Friday, February 29, 2008

The day after: Strawberries, 750 FCFA a kilo!

I went back to my city and the destruction was gone.

I finally made it downtown late this morning. Other than the presence of a bit – but not too much – more police and military than expected, the city looked pretty much the same. In fact, my guest claimed how cleaned it looked, especially compared to Accra. The women who clean this town at night must have been out in full force.

Traffic seemed a bit heavier and shops busier as people were either 1) taking care of things they couldn’t do yesterday; or, 2) know something I don’t know about what will happen during the next few days.

Of course, I didn’t go out to any of the outlying neighborhoods where the destruction was even worse. I’ll say that while the city takes care of downtown, it can often let the other neighborhoods languish as a sort of punishment meted out against the hooligans from the area most likely responsible for the destruction.

Rumour Ville
A couple rumors to catch up on. There was a death yesterday, the result of two competing groups of thugs fighting over some turf. One group had been hired by a local mayor to provide security and the other group had been doing some rampaging around the neighborhood. Words were exchanged, it seems, and things devolved from there. Anyway, just a rumor – but the idea that a mayor must outsource security may say something about the worth of elected officials in the eyes of the government, who had stationed police and military around the city in front of important business (like gas stations) and other public offices.

Someone told me that if word gets out that the police abused some of the 200 people who had been arrested; they will start protesting against them. This is in opposition against the minister of security’s speech last night commending the work of the police. The front page of one newspaper showed a soldier grabbing a young protester; a second picture showed another being pushed down in the back of a truck by a bunch of riot police. Let’s just say he has a look of fear on his face. It’s hard to tell if there is another person already lying in the bed of the truck.

One group that may think of striking: Students. A majority of the demonstrators appeared to be young, and they may have been the targets of police brutality. Even if not, the students are much better organized than most other groups. And, at 16,17, 18, who didn’t mind a day off from school?

I talked to some street toughs who wash windows at a busy corner. After evading the question of what they did yesterday, it seems they had their fair share of destruction. They said demonstrators, in fact, did come to this part of town (I think they were talking about themselves), but I did not see any massive destruction. I promised them lunch for more answers. (Don’t tell my journalists union back home that I pay for information.)

It seems that retaliations ran high against businesses that did remain open in defiance against “dead ville” orders. One cellular kiosk was literally picked up and thrown into a busy street and then set on fire.

Naive statement of the day comes from the Associated Press: "It's very sad, because I did not expect destruction and vandalism," said Thibault Nana, the head of a small political party, the Popular Call for Democracy, which organized the demonstration to protest the high cost of living. "But as I always say, it doesn't take much to make a hungry man crazy." (Note to AP: The city Bobo-Dioulasso contains two hyphenated words. Think Czecho-Slovakia.)

For some reason, it should be said that Nana supported Blaise Compaore during the 2005 elections. It should also be noted he was on the radio yesterday exhorting people to come out and demonstrate against high prices. Well aware of the damage caused around the country by last week’s riots, Nana defended those actions by stating hungry people can do crazy things while being mocked by others driving by in gleaming vehicles.

As the country’s political parties met yesterday to hash out an agreement to bring down prices, Ouagadougou’s Mayor Simon Compoare was manning the barricades. A photo in the local paper showed the city’s diminutive mayor with a cell phone in one hand and a walkie-talkie in the other, surrounded by security police and presumably barking out orders. When a pair of local reporters approached him for a quote, he barked: It will have to be later, I don’t have the time.

It provided an interesting contrast between a somewhat distressed Compaore out on the streets and a meeting that look like it could have taken place at some Disney World hotel.

The governmental meeting – and the photo of Simon – showed to me the divide between those in power (including those standing next to men with guns) and those without power seemed about as insurmountable as could be in its present iteration. For all the bluster from the opposition about how the government had done nothing but watch prices rise these past few months, where were other parties and their ideas even two weeks ago. Even after last week’s riots, ideas were scarce. Like administrators, they only jumped during a time of crisis. Is that what we would call exhibiting good leadership?

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Dateline Ouagadougou: From "dead ville" to riot central

Update: Please see updates on the ongoing riots below

The military is out on the street. The government has closed the schools. Ouagadougou is under orders to be a “dead ville,” meaning all shops will be closed, except, oddly enough, the boutique across the street from our house. “If I see a crowd coming, I’ll close up,” the proprietor said.

Traffic is out, but not its normal chaotic flavor. At 10 am, the markets were mostly shuttered, and I’ve been told that downtown is completely dead. This is all in anticipation of a large demonstration called for today regarding the skyrocketing prices that have afflicted the country during the first two months of 2008.

Last week, demonstrations against high prices turned ugly as demonstrators burned tires, ransacked offices and looted gas stations in Bobo-Dioulasso, Ouahigouya, and Banfora. (In Banfora, vandals also destroyed a statue dedicated to the work and wealth of women.)

One political party, in an attempt to keep pressure on the government, called a “dead ville” for Ouagadougou today, one week after the violent demonstrations in secondary cities. The press is full of accounts of people complaining the government has done nothing but watch prices skyrocket – by as much as 30 percent for some items – since the beginning of the year. Yesterday, February 27, multiple government ministers met the press in an attempt to diffuse the anger around the country and head-off a massive demonstration in Ouagadougou today. They pointed out that food prices around the world have increased, and claimed that Burkina Faso was the first country to offer solutions. With their hands firmly planted on their backs, the ministers announced a three-month suspension of customs duties on powdered milk, rice, sugar, salt and pastas. Also, Made in Burkina products like oil and sugar will also have its taxes repealed. The government admitted the whole program will cost the state 3 billion CFA (roughly $6.6 million).

As I pointed out before, one of the reasons for the sharp increase in prices is government program to crack down on the allegedly wholesale corruption of customs officers who take bribes from large food distributors instead of charging import taxes on their goods. Once that racket was halted, the government claimed, merchants had no choice but paying the import duties, and thus, passing the new higher prices onto their customers. The press, salivating for the names of merchants caught red-handed avoiding bribing customs officers, were greeted with the semi-lame excuse that 155 people had been questioned by police but nothing else was presently forthcoming. (One observer claimed that he would be surprised if even one commercant, much less a crooked customs agent, would see the inside of a prison cell for their flagrant rejection of the law.)

As last week’s demonstrations slowly faded from view, a different debate swept through the press: How the government’s new tax structure has amplified the already peoples’ worsening economic situation. It must be said that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have long complained about the sloppy tax structure in Burkina, which foists much burden on the country’s few formal businesses while largely ignoring personal income taxes.

In 2006, the World Bank Private Sector Unit investigated the (many) complaints of Burkina’s business class and came away with this:

Tax rates as well as tax regulations are among the important concerns for formal companies’ managers (for about 76 percent of formal firms). The tax system is indeed focused on the collection of tax revenues from a limited tax base; in practice, a small number of formal firms and remains cumbersome.

For a poor government like Burkina Faso, which runs heavy spending deficits (and hopes to make up the differences through loans and grants) and heavy trade deficits, the IMF has long argued the state needs to reform the tax structure and begin bringing in more revenue.

This is from the IMF’s consultation with the country in January, which took place January 15.

Ongoing structural reforms include steps to improve revenue performance. Domestic revenues are still low by regional standards, and measures focus on improving tax compliance and broadening the tax base. Reforms to improve tax administration include the computerization of the large taxpayer office, the removal of exemptions, and the streamlining of the tax code. The strengthening of public financial management is another focus of the authorities' reform program. In other areas, structural reforms are aimed at reducing constraints to the business environment, reduce corruption and improve international competitiveness…

…In this connection, timely implementation of revenue administration and comprehensive tax policy measures will be crucial. Directors therefore welcomed the focus on revenue-raising reforms in 2008 and encouraged early adoption of the planned tax policy reform. Directors also recommended against contracting new non-concessional borrowing, and stressed that the authorities should seek new assistance in the form of grants wherever possible.

The details of this new tax structure, at least by reading the media, still remains fuzzy to me. There are those who are complaining the new taxes are inherently regressive and intentionally set to benefit the country’s nouveau riche, a group firmly in President Blaise Compaore’s camp. From a list provided through an anti-tax letter published in a local daily, street vendors must now pay taxes and bars have seen their fees increased; electricity taxes have also gone up; and license and license plate taxes, apparently shelved since the mid-1980s, are now back on the table.

