Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Attempted Bombing Will Have Broad Impact

The investigations and recriminations have begun over the foiled attempt by a Nigerian Islamic extremist to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. Here in America, that will result in longer delays in boarding flights due to stepped up security, more intrusive searches and tighter scrutiny on who can actually board aircraft. We Americans are worried about the added inconveniences and invasions of privacy that will take place. However, the consequences for Africa could be much broader.

For the past few years, the U.S. government has stepped up its counter-terrorism activities in Africa due to the number of al Qaeda members and allies from or operating in Africa. Al Qaeda has been involved in a number of bombing attacks in North Africa, has supported civil war in Somalia and was responsible for the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat is waging an insurgency against the Algerian government and is now called the al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Mahgreb. Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, leader of the Islamic courts union in Somalia, is believed to have strong links to al Qaeda. Another successful terrorist attack in Kenya in 2002 claimed 15 lives and was believed to be the work of al Qaeda operatives. A group known as the Fighting Islamic Group in Libya announced that they were joining al Qaeda two years ago. The ruling National Islamic Front in Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden and more than 200 of his supporters and their families from 1991 to 1996 and has used their prior relationship to try to ward off the full impact of sanctions.

Two weeks ago, three alleged al Qaeda operatives were brought to New York and charged with plotting to transport drugs through the Sahara Desert to raise money for terror attacks. The three suspects – Oumar Issa., Harouna Toure and Idriss Abdelrahman – are originally from Mali and had been arrested by authorities in Ghana The arrests were part of an international collaboration of law enforcement to fight a growing alliance between al Qaeda and transnational narcotraffickers.

Back in the early 1990s, I managed democracy training programs in Guinea, and the leaders of the Islamic community even then were lamenting the influence of radical Islamic training received by their young men in the Middle East. Nigeria, the home of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the thwarted Detroit airplane bomber, has for some time now been the target of aggressive, radical Sunni Muslim agents supported by religious groups in Saudi Arabia. Their aim in Nigeria has been the establishment of extreme Shari’ah (Islamic) law along the lines of the Wahhabi sect as the exclusive law in northern Muslim states in Nigeria. This trend has been exacerbated by al Qaeda branches believed to be operating in Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Niger.

In response to the increasing threat from radical Islamists in northern and central Africa, the U.S. government established the Pan Sahel Initiative following the 9-11 terrorist attacks to prevent al Qaeda and its allies from establishing safe havens in the vase unpopulated and/or ungoverned areas of Africa. Following the expiration of that program in 2004, the Trans Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative was launched in 2005, operating in ten Mahgreb and Sahelian countries. Its stated aim is to build indigenous counterterrorism capacity and facilitate cooperation in the region among willing governments. The Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative was funded at a level of US$500 million over six years, and there will be heightened pressure to continue this program, whose duties were transferred to Africom in late 2008.

The cooperation of sympathetic Africans may be damaged by the limp response of the U.S. government to the warnings by Abdulmutallab’s family. His father warned the U.S. embassy in Abuja of his son’s dangerously radical views, but while the son’s name was placed on a list of potential terrorists, he was never placed on a no-fly or watch list of passengers. The coordination of these lists is likely to be enhanced, but it could also impact family members of suspected terrorist. In the days after the 9-11 hijackings, conspiracy theorists noted that the U.S. government made arrangements for bin Laden’s family to be flown out of the country, even though they had no ties to the al Qaeda leader’s terrorist activities. To avoid the appearance of aiding terrorists, the U.S. government could make it more difficult for family members of suspected terrorists to travel, which could hinder their willingness to cooperate.

Travelers from countries such as Nigeria already have a difficult time gaining visas to enter the United States and Europe, and tightened restrictions could interfere with flights into the U.S. from all points in Africa and other areas of the world with passengers from countries with suspected al Qaeda activity.

However inconvenient and difficult travel will become for Americans and other Westerners because of the Christmas Day bombing attempt, it could be disastrous for a continent struggling to establish multiple direct air links with the United States, for African and American business people attempting to create and maintain commercial relationships and for cooperative Muslims willing to engage in the fight against radical Islam.

