This week's editor


Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

From Angola to Somalia, Rwanda to Zimbabwe, conflict and poverty scar Africa. But Africans everywhere are investing huge energies in search of democratic change and social betterment. openDemocracy writers examine the new worlds of an old continent.

South Africa: rights, accountability and maternal mortality

A study of the healthcare environment of expectant mothers in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa reveal severe problems that both the national government and overseas donors should address, says David Mepham.

Mandela, communism, and South Africa

The documentary evidence of Nelson Mandela’s membership of the South African Communist Party can contribute to a more truthful assessment of the country’s modern history, says the scholar who uncovered it, Stephen Ellis.

Africa’s development: the global bond

A great economic transformation across the world presents Africa with new opportunities in which its diaspora should play a key role, says Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie.

Africa: progress and risk

Africa’s economic dynamism is echoed in a radical shift of perception about the continent’s prospects. But these realities in turn are creating tough new tests for all involved, says Stephen Ellis.

Down a long and difficult road

As the newest country in the world, South Sudan faces huge challenges. But the perseverance of the people and their determination to construct a functioning state raise hopes for the country's future.

South Africa’s media: the Zimbabwe precedent

South Africa’s liberation from apartheid promised, as one of democracy’s essential supports, a climate of media freedom to ensure the accountability of those in power. But the country’s ruling ANC now proposes legislation that would endanger this freedom. The echoes of Zimbabwe are too close to ignore, says Roger Southall.

Kenya’s referendum: “in the name of God, no!”

The opposition of Kenya's Christian churches to constitutional reforms is in part rooted in a new and disturbing hostility to Islam. This attitude marks a significant retreat from the churches’ past role in Kenya’s democratisation, says Daniel Branch.

Eritrea and Isaias Afewerki: a cold logic

The achievement of Isaias Afewerki’s regime in Asmara is to have used confrontation with its neighbours to entrench its survival. It is a political lesson that the international community still needs to learn, says Selam Kidane.

The Sahara's new cargo: drugs and radicalism

A fusion of illicit money-making and radical politics is turning the big empty spaces of the western half of the Sahara into a profound security challenge, says Stephen Ellis.

Somaliland: time of trial

A relatively stable statelet in the Horn of Africa needs wise international intervention to bolster its nascent democracy, says EJ Hogendoorn.

Killing aid

Dambisa Moyo is tired and frustrated by the aid apparatus that has not only come to “trap” poor and indebted African states but is, in her view, the root cause of poverty. The central argument of Dead Aid is that aid is the fundamental cause of poverty and therefore eliminating aid is critical to spur growth in ailing African states. Aid is the disease that we must treat to bring us back to full economic health. A bold and daring statement built around the central belief that aid distorts incentives among policymakers and society at large. It makes governments less accountable to their citizens and has led to civil wars, rampant corruption (electoral and otherwise) and has been central to an undercurrent of irresponsibility culminating in increased and self-reinforcing poverty since the end of colonialism. None of these arguments are new of course, but Dambisa is probably the first economist to boldly claim that aid causes poverty.

This article is a review of Dambisa Moyo "Dead Aid"

Also in openDemocracy:

Anna Lekvall, "Democracy and Aid: the missing link" (13 May 2009)
If aid is the disease that causes endless bleeding, to stop the bleeding you simply need to stop aid, the only challenge therefore is how to do it. The Dead Aid solution is a five year exit strategy built around the idea of incentivising poor countries to access finance on international markets, supported by the tripod of microfinance, trade/foreign direct investment (FDI) and remittances. In the Dead Aid world there’s a stash of money out there on the international financial markets that is just waiting to be tapped by any African country willing to invest in a credit rating. If African countries can enter these markets and borrow, it would provide the right incentives to spark good governance since the international markets would be more willing to “punish” bad behaviour compared to those that provide aid at infinitum. In other words, borrowing through international financial markets is a sort of "self commitment mechanism" to good governance, and with that comes better long term prosperity.

It is certainly likely to be slightly more expensive than “easy money” that concessional loans and grants bring, but by rejecting these overtures nation states will find themselves on a better path to prosperity. The trouble is that African governments have limited incentives to do this on their own, though some have made progress in this direction, so they need to be compelled through the Dead Aid proposal of terminating aid completely within a five year period.

Radical stuff indeed, but is it too radical? Depending on your view of aid, this is either the most ingenious idea you have ever come across or the most naive, if not downright reckless. At this present time when many western countries are tightening their belts and some are seeking aid themselves due to the fallout from the credit crunch and many people are growing weary of Darfur, Guinea Bissau, Mauritania and Zimbabwe, the Dead Aid message is likely find some appeal not just in your Daily Mail or Fox News . I am afraid to say, and with deep sorrow, that the Dead Aid proposal falls far short in many areas, with at least four worth highlighting.

First, there’s a general lack of clear analytical rigour evidenced by elementary confusion in key areas : correlation/causality issues; definitional problems; poor evidence on policy counterfactuals; incomplete and unbalanced citation of evidence; and, perhaps more worryingly lack of general familiarity with refined areas of existing literature. Too many problematic issues to cover within this short review, but some key examples are worth highlighting.

In a number of instances Dead Aid embarrassingly confuses correlation with causality. For instance the correlation between foreign aid and savings, which Dambisa takes as strong evidence that foreign aid reduces domestic savings. It does not take a genius to work out that one expects poor nations to correlate with reduced domestic savings, and in so far as foreign aid is prevalent in poor countries, the issue of correlation between higher aid and low domestic savings becomes meaningless. Perhaps more worryingly is that in a number of places Dead Aid seems to rely on evidence just from single sources that always reinforces its general argument that aid is bad. So when Dead Aid posits that remittances are more effective than international aid, it ignores other studies that have shown remittances can also be a “curse”.

Evidence of poor research abound, with one of the glaring examples being the lack of reference and consideration of new emerging literature led by Daron Acemoglu and others on the importance of drawing a distinction between proximate and ultimate causes for underdevelopment. In many respect if aid was going to be a factor it would be nothing more than a proximate cause because ineffective aid preys on inefficient states, which are strongly determined by the existing distribution of power in society (ultimate cause).

Secondly, the treatment of aid in a homogeneous and aggregate way is particularly problematic. Dead Aid defines aid as the “sum total of concessional loans and grants”, but excludes “emergency aid” e.g. help for Darfur or the Asian Tsunami. There’s no distinction within Dead Aid between budget support, infrastructure aid, person to person aid, heath related aid, grants or concessional loans for discretionary spending. It is all discussed under one umbrella and handed the same fate. This is a remarkable assumption, especially given that the same book acknowledges the effectiveness of the Marshall Plan which largely focused on infrastructure spend. Surely the Marshall Plan demonstrates that a more nuanced assessment of aid has the potential to reach different conclusions? We may for example find that some of the aid is bad, some good and some requires further study.

This distinction is also important because we are now seeing a plethora of literature that suggests that some mechanisms work better than others e.g. cash based incentives as recently argued by Göran Holmqvist . When Britain gave Zambia £40m in 2007, I remarked that "I hope the money was new but not given freely". It presented a new opportunity for Britain to think outside the box and consider the possibility of converting this "new cash" into long term Kwacha bond claims of Zambians on the Zambia Government. Such a move would have helped restore much needed accountability in our system as well as strengthening our debt management practices. Britain could have allocated a share of the bonds to civil servants as part of civil service pay increase and so forth. The underlying point here is that not all form of aid leads to perverse incentives and indeed not all forms of aid perpetuate dependency. To put all aid in one basket makes the book appealing to the uninformed but it does not make for convincing argument to policymakers.

Thirdly, Dead Aid is characterised by a plethora of inconsistent arguments. A key example that stands out is the emotive issue of Chinese investment. Dambisa dedicates a whole chapter explaining why the “Chinese are our friends”, largely arguing from their historical involvement in Africa and their renewed commitment to trade and FDI. However, against a backdrop of Dead Aid’s “anti-dependency” rhetoric , the chant for China appears odd. Let us be clear, China is not only bringing FDI to Africa but it has also brought concessional loans and long term dependency. Zambia’s external debt has now risen to about $2bn since the HIPC completion point, a significant part of that is through new agreements with the Chinese government and Chinese businesses.

A closer look at Angola reveals the same truth. Not only is China investing heavily in that country but in exchange it is tying Angola and other countries to China for a long time reducing their options to renegotiate in the future. That is not necessarily bad, but if the central worry is that dependency leads to ineffective governments with poor incentives we should be honest enough to consider the possibility that China’s closeness to many African governments (which are not all democratic) may have similar negative impacts as aid. In addition, a more refined assessment of the China – Africa relationship would reveal that the issues go far beyond simple FDI but also relates to military cooperation and sometimes creating instability in various parts of Africa (see Michael Sata’s paper). More recently we have witnessed General Nkunda during the recent upsurge of violence in DRC use the China-DRC deal as a pretext for his insurrection, part of the so-called Coltan wars.

Another glaring inconsistency relates to the preferred metrics of measuring the extent of Africa’s aid led failures relative to the assumed metrics for measuring the success of proposed solutions. In assessing the state we are in, Dead Aid relies on national indicators such as GDP, life expectancy, level of external debt and so forth. However when it comes to assessing the extent to which the proposed solutions might be useful the book does not always stick to a consistent set of measures. For example to support the argument for microfinance, we are told Grameen Bank has helped lift many poor people out of poverty through helping “bank the unbankable”.

I am a fan of microfinance and a strong believer that aid properly directed at providing the right sorts of incentives, like IFAD are pursuing in Zambia to boost rural finance through the NARBARD style model , can produce positive results. What is particularly puzzling about the Dead Aid position is that if the metric for judging the effectiveness of microfinance is “lifting people out of poverty” at the micro level why not use the same measure for aid? If we are going to argue that remittances help bypass bureaucracy and can be effective in tackling schooling, not necessarily increase national GDP, why can’t we accept that the metric of “school attendance” is just as good a measure for assessing the effectiveness of certain aid interventions? Conversely if we are to judge the failure of aid interventions on their inability to raise national GDP (all things being equal) why don’t we accept that no empirical study to date has demonstrated that large initiatives of providing microfinance (e.g. in Bangladesh) has led to increases in GDP? The underlying point is that Dead Aid too often moves around between inconsistent measures for the problem and suggested solutions. Incidentally the IFAD initiative is a good example of effective aid that is unfortunately ignored by Dead Aid.

Fourth and finally, the solutions proposed by Dead Aid are ineffective. This is not surprising because without a clear definition of the problem, it is inevitable that the solutions would not work. But even if one was to accept Dead Aid’s basic premise that aid is bad, its solutions come far short. In order to assess whether any proposals would present an overall improvement beyond the status quo, we need to define what happens in the counterfactual carefully and then judge that against proposed policy initiatives.

In our scenario the counterfactual is the situation where we continue with the current process. We know already that Dead Aid has not demonstrated that this situation would lead to more aid driven poverty . More importantly, evidence in recent years from Zambia, Uganda, Kenya Tanzania and other countries shows an improving picture in terms of economic performance. This doesn’t mean aid causes good performance, but it does suggest growth is possible in the presence of aid even for nations at the bottom. It is therefore possible that in the presence of aid we may witness an improving counterfactual over time.

Two important questions flow from the above discussion : (1) what would be the impact of turning off the aid tap on poor nations relative to the counterfactual?; and (2) would these developing nations be able to borrow on the international markets, as an alternative to aid?

On (1) there’s no doubt that the answer largely depends on the economic and political situation in relevant nation states. For those countries with 20 % – 50% of national budgets supported by donor partners the adjustment would be too difficult and politically infeasible within the suggested five year time frame. The failure to implement their budgets would significantly weaken the human and physical infrastructures rendering these states ungovernable. More importantly locally targeted aid that is spearheaded by many aid organisations divorced from budget support would dwindle, possibly leading to multiple failed states. Dead Aid misses the point that even without aid, the incentive for military coups and emergence of vampire states would be remain because of the lucrative mineral wealth that exists. So the incentives for seeking alternative funding through financial markets as a way of survival are not always going to be as strong. Simply put for some countries turning off the aid tap would lead to chaos and breakdown in the rule of law.

As for replacing aid with borrowing, dwindling international capacity following the credit crunch (likely to persist beyond 2011/12) means there is no immediate prospect of accessible markets with significant cash to spread around. Even if African governments had strong incentives to enter these sorts of arrangements and with good initial credit ratings (which is highly unlikely) the process may be too prolonged and the outcomes would be uncertain given prevailing global economic conditions.

In short on both theory and practice, Dead Aid falls far short of what is expected of a book advocating such a radical proposal of “turning off the aid tap”. If there’s any consolation in this assessment, it is that Dead Aid will hopefully not find any intellectual traction. The analytical consensus remains that aid is important and the challenge is how to make it smarter, better and ultimately beneficial to the poor. This question has never been more urgent given the limited aid resources around. Dambisa is certainly right that now is the time to examine these issues and we can certainly do better than the present.

DR Congo: arc of war, map of responsibility

The reports of an upsurge of violence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) may at a glance appear little more than a continuation of the persistent conflict in the country over much of the last two decades. Yet a closer look reveals not just the particularity of what is happening in one corner of Africa, but the ingredients of a wider arc of endemic conflict across a huge swathe of the continent.

