Saturday, March 29, 2008

Africa Flak on hiatus


While Africa Flak is on a two-week hiatus, please enjoy our archives. Or, maybe not. We'll be back soon.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Mauritania: Two journalists detained; one remains in custody

From Menassat:

Two journalists working for the Mauritanian newspaper Assiraje were arrested on Tuesday night upon leaving the office. No legal warrants were served during the arrest.

The police took the two journalists to the National Security headquarters, where Sayyed Ould Abed al-Malek was realeased but Mohammad Salem Ould Mahmoudo remained in custody. Mohammad Salem is a contributor to MENASSAT.

Both are well-known journalists in Mauritania; no immediate reason was given for the arrests.

Bloggers union begins in Mauritania

The bloggers of Mauritania: One calls himself “Jesus of Mauritania” extolling Christianity; another “outs” people who are “thieves and spies”; a few provide a check on government power; one is a member of parliament; others still comment on social traditions and the role of women in society.

They now have a bloggers union.

Unlike some Middle Eastern and North African countries, the Mauritanian government has given these bloggers some leeway. (For example, the Yemen government recently blocked a popular blog platform that hosted more than 2,000 blogs.) I would argue in this instance Mauritanian government’s relationship with bloggers falls under the guidelines of other West African governments, which generally leave bloggers alone.)

From Menassat:

They are only a blip on the worldwide blogosphere but at least Mauritania's bloggers, all four-hundred of them, now have their very own syndicate, the Mauritanian Bloggers Union.

The union's media liaison, Mohammad Mawloud Ould al-Maaloum, said, "The new union is a congregation of a intellectuals, journalists and writers that decided that with more than 400 bloggers, it was time to meet."

He added that the Union "is trying to bring the bloggers together in the name of (blogger) unity," and as a means "to protect blogger rights."

Uniting Mauritania's bloggers is quite a challenge because of the diversity of the Mauritanian blogosphere. Some people blog in Arabic, others in French. More importantly, some bloggers are devout Muslims whereas others are critical of religion or show sexual content on their blogs.

The Mauritanian Bloggers Union is an attempt to unite all of them under the same banner, irrespective of political opinion of blogging methods.

"The reason behind the meeting of the bloggers is mainly to discussing the current status of the bloggers, and to choose the most efficient methods to enhance their presence and performance," the union's president, Ahmad Ould Islam, told MENASSAT.

The Banana Theory: Are Tuareg rebels in Mali (and Niger) in cahoots with Al-Qaida?

A recurring theme has sprung up regarding the up tick in violence in northern Mali: Are Taureg rebels connected to some broader terror movement? More worrying, are they somehow aligned with Al-Qaida? It’s a theory that has been debunked many times before, but continues to crop up every few months.

In a recent report from VOA, London based human rights activist Ibrahima Kane, says that with instability in the northern lands growing, you cannot miss the parallels.

"There are many rebel groups in that part of Africa. Some of them are supposed to have very strong links with al-Qaida, and there is lots of arms trafficking, many traffics in that part of the region," said Kane.

It’s true that Al-Qaida's north African wing, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is believed to be holding two Austrian tourists they nabbed in Tunisia at a hideout in northern Mali (or Niger or Algeria).

On the other hand, Anthropologist Jeremy Keenan has long played down the idea of any fruitful relationship between Malian rebels and al-Qaida. He’s brought on to VOA to do the same:

"This is connected geographically but that is totally separate from this rebellion. In other words, the Tuareg rebellion and the Austrian hostage situation are not connected in any way. They just happen to be in the same area, but that is coincidental," he said.

He says links between different armed groups in the region do exist, such as between the Malian and Niger rebels, but they are difficult to define.

"The linkages are very, very complicated.... They involve a lot of history and quite detailed micro-politics and micro-sociology, and so forth but one thing I think I will probably say is the situation in Niger up until these last couple of weeks by and large has been worse than in Mali," he said.

Keenan says he believes the situation in both Mali and Niger has been aggravated by raids by government militaries on civilian areas. The two militaries have been receiving U.S. aid and training to combat terrorism and trafficking in the area.

(He gets so much time airtime compared to Ibrahima Kane that one get’s the idea the “London based human rights activist” was solely contacted for his role to start an empty debate, only to have it debunked. Nonetheless, he was kind enough to oblige.)

Here’s a take from author Sharon Chada (admittedly from September, the last time the Tuareg = Al-Quaida connection was made):

[I]t is the Tuareg, after all, who host the Festival of the Desert every year. And I have to say, I could never quite square reports about them being allied with Al Qaeda with all the music they make, their lifestyle (the men veil, the women don't), not to mention their fierce independence (they've run the desert caravans across the Sahara since Biblical times). I could never quite imagine Bin Laden and company suddenly being enthroned in Tuareg lands…

Anyway, the Iraqi Sunnis get it, and it appears the Tuareg do too: that this, that these Al Qaeda people are never happy just being offered refuge, or someplace to live and educate their kids in safety and prosperity, what they also want is to rule, and in their particularly obnoxious way.

Isn't there something else at work here? It’s the responsibility of any government to secure its borders – however hazy they may be – and insure the respect of its territorial sovereignty. Tuareg rebels may not be terrorists. Fine. But what is their knowledge or connection with the smugglers moving drugs, weapons and people (and cigarettes!) through the desert? In Niger, at least from what they say, a lot. (“…not even a mouse could get through the desert without their knowledge…”) A Tuareg rebel leader from Niger told another VOA reporter that for information regarding smugglers, governments have to come clean with Tuaregs and other nomads and bring them on board as partners.

So far, this isn’t happening. Perhaps that’s the debate we should be having.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Human rights groups in Ghana sue government over treatment of Liberian refugees

A coalition of Ghanaian human rights groups has sued the Accra government for its treatment of Liberian refugees.

Ghanaian police arrested more than 600 Liberian refugees – mostly women and children – on March 17 at the Buduburam camp after a five week sit-in strike in front of the camp. A few days later, police reentered the camp and arrested about 30 men who they claimed were causing trouble.

Nearly 40,000 Liberian refugees reside in Ghana, some who have lived there since 1990 when the country’s civil war began. Most of them live in Buduburam camp, just outside of Accra.

The protesters were demanding UNHCR, the UN refugee organization, either resettling them in a third country – like the U.S. or a European country – or increasing their repatriation allowance from $100 to $1000 if they were to return to Liberia.

From IRIN:

The Human Rights Coalition is filing a suit on behalf of one of the detained refugees, Chucider Lawrence, asking the Ghanaian government to release her and provide justification for her arrest and detention.

“We want to test the law with this case and depending on the outcome we will proceed with a general suit to compel the government to answer to the gross human rights abuses of the [all the detained] refugees,” said Amuzu.

Under Ghanaian law no one can be detained for more than 48 hours without being arraigned.

The Ghanaian government has justified its action saying the refugees have violated laws by protesting to the police without notice.

“Further deportations have not been discarded,” said Ghana deputy information minister, Frank Agyekum, however he also said the deportations have been suspended pending the outcome of diplomatic discussions with the Liberian government.

Ghana has attempted to invoke the 1951 Refugee Convention claiming that once conditions improve in person’s country of origin, it is no longer necessary that the host government supports them.

In other news, the UNHCR has asked Ghana’s government to cease forcibly deporting refugees who are registered with the organization.

"It is very unfortunate that the unacceptable actions of a few have led to this situation,” said George Okoth-Obbo, the UNHCR Director of International Protection Services. “Refugees of course have the duty to respect the laws of the country of asylum established for good public order. Any further sit-ins, demonstrations or other unlawful acts must cease unconditionally. At the same time, while fully understanding the frustration of the authorities, I would like to reiterate UNHCR's call to the Government not to make any further deportations and to work with us to address the situation through other mechanisms available within the laws of Ghana. Unfortunately, the victims in all of this are the innocent majority of Liberian refugees who call Ghana home".

