MONROVIA, Liberia — Less than an hour's flight away from the Ivory's Coast's capital of Abidjan, fears are growing that what started as a national Ivorian crisis could quickly infect the entire West African region.
Since outgoing Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo first refused to step down from office late last year, tension has consistently ratcheted up, and violence between Gbagbo and his political rival, election winner Alassane Ouattara, has only grown. In just a matter of days, the number of refugees leaving the Ivory Coast for Liberia has quadrupled from 20,000 to 80,000, and fighting -- once far in the interior of the country -- has reached the border.
"The civil conflict [in the Ivory Coast] … at times it seems like it's on the verge of war," U.S. Embassy Deputy Chief of Mission Karl P. Albrecht told me yesterday. "It could be a destabilizing or unsettling influence, and in addition to all the challenges that Liberia faces," he said, noting that this is a presidential election year for the country, "now this [Ivory Coast] factor is in the mix."
Here in West Africa, peace is fragile. Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone have all suffered civil wars within the last decade, and in every case, the fighting was regionally tainted. Liberia's warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor, supported rebels in Sierra Leone and backed a certain faction in Ivory Coast's civil war as well. The greatest fear for this region -- so desperate to recover from years of conflict -- is that the smallest spark could reignite the regional fire again. Over the last few days, those fears haven't looked unfounded. Two developments are of greatest concern: the growing refugee crisis and the active fighting along the Ivory Coast-Liberia border.
Take the refugee crisis -- the largest West Africa has seen in half a decade. After an initial flood of refugees in January, the numbers of people crossing the border had slowed to a mere 100 per day -- until just a few days ago. Now there are some 80,000 refugees in Liberia, far outpacing capacity to house and assist them. The current refugee camp under construction has room for a mere 15,000. That's less than half of the number that arrived in the last weekend alone.
For now, many of the incoming refugees are staying with Liberian families, sharing their food and being welcomed into their homes. "They have shared their rice with them, even though they themselves are getting strained," Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said in a radio address to her country on Monday. "If [the number of refugees] climbs too high, it will be trouble for us."
The fighting along the border is even more troubling -- and the cause of the refugee crisis in the first place. On Monday, the rebel group Forces Nouvelles took a third town along the border, now controlling a 30-mile strip along the border. The ex-rebels support Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of last November's presidential election; Gbagbo supporters have fought back. And civilians have undoubtedly been the victims. In many ways they already are; Gbagbo cut electricity and water to the Ouattara-stronghold in the northern part of the country over a week ago.
But here's the part that scares Liberia -- and West Africa -- most of all. During Ivory Coast's civil war early this century, the Forces Nouvelles had allies in a faction of former Liberian rebels who supported Charles Taylor. And rumors are circulating here that those Liberian men might be traveling back across the border to join the fighting again. U.N. security forces here confirm that armed men also tried to cross the border into Liberia on Sunday.
It's a potent combination: fighting along the border, recruitment of ex-rebels into the Ivorian conflict, and refugees streaming over the border, burdening already economically stretched Liberians. An Ivorian resident of Monrovia, whose wife lives in Abidjan, told me that his family hadn't left the home for days, afraid of the violence on the streets. "It's a civil war in Abidjan. It's really bad." The question is, will it spread?
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For the last six years, Ivory Coast's government-controlled south and rebel-controlled north have held together thanks to a fragile cease-fire. Everyone's greatest fear since the cease-fire was signed was that it would break -- that the tiniest escalation could bring the country back into the brutal civil war it endured between the two sides throughout the first half of the decade.
Early Thursday morning, the cease-fire broke in Ivory Coast's interior. The government forces and the rebel forces -- known as the Forces Nouvelles -- started shooting. And they haven't really stopped since then. This morning, the Forces Nouvelles seized a government- controlled town.
The fighting in the countryside is a manifestation of escalating political conflict in the Abidjan. Outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo (backed by government troops) remains staunchly unwilling to step down to the internationally recognized election winner, Alassane Ouattara (backed by the Forces Nouvelles). On the streets and in the neighborhoods of Abidjan, things are also getting ugly -- or rather uglier. After weeks of rumors and reports that pro-Gbagbo militias were hunting down opposition supporters, now there are signs that the violence cuts both ways. Pro-Ouattara militias -- known to locals as "invisible commandos" -- have risen up in resistance. "Hundreds" of residents were seen streaming out of the neighborhood after overnight clashes.
Not so long ago, the West African community, ECOWAS, was talking about possible military intervention if Gbagbo refused to step down. But these days, there's only talk about a possible unity government between the two rivals -- a terrible idea, if you ask me -- and continued economic sanctions. The international community has done a pretty good job of trying to starve Gbagbo of cash. And in theory it's a good strategy, since much of his support comes from his uncanny ability to keep salaries flowing even in the trickiest times. But Gbagbo is not too easily caged, and is now considering printing his own currency. At the very least, he'll switch all the government accounts from sanctioned banks into hard cash.
As I've written before, this is the trouble with trying to wait out a strongman: You risk the very real chance that he can wait longer than his people can. While Gbagbo is busy finding ways to pay his military, regular Ivorians are getting tired. Shortages of food and cooking oil are now common; a whopping nine out of every 10 bank accounts is now inaccessible due to sanctions and freezes. Some 45,000 people have now fled the country as refugees, and another 39,000 are internally displaced -- 9,000 of whom are all based at a single Catholic mission near the border with Liberia, according to a briefing from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees this morning.
Active fighting, refugees, economic crisis -- what other indicators are we waiting for? This is becoming a civil war again, and fast.
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As a measure of how bad violence has gotten inside Libya, look to the borders, where tens of thousands have already fled -- and a further 300,000 might be on their way. "It is a biblical exodus," Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini told Reuters today. Speaking on BBC News World Service this morning, a representative from the International Red Cross said that his organization was preparing capacity along the border with Tunisia for as many as 10,000 new refugee arrivals today.
This isn't just Libyan nationals; the country is home to 1.5 million immigrants, the International Organization for Migration estimates, many from sub-Saharan Africa. Libya even played host to some 8,000 refugees from places such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Chad. Now, the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, says it has "no access" to that population. And those populations may indeed be in danger; tweets this morning from Libya indicate that African immigrants in Libya are afraid to leave their homes, for fear of being mistaken for mercenaries.
Aside from the immediate-term humanitarian challenge this presents, the refugee situation matters because it is a sign of structural upheaval within a society. It takes innumerable courage to go to the streets and protest against one's government wherever repression is strong. But it takes equally incredible levels of fear -- and distrust of the future -- to pick up everything and leave.
It takes years, not weeks or months, to resolve refugee crises. So if there was any doubt of the magnitude of events unfolding, this should give us a final clue: No matter what happens to Qaddafi, there will be no quick fixes for the country he has ruled.
