Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cell Phones, Computers and Mayhem

The long war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) may have ended officially. However, ongoing conflict, fueled by the sale of minerals that facilitate the use of electronic equipment, has led to the displacement of 100,000 people and mass rapes and killings in the eastern part of this country in recent months.

There are four minerals that enable cell phones, computers, iPods and other electronic equipment to operate: tin, which is used in electronic equipment as a solder on circuit boards; tantalum (often called coltan), which is used to store electricity in capacitors; tungsten, which is used to make cell phones vibrate, and gold, which is another component in electronic equipment. Rebel groups engaged in the conflict reportedly earned US$185 million last year from selling these minerals to middlemen, who then disguise the illegal purchase and sell them onto larger firms legally. Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC), based in the United Kingdom, denies that it purchases questionably-supplied minerals from Congo-Kinshasa and claims that an industry-wide initiative begun on July 1 now traces the source of these minerals to prevent illegal trade.

AMC and its competitors have a vested interest in not being sanctioned because of the United Nations resolution forbidding the support of illegal Congolese armed groups through the illicit trade of natural resources. Moreover, a bill introduced in April by Senator Sam Brownback, the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 (S.891), calls on the U.S. government to support Congolese efforts to monitor and stop commercial activities involving the illegal sale of natural resources such as the ones used in electronics as well as support for Congolese efforts to develop mechanisms to better provide transparency in the sale of these resources. The legislation further calls for the UN and its members to create a map identifying mineral-rich zones in Congo-Kinshasa and the presence of illegal armed groups. Finally, the legislation directs the State Department to provide guidance for companies involved in the trade of these commodities.

Not even the NGOs that are campaigning for ending illegal trade in the 3 Ts and gold, such as the ENOUGH Campaign, want to end all trade in these minerals from Congo-Kinshasa. Rather, they call for a Kimberly-like process such as the one aimed at ending the trade in blood diamonds. Current legislation and existing mechanisms to prevent illegal resource trading, as well as encouragement of voluntary corporate cooperation in ending such trade, must be pursued if the current tragic situation is to be reversed.

As we each use our BlackBerry or iPod or laptop, we need to remember that real people are suffering for our convenience. We don’t need to halt the march of technological progress, but we do need to keep in mind that it is coming at a high price for some people in this world. And that should spur us to take action to ease their burden even as our lives are made easier by the machines these resources make possible.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Restoring African Higher Education

In ancient times, scholars journeyed to Africa to become educated. The noted Greek astronomer Ptolemy made his astronomical observations from Alexandria, Egypt, then a world center of learning, and the Greek mathematician Pythagoras studied for a time at a center of learning at Diospolis in Egypt. Much later, the university at Timbuktu in Mali was organized around three great mosques: Jingaray Ber, Sidi Yahya and Sankore. Closer to our time, African universities such as the University of Cape Town (South Africa), the University of Nairobi (Kenya), Makarere University (Uganda) and the University College, Ibaden (Nigeria) not only served students in their countries, but also their regions, the continent and even taught students from Western countries.

Unfortunately, a combination of factors has diminished the outstanding role played by African institutions of higher education. For example, a lack of resources for teachers has meant that on average, these universities are working with only 70% of the faculty required, and some are operating with as little as 30% of the necessary instructors. Tenuous connections to their communities have limited fundraising opportunities, and mismanagement has wasted monies that have been raised. Reliance on outside funding has meant that African scholars and their universities have not gotten the recognition they deserve.

The African Union wants to change all that. The AU plan would build a network of African institutions of higher education to focus on earth and life sciences, water and energy research, space technology, basic sciences and governance. The AU Commission for Human Resources, Science and Technology is now promoting this plan for a “Pan African University,” which originated in the 2006 report “Second Decade of Education for Africa.” But for this plan to work, Africa’s regional organization will not only need the cooperation of African institutions of higher learning, but also African governments and donors. This is a long-term project and not a one-year venture.

