace process in Darfur."

Franklin Graham, speaking from the heart about his personal encounters with the Sudanese president, thinks al Bashir is a reasonable man who is willing to compromise. (Funny enough, that's what the Rev. Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame said back in the day about another African despot and ICC indictee, Liberia's Charles Taylor.)

For the other African leaders, I think they care less about the guilt or innocence of al-Bashir and more about the Court's proclivity to focus its lens on the sub-Sahara. They might have a point. In the end, the ICC will only go where the Security Council allows it to go. The U.S. would likely block any attempts to indict Israelis over Gaza, and the Russians would block attempts to indict over Chechnya. Once again, Africans feel they are being humiliated by the former colonial powers.

The rest of the world might feel good that one more bad guy might ultimately face judgment, but will justice be truly served if war criminals from powerful nations are free to walk, while Africans are left hanging in the breeze? Yes, I remember Milosevic. But there are hundreds more non-Africans worthy of the honor of being "served" by the ICC.

(First published March 5, World Politics Review)

Congo in the Eye of the Storm

Two reports from the Eastern Congo illustrate the difficulty of covering events in that part of the world, or perhaps just the difficulty of doing some fact checking before going into print. In the New York Times, Jeffrey Gettleman, who either has a death wish or is vying for the crown of how many 'worst' places he can visit in the shortest amount of time, reports that in the wake of the Rwandan incursion over the last few months peace has finally returned.

Over at the BBC, however, U.N. spokespersons are claiming that Hutu rebel groups have been moving back into areas they were recently booted from, once again raping and pillaging in their wake. The report does take pains to point out that the rebel groups are not taking up fixed positions and scurry back into the forest after committing their atrocities. Frankly, given the U.N.'s recent track record in the region, I'm hard pressed to believe anything they have to say, but I hope we can safely assume that peacekeepers know war when they see it.

In the end, we're left to wonder what is really going on in the Congo. Has Kagame's bold move finally brought some stability along the border regions, or is this "peace" just a prelude to more chaos? My feeling about this conflict is that it has always been more about control of natural resources than protecting Congolese Tutsis. Rwandan business interests have their fingerprints all over Kivu and have been using the ethnic tension issue as a smokescreen to solidify their economic interests. This is just speculation, but so, it seems, is much else of what we are reading from the region.

In any event, the Ugandan incursion is yet to end, so for now, the storm continues.

(First published March 4, 2009 in World Politics Review)

Africa Tunes in to Johnnie Carson

President Barack Obama's selection of career diplomat Johnnie Carson as assistant secretary of state for Africa seems an obvious, if somewhat unexciting, choice. Reaching once again into the Clinton-era dugout, Obama perhaps got the idea from current U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who was Carson's boss during the Clinton years. Unfortunately this particular era of U.S.-African relations was a disaster for millions in places like Rwanda, Somalia and Liberia.

Ironically, the Africans liked President Bush because they thought he was generous. President Obama will have to demonstrate the same level of generosity, while at the same time entering diplomatically into some of the most intractable conflicts on the planet. He will also have to lead without the blinding self-interest that marred the Clinton-era policies.

Nevertheless, Carson has served successfully as ambassador in Zimbabwe, Uganda and Kenya, and can be assumed to be one of the more experienced and well-connected Africanists in the State Department. He will need to be. He will be facing a mind-boggling series of challenges ranging from Somali pirates to the effects of the global economic downturn on millions of ordinary Africans.

As he jets off to South Africa for the inauguration of that country's newly elected president, Jacob Zuma, Carson must be contemplating the millions of Africans who will be thrown back into dire poverty during the next year because of collapsing commodity prices; the conflicts in Zimbabwe, Kenya, the Sudan and Somalia, in which no real progress towards a resolution has been made; African giants Nigeria and Congo, which show many signs of impending turmoil and even collapse; and even continental stalwart South Africa, which may destabilize if President Zuma fails to placate the masses of South Africans who have yet to experience any benefits from the post-apartheid boom.