Guinea-Bissau: the post-election test

The fact that the presidential election in the west African state of Guinea-Bissau on 26 July 2009 ended peacefully is something of an achievement given their political background. The turbulent preceding period had been marked by a series of political assassinations, including the killings on 1-2 March of the military chief-of-staff, General Batista Tagme Na Waie, and of the president, João Richard Moncrieff is West Africa project director for the International Crisis GroupBernardo Vieira. The good news was reinforced when the losing candidate, Kumba Yala (Ialá), a volatile figure who served as president in 2000-03, calmly accepted the victory of Malam Bacai Sanhá. The new president, to be sworn in on  8 September 2009, has chosen the reformist Carlos Gomes Júnior as his prime minister.

Many in the international community responded with relief to this outcome, believing that the internationally-financed package of reforms - including, vitally, of the armed forces - can now make some real progress under Carlos Gomes Júnior's stewardship. 

Maybe this will indeed happen. But the picture may be far too rosy. Political violence in Guinea-Also in openDemocracy on Guinea-Bissau:

Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)
Bissau tends to be extremely difficult to predict, and does not normally follow or accompany more visible political tensions. There may be an appearance of calm, but far beneath the surface lie dark currents that eventually lead to outbursts of violence. There is no reason to believe that the present political situation is any different, or that these currents have gone away.  

The parallel state

The modern history of Guinea-Bissau helps explain this. The country was born - exceptionally in west Africa - of a long and bloody liberation war, against Portuguese colonial overlords; this eventually helped bring down the fascist government in Lisbon and led in 1975 to the independence of Guinea-Bissau and the offshore islands of Cape Verde (then one country). During the war, the guerrilla leader Amilcar Cabral, inspired by comparable wars of the 1950s and 1960s, created revolutionary cells across the country under the aegis of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC). He was so successful that by the time the Portuguese departed, this comradely network controlled most of the country. 

Also in openDemocracy on African politics in 2009:

John Makumbe, "Zimbabwe: wrong way, right way" (2 February 2009)

Gérard Prunier, "The Kenya we want" (3 February 2009)

Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making" (28 April 2009)

Ben Rawlence, "Eritrea: slender land, giant prison" (6 May 2009)

Wangari Maathai, "An African future: beyond the culture of dependency" (26 May 2005)

Michela Wrong, "Kenya: it's our turn to read" (8 June 2009)

Stephen Ellis, "Madagascar: roots of turmoil" (23 March 2009)

Selam Kidane, "Isaias Afewerki and Eritrea: a nations tragedy" (22 June 2009)

Gregory Mthembu-Salter, "Rwanda: law, justice and power" (26 June 2009)

Stuart Weir, "The elephants of Phirilongwe Forest" (3 July 2009)

Harun Hassan & David Hayes, "Somalia: between violence and hope" (15 July 2009)

Tom Burgis, "South Africa's unequal prospect" (5 August 2009)

Amilcar was killed in January 1973, and was succeeded in the leadership by his brother Luis. In the early post-independence years, Luis Cabral transformed these cells into a parallel channel of information and security. There was a political calculation here: Luis Cabral, whose origins lay in Cape Verde's Creole elite, was worried about the power of an army that was dominated by poor and ill-educated troops of Bissau-Guinean origin. João Bernardo Vieira, who came to power in 1980 via a coup d'état against Luis Cabral, was himself of modest Bissau-Guinean roots and was trained by the military; but he also found these parallel structures a useful means of keeping a watch on his army colleagues.

But the army never lost its sense of self-importance and entitlement from its experience of having fought the liberation war, and in Guinea-Bissau the president and the army chief-of-staff are still widely considered equals. This uneasy coexistence of a liberation army and a quasi-communist party-state underlies a gruesome pattern of executions and political assassinations that spans the period from the spasm of bloody purges of officers in the mid-1980s to the March 2009 violence. Here, Guinea-Bissau resembles much of the post-communist world in that the party-state's networks and structures have persisted even after its ideology and legitimacy have collapsed. Even more worryingly, the rivalries generated by the parallel-power system appear to reach across generations. 

The style of secretive factionalism characteristic of the system was greatly exacerbated in the civil war of 1998-99, which saw João Bernardo Vieira pitted against the vast majority of the army's rank-and-file. The politicians killed or arrested by the army in June 2009, three months after the double assassination, were all Vieira loyalists - indicating a settling of scores built up since that period. Baciro Dabó, murdered by soldiers at his home on 5 June, had served as Vieira's interior minister and been a key figure in the president's state-security services. 

Moreover, the emergence of drug-trafficking networks in the country from around 2004 has raised the stakes considerably, by transforming the factions into competing "guns for hire" (see Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope", 13 September 2008). The cerebral Amilcar Cabral would doubtless be appalled to see the structures which originated in his liberation struggle degenerate into warring factions. 

The reform window

All this is playing out in almost total obscurity, greatly complicating the reform efforts of the international community. The fact that no one has claimed responsibility for the killing either of the president or that of the chief-of-staff is symptomatic. This differs greatly from military involvement in other west African countries, where typically a military strongman appears in front of the international press following a coup d'état to explain how the army is going to save the country from ruin. No one knows for sure who is responsible for the March 2009 killings - and given the wholly cosmetic nature of the national commission of enquiry, that will not change anytime soon. But one thing is sure: the perpetrators of recent violence, whoever they are, remain the country's real power-brokers. 

The international community has two priorities in this situation. First, it should help address this cycle of silence and killings - either through a commission of enquiry of its own (international or a hybrid), or through facilitating a greatly reinforced judicial system. The beginnings of a basic order of justice must be constructed (see Winluck Wahiu & Paulos Tesfagiorgis, "Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making", 28 April 2009).

Second, the ongoing work to reduce and professionalise the army must be pushed through. This process is being quietly but firmly resisted by the military's senior officers, as it threatens their control over competing military factions. Such resistance in itself demonstrates the importance of the reform - those seeking to frustrate it are exactly those who are using army units to settle scores and protect their positions in the region's crime networks.

But even this reform will need to go further. Beyond the army lies an elusive cluster of different security networks and militia, some well organised and controlled, others fluid and inchoate. They should be either decommissioned or (as in the case of the state-security services) profoundly restructured. 

The desire of Guinea-Bissau's military power-brokers to accommodate the international community is demonstrated by their willingness to see the return to constitutional rule. The country is one of the world's most aid-dependent. Malam Bacai Sanhá, who served as interim president immediately following the civil war in 1999, is relatively respected inside the country and abroad. The new president has spent decades within the labyrinths of the PAIGC ruling party. Although his power is evidently constrained by those who trade in violence, this may be the best the country can at present hope for.

The international community has a chance to help Guinea-Bissau make the most of the opening represented by its peaceful election. But to do so it must acknowledge the depth of the country's existing problems. In Guinea-Bissau, it is what lies under the surface that counts. 

South Africa’s unequal prospect

The vista from among the shacks, hubbub and agonies of Alexandra says it all. Towering beyond the crumbling hostels built for the township's migrant mineworkers are two skyscrapers - the pinnacles of Sandton, the financial district that marks the wealthiest apex of the wealthiest city in Africa: Johannesburg.

Tom Burgis is West Africa correspondent at the Financial Times, based in Lagos, having previously been the Johannesburg correspondent. Before joining the FT, he was freelance and spent a year in South America, most of it with the Santiago Times as Chile attempted to bring Augusto Pinochet to justice.

He has written for openDemocracy's debates on protest and globalisation, and for a year presided over the monthly Bad Democracy Awards.

Among Tom Burgis's articles in openDemocracy:

"Arresting development in Chile" (14 June 2005)

"Michelle Bachelet's hard lesson" (26 June 2006)

"The siege of Hong Kong" (12 December 2005)

"A guide to the post-9/11 world" (8 September 2006)

"Addicted: William Burroughs and a world in heat" (3 November 2006)
Few countries have such an unequal distribution of wealth as South Africa. Since the end of apartheid fifteen years ago, the prevailing economic orthodoxy has held that a rising tide would eventually lift all boats. Yet inequality lies at the root of many of the nation's ills.

The rallying-cry of the latest township riots is a demand for basic services - without which poor South Africans' hopes of escape from destitution are throttled. The income-gap serves as a place where crime, violence and Aids ferment.

It was not supposed to be like this. When Nelson Mandela led the African National Congress to victory in the 1994 elections that deposed white rule, many South Africans believed - despite the long-jailed freedom-fighter's warnings to the contrary - that democracy would automatically engender prosperity.

Instead, the new order inherited modern history's most successful attempt to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. Johannesburg's juxtaposition of dirt-poor townships and plush suburbs is the geographical legacy: a black labour-force near enough to work but far enough away for wealthy whites to sleep easily.

Today the economic pyramid largely retains the shape of the apartheid years, even if a few black notables have reached the peak.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded in a 2008 report: "The most disappointing aspect of post-apartheid economic performance is the emergence and persistence of extreme levels of unemployment, particularly for less-skilled younger blacks, together with the continuation of widespread poverty and the widening of inequalities."

Olive Shisana, head of the Human Sciences Research Council, says income inequality lies behind a potentially alarming rise in the number of young women whose sexual partners are much older.

The girls who slink into corrugated-iron knocking-shops are hardly in a position to insist that their older lover put on a condom. Experts call this "transactional sex", where the wealthy partner supplies mobile-phones and other tokens that serve as a sticking-plaster over the lack of meaningful economic advances.

"If you had a society that was different in terms of access to resources, I think things would be very, very different", says Dr Shisana. "For people to try to equalise, they go to sugar daddies."

It was horror at inequality in its own right, rather than a hatred of the whites who benefited from it, that motivated some of the country's most valuable ideas. Mandela's renowned non-racialism is the most prominent; among the others is the proposal of the white South African Aubrey Meyer - fed originally by an abhorrence of "separate development" - that climate change should be countered by allocating the right to pollute equally among every human being on the planet.

Yet the skewed distribution of resources continues to define life in South Africa.

The wall within

Such disparities - combined with rampant car-theft - have given rise to an entire informal industry: the guards who earn a few rand keeping watch over parked vehicles.

The overwhelmingly black attendants depend for their living on the very lawlessness from which they, rather than those who can afford electric fences, are much more likely to suffer. The gratuitous violence that accompanies many crimes appears to be motivated as much by economic structures that have kept most blacks poor than by a lasting racial animosity.

The other end of the spectrum was recently evident at one of Johannesburg's most chic nightspots, where a multi-coloured elite was plied with champagne as models enacted James Bond scenarios to showcase designer bulletproof attire. What better way to avoid becoming one of the 19,000 South Africans who are murdered annually while still flaunting the wealth that makes you a target, was the barely concealed sales pitch. 

Politicians argue, with some merit, that righting the distortions of apartheid was never going to be straightforward. Supporters of Thabo Mbeki, president until September 2008, point to the achievements of "black economic empowerment" (BEE), the policy that obliges leading companies to transfer equity and other benefits to the black majority.

Others, though, say the income-gap is a direct result of such policies, whose main beneficiaries have been a crop of politically-connected black magnates.

Moeletsi Mbeki, the former leader's brother and a critic of BEE, writes in a new book that the policy "strikes a fatal blow against the emergence of black entrepreneurship by creating a small class of unproductive but wealthy black crony capitalists made up of ANC politicians, some retired and others not, who have become strong allies of the economic oligarchy".

The new government, led by Jacob Zuma, promises more "broad-based" black empowerment. Yet it seems unlikely that much will change while there persists among those with the credentials to work the system a mindset that was best expressed by Smuts Ngonyama, a former spokesman for the Mbeki government. He said simply: "I did not join the struggle to remain poor."


Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Roger Southall, "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (13 October 2008)

Elleke Boehmer, "Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year" (12 November 2008)

Roger Southall, "South Africa's election: a tainted victory" (7 April 2009)

Somalia: between violence and hope

The war in Somalia goes on. The sentence is so familiar that it could have been written on almost any day since 1991. Yet such familiarity does not lessen the pain of the many thousands hurt by violence and displacement, or by the hunger and poverty that war has also inflicted. Each latest death and injury, each enforced flight and disrupted schooling, hits with the rawness of the first.

The elephants of Phirilongwe Forest

The American-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is a well-respected international organisation that seeks to preserve and enhance the security of wild animals. Among its backers have been celebrities such as Pierce Brosnan and Leonardo Di Caprio.

The translation of a letter (written in Chichewa) sent on 24 November 2006 from TA Mponda, TA Chimwala & TA Nankumba (Mangochi) to His Excellency The State President Dr Bingu Wa Mutharika

Subject: Request for a fence for the elephants of Phirilongwe Forest Reserve, Mangochi

We, the three chiefs from Mangochi, of the areas Mponda, Chimwala and Nankumba, have written this letter to you, to request your assistance with the following issue in our area.
We write to inform you, Sir, that we don't want the elephants of Mangochi area to be removed.
We know that God gave us the elephants and made the lake to be here, so we want to ask you, Sir, if you can please put a fence for the elephants, as they are destroying the crops and also harming the people in our area.
So we are asking you please, Sir, if you can put a fence on the side where the elephants are.
We believe and hope that you will hear our request, so that you can help us with this issue, and we are asking if we can come to have a meeting with you about this.

Thank You
We are your children,

TA Chimwala
TA Mponda
TA Nankumba

The organisation is currently overseeing the transportation of all the elephants from their home in the Phirilongwe forest near Mangochi by Lake Malawi, 250 kilometres away to the Majete game-park close to Malawi's border with Mozambique. Most of the elephants have already been transported, leaving only remnants of the herd which by the time this article appears may have all gone.