The brain drain robs the continent of thousands of scholars each year. Without the upgrading of its universities, this trend cannot be overcome. Western nations have greatly benefited from the African professionals who now live in our countries, but what we gain on the one hand we lose through the need to provide aid we wouldn’t have to provide if even some of those scholars and professionals could remain home and help solve their homeland’s problems.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Africa Joins Global Net

Last week, a momentous advance took place on the continent as the first undersea fiber optic cable went live in five African countries simultaneously. The privately funded consortium Seacom connected Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Uganda and South Africa. Seacom intends to soon connect Madagascar, Ethiopia and Egypt. Kenya has become the gateway for Africa to the global information superhighway.

Experts predict that this development will boost commerce, education, medicine and government operations using the Internet as a platform. As the rest of the world has rapidly made strides due to Internet connectivity, Africa has lagged behind. According to Internet World Stats, Africa has only 3.5% of the world’s Internet users. Northern Africa and South Africa lead the way in the percentage of their population online. Morocco has 18.1% connected, followed by 15.7% in Tunisia and 11.6% in South Africa.

The main obstacle has been the lack of personal computers and consistent power, especially in rural areas. However, the cell phone revolution in Africa has given Africa the ability to overcome these stumbling blocks. Increasingly, mobile media is providing access to Internet content for those without desktop or laptop computers, especially in rural areas. Africans already have access to more advanced phones than most Americans typically use today. This has allowed farmers, for example, to obtain current information on prices on which to base their decisions, and it has revolutionized the approach to African agriculture.

The trend toward opening communications for Africa’s rural population soon will be aided by yet another telecommunications development – a project by Internet giant Google and the international bank HSBC to launch a 16-satellite system within the next year to extend Internet services to the nearly three billion people in rural areas round the world. This effort will be led by O3b Networks, a joint initiative involving the two companies and Liberty Global, an American-based cable television operator. Ob3 stands for “the other three billion.”

Now Africa, especially Kenya as the entry point for this new broadband network, must step up to the plate and manage this network. It is now being operated and controlled through Seacom’s network operations center in Pune, India. Moreover, broadband demands content, which must be provided. Kenya Finance Minister Uhuru Kenyatta has taken a strong step in that direction by allocating increased funding for mobile ICT to all his country’s constituencies. If Africa’s Diaspora can contribute its time, talent and resources to moving the continent forward, we will one day look back on this period as the dawn of a new era for Africa.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Actions Have Consequences

Throughout his term as President of the Republic of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki denied that the human immune virus (HIV) caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). He told a provincial conference in October 1999 that his government was reluctant to use AZT (or Nevirapine for that matter) because of legal issues and because of scientific evidence that AZT particularly was toxic. He said he had found this compelling evidence online from the writings of AIDS deniers such as Peter Duesberg from Berkeley University.

Last year, researchers from Harvard University released a report accusing Mbeki’s government of responsibility for 330,000 preventable deaths of people who were denied AIDS treatment that had been proven to work elsewhere. Because he believed (or wanted to believe) that AIDS was caused by poverty, bad nourishment and ill health, he refused to provide anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The ARVs were expensive, and would have been a burden on a nation with one of the world’s most severe HIV/AIDS epidemics. At the time the Harvard study was released in November, 5.5 million South Africans – 18.8% of the country’s population – had contracted HIV. South Africa likely would have become dependent on foreign aid to sustain treatment for its HIV-positive population.

In order to maintain his position and his policies, Mbeki and his government even refused free drugs and grants to purchase drugs. His government limited Nevirapine donated by the pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim to two pilot sites when it could have prevented thousands of babies from being born with AIDS transmitted by their mothers at birth.

You may wonder why this old story is being brought up again. Well a report just released entitled “Saving Mothers 2005-2007” analyzed all maternal deaths in South Africa during that period and found a 20% increase in maternal deaths over the previous three-year period. An estimated 40% of the increase in deaths was due to HIV/AIDS. The policy established to prevent South Africa from facing a potentially costly health care burden continues to register unnecessary deaths even after Mbeki relented and allowed ARV treatment. Undoubtedly, there are those who have yet to succumb to AIDS, whose life span could have been longer had they received treatment earlier.