What all this does only complicates matters, says the detractors, as new taxes, mixed in with already high prices and government neglect only hurts the common person.

Check out the map, which is the best I could find.

Update:Demonstrators started gathering at the Stade du 4 Aout (Sector 9 on the map) around 11 am and began making their way downtown. A friend told me he saw a few foreigners’ cars totaled. Another witness claims that demonstrators were seen in Patte-d’Oie (Sector 30), basically on the other end of town.

Another source claims that once the demonstrators hit Cité Ans III (Sector 11), the police responded with teargas, calming the situation. (I think I have confirmation of tear gas.)

Update: U.S. government has closed its offices effective 11:15 or so. (They were probably the only people opened.

Just heard from friend that downtown is now quite hot. I guess I won’t be going to the airport.

Took a short tour around the neighborhood – no amount of violence will affect my daughter’s playdates – and things are very quiet. Barely any traffic on the street. The boutique in front remains open, as does the carpenters next door.

Update: A friend said one can see parts of the city on fire from the roof of a four-storey building in our neighborhood. I can't confirm this.

Also, friend called another friend from downtown, where things are now pretty hot.

Update: A friend in Dapoya (Sector 12) says things are calm. He, however, was speaking from a closed bar. It says something that this bar is closed.

Someone I know just returned from Kwame N'Krumah, the heart of the downtown restaurant and upscale business district and said things are quite hot. People are throwing rocks and burning tires. It's home to many restaurants, some of them foreign-owned. Let's hope everyone has protection for their windows.

Update: It's eerily calm on this end of town, even more so than your regular lunch-time siesta. My friend’s plane has just arrived and being a true coward, sent a Burkinabé to pick her up. With the targeting of foreigners, I didn’t want to take any chances. That being said, he’s driving our car, which has IT plates, basically telling everyone a foreigner owns the car. Let’s hope he’s fine. My friend, on the other hand, may be in for quite a shock on her first trip to Ouagadougou.

Update: Report from someone in the know: “We don’t know anything other than it is pretty hot around the city.” Chauffe, basically French for hot, is what people use here to describe (in this case) violent actions.

No news is good news: There have been no confirmed reports of rioting in other parts of the country.

Update: Downtown has been clear of demonstrators. Only the security services can be seen right now as everyone else has gone home.

Bookkeeping update: The U.S. embassy claims that disturbances were reported in Dapoya and Baskuy, Tampouy and Goungin Nord. These, most likely, have calmed down. A friend reported that he saw people burning tires in faraway Somgande where one of the city's mayors has a house. Those people have also dispersed.

Update: A different friend in the know said that rioters still at Patte d'Oie area and Goughin. Downtown and Kwame N'Krumah area seem to be calm. A different person said there is a lot of debris around.

Update: Things appear to be considerably calmer this afternoon. Demonstrators were still going at it in Gounghin, but I've heard that they have dispersed. I've also learned that roving bands of bandits are still being seen around town, ready to wreak havoc. I don't know how true this is or how many bands we are talking about. Traffic is very light.

Update: Call this anecdote “Escape into Ouagadougou.” A story just came in from someone who was attempting to return to town around noon or 12 :30 pm. The group came in on the Ouahigouya road – between Sector 20 and 21– but immediately after passing the toll booth, saw “a mass of black smoke in front of us…and ahead of us was a bunch of tires people were burning.” The group decided to turn around and circumvent the city to the north and attempt to enter from a different direction. However, they were also stopped by burning tires in the middle of road. They finally entered on a dirt road where tires were burning, but gingerly drove through them. “There were lots of people standing around, but I didn’t see any violence or anything.” Near one of the barrages – due north of Dapoya – there was a large post blocking the road. The group also passed a group of soldiers protecting an office of a neighborhood mayors from any violence. After dropping the group off, the driver attempted to circumvent town on the beltway called “route circulaire” past Dassasgo and Wemtenga, but was eventually blocked by rioters. Eventually, and this is third-hand, he made his way to Gounghin where he ran into other demonstrators.

Update: Lost somewhere in this coverage is how the riot’s affect on local businesses. For those with a “formal” business, one worries about property and stock damage, of course. More than a few people this week expressed fears that if demonstrations were to hit Ouagadougou, bandits and thieves could enter stores and houses during the day. That’s certainly a problem, but we won’t know about for a few days. Secondly, business owners of all stripes have to worry about sales lost due to being closed. I just spoke to a friend in small business and he told me everyone was going back to work tomorrow, Friday. Think of it as demonstration etiquette: we’ll give people one day to vent frustrations, but then we’ve got to get back to work. This is especially true for those others in the informal sector – the phone card vendors, the water pushers, the manual laborers – who don’t get paid if they don’t work.

Update: Check out this story from BurkinaMom also has a post up.

Update: Some final thoughts. Watched Burkina's nightly news program and was rewarded with 30 seconds or so of footage of violence downtown. It consisted mostly of CRS police in full gear walking slowly and waving guns and a few bystanders trying to figure out how they were going to cross the road. We also were rewarded with a lecture from the Minister of Security. He harangued the more than 200 who were arrested and scolded the others who spent the day causing so much damage and ignoring police orders. For the police services, he had nothing but good words and thanked them for a job well done. A member or two of the opposition made an appearance, also. They were shown sitting down and discussing a solution to the problem of high prices. One idea from the opposition: Price ceilings on staple goods. I wonder how the World Bank will go for that. Finally, people who left their houses tonight reported the city appeared normal, at least in our pretty quiet neighborhood. Bars were full. Roads were busy. After a day stuck at home, it was time to spend some quality time with friends. Just like the holidays.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Get your hands off my artifact: The debate over the ownership of antiquities

Ok, I’ll jump again. Once again, debate has broken out regarding the responsibility of museums that have purchased “stolen” or “appropriated” antiquities. On one hand, the new regulations against plunder and illegal sales of antiquities in many “source countries” – a term employed by Drake Bennett in a recent story in the Boston Globe – is seen as a threat to (another term from the story) the “great ‘encyclopaedic” museums like the MFA or Metropolitan Museum, “that provide a unique opportunity to see the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place.”

Basically, the argument goes, the forced return of these “antiquities” should be halted and these pieces should remain part of the collections of the great museums and enjoyed by people from all over the world. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that these source countries in question are mostly poor – although Italy and Turkey are also involved in this fight to protect antiquities – while the “encyclopaedic museums” reside in mostly rich countries.

Like the previous debate posted here, left out of the debate is the method which the great museums originally acquired the piece of art; what is now important is how will the museum treat and exhibit the antiquity? For museums in the western world, they are “cosmopolitan institutions where the age-old interpenetration of cultures is brought into relief.” On the other hand, the repatriated pieces could find themselves ghettoized into the collections of poor countries, which could end up “restricting [the pieces] to more homogenous national museums.” (This all from arguments within the Boston Globe piece.)

"We should recognize that a great deal of knowledge, cross-fertilization, and exchange can come from objects moving across borders," Philippe de Montebello wrote in an essay, "Whose Culture Is It?," published in the Berlin Journal last fall.

Kwame Opoku, who I quoted during the last round, comes to a strident defense of African, and third world, interests. This time he is writing in AfricaAvenir, and having none of these arguments.

Who appointed the museums of New York, London, Paris and Berlin as guardians of the “world’s culture” with the right to keep the cultures of others? When these objects were being removed nobody saw any danger to the cultures of those countries. Now that they demand the return of their cultural objects, western museum directors see danger to the “world’s culture”. Are those countries not part of the “world’s culture”? Why should the repossession of their own cultural goods be a damage to “world’s culture” when the initial, often violent, removal was not? Would any museum director dare to tell the people of Ethiopia or Benin such a story?

There’s another problem. It may be true that these “encyclopedic museums” attract great crowds. It’s also very difficult for many Africans to travel to the Western world.

When the museums in New York, London, Paris and Berlin pretend to provide an opportunity for all to see the world’s culture at one place, they are thinking of westerners mainly. They are not thinking of Africans or others who have the greatest difficulties in obtaining visas to visit western countries. Are we not part of this world? A man living in Lagos, Bamako, Benin City and Yaounde surely will not agree that he can see at one place “the full breadth and diversity of the world’s cultural history in one place”. He definitely cannot go to the European embassies in his country requesting visa because he wants to see the African artefacts in Europe. The embassies will throw him out.

