I imagine my colleague and FP's resident Nigeria hand Beth Dickinson is in an airport somewhere kicking herself for taking a vacation the week of the year's biggest Nigerian story.
Sad as Nigerians may be at the death of President Umaru Yar'Adua last night, I would imagine there must also be some relief that the country's political stalemate has come to an end with the official swearing in of Goodluck Jonathan as the country's president. Yar'adua has been unable to perform his duties for months and was last seen in public last November. Jonathan was finally made acting president in January, but the chain of command has remained ambiguous and the resulting power vacuum highly dangerous.
This hasn't exactly been an uneventful period for Nigeria with the breakdown of a ceasefire with the MEND rebels in Nigeria, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted terrorist attack on Christmas day, and religious violence that has claimed hundreds of lives. The ambiguous leadership situation has been confusing for foreign governments, including the United States, as well. Goodluck is far from ideal, but this combustible country needs a functioning government and it's a shame that it took this long to acknowledge that Yar'Adua wasn't coming back.
On the other hand, it seems enouraging that despite all the intrigue and opportunities for foul play during this crisis, Nigeria's constitutional government is still standing and power has been peacefully passed to a new leader. Given recent events next door, that's not nothing.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Next month, 32 national football sides will compete in the first-ever African hosted World Cup --- but they might be playing in half-empty stadiums. Over half of the 500,000 tickets allotted for South Africans remain unsold, with sales significantly slowing over the last month.
I don't know why this'd be a surprise. Less than four percent of South Africans earn nearly forty percent of total personal income. Another fifth makes up the "emerging middle class," leaving seventy-five percent of the country in the lower income tier. Almost half the country is in poverty, the economy is contracting, and income inequality is in fact getting worse. I'm guessing that most South Africans figured tickets would be a luxury they couldn't afford.
This announcement comes amid a slate of bad news: the World Health Organization warned tourists of an outbreak of Rift Valley fever only yesterday, and a tragic bus accident -- allegedly caused by the bus driver falling asleep at the wheel -- claimed 23 lives today.
Aside from the tickets fiasco, the Organising Committee claims that everything is ready for June 11th. This quote from spokesman Greg Fredericks, however, doesn't alleviate all concerns: "We certainly hope that the strike season will be over." That's not exactly the voice of confidence.
To correct the ticket problem, FIFA should either slash prices even further, or free them up for more foreign fans. They've earned some good press today when they announced that workers on the World Cup stadiums would receive free tickets to two matches. Empty stands at the World Cup would be the height of embarrassment.
To be fair, it would give a break to weary ears blasted by obnoxiously (and dangerously) loud vuvuzelas.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Despite Zimbabwe not making it out of the second round of African World Cup qualifying, Robert Mugabe has still managed to turn the upcoming World Cup, hosted by neighboring South Africa, into a domestic political scandal. What a surprise. Apparently not having had its fill of international pariahs after Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's visit last week, Mugabe's government has also invited North Korea's soccer team to stay in the country prior to the World Cup. This move has brought back a decades old grudge between the two countries.
In 1982, 20,000 Zimbabweans were slaughtered by the army in Matabeleland province. It just so happens that the army brigade responsible was trained by North Korean military advisors.
Making the hosting offer even more insensitive were the original plans to base the North Korean team in Bulawayo, the second largest city in the country, located in -- you guessed it -- the region of Matabeleland. The locals were displeased:
Groups representing Matabeleland's ethnic Ndebele minority had threatened to disrupt training sessions and games in Bulawayo, and organize protests among Zimbabweans based in South Africa.
Earlier today, Zimbabwe announced it would base the side in Harare -- but insisted the change was not "politically motivated." But it doesn't look likely to appease the protesters. Methuseli Moyo of ZAPU, a small opposition party, told the BBC:
"It should be the concern of every Zimbabwean that North Korea trained those who perpetrated the atrocities. Even if they camp in Harare, we will still organise the protests."
The North Korean side has enough problems already, having drawn Brazil, Portugal, and Côte d'Ivoire in this cup's version of the "Group of Death."
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
From the captain obvious department: a study in the latest issue of South Africa's Medical Journal claimed that vuvuzelas, the obnoxiously loud trumpet played at football matches in South Africa, can cause permanent hearing damage:
Participants in the stadium study were "exposed to high-intensity sound far exceeding the current legislated average exposure and peak exposure levels for occupational noise".
Tests on the 11 after the match showed a "significant" decrease in hearing sensitivity.
Worse, the study used stadiums that simulated the noise of only 30,000 people -- many of the crowds expected at World Cup matches are expected to be three times that amount.
If you watched last year's Confederations Cup, you're well aware how annoyingly ubuquitous vuvuzelas are in South African stadiums. (And if you didn't, you'll understand if you watch even a single minute of any World Cup match this summer.)
Thankfully, a South African company is taking advantage of the obvious entreprenurial opportunity and marketing foam earplugs.
H/T Andrew Harding.
ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/Getty Images
Taking a page from the Taliban, Somalia's Shabaab militants have effectively banned music from the radio in Somalia:
The BBC's Mohammed Olad Hassan in Mogadishu says the order to stop
playing music and jingles was issued 10 days ago. All but two of the
city's 15 radio stations used to broadcast music. Residents can now only hear music from the government-controlled
radio station and another Kenya-based UN-funded radio station, which
has a FM transmitter in Mogadishu, he says.
"We are using other
sounds such as gunfire, the noise of the vehicles and birds to link up
our programmes and news," said Abdulahi Yasin Jama, Tusmo radio's head
of the programmes.