In the aftermath of 9-11, the Patriot Act and other legislation designed to tighten security against terrorist attacks had the inadvertent effect of limiting U.S.-Africa trade. The steps taken over the next several months need to be carefully calibrated so as not to cause unnecessary collateral damage that will harm the long-term interests of the United States.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Museveni Supporters Forced to Do a U-Turn

For years, pro-life leaders found a soul mate in Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Like them, he opposed abortion and even fought international efforts to sneak abortion into an African Union document. He opposed efforts to promote homosexuality, although he never went so far as Zimbabwe Prime Minister Robert Mugabe in his hatefulness toward homosexuals. However, a new bill in the Ugandan legislature is tending toward the hateful, and Museveni’s friends around the world are calling on him to oppose it.

Ugandan Bill 18, known as the Anti-Homosexuality Bill 2009, criminalizes homosexual acts. Anyone found to repeatedly engage in homosexual acts faces the death penalty. People who touch one another in a “gay way” could be jailed, as could those who fail to report such an offence within 24 hours of witnessing them or finding out about it.

The bill has been opposed by Ugandan legal experts and human rights activists. Sylvia Tamale, a law don at Makarere University, said five of the 18 clauses in the law “are problematic from the legal point of view.” She added: “The attempt to outlaw the promotion of homosexuality will affect everybody because the clauses introduce censorship and undermine freedom of expression, speech, association and assembly.”

Valentin Kalende of the Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law said “a better title for this bill would have been the anti-human rights bill.”

Here in America, some of Museveni’s staunchest supporters find themselves alarmed by his silence on the bill and are urging him to come out in opposition. Four Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives – Congressmen Frank Wolf, Chris Smith, Trent Franks and Anh “Joseph” Cao – have written an open letter to Museveni urging him to stop the bill from becoming law.

Other American supporters of Museveni expressed their opposition to the bill in even stronger terms. Republican Senator Tom Coburn called the bill “absurd,” while Republican Senator Chuck Grassley described it as an “un-Christian and unjust proposal.”

So what if Museveni doesn’t oppose this legislation, but rather supports merely an adjustment? How will his current friends in the U.S. government react?
Keep in mind that opposition to the bill is not unanimous in Uganda. Homosexuality is not popular in Uganda or other parts of Africa. Many Ugandans abhor homosexuality and are not offended by the lengths to which the bill goes to stamp out homosexuality in their country. Many members of the Ugandan clergy (though not all) are key supporters of this legislation. Despite widespread international opposition to the bill, its sponsor, David Bahati, the Member of Parliament for Ndorwa, accuses gay rights groups in the West of “engaging in a game of manipulation, deception and control.” Like other Ugandan opponents of homosexuality, he sees the opposition as a sign that he is on the right track and is encouraged to push forward.

While Bahati focuses on the criminalization of forced homosexual acts as the basis for the bill, Ugandan law already punishes rape or sexual coercion. Moreover, homosexuality is proven to be responsible for only 15%of HIV-AIDS cases. So is the potential for rampant violation of Ugandan human rights worth the enemies this bill is creating for the country?

Responsible opponents of homosexual acts do not hate homosexuals or support legislation that equates them with rapists or turn their friends and colleagues into snitches. Those in America who oppose homosexuality and support Museveni now face a dilemma. At a time when they are fighting against the legalization of gay marriage in America, a Ugandan friend appears to support a hateful piece of legislation that simply cannot accept.

If Museveni fails to oppose this bill, he will surely lose the support of American friends even though they still share stands on many issues. How that will play out in terms of aid remains to be seen, but they certainly have to distance themselves from an approach that risks disaster in a country that has seen the face of holocaust before.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Diaspora Entrepreneurs Offer Hope

A recent survey by Africapractice, an African strategic business consultancy, shows that business leaders on the continent have an overwhelmingly positive outlook for their prospects next year. An astounding 95% of those surveyed expect to expand their business next year, and 100% anticipate growth in the level of foreign direct investment in 2010. The only dark clouds they foresee are a lack of credit and a lack of talent. On this last point, however, help may well be on the way.

