This week's editor

Mary Fitzgerald

Mary Fitzgerald is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

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.

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 you...by 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.

Somalia: ends and beginnings

Much of the flurry of international media reporting on Somalia remains fixated on piracy-related stories. A previous article in openDemocracy argued that the root of the piracy problem lay in the collapse of Somali institutions as a result of war and ill-judged foreign intervention, and thus belonged to the land rather than the ocean (see "Somalia: piracy and politics", 24 November 2008).

Somalia: piracy and politics

Ever bolder pirate attacks have - out of nowhere, it has seemed - put Somalia on the frontpages and screens of international media. This world attention has a bitter aftertaste, for it comes after a long period of neglect by this selfsame media of persistent internecine warfare and humanitarian crisis in the country.

The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict

Since August 2008 the situation in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has grown progressively worse in ways that seem hard to understand. An overview of the events and processes that led to the resurgence of conflict, however, can explain what is happening and what kind of intervention can contribute to resolving it.


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)

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 DR Congo, devastated by years of civil and foreign wars between 1996 and 2003, had managed to sign a peace agreement, disarm most of the combatants, navigate the dangers of a transition period (2003-06), and finally (in July-October 2006) hold successful democratic elections. But the eastern part of the country had never healed. Why?

The heart of the answer is that the eastern problem had existed before the war, was made worse by the war and was not addressed by the peace agreement. The eastern Congo is a dense ethnic mix where Banyarwanda (people of Rwandese ethnic origin) make up a large segment of the population, at least in North Kivu where they represent about 40% of the total (in South Kivu, the Rwandese-speaking Banyamulenge are only about 4%). The high population densities (reaching almost 300 people / square km around Goma) are an important factor in the development of strong tensions around landholding. These tensions were worsened by two factors:

* during the colonial era the Belgians brought thousands of Banyarwanda from Rwanda to work in the Kivus. But they were salaried workers on Belgian plantations and did not own land. When the Belgians left these people wound up as landless peasants since the local tribes (Bahunde, Banyanga, Banande) were not ready to make room for them

* after the 1960-65 civil war which followed the Belgians' departure, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu emerged as the state's authoritarian ruler. His personal secretary Barthélémy Bisengimana was a Rwandese Tutsi who favoured his fellow tribesmen and helped them acquire land illegally. Since the Banyamulenge in South Kivu had fought in the civil war on Mobutu's side, the Rwandophone population became globally identified with Mobutu, a political perception which increased tension with the generally anti-Mobutu eastern tribes.

Rwanda and DRC: context of conflict

By the early 1990s when Zaire (as it had been known since 1971, on Mobutu's orders) began to sink into a catastrophic economic crisis, the land tensions in the east escalated into a localised ethno-civil war. By 1992 there was full-scale fighting in North Kivu, particularly in Masisi, with thousands of casualties. Since neighbouring Rwanda had been in a state of civil war between Tutsi and Hutu since October 1990, local Congolese Banyarwanda crossed the border to enlist in the conflict. One of them was the future General Laurent Nkunda who joined the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), now in power in Kigali.

Then in June 1994, following the Rwandese genocide, hundreds of thousands of Rwandese Hutu peasants crossed the border in the other direction, fleeing the victorious RPF. They were led by soldiers and politicians of the defeated génocidaire regime who were hoping to get Mobutu's support to keep fighting the RPF. Their presence pushed the agrarian tensions to a pitch because they allied themselves with the anti-Tutsi camp in the local civil strife.

Their eventual defeat in November 1996 when the RPF army invaded Zaire did not mark an end to the problems. The invaders also entered the fray, but this time in support of the Tutsi elements. Laurent Nkunda had come back with them and he quickly became one of the leaders of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) , the "rebel" Congolese movement which was generally perceived as a puppet of the invading Rwandese army (in the 2006 presidential elections, its leader Azarias Ruberwa who was a candidate, got 2% of the vote). During the course of the second civil war (1998-2002), Nkunda and his men fought on the Rwandese side against the Congolese government. All sides committed atrocities as the conflict unfolded, but those committed by the RCD soldiers were particularly hated because they were committed as allies and auxiliaries of a foreign invading army.

The FDLR: a web of influence

Meanwhile a rump of the former Hutu armed refugee groups who had come in 1994 had managed to implant themselves in the area under the name Front Démocratique pour la Libération du Rwanda (FDLR). In theory they were the enemies of the invading Tutsi-dominated Rwandese army. But in practice it was much more complex:

* in order to finance themselves, they began mining some the non-ferrous metals North Kivu and South Kivu are replete with. But commercialisation was a problem. Some FDLR elements started to work with their RPF "enemies", selling them the columbium-tantalite, the gold or the niobium ore they were mining

* in addition, the RPF had recruited a good number of Hutu soldiers into its ranks, including former génocidaires who had been languishing in jail since 1994. Those started to deal with their FDLR "enemies".

Thus when Rwanda "evacuated" the Kivus in 2002 after the Sun City (South Africa) peace agreement, it maintained a strong presence in the region through demobilised soldiers, through local Tutsi (and even Hutu) who had become their commercial agents, through militiamen and local administrators who, being underpaid, were open to Rwandese financial blandishments. Rwandese businessmen kept exploiting the local mines with the help of locally-recruited artesanal creuseurs (diggers) and flying out the ore in small planes operating from illegal landing strips.


Also in openDemocracy about the DR Congo and the wider region:

Nicola Dahrendorf, "Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict" (23 October 2005)

Caspar Henderson, "Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa" (6 April 2004)

Tristan McConnell, "The Democratic Republic of Congo: living up to its name?" (27 July 2006)

Tristan McConnell, "DR Congo's dangerous run-off" (23 August 2006)

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

David Mugnier, "North Kivu: how to end a war" (3 December 2007)

Gerard J DeGroot, "Rwanda: the colour of hope" (30 April 2008)

By then the problem was essentially politico-economic: how long could the unnatural FDLR/RPF de facto alliance centred on mining be kept while the political aims of the two partners were fundamentally opposed? In December 2004, The Rwandan president Paul Kagame's then special envoy for the Great Lakes, Richard Sezibera (Rwanda's health minister since 28 October 2008), declared to an interviewer from the International Crisis Group: "The FDLR no longer constitutes an immediate threat to our government but they are a security problem to people's lives, property and to our economic growth".

The FDLR, which still has a fighting strength of perhaps 6,000 men, is in a very ambiguous position because:

* through its genocidal image, it still retains the capacity to trigger strong reactions in Kigali

* at the same time, it has long worked as a partner of some business circles in Kigali

* locally, it is deeply implanted in the Kivus and it has become largely "congolised", including through marriages with local women

* it is still used, off and on, by anti-RPF elements in Kinshasa who continue to smart at the results of the 1998-2003 war - and to dream of making Rwanda pay for the approximately 3.8 million casualties it has caused in the Congo during those years

* nevertheless, the FDLR continues to behave with extreme violence locally, pillaging and raping at the slightest provocation. This is a deliberate move to keep their nuisance capacity visible and avoid being taken for granted by their Kinshasa "allies".

The Laurent Nkunda factor

All this helps explain why General Laurent Nkunda is perhaps the most dangerous segment of the armed groups in the east. To calling Nkunda "a rogue general" as the media does repeatedly is no help in understanding who or what he is. After 1998 he became one of the main RCD officers and he played a key role in the Kisangani massacre of 2002. He was charged with crimes against humanity in September 2005 by the DR Congo government, which casused his to be reluctant to come to Kinshasa when he was appointed to the new army since he feared a trap.

In May-June 2004 he tried to take over Bukavu in a vain attempt to derail the transition to the elections. Then he laid low for a couple of years, still refusing to dissolve his Tutsi forces into the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), the new "national" army. In November 2006 he rebelled again and attacked Goma, probably intending to hold it for ransom and to get some kind of pardon-cum-position for him and his men at the end of the adventure.

After losing about 300 of his fighters to the fire of the Pakistani battalion of the United Nations Mission in DR Congo (Monuc), he went to the negotiation table and accepted the integration of his men into the FARDC. But in a further switch, on 30 December 2006 he created the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), a political armed militia which he tried to present as a political tool to "clean up Congolese politics".