Poor or short-sighted policy decisions by leaders sometime have consequences that outlast their term in office. Often there is no easy or acceptable policy a government can take. There are trade-offs in whatever course is taken. However, the slow response to ARV treatment and acknowledgement of the AIDS threat in Africa led to unnecessary deaths. One appreciates the change in policy in many countries, but the time and lives lost can never be recovered. It has been an expensive lesson that hopefully will not be repeated with the next pandemic.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Long-Awaited Trial

More than six years after being indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, an international tribunal established by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations, former warlord and Liberian President Charles Taylor finally came to trial this week. The charges ranged from terrorism to murder to torture to rape and sexual slavery to the conscription of child soldiers to looting. During the reign of terror he is accused of causing or supporting, more than 250,000 Liberians and Sierra Leoneans lost their lives, and tens of thousands of others were maimed for life. An untold number suffered severe psychological damage.

What was Taylor’s defense against the charges he faces? He said the charges were merely “disinformation, misinformation, lies, rumours.” At one point, those associated with the Taylor prosecution feared that there would not be enough direct evidence to convict him, and his conviction still remains to be actually achieved. However, too many people associated with Taylor have either been convicted of crimes against humanity or have given evidence against him for his dismissal of the charges as being fabrications to ring true.

Joe ‘D. Zigzag’ Marzah is a former diamond trade who once had close ties to Taylor. He has claimed to have eaten human flesh with Taylor at the presidential palace in Monrovia. Here is someone who not only implicates Taylor in cannibalism but also himself. Then there’s the former head of Taylor’s elite Anti-Terrorist Unit – his own son Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr. – who participated in atrocities against civilians and was sentenced in an American court last year to 97 years in prison for his crimes. There are many survivors of the cruelties and those along the chain of command who have given or will give evidence linking Taylor to the crimes with which he has been charged.

Taylor is the first African leader to be tried for war crimes by an international court. The members of African Union earlier this month decided that the International Criminal Court was unfairly focusing on African leaders in its indictments and agreed not to cooperate with arrests of indictees such as Sudanese President Omar Bashir. Once the thousands of West Africans watching the Taylor trial on giant television screens hear in detail the evidence against him and his bloody compatriots and see the witnesses against him tell their horrific stories, there may be a groundswell among Africa’s people to revisit that decision.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Befriending the Average African

Even before he arrived in Ghana, there were billboards, T-shirts, dresses and songs about the return to the continent of the “Son of Africa” who was now the President of the United States – the world’s only superpower. This pride in Barack Obama’s achievements had been seen throughout the U.S. presidential campaign and reached a fever pitch when he won the 2008 election. The proverbial African man on the street was elated that one of his own was now the Leader of the Free World.

However, all Africans are not as happy to have to deal with President Obama. In his speech before the Ghana Parliament, he told the audience: “Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions,” adding that “Governments that respect the will of their own people, that govern by consent and not coercion, are more prosperous, they are more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.” Those are applause lines the people respond to – not their leaders.

President Obama is a new phenomenon for African leaders accustomed to playing the race card or simply dismissing their critics as not knowing much about the continent. President Obama is not only a first-generation Kenyan-American, but he has now visited the continent four times. He has relatives and friends in Kenya he has visited and with whom he presumably maintains some level of contact. Moreover, he has been a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, throughout his admittedly brief Senate career. Consequently, President Obama comes to the office with more knowledge and credibility on Africa issues than any of his predecessors.

This poses a problem for African leaders who have derided criticism by previous American presidents. President Obama cannot be easily dismissed. He speaks of the need for good governance, transparency and sustainable democracy in a way Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush could not. These two American leaders paved the way by highlighting Africa in U.S. policy and then funding programs to help address Africa’s problems. Now comes President Obama with the message that he is “building on the strong efforts of President Bush” in Africa, recommending that the developed world’s leading nations pool US$20 billion to deliver food and agricultural capacity building and committing US$63 billion from America to meet Africa’s overall challenges.