A business entrepreneur program called the African Diaspora Marketplace (ADM) has encouraged economic development plans from U.S.-based African expatriates to help 19 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Out of a pool of 733 applicants in a competition for grants of between US$50,000 to $100,000, there are 60 finalists with proposals representing more than US$22 million in expatriate business investment to spur job creation in their native countries.

The ADM program is funded jointly by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), The Western Union Company and the Western Union Foundation. Next month, 10-20 winners will be announced. This program is seen as a long-term investment in Africa’s future and perhaps a model for more successful, sustainable development initiatives for African countries.

“The finalists of the ADM competition represent the best of a new class of entrepreneur – those who are investing back in their home countries to create economic opportunity and reduce poverty and unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Alonzo Fulgham, Acting USAID Administrator.

Indeed, judging from the descriptions of the prospective businesses, these African expatriates have learned the U.S. market, and are keying their products to meet market demand. For example, Ayele Solomon from Ethiopia wants to begin a commercial honey wine production facility in collaboration with beekeeping cooperative farmers from his country’s southwest forests. His plans are definitely 21st century. Solomon wants to transform the traditional beehives to more modern ones that typically produce seven times more honey of a higher quality. He intends to extend to the cooperative beekeepers a share of the honey wine business and a share in the dividends. Moreover, he understands the importance for markets inside and outside Ethiopia to have consistently high quality.

AADT Consultants looks to establish a geotechnical laboratory in Liberia to produce information on the physical characteristics of soil and rock. This will enable study of the interactions between soil and structural elements for the design of foundations and structures to reduce structural failure due to unanticipated subsurface conditions. In a country like Liberia that is furiously engaged in reconstruction efforts, such information will be invaluable.

UBS Farm is already operating a fish farming/livestock operation in Nigeria’s Ogun State for more than two years, but they are seeking funding to expand production to meet growing demand for their services. UBS Farm provides training to local market women and advises other fish farmers on current technologies. In addition to acquiring equipment for feeding, flood prevention and water recirculation, UBS Farm wants to increase its knowledge base by adding to their current group of 10 experts in fish farming. The company is open to new ideas and management techniques to enhance its development and efficiency.

The common theme among many of these businesses is that they are not stuck in the old ways of doing business as so many currently successful African companies are. African consumers have purchased products and services from home-grown companies for years, but in a globalized economy, competition will come not from local firms but from modern companies from abroad that understand the latest in management and production techniques. Those African companies that fail to modernize will become non-competitive, and those who have fallen by the wayside already have taken too many jobs with them when they closed. Those who understand that the way to do business has evolved over time will survive to do commercial battle with all rivals.

This is why the ADM program is so critical at this time. The understanding of the home market, while also having knowledge about what advancements there are in business, will help Africa move forward into the 21st century more successfully than all the seminars and booklets we could ever produce. This has been a successful formula for Ghana, whose returning expatriates are known as “boomerangs.” They have helped jump-start Ghana’s economy, and the winners of the ADM competition can do the same for their home countries.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Western Sahara Back in the Spotlight

Following the declaration of the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic in 1976, its governing body – the Polisario Front – has represented the indigenous people of Western Sahara to the outside world. They have waged a guerilla war against Morocco, the occupying power; appealed to international organizations such as the African Union; brought Congressional staff to Saharawi refugee camps to build support in the U.S. Congress, and sent Saharawis on tours to build public understanding of their situation. Still, knowledge about what has been called Africa’s last colony remained low on the public radar. But that may be changing due to the efforts of a lone woman activist.

Aminatou Haidar, called the “Gandhi of Sahara,” began a hunger strike on November 16 after being refused reentry to Western Sahara when she returned home from receiving an international award. Haidar, an internationally known activist who won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last year, is perhaps the best known activist working for the independence of Western Sahara. When she refused to state her nationality as Moroccan, authorities prevented her from entering Western Sahara, seizing her passport and stranding her at Lanzarote Airport in the Spanish-controlled Canary Islands.

