Monday, December 31, 2007

Religious leader's death offers insight to Mouride brotherhood

From Reuters:

The leader of Senegal's powerful Mouride Muslim brotherhood has died at the age of 92, throwing into mourning a movement that holds huge influence and whose trade networks span the globe.

The brotherhood is the biggest centre of religious, economic and political influence in the mainly Muslim country in West Africa, and counts among its followers octogenarian President Abdoulaye Wade.

Caliph Serigne Saliou Mbacke died on Friday in Senegal's holiest city Touba, known to some as "little Mecca".

The Mourides
There are a couple takes on Mourides who follow the teachings of Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a Senegalese mystic and spiritual leader who died in the 1920s. This “Servant of the Prophet,” as he is known amongst his followers, led a pacifist struggle against French rule while “renewing” Muslim traditions through a series of poems, writings on meditation, work and Koranic study. His main beliefs include that one does not fight with weapons, but through submission to marabouts – Islamic teachers – and hard work.

More orthodox Muslims claim the group’s hazy teachings and veneration of Amadou Bamba, sometimes to the neglect of the Prophet Muhammad, skirts the fine-line of heresy. Also, some of the Mourides’ minor sects worry believers. For example, the group Baye Fall whose members wear dreadlocks, dress in rags and can be exempt from Muslim edicts of praying five times a day and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

Social reformers in West Africa have begun questioning the increase of talibés (garabouts elsewhere in West Africa), young male Koranic students who spend their days walking with large tomato paste cans begging for food and money, which go directly to their marabouts. As population (and poverty) increases in rural Sengal, more families send their children to these marabouts, some of whom are not interested in teaching koranic verses, but earning a livelihood through the talibés’ money through begging.

Anti Colonial
While he never engaged the French militarily, the colonial rulers wearied of Amadou Bamba’s growing power and exiled him to Gabon and later Mauritania. Eventually he was allowed to return home, after the authorities realized Bamba was not interested in fighting their power (he eventually helped enlist followers in the French cause during World War I).

Many commentators note that the group’s insistence on hard work allowed them to control many aspects of economic life in Senegal, where believers make up nearly one-third of the population. For example, much of the country’s groundnut market was controlled by Mourides for decades. When prices of the crop bottomed out, followers left the countryside for Senegal’s cities (and some went abroad).

However, the group keeps its faith in hard work, leading one news organization to claim that the group is financially supported by followers selling fake Prada bags from Hong Kong to Rome to New York. This dedication to work and commerce has turned Amadou Bemba’s birthplace, Touba from a dusty village into the capital of a global business network. Each year, an estimated one million people make a pilgrimage to Touba.

Mourning period
Caliph Serigne Saliou Mbacke was the last living son of Amadou Bemba. His body was buried in Touba before his death was announced. President Abdoulaye Wade called for a three-day mourning period, which ends today. The Associated Press reports that an estimated four million people will visit Mbacke’s grave.

Friday, December 28, 2007

1.2 million children in Ghana engaged in workforce

From Ghana Broadcasting Corporation:

More than 1.2m children are engaged in child labour out of the 2.4m economically active children in Ghana. The National Programmes Coordinator of the International Labour Organization, Matthew Dally, who made this known this at a child labour workshop in Kumasi, expressed grave concern about the continuous abuse of child rights in the country.

He said any work performed by a person below the age of 18, which deprives him of the basic human rights, and is exploitative and harmful to the development of the child is not permissible.

He noted however, that the causes of child labour are primarily rooted in poverty, created by social and economic inequality as well as inadequate educational facilities.

Tuaregs and Mali come closer to reconciliation; some soldiers freed

From Agence France Presse:

Taureg rebels in northern Mali have agreed to free 10 of 36 soldiers they took hostage in August, a Malian official said Thursday in the wake of an announcement from the president's office.

"Ten of the 36 Malian hostages will be handed over on Friday from Algeria at an official ceremony in Tinzaoutene," in the Kidal region near Mali's northern desert border with Algeria, the official in a committee that monitors accords between the government and ex-rebels told AFP.

"The release of the other hostages will take place soon, thanks to mediation by Libya," added the official, who asked not to be named.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

West Africa: The immigrants' dream?

From the New York Times.

Across the developing world, migrants move to other poor countries nearly as often as they move to rich ones. Yet their numbers and hardships are often overlooked.

They typically start poorer than migrants to rich countries, earn less money and are more likely to travel illegally, which raises the odds of abuse. They usually move to countries that offer migrants less legal protection and fewer services than wealthy nations do. Yet their earnings help sustain some of the poorest people on the globe.

There are 74 million “south to south” migrants, according to the World Bank, which uses the term to describe anyone moving from one developing country to another, regardless of geography. The bank estimates that they send home $18 billion to $55 billion a year. (The bank also estimates that 82 million migrants have moved “south to north,” or from poor countries to rich ones.)

Good walls make good neighbors
The story is told from the Massacre River, the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It’s a sad and violent tale where the Dominican Republic is much more developed (and less troubled) than its neighbor, whose people face great obstacles attempting to find work outside the country. (From the story: Per capita income in the Dominican Republic is $2,850; in Haiti it is $480.)

Viewing the story from a West African context, the reality is much different. There’s a lot of reasons for this. Unlike the island of Hispaniola, the West African sub-region largely shares a common colonial tongue and a similar history. This has made it easier for migrants to look at West Africa as a single unit where goods and people moved freely, allowing West African countries to become simultaneous immigration, emigration and transit countries.

“[The] Colonial period provoked large-scale labour migration required for plantations, mines and public administration beyond local supply,” Aderanti Adepoju wrote in his UNESCO study, Creating a Borderless West Africa: Constraints and Prospects for Intra-Regional Migration. This brought people to places like Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal and the Gambia. It also underscored the reality that coastal countries (by and large) were richer than their Sahelian counterparts to the north. (However, this economic disparity is nowhere near the intensity as exists between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. That’s because no country in West Africa is nearly as affluent as the Dominican Republic – or, sadly, Haiti.)

After independence the countries created ECOWAS, the economic community of Anglophone, Lusaphone and Francophone West African states, whose charter codifies that member citizens can move across other borders with just an identity card.

This union hasn’t exactly faced perfect harmony. Issues between Nigeria and Ghana have lead to the forced repatriation of respective immigrants from both countries. After years of welcoming economic immigrants from the entire sub-region, Cote d’Ivoire got a case of xenophobia in the mid-1990s and began blaming the very immigrants that built the country for its economic troubles. Issues have occasionally cropped up between Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Senegal’s Casamance region. Ditto for Mauritania and Senegal. We could list many more of these outbreaks, of course, but for the most part, people in West Africa enjoy free movement.

One issue that is often left unsaid is that immigration from one country often begets more immigration. After a few members of the same village in Burkina Faso found work in Niamey, it seemed the rest of the village moved to Niger’s capital. Today, they have a small neighborhood to themselves. Ghanaians have also moved to Ouagadougou to increase trading opportunities, bringing with them their food and other customs (read: beer). In Accra, Francophone friendly neighborhoods have long been active. Togolese seem to have spread throughout the entire region, escaping decades of brutal rule and extremely limited economic opportunities (which is saying a lot in this neighborhood).

Send them your poor, huddled masses
Another often unspoken issue: Do political leaders support immigration because it rids them of would-be rabble rousers and brings them workers with few rights? This is one argument against Mexican immigration to the United States. Migration acts as a political safety valve and allows Mexico’s reforms to remain half-baked because many Mexicans most impatient for change simply move north. Does this happen in West Africa? With the Burkinabé expatriate community said to number near five million, has the government simply allowed the best and brightest to move elsewhere? For the most part Togolese, Nigeriens and Malians have taken their place – but with few rights and no political representation. (Urban renewal seems to frequently target neighborhoods with high foreign-born populations.)

The one question facing West Africa is how long can these immigrants stay? While immigrants have been promised full residency, Adepoju claims that ECOWAS countries have yet to figure out how to fulfill that promise. Even with coastal countries still relatively more affluent than those bordering the Sahara, West African immigrants continue to find work throughout the sub-region. (The region’s growing economies may make this task easier.) Eventually, it seems, these immigrants return home. This may be due to economic downturn and natives force immigrants away; sometimes it’s just time to go home again. ECOWAS may not offer a perfect solution – but looking at the issues facing richer and more developed Hispaniola – West African immigration seems to work a lot better.

The end comes quickly in Chad 'adopt-an-orphan' affair

You can’t call Chadian justice slow. Nor can you say it’s not thorough.