At first this did not represent much of a threat. But the problem grew when the Kinshasa government, far from capitalising on the success the July-October 2006 elections represented, seemed to go to sleep after that. For the past two years the Congolese government has looked like a beached whale, incapable of moving in spite of its bulk. This created an opportunity which Nkunda has exploited (see David Mugnier, "How to end a war", 3 December 2007).

Under the fold of his demagogic populist CNDP banner, he started to recruit all sorts of malcontents, mostly Tutsi of course but also Hutu Banyarwanda from Masisi and even a lot of flotsam and jetsam from various tribes who began to drift towards him as the pressure from Monuc and its demobilisation programmes from other regions liberated a lot of former fighters into military unemployment.

Nkunda went further, even across the borders, and started to recruit young unemployed Tutsi men in both Rwanda and Burundi, offering them spurious hopes of non-existent civilian jobs. Some of them deserted and surrendered to Monuc, but his movement grew. By his own account Nkunda (several of whose close allies, including chief-of-staff Bosco Ntaganda, have been indicted by the International Criminal Court) now has around 12,000 men, probably an exaggerated figure. But his men are good, much better than the poorly-disciplined FARDC. The worst aspect of his manoeuvring is that he has kicked the FDLR back into action and reopened all the sores of the east - such as when they massacred a whole village in cold blood at Kanyola in South Kivu in May 2007, having accused the villagers of working with the CNDP.

Why do we see such zigzagging on Nkunda's part? Mostly because there is not a single coherent policy in Kigali to either support or disown him. It depends on the fluctuation of the political atmosphere there (see "The DR Congo's political opportunity", 14 March 2007). Since the well-organised electoral "victories" of the RPF (Paul Kagame got 96% of the vote in the 2003 presidential election and his party got forty-two of the fifty-three contested seats in the September 2008 parliamentary "election", with the "opposition" immediately deciding to support the government), there is no Hutu opposition worth the name. Just mentioning such a term is labeled "divisionism" and can get you twenty years in jail. So the political game is played among Tutsi. And the Tutsi do not agree on how to deal with the Congo in general and with Laurent Nkunda in particular.

Some, like President Kagame himself, want to put the past behind them, develop Rwanda along extremely modernistic lines and turn the country into the Singapore of Africa. But others do not believe in such a possibility and still see the Congo as a mineral mother-lode waiting to be exploiteddo not believe in such a possibility and still see the Congo as a mineral mother-lode waiting to be exploited; they include some of Kagame's closest associates such as the semi-exiled ambassador Kayumba Nyamwasa and army chief-of-staff James Kabarebe (one of the ten Rwandan officials indicted by a French arrest-warrant from 2006, which led to the arrest of Rwanda's head of protocol in Frankfurt on 9 November 2008).

A wider explosion?

The outcome of the United States presidential election on 4 November 2008 is an encouragement for the latter group. After all, it was the Africanists around Bill Clinton (who are now Barack Obama's men and women) who supported the Kigali invasion of the DR Congo while it was Republican secretary of state Colin Powell who brought it to a halt in 2001. Have the Democrats changed their views on the region or do they still believe in the fiction that Rwanda only intervenes in the Congo in order to keep the ugly génocidaires at bay? In any case the situation in the DRC is now more serious than it has been at any point since the signature of the 2002 peace agreement (see From Genocide to Continental War: The ‘Congolese’ Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa, C Hurst, 2008).

But does it actually mean the situation has returned to that of 1998, and the DR Congo is about to explode into another civil war? Probably not. Why? Because there are several fundamental differences:

* Rwanda, even if it is involved, is involved at a marginal and contradictory level .

* in 1998, pro-Kigali elements controlled large segments of the Forces Armées Congolaises (FAC), the then Congolese national army. The initial onslaught was carried out through an internal rebellion of the armed forces. Not so today. Nkunda controls only an army of unofficial militiamen

* in 1998 the regime of Laurent-Désiré Kabila was very weak, hardly legitimate and did not have any serious international support. Today his son Joseph Kabila is strongly supported by the internal community after overseeing a flawed but clearly democratic election

* the Congolese economy was at the time in complete disarray while today it is only in poor shape, with possibilities of picking up

* President Kagame could count on the almost unlimited sympathy of the world which felt guilty for its neglect during the genocide. Not so today. His moral credibility has been seriously damaged by the horrors his troops committed in the DR Congo during 1998-2002 and his political standing is increasingly being questioned, both by legal action going back to the genocide period (reflected in the French indictment and Frankfurt arrest) and by his electoral "triumphs" (which are a throwback to the worst days of fake African political unanimity)

* the diplomatic context, reflected in the current visit to the region of the United Nations envoy (and Nigeria's former president) Olusegun Obasanjo, is more favourable to negotiation

* In 1998 there was no United Nations peacekeeping force in eastern DR Congo. If the international community decides to straighten out its act, Monuc could make the difference.

Beyond the icon: Nelson Mandela in his 90th year

The celebration of Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday on 18 July 2008 confirmed once more perhaps the most obvious fact about him: that South Africa's former president is universally admired, even revered, by world leaders and ordinary people alike. Less noted, however, is the disjunction in his stature abroad and at home. Worldwide, he is invoked as little less than a secular saint, domestically, the strong pride in the achievement of Madiba, the grand old man of the apartheid struggle, is coupled with an awareness that the legend remains a living legend, who still walks and breathes amongst his people today - and that with this presence come continuing responsibilities. 

Elleke Boehmer is professor of world literature in English in the faculty of English at Oxford University. Among her work is Colonial and Postcolonial Literature: Migrant Metaphors (Oxford University Press, 1995/2005),

Empire, the National, and the Postcolonial, 1890-1920 (Oxford University Press, 2002/ 2005);

Stories of Women: Gender and Narrative in the Pos
tcolonial Nation
Scouting for Boys  A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2004/2005); and Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction

She is the author of a novel Nile Baby (Ayebia, 2008)

Also in openDemocracy:

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

I encountered this notion repeatedly in the course of writing my book, Nelson Mandela: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008). It struck me again forcibly when his 90th-birthday events in June-July 2008 were underway. Perhaps it is was accentuated by a sad coincidence of timing: for these months of what should have been acclaim and fond and grateful reminiscence took place against the background of vicious "xenophobic attacks" on "foreign" Africans in many of South Africa's sprawling townships and conurbations. These events roused deep shame and anger in many South Africans, as well as a distinct realisation even among many loyal African National Congress (ANC) members that the "rainbow-nation" dream was over, or at least almost fatally damaged.

The combination of rabid anxiety about the "other" in one's midst and the approaching celebration of a person famous for embracing friend and stranger alike, meant that people across South Africa looked to Madiba for guidance. There was widespread clamour to know out what he might have to say - as in the past - by way of chastisement, advice and inspiration. Was it not Madiba, after all, who had once announced that he would not demur from criticising his political friends, if he felt they had done wrong or committed atrocity?  Would he not then have admonishing words to offer now, concerning the attacks?

The Nelson Mandela Foundation may neatly state that Madiba formally retired from his own official retirement in 2000; and it is true besides that he is a very elderly and now somewhat forgetful man. But many South Africans felt that were he to desist from speaking in his own person at such a time - rather than in the bland voice of his foundation or public-relations representatives - this might betray the values of justice, freedom and political plain-speaking for which he had so long contended. 

The global imaginary

Outside South Africa, the moment of Nelson Mandela's landmark birthday was far simpler and less inscribed with questioning. The concert on 27 June in London's Hyde Park - in front of the symbolic number of 46,664 guests, officially to launch his foundation's worldwide HIV/Aids campaign - revealed Mandela's fans to be in the main content to admire, gasp, and generally be overawed. "There he is, there he is!", the whisper ran through the crowd when the great man briefly appeared to read a prepared statement; and then, "It's him, it's him!". Although standing towards the back of the crowd, I could feel people around me strain forward to see him more clearly, as if to be blessed by the holy man passing through.  

From our vantage-point, Mandela was visible only as a very small speck on the stage; yet he also presided in gigantic form on the various screens positioned around the concert area. There was a metaphor in this somewhere, I remember thinking. Mandela wasn't clearly visible without the help of cinematic projection: the living myth was a function of celebrity imaging - and he was indeed accompanied on stage by a whole range of musical or TV celebrities (Amy Winehouse, Will Smith, June Sarpong, Annie Lennox.