This Boston Globe piece fuses in another argument, which I think is a bit tangential to the whole manner, but interesting nonetheless. It goes like this: An artifact from an ancient civilization which once resided in what now is, say, Afghanistan may share very few, if any, cultural, religious or aesthetic and ethnic links with the modern state that is now Afghanistan. In fact, Afghanistan is often brought up as a poor proprietor of cultural heritage because in 2001 the Taliban infamously destroyed two standing Buddha statues that predated Islam. (Of course, making any example out of the Taliban is hardly fair.) But there are other attempts where “modern” societies have attempted to erase its links with the past. Think of Communist China and its disdain toward long-standing civilization that rose before it. This is a little off topic, but you could also make the argument that some societies have attempted to forge faux links between its present incarnation and the past. Think of Nicolae Ceauşecu attempting to forge Romania with the civilization of ancient Rome.

Father, what is art?
Another issue involved in this debate relates to the new stringent laws that make it difficult for any artifact to leave a source country. Some argue these laws actually fuel the black market trade by making even legitimate trades illicit. From the Boston Globe:

The problem with these seemingly laudable efforts, according to [Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, James] Cuno, is that they're not really about the artifacts, but about politics. The young governments of Greece and Turkey, he points out, used their antiquities, and the laws restricting their export, as a way of forging a national political identity. The Greek government's dogged campaign to recover the Elgin Marbles is one example. The Turkish government's claim of ownership over the relics of ancient Kurdish culture found within its national borders - objects that, if owned by the Kurds themselves, might fuel their separatist ambitions - is another.

Understandably, Africans are very worried about the whereabouts of the art that was pilfered from their ancestors. As the number of stories in the press belies, the Americans and other Westerners are also worried over what happens when they give these pieces back. It reminds me of a criticism from Chinua Achebe who claimed that while critics called his novels as culturally narrow, he questioned how Westerners began believing their culture was universal. (A bad paraphrase, but you get the point.) The same argument can be made here: How can these museums claim to understand a culture better than its inhabitants?

Chad: Can someone come get the egg off my face?

One could make the argument that Chadian President Idriss Déby is a known commodity, no matter how distasteful he may be. This is not something you could say for the rebels who were knocking down buildings in N’Djamena a few weeks back, especially considering how distasteful they appeared to be.

One thing is for certain is they appear to be at least funded by Sudan, whose government has waged a proxy war against the more (at least cosmetically) Western-leaning Déby, who has welcomed the European Union to station troops on its borders with Sudan to help bring stability to the long-suffering refugees of Darfur.

We made the argument during the crisis that while French President and Chadian benefactor Nicolas Sarkozy should use the 1,500 French soldiers stationed in the country to protect Déby, he should extract some guarantees out of the leader: Like going back to Déby's earlier agreements and guaranteeing a portion of oil revenues for “future generations” and to generally stop harassing opposition politicians and a few other feel-good measures. We understand that a country like Chad may not want a European- or American-style of government, but its people clearly desire basic human rights and deserve a taste of the oil wealth pouring into the country. Hardened and realistic as we thought we were being, it was still another borderline wishy-washy argument that never gained much traction outside of this blog.

It wasn’t all our fault. The situation in N’Djamena deteriorated so quickly and the rebels surprisingly engaged the French military in combat, that perhaps our proposed heart-to-heart between the two leaders never could take place. (Maybe it did happen, and perhaps Sarkozy did try to extract some promises from Déby. But who knows?)

The problem is, less than a few weeks away from rebels knocking on the door of Chad’s State House, Déby seems to be up to his old tricks. That’s clear as it appears that Chad’s military seized two opposition politicians during the chaos following the rebel retreat. Here’s what a Human Rights Watch investigation turned up:

On February 21, the Chadian government stated that an official inquiry had been unable to locate Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh, spokesman for a coalition of opposition political parties, and Ngarlejy Yorongar, a prominent opposition member of parliament, nor determine the circumstances of their disappearance. Interior Minister Ahamat Mahamat Bachir later that day announced that Yorongar had been seen in his neighborhood the day before. However, multiple eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch researchers in N’Djamena that Chadian government soldiers took the two men into custody on February 3. Yorongar’s family and lawyers deny that he resurfaced.

I heart French reform
As someone who wants to half believe the reforming gene of Sarkozy that really, really strives to rid his country’s continuing upkeep of tyrants, I can’t help but notice he clearly now has egg on his face. While it’s not all Sarkozy’s fault, mind you, he certainly has to visibly clean it off before it spreads and the rest of the world’s leaders chuckle themselves silly. (Yes, I’ll stop this lame imagery.)

So, during a trip to South Africa this week, Sarkozy will stop by in Chad for some quick talks. From Reuters:

"The message to his Chadian counterpart will be very clear -- there must be a credible investigation and therefore there must be a credible investigative commission," Sarkozy's spokesman David Martinon told reporters before the visit.

Martinon said the French president would tell Deby that friendship between their two countries could grow only if the pace of democracy accelerated in Chad.

There are a few things going on here. Granted, Africa Flak may have jumped the gun and underestimated the power of Realpolitik in relations between France and states like Chad. Déby may be riding high now, but the time will most likely come when it’s Sarkozy who has to bail him out again. Perhaps this meeting will decide which action French military will take. The argument with Déby has always been: The devil we know is better than the devil we don’t. That may have proved true with these rebels and their mysterious ways. But it may not be true for politicians like Saleh and Yorongar. But, of course, they are nowhere to be found.

The unwritten epitaph on a tyrant

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

-- W H Auden

I posed a half-baked anthropomorphic theory sometime ago that went like this: Countries cannot but help but embody some of the characteristics of their leaders. I’d like to reprise that, but first let me start on a different path: the economy.

If the state of the economy is mostly tied up in base gut feelings and emotions and – dare we say it – mood swings, this theory can’t be anymore than half wrong. Think about it. Personal spending and family debt and the ideas of wealth are often tied up in how well one feels about his or her place in the economy and those prospects for the immediate future. Where do people get these cues? From ourselves? Surely. But others, too: our neighbors and peers? Maybe. I can’t help but think our leaders project these feelings. If a leader mimics confidence (and irrational exuberance), why should people not follow suit and go out to buy that third car?

Now, in richer countries, people are often privy to what their leaders do for fun or where they go to relax. In poorer countries – where the personal wealth of leaders are, um, a closely guarded secret – vacations and personal hobbies are best not discussed. It may also be that those richer countries want a chief they can somehow relate to. In West Africa, I’ll argue most people strive for heads of state who will fight for their rights, whether on the domestic front or in the international court.

But let’s get back to the traits of leaders being represented throughout the populace. Good leaders – or at least populist leaders – take specific cues from their people and change their habits accordingly. That’s what makes them popular: everyone sees a little of themselves in these leaders. For example, how did difficult was it for Cubans in the early 1960s to not feel a little more feisty and run out and purchase fatigues? What happens when the calendars begin turning over and people still find these aged leaders in power? Do their subjects still hold that same feelings for them? Do they emulate their senior citizen president as they once looked up to the young upstart?

It’s easy to say that power does strange thing to people. It must be unnerving when the trappings of power makes tapping into that psyche of a people difficult and nearly impossible. It’s hard to hear the cries of the street from the State House. Honestly, when did Castro lose his feel for Cubans? 1971? 1981? At what point does Hugo Chavez become a caricature?

Don’t cry for me, Guinea
It seems I always return to this theme when I am trying to figure out what it must be like to live in a country like Guinea. President Lansana Conte has been in power long enough to not know any better. Last year’s groundswell of opposition that rose against his sclerotic regime is well documented. But the old man stayed on, and the reasons for his continuing grasp of power are also well documented.

Now, the international press may highlight the extremes of Guinea. But the reality on the street may not be so intense, and life around the country may continue pretty much apace. But in the courtyards of their hearts and minds, Guineans must still have a general unease over what is going to happen at the top levels of their government. How can they not?

Conte can’t play magician and puppet master forever. Even if he has been reduced to being a mere puppet, his body may do him in before his masters do. With this in mind, though, it appears he is still winning the battle over the soul of his nation. At the one year anniversary mark of the peoples’ choice for Prime Minister – a condition for calling off last year’s bloody general strikes – it appears the man supposedly in charge has little relevance in today’s Guinea.