In what began as a sad farce ended in tragedy. After a speedy four-day trial, a court of Chad convicted six French aid workers for kidnapping more than 100 local children and trying to deliver them without permission to European families. For the next seven years, the days of the aid workers will become increasingly busy as they fulfill their sentence of hard labor.

The court, which according to the U.S. State Dept. is not known for its autonomy from the country’s ruler Idriss Deby, also convicted a Sudanese and a local Chadian for complicity. They will each serve four-year terms. Two other locals were found innocent.

The French defendants will also pay 4.12 billion CFA (€6.3 million) to the families of the children, who told the court the relief organization was taking their children educate them in a different part of the country.

An auspicious beginning
This tale began in October when members of a French NGO, L’Arche de Zoé, were arrested trying to fly 103 children, ages about one to ten, whom they termed “orphans from Darfur,” to Europe for medical treatment. At an airport east of Paris, families from France and Belgium who had paid nearly $2,000 waited expectantly for their newly adopted refugee children.

They never made it. The Chadian authorities had caught the group as it was leaving for the airport. Some of the children were found to have bloody bandages and IVs stuck in their arms. None of these were real.

According to the Washington Post, Souleymane Ibrahim Adam, the Sudanese also found guilty, testified in court he had deceived the French aid workers by telling them that some of the children were actually refugees. However, one member of the L’Arche de Zoé admitted in court that several mothers traveled to the group’s headquarters in eastern Chad demanding their children back.

Cowboy ethics
Part of the reason for the harsh sentence was that Eric Bretau, the founder of L’Arche de Zoé, had never shown any remorse, said the prosecutor Philippe Houssine. "On the contrary, he (Breteau) displays an arrogant, insolent attitude, which means this is a person who is ready to do it again if asked," Houssine was quoted in The Independent.

To some, this may be a story of humanitarianism gone awry. Even his own government portrayed Bretau and his minions as wacky True Believers bent on carrying out their good deeds at any cost. The actions of the six aid workers most likely say a lot more about the rest of us than we care to admit. How many people don’t wish they were more cavalier or possessed more of that cowboy spirit that gives them license to disregard customs, damn the law and whoever impedes getting things done?

The more self-assured of us point out that history is on the side of those swimming against the current; they’ll proudly invoke the names of Einstein or Voltaire or Ghandi. But there’s something to be said for the moral wallflowers; those content to stand on the sidelines, respect the way some things are, move at a snail’s pace. Not every mission is a harbinger for the end of the world. Not every issue is do or die. Not every skinny African kid is a refugee. This middle path may be dull and not obtain the flashy triumphs, but it does allow us the chance to look before we leap.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

How much love is too much: Overpopulation in Niger

In terms of human population, the first one billion is the hardest to attain. In fact, it took from those halcyon days in the Garden of Eden up to the year 1810 AD – all of human history until that point – for human population to reach one billion people. By 1930 AD, the planet’s population doubled. Some 45 years later – 1975 – it doubled again, allowing four billion people to refer to the earth as home. Today, roughly 6.7 billion people can say that.

On a global scale, there are many reasons for the burgeoning population. Public health has improved over time, so fewer babies (on average) are dying and less elderly people are passing away in later ages. Food production has also increased, allowing countries to sustain larger populations.

Niger, however, appears to be a special case. Most astonishing is that on average, Nigerien mothers bear 7.37 children, the second-most prolific rate in the world. The country does suffer from one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates, but this has been steadily dropping for the past decade. On the other hand, Niger possesses one of the lowest life expectancy rates, especially troubling for a country with a relatively low HIV/AIDS prevalence rate. (Other infectious diseases appear to be the problem.)

Using World Bank and United Nations funding, the government of Niger would like to sensitize people on the problems caused by mushrooming population. According to Agence France Presse, their steps would be to:

…A demographer and economist from the population ministry, Bassirou Garba, explained that the government's plan is to bring the number of children per woman down to five by 2015.Bring the number of children per woman down to five by 2015.

It intends to achieve this by promoting family planning and aims to have 11 percent of women using some form of contraception by 2015.

One major obstacle to the promotion of family planning is that 59 percent of all marriages in Niger involve girls under the age of 15, Garba said.

Another of the government's aims is to bring this percentage down to 11.

Together these measures should enable the government to get demographic growth down to 2.2 per cent annually, according to official projections.

To succeed, the government will have to overcome serious resistance from Islamic clerics opposed to contraception and from traditionalists who favour early mariage, UN sources say.

The many-headed Hydra beast that is AFRICOM

The proposed U.S. military base in Africa – AFRICOM – has once again reared its hydra head(s) and returned to the front pages of Africa’s newspapers. For those who don’t remember, AFRICOM is a new military command devoted solely to military relations with the continent of Africa, which used to be split up into three different military commands. (A side note: Egypt will not be part of AFRICOM.)

The sticking point, in the eyes of many Africans, is the U.S. military’s desire to station U.S. soldiers somewhere on the continent, “where they can meet face-to-face with their counterparts in African governments and nongovernmental organizations.” The U.S. military currently has official relations with countries in the Sahel and Sahara region, part of the six-year $500 million Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans Sahara.

If this base gets the OK from an African nation – which remains somewhat of a long shot – it will become the second U.S. military base in Africa, after Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, which the U.S. government claims holds some 800 special operations troops who combine to do anti-terrorist fighting and small scale development work.

Don’t ask no questions
So, to the press thing. First, the Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, who had been so stridently opposed to placing a second U.S. military base on the continent, seemed to change his tune after a brief trip to the White House. Making things worse, once he returned to Nigerian soil, Yar’Adua abruptly switched sides again, setting off a series of cascading denials and clarifications, all very well documented by Grandoise Parlor.

One oddity in Grandoise Parlor’s post: President Yar’Adua’s infamous quote from VOA – “We shall partner [sic] AFRICOM to assist not only Nigeria but also the African continent to actualise its peace and security initiatives.” – is not present in web version of the December 13 VOA story, although a strong rebuttal remains in the December 16 follow-up. What happened to the quote? Did VOA excise it after the fact? Or, was the quote taken from VOA Hausa service and then elaborated upon for discussion? Nonetheless, everyone in Nigeria appears to agree that President Umaru Yar’Adua may have – however briefly – altered his position on AFRICOM in the presence of U.S. President George Bush.

In the labyrinth that is Nigerian politics, here is a plausible account from Is'haq Modibbo Kawu in Abuja’s Daily Trust of how the U.S. government twisted Yar’Adua’s arm on this matter.

America had been scandalised by the level of fraud which Obasanjo, PDP and INEC perpetrated in the April 2007 elections, and it joined the world to describe the emergence of President Umar Yar'Adua as flawed. While recognizing him as the de-facto president, the Americans also continued to treat him as a president who faces a legitimacy challenge. On the other hand, Umar Ya'Adua and his handlers needed the imprimatur of the only imperialist super power, the USA, to shore up his image in the international scene. It seemed that the USA decided to withhold that imprimatur, calculating rightly, that it would be offered along the line, as a quid pro quo! The opportunity came with the stiff African resistance to the AFRICOM idea. When Nigeria also expressed the rejection of an imperialist military outpost on our continent, the Americans went for the legitimacy challenge which Malam Umaru Yar'Adua faces. We will invite you to Washington only on the grounds that you will accept to collaborate with us on this doggone business of AFRICOM! It was an offer too tempting to reject and off to Washington did our man go; and as they say, the rest is history.

[A primer on Nigeria's 2007 elections can be found here.]

The bottom line is that while the U.S. would like to protect its oil interests in the Niger Delta, the Bush administration understands (or should understand) a majority of Nigerians oppose a foreign military base within their borders. Why? There’s the question of national sovereignty in the face of perceived U.S. hegemony, of course. Also on the minds of many Africans is the belief that U.S. bases could become targets for the country’s growing list of enemies.

First we take Liberia, then we take Nigeria
In Liberia, which admittedly has closer cultural ties to the United States, the rhetoric around AFRICOM doesn’t appear to be as negative. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is certainly not opposed to the idea.

Some Liberians may even go further. They may see the idea of basing AFRICOM on their soil as an assurance their rattled infrastructure (and economy) could be rebuilt with the help of U.S. forces. Even more optimistic Liberians may hope the setting of U.S. troops may dissuade the forces of instability that could enter the country during its prolonged phase of reconstruction.