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As revolutions across the Arab World are sending autocrats fleeing for exile, at least one ousted president -- far away from Cairo and Tunis -- claims he will soon return home: to Madagascar. Marc Ravalomanana, who was booted from office in a 2009 coup, vowed today that he would return on Feb. 19, leaving his exile in South Africa.
It's not clear what exactly Ravalomanana (shown sporting his plane tickets above) is hoping to achieve by showing up. Not least because he's likely to be arrested as soon as his plane lands; the current regime, headed by coup-instigator Andry Rajoelina, lobbed massive charges against him for corruption and convicted him in absentia. (To jog your memory: Ravalomanana's unseating was a particularly ugly one; the army surrounded the presidential palace and sent him fleeing. After weeks of stand off, he finally resigned, handing power over to the fiery ex-disc jockey who remains president to this day.)
That Ravalomanana wants to return is a potent reminder that this crisis was never actually solved. The African Union suspended Madagascar's membership in protest of the coup. But then once it looked like an irreversible development, everyone started to look the other way. There was a sigh of collective resignation. Time to just to put up with Rajoelina, and then expect elections to be held eventually.
But now, elections are supposed to be held -- later this year. And African Union mediators have had trouble convincing the current regime to get on board with any transition plan. Having lost the momentum at the beginning of the crisis, outsiders are finding themselves helpless to try and pull strings toward democracy now.
Maybe all this would be a shruggable matter -- if it weren't for the example it sets at a time when African countries need some better ones when it comes to democratic transition. A record number of African countries will hold presidential elections this year -- including Uganda tomorrow, then Chad, Nigeria, Djibouti, and Niger, to name just a few. None of those countries' leaders is apt to step down without a fuss (and several will make sure that election outcomes are sufficiently fixed before hand.) Turning the other way on little Madagascar makes that all the more likely.
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While there will always be those who would rather chuck those chalky candy hearts than eat them with their sweetheart on Valentine's Day, anti-V-Day sentiments usually focus on how big, evil corporations make couples spend unnecessary cash on each other and how single people hate themselves. But how about the global implications of the holiday?
While examples of romantic gifts gone wrong like conflict diamonds are unfortunately already ubiquitous, some groups are spending this Valentine's Day raising awareness about the global impact of the cocoa trade. This year the focus on cocoa is especially relevant thanks to an ongoing political crisis in the world's biggest cocoa supplier: the Ivory Coast, which produced 1.2 million tons of chocolate's main ingredient last year. Avaaz, an activist group, has been pushing Hershey, Nestle, Cargill, and Cadbury, to boycott Ivorian cocoa, the trade in which is helping to prop up President Laurent Gbagbo's pariah regime.
The European Union's sanctions on the Ivory Coast's ports extend to cocoa. Last month, Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the most recent presidential election, embargoed cocoa exports for a month, in an attempt to cut off support to Gbagbo. He's threatened to extend the ban if Gbagbo doesn't leave office.
Another activist group, Green America, is pushing for increased awareness of the use of child labor in cocoa production. According to the U.S. State Department's 2009 Human Rights Report on the Ivory Coast, nearly a quarter of children between the ages of 5 and 17 who lived in cocoa-growing regions had worked on a cocoa farm, often in hazardous conditions. Green America suggests that buying Fair Trade chocolate can help combat child labor, as well as support small farmers and lessen environmental impacts.
Meanwhile, according to Reuters, cocoa futures prices have risen more than 20 percent since Ivory Coast's disputed Nov. 28 election. And the continuing ban in the Ivory Coast means prices are likely to continue to rise.
This year, instead of blood diamonds, chocolate … whatever, try giving your special someone a hug instead. It just might be sweeter.
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If Southern Sudan successfully secedes, will other African pseudo-states follow suit? Guest-blogging at the Christian Science Monitor, Alex Thurston takes a look at Somaliland:
There is one other region in Africa that appears within reach of independent nationhood: Somaliland, which has claimed independence since 1991. Somaliland has its own government and enjoys a greater degree of stability than other regions of Somalia. Recently Somaliland successfully transferred power from one democratically elected leader to another, reinforcing democratic credentials that outshine those of many independent African nations. As crisis continues in southern and central Somalia, moreover, the US and other Western powers are showing greater willingness to consider recognizing Somaliland or at least treating it, de facto, as its own nation.
He also links to an Economist interview with Somaliland's foreign minister, Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo, discussing the referendum (my emphasis):
If the international community accepts South Sudan’s independence, that opens the door for us as well. It would mean that the principle that African borders should remain where they were at the time of independence would change. It means that if Southern Sudan can go their way, that should open the door for Somaliland’s independence as well and that the international position that Somaliland not be recognised separate from Somalia has changed.
I'm skeptical that the international community's support for Southern Sudanese independence sets much of a precedent outside Sudan. There was similar talk of nationalist movements being emboldened immediately after Kosovo declared independence in 2008, including talk about Somaliland.
The fact is, new states tend to be recognized by the international community on a case by case basis, and the laws and norms governing who gets to be a country are remarkably arbitrary. Precedents are far less important than they appear. Kosovo and Southern Sudan both had the advantage of having recently been at war with regimes accused of crimes against humanity. The Kremlin may have claimed that Kosovo's independence was a precedent for its recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia several months later, but it actually had a lot more to do with things coming to a head between Russia and Georgia.
So I don't think Southern Sudan's positive reception indicates an urge to redraw more African borders, no matter how problematic those borders are. (See Bill Easterly's new paper on the artificial states problem.) Somaliland may have a good case for independence, but it will have to get there on its own.
Over the course of the last month, the international community has thrown everything it's got at the Ivory Coast's refusing-to-leave-office president, Laurent Gbagbo. They've tried sanctions. They've sent envoys. They've vowed to increase the number of U.N. peacekeepers. And they've cut off all funds to the Gbagbo camp. Barack Obama offered Gbagbo a dignified exit with amnesty in the United States. Even the idea of a unity government was floated, in which the widely recognized winner of the presidential election, Alassane Ouattara, would join Gbagbo in a cabinet. Nothing has worked; and despite weeks of standoff, little has changed.
But the worse news is that the world is fast running out of plays to run.
The central conundrum isn't, in fact, tactical. It's strategic. Everyone from the African Union to Foggy Bottom to Beijing wants Gbagbo out and Ouattara in. That would be good news, except that the situation is dramatically different within the Ivory Coast. The population is actually quite divided. If Gbagbo were removed forcefully, it really could respark civil war.