I have no doubt that the IFAW believes that it is acting in the best interests of the Phirilongwe elephants by removing them from their established habitat to the game-park. Indeed, in doing so, it insists that this is the only way to "save" the elephants and that Majete remains the "most secure haven" for the Phirilongwe elephants.

The IFAW insists that most residents in the area support the removal of the elephants.

Yet it is using its resources to ignore long-established hopes locally of establishing a wildlife sanctuary in Mangochi that would save not only the elephants from danger but also local people, among the poorest people in a very poor country, from destitution.

On both counts, its position is (to say the least) questionable. First, the elephants could be protected equally well in the Mangochi area, and may indeed be safer there - the Majete game-park, like Malawi's other game-parks close to its borders, is vulnerable to poachers who come from outside the country. It also appears that Majete is experiencing significant human-elephant conflicts of its own, as elephants escape.

Second, all efforts - national and international as well as local - to hold a full and open consultation on the fate of the elephants and to resolve the issues thrown up by the proposal for a wildlife sanctuary have been stonewalled for several years. Ever since 2005 local people, including chiefs, have been seeking to establish the sanctuary in the area that would protect the elephants and contribute to a more sustainable local economy through eco-tourism. As things are, environmental pressures and extreme poverty are causing avoidable deaths among local people and destroying their well-being and habitat. If some now support the move, it is only because they have been browbeaten and have given up hope on receiving support for a sanctuary. If anyone wishes to suggest that there has been no coercion applied, there is now ample evidence to the contrary.

The block 

The efforts to protect both elephants and people through local solutions brought about potential funding from the World Bank for a feasibility study. There was also strong European Union interest in the project. The International Fund for Animal Welfare surely must know this, unless it has been kept in the dark ; in any event it failed to take proper soundings. 

The fund must also be aware that Malawi's department of national parks and wildlife intervened to block the plan in what may fairly be described as dubious, and certainly as undemocratic, circumstances. So why has it gone ahead with what seems to me - as a onetime consultant to the Malawi government and to the speaker of the Malawi parliament - a misguided, costly exercise to take enormously valuable assets from the community and hand them over to private interests with no prospect of compensation for the community? 

Even more pronounced than the loss of the value of the elephants is the incalculable harm done to the development prospects of the local community. Surely an influential body such as the IFAW should take the trouble to make sure that it is acting in accordance with proper democratic process, if only to protect itself against charges of neo-imperialism or worse? 

These are strong words. Let me recap as best I can from the point of view of an outsider. 

The proposal 

The Phirilongwe elephants and forest reserve have long been regarded as a valuable national asset that could be used for poverty-reduction strategies premised on the development of the eco-tourism that was contributing to the economies of neighbouring countries. 

The proposal for a sanctuary proved to be no pipedream. Early in 2005, the Malawi government took an active interest in the plan for a wildlife sanctuary. In July 2005, the European Union and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) locally sponsored an early study of the cross-cutting issues involved; the Malawi government, conscious of the wider social, infrastructure, health and development opportunities that the study opened up, set up a cross-ministry task force also to examine the issues that the plan raised. 

The government's interest led to a series of consultations up to 2007 with interested parties, including representatives from the WWF, another body that is concerned to save endangered species. Many local chiefs and people were at the time quite clearly committed to the idea of a sanctuary that could bring great benefits to their lives. 

Three chiefs even wrote a letter in Chichewa on 24 November 2006 to the president of Malawi, requesting his assistance. In translation, it reads in part: "We write to inform you, Sir, that we do not want the elephants of Mangochi area to be removed. We know that God gave us the elephants and made the lake to be here, so we want to ask you, Sir, if you can please put a fence for the elephants, as they are destroying the crops and also harming the people in our area." This letter was not answered and, according to one internal source, the ministry responsible for parks never passed on the letter to the president. Instead it harangued the chiefs. 

It would be wrong to try and skate over the genuine difficulties that had to be resolved. The situation of elephants living alongside local inhabitants brought about long-unresolved tensions, the deaths of elephants and people alike, and the destruction from time to time of precious crops. But malaria and poverty-related fatalities far outweighed the deaths caused by conflicts between elephants and humans in the area. The plan was greatly to reduce human-elephant contact with a sanctuary, and generate a revenue-stream that would benefit the community and reduce deaths from poverty and disease. 

The talks also took into account the concerns of the local communities about shrinking resources and environmental pressures that were depriving villagers of a healthy habitat and life-chances. The prospect of a sanctuary could protect both the lives of the elephants and the lives and livelihoods of the people. The sanctuary could encourage eco-tourism to regenerate the area and make it economically viable, with resorts along the lakeside. 

Another consideration is that as soon as the elephants are gone, more trees will also disappear, for the elephants have been the guardians of the forest. Research shows that trees are a major driver of weather and strongly influences rainfall patterns. The peninsula where the forest is located is already showing signs of significant deforestation and environmental degradation, even though it is considered to be one of the most significant sites in the world in terms of biodiversity. It is for this reason that nearby Lake Malawi National Park was in 1984 declared a Unesco World Heritage Site. 

The appeal 

The interest in the plan shown both by the Malawi government and local people encouraged the World Bank to take an interest too, especially in view of the potential links with its own infrastructure investments in the Mangochi area. A high-level meeting took place in Washington in 2006 between Malawi government officials and the World Bank and substantial funds were provisionally earmarked to carry out feasibility studies. All that remained was for the Malawi government to make a formal request. 

At this point Malawi's department of national parks and wildlife sabotaged the deal, by vigorously opposing the plan for a sanctuary. No coherent explanation for the department's strenuous opposition has been forthcoming. Not surprisingly, unseemly rumours have filled the void of hard information as the whole affair has become increasingly polarised and menacing. There were also tales of growing elephant-human conflicts and even of wounded beasts. The WWF representatives were harassed until they withdrew from the project. 

In 2007 and early 2008, efforts were made to find a way forward and reconcile differences within the Malawi government. These stalled, and the vision of the elephant sanctuary as a means of lifting the local area out of poverty began to look less and less likely - especially when the transportation of the elephants began in earnest. In a last-ditch effort, local campaigners applied for an injunction under Malawi's Environmental Protection Act, which is designed to prevent any act or omission that might harm the environment or deplete natural resources. 

One or two of those involved have informed me that the government lawyers' case was "patently shallow", with no base in scientific or other evidence; and that there were attempts to have people opposed to the removal of the elephants removed from a hearing, or prevented from passing notes to their own lawyer. The judge would have none of that, but nevertheless the court ultimately saw fit to vacate the injunction and removals were resumed at an even greater speed. 

I cannot corroborate what they have told me, but more disinterested parties have informed me that those who were campaigning against the transportation and seeking the injunction were intimidated with threats of violence and death. "There may still be grim consequences", one protester told me, "because everyone who is remotely associated with the resistance is being intimidated in the most blatant and brutal manner. I'm waiting for them to come through my door." 

The protest

The resistance continues, even at this late stage when most of the elephants have already been taken. The protesters are on strong ground when they complain that the operation has not been set in motion after a properly transparent and inclusive process and has been carried forward through stealth and in haste. They also complain about the "confrontational behaviour" that has accompanied the whole saga and raise concerns about the standards of tendering for contracts and due disclosure. 

They are demanding a full Strategic Environmental Impact Assessment (SEIA), conducted by an independent firm chosen in a transparent process. Malawi's Environmental Management Act requires exactly such a measure. They hope that the assessment could set the stage for an objective, informed and balanced national debate on environmental issues that could lay the ground for a substantial strategy to preserve Malawi's natural resources for future generations. 

I am reliably informed that the IFAW was kept in the dark about the preliminary EU study on options to protect both people and elephants, and possibly other aspects of the contemporary attempts to establish the sanctuary. Yet it seems to me that they are still under an obligation, as is the Malawi government, to ensure that the removal of the elephants that is now taking place and the use of funds on transportation rather than fencing a local sanctuary should be done on the basis of independent scientific research. This should take into account the best interests of the community and broader government policies relating to economic development, health and nutrition. It should also be done through an open, inclusive and accountable manner rather than by stealth. (It is reported that the local communities were completely taken by surprise by the appearance of a helicopter and elephant-transport vehicles.) 

The way ahead 

The African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance upholds as one of its basic principles the "effective participation of citizens in democratic and development processes and in governance of public affairs". It goes on to stress the importance of safeguarding the rights of (among others) "marginalised and vulnerable social groups". 

Moreover, the UN International Covent an Economic, Social and Cultural Rights sets out a basic human right to participation, especially for poor people. In work for Democratic Audit and the democracy-assessment programme of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA),I have been involved in developing generally accepted norms for participation and consultation. 

On this basis, it is evident to me, as it is to many impartial observers of what is happening in Malawi, that: 

* There should be an independent inquiry into the relative advantages of all relevant options, and most certainly that of a sanctuary in the Phirilongwe forest, that considers the impact of any decision on the environment, the interests of the local communities, and the long-term safety of the elephants 

* The local communities should be fully and openly consulted, presented with the facts and options available, and asked for their views on what should be done. 

In view of the damaging rumours that are current, the local communities also ought to be reassured that the award of contracts followed proper tendering procedures, supervised by the authorities. 

These demands for community participation and transparency echo what local people and others are urging on the government. I believe that it is up to the president of Malawi and his government and the International Fund for Animal Welfare to satisfy themselves that they were not presented with a very incomplete picture on purpose. If this process raises serious enough questions, an independent inquiry should be a possible option. 

There is a sting in the tale for the IFAW. It is reported that the African Parks Foundation (APF), which runs the Majete game-park along with others in Africa, is willing to consider all options that will secure the future of their parks, "including big-game hunting for which wealthy Americans will pay trophy fees in the tens of thousands of pounds" (see "Animal charity saves 60 elephants amid controversy", Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2009). In a recent document, it said that it would "evaluate the feasibility of limited trophy- hunting as a means of ensuring financial sustainability" in Majete. The IFAW told the Telegraph that it was "unaware" of the APF's stance on hunting - to which it is opposed. 

Can IFAW provide unqualified assurances that as sponsors of the translocation they will insist that there will be no hunting in Majete; and more importantly, that they have satisfied themselves that everything possible has been done to consider the future welfare of the people of Mangochi as well as of their elephants?

It is difficult to see what has made Malawi's department of parks and wildlife so intransigent and why it has been permitted to exercise a veto over crucial development and environmental matters so far beyond its mandate. Whatever the reason for its vigorous campaign against protecting the elephants and people in their present location, the truth is likely to emerge through the courts and through the courageous insistence of civil-society organisations on answers to uncomfortable questions. 

Perhaps IFAW should show a little more interest in getting to the bottom of the matter. Instead of adopting a knee-jerk defensive position, it should make an  effort to face reality and avoid any being deceived. Too much is at stake for any more evasion and delay to be tolerable.

Rwanda: law, justice and power

The mandate of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is approaching its end. Its chief prosecutor, Hassan Bubacar Jallow, intends to conclude the work of the tribunal by its latest possible deadline of 31 December 2009. In investigating and prosecuting some of the worst perpetrators of Rwanda's genocide in April-July 1994, the ICTR has played an honourable role; but there is a shadow over it which will remain a blemish on its reputation. Gregory Mthembu-Salter is a writer and researcher on Africa who lives in Scarborough, South Africa. He writes for the Economist Intelligence Unit, Africa Confidential and the Africa Report. He has been a researcher for the South African Institute of International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies, and was a member of the UN Panel of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2007-08.

The issue is the ICTR's failure to extend its reach by also bringing to justice individuals belonging to the Rwandan Popular Front - the movement that came to power in Kigali in the aftermath of the genocide, and has held it ever since. The reasons for this failure are a familiar, if still grisly, story of international power-politics and behind-the-scenes pressure. This brief article sets out its ingredients.

A difficult start

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) by a resolution of November 1994. The tribunal‘s mandate was comprehensive, as befitting the overall goal of aim of achieving justice and "national reconciliation": to prosecute those responsible for the genocidal slaughter that had consumed the lives of at least 800,000 people, but also to target those who had committed "other serious violations of international law".

There are few who doubt that Rwandan Popular Front (RPF) troops - advancing southwards from their base in Uganda to overthrow the génocidaires and chase many of them towards or into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Tanzania - committed war crimes in 1994, though the extent to which these were ordered by the RPF's leadership remains in dispute. Most estimates suggest the RPF killed 25,000-40,000 people in the relevant period: at most 1% of their enemies‘ total, yet of a number in a context that suggests that some at least in the RPF fell within the terms of the ICTR's mandate.

The ICTR's first chief prosecutor was Carla del Ponte, who also headed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). She began with the intention of prosecuting RPF members for war crimes, without losing sight of the tribunal's primary objective of seeking out genocide perpetrators. The ICTR's efforts in this respect, however, quickly ran into trouble.

Also by Gregory Mthembu-Salter in openDemocracy:
"South Africans have voted. What did they say" (24 April 2009).


The Rwandan government in Kigali soon heard of the ICTR's intention to investigate the RPF - as well as the incident which triggered the genocide, the plane crash that killed Rwanda's president, Juvénal Habyarimana. The relations between government and tribunal - already tense - went into deep freeze.