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)

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

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

And yet, in reality, what did this all amount to?  What did this adulation mean? Should we simply take for granted the appearance of Nelson Mandela, African nationalist, at one time the world's longest-held political prisoner, as headline act to a line-up of (in truth, rather less than glittering) star performances fit to decorate the contents pages of celebrity magazines such as Closer or Now?

Asking these kinds of questions of "Mandela the symbol" is, after all, the point of my cultural history. What was the fridge-magnet symbol, the tourist website icon, telling us, if anything? Was there not an unmistakable oddity to the fact that the 90th birthday was being celebrated here in London, while there - in Mandela's native land - many people felt consternation at his relative silence? Wasn't there something disorienting about this "transplanted" birthday-party; something bizarre about the manic susurration of media stars, paparazzi, and wired-up security detail, enwrapping so very tightly the brief appearance of a elder statesman abroad, as if to imprison him (with cloying images, and saccharine words) all over again? 

I was reminded of a batik-cloth image of Mandela I once saw in a Cape Town market, selling at a price that only a tourist of some means could have afforded. Nelson Mandela's fame seemed here to have been reduced to an inaccessible icon who could no longer address, or indeed be heard by, his people. It was a melancholy contrast with the far younger leader, then United States presidential candidate Barack Obama (who is often compared to Mandela, and who manages to take national-hero status in his stride while yet managing through his fine rhetorical skills to get his message across powerfully and movingly to his supporters).

True, only a day or so before the concert Mandela had at last expressed his regret at the violence against fellow-Africans in his home country, and at the tragic "failure of leadership" in neighbouring Zimbabwe. Everywhere, there was relief that the moral beacon had at last spoken. Yet it was impossible not to notice that his statement had been delivered extremely late in the political day; and it had also taken place abroad, as part of a dinner where luminaries like Bill (and Chelsea) Clinton, and Britain's prime minister Gordon Brown, had been present. The compunction to speak had finally been triggered not by the great urgency everywhere palpable at home, but abroad, where - it was again impossible not to notice - the icon was in effect under an obligation to speak. 

The secular saint could arguably not have sustained at the same level his massive global status had words of sorrow, albeit brief, not been expressed in the international domain. In this way Mandela's legendary star stayed steady in its path, while at home, despite some pleasure at bathing in his reflected glory, bafflement and disappointment remained. As Madiba's myth was made safe for his fans abroad, so the myth of the reconciled rainbow country he had helped create, inevitably cracked further open - and now, with the split in the ANC, has cracked wider again. A twist of this 90th-birthday year must be that just when his reputation as the 20th century's leading postcolonial leader seemed secure, the ways in which that reputation will endure in South Africa itself are suddenly a little less certain than before.

The multiple reality

As was repeatedly acknowledged in discussions in Johannesburg and other cities in mid-2008 that I either witnessed or contributed to, on his home ground the "meaning" of Madiba, the significance of his remarkable career and story of uncompromising struggle and negotiated reconciliation, has yet fully to unfold. What does his message comprise: a poetry of hope and courage; a primer of self-discipline? 

At present his legacy in some respects still exists in emergent form, has yet to express its true contours.  This is to my mind the key difference between how he is viewed at home and internationally, where the lacquer of adulation laid thick upon the "human-rights legend" has long since hardened. Abroad, Mandela is the African the world loves to love, even if in a strikingly over-compensatory way. Africa the continent of famine, corruption and social abjection has produced, at least, this one fine human being, Europeans and Americans appear to breathe as they cluster around him. 

A hostile Sunday Times (London) magazine article, which appeared the weekend before his 18 July birthday, opined that the one task Mandela can still competently carry out is to smile his dazzling smile, only now it is on command. There is little that is meaningful in it: in his old age he has become a mask of his former charismatic self, to which the world has grown accustomed to genuflect. For the international community the paradox is that by heaping excessive adoration upon the head of this one seemingly superhuman African, we have left Africa, the continent, its people, more lacking of attention by contrast. There have been many great Africans yet their reputation has been dangerously eclipsed by this one over-hyped African hero of our times. 

Yet it is here, within the gap between his fully manifested yet relatively shallow international fame, and his still-latent local significance, that, it seems to me, the potential for renewed understandings of Mandela have the opportunity to emerge, which, when all is said and done, is a good thing. Within this gap, then, I would venture to place the following desiderata. 

Let us not allow our image of Mandela to petrify into cliché, especially yet not only while he is still alive amongst us.  Let his meanings evolve and change in rhythm with his times. Let his legacy organisations perhaps relax a little in wanting to predetermine how the future will see him. His achievement on its own dwarfs the efforts of such tireless PR policing. 

What is not in doubt is that Mandela is a great and humane human being not in spite of his Africanness, as his western acolytes (according to the Sunday Times) believe, but because of his Africanness. Perhaps most important, let us not forget that his greatness as an African was dependent on the cooperation of hosts of other Africans, little and great, ordinary and extraordinary, as he himself has always recognised.

Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope

Zimbabwe: the death of “quiet diplomacy”

Harold Wilson, Britain's prime minister when Ian Smith's Rhodesia proclaimed its independence in 1965, once famously said that "a week is a long time in politics". His descendant as Labour Party leader and prime minister, Gordon Brown, responded to the lightning-speed of events during the current financial crash by jocularly updating the phrase to "an hour....". For his part, South Africa's former president Thabo Mbeki might regard a month as the appropriate length of time for the wisdom to take hold - for it has taken just this period for the Zimbabwean power-sharing agreement he mediated to turn from new dawn to cold ashes. Roger Southall is honorary research professor in the sociology of work programme, University of the Witwatersrand

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" (30 September 2008)

Mbeki's resignation as South Africa's president on 21 September 2008 followed a high-court ruling that favoured his great political rival Jacob Zuma (see "Thabo Mbeki's fall: the ANC and South Africa's democracy", 13 October 2008). A bleak moment, but amid the retreat from office there was the simultaneous comfort of widespread accolades for what many deemed to be the eventual triumph of his much-criticised "quiet-diplomacy" effort to bring a political settlement in Zimbabwe. The problem is that the two events were in reality connected: for Mbeki's ejection helped precipitate the collapse of the deal - between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai - in which he had invested so much of his political capital.

The road from Harare

The quiet-diplomacy strategy - designed to reconcile Robert Mugabe's ruling Zimbabwe African National Front-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) and Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - had long been regarded as ineffective, even futile, in face of the intransigence of Mugabe and his regime. But in the end, after many tortuous problems and numerous stand-offs, it seemed to work. In Harare for the signing ceremony on 15 September 2008, the three central figures - Mbeki, Mugabe and Tsvangirai - all shook hands and beamed smiles for the cameras. The two Zimbabweans pledged themselves to an agreement which would move Zimbabwe forward - even though their hostile or indifferent body-language told its own story. It was a brief, and it as it has turned out illusory, moment of hope.

The road from Harare began in Pretoria, with a high-court ruling that South Africa's presidency had interfered in the national prosecuting authority (NPA's) attempted prosecution of African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma on corruption charges. The result - within a fortnight, equally a long time in politics - was a decision of the ANC's national executive committee that left Mbeki no option but to resign, soon to be replaced by Kgalema Motlanthe. In so doing, the ANC also collapsed the already shaky foundations of the proposed agreement in Zimbabwe - for although Mbeki retained his role as mediator, he had now lost whatever authority he had as president. Robert Mugabe was laughing. 