Hold on to your hats: Strikes considered in Guinea

From IRIN, with a new fresh page design, replete with maps (go check it out):

Guinea’s powerful trade union groups are considering whether to go ahead with a general strike at the end of March and risk a government crackdown, like the ones that occurred in January and February 2007 which led to the deaths of up to 200 civilians.
“We are continuing consultations for a successful outcome of the crisis,” said Raibatou Serah Diallo, the secretary general of the National Confederation of Guinean Workers.
Unionists last threatened to strike in January 2008, claiming President Lansana Conté was breaking the power-sharing agreement that brought an end to last year’s violence.
Guineans have endured four union-led strikes in last 15 months to protest high food prices, worsening living conditions, corruption and President Conté’s leadership.

The groups – tell me if you’ve heard this before – are upset about the slow pace of reforms in the country and the stalled investigations regarding 2007’s violence against civilians and “more information on the misappropriation of public funds.”

As in January, however, it appears at least some of the government is willing to delay a strike through negotiations.

Guinea-Bissau sets date for parliamentary elections

From News 24:

The impoverished and unruly West African state of Guinea-Bissau will hold parliamentary elections on November 16, a presidential decree says.

The date was fixed after talks between leaders of the country's 35 political parties and President Joao Vieira, who on Tuesday had expressed concern about the political tensions in the country.

Vieira seized power in 1980 while he was head of the armed forces. He was toppled in 1999 after 19 years of iron-fisted rule and returned from exile to win the presidency as an independent in 2005.

Vieira, however, did not have majority support in parliament and the various party blocs had been arguing over the poll date, with some wanting it held at the end of the current parliamentary term in April.

Here’s an interesting tidbit: "The country's election commission had estimated the cost of the polls at $5.9m," which is roughly $4.21 per person.

A quick search revealed the estimated cost for an election from the United States – cue voice over: the world leader in election politics – for the 2006 Congressional election: $2.6 billion (you read that right). (Thanks Center of Responsive Politics.) That breaks down to roughly $200,000 per person. In Canada – the uncontested leader in parliamentary politics – elections are decidedly cheaper. Total cost for 2000 general election: $199.7 million, which equals to around $6 per person. Campaigning got decidedly more expensive in 2004, when election bills came to a total of $277 million (or $8.40 per person).

Of course, the costs for the North American elections include campaign spending. I wonder what the costs for Guinea-Bissau's include? Is it just organizing polling, getting ballots ready, etc. Or, is campaign spending estimates also included?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Liberian refugees in Ghana: Protests are only tip of the iceberg

On February 19, a group of women refugees from Liberia began a sit-in protest on a soccer pitch directly in front of the Buduburam refugee camp, which lies just west of the capital Accra. The women were demanding immediate resettlement to third countries, or if they were returned to Liberia, UNHCR, the United Nations refugee organization should increase their return grant from $100 to $1000.

After four weeks, the sit-in protest had gathered steam, and the government of Ghana claimed the refugees were violating the public order by blocking traffic and preventing students from attending school. On March 17 police entered the camp and arrested nearly 700 women and children. The government of Liberia condemned the protestors’ unruly” conduct and apologized to the Ghanaian president. (Here’s a second-hand version of the police action.)

Five days after the first arrests, Ghanaian police swept again through the camp, this time searching for men officers had accused of further fomenting dissent, with rumors swirling that they had cached weapons and were trafficking cocaine. (Neither weapons nor drugs were found.) Press reports claimed many of the wanted men had fled to the bush, yet police arrested around 35 people. (Reports from refugees claimed that the arrests were carried out at random.) At least half of those arrested were not registered as refugees, the Ghanaian government claimed, so officials deported 16 people to Liberia, a move that raised the ire of human rights groups and UNHCR.

Civil wars
Liberian refugees first began arriving in Ghana in 1990, and the refugee population exploded later that decade when the country’s civil war broke out full bore. As recently as 2006, 40,000 Liberians were living in the camp. Delegations of the two governments recently met over the refugees’ status and are working out a plan to repatriate the more than 24,000 Liberian refugees still living in the country.

Semantics King jr., a six-year resident of the Buduburam camp, currently lives in Minnesota in the United States. A journalist working in radio, he fled to Ghana in 2000 after receiving death threats. When he was living in the camp, he launched The Vision newspaper, which provided news to refugees and training to young journalists. Since moving to the U.S., he began the New Liberian.

He said the women began the soccer-pitch protest because they had heard the UNHCR was sitting on the money intended to repatriate the refugees back to Liberia. Rumors began spreading through the camp from the Liberian legislature, he said, claiming Sierra Leone refugees currently living in Liberia were to receive $15,000 per family to reconstruct their homes. The women argued that if the UNHCR could spend $15,000 per Sierra Leone family, the organization could easily spend $1,000 per Liberian refugee.

The UNHCR began a voluntary resettlement project in 2004, but very few refugees took the group up on the offer. Most people worried the $100 repatriation fee would not adequately cover resettling in war-scarred Liberia. Other refugees worried about returning to a country where they had no family ties. Continuing ethnic violence is yet another reason so many remain at the camp. Instead of returning to Liberia, some refugees would like to be resettled to a third country, like Canada or the United States.

The heart of the matter
The UNHCR’s resettlement program was not the only factor in the protests, King said. “The conditions of the camp are appalling,” he told me by telephone. “I lived there for six years and I came to realize that UNHCR has done nothing good for the refugees.”

He said that from 1997 to 2003, the UN group all but pulled out of the camp, hoping that refugees would begin resettling after Charles Taylor officially took power after the 1997 election. Since the agency has returned, refugees continue to provide for their own basic needs. “[Refugees] fend for themselves at the camp,” he said. “There is no food. There is no water to take a bath. You have to pay to educate your children.”

Some people questioned why Liberian refugees could not simply repatriate in Ghana, another Anglophone West African country. King says many scoffed at the idea mostly because of the little protection the Ghanaian government has offered refugees. Not only is paying school fees an issue, but he maintains that Ghanaian police often drag their feet when investigating crimes against Liberians, including more than a few grisly murders that have taken place inside and outside the camp. “People in Ghana don’t like the refugees, he said. “How can you talk about integration when there is no protection for refugees?”

One of the reason for the prosecution of refugees, he said, is the Ghanaian press often paints them in a negative light with blatant one-sided reports (another reason he began The Vision). “Until recently no Ghanaian journalist ever set foot in the refugee camp to take a look at what these people were (and are still) going through,” he said. (Here is an example of reporting on the refugee situation in the Ghanaian press.)

With the demands of the refugees hardening, along with the position of the Ghanaian government, the UNHCR has to find a solution soon before the atmosphere at the camp reaches a tipping point. “If they don’t act now,” King said. “And people are allowed to stay in that camp, we are going to hear from very bad things in the next one to three years. The international community really needs to look at the demands of the refugees.”

Double shot of instability: Mali and Cote d’Ivoire

Who says West Africa can still be mildly instable?

Mali has mostly avoided the issues with Tuaregs that has recently plagued the government of Niger. That may be due to the government’s more conciliatory approach to the situation. Have things taken a decidedly worse turn?

From IRIN:

Citizens are divided on what should be the next steps following the latest round of violence between Tuareg rebels and Malian army officers, which has led to the kidnapping of up to 30 Malian soldiers and the deaths of three soldiers and five civilians in Mali’s northern Kidal region.

Fighting broke out on 20 March 18 km from the town of Tin-Zaouatene when rebels ambushed a government military supply convoy capturing soldiers and seizing as many as eight vehicles.

"We do not know what to do. When the shooting began between the rebels and the army, the entire population had to hide out at home,” said Amadou Koné a government official in Kidal.

He continued, “people stop trusting each other because they don’t know who is who. It is like being in Iraq or Palestine.”