Spain was the colonial power in Western Sahara from 1884 to 1975, when the International Court of Justice rejected claims on the territory by Morocco and Mauritania and recognized the right of the Saharawi people to self-determination. Initially, Spain agreed to a Saharawi referendum on independence. However, Morocco staged what was known as the “Green March” weeks after the ICJ decision, bringing more than 300,000 Moroccans to reside in the region. Rather than contend with Morocco, Spain reached a deal to cede its rights to the colony to Morocco and Mauritania. Once Mauritania renounced its claims following an August 1978 coup, Morocco moved to occupy the Mauritanian portion of the territory. This resulted in tens of thousands of refugees who fled into southwestern Algeria.

Despite its renunciation of claims on Western Sahara, Spain has never been able to fully divorce itself from the issue of Saharawi self-determination. The referendum was supposed to be based on the last Spanish census of 1973, but the Moroccans prefer a process that would register Moroccans they claim have ties to the territory. The issue of the basis on which to identify voters in the referendum has brought the process to a deadlock.

Now that Haidar is stuck on Spanish territory and is in increasingly fragile health, she has become an icon to Spanish supporters of human rights, including Spanish celebrities who recently staged a concert to rally support for Haidar and her effort to bring independence to Western Sahara. Spain’s response has been to offer Haidar Spanish nationality, but she wants her current passport returned and is said to have refused to request any other passport.

The United Nations, which has allowed Morocco to tie up the referendum process for years, is now inspired by Haidar’s hunger strike to restart negotiations on the referendum. Unfortunately, Morocco has been unwilling to accept any plan that does not result in their maintaining control over Western Sahara. Earlier UN plans called for a transition period of Saharawi semi-autonomy under Moroccan control leading to a referendum on independence. Morocco has refused to agree to any of the plans put on the table. Consequently, there is little reason for optimism that any new UN plan would receive a different response.

Morocco has inserted the territory into all plans and programs involving the North African Mahgreb Union, alienating fellow members such as Algeria that is supporting the Saharawis. Morocco even dropped out of the then-Organization of African Unity when that group recognized Western Sahara as a member.

The current deadlock will require stronger action to force Moroccan cooperation than the UN and the rest of the international community have been willing to undertake. Perhaps the fate of Aminatou Haidar will change that reluctance.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Obama Seen Failing AIDS Test

Obama Seen Failing AIDS Test

Former President George W. Bush was roundly criticized for most of his foreign policy efforts, even by conservative Republicans. However, the one area for which he has been widely praised is for his Africa policy. His efforts to reduce conflict, educate youth (especially girls) and treat disease were lionized, even by liberal Democrats who otherwise opposed his policies. Many Africanists said Bush had raised the bar for U.S. policy toward Africa. Now some are saying President Barack Obama is failing to meet the challenge of meeting and exceeding Bush Africa policy, especially when it comes to dealing with HIV-AIDS.

When President Bush launched the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003, he initiated the country’s largest international health initiative devoted to a single disease. More than US$18 billion had been devoted to AIDS-related programs by the time Bush left office, and Congress last year approved a five-year extension and an increase in funding to US$ 48 billion.

Now the Obama Administration is proposing a five-year plan aimed at diverting attention from largely treatment to capacity building to allow AIDS programming to be integrated into African government health systems so that those governments can “oversee, manage and eventually finance these programs.” Instead of providing more and more anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for AIDS victims at cost of as much as US$2,000 a year, the Obama plan would shift the focus to providing water filters, oral rehydration packets and generic antibiotics.