So although the foreign powers have decided to get tough with Gbagbo, they really can't afford to get too tough. Not that military intervention is popular either; Ghana has said it won't be involved in such an action, and Nigeria is preparing for its own contentious elections at home -- hardly the time to engage in military adventures abroad. No Western power will intervene -- and the only one that cares enough about tiny Ivory Coast to do so is France, the country's much-distrusted colonial power. Paris couldn't touch the current situation without lighting it on fire.
Oxford economist Paul Collier had an idea this morning, as he wrote in the Guardian: to convince the military in the Ivory Coast to stop supporting Gbagbo. In theory that could work; Gbagbo is only able to remain in the presidential palace because of the military's support. But as I mentioned before, this isn't just about a few fringe supporters. Gbagbo's got 50 percent of Ivorians behind him.
I have to say, I'm fresh out of ideas too. My favored tactic had been to recruit former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to knock a few heads together. He's a Big Man even among big men -- someone who doesn't even give you the option of disagreeing. But apparently the West African regional group ECOWAS had the same idea, to little avail. Obasanjo went to the Ivory Coast over the weekend and, well, Gbagbo is still in power.
What I do know is that the country's people probably have the best sense of where this is going. And they are betting on the future with their feet. Yesterday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that some 600 Ivorians are entering Liberia as refugees every day; there are some 25,000 in the neighboring country so far. And 16,000 more have fled their homes within the Ivory Coast. The U.N. is concerned enough about the influx to start building permanent camps.
If there's a larger lesson here, it's that ousting a strongman is never as easy as we'd like to think. It may be an obvious point, but in the particulars it's actually profound. Even if the entire world musters its political might, the Laurent Gbagbo's of the world -- Robert Mugabe, Than Shwe, Kim Jong Il -- would still be around.
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George Clooney's "anti-genocide paparazzi" seems to be dominating nearly every transmission coming out of south Sudan this week. Clooney, along with the Enough Project, Harvard researchers, and some of his wealthier Hollywood friends, have hired satellites to monitor troop movements along the north-south border, particularly the oil-rich region of Abyei. Clooney, active for years in the Save Darfur movement, has also become something of a celebrity spokesperson for the independence referendum. Naturally, the international humanitarian blogosphere's snark brigade is out in force.
Laurenist: "If you're anything like George Clooney, you lounge around on your yacht off the coast of Italy thinking up ways to save Africa."
Texas in Africa: "While John Prendergast, George Clooney, and other advocates who don't speak a word of Arabic have been raising fears about violence for months … the likelihood that a genocide or war will break out immediately seems to me to be slim to none."
Wronging Rights: "Clooney has described it as 'the best use of his celebrity.' Kinda just seems like he's trying to recruit a mercenary for Ocean's Fourteen."
Troubling as this morning's border violence is, there seems to be good reason for skepticism about the satellite project. The imagery the satellites provide isn't all that clear, showing about 8 square
miles inches [Corrected.] per computer-screen pixel, making it difficult to figure out just what's going on on the ground. That level of imprecision can be dangerous when trying to assign guilt or innocence in crimes against humanity. There's also the question of how much of a deterrent this type of monitoring really is. Laurenist again:
In 2007, Amnesty International and the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched “Eyes on Darfur,” a satellite project that monitored developments on the ground in Darfur. As you’ll recall, mere months later, Darfur was saved after millions of people updated their Facebook statuses with a link to blurry photos of sand.
But what about Clooney's presence itself? The actor's use of the paparazzi and basketball as analogies for horrific human rights violations might be grating to those who study these issues seriously, but isn't it worthwhile to bring attention to an often overlooked conflict? Here's UN Dispatch's Mark Leon Goldberg:
I know some people (cough, cough, Bill Easterly, cough, cough) have hangups about celebrity activism. But does anyone really think that Sudan’s upcoming referendum would be covered on a National Sunday morning broadcast without George Clooney’s handsome face to greet viewers?
(Interestingly, Bono-basher-in-chief William Easterly doesn't appear to have weighed in yet.)
Clooney has his own words for the haters:
“I’m sick of it,” he said. “If your cynicism means you stand on the sidelines and throw stones, I’m fine, I can take it. I could give a damn what you think. We’re trying to save some lives. If you’re cynical enough not to understand that, then get off your ass and do something. If you’re angry at me, go do it yourself. Find another cause – I don’t care. We’re working, and we’re going forward.”
This kind of "at least I'm doing something" rhetoric drives development scholars absolutely bonkers and for good reason. But for now at least, it's hard to see how Clooney's presence as a cheerleader is really hurting. Once the referendum is over however, I hope he heads back to Lake Como. In international negotiations, a certain degree of obscurity can often be just as helpful as the media spotlight. Making a new country is a messy business anywhere, and in Southern Sudan, it's going to involve some very ugly compromises. (I wonder, for instance, what Clooney thinks about the Southern Sudanese government expelling Darfuri rebels in what seemed to be a conciliatory gesture to Khartoum.)
In the difficult weeks and months ahead, Southern Sudan will certainly need international help, but it should come from people with a slightly more extensive background in the situation. Most of all, it's probably not helpful for celebrities and the media to promote a narrative of the Juba government as the "good Sudan." Even in the best-case scenario, it's bound to be shattered pretty quickly.
In any event, the Southern Sudanese themselves seem pretty nonplussed about Danny Ocean's presence in their midst:
“Who is that man talking?” a Sudanese journalist asked, gesturing to a white man with a group of reporters around him. When told it was George Clooney, a movie star, the Sudanese journalist looked confused and walked away.
For more on Southern Sudan, check out Maggie Fick on the dangers of referendum euphoria, view a slide show of Juba on the eve of independence, and read Robert Klitgaard on how the region's leaders are preparing to crack down on corruption.
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The president of LUKoil Overseas, Andrei Kuzyayev, met Ghana's energy minister, Joe Oteng Adjei, for discussions about the expansion of the company in Ghana, including the development of new projects, according to the latest corporate newsletter, Neftyanie Vedomosti. After leaving Ghana, Kuzyayev held talks in the capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, and LUKoil Overseas senior vice president Dmitry Timoshenko visited Liberia's capital of Monrovia.
Countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, “which have just come through terrible civil wars … are today, with the interest of foreign investors, quickly resurrecting their shattered economies,” the company's publication said.[…]
The West African continental shelf is an interesting prospect for many international companies, said Valery Nesterov, an oil analyst at Troika Dialog. “I think almost all Russian companies will be looking at the West African shelf — including TNK-BP,” he added.and
LUKoil's potential resources in the area currently consist of up to 35 million barrels. The company said in September that it might have more petroleum in West Africa than in West Siberia.