The fighting came two weeks after the Northern Mali Tuareg Alliance for Change (ATNMC) released 22 military hostages from the nearby town of Kidal, 1,200 km from Bamako.

Recently, western Cote d’Ivoire has seemed to be the most lawless area of the country. The reasons are plentiful: The number of internally displaced persons habituating this area along with the large number of Liberian refugees who sought safety there; or, perhaps it’s the former Liberian soldiers living in that part of the country and continuing to look for work.

Again, IRIN:

Two towns in western Cote d’Ivoire have been shut off by two days of riots by disgruntled Ivorian soldiers.

Troops started rampaging through the town of Duékoué, 400 km north west of the commercial capital Abidjan, on the morning of 24 March, protesting the murder of a low-ranking soldier by robbers the night before, Commandant Vazoumana, a gendarme in Duékoué told IRIN.

“We have been unable to leave our houses,” Flora Gbazé, a civilian in Duékoué, said on 24 March. “Since the morning soldiers have been shooting in the air.” Later the same day riots broke out in nearby Guiglo, army sources in the town told IRIN.

According to a humanitarian source in the region, one civilian death has been confirmed by stray gunfire.

Rioting continued in Guiglo on 25 March, however in Duékoué the soldiers spent the day in negotiations with government officials, a humanitarian official familiar with the situation told IRIN.

The soldiers were demanding the resignation of the governor in the region, the source told IRIN.

“The signals coming from both the government and military leaders are not at all clear,” the source said, noting that Ivorian soldiers had been petitioning the regional authorities to improve their security arrangements for some weeks.

In Uranium, declines lead advances as producing countries take a bigger slice of pie

From Bloomberg:

Areva SA, the world's largest nuclear-plant builder, will lose money selling uranium from Niger this year after paying the African state more for mining there, said Yves Dufour, Areva's deputy head of mining.

``We hope to come back to normal margins next year,'' Dufour said in an interview today in Paris. Dufour earlier gave a press conference to detail Areva's operations in Niger and address criticism from local Tuareg tribes.

Mining operations in Canada and other countries will help compensate for Niger, which accounts for 40 percent of Areva's uranium production, Dufour said.

Uranium-producing nations such as Niger, the world's No. 5 supplier of the metal and one of the world's poorest countries, are demanding stiffer terms after global prices rose sevenfold in the past five years. The French state-owned company, based in Paris, agreed in January to pay 50 percent more to Niger for mining there. Areva had already agreed on a 40 percent increase last August.

``The uranium bonanza won't be as great as mining companies had imagined,'' said Landsbanki Kepler analyst Pierre Boucheny. ``Producing countries now want a share of the pie.''

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Snoop Dogg as cultural imperialist? Is Hip-Hop killing African culture?

Is Hip-Hop the music of a foreign devil with designs on paving over African cultural heritage and stealing the souls of the continent’s youth? Cultural imperialism is an age-old debate, really, updated for the era of globalization, where everything from art to people to culture has been reduced to economics. With this in mind, we ask: Do the art forms of economically stronger markets blot out traditions residing in smaller marketplaces?

“I don’t like Hip-hop because I don’t like the way they dress,” One of Hi-Life’s greatest masters, Ben Brako, recently told myjoyonline. “[W]e should be able to promote and project our own culture, and this is not about being patriotic, but it is also about economics,” he said. “We should be able to create our own music, with our own clothing, and fabrics – that way we would be creating more jobs,” he explained.

The best way to keep High-life alive, he said, is to make it more palatable to young people.

From Adam Smith to Bob Marley
Yet not everybody thinks that culturally aggressive art forms are such a bad thing for smaller countries trying to keep their traditions alive. Tyler Cowen, an author and professor from the United States, claims that almost all art forms, whether food or music or writing, are the products of cultural hybridization. Different traditions come together through the marketplace, which supports cultural diversity and a freedom of choice for end users. Enhanced trade – in the larger sense – offers artists a greater opportunity for expression. Artists not only need ideas and inspiration, he says, but they also need somewhere to sell their wares and the physical materials to create their art. “When two cultures trade with each other they tend to expand the opportunities available to individual artists,” he said at a talk sponsored by the Cato Institute.

He provides the example that the internationally renowned Cuban music or the equally celebrated Jamaican reggae are both products of expanding and competing markets. (Bob Marley admitted that ideas from his early music came from listening to artists like James Brown, which he heard through American radio beamed to Jamaica.) Finally, Cowen argues that countries with well developed markets – like the U.S. – offer music lovers a wide palate of choices: rap, jazz, classical, Cajun, trash metal, psychobilly, etc. “When the cost of supplying products goes down, people tend to use culture to differentiate themselves from other people, to pursue niche interests, to pursue hobbies,” he argued.

Nobody likes a bully
To some cultures, music may not be merely a commodity (or even an art form), but an expression that accompanies social and religious rites: weddings, baptisms, funerals, etc. It is true that transistor radios – and accompanying recorded electronic music – have penetrated even the most out of the way places. This expansion has certainly led to the death of some forms of music, further unmooring people from their cultural foundations. But, aren’t cultures always evolving?

With music streaming across radios being less particular to a specific place or culture – because radio travels over such great distances – Dr. Tran Van Khê argues that younger people are drawn in by easy-to-play and more aesthetically palatable music, further sanitizing cultures into a single mass product. There is no way to fight this because free traders (like Cowen) don’t understand that markets are not created equally. Benjamin Barber, another professor/writer-type from the States, argues that when one culture meets another culture in the marketplace of ideas, the larger culture may be able to bully the smaller into submission.

The problem is that when America meets another culture, it’s not, as you might imagine here, just two guys in the woods. It’s not an American wearin’ his Nikes and eatin’ his burgers meeting up with a Nigerian who’s singing a different kind of music, and they have a little exchange, and when it’s done the American’s a little different—a little more Nigerian—and the Nigerian’s a little different—a little more American—and we’re all the better off for it. Rather, you’ve got to imag- ine the American armed, sort of like the soldiers in Iraq are armed, with all of the goods and brands of modern technology, modern commerce, hard and soft power, hegemonic economic power over the globe, hegemonic military power over the globe. That’s the culture that’s meeting up with some little Third World culture that’s got some Navajo blankets or some fusion music that we’d kind of like to collect.

I understand how important it is to “know” your culture, and how art forms like music help shape one’s worldview. That’s all good. I also have a lot of respect for arguments and movements against cultural imperialism. But I think some of these arguments may lack a little nuance. I have always been a bit reluctant to claim that African youth are all attracted by Western music. Yes, rap and hip-hop are popular dress styles; but how many young people really listen to it? Culture, unlike economics, is not zero-sum. I doubt that Hip-Hop’s rise is equal to the decline of West African music.

There’s another issue that has always nagged at me. Why are some aspects of American culture supposedly so popular abroad? I am not only referring to music, but movies and the like. It’s a question I may never answer.

Being the dancing fool I am, I went out over the weekend and found the music clubs we frequented played a smattering of (admittedly lame) Western dance music, along with a cluster of Middle Eastern pop music. However, most of the music these clubs played was created in Africa for Africans. Sure, performers like Meiway and Douk-Saga and Koffi Olomide may resemble “western music” because they utilize guitars and synthesizers, but the cultural codes their songs adhere to are strictly local. That’s a good thing. What’s better yet, it doesn’t bar me from liking it.

Take it back: The role of defamation in a free press

“The basic idea of defamation law is simple,” writes Brian Martin on his suppression of dissent website. “It is an attempt to balance the private right to protect one's reputation with the public right to freedom of speech.”

Defamation provides rights to those who have been victims of false or malicious comments. Throughout much of the world, defamation comes in two flavors: oral defamation, which is called slander, happens when someone says something false or malicious in public, like a meeting or even a party; secondly, there is libel – published defamation – which is printed in, say, a newspaper or broadcast on a television show. Pictures can also be libelous.