Under the Bush program, about 500,000 AIDS victims a year were added to the rolls of ARV recipients. Under the Obama plan, only 320,000 AIDS victims will be added each year. A coalition of AIDS activists last week accused the President of failing “to fulfill his commitments to wage an aggressive battle against global AIDS,” and the coalition gave the President a “D+” for his performance to date. The deans and presidents of three dozens medical and public health schools previously urged President Obama to accelerate PEPFAR, but he approved a plan to decelerate and begin the process of devolving responsibility to African governments.

This strategy is consistent with Obama’s overall stance of holding African governments accountable. However, in this case that may be a good long term goal, but in the short run there are too many obstacles to its success. The brain drain has leached thousands of medical professions from African countries to higher-paying jobs with better equipment and supplies in Western countries. African health care systems are too often understaffed and poorly resourced. African health ministries too often lack the best health care professionals still available. In the case of South Africa under former President Thabo Mbeki, decisions were made by non-medical officials based on junk science to avoid facing the true horror of AIDS in Africa.

Africa, particularly the sub-Saharan region, is more significantly affected by HIS-AIDS than any other region of the world, with an estimated 22.4 million people living with the disease. That total represents about two-thirds of all people living with AIDS in the world. Last year, about 1.4 million sub-Saharan African died of AIDS, and 1.9 million new cases of AIDS infection were recorded. Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 14 million African children lost one or both parents to AIDS. The average life expectancy in Africa today is 47 years; without AIDS, it is estimated that it would be 62 years.

President Obama is said to want to remove the emergency from PEPFAR, but while the rate of AIDS infection seems to be slowing, far too many Africans still are adversely affected by the disease to ease up on addressing it as aggressively as possible. Last year, 390,000 children were infected with HIV, either during pregnancy, through childbirth or from breastfeeding. It will take time for Obama’s strategy to bear fruit. Meanwhile, many more children will contract HIV before their mothers can be affected by prevention efforts or will not have the benefit of medicines such as neviropine to prevent contracting the disease while being born.

It is understandable that President Obama, the African American son of a Kenyan professor, would not want to be known solely as the “African President,” but the Administration’s vague policy toward Africa, and its apparent turnaround on AIDS policy, risks putting him in the position of being worse for Africa than George Bush, who came into office with no ties or known affinity for the continent and achieved more than all his predecessors. That would be a truly sad irony.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Alignments Forming on Climate Change

Going into this week’s climate change conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, developed countries made it clear that a binding agreement with specific carbon emission targets in the short-run was unlikely. But it isn’t just the developed world against the developing world on this issue. There are internal splits and realignments that could determine the fate of any future global climate change agreement to replace the current Kyoto Protocol.

The Group of 77, an alliance of mostly developing nations, has been pressing not only for a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by the developed countries, but also financial support, technical transfers and capacity building to help developing countries mitigate the impact of climate change. However, a leaked draft of a compromise agreement specifies that carbon emissions from developed countries will peak in 2020 and reiterates the call for a cut in developed country carbon emissions by 2050 to a level of 80% of 1990 emissions. A blank is inserted for a short-term level of cuts by 2020, leaving it to be negotiated later. Moreover, the agreement calls for the World Bank to control enforcement of the new climate change agreement rather than the United Nations, which developed countries regard as a backdoor way for developed countries to gain more control over enforcement.

Developing countries are finding that some of those they thought were friends may not be while those they saw as opponents could be proving otherwise. China and India have made common cause with African countries in recent years, for example. However, China, while setting an ambitious target of a 40-45% cut in carbon emissions by 2020, stresses that this is a domestic goal that is enforceable only by the Chinese government and that it will not cooperate with international monitoring efforts. India has a similar position on being bound to international enforcement and monitoring.

The main hitch in the Kyoto Protocol has been that China and India are treated a developing countries and are exempt from carbon emission limits. Given their increasing industrialization and contribution to carbon emissions, the United States in particular refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. European nations that did sign the agreement have become increasingly disturbed by the continuing exclusion of two growing industrial powers from carbon emission limits. The European Union has challenged China and India to contribute 20-50 billion euros annually to the annual goal of 100 billion euros seen as necessary to help developing countries deal with climate change.

