2009 05 03
Recently read: A Continent for the Taking

Howard W. French. A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

This is an angry book. On practically every page French has something withering to say about a Western diplomat, or an African leader, or a thug at a checkpoint trying to extort money. They have all contributed in their own way to the lost opportunities and staggering suffering of a continent with extraordinary potential. French, an African American born in Washington, D.C., spent more than two decades in Africa, first as a translator and then as a journalist. He has stories to tell, and a few scores to settle, and in A Continent for the Taking he does both in a compelling way. His book does not range across the whole of Africa, as the title might suggest. Rather, French focuses on a few countries where he has significant experiences to relate, among them Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, the Republic of Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire).

Perhaps the most gripping and interesting part of the book is French’s account of the fall of Mobutu and the rise of Kabila in the DRC in 1997. French won awards for his reporting on this incident for the New York Times, and he offers more than simply a gripping story about the dissolution and chaos of the end of one regime and the rise of another. He argues that the United States, attempting to make up for turning a blind eye to the Rwandan genocide three years earlier, again turned a blind eye to Ugandan and Rwandan efforts to use Kabila as a proxy to dominate their much larger neighbour. French claims that in this they were heavily influenced by the strongly pro-Kagame slant of Philip Gourevitch’s We Regret to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. (I have occasionally wondered whether subsequent events led Gourevitch to revise his opinion of Kagame; I don’t think I’ve seen anything else on the subject by Gourevitch since I read Regret to Inform). Unfortunately, backing Kabila at the crucial moment meant backing away from the most credible democratic figure in the DRC. Once again, the US’s involvement in the region was cynical and counterproductive. The Rwandan and Ugandan invasion-by-proxy of the DRC marked the beginning of an absolutely catastrophic war that claimed the lives of millions.

This book has a lot to recommend it: close observations of people from all walks of life, reflections on the depiction of African issues in the Western media, trenchant critiques of the foreign policies of outside actors in African affairs. But perhaps the book’s greatest virtue is simply that it made me very curious to learn more about the entire continent: about the ancient culture of Mali; the history of Belgium in the Congo; the Ashante and their struggle with the British, and so much more.

Comments Off

2005 07 26
Please . . . no

Has anyone given some thought to the costs and benefits of this policy?

The U.S. military is embarking on a long-term push into Africa to counter what it considers growing inroads by al Qaeda and other terrorist networks in poor, lawless and predominantly Muslim expanses of the continent.

The Pentagon plans to train thousands of African troops in battalions equipped for extended desert and border operations and to link the militaries of different countries with secure satellite communications. The initiative, with proposed funding of $500 million over seven years, covers Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Tunisia — with the U.S. military eager to add Libya if relations improve.

The Pentagon is also assigning more military officers to U.S. embassies in the region, bolstering the gathering and sharing of intelligence, casing out austere landing strips for use in emergencies, and securing greater access and legal protections for U.S. troops through new bilateral agreements.

The thrust into Africa is vital to head off an infiltration by international terrorist groups, according to senior U.S. military, Pentagon and State Department officials. The groups are recruiting hundreds of members in Africa and Europe, attacking local governments and Western interests, and profiting from tribal smuggling routes to obtain arms, cash and hideouts, they say. Meanwhile, small groups of Islamic radicals are moving into Africa from Iraq, where Africans make up about a quarter of the foreign fighters, the officials say.

Foreshadowing a new phase in the war against terrorism, the Pentagon plan is to mobilize Africans to fight and preempt militant groups while only selectively using U.S. troops, who are already taxed by operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in mustering African forces, the U.S. military confronts not only a highly elusive enemy across a vast, desolate terrain but also the competing agendas of authoritarian African governments and corrupt and chaotic militaries on the ground.

So . . . yeah. If the U.S. trains the troops well in counter-terrorism (very difficult), and the troops don’t use their new skills to further entrench authoritarian regimes, and if the latter should happen, those rebelling against the authoritarian regimes don’t come to associate the U.S. with the repression and provide fresh momentum to the global jihadist movement against the U.S. – (big breath) well, then there are some possible benefits to the policy. Because there clearly are Islamic radicals in Africa, and those radicals might provide assistance to global jihadists that the U.S. has a legitimate interest in combating. (Think of bin Laden in Sudan, or other Al Qaeda figures in Somalia.) It’s not crazy to hope to do something or other about that.

But how plausible is it to think that those conditions will be met? Not very, in my opinion. We’ve been here before, for example with the School of the Americas. (The WaPo piece I quote from above is extraordinary in that it completely omits this obvious historical parallel, even though I’m willing to bet that the reporter had it in mind.)

Let me make a prediction: This will backfire. Soldiers trained by the U.S. will inevitably help to prop up authoritarian regimes, even if it says specifically in their training manuals not to. They will commit atrocities. U.S. administrations will make a show of trying to restrain this behaviour while at the same time lying about the exact connections between troops benefiting from U.S. training and those atrocities. They will fool no one. And even where the connection between the training and the atrocities and the support for authoritarian regimes is fairly remote, the whole thing will look bad. Whatever gains the policy has produced will be eaten away by the damage done to U.S. reputation and influence – reputation and influence that is absolutely necessary to fighting the war on terror. It just won’t be worth it.