As Martin points out, nearly everyone makes defaming statements everyday. You call your boss unfair – that’s slander. Write a letter to the newspaper regarding a politician you call corrupt – that’s libel. (This website has most likely libeled leaders many times over.) What protects most people is those who have been defamed rarely take action.

There are a few reasons for this. One, a writer can defend him or herself by claiming what he/she said is true. Or, it was the writer’s duty to provide the public with this information, like if they’ve been called to participate in a trial or at a public hearing in front of the Legislature. Finally, the writer can claim he was expressing an opinion, if the facts of your statement were reasonably accurate.

My reckless disregard for the truth
The lawyer Aaron Larson has an interesting discussion regarding defamation in the United States where it is somewhat harder for “public figures” to scream libel or slander. They must prove the statement in question was made out of malice: The owner of this statement must know it is false or have a reckless disregard for the truth. The term public figure, at least in the United States, is broader than celebrities or politicians; it can refer to anyone who has come to the public’s attention, whether this person wants it or not.

In this debate, there is an underlying argument regarding power, especially when looking over the person making the statement and the “victim” of the statement. Let’s say the maker of the statement is a reporter. It’s hard for someone writing for the Guardian or the Los Angeles Times to hide behind the fact they are lowly scribes when their words could be read by millions each day. Not everyone owns a television station or a major metropolitan daily with global yearnings. On the other hand, say you make the statement on an internet discussion board. How many people will be reading this statement is an important factor. Secondly, can the person making the statement offer a quick retraction?

Practice safe journalism
The mere threat of defamation suits can deter many people from speaking out; especially if these many people are poorly paid African journalists. For one, defending yourself in court – or preparing to defend yourself in court – is costly. Add on to that the possibility of paying out a huge fine if you’re found guilty. An interesting point Martin makes regards the unpredictability of defamation: Gross libels pass unchallenged all the time – “Barack Obama was not born in the United States” – but genuinely innocuous comments have lead to major court actions. From Martin’s site:

This unpredictability has a chilling effect on free speech. Writers, worried about defamation, cut out anything that might offend. Publishers, knowing how much it can cost to lose a case, have lawyers go through articles to cut out anything that might lead to a legal action. The result is a tremendous inhibition of free speech.

(A sidenote: In our recent discussion of Sierra Leone’s suppression of the U.S.-based website The Freedom Newspaper, we investigated a James Fallows piece in the Atlantic on China’s suppression of certain websites and electronic media outlets: It works not through technology, but psychology: No one really knows where the line exists between what can be read and what cannot, so readers play it safe.)

Martin brings up another two points why people play it safe: Defamation law is complex – especially fer us writers – and these court cases can take years to resolve. Why give yourself a decade-long headache? (Is it too late to take back everything I’ve written about Idriss Deby and Meles Zenawi?)

Finally, one way reporters get themselves into trouble is by getting the facts wrong. Perhaps they misread that arrest report. Perhaps that government document wasn’t complete. The take home lesson: cover your factual bases or have other people say nasty things about other people for you. (It’s just like life, yes?)

So, what’s your point?
Why are we talking about this? Because in January 2008, the International PEN issued a report on how African governments use defamation legislation to “silence journalists” who investigate corruption, mismanagement and other random abuses of power. While that report investigated defamation laws and abuses up to November 2007, there has been a spate of heightened use of defamation laws on the continent. Since the beginning of the year, seven individuals have received prison sentences in defamation-related cases; four other journalists have faced new defamation charges.

Here lies a list of (bad) West African countries:

Cote d’Ivoire: On 4 January 2008, Antoine Assalé Tiémoko, activist and occasional contributor to the daily Le Nouveau Réveil, was condemned to one year in prison for "libeling the prosecutor's office" and "contempt of court". His conviction stemmed from his 14 December 2007 opinion piece on judicial corruption, entitled "Justice, criminals, and corruption", in which Tiémoko used an imaginary country, as well as coded words and innuendo, to question the Ivorian minister of justice, the state prosecutor, and various judges, and to accuse them of corruption. Tiémoko, who is not a journalist but has apparently been given a prison sentence simply for expressing his opinion in print, is serving his prison sentence in Abdijan prison.

NIGER - On 8 February, Ibrahim Souley and Soumana Idrissa Maiga, managing editor and founder respectively of the bi-monthly publication L'Enquêteur, were each sentenced to one month in jail on libel charges filed by the Minister of Economy and Finance. The charges stem from articles published on 19 November 2007 alleging that the Minister was involved in granting state projects illegally and encouraging mismanagement of public finances. Souley and Maiga were also ordered to pay the Minister a symbolic fine of 40,000 Francs (around 60 Euros) each. Their defence lawyer said they would appeal the decision. In a separate case in Niger, L'Eveil Plus editor Gourouza Aboubacar was arrested and detained in late February on two separate charges of defamation of a politician and contempt of justice. Although the defamation case was subsequently dropped, Aboudoucar was sentenced to one month in prison on 6 March for "bringing the Nigerian justice system into disrepute".

MAURITANIA: On 11 February, Abdel Fettah Ould Abeidna, managing editor of the daily Al-Aqsa, was sentenced to one year in prison for defaming a local businessman. In a 16 May 2007 article, Abeidna linked a businessman to a large-scale cocaine racket in which a number of politicians had been implicated. Abeidna was also handed a massive fine of approx. US$1.2bn. According to the WiPC's information, Abeidna is not currently in Mauritania.

In Nigeria, The News editor Bayo Onanuga was assaulted on 20 January after giving evidence in a libel suit against his magazine filed by the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). The assailants were believed to be in the pay of the PDP.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Our man in N’djamena: Idriss Deby's human rights folly

Last time we checked, Chadian President Idriss Deby was still in power and rounding up opposition politicians. So what’s up today? Eight weeks after an insurgent army battled government forces inside the capital city, nearly toppling the Deby government, our man in N’djamena remains in power while opposition politicians remain in jail.

According to the Chadian group Human Rights Without Borders, at least 20 people have been detained but have not been publicly charged with any crime. This number may be artificially low because much of the country’s political opposition, members of civil society and independent journalists have fled the country in fear of reprisals by the government.

“Certainly the authorities were aggressive before the rebel attack in February,” Deuzoumbe Daniel Passalet of Human Rights Without Borders told IRIN. “But after February they became vengeful. Anyone who was suspected of supporting the rebels was arrested and sometimes their houses were demolished.”

“I fled the country after police came to my house to try to arrest me,” he added.

Less than two weeks after French troops helped push the rebels out of the capital city, the Chadian government declared a state of emergency, granting the federal government to control the media, provincial governors the power to restrict movement and security forces the power to arrest and detain people without charge. The emergency was lifted March 15, but eight people remain unaccounted for, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.

The New York-based human rights organization found that at a majority of the 15 prisoners originally detained under the emergency guidelines are members of the Goran ethnic group, which allegedly predominate the rebel group that recently attacked the capital city. It wasn’t the first time the Deby administration has targeted a specific ethnic group after an attempted insurgency, Human Rights Watch maintained. In 2007, members of the Tama group were “subject to arbitrary arrest and detention by government security forces” after a failed takeover attempt by a group that consisted mainly of members of the same group.

Mahamoud Adoum Aguid, the country’s former top customs official has been detained since Febraury 19. His whereabouts remains unknown. Ngarlejy Yorongar and Lol Mahamat Choua, two opposition politicians detained by police, have been released. However, the whereabouts of opposition member Ibni Oumar Mahamat Saleh remains unknown.

Human Rights Watch also documented the torture of at least one prisoner at the hands of security forces. Two others are thought to have been abused, the group said.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I have a new piece on how the northern-based rebellion in Niger has affected Nigerien media.

It is here.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tuareg rebels allegedly ambush convoy in Mali

From Reuters:

Mali's military said suspected Tuareg rebels ambushed one of its convoys in the northeast of the country early on Thursday, wounding at least four soldiers.