The above photo shows a member of the Somali pop group Waayah Cusub recording a track at a studio in Nairobi.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
As a dislocated Brooklynite, I've been following the New Jersey Nets' faltering attempts to build a new stadium in my borough for years now -- my distaste for poor urban planning and eminent domain abuse only slightly outweighing my fantasy of one day seeing Lebron James play ten minutes away from where I grew up. The story has already drawn in an unlikely cast of characters including rapper Jay-Z and Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, but Robert Mugabe? Really?
The New York Post reports:
Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, wants to know if companies controlled by Prokhorov in Zimbabwe violate federal rules that forbid American citizens and companies, and subsidiaries set up in the United States, from doing business with brutal strongman Robert Mugabe, his regime or associates.
Prokhorov's Renaissance Capital investment bank has interests in the Zimbabwean stock exchange, banks, a cellphone company, mining and a swanky, private big-game reserve. The company is intertwined with Onexim, the $25 billion Prokhorov-controlled investment fund behind the deal to bring the struggling NBA team to Brooklyn.
Pascrell said he will ask the Treasury Department, which oversees the sanctions, to investigate Onexim. In 2008, Onexim became a 50 percent owner of Renaissance Capital, which has been actively investing in Zimbabwe since 2007.
The Nets currently play in East Rutherford, New Jersey, located in Pascrell's district, so he's not exactly an impartial observer. On the other hand, the NBA has only itself to blame if this blows up into a scandal. Renaissance Capital hasn't exactly gone out of their way to hide their business ties to Zimbabwe: there's a Harare office listed on their website.
DMITRY KOSTYUKOV/AFP/Getty Images
One of the great ironies of reporting overseas is that it's often much easier to hear a political leader speak candidly here in Washington than in an interview back home. Such was the case today, as Nigerian Acting President Goodluck Jonathan spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations as part of his trip here for Barack Obama's nuclear summit. And it wasn't just him: his delegation included five state governors and the minister of petroleum and finance. In other words, that's more high-level Nigerian officials than any gathering I'd ever been present to in Abuja.
What struck me most about Jonathan was his almost anti-politician persona. He's a charismatic guy, who laughs often, slouches when he sits, peppers his points with anecdotes. But when he read his prepared statement, he was ice cold -- an unpracticed speaker in that context. He was in his element discussing things he knows in and out -- the Niger Delta, where he is from and where he is leading an amnesty program for militants there; election reform, which he says is a top priority.
On the substance, here's what Goodluck Jonathan promises to deliver for Nigeria while in office: First, credible elections in 2011 -- a big advance for anyone who watched the fiasco that was the last presidential poll in 2007. "I promise Nigerians and the rest of the world that 2011 elections in Nigera will be credible," he told the audience, explaining that this was an objective that could certainly be achieved in his short time left in office (maximum 12 months). He promised advances in the fight against corruption; progress on the Niger Delta amnesty deal; security reform to prevent outbreaks of violence in the North (and elsewhere); and a serious review of the power sector (or more accurately the power-cuts sector in its current state today).
The question I was hoping to ask but wasn't able to, however, is to me the crux of whether these promises will come to fruition: does Jonathan have the support and political flexibility he needs to get all this done? To follow Nigerian politics over the last several months has been to try and sort through the dramatic reversals of allegiance, apparent purges of whole swathes of people, and resurrections of swathes of other once-purged former officials. Only if that ends will any policy promises even begin to move forward.
Here's my hope: As I've written before, Jonathan ended up as the president by a series of accidents. He hasn't been voted into office, either for the presidency or the governorship, except as a running mate. So maybe he can rise above the politics and do the things he spoke about today. There would be nothing accidental about that happening.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
The coup-in-progress in Guinea-Bissau mentioned in this morning's brief appears to have failed:
The prime minister of Guinea-Bissau, Carlos Gomes Junior, has been released after being briefly detained by soldiers in an apparent coup attempt. Military music played on the radio, a telltale sign of a coup, during the incident. Gomes was released hours later as hundreds of people gathered in front of his office chanting "Never a coup d'etat in Guinea-Bissau."
The minister of territorial administration, Luis Sanca, said he and the prime minister were abducted by the soldiers at 8am and taken to the capital's main military camp, where they saw the head of the armed forces, Zamora Induta, also under guard. Sanca said the soldiers released him and Gomes at about 11 but were still holding the army chief.
"The prime minister has been freed and is meeting the president," said a family member, who asked not to be named. Mamadou Diao, the prime minister's press attache, confirmed the release.
It would be wishful thinking to hope that things will return to normal in Guinea-Bissau, an archetypal failing state and major drug transshipment point, but after a series of coups and assassinations over the last few years, it's good news that the government appears to have held on. Leaders of the West African regional body ECOWAS, having already suspended Guinea and Niger after recent coups, are probably breathing a sigh of relief as well.
As mentioned in the brief, Tanzania and Zambia were rebuffed today in their attempts to relax the international ban on ivory sales at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in Doha. The decision is being hailed as a victory for conservationists after some setbacks earlier in the week:
The rulings were a rare victory for environmentalists at the two-week meeting where they have endured defeats of proposals ranging from an export ban on Atlantic bluefin tuna to a shark conservation plan to a measure to regulate trade of red and pink corals.
Not that I approve of killing elephants for their ivory, but the economic double-standard at work here seems troubling. The tuna ban, for instance, was strongly opposed by Japan, which imports 80 percent of the world's bluefin and led a concerted lobbying effort to have the current rules overturned.
Japan has, for years, employed a similar strategy in its campaign to loosen restrictions on whaling, exchanging foreign aid to disinterested countries like Togo and St. Kitts who join the International Whaling Comission and vote with the pro-whaling bloc. Economist Christian Dippel has studied this phenomenon and wrote about it in a recent piece for FP.
