Friday, May 30, 2008

Lansana Conte: Old man and the sea

There’s a part of me that has to hand it to Lansana Conte and his henchmen in Guinea Conakry. Like Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea, he’s used his country’s wealth – in his case minerals like bauxite and uranium – to tell Western governments, international community, various NGOs and their finger-waving ways to bugger off.

What interests me here is not another round of quotes full of fire and brimstone from Conte himself, who like Mugabe is appears to be nothing short of politically brilliant and even more so when the castle walls appear to be crumbling down around him. In sports, they call that good play in the clutch. But this isn’t a game: As evil genius as this stuff may be, it’s never pretty to watch – somebody has to clean up after these guys – and I suppose a million times less thrilling to live through.

It’s an old cliché, of course, but this is another story of “persevering” West Africans who get by with very little in a very rich state mismanaged by malignant rulers. While this narrative may sound familiar to regular followers of Nigeria – the poster child of the resource curse – and perhaps those in Gabon, it’s not how the press usually tabs Guinea.

The more I think about it, then, perhaps there’s more to this Guinea-Zimbabwe axis than a simple comparison. We’re talking a deep history here. At least until the 1950s. Even with all his faults and susceptibility into a cult-of-personality-style fascism, most anyone will look beyond the faults of Sékou Touré, the one African independence-era leader who had the cojones to tell Charles de Gaulle where he could stick his colonies and his French-controlled African currency.

But today’s Lansana Conte is no Sekou Toure of yesterday. While the public hangings may have been cute during the Cold War, it doesn’t have to happen in this day and age. Or so we tell ourselves. And, that’s most likely the rub: Governance indicators are now all the rage; Even institutions like the World Bank are on hand to prod leaders to at least present a nice face in front of their populace. But for Conte and his henchmen, life continues pretty much apace.

Looking at the granular lives of Guineans, you have to wonder whether the last four generations only concentrated on getting by while these leaders with airy, global ideas of revolution and grievances of “Western neocolonialism” went about their business. I am guessing here, but things most likely worked for most people as long as the demands of the populace – functioning schools, acceptable medical facilities, maybe some traffic lights – happen to coincide with those of the ruling class. The problem starts when these humble requests become somehow at odds with that same ruling class. Which has pretty much been the case in Guinea on and off for the past few years.

At this moment, it would be offensive to rub peoples’ nose in it, but one has to ask: People of Guinea, after 23 years in power, you didn’t really think that Conte was serious about “democracy” and “good governance” and “political legitimacy” did you?

Those of us who like to paint with broad strokes, it’s easy to claim that every government in West Africa is either evil, corrupt, incompetent or just plain morally broke. The poor saps who happened to be born outside the statehouse, on the other hand, do what they can to get by. For some of us, this simple understanding is what makes West Africa fun. For others, that’s when the dizzying narratives of foreigners become too much: they all have the same atmosphere of living in a strange zoo or at some twisted social experiment. So be it.

In Burkina, there’s been a lot of talk about Nigerians and Congolese, two of the most “industrious” people on the continent. These are the folks who make the most of out nothing because their governments are so inhumanely flawed and cynical that they can get away without providing the most fundamental of service. I have a friend who claims political change boils down to responsibility, and most West Africans, completely lack the necessary gumption. More so, they lack the guts, he says, the courage to stand up and say something, anything, to their collective governments and hold them accountable for their rule. And let’s be honest, there’s a lot better, less brutal governments than the Conte regime.

Here in Burkina Faso, it was Blaise Compaore who carried the 2005 Presidential election with 80 percent of the vote, an “electoral spanking” as his erstwhile campaign chief proclaimed. Just three years later, it’s the same Compaore who’s being blamed for turning his back on his people as food prices – and other goods – climbed an average 40 percent in the opening months of 2008. The question my friend asks: Blaise has spent 20 years in power; did Burkinabé think he was going to change and start caring about them? A bit skeptical, I admit: it’s improbable. He says: Exactly.