From Scott Morgan of Confused Eagle:

If the US Places AFRICOM in Liberia what will the benefits be? At the very least, the infrastructure that has been demolished by roughly two decades of internal strife will be repaired. This includes bridges and roads that are in dire need of repair at this time. Water treatment plants and other facilities can also be repaired rather quickly with US assistance. The US can also rapidly deploy troops to avert further escalation of violence in times of crisis.

The downside of having US forces in the region is that it will paint a huge bull’s-eye on the country. Al-Qaida already struck two US embassies in Africa in 1998. And US Forces did clash with Islamist Militias in Somalia back in 1993. The battle of Mogadishu was discussed in the Excellent book Black Hawk Down. An increased US Presence could lead to US Personnel being kidnapped for financial Profits as well. Who knows what other problems that US forces will create as well.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Oil boom: Will Ghana look before it leaps?

Ghana's president said Saturday that offshore oil reserves discovered in the West African country's waters total 3 billion barrels.

From Associated Press:

"Ghana has struck oil in commercial quantities," President John Kufuor said, speaking at a ruling party congress in the capital, Accra. "This is only the beginning. The future is very bright indeed."

Hmm. Before getting into oil’s great gift for social and economic instability or the tremendous amount of human oil leeches (as a friend puts it) who will uproot and plant themselves in Ghana, spreading cynicism and disease everywhere in their wakes, let’s first talk about what these numbers represent:

If the three billion barrel number is correct, it would put Ghana a tad below the world’s top twenty largest oil reserves, which account for up to 95 percent of the planet’s total. Not too bad. But still 10 times less than Nigeria’s reserves, and almost 100 times less than Saudi Arabia, time and again the world’s proven leader in black gold.

The three billion barrel amount puts Ghana in tune with countries like Vietnam, Yemen and Syria, states not altogether known for oil production. On the other hand, Gabon has less documented reserves than Kufor states Ghana has, but the country seems to get along with little else than petroleum and the work of expatriate Africans.

On first glance, Ghana shouldn’t be cashing in all its casino chips in hopes of hitting the big time. All other issues being equal, oil can possibly help a country – especially when a barrel of crude runs at $85. It will take much prudence from the government, however, to resist turning a pretty good success story into another nightmare.

Niger: French journalists could face death penalty

From Agence France Presse:

Two French pressmen arrested in Niger while working for the Franco-German TV station Arte could face the death penalty after being charged with "intelligence" with a Tuareg rebel group.

Their lawyer said Saturday that the charges levelled against journalist Thomas Dandois and cameraman Pierre Creisson were "a serious setback for liberty and the rule of law."

They were formally accused Friday of "intelligence with armed groups," after allegedly ignoring a ban on journalists visiting the restive north of the country to interview leaders of the Movement of Niger People for Justice (MNJ).

Lawyer Moussa Coulibaly, who also represents two local journalists accused of links with the MNJ, said, "To my knowledge, no legal action has been taken against (the group's leaders), but anyone who has even remote contact with them is prosecuted for the most serious crimes."

Coulibaly said the case could take "a long time" to come to trial.

Here is something of a primer on what the journalists did to raise the ire of Nigerien authorities.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Literature Review: Guinea-Bissau on drugs

Literature Review: Guinea-Bissau

What the press – from both sides of the pond – is saying about Guinea-Bissau

Literature Review is an occasional series investigating how the U.S. press covers an African country or issue.

Think of the following list of films. Scarface, Midnight Express, Traffic, Another Day in Paradise, Goodfellas and the recent release, American Gangster. If the business of America is business, the business of Hollywood seems to be the drug business. Of course, without an eager audience, Hollywood flaks wouldn’t be bending over backwards telling these often dreary and lurid tales.

It’s not that the Europeans lack good drug movies – no, the French Connection doesn’t count. It’s just that mainstream American popular culture seems so much more fixated on the evils of drugs than their Europeans do. If I can generalize: Drugs in European popular culture are generally seen as a means (and a window dressing); whereas in the States, drug use is most often an ends.

If you were going to write a movie about this next story, would you rather have a flashy Hollywood screenwriter (I hear one may soon be available) or a European willing to pen a gritty screen play. Would the American look to write a morality tale? Would the European want to tell it as a slice of life? Most important to me: who would do the soundtrack?

As the success of Blood Diamonds proves, directors have found it’s easier to make serious films about Africa when the tragedy is safely ensconced in history. The problem with this tale is it exists in the present, and we don’t know how it will turn out.

History’s first draft
Thus, we’ll have to leave it to the journalists to give us their first draft of history. The quick take: The West African state of Guinea-Bissau, plagued by political and military instability since its freedom from Portugal in 1974, often cited as one of the world’s poorest countries, is now in a bitter fight over its territorial integrity since the arrival of assertive drug lords who have begun using the nation as a transit hub for European-bound cocaine. They have done so because this poor nation – which just celebrated the installation of its first two ATM machines – does not have the capability to police the nearly 90 uninhabited islands, rivers and mangrove swamps that make up its 400 mile border with the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, leaders of such a fledgling country can be found to be easily, shall we say, persuaded to look the other way.

American journalists, deft practitioners of gauging reader interest, are never one to shy away from a tale of thick plot lines and deep meaning. However, because the story takes place on Europe’s doorstep, so to speak, those from the continent have beaten their colleagues from Western Hemisphere to the punch. In fact, for a story that has been running for nearly six months, only one major American broadcast daily has filed a report on this subject matter: National Public Radio. Although Time magazine recently sent a reporter.

After reading stories from Reuters, the BBC webiste, The Independent, BBC radio, even IRIN, one is beaten over the head by the brutal paradoxes fashioned in Guinea-Bissau now that a ton of cocaine is transported nearly every day through its porous borders.

For example, the capital city Bissau’s infrastructure may be failing – every reporter does not fail noticing the deplorable shape of the roads – but an expanding and increasingly restless nouveau-riche busies itself by building fancy houses, driving around town in unmarked new 4x4s, hiring local security forces, partying in new fancy discos where one pays the rough equivalent of a hard day’s labor for a drink. One estimate puts 60 Colombians in Bissau, buying up businesses and generally throwing money around.

A dash of context
For those in need of context: A mere six ounces of cocaine is roughly equal to a year’s salary in Guinea-Bissau. It is said that traffickers move on average a 600 kilo shipment through the country every day, which is roughly equivalent to 20 percent of all foreign aid (in 2006 dollars), 14 percent of the country’s export revenues and three times the amount of foreign investment.

For those keeping score, we have the details of an emergent high class with their newfangled entertainments and statistics on the street sale of cocaine. Yet we have no proof that drug money is funding these new gadgets. Secondly, who says its Colombian drug money? For one, reporters breathlessly point out the details of the detention and subsequent liberty of two Colombians found with automatic weapons, explosives, a large amount of money and a diagram listing government and military members. One of the Colombians had already been convicted in the U.S. After a few weeks in detention – famously, the country has no prison – both men were freed on bond. If you’re surprised, the same thing happened a year before – only those two were caught with $25 million worth of blow. (That consists of my only street drug reference in this story.)

Just any facts, ma’am
One worry that cropped up while reading these stories is finding confirmation for facts. Getting anyone to talk about an illicit market – however large and powerful – must be difficult. But how sure are we that reporters double-check the facts given to them? It’s especially disheartening when the titles “Western intelligence sources” and United Nations Drug experts,” “top US Drug Enforcement Agency official” are substituted in stories and quotes for people with real names.

Let’s be honest here, these people are making pretty large claims. For example, this is “the worst drug trafficking problem we’ve ever encountered on the continent,” from the DEA guy. Even those people with names make some serious allegations. "The region is directly under attack, there is no other word which we can use," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Are we supposed to take their word for it?

The Reporters Without Borders investigation claimed that the main problem for local journalists – and foreign investigators – is that the drugs problem is Guinea-Bissau’s crazy aunt in the attic: the problem no one talks about in polite company. Fair enough. But, the NPR report provided lyrics to a local pop song about the houses people are building with the help of drug funds. Perhaps the best quote I heard from any story came from the BBC radio documentary, where the rector at Guinea-Bissau’s only university was asked about the complicity of the very powerful military with the alleged drug lords: “If they don’t know what is going on, then they are incompetent because it is their job to know what is going on. If they know, they are corrupted.”

I must wonder if reporters spending a little time here felt the same thing about everyone else in the country.

Hey Arlo, what rhymes with ‘flying into Guinea-Bissau?’
With appropriate caveats due to the issues of unverifiable facts noted above, here is how the so-called drug specialists claim cocaine has infected the country of Guinea-Bissau.