The threads of a deal turned to shards. It had all looked different when Zanu-PF's defeat in the parliamentary elections of 29 March 2008 provoked the regime to intensify violence throughout the country - in turn leading Morgan Tsvangirai ultimately to withdraw from the presidential election of 27 June. This left Mugabe unchallenged and able to claim the formal legality of a victorious re-election; but his international credibility was in shreds, with support for him visibly draining even within the Southern African Development Community (SADC).  There were reports too of Mugabe's erstwhile ally China becoming impatient with the recalcitrance of its latest client regime, and wanting a settlement which would promise an end to political unpredictability and greater security of its growing involvement in Zimbabwean mining.Among openDemocracy's many articles on Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe:

Bev Clark, "Mass evictions in Zimbabwe" (13 June 2005)

Netsai Mushonga, "Two nights in Harare's police cells" (5 December 2005)

Andrew Meldrum, "Zimbabwe between past and future" (23 June 2006)

Conor O'Loughlin, "Zimbabwean travails" (13 September 2006)

Wilf Mbanga, "Happy birthday, Robert Mugabe" (21 February 2007)

Stephen Chan, "Farewell, Robert Mugabe" (20 March 2007)

Michael Holman, "Dizzy worms in Zimbabwe" (13 September 2007)

The Zimbabwean, "Zimbabwe votes - and waits" (31 March 2008)

Wilf Mbanga, "Zimbabwe's unfolding drama" (7 April 2008)

openDemocracy, ""Zimbabwe's elections: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)

Mugabe's regime was increasingly isolated; the economy was in tatters, withmost of the country's population starving; the option of sending out signals of willingness to accommodate with the MDC seemed unavoidable. This allowed Thabo Mbeki to think that the moment of "quiet diplomacy's" triumph had come. But if crisis can be opportunity, opportunity can be danger: and so it proved for Morgan Tsvangirai, for Mugabe's determination to retain the presidency and his regime's refusal to stand down meant that the MDC leader faced the choice of either walking away from the situation or seeking some sort of second-best deal.

Tsvangirai's dilemma

If he walked away, he faced the possibility that Mugabe would cobble together an agreement with Arthur Mutambara (leader of the MDC's minority faction);  this would complicate the political situation while doing nothing to prevent the continuing collapse of the economy. If he made a deal, he could at least try to reverse the trend of events by attracting support from moderate elements within Zanu-PF away from Mugabe.

Tsvangirai's strength in these circumstances was that only a deal which genuinely shared significant power between the MDC and Zanu-PF could unlock the door to international legitimacy and life-giving international aid and credit; his weakness was that Mugabe still had the brute power of state forces behind army him - whereas the MDC's supporters were so battered, bruised and hungry they were unwilling to risk further physical confrontation with the president's thugs, police and army. 

Tsvangirai had long been highly distrustful of Mbeki, accusing him - with justification - of having cosseted Mugabe. But over several weeks he allowed himself to be lured into a deal, which on paper looked workable. Robert Mugabe would remain as executive president, with Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister; Zanu-PF would hold fifteen ministries,the MDC thirteen and Mutambura's MDC faction three (providing a united MDC with a notional majority); Zanu-PF would retain the ministry of defence (thereby avoiding or postponing the MDC's day of reckoning with the army), but the MDC would fill the home-affairs ministry (responsible for the police) as well as finance; and while Mugabe refused to concede the ultimate right to appoint ministers to the cabinet, Mbeki achieved a compromise whereby a council of ministers would supervise the cabinet.

Even on paper there were dangerous ambiguities - especially over who would wield effective power. It was known that key players within the military hierarchy and Zanu-PF politburo remained opposed to any accommodation with Tsvangirai, so it was far from certain that they would honour the letter (let alone the spirit) of any deal. Furthermore, many argued that the MDC's control of the finance ministry would be useless unless it could also take control of Zimbabwe's reserve bank, which controls foreign-exchange allowances and the printing of money. Nonetheless, Tsvangirai - who in any case leans instinctively towards compromise rather than confrontation - acceded under Mbeki's lobbying to signing a deal in mid-September which seemed to bring the MDC to the edge of power. At the same time he signed before Mugabe's concession of key ministries was confirmed - so the haggling continued even after Mbeki had returned to Pretoria.

Mbeki's enforced resignation now changed the game-plan. South Africa's attention was diverted from Harare to Pretoria, the nation absorbed by the sudden appointment of Jacob Zuma's deputy Kgalema Motlanthe to the presidency. Mugabe's luck was reinforced when global capitalism went into a tailspin, rendering Zimbabwe even more of a sideshow. Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma insisted that Mbeki would continue to serve as a mediator in Zimbabwe to bring the deal to a close, but his leverage was now undermined.

The hawks in Harare - always concerned that Mugabe might give away too much - chose to take full advantage. They insisted that the process be thrown into reverse, and demanded unilateral actions that would negate both the spirit and the letter of the negotiations. Thus Mugabe announced the appointment of Zanu-PF stalwarts Joyce Mujiru and Joseph Msika as vice-presidents, and threatened to renege on promises previously given that key ministries would be granted to the MDC. Tsvangirai blustered, and threatened to pull out; the unthroned Mbeki returned to Harare to hold things together. But he was now, visibly, yesterday's man. Mugabe's continuing prevarication and Tsvangirai's lack of muscle mean only that negotiations drag on with no immediate end in sight.

A lesson in power

Zimbabwe is bankrupt: inflation (officially 231,000,000% but estimated by many economists as over four time this figure) has tipped the economy towards both pre-monetary bartering and dollarisation; some 3 million of the most able Zimbabweans have left the country, most to South Africa, to find work; around 6 million people of those who remain are living in desperate food-insecurity (often on the verge of starvation), and heavily dependent upon remittances of food and finance from their relatives outside the country.

It has been said often that the disastrous collapse of Zimbabwe's economy will translate into the collapse of Robert Mugabe's regime. Such predictions have until now always been proved wrong. The military men who stand behind Mugabe remain bitterly resistant to conceding power: worried about being prosecuted for human-rights offences by a successor government; concerned about losing the farms they seized from white farmers; and fearful of losing their access to the foreign currency handed out at favourable rates to Zanu-PF cronies by the central bank. For the moment they are digging in, reckoning that Thabo Mbeki is unlikely to have the unambiguous support of an ANC government now distracted by internal rebellion (as pro-Mbeki rivals threaten to break away to form a new party) and its own mounting financial problems. The more political tensions grow within the ANC, the less will the Motlanthe government want to risk Mbeki staging a belated diplomatic triumph. Quiet diplomacy is dead.

True, common sense and the work of time would seem to dictate that the Mugabe regime's days are numbered. History, at some point, will indeed sweep him and his cronies away. But Mugabe and his generals are still playing for time, and as long as they can continue to gain access to arms and foreign currency they are likely to continue to lead all other players in what is to them a charade of cynical political manipulation. 

If the dollars threaten to dry up - a prospect brought closer by the relapse in global-minerals markets - then in theory the attraction of power-sharing with the MDC should increase. It is possible, then, that the coming weeks might see the installation of Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister as formal head of an MDC-led coalition government. That in turn might open the door to financial stabilisation, aid and relief - although even that is now brought into question by global financial turbulence and donors' tightening budgets.

Even if events take this new twist, however, there can be no change in Zimbabwe's regime until the state's military backing is vanquished. This is the nettle that South African mediation has continuously failed to grasp. The lesson of the power-sharing agreement that failed is that only a power-struggle will unseat Robert Mugabe and his regime.

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir: a useful war criminal

The request on 14 July 2008 to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to indict Sudan's president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, on ten charges of war crimes and genocide has unleashed intense polemics that - three months on - show no sign of diminishing. The main lines of argument were formed immediately after the announcement - indeed it may equally be said that they formed long before it, and that the request (made by the ICC president, Luis Moreno-Ocampo) merely gave them a pretext for more voluble expression. In any event, opposition and support of the decision fall into two camps:

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, 2008)

Among Gérard Prunier's articles 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),

"Sudan in a fix" (26 June 2008)
▪ the "realists" - who hold that al-Bashir's indictment would "compromise the Darfur peace process" and even possibly lead Sudan into a state of anarchy

▪ the "legalists/moralists" - who contend that not indicting al-Bashir would both deal a heavy blow to the credibility of the young ICC and lend encouragement to those seeking to tolerate or indulge crimes against humanity.

This article looks at the issues surrounding the historic indictment of Omar al-Bashir through the lens of this vigorous argument.

The political-moral debate

The context of the indictment is what has happened in Sudan's western region of Darfur since conflict began there in February 2003, and the "Darfur peace process" which has consumed so many words, summits and missions in the effort to end it. Any consideration of this "peace process" is at its heart retrospective, because after the signing in Abuja of the Darfur peace agreement (DPA) in May 2006 there has been next to nothing in the field of solid achievement.