Aid-receiving countries like Tanzania and Zambia presumably don't have the resources to mount such a campaign, which is a large part of the reason they want the ban lifted in the first place. As Zambia's Minister of Tourism, Environment and Natural Resources Catherine Namugala put it, "We can't justify failure to take a child to school because we are using resources to conserve elephants. I appeal to allow Zambia to utilize the natural resources given to us by God."
Again, I tend to side with the conservationists on this, but I certainly understand the frustration of poor-country governments who are expected to make economic sacrifices for the sake of endangered species while the world's second-largest economy continues to hunt species on the brink of extinction.
Update: New protections for hammerhead and white-tip sharks have also been shot down. Guess who led the opposition to them.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
For those of you who don't subscribe to the bimonthly print edition of Foreign Policy, you're missing a great feature: the FP Quiz. It has eight intriguing questions about how the world works.
The question I'd like to highlight this week is:
Which of these three countries has the highest annual death rate?
a) Germany b) Iraq c) Kenya
(The photo above is of half-buried headstones at Arlington National Cemetery during last month's D.C.-area "snowpocalypse.")
Answer after the jump ...
Win McNamee/Getty Images
This time it's Togo:
Togo's top opposition candidate said Monday that security forces have been provoking demonstrators with force, a day after the group staged protests claiming last week's presidential election was rigged to favor the son of the country's longtime dictator.
Anti-riot police sealed off the sandy alleys leading to the headquarters of the opposition party, stranding the country's opposition leader Jean-Pierre Fabre outside for more than an hour in a tense standoff days after the disputed vote.
The 57-year-old Fabre vowed Sunday to take to the streets every day to protest what he says was a fraudulent election, saying he would only stop when the police had exhausted their stock of tear gas or killed him.
From Kenya to Zimbabwe to Iran to Sri Lanka, the seemingly fraudulent eection followed by mass protest and government crackdown is becoming a familiar pattern. While Togo is unlikely to command international media attention long enough to get a "color" designation, it seems to fit the mold.
The optimistic view of all these bloody post-elections is that opposition movements are becoming bolder about challenging fraudulent results. The bad news is that except for the original color revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, the authorities always seem to win these confrontations.
ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images
An extraordinary paper on poverty reduction across Africa by Columbia's Xavier Sala-i-Martin and Maxim Pinkovskiy shows:
My first thought was that the study might be so broad as to be misleading. Countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo have suffered from violent conflict and declines in GDP in the past decade; countries like South Africa haven't. It's a billion-person continent. It's hard, and in some ways useless, to generalize.
Thus, perhaps the most remarkable finding is that "poverty reduction... cannot be explained by a large country or even by a single set of countries." The authors note: "[P]overty fell for both landlocked as well as coastal countries; for mineral-rich as well as mineral-poor countries; for countries with favorable or with unfavorable agriculture; for countries regardless of colonial origin; and for countries with below- or above-median slave exports per capita during the African slave trade."
Today, in Zimbabwe, a highly controversial new law requiring businesses to be majority-owned by indigenous Zimbabwean citizens comes into effect.
Within the next 45 days, every company with an asset value over $500,000 needs to submit paperwork detailing the racial background of its shareholders. If the company has a majority of white or foreign shareholders, the Indigenization and Economic Empowerment Act -- brainchild of President Robert Mugabe, whose catastrophic land reform act caused hyperinflation and famine -- requires it to transfer shares to indigenous Zimbabweans.
The goal of the law -- "a deliberate involvement of indigenous Zimbabweans in the economic activities of the country, to which hitherto they had no access, so as to ensure the equitable ownership of the nation's resources" -- is a noble one. But the law is a calamity that promises to drive away foreign dollars and further the impoverishment of average Zimbabweans.
Facing the law, which Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai lobbied against and which many believed would never actually be enacted, uncounted companies are simply pulling out. 51 percent is a controlling stake. That means that if you're the head of, say, a South African soda company's Zimbabwean unit, in 45 days, you have a new boss -- shareholders appointed by a branch of Mugabe's government. Foreign direct investment, so vital to the economic growth of low-income countries, has already fallen off and will continue to crater.
Plus, the law, which creates an agency to help distribute shares to indigenous Zimbabweans, will likely only benefit a tiny handful of elites. "We fear that this could lead to a creation of new minority blacks who will just replace the minority whites," Lovemore Matombo, the head of Zimbabwe's Congress of Trade Unions, told AFP.
And how does Mugabe's government determine who qualifies as an "indigenous Zimbabwean" anyway? What about people of mixed race, naturalized citizens, or citizens by marriage? The law says the category includes "any person who before the 18th April 1980" -- when Zimbabwe was officially founded -- "was disadvantaged by unfair discrimination on the grounds of his or her race." That means the new law inverts the guidelines of the racist Rhodesian government, which as a foundational principle discriminated against black and mixed-race people.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has, in the past, shown little interest in discussing the darker periods of French history. His summed up his attitude while visiting former colony Algeria two years ago, saying:
"Young people on either side of the Mediterranean are looking to the future more than the past and what they want are concrete things. They're not waiting for their leaders to simply drop everything and start mortifying themselves, or to beat their breasts, over the mistakes of the past because, in that case, there'd be lots to do on both sides."
But in the last two weeks there have been some signs that Sarkozy may be tentatively softening his relentlessly forward-facing outlook. Visiting Haiti last week to announce a debt cancellation package, Sarkozy had this to say about France's legacy of slavery, colonialism, and economic dominance over the country:
"Our presence did not leave good memories,'' Sarkozy conceded outside the still-standing French Embassy in downtown Port-au-Prince.