From Reuters:

Critics say little has changed in the impoverished West African country, which still suffers soaring prices, persistent electricity blackouts and endless intrigue surrounding President Lansana Conte, a diabetic chain smoker in his 70s.

Even more galling for families of 137 people killed in the 2007 strike -- most shot dead by Conte's police -- an official inquiry into their killings has yet to get off the ground.

Conte's presidency, which critics say is controlled by a small loyalist clique, has chipped away at [Prime Minister Lansana] Kouyate's authority.

A December presidential decree reassigning control of government business to a Conte ally was overturned only after Kouyate went to meet the ailing president. Days later Conte replaced Kouyate's information minister with another ally, prompting angry protests on the streets of the capital Conakry.

With the economy once again stumbling along for this mineral-rich country and people complaining of the water and power cuts, the trade unions have planned a general strike for March 31.

The good thing about these national myths is every country has more than a handful to go around. At one point, Lasana Conte may have personified stability, a trait Guineans may have desired back in 1984. Now that his time has definitely come, it will be interesting to see if anyone can pick up a new mantle for Guinea. The country is certainly ripe for change. And, my guess, so are its people.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I don't understand my mother's tongue: Who will protect Africa's small languages?

As part of the International Year of Languages, UNESCO is promising a group of festivities promoting the fact that within the next few generations, according to some unnamed experts, more than half the world’s 7,000 languages could face extinction.

For Africans, who often migrate from one language to another during the course of a single day – and often speak in a colonial tongue – a cultural treasure trove could be lost as these smaller languages face extinction. It’s also, in my mind, a process of Modernization, the capital ‘M’ kind where disparate peoples become subsumed by larger groups. Think of how Western Europe became ethnically more homogenous over the past few centuries as powers stamped out groups they thought were apostates. It happens in Africa, too, as smaller ethnic groups begin learning the larger languages because the ease of getting things done during the course of a day.

In West Africa, as education rates increase, people will start speaking more often in the colonial tongue, especially in rural areas. Of course, one way to improve education rates, in Burkina Faso at least, is to have children begin schooling in their native tongue first and then slowly introducing French over the years. As it is, most young students have very little comprehension of French, but still have to learn in it six days a week. Of course, only speakers of the country’s most predominant languages will be able to profit from such (much needed) language reforms.

And I guess this is my beef. We can talk all day long about dying languages, but whose responsibility is it to keep a language alive? It would certainly be too costly for the government of Burkina Faso to provide education in every one of the 60 plus languages spoken around the country. At least in this battle, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, writes the writer in his native English tongue. But seriously. Other than education, which is often under the purview of a government and a few cultural institutions that could keep smaller languages alive, the simple realities of demographics and migration will help finish off some smaller languages. It is not pretty nor is it right, but that is how the world works.

On the other hand, there will always be a market for great languages Wolof (more on this in a second) and Moore and Hausa and Swahili and Djioula.

Anyway (I am going somewhere with this, I promise), the Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop wrote his most recent novel in his native Wolof language, a first time for the author of many books. This is an interview published in the UNESCO Courier.

You wrote a dozen books in French before choosing Wolof, your mother language. Why this reversion?

Actually, my language was always there, inside me. The only problem I faced was the ability to write in my language. I was “corrupted” by French. I spoke everyday Wolof, but I didn’t possess it intimately.

Then there was Rwanda. A group of writers I belonged to went there after the genocide, in 1998, as part of the operation “Rwanda: writing as a duty to memory”. I said to myself that if we’d let 10,000 Rwandans get killed per day for three months, if nobody had done anything, this conveyed a certain contempt for Africa…

At that moment I felt even more strongly the desire to write in my mother language. It became essential. Oh, at first it was painful…I was very afraid of writing a French novel in Wolof. I had to fight against myself, but the Diops are stubborn! Then I began to hear voices – voices that came up out of the past. And writing became very easy. I am certain that my first novel in Wolof, Doomi golo (the she-monkey’s young), is my best piece of writing.

Often when one travels from one African capital to another, one has to stop off in a European capital. Does this also happen in the world of African literature?

It would be fantastic if I could translate the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo directly form Kikuyu into Wolof, without going through English and French….To my knowledge there’s almost no translation from one African language into another. My novel Doomi Golo is translated into Pulaar now. But who will translate it into Swahili? Do we have to wait two or three centuries? Not necessarily, but that’s what I fear, alas.

You know, Africa was divided up by the colonial powers in Berlin in 1885. Africans speak to each other through the colonial languages. And me, making fun of it, referring to the Berlin Wall of the Cold War, I call it our “Berlin Wall”. It is invisible but terrible – it separates the English-, French- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With Moussa Konaté, Malian writer who heads the French-speaking festival “Etonnants voyageurs” (amazing travelers) in Mali, I’ve often discussed the idea of organizing a big meeting of African writers who write in national languages. A way of at least making cracks in this wall. But it’s easier to find sponsors for French-language writers than for those who write in national languages. UNESCO could be the perfect venue for such a pan-African encounter, particularly this year, international year of languages. And it’s an international space. Without walls.

Wheat prices hit new price record

Food prices are still increasing, which is what people predicted for the first few months of the new year. But how long will this last?

From BBC:

Wheat prices have hit record levels as supplies dwindle, raising concerns about growing food inflation.

Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT) wheat for delivery in March rose the maximum 90 cents allowed to $11.99 a bushel in electronic trading in Asia.

High-protein spring wheat on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange rose by almost 25% to record levels on Monday.

Kazakhstan has become the latest country to put export restrictions on wheat as it battles against inflation.

Russia and Argentina have already imposed similar export restrictions.

UNMIL, please don't leave Liberia

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf pleaded with U.S. President George Bush not to further dismantle the UN peace keeping force in her country.

Recently, UNMIL announced it will be maintaining more than 11,000 troops in Liberia after the troops draw-down in September 2008.

Additionally, the UN Mission in Liberia pointed out that the drawdown plan had already commenced in Grand Cape Mount County since October 2007 with the departure of the Namibian battalion.

The release noted that the remaining troops numbering more than 11,000 will stay in Liberia to continue their duties until otherwise mandated by the Security Council.

So far, a (somewhat) quiet year in the Meningitis belt

From China View:

Africa is so far experiencing much lower levels of meningitis cases, compared with those of the same period last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported Friday.

Preliminary reports from 13 countries indicated 2,312 cases, including 324 deaths, during the first six weeks of this year in the belt, which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia.

The number of cases dropped 29 percent from the figure last year, when 3,274 cases, including 413 deaths, had been reported.

However, major outbreaks have still been reported in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), while Benin, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Togo have all reported cases of the highly contagious disease.

But it is not enough to reach epidemic levels. And there have been no cases so far in Cameroon or Chad, WHO said.

According to notes from the World Health Organization, Burkina Faso leads all other countries with 1,422 cases of meningitis and 204 deaths. This represents more than 60 percent of all cases on the continent.

One month in and refugees feel at home in Mauritania

From IRIN:
One month has passed since the first 102 Mauritanian refugees officially returned home after some 19 years in exile in Senegal. Before they left many said they feared local Mauritanians would resent them coming but those IRIN has talked with since they arrived said their fears are being allayed as they are being very well treated.

“Our welcome was warm and respectful,” said Mamadou Keita, 25 years old returnee who arrived on 29 January. Another returnee Binta Lero Sow, living six kilometres north of the town of Rosso told IRIN, “It is going well. We don’t need anything.”

A total of 30,000 Mauritanian refugees are still living in Senegal and Mali. Ethnic clashes in 1989 with Arab Moors living in neighbouring Senegal were behind the expulsion of black Mauritanians by the Arab-dominated government of former president Maaoua Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.

A White Year for Benin? Teacher strikes near third month

Governments will call an Année Blanche – a white year – when students have missed too much class time due to strikes or other issues. An Année Blanche basically nullifies all learning that took place until the disruption of classes began and forces everyone to repeat the year again. It may be the one weapon administrators have against long strikes, but from what I know, the threat never appears to work.

From IRIN:

Primary and secondary school teachers in Benin who have been striking since 8 January warn they will not back down, even though their actions threaten the possibility for thousands of children of completing the school year.

“There are no negotiations happening at the moment to end this strike,” said Raouf Affagnon, secretary general of the national teachers union.

