Friday, May 30, 2008

Lansana Conte: Old man and the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

ForeignCorrespondence: This time it’s for real

I've been busy for the past few weeks.

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

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

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

Pretty thrilling, huh?

Here’s a sample of our first issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most sincerely,

The Collective
Travel writing gone bad

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

FAO predicts record rice harvest

From Washington Post:

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

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

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

Friday, May 9, 2008

Zimbabwe: Free(d) Davison Maruziva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The secret behind low food prices

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

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

From Reuters:

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

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

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

Rumble in the Jungle II: Taylor beats out Mobutu?

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Homeopathic malaria ‘remedy’ pulled in UK

Neal’s Yard Remedies, a UK-based chain of organic skin care products and natural remedies has been ordered to withdraw Malaria Officinalis 30c, a homeopathic preventative for malaria after medical watchdogs called the product misleading, the Guardian reported.

The product, which was "clearly intended to be viewed as a treatment or preventative" for a serious disease, had not been approved as required by law, the government's Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said yesterday.

Homeopathic remedies are classed as medicines and require MHRA authorisation before going on the market, the watchdog said. It could find no record of such approval. David Carter, head of the team investigating such products, said: "We regard the promotion of an unauthorised, self-medicating product for such a serious condition to be potentially harmful to public health and misleading. We are pleased that Neal's Yard Remedies have complied with our request and removed this product from the market."

This isn’t the first time that the homeopath industry has been called into question for its suggestions of malaria treatments. Nearly two years ago, the BBC ran a show where 10 undercover agents visited homeopaths, explaining they would be traveling to malaria infested country. Each homeopath recommended homeopathic remedies for malaria, containing mostly water and a small trace of quinine. A large homeopathic pharmacy instructed a traveler supposedly going to Malawi to try garlic, citronella oil and vitamins. Not once were the “travelers” instructed to visit a doctor.

It is estimated that two million Britons travel to malaria-infested countries and 2,000 will contract the mosquito-based disease. Of those, somewhere around 20 will die.

Issues facing albinos


Ambivalence and ambiguity of a white child born by two black parents fuel occult beliefs and practices. In most cases the mother is held responsible for the sickness. “She is accused of having slept outside in a forbidden place or of being unfaithful to her husband,” explained Fabéré Sanon, president of the Burkina Faso based association for albinos (ANIPA) to

Albinos are often believed to have evil or good powers. “They have supernatural strength, can predict the future or have spells to bring sorrow or wealth,” continues Mr. Sanon. In best cases people offer gifts to the albinos. “People used to follow me to offer me gifts hoping it would bring them good luck, I always refused,” recalls Korotomi Traoré, a young Burkinabe who arrived in France four years ago and part of the French association for albinos called Genespoir .

Unfortunately, many albinos are wanted for human sacrifices, promising enrichment or social elevation. “During elections, albinos are the targets of candidates. We have to stay home during these periods,” recounts Fédéré Sanon. “Albinos are no longer perceived as men but as sacrificial lambs wanted for their heads or their genitals, considered as the body’s strongest parts,” he adds.

New Prime Minister for Mauritania

From Agence France Presse:

NOUAKCHOTT - Mauritanian Prime Minister Zeine Ould Zeidane resigned yesterday after just a year in office, a television channel in the northwest African state reported.

President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi "accepted this resignation and thanked the prime minister and the members of his government for their efforts and the work achieved," Mauritanian television said, citing a presidential statement.

Ould Zeidane, 42, was replaced by the economist and former minister Yahya Ould Ahmed Waghf, 48, it added.

It gave no explanation for the resignation, following criticism of the government by the president’s camp which has accused it of not representing the political parties that hold a majority in parliament.

Mauritania, a largely desert country, has been shaken recently by a food crisis fuelled by soaring food prices worldwide, and by deadly attacks from extremist groups.

Abdallahi had appointed Ould Zeidane in April 2007, the month after the president came to power following a transition to democracy after two years of military rule. The previous president had been ousted in a coup in 2005.

The new prime minister was formerly a university economics teacher and is president of the ruling PNDD party.

Food prices: A broken record?

It was a freelance journalist's dream, really: The opportunity to spout off and actually have someone listen to you. (Well, at least one person. But he is famous.) I was recently interviewed on BBC’s 5 Live show pods&blogs about global food prices.

Regular readers of Africa Flak will most likely yawn at my ability to continually talk about the same issues as they pertain to Africa. Non-regular readers will most likely yawn at my ability to consecutively say "uhm."

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Will U.S. Congress take my food-for-education program away?

It’s hard to keep up with the give and take of U.S. politics in the fight over the Farm Bill, the approximately $300 billion, five-year plan covering all food and agriculture programs in the country. As the U.S. Congress continues to hammer out details on the bill, there is no guarantee that President Bush will sign it into law. He has consistently argued that Congress has failed to bring down the ceiling on many agriculture subsidies, especially in a time when U.S. farmers – and the agribusiness corporations that earn most of the payouts – are profiting from high world food prices.

In a recent move to cut the cost of the farm bill, the U.S. Congress lowered spending on the Dole-McGovern International Food for Education program to a mere $60 million for the coming year, a drastic drop from the $780 million five-year plan previously proposed by the House. As a story in the Washington Post points out, the program – named after Senators Robert Dole and George McGovern – spent $91 million in 2005 and provided 118,000 tons of food to 3.4 million children in developing countries around the world. In all, McGovern-Dole accounts for about 4 percent of all U.S. food aid funding.

But, is it a good program?

Dole and McGovern think so. In an Op-Ed in the Washington Post, they argue:

For just a few cents a day per child, the McGovern-Dole Program has made a critical difference in the lives of children and communities worldwide, promoted American values in the most positive terms, and helped achieve U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. By providing meals to children who attend school in the poorest countries, the program increases attendance rates and student productivity and gives hope to a new generation of impoverished children around the world. The impact on young girls is particularly important. As their school attendance increases, they marry later and birthrates are reduced.

What do others say? For the past five years, the McGovern-Dole program has spent $91 million annually, 85 percent of those funds for distributing food directly while the remaining 15 percent has been allowed for monetization, a program allowing certain U.S.-based NGOs to sell a portion of food aid in foreign markets to pay for development projects. In short, monetization is controversial. Europeans argue that it allows the U.S. government to circumvent export subsidy rules by allowing subsidized crops – wheat, corn, rice – to be sold abroad. More damning (in my mind, at least) is that monetization may work against local traders and producers, who must compete in the market with international development organizations. We don’t know for sure because monetization is very loosely managed by USAID and USDA, who do not track date on the revenues these NGOs make from selling commodities abroad. This, along with other bureaucratic shortcomings, has lead the Government Accounting Office to refer to it as “inherently inefficient use of resources” reducing the effectiveness of alleviating hunger.