This is the way you lose a war of ideas.

Howls of outrage (3)

2005 07 07
AIDS in Africa

Posted by in: Africa, AIDS, Political issues

Stephanie Nolen reports.

(Hat tip to Kegri.)

Comments Off

2005 06 03
The gods must be crazy

Posted by in: Africa, Political issues

. . . to allow this: A Culture Vanishes in Kalahari Dust.

Awful. Just awful.

Comments Off

2004 06 02
The Small Arms Trade and West Africa

Posted by in: Africa, Political issues

Testimony of Lisa Misol, Human Rights Watch Researcher Before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus (May 20, 2004):
Continue Reading »

Comments Off

2003 05 27
More on Africa

Don’t miss an excellent piece in the NYTimes today by N. Kristoff. After months, years, of almost total silence, there may be a faint stirring of interest in one of the most miserable places on the planet: Central Africa.

Alone the same lines, Lewis MacKenzie in the National Post blasts the failure of the UN to deal at all with the carnage in Central Africa:

Like it or not, the UN is no longer capable of finding adequate resources, read countries, willing to sacrifice their sons and daughters in uniform for someone else’s human rights, unless the conflict threatens world peace and security or is in America’s self-interest to get involved.

Apply that criteria to the situation in the Congo and you get little interest and no action writ large. Africa, in general, and the complicated situation in the Congo don’t register on the “must-do” list of the Security Council. Observers wax eloquent on how the Security Council would have acted to stop the potential genocide in Rwanda in 1993 if only they had known of Canadian General Roméo Dallaire’s forecast of genocide and his plea for additional soldiers to try and thwart it. Balls! The Permanent Five veto-holding members of the Security Council knew a hell of a lot more about what was going on in Rwanda and what was being planned by the Hutus than General Dallaire, who had virtually zero intelligence-gathering capability in his tiny command. They chose to do nothing because they had no national self-interests in Rwanda.

MacKenzie’s conclusion is on less firm ground, I think. MacKenzie argues that peacekeeping is obsolete because the Security Council is dependent on credible armies and significant international consensus:

The Congo is a perfect example of a crisis the UN should be able to resolve without the leadership of the United States — by deploying the force necessary to sort out the thugs and goons who currently control the streets and jungles. The fact that the UN is not capable of doing so should be the final piece of evidence to convince even the most optimistic among us that it is incapable of carrying out the role assigned it in 1945 as the primary instrument responsible for international peace and security.

Those numerous Canadian commentators who call for our immediate participation in the Congo as “peacekeepers” display a disturbing ignorance of the profound change that has taken place regarding conflict since the end of the Cold War. Peacekeeping was a key component of our foreign policy for almost 50 years. It was a good run, but the concept is pretty well dead and buried and it’s time for its inventor — us — to admit it. Mercifully, countries rarely go to war these days, but factions within countries are fighting in more than 50 conflicts as you read this. If the UN is to take on stopping the slaughter it needs the participation of professional militaries trained for combat in sufficient numbers to defeat — euphemism for kill in most cases — the perpetrators of these war crimes. The concept of a neutral and impartial role for the UN in such conflicts is dangerous wishful thinking, and wrong. Like it or not, this fact, based on compelling evidence accumulated over the past decade, should be serious food for thought as the federal government undertakes the long-overdue foreign and defence policy review as promised by prime ministerial contenders Paul Martin and John Manley.

It’s not clear to me what MacKenzie is proposing as an alternative to the UN here. Unilateral actions or actions undertaken without international backing? Won’t all the same problems of cycnicism and inaction attach to these actions, compounded by fresh problems that arise from a lack of international consensus? MacKenzie is obviously right that the current international system is a failure. But what does he propose in its place? Or is nothing supposed to take its place?

I’m often reminded of the crack that “never again” means “never again will the world stand by and let Germans persecute Jews in the 1940s”. We have to do something. Don’t we?

Comments Off

2003 05 14
Chaos in Central Africa

What follows is a piece from the U.N. News Service about the chaos currently gripping central Africa. I’m not sure why I’m posting it – perhaps I’m protesting the fact that no one else seems to give a shit. Is there a moral to be drawn from it? Three things come to mind:

a) Much of this chaos is a result of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The genocide played a major role in destabalizing the entire region. The roots of the current conflict are complex, of course, and I don’t want to oversimplify things. Still, every time I read about the millions who have perished in the fighting over the last few years, I am reinforced in my belief that never in history did the West have a chance to save more lives with fewer resources than 1994. If the West had acted, it could very probably have taken the edge off the worst. That’s not to say that central Africa would be a nice place now, but chances are it wouldn’t be hell on earth.