The union’s demands include improvements in the salaries and benefits given to them by the government, and more secure contracts.

Benin’s powerful unions are a legacy of the 1972-1989 period when Marxism-Leninism was adapted as the national ideology.


According to the UN children’s agency (UNICEF), less than 60 percent of school age children ever attend school. Of those who begin attending in first grade, only half will complete primary school.

The shortage of trained teachers, especially women, and the lack of adequate school facilities are the biggest problems facing Benin’s educational system, UNICEF says.

“Teachers strikes have disrupted efforts to enroll and retain students,” the agency notes in a Benin information document.

Guinea-Bissau is nutty for cashews

Proof there is more to do in Guinea-Bissau than traffic cocaine.

Guinea-Bissau sold some 96,117 tons of cashew nuts to overseas buyers last year, according to a report released on Friday by the Guinean Trade Ministry. The report said cashew exports increased by 2,791 tons in 2007, or 3 percent, compared to the forecast growth of 10 percent. This was due to lower than expected cashew production. The official report "recognizes the failure of the cashew campaign with the reduction of cashew prices to 50 CFA Francs per kilo while the correct price was the 200 CFA Francs per kilo set at the launch of the campaign last April."

Guinea’s trade ministry called for new techniques of cashew drying, packaging and storage to be introduced for the next growing season to boost production of the cash crop. It also said the government should establish fair prices at the opening of the cashew campaign. Most of Guinea’s cashew crop, more than 100,000 tons, is exported to India. More than 250,000 Guinean families are dependent on cashew farming and 98 percent of Bissau Treasury revenues come from production and export tariffs.

Guinea is the world’s biggest exporter of unprocessed cashew, the biggest African producer of the nut and the world’s fifth largest. Cashew plantations are spread over 175,000 hectares in Guinea and these areas are growing by 4 percent yearly.

The you-don’t-say moment of the story: Relying too heavily on a single crop can be dangerous (and scary). Here’s an October analysis of the World Cashew Market with Guinea-Bissau in mind. It’s from IRIN, via Reuters:

"The potential social impact of the current cashew season is not encouraging." Cashew prices are depressed with farmers selling cashews at between 75 CFA francs (US$0.16) and 50 CFA francs ($0.11) per kilogram, the report said.

The government's recommended price this year was 200 CFA francs ($0.43) per kilogram.

The cashew harvest this year was good with an estimated 94,000 tonnes of cashew nuts exported to date, which already exceeds last year's exports of 73,400 tonnes. Not only is the international price of cashews down, but the dollar is down against the euro which has further decreased the amount Guinea Bissau's farmers get for their product. The former Portuguese colony's currency is fixed to the euro while the price of cashews is set in dollars.

Farmers used to get about 250 CFA francs ($0.53) per kilogram for their cashews which was roughly equal to the price of a kilogram of imported rice, and so they bartered one for the other.

Togo suspends independent journalist

From the International Federation of Journalists:

On 19 February, the High Authority of the Audiovisual and the Communication (HAAC) announced “the definitive suspension of editorials, columns, comments or analyses of Daniel Lawson-Drackey on Nana Fm,” a private radio station in Lomé, the capital city of Togo. The HAAC said that Lawson-Drackey’s radio broadcasts violate the principles of “respect of the dignity of the human person and the ethics in the field of information and communication.”

“We protest against this sanction, which aims to silence a professional journalist whose critical reporting upset the authorities,” said Gabriel Baglo, Director of the IFJ Africa office. “We call on the leaders of the High Authority of the Audiovisual and the Communication to cancel this penalty unconditionally.”

Whither Eyadéma?
On the bright side, this is one of the few press infractions reported from the Togolese government in some time. Since the 2005 election, in fact, according to Reporters Without Borders. The Paris-based press freedom group ranks Togo 49 out of 169 countries in its Press Freedom Index. That's the second-highest position for a West African state (behind Ghana).

Just to show you the difference a few years -- and a different president makes -- here is a snippet of the Reporters Without Borders country survey on Togo from 2004, the last full year of the 38-year Eyadéma mandate:
President Gnassingbé Eyadéma and his government continued to target the independent and opposition press. Two journalists were the victims of ill-treatment while detained. The state-owned press was still strictly controlled by the authorities.

From the Cold War to the War on Terror: Laissez les bons temps rouler

For some reason, Larry Devlin is back in the news. He was the CIA station chief in Congo in the early 1960s and witnessed the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba and supported the rise of Mobutu Sese Seko. (He was also stationed in Laos during the United States war with Vietnam.)

From the New York Times story:

Mr. Devlin had no problems with bribery, blackmail or other varieties of skulduggery — “all part of the game” for the C.I.A. under Allen Dulles at the height of the cold war, he said. But he thought the order to kill Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic Congolese politician the Eisenhower administration feared would become an African Fidel Castro, was both wrong and stupid, a desperate plan that could easily go awry and devastate American influence in Africa.

“Worldwide it would have been disastrous,” he said.

Lumumba was later tortured and killed by political opponents with the help of the Belgian military.

But here is the real reason for the Devlin story:

Today, Mr. Devlin’s story has new resonance amid a renewed debate about the proper limits of C.I.A. actions to counter a different global threat and their cost to the United States’ standing. The C.I.A.’s destruction of videotapes of harsh interrogations is under criminal investigation. Congress has been reviewing the C.I.A.’s secret detention program and the transfer of terrorist suspects to countries that practice torture, though so far no inquiry has approached the sweep of the Church Committee in the Senate in the 1970s, whose reports quote Mr. Devlin under a pseudonym, Victor S. Hedgeman.

“I think there’s an eerie and disturbing correlation between that era and this one,” said John Prados, an intelligence historian and the author of “Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the C.I.A.”

He said the threat of terrorism now, like the threat of communism then, was used to justify extreme measures that “later become controversial legally, morally and politically.”

Monday, February 25, 2008

Late news: U.S. appeals WTO cotton ruling

Sorry this is late, but: the United States government is appealing the World Trade Organizations ruling that upheld a previous ruling claiming it has not done enough to cut farm subsidies to cotton farmers.

The WTO’s second decision was made public December 18, claiming the U.S. government had not complied with a 2004 ruling stating much of the nearly $4 billion subsidy program, including export-credit guarantees and other payments to farmers, exceed spending pledges. The WTO first ruled in July against the United States.

From Bloomberg, via Environmental Working Group:

"We are appealing because the changes made by the United States have
brought its programs into full compliance with the WTO's recommendations and rulings in the original cotton case," Gretchen Hamel, a spokesman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office, said today in an e-mailed statement from Washington.

"We were very disappointed with the compliance panel's findings," she
said. "The appeal challenges the erroneous findings on both U.S. support payments and export credit guarantees. We will continue to consult with members of Congress and private sector stakeholders, including the agricultural community, as we move forward with the appeal."

The lawsuit was originally filed by Brazil, the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton, claiming U.S. subsidies amounted to unfair trading practices by depressing world cotton prices.

Mark your calendars, the appeal process can last up to 90 days.

Niger extends state of emergency in north

From Reuters:

Niger's President Mamadou Tandja extended a state of alert in the desert north, home to some of the world's largest uranium reserves, where security forces have been battling an uprising led by Tuareg nomads.

The announcement prolonged for a further three months from Sunday extra powers of arrest first given to the security forces in August in the region around the northern town of Agadez.

The rebel Niger Movement for Justice (MNJ) has killed at least 50 soldiers and taken dozens hostage since launching a revolt a year ago to demand more autonomy and a greater share of mining revenues.

As the Associated Press, points out:

The alert…gives the army the boosted powers to conduct security operations, patrols, search homes and carry out identity checks. It does not institute a curfew or other regulations that would affect daily life.

The state of emergency will last for three more months, but can be extended again.

To a more favorable view of AFRICOM

As a commentator on AFRICOM and a commentator on African commentators of AFRICOM, I would be remiss in not providing favorable opinions of AFRICOM from, well, Africans. Here, printed in African Path, Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, a professor of English and journalism, argues that domestic political shenanigans help circulate rumors and fear around Ghana regarding the establishment of a second military base somewhere in Africa by the United States, a country interested in cordial relations.