Between the increasing international competition for the region's oil resources, burgeoning nuclear programs, the promise of greater U.S. engagement, the fallout from the Ivory Coast's political crisis, elections in Nigeria, the beginning of Liberia's election cycle, and concerns over drug trafficking and terrorism bubbling just below the surface, this should be an extremely interesting and consequential year for West Africa. Thankfully, for the United States at least, Iran's efforts at engagement in the region appear to have badly faltered in 2009.
Andreas Markessinis has an intriguing post on the Nation Branding blog wondering just what the new country that will likely be created next week will be called:
One possible option is ‘New Sudan’, but some oppose the idea as that name would associate the new country with the actual Sudan, which is considered a pariah state. For a weak, new country with weak influence, getting the world population to distinguish between ‘Sudan’ and ‘New Sudan’ would take aeons. Many people still confuse South Korea with North Korea and don’t remember which one is the rogue state, so any combination of names including the word ‘Sudan’ will probably be counter-productive to the new country, nationals say.
In fact, another suggestion most Southern Sudaneses don’t like either is ‘Southern Sudan’. They discard it because the name raises fears that this name would also confuse people, as many people would think that ‘Southern Sudan’ is the Southern region within Sudan, and not a different country.
But while there are ones who oppose the ‘Sudan’ word, there are others who don’t want to lose it. The latter consider their region to be the real ‘Sudan’, while the Northern part, which has become arabized and islamized, is not. They unpolish semantics to substantiate it. ‘Sudan’, they say, etymologically means in Arabic ‘land of the black people’, which is how fairer-skinned Arabs called the lands of conquered black tribes under their power. So this would justify that the name ‘Sudan’ makes more sense in the blacks-populated South than in the Arab-occupied North.
Other possibilites up for consideration include plays on the Nile river, the area's main geographic feature, such as Nilotia, Nolotland, or the Nile Republic. Cushitia or Azania -- archaic geographic and ethnic names -- are other possibilities, though also fraught with uncomfortable overtones.
I have a feeling that intertia may dictate that "South Sudan" stays, given that it's already how the international media is referring to the place. But despite its past significance, I'd have to think that at this point dropping "Sudan" -- with its contemporary connotations of genocide and famine -- from the name would be a wise branding move. I doubt anyone in Bangladesh wishes today that the country had stuck with "East Pakistan" after independence. Most of all, Southern Sudan should be sure to avoid the nomenclatural abomination that is the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Nile Republic isn't bad, though as Markessinis notes, Egypt is pretty protective of the Nile brand, raising the possibility of a FYROM situation. Maybe the country could go the Altria route and just make up a name? Not the worst idea for a place badly in need of a fresh start.
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After two weeks of stalemate, the political controntation in Cote D'Ivoire is finally moving -- in the very, very wrong direction. Last month, opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara won a presidential election -- but incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo has refused to leave. In recent days, the two have set up rival headquarters, named rival cabinets, and claimed rival military forces for their protection. Now it seems, the stage is set for a showdown.
Earlier today, troops loyal to Gbagbo surrounded Ouattara's headquarters at a local hotel. Now, Ouattara has set a date -- Dec. 17 -- on which his own loyal forces will attempt to take the government offices away from Gbagbo.
Ouattara is likely trying to put pressure on Gbagbo to step down -- something that the international community has also been trying for the last two weeks. The European Union, for example, today announced sanctions on Gbagbo's government. Cote D'Ivoire has already been kicked out of the African Union and the regional economic grouping ECOWAS, until the crisis is resolved.
Unfortunately, Gbagbo remains unyielding. Most every news report has been reminding readers about just how volatile the country remains, and just how real the possibility is that it could slip back into war. It looks more and more like this is not a case of crying wolf.
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It's all the rage. Got a contested election in a fragile African country? Send in the elderly statesmen, make the warring parties sit down, and force them both into an uncomfortable but face-saving unity government. It happened in Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe now shares power with the real vote-winner, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. It happened in Kenya, where incumbant President Mwai Kibaki was force-married with Prime Minister and rival Raila Odinga. And now, it's in danger of happening again in Cote d'Ivoire.
The mayhem in Cote d'Ivoire is serious. The country's presidential election was delayed repeatedly since 2005. When it finally took place, the results were delayed until international pressure came sufficiently to bear. The opposition candidate Alassane Ouattara is believed to have won and has been endorsed by international observers. But both he and the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo have now held swearing-in ceremonies.
So the temptation arises for a coalition. Le Monde has already floated the possibility, and African Union meditor (and former South African President) Thabo Mbeki has already flown to Abidjan. How else can we get both sides peacefully to come to some sort of agreement? But Zimbabwe and Kenya should be evidence enough of why not. Both pacts have ended in stagnation, infighting, and political deadlock. Ending the short-term crisis has come at the cost of sacrificing long-term political development.
Just take Zimbabwe, where the unity government may well have simply delayed the crisis. After months of being sidelined from Mugabe's unilateral decision-making, Prime Minister Tsvangirai has repeatedly boycotted his own government. He has been forced to sacrifice his entire reform agenda in favor of focusing all his political capital on a single goal: another election. There's no reason to believe another vote will go any differently that the last, when Mugabe lost and still claimed victory. Kenya has likewise proved troublesome; the president and prime minister are rumored to have gone months without talking. And so great was mediator Kofi Annan's frustration with the government's inability to push reforms and prosecute perpetrators of the 2008 election violence that he referred the names of the offenders to the International Criminal Court himself.
Now to Cote d'Ivoire, where the situation has more in common with Kenya and Zimbabwe than just its potential for turmoil. Here, as in those two countries, the two political rivals aren't just political foes but personal ones who are not likely to work well together (if the current standoff isn't evidence enough.) Incumbent Gbagbo, who lost, blames Ouattara for imprisoning him when the former was a rebel leader long ago. Ouattara, meanwhile, can't possibly feel fondly toward Gbagbo, having been barred from previous elections for his supposed non-Ivorian roots tracing to Burkina Faso.
It would be great if these two could get along. But the stakes are too high to let them try while running a country. Cote d'Ivoire's government is already suffering. And tensions have left more than a dozen dead in rival protests. Reconciliation is great and much needed -- but probably not best handled within the country's top office.
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Tiny Gambia added itself to Iran's enemies this week when it abruptly cut diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic and ordered its diplomats to leave the country. The announcement likely marks the end of Iranian investment in the African country which includes a $2 billion deal to provide commercial vehicles. Gambian President -- and perhaps soon king -- Yahya Jammeh gave no official reason for the move, but it's thought to be linked to last month's seizure of Iranian weapons in Nigeria, which some officials now say was bound for The Gambia.
Alaeddin Borujerdi, head of the foreign-policy committee in Iran's parliament, said an "Iranian company" had struck an agreement to sell arms to Gambia several years ago and that the cache was sent "under international law." Gambia's decision to sever ties was made under pressure from the United States, he said, but would have little effect because Iran's diplomatic involvement there did not even amount to having an embassy.