There are many ways to register the failure. The provincial assemblies which under the agreement's provisions were designed to guarantee the Darfuris some measure of political control over their own fate were packed with supporters of the Khartoum regime; the killer janjaweed militias were never disarmed, and kept killing; the money supposed to be paid into an economic-development  and stability fund for Darfur (DCPSF) was never made available; even the pitiful amount of compensation pledged to the internally-displaced ($18 per person) was not disbursed.

The political environment around the agreement made its prospects even worse. Just one of the guerrilla factions in Darfur - the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) group led by Minni Arcua Minnawi - was prepared to sign, even in face of the pressures the international community exerted on Darfuri rebel groups to comply. After the DPA was reached, Minni tried to enforce compliance from the non-signatories by attacking them and killing their civilian supporters. He failed on two counts, for his own men quickly grew disgusted by the Khartoum government's betrayal of its own commitments, and the SLA went back to war.

Minni resolved a hard choice by leaving Khartoum and going back into the bush in Darfur in July 2008; though it is now reported that he is again succumbing to al-Bashir's blandishments (see "Darfur Minnawi returns to Sudanese capital this week", Sudan Tribune, 14 October 2008). The other guerrilla factions were confirmed in their rejection of the DPA, and - a handful of unrepresentative government stooges apart - no other rebels were prepared to discuss anything with Khartoum.

All this leaves an obvious question: when the "realist" camp uses the "Darfur peace process" as an argument against Omar al-Bashir's indictment, what exactly is being referred to? For such a process, active or even latent, does not exist. 

A possible response is that at least the internally-displaced people (IDPs) in the camps might support letting the Sudanese president remain free of charge - on the pragmatic grounds that they stand to suffer even more in the event that al-Bashir responds to his indictment by venting his anger on them. There is no indication that this is so: indeed, their continued support for refusenik SLA leader Abdel-Wahid Mohamed an-Nur is a clear indication that they stand ready to shoulder the possibly terrible consequences of their choice. This desperate courage comes from 2.4 million people who have lost everything, from their loved ones to their houses and their means of economic subsistence. But this is precisely what makes it so understandable - for they often feel that their terrible sacrifices would be meaningless if their persecutor was allowed to escape any legal sanction.

A further claim of the "realist" school is that an al-Bashir indictment would have the effect of destabilising the regime and pushing Sudan into anarchy. This is extremely doubtful, and in fact the opposite case is more plausible. The present regime in Khartoum has lied repeatedly and has never honoured any of the documents it has signed - whether the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) with the south, the DPA, or eastern peace agreement (EPA, signed in October 2006 with the eastern-front guerrillas).

Among openDemocracy's article on Sudan and international justice:

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

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 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)
This record, along with the regime's shamelessness, makes it less than likely that the election in Sudan scheduled for 2009 will be free and fair; or that the self-determination referendum for the south due in 2011 will be held on time and carried out honestly (especially since the south produces 80% of Sudan's oil and that a vote for independence would deprive Khartoum of all those revenues). This would mean that the probable result of the continuation of the present regime in Khartoum will be more war sometime during the next three years - not only in Darfur, but all over the country (see "Sudan between war and peace", 1 November 2007).

If this is so, then why should the international community protect Sudan's regime from the consequences of its own greed and cruelty?

There are three possible answers:

▪ the ultra-conservative nature of the international community: the Sudanese regime exists and - so runs the way of thinking - should not be tampered with simply because it exists

▪ the collaboration that Sudan's secret services are reported to have given the CIA in the United States's "war on terror". This project has become a mantra in Washington and anything that can remotely be seized on as evidence of its "success" has become sacrosanct - even when (as in this case) hard results have completely failed to justify the policy

▪ the US's reluctance, after the giant blunder of Iraq, to get into a conflict with another Muslim country (Iran is a special case). Thus American miscalculations in the middle east protect the rogue regime in Khartoum.

In these circumstances, the extended domination of the ruling order in Khartoum, far from being a condition of notional "stability", is practically a guarantee of further violence in the 2008-11 period. This makes it difficult to justify not indicting President Omar el-Bashir on the "realist" grounds of political stability.

The ground-level politics

In the three months since the 14 July 2008 announcement, Khartoum has engaged in frantic diplomatic activity to try to rally its potential supporters behind a single objective: invoking Article 16 of the Rome statute of 1998 (the founding document of the International Criminal Court), which allows for a one-year deferment of an indictment in response to a demand by the United Nations.

Khartoum can count for support in its delaying tactics on the African Union, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), Russia, China and - conditionally - France. The French position is particularly ambiguous. Paris was at the heart of the small coalition which had managed to push through Resolution 1593 (2005), referring the Darfur situation to the ICC; but now it says that it might support a recourse to Article 16 if Khartoum does four things:

▪ transfers two previously indicted Sudanese officials - former janjaweed militia leader Ali Kushayb, and Sudan's humanitarian-affairs minister Ahmed Haroun - to the ICC

▪ stops hindering the deployment of the UN mission in Darfur (Unamid)

▪ recommits to the "Darfur peace process"

▪ stops interfering in Chad's internal affairs.

Nicolas Sarkozy, when he visited New York for the United Nations annual meeting on 23 September 2008, even said that Khartoum's only obligation was to ensure that the two indicted men would "stop being ministers" (a bizarre demand since one of them, Ali Kushayb, has never held such office) and they be judged "by a Sudanese court". This was followed on 6 October by a high-level bilateral meeting between France and Sudan in Paris (see "Sudan delegation meets French officials", Daily Nation [Nairobi], 6 October 2008). 

The African Union, China and possibly France will push on for the use of Article 16, while Washington will veto any recourse to that process. Khartoum is well aware of its constrained room for manoeuvre, and intent on giving the impression of movement. On 13 October, it announced the arrest of Ali Kushayb (also known as Ali Mohamed Ali Abdul-Rehman), with justice minister Abdul-Basit Sabdarat declaring that he would be tried by a Sudanese court; on 16 October, the president is launching another rhetorical initiative on Darfur (see "Sudan president calls for national solution to Darfur crisis", Sudan Tribune, 14 October 2008).

But on the ground, Khartoum seems intent on solving the problem by force - whatever the humanitarian cost. Omar al-Bashir's brazen and tightly controlled visit to Darfur in response to the indictment request on 14 July was followed by a major military offensive against guerrilla strongholds in Darfur; the aim was to cut off the lines of military supply from Chad to both the SLA and the Justice & Equality Movement (JEM) - Ndjamena itself being still engaged in a war to the finish with Khartoum. Why this sudden urgency? Because Khalil Ibrahim, the JEM leader who attacked Khartoum and Omdurman in the daring raid of 10 May 2007, preferred to remain in the strategic centre of Kordofan rather than return to Darfur.

Khalil Ibrahim may be planning a new attack on the Sudanese capital, while showing polite interest in the Qatar-mediated peace talks that are attempting to draw in the leading factions in the conflict. If such an attack were combined with an ICC indictment of President al-Bashir, this could tip the scales and lead to a military coup (Khalil himself, after all, is a former Muslim Brother and regime activist, who still has many contacts in regime circles). The Sudanese regime is fully aware of the danger; when it conjures the spectre of "anarchy", its true meaning is: "this ICC indictment could change the balance of power inside the Sudan and lead to our downfall".

Will Khartoum's attempted blackmail succeed? At this point it is impossible to tell. The guerrilla movements are very uneasy about the persistently pro-al-Bashir stance of the African Union (whose forces are the military mainstay of the joint AU/United Nations military mission [Unamid]). The threats are clear: while Khartoum hints that it could call on al-Qaida's aid, the insurgents say they could hit the AU/UN force if the indictment is deferred. The Sudanese timebomb is ticking. 

Angola’s elections: the politics of no change

President José Eduardo dos Santos is a modest man. He vowed his country's first elections since 1992 would be an example to Africa, when in truth they have proved to be substantially more. They have provided the world with a master-class on how to hold apparently democratic elections, annihilate the opposition and regress to a one-party state - and still gain the quiet approval of the west, among others.