"The wounds of colonization, maybe the worst, [and] the conditions of our separation have some traces that are still alive in Haitian memories.''
Visiting Rwanda today, Sarkozy didn't exactly apologize for France's conduct during the 1994 genocide, but at least took note of his country's faults:
"What happened here is unacceptable and what happened here forces the international community, including France, to reflect on the mistakes that prevented it from anticipating and stopping this terrible crime."
Asked what he felt those mistakes had been, the president cited a seriously flawed assessment of the situation in Rwanda as the genocide unfolded and a UN-mandated French military intervention that was "too late and undoubtedly too little".
But reflecting a thaw in relations, Sarkozy said he hoped the future would enable the two countries to "turn an extremely painful page" on a past fraught with mutual distrust. "Off the back of all these mistakes … we are going to try to build a bilateral relationship," he said.
Granted, this isn't much -- certainly less than the Rwandans were expecting and much weaker than the apologies Bill Clinton and Kofi Annan have made -- but it's a new style from Sarkozy, whose rhetoric has never exactly been known for its sensitivity.
PHILIPPE WOJAZER/AFP/Getty Images
The Obama administration's quick condemnation of last year's coup in Honduras and repeated (though ultimately unsuccessful) demands that leftist President Manuel Zelaya be reinstated, seemed to be an indication that the United States would no longer tolerate military coups, no matter how unsavory or anti-American the leader overthrown.
That's why it was a little surprising to see that the State Department's first response to the overthrow of President Mamadou Tandja in Niger yesterday was essentially "he had it coming":
"President Tandja has been trying to extend his mandate in office. And obviously, that may well have been, you know, an act on his behalf that precipitated this act today," he said.
Crowley was quick to stress that the United States does "not in any way, shape or form defend violence of this nature.
"Clearly, we think this underscores that Niger needs to move ahead with the elections and the formation of a new government," he added, noting that Washington still had few details of what actually took place in Niger. (Emphasis Mine.)
Hadn't Zelaya also been attempting to extend his mandate by extra-constitutional means before he was unceremoniously sent packing by his own military? Why is Tandja's reinstatement not a precondition for the restoration of democracy?
Granted the international context of the two situations is quite different. Tandja was a pariah, even in his own region, whereas Zelaya had the support of other Latin American governments. However, even ECOWAS, the West African body that had suspended Tandja's membership, has been outspoken in condemning his ouster.
It's possible that a more full-throated condemnation is coming, but it's important the the U.S. avoid even tacit acceptance of coups as a method of changing government. The fact that the United States no longer supports or tolerates coups as it did during the Cold War is likely a large factor in why they're not as common or as disastrous as they used to be.
Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says "there is more than just spotty evidence" indicating a link between drug traffickers and terror groups.
"And before this becomes a very serious problem, it has to be dealt with and nipped in the bud," Costa said in an interview with The Associated Press, on the sidelines of a seven-nation drug summit in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.
Cocaine from South America has been moving through the West African coast for several years, and experts believe drugs are then parceled out to smugglers who move the cocaine north by boats and by road. One suspected smuggling route crosses portions of the Sahara desert controlled by insurgents. The cocaine-for-arms trade is especially worrying given the recent expansion of an al-Quaida-linked terror group, which was once based exclusively in Algeria but now has tentacles in Mauritania, Mali and Niger.
"There is plenty of evidence of a double flow. (Of) drugs moving, arriving into West Africa from across the Atlantic ... and the trading — exchange — of cocaine for arms," Costa said.
Costa did not say how extensive the cocaine-for-arms exchange was thought to be, or which countries were involved.
There seems to be an awful lot of hand-waving happening here. What we know is that drug smugglers are moving cocaine through West Africa, including regions where Al Qaeda linked militants also operate. This, in itself, may be cause for concern. But many, including prominent politicans, seem to be assuming that an established link exists when the only reported case of a suspected al Qaeda affiliate making a coke deal --again trotted out as evidence in this article -- was with someone who turned out to be a DEA agent. Until there's some more evidence, a little more cautious reporting might be in order.
In any event, if al Qaeda is getting into the cocaine business, it would seem to suggest that the organization is moving outside its core competency in order to raise money, and perhaps setting up more opportunities for authorities to infiltrate their networks.
MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images
Uganda's Chief Magistrate's court dismissed a landmark case on Wednesday that had been filed by two Ugandan journalists, Angelo Izama and Charles Mwanguhya Mpagi. The file was introduced by the journalists as an attempt to use Uganda's Access to Information Act to force the Ugandan government to release the details of five oil Production Sharing Agreements that it has signed with oil companies. The government and the oil companies has resisted pressure to divulge even the smallest details to the public -- both attempting to deflect criticism by citing the other's insistence in maintaining secrecy over the deals.
Oil explorers have long been skeptical of Uganda's potential for holding large oil deposits but in the last few years oil exploration has proved wildly successful. The estimates now lie upwards of 6 billion barrels of oil -- if on the higher end, Uganda would surpass Sudan for the fifth largest oil reserves in Africa.
Observers are not optimistic at the implications of Uganda's oil finds. Although it would inject billions of dollars annually into Uganda's economy, widespread corruption (Uganda was ranked 126th out of 179 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index) increases the risk that the country could slip into the feared "resource curse". While the government and the oil companies paint a rosy picture for the public, analysts are less sanguine. As Taimour Lay writes in The Guardian, the components for a bad situation are all there:
The ingredients for the so-called "resource curse" are all in place: contract secrecy, government corruption, commercial disinformation campaigns, with environmental protections ignored, and a simmering border dispute with the Democratic Republic of the Congo frozen rather than resolved.