First, the drugs must get to Guinea-Bissau. One popular method, according to the press, is airplanes. Guinea-Bissau is pretty much a straight shot across the Atlantic from South America (read: Columbia), one reporter was told, making the journey easy for a small twin-engine aircraft to cross the ocean every night. This plane then lands on one of the many (BBC radio claims) small airstrips the Portuguese built during the colonial era on one of the largely uninhabited 90 islands dotting the country’s coastline. These planes touch down with roughly 800 kilograms of cocaine, a European street value of about $100 million.

Sometimes those planes land elsewhere. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has long questioned the complicity of the country’s military in the drug transfer. This office believes that an estimated 2.5 metric tons of cocaine has landed at a military airstrip. Their theory is bolstered by the fact that two soldiers were arrested in April in a car carrying 635 kilos of cocaine.

Another theory is that bags are literally thrown out of planes onto these uninhabited islands and then picked up by people in speed boats.

Boats are another method of transportation popular in many stories. Earlier this summer, Senegalese police found 2.5 tons of cocaine on a deserted sailing boat (along with plane tickets from Brazil to Bissau.) A BBC-made map shows that most of the cocaine seized throughout West Africa in the past three years has in fact been found at sea.

This has lead to the famous incident – famous because it has been retold in nearly every story – of local farmers a few years back found bags of a white powder floating in the sea. They took some for themselves, and then put the powder on their crops, only to watch in horror as the plants wilted and died. The smugglers, hearing of the packages, returned to the villages willing to buy the bags. Happily, the farmers’ harvest wasn’t ruined after all.

Once the cocaine makes it to Guinea-Bissau, reporters become a little fuzzy on what happens next. Most just claim it is transported to Europe, although some stories suggest it also goes “elsewhere” – but nobody has ever filled in that blank. Some stories claim most of the drugs leave by ship; light aircraft also deliver the drugs to market. A portion of the cocaine is carried with the same criminals who smuggle illegal immigrants to Europe. Also, like the drug distribution system to the U.S., some drugs are brought in by “mules.” A few stories hint that other West African states are also in on this racket.

Just say non
Only one story, from Reuters, noted the sticky fact that even though a guesstimated one-third of the total amount of cocaine entering Europe is shipped through West Africa, drug traffickers are merely meeting demand. The story points out that an estimated – the numbers monitoring drug use are most likely speculated upon as drug shipment data – 4.5 million Europeans used cocaine last year, a million more than the year before.

From information I have, cocaine is Europe’s second most popular drug, after cannabis, but is it has presently reached “historically high levels” of use. Other than surveys, one method to measure drug problems is to tally those seeking help to get off the drug. In the Netherlands and Spain, at least one in four treatment demands involve cocaine. Throughout Europe, those demands have doubled between 1999 and 2004. In 2005 cocaine was to blame for some 400 deaths.

One interesting fact is that drugs of all stripes fell in street price throughout Europe. The value of cocaine fell more than 20 percent in the five year period between 1999 and 2004.

Guiné Portuguesa é nosso
What these reporters say in passing, but fail to investigate thoroughly, is Guinea-Bissau’s fragile political culture. A major reason for this stems from the fact that Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony, which like Angola and Mozambique, had to fight its way to independence, giving the military unquestioned loyalty and power – which it spent the next 30 years abusing.

The Portuguese first hit the shores of modern-day Guinea-Bissau in 1644, ready to begin dealing slaves. By the 1950s locals began pushing for independence, and the move became formal with the formation of the Partido Africano de Independencia da Guiné e Cabo Verde, called PAIGC. By the turn of the new decade, when most Francophone and Anglophone African nations were gaining their own independence, the PAIGC began an armed rebellion. They were soon aided by China, Cuba and the Soviet Union, sending enough arms and munitions to fight the Portuguese to a stalemate. (Some claim that newly-independent neighboring African states also aided the guerrilla movement.)

By 1972 the PAIGC controlled 60 percent of the country, and the Portuguese dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar was stumbling through its last few years. Portugal had placed 40,000 troops in the small country. But the rebels continued to inflict heavy loses against the colonial power, which some claim lead to the coup d’etat that brought down the 41-year Salazar regime in April 1974. On September 10 of the same year, Portugal granted the Guinea-Bissau’s independence.

Independence from what?
To what avail? As the Central Intelligence Agency points out, since independence, the country “has experienced considerable political and military upheaval.” That may be putting it lightly.

The victorious PAIGC created a single party that brutally and harshly ruled the country into the early 1990s. Cape Verde left the two-country union in 1980. With Guinea-Bissau’s economic output falling steadily, an internal coup took place, really just a shifting of the cards, with the ruling PAIGC creating a Revolutionary Council to continue managing the country.

Skip ahead a little more than a decade to when Guinea-Bissau held its first multi-party elections in 1994. As the country awaited the second multi-party legislative elections in 1998, a faction of rebel troops seized control of the army barracks in Bissau, its international airport and other locations. The soldiers immediately formed a military junta, called for the resignation of the president and his administration. They promised to hold elections in July.

Troops loyal to the government rebelled and fighting broke out. At least 200,000 civilians fled Bissau, sparking fears of a humanitarian disaster. Many members of the army began defecting to the rebel side. A truce was not worked out until late July, which was enforced by troops from Senegal and Guinea. By October, a demilitarized zone was created in the capital, but cease-fires continued to fall apart. With a majority of once pro-government forces now fighting for the rebels, the government agreed to dissolve itself and create a period of national unity.

Presidential and legislative elections were held in November 1999, and longtime opposition candidate Kumba Yalá, who beat out a PAIGC candidate, was finally declared winner in January. In 2003, with more electoral shenanigans in the air, officers acting on orders of the army chief arrested Yalá, simultaneously creating a new government. After much trial and more error, legislative elections were finally held in March 2004, but chaos reigned again: the head of armed forces was killed and civil unrest ensued.

Presidential elections were finally held in June 2005, and Yalá was defeated in the first round of voting. The eventual winner, Joao Bernardo ‘Nino’ Viera, running as a candidate for a faction of PAIGC, was the deposed leader following the 1998 coup, which eventually led to civil war.

Menage á trois
Through this all, it leads to little wonder why Guinea-Bissau remains a very poor state with very weak government institutions. It currently ranks 44 out of 48 countries in government performance, according to the Ibrahim Index of African Governments, posting the largest decline of any sub-Saharan African state since the beginning of the decade.

Today, it finds itself caught in a strange trifecta between the military and its alleged allies, the drug traffickers. As Reporters Without Borders points out, “a heterogeneous government fears head-on confrontation with the army because of the danger of plunging the country into another civil war or triggering a major inter-ethnic conflict.” With no funds, and seemingly no international friends, the government has little chance of defeating either.

Can we get a fact check?
Part of the problem, journalists point out, is that the country – and its government – has been largely abandoned by the West. That’s not an uncommon reality for former Portuguese colonies, and certainly not all that rare for small West African states.

But the drug problem keeps worsening, international observers tell us. Thus, there’s a sense of urgency in these stories, as if the FARC-style kidnappings will soon rear its head in Bissau. Never mind the subtext of many of these stories that sheepishly mention other than the fancy unmarked cars, big houses, expensive discos, the country barely lives up to its billing as Africa’s number one narco transit point.

It’s also interesting to point out that for the lone journalist from a major U.S. media organ covering this story, the UN staff was at pains to point out ties between drug traffickers and terrorists. "The real stake in West Africa is the money that is generated through drug trafficking which is, per se, an explosive tool," Antonio Mazzitelli, the regional head of the UNODC told NPR. "It can affect democratic rule. It can finance rebellions. [It can] be a reason for taking up arms and perpetuate corruption, bad governance and instability."

Here comes the calvary?
Of course, who knows how much bluff the UN has. By reading the large pile of stories on this topic, they must be on to something. Of course, the NPR reporter also admitted that Guinea-Bissau is a very charming place to visit.

This claims still don’t answer the question of what can be done in Guinea-Bissau. The BBC radio documentary pointed out that the UNs first plan to help police Guinea-Bissau’s borders called for a project costing “several hundred million dollars,” which apparently was laughed out of Manhattan. Their second, admittedly more scaled back, version calls for nearly $20 million over three years. The government of Portugal recently hosted a one-day donor conference to line up support for the plan. It appears to have been a success – to the tune of $6.7 million. The Portuguese themselves offered $3 million for the program, the European Union will kick in another $2.9 next year and Britain, Germany, Italy and the U.S. all anted up several hundred thousand each.

