Liberia, with the aid of the World Bank, has been negotiating with vulture funds holding $1.2 billion of its debt. You know what vulture funds are, right? They’re evil hedge-fund types who buy up debt at pennies on the dollar, and then sue for repayment in full, with interest and penalties and everything.
Just look at the deal they drove in this case! Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world, is going to have to pay them, er, nothing at all. The World Bank is kicking in $19 million, a few rich countries are matching that sum, and the vultures are walking away with a not-very-princely-at-all $38 million, or just 3 cents on the dollar. Which probably barely covers their legal fees, let alone the amount they paid for the debt in the first place.
Let's read that again: the World Bank and Liberian government negotiated a deal so that vulture funds holding $1.2 billion in debt ended up with a check for $38 million -- three percent!
It's distressing that Liberia got in such a bad fix. It needed to raise funds and banked on future growth to make the payments -- but a bloody civil war meant it couldn't. The original lenders decided to sell the loans off to vulture and hedge funds who drove a hard bargain. Which meant that at one point, Liberia owed seven times its national income to creditors.
So, the balance sheet -- in redux:
Ultimately, though, Liberia isn't the story here. Emerging market and developing economies, like Liberia, will be among the hardest-hit in the Great Recession. Unlike OECD countries, they won't be able to issue debt or raise funds easily. They'll need the help of the international community -- and especially international organizations -- to ensure that their loans come with advisement and affordable repayment options.
The hero here's the World Bank. Suddenly, it and the IMF -- especially the IMF, perhaps -- have become the world's most important international organizations.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
It's a very obvious overstatement to say that South Africa is becoming more like its delinquent neighbor, Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, an incident reported in South Africa's Business Today gave reason for the comparison: Last weekend, a mob overran a fruit and sugar cane farm, allegedly in frustration for the slow pace of long-promised land reform. It sparked memories of the public outcry in Zimbabwe that spawned a policy of "fast track" reallocation of land from white to black hands.
As South Africa approaches its fourth elections since the end of apartheid this weekend, this is a dismaying analogy. Both countries began independence with striking imbalances -- with some 80 to 90 percent of land in white hands. In South Africa, that persists today, and calls for a more rapid solution to reallocation are growing. Elections are likely to be won by the African National Congress Party's Jacob Zuma, known for a more populist stance on precisely these types of issues. The pressure on Zuma to move forward quickly could be quite intense.
So far, South Africa's approach has been more moderate than Zimbabwe's raid-and-reallocate approach: Pretoria has tried to encourage land owners to sell and private investment to revamp the productivity of failed plots. The government assures that Zimbabwe will not be the model to follow. But success is percieved to be mixed at best, and there is much transferring to be done before the promised 30 percent of land returns to majority black hands by 2014. And land is just one of the manifestations of the inequality that continues to plague South Africa. Patience is wearing thin.
Where South Africa goes after its Sunday vote is yet unclear. Former parliamentarian Raenette Taljaard has a few predictions in FP's Think Again: South Africa. But one can only hope that the answer to the title of this post is, "no."
AFP PHOTO/GIANLUIGI GUERCIA
A British Professor who claims to have discovered the legendary Ark of the Covenant in Zimbabwe of all places, now says the ark has been pilfered by Robert Mugabe's government:
But after decades of exhaustive research, Parfitt became convinced that the ordinary looking wooden object in the storeroom of the Musuem of Human Sciences in Harare, Zimbabwe, really was the remains of the lost Ark.
Last year he published a book detailing his breakthrough and documentaries broadcast around the world heralded the find as one of the greatest archaeological discoveries since the Dead Sea scrolls.
The world’s media soon dubbed the Welsh professor “the British Indiana Jones”.
But now, almost a year later, Parfitt is worried. Since the publication of his book and the broadcast of the documentaries, the whereabouts of his intriguing discovery are once again unknown. Parfitt says he has been told by sources close to family members of the autocratic Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe that the object is now in the possession of one of Mugabe’s relations, perhaps even Mugabe himself.
“I first got suspicious when I started to hear that several people who had tried to see the Ark, many of them respectable academics, had been turned away and the museum was becoming very cagey about it,” he says. “Then a contact of mine who has connections to Mugabe’s extended family told me that people close to Mugabe have taken it.