As a food-for-education program, McGovern-Dole began in 2002 as an enticement for children to stay in school. It is estimated that 300 million children around the world face chronic malnourishment and many of those children do not attend school. In 2002, GAO analyzed the efficacy of these programs, and first noted the difficult environment they face to: 1) provide important nutrients (hand in hand with clean water and proper sanitation facilities) for children in poor areas; and, 2) create a facilitative learning environment for these kids, which means having adequately trained teachers, proper texts and learning materials and proper facilities which are near enough to most families.

Thus, GAO pointed out that these programs should target at-risk communities with a holistic approach, not attempt a blanket coverage of an entire country with low school enrollment, like, say, Burkina Faso.

The one problem facing food-for-education programs is sustainability. To be truly successful, they must have the buy-in from local communities, parents – who decide whether to send their children to school – and the governments, who must reflect on proper school reforms necessary to make education either more affordable or relevant to rural students. Problem #1: food-for-education programs are expensive, and don’t readily produce results, making governments leery of picking up the tab. The big question: Should education ministries pick up feeding students at the expense of educating others? Most would likely say no.

In the end, it appears the program was less sustainable in the United States than it was abroad. While everyone laments the problem of business interests and pork projects controlling the farm bill, no one has offered a practical solution. In the short term, the death-by-strangulation of McGovern-Dole may be bad for children in places like Burkina Faso. However, it may force the entire political establishment to re-think America’s funky attempts at modernizing food aid.

Ceasefire breaks in Mali?

From Associated Press:

Insurgents attacked an army convoy in northern Mali Saturday, violating a cease-fire and sparking a fire fight that left five people dead, military sources and area residents said.

It was the first major clash since the ethnic Tuareg rebels and the government signed a cease-fire a month ago. Libya had brokered that deal in an attempt to restore peace to a region that has been plagued by raids, kidnappings and clashes for more than a year.

On Saturday morning, a group of armed men attacked an army supply vehicle outside of the town of Tessalit, a regional army official said. He said four attackers and one soldier died in the fighting. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Monday, May 5, 2008

CSIS Africa Policy Forum just published a piece of mine regarding the U.S. international food aid budget. Short version: It’s an ancient, mostly crippled regime that definitely needs reform to continue to be relevant.

The longer, slightly less polemic version is here.

The negatives of false positives: Misdiagnosing malaria leads to fevered complications

“When people are sick in Mali, the doctor will usually tell them they have malaria whether or not they test for it,” Fatou Faye, an infectious diseases researcher and trainer at a privately funded medical laboratory, the Charles Merieux Centre in Bamako recently told IRIN.

“The patients then buy anti-malarial drugs in the street and build up a resistance to treatment.”

Dr. Imelda Bates of the Malaria Knowledge Project says that when doctors misdiagnose malaria, patients may miss real treatments for other serious illnesses like pneumonia and meningitis. Most rural health clinics lack the proper equipment to make a full malaria diagnosis, leaving many patients uncertain what is causing their fevers. Because the potency of malaria strengthens after each fever cycle, many patients simply take anti-malarial drugs as a precaution.

The problem with most blood smears is that most patients already have a considerable amount of the malaria parasite in their bodies, which is picked up by the test, leading to a false-positive test and overdiagnosis.

Health professionals are calling for more funds going towards diagnosis, which would allow those health clinics away from population centers to purchase microscopy equipment that properly count the amount of parasites in blood, a more certain way of diagnosing the illness. This equipment, called rapid diagnosis tests, are inexpensive and can be used by untrained technicians.

Charles Taylor is innocent until proven guilty, and he was very, very rich

Liberia’s Information Minister appealed to Liberian and Sierra Leonean journalists to treat former leader Charles Taylor innocent into proven guilty. Taylor of Liberia is presently on trial in The Hague for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during fighting in neighboring Sierra Leone. He denies the charges.

"The stories you write, the interviews and questions you ask, and the analyses you provide, indeed, have serious implications in our both countries," Dr. Lawrence K. Bropleh said, according to The News in Monrovia.

He’d like to see an independent commission to monitor and evaluate the media coverage from both post-conflict countries.

Nonetheless, here is something they may have to chew on. The chief prosecutor in the case against Taylor claims the former leader had at one time nearly $5 billion in U.S. bank accounts. Taylor has long denied that he bought weapons to fuel the war machine through illicit sales of Liberian diamonds and timber. (The diamond sales are documented here.)

Togo launches truth and reconciliation commission into 2005 elections

File this under: Too late.

Togolese officials have begun what they call “national consultations” to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission regarding the country’s 2005 election where an estimated 500 people were killed by police forces.

Presently, officials are fanning throughout the country looking to talk to members of all strata of society, taking opinions what the mandate, focus and responsibilities of such a commission should be.

Togo’s April 24, 2005 presidential election was rife with complications surrounding the succession of long-serving ruler Gnassingbe Eyadema, who had died a few months before. Opposition parties cried foul when the government circumvented the constitution after Eyadema’s sudden death on February 5 by naming his son, Faure Gnassingbe, president. Per the constitution, the post should have gone to speaker of Parliament. After domestic and international outcry, Faure eventually stepped down and was named Presidential contestant for the ruling party.

Citing a law that stipulates candidates must live in the country for the previous 12 months before an election, government officials also barred long-time opposition figure Gilchrist Olympio from the polls. Olympio, who was seriously injured during a 1992 assassination attempt against him, had been living in exile in France. Faure eventually won the election with 60 percent of the vote and has been trying to heal the country’s wounds since then.

They race horses, don't they?

Check out the great photos and text of Niger’s horse racing season, which recently ended in Zinder.

A few things you need to know about Omar Bongo

Was this photo really worth $9 million? Photo courtesy of White House.

A few things you need to know about Omar Bongo of Gabon.