The question I have: With the money most likely being set in place over the next few months, will Guinea-Bissau hold the same attraction to reporters? Or will the threat of drugs prove a far more appealing story than the fight against them?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Plus ça change du Niger: journalists arrested, human rights violations abound and blame falls on the French

Just days after Niger President Mamadou Tandja offered a fig leaf to Tauregs by assuring rebels the state would not seek reprisals if they put down their weapons, the government arrested two French journalists in connection with the conflict, Reuters says.

The country’s security forces claim the two men, both television journalists working for European TV ARTE, defied a ban on foreign reporters for the north of the country during what is being called the Second Tuareg rebellion. The journalists have been in custody since Monday.

The indigenous and formally pastoral Tuaregs claim the government is not fulfilling economic development and political requirements from the 1995 peace deal, which ended their 1990s uprising. The Niger government declares the rebel group, the Niger Movement for Justice, MNJ, does not represent the mainstream Tuareg community; rather, it is a group of smugglers and bandits.

Aid organizations have complained that because of violence and government decree, the north of Niger has largely been sealed off.

A spokesman for the Gendarmerie said the two reporters obtained accreditation to film in the southern city of Maradi. When they returned to Niamey, their tapes were searched and found to have interviews with members of the MNJ.

Niger is also holding two Nigerien journalists in custody relating to the rebellion. Moussa Kaka, local correspondent for Radio France International, has been imprisoned since Sept. 20 for allegedly aiding the MNJ. Ibrahim Diallo Manzo, a journalist for the Agadez-based Air Info, has been imprisoned since October 9.

Human Rights violations
Two international human rights organizations released the details of their investigations, decrying violations perpetrated against citizens by both sides of the conflict. Amnesty International’s report condemns the increasing number of extra-judicial executions of civilians in the northern Agadez region by the country’s military forces.

Over the past four weeks, at least thirteen civilians have been unlawfully killed by the Niger security forces in the north of the country. Some, if not all, of them were apparently killed by the army in reprisal for attacks carried out by the Tuareg armed opposition group, the Mouvement des Nigériens pour la justice (MNJ), Niger Movement for Justice, which took up arms against the government in February 2007

Human Rights Watch pointed a finger at the Tuareg rebel movement for human rights violations against citizens. HRW singles out the group’s use of anti-vehicular land mines. From the report:

Foreign military analysts interviewed by Human Rights Watch have suggested that landmine use by the rebels has recently transformed from being defensive in nature – designed to deter entry of the military into rebel bases or areas of control – to being more offensive, and intended to inflict military losses. This change in their deployment, and the subsequent increase in civilian casualties, has generated considerable fear and hardship for the civilian population.

Anti-vehicular landmines are not banned under the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty on anti-personnel mines, to which Niger is party. However, their use is still governed by the general laws of war, which prohibit the use of weapons that cannot discriminate between civilians and military targets. Placing anti-vehicular weapons on roads commonly used by both military and civilian vehicles is such an indiscriminate use. Where their use is not prohibited, particular care must be taken to minimize their indiscriminate effects.

The Areva question
One rumor that has gained traction in recent months is that the spurned French uranium firm Areva has been financially supporting the Tuareg rebellion. The firm, run by a close adviser to former French president Francois Mitterand, recently lost its 30-year monopoly on mining uranium in Niger, for which they compensated the government well below market value.

Niger, currently the world’s third largest producer of uranium, had long asked Areva to renegotiate its agreement that stipulated a price of €42 per kilo, while the world market rate has increased more than five-fold since 2001 to upwards of €180 per kilo.

The company stalled. The government recently gave nearly 90 uranium exploration permits to mining companies from a host of different countries. As oil prices keeps rising, uranium will become increasingly popular for countries wishing to dabble in nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency has argued that by 2025, global nuclear energy capacity should grow between 22 per cent and 44 per cent, increasing demand for uranium.

Tuaregs have complained that the government does not share with them enough profits from its booming uranium industry. They also criticize mining companies for not hiring enough Tuaregs living in the area and failing to address the environmental degradation created by their mines.

Things did not get off to a good start for one of the first firms to receive a mining license in northern Niger. In July, Tuareg rebels kidnapped a number of employees of the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Corporation. The hostages were released nine days later, but afterwards the Nigerien government openly accused officials of the French mining company of supporting the rebellion movement.

Once Nicolas Sarkozy became President of France, he called President Tandja directly and tensions have eased somewhat. Since then, Areva, Niger’s largest private employer, will now pay a per kilo price of €60 through the rest of 2007. Government of Niger officials say that in 2008 the price will be negotiated again.

Pick your fights
At least one group believes the conflict between the government and the mining firm should not be viewed through the lens of the Tuareg rebellion, but framed by the larger effort of third-world countries to be fully compensated for their natural resources.

From Consultancy Africa Intelligence:

Supposedly weak, African Governments are following a route not dissimilar to the modus operandi employed in the oil and gas sectors in South American countries. Just as Venezuela, Bolivia and Colombia did in 2005 and 2006, the African Governments are trying to renegotiate natural resources contracts and adjust them to better reflect market price - a factor which is sure to drastically change the monopolistic contracts signed in the 1970’s, much to dismay of the continents ‘traditional partners’.

Monrovia attempts deed restrictions

My in-laws live in Houston, TX, celebrated practitioner of the deed restriction – where committees set up rules for homemakers to place limitations on the property, usually to “maintain a desired look in a neighborhood.”

It seems that Monrovia, Liberia is attempting the same thing.

Per the Inquirer:

The Monrovia City Corporation (MCC), has asked residents of the city and all business entities to paint their houses.

The city government said such an exercise should have been carried out on or December 15, 2007 in accordance with City Ordinance Number one.

According to a release from the office of the Director of Information and Research at the MCC, violation fees will be imposed on anyone or business entity that will fail to comply.

Six journalists sued under Liberia’s ‘strict’ libel laws

Six Liberian journalists called for the investigation of Ambrose Nmah, general manager of a media group and radio personality, for comments he allegedly made during a program on Truth FM, “justifying attacks on some journalists for their breach of security protocol according to state authorities, during the visit to Liberia of Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma [last September],” the International Federation of Journalists said.

Nmah is using what the Freedom House calls “strict” Liberian libel laws to sue the journalists for publishing their investigation statement.

The plaintiff is claiming $10,000 in damages. He also named the Public Agenda newspaper for allegedly printing defamatory articles. A trial date was set for Monday, but was postponed. No new date has been set.

BBC Stringer Jonathan Paye-Layleh was brutally assaulted while covering President Koroma’s visit. “[Nmah said] on his show that I would have been responsible for my own death if I had been killed,” Paye-Layleh, who is not involved in the libel suit, said.

This is not the first libel suit Nmah has filed. In October, he filed suit against six other journalists.

The International Federation of Journalists feels that the plaintiff and defendants can mediate this conflict through the Press Union of Liberia and not through the country’s court system.

Time to clear the air: moto exhaust, sand and smoke fill our lungs in Ouagadougou

“The main enemy of our respiratory system is the bad quality of air we are breathing,” Professor Ouaoba Kampatileba, head of the respiratory disease department at Yalgado Ouedraogo hospital in Ouagadougou, told IRIN, the UN sponsored news service.

Ouagadougou’s poor air quality is such a problem that we can blame it on about 200 new cancer cases every year. Kampatileba estimated 15 percent of the 8,000 patients admitted to the state hospital each year suffer from air-pollution related illnesses, including soar throat, sinus problems, bronchitis and pneumonia.

In a city where life and work largely takes place out of doors, the problem is serious. Most moped and motorcycle drivers have taken to wearing face masks in the winter months. (Humorously, these masks are usually the sleep masks Air France gives to passengers.)

But what can one do? Ouagadougou’s infamously poor air has been created by the collision and cooperation of three largely intractable factors: the physical layout of the city, its geographic location and the combination of economics and – I would argue – culture.

Problem number one, two (and three)
In regards to air quality, traffic is most likely the greatest culprit, especially in a city swelling past its already oversized footprint. This forces longer commutes on drivers and burns more fossil fuels. Then there’s the mobylette: the ubiquitous two-wheeled moped, which has become a symbol for Ouagadougou itself. Cheap, reliable, easy to maneuver in busy city streets, the mobylette does it all: personal transport, family transport, they can haul boxes, pipes, sheep and chickens. The city would not be the same without the sight of them – or their high-pitched buzz.