Adherence to climate change accords has serious economic implications, since cutting carbon emissions by the 20-30% pledged by developed countries will be enormously costly – not to mention the cost of helping developing countries – and such efforts make developed country economies less competitive with unbound China and India. The potential cost to the U.S. economy is the reason why the U.S. Senate refused to approve the Kyoto Protocol during the Clinton Administration and is leery of Obama Administration climate change legislation now.

In countries such as the United States, the debate centers on the extent to which climate change is being caused by humans. More than a thousand leaked e-mails and other documents from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia show that leading scientists supporting the notion that climate change is largely caused by humans have manipulated data to eliminate contrary views. Opponents of their view have trumpeted the leaked information to prove that global warming is a fraud.

Meanwhile, Africa is bearing the brunt of very real climate change – no matter what the source, be it natural or man-made. Desertification, more frequent droughts, coastal erosion and other conditions threaten millions of Africa lives and cause devastation to African economies despite the continent being responsible for less than four percent of global carbon emissions.

In the current economic situation, it will be difficult to guarantee developed world efforts to help African and other developing world nations to fight climate change. Still among the strongest supporters of an agreement with genuine financial help for developing countries is France, a leading member of an EU that will only pledge 2-15 billion euros to the annual pot of 100 billion euros.

As the developed world nations and transitional countries such as China, India and Brazil battle over who should be under limits and what causes climate change, conditions worsen steadily on the Africa continent.

It seems the old Africa adage still holds true: when elephants fight, it is the grass that is trampled.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Failing State of Guinea

According to eminent international legal expert Daniel Thürer of the University of Zurich, "Failing States are invariably the product of a collapse of the power structures providing political support for law and order, a process generally triggered and accompanied by anarchic forms of internal violence." The decline of the Republic of Guinea is a classic case of a failing state that is alarmingly close to being a definitive failure.

The country began its independence in 1958 by severing ties with France, the former colonial power, and aligning itself with the Soviet Union in a disastrous socialist experiment. Under the first president, Ahmed Sekou Touré, thousands of people disappeared, many tortured and eventually executed. The political opposition was devastated. Gradually, the country was isolated. Despite being among the world’s leaders in bauxite production, most Guineans lived in (and still live in) abject poverty on less than US$1 a day.

Sekou Touré was overthrown by a military coup led by Lansana Conté in 1984, but while the socialist experiment was abandoned, there was no lessening of poverty. Moreover, acute economic problems grew, made worse by the instability of its neighbors and a large number of refugees that include Liberian rebels. For years, there was political infighting within the government about a successor to the seemingly perpetually ailing Conté. Ethnic tensions made electoral politics all but impossible to bring to full fruition.

After the death of Conté last year, Captain Moussa Dadis Camara emerged as the leader of a bloodless military coup, and Guineans were initially relieved to hear his promises that he would not run for elections, which he promised after a two-year transitional period. Unfortunately, Camara showed himself to be overly sensitive to criticism and went back on his word about running for president. The September massacre of more than 150 peaceful demonstrators and the mass gang rape of dozens of women shocked the world.

However brutal the incident and its aftermath were, even more frightening developments threaten a collapse of the Guinean state. Camara claimed to not be in full control of his forces. While this may have initially seemed like an excuse for what happened in September, those who have followed Guinea recall that President Conté also experienced problems with a rebellious military. Camara’s allegation was seemingly further confirmed last week when he was shot during a clash between his bodyguards and forces aligned with Lieutenant Aboubacar Diakité, who is now on the run after having failed to kill Camara. The Guinean leader was taken to a Saudi Arabian hospital late last week with a serious head wound.

As it turns out, Camara apparently had been the spokesperson for the 2008 coup and elevated himself over a general and other senior officers. It appears they were willing to allow him to fill the role of “head of state” as a caretaker until a proper successor could be found, but Camara seems to have overstepped his boundaries. In addition to his change of heart on holding onto power, there are indications that Camara intended to identify scapegoats within the military to take the blame for the massacre and mass rapes.
Diakité was said to be directing the massacre and likely feared being offered up as a sacrifice.

