Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Operation reduce prices

Per the Guardian, Robert Mugabe comes up with a great idea to bring down prices in Zimbabwe: Operation reduce prices.

President Robert Mugabe's order that all shop prices be cut by at least half, and sometimes several times more, has forced stores to open to hordes of customers waving thick blocks of near worthless money given new value by the price cuts. The police and groups of ruling party supporters could be seen leading the charge for a bargain.

Mr Mugabe has accused business interests of fuelling inflation, running at about 20,000%, to bring down his government. A hotline is in place to report "overcharging", and retailers who flinch at slashing prices are being dragged before the courts. Several thousand have been arrested for "profiteering" over the past week, including the chief executives of the biggest retailers in the country, some of them foreign-owned.

Economists say the price cuts will only deepen the national crisis, leaving many shops bare because they will not be able to afford to restock while official retail prices remain lower than the cost of buying wholesale or importing. Mr Mugabe has dismissed such warnings as "bookish economics".

Looks like the plan worked (somewhat):

With police patrolling the aisles of Harare's electrical shops to enforce
massive government-ordered price cuts, the widescreen TVs were the first
things to go, for as little as £20. Across the country, shoes, clothes, toiletries and different kinds of food were all swept from the shelves as a nation with the world's fastest shrinking economy gorged itself on one last spending spree.

Car dealers said officials were trying to force them to sell vehicles at the official exchange rate, effectively meaning that a car costing £15,000 could be had for £30 by changing money on the blackmarket. The owners of several dealerships have been arrested.

Vegas will place on American politics, but will anyone touch the day Mugabe is forced down?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Another chapter for Darfur

Sometimes it's hard to believe that Lydia Polgreen and I live on the same continent. The stories from this New York Times reporter based out of Dakar has always appeared hell bent to prove that in in West Africa the glass is half full. This may say more about her choice in story assignments than her intellectual bent. If there's a war, any sundry tragedy, an airplane crash, she's usually one of the first American reporters filing stories for her newspaper. In her defense, there is plenty of tragedy to go around a handful of West African countries: Nigeria, Liberia, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea. Throw Sudan and its blood-stained region of Darfur, where most of her datelines appear, one must wonder if she's gunning for a spot in the Baghdad bureau. Throw out the Darfur stories and my question has always been: Isn't there more to life in West Africa than kidnappings and greedy warlords?

This week she deserves kudos for single handily dousing some of the high spirits accompanying the announcement of a giant underground lake found beneath the northern part of the Darfur region in Sudan. Researchers who found the lake – and some groups observing the Darfur crisis from afar, including the United Nations – argue that the crisis is built around environmental issues that could be rectified by this new bountiful water source.

Don’t bet on it, Polgreen says.

That hope is built upon an argument, advanced by a United Nations report released last month and an opinion article in The Washington Post by Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, that environmental degradation and the symptoms of a warming planet are at the root of the Darfur crisis.

“There is a very strong link between land degradation, desertification and conflict in Darfur,” said the United Nations Environmental Program report, which noted that rainfall in northern Darfur has decreased by a third over the last 80 years. Exponential population growth and related environmental stress have created the conditions for conflicts to be triggered and sustained by political, tribal or ethnic differences,” the report said, adding that Darfur “can be considered a tragic example of the social breakdown that can result from ecological collapse.”

The idea that more water — unearthed through a thousand wells sunk into the underground lake — could neatly defuse the crisis is seductive. Messy African conflicts, from Congo to Liberia, from northern Uganda to Angola, have a way of defying all efforts to solve them.

Instead, they seem to become hopelessly more complex as they drag on, year after agonizing year. A scientific explanation for the problem (environmental degradation) along with a tidy technological solution (irrigation) gratifies the modern humanitarian impulse.

But the history of Sudan, a grim chronicle of civil war, famine, coups and despotism, gives ample reason to be skeptical.