There were three reasons for the existing tension. First, Rwanda's government to a large measure blamed the genocide on the international community and the United Nations system. Second, Kigali was angered by the decision to locate the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania, rather than in Rwanda; this deprived the Rwandan authorities of the chance themselves to prosecute any of the key genocide suspects. Third, it was furious too at the succour given by international-aid organisations to the over 2 million Rwandan Hutu refugees then crowded (and in some cases reorganising) in Congolese and Tanzanian camps - among whom were the very politicians, militia and Rwandan army members responsible for the genocide.

This toxic context guaranteed that Rwandan politicians from the top downwards would denounce the ICTR for allegedly equating genocide crimes with RPF killings. There was a spate of stories in the government-controlled Rwandan press about génocidaires who were said to be working as defence counsel for several of the ICTR's indictees. Soon after, the Rwandan government formally suspended its relations with the ICTR, denying visas to would-be witnesses for the tribunal's genocide trials. Without these witnesses, the trials ground to a halt.

A sour fallout

The Rwandan government's stance was in defiance of the UN Security Council, and a violation of its legal obligation to assist the ICTR. Yet the decision of both council and tribunal to acquiesce was understandable. For both bodies, the most important thing was to hold genocide trials, and thus demonstrate to a sceptical world that it would not allow impunity for this terrible crime. Any trials of RPF members for war crimes would of course be desirable, as would clarity on who killed Juvénal Habyarimana; but now that the Rwandan government had effectively created a stark choice -  genocide trials only, or no trials at all - the UNSC and ICTR chose the former option as the lesser of two evils.

In principle, the UNSC could have challenged the Rwandan government's stance, perhaps backed by aid cuts from the Washington and London (Kigali's main donors until) cooperation was restored. This was unrealistic, for two main reasons. First, the record of the two main parties. The Rwandan government included those who had stopped the genocide, saving hundreds of thousands of lives;  the Security Council had authorised the withdrawal of its troops from Rwanda just as the killings were getting underway. The council had near-zero moral credibility over the genocide; indeed, part of the whole point of the ICTR was to restore it.

Second, the particular stance of the United States. The 1994 genocide happened during Bill Clinton's presidency. His administration both supported the withdrawal of UN forces from Rwanda when the genocide started, and played a major role in the UNSC in undermining subsequent attempts by other countries to muster an international force to intervene. The US government even opted to describe what was happening in Rwanda (in the first weeks) as "tribal killings", an evasive and inaccurate term preferred to "genocide" because the latter would entail an obligation to respond. When it was all over, Clinton appeared to experience genuine remorse at having failed Rwanda, and his administration was simply not prepared to challenge the Rwandan government on the ICTR issue.

A bleak endgame

The Rwandan government went further than stopping RPF prosecutions and the ICTR's plane-crash investigation. It demanded a price for restoring cooperation with the tribunal: Carla del Ponte's resignation. Here too the UN Security Council conceded. The official justification - which had the advantage of being true - was that she already had a full agenda with the ICTY.

Hassan Bubacar Jallow replaced Carla del Ponte in 2003. Soon after, it became clear that there would never be any RPF prosecutions by the ICTR. The official position was that the tribunal was studying the matter and pursuing leads, but when questioned on the matter Jallow repeatedly fudged the issue, and nothing ever happened. In the meantime he invested considerable time and energy improving relations with the Rwandan government, even appealing five times for ICTR cases to be transferred to Rwanda for trial.

Each time, the tribunal's magistrates blocked Jallow's requests for trial transfers. At the same time, it has agreed to the transfer of several cases to other national jurisdictions (as its mandate allows) and refused to allow any of those convicted to serve their sentences in Rwanda. These decisions, against Rwanda's own wishes, seem to be the ICTR's way of demonstrating its even-handedness.

Moreover, the ICTR and Rwandan prosecutors collaborated on a case brought to court in Rwanda in 2008 - in which four RPF officers were accused of killing Vincent Nsengiyumva, the archbishop of Kigali, and several other senior members of the Rwanda's Roman Catholic hierarchy, in June 1994. The ICTR promised that it would monitor the officers' trial closely, even as it hinted that this was the closest it would ever get to tackling the issue of RPF war crimes. In the event, the Rwandan courts controversially acquitted the two senior officers, while convicting the two junior officers (who in any case had already admitted carrying out the killing).

When its mandate expires on 31 December 2009 , the ICTR will have significant achievements to its credit: challenging impunity by bringing the worst of the genocide perpetrators to book; proving in the process that the genocide did take place, greatly weakening the efforts of  denialists; and advancing international jurisprudence, particularly regarding rape as a weapon of war and genocide.

And yet... the UN Security Council's decision in 2002 to accept the Rwandan government's de facto veto over the ICTR's progress because it seemed the lesser of two evils means that the ICTR will always be accused of perpetrating "victors' justice". This is a sad judgment for a tribunal that has carried out such important work on the world's behalf. But ultimately, it is a just one.


Also on war crimes and international justice in openDemocracy:

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (7 April 2004)

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)

William Schabas, " The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)

Alfredo Jaar, "The Rwanda Project: 1994-2000" (13 April 2006) 

Andrew Wallis, "Rwandan rifts in La Francafrique" (14 December 2006)

Nick Grono & David Mozersky, "Sudan and the ICC: a question of accountability" (31 January 2007)

Martin Shaw, "The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

Anthony Dworkin, "The law and genocide: Bosnia, Serbia, and justice" (2 March 2007)

Ben Kiernan, "Blood and soil: the global history of genocide" (11 October 2007)

Nick Grono, " The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)

Gérard Prunier, " Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)

Alex de Waal, " Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)

Victor Peskin, " The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis (15 July 2008)

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)

Gérard Prunier, " Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal" (15 October 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict" (18 November 2008)

Martin Shaw, "Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision" (11 March 2009)


Isaias Afewerki and Eritrea: a nation’s tragedy

It is rare that a country's entire condition can be summarised in a single word. That is true of Eritrea today, however; and the word is tragic. There are many indices of this tragedy, among them Eritrea's appalling record in hunger, poverty, human rights and freedom of the press. But the most painful is that of stolen promise. Eritrea's people fought so hard and succeeded in so much that was deemed impossible, only for their achievement to be snatched away from them. Today, Eritreans both inside and outside their Horn of Africa homeland are living with the consequences, and trying to understand why their nation's history took such a cruel twist. The answer, for very many of us, lies in the political character of one man: Eritrea's president, Isaias Afewerki.

Selam Kidane is an Eritrean human-rights activist

Africa's newest nation-state won its de facto independence in May 1991 after an arduous thirty-year struggle against rule by Ethiopia (a status confirmed by international recognition in May 1993).  By then, every Eritrean family had been touched by war - and many were blighted by its devastation.  But the post-independence spirit was optimistic, even noble: Eritreans had maintained their ideals even under pressure of conflict, and vowed to build a state that embodied them. They were determined that their social cohesion, strong work-ethic, low levels of crime and corruption, and scarcity of ethnic or religious tension would become  trademarks of their new state: a country worthy of its dignified citizens, a lasting tribute to those who sacrificed their lives to attain independence, and solace to their families. This was to be something new under the African sun.

Some falling short from such high aspirations is forgivable, but the cracks that started to appear in the first decade of independence were the harder to bear for being largely self-inflicted. Eritrea fought with every one of its neighbours, accumulating smouldering political and economic animosities with each crisis. This cycle culminated in a renewed conflagration with Ethiopia over the two countries' disputed border; the result, in the war of 1998-2000, was the death of countless young Eritreans and Ethiopians. The war, moreover, left the issue unresolved; it threatens periodically to erupt and create renewed devastation (see Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war", 18 January 2006).

Also on Eritrea and the Horn of Africa in openDemocracy:

Ann Pettifor, "Ethiopia: the price of indifference" (19 February 2004)

David Styan, "Tony Blair and Africa - old images, new realities" (26 May 2005)

Becky Hogge, "I didn't do it for Michela Wrong" (16 August 2005)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea vs Ethiopia: the shadow of war" (18 January 2006)

Edward Denison, "Eritrea: a cheap holiday in other people's misery" (20 December 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia at the crossroads" (10 January 2007)

Edward Denison, "Ethiopia's hostages to history" (5 March 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (13 April 2007)

Lyndall Stein, "Ethiopia: the tears and the rains" (23 July 2008)

Ben Rawlence, "Eritrea: slender land, giant prison" (6 May 2009)

The domestic repercussions of this war pushed Eritrea towards the abyss. In September 2001, President Isaias Afewerki - who had by then been in power for a decade - unleashed the full power of the state to crush opposition and dissent. He arrested eleven of his former comrades, all veterans of the independence struggle and members of parliament in independent Eritrea; closed all private media sources; and followed up by restricting or expelling global and regional organisations working in the country (including NGOs and charitable organisations who stood by Eritrea and the president himself during the independence struggle). The effect of all this was to turn Eritrea into a prison for its citizens (see Ben Rawlence, "Eritrea: slender land, giant prison", 6 May 2009). 

The pathology of power

Eritrea's fall has led many today to describe it as the North Korea of Africa, and Isaias Afewerki as its Kim Jong-Il: a paranoid, irrational, eccentric and reclusive leader. There may be some truth in each of these descriptions, but in seeking to make sense of decision-making in today's Eritrea they may also mislead. For to consign Isaias Afeworki to the realm of near-madness is to underestimate him: an examination of his political record during and after the fight for independence reveals him to be an often astute political leader, far from random or erratic in his approach.

Isaias Afewerki himself has attempted to explain the move to a more hardline policy as necessary to maintain "national integrity" against foreign plots and influences when "the nation has and continues to suffer under exceptional circumstances." The problem is that the same formulae were used when concerns about his authoritarian tendencies were raised in earlier years; this suggests the existence of a long-term pattern of ideological rationalisation rather than a genuine response to new circumstances. The increased centralisation of power in Eritrea and the erosion of other centres of influence seems to reflect the view that all actions are justified if they serve the president's needs and ambitions.

Everything comes back to the excessive need for power, which is manifest too in forceful actions that can include physical assaults, verbal threats, accusations and reprimands even for the mildest challenge.

Some of those who were close to President Isaias during the pre- and post-independence years add a further layer of understanding. They say that he takes an immensely detailed interest in policy- and decision-making, finds it very difficult for to delegate tasks, and has a strong (perhaps inflated) sense of his own ability to influence what happens outside as well as inside Eritrea.

By a familiar historical twist, the very traits that fuelled Isaias Afewerki's rise to power allowed him to consolidate it in ways that damaged everyone around him. Eritreans and to a degree the rest of the world had been beguiled by the dashing hero's charisma and ability to get results. But in time it became evident that he saw power not as an instrument for social and national progress  but as a weapon of self-aggrandisement that nothing would be allowed to put at risk.

The lost sacrifice

President Isaias's conduct of  the 1998-2000 conflict with Ethiopia is a case-study in his political character. In February 1999, the international community - shocked at the unfolding brutality in the Horn of Africa - mounted an great diplomatic effort to bring it to an end. The combined influence of the United States, the European Union and the  Organisation of African Unity (OAU, later the African Union) contributed to a peace deal agreed by the Eritrean cabinet and backed by an OAU-organised mediation committee. At that point, President Isaias declared to the national media that to withdraw from the town of Badme - the flashpoint of the war, whose evacuation by military forces was a central element of the peace accord - would be equivalent to the sun never rising again. The deal fell apart.

The Ethiopians responded by launching an offensive on 23 February 1999 which they named "Operation Sunset". By 26 February, the media in Eritrea announced that the country's forces had withdrawn, leaving Badme in Ethiopian hands. A year and much carnage later,  an agreement was signed that ended the war, established a United Nations force to monitor the ceasefire, and put the issue to international arbitration (in April 2002, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague settled the border and implicitly awarded Badme to Eritrea, a decision that Ethiopia refuses to accept).

Afewerki, required to account for his decisions and actions amid the fallout of war, responded by severe repression - which, in addition to the measures described above, included elevating to power a new cohort of handpicked cronies who owed their promotion to their obedience to and fear of the president's whim.

Issaias Afewerki is surrounded by military associates whose  single purpose is to maintain him in power; while those who played key roles in Eritrea astonishing  feat of winning independence against so many odds either languish in unnamed dungeons or survive in temporary homes as exiles and refugees. Many others have fallen victim to the president's suspicious plotting.

Today, Eritreans in the diaspora are discussing an unconfirmed report that Chinese bank-accounts hold millions of dollars of funds in the names of President Isaias Afewerki (who trained at a military college in Nanjing in 1966-67) and his son. If true this would be yet another insult to tens of thousands of hard-working Eritreans - housekeepers in Italy, domestic workers in the middle east, taxi-drivers in the US, factory-workers in Europe - including many who long supported the president, lived austere lives in the greater cause of their country's well-being, and once considered Afewerki one of them: a brother, a son, a fellow-combatant.

There are no systems of accountability or free information in place which could allow the Eritrean public to verify or dismiss a report which, if true, would align their country with Gabon or Equatorial Guinea. The Eritrean tragedy continues. After all, it seems, there really was nothing new under the African sky in May 1991.

Kenya: it’s our turn to read

This week a long-mulled distribution project goes into action in Kenya, a country which has seen more than its fair share of humanitarian operations. The items handed out this time will be neither mosquito-nets, condoms, nor oral rehydration salts. They are copies of my book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower. The aim is to get them into the hands of Kenyans who have so far been unable to locate a much talked-about item.

