Friday, May 30, 2008

Lansana Conte: Old man and the sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

ForeignCorrespondence: This time it’s for real

I've been busy for the past few weeks.

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

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

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

Pretty thrilling, huh?

Here’s a sample of our first issue:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most sincerely,

The Collective
Travel writing gone bad

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

FAO predicts record rice harvest

From Washington Post:

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

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

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

Friday, May 9, 2008

Zimbabwe: Free(d) Davison Maruziva

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The secret behind low food prices

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

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

From Reuters:

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

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

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

Rumble in the Jungle II: Taylor beats out Mobutu?

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

Homeopathic malaria ‘remedy’ pulled in UK

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

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

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

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

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

Issues facing albinos


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

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

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

New Prime Minister for Mauritania

From Agence France Presse:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food prices: A broken record?

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

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

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

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

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

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

But, is it a good program?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ceasefire breaks in Mali?

From Associated Press:

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

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

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

Monday, May 5, 2008

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

The longer, slightly less polemic version is here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Togo launches truth and reconciliation commission into 2005 elections

File this under: Too late.

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

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

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

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

They race horses, don't they?

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

A few things you need to know about Omar Bongo

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

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

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

Friday, May 2, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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