As is the case anywhere, the U.S. needs a strategy for Africa that balances our strategic interests (e.g., oil and counterterrorism) with our humanitarian goals (poverty reduction and democracy promotion). These need not be contradictory, but they may require some tough, and perhaps unpleasant, trade-offs.

In the short term, Carson's biggest challenge may be to avoid being seen in any photographs with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who is also attending the ceremony. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was on the guest list, but had to cancel at the last minute. Something about an ICC indictment and arrest warrant that may have spoiled the party.

(First published May 8, 2009 in World Politics Review)

The Millenium Development Goals Have Left the Building

What many suspected has just been confirmed by a new report, African Economic Outlook 2008/2009, issued by the African Development Bank, the OECD Development Center and the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa. According to the report, the continent will be "gravely" affected by the global economic downturn:

Following half a decade of above 5 percent economic growth, the continent can expect only 2.8 percent in 2009, less than half of the 5.7 per cent expected before the crisis. The authors anticipate growth rebounding to 4.5 per cent in 2010. Growth in oil-exporting countries is expected to fall to 2.4 per cent in 2009 compared to 3.3 per cent for the net oil importers.

One of the hardest hit regions will be Southern Africa, where even economic powerhouse South Africa will see its growth rate fall to 1.1 percent due to falling prices and demand in the mineral sector and depressed consumption and investment in the domestic economy. This does not bode well for the new South African administration of Jacob Zuma, whose millions of supporters are expecting some taste of the country's economic benefits that have thus far eluded them.

The least statistically affected region will be West Africa, which contains oil-rich Nigeria as well as economic basket-cases Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria will tick downwards because of slowing investment and OPEC restrictions, but other poorer countries will continue their upward trajectory based solely on the profound weakness of their starting positions.

Nevertheless, the report takes pains to point out that the situation will likely create a situation where "tensions could explode" due to shortages of food and basic living necessities. Many major international deals that would have generated billions in foreign investment and employment opportunities have been put on hold. Foreign aid will simply serve to keep the boats afloat, not move them forward.

This is why World Bank President Robert Zoelleck recently warned that the crisis will cast 50 million or more people back into dire poverty. To claim that the 2015 Millennium Development Goals are looking unreachable is an understatement. We may be heading back to the starting line with regard to African development, which makes it a perfect time to make some hard decisions on the aid vs. trade debate now roaring through academia. If this crisis proves anything to Africans, it is that they are dealing with unstable and unreliable benefactors and that self-sufficiency ought to become their mantra.

(First published May 11th in World Politics Review)

Kenya's Complex Legal Heritage

While it doesn't quite live up to State of California v. O.J. Simpson, Kenya has just witnessed a remarkable bit of judicial theatre with the conviction and sentencing of a scion of one of the country's most controversial white families. Thomas Cholmondeley (pronounced Chumley) has just been given an eight-month sentence, on top of three years already served, for the killing of a poacher on his family's estate in the Rift Valley.

The 12,000 square miles of the Rift Valley highlands were systematically appropriated by a group of white farmers in the post-WWII era, and have remained to some extent in the hands of families like Cholmondeley's. That makes it difficult to tell whether the light sentence was bought by influence, or was a recognition of the real threat that poachers pose to the life and limb of law-abiding farmers, no matter what their color. The fact that Cholmondeley had a previous indictment for the accidental killing of a game warden overturned seems to have had no influence over the presiding judge. Nor, presumably, did the offer by Cholmondeley to compensate the family of the deceased poacher.

This trial may represent some kind of transcendence of the racial issue in Kenya, but it certainly does nothing to transcend the persistent issue of class. The black elite have as much to fear from -- and are as resentful of -- the underclass as the Cholomondeleys of the land do, and many Kenyans see a real double standard being applied in this case. Many have commented on the fact that a shoplifter is likely to get a harsher sentence than a twice-indicted killer.