People here sold their votes for a t-shirt, he says. And he may be right about that – Blaise did hand out many nicely minted souvenirs. Now they are mad at another supposed do-nothing, care-nothing president. But what did they expect when they’ve never really held him to any of his promises. Come to think about it, I don’t remember Blaise making any promises. He just came out and implied that he’d offer more of the same – poverty, yes; but a tangible amount of stability and the suggestion of a working government. And you know what: These things are important. Perhaps I’ve been here too long, but the only thing people here say that’s somewhat truthful: Poverty is so bad here only God can cure it. So why not vote for more material and secular needs like ethnic tranquility and law and order? The people of Guinea Conakry would love to.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

ForeignCorrespondence: This time it’s for real

I've been busy for the past few weeks.

Queue guitar, drums and keyboards: How does it feel … to be on your own, no destination home, a complete unknown… and in a foreign prison? It’s funny you bring that up, Children of ’68, because Law & Order is the very topic we tackle in this first edition of ForeignCorrespondence, where good travel writing goes to die.

Thanks to a gracious grant from a much higher place, the people at ForeignCorrespondence have been charged with covering a single topic through a whole gambit of narratives from different venues and viewpoints. We may mix and match our sources and media, but our underlying raison d’etre remains true: The bipolar world of the local and the glibly international must converge somewhere. We’ll cover the individual and her epic quest, fighting off unmerciful global trends, the hydra-heads of globalization, migration, AIDS, rough-neck neighbors, stinky sewers, disease, war and, of course, bad discos.

Fight on, brave warrior as if the soul of the human race is at stake.

Pretty thrilling, huh?

Here’s a sample of our first issue:

The Saga of the Bali Nine
Is spending some good quality time in an Indonesian jail for heroin smuggling the only way to learn a little about yourself? For a few members of the Bali Nine, it may be the only way. They’ll have a long time to learn self-knowledge: They’re mostly under 30 and six of the nine are facing life in prison. Theirs is a tragic story where, it appears, the glamour of drug smuggling meets the realities of drug laws. Read More

Behind the Walls
Crime is up – nearly everywhere. So are prison populations. But isn’t it time we asked what goes on behind the walls of the world’s correctional institutions, easily the dreariest places on the planet. We'll peek inside a couple. Since we’re thinking about it, we also ask: What ever happened to prisoner rehabilitation? Read More

Busted Abroad
You’ve been apprehended in a foreign country. Of course, we understand that you're completely innocent. But will your government? That depends. Read More

What happens when they put a criminal in charge?
If criminals are merely egocentrics who happen to rebel against society, what happens when a criminal (or criminals) run a society? Africa has surely changed in the past decades, but the question remains pertinent. Here's a few things you need to know about Omar Bongo of Gabon. Read More

We’re always looking for like-minded followers. Or just people who may have a story or some photos to share. Please let us know. We can be reached at: info (at) foreigncorrespondence (dot) net

Remember the re-launch of ForeignCorrespondence coincides with the debut of Web 2.2.5(a): This time it’s for real – only butt kickers need apply.

Most sincerely,

The Collective
Travel writing gone bad

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

FAO predicts record rice harvest

From Washington Post:

World rice production will hit a record high this year, but increasing demand and restrictions on exports will keep prices high, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said Monday.

Global prices of staple foods have risen more than 40 percent in the past year, leading to shortages, hoarding and riots in some developing countries. Rice prices have soared 76 percent since December, and world stocks are at their lowest since the early 1980s.

Concepción Calpe, a senior economist at the Rome-based FAO, said that according to preliminary forecasts, world production this year could grow by about 2.3 percent, reaching a record of 666 million tons. "Prices are expected to remain extremely firm, at least until the third quarter of 2008, unless restrictions on exports are eased in the coming months," she said.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Zimbabwe: Free(d) Davison Maruziva

Yesterday, Zimbabwean police arrested independent editor Davison Maruziva for publishing an Op-Ed piece on April 20 by a prominent opposition politician. Also arrested were two trade union officials. Maruziva has been charged with publishing false statements and contempt of court.

As of yet, Maruziva’s newspaper, the Standard, has not ran an update on his legal situation.