Michela Wrong is a journalist, and the author of It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower (HarperCollins, 2009)

Her previous books include In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz (HarperCollins, 2001) and I Didn't Do It For You: How The World Abused a Small African Nation (HarperCollins, 2005)

Also by Michela Wrong in openDemocracy:

"The G8 summit: good for Africans?" (11 July 2005) - part of a symposium with Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie, Michael Holman and Herbert Ekwe-Ekwe

Until recently I sincerely doubted the project - embracing local churches, media outlets, Kenyan branches of PEN and the Open Society Institute, and pulled together by the American development agency USAID - would ever see the light of day. I feared the very same forces that had originally prevented my book selling in Kenya would sabotage it. Then came a text message from Galeeb Kachra, the project's 36-year-old originator. "Books safe", it read. The first part of the consignment had cleared Kenyan customs and was securely in USAID's hands.

Now, with the first of what will eventually be 5,100 copies being either distributed for free or at discount prices, I feel a combination of gratitude and wonder. Gratitude to those who decided to help an author reach her natural readers, wonder that this was ever necessary in the first place. Books, after all, are normally sold in bookshops, not distributed like a polio vaccine.

In late 2008, when I delivered the manuscript for It's Our Turn to Eat to my publishers, I expected a brief flurry of headlines, nothing more. The book tells the story of John Githongo, a former anti-corruption chief and old friend who fled Kenya on discovering that his ministerial colleagues were implicated in a £750 million corruption-scam known as Anglo Leasing. The details of this scam were already familiar to Kenyans, thanks to a dossier penned by John himself, published on the internet in 2006. Hence my sang-froid.

I had misjudged the mood of the times. Although a Kenyan government spokesman declared that the book was not banned, no domestic bookseller dared touch it. When quizzed, they said they were terrified of being sued by businessmen and politicians named in its pages. Kenyan VIPs are certainly quick to sue, and the country's libel laws are heavily weighted in favour of litigants. But I suspected something more sinister explained this blanket retail boycott: a quiet intimidation campaign by the regime that Githongo had exposed.

Whatever its cause, the boycott has not prevented well-off Kenyans reading It's Our Turn to Eat, now on its third reprint. They pick it up abroad - sales are booming in Johannesburg, Kampala and Dar es Salaam; use their international credit-cards to buy it off Amazon; download the e-book off Harper Collins's website. To my frustration, a pirated electronic copy of the manuscript has also been circulating amongst those with computer access.

But ordinary Kenyans remain excluded, and they are the ones the organisations and individuals involved in this project now hope to reach. They are not doing this to humiliate those named in my book. They see the book as playing a key part in a long overdue public debate on the state of modern Kenya.

A Kenyan's right

What makes It's Our Turn to Eat interesting are not the stale details of Anglo Leasing, but its exploration of the poisonous interplay between ethnicity, corruption and power, blight of so many African societies. The perception that a ruling tribe wins exclusive right to gorge on state assets - consigning less fortunate tribes to obscurity and neglect - fuelled an anger that nearly destroyed Kenya following the December 2007 polls. "The Kenyan public knows all about the post-election violence, but they don't see the link between that and corruption", says Kachra. "What you have done in your book is to connect up the dots."

Kenya's Protestant and Catholic churches, who have always played key roles in the country's troubled reform process, plan to debate the book's arguments at discussion-groups across the country. The writers' organisation PEN is organising readings in Mombasa, Kisumu and Nairobi. Caroline Mutoko, a feisty radio presenter, will debate the issues on Kiss FM's popular breakfast show. The Nairobi Star will offer readers five free copies of the book a day, and its vendors will sell it at traffic-lights alongside the newspaper. All this has been made possible by grants from the Kenyan branch of George Soros's Open Society Institute, USAID, and an anonymous British investor with a liking for iconoclastic gestures.

Litigation is still always possible. But a court case over Anglo Leasing, which has somehow always managed to fall between cracks opened up by the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission (KACC) and the attorney-general, could only be a welcome development, and would certainly be to the benefit of the Kenyan people. And the number of distributors and sellers involved in this project raises an obvious question for anyone itching for a legal fight - who to sue?

I'm not so naïve, or so arrogant, as to expect every Kenyan to like It's Our Turn to Eat. On publication, Kenyan newspaper reviewers greeted it more warmly than I had ever dared hope, but the discussions on Kenyan websites leave me in no doubt that many - particularly members of the president's Kikuyu ethnic group - fiercely reject its findings. Any western outsider foolhardy enough to pass judgment on an African society expects to be slapped around the face now and then. Like it or loathe it, however, Kenyans surely have the right to read it. And now, I hope, they can.

Also in openDemocracy on Kenya's crisis after the December 2007 elections:

Peter Kimani, "A past of power more than tribe in Kenya's turmoil" (2 January 2008)

Michael Holman, "Kenya: chaos and responsibility" (3 January 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

Roger Southall, "South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

Wanyama Masinde, "Kenya's trauma, and how to end it" (9 January 2008)

John Lonsdale, "Ethnicity, tribe, and state in Kenya" (17 January 2008)

Angelique Haugerud, "Kenya: spaces of hope" (23 January 2008)

Anna Husarska, "Kenya's displaced people: a photo-essay" (5 February 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "The Kenya we want" (3 February 2009)

Africa: constitution-building vs coup-making

The coup d'état was a common device of regime-change in post-independence Africa. The failures of governance of post-independence states even led some observers to see the coup as in some circumstances a necessary evil - when it removed a predatory and autocratic regime, and could be regarded as facilitating a transition to democracy. There are two problems with this argument. The first (one of principle) is that - whatever the motives of a coup - the extra-constitutional transfer of and claim to power is inherently corrupting of governance and inconsistent with constitutional rule. The second (one of practice) is that those who assumed power through coups have amply demonstrated their incompetence, by mismanaging the economies of their countries and destroying the social fabric of African peoples.Winluck Wahiu is a constitutional lawyer and project manager of the constitution-building programme at International IDEA

Paulos Tesfagiorgis is senior advisor on democracy and constitution-making based at International IDEA's regional office in Pretoria

These flaws notwithstanding, the coup has not disappeared from Africa's political landscape. The most recent successful coups d'état in Mauritania (August 2005) and Madagascar (March 2009) have resulted in regimes that are struggling to govern amidst uncertainty, insecurity and isolation. There have been further attempts in recent years to seize power through force or other unconstitutional means in the Central African Republic (CAR), Guinea-Bissau, Cote d'Ivoire, and Sao Tome & Principe.

Yet if these events might suggest that Africa is witnessing a resurgence of coups, another trend is equally visible: regional and continental efforts in the wake of such actions to find effective solutions via mediation. This reaction was apparent in the aftermath of the CAR, Guinea-Bissau, Cote d'Ivoire cases, and in Sao Tome & Principe (in the last, the military renegades who seized power in July 2003 quickly restored it to the elected regime following mediation).

All coups or attempted coups are a cause for concern. But it is notable that the African Union (AU) swiftly condemned the coups in Mauritania, Madagascar and Guinea-Bissau; demanded the immediate "restoration of the legitimate, constitutional and democratic institutions" of the three countries; and suspended their membership of the AU. All this demonstrates that Africa is no longer tolerant of such unconstitutional assumptions of power. The African people have clearly spoken, through their continental body, that they have no desire for and cannot any longer tolerate unconstitutional changes of government. 

This contribution to the International IDEA/openDemocracy debate on democracy-support article places this important development in the context of the challenges and achievements of the process of constitutional-building in contemporary Africa.  In doing so it poses three questions:

▪ how will Africans get to the point when they can speak of Madagascar as Africa's "last" coup?

▪ in the meantime, what role can constitutions play in protecting African states from regime-change through coup-making? 

▪ if Africa is consistently to deny unconstitutional transfers of power the chance to succeed, what new governance norms will emerge around the constitution-building process?  

The new constitutions

The answers to these questions can in part be sought in what might be called the "mediated normalisation" of political regime-change (that is, the transfer of power between regimes). At the heart of this process is an energetic attempt to bolster a country's constitution and its practical legitimacy.

African regime-change since the imperatives of cold-war polarisation lost their agency has (with very few exceptions) been conducted through constitutional means. The constitution has become the roadmap to power, and has displaced the coup or revolution as the basis for reform. South Africa's constitutional pact, which in ending race-based minority rule can be seen as Africa's last great act of liberation, is the classical example on the continent. In some other cases (such as Kenya) regime change without constitutional change has remained incomplete and volatile. The example of Zimbabwe makes clear that regime change will have a much better chance of being peacefully implemented and taking root if it were done on the basis of a substantive new constitutional pact. 

Hence, the hypothesis of successful and peaceful regime change by constitutional means is being largely vindicated. This is less because it is wholly crisis-proof than because it has performed better at managing crises (both South Africa and Kenya are positive examples).  

The real African choice for regime change is via the constitution. It is not that constitutions by themselves cause successful and peaceful regime-change, but rather that by their nature they contribute to making it a real possibility and then a probable reality. In this sense, constitutions are integral to the answer to the question about when the "last coup" in Africa will occur.

Most contemporary African constitutions provide the citizen with the power to choose his or her leaders in free and fair elections through the entrenchment of a bill of rights. Most also put the military )and the security forces generally) under the control of civilian authorities, with a responsibility loyally to obey political decisions and uphold the constitution.  

The results of such constitution-making in Africa have included the spread of greater public awareness: of the nature of constitutional principles; of the sense of social ownership of a process that has fostered a plurality of political voices, actors and forces; and of the need to avoid the danger of democratically and constitutionally elected executives seeking to manipulate constitutions by (for example) overstaying or extending term-limits. 

Constitution-building is about the systemic strengthening of constitution-based institutions and processes. But the people of a country that seeks to build a new constitution after repeated experience of violent regime-overthrow already have grounds for scepticism. An echo of the pro-coup argument cited above may even be heard: that in light of the lived experience of serious conflict and/or the failed ideals of earlier constitutions, the idea of building a constitution sounds irrelevant or abstract.  

Yet these very same experiences largely shape the motivation for constitutional reforms. In this respect, the quality of a constitution and its practical legitimacy for all actors is vital to its endurance and ability to withstand threats. In francophone Africa, five of the nine countries that since 1988 have held national conferences to agree constitutional changes subsequently experienced successful regime-change; in anglophone Africa, almost all national dialogues succeeded in securing constitutional term-limits for the elected executive.

A constitution cannot be expected to act as a panacea for all political problems. Many constitutions were negotiated by parties locked in a sort of entrenched political stalemate, where despite their unequal power neither could hope to exert long-term domination over the other. These constitutions were primarily designed to protect and then reinforce democratic change, by allowing those who already held power without democratic legitimacy to risk ceding it.  Yet they were also written in a way that could clearly envisage a wider transformation of the state based on accommodating competing interests in shared visions of reality.

Today, more substantive options for constitution-builders in Africa are available than was the case at the time of independence or during the left-right polarisation of the cold-war era. These options are propelling a new constitutionalism that is concerned with classic themes (governance, rule of law, human rights and stability) but as much with other issues that have more recently emerged onto the agenda (political inclusion, diversity, cultural safety, eradicating corruption, environmental regeneration, justice, livelihood, HIV/Aids and food security).   

This highlights the point that the process and outcome of constitution-building are not matters of form alone, but extend to the nature of the constitution in the eyes of its national ownership.  

A charter for progress

A potent contemporary aspect of the successful constitutional democracy now being consolidated in countries such as Ghana, Mauritius and South Africa is the desire for a measure of constitutionalism that will also re-energise society. Indeed, many citizens view their new constitution as a possible instrument in the improvement of economic livelihoods. Constitutions have addressed this aspiration in several ways: by recognising economic and social rights, by designing new institutions to enforce such rights, and by enabling powers of initiative at a local level under some form of democratic framework such as an elected chief or local government. The link between culture and economics is important; cultural organisation at a local level, for example, can also determine political behaviour and economic pursuits.  

Constitution-building has also been a process of identity-development, for example among citizens and members of particular associational groups moving from contest against to (ultimately) negotiation with the central authority. The way that often marginalised people living in (say) a Bedouin village or a San (Kalahari) settlement participate in constitution-building can be described as a sort of localisation of political energies in order to strengthen the inclusiveness and thus the stability of national politics.  

The new constitutions have tried to multiply the spaces for politics and allow for more actors as a means of making political pluralism work - and politics less dangerous. The success here lies in establishing the constitution as the only accepted roadmap to power. The promise is that regimes that come to power constitutionally will enjoy legitimacy, security and even regional support to drive their agenda. In this respect Madagascar's current crisis is in vivid contrast to its relatively peaceful regime-change effected through elections in 2001 and a court decision in 2002: a precedent that needs to be recalled.  

Constitution-building has also aimed at transforming the state, to make its different components more active and thus able to deal with modern social, economic and cultural problems. This makes the demands placed on the new constitutions - in addition to the requirements of democratic transition - even heavier and more numerous. The biggest tests are still to come; and the experience of seeing how the constitutions cope will teach further lessons about what kind of constitutions are needed in Africa.  

The consensual nature of the new African constitutions lowers the underlying risks of coups in the emerging political environment. Africa needs more constitution-builders and greater constitutional knowledge in order to realise the promise of its new instruments.  