The African people cheer such a policy; their leaders quietly fume at being called on the carpet by one they privately would consider impudent for calling out his elders.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Ghana: A New Oil Power?

When President Barack Obama announced that he would make Ghana his first stop in sub-Saharan Africa, he said it was because of their recently successful election and growing record of good governance. He did not say it was because Ghana is a potential new oil power, but apparently, this West African nation is about to join the ranks of petroleum-producing neighbors such as Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.

According to a blog report by Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development, an oil find from the summer of 2007 could develop into as much as US$1.3 billion a year in new revenue for Ghana by 2013. He wonders in his column whether Ghana’s good governance will be undermined by this new oil wealth as Nigeria was corrupted by the lure of easy money. He points out that Nigerians are poorer today than they were 40 years ago before their oil boom.

African oil producers have often experienced an expansion of corruption because of windfall oil profits and a weak tax system. Governance has suffered as leaders, not beholden to taxpayers, skimmed oil profits for their personal use and corruption became the order of the day. Usually, this was because of a lack of established public institutions. Ghana has such institutions and has willingly submitted to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative to open its mining operations to public view. Ghana is a country whose democracy has improved dramatically from an earlier era of repeated military coups and negligent management of the economy.

Ghana has a functioning tax system with moderate tax rates producing about 20.8% of its gross domestic product. Nevertheless, Transparency International ranks Ghana 69th out of 179 countries in terms of transparency. Even Ghanaians are skeptical of its institutions ability to handle corruption. One poll showed that the Ghanaian courts are seen as the least trusted institution just behind its police. The new oil revenue will pose a challenge for Ghana to fortify its institutions before the petroleum tide sweeps away its governance gains.

Ghana is an African star, but if we want it to remain so, now is the time to help Ghana from losing its democratic gains. Criticizing them later is not an option because we already know what unchecked oil revenue can do to leaders and their governments with even the best of intentions.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Who’s the Real Idiot?

After a recent brief meeting with new U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe has declared the American official “an idiot” with a condescending attitude who suggested actions his troubled government needed to take. Last year, he described Carson’s predecessor, Ambassador Jendayi Frazer, as “a little American girl trotting around the globe like a prostitute” because she agreed with many others in the international community that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change had won the disputed March presidential election. Neither Frazer nor Carson bothered to respond to his disgraceful remarks. However, in determining who the real idiot is in this situation, consider the following:

Zimbabwe, until the unity government was installed, experienced a rate of inflation so high that it was considered incalculable. The spiraling rates were broken only when the new unity government agreed to abandon the Zimbabwe dollar for foreign currency such as the U.S. dollar and the South African rand.

The Mugabe government’s “Operation Murambatsvina” in 2005 destroyed not only housing but also the informal business sector. The regime had earlier demolished the commercial farming sector, which took down the manufacturing sector they didn’t realize depended on purchases by large-scale farms. Most small and medium businesses had been bankrupted by the government’s ruinous currency policies.

The country’s decimated economy, which created a serious lack of government finances, allowed a rampant, unchecked cholera epidemic, claiming the lives of thousands of Zimbabweans and infecting tens of thousands of others. The country’s citizens still have a fear of their own drinking water despite a government cover-up campaign.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of children are now being forced by the army to dig for diamonds in eastern Zimbabwe to accumulate money – not to fund much-needed social services – but rather for the bank accounts of the ruling party’s leaders. In the face of all the hardships Zimbabwe citizens face, the ruling party apparently is oblivious to how voters will regard this development.

Mugabe continues to blame the Americans and British for the negative impact of sanctions (aimed at the regime’s leaders) and the refusal to fund an inequitable, disastrous land reform scheme, but clearly, his government ruined his country’s economy through its own actions. Mugabe and his lieutenants can’t even seem to understand the need to cooperate with the other elements of the unity government they agreed to create in order to obtain the foreign aid they need to survive.

So given all this, who’s the real idiot here?

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Cloud on Obama’s Horizon

Less than a week before U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to make Ghana his first visit to a sub-Saharan African nation, the African Union, meeting in Sirte, Libya, has made a decision certain to become a bone of contention when the American president meets Ghana’s president.