  • He is the world’s longest ruling leader (who is not a monarch), recently celebrating his fourth decade in power, outlasting everyone from Charles de Gaulle to Jacques Chirac.
  • He likes his name. Take for example the Omar Bongo Triumphal Boulevard, the Senate Palace Omar Bongo.
  • He is a political genius, says a political science professor at Omar Bongo University.
  • His rule coincided with Gabon’s rise to becoming Africa’s third largest oil exporter.
  • “Bongo’s rule has been a masterclass in the use of patronage,” says the Guardian. Even African diplomats are impressed. Petrodollars props up the bloated civil service. Important opposition leaders, the Guardian says, are either paid off or brought into the government. One member of the opposition, head of the Bongo Must Go Party, says with its relatively small population and bountiful resources, Gabon should be more like Dubai.
  • Bongo likes to keep it in the family. His son, and probable heir apparent, is the country’s minister of defense. His daughter remains the head of the cabinet. Her husband is the minister of finance.
  • He likes houses. French prosecutors discovered the family owned 33 houses in France alone. His wife, originally the daughter of Congo’s president Denis Sassou-Nguesso, was featured on the U.S.-based reality show Really Rich Real Estate, scouring southern California for a $25 million mansion.
  • Rumors have long swirled that he has accepted millions of Euros in kickbacks from the French oil firm ELF.
  • For all these riches, nearly two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line. Gabon has fewer miles of paved roads than oil pipelines. The country does excel at cutting down trees: Since 1957, two-thirds of its forests have been logged, yet the government is planning to set aside 10 percent of its land mass for national parks.
  • He really wanted to meet George Bush. So much, in fact, Bongo allegedly paid disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff $9 million to meet with the President of the United States.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Benin to get new polls, plus a budget to hold them

When Beninois voted April 20, election monitors noted serious technical and organization flaws: Polling places ran out of ballots in some areas, in others the ballots were improper. Things were so bad that people in six southern and central arrondissements didn’t vote at all.

The election commission – and the country’s president – all saw it coming, they say. It was the first time the country held two elections – town and village councilors – on the same day.

Thus, new elections will be held in the six areas, and the Independent Electoral Commission will receive a budget to do so.

For Liberian logging companies, the past may come back to haunt

It wasn’t long ago that we posted a little piece on the politics surrounding Liberia’s decision to open up the bidding process for logging companies to begin cutting trees and selling the lumber on the international market. This made news because in 2003 the UN Security Council banned the country from exporting timber because profits from the industry were going to purchase guns and fueling the country’s civil war.

Even though it will be providing jobs and much needed financial resources to the country, re-launching the timber sector is something of a controversial move. For one, many timber companies have bloody hands from their role in the decade-long civil war. Thus, the government decided not to grant licenses to those companies involved in aiding and abetting civil disturbances, codewords, apparently, for involvement with warlords.

Anyway, the Forest Development Authority has now barred 17 logging companies from taking part in the new timber contracts. The Inquirer from Monrovia claims that these companies have been accused of at least one of the following actions: supporting militias, facilitating sales of arms for timber, or aiding civil instability. So far, one company has appealed the decision.

The road less traveled: the link between good transport and economic development

How important are good roads? To the city of Kilongo, Congo a well-groomed road is very important indeed. A story in Washington Post shows that due to appalling road conditions, the mere 30-mile journey from Kilongo to Lumbashi – with its markets and jobs and movies and other goods – was too long for most people. They stayed home and suffered for it. Here’s the subtext: Access to education was low, as well as goods (Rambo movies!) and health services. Not to mention employment opportunities and knowledge of the outside world.

Things changed when a mining company paid to have the road graded, part of a $10 billion deal the government signed with the Chinese, hoping to link ports to the country’s bountiful mines. Throughout much of Congo, poor transportation has locked people in. Consider this: Congo is a country the size of Western Europe with only 1,700 miles of paved roads. Some villages are so isolated that officials haven’t paid a visit in 20 years.

Needed: African Automobile Association?
This problem may be extreme in densely forested Congo, where weather and terrain combine to make all road construction futile. But it echoes throughout much of the continent. Much literature exists establishing a link between reduced transportation costs and increased economic accessibility. Think about it: An easier, less dangerous ride will tax vehicles less, leading to an increase in transport because buses and taxis, delivery trucks and private cars will be willing to make the trip. On the warm-and-fuzzy side, this builds comradeship because people can expect more visits from friends and families (and, as the story explains, prostitutes).

Better roads drive up trade, the economist Seetanah Boopen found. Government spending cuts and neglecting infrastructure needs actually brings down private sector investment and economic growth. (In fact, Boopen points to two studies which argue that the shriveling of the African state during the 1980s lead to less infrastructure spending and – voila – a drop in productivity.)

Boopen points out there’s a surreal, ad-hoc feel to many country’s transportation plans, which often leave out any thought of long-term strategy or goals. He claims that with a proper integrated traffic plan, governments could take advantage of, say, the World Bank’s infrastructure and development loans.

Not another food piece?
Yes, people: A link exists between food security and good roads. Biofuels, right? No, not really. Calestous Juma, a professor of international affairs, argues that Africa could surely benefit from better regional integration, meaning improving transportation infrastructure in all forms: roads, railways, ports and airports. Let’s stick with roads for a second. Poor highway infrastructure makes getting food to people very difficult. “Bad roads mean that transported food is unaffordable, inadequate or simply unavailable,” Juma writes.

It runs deeper than that, Juma argues. Farmers won’t plant crops they can’t get to market; agribusiness won’t invest in inaccessible places.

Let’s remember
Before you start writing those checks to purchase hard hats, orange vests and a bunch of second-hand construction equipment to ship to Africa, we’re talking about grading roads, not laying down asphalt. Grading a road is much less financially, manually and temporally intensive than dumping a little asphalt one year and preying it sticks around for the next few seasons. Road grading is not perfect. It must be redone each year, usually after the rains, to be effective. But in many rural areas, it’s most likely superior to asphalt because the pizza-cheese thickness of blacktop laid on rural roads will surely break up in a few short years. Transporters of all stripes will tell you: A poorly graded road is much easier to maneuver and better on vehicles than a pot-holed piece of hell.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wanted: Sponsors for African Nations Tourney

As promised: More on commodities traders and their alleged role in rising prices

A Washington Post piece today backs up yesterday’s inquiry here into the role of new investors played in the rise of the commodities bubble. For farmers wanting to sell winter wheat, when the market price today is the below the value of the same wheat in the futures markets, Steven Pearlstein argues, something is amiss.

Interesting factoid or smoking gun? One economist claimed that during 2006 and 2007, as much as $100 million in investments per day was entering commodities markets. By February and March of this year that number shot up to $1 billion. More numbers. The value of all derivative contracts traded in the Spring of 2005: $3 trillion. Today: $8 trillion.

From Pearlstein:

Speculators have always played a prominent role in commodities markets, but in the past year, they have literally overwhelmed them, causing a dramatic increase in trading volume, volatility and prices and disrupting many of the normal relationships between producers and end-users.