The mobylette has definitely democratized traffic in Burkina Faso, and in turn, putting many more vehicles on the road. One researcher found for every 100 families in Burkina Faso, there are 150 2-wheeled motorized vehicles and only 22 cars. Because some mobylettes run on a mixture of gasoline and oil, this two-wheeled transport is responsible for a large portion (81 percent) of the carbon monoxide flung into the air during morning rush hour and roughly 95 percent of the city’s hydrocarbons. Therein lies the problem, according to a new World Bank study: These mobylettes burning the oil-gas mixture deposit harmful quantities of benzene into the air, which researchers claim is the primary cause for the city’s high number of cancer cases.

Then there’s the problem with the air itself. Throughout the year, Sahelian dust settles on every nook and crevice of the city. In December and January, the most polluted months, an evil mixture of haze, dust, dirt and blue moto exhaust hang over the city – especially in the late afternoons – turning the sky a bizarre hue of milky white and dirty brown. This is made worse by the sand-engorged Harmattan trade winds from the Sahara desert, which can often last until February.

The IRIN story points out that, on average, Ouagadougou’s atmosphere contains an annual concentration of dust more than two times the WHO standard for a healthy environment.

The third issue regarding air pollution is cooking over open fires, which remains the preferred method of preparing food in the city. These first give off what researchers call a “poisonous cocktail of particles” roughly 500 times over the allowable limit, creating serious pulmonary problems for the cooks as well as concerns for the local environment. (The trees have to come from somewhere.)

Cooking may be seen as largely a personal issue, but for the tens of thousands of women in Ouagadougou who spend hours a day over smoky cook stoves, it’s a problem that could exaggerate other health issues stemming from Ouagadougou’s poor air.

So, how do they clean it up?
Like reducing traffic congestion elsewhere, African governments have one basic solution to clean up their air: reduce the number of vehicles on the road. One way to do this is by supporting public transport. The World Bank found that in both Abidjan and Dakar public bus transport had popular followings, until services fell, forcing people to find other means of transport.

Like elsewhere in Africa, where state service fails, small businessmen usually fill in the gaps. This World Bank researcher estimates that in Dakar alone the privately-owned public transportation sector (including mini buses, taxis, car rapides) is responsible for 30,000 jobs. If governments can find a way to keep bus public transit afloat – and in Ouagadougou it’s an issue of good governance, not the service’s unpopularity – this sector will also create jobs and keep more traffic off the roads.

This solution also has its risks. From the viewpoint of African governments, it pays to pollute. Most states collect heavy gas taxes. Also, importing cars from abroad provides as much as 10 percent of GDP for governments throughout West Africa. Moped sales also incur taxes. One could argue the long-term health of the city is far more important, but try saying that to a finance minister in a struggling state bureaucracy.

Donkey power!
The government of Burkina Faso could cut down the size and scale of this rapidly growing city, forbid anymore immigration and build a giant dome to keep out the dust and sand. Other than that, solving the city’s air problems seems relatively easy.

One such victory was the government’s decision to implement unleaded gas. Such a move, the United Nations Environmental Programme claims, immediately reduces harmful gasoline emissions. Going unleaded is only a first step, though. Once complete, countries can then phase in catalytic converters, which UNEP claims can help reduce dangerous car emissions by 90 percent.

Then there’s the small problem with the Peugeut P50, the most popular moto using the contaminating gas-oil mixture. Today, it’s hard to tell what percentage of traffic these Burkina-made mopeds make up, but anecdotally they’re very popular, especially among those who cannot afford a larger – and faster – Chinese and Nigerian models.

That’s not to say the environment fares much better with other mobylettes. Because of the size of their engines, mopeds of all shapes are dangerous. It largely depends how well the engines are maintained, their age of the vehicle and how carefully the speed limit is followed. This doesn’t leave me very encouraged.

We haven’t said much about other transport. Since we’re at it, something should probably be done about the 20-year-old smoke and oil belching cars and trucks contaminating the streets of Ouagadougou. It’s not just the ancient taxis – although they share some the blame – many personal cars are beyond repair. Like Senegal, perhaps Burkina Faso should contemplate forbidding the import of cars past a certain age.

Much of Ouagadougou’s air problems are exacerbated by its physical environment. In a city free of automobiles, Ouagadougou's air quality would still be poor. This dangerous mixture is created when you add in the hundreds of thousands of mobylettes and other vehicles on the road. Cities around the world understand that traffic problems are never truly solved – governments' largely Band Aid solutions allow people to live with the issue. That doesn't bode well for the air of Ouagadougou.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cote d'Ivoire's voter rolls are growing

Mobile court hearings in Cote d'Ivoire, used as part of the process of identifying the country's voters among untold undocumented immigrants ahead of planned national elections next year, have been generally positive since they resumed in September, IRIN reports.

Ahmedou El Becaye Seck, Chief of the Electoral Assistance Division of the UN Operation in Côte d'Ivoire (UNOCI), told reporters at a press conference in Abidjan that nearly 1,300 hearings had been held so far and the number of substitute birth certificates granted had far exceeded the number in previous operations.

Another 30 new teams have been added to help with the process, while the National Committee for the Supervision of Identification, known by its French acronym CNSI, will also be reinforced.

Identification of voters - including millions of undocumented Ivorians and foreign-born residents - has been a key issue in the West African country that became divided in 2002 between the Government-controlled south and the rebel Forces Nouvelles-held north. Free and fair presidential elections are due next year, as part of a peace accord between the Government and the rebels that was signed earlier this year in Ouagadougou, capital of neighbouring Burkina Faso.

At one point, nearly one-quarter of the population of former economic powerhouse Cote d'Ivoire was believed to be foreign born.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Ghana signs trade agreement with EU: Will others follow?

Ghana has become the second West African country to sign a multi-staged Economic Partnership Agreement with the 25-nation European Union.

The agreement replaces a five-year trade accord most recently signed in Cotonou, Benin in 2000, but declared illegal by the World Trade Organization because it maintained trade preferences to former colonies of Europe from Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean nations. The agreements recognized the vast economic differences between the former colonies and colonizers, and provided aid and trade preferences to the former colonies, which didn’t have to reciprocate. The WTO claimed if the countries want to continue trade agreements each side must further liberalize markets, which will take place under the auspice of the EPAs.

The low-carb EPA
Unlike a full EPA, this deal, according to, will allow 80 percent of EU goods into the Ghanaian market duty free, and all goods from Ghana – except rice and sugar – duty free into the European Union. (At least one commentator claims that Ghana’s rice industry – already devastated by previous open trade policies – will be hard hit by the EPA.)

Ghana will have 15 years to liberalize 80 percent of its market, while the remaining 20 percent may never be completely open, depending on Ghana’s development status. This agreement is similar to the one signed by neighboring Cote d’Ivoire just last week. The two countries are the world’s top cocoa producers and they did not want to disrupt these exports, a Ghanaian official said.

Cafeteria-style free trade?
The British non-governmental organization Oxfam asserts that African countries will face stringent rules to keep their products out of European markets. These include rules regarding the true origin of a product, which limits the number of exports that can receive preferential treatment; increasing sanitary standards; higher levies on processed goods (like instant coffee) than raw materials (coffee beans, cocoa beans), which discourages African countries from processing their own materials.

When the trade liberalization begins, Oxfam worries that the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire will have to choose between taxing European cars (which account for up to 10 percent of government revenues) with protecting staple foods or exempting certain nascent industries from competition or supporting future manufacturing development.

Presently, 60 percent of Ghana’s workers are in the agricultural sector, which provides 35 percent of the country’s GDP.

The rest of the pack
Ghana's decision comes just before other members of the West African economic union decided to an 18-month timetable to negotiate a general economic partnership agreement with the European Union. While Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire’s agreement only cover trade in goods, the full West African block will most likely negotiate an agreement in a host of other areas, such as competition policies, investment strategies and public procurement.

Bird flu found in Benin; Worries abound for voodoo practitioners

Officials in Benin have confirmed the presence of the H5N1 avian flu virus on two poultry farms.

VOA reports:

Agriculture Minister Roger Dovonou says tests from a laboratory in Italy confirmed the virus has struck one farm in the city of Cotonou and another in the town of Adjarra, outside the capital Porto Novo.

Benin reported its first suspected cases of bird flu on December 7th. Workers slaughtered several hundred chickens at the two farms as a precautionary measure, and also disinfected the sites.

H5N1 mainly affects birds but is capable of infecting humans. The virus has killed more than 200 people around the world, mostly in Asia, since 2003.

The country has banned all poultry imports and limited poultry movement around the infected areas.