U.N. sanctions haven't worked on Mugabe, maybe it's time to send Indiana Jones after him.
(Hat tip: Chris Blattman)
260 crewman are now held on 16 ships, the International Maritime Organization reports. For some comparison -- rebels in Colombia are thought to hold about 700 captives. But unlike Colombia, Somalia's rate of capture seems to be on the rise.
If this is a hostage crisis, the logic of the situation changes. For now, the hostages are treated well; they're not harmed so long as ransom is paid. In fact, Somali captors have been rigorous about affirming the hostages' safety time and time again so as to assure they receive payment.
But what if the payment motive runs away, as it often does when kidnapping for ransom becomes a little bit too succesful? I saw that happen on the other coast of Africa, in Nigeria, reporting last year. Rebels there began taking oil workers hostage in protest of percieved inequity in the country's distribution of petrol wealth. But aside from a political point, the hostage-taking produced a steady stream of revenue (oil companies often -- if not always -- paid).
All too quicky, the discipline broke down. More and more criminal gangs lept in for a cut of the prize. With more profiteers seeking booty, the kidnap targets broadened -- not just oil workers, but local politicians, families of prominent persons, and pretty much anyone who looked like they were worth a cent. Kidnapping there is no longer a political problem; it's a criminal one.
The key, in Somalia, would be to figure out how to stop all this now -- while groups are still disciplined, and organized syndicates call the shots. As soon as that order disintegrates, the numerous players will be impossible to track down and disarm. The world will have to work fast.
Unfortunately, the tactics will have to differ from those proven to work on land. President Alvaro Uribe has made headway in cutting kidnappings in Colombia by putting an armed government presence in every corner of his country. This is just not possible at sea.
Combatting Somali kidnappers will take serious strategic thinking -- but perhaps framing it as a hostage crisis would be a good start.
Sen. Russell Feingold sent an interesting letter to Barack Obama about Somalia yesterday, cc-ing Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and Dennis Blair. The senator, a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations, urged the U.S. president to engage Somalia, but carefully: work with the Somali government; improve support for the country's internal security apparatus. No quick fixes here:
[There is an] essential need to develop a comprehensive interagency strategy to stabilize Somalia and support effective governance. With the strategic review now underway, I reiterate my belief that expanded U.S. support for the new unity government must be a central component of that strategy. Furthermore, we must seize the opening that lies before us by publicly declaring our commitment to high-level, sustained engagement that could help Somalia overcome the many challenges to peace and stability."
Feingold proposes stronger U.S. engagement with the Somali government -- not only to stamp out piracy but to "establish security and functional, inclusive governance within the country." Obama, he suggests, should start by calling Somali President Sheikh Sharif.
Most interesting of all, though, is Feingold's reference to the last time that piracy was notably halted in Somalia -- under the Islamic Courts Union in 2006. That regime, later ousted by Ethiopian troops (with U.S. support...) brought the only calm to the seas that the country has seen in recent years.
The ultimate solution to the problem of piracy, then, is the establishment of a functional government that can enforce the rule of law. During the rule of the Council of Islamic Courts in 2006, there was a notable decline in piracy that can be attributed, in large part, to the rise of a central authority in southern Somalia.
Without replicating the repressive rule of the Courts, we must keep in mind that establishing a central governing structure in Somalia is critical to resolving, not just stopping, the problem of piracy."
Now that's an idea, unlike airstrikes, that I feel militantly supportive of.
The International Maritime Bureau, a division of the International Chamber of Commerce, keeps up-to-the minute maps of global piracy, with linked data on the attacks. It's definitely worth checking out.
Above, the purple tags denote "suspicious vessels," the yellow "attempted attacks," and the red "actual attacks."
Parsing the data, I counted that of 45 attempted attacks in the Gulf of Aden, 7 succeeded; in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia, of 31 attempts, 11 succeeded. This implies a pirate strike's more likely in the Gulf, and more likely to succeed in open waters.
Peter Pham takes a closer look at the technicalities of pirate attacks, and stopping them, today on FP's website.