Polgreen backs up her argument by skirting environmental issues and investigating the human roots of the Darfur crisis, taking readers through the bloody tour of Sudan’s colonial and post-colonial history. It's a wonderfully clear-eyed and educated analysis. As a reporter based in West Africa, she still relies too heavily on Western scholars in her work – no Africans were interviewed for this story that appeared in the Week in Review. I’d like to see her get a little more creative with her choice of story assignments, starting with visiting a few different countries and increasing her datelines in, say, Mali, Mauritania, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

Anyway, all this mucky-muck aside, Polgreen brings a healthy dose of reason to this issue.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Use your illusion I & II

Ethiopia, of all places, found its way onto the front page of the New York Times today with a story about how its government is obstructing emergency food aid in the breakaway Ogaden region, "putting hundreds of thousands of people at risk of starvation, Western diplomats and humanitarian officials say."

The Ethiopian military and its proxy militias have also been siphoning off
millions of dollars in international food aid and using a United Nations polio eradication program to funnel money to their fighters, according to relief officials, former Ethiopian government administrators and a member of the Ethiopian Parliament who defected to Germany last month to protest the government’s actions.

The blockade takes aim at the heart of the Ogaden region, a vast desert on the Somali border where the government is struggling against a growing rebellion and where government soldiers have been accused by human rights groups of widespread brutality.

Humanitarian officials say the ban on aid convoys and commercial traffic, intended to squeeze the rebels and dry up their bases of support, has sent food prices skyrocketing and disrupted trade routes, preventing the nomads who live there from selling their livestock.

Hundreds of thousands of people are now sealed off in a desiccated, unforgiving
landscape that is difficult to survive in even in the best of times.

There must be some sad, old lament about the futility of getting involved with Ethiopia – most likely it’s in Italian – but I can’t find anything particularly fitting. Of course, I could resort to the old standard: It’s sometimes the best of times, but it’s often the worst of times. (Were you looking for something different? Le Plus ca change….) Anyway, turn back the clock a few short months ago when the Meles regime earned itself a free round of shots at the White House canteen (whatever it is they’re drinking around there) after invading Somalia, kicking out the nasty Islamic militia of the Supreme Islamic Courts Council and ridding the Bush administration – and Somalia – of a disturbing trouble spot, not to mention a hang out for al-Qaeda. Of course, that was before the covers were pulled back on the governing style of Prime Minister Meles, who (continuing the clich├ęs) went from being the toast of the town to the latest and baddest African thug on the block.

First: A report from former Ethiopian judge Wolde-Michael Meshesha investigated government violence after the May 2005 general election that many felt was rigged. In all, Meshesha found that Ethiopian police killed nearly 200 protesters during the demonstrations. The BBC reported that Meshesha’s reported stated that the government had concealed the true extent of deaths at the hands of the police. “It said that 193 people had been killed, including 40 teenagers. Six policemen were also killed and some 763 people injured. They had been shot, beaten and strangled.”

This year, Mr. Meles’ government filed charges of treason and genocide charges against at least 100 people, mostly opposition politicians and party members. But you just can’t call Mr. Meles a dim-witted thug. Anytime international pressure gets too hot, he calls off the dogs by releasing a few journalists or other political prisoners. He did this most recently a few days ago with the pardon and release of 38 prisoners, 30 of whom had recently been sentenced to life in prison.

So how does he do it, mocking the chorus of international condemnation? Here’s the Economist's take. "Despite the misgivings of some congressmen, who think Mr Meles a dictator, some in the Bush administration see “Christian” Ethiopia (where half the people are in fact Muslim) as a bulwark against Islamist expansion in the Horn of Africa."

Sound a little far fetched? Well, it may explain this. According to this April 8 story in the Washington Post:

The United States did not act to prevent a recent shipment of arms from North Korea to Ethiopia, even though sketchy intelligence indicated the delivery might violate a U.N. Security Council resolution restricting North Korean arms sales, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

The decision to let the shipment proceed was made by relatively
low-level staffers, with little internal debate, and it was unknown to top
policymakers involved in the campaign to punish Pyongyang for its test of a nuclear weapon last October, officials said.

The January arms delivery occurred as Ethiopia was fighting Islamic
militias in Somalia, aiding U.S. policies of combating religious extremists in the Horn of Africa.

Intelligence reports indicated that the shipment included spare parts,
including tank parts, officials said. Nevertheless, the cargo was not inspected, making it difficult to know whether it violated the U.N. resolution. The value of the shipment is also unclear.