The attack, which triggered a fierce gunbattle, was in the northern sector of the Kidal region close to the Algerian border, where al Qaeda kidnappers are reported to be holding two Austrian tourists seized last month in Tunisia.

The supply convoy was ambushed 18 km (11 miles) from the remote border garrison town of Tin-Zaouatene, which was briefly besieged in September by fighters led by Malian Tuareg leader Ibrahima Bahanga.

"A first vehicle hit a mine, seriously wounding four (soldiers), and then the rest of the convoy was fired on. Our men fired back and there were intense exchanges of fire," a Malian officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Meningitis deaths in Burkina Faso top 500 “dead mark.”

Global Witness: Northern CI still illegally taxing diamonds, cocoa

During Cote d’Ivoire’s civil war that began in 2002, the northern-based Forces Nouvelles raised an estimated $30 million per year through a “parallel tax,” which charged cocoa-laden trucks that traveled through the country, according to a 2007 Global Witness report.

Apparently, the practice is still going on. In a new briefing, the NGO that investigates the links between resource exploitation and corruption found that cocoa trucks are still being “escorted towards Burkina Faso” by members of the rebel militia, who charge the drivers. Not only is this illegal, inefficient and sapping the government of Cote d’Ivoire of needed tax revenue, but funds received through extortion are increasingly hard to track. The 2007 Global Witness report claimed the rebels used some of the cocoa and diamond money to purchase weapons.

From Rapaport News at Diamonds.net:

A Global Witness mission to the country in February found that despite a 2007 agreement between the rebel held north and government controlled south to work toward peace, the north was still collecting taxes on diamonds and cocoa and keeping the revenue. Diamonds leaving the country from the rebel-held north have already been cited as the last remaining conflict diamonds by the NGO, and the World Diamond Council and United Nations.

Global Witness called upon the government and the north's New Force rebels to end “this extortion” and abolish the taxation.

“The system of parallel and illegitimate taxes only helps fuel the corruption,” said Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness. “This is an economic war that’s delaying the reunification of the country.”

Global Witness campaigner Maria Lopez said diamond diggers who sell their diamonds are being taxed 8 percent by the rebels, who were giving them permission to sell the stones. It was not clear where the stones were being taken next.

Liberian census gets underway

Today, the Liberian government will begin its first census of the country in more than a quarter century. It's an effort to better serve the population, government leaders say. "Without data, there is no way to target your resources properly," Edward Liberty, who heads the agency charged with carrying out the census, told the Associated Press.

From that story:
For more than a year, over 9,000 census-takers have combed the densely forested nation mapping every structure. For three days starting Friday, they will revisit each dwelling and count the inhabitants.

The preparations, including the marking of dwellings, have given birth to rumors. Some wonder if its part of a military recruitment drive, a potent fear in a country where boys as young as 5 were handed machine guns and forced to fight. Others believe it's in preparation for new taxes.

To try to dispel these and other rumors, the government commissioned a pop star to compose a catchy tune about the census. It's been translated into Liberia's 16 languages and is playing daily on the radio, urging Liberians to "stand up and be counted."

Throughout the country's interior, billboards have been erected reminding villagers to stay home for three days starting Friday to properly be counted. Schools are closed through the end of the census.


Government proposed jet purchase still making waves in Ghana

Remember that 16-seat jet the Ghanaian government wants to purchase so the president can fly around? Here’s what Bernard Morna from the Accra-based Committee for Joint Action thinks about it.

Via VOA:

“This is an endorsement of our government’s commitment to use scarce state resources for the benefit of the few that are put in privilege positions. We of the CJA think at this critical moment in our national life majority of our people cannot get water to drink, the government of Ghana would have sufficient resources to put at the disposal of the president for us is a misplaced priority. But like we have always maintained, this can only be an endorsement of the profligacy of our government,” Morna noted.

He described the government plans to buy the jets are detrimental to the well being of the ordinary Ghanaian.

“Clearly, at this critical time one wonders what the priority of our nation is. Is it that of improving the health sector to retain the majority of our doctors as a result of little incomes that they earn?” He asked.

Media briefings: Guinea-Bissau, Gambia

Today the news is not so good.

Atizar Mendes Pereira, journalist and director of Última Hora, a privately-owned Bissau-based newspaper was arrested and briefly detained by the Intelligence Service of the Ministry of Interior of Guinea Bissau, Senegambia reported.

According to the Media Foundation of West Africa, Pereira was interrogated for six hours following a story claiming the country’s military chief of staff had assumed the role of promoting police officers.

“Pereira later told the media that despite the psychological torture he suffered, he still stands by his story and that he would not retract even a comma,” Senegambia said.

Site blocked in Gambia
The Freedom Newspaper, based in the United States, has had its website blocked by GAMTEL, the state-run telecommunications company. According to Scott A. Morgan in Senegambia news, the reaction came after the Freedom Newspaper ran a story on the telecommunications firm.

Perhaps the story in question was actually a letter written by a GAMTEL employee who claimed “GAMTEL bankruptcy did not comes as a surprise to me.”

The story, which is linked here, follows:

GAMTEL's bankruptcy did not come to me as a surprise due to the high corruption and the high level of dependency of the Gambia government. I have been working for GAMTEL for a long time and almost all staff of this telecommunication company are constantly paranoid about the activities of the current president.

He most of the time forces these parastatals to participate or sponsor either directly or indirectly, party activities taking place in the country.

More to the point, having the website blocked by authorities left Gambians relying solely on the state-supported media for their news. “So effectively for a short period there was a news blackout from the Gambia,” Morgan writes.

How to block websites
For those interested, there are four ways an angry government – like Gambia – could shut down a website. I borrow this from an interesting piece by James Fallows in the Atlantic regarding how Chinese authorities limit the access to certain websites through what is now being called “the Great Firewall of China.” .

The first “and bluntest” method is the DNS block. Every website has a specific IP address, which is a series of 12 numbers separated by periods. When a user requests a specific website, say africaflak.blogspot.com, a domain name server – DNS – translates the written form of this name to the IP address so it can be read by computers. By simply blocking certain addresses, servers can be directed to give no reply when a specific domain name – like africaflak.blogspot.com – is requested. Those in charge can tell the server to give viewers a “site not found” error; or, they could merely direct viewers to a different site.

Second, once a request is made to a blacklisted sites, servers which connect a country’s internet with the rest of the world could set a “reset,” which means the connection between a user’s computer and the website in question is cut. Those looking for sites that have raised the government’s ire will receive a “site not found” error or a “The connection has been reset.”

Another way to block sites is to make a list of forbidden keywords in the URL, which is the website’s address in plain English: Senegambia.com or whatever. However, instead of blocking specific sites, people could block any websites containing certain words, like “Deyda Hydara” (the murdered Sierra Leonean journalist) or “press freedom” or “Tiken Jah Fakoly.”

Finally, in China an electronic scanner literally could scan the contents of specific pages. For instance, the New York Times may be scanned for stories relating to Sierra Leone or West Africa or Yahya A. J. J. Jammeh.

All of this working together adds a certain amount of unpredictability to internet users in China, Fallows argues. When people don’t know why their requests are being denied, they begin worrying about their searches.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In the fight against street traders, the problem is us

Here lies perhaps the most honest argument regarding the conflict between city governments and unlicensed street hawkers. (This fight first came to light after the city of Dakar attempted to evict the street peddlers, but every city in West Africa has the problem.)

Some may argue these vendors selling their goods on the side of the road pose a nuisance (and worsen traffic); others may claim street hawkers are merely innovative entrepreneurs providing a necessary service to their clients; finally, there are those who point out that if these (mostly young) people couldn’t sell goods on the side of the road, no other economic opportunities would exist for them.