Many of these were the same hedge funds and hot-money investors who had gorged on sovereign debt of developing countries, tech and telecom stocks, subprime mortgages and commercial real estate and now needed a new thing to focus on. Others -- including, it is said, some sovereign wealth funds -- looked to commodities as a hedge against the falling dollar. But perhaps the biggest push came from pension funds, foundations and university endowments whose managers had all gone to the same conferences and read the same academic papers, suggesting that a basket of commodity futures would provide a good hedge against stock and bond market declines.

To meet the needs of these investors, Wall Street and Chicago's commodities houses came up with all sorts of new vehicles, including exchange traded funds, index funds and structured investment vehicles -- the commodities equivalent of mortgage pools and asset-backed securities.

Of course there’s the small question of what to do about this. The problem remains, as Pearlstein reports, nobody at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, or its regulators, feel that these traders had much impact on commodities prices. (How responsible are traders for changing diets and tightening food supplies?) Pearlstein fears that if the CFTC says anything about the role of speculation, the U.S. Congress may want to take a look at regulatory reforms, something no trader could live with. It is an election year in the U.S., after all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Senegal’s Wade bets local rice can make the country self-sufficient by 2015

As more than 1,000 people marched in Dakar to protest high cost of living, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade claims he has created a plan to make the country self-sufficient in rice by 2015.

He calls for a massive crop expansion and irrigation program that will increase rice production six-fold to 600,000 metric tons. The government estimates that 250,000 hectares of land are currently free in northern part of the country and the Casamance River valley. Irrigation shouldn’t be as difficult because rice is presently grown near the edge of the Senegal, Saloum and Casamance rivers, and irrigated from recessional flooding.

IRIN admitted that most agriculture experts they spoke to gave their tepid support for Wade’s targets, but nobody came out and guaranteed they would be met. One expert claimed the biggest problem will be increasing yields, but the Minister of Agriculture argued that Senegal’s rice yield of six metric tons per hectare is better than Thailand’s. (The United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization isn’t too certain about the government’s numbers.)

Then there’s the issue of money: One estimate calls for $335 million in funding is necessary for infrastructure costs and leveling the land. That amount presently equals the country’s entire agriculture budget.

Mark supplying credit for rice producers and processors as another issue. Like most West African farmers, Senegal’s rice producers buy supplies on credit and then payback the loans when they sell their crop. However, those with bad credit have been denied anymore loans, basically kicking them out of future rice production. One way to break the credit log jam would be for investors and donors to establish cooperative banks to work with farmers of all credit histories, says the Council on Non-Governmental Organizations and Development Support.

The biggest obstacle facing this project is that few Senegalese eat local rice. That's because local rice is hard to find in the country’s markets because it carries a bigger price tag than imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam, who together control 75 percent of Senegal’s market. As world rice prices have hit record highs, people must shell out more to continue eating the grain.

Rice dependency remains a problem throughout the continent, says the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. A little more than half of the rice produced in Africa is consumed by local people, the group says. In many countries, rice imports have increased lockstep with rice demand. The group says it is working with farmers from different countries to create stress-tolerant rice seeds that are palatable to local tastes.

Does Ghana need an affirmative action law for women?

In the Ghanaian Chronicle, I. K. Gyasi says no tokenism is necessary for Ghana’s women.

I admit that Ghanaian women still face obstacles and suffer injustices. Ideas of male physical and mental superiority, inhuman widowhood rites, unjust accusations of witchcraft against older women with consequent confinement and even torture of such women, attempts to deprive widows and their children of a portion of the deceased husband's property, female genital mutilation and other injustices still plague our women, whether educated or not.

However, those agitators who create the impression by implications that our women have achieved nothing and that there is a deliberate policy to keep women down ought to face two realities.

In the first place, there is no official national policy that deliberately sets out to keep our women down. Secondly, Ghanaian women, both the educated and uneducated, have demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that they have what it takes to make a success of their lives without affirmative action or tokenism.

A common charge brought up by women's advocates is lack of education or lack of educational advancement for our women.

…Of course, I am willing to admit that, perhaps, here and there, a female appointment may have been the result of political patronage or some other consideration. But can we honestly say that, if that is even true, some male appointments have also not been the result of political patronage or some other considerations?

In any case, did the women not have to be qualified first? Were they appointed because they had beautiful faces or could talk?

As I admitted above, there are still obstacles that slow down or prevent women's advancement in certain areas. But women's rights advocates should accentuate the positives by showing how far they have come instead of indulging in self-pity and self-denigration. They can make it if they want to.

Cherry tomatoes from the Gulf of Guinea?

From New York Times.

Italian researchers report that the nutritional content of tomatoes — cherry tomatoes, in this case — improves when the plants are irrigated with diluted seawater.

Cristina Sgherri and colleagues at the University of Pisa grew cherry tomatoes with normal irrigation water and with water diluted with 12 percent seawater. They found that the seawater tomatoes were about 60 percent smaller by weight, on average, than those grown with regular water. But the seawater tomatoes were tastier, with higher acidity and a higher concentration of sugars.

Where the seawater tomatoes really stood out, though, was in concentrations of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E and chlorogenic acid. The findings were reported in The Journal of Agricultural Chemistry.

Researchers are presently looking towards Sicily, but could the same thing be done in coastal West Africa?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The effect of globalization on world food prices

Mauritania, a country that only produces 30 percent of the food necessary to feed it’s people, is feeling attacked on all sides. Sure, it’s not news that global food prices have risen, some say by 45 percent this year alone. But for Mauritanians months away from the nearest harvest, the Washington Post reports, the situation on the ground is worsening. The story noted a sharp increase in the sale of livestock, meaning farmers are selling wealth – and milk producers – to pay for food.

While poor weather has hurt crop production and the U.S. government’s decision to set aside corn for biofuels has adversely affected food prices, the story ponders what role has been played by globalization. First, globalization has tied food markets together, a mostly positive thing in places like West Africa. On the other hand, it has failed because of the mostly one-sided relationship between rich and poor countries.

Drive the money changers out of the Co-op
For instance, in a recent Spiegel article, questions are being raised about the role being played by commodities speculators. Some say financial investors have crashed the party of the once cloistered world of commodities buyers. They’ve begun taking advantage – and hugely profiting – from commodity pricing mechanisms by temporarily purchasing many futures of say, wheat or rice, at very low prices, driving demand (and prices) up, guarantying the seller a profit, but wreaking havoc in the real world. Their victories have brought other investors on board. With more people now betting on staple foods, even the Commodity Trading Commission has begun to recognize its possible effect on world food prices by driving up demand and (possibly) leading to the hoarding of foodstuffs. In their defense, investors claim that they arrived at the market not to artificially drive up prices but because they saw that world food stocks were not going to meet demand, so they merely “bet” that prices would increase.