Although the Chief Magistrate's reasoning behind the dismissal of the case was less than convincing (he cited "national security"), it certainly highlighted Uganda's press freedom, right? That is, until Angelo Izama was slapped with a charge of libel and driven to jail on the very next day. The complaint? A December 2009 article in which Izama suggested parallels between President Yoweri Museveni and Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Although this is not a new tactic -- typically used by the Ugandan government to intimidate journalists -- such cases have certainly picked up in the last year. In a country where press freedom is one of the most important aspects of its "partly free" rating by Freedom House, this is a disturbing trend.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reports on the Ugandan government's widespread use of defamation statutes to coerce its critics:
"If anything proves that a government is authoritarian, it's jailing journalists who raise questions about the government," said CPJ Africa Program Coordinator Tom Rhodes. "It's regrettable that the magistrate charged Angelo Izama and Henry Ochieng with criminal libel. It's time for Uganda to join the ranks of democracies by eliminating criminal defamation statutes."
Izama and Ochieng are among several Monitor journalists facing criminal charges in connection with their coverage, according to CPJ research. Sedition charges also hang over radio journalists Robert Kalundi Sserumaga and Betty Nambooze, while a government ban remains on popular debate programs and Central Broadcasting Services, the station of the traditional kingdom of the Baganda, Uganda's largest ethnic group, since last September.
Election fever for the 2011 presidential elections starts in the next few months and President Yoweri Museveni will be running for his fourth term. A potential resource curse and press intimidation are not the best of omens for a free and fair election. Ugandan journalists will play an essential role in pushing for transparency -- and I have a hunch they won't be cowed.
(Hat Tip: Michael Wilkerson)
Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Until recently counter-terrorism officials weren't worried about jihadi pundits having much of an influence in the United States itself, where they believed that a higher degree of Muslim-American assimiliation, social mobility and economic well-being would act against such influences. It turns out however, that this isn't always the case.
In an article in New York Times Magazine, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Andrea Eliot profiles the captivating transformation of an all-American boy from Alabama, Omar Hammami, who is now fighting with Al Shabaab in Somalia.
Despite the name he acquired from his father, an immigrant from Syria, Hammami was every bit as Alabaman as his mother, a warm, plain-spoken woman who sprinkles her conversation with blandishments like "sugar" and "darlin'." Brought up a Southern Baptist, Omar went to Bible camp as a boy and sang "Away in a Manger" on Christmas Eve. As a teenager, his passions veered between Shakespeare and Kurt Cobain, soccer and Nintendo. In the thick of his adolescence, he was fearless, raucously funny, rebellious, contrarian. "It felt cool just to be with him," his best friend at the time, Trey Gunter, said recently. "You knew he was going to be a leader."
A decade later, Hammami has fulfilled that promise in the most unimaginable way. Some 8,500 miles from Alabama, on the eastern edge of Africa, he has become a key figure in one of the world's most ruthless Islamist insurgencies. That guerrilla army, known as the Shabab, is fighting to overthrow the fragile American-backed Somali government. The rebels are known for beheading political enemies, chopping off the hands of thieves and stoning women accused of adultery. With help from Al Qaeda, they have managed to turn Somalia into an ever more popular destination for jihadis from around the world.
And there are some downright chilling portions of the article:
In a recent propaganda video viewed by thousands on YouTube, he is shown leading a platoon of gun-toting rebels as a soundtrack of jihadi rap plays in the background.
He is identified by his nom de guerre, Abu Mansoor Al-Amriki, "the American," and speaks to the camera with a cool, almost eerie confidence. "We're waiting for the enemy to come," Hammami whispers, a smile crossing his face. Later he vows, "We're going to kill all of them."
Getting native-born Americans to join the jihadist cause is a coup for groups like al Qaeda or al Shabaab. An American jihadi can increase a group's legitimacy, add appeal to radicalizing youth in Western countries and can teach foreign jihadis about American culture. Having an American passport also allows for freer travel.
Although Omar Hammami isn't the first American to reach the higher echelons of a radical Islamic organization (California native Adam Gadahn is a top spokesman for al Qaeda), Eliot's article is a uniquely in-depth look into the details of such a metamorphosis. It's definitely worth a full read.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Always wanted to dress like Jacob Zuma? ANC designed leather jackets, initially made popular by the South African president, are now on sale. They're, well, a bit garish -- and, not surprisingly, haven't been received well by South Africa's fashionistas:
Popular fashion designer Thula Sindi says the jackets have a "members' only feel" and are only suitable for "much older people".
"I wouldn't be caught dead in them. Its all just looks like patchwork," he says.
"I don't think anybody younger than 40 would wear that, out of fear of being ridiculed."
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
After months of resistance against international pressure to overturn Uganda's now-notorious Anti-Homosexuality Bill, Uganda's politicians seem to be pulling back. In early January, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni expressed concern that the bill was too harsh and on Jan. 12th noted:
"Because it is a foreign policy issue, it is not just our internal politics, and we must handle it in a way which does not compromise our principles but also takes into account our foreign policy interests."
The U.N. and the U.S. government, along with countries such as Britain, Canada and Sweden, have expressed their strong disapproval of the bill. Their displeasure has had an effect: during a January 19th cabinet meeting, the Ugandan government agreed to form a committee to amend the bill, with cabinet members citing the possibility of aid cuts by Western governments as a chief reason behind their reservations. The bill's author, MP David Bahati, held strong for a little longer. That is, until today when he expressed willingness to change some key clauses of the legislation.
Of course, none of this means that gay Ugandans will be getting a fair shake anytime soon -- especially when 95 percent of those surveyed in the country believe homosexuality should continue to be criminalized.