Everybody is correct here, but it doesn’t come closer to curing the problem. Creating jobs and economic development would be nice, but people have been saying that for decades. In some ways, this debate reminds me about the war against prostitution. Locking up prostitutes won’t solve anything. If you want to solve the prostitution dilemma, you must go after the clients.

From Dr. Khumalo in the Concord Times:

I suspect some hypocrisy in the way we tend to address very important social issues. Most people tend to portray street trading in a very negative light and are ready to scold government for not urgently addressing it. But honestly, given the scale of street trading in and around the city, and our participation in it, does it not make one wonder whether any government will be able to curb it? As usual, many people see an easy solution to street trading; government must create new markets around the city and traders will be persuaded to go to those markets. Yes this is indeed plausible given the recent achievement in other African countries. But street trading in Sierra Leone will take much more than just creating markets and forcing hawkers to move to those markets.

Probably even the entire army deplored at the city centre cannot stop hawkers, because it is much more an issue of survival as it is cultural.

If we are honest with ourselves, it probably may be less than one percent of the population that does not buy from hawkers. Every now and then, in taxes, poda-poda and private cars, we anticipate the traffic slow down or deliberately break traffic rules just to buy a few essentials from hawkers. We find it less burdensome to buy from street traders than taking time to go to the often busy and unhealthy markets to buy our stuff. But we are simply being rational to behave that way given the fact that no reasonable human being prefers inconvenience to comfort, although buying from hawkers itself is fraught with some risks. We would prefer to buy from the streets and avoid the threat of pickpockets that now occupy the few crowded markets around town. Thus culturally, we have been used to the idea of hawkers going around announcing their goods at our homes. In the villages and many big towns today (perhaps to some extent the city where "Ernest power" is fluctuating) we are still familiar to the cries of small boys selling kerosene in the evening. We like to be heralded to goods; fish dae! Ah geh dee sawa sawa!

Humpty Dumpty: Gbagbo promises Ivorian election by June; questions remain about demilitarization

So, how do you put a country back together after civil war? Does one wait for the militaries to hand in their weapons? Or, does one rush to the polls to attempt to forge out a new government that people from both sides can rally around?

As part of the peace deal signed in March 2007 in Ouagadougou, fighters on both sides of the conflict will be disarmed; a new unified national army will be created; most importantly, identity documents will be distributed, which will determine citizenship (an issue that lead to the civil war); finally, the Ouagadougou agreement stipulates that and elections will be held.

Political leaders such as President Laurent Gbagbo and former rebel Guilllame Soro, who is now the Prime Minister, would like to hold elections at the end of June, a timeline Gbagbo reiterated after meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki, who is acting as a mediator.

However, Reuters reports, that the country’s disarmament and military demobilization process is far behind schedule and this likely to impede the country’s political reunification. Opposition politicians Henri Konan Bedie from the south and Allassane Ouattara from the north worry that the two leaders will use the delayed disarmament as an excuse to further postpone the elections (and remain in power), argues Selay M.K in the citizen journalism site Agora Vox.

Question: Isn’t it also true that the two leaders have refused to disarm their militias to keep the other side(s) honest? The issue here is that elections have been scheduled in the past and have been postponed after previous peace deals fell apart.

Earlier this year, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the government’s election plan “very ambitious.” However, a diplomat speaking anonymously told IRIN the June election deadline may be ambitious, but leaders set it to insure elections will be held during 2008.

With northerner Guillame Soro as Prime Minister, federal authority is slowly, but surely reinstalling itself in the former rebel-zone northern part of the country. This process has been hampered because many rebels would like to keep their parallel command structures intact in case the country devolves into conflict again, IRIN reported.

Other issues remain. In an October 2007 report, the UN Secretary General admitted the population is still visibly scarred by the civil war and many issues, such as land ownership, have not been resolved. Under this backdrop, the United Nations has pressed ahead on creating identity documents so people can vote. The Secretary General will release a report regarding election preparations before April 15.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Is microcredit really all that it's cracked up to be?

I’ll start with a caveat. Isn’t it hard to quantify and qualify the benefits of a practice that is spread throughout the world and working under so many different guises? It would seem that something whose practices are as disparate and widespread as microcredit would fall into this category.

Karol Boudreaux and Tyler Cowen have generally ignored this problem in a piece for the Wilson Quarterly regarding the benefits and failures of microcredit around the world.

It’s important to remember that 7 out of 10 borrowers are Asian – so maybe it isn’t as widespread a phenomenon as a thought. Women make up a large majority of those receiving loans, mostly because banks have always discriminated against them although they prove to be good credit risks, managing family budgets and all.

More interesting tidbits about microcredit:

  • While loan sizes are variable, they are often in proportion to a country’s income level;
  • Microlenders charge between 50 and 100 percent interest, which is not as much as local money lenders charge;
  • Many microlenders refuse to lend money to start businesses, which seems counter intuitive;
  • Micro loans are often used for things outside of commerce: school fees, doctors fees, house improvements;
  • Microlenders also loan to people in the informal sector, which banks do not.

The report also focused on the works of local money lenders, who often borrow from rich relatives and then loan it to villagers in need. In more than one sense, it is these lenders that truly work on the micro level: they demand no paperwork and no waiting period; they deal strictly on a cash basis; they are often the last chance for credit to the very poor; they do, however, demand quick repayment.

One interesting aspect of the paper is the differing ideas of savings. While those in the West tend to keep their savings in cash or gold, people across the developing world often transform it into other forms of liquidity: perhaps animals, like cows or goats. Neither of these can be stolen like money, they won’t necessarily be borrowed from friends and relatives; and they have alternative benefits: they produce milk or fertilizer from dung or companionship.

After all that, the authors come up with some seemingly well deserved uncertainties about the new panacea that is microcredit:

Microcredit is making people’s lives better around the world. But for the most part, it is not pulling them out of poverty. It is hard to find entrepreneurs who start with these tiny loans and graduate to run commercial empires. Bang­la­desh, where Gram­een Bank was born, is still a desperately poor country. The more modest truth is that microcredit may help some people, perhaps earning $2 a day, to earn something like $2.50 a day. That may not sound dramatic, but when you are earning $2 a day it is a big step forward. And progress is not the natural state of humankind; microcredit is important even when it does nothing more than stave off ­decline.

With microcredit, life becomes more bearable and easier to manage. The improvements may not show up as an explicit return on investment, but the benefits are very real. If a poor family is able to keep a child in school, send someone to a clinic, or build up more secure savings, its ­well-­being improves, if only marginally. This is a big part of the reason why poor people are demanding greater access to microcredit loans. And microcredit, unlike many charitable services, is capable of paying for ­itself—­which explains why the private sector is increasingly involved. The future of microcredit lies in the commercial sector, not in unsustainable aid programs. Count this as another ­benefit.

If this portrait sounds a little underwhelming, don’t blame microcredit. The real issue is that we so often underestimate the severity and inertia of global poverty. Natalie Portman may not be right when she says that an end to poverty is “just a mouse click away,” but she’s right to be supportive of a tool that helps soften some of poverty’s worst blows for many millions of desperate ­people.

This paper has sparked a lot of debate, in both the popular press and in the more economic-centric journals. What the study proved to economics-reporter James Surowiecki of the New Yorker is that people in poor countries need to start thinking bigger, not just making more small groceries (that sell the same thing as the small grocery down the street), but investing in small and medium-sized businesses.

In high-income countries, these companies create more than sixty per cent of all jobs, but in the developing world they’re relatively rare, thanks to a lack of institutions able to provide them with the capital they need. It’s easy for really big companies in poor countries to tap the markets for funding, and now, because of microfinance, it’s possible for really small enterprises to get money, too. But the companies in between find it hard. It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed the “missing middle.”

The question remains, of course, where to get the backers for such firms. He reports that some foundations have belatedly begun filling in that inefficiency in the market. For interested entrepreneurs, you've got homework to do: read his piece and then this piece; this does not constitute a paid advertisement or an endorsement.