However, Scott Lucas, editor of the Enduring America website and an Iran analyst at Birmingham University in the United Kingdom, says the arms may have been linked to a failed 2009 attempt to overthrow Jammeh, who himself came to power through a coup in 1994.
"Since the recent coup in Gambia, there have been factions vying for power," argues Lucas. "It is unclear to whom the arms were to be sent, but it is likely to be one of those factions. [...]
As to who might have provided these arms, Lucas also suspects Revolutionary Guards involvement: "The most likely explanation is that they had come from a faction within the Iranian government, in or connected to the Revolutionary Guards." [...]
[Analyst Meir] Javedanfar says Iran has tried to cultivate ties with African countries with strategic waterways, possibly to give it the means of making retaliatory strikes against Western interests in the event of an armed conflict.
"One of the linchpins of Iran's Africa policy has been to try and improve relations with countries that have coasts on the important waterways," says Javedanfar, who points out that Gambia is wedged between Senegal on the Atlantic coast.
"This would be an important attraction to the Iranians. It would certainly add to Gambia's strategic value. There is also the fact that it is close to Senegal, which is an important Iranian ally. Any country that has access to important waterways and has important relations with Iran could later on be used to pressure the U.S. and to help Iran expand its influence in Africa."
Michael Singh wrote recently over at Shadow Government about the Iranian government's seemingly contradictory double-game in West Africa: building trade a diplomatic ties with local governments while simultaneously supporting militants and arms-smuggling groups in the region. Whatever the full story is, it seems that Tehran may have overplayed its hand in The Gambia.
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The Gambia's title-obsessed president -- he prefers to be addressed as His Excellency the President Sheik Professor Alhaji Doctor Yahya Jammeh -- may soon be adding a new one to his letterhead:
Tribal chieftains are touring the country to rally support for President Yahya Jammeh's coronation.
"The president has brought development to the country, and for that he deserves to be crowned King of The Gambia," said Junkung Camara, chief of the western region of Foni Brefet. "This is the only way the Gambian people can express our gratitude to a leader who has done a lot for his country."
This would be very much in keeping for Jammeh, whose obsession with honorifics even led him to claim an admiralship in the fictitious "Nebraska Navy" earlier this year.
Generally speaking, the global trend has obviously been away from kings in recent years. Nepal did away with its centuries-old monarchy in 2007. Members of the British Commonwealth may drop the whole institution after Queen Elizabeth's reign ends. South Africa culled its tribal kings over the summer. Tiny Swaziland is now the only monarchy left in Sub-Saharan Africa.
As an opposition journalist quoted in the piece points out, Jammeh already has absolute political power so not much would change if he were made king, beyond yet another ego boost. Plus, the Kims have shown -- and the Qaddafis and Mubaraks likely will soon -- it's quite possible to have hereditary succession while at least superficially adhering to a post-enlightenment political model.
Israeli authorities say a cache of weapons seized at a Nigerian port this week originated in Iran and were bound for Gaza:
Agents with Nigeria's secretive State Security Service discovered the weapons Tuesday hidden inside of 13 shipping containers dropped off at Lagos' busy Apapa Port. Journalists allowed to see the weapons Wednesday saw 107 mm rockets, rifle rounds and other items labeled in English. Authorities said the shipment also contained grenades, explosives and possibly rocket launchers, but journalists did not see them.
Wale Adeniyi, a spokesman for Nigeria's Customs Service, said Thursday that the MV CMA-CGM Everest dropped the weapons off in July. Adeniyi said the ship last stopped at Mumbai's Jawaharlal Nehru Port before coming to Nigeria.
If the Israelis are right, that would mean that in order to travel the roughly 1,000 mile distance between Iran and Gaza, the weapons first had to travel about 1,700 miles in the opposite direction to Mumbai, then take a roughly 8,000 mile journey around the Horn of Africa before landing in Nigeria, where, if they hadn't been seized, they would still have had to travel over 5,000 miles through the Mediterranean before landing in Gaza.
Seems like distance is still very much alive for the international weapons trade.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
To prove that none of those arrested or questioned surrounding a bomb attack on the Nigerian capital of Abuja earlier this month were in fact involved, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has just released a note to journalists vowing to strike again. Letter from the spokesman, Jomo Gbomo, is pasted below:
"In an obvious attempt to intimidate anyone opposed to the presidential ambition of Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian government hiding under the cloak of terrorist hunters have been witch-hunting, falsely accusing and harassing its perceived opponents.
A perfect opportunity emerged on October 1, 2010 after the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) detonated car bombs in a symbolic attack in Abuja for which we reaffirm responsibility but with regrets to the avoidable loss of lives.
The government of President Goodluck Jonathan responded by arresting innocent persons on trumped-up charges, linking them with the attack. From Chief Raymond Dokpesi which indirectly was pointing at former military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida to Henry Okah in South Africa, the government has also named and arrested persons not connected with our actions as suspects and masterminds.
The South African government is playing an obviously partial role over the Independence Day Bombing in its handling of the Henry Okah angle because the Nigerian government has threatened to nationalize the South Africa communication giant, MTN if the country does not follow a devious script.
Since the court in South Africa has turned into a Kangaroo one that is scandalously biased, and both governments are bent on blaming innocent persons on ridiculous insinuations and unrelated evidence, we have decided to carry out another attack in Abuja without altering our mode of operation to proof the suspects' innocence.
As usual we will give a thirty minutes advance warning to avoid civilian casualties then sit back and watch how the blame game will be played out on all those already falsely accused.
Back in January, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade offered free land to Haitians displaced by their country's disastrous earthquake. The plan was eventually scaled back to free housing and today, the first group of Haitian students took him up on the offer:
The 163 students will also be offered scholarships in a nation where the campus of Senegal's largest university is frequently paralyzed by strikes because scholarships are paid late.
The students were greeted upon arrival in Dakar by dancers and traditional praise singers. Dozens of Senegalese students also held up signs that said: "Welcome to the home of your ancestors." They were led onto tour buses that drove them through the neighborhood of Almadies, the westernmost point of Africa which juts out into the Atlantic.
The bus climbed a hill overlooking the ocean, and let them out at the feet of an enormous statue pointing West in the direction where they had come from.
"Your ancestors left here by physical force," Wade told the students. "You have returned through moral force ... When the slaves embarked on the ships, this is the last piece of African earth they saw ... Dear students, it is on this point of land that sticks out farthest into the Atlantic that we have chosen to receive you," he said. "You are neither strangers nor refugees. You are members of our family."