Lara Pawson is Writing Fellow at the Wits Institute of Social & Economic Research, at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her blog is here

Also by Lara Pawson in openDemocracy:

" Angola: the politics of exhaustion" (2 March 2007)

" Angola: worlds in collision" (11 April 2007)

Also on Angola in openDemocracy:

Ben Schiller, " The China model" (20 December 2005)

Gustaf Silfverstolpe, " Angola: time to choose" (25 September 2007)


The Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola / MPLA) swept up nearly 82% of the national vote, which translates into 191 of the national assembly's 220 seats. Among those who will be raising MPLA hands in the new parliament are a former air-hostess turned first lady, Ana Paula Dos Santos, and one of her daughters, a mogul in the small but politically powerful Angolan media industry, Welwitchia Dos Santos Pêgo "Tchizé".

The MPLA has thus vanquished its former civil-war enemy, the União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola / Unita), which took a little over 10% of the vote and whose parliamentary presence has drained away from seventy to just sixteen seats. Even in its former provincial heartlands of Huambo and Bié, this once mammoth opposition movement won just 13.5% and 18.25% respectively. Three other parties scraped less than 6% of the votes between them, allowing them each a share of the remaining thirteen parliamentary seats.

Of the nine other parties that contested the election, eight did so badly that they will technically become extinct. This is a poke in the eye to all those who, while never doubting the MPLA would win, queried its capacity to score an absolute majority and thereby earn the democratic right to do as it wishes with the constitution.

State and party

So how has an intensely authoritarian regime, which has held on to power with sometimes astounding brutality since independence in 1975, managed to win such a huge victory in a multiparty ballot? This too in a country where the average person can't expect to live beyond 40, where a quarter of children don't make it past their 5th birthday, and where two-thirds live below the poverty-line despite the country's huge income as Africa's biggest oil producer. Why in such circumstances would people reward their government?

A part of the answer is simple: the electoral process was excessively unfair. The body tasked with ensuring freedom and transparency, the National Electoral Commission (CNE), comprised eleven members, eight of whom were either selected by the president himself or by senior members of the ruling party. Another key organisation, whose jobs included registering voters and deciding on locations of polling stations, was the Inter-Ministerial Commission for the Electoral Process (CIPE). Like the CNE, the CIPE was stuffed with MPLA members including its chair, Virgílio Fontes Pereira, who was not only the minister for territorial administration but an MPLA candidate in the elections. He retained his seat.

All fourteen of the competing parties were entitled to a share of $17 million provided for electoral campaigning; yet the money was distributed only on 8 August, three days after campaigning officially kicked off. The finance minister blamed the parties for failing to provide bank-account details, an accusation denied by many in opposition. But even if the money had come a week early, these small parties would have stood no chance against the MPLA, which has had the state at its service for thirty-three years. A weekly newspaper that is sympathetic to the MPLA estimated that the party spent $300 million campaigning before 5 August.


Also on African politics and elections in openDemocracy:

Gilles Yabi, "Guinea: a state of suspension" (28 February 2007)

Godwin Nnanna, " Democracy in Nigeria: the road less travelled" (28 March 2007)

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

Gerard J DeGroot, " Rwanda: the colour of hope" (30 April 2008)

openDemocracy, "Zimbabwe's election: an African appeal" (20 June 2008)


But it is probably impossible to calculate the MPLA's campaign budget accurately. Four months before election-day, a provincial government official begging anonymity told me: "The campaign has already started. We've been giving them cars and houses and motors for months. Months! Even people who never thought the MPLA could buy them have been bought. Everyone wears those caps now, and those T-shirts - even diehard Unita members. The other parties don't know what they're doing!"

Nowhere was this imbalance more evident than on the state-owned Televisão Pública de Angola (TPA). Since the end of 2007, screens have been awash with crude MPLA propaganda showing halls packed with men and women wearing baseball-caps and T-shirts in party colours of red, yellow and black. They are shown in their hundreds waving the party flag, which so closely resembles the national flag they are almost indistinguishable at a glance. TPA censorship became so bad this year that one of its most loyal employees, Ernesto Bartolomeu, spoke out at a public meeting against the doctoring of news. He was abruptly stopped from presenting the flagship evening news programme and suspended until October, one month after the elections.

In the last few days before the election, a reporter with the international news agency Agence France-Presse noted that the president had appeared on the front cover of the country's only daily and only national newspaper, the state-owned Jornal de Angola, "every day for at least a week". In each shot, he was pictured opening yet another public building surrounded by yet more party officials dressed in yet more party clothes. Some say this is democracy at work - knowing its future rests in the choice of the people, the MPLA has finally started building clinics, schools and roads - while others insist it is political propaganda that very consciously demonstrates that the Angolan state is indistinguishable from the ruling party.

Event and process

Such extraordinary advantages possessed by the MPLA - including the vast resources they had to hand - made the catalogue of confusion on 5 September 2008 something of a surprise. The BBC had earlier referred to "Angola's high-tech election"; but on the day the process collapsed into what European Union observers initially described as "disastrous".

In the morning, hundreds of polling stations in the capital, Luanda, did not open, mainly because of a lack of ballot-papers. By the afternoon, it was clear that many people had not been able to vote, and so the CNE decided to extend the ballot to the following day. Reports are very mixed about the sequence of events, but some EU observers said that only twenty-two stations opened on 6 September. Human Rights Watch, which also had observers on the ground, commented that "this caused further confusion and prevented large numbers of people from voting."

A critical fact here is that Luanda is home to roughly a third of Angola's estimated 15 million people. It is also here, in the capital city, that opposition to the MPLA is most vocal. Only in Luanda do people have access to independent radio-stations and newspapers. Indeed, it was in the capital that many observers, including this author, predicted significant opposition in the vote. Two parties in particular - the Party of the Alliance of Youth, Workers and Peasants of Angola (Pajoca) and the Front for Democracy (FpD) - were expected to do well here.

The Pajoca leader David Mendes is an outspoken human-rights lawyer who has gained publicity defending the rights of poor communities across the capital's sprawling townships and slums. Two days after the election he was unable to explain what had gone wrong. "We are all surprised", he told me over the telephone. "All the parties with potential did so badly, even worse than last time [in 1992]. We really thought we'd do well in Luanda and get 50,000 to 100,000 votes. We don't understand what happened."

When pushed to explain why Pajoca received fewer than 6,000 votes in Luanda, Mendes said: "The public media was decisive in people's minds; the voting tables were controlled in the majority by MPLA people; we had cases of voters receiving food and drinks with the MPLA flag on them; voting lists were transported by the MPLA and the police, sometimes in canoes and helicopters, so we don't know what went on; and there weren't enough independent observers so many people are in doubt about how many people really voted or not."

Mendes stops short of alleging fraud, despite his very reasonable concerns about observers. Indeed, a highlight of these elections was supposed to be the role of 2,640 observers from Angolan civil society. However, less than half that number were given accreditation and they received it only hours before voting began. In Luanda, where 370 civil-society observers were supposed to operate, only twenty-eight were given permission to do so. In a statement on 5 September, the Civil Society Electoral Platform said it was "deeply concerned that the CNE deliberately limited the number of independent observers in Luanda... obstructing impartial and independent verification, and undermining confidence in the process."

Nevertheless, whether these elections were free, fraudulent or just deeply unfair, no amount of carping will change the outcome. The ruling MPLA has gained an overwhelming majority across the entire country; the opposition, as Jornal de Angola crowed days before the official results were published (on 16 September), has been "eliminated". The international community, recently so vocal about elections elsewhere in southern Africa, has given the nod to the MPLA's landslide. So what, now, will the party do with this majority?

Power and history

The president has promised to reform the government, replace "bad" ministers and modernise the constitution. After casting his own vote he told reporters: "We have started a new way of doing politics and of achieving certain objectives where competition is based on respect and freedom." Although many would like to believe him, few are so optimistic. During almost thirty years in power, José Eduardo Dos Santos has shown no desire to democratise even the MPLA party he leads, let alone the country. He is at once head of government and commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and he also appoints the prime minister and decides who is in government; and he cannot be removed from power in a vote of no confidence.

"In Angola, laws don't really count in terms of the real relations of power", explains Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, fellow at Oxford University and author of Oil and Politics in the Gulf of Guinea (C Hurst, 2007). "Whether the constitution creates an even more presidentialist system, or whether they go for something more open and create an American or French-style system, the fact is that real power relations take place on an extra-constitutional level. And in Angola, the MPLA is basically the firmament, the totality of space and institutions."