An encouraging measure is the adoption in 2007 by the African Union (AU) of the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The charter, which tightens the African Union's own social contract on governance norms, has a significant punch. In the event that a government's opponents overthrow a regime and then acquire and hold power by unconstitutional means, the charter requires the body to suspend the relevant member-state (which, incidentally, cannot unilaterally withdraw). The charter is based on one of the fundamental principles of the Constitutive Act of the African Union (adopted in July 2000, and the basis for the formation of the present-day African Union): that is, the condemnation and rejection of "unconstitutional changes of government".  

The strictures of the Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance also relate to "any refusal by an incumbent government to relinquish power to the winning party or candidate after free, fair and regular elections"; and to "any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government". 

In the recent history of African Union intervention, constitutional has become associated in the political mind with electoral legitimacy - hence the strong and explicit emphasis on democratic elections in the charter. The supporters of the charter are emboldened that when coups happen the AU has rejected an attitude of non-interfering indifference. The body, for example, quickly moved to prevent Mauritanian coup-makers becoming comfortable with their actions; the same is true in Madagascar.   

Africa's constitutional future

What then is needed to make 2009 the year of the "last" successful coup in Africa? It is worth noting that the AU charter has arrived at a moment when new and ongoing processes of constitution-building are establishing goals and values that clearly define the danger posed by coups to proper governance norms. To emphasise the point, these are constitutions negotiated between competing groups in contexts of transition and with efforts at sustained national ownership and public support. They are transitional charters that aiming to protect the democratic transition and signpost the transformation of the state in a broader context. They are constitutions whose raison d'être is to lower the risks of politics while creating background conditions for safely assuming, holding and leaving power.  

By addressing constitutions and the practice that they foster in power-transfer, the AU has recognised that the soundness of constitutions is rooted in their ability to shape power-dynamics, the form of the state, and the quality of democracy. When power is allowed arbitrarily to determine what the constitution is, this soundness is lost.  

The move from sovereignty as an alibi for inaction to constitutional legitimacy as a basis for action is a watershed. But it is one that will fully materialise only when African Union member-states themselves respect their own constitutions - including over the transfer and holding of power. The political admirers of those who were in the past successful revolutionaries and who still cling to power must also hear this message. 

The problems with coup-making, referred to in the first paragraph above, are clear: violation of legitimacy, destruction of society, increased corruption, exposure of civilians to horrible suffering. Even non-violent coups invariably spur political instability and can (as in Thailand after its 2006 coup) lead to greater polarisation and violence. The assets of constitution-making are equally evident: the chance of sustainable and inclusive governance based on shared values, including mechanisms for peaceful and smooth transitions of power. The rewards of a constitution with practical legitimacy include a built-in deterrent to coup-making.

The success of the work of strengthening constitutional institutions and processes can be assured only by committed constitution-builders backed by the active support of the people. This is an area where international attention, provided it does not aim to override national ownership of the constitution process, could be really useful.  


Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (16 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, "The gender of democracy matters" (7 April 2009)

Vessela Tcherneva, "Moldova: time to choose" (9 April 2009)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The partnership principle: Europe, democracy, and the east" (22 April 2009)


South Africa’s election: a tainted victory

The triumph of the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa's fourth democratic general election on 22 April 2009 is assured. Yet this will be the ruling party's most shoddy and problematic victory.

Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand. Among his many books is (as co-editor) State of the Nation: South Africa 2007 (HSRC Press, 2007). He is editor of the Journal of Contemporary African Studies and contributes to the Review of African Political Economy

Also by Roger Southall in openDemocracy:

"South African lessons for Kenya" (8 January 2008)

"South Africa and Zimbabwe: the end of ‘quiet diplomacy'?" (29 April 2008)

"The politics of pressure: the world and Zimbabwe" (28 June 2008)

"Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (13 October 2008)

"Zimbabwe: the death of ‘quiet diplomacy'" (20 October 2008)

The ingredients of success seem to be falling into place. The acting chief prosecutor's decision on 6 April not to continue pressing corruption and tax-evasion charges against the ANC leader Jacob Zuma - which opens the way for him to succeed Kgalema Motlanthe as the country's president - is a timely boost for the party; even if Helen Zille of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) promises to appeal to the high court against the ruling.

The ANC is intent on presenting a confident face to the voters; it announces as its goal a two-thirds majority in the national assembly. But this is bravado: in private, it worries that its showing will be considerably worse - perhaps even below 60%. This may sound impressive, though it would be a considerable decline from the near-70% of the vote in the last (April 2004) election; even more worryingly for the party, worse than its 63% in the "liberation" election of 1994.

This could be the signal that, after some fifteen years in power, the ANC is on a downward slope and could face the real possibility of defeat at the next election in 2014. At least, this is the agenda that the two highest profile opposition parties - the established Democratic Alliance (DA) and the new Congress of the People (COPE) - are working to.

The inexorable shifting of South Africa's electoral terrain in a way that renders appeals by the ANC to the electorate more problematic helps explain why a party on the brink of electoral victory can also appear to be in decline. Three aspects of this process stand out.

A new landscape 

The first is demographic. South African voters are getting younger, the result both of a high birthrate and (owing to the impact of HIV-Aids) of declining average lifespans. The ANC may claim the loyalties of first-time (18-year-old and above) voters, but the political leanings of the "cellphone" generation - which has little direct memory of apartheid - are likely to be more diffuse and less rooted than those of its parents.

The second is policy-related. The ANC's economic record since 1994 has been respectable, but a fundamental reality remains unchanged: South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. The government's own fifteen-year review acknowledged that in 2005, half the population - 22 million out of 44 million - lived in abject poverty.

The government has done much to address the needs of the poor via a massive extension of social assistance, and a reasonable record in the supply of new housing, electricity connections, and water. But these measures do not automatically translate into votes. They also foster dependencies and disappointed expectations, as well as a widespread sense of relative deprivation. There is also growing resentment against perceived corruption and cronyism, especially at local level.

The third aspect that limits the appeal of the ANC is social. South Africa's social cohesion is being undermined by at least four factors: massive rural-to- urban migration; inward and largely uncontrolled foreign in-migration (notably from Zimbabwe); a perennially high level of unemployment (around 25%, currently compounded by job losses caused by the global recession); and the growing casualisation of work. A Markinor poll published in February 2009 indicated that for the first time more South Africans felt the country was going in the wrong (42%) than in the right (38%) direction.

A party corroded

The ANC might with some justification claim that these are precisely sort of problems that any government is likely to face after fifteen years in power. Yet so many of the troubles it faces are its own invention.

The most notorious is the period of internal turmoil which culminated with the replacement of Thabo Mbeki as party leader by Jacob Zuma at the ANC's national conference in Polokwane in December 2007; this in turn was followed by Mbeki's "recall" from South Africa's presidency in September 2008, and replacement by the interim figure of Kgalema Motlanthe. The official version is that there has been an internal healing of rifts, but in truth many scars remain and the wounds could easily be reopened.

It's true that Jacob Zuma has emerged as his own man during the course of the campaign - rather than as the creature of the coalition of trade unions, Communist Party and ANC Youth League which propelled him to the leadership at Polokwane. But his appeal is divisive, and his ascendancy to the presidency will be of someone tainted by suspicion who - but for the ANC's politicisation of supposedly neutral state institutions - might otherwise be in jail.

At a deeper level, the reason why the ANC's forthcoming victory will be so qualified is the widespread sense that the party has lost its sense of decency. It arrived in power in 1994 as the champion of human rights; the government it formed was invested with the hopes of most South Africans for a fairer, more equal, more caring society. There is little of such idealism today: instead of the iconic Nelson Mandela, the ANC is led by a man whom the majority (even of black Africans, who form the main body of the ANC's support), believe is guilty of corruption.

Indeed, there has been a series of scandals. Many have revolved around the ANC's misuse of state power to fund its party budget, others have exposed dodgy deals with shady businessmen. The saddest aspect is that the expectation and even acceptance of corruption at all national, provincial and local levels have become the norm.

The ANC's money-obsession means that it is awash with money from unstated sources - much of it appearing to come from fellow ruling parties in countries such as China, Equatorial Guinea, Libya and Angola. But there is a cost: the party machinery, even at a time of electoral mobilisation, is creaking. Kgalema Motlanthe, when he was still secretary-general of the ANC in 2007, admitted that the rot was "across the board": every project was considered in terms of its opportunities for people to make money.

The saga of Carl Niehaus - whom the leadership employed as ANC spokesman for the electoral campaign, despite privately knowing of his background of extensive fraud, then dismissed when the media revealed his deceit and indebtedness - is symptomatic of the party's disarray. Few South Africans believe that a party headed by Jacob Zuma will prove able to recover its compass. The refusal of a visa to the Dalai Lama to attend a peace conference in South Africa, in order that comradely relations be maintained with China (admittedly to the anguish of significant elements within the party), confirms that mammon has trumped morality.

An empty victory

The ANC's predicament could well have been worse if the Congress of the People (COPE) - launched in late 2008 by ANC dissidents (especially those opposed to Jacob Zuma and inclined to Thabo Mbeki) - had managed to get its act together. It now looks as if COPE will no longer present a strong challenge to the ANC. Its own early life has been marked by a series of setbacks - limited funding, lack of patronage, failure to secure backing from enough high-profile ANC figures, all reinforced by internal division and incompetence of its own.

COPE had initially hoped to win as many as 20% of the vote; now 5% is more likely - though most of this should come from the ANC rather than from other parties of opposition. COPE and the Democratic Alliance could also benefit from a squeezing of the smaller opposition parties as voters determined to make their votes count turn to them. For its part, the DA may find it difficult to move much above its respectable 12.37% share of the vote, but could emerge as the largest party in the Western Cape (weathering a challenge from  COPE in the process) and be able to lead a governing coalition in the province after ejecting the ANC from power.

The current election is the most fluid and unpredictable in South Africa since 1994. Jacob Zuma's ANC will win, and could yet win big. But even if it manages again to defeat the opposition threat with apparent ease, the perception of its inviolability has been broken. The signs are there that the ANC's dominance of the electoral arena is crumbling. Some believe, and even more hope, that that could be good for South African democracy.


Also in openDemocracy on South African politics and society:

Gillian Slovo, "Making history: South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission" (5 December 2002)

John Matshikiza, "Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city" (13 December 2002)

Paul Kingsnorth, "Apartheid: the sequel" (20 May 2003)

Nahla Valji, "South Africa: no justice without reparation" (2 July 2003)

Achille Mbembe, "South Africa's second coming: the Nongqawuse syndrome" (15 June 2006)

Achille Mbembe, "Whiteness without apartheid: the limits of racial freedom" (4 July 2007)

Faten Aggad & Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, "South Africa's tipping-point" (2 June 2008)

Tom Lodge, "Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

Elleke Boehmer, "Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year" (12 November 2008)

Ethiopia's famine: deny and delay

In 2008 famine struck Ethiopia. Now, at the start of 2009 it is looming again. According to the “Humanitarian Requirements” released on 30 January 2009 by the government in Addis Ababa and their “Humanitarian Partners”, 13 million Ethiopians - one-sixth of the population - are in need of aid. For over 10 million of them the need is urgent. But food allocations have already been “tentatively cancelled” or reduced. Relief is inadequate, as it has continued to be since the food crisis began in early 2008.

Madagascar: roots of turmoil

The overthrow of Madagascar's elected president Marc Ravalomanana on 17 March 2009 is the latest setback in long-term efforts to establish political stability in the Indian Ocean island. These date from as long ago as 1972, when demonstrations by young people in the capital Antananarivo and other cities brought down the government of Philibert Tsiranana, the country's first president after independence from French colonial rule in 1960. One of his successors, Richard Ratsimandrava, was assassinated in 1975 after only six days in office.Stephen Ellis is Desmond Tutu professor in the social sciences at the Free University Amsterdam, and a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre,  University of Leiden

He is the co-author (with Solofo Randrianja) of Madagascar: A Short History (C Hurst & C. 2009),

and (with Gerrie ter haar) of Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (C Hurst & Co, 2004)

Also by Stephen Ellis in openDemocracy:

"Darfur: countdown to catastrophe" (9 June 2004)

Madagascar's instability derives in large part from the combination of extreme poverty (the fate of some 70% of its people) and the fact that the island has one of the world's highest birthrates (the population has increased from less than 3 million around 1900 to 6 million in 1960, to 20 million today). The arrival of large numbers of young people every year looking to join the job market has created a volatile atmosphere in Antananarivo.

Indeed, control of the urban mob has long been a significant factor in national politics, and was instrumental in the process that led to Marc Ravalomanana's ousting and replacement by the former mayor of Antananarivo, Andry Rajoelina. Behind this social phenomenon lies a factor rarely spoken of in public: that many of Antananarivo's urban poor are the descendants of slaves. The institution of slavery was formally abolished under French colonial rule, but the stigma of slavery continues to be a factor in social and political life. Andry Rajoelina himself, however, comes from an upper-class family in Madagascar's quasi-caste society.

The 17 March coup - which followed weeks of violence in which more than a hundred people were killed - has reverberations far beyond Madagascar. It is a blow to the African Union (AU), which has been arguing that unconstitutional changes of government as blatant as this are not acceptable. Madagascar is the fourth African country in less than a year - following coups in Mauritania and Guinea, and the murder of an incumbent president in Guinea-Bissau - to experience a military takeover or something close to it. The political fixes that have occurred in Kenya and Zimbabwe since the start of 2008 are hardly more respectable.