When Kenya became independent, its first indigenous leader, Jomo Kenyatta, made a valiant effort to prevent retaliation against the whites who, in the wake of the Mau-Mau rebellion, had engaged in one of the most brutal colonial pogroms in African history. Despite that bloody legacy, including several thousand Kenyan dissidents hung by British colonial courts in the run-up to independence, Kenyatta said, "We do not forget the assistance and guidance we have received through the years from people of British stock. . . . Our laws are founded on British principles and justice."

Cholmondeley should be grateful that the judge in his case seems to have taken more inspiration from Kenya's African, as opposed to its British, legal heritage.

(First published May 15th, 2009 in the World Politics Review)

South Sudan Fuels the Aid Debate

Big-time international aid researchers like Bill Easterly, Jeffrey Sachs and Paul Collier expend a lot of effort looking for case-studies to bolster their respective opinions about the efficacy of foreign aid. I recently came across this study (.pdf) from the York University Centre for Refugee Studies, which raises some questions about the international community's effect on one of its clients -- in this case the capital of the autonomous region of South Sudan, Juba:

There is an enormous presence of the UN officials and NGO staff in Juba. Since the signing of the CPA, the Juba area has experienced an influx of economic and other activity due to what many call an "NGO invasion" and the presence of a large number of Kenyan and Ugandan businesspeople. This has put pressure on the IDPs (internally displaced persons) and residents of Juba, as their access to surrounding land and resources is restricted and prices of commodities in the local markets have skyrocketed. Hundreds of new 4x4 vehicles are roaming the roads carrying the international development community from GOSS (Govt. of South Sudan) offices to the U.N. compound and accommodation locations. Local accommodation has been unable to keep up with demand. Renting a tent for the night costs approximately $150 USD and meals at restaurants serving the non-residents cost approximately $15 USD per person. A car with a driver costs a minimum of $100 USD per day. At the time of the study, the price of bottled water in the local market was six times that of bottled water found in Khartoum. These extraordinary prices are a direct result of the infusion of aid workers and development funds. . . . One NGO director stated that the "Juba miracle" is that residents are still able to survive.

Anyone spending time in post-conflict environments will recognize the symptoms. The question is whether despite these glaring negatives, suffering societies should welcome the international do-gooders with open arms and lack of oversight?

Arguing against humanitarian aid in the face of real suffering may be a fool's errand, but there is no reason why the real impact of all that effort shouldn't be catalogued and debated. Talk of sustainability is at the heart of all development conversations these days, so it's worth discussing why the privileges of foreigners who parachute in on missions of mercy are so prominent among the things being sustained.

(First published in World Politics Review May, 20th 2009)

Uranium Rich Niger Heats Up

Aside from being confused with its much larger neighbor, Nigeria, to the west, Niger rarely commands the attention of the global spotlight. That's probably why yesterday's report that its president, Mamadou Tandja, has suspended Parliament in retaliation for its refusal to grant him permission to run for a constitutionally prohibited third term has barely caused a media ripple.

In recent years Niger has been known for two things. It's the place where Saddam Hussein was alleged to have bought "yellowcake" uranium, a claim later debunked by Joseph Wilson. It's also the site of one of Africa's longest-running, low-level civil wars. The fighting pits government forces from the south against a Taureg insurgency based in the uranium-rich north.

Niger may not have sold uranium to Iraq, but it sells plenty of it to its former colonial master, France -- as well as to China, Japan and Korea. Currently, the major project involves the Imouraren deposit, which the French firm Areva has purchased for €1.2 billion, in addition to €6 million worth of yearly social investments in community development. It is precisely these kinds of investments that the Taurag rebels are looking to share in. One of their standing demands has been to receive at least 30 percent of uranium investments made on their traditional lands before the central government takes it all back to the capital.

On a day that saw the leak of a secret Israeli report alleging that Iran is buying uranium from Venezuela and Bolivia, anti-proliferationists can only be chilled by the prospect of one of the world's major producers, Niger, plunging into a constitutional crisis, one that may completely destabilize a government that has already demonstrated an inability to keep the peace in its most strategic uranium districts.