What happens if the U.S. balks at "free trade"?

A little late, but here’s the big news: Economists Rethink Free Trade.

While ordinary Americans have mostly been cold on the idea of free trade, economists – not used to slogging around looking for work – have often sung a different tune. Until now. Well, kind of.

“[S]omething momentous is happening inside the church of free trade: Doubts are creeping in, writes Jane Sasseen in Business Week. “We're not talking wholesale, dramatic repudiation of the theory. Economists are, however, noting that their ideas can't explain the disturbing stagnation in income that much of the middle class is experiencing.”

What’s more important for the rest of the world is this debate has found its way into the U.S. Presidential election.

The rumble of academic debate is already having an effect on the Presidential campaign. In an interview with the Financial Times late last year, Hillary Clinton agreed with economist Paul A. Samuelson's argument that traditional notions of comparative advantage may no longer apply. "The question of whether spreading globalization and information technology are strengthening or hollowing out our middle class may be the most paramount economic issue of our time," her chief economic adviser, Gene Sperling, recently wrote. Barack Obama's adviser, the University of Chicago's Austan D. Goolsbee, is not convinced free trade is the culprit behind the squeeze on incomes. But he believes many U.S. workers aren't sharing in the gains from open markets and fears a political blowback unless something is done.

On the other hand, presumptive Republican nominee has asked the important question: If one begins pulling out of free trade agreements – although neither Clinton nor Obama said they would – “What are other countries going to think about the agreements we’ve negotiated with them?”

From Africa
For one free trade prospective regarding Africa, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, AGOA, has increased trade between the continent and the United States 143 percent since its creation in 2000. (Admittedly, much of this has to do with oil imports.) Trade between the U.S. and Africa now stands around $70 billion, which is last year’s number.

There’s very little chance that even the most protectionist of presidents would cancel something as harmless as AGOA. I say harmless because few African companies presently will be competing directly with American firms. That doesn’t mean AGOA is not without its benefits. For example, creating more trade capacity for some African countries, like increasing government regulation and boosting health (and quality) standards for African commodities.

From Public Agenda:

"There is a perception out there that the AGOA, through its strict and high standards and requirements, is intended to prevent commodities from Africa reaching the US, what do you say to this? " a curious journalist asked Ms Constance Jackson, Associate Administrator of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and leader of the mission.

Ms. Jackson rebutted the claim, saying that the standards are "reachable and attainable and that AGOA standards are not for only African countries, they also apply to US businesses". She added that AGOA and other dispensations are meant to ensure open trading system mutually beneficial to both the US and her trading partners.

It would be recalled that, President John Agyekum Kufour at the Sixth US-Sub-Saharan African Trade and Economic Co-operation Forum in Accra last year, appealed to the US government to consider extending the AGOA initiative, which expires in 2015 to another 20 years.

What free trade?
The one area where Africans have comparative advantage is agriculture, and that's why so many Africans may find this debate rather funny. Very few Africans would agree that the U.S. engages in free trade at all when you take into account the $164 billion its government has spent on agriculture subsidies since 1995. It's these subsidies (along with agriculture tariffs) from rich nations that have held up the Doha round of free trade.

The question is: to what effect? Culled from the Heritage Foundation:

  • The Institute for International Economics has calculated that moving from today's trade environment to one characterized by perfectly free trade and investment would generate an additional $500 billion in annual income for the U.S., or about $5,000 per household each year.
  • A University of Michigan study concludes that reducing agriculture, manufacturing, and services trade barriers by just one-third would add $164 billion, or about $1,477 per American household, annually to U.S. economic activity. Completely eliminating trade barriers would boost U.S. annual income by $497 billion.
  • The World Bank estimates that the continued reduction of tariffs on manufactured goods, the elimination of subsidies and non-tariff barriers, and a modest 10 percent to 15 percent reduction in global agricultural tariffs would allow developing countries to gain nearly $350 billion in additional income by 2015. Developed countries would stand to gain roughly $170 billion.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Will GM foods keep a hungry continent better fed?

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

World Agriculture output rose 25 percent between 1972 and 1982. But in Africa, it declined some 14 percent. Since then, the continent has been running to keep up with the rest of the world in terms of agriculture production. Its population keeps growing, putting strain on the environment. This is underlined by the fact that 16 of the 18 most undernourished countries hail from Africa. The major question we must ask: In these times of rising food prices, how will Africa provide affordable, healthy food for its people?

This story begins with a current event: Benin has decided to renew for five years its moratorium on marketing, import and use of genetically modified foods, Africquenligne reported.

The short article goes to state that Benin, like many other African countries, lacks the scientific skills and equipment to properly detect, monitor and control GMOs once they find their way into the country.

It has been said that on the whole Africans are very skeptical regarding genetically modified crops of any sort. Africans claim that GM products will harm the continent’s bounty of biodiversity. Governments also understand that a majority of the continent lives in rural areas and relies on the environment for their livelihoods, which most often involves growing crops on the small scale.

If I had to put my finger on it, I'd say the major complaints against GM foods is they have not been thoroughly tested – worries abound that Africa will become a testing ground – which will put the continent’s poorest at severe economic risk if these crops fail; (or, if they work too well, increasing yields will drive food prices down. African farmers only have to look at the U.S. and Europe to see cheap food and disenfranchised farmers.); also, GM seeds provides an upper hand to large international agri-conglomerates who will be able to profit from the work of African farmers. Finally, people could be put at risk for potential health risks from eating GM foods.

Here is a 2007 status report on GMO crops in Africa from the African Centre for Biosafety, from South Africa that I think provides a good window into the various debates regarding GMO.

The GM push in Africa has recorded several significant setbacks and failures, with Florence Wambugu’s GM sweet potato in Kenya and the Gates Foundation’s GM sorghum in South Africa being the most prominent. The rejection by South Africa’s GMO regulatory authority of the GM sorghum project is extremely significant, as this sets the boundaries that even pro-GM South Africa cannot cross: namely, that genetic engineering of a crop where Africa is the centre of origin will not be tolerated. Importantly, this rejection represents a huge set back for crucial components of the ‘New Green Revolution in Africa’ push, which is heavily funded by the Gates Foundation.

Indeed, 2007, has not been a good year for GE in South Africa. The first ever GM cassava field trials also faced the thumbs down from the South African regulatory authorities; a major retailer in South Africa, concerned about the possibility of GM potatoes still in field trials in South Africa having entered the food chain, publicly announced their decision not to stock GM potatoes until its safety had been proven. The South African sugar industry also strongly indicated their extreme reluctance to throw their weight behind GM sugarcane. The South African regulatory authorities also rejected out of hand, Syngenta’s application for commodity import of its GM maize for ethanol on food safety grounds.

Some Background
In 2006, more than 40 African countries received some form of food aid, which equaled about 5 million tons. At least three-quarters of the world’s food aid originates in the United States, where certain GM products can mix freely with others; a lack of labeling system has allowed these products to enter other food systems. Complaints by Zambia and Sudan (among others) lead to some changes in international food aid. The European Union, which favors donating money for food over sending food itself, stipulated in 2003 that its funds could not purchase GM foods.

In West Africa, a broad-based coalition against GMOs has been formed. At least 40 African countries are parties to the international environmental agreement regulating moving GMOs across borders. However, few countries have functioning systems to regulate GMOs, although several have imposed heavy restrictions on them.

Today, nine countries report field trials in various GMOs: Burkina Faso; Egypt; Kenya; Morocco; Senegal; Tanzania; Zambia, and Zimbabwe. A somewhat larger list of countries have the capacity to undergo tests.

In West Africa, Burkina Faso and Nigeria are probably the most pro-GMO countries. Burkina Faso, Africa’s biggest cotton producer, has allowed testing of genetically modified strands of cotton.