The ruling-party's omnipotence stems partly from Angola's conflicted history, as a country ruled for many years by a fascist Portuguese colonial regime, followed by a national-liberation war, the cold war, and then civil war until 2002. Its deeply authoritarian traditions are both a result of this history and also of the training and support it received from the East German Stasi, the Soviet KGB and Cuba.

"The last fifty years have created a sense of embeddedness", says De Oliveira, "and the people in power today are those who have been able to manipulate the political process to their own advantage." But he questions those commentators who believe these latest elections reflect what the Angolan writer Wilson Dadá has called the "Mexicanisation" of the country - a reference to Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party, which stayed in power for seventy-one years until 2000. "Whether the MPLA will be able to keep this landslide", De Oliveira says, "depends on whether they are able, even modestly, to give the population the impression of competence and results in terms of human indicators. If that doesn't materialise, the political process will change."

Oil and future

But this analysis, in which the democratic process finally trumps power, might be too optimistic. Angolans may have battled hard to create a small space for opposition and freedom of expression, a space which was non-existent thirty-three years ago when the MPLA came to power; but the people of this southern African country have more on their hands than simply an authoritarian government. The Angolan government is the richest in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to abundant onshore and offshore oil reserves. Dos Santos is well aware that he has a large swathe of the rich world at his feet. "Angola", as Nicholas Shaxson puts it, "has all the cards. Foreign governments and oil companies have no leverage over the country: Dos Santos knows they want his oil, and if they don't like what's on offer, there are plenty of others queuing up to take their place."

Until now, Angola has not indulged in what Shaxson calls "resource nationalism", on the scale of big oil-producers such as Venezuela and Russia. However, now that the MPLA is riding high on these election results with more confidence than the party has probably ever had in its half-century of existence, oil companies might start to feel that confidence, thus bending contracts further in Angola's favour. Moreover, 2009 will see another lever in the hand of the MPLA, when Angola assumes the position of head of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec).

Oil-power helps explain why the international community tends to remain so mute when it comes to commenting on Angolan - as opposed to Zimbabwean - governance. Nicholas Shaxson, author of Poisoned Wells: The Dirty Politics of African Oil(Palgrave, 2008), believes it also explains why Angolan people have such a hard struggle for democracy on their hands. "The real battle here ultimately revolves around taxation" he says. "Rulers in mineral-rich countries don't tax their citizens - they tax the oil companies. This leaves citizens without any bargaining power against their government, which doesn't need the citizens in order to survive."

If Shaxson is right, the MPLA might well be in power for at least another couple of decades, or more. Unless the price of a barrel of oil suddenly drops to $10, it is hard to imagine what could stop Angola's ruling party now. Incidentally, the new female deputy, whose father happens to be the Angolan president, is named after a plant found only in the Angolan and Namibian deserts; it is considered by experts to be a living fossil, because it can survive more than a thousand years.

China and the Olympics: a view from Kenya

I wake up to the shrill buzz of my Quartz table-clock every morning, take tea in chinaware and drive to work through an intersection paved by a Chinese contractor. I slip into a brown leather jacket that (you guessed right!) is made in China. I return home to eat from a china plate, serenaded by my son's music from a Wiggles battery-powered guitar, also made in China.

Peter Kimani is the author of Before The Rooster Crows and a senior editor with The Standard Group in Nairobi. Also by Peter Kimani in openDemocracy:

"Before the Rooster Crows" (29 May 2003)

"Kenya's voices of discontent" (27 March 2007)

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

Before we lose track I should clarify that the clock was bought in London; the jacket in Chicago, and the guitar in Iowa in the United States. Which reminds me...in Iowa, where I spent three months during 2007, my preferred eatery was a Chinese café where we were greeted warmly by a middle-aged woman. She did not speak a word of English but still understood our orders and delivered in record time.

In my own neighbourhood in Nairobi, where I recently went scouting for a house, I met a young Chinese man who pointed to a young Kenyan woman for any inquiries. He was there to build houses and make money, not learn Kiswahili or other local languages - or English, the official language.

The Chinese seem to make and sell virtually everything under the sun. And they themselves seem to be everywhere. Those at least are the impressions one gets looking around. Now, when the world is meeting in the Chinese capital of Beijing for the Olympic games, the feeling is that China has entrenched its presence across the world while building its pride at home.

The magnet-effect is such that some Kenyan athletes - judging from their love for other countries - might even seek to change their nationality and become Chinese.

A jagged dream

But China - here in Kenya, as elsewhere - isn't always viewed positively; more often than not, it is presented as a vulture waiting to grab something and fly away with its prey.

That was the question I put to a senior official at the Chinese consulate in Nairobi after China (along with Russia) had blocked efforts at the United Nations to impose economic sanctions against Khartoum - even as Sudan's murderous orgy in its western province of Darfur was continuing.

The Chinese official, diminutive in stature and incorrigibly argumentative, kept repeating in halting English: "Have you been to China? Have you been to China?" The clear implication was that I would have to travel to China to know the truth about the country and its people.

Among openDemocracy's articles on China in 2008:

Tarek Osman, "China and the Olympics: a view from Egypt" (7 August 2008)

Patrice de Beer, "China and the Olympics: a view from France" (7 August 2008)

Irfan Husain, "China and the Olympics: a view from Pakistan" (8 August 2008)

Perhaps he is right. I have not been to China. But China has revised its own boundaries to encompass my world - whether in Africa, Europe or north America.

Its dalliance with Kenya and other developing nations started in the heady decades of the 1960s and the 1970s - when China was ruled by Mao Zedong and (later, if briefly) the even more hardline communists of the "gang of four". In Africa and elsewhere in what was then known as the "third world", these were years fraught with the excitement of political independence, and the dangers of the ideological experimentations that followed.

Now, in the 2000s, a still-communist (politically) but rampantly-capitalist (economically) China is making its "second coming" in what is now known as the "global south". This time, its influence is both more energetic and more tactful. Its companies (often effectively arms of the state) are purchasing two-thirds of Sudanese oil, its products are swamping local markets with cheap produce, and its contractors are securing concessions from governments to build roads and bridges.

What's left? As long ago as 1873, the British scientist Sir Francis Galton proposed that Chinese immigrants to Africa would "multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race." The long arc of imperial control and racial denigration has brought China and Africa - both of which have been at the receiving-end of these processes - to a new point. Yet there are reports of Chinese bar-owners being asked to refuse entry to black visitors during the games. "One world, one dream"? Still some way to go, in Nairobi, Beijing...or anywhere.

On the road to Accra

The Paris Declaration (PD) on Aid Effectiveness adopted in 2005 outlined new aid mechanisms designed to enable more progress to be made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Ethiopia: the tears and the rains

It was raining in Addis Ababa when I left, but would it be raining in Wolayita? The spring rains had failed, bringing awful consequences for the people in this remote, beautiful and harsh area. Wolayita is in the far south of Ethiopia, seven hours drive from the capital. It is a part of Ethiopia where people live on the edge at the best of times, and this is one of the worst of times. The energy and ingenuity required to survive in these dry lands is extraordinary, and the courage and endurance of the people who survive here is impressive; but now, they are desperate and overwhelmed.

Despite the early-warning systems put in place by government and NGOs (with support from the one I represent, Concern); despite better reserves of grains; despite the resilience of the farmers and their families - despite all this, the twin evils of drought and soaring food prices have engulfed the people here.

Their reserves of food, resources and energy are exhausted. It is a terrible sight to see a mother who you know has such deep reservoirs of courage - the kind that you or I can only dream of - bow her head and quietly weep, exhausted by her efforts and her despair.

She was sitting on the bed, tenderly holding her small baby close to her under a cotton wrap. I asked if could see the baby; she gently drew back the cover and I saw the wizened infant, his body overwhelmed by malnutrition, his immune system shut down - the consequences of starvation. This tiny, pale baby coughed a dreadful, wheezy, wracking cough - a cough that belonged to a very old man.

I wondered if the baby would last the week, and I am sure his mother also questioned if her loving care and the determined but limited help from the health centre and Concern would pull him though. Pneumonia had attacked him as his body, in desperate survival mode, shut down his immune system.