Subsidies, anyone?
Another sticky issue remains subsidies, where rich countries continue to protect their farmers through expensive and complicated financial assistance schemes while demanding poorer nations pry open their markets to rich-world manufacturers. In the U.S., the tentatively agreed new five-year farm bill – quick caveat: it is by no means complete or ratified – appears to be retaining the $5.2 billion subsidy program intact along with $1.8 billion in tax cuts at a time that U.S. farmers (or U.S. farm companies who earn most subsidies) are milking big profits from higher food prices. In defense of farmers: The amount of their new profits is debatable: labor, equipment and transportation costs have all risen along with the price of crops.

Trade, the Mauritanian example
Trading mechanisms are also fraught with issues. The Mauritanian government recently signed a fishing deal with the European Union, which agreed to reduce catches in Mauritanian waters by more than 40 percent while dropping its royalty fee 10 percent to €86 million per year for five years. In the meantime, few are asking what will happen to the the country’s fishing stocks – especially octopus and coastal shrimp – which are nearly fully exploited, the legacy of poor resource management in the 1990s when 125 boats trolled the waters for fish. The new agreement sets aside 43 licenses for international trawlers.

As local artisan fishing boats have long played David to international Goliaths, they create a tremendous amount of employment – one estimate has local fishers responsible for creating at 30,000 jobs – and provide nearly €80 million in foreign currency.

Thus, the government of Mauritania is in a wicked predicament: earn much needed cash today while gambling against tomorrow’s fish stocks. At least one environmental group claimed the best way to conserve numbers of octopus is to make them only available for the local fleet, which still employs inefficient methods, but will increase demand for the fish, create many new jobs and bring in boatloads of cash for Mauritanians. Some of the fish could be put aside to better feed the population, which is now under food emergency. Of course, all this will mean tearing up the fishing treaty with the European Union and potentially destabilizing the government’s most profitable foreign export, worth 15 percent of its GDP.

With these issues in mind, the European Union agreed to push out the boundary where its boats can fish; set aside monies to develop the Mauritanian fishing industry. One EU commissioner claimed the treaty will continue to look at fish numbers to insure European boats do not continue to over fish; strengthen monitoring of catches, and help police pirate fishing; Finally, EU ship captains will promise to increase the number of Mauritanian locals employed on their boats.

More aid = less trade?
One economist – Ghana’s George Ayittey, argues that for decades foreign donor schemes hard-headily ignored the importance of agriculture even though roughly seven out of ten Africans earn at least some of their living in this sector. If development actors dealt with farmers at all it was to push them to produce cash crops for sale on the international market, an even more questionable action because between 1972 and 2002 most commodity values fell by 70 percent. Ayittey claims that if farmers are free to grow what they want, and they are given support to upgrade transportation and food processing infrastructure, not only will farming become more profitable, but it will lead to development.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Will China be the donor who cares?

Interesting quick take on Chinese – African relations from Africa-Asia Confidential:

When China evacuated 400 construction workers from Mongomo in Equatorial Guinea in early April, it marked the culmination of a labour dispute with a difference. In several African countries, notably Zambia and Congo-Kinshasa, Chinese companies have been criticised for their treatment of local staff. In other African countries, like Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria, Chinese technical staff have been kidnapped by dissident groups. But in Equatorial Guinea the tension was generated by the local authorities clashing with labourers imported from China.

What can Africa learn from Brazil’s resource management techniques?

File this under: Peripheral issues of rising food costs. In Brazil, where we’ve long heard tales of falling Amazon trees to make room for lumbering, gassy cows, but now environmental groups are teaming up with farmers and rancher types to create certification systems for eco-sponsible soy and beef production. The argument: If farmers can make money becoming eco-friendly, they’ll have more incentive to be eco-friendly.

There’s a long-standing debate within environmental groups on how much voice to give business interests. In this story, however, the argument goes that giving ranchers a seat at the table will insure that environmental laws could be better followed.

The same goes for logging companies. One of the issues facing Brazil is that many of its forests are privately owned, making environmental laws difficult to enforce. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered land concessions to timber companies promising to practice proper forest management on the country’s still substantial public forests. It’s an important – and forward thinking – step because world timber demand is projected to remain high, making the depth and breadth of the Amazon basin looking increasingly attractive for timber concerns everywhere. Setting the foundation for proper forest management could make things easier in the long run.

Similar issues are affecting Benin. (See, I told you.) The World Rainforest Movement – viewpoint: “Community-Based Forest Management is not Only Possible it is Essential” – argues the country’s growing population has driven up demand for arable land. One village sitting within the lgbodja region has made available 5,000 hectares to initiate forest management. That, along with hedgehog breeding and bee keeping, may provide alternative economic activities that will keep villagers from cutting down more trees to plant crops. The plan is to move to other villages in the area. Another worry is that non-local farmers have been encroaching on the forest land, cutting trees to plant. As tenants, these roving farmers cannot plant trees. Conflict could be alleviated if the tenants are also given a stake in matters.

In Cameroon, we can see the counter-factual. (What happens when nothing is done?) Rapid forest degradation can be blamed on industrial logging without any national or local oversight. Environmental groups blame the government which looks the other way as industrial logging companies use a free hand over the land. The end result: Cameroon is Africa’s leading timber exporter with little affect seen in the country’s GDP.

Not so fast, says a World Bank report. Slash-and-burn agriculture and fuel wood demand could be responsible for up to 90 percent of the country’s deforestation. But really, the report goes on to say, they are secondary effects of tropical timber harvesting. The issue is that timber industry activities are closely linked to happenings in the agriculture sector – which must deal with growing population and low productivity – and the political economy: namely, a lack of commitment to reform from the government, especially the executive branch; opposition to reform from key actors – foreign logging companies and Parliament – and, taking these issues into account, failure by actors to devise a compatible forest strategy outside of “give it all away for whiskey and prostitutes.” (I made that last part up.)

The vacuum we call pain and suffering in Africa

In a post yesterday, I tried to broaden our humble debate by illustrating a social issue taking place in a country going through somewhat the same situation as some African states. In this case, we tracked a story that investigated what changes arise in China in families that can now purchase their first cars?