The voodoo problem
The lead in the Reuters story mentions that Benin is home of the “ritual voodoo sacrifice,” which seemed an odd announcement. But, there’s a reason for the notice. On to Reuters!

Health experts have said they fear Benin's Voodoo priests could be particularly at risk because of their practice of tearing out the throats of live chickens in ritual sacrifices.

Voodoo "convents" are found across Benin and the ancient religion was also carried to the Caribbean, especially Haiti, by slaves shipped to the Americas by European captains and traders.

According to one source, 60 percent of Benin's population practice a form of this indigenous religion, generally called Vodoun. (The CIA claims less than one in five people are adherents.) Regardless, the government officially recognizes its practice and the country celebrates Voodoo Day on January 10.

Here is a link to a story on last year's Voodoo festival.

The fight over the future of West Africa's central bank

"A rift between heads of state of the eight-nation West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) has left the bloc's central bank, BCEAO, with an interim governor for over two years now," writes Francois Gouahinga, for

The problem centers on whether the body will continue following the unwritten rule that stipulates the bank’s director be an Ivorian national. This backroom decree was initially determined by Felix Houphouet Boigny and Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor, going back roughly forty years when Cote d’Ivoire made up a super majority of the region’s GDP.

A bold move
Today, after war has sent Cote d’Ivoire’s economy – and political power – into decline, some members are quietly questioning the agreement. The politics of war aside, the major problem of some governments is Cote d’Ivoire’s choice for the bank’s head, Antoine Bohoun Bouabré.

Gouahinga points out the issues surrounding Bohoun Bouabré’s appointment.

The only state minister in the Ivorian cabinet, Bohoun Bouabré is a former economics professor at the University of Abidjan. Critics blame him for the decline in domestic production of cocoa and coffee, the nation's top export commodities. As finance minister from 2002 to 2005, he oversaw the reforms that many now say have resulted in more bureaucratic hassles for producers, prompting the emergence of a parallel market.

Others view his close relationship with the president as a liability. They say Bouabre, who is also Gbagbo's campaign manager in his hometown, may not survive as BCEAO governor should the president lose the upcoming election. Yet others point to the fact that unlike previous governors, Bouabre did not rise from the ranks of BCEAO.

The story points out that no formal opposition to the Bohoun Bouabré appointment has been formed. However, for Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo, who was at the government helm when the African Development Bank left Abidjan for Tunis, this appointment has become a matter of pride. If other governments balk at Bohoun Bouabré, Gbagbo has threatened to pull out of the union, taking with him his country’s estimated 32 percent of the bank’s reserves.

So, what is the BCEAO?
As a central bank, BCEAO lends money to other banks and financial institutions working in the West African monetary union. It grants assistance to banks working within member states, like providing advances on government securities and it deals with loans through their purchasing, selling or discounting.

Among other things, the bank is responsible for organizing the CFA monetary market and acts as a central storage unit for payment transactions. Also the bank maintains a statistics database on the finances of member nations.

Sticky fingers
Bohoun Bouabré’s problem of legitimacy is much greater than the story points out. A recent report detailing how the adversaries in Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war illegally appropriated the profits from the country’s cocoa harvest to enrich its leaders and continue the war effort. Should it surprise us that Bohoun Bouabré’s name is all over that report?

According to Global Witness, the London-based NGO tracking the exploitation of natural resources to fuel conflict and the report's author, soon after the Gbabgo government was elected in 2000, four separate cocoa institutions were created mainly to funnel monies to various presidential-controlled funds. These new institutions (another was created just before Gbabgo’s electoral victory) were financed by new cocoa and coffee levies, controlled by the ministers of agriculture and finance. However, the European Union found the levies charged were more than sufficient to cover running the institutions.

According to the report, called Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa Fuelled the Conflict in Cote d’Ivoire:

In 2006 the UN Panel of Experts on Côte d’Ivoire found a contract between the government of Côte d’Ivoire and an unnamed company revealing that for the 2005-2006 cocoa harvest, some exporting companies had paid at least US$20m in advance for the DUS. [The largest European cocoa exporter working in Cote d’Ivoire] Tropival confirmed that in 2005-2006, advance payment had been requested from all exporters. The person representing the state of Côte d’Ivoire in this contract was the then finance minister, Paul Antoine Bouhoun Bouabré. The use of the money raised is not known.

In another incident, Global Witness found that until 2003, the money collected from the cocoa levies was deposited in several bank accounts, mostly at BCEAO headquarters and the state bank of Cote d’Ivoire, the CAA, the acronym for the Caisse autonome d’amortissement. In October 2002, a transfer was made at the CAA totaling 10 billion CFA (around $19 million) from instructions by finance minister, Paul Antoine Bouhoun Bouabré and agriculture minister, Sébastien Dano Djédjé.

The funds from this account were lent, at 6.5 percent interest, to the Ivorian government for the “war effort,” Global Witness found. These funds were moved into an account held by the presidency’s financial services, also within the CAA. The loan was supposed to be reimbursed within 12 months, but it is not clear if the payment was made. The report states:

Between 28 November and 19 December 2002, under the instructions of the same two ministers, six transfers for a total of a further 10bn CFA were made from the same CAA account to an account held by the FRC, also at the CAA. Global Witness received a copy of a letter dated 26 November 2002 addressed to the CAA, signed by both ministers, asking the head of the CAA, Victor Jérôme Nembéléssini-Silué, to organise the transfer of this money. A letter from the FRC authorised the transfer of the 10bn CFA to the presidency’s financial services account, also at the CAA.

However, the UN Panel of Experts investigating Cote d’Ivoire’s economy during the civil war claimed the 10 billion CFA loan and the second 10 billion CFA “gift” directly contributed to the government’s expenditure on security and national defense. According to Global Witness:

It is likely that in the case of this loan and gift, the government simply appropriated the money and that the cocoa institution to which the funds belonged, the FRC, acted as an intermediary or a cover. Through the signature accounts, the government already controlled money from the cocoa trade, as the finance minister and the agriculture minister were the only official signatories.

Finally, the group reported that in April 2002, Bouhoun Bouabré opened a new account at the CAA, and filling it by moving 31.9 billion CFA ($61.6 million) from the BCEAO account. The state auditing administration stated that the Ivorian government had no claims over the BCEAO account and should not have moved it to the CAA. Bouhoun Bouabré claimed it was moved because CAA paid a better interest rate.

Three strikes and you’re out
I am no lawyer, but for those keeping score, these accounts seem to amount to more than a few instances of money laundering, bribery and just plain old corruption. Even looking past the extremely questionable politics of the Gbagbo regime, these policies carried out by Bouhoun Bouabré not only prolonged the war in Cote d’Ivoire, but hurt cocoa farmers (by lowering the price paid for cocoa) and generally brought even more harm to the admittedly weak Ivorian economy.

Part of me doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at Gbagbo’s audacity for appointing such a blatant stool pigeon for an important post. To me, there is no doubt that Bouhoun Bouabré would sully the bank’s solid reputation and perhaps even threaten its independence. Is such a person worth the destruction of the West African money union, which most likely will result if Gbagbo takes his country’s money and runs? My hope is that a compromise can be reached. The story points out an Ivorian daily has already published a shortlist of possible alternative candidates.

If no compromise can be found – and when has Gbagbo ever carried through on a compromise of any sort? – what happens next may be of great importance to the fragile economies of the world’s poorest region. Stay tuned.

The post-conflict waltz: Just how free is Liberia?

The Liberian Ministry of Justice unlawfully shut down Stone FM, a community radio station located in Harbel, approximately 35 miles from Liberia’s capital.

From IFEX, International Freedom of Expression eXchange in Toronto.

The premises of the radio station were sealed by a squad of officers of the Liberian National Police led by Captain Suzanna Blackie, commander of the Margibi county police detachment.

Stone FM station manager James King told CEMESP that the uniformed police officers, some of whom were armed with pistols, stormed the radio station and ordered the reporters to leave.

He said the police action traumatised a child broadcaster who was on-air at the time.

The station was accused of broadcasting "hit messages" against the government of Liberia and authorities of the Firestone Rubber Plantation in the wake of a strike action by employees of Firestone.

The employees' spokesperson, Eripmah Caesar, allegedly used the radio station to incite his fellow workmates to stay away from work until the management of Firestone recognizes their new leadership.