The AU has now refused to recognise Andry Rajoelina, who was inaugurated on 21 March, as Madagascar's new president. So too have the United States government and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional grouping to which Madagascar belongs. This international rejection will make it difficult for Rajoelina to ensconce himself in power. Such lack of legitimacy also raises fears of even more widespread and destructive violence.

The pressures of change

A number of factors, both immediate and longer-term, lay behind the removal of Marc Ravalomanana. His main opponent Andry Rajoelina was as mayor of Antananarivo able to rally the support of many young people in the city. This is the latest example of crises in which demonstrations and violence in the streets of the capital have played a key role: comparable events occurred in 1972, in the mid-1980s, and the early 1990s.

Indeed, this series of dramas includes the moment of Marc Ravalomanana's own rise in 2001-02, when he used his position as mayor of Antananarivo as a base to contest the presidency again the incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka. The presidential elections in 2001 were rigged against Ravalomanana, but with the clear support of most of the island's population at the time he eventually prevailed. This raised hopes that Madagascar had turned a corner in its search for stability and constitutional rule.Among openDemocracy's many articles on African politics and conflicts:

Lyndall Stein, "Ethiopia: the tears and the rains" (23 July 2008)

Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)

Lara Pawson, "Angola's elections: the politics of no change" (23 September 2008)

Roger Southall, "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy" (30 September 2008)

Gérard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict" (17 November 2008)

John Makumbe, "Zimbabwe: wrong way, right way" (2 February 2009)

Gérard Prunier, "Somalia: beyond the quagmire" (25 February 2009)

Ravalomanana was elected to a second term in 2006. But even as president he continued to pursue his interests as one of the country's leading businessmen, and there is no doubt that this contributed greatly to his downfall. For example, he appointed former managers of his companies to government positions; and rival businesspeople found themselves being frozen out of lucrative markets. It was sometimes difficult to know whether policies were implemented because they were good for Madagascar or just for one or other of the president's businesses.

Ravalomanana treated the country's existing political class with something close to contempt, and made it clear that he regarded the armed forces as an unnecessary expense in an island that faces no serious threat of foreign invasion. He also made a grave error in negotiating with a South Korean company that wanted to lease an enormous agro-business concession to grow food for export. This raised fears over land tenure in a country where people are intensely attached to their ancestral land. The deal was abandoned on 19 March, too late to save its architect.

These excesses alienated many Malagasy, including the provincial political bosses who had emerged in the 1980s and 1990s only to be sidelined during Ravalomanana's nearly seven years in power. There are important regional and ethnic dimensions in this process. Although all Malagasy speak the same language, there are distinctive regional identities. A stock-in-trade of political bosses is ethnic mobilisation, sometimes associated with calls for a federal constitution. Ravalomanana had attempted to trump this ethnic appeal by recourse to a centralised government and a business-friendly economic policy. It now appears that in doing so he underestimated the power of the established political class that he rejected; and that Andry Rajoelina, in addition to his urban power-base, was able to enlist the support of many of its members.

In the context of Madagascar's history of political crises, the present tumult is one of the few occasions when the people of the central highlands (about a third of the total population) have not been pitted against those from the coastal areas (côtiers). But if the power-struggle continues, as now seems very likely, this ethnic factor could reappear once more. What is happening in rural areas and provincial towns could play an important role in the outcome.

The hand of power

Marc Ravalomanana's supporters are adamant that France, the former colonial power, played a significant part in the coup of 17 March. There had, after all, been a series of disputes that led to the removal of the French ambassador in July 2008.  Indeed, some circumstantial evidence exists that the accusation is credible. Andry Rajoelina was given asylum at the French embassy in early March, when his campaign was running out of steam. The army mutiny in his favour that immediately followed - and projected him into power - was led by lower-rank soldiers who had received substantial payments from an unknown source. However, France has condemned the coup. French policy-makers appear to have been somewhat surprised by the strength of international condemnation of the political change in Madagascar.

Andry Rajoelina, now sworn in as Madagascar's president and promising elections within two years, will have difficulty in stabilising the situation. His true support-base is narrow, and he is beholden to an unstable military and to a number of political barons more experienced than he, with provincial power-bases of their own. Marc Ravalomanana's present whereabouts are unknown, but he continues to have significant support, not least from the churches, which are an important institution in Madagascar. The troubled island's crisis is not over. 

Somalia: beyond the quagmire

The election of the moderate Islamist leader Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed as the new president of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) creates a window of opportunity for the shattered east African country. But what happened in Djibouti on 31 January 2009 must be followed by constructive and creative political action if it is to yield its potential benefits.

The chances of this now hang in the balance, as Sheikh Sharif's return to Mogadishu on 23 February was followed by an eruption of violence involving government forces, African Union peacekeepers and  militia groups. In this difficult political moment, who are the key players now confronting each other in Somalia, and what outcomes might - and should - emerge?

The Transitional Federal Government

The TFG has since 2004 had been the incarnation of some kind of international legitimacy for what is left of Somalia's central polity, could very well be the major casualty of the ongoing process. Since the power-sharing arrangement established in October 2008 - brokered between the "old" TFG and the moderate wing of the Islamist Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS-S), led by Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed - the recycled TFG had been in a state of deep crisis.

The Ethiopian government did its best to support what had been its main ally and champion in Somalia since 2004-05, but it was ultimately defeated by the inordinate obstinacy of the TFG president, Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed. Abdullahi did not want the new alliance with ARS-S; he did not want any arrangement with the Hawiye traditional elders who wielded so much influence in Mogadishu; and in the end he did not even want his own prime minister, Nur Hassan Hussein "Ade".Gérard Prunier is research professor at the University of Paris. He is the author of The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (C Hurst, 1998), Darfur: The Ambiguous Genocide (C Hurst, revised edition, 2007), and From Genocide to Continental War: The ‘Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2006)

What did Yusuf want? At heart, his own Majerteen yes-men and nothing else - not quite the broadening agenda everybody (including Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi and the international community) wanted him to embrace. Addis Ababa gave up and left him to his own devices. Yusuf, completely isolated, finally resigned on 29 December 2008; he eventually left Somalia on 18 January 2009 to take up residence in Yemen.

This left prime minister Nur "Ade" holding the fort of an increasingly crumbling phantom administration. The withdrawal of the Ethiopian army in December 2008-January 2009 meant that the TFG's area of control in and around Mogadishu shrank, and did its influence in central Somalia. Most of its army deserted - the United Nations said 10,000 out of 15,000 (though it was more 1,500 out of 4,000 if the real troop numbers rather than the salary rolls are examined); and large swathes of the country soon fell into the hands of what the media had come to call the al-Shabab (youth, with the connotation of militant) - for want of a better word.

The ensuing election for the presidency saw sixteen candidates standing - including prime minister Nur Hassan Hussein, ARS-S Sheikh Sharif, former prime minister Ali Mohamed Gedi, one of Siad Barre's sons, and several warlords (Mohamed Qanyare Afrah and Mohamed Said Hersi "Morgan" among them). Sheikh Sharif finally emerged as president-elect.

But this result also represents a huge problem in terms of Somali clan politics - for Sheikh Sharif is a Hawiye from the Abgal sub-clan, which leaves the Darood clan family (one so vast that around 65%-70% of Somalis belong to it) outside power. The al-Shabab tend to recruit well among Darood, saying - rightly- that both the TFG and the moderate Islamist camp are Hawiye preserves. It is not possible to run the country on the basis of TFG alone, and Sheikh Sharif now has to build a broader alliance. On what basis and with whom, nobody yet knows. If no governing alliance emerges, the TFG might very well simply wither away, in fact if not in name.Also by Gérard Prunier in openDemocracy:

"Darfur's Sudan problem" (15 September 2006)

"The DR Congo's political opportunity" (14 March 2007)

"Chad, the CAR and Darfur: dynamics of conflict" (18 April 2007)

"Chad's tragedy" (7 September 2007)

"Sudan between war and peace" (1 November 2007)"Khartoum's calculated fever" (5 December 2007)

"Kenya: roots of crisis" (7 January 2008)

"Chad: between Sudan's blitzkrieg and Darfur's war" (19 February 2008)

"Kenya: histories of hidden war" (29 February 2008)

"Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)

"Sudan's Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal" (15 October 2008)

"The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict" (17 November 2008)

"'The Kenya we want'" (3 February 2009)

The Islamist constellation

One of the many problems of today's Somalia is that almost everybody is an "Islamist" of some kind. There are for example:

  • The so-called al-Shabab, the direct descendants of the radical branch of the Islamic Courts Union that was forcibly removed by the Ethiopian occupation of December 2006. Their leader, Aden Hashi "Ayro", was killed in a United States air-strike in May 2008. Al-Shabab (youth) is an elastic word - during the war against the TFG army and its Ethiopian allies, everybody became an al-Shabab member. Some al-Shabab were in fact clan-based militias operating under the Islamist banner; others were debris of a number of former warlord militias yet more were linked to the radical branch of the ARS holed up in Asmara under the leadership of Hassan Dawer Aweys (ARS-A); and remnants were ARS-S

  • As the al-Shabab rolled on, they conquered ground and often had to let it go almost immediately because they did not have enough men to garrison the towns they had just occupied. They left behind nominal "al-Shabab" militias that in fact did not obey them. From a clan-basedpoint of view the al-Shabab hard core was Hawiye. But as it grew it quickly differentiated itself according to clan - with for example Mukhtar Robow ("Abu Mansur", who is a Rahanweyn of the Lissan sub-clan) recruiting his own men from his own clan, calling them the "Mujahiddin Youth Movement" (MYM). The Harti of Ras Kamboni created their own movement called Anole

  • The ARS-S of Sheikh Sharif tries to use the al-Shabab without being itself swallowed by them. It has built an alliance with other moderate Islamist groups under the revived name of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC)

  • Hassan Dawer Aweys and his ARS-A are opposed to the new president and sponsor some elements of the al-Shabab. He runs them inasmuch as his Eritrean friends give him enough money and weapons to keep them in line; but the control is far from tight.

  • The old Ahl as-Sunna wa'l Jama'a ("the people of the law and the community") - the middle-of-the-road Islamist movement created in 1992 by the late Mohamed Farah Aydid when he was fighting the Americans - still exists. It is deeply opposed to the al-Shabab, and is now being armed by the departed Ethiopians who see it as a counterfoil to the radicals. Ahl as-Sunna is a potential ally for Sheikh Sharif

  • There are also all the freelancing Islamists who at times call themselves al-Shabab or at times invent fancy names for themselves. Their allegiances are vague and tend to be of a more clan-based nature.

The various components of the Islamist movement have taken to fighting each other as they come to occupy more ground. In late January 2009, clashes multiplied around Dusa Mareeb between the al-Shabab hard core and Ahl as-Sunna wa'l Jama'a. Each denounced the other as kufar (infidels) and each has proclaimed jihad (holy war) against the enemy. When the "al-Shabab" occupied the TFG capital of Baidoa on 27 January, it was in fact a group of MYM under Mukhtar Robow who walked in unopposed because their fellow Rahanweyn welcomed them. They discreetly omitted calling in their comrades from other clans.

The fighting has extended to Mogadishu, where at least twenty-one people were killed and dozens wounded on 24 February 2009 in clashes which involved al-Shabab and a new self-declared militant formation, the Party of Islam.

Yet all this is far from adding up to the picture of a "talibanised" Somalia. It should not be forgotten that the Taliban are Pashtun, members of Afghanistan's majority ethnic group. The al-Shabab are a minority because in Somalia everybody is a minority nationally; majorities - like the Issaq in Somaliland or the Majerteen in Puntland - exist only locally. This does not mean that some kind of a radical Islamist government cannot emerge. But it means that such a government, if it sticks to a radical agenda which was not that of the more mixed and moderate UIC of 2006, will never control the whole country. A more moderate Islamic movement perhaps could, on the basis of an inter-clan alliance.

The international component

The direct international involvement in Somalia is for the time being limited to the 1,600 troops of the Ugandan army and the 1,700 troops of the Burundian army. Both operate under an African Union (AU) mandate within a force called the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom). President Yoweri Museveni has promised an added 700 men "soon". But he has also requested the African Union to pay him $14m for the "depreciation" suffered by his military equipment in Somalia.

Amisom troops have a very low level of military efficiency, and cannot do much either to protect the civilians or to bolster any kind of a political solution. At times, they seem to have a hard time protecting themselves.

In December 2008, when it became obvious that the Ethiopian army was going to withdraw, the Americans made a belated effort to convince the United Nations to put together some kind of a military mission for Somalia. Ban Ki-moon asked but everybody refused - even the Turks who had initially seemed interested. The general verdict was "too risky".

The Amisom troops are now isolated, scared, and increasingly drawn in to violent confrontations. On 2 February, after an improvised explosive device was detonated against one of their convoys, they lost all control and opened fire on the crowd: thirty-nine civilians were killed and twice that number wounded. The fact that the UN representative, Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, tried to deny the massacre did not help.

The al-Shabab and their sympathisers - which had in any case welcomed the new president's election by declaring war on him - lost no time in accusing Sheikh Sharif of having betrayed his people and allied himself with troops who were behaving no better than the former Ethiopian army. The word jihad came up and Sheikh Sharif now has to face a new and broader alliance of fundamentalists, spurred on by Amisom's murderous blunder. The killing of eleven Burundian soldiers from Amisom in Mogadishu on 22 February 2009 is an index of the scale of his task.