The project has gotten mixed reviews at home, where university scholarships are often hard to come by and thousands of Senegalese try to immigrate to Europe every year in search of economic opportunity. But there is a strong case to be made that allowing Haitians to migrate, even to a country that's struggling itself, is a more effective way of helping the country than sending aid. The octagenerian Wade's offer may be a vanity project meant to cement his legacy as an international statesman, but it's a more productive one than some his others.
Under the headline "President Jammeh bags 4 awards," the Gambia's pro-government Daily Obersever newspaper recently reported that President Yahya Jammeh had received a number of commendations from President "Barrack" Obama:
Two of the awards with an accompanying letter came from the president of the United States of America, Barrack Obama, who congratulated the Gambian leader for the accolade, and also commended him "for helping to address the most pressing needs" in his community. The awards include the 'President's Volunteer Call to Service Award', and the 'Platinum Award 2009 by President Barrack Obama'. The last two awards are the 'Admiral of the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska', USA', given to the Gambian leader by its Governor, Dave Heinemana, whilst the fourth award, the 'Honorary Vocational Bachelors Degree' was given by the Printers and Publishers Guild of Northern Germany.
As the Committee to Protect Journalists found out with some quick digging, Obama never sent any such letter and the majority of the awards mentioned don't actually exist. The only one that does seem to be real is the admiralship in the fictitious Nebraska navy, a tongue-in-cheek award for distinguished residents of the landlocked state -- in other words, not the president of the Gambia. (Click here to nominate your favorite Nebraskan.)
It's a funny story, but highlights the all-too-serious problem of media repression under Jammeh's authoritarian regime. As one former staffer at the paper told CPG, " "If [the story] wasn't out in the paper, someone would be in Mile 2 [prison] today -- the managing director or the editor."
George Ayittey included His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr. Yahya Abdul-Azziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh on his list of the world's worst dictators.
Tesgaye, once an aspiring fighter pilot, was one of 80 Ethiopian cadets sent to a Soviet military training facility in the remote republic of Kyrgyzstan in 1989 to master the art of flying combat aircraft.
"At that time in Ethiopia there was a military government, and because of an agreement between the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, they used to train pilots for the country's air force," Tesgaye explained.
Within two years, both the Soviet Union and Ethiopia's Marxist regime had collapsed, forcing the cadets to think carefully about their options for their future in a strange and foreign land.
Almost 20 years later, still fearing reprisals back home for the small role he played in the brutal rule of deposed Marxist leader Mengistu Haile Mariam, Tesgaye is marooned here — a world away from a family that has grown older without him.
The cadets have endured some horrific racial abuse during their time in exile, an ironic parallel to the thousands of Kyrgyz migrant workers who receive similar treatment in Russia.
The South African pop group Freshleyground, which collaborated with Shakira on the 2010 World Cup anthem, has been banned from performing in Zimbabwe over their Mugabe-mocking song Chicken to Change, as well as the above video, which shows the president literally transforming into a chicken. Puppet versions of some South African political figures, including Jacob Zuma, Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, also make cameo appearances.
Hat tip: Boing Boing
It's a big primary election day today here in the United States, but bear with me. Because I'm going to take you to another country with upcoming elections: Going to the polls is a tricky matter for a young democracy.
Let's take a trip to Guinea, a small country in West Africa that happens to be the world's largest bauxite exporter. The country's long-time strongman president died in 2008, and a coup followed. There was a somewhat miraculous transition to a civilian-led government, and now presidential elections are in the works. But Guinea had a serious bad-luck streak this week. On September 10, the country's courts jailed two top officials from the electoral commission for misconduct in the first round of polls in June. Violence broke out on the streets, leading the police to break up riots with tear gas. And now, one of the convicted officials has died. Nearly everyone suspects that this second round ballot is bound to be delayed.
But the political hooplah really isn't the only, or even the most important, reason that the vote will likely be delayed. It's because Guinea is utterly unprepared. There are no voter cards or ballots across much of the country. It's rainy season, and the country's dilapidated infrastructure has further thwarted efforts to get the supplies out. As AP nicely summed up:
"even if the trucks carrying voting materials were to leave Guinea's capital first thing Tuesday, they most likely will not reach the rain-soaked interior of the country in time for Sunday's vote, where major towns are several days by road and some remote polling stations can only be reached on foot."
But here's the thing: There's really nothing unexpected or disgraceful about this. It's really really hard to hold elections. And it's a lot harder when you've never done it as a democracy. Ever. Rainy season is also nothing to scoff at in West Africa; good luck driving election materials over the pothole-laden roads on any sort of timeline. Even the best planning would have suffered setbacks.
More broadly, what Guinea demonstrates is that democratic elections, however beneficial, are also risky for a volatile country just emerging from a long history of repressive politics. They open a lot of wounds. The two top candidates in Guinea, for example, are from historically clashing ethnic groups. Under the strongman rule of the former president, elections were always rigged; why should Guineans believe they won't be this time? And in a country (and region) where political power is wielded through patronage, most everyone believes the stakes are high. If their guy loses, it could mean a presidential term of poverty. This is not easy to stomach for a society that is divided and still recovering from conflict. Have elections too soon, and they risk doing as much harm as good.
That's not to say that Guinea's vote, or any other, should not go forward. They should. There is something incredible about democracy that saw a 64 percent voter turnout at the polls on the first round. But this is a perfect example of how elections don't fix volatility; they often exacerbate it. The real solutions will have to come from whoever Guinea elects.
CELLOU diallo/AFP/Getty Images
The New York office director of UNAIDS, Bertil Lindblad, is worried about the one region of the world where HIV infections are increasing, even as rates in the rest of the world level off. It's not in Africa or Asia, or even Latin America. It's Eastern Europe -- countries like Russia and Ukraine -- where a recent UNICEF report notes that increases in infection rates of as high as 700 percent have been seen since 2006.
"There is an urgent need for the whole Eastern European and Central Asian region to act quickly," Lindblad said this morning. "This is really quite scary given the fact that there is denial, and so much stigma and homophobia [in that region.] This could really create huge problems if HIV continues to spread from smaller groups in the population to wider."
It's HIV/AIDS's silent crisis, one that has been underway for the last decade. The region is home to a quarter of all injection drug users in the world (3.7 million), and this is where the epidemic is believed to have begun. These users are young -- most of them teenagers. But from there, HIV spread to sex workers (the majority of whom are also under 30), and now has fully moved into the everday lives of men and women in the region, married and unmarried. A mark of the epidemics progression -- from specific populations into the majority -- is the new incidence of HIV among women, who account for 40 percent of all new infections (that's up from only 24 percent at the turn of the century.)