Like I said, it's from African Path:

[W]hat needs to be clarified for these myopic and cynical critics is the stark fact that whether, indeed, the United States establishes a military base in Ghana or not would neither strengthen nor vitiate the global superpower status of America. Indeed, as the cynical likes of Flt.-Lt. Jeremiah John Rawlings, founding-proprietor of the so-called Provisional National Democratic Congress (P/NDC), could readily attest, were he known to be an honest man, forging an intimate relationship and/or partnership with the United States, is the prime aspiration of many a Third World country, and even that of advanced industrialized nations like Britain, France, Germany and Japan.

And so pretending to play dumb, in the dubious name of patriotism, is absolutely no perspicuous demonstration of ideological advancement as these political nincompoops and outright charlatans would have unsuspecting compatriots believe. And if these charlatans and cognitively challenged rumor-mongers cared to know, they would have since long discovered to their rude awakening, the fact that the hitherto self-proclaimed inveterate enemy of U. S. “imperialism,” Chairman Rawlings, educated all his three officially known children right here in the United States, and not Cuba, Libya or Russia.

And if these anti-American protesters knew how to count, at least using an abacus, they would also have learned to their withering sense of betrayal that Chairman Rawlings and his wife have taken more trips to the United States than has President Kufuor during the last eight years. And so what is all such nonsense about, really? It is unmistakably about the eerie fact of the NDC Abongo Boys and their allies seeing naked defeat stare them dead-on in their wicked and ugly faces and having absolutely no strategic campaign agenda but to fatuously grab at the proverbial straws and hope that there would be enough misguided potential voters to toe their ostrich line of reasoning come Election 2008.

Increasing accountability in Ghanaian universities

Michael Boakye-Yiadom, a student and hall director at Ohio University, argues that the private sector has long funded Universities in the United States and other developed countries. In Ghana, universities – both public and private – have also searched alternative funding methods and programs, like distance education, attempts at commercializing research and chasing Alumni for contributions. Yet, for the most part, many private individuals and much of the private sector have not heeded the funding call of institutions of higher learning.

One way to make universities more attractive to investment is for them to become more accountable – not only to students, but the public. From African Path:

Ghanaian universities should begin to be seen as being more accountable to the public. The following areas of accountability may be recommended if private sector funding of higher education is to be achieved:

1. The difference between how much students pay and how much is spent on their training can be made public

2. The number of hours that lecturers spend in the classrooms, their offices, and at various libraries/museums for research purposes may be made known

3. The number of productive hours that administrators spend in their offices may be of interest to the public

4. University staff could be assessed and evaluated by students at the end of each semester, and the outcome of such evaluations may form a significant percentage for purposes of promotion and renewal of contracts 5. The public relations outfits of Ghanaian universities should be more professional in the discharge of their PR roles

6. Ghanaian universities should design websites that befit their status as higher educational institutions; and these websites should be resourceful.

Globalization and changing trends in higher education have made issues of accountability very crucial in the running of universities, and the time has come for universities in Ghana to wake to modern realities of university governance.

The media and Africa: Where are the eccentrics and wrestlers?

Here’s an interesting view on the damage incorrect, or better yet, incomplete pictures of Africa can do to the continent.

It’s a reprint from Knowledge@Wharton:

Yet [President and CEO of South African Chamber of Commerce in the U.S., Euvin] Naidoo -- a fourth-generation South African whose organization was recently highlighted by the Clinton Global Initiative -- acknowledged that despite the investment rush, the image of the continent still lags. To dramatize that problem, he showed the audience a standard classroom map of the world and then an actual satellite image, proving that Africa is actually much larger than commonly depicted in the West. In reality, the United States, continental Europe and China could fit inside the African land mass, with some room to spare.

In fact, he noted, public dialogue about Africa has changed little since October 1960, when then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said: "If we are to create an atmosphere in Africa in which freedom can flourish -- where long-enduring people can hope for a better life for themselves and their children, where men are winning the fight against ignorance and hunger and disease -- then we must embark on a bold and imaginative new program for its development."

"I found it very interesting that a great man almost 50 years ago could be transported in time -- and we face challenges very similar to what was described back then," Naidoo said.

A Robert Kaplan book I read a few year’s back (I think it was Ends of the Earth, but I could be wrong) where he brought up the story of a fight between staffers at the LA Times and its news editors about the problems and supposed superficiality of African coverage in the paper. Bah-humbug, Kaplan noted, the truth needs to be told about Africa just like any other place. He’s right. But when is the last time you saw an actual feature story from Africa? Or at least a news story from outside the following topics (choose one of the above): AIDS, Child Soldiers, War, Witches, Animal poachers, etc. (The LA Times really cultivates animal stories from Africa.)

Coverage of Europe and Asia is often full of feature stories that actually say more about a foreign people and how they live than the elite-focused political or traditionally newsy pieces that make up the bulk of what we refer to as “international coverage.”

I remember hearing the Pulitzer-winning Richard Read from the Oregonian say that when he headed his newspaper’s Japan bureau, the one story that received the most attention and feedback was about an elderly lady whose apartment was full of batteries that she had collected over the years. Granted, the story didn’t say much about the Japanese political situation or its economy. But it brought to life an individual and made her (and the rest of the country) one step closer to readers back in the States. (Or at least in the Willamette valley.)

Of course, foreign-based reporters are already overworked and traveling in Africa can be difficult; this, along with space limitations, guarantee that editors can only expect so much out of these increasingly expensive correspondents. The collective brain-trust must be thinking: Why waste our hard-fought space on an eccentric when we need to tackle the continent’s real problems.

That’s not to say that features from Africa have never been published in metropolitan dailies. Norimitsu Onishi from the New York Times wrote about wrestling in Senegal and about continuing to mine salt in the Sahara. Traditional Times’ African hang-ups: AIDS, teenage brides, war didn’t show up in either story. (Perhaps that’s why he was sent away to Japan?)

Yes, I’ve beaten this drum so many times my hands hurt. However, haven’t we come to a point where ignoring Africa’s other issues is becoming detrimental to the role of a free press. (Elements of Journalism rule eight: Journalists must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.)

I hate to get all cold and realist here, but let’s take a hard look at Africa’s problems as covered through major newspapers. Estimated amount of people suffering from HIV/AIDS in Africa: 22.5 million. Estimated population of Africa: near 900 million. Percentage of Africans suffering from HIV/AIDS: 2.5 percent, or very roughly 5 percent of adult population (ages 15-49, used for most common years of sexual activity). Number of estimated child soldiers in Africa: In 1999 the only number I could find, it was more than 120,000. Estimated amount of children in Africa: 193.5 million (in 2000). Total number of “child” child soldiers in Africa: less than half a percent. (All population figures come from this rockin’ data base.)

That’s not to say that the millions of AIDS patients suffer any less, or the 1.7 million people infected in the past year aren’t worth our support (however that may come about). Nor is it to say that one child soldier is one too many. (And we’ve not even looked at other issues facing the continent.)

In the end, it’s a question of how journalists frame stories. This is not the glass half-full or half-empty debate, but the inability to look beyond conventional wisdom (and the sheer simplicity of following up on press releases) and searching out a juicy story all on your own.

Hey, hard-headed editors: Isn’t it time we broaden the scope of African coverage? Especially when your reporters are writing for readers back home in a country like the United States, a place with more than its fair share of gun violence and car violence; A country where everyone seems to be either morbidly obese or morbidly ill from the rotten meat they’ve ingested. (How many of these stories will be in the newspapers in one-month time?)

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Winners lose: U.S. and the final defeat of the Cold War mentality

David Ignatius (yes, I know that I’ve quoted him twice during the same week) makes the argument that the U.S. is the final country still applying the same, tired Cold War mentality to the rest of the world: Point in case, the very experienced Bush foreign policy staff that invaded, defeated, and subsequently lost the aftermath of the Iraq war. (My argument: they were fighting the previous war.)

Anyway, here is Ignatius:

The intellectual matrix formed by the Soviet threat, and before that by Hitler's rise in Germany, needs to be reworked. There is a new set of problems and personalities -- and if America keeps trotting out the same cast of characters and policy papers, we will fail to make sense of where the world is moving.

The piece is an argument about McCain, a candidate truly enmeshed in the Cold War frame; Hillary Clinton, who was part of the first, erratic decade that followed the Cold War; and, Barack Obama, who comes lacking baggage from either time period.