b) Pleas for help with the conflict have been issuing from the UN for a few weeks now. As far as I can tell, they’ve been met with nearly complete silence. I suppose I can understand the reluctance to intervene in a complex and perhaps intractable conflict. Still, would it hurt to report the conflict? There’s virtually nothing in the papers about this. Surely the sheer scale of human suffering warrants more mention than it’s now getting.

c) Western companies have profitted from this chaos. Central Africa is rich in resources, and the resources have played an important role in prolonging the conflict. Conflict diamonds are only the start of a long sordid tale of profit from misery. The current outrage, especially prevalent among conservatives, at French companies who did business with the former Iraqi regime would be far more convincing if the same group of outraged critics could bring themselves to condemn the Western companies currently doing business in central Africa.

New York, May 14 2003 5:00PM
As heavy fighting continues to rage in the town of Bunia in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a top United Nations relief official today voiced fear of a looming humanitarian disaster in the area and warned of ethnic tensions that conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994.”

The situation on the ground in Bunia continues to be “extremely difficult and volatile,” with intense fighting going on between ethnic Hema and Lendu militias in the town itself, as well as around the airport, according to a UN spokesman. The local headquarters of the UN Organization Mission in the DRC (MONUC) is wedged in the area between the two groups.

Carolyn McAskie, the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, told a press briefing at UN Headquarters in New York that the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and the ethnic tensions in Bunia conjured up “shades of Rwanda in 1994,” where men, women and children rose up and attacked their neighbours.

Whole villages in and around Bunia were slaughtering each other – a deeply disturbing aspect of the hostilities that Ms. McAskie feared was “Rwanda-like,” although “nothing could match the scale of Rwanda.” Still, there had been hundreds of casualties “that we know of” in the last few weeks or so, she added, stressing that the humanitarian situation was “extremely dangerous, even desperate; the focus was on very basic life-saving interventions.”

The dire security situation – where a “rather nasty cocktail” of rebel groups and dissatisfaction with local authorities was playing on ethnic hatreds – meant that relief agencies were “down to the minimum in terms of providing the most basic human needs” such as plastic sheeting for shelter and high-protein biscuits.

Ms. McAskie noted there were just eight humanitarian personnel on the ground right now – including a surgeon, nutrition specialist, and water and sanitation expert -doing what they could. Despite the evacuations, she and others, including the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), were trying to keep a core group in place. Other teams and supplies were on standby, but needed a more secure environment in which to operate. Supplies were being moved up from Goma, but incoming flights tended to be sporadic. The first priority was to find a way to stop the fighting.

Asked how large a force would be needed to suppress the fighting, Ms. McAskie said Ugandan troops had been “keeping a lid on it”. They had anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 troops. “We have 800 personnel now, and estimates of what was needed were some three times that,” she said.

Joining Ms. McAskie at the briefing was Margaret Carey of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. She said that the new troops would have to be able to use force. The Mission was a peacekeeping operation and, therefore, lightly armed. It was basically comprised of guard units. What was needed now was the rapid deployment of well-equipped, well-trained troops, under a mandate that permitted the use of force. In terms of the total numbers needed, she thought the key was enforcement power and capacity.

Meanwhile, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said a shell landed in the UN Mission’s compound, killing one person and wounding 13 others. “I can now confirm the reports on the wires yesterday that one woman was killed yesterday while inside the UN Mission’s Bunia headquarters” he said, adding that a civilian was in fact killed by a stray bullet while she was in the compound, and one mortar shell also landed in the compound.

MONUC has also reported that two UN military observers have been missing since 11:00 a.m. local time Tuesday from Mongbwalu, five kilometres north of Bunia. “All attempts are being made to locate them,” Mr. Eckhard said.

There has also been an increase in the number of internally displaced persons seeking shelter at the Mission’s Bunia headquarters, and a makeshift medical clinic has been organized there to deal with the situation.

Comments Off

2003 04 26
One cheer for President Bush!

I’m always complaining about W, so it’s nice to have something to cheer about, even if it’s a qualified cheer. A story in the BBC this morning (at least that’s when I read it) says that Bush signed a bill on Friday making it easier to trace conflict diamonds. Critics are already pointing to possible flaws in the bill, but it surely counts as a step forward.

What would it take for Bush to get three cheers on this issue? After all the outrage about French and Russian companies doing business with the Iraqi regime (about which we’re shocked, absolutely shocked), it would be nice to see Bush turn his attention to American businesses who profit from other resources besides conflict diamonds in central Africa. The conflict raging in central Africa right now has complex causes, but there seems to be a consensus among experts that it has such staying power partly because the region’s natural weath helps finance the various factions, and raises the stakes of the fighting. And guess who benefits from the war that has killed somewhere in the neighbourhood of 4 million people over the last decade?

Western businesses have profited from the chaos, and it’s high time Western governments gave this whole sordid mess the chop – or at least gave it a serious try.

Comments Off