The stigma attached to the disease -- and more importantly, to the groups of people percieved to be the majority infected with it -- is the biggest obstacle to doing anything about the disease. "Those living with HIV have been silenced and excluded, and risky behaviours borne of futility and hopelessness have been sanctioned or repressed," the UNICEF report notes. Government officials are said to be resistant to admitting the scale of the problem, and today that country remains a difficult places for AIDS advocacy, says Lindblad, who formerly worked in the UNAIDS office in Moscow.
But where there is challenge such as this, there is also often opportunity. Russia, I would think, should have a very serious interest in addressing this crisis. For starters, because AIDS threatens to exacerbate its larger demographic problem -- that of a fast-shrinking population. But the other point might be even more convincing: The injection drug users are using heroin. And that heroin comes from Afghan poppies. For Russia, tackling the illegal drug market in Afghanistan -- one which fuels the insurgency -- is a serious national security issue.
Of course, good old fashioned peer pressure might help edge them along as well. And when the U.N. General Assembly meets later this month, one of the side conversations, according to Lindblad, will be a discussion on HIV/AIDS "co-hosted by the government of China, the government of Nigeria, and UNAIDS," specifically, the Chinese premier and the Nigerian president (South Africa's President Jacob Zuma was also supposed to come, but had to cancel.) "That could influence other big countries such as Russia, for example, to turn around."
DENIS SINYAKOV/AFP/Getty Images
With presidential elections a year away and parliamentary elections around the corner, the political scene in Egypt is heating up quickly.
The most recent developments have Mohammad ElBaradei, Nobel Laureate, opposition leader and potential presidential candidate, calling for a boycott of November's parliamentary elections. "Anyone who participates in the vote, either as a candidate or as a voter, goes against the national will," said ElBaradei. The former IAEA chief threatened to launch a campaign of civil disobedience if certain demands are not met, such as lifting legal constraints on independent presidential candidates.
It is not so clear how credible these threats are given the factional nature of the Egyptian political opposition. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have put forward different strategies on approaching the elections and opposition within the state in general; the BBC reports that while the Brotherhood supports ElBaradei they are still likely to put forward their own candidates.
Of course, this story would not be complete without mud-slinging. Earlier this week, ElBaradei's daughter, Laila, was caught in an awkward situation as pictures and information allegedly taken off of her Facebook page (sigh) were widely published. The pictures showed alcohol being served at her wedding and Laila in a bikini. Needless to say, it probably will not float well with Egypt's conservative Muslim society and her father has already accused the government of publishing the pictures for political gain.
With a year to go until presidential elections, one can only imagine the drama to come.
In an inspired bit of YouTube surfing, Gawker has assembled a compilation of military recruitment commercials from around the world. There are a few clunkers -- three minutes is an awful long time to watch a Russian paratrooper sort of rapping in front of an obstacle course -- and I have my doubts that this Japanese ad is not an elaborate sophomoric hoax, but on the whole they make for pretty fascinating viewing.
Watching these as an American, the most immediately noticeable thing is how little time most of the ads spend overtly appealing to patriotism. There's Estonia, which does it cheekily, and Lebanon, which does it with a slow-motion sentimentality that would be cloying under other circumstances but is actually quite poignant in the context of a country that is eternally trying to keep things together. France and India, meanwhile, both hearken back to the U.S. military ads of the pre-9/11 era, in which we mostly see the life-advancing stuff that enlistment is supposed to get you, with a minimum of actual warfighting. (A career in the Indian army evidently prepares you for a lifetime of golfing and competitive diving.)
The Ukrainian army opts for an admirably straightforward "you'll get girls" approach. Singapore features a naval vessel transforming into a giant robot, presumably developed to contain the same giant lava monsters that have long plagued the U.S. Marines. Britain's jarring entry -- which a student of post-colonialism would have a field day with -- looks like it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. (This kind of "I dare you" approach to recruiting must work in the U.K. -- back in the '90s, when the U.S. Army was mostly promoting itself as a way to pay for college, the Brits ran magazine ads showing a Royal Marine eating worms as part of a survival training course.)
But the real winner here, I think, is Sweden, which is promoting military service to young women as a means of avoiding working as an au pair for awful Americans:
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
If you know anything about the Ebola virus, you're terrified by it. The disease, euphemistically dubbed a haemorrhagic fever, essentially causes one's innards to turn to mush, and blood begins to leak out of a patients eyes, nose, ears -- everywhere. It's only turned up sporadically in remote Africa in humans, but when it does, it has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent.
Think that sounds scary? How about this prospect: that disease engineered as bioweapon. Right. That's what the Department of Defense thought in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. So they have been researching drug therapy treatments ever since.
Yesterday, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and a private firm, AVI BioPharma, published the results of studies that show that their treatment does have a helpful effect in monkeys. That's a huge leap, particularly since the reserachers were given clearance to start limited human testing. The partnership won a Defense Department grant of up to $291 million last month for that phase.
It's an interesting reminder of just how many technological advances have come out of such army research -- and who knows, maybe more disease treatments will be down the pipeline. Now, if only they would start researching malaria . . .
Claude Mahoudeau/AFP/Getty Images
The Boston Globe reported this week that the judge in the immigration case of Zeituni Onyango -- best known as President Barack Obama's "Auntie Zeituni" -- had granted her asylum even though she was in the United States illegally because the publicity around the case had "exposed her to heightened threats of persecution in her native Kenya." The Kenyan government, needless to say, isn't happy about the insinuation:
Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister Mutula Kilonzo described the claims as “ridiculous and an insult to Kenyans”.
Zeituni convinced a US judge three months ago that she feared “persecution by some members of the Kenyan government” and was allowed to stay in the US although she had been classified as an illegal immigrant after her visa expired.
Said Mr Kilonzo: “The insinuation about Kenya’s inability to protect Ms Obama is outrageous, misplaced and an insult to the Kenyan state.
“President Obama’s grandmother is here and she is treated like a royalty. It is unfortunate because Kenya enjoys cordial relations with the United States.”
It has to be said that despite the initial excitement, Obama's presidency hasn't been all that great for Kenya's image so far. He has yet to visit the country as president. Instead they had to settle for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who took the opporutnity to publicly lambast the government's corruption. Kenyan leaders have also been smeared by the anti-Obama conspiracy theorists who, at least going by today's news, seem to be gaining ground.
Now, in a highly-publicized court ruling, a U.S. judge has implied that the president's family members aren't safe in their home country. Perhaps having your country's favorite son in the White House isn't all it's cracked up to be.
Hat tip: Ben Smith
This report couldn't be more aptly named: "Everyone's in on the Game," released by Human Rights Watch today, is a story about how corruption has eaten Nigeria's police force from the inside out. Everyone is, as they say, in on the game: The highest officers take a cut from the middle managers; the middle managers ski off their subordinates salaries; the lowest officers make so little that they extort civilians on a daily basis for their wage. One men and women are arrested, the news is no better.