(Hat tip: Global Dashboard)
In my five pirate predictions yesterday, I wondered if the pirates would become more audacious and brazen, or if they would humble at their recent defeat at the hands of the U.S. Navy. This morning, I seem to have my answer:
Undeterred by U.S. and French hostage rescues that killed five bandits, Somali pirates brazenly hijacked three more ships in the Gulf of Aden, the waterway at the center of the world's fight against piracy.
A greek ship and two Egyptian fishing vessels are now added to the handful of ships and 260 hostages the the Somali pirates claim on the coast. True to form, the hijackers adapted their tactics in defiance of the international naval patrols, this time striking at night.
Also yesterday, I worried about an escalation on the part of the world's navies -- moving from naval patrolling into all out battle. Now it appears that escalation is coming from both sides.
If this attack is indeed in retaliation against the Americans, the world might be entering into a whole new kind of asymmetric warfare. Stay tuned on FP today.
The U.S. military is considering attacks on pirate bases on land and aid for the Somali people to help stem ship hijackings off Africa’s east coast, defense officials said.
Does the United States know what they're getting into? Piracy experts have long suggested that the root of the problem is indeed on land. But air strikes on Somali bases would be dangerously close to a U.S. military operation in Somalia -- the kind that the country has avoided since Blackhawk down in 1994.
Let's think hypothetically about what might happen if strikes go ahead. U.S. onland intervention will surely anger al Shabaab, the Islamist militant wing that controls an alarming percentage of Somali territory and is the biggest single threat to Somali stability. Already, the Somali government is struggling to convince the country that its relatively pro-Western stance is for the greater good. That argument will lose all weight if and when the U.S. starts airstrikes. Forget about the government's effectiveness, and forget about any hopes that al Shabaab will disarm. This would fuel the fire. No, we shouldn't kneel to the demands of al Shabaab, but nor should we ignore that their ire will be taken out on the already dilapidated Somali population.
Talk about an escalation.
To be fair, the rumored U.S. plans includes the creation of a Somali coast guard, and support for the Somali government. U.S. Congressman Donald Payne, long a Somalia pragmatist, made a daring visit to Mogadishu today to talk about how the U.S. can help the Somalis fight piracy. But the fact that his plane was shot at only proves how difficult a situation we are walking into.
If we have learned anything about Somali over the last two decades, surely it is that military escalation (this one included) will inevitably breed more chaos. And if we have learned anything about the pirates, it is that chaos on land breeds impunity at sea.
Photo: MOHAMED DAHIR/AFP/Getty Images
Mike Allen of Politico's Playbook fame seconds our idea of renaming the pirates. "Pirates go from curiosity to crisis for 1600 and the Pentagon," his headline screamed, the suggestion of renaming them "maritime terrorists" within.
Matt Yglesias criticizes the letter of the suggestion, if not the spirit, with the rather unimpeachable logic that pirates are...pirates.
The point I made last week -- that calling pirates "pirates" allows for a certain romanticization and fueled a media frenzy which too often overlooked the realities of the situation and the circumstance of failed-state Somalia -- thankfully seems passe.
This weekend's rescue, which involved U.S. naval warships, millions of dollars, and pirate and civilian deaths, spurred an examination of the why and how behind the pirates. The sheen's worn off. They're criminals and a security concern. They redouble Somalia's problems.
Or, as someone will inevitably put it somewhere on the internet: pirates totally jumped the shark.
If you only think of genocide when you hear the name "Rwanda," it's time to think again.
Today, Rwanda is moving forward, fervently set on rebranding itself into one of Africa's most investment-friendly havens. And it appears to have some of America's most recognizable names in business in its corner. A just-published article in Fast Company counts the CEOs of Starbucks and Costco as two of the Rwanda's most influential supporters, along with the likes of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, former British PM Tony Blair, and Pastor Rick Warren of "Purpose-Driven" fame. All seem to praise the Rwandan government -- and especially President Paul Kagame -- for being serious about making the country's business climate as streamlined and free of bureaucratic hassles as possible, which is certainly an anomaly in much of the developing world. (Registering a business in Rwanda apparently takes less than 48 hours.)