Among openDemocracy's other articles about Somalia:

Peter Hurst, "Somaliland's democratic lesson" (4 October 2005)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia's new Islamic leadership" (12 June 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia slides into war" (3 November 2006)

Jawahir Adam, "Somaliland: a window to the future" (21 November 2006)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: the way forward" (13 February 2007)

Harun Hassan, "Somalia: Mogadishu's ghost days" (5 April 2007)

Edward Denison, "The Horn of Africa: a bitter anniversary" (12 April 2007)

Tom Porteous, "Somalia: a failing counter-terrorism strategy" (13 May 2007)

Anna Husarska, "Water problems in Somalia: a photo-essay" (9 October 2007)

Georg-Sebastian Holzer, "Somalia: piracy and politics" (24 November 2008)

Georg-Sebastian Holzer, "Somalia: ends and beginnings" (18 December 2008)

The humanitarian debacle

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on 24 February 2009 of a humanitarian crisis in the central region of Galgadud. The situation there is a stark example of a general trend. Today in Somalia, 3.25m people need humanitarian assistance. 170,000 people have fled Mogadishu since the beginning of the insurgency in 2007 and there are now over 300,000 internally-displaced persons (IDPs) living in makeshift camps strung along the road between the capital and Afgooye. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya -  opened in 1991 in the chaos that accompanied the fall of Siad Barre (who had ruled the country since 1969) - now hosts 230,000 refugees, 60,000 of whom have arrived since January 2008. The levels of malnutrition are shocking and diseases are rampant.

The World Food Programme and its NGO allies can barely manage, for a number of reasons: transport is horrendously difficult and dangerous. radical Islamists target humanitarian workers who are regularly killed or taken hostage, money is very tight for what looks like a lost cause (see Jeffrey Gettleman, "The Most Dangerous Place in the World", Foreign Policy, March-April 2009).

The "other" Somalia: Puntland 

Puntland has fared surprisingly well in the midst of all this turmoil. On 8 January the Puntland parliament elected a new president of the quasi-state, a 63-year-old banker called Abdirahman Mohamed "Faroole". He is the first non-military president of Puntland since the quasi-state was created and quite a pragmatist. He is also Ise Mahmood by sub-clan (in Puntland 96% of the population is Majerteeen; so what  matters is the sub-clan) - a welcome change from the previous Osman Mahmood hegemony over the administration.

In contrast to Somaliland, Puntland has never formally proclaimed its independence, though "Faroole" has refused to take part in the Djibouti TFG electoral process, claiming - quite rightly - that this is both confused and tending towards a Hawiye closed-shop system. He says he would be ready to discuss a streamlined national administration provided the process would be more open, which for Puntland means a bigger Majerteen input.

In domestic terms he has promised to fight the massive inflation of the local Somali shilling and to act decisively against the notorious pirates who sail out of the Puntland port of Eyl. If this promise is kept it could win him the sympathy of the international community; though some observers accuse him actually of being linked with pirate interests. In any case this is a delicate balancing-act since the pirates now have a lot of money and weapons, and are in a position to defy the authority of the quasi-state (see Roger Middleton, Piracy in Somalia: Threatening Global Trade, Feeding Local Wars [Chatham House, October 2008]).

The new president and his cabinet (whose members took the oath of office in Djibouti on 22 February) might also want to curb the smuggling of refugees into Yemen, a highly dangerous traffic which has killed 949 people out of about 50,000 transportees during 2008. Smugglers often get rid of their human cargo near the Yemeni coast by tossing their passengers into the shark-infested waters in order to avoid being caught by Yemeni coastguards.

The "other" Somalia: Somaliland

Somaliland is now more hopeful than ever of gaining international recognition, as it counts a number of supporters in the Barack Obama administration. But this outcome is still quite far from being sure. In seeking to confirm its hallowed democratic credentials Somaliland is now preparing for a global election (presidential + legislative) where the ruling party Udub is likely to win - but only by the narrowest margin, as in 2004 where President Daher Riyale Kahin won by 0.01% of the vote.

Kulmiye, the main opposition party, is likely to be a strong contender with the other opposition party Ucid coming third. The paradox is that the opposition cannot agree on a unity candidate because the two opposition parties together would be likely to poll more votes than the ruling Udub but will lose due to their division.

The quasi-state is under threat from Islamist destabilisation efforts. The fact that Somaliland is quite solid means that all the terrorist groups which have been operating come from either the south or even farther afield. In January 2009 the police arrested a group of several Somalo-Americans from Minnesota who were in possession of ten shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles apparently supplied by Eritrea to the southern Somalia Islamist groups. Terrorist attacks cannot be ruled out during the election period, given the fact that many of the southern groups are strong supporters of the "greater Somalia" ideal and therefore hate "breakaway" Somaliland, whom Islamist leader Hassan Dawer Aweys always calls in his official documents (in an echo of al-Qaida propaganda)  "the state supported by the Jews and the Americans".

Somaliland is still engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Puntland over control of the Sool and Sanaag regions where Puntland-based oil companies have been operating (although no oil has been found, it is quite likely that there is some). The registration of voters for the Somaliland elections in the two provinces has also proved to be a highly contentious exercise; this led the election commission on 23 February 2009 to postpone the vote scheduled for 29 March to an as-yet unspecified date.  

The way ahead 

In many ways Somalia seems to be going back to square one, i.e. to the situation that existed before the disastrous CIA-sponsored coup of early 2006 followed by the Islamist takeover, and then in December of that year the Ethiopian military occupation. Clan-based militias are again springing up everywhere, camouflaged under a thin veneer of the now fashionable Islamic fundamentalism. The suicide-bombing in Mogadishu on 24 February that killed fifteen civilians is in this respect an awful warning of what may develop in the absence of political progress.

The main problem of the surviving TFG is not going to be controlling the al-Shabab whose radicalism - though destructive - is largely self-defeating. It is much more going to be the age-old problem of herding together fissiparous clanic militias elements intent on the local control of the limited cash-making opportunities: the harbours, the airports, the qat traffic, the refugee traffic, piracy and the looting of humanitarian aid.

The TFG does not have a tax base and cannot acquire one without achieving the physical control of at least some of these cash sources. But the international community is unlikely to be both willing and able to provide it, along with the necessary means to achieve this primary state objective; the aid it offers will remain largely humanitarian.

In addition a short-sighted view of security will push the international community to insist on a continued or increased Amisom presence. This would be a mistake. Amisom does not have - and will not acquire - the military capacity to make a strategic difference. But it acts as an irritant and its support for Sheikh Sharif and the TFG is a deadly embrace: while incapable of really bolstering the government militarily, it kills civilians in its clumsy "counter-insurgency" attempts, thereby providing "nationalist" arguments to the Islamist radicals who accuse the new president of betrayal.

It is urgent to withdraw the Amisom troops from Somalia before their counterproductive efforts destroy the very thing they are supposed to foster: the birth of a transitional national-unity government working towards a realistic peace that can endure. The people of Somalia - resilient, creative, intelligent, resourceful, long-suffering - deserve no less.

Snatching war from the jaws of peace

Africa's longest-running war has entered a new phase. Northern Uganda's notorious rebels, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), have re-emerged as a deadly force, both for local communities and for regional peace.Zoe Flood is a freelance writer, focusing on sub-Saharan Africa. She produced the film "The Shadows of Peace: Life After the LRA". She previously worked for the International Crisis Group and the UN's Nairobi-based humanitarian news agency, IRIN News.

The massive recent upsurge in LRA violence followed an ill-conceived military offensive by Uganda and its neighbours on rebel bases in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Frustrated by the stuttering peace process, the hasty mid-December attack scattered rebels across the region. Some five hundred Congolese villagers were reportedly massacred as they fled, including scores seeking refuge in a church.

After two years of cautious progress, these developments mark the bloody collapse of the peace process most likely to end the LRA's 22-year insurgency. A succession of ceasefires that kept the rebels in their jungle hideouts had produced unexpected benefits for northern Uganda, but these advances could quickly unravel. Grave regional repercussions are also likely: Uganda's rebels have the potential to destabilise the fragile peace in Sudan, and to contribute to worsening insecurity in Congo and the Central African Republic.

The major powers backed the coordinated military initiative through the UN Security Council. To avoid further bloodshed and regional insecurity, they should retract their support and call for an immediate return to the negotiating table.

A return to violence

The Ugandan army, with forces from DRC and South Sudan, launched a joint aerial and ground operation against the LRA after the rebel leader Joseph Kony failed for a third time to sign a final peace agreement. Unknown numbers of rebels (suspected to be between five hundred and one thousand) fled. With them went up to two thousand civilians - abductees in support roles, some of whom were probably killed in the indiscriminate airstrikes.Also on openDemocracy about Uganda and the LRA:

"Ugandan peace: a second chance", Peter J Quaranto, 12 April 2007

"Uganda: peace vs justice?", Tristan McConnell, 13 September 2006

"Proxy war under way between DRC and Rwanda", Hannah Cooper, 15 December 2008, (Security briefing)

Dispersed to both the north and south, LRA militias brutally raided remote villages. The UN says that as many as five hundred people were killed in late December attacks on three communities in northeastern DRC. Suspected rebels struck elsewhere, including reportedly killing ten at DRC's Garamba National Park headquarters and up to forty in south Sudan. The LRA is well known for its ruthlessness, but the scale of these atrocities is unprecedented.

"The LRA are still on the move," says Ivo Brandau, a UN spokesman in the Congo, "The population is extremely vulnerable."

As early as June, regional military chiefs had threatened action to force Kony - who had already stalled once - to sign a final deal, but the December attacks occurred with little "last chance" warning. Indeed, just days before the offensive, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni had agreed to Kony's request for direct talks.

Why peace failed

Kony's repeated demands for fresh talks were particularly informed by his concerns over International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants, issued against him and other LRA leaders. While these requests may have handily served as a delaying mechanism, the negotiations in Juba, south Sudan, had failed to reassure Kony of his own security under a final deal.

Museveni had promised to ask for the deferral of the ICC indictments following Kony's signature, but the Court's Chief Prosecutor continued to stand firm in his call for arrests in what is seen as another important test case for international justice. The accountability and reconciliation protocol agreed in Juba proposed national-level alternatives to the ICC, including traditional justice mechanisms, but these were not outlined in enough detail to allay Kony's fears.

The Juba talks also failed to tackle the concerns of the large proportion of south Sudanese combatants in the LRA, present since abductions in the 1990s. Some reports suggest that south Sudanese fighters constitute a psuedo-autonomous faction in the LRA, a dimension that the talks did not take into account.

Kony may have never intended to sign a final agreement, as some observers claim, but for their part the Juba talks clearly failed to provide the rebels with appropriate incentives to put down their weapons.

Gains eroded

Regardless of Kony's commitment to the final deal, and despite the LRA's occasional, but serious, ceasefire violations over the past year, the peace process itself had yielded tangible gains. These have been swiftly unravelling since December's rash military offensive.

The talks had brought unexpected calm and rejuvenated economic activity in northern Uganda, where the conflict had killed tens of thousands and displaced some two million over the last two decades. Half of those displaced had returned to their villages, or to transit sites, since negotiations began in July 2006.

But with the LRA on the move and the tactic of targeting civilians emphatically revived, many civilians are once more seeking refuge in squalid displacement camps. Populations in south Sudan and the Central African Republic, as well as in the DRC, are also at risk from the highly mobile and scattered rebels. And the LRA's hardened brand of guerrilla warfare is notable for the disproportionate damage it inflicts, relative to the group's small number of fighters.

A regional threat

As a roving and splintered militant group, the LRA poses additional internal security threats to Uganda's neighbours.

Sudan's north-south peace is already extremely fragile, and may become even shakier this month with the expected ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of genocide and war crimes. The availability of the LRA as a potentially disruptive force in southern Sudan is attractive to the group's former backers in Khartoum, particularly as July's national elections approach.

DRC and the Central African Republic face their own major internal security challenges. Plagued by violence and a slew of rebel groups in the east, the Congolese government has little control over the far reaches of its territory. Army-rebel confrontations have continued despite the peace process in the Central African Republic, and the state's borderlands have long been lawless. Steps toward peace and calm in either country would be greatly complicated by LRA activity.

Louise Khabure, Uganda analyst at the think-tank International Crisis Group, emphasises the gravity of the regional threat. "The LRA can be used as a proxy for any disgruntled group," Khabure says. "The region is facing a complex security challenge with dire implications."

Violence largely died down during the Juba talks, but in recent weeks the LRA has reverted to its feared and brutal tactics. The multi-national military offensive has so far failed to capture Kony or eliminate the rebel threat, and instead is providing the spark for a new era of atrocities.

The UN Security Council, while condemning the LRA for its recent atrocities, must withdraw its support for the offensive and instead urge all parties to recommit to a ceasefire and renewed talks. Fresh negotiations should be greatly improved, involving Uganda's neighbours and addressing all the concerns - such as the fate of the LRA leadership - that previous rounds did not tackle. Failing this, the gains of two painstaking years of negotiations will vanish. Despite its flaws, the best opportunity in many years for peace with Uganda's rebels will be lost.

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