I’ll call it what I like
A side issue – in this specific post, but an important theme nonetheless – is the idea of “biofuels,” which has been renamed by some NGOs as “agrofuels” which, they say, is a better term to express what is really happening: Agribusiness producing fuel from plants as another commodity in a wasteful, destructive and unjust global economy.”

Whatever it is called, a variety of African crops have been earmarked for this new fuel tests: maize, soybeans, groundnuts, cassava, sugarcane, pumpkin seeds, and Jatropha.

The South African government attempted to propose to replace 4.5 percent of liquid-road-transport fuels with agrofuels by blending ethanol and biodiesel with conventional petroleum. Civil society organizations heavily criticized the draft strategy, claiming it would provide a chance to introduce different varieties of GM maize and soybeans into the country, which they claim already has a lax regulation system. As the report pointed out above, South Africa’s regulators denied an application by the firm Syngenta to import its genetically modified maize to be converted solely into ethanol.

Will this revolution be skipped?
The first Green Revolution of the 1970s largely failed in Africa, says GlobalChange at the University of Michigan, because its climate does not tolerate the projects preference for crops of high yield, needing bountiful amounts of irrigation and fertilizers. Thus, the world’s higher crop yields between 1972 and 1982 were completely lost in Africa.

The second Green Revolution, brought to you by the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, is currently taking place and will concentrate on Africa’s small farmers who often cultivate without any machinery, fertilizer and irrigation. These farmers often live far from food markets, making selling their surplus expensive and wasteful. The underlying problem, says the Rockefeller Foundation, is that African farmers don’t grow high-yield crops.

They’d like to correct that with the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa that will provide African farmers with better seed varieties, which will help grow larger harvests; better fertilizer use, including training in soil and water management techniques, and developing a better delivery system to get new fertilizers far from city centers; finally, creating better developed storage systems, transportation facilities and markets to sell the products. Finally, where possible, install better irrigation systems.

Here’s just a few harsh words GRAIN saves for this plan, which they claim is ill-suited for small scale farming.

Whether it is the new Green Revolution or the old, the first losers are farmers, especially small farmers. [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa] sets out to replace the seeds that African farmers have carefully developed for their farms and cultures, with varieties suited to industrial monocultures. Such seeds will pave the way for the industrialisation of African food crops, opening the door to large agribusiness to come in and dominate.

West Africa, here we come
Continuing with the African Centre for Biosafety’s report, we can see the many international agencies attempting to persuade and enable West African governments to create more GMO-friendly legislation. The US Dept. of Agriculture currently trains scientists in biotechnology and a USAID program helps countries enhance bio policy and research. Another USAID-funded program provides support for expanding agriculture biotechnology, including genetic modification.

The report also has harsh words for the World Bank, which is attempting to get approval of a biosafety policy through the West African Economic and Monetary Union, WAEMU, although the proposal was only written in English, hardly any help for the French-speaking group. Some groups, such as GRAIN, have also claimed that the World Bank has attempted to undermine public debate on these programs.

ECOWAS, which is a grouping of all West African states, has also held meetings, sponsored by USAID, “in order to ease the way for GE industries in West Africa,” according to the report. Civil society groups across the region have stepped up pressure on ECOWAS to slow down the acceptance of GMO.

USAID’s Regional Biosafety Project, which counts Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal and Togo as members – has been put in place to harmonize biosafety laws across the region. It also, the report asserts, acts as a method to establish Bt cotton into the region, one the few cash crops for these countries. The authors claim that Bt cotton in West Africa will distract attention from illegal U.S. cotton subsidies and provide a foot in the door for U.S. corporations into this lucrative commodity.

Countries
While Benin has extended its moratorium on GM foods, it continues to receive food aid from the United States, a probable source of GM foods.

  • Burkina Faso is currently testing bio cotton, but there are no dates when it will (if ever) be released to consumers. Scientists are also currently researching various GM plants, including those with drought tolerance, insect and virus resistant cowpeas. Burkina also accepts U.S.-based food aid, including cornmeal, which has a high likelihood of being GM;
  • Cote d’Ivoire does not currently have any trials on GM foods, but is of food aid. Same for Gambia and Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Sierra Leone and Togo;
  • Ghana has a little GM testing going on today, but the clouds are gathering. The similar cowpea project as Burkina is going on in Ghana; cases have been made by Ghanaian scientists to test a tomato resistant to yellow leaf curl; also, proposals have been completed for eggplant, cabbage and cassava. The Statesman newspaper in Accra reported that international community began workshops and trainings to sensitize the population regarding genetically modified foods, code words for arm-twisting sessions;
  • Guinea-Conakry has sent government agents to trainings regarding GMO foods. However, there is currently no R & D going on in the country. It is a recipient of food aid;
  • Mali currently tests GM cotton, but the government halted plans to allow other tests. It is a recipient of food aid;
  • Nigeria is currently focusing on research in palm oil and has announced plans to begin testing on maize, cassava and sweet potatoes. Universities have been testing cowpeas and cassava, which came under criticism by a consumer rights group. Also, tests have taken place in yam and banana;
  • Niger is participating in the cowpeas tests and is a large beneficiary of food aid. Ditto for Senegal, which did test cotton, but scrapped it because the seeds failed.

As Ghana mulls purchasing presidential jet, priorities are questioned

Debate has broken out in Ghana over a proposal to purchase a $37 million 12-seat aircraft that will serve as a presidential jet. As with any (minor) political scandal, it's not so much about the jet, but a question of priorities.

From writer Godwin Yaw Agboka in Accra’s Public Agenda.

When a JOY FM reporter allegedly asked [Press Secretary Mr. Andrew] Awuni why the country would spend over $20 million to celebrate Ghana@50, $60 million to build a presidential palace, and now $37 million on a presidential jet, he asked the reporter: "how will you explain to Ghanaians that we are spending $600 million building the Bui Dam when we don't have water?" He added that Ghanaians should move away, from what he termed, the 'poverty mentality.' He argued further that if Ghanaians questioned the purchase of the jet, "then we should stop building the roads, because we don't have water, we should stop building the Bui Dam because we don't have water." "Is that what we are saying?" was his rhetorical question.

Such answers from Mr. Awuni made me want to puke! In fact, his demeanor and unbridled, headstrong approach to responding to the reporter's questions just reminded me of the last days of the NDC, when the likes of Dr. Tony Aidoo and some individuals within the NDC had become so arrogant and near larger-than-life, until Ghanaians proved to them that they did not send themselves to power. It was Ghanaians that did! Who does Mr. Awuni think he is addressing, here? Some uneducated Ghanaians? Some people who have lost touch with what is happening lately in the country? Some unwavering loyalists, who will keep mute even when they are starving to death?

The problem is not about the purchase of a Presidential Jet or building a Presidential Palace. I believe every well-meaning Ghanaian would love to see the President live in a structure and an environment that befit his status as the President of the Republic of Ghana. After all, he is the one who has spearheaded all these many debt-relief processes for the country, in addition to doing some wonderful work on the economy that has seen so much macro-economic stability, since his government took over. It will be ridiculous for anyone to think that the safety of the President is no one's concern, especially so when the jet would serve the interests of future presidents.

The questions hinge on priority and timing. What baffles me about this decision and the passion with which government officials are moving from media house to media house defending this decision is the blind eye they have turned to the basic needs that most Ghanaians are struggling, daily to access. The last time I heard Ghana had only one Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment for undertaking scans, and even when a player of the senior national team needed an MRI done on him, during the just-ended African Nation's Cup, he had to be sent to Nigeria. Just recently, the new CEO of the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital was crying badly for some equipment that needed replacement at the hospital. How does Mr. Awuni justify the need for a Presidential Jet-and arrogantly so-when materials and equipment needed in our nation's hospitals, that will benefit the majority of Ghanaians are ignored?

Monday, March 17, 2008


I have a new post regarding African bloggers and their ideas and thoughts about U.S. politics over at Voices Without Votes.

It's here.