Although the U.S. government has condemned the bill, the American evangelical influences behind it are widely known. For example, Rick Warren, who advised most of the bill's leading supporters (such as Pastor Martin Ssempa), was barely ahead of Museveni in distancing himself from it. Also heavily circulated were the allegations by Jeff Sharlet that President Museveni, his ethics minister Nsamba Buturo and David Bahati, all have ties to U.S. politicians linked to The Family (a secretive evangelical organization with plenty of political influence).
Now, with human rights activists and journalists fully in the mix, friction over the bill has led to a proxy battle over the U.S.' cultural influence in the region.
WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade is offering free land to displaced Haitians who want to "return to their origins" in Africa:
"The president is offering voluntary repatriation to any Haitian that wants to return to their origin," said Wade's spokesman Mamadou Bemba Ndiaye late Saturday following the president's announcement.
"Senegal is ready to offer them parcels of land - even an entire region. It all depends on how many Haitians come. If it's just a few individuals, then we will likely offer them housing or small pieces of land. If they come en masse we are ready to give them a region," he said.
He stressed that Wade had insisted that if a region is handed over it should be in a fertile area - not in the country's parched deserts.
The offer may be unusual, but it's not out of character of the octogenarian Wade, who is known for his pan-African sentiments and lofty visions.
The troubled and impoverished Democratic Republic of Congo has also raised some eyebrows by offering $2.5 million in aid to Haiti. Political scientist Ntanda Nkere told the BBC the likely reasoning behind the offer:
"It's a contradiction to see a country which is facing serious financial problems giving away $2.5m but at the same time, it's a purely diplomatic reaction, the Congolese government wants to appear like any other government."
In the the wake of last week's tragic attack on the Togolese soccer team at the Afrcia Cup of Nations tournament, Ethan Zuckerman provides some useful background on Cabinda, the fluke of a province where the attack took place:
If the world’s media wasn’t busy asking itself, “Where the heck is Yemen?“, we’d probably be asking “Where’s Cabinda?” It’s not in Angola – at least, it’s not geographically contiguous with Angola – it’s a small enclave separated from Angola by a 60km wide strip of the Democratic Republic of Congo. About the size of Puerto Rico, it’s ethnically and linguistically separate from the rest of Angola – Cabindans speak Cabindês and French, rather than Portuguese. About 100,000 Cabindans live in Cabinda – twice as many live in exile in neighboring Congo-Brazzaville and DRCongo.
Oh, and Cabinda is very, very rich. Which is to say, it’s got 60% of Angola’s oil… and Angola is now the largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. (According to one history, Cabinda is part of Angola through Chevron’s support of Angolan MPLA forces in 1975.) As often happens in resource-rich nations, Cabinda doesn’t see much of that oil money, a major grievance of the Cabindan people. A recent agreement invests 10% of oil profits into Cabinda. That agreement helped the Angolan government achieve a ceasefire with some members of the FLEC – Forces for the Liberation of Cabinda.
At least one faction of FLEC – the Forces for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda-Military Position (FLEC-PM) – wasn’t on board with this plan. Their general secretary Rodrigues Mingas told the media that he’d warned Cup of Nations organizers not to hold matches in Cabinda, as his faction of FLEC considered themselves to be at war with Angolan forces. Mingas went on to apologize for the loss of Togolese life:
We didn’t specifically target the Togolese. It could have been Angola, Ivory Coast, Ghana… Anything is possible,” he said. “We are at war, and it’s no holds barred.”
“We always regret the death of human beings but there are also thousands of Cabindans killed over 35 years,” he said.
Obviously, the attack by FLEC-PM on unarmed footballers is a horrific and disgusting act of terrorism. But it’s hard to imagine the Angolans screwing the situation up much more thoroughly. First, hosting matches in Cabinda was clearly a political decision designed to demonstrate Angola’s firm hold over this disputed territory. Colin Droniou, writing for the AFP, observes that police presence in Cabinda is currently higher than normal, but quips: “Normal in Cabinda means one soldier for every 10 residents.” Human Rights Watch reports that those military forces are routinely involved with the detention and torture of rebels. The Angolan government had to know that there was a risk of violence during the tournament, a risk they could have mitigated by moving matches out of Cabinda. One analyst calls the decision to host matches in Cabinda “stupid and tragic“.
Another example of an international event designed to highlight a country's, instead serving as a reminder of its flaws.
When I was working in Nigeria, I refused to dabble in conspiracy theories about the health of President Umaru Yar'Adua. All of his opponents told me that he was sick -- that he worked only four hours a day. His advisors told me the story was a load of baloney. Since there had already been one ridiculous, overblown story of the president's death while on the campaign trail, I was inclined to believe the middle: he was sick, but not decapacitated.
Now, a year and a half later, no one has seen the president for six weeks, at least three lawsuits are pending in court to declare him unfit for service, the opposition is claiming that his recent signature on a budget bill was forged, and even his allies in the ruling People's Democratic Party don't know when he'll return. A group of expats have even written to Saudi Arabia's king, asking him to relay information about Yar'Adua's health.
This should terrify anyone who gives a hoot about Nigeria, broader West Africa, terrorism, or even oil prices. Nigeria is the lynchpin of the region -- the largest economy and by far Africa's most populous. But it rests on a very precarious balance, and a power vacuum there could create a whole host of scenarios that I could only speculate about (and desperately hope don't occur.)