Let’s recast this argument in terms of Africa. One could say that the Pentagon’s desire to secure a base in Africa is an idea straight out of the Cold War. (However, don’t you think its plan for U.S. soldiers to perform development work is quite modern: A willingness by the Americans to accept the importance of non-state actors?) Let’s look at the work of a potential U.S. “foe” on the continent. Instead of stationing soldiers, or writing checks for questionable development projects, the Chinese are investing heavily in Africa (and in mucky places no Western nation dares go), securing minerals for their future and simultaneously helping build some African economies from the ground up. More than a few Africans argue that the Chinese come to the continent as partners, and the U.S., and other European powers, waltzes in with airs of former colonial masters.

My comparison is a little too pat, granted. But there does seem to be something missing from the U.S. African policy; a lack of moving past conventional wisdom or something. (I’d make the same argument about the Europeans, too, the death of Françafrique aside.) Yes, George Bush has progressed beyond simply signing development checks by attempting to tie aid to certain indicators (human rights, business climate, etc.). But is this a true revolution of thought? Or is it just attempting to fix what want went wrong in the past? (One could make an argument that fixing the mistakes of the past is a revolution in itself. But that sounds very bureaucratic, doesn’t it?)

Let’s be honest: African countries of certain serious consequence (i.e. countries that are possible terrorist havens or strident allies in the fight against terror) the administration has thrown those seemingly vital indicators out the door: Uganda, Ethiopia, Niger all come to mind. Angola, I guess. Does Egypt also count?

Although all signs point to a growing, confident second world (and some of these countries are African), the U.S. is finally getting around to paying these countries the attention they deserve. (Another holdover from the Cold War is the concentration of resources on the Middle East.) We could be realistic and say that Africa will very rarely pop up on the radar screens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Perhaps that is reason enough for the need of storming the Bastille. (Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their ties.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

My two cents on AFRICOM

What else can be said about AFRICOM and every African countries (except Liberia) refusal to allow the U.S. to base more troops on the continent? For this we can certain: the U.S. already houses about 1,500 troops in Djibouti at Camp Lemonier. President George Bush’s admission in Accra was about the fact the U.S. would not be looking for a second (or third) base for American troops.

As a plan, AFRICOM ties training militaries to fight terrorism along with the more controversial, albeit softer side of Pentagon power: Providing development assistance for locals, like digging wells and vaccinating animals and conducting other projects. Development agencies worried that deliberately blurring the role of soldiers, who are trained to serve and protect and occasionally kill, with other, more humane responsibilities would be harmful. The Pentagon countered that U.S. soldiers toiling in the field and directly helping villagers would be a long-term benefit in the fight against terror. (Win over the local population and hopefully they won’t accept terror groups operating in their territory.)

There were other worries about this hearts-and-minds approach. First, is Africa really that much at risk for terror groups? Exactly, how lawless are the vast spaces of the Sahara? But the hearts-and-minds approach of AFRICOM seemed palatable for most Africans. (Acceptable, mostly because it was small-scale and conducted in out-of-the-way locales. Cynics will point out that Africans don’t turn down many handouts.)

The sticking point was the base(s) the Pentagon proposed. The governments of Africa began making noises early on against permanently stationing anymore troops on the continent. One could argue that through this process, not only did African heavy weight governments learn to flex their collective muscles, but the game of political brinkmanship is mostly about confidence: feeling good is much more important than actually good health. (To outsiders, a place like Nigeria may appear to be politically dysfunctional, but on the continent its words and actions carry a significant amount of weight.)

Another issue: The prestige of the U.S. has decidedly taken a turn for the worse, and not in ways always easily definable. Of course, regular Africans would love to take part in a real “coalition of the willing” to help bring about some change in different countries. But Africans themselves know too well that one often cannot pick and choose the nature of one’s leaders. Take Iraq, for example. The stated implication that the U.S. was actually only going to war against Saddam Hussein and not the Iraq people was seen as either a farce or a cruel, sick joke to most Africans. Saddam’s few minutes of agony during his execution aside, who has paid the greater price in the war in Iraq?

Staying on this topic for a little longer: One of the many unintended consequences of the Iraq war has been the increased price in oil, which a Ghanaian journalist presciently predicted in the weeks before the 2003 invasion. Africans have been paying heavily for that post-Iraq oil, not only at the gas pumps – a pretty regressive price increase here – but through the increased prices of commodities and staples – which must be shipped from distant – and products like fertilizer, which is often petroleum-based.

Then there is the constant war-like tones emanating out of Washington, which, sadly, probably won’t decrease with a new administration. (We live in complicated times.) If you’re going to invite someone new to your block, you’re certainly not going to invite a reactionary bully. Americans will point out – George Bush certainly has – that America will not stand down to an aggressive power in the name of its interests. Good enough. But does this attitude coincide with the interests of most Africans? Presently, that answer appears to be no.

Finally, and this has been said elsewhere: Nobody ever got around to defining AFRICOM and what its base would mean. In its present iteration, a small number of soldiers make up AFRICOM, traveling the continent, searching for militaries to train; handing out a few guns and trucks and other equipment in the fight against terror. Putting a base on the continent meant, to many Africans, crossing a certain line. How would the Pentagon react to new African emergencies? What would U.S. soldiers do in Chad? Would Kenya be a target? What about Darfur, where the administration has beat the drum against “genocide,” but decidedly has other more pressing issues to attend to.

In and of itself, I don’t think AFRICOM is that bad of an idea. What makes it work, however, is keeping the footprint small and its resources mobile. A base – even if populated with many civilians working in “development” – would only complicate matters and provide enough drag to its sails that it would easily become another American adventure in a tropical clime.

In the end, however, those grumbles were all made moot. The people of Africa have spoken, and they mostly distrusted the whole plan. And, reassuringly, that was good enough for George Bush to face the facts and say “no.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Price protests: As goes Bobo-Dioulasso, so goes the country?

As I hunkered down for a few days of work, Burkina Faso has seemingly flown off the handle. Protests turned violent (as they often do here) in both Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city, and Ouahigouya, where my wife was caught in the fun of burning tires and rock throwing. (She had a hide in somebody’s house for an hour.) Thursday protests continued there (with a 100 arrests), but to a lesser extent than Wednesday, and also spread to Banfora, in Southwestern part of the country not far from the Ivorian border and Sya (see correction) where protesters ransacked the mayor’s office.

Ouagadougou was supposed to “get hot” Wednesday, also, but the strike was called off because, as someone told me, a vendor had been killed early that morning in Bobo for refusing to accept the strike and shutter his store. I don’t know if that really why he was killed, but killed he was (although I’ve seen no confirmation).

The strikers are protesting the high prices for nearly every good and food staple. (When international media wrote stories about rising prices around the world last year, they always mentioned a food riot in Burkina Faso; a happening I never heard of or could prove. I guess now they have their food riots.)

The mostly hesitant, but occasionally confident daily press is full of photos of the damage: protesters really let loose in Bobo at the offices of customs officials. Although there are no photos available, I heard four gas stations had been burned in Bobo (petrol has faced major price increases). At my gas station yesterday – I was preparing for the chance they’d be shuttered in town this weekend – I spoke to a few workers who seemed a little nonplussed by the whole thing. I asked why nobody seemed to be protesting in usually very political Ouagadougou.

“That’s because people in Ouagadougou think things through,” one told me, with the approving nods of his co-workers. “People in Bobo don’t reflect on such things.”

Of course, in the paper today is an interview with a member of the group heading the protests, who said in fact people will be shutting Ouagadougou down on the 28th. Today, Friday, Burkina Mom reports that police are all over town, something I didn’t see last night when I was out.

The stated reason behind are the protests is clear, but the real reason is vague. (In Burkina Faso, peoples’ political actions are affected by many, many underlying factors.) The press reports that some food stuffs have gone up by as much 65 percent this year alone: soap, oil, sugar and rice. But why? Some blame a new government tax, which it strongly denies. Others claim that the new reforming Prime Minister has struck down much of the culture of bribes that the customs agents had set up with larger food merchants and grocery distributors. These larger firms, the rumor goes, kept their prices low by sidestepping customs duty by providing customs officials with “donations.” Now, with these businesses obliged to pay regular customs tax when their goods enter the country, their goods have naturally increased overnight. (Import duties are especially troublesome in a country where nothing much is made, but an important part of government revenue.)