In early February, I had the chance to interview Maruziva a few times during his trip to the United States to cover the U.S. primaries. I found him to be not only very friendly and talkative, but a very gifted thinker on politics in the United States and in Zimbabwe. My thoughts go out to him and his family.

Update: Here is part of piece Maruziva wrote about his time in prison before he was placed on bail. It's from the Zimbabwe Standard:

Eventually they were informed the "decision to detain me overnight had already been made".

Upon insistence they were told the instruction was from the Attorney-General’s office.

Chibebe, Matombo and I were taken to the holding cells. There, we met some of the finest and most professional of officers.

Then to the dungeons. At night we were herded into the cells. We had agreed — Chibebe, Matombo and I — that we would remain together and look after each other. The only form of lighting was in the stairway. The cells were pitch black; there was no water, certainly for the duration of my stay there and the cells were heavily infested with fleas and other creepy-crawlies.

We spent the night standing in order to minimise contact with the walls or the "beds". It is probably part of the humiliating punishment for suspects. But there is a health time bomb waiting to explode.

However, our worst fears were confirmed when the officers for the morning duty came to open our cells on Friday. Chibebe, Matombo and I were accused of mobilising other suspects into challenging the officers. As a warning, three other suspects were beaten. The use of excessive force was chilling. While I was granted bail on Friday, I fear for Chibebe and Matombo, because one of the four officers threatened them dire consequences.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The secret behind low food prices

Maybe a command economy isn’t so bad, after all. Just days after a Gambian newspaper claimed that even with a poor rice crop, the country wasn’t going to face the food price crisis afflicting the rest of the region – and much of the world.

Now we find out why: Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh won’t let rice traders sell the commodity at high prices. So far, rice importers are going along with it, saying rice stocks are plentiful and there is no need to start a panic by buying a lot.

From Reuters:

"I will use electric broom or send businessmen to jail, those who are bent on selling rice at 1,000 dalasi," Jammeh told residents in the northern town of Farafenni, some 120 km (75 miles) inland from the coastal capital Banjul.

"If anyone is selling a bag of rice at 900 dalasi, take him to police, it is unlawful," Jammeh said.

"Electric broom" is a phrase sometimes used in Gambia to describe Jammeh's propensity to fire officials at will. Jammeh has previously threatened to lock up journalists and shut down their newspapers if he felt he had good reason.

Rumble in the Jungle II: Taylor beats out Mobutu?

It’s not everyday Liberians can be proud of their former leaders, writes Alien in Liberia. But they received some good news the other day: During former President Charles Taylor’s war crime trial, prosecutor Stephen Rapp alleged he maintained more than $5 billion in two separate U.S.-based bank accounts.

This puts his embezzlement higher than the previously-thought world champion: Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire.

Alien in Liberia also does the math comparing these embezzlement rates to their respective country's GDP. Check it out.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Dredge it and they will come? Plan hatched to help Niger River

Since the early 1980s, the Niger River has experienced a 55 percent decrease in flow, driving down fish stocks and making navigation difficult. Scientists blame that on industrial waste, increasing population demands and climate change.

As Africa’s third largest river, where nearly 110 million people live in its basin, the mighty Niger begins in tropical Guinea and snakes through Sahelien Mali, desert-like Niger and arid and coastal Nigeria. Its health also affects populations in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Chad and Cameroon. The onset of desertification has seriously influenced the Sahelian states and has also contributed to the lower stream flow.

Last month, nine countries that live on the 4,200 km basin hatched an $8 billion, 20-year plan to help restore a little life in the Niger. They will do so with a series of reforesting plans, projects to rehab the plains abutting the river and dredging silt from the river bed. Constructing hydro-electric dams have also been included in the program as well as transport and river fishing regulations.

Funds, you ask? Yeah, the nine governments have secured nearly one-fifth of the total budget. The Islamic Development Bank has promised to build two dams – one in Niger and the second in Mali. For the rest, the countries hope to raise a large portion of the funds at a donor’s conference in June. Mark you calendars.