Let’s be certain: I am not implying that African countries completely resemble the changes in China – how could anyplace? But, I’ll argue some similarities exist. For instance, a majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa now enjoy their greatest spurt of economic growth in decades. While debate certainly exists on the viability of growth as an indicator on how economic performance affects all levels of society, some people are certainly making more money than before. (Just look at the new fancy boutiques opening up in Ouagadougou – of all places! – for that one.)

So, let them eat cars? I think not. (More anecdotal proof: There are certainly more cars in Ouagadougou now than when I first arrived here in 2003; it can’t be all those kids traipsing in from villages buying them.) The point is African issues don’t happen in a vacuum. Broadly speaking, what happens on the continent may appear worse and more dreadful than issues afflicting the rest of the world. I’d argue the opposite. Problems facing African governments are very similar to issues that worry every other government. Job creation, for one. Environmental management, for another. Immigration, for a third. And so on.

For those who’ll pipe up and say, "What about Darfur or former-Zaire or Zimbabwe?" or "Why does genocide and funny-mustached dictators and resource rape always take place in Africa?" To that I say, put down your newspaper and/or quit opening junk mail from Mia Farrow or Jeffrey Sachs or whomever. (Yes, their calendars and magnets are very pretty, but throw that tripe away.)

Anyway, I’d like to start investigating some issues reported in other places and see how they could apply to sub-Saharan Africa or West Africa or Benin or wherever.

Our next post is about resource management in Brazil. Hold on to your hats.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ouagadougou calling: Meningitis’ deaths in Burkina Faso top 800, arrives in capital city

At the end of March, the Burkinabé government had tallied 650 deaths due to meningitis throughout the country. The ministry of health has now listed the death toll at 800 out of more than 8,000 cases, says Agence France Press.

What’s worse, meningitis mortalities have been reported in Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital of somewhere around 1.3 million (depending on the day). The meningitis bacteria usually attacks the pharynx, and is usually transmitted through close contact through sneezing, coughing, sharing utensils or kissing, making those who live in close contact (like in Ouagadougou) or in crowded areas like markets (as in Ouagadougou) more susceptible.

However, the most affected areas are centered near Burkina Faso’s border with Cote d’Ivoire.

Here’s more on the disease that killed more than 1,300 Burkinabé last year.

If a tree falls in Liberia, who will profit?

Three companies in Liberia are getting ready to begin logging, creating jobs and funding basic services, the government and other development agencies say.

The United Nations Security Council banned Liberia from exporting timber in 2003, after learning warlords were diverting profits to purchase weapons, expanding fighting in that country and Sierra Leone. At that point, timber sales made up 20 percent of the country’s GDP, increasing significantly from 6 percent more than a decade before.

A World Bank forestry export working in Liberia told IRIN that logging will begin bringing in nearly $2 for the Liberian government this year, but that amount will jump to $26 million by the end of 2010. As part of the reform agreed to by the government to have the timber ban lifted, an international group of development agencies, the World Bank and USAID will monitor logging and profits to avoid illegal logging and the siphoning of revenue.

A group of internal and West African environmental organizations argue that the international group nor the Liberian government has not been stringent enough in properly vet those groups and individuals applying for logging licenses. One particular problem they see is loopholes in the rules against awarding contracts to “those who have aided and abetted civil disturbances.”

As former Liberian-based human rights campaigner Shelby Grossman points out in her blog, the groups are most likely speaking about Maryland Wood Processing Industries, owned by Abbas Fawas, a Lebanese man that allegedly worked closely with Charles Taylor. There’s a whole host of ugly stuff about Abbas on the internet; absent from the trial against Charles Taylor, his name does appear in testimony at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Most importantly, it is unknown whether Abbas has applied for a permit to continue logging.

It should be remembered that the Liberian president recently tabled a law that would make it illegal for foreigners to own business in 26 sectors, a move supported by most of the local business community. The bill came about over fears of Lebanese power within Liberian economy.

In their press release, the environmental groups also claim that the country -- like other West African nations -- has not passed a proper community rights law that will codify who exactly will profit from the extraction of resources, a noted method to insure rural development.

In Mauritania, the future's so bright, they gotta wear shades?

Mauritania’s first democratically elected civilian president in nearly five decades, Sidi Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Cheikh, recently celebrated his first year in office. IRIN has an interesting piece on the changes he’s brought to the country and the obstacles he faces.

He has allowed long-banned political and religious associations, a very popular move. Islamist-leaning parties like Tawassoul and the Rally for National Reform and Development are now well established.

Cheikh campaigned for the post on a pledge to end slavery in the country, and signed that into law less than nine months ago. While it’s immediately hard to tackle such an institutional problem, at least one human rights campaigner gives him props for trying. Another bonus is thelong-standing issue of nearly 20,000 Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal has also begun to be seriously addressed.

His more limited success has come in the battle against corruption and modernizing the public sector. All this happens with the backdrop of Mauritania’s 2001 discovery of large oil deposits, which has yet to really pay off. The government recently estimated the unemployment rate to hover around 32 percent. Things are made worse by the world’s rising food prices, especially in light that sandy, dry and hot Mauritania can only grow 30 percent of the food stocks necessary to feed the population.

Adding more economic pressure to the country is what the Western media perceives as a growing terrorist threat, especially after four French tourists were killed and another wounded on Christmas eve by members of an Al-Qaeda linked terror group. The killings led to the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally, usually an economic boom for the country. In early February, gunmen attacked the Israeli embassy in Nouckchott, wounding three people. The tourism industry continues to suffer from the fallout of these attacks.

Another pressing issue is the pan-West African problem of drug smugglers using the long, deserted West African coastline as a port to transfer drugs to Europe. If smugglers, who rely on corrupt military and government officials, become entrenched in the country, it could lead to instability and lawlessness.

Another radio closure in Niger

Niger’s Higher Council for Communication closed down for an “indefinite period” an Agadez-based privately-owned radio station for allegedly broadcasting interviews with people who have been the victims of human rights violations by government soldiers, Reporters Without Borders said.

Raliou Hamed-Assaleh, manager of Sahara FM, told the Paris-based journalist organization that he was summonsed to Niamey April 18 after a northern-based governor and chief of police accused the station of broadcasting “dangerous” statements and appealing to ethnic hate and violence.

He told the group: “All we did was broadcast an account of something that happened.”

The government also told Hamed-Assaleh the station could face possible prosecution.

Amnesty International, in an April 3 report, cited a new wave of executions and forced disappearances of civilians committed by government troops fighting the Tuareg-led Movement for Nigerian Justice.