Meanwhile, the military is reportedly dividing into ethnic factions, and high-ranking officers are traveling in protected convoys between military bases and other locations. Camara’s absence from the country has sparked fears of yet another coup attempt and further instability.

Guinea currently is subject to European Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) arms embargos and is the subject of a United Nations Commission of Inquiry examination of the evidence surrounding the massacre and rapes. In fact, the presence of the investigators may have sparked last week’s coup attempt.

Longstanding internal military and ethnic tensions look to deepen as Guinea’s military government remains at the center of an international political storm. Meanwhile, the suffering of the people of Guinea worsens – to the extent that is possible.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Truth and Consequences in Nigeria

Nigeria’s rumor mill has traditionally outpaced all forms of legitimate media in that country. With radio, television, newspapers and magazines often restricted under once-frequent instances of military rule, rumors often were the only means of communication about what was going on in the country. Twenty years ago, Nigerians awoke to word that one-time President Nnamdi Azikiwe was dead. They soon learned that report was untrue when Azikiwe read his own obituary. Last week, there were rumors that President Umaru Yar’adua was dead. Those rumors also proved to be untrue.

Since the election of President Yar’adua in 2007, the Nigerian rumor mill has run overtime concerning the state of his health. Early on, there was speculation that the new President was seriously ill. Photos were examined for signs of what was ailing him. It is known, though, that he has suffered from a chronic kidney condition for the last 10 years, and he has made several trips to Germany and Saudi Arabia for medical care.

Referred to derisively as “Baba-go-slow,” Yar’adua was said to take a long time to make a decision because he was not well. More likely, he is just an extremely deliberative person, but it suited the rumor-mongers to believe he was mentally and physically impaired. He became President on the strength of former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s political manipulations. Consequently, Yar’adua has numerous former rivals and others adversely affected by his presidency who want to believe the worst about him and spread rumors about his incapacity for the office.

Now President Yar’adua’s true condition has been revealed: he has acute pericarditis. This is an inflammation of the lining surrounding the heart. There are several causes of this condition, and it is usually treated with anti-inflammatory medication, but in serious cases, it could require an operation to remove the inflamed tissue, known as a pericardotomy. Reports that his condition often is connected with cancer are now picking up steam.

After 10 days in a hospital in a Saudi Arabian hospital, Yar’adua has been released and is said to be recovering. However, rather than relief that the President is on the mend, a campaign has begun to force him to step down. A statement was released this week, signed by 50 prominent Nigerians, including former Senate President Ken Nnamani and former Speaker of the House of Representatives Aminu Bello Masari, called on President Yar’adua to resign due to his ill health that has impaired his judgment. Dr. Samuel Adejare, a member of the Lagos State House of Assembly that also called for the President to step down, questioned Yar’adua’s ability to remain in office.

“How can he direct this country when able-bodied men are finding it very difficult to direct the affairs of the country? He should just resign and allow whoever that can do it to take over. He is going through pains, and pain cannot allow him to concentrate on anything,” Adejare said.

There was a motion in the Nigerian Senate to debate the president’s health on the Senate floor, but it was voted down.

Information Minister Dora Akunyili has issued assurances that the cabinet was fully behind the President continuing and said Yar’adua “has not been found incapable of discharging his functions.”

The political obstacle for efforts to have the President removed is that the current political dispensation under the ruling party’s rules is that the President must be a northerner. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan is from the country’s southern Niger Delta region.

Whether President Yar’adua will be working with diminished health remains to be seen since his treatment for pericarditis, but it is clear that his political health has been diminished.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Can the E.G. Election Be Justified?

When a national leader wins an election with more than 90% of the vote, it defies all rational ability to explain such an outcome. Such is the case with Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who for the second consecutive election has won the presidential race this week with nearly 100% of all votes cast. In America, we are suspicious of a politician whose vote approaches 70% of the votes cast. The idea of universal popularity is beyond our ability to accept, and I make no case that one should find justification in this case. This situation can be explained, but not justified.