Prices on goods have been increasing for the past year, so the question, of course, is why are these protests now so violent? In today’s paper, one letter writer speculates that perhaps the customs agents are stirring things up to destabilize the Prime Minister in the eyes’ of others. Or, perhaps the opposition is finally understanding the plight of the common person and trying to make the government look malevolent? Finally, another letter writer connects the dots and makes today’s most wild assertion: Kenya was also once seen as a stable country. Is Burkina Faso heading down that path? There’s a fine line between crazy and prescient.

Wait and see.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Best headline from U.S. President George Bush’s trip to Africa

It’s on the death of AFRICOM’s base in Africa and right here.

This may be the best blog post.

What is the UN Peacebuilding Commission and what is it doing in Guinea-Bissau?

According to the Global Policy Forum, the Peacebuilding Commission was first proposed by then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to assist with the prevention of violent conflicts before they started, which appeared easier for the UN than their normal task of tamping down existing conflicts. “Annan proposed that the PBC would have a broad membership that would include not only UN member states but also development agencies and possibly even NGOs,” Global Policy Forum writes of the new integrated approach.

The important matter, notes Ellen Margrethe Løj, Co-Chair of the General Assembly Working Group on the Peacebuilding Commission, is that the international community was not very good with dealing with transitioning a war-torn country form military support (the blue helmets) to the long-term development phase. (A place like Haiti comes to mind.) Hopefully, by bringing the actors together around a single table – and there is still some debate on the role of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in the process – this umbrella organization can help move the country beyond security issues to development and nation-building issues.

From its website, the Peacebuilding Commission will:

  • Propose integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery;
  • Help to ensure predictable financing for early recovery activities and sustained financial investment over the medium- to longer-term.
  • Extend the period of attention by the international community to post-conflict recovery;
  • Develop best practices on issues that require extensive collaboration among political, military, humanitarian and development actors.

So far, this method has been employed in Sierra Leone and Burundi.

How is it doing? According to Carolyn McAskie, head of the Peacebuilding Support Office, the office has learned this:

"The development link to peacebuilding is also very important," she explains, "to the G77 members of the Commission but also to the western countries because, as any practitioner knows very well, one of the reasons these countries fail is that they are often 'aid orphans.' They may have two or three faithful donors but do not have the 25 donors that their neighbors have. Thus, resources for development are a very important issue for these countries. But that has to be juxtaposed with keeping them on track politically as well. You can have the most beautiful reconstruction program, but if you run into serious political problems, it can all be offset. We need to get the balance right." She adds, "Therefore the SC has to be engaged, as the GA will be. But the GA is a very large body and we should keep in mind that it is difficult for it to engage in practical change, which is why I believe ECOSOC, as responsible for economic and social issues, could be involved."

With this in mind, perhaps the one benefit the Peacebuilding Commission can lend is providing certain “failed states” with the proper exposure they need to become stable.

So, finally: What is the Peacebuilding Commission doing in Guinea-Bissau? Here is a summary of exploratory meetings with the government:

While Guinea-Bissau was struggling to overcome years of political strife, civil unrest and corruption, Prime Minister Martinho N’Dafa Cabi today told the Peacebuilding Commission that his Government was consolidating recent fragile gains, but needed help to make improvements in key areas, including security, fiscal management, combating drug trafficking, youth vocational training and election assistance.

“We have the courage necessary to see the peace consolidation process through, but that courage must be [bolstered] by commitment and support from the intentional community,” Prime Minister N’Dafa Cabi said, as he highlighted the serious challenges his country faced after years of sporadic civil conflicts and military uprisings, which, by the late 1990s, had left the tiny West African nation politically polarized, poverty stricken and unable to pay its workers or to educate its children.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The rules of the road: Another senseless death in Ouagadougou

Yesterday, I drove over a pool of blood. The dark maroon river spread out on Le Boulevard de Charles de Gaulle, the busiest thoroughfare on the eastern side of Ouagadougou. The blood was dry, but I know it was there because I was sitting at a macquis – a bar serving food – with a few friends two Saturday nights back. It was about 12:30 am and while the Rose du Desert was starting to wind down, the four-lane boulevard road and accompanying bike lanes was packed with motos and cars heading out to night clubs or carrying people home.

A man driving what I think was a small P-50 moto most likely passed our table and climbed the small hill to reach the intersection of Charles de Gaulle. From there he most likely traversed the piste cyclable – the bike lane – and drove directly into the inbound car lane. I’ll surmise he didn’t bother to look left. I know that because as the moto was in the middle of the two inbound lanes, a large, blue Hilux pickup truck struck it, bringing the evening’s reverie to an end.

At the sound of the crash, everyone immediately looked up and simultaneously gasped. I swear I saw sparks flying from the Hilux before it screeched to a stop. The driver of the pickup could not have been traveling fast because his breaking distance wasn’t anymore than, I guess, 50 feet. He jumped out of the car with a cellphone in hand and ran towards the victim.

One of the men at my table was once an EMT in the U.S. and said he should go up and be available for the mobylette driver. Along with everyone else, we stood up immediately to see him laying face down in the road in the cut of the medium strip. I noticed that the impact had separated his moto in two: its front tire lay motionless in the middle of the inbound land. The rest of the moto, I guess, remained attached to the front of the blue Hilux. Regardless, it was out of sight.

The crowd gathered fast, and from my companions’ vantage point, the driver was clearly deceased. “The back of his head was what we call ‘separated,’” he later told me, making a cutting motion in the back of his head. “It’s very common with accidents like these.”

I watched from afar as someone standing next to the body nudged it to see if he would move. “He probably didn’t want to do that,” my friend later told me, still thinking the driver could have a neck injury. “But I guess it didn’t matter. You can’t hurt him anymore.”

Although I didn’t wait around for the paramedics, I know he was dead. His blood stain in the road I drove over only set that home.

I’ve lived in Ouagadougou long enough to feel a certain pity about such things. Not compassion for the dead man – for him I only have anger. It’s the driver of the pickup truck I am sorry for. I remember thinking as I walked home that night: how is this man ever going to sleep again?

I don’t think of myself as a cold person, but there was no reason, not one, for the moto driver to be anywhere near those car lanes. Actually, there was one explanation: he didn’t look. Some days, when I am more generous and understanding, I do think it’s kind of cute to watch the two million motos of Ouagadougou driving around on all sides of your car at all speeds, zipping in and out of traffic, running stop lights and generally having complete disregard for the rules of the road. If you can learn to drive here, you can drive anywhere, I often tell my guests.

But, when these moto drivers – and we are not only speaking of teenagers on a joy rides – take their lives into their own hands, they also place it directly into ours. And that’s not fair. Auto and truck drivers become ultimately responsible for their safety. It’s us who have to live with the consequences of their actions, not only legally – for West African justice often deems that those who can pay for the damages are at fault – but morally and emotionally.

A similar incident happened to a Burkinabé friend in broad daylight a few years back. Six months later he still couldn’t sleep – not without replaying the image of this moto driver slamming into his truck. (In this case, the moto driver took a left turn without bothering to check traffic.) It affected my friend’s work, because he wasn’t allowed to drive the company truck for a year.

My guess is the pickup driver will never forget the image of the man blindly crossing the road in his diminutive motorcycle.

A foreign friend a long time ago said to me – as we were following a semi truck using both lanes down another of Ouagadougou’s boulevards – that road safety is a product of development. Burkina Faso will never become a developed nation, he huffed, until people can learn to respect the basic rules of the road. I shrugged it off as road rage after a long day. By hogging both lanes, the semi driver was clearly being a jerk.

But my foreign friend was right. Driving is a responsibility, and Ouagadougou’s winner-take-all system of road rules only keeps people in the hospital and families visiting cemeteries. I’ll be harsh here: For such a naturally mellow people, too many Burkinabé drive with a ferocious aggressiveness and a complete disregard for others once they get behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle.

One complaint many foreigners of all stripes – development people, missionaries, travelers – share about West Africans is that few of them ever accept responsibility for their actions. I often tell these complainers they don’t know the right people or point out the fact that many foreigners don’t accept responsibility either. You know what: They are right in this case. Until Ouagadougou’s drivers of underdeveloped decision making skills can accept personal responsibility – and understand their choices affect other people – this country isn’t going anywhere.