It could be that the French would be ready to jump in if things get out of hand. With almost 80 percent of its domestic electricity production generated by nuclear reactors, France depends on Niger uranium, and is unlikely to let internal political squabbles with desert nomads interrupt the critical flow.

On the other hand, if the government really does lose control, even for a short period, smugglers might be able to abscond with several tons of the stuff. And who knows where they might land? Tehran, Pyongyang, Islamabad? Niger needs to be on everyone's radar in the coming months.

(First published in World Politics Review, May 27th)

'Demon Crazy' Democracy in Nigeria

On the 10th anniversary of Nigeria's return to civilian rule, Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka lowered the boom on what he called Nigeria's "sham democracy." In a scathing interview with the BBC, Soyinka condemned Nigeria's former President Olusegun Obasanjo for a variety of sins. The worst was subverting the democratic process that resulted in Obasanjo's hand-picked successor, Umari Yar'Adua, taking over as president in 2007.

Commenting on U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to make his first African visit to Ghana instead of Nigeria, Soyinka said that Ghana was a more appropriate destination because they have been "behaving like civilized human beings and showing Nigerians up." Soyinka also insisted that when he said that he would "stone" Obama if he came to Nigeria, he meant it "metaphorically." The literary gesture will nonetheless be unlikely to endear Soyinka to the Secret Service.

Soyinka certainly has a point about Nigerian democracy. From the outside, the country seems like a shipwreck waiting to happen, particularly if the civil war in the oil-rich Niger Delta expands. President Yar-Adua's recent decision to unleash the military on the Delta rebels will likely only enflame passions and harden resistance, and probably result in yet another flood of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire, similar to what recently took place in Sri Lanka.

During his rein, Obasanjo, a former general, made a mockery of the legislature and the judiciary, and certainly did nothing to resolve the festering sore of the Niger Delta conflict. Despite all this, there was nary a peep from the West, which unfortunately has a bad habit of looking the other way so long as the charade is good enough and the oil keeps flowing. The average Nigerian swims in a sea of corruption and bureaucratic ineptness, and can only find a voice through dissidents like Soyinka. A a result, the latter must certainly feel like he has a target on his back -- no metaphor intended.

Nigerian pop star Fela Anikulapo-Kuti once described Nigeria's democracy as "demon crazy." He certainly got the "crazy" part right. After 10 years, Nigerians are still waiting for a sane democracy to appear.

(First Published June 1st in World Politics Review)

Dervishes Pick Up Their Guns in Somalia

Back in the early '70s I spent a week at a Sufi-inspired music camp in Marin County, California. It was a typical New Age celebration of the inner spirit, in a setting inspired by the musical and whirling dance traditions of Sufism, the so-called mystical branch of Islam. Back then, the militant form of Islam was hardly a ripple on the water.

More than 30 years have since passed, but it was all brought back this week by images in the New York Times showing Somali Sufis gathered around a campfire singing and chanting, much as we did in the Marin Woods back in the day, only at their feet lie a pile of Kalashnikovs which they use to fight the ultra-orthodox Shabab militias.

On top of everything else that has befallen the people of Somalia, we are witnessing a new conflict that pits groups of Sufi worshippers who believe that cultivation of the heart is the true path to God, against men who recently cut off the heads of two young women who were caught outside their homes selling tea. According to the Times, the Sufis had pretty much stayed on the sidelines during the 20 years of clan in-fighting, but now that the Shabab have taken to killing their imams and burning their mosques, they feel they have no choice but to retaliate.

Can it be long before there is a Sufi desk at the CIA looking for ways to militarize the whirling dervishes in the fight against Wahabiism and its militant offshoots? This is an internecine fight within Islam that stretches from the Caucasus to Southeast Asia, and while the Wahabi adherents seem to have a centralized support structure emanating from Saudi Arabia, the Sufic resistance seems to be a grassroots effort led by people determined to fight against the excesses of ultra-orthodox Islam.