Let's not bicker and argue
For all the nominally positive talk about Liberia’s future we publish here at Africa Flak, we have yet to dip into the murkier side of the country’s present reputation with human rights. It’s an important issue. Not to get too academic here, but researchers have found that all aspects of life in post-conflict states can be best described by a “certain amount of uncertainty, insecurity and volatility, a fluidity of rules, a fragility of institutions, and problems of legitimacy for the actors involved,” says the now defunct Post-Conflict Transition team at the Nordic Africa Institute. Human rights and civil rights are no different.

The media, in such situations, present a complicated issue. When institutions are fragile and leaders lack much legitimacy and the people appear to be completely fragmented, any criticism may be taken as a threat against an insecure state. The media in these cases is fueled by the power of ideas. Journalists may not be well trained or even sympathetic to general ideas of fair-mindedness, and may use their power to deceitfully push political agendas. The same goes for political actors in control of organs of the press. Finally, in countries being rebuilt from the ground up, one can imagine new governments are presented with many obstacles and dealing with media issues may fall by the wayside.

That being said, the idea of ranking countries – of whatever political persuasion – on the freedom of their media systems should be regarded as an art form and not a science. In a post-conflict country like Liberia, the question remains how should its commitment to rights be graded? Can we rank Liberia along with the diverse body of states resurfacing after conflicts or should the country be specially weighted among other more stable, and presumably politically healthier, nations?

To make up for this, the Freedom House rating systems are very straightforward, offering up only three categories, which resemble a stoplight: Free, Partly Free and Not Free. For rights across the board, Liberia receives a Partly Free rating, but in realm of press freedom, the country is Not Free.

One big problem, according to Freedom House, is that the Johnson-Sirleaf administration has yet to establish an independent body to regulate journalists and the press and create a more “progressive freedom of information legislation.” (However a bill is currently being drafted in the legislature.) “Nonetheless, access to government information, particularly budget and financial issues, remains difficult owing in large part to the persistence of a disorganized government infrastructure,” the report pointed out. Another negative is that a wide interpretation of libel remains a fear for working journalists.

However, the group pointed out that call-in radio shows are popular and frequently feature viewpoints from the opposition and the government.

Here’s more.

Independent print media have grown significantly since the removal of [Charles] Taylor, and there are now more than 30 newspapers operating in Monrovia that publish with varying degrees of regularity and provide diverse political perspectives. A handful of private printing presses opened for the first time in 2005, but owing to the lack of significant private funding, most print media still publish through the state-owned and operated printing facility in Monrovia. Most Liberians rely on radio broadcasts to receive news, and radio currently plays an important role in promoting and consolidating a culture of participation in political life. Over 33 community radio stations now operate throughout the country without government interference, in addition to 1 government-owned station, but most are still hindered by the irregular power supply. Access to foreign broadcasts and the internet is unrestricted by the government but is severely limited by the dire financial situation of most Liberians.

Africa Flak give the country something of a “free pass” in other aspects of its renewal from failed state, but we very much prescribe to the idea that any human rights violations in this period will only make matters worse down the road when institutions are stronger and the government more confident. It may be obvious to some, but just because some people learned things when Charles Taylor ran the country doesn’t make it right.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A real hardship post: U.S. diplomatic efforts at a crossroads

Diplomatic posts at the State Department and U.S. embassies worldwide will be cut by 10 percent next year because of heavy staffing demands in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington Post warned last week.

The problem is that Congress has not provided the State Dept. with the proper funds to hire new people to fill the growing number of open posts, and on top of that, hundreds of positions are presently needed for the enormous embassies of war-torn Afghanistan and warring Iraq.

Something else is at play, also.

Transformational Diplomacy steps in
A few years ago Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a speech on Transformational Diplomacy promised to move State Department diplomacy away from Cold War-era parlor games in Europe and fancy Asian capitols and transfer diplomats where they could be of more use to the realities of the 21st Century. The glaring statistic was that the same amount of State dept. personnel worked in Germany (population: 82 million) as in globally important India (population: more than one billion). “We will begin this year with a down payment of moving 100 positions from Europe and, yes, from here in Washington, D.C., to countries like China and India and Nigeria and Lebanon, where additional staffing will make an essential difference,” Rice said at the time.

It’s been nearly two years since that speech, and you only have to look at this chart to see the U.S. remains very Euro-centric in the way it carries out diplomacy. Not only does the State Dept. count more embassies in Europe, but my guess is the embassies are more abundantly staffed than posts in other parts of the world. For example, here’s a list of major positions at the U.S. Embassy in Paris.

· Minister Counselor for Management
· Minister Counselor for Agricultural Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Commercial Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs/Consul General
· Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Political Affairs
· Minister Counselor for Public Affairs
· Defense Attaché
· Office of Defense Cooperation
· Counselor for Scientific, Technological and Environment Affairs
· Tax Attaché
· NASA European Representative, Space Attaché
· Head, N.S.F. Europe Office

I dub thee: Space Attaché
Some of these positions are obviously not slotted from the State Dept., but a majority of them are. My guess is that below each Minister Counselor for Whatever Affairs lies a large warren full of smaller and lesser Minister Counselors and their appropriate minions.

State Dept. position or not, the U.S. embassy is still responsible for finding housing for all these diplomats, making sure their paperwork is correct to get their kids in school, providing them with desks and computers and chairs, and hopefully even a job for the spouse. A whole warren its own under the Minister Counselor for Management is busy every night making sure these people are well feed and bed.

But Paris is not the extent of the U.S. diplomatic relationship with France. The U.S. government enjoys the following bureaus throughout the country.

· Consulate General, Marseille
· Consulate General, Strasbourg
· APP, Bordeaux
· APP, Lille
· APP, Lyon
· APP, Rennes
· APP, Toulouse

In Marseilles, the Consulate General has five main tasks:

1. Assisting American citizens via the provision of consular services.
2. Promoting U.S. businesses and greater trade between the U.S. and the south of France and Monaco.
3. Articulating and advancing official United States Government positions and American values.
4. Supporting the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet in connection with ship visits to Mediterranean ports in France and Monaco
5. Conducting diplomatic relations with the Principality of Monaco.

For this work, the Counsel General is assisted by five Americans and 21 local employees.

For those who think the term American Presence Post, APP, sounds vaguely like a brothel, they’ll be happy to find out that the three missions of APP Bordeaux are:

  • To provide assistance to American citizens (notarials, passports, reports of birth, local lawyers, doctors, and translators, …) It should be noted that these services are for U.S. citizens only. All visa questions and applications should be referred to the consular services in Paris.
  • To explain American policy, society and culture.
  • To support American business (by helping them to enter French market, information to French companies looking for American goods and services)

Part of the APP Bordeaux mission is to build bridges between French and American companies in the following economic sectors:

  • Aeronautics and defense
  • Electronic components
  • Agriculture, food processing and wine
  • Chemicals and pharmaceuticals
  • Biotechnology
  • Tourism

Blood brothers
I think it a positive statement that the U.S. government has a very close relationship with France, one of its oldest allies. However, in these times of instant communication, of multi- multi-national organizations, of ministerial-level meetings held every few months, how easy is it for a high ranking U.S. official to speak directly to a high ranking French official? Very easy, indeed.

As the country turns the calendar over to year seven in the seemingly unending Global War on Terror, anyone can make the argument that the average French person should be well aware of Uncle Sam’s good aims and intentions. At the expense of whom, however? As much as the average French person may gasp at this, the U.S. and France pretty much share a common culture. This is not just a product of the history of Christendom or of American cultural imperialism as much as 21st century globalization. It is an understanding of the major differences that exist between those two countries and the majority of people in other nations like, say, Pakistan or Afghanistan or Nigeria.

This is a zero-sum game: Every APP, every Consulate in France bleeds U.S. resources from countries much more critical, much less understanding of U.S. policies and motives. The question the U.S. government must ask itself: How much more important is it that a French person hears about U.S. customs directly from the APP in Toulouse than a Nigerian in Kano understands U.S. policy initiatives?

End corporate welfare as we know it
This does not nullify the argument for a heavy U.S. presence throughout the French countryside. Many Americans reside in France and many more vacation there. Also, France and the U.S. share many business contacts, and the U.S. government makes no bones about its responsibility to promote U.S. business interests overseas. In a time when business concerns often trump even the most political interests, a majority of State dept. overseas positions fulfill the task of helping businesses navigate foreign labor practices, civil rights laws, environmental codes and corruption issues.

In my view, it only makes sense that the U.S. business community begins supporting the State dept. to fund these positions. Extending the government-business partnership and underwriting certain posts could guarantee that U.S. business interests are fully realized in other countries. It could also guarantee that positions are full in embassies in countries now politically and economically important to the new world order.