Their families must pay for them to be housed and fed in prison, and getting a case to trial requires either money or a personal political connection. Like anyone who has lived in Nigeria, I have a few stories involving getting pulled over or stopped and asked for bribes. (I wrote up a few of them.) And also like any expat in Nigeria, I know that what I got was only a smidgen of what plagued local life. The poor are the easiest targets.
Like all corruption, there is an element of victimization on both sides of the equation, unfortunately. The people who are extorted from are, obviously, suffering. But so too are the low level policemen in many cases. How can I best illustrate this? Perhaps the fact that the officers were forced to buy their own bullets, uniforms, and pay for their own transportation because the upper ranks had taken the bulk of the funding for themselves or other pet projects. The majority of the officers also likely believed in being policemen, and wanted to be a positive force for their countries. They were proud of their roles and sought to do the best job they could. But they were also pretty hungry sometimes. And as I was once wisely told, a hungry man will do anything you ask.
The report gets kudos also from pointing out just how destructive this has been to society. If your policemen -- the men and women you are supposed to trust with your safety and security -- are extorting and taking a cut, why wouldn't you? It's not just one's pocketbook that suffers here; it's the very ability for the country to live under the "rule of law," a tenant that the last two administrations in Nigeria have said is the forefront of their agenda.
Best perhaps of all are the cartoons commissioned with the report to illustrate what we're talking about. If you don't read the report, do just have a look.
Almost a year and a half since protests spurned a coup that removed democratically-elected President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar's political crisis continues to drag along. The government remains paralyzed and isolated, and formal development is reeling, with hundreds of millions of much-needed aid dollars frozen by donors.
Yesterday, the interim government, led by former DJ and mayor of Antananarivo, the country's capital and largest city, President Andry Rajoelina, who also has the backing of the country's military, reached an agreement with nearly 100 smaller political parties for new election dates. The accord is set to be adopted tomorrow, but it looks to have little impact: The three main opposition parties are boycotting discussions. These parties say they will only take part in elections that they help orchestrate, not just one organized by Rajoelina's government.
The accord sets presidential elections for the middle of next year, with a vote on a constitutional referendum on November 17. Originally, the referendum was supposed to be held this month and presidential elections in November, but opposition parties balked at these too. Earlier power-sharing negotiations, conducted in South Africa, also failed to bring all parties to an agreement.
This news does not bode well for the Malagasy people, of whom about 70 percent live below the poverty line. The EU, World Bank, and USAID have blocked development aid. Also in peril is the island nation's delicate and extraordinarily unique environment, famous for endemic species like lemurs and baobab trees. Instability caused by the coup has created an illegal logging crisis in Madagascar's national parks. Loggers plunder rosewood trees, while lemurs have been hunted for bushmeat. This month, UNESCO's World Heritage committee added Madagascar's tropical forests to its Danger List of threatened ecosystems.
"What has been happening in Madagascar since the coup is little more than a smash-and-grab raid," Conservation International head Dr. Russell Mittermeier told Mongabay. "Unscrupulous companies have been taking advantage of the upheaval and the willingness of the current regime to allow highly damaging practices which bring no benefit to the nation and simply enrich a few greedy people."
In a surprisingly positive twist, a World Bank report (with the cautiously optimistic title: "Why has the Malagasy economy not yet collapsed?") published last month said Madagascar had largely avoided financial disaster thanks to a strong informal economy, which has grown an estimated 13 percent since 2009, and good weather. Rice yields have hit record levels after two years without cyclones.
GREGOIRE POURTIER/AFP/Getty Images
A new study published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association questions some traditional gender notions surrounding sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). It found that sexual violence against civilians in the eastern DRC is indeed horrifyingly widespread. Most notably, both men and women reported being victims of sexual violence-23.6 percent of men surveyed and 39.7 percent of women. Additionally, this study was the first to ask about perpetrators' genders in conflict-related sexual violence. 41 percent of female and 10 percent of male survivors reported that their attacker was a woman.
This study was an attempt by researchers to add some needed depth to current understanding of sexual violence in the DRC-a part of the world commonly known as "the ground zero of rape" where sexual violence is used as a weapon of a war that first began in 1994 and has since killed millions of people, even after a 2003 peace treaty.
The typical language surrounding rape in the DRC-"Stop raping our greatest resource: Power to the girls and women of Democratic Republic of Congo," for example-asserts that women are the abused and men the abusers. Atrocities in the DRC have gained attention recently as writers and activists, including the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof, have noted that fighting over minerals in the Congo have turned smart phones into "blood phones."
Previous studies have only provided anecdotal reports and often only evaluated already identified survivors of sexual violence. Because of social stigmatization many survivors (especially male) face in reporting violence, rates of non-report are as high as 75 percent, and may be higher in conflict areas, according to the study.
With a mission to assess the wider impact of sexual violence in eastern Congo, American researchers went door-to-door with a 144-question survey administered to 998 adults (593 female and 405 male) in North and South Kivu provinces and the Ituri district. It asked about basic demographic information (including education, health care access, and past and current substance abuse), as well as lifetime exposure to sexual violence, combatant experience, and opinions on women's roles in society, and justice for sexual violence. Respondents were asked if they had ever been forced into sexual slavery, sexual abuse type (including rape and attempted rape, molestation, and gang rape), and about the identity of the perpetrator, number of attackers, and consequences of the attack. They were also assessed for symptoms of PTSD, depression, and other types of mental illness.
This area has a long history of forced recruitment into armed groups. Twenty percent of those surveyed reported personal combat history-both men and women performed the same tasks within armed groups, except for sexual slavery (women were more than twice as likely to be victimized here than men). The majority of sexual violence reported was conflict-related, disputing some recent studies that have shown civilian-perpetuated sexual violence is on the rise.
"We can no longer think that sexual violence is just violence against women perpetrated by men, it is about everybody," study author Lynn Lawry, of the International Health Division of the U.S. Department of Defense, told the UN's Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). Action and advocacy combating sexual violence needs to include men and boys, a statement echoed by a paper from Sweden's NordicAfrica Institute published in May, which criticized "the invisibility of men and boys as victims of sexual and gender-based violence."
Some NGOs have disputed the study, saying that while there were male victims of sexual violence, statistics on female perpetrators are too low to be conclusive. For example, according to IRIN, Ciarán Donnelly, head of the International Rescue Committee in the DRC, noted that it was "unclear whether women kidnapped by armed groups and forced to perform sexual acts on others were listed among the perpetrators." The study's methodology has also been called into question-interviewers had to avoid currently active combat zones.
The study was funded by the DOD's Africa Command, the International Medical Corps, and McGill University.
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