So are the Sufis the solution to the puzzle on how to roll back militant Islam? Unlikely.
Given their history and the structure of their organizations, the most that outsiders can hope for is that they will fight until they are allowed to carry on with their mystical ways. They are hardly going to sweep across the Sunni and Shiite world to impose Islamic mystical practices on their co-religionists.

At best, Sufi music camps, like the one I attended in California, will be allowed to exist throughout the Muslim world, and people can experience for themselves that there are other paths to their God besides adherence to Sharia and the barrel of a gun.

(First published June 3rd in World Politics Review)

Tsvangirai Hits the Road

Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe's embattled prime minister, will leave Harare soon for a three-week visit to the United States and Europe, where he hopes to convince Western governments to lift current sanctions against Zimbabwe, as well as to appeal for a new round of foreign investment. Though Western leaders should be polite and listen, they should never forget who the real boss is back home in Zimbabwe.

Tsvangirai's visit comes on the heels of a meeting between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and U.S. Rep. Donald Payne, chairman of the congressional committee on Africa and Global Health. Payne met with Mugabe in a search for a "new way forward" in U.S.-Zimbabwean relations, specifically the future of ZIDERA -- the 2001 Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which effectively bars multilateral donors such as the World Bank, the IMF or the African Development Bank from offering loans or credits to Mugabe's government until it institutes major economic and human rights reforms.

Despite Tsvangirai's announcement that the "acrimony is over" between him and Mugabe, he will still have a tough job convincing world leaders that Zimbabwe has made any progress at all in improving fiscal management, instituting a fair legal system or reforming the land redistribution scheme. The latter has not only been an essentially criminal undertaking, but has effectively wiped out commercial agriculture in a country that was once considered the "breadbasket" of Africa.

For Mugabe, there is obviously no one better to make the case for Zimbabwe than Tsvangirai. As the main leader of the opposition and a stalwart champion of the types of reforms the West has been clamoring for, Tsvangirai certainly has the credibility to speak for change. But the question that Western leaders should be asking themselves is whether he has the power?

As for Mugabe, welcoming an indicted war criminal, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, for a visit certainly is certainly consistent with his image as a loose cannon. But will it help Tsvangirai's chances for success?

The question is whether Mugabe wants Tsvangirai to succeed in the first place. Many seriously doubt it.

(First published June 8, 2009)

Kenya's Somalia Dilemma

As the world was riveted to the events in Iran last week, the beleaguered government of Somalia put out an S.O.S. for international military support in its deteriorating fight against al Shabab guerrillas and other radical opposition forces. Thus far, only Kenyan government officials have publicly responded with threats of military intervention.

But there remains the possibility that troops from Ethiopia, Djibouti, the Sudan and Uganda might be deployed in a combined warmaking/peacekeeping operation under the banner of the African Union and other international and regional organizations. More than 5,000 peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi are currently deployed to protect government operations in and around Mogadishu, but in recent days they have been targeted by anti-government militants who refuse to recognize their neutral status.

The response from Kenya seems to suggest that the profile of the intervention would shift from peacekeeping to combat operations against al Shabab. In response, a spokesman for al Shabab said that any foreign troops "would be sent home in coffins."

Kenya has many reasons to try to deal with the chaos on its border. The primary one is al Shabab's close ties with al-Qaida, which put Kenya in the crosshairs of international jihadists. Both the U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998 as well as the subsequent Paradise Hotel bombing in Kikambala were coordinated by al-Qaida-backed operatives coming across Kenya's long and virtually unpoliced border with Somalia. Kenya also has problems with its own homegrown militants, many of whom train and get both financing and weapons from Somali brethren.

Another reason for Kenyan concern is the rapid increase in recent weeks in the number of Internally Displaced Persons arriving at border towns along the Kenya-Ethiopia border. There are already 160,000 Somali refugees in the Dadaab camps on the Kenyan side of the border, most of whom have been living there since the early 1990s.