Lyndall Stein is executive director of Concern, an International NGO headquartered in Dublin. To learn more of Concern's work on Ethiopia and its current emergency appeal, click here

Also by Lyndall Stein in openDemocracy:

"Darfur journal" (18 November 2004)

A saving system

That is what happens when you are malnourished, starved of vital nutrients. Your body closes down unnecessary functions, desperately saving your vital resources to keep your heart and brain going. You will go though many agonising stages, until your body will even begin to digest its own tissues. Starvation will reduce you to a shell, and will reduce a small child very quickly to a silent, limp, passive, sad memory of all that a child should be - laughing, crying, yelling and quietly, happily burbling.

All the children who are acutely malnourished are dreadfully quiet. The nutritionists, nurses and helpers are always cheered by a screaming child - it means they still have some strength, resilience and vital life-force left.

In the next bed was Misrach Shiburu, also deathly quiet. Tending him was his sister, a tiny 15-year-old, who gently brushed the flies away from his face as he lay listlessly on the bed. She was in charge of him; his mother had to stay at home to look after her youngest and could not be with her 5-year-old little boy. Though acutely malnourished, he was getting better and sat up gingerly while we were there, not well enough to cry or smile, but at least able to look around. The team at Duyango Fango felt he would be alright. He was being fed "plumpy-nut", a vitamin-enriched peanut paste which - dense with vitamins, minerals and calories - quickly builds up small children suffering from the effects of food shortages.


In 2004, Concern introduced a new and innovative technique to tackle malnutrition across Ethiopia and other parts of Africa, where food shortages take such a dreadful toll on the health and life-chances of children and mothers. It requires the involvement of the community, the local health system and a remarkable supply-chain and logistics operation, bringing the specialised food for the under-fives and also a special mix of flour, vitamins, sugar and oil which helps feed the other children in the family. This helps to ensure that the plumpy-nut is kept for the little children who are unwell and the most vulnerable, the ones who so desperately need the special paste.

After the pain of seeing Bizunesh Sisay's silent tears, it was a welcome sight watching another baby, not yet so malnourished, grasp the silver packet of plumpy-nut and eagerly lick the nutritious paste. The health workers explained that this baby would improve very quickly.

It had been a complex and difficult job working with the local government to bring this system into their local health systems. It took tough negotiations to convince them it would work, and then to ensure the logistics would be consistent. But now it has made it possible for us to scale up and, working in collaboration with local structures, treat the thousands of seriously malnourished people who have began to queue up across Wolayita - one of the most affected areas in this current food crisis.


Also in openDemocracy on food crises in Africa and beyond:

Simon Roughneen, "Hard to believe your eyes: drought in Kenya and Ethiopia" (15 May 2006),

Carlos Reyes-Manzo, "Ethiopia: digging for blue gold" (2 October 2006),

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

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

Heidi Fritschel "The price of food: ingredients of a global crisis" (9 April 2008),

Amélie Gauthier, "Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics" (21 April 2008),

Paul Rogers, "The world's food insecurity" (29 April 2008),

Tony Curzon Price, "The food economy's missing link" (2 May 2008),

Stephan Haggard, Marcus Noland & Eric Weeks, "North Korea: the next famine" (20 May 2008),

Simon Maxwell, "Rome's food summit: a torch passed" (6 June 2008),

Sue Branford, "The world food summit: a lost opportunity" (10 June 2008)

The price of delay

In Shashago I saw a beautiful young woman with huge, limpid dark eyes. She was sitting waiting with her old mother (a rare sight in Ethiopia where life expectancy for women is in the mid-40s). The health worker approached the young woman, gently lifted her sleeve and measured her too slender upper arm. Yes, she was underweight and needed supplementary food, but it would not arrive till the following Wednesday - and today was Friday. He touched her head and said that she had a fever. They had no treatment; antibiotics had to be saved for the smallest and sickest.

I asked to see her twins, their tiny heads topped with brightly coloured home- knitted bonnets. I guessed that they were a few weeks old; she explained that they were five months old. Her old mother was feeding one with a battered old bottle. I asked why, and she explained that she had been unable to feed them as her milk had dried up; this, like her stunted babies, was a consequence of malnutrition. There was no alternative to the borrowed bottle and a feed of sugared water - the luxury of formula-and-clean-water was an impossibility. She desperately pleaded for something, some of the plumpy-nut, but it cannot be used for such young babies. The only hope for her babies would be the delivery of the vitamin-enriched cornmeal, due to be delivered more than half a week away. She was reluctant to leave the modest health centre, despite the workers there explaining that they could not do any more for her now; so this sick, hungry, and desperate woman just stayed seated, summoning up her strength for the long journey home.

She gestured us over when she saw us taking photographs, and pointed at her twins, their still pale and delicate faces wrinkled and yellowish. It was an invitation to photograph them, perhaps knowing how fragile their future was. She had the strength to smile when she saw her twins' image on the digital camera.

She should start to produce breast milk when the supplementary food arrives. It should be there by Wednesday: hopefully the twins will hold on; hopefully the supply chain will hold up; hopefully we can find the money to keep buying the essential life-giving supplies; hopefully we can keep more babies and children alive. But every day is a race to match our budgets to the ferocious daily rises in food prices.

Aine, our warm and experienced country director, a nurse by training and a development expert for over twenty years, has worked in Ethiopia many times since the 1980s. She explained to us the consequence of these price rises. The week before we arrived the price of Famix, the vitamin-enriched supplementary mix, had gone up from $775 on Friday to $915 per metric ton by Tuesday. How do you plan or budget in those circumstances? How do you ensure a steady supply of food supplements when it is a race to get the order down the line from Addis to Wolayita before the next price rise?

Berket Kebele, who is 28, was waiting at our food-distribution centre. His handsome face is drawn and thin. He explained to me his daily regimen: a handful of roasted beans for breakfast; no lunch - despite a four-hour walk each day to get to his field to farm; and for dinner, some corn, washed down with coffee which lessens the hunger-pangs. His small son, Barakal, had the swollen feet and face that are the dreadful signifiers of oedema in kwashiorkor, extreme malnutrition. Others are eating just one "meal" a day: some cornmeal - and nothing else.

"Every life we can"

Why is Wolayita suffering so much? The government is trying. It has introduced a safety-net system - with beans and other basics bring made available to the neediest - but they are overwhelmed. The amounts are not enough, the numbers are out of control, and the failed spring belg rains have done their cruel work. So is the "real" answer: a natural disaster, or climate change; the price rises; the cost of fuel; the spread of bio-fuels; reckless financial gamblers taking a "punt' on basic foodstuffs; or the determination of those in the rich world to protect the cosseted lives and cars which "eat" food as fuel, whilst those small children, who need fuelling, suffer, starve, die?

Whatever the reasons, the responsibility is ours now too. Mulangetti, our passionate and determined programme manager, says to me in Wolayita: "we must save every life we can". From his tiny rented room in the servants' quarters behind the landlord's house in Bedesa, he is working early, staying late, uncomplaining as generators fail, fuel supplies falter, food prices escalate, queues of hungry and desperate people get longer. He, his team, the local health workers and the communities themselves, work so hard, racing against the clock as prices race ahead, to get vital, lifesaving food into the mouths of those hungry babies, those who most desperately need nourishing - and need it now.

The right and wrong fix: Afghan lessons for Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe might be entering into an "open moment". After what has turned out to be a presidential election with just one candidate, the situation could swiftly move from the coronation of the incumbent, Robert Mugabe, to a transition beyond him. The accumulating criticism of the unaccountable power and brutality of the regime he leads, particularly (as Roger Southall outlines in openDemocracy) from Zimbabwe's neighbours and Mugabe's erstwhile allies, is creating momentum for a post-Mugabe order: one where Zimbabweans are offered the opportunity of genuine citizenship, where they will become bearers of rights and obligations specified in a stable regime of laws.

Zimbabwe’s election: an African appeal


It is crucial for the interests of both Zimbabwe and Africa that the elections on 27 June 2008 are free and fair.

Zimbabweans fought for liberation in order to be able to determine their own future. Great sacrifices were made during the liberation struggle. To live up to the aspirations of those who sacrificed, it is vital that nothing is done to deny the legitimate expression of the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

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