But Meles may just be better at playing Western countries off each other. This from a February story in the Financial Times:

However, fresh from his army's swift victory over a coalition of Islamists in Somalia, whose expanding rule and jihadist rhetoric Ethiopia deemed a regional threat, Mr Meles has recovered some of his standing. The US, which provides about $600m (€464m, £306m) in aid annually and considers Ethiopia one of four top strategic partners on the continent, has endorsed Ethiopia's action, shared intelligence and, according to Mr Meles, provided "vital diplomatic support".

The UK and other western donors, having initially suspended direct
budgetary support to the government because of concern over its human rights record, are again increasing development aid. Meanwhile, Mr Meles is drawing on China's appetite for lending to the continent, attracting, he says, $500m in concessional loans, $1.5bn in investment towards telecommunications infrastructure and a further $1.5bn in short-term trade credits.

But he strongly rejects concerns in the west that China's willingness to lend without asking questions is undermining western aid conditionality.

"I think it would be wrong for people in the west to assume that they can buy good governance in Africa. Good governance can only come from inside; it cannot be imposed from outside. That was always an illusion," he argued. "What the Chinese have done is explode that illusion. It does not in any way endanger the reforms of good governance and democracy in Africa because only those that were home-grown ever had a chance of success."

If the House of Representatives has its way, the U.S. may allow the Meles government to start footing some of its own bills. According to the New York Times story:

The country receives nearly half a billion dollars in American aid each year, but this week, a House subcommittee passed a bill that would put strict conditions on some of that aid and ban Ethiopian officials linked to rights abuses from entering the United States. The House also recently passed an amendment, sponsored by J. Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican, that stripped Ethiopia of $3 million in assistance to “send a strong message that if they don’t wake up and pay attention, more money will be cut,” Mr. Forbes said.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Charles Taylor (and friend) in the slammer

The New York Times checks in with former warlord/president of Liberia Charles Taylor who’s currently in prison while standing trial in the Hague. He’s the first African head of state to stand trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"Once known for his fine white suits, a swaggering style and plentiful weapons financed by trading timber and diamonds, Mr. Taylor now cooks his own food, does his dishes, reads newspapers and receives prison-issued pocket money. He is allowed to spend two hours in the yard and to work out in a gym," writes Marlise Simons.

That’s not all.

Mr. Taylor, a man used to the powers of a wealthy warlord, has been successful at promoting his interests even in captivity. He has complained about the size and budget of his defense team, paid for by the court. Although a report by investigators for the court has put his fortune, amassed through legal and illegal activities from timber and diamond trading and other business interests, at around $450 million, he has said he has no money to pay for an adequate defense and requested legal aid. After he boycotted several court sessions, the court raised his defense budget to
$70,000 a month from $45,000, [court administrator Herman] Mr. von Hebel

Taylor shares his meals with Thomas Lubanga, the only other inmate in this wing of the prison, who the story describes as a Congolese militia commander. He doesn't earn a hyperlink in the New York Times, but these people have provided one for you.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Pygmies, part II

Pygmies have always had a tough time. Here is a great set of dispatches in Slate regarding the plight of the Pygmies and, among other things, the use of sensationalism to bring attention to war.

On a less disturbing note, those traveling to Congo Brazzaville in search of Pygmies in the zoo, you are now out of luck.

Back to Reuters:
A troupe of pygmy musicians made to live at the zoo while performing at a music festival in Congo Republic's capital Brazzaville have been provided with accommodation in a local school, authorities said on Saturday.The plight of the
22 pygmies, whose tents became an attraction for curious zoo visitors, provoked outrage among civil rights groups in Congo. All the other musicians playing at the July 8-14 FESPAM festival were provided with hotel rooms. The pygmies, from Congo's northeast Likouala forest region, had been gathering wood daily in the zoo to prepare fires to cook their food, often with tourists snapping photos of them.

Pygmies in the zoo

Reuters reports via the New York Times:

Human rights activists accused organizers of a Pan-African music festival of mistreating a group of pygmy musicians by housing them in tents at the city zoo. While other artists were given accommodation in hotels in the capital, Brazzaville, around 20 pygmy performers were put up in tents inside the enclosure of the zoo. Organizers of the festival told Radio France Internationale that as pygmies normally live in the forest, they had sought to re-create their habitat.