First, the country has a long history of coups (ominously, one took place in 1983 when then military President Muhammadu Buhari was in Saudi Arabia.) Military rule put the country's people under house arrest for decades -- an experience that they would surely rather repeat. But it's not entirely unlikely. In Nigeria's short democratic history, the country has made a de facto compromise to alternate leaders from the Muslim North and the Christian South. The rotation matters because governance in Nigeria traditionally yields patronage -- a lot of patronage -- in the form of government jobs, local budgets, and well, cash. Yar'Adua is from the North, and some in the military, which has traditionally been made up of Northerners, would surely not look pleasantly upon forfeiting their "turn" to rule to the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, who comes from the Niger Delta region.
If this worse-case doesn't happen, Yar'Adua's disappearance will set the country back on a host of things that it desperately needs to accomplish. The precarious peace in the oil-producing Niger Delta, for now, rests essentially on Yar'Adua's character and personal promises to insurgent leaders there. On December 19, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility in an e-mail for a "warning attack" that the peace was in jeopardy: " While wishing the president a speedy recovery, a situation where the future of the Niger Delta is tied to the health and well being of one man is unacceptable."
Then there's the new terrorism concerns, following the Christmas-day bomber. I tend to think that the threat of terrorism from Nigeria is real, if extremely overblown. Still, good luck getting help from the Nigerian government in fighting terror when who the "Nigerian government" is is really anyone's guess.
And then of course there is corruption. Yar'Adua is one of the only Nigierian politicians I can think of who has a completely spotless personal record, and his example alone means something (though not as much as many had hoped when he was elected). It would be a shame to lose his leadership, however frail.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images
A number of strange a contradictory reports have emerged about the Somali national who attempted to kill controverisal Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard with an axe in his home on New Year's Day, but it's becoming clear that someone dropped the ball in allowing the man to take up residency in Denmark.
One Danish paper is reporting that Danish intelligence services were aware that the man -- who has not been named because of privacy laws -- was held for seven weeks in Kenya in September for helping to plot an attack against U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. U.S. officials and the Danish embassy in Kenya have both denied the report and say the man was held for having incomplete travel documents.The Danish embassy says it was never made aware by Kenyan authorities that he had been suspected of terrorist activity:
However, while not acknowledging the Clinton plot, the Danish intelligence agency PET acknowledged the man's ties to African terrorist groups:
“The person arrested. has close links with the Somali terrorist organisation al-Shabaab as well as with the heads of al-Qaeda in East Africa,” the agency said in a statement.
“He is also suspected of being implicated in terrorist activities when he was in east Africa. The individual arrested has also been a member of a terrorist network implanted in Denmark that has been under surveillance by PET for a long time.”
The statement doesn't really say whether the individual himself was under observation or when they had become aware of his background before or after he was granted residency in Denmark. There will probably be a lot more investigation in the coming weeks of whether it was the Kenyans or the Danes who messed up.
I generally think it's not fair to expect authorities to take every report of a potential security threat seriously, but this case as well as the U.S. plane bombing both highlight how much ground the international community needs to make up on intergovernmental intelligence sharing on terrorism suspects. I have to think that a concerted effort in this area should be a higher priority than new airport scanners or security procedures.
BRIAN RASMUSSEN/AFP/Getty Images
Even as housing prices have dropped sharply in the United States, prices in Nairobi have seen two- and three-fold increases the last half decade.
"There is suspicion that some of the money that is being collected in piracy is being laundered by purchase of property in several countries, this one being one of them," said government spokesman Alfred Mutua. "Especially at this time when we are facing global challenges of security such as terrorism and others, it is very important for us to know who is where and who owns what." [...]
Pirates in Somalia say they invest their ransom money outside their war-torn country, including in Kenya. One pirate who gave his name as Osman Afrah said he bought three trucks that transport goods across East Africa. A second pirate, who only gave his name as Abdulle, said he's investing in Kenya in preparation for leaving the pirate trade.
"Pirates have money not only in Nairobi but also other places like Dubai, Djibouti and others," said Abdulle. "I have invested through my brother, who is representing me, in Nairobi. He's got a big shop that sells clothes and general merchandise, so my future lies there, not in the piracy industry."
My colleague Elizabeth Dickinson has argued that pirates' financing is the achilles heel, and by investing in highly visible sectors like real estate, they seem to be sticking that heel pretty far out. Also, the fact that the AP's Tom Odula was able to get not one, but two pirates to tell him about their investment strategies, suggests that these guys might be getting a little overconfident.
Hat tip: Marginal Revolution
Poor Nigeria. As if it didn't already have a terrible reputation, the alleged terror attempt by a 23-year-old Abdul Farouk Abdulmutallab yesterday on a flight from Amsterdam to Detriot seals the deal. But as you're reading the news, a few caveats to remember:
First, much of the information coming out about the suspect's origin comes from the Nigerian newspaper This Day. While often a good source of initial information, this report probably shouldn't be taken as fact without other confirmation. The press in Nigeria, while vibrant, growing, and home to countless incredible journalists, has still been known to exagerate or assume at times. I have no reason to believe that is the case this time, but skepticism is warranted.
Second, if the suspect does indeed come from a family of means, as his residence in London suggests (forgive a generalization, but anyone who is anyone in Nigeria has got a house in London), it says much about where the real terror "threat" is (and is not) coming from in Nigeria. Security analysts have been worrying about Nigeria since the Sept 11. attacks -- fearing that this about half-Muslim country of 140 million people would be a potential host to extremists. But at the end of the day, something that I've learned about Nigeria is that it takes money and connections to get things done. Just think back to the violence earlier this summer by the Boko Haram sect. The mostly-impoverished members of the group raised hell in the local context ... but that was it. Taking "jihad" international from Nigeria is still a long ways and a lot of financing off (if it is on the way at all).