What has allowed President Obiang to win such daunting majorities is a combination of factors that need to be better understood. First of all, the vote total certainly does not reflect his personal appeal to all Equato-Guineans. Among the leading clan of his majority Fang ethnic group, Obiang has played politics well enough to achieve and hold onto power since overthrowing his uncle in a 1979 coup. As there is no consensus choice to succeed him, he has the support of those still jockeying for position, as well as those prospering under his rule and their extended families. Moreover, local officials jockey to attain the highest support levels possible in their areas so they “guild the lily” by finding ways to boosting the vote count even though President Obiang would win anyway. At this point, no one among his officials would want to win less than 90% of the vote, even though 60% would be just as much a victory.

Human rights reports cite numerous violations, which are beyond dispute. However, the bulk of the issues involve the political opposition, whose level of support is surprisingly small, and not so much the general public as in the past. There have been several attempts to overthrow Obiang – most directed or supported by Spain, the former colonial power. Harassment and jailing of opposition leaders and execution of convicted coup plotters apparently have not prevented even civil society representatives from supporting to some extent Obiang’s reelection because of security concerns. The last coup attempt involved not only Spain, but also has created suspicion of at least tacit support by France and the United States. When the big powers are believed to be involved in efforts to overthrow your government (whether proven or not), many citizens will form some level of alliance to ward off potential neo-colonial control from outside.

One of the consistent figures in Equato-Guinean coup attempts has been Severo Moto, an opposition party leader who has long believed there was no way to democratically replace Obiang through elections. Spain, desiring to remove Obiang and replace him with a leader less inclined to the United States and more favorable to Madrid, continues to back schemes to install Moto as president. Instead of building his UP party, Moto has spent his time in exile creating ways to seize power through force rather than win it at the ballot box. He was not his party’s candidate in the 2009 race because he is wanted for his involvement in multiple coup attempts.

Placido Mico Abogo, leader of the CPDS party, for quite some time seemed to prefer basing his political appeal on well-justified criticism of the Obiang government rather than focusing on party-building. After joining his fellow opposition leaders in a boycott of the 2002 elections, he and others found that Western countries may listen to the criticism and provide an international spotlight, but in the end, they will at least tacitly accept the results of an election they once called fraudulent. This is especially true when the government in question is a major oil producer as is Equatorial Guinea.

Building a political party in Equatorial Guinea is not an easy task. The ruling PDGE party controls the media and has the power of incumbency. By limiting the campaign period to a few weeks, opposition parties are hardly able to make the case that they should replace Obiang and PDGE. When the government can build a modern hospital in Bata, the largest city on the mainland, or bring development to the long-ignored island of Annobon, many voters begin to believe they’re better off with the government they know rather than one whose policies and ability to deliver are only speculative. This is especially true for the roads and electricity brought to opposition areas of the country. It dissolves the ill will against a government that has otherwise monopolized oil revenues.

It must be pointed out, though, that in the 1995 local elections, the opposition did quite well, even capturing the mayor’s office in the capital of Malabo. Unfortunately, the opposition party mayor failed to deliver city services, and when Obiang’s party recaptured the office, they learned from that mistake. Still, if the opposition parties were able to better understand how politics works and find an appeal to voters, they have shown they can win elections in Equatorial Guinea.

Incumbent parties are turned out eventually in every country no matter how long they have held power. Complacency, corruption and abuse of power catch up with all parties if they stay long enough. But you can’t beat something with nothing. If the Equato-Guinean opposition wants to see an end to 90%-plus margins of victory for Obiang, they will have to go back to the drawing board because as unbelievable as the vote totals are, they are not merely the product of political sleight-of-hand. People are actually voting for Obiang and his party and not for the opposition leaders and their parties – certainly not in the astronomical range we see, but surely by landslide proportions.

International news conferences and favorable articles outside Equatorial Guinea influence no votes on election day. Only convinced voters do.