On August 24, 2007, the Nigerien government decreed a state of alert – which has been extended to May 24 – making it illegal for journalists to quote members of the rebellion or for reporters to speak with them. The ban also covers any live debates regarding the military and political situation in the north.

On March 12, the government suspended local broadcasts of Radio France International after the French network held a day of solidarity for correspondent Moussa Kaka, who has been in prison since September 20 for alleged ties with members of the rebellion. Kaka was recently brought before a judge protesting the government’s case against him centers on phone and wire taps, which are not admissible under state law.

Buy that first car and the rest will follow

A story about upward mobility – in China. Since 2000, car sales in China have increased eightfold, and a good portion of that increase comes from people who have never owned a car before.

Anecdotally you’d think the increased mobility of having an automobile would rapidly transform Chinese culture, especially in rural areas. It has. The biggest difference? Better chances to meet girls and marry.

In Africa, where some people are beginning to consistently make more money, I can’t prove it but I have to believe that car sales are also increasing. So, Africans you have this to look forward to.

Biofuel wavering by governments leads to uncertainty in shipping industry

Will governments continue to use biofuel in the face of criticism? It’s not certain – the United Kingdom is sending mixed messages while the U.S. continues ahead, for the time being.

But this uncertainty has lead has created a minor shortage in the fuel tanker industry, which must transport biodeisel on special chemical carriers. Ship owners would like the U.K. government to allow biodiesel to be transported on oil tankers.

For now, ship owners are standing pat – until things clear up. That means ship owners won't be investing in building or transforming current tankers for the near future, possibly creating a transportation bottleneck down the road.

In Britain, the government recently introduced a law that requires at least 2.5 percent of gasoline sold in stations to come from crops, such as soy or palm oil. The sticking point is the 2010 threshold, which pegs 5 percent of gasoline deriving from these plants. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has admitted the government is currently reviewing the 2010 rules. Also up in the air is Britain’s involvement in the European Union rules that state by 2020, 10 percent of gasoline will be plant based.

In the United States, where an estimated 80 ethanol refineries are under construction, the government stipulates that by 2012, 7.5 billion gallons of gasoline must be made by ethanol. By 2017, that should increase to 35 billion gallons. Presently, the U.S. consumes about 385 million gallons of gas per day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I have a new post at Voices Without Votes where we try something different and attempt to jump more quickly into the media cycle by posting bloggers' opinions directly after a big news story, like last night's whipping in Pennsylvania. I am not certain how well it worked -- we didn't find too many citizen media types with posts just hours after the results were in -- but the style of the post itself is something different for the site.

UN Report on the security situation in Cote d’Ivoire

From Secretary-General, dated April 15.

The good news is the overall security situation stable, along with the country’s budding political atmosphere. However, the report raises worries about the disarmament about the northern-based Forces Nouvelles and militias in the western part of the country. Violent crime remains a concern, especially armed robberies.

In the political arena, the opposition party Rassemblement des republicans held its convention in Abidjan and named Allassane Dramane Ouattara as the party’s candidate for the presidential election scheduled for November 30. The ruling Front populaire ivorien held a rally in the former rebel capital Bouake.

Prime Minister Guillaume Soro attended a Women’s Day celebration in President Laurent Gbagbo’s hometown, and claimed the northern-based prime minister has a good working relationship with the president.

Civil society groups still clamor to be included in the Ouagadougou Agreement. Burkinabé president Blaise Compaore expressed desire to hold a national meeting with such groups.

Regarding the sticky issue of voting rights, more than 110 mobile courts have been dispatched throughout the country to issue duplicate birth certificates to any Ivorian over the age of 18 and not part of the previous census. By April 8, the courts had issued more than 565,000 certificates. They hope to finish by the end of the month.

While the legal framework for the electoral process has not been finalized, its budget has: $83 million, which the Ivorian government will chip in $18 and the European Union, Japan and Korea will provide $25. This currently leaves $40 million unaccounted for. (Any takers?)

The International Crisis Group is a little less sanguine about the political situation. In a recent report, the group points out that in the presidential election certain candidates may be willing to go to extremes, reigniting a potentially explosive environment.

The report also claims implementation has been shaky of many of the Ouagadougou Accords that brought a halt to the civil war. Importantly, they claim voter identification has not completely determined who is a citizen and who may vote. However, the largest worries go to all major political parties sticking to the Ouagadougou Accords and insuring the election is carried out in a transparent manner, with proper identification for all registered voters and a security situation that allows people to vote in peace.

Peace = lower malaria rates?

Peace in Cote d’Ivoire does not bring down malaria rates, says IRIN.

Statistics galore: At least 6-out-of-10 clinic treatments are for malaria, the story points out, and 20 percent of pregnant women have the mosquito-born disease, leading to low birth weights. Historical numbers were not available.

The question remains: Why do people get malaria in the first place? Never mind the how, we’ve covered that part here. We need to investigate the social aspects of the disease, and a post on Yahoo Answers (I couldn’t find anything better) claims that malaria thrives where people live in close quarters, in wet, “dirty places” (not my term) where mosquitoes thrive. Oftentimes these people lack the money – and/or will – to clean up the mosquito zone.

A different take. Environmentalists and international development agencies like USAID and the World Health Program have guilted African countries away from using DDT or other pesticides which will go after the mosquitoes that carry the disease, argues Paul Driessen in Spiked Online. Driessen, the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, claims that the most effective way to kill the mosquitoes in peoples’ homes (or at least where they sleep) is the combination of spraying DDT and using bed nets and screens, when necessary.

Yet, in a Reuters blog on the issue (which I must give a hat tip for the Driessen piece), a certain Ed Darnell contends DDT is an overrated (and dangerous) method of reducing mosquitoes in homes. A better solution would be better medical systems and education (and money) to drain those mosquito breeding areas.

Questions linger after Benin’s local elections

Doubts have been cast on Benin’s local and municipal elections, held Sunday, where voters attempted to cast ballots for more than 26,000 candidates.

Claiming the polls suffered from “inadequate practical or organizational preparation,” ECOWAS monitors have called voting to take place in five southern localities where people could not cast ballots. In other areas, monitors reported that ballots ran out in some polling stations and party symbols and names were missing from others.

Voice of America reported Sunday that many of the 5,000 polls opened late.

A Beninois journalist told VOA that issues stemmed from “complications” from the autonomous election board, which was attempted to hold two elections – ministerial councils and local councils – were held the same day. That sentiment backed up by President Boni Yayi, who spoke Sunday night.