Which brings me to one more point about extremism in Nigeria. Much of the religious violence that the country has seen in recent years has been less about religion and more about a country rife with corruption and wanting for institutions. When sharia law was introduced in the North earlier this decade, most analysts believe that it had more to do with a desire for the law -- any law -- to function. Since the secular government had failed for years, many sought refuge in the laws of religious fundamentalism.
And that brings us back to the alleged terrorist in questioning today. His grievances are different from these, one might imagine, since the lack of rule of law often works in favor of (rather than against) the elite. In short, what I'm trying to say is that there are two different phenomena going on here: mass dissatisfaction among many impoverished in the country's Muslim North, and the different brand of extremism that would incite a well-off 23-year-old to blow up a plane in Detroit.
Finally, in the time that I've written this blog post, I have recieved several requests from news agencies and papers to help me connect them with reporters in Nigeria. An unfortunate reminder that the press in my former-resident country is drying up. And with each correspondent that leaves, it is trickier and trickier to piece together developments that unfold. For the last two years, editors have asked me why Nigeria matters. Case and point.
Julia Gronnevet, who reports on the U.N. for Japan's Asahi Shimbun, sends in this gem:
When the Eritrean national soccer team's plane returned home after a competition in Nairobi, only the coach was on board. The team's whereabouts are unknown. This isn't the first time the've pulled this though:
Mr Musonye told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme it was the third time the Eritrean team had failed to return home after a tournament.
"The Eritrean federation have done their best to bring a team to the competition - unfortunately these boys had other ideas," he said.
"Definitely they are in Nairobi - we have so many Eritreans here - they must be somewhere."
It seems like Uganda is taking two steps forward and one step backward
this week in terms of securing human rights for its citizens. Amid
growing debate regarding the national Anti-Homosexuality Bill, the Ugandan parliament unanimously passed
a law which not only outlaws the practice of female genital
mutilation, but imposes a strict punishments of ten year to life-long
sentences for convicted perpetrators.
Not a single parliamentary member spoke against the bill, and Francis Epetait, Uganda's shadow health minister explained the reasoning:
"This practice has left so many women in misery. So we are saying no. We cannot allow women to be dehumanised."So as gender activists celebrate in Uganda, national rights advocates still cringe as the likelihood of the passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill looms nearer. The Ugandan Civil Society Coalition on Human Rights and Constitutional Law released a statement yesterday to mark International Human Rights day in which they call the pending bill an "unprecedented threat to Ugandan's human rights:
“Uganda today stands at a crossroads. We can either turn further towards an agenda of divisionism and discrimination, and pay the costs in terms of internal suppression of our own citizens coupled with international isolation and marginalization, or we can embrace diversity, human rights and constitutionalism.”
SHAUN CURRY/AFP/Getty Images
For the last few weeks influential U.S. pastor Rick Warren has been under fire from critics for refusing to condemn the proposed draconian anti-gay laws in Uganda -- which would punish homosexual behavior with jail time or even death and punish those who fail to report gays to the authorities -- despite his longstanding involvement in the country and having had one of the main campaigners for the law as a speaker at his church. Warren had previously said, "It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations."
Of course, there are thousands of evil laws enacted around the world and I cannot speak to pastors about every one of them, but I am taking the extraordinary step of speaking to you – the pastors of Uganda and spiritual leaders of your nation – for five reasons:
First, the potential law is unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals, requiring the death penalty in some cases. If I am reading the proposed bill correctly, this law would also imprison anyone convicted of homosexual practice.
Second, the law would force pastors to report their pastoral conversations with homosexuals to authorities.
Third, it would have a chilling effect on your ministry to the hurting. As you know, in Africa, it is the churches that are bearing the primary burden of providing care for people infected with HIV/AIDS. If this bill passed, homosexuals who are HIV positive will be reluctant to seek or receive care, comfort and compassion from our churches out of fear of being reported. You and I know that the churches of Uganda are the truly caring communities where people receive hope and help, not condemnation.
Fourth, ALL life, no matter how humble or broken, whether unborn or dying, is precious to God. My wife, Kay, and I have devoted our lives and our ministry to saving the lives of people, including homosexuals, who are HIV positive. It would be inconsistent to save some lives and wish death on others. We’re not just pro-life. We are whole life.
Finally, the freedom to make moral choices and our right to free expression are gifts endowed by God. Uganda is a democratic country with remarkable and wise people, and in a democracy everyone has a right to speak up. For these reasons, I urge you, the pastors of Uganda, to speak out against the proposed law.
All well and good, except no one is expecting Warren to comment on every unjust law in the world, just ones in countries where he has an extensive history of involvement, are sponsored by his onetime ally, and concerns a subject that he frequently discusses. After the Ugandan Anglican Church threatened to leave the Church of England, Warren rose to their defense, saying, “The Church of England is wrong and I support the Church of Uganda on the boycott.” So it's not as if he's afraid to wade into Uganda's culture wars.
Warren says that, "some erroneously concluded that I supported this terrible bill, and some even claimed I was a sponsor of the bill." But people only came to these conclusions because of his refusal to comment. Warren might not think it's fair that he was asked about the law, but he's a public figure that many people look to for moral guidance and it shouldn't be an unreasonable demand to expect him to condemn the state-sanctioned murder of innocent people.
Moreover, reports yesterday indicated that the Ugandan parliament had actually removed the most controversial portion of the bill -- the possibility of the death penaly or life infrisonment for homosexuals. So Warren actually waited for the death-penalty provision to be dropped before speaking out against it.
I'm glad that he made this statement and hope that it makes a difference in Uganda, but it's not exactly a profile in courage.
David McNew/Getty Images
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