The government of Ghana President John Atta Mills is a signatory to the agreement establishing the International Criminal Court and apparently argued in the Sirte meeting for the court’s authority to indict national leaders such as Sudan President Omar al-Bashir, yet Ghana has agreed to comply with the AU decision to refuse to cooperate with the ICC indictment of Bashir. Consequently, Ghana will join its fellow AU members in declining to honor the ICC standing order for its members to arrest Bashir if he visits their country.

In an interview with last week, President Obama said that perhaps the main reason he selected Ghana as his first stop in sub-Saharan Africa is that “the new president, President Mills, has shown himself committed to the rule of law.” Although the AU decision apparently was not the will of Ghana going into the meeting, the question will be whether Ghana honors its commitment to the AU or the ICC. Not inviting or welcoming Bashir to Ghana would make this matter a moot point insofar as Ghana’s compliance is concerned. Nevertheless, the message the decision sends about Africa’s general commitment to the rule of law and its opposition to genocide is placed in question.

Ghana agreed with the position that postponing the indictment of Bashir would have been wiser since it would have made peace talks more likely to succeed and would not lead to a power vacuum in the event that Bashir was actually arrested. However, there are continued reports that the Government of Sudan is still standing in the way of a resolution to the killings and rapes that have plagued the people of Darfur. The government’s actions in refusing to protect Darfuris and place obstacles in the way of those who would, its cavalier attitude toward facilitating the delivery of humanitarian supplies and its refusal to bring to justice those involved in what the U.S. government has labeled genocide demonstrate their complicity in the tragedy that is Darfur.

To what extent the government and its officials have played an active role in genocide is for a court to determine after evidence has been presented and the matter has been fully adjudicated. But the AU decision makes that eventuality less likely now. In the aftermath of the AU decision, Sudanese officials are again dismissing the ICC indictment as merely political. Is this really the message AU member states wanted to send to the still-suffering people of Darfur?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Feeding Africa’s Hungry

Every day in Africa, more than 300 million people wake up hungry and go to bed the same way. More than 3.5 million mothers and children are likely to die each year from the effects of chronic hunger. With the steep rise of food prices last year, this tragedy only worsened for them and hundreds of millions of others around the world.

Africa’s food crisis has been blamed on many causes – from the breakup of commercial farming to the failure to adapt to modern farming techniques and products such as genetically modified seeds to the diversion of global food grains to the production of ethanol for fuel. There is great debate on these points, but whatever the cause or causes, this situation cannot continue. The United States is the world’s largest donor of emergency food aid, but the Obama Administration and Congress, realizing that our government spends 20 times as much on food aid to Africa as it does on programs to boost African food production, are setting a new course.

The Administration has proposed a seven-part plan to promote self-sustaining agriculture in Africa and other developing countries that would expand access to agricultural implements and training, improve food storage and processing and the roads to transport food, help maintain natural resources and adapt to climate change, support research and development by cultivating the next generation of plant scientists, help increase trade opportunities for small farmers, promote policy reforms and good governance and provide assistance to women and families since women are 70% of the world’s farmers.

In support of these goals, Senators Richard Lugar, Robert Casey and Richard Durbin and Representatives Betty McCollum, Donald Payne, Jo Ann Emerson and others have introduced legislation to support these goals for food security in Africa and elsewhere.

This initiative is timely because the lives of so many are at stake. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development warns that Africa’s food deficit has not been resolved and that last year’s food crisis could be repeated if prices for staples such as rice, wheat, corn and cooking oil climb again on world markets.

However, the U.S. initiative comes at a point at which this government is making tremendous investments in overall economic recovery and making significant contributions to programs in energy, health care and education. It will take great faith in our ability to generate the funding for the programs called for in the President’s plan and Congressional legislation being proposed if they are to be approved. With trillions of dollars being committed in so many directions, food security could be placed on the back burner, so to speak, given the promotion of other issues and the current lack of headlines on food insecurity. Hundreds of millions in Africa and around the world with growling bellies and fading strength pray that will not be the case.