Benin is generally ranked favorably by Political- and Human-Rights organizations. Freedom House, from the United States, which concentrates mostly on political freedom and civil liberties, terms the country “free.” Using indicators like safety and security, economic opportunity, rule of law and transparency, the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance ranked the country 13 (out of 48) sub-Saharan African governments.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Headline of the day

Peace keepers' dilemma: Keeping the peace where there is none

Don’t blame peacekeepers for the prolongation of Africa’s continuing crisis, argues François Grignon and Daniela Kroslak of the International Crisis Group. That’s because the continent’s bloodiest conflicts – like Chad, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – can only be solved through political accommodation that tackle their root problems, which lies outside the purview of peace keepers.

The problem is the international community is more willing to send off these peace keepers and emergency humanitarian groups, but remain unenthusiastic to begin the arduous political process of bringing all parties to the negotiating table and keeping them accountable. When fighting restarts and civilians are involved, peace keepers are blamed for not doing their job. Without peace deals, however, the peace is quite hard to maintain.

Take the example of Darfur:

[P]ublic pressure has drawn attention to the international community’s inability to protect civilians. The consolidation of initiatives under the AU–UN banner will only bear fruit over time if negotiations go beyond the superficial sticking points—such as compensation for crimes committed, and janjaweed disarmament— and deal with the root causes of the conflict. That means establishing greater and more equal representation of Darfurians at local and national levels, and greater sharing of wealth. Despite the humanitarian effort on the ground, civilians in Darfur continue to suffer because the international community has put insufficient political pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to ensure that the government adheres to its past commitments. Addressing the root causes of the problem, and providing international support, will also be crucial if Unamid is to make a difference on the ground and avoid becoming a new scapegoat, blamed for its impotence in the effective protection of Darfurian civilians.

Finally, military operations usually create a void that needs to be filled by reformed government structures. Any peacekeeping force engaged in forceful disarmament of militias and area domination can only carry out these activities for a few days. Once a vacuum is created, it has to be filled by agreed state structures. If not, the same or other armed groups will quickly regain or expand their territorial control. The protection of civilians can only be successful operationally in partnership with the state. There is no way around that.

Sadly, in Darfur and beyond, the world seems more willing to contribute money to humanitarian efforts than to tackle the causes of conflicts. Peacekeeping missions are often used as a Band-Aid for complex conflicts, and are rarely equipped to do the political work that is vital to addressing the causes. In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.

Niger getting into the Patriot act

Staring down the barrel of a 14-month northern rebellion that has taken the lives of at least 70-soldiers and countless other civilians, the government of Niger recently passed a new anti-terror law, Reuters reports.

The law, ratified Sunday, makes it illegal to posses or manufacture explosive devices or radioactive materials along with the acts of hostage taking and attacking transport.

"The integration of this anti-terrorism law into our judicial structure equips our authorities to fight both effectively and legally this scourge that spares no country," said Justice Minister Dagra Mamadou.

He is most likely speaking about the Tuareg-led Niger Justice Movement, MNJ, which began a rebellion in February 2007 demanding more local political autonomy and a greater share of Niger’s profits made from its extensive uranium mines, located around the northern half of the country. Niger enjoys one of the world’s largest reserves of uranium, a mineral which has seen a nearly seven-fold increase in price since 2000.

The government’s new law comes at the heels of a new report by Amnesty International asserting that Nigerien troops have participated in at least eight extra-judicial executions in Agadez region. The London-based group maintains that the troops killed the civilians between March 22 – 25 as a response to casualties the army faced in skirmishes with the MNJ.

The report also documents instances of torture and beatings by the army, forced disappearances and arrests and soldiers attacking property, burning houses and camps.

Mauritanian parties in power form new coalition

From Afriquenligne, with a new look for its website:

About 30 political parties in the ruling presidential majority in Mauritania have decided to form a new coalition to uphold the democratic achievements of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi's regime, according to a statement released to PANA here on Monday.

The parties said in the statement that they supported the policy of the president and his government, which is faced with current challenges "to foster sustainable mechanisms of political change and the success of the reforms initiated" by the post-transition government.

The coalition regards the presidential election of March 2007 as a turning point in the political history of Mauritania.

The Mauritanian government has made the strengthening of democratic achievements, national reconciliation, social cohesion and improving living conditions for all the major planks of its policy.

The formation of the new coalition came amid rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

Open letter from Human Rights Watch to Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is currently touring four West African states. On the eve of that trip, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the Secretary General regarding outstanding human rights issues in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

Here are the excerpts.


While the [Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission]—empowered to recommend for prosecution the most serious offenders—has made significant progress chronicling a record of abuses, there appears to be no national strategy and little discussion by Liberian or international actors for holding perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. Human Rights Watch believes that the many victims of these unspeakable crimes deserve justice for what they have suffered, and that prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed would go a long way towards consolidating and firmly anchoring respect for the rule of law in Liberia.

During your discussions with representatives of Liberia’s government and civil society we therefore urge you to emphasize the importance of accountability for past human rights violations, and also to encourage them to develop a strategy for prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the most egregious crimes. Given the persistent weaknesses in the Liberian justice system, international support is very likely to be necessary to ensuring justice for these crimes.

Cote d’Ivoire:

Impunity for Past and Ongoing Human Rights Abuses: Côte d’Ivoire is characterized today by an intense focus on the part of nearly all actors with a stake in the Ivorian crisis—at both the international and local levels—on the process leading towards upcoming presidential elections, currently scheduled for November of this year. While Human Rights Watch salutes the progress that has been made in implementing the Ouagadougou Agreement and the role the United Nations has played therein, we are concerned that in its narrow focus on elections, the international community risks losing sight of the need to resolve issues of impunity for human rights violations that are critical not only to calm during the upcoming elections themselves, but also to long-term prospects for peace and stability.

Despite the relative decrease in political tensions since the signing of the Ouagadougou Agreement, impunity for past and ongoing violations of human rights persists. Should political tensions rise in the lead-up to elections, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the prevailing climate of impunity could facilitate a dramatic resurgence of human rights abuses, which in turn could threaten the integrity of the elections themselves. It is therefore imperative that the international community begin to work with the government of Côte d’Ivoire in advance of the elections to tackle issues arising from impunity and the need for justice.

The letter called for three ways the United Nations could continue its critical role:

  • Initiate a public dialogue regarding the human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war.
  • Publish the findings of the 2002 study on human rights violations in the country
  • Push the Ivorian government to accept a mission of the International Criminal Court to asses the possibility of an investigation regarding crimes committed in the country.