A further deterioration in the situation in Somalia will send tens of thousands more fleeing towards the borders, and only an enormous commitment by the international aid community will prevent another humanitarian debacle. In the meantime, aid agencies are bickering with the Kenyan government over land and construction issues, despite the fact that the number of refugees will likely double by year's end.

This is a developing situation that the Europeans and Americans should pay careful attention to. The recent "World War" in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which troops from multiple foreign countries ran riot for several years in the name of stabilization, led to millions of civilian deaths. Somalia has far fewer riches than the Congo to plunder, but no matter what happens, civilians are likely to bear the brunt of the fighting. And any survey of Somali history suggests that nothing radicalizes the population like an invasion of foreigners.

Kenya's offer to help with the mess next door is laudable, but this is a job that Kenya can't do alone. Unfortunately, the "Black Hawk Down" debacle has not only soured U.S. strategists from lending a hand, it has also demonstrated that Somali fighters will always exceed expectations when it comes to violence and durability.

For Kenya and Somalia's other neighbors, that can only be a bad thing.

(First published in World Politics Review June 22, 2009)

Guinea-Bissau as Narco-State

On any other continent, the tit-for-tat killings of the president and head of the military in what is suspected to be a rivalry over revenues from drug trafficking would have captured the world's imagination. But when the country in question is Guinea-Bissau -- a tiny, obscure, former Portugese colony on the west coast of Africa -- those remarkable events barely raise an eyebrow.

Yesterday, the International Crisis Group called for international support and intervention to help the political elites in Guinea-Bissau stand up to the military and return to the path of democracy. Just prior to the March 2009 killings of President João Bernardo Vieira and Gen. Tagme Na Waie, the country conducted a successful round of parliamentary elections. But as the ICG points out, "the democratic process cannot cope with the rule of the gun."


Since the return to multi-party rule in 1994, no president has successfully completed the constitutionally mandated five-year term. Gen. Tagme is the third chief of defense staff to be assassinated in nine years.

Given that Guinea-Bissau has no natural resources to speak of and makes most of its foreign exchange from exporting ground nuts, one would wonder what all the rivalry is about. In a word: cocaine.

Although the ICG's report glosses over the involvement of Guinea-Bissau in the international drug trade, other reports detail how Colombian traffickers have moved in en masse, transforming the landscape with a string of coastal McMansions, fleets of expensive cars, flashy nightclubs and of course, a lot of high-caliber firepower. (See Joe Kirschke's WPR series, The Coke Coast: Part I here, Part II here.)

The U.K.'s Guardian quoted a spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Agency as saying:

"A place like Guinea Bissau is a failed state anyway, so it's like moving into an empty house." There is no prison in Guinea-Bissau, he says. One rusty ship patrols a coastline of 350km, and an archipelago of 82 islands. The airspace is un-patrolled. The police have few cars, no petrol, no radios, handcuffs or phones.

"You walk in, buy the services you need from the government, army and people, and take over. The cocaine can then be stored safely and shipped to Europe, either by ship to Spain or Portugal, across land via Morocco on the old cannabis trail, or directly by air using 'mules.'" One single flight into Amsterdam in December 2006 was carrying 32 mules carrying cocaine from Guinea-Bissau.

Aside from cocaine traffickers, a place like Guinea-Bissau also attracts groups with ties to militants and terrorists. It is suspected that al-Qaida took advantage of the chaos in Liberia in the late 1990s to launder money and trade in diamonds, in order to raise cash for the 2001 attacks in the United States. Likewise there is evidence, as suggested in this remarkable report from Marco Vernaschi, that drug profits from West Africa are being used to support current Hezbollah and al-Qaida operations throughout the world.

As new Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson casts about for interesting projects on the continent, he might consider looking into Guinea-Bissau. The problem is that in order for a country to ask for help, someone needs to be in charge. But for the traffickers, smugglers and money-launderers, the current situation of near-anarchy fits them to a tee.

(Published June 26th, 2009 in World Politics Review)