An article in Fortune called "Why CEOs love Rwanda" offers this money quote from Chicago financier Dan Cooper (who is credited with introducing Kagame to Costco CEO Jim Sinegal):
We came away saying, this is the most undervalued ‘stock' on the continent and maybe in the world. Here's an African nation that's reaching out, not to governments so much, but to corporate America. They want to work. They want U.S. business to bring innovation to their country."
But is this too good to be true? The country's new model of economic development is an interesting one; it's almost as if Kagame has torn a page out of Beijing's handbook. While Kagame can be credited with cracking down hard on government corruption and creating a competent administration in the country's capital of Kigali, there's always the problem of restricted political rights and civil liberties, which critics of the regime never fail to point out. The issue is certainly important, especially given Rwanda's long history of political violence.
But that said, the country's clearly moving forward. And apparently, the business world isn't the only one taking notice. Last year, the United States signed a bilateral investment treaty with Rwanda -- the first such treaty signed between the U.S. and any Sub-Saharan African country in almost a decade.
Fifteen years after genocide, this is Rwanda rising.
Hat tip: Africamusings
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
The Guardian reports on a skirmish between French troops and a band of Somali pirates with a hijacked yacht -- one of 18 vessels currently seized, along with more than 250 hostages. The French ultimately recaptured the ship; sadly, one hostage died during the rescue.
The article says the yacht's sailors were repeatedly warned not to pass through the area.
French officials have privately expressed exasperation at the determination of the Tanit's crew...to persist with their expedition to east Africa despite the parlous security situation in the region.
The American captain of the Maersk Alabama remains a hostage in another flotilla, though the United States has sent in rapporteurs and helicopters.
It's a sorry, sorry state of affairs. And it suggests two things to me.
First, pirate exhaustion looms. (Though we've tested the limits on this blog, and found them boundlessly wide.) At one point, the pirates seemed a welcome distraction. Not so much any more -- people are dying, Somalia is a failed state. Second, as others have suggested, we should stop calling them pirates and start calling them something like "maritime terrorists," to end any remaining romanticization.
There's a lot of competition for top crises these days -- what with Somali pirates going overboard, Pakistan and Afghansitan looking increasingly perilous, Mexico's chaos scarily peering over the border...
But I vote for adding Nigeria to that very pressing list of concerns.
A new report released today, puts last year's death toll from unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta region at 1,000. The almost-guerrilla war dragged the economy down by $20.7 billion in lost oil revenue, with little sign of abating in 2009. With oil prices already lower, government revenues are falling. More worrisome -- the rebels in that region who earn most of their cash from oil bunkering will be short on dough, inspiring more of the kidnappings-for-ransom that already breached the 300 mark in 2008. NGO workers on the ground tell me that things will really heat up if the prices (or the oil production levels) drop much lower.
To add another twist, the main rebel group in the region, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), today e-mailed a statement rejecting an amnesty offer that members of the ruling party allegedly proposed. In classic form, the rejection is colorful:
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta rejects this evil agenda by the [ruling party] PDP and its cohorts and vow never to sell our birth right [to Nigeria's oil] for a bowl of porridge."
The deal itself was even more interesting: the government would provide fighter amnesty, prisoner release, and huge payouts to MEND in exchange for a rebel promise to help rig the coming elections in favor of the ruling party. That offer may well be an exaggeration on the part of the rebel spokesman. Then again, given Nigeria's rather wretched election history... it might not.
Why should this mess end up in the top echelon of global worries? Don't forget: Nigeria is the third largest oil supplier to the United States. And when regional powerhouses go down in flames, it can't bode well for any of the unlucky neighbors -- many of whom are recovering from their own bouts of conflict.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP
The United States is scrambling this morning to save a hostaged captain from Somali pirates -- calling in back up that includes FBI hostage negotiators, more warships, and just about every high-profile military and diplomatic figure who will reassure the American press. The drama is being scrupulously reported elsewhere (most recent update: the pirates want booty), so I'll save you the repetition.
I'm interested in a different question: Just how exactly have pirates managed to out-scramble the world's top navy? If neither the U.S. Navy, nor the EU, NATO, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian vessels were able to spot this pirate attacker coming on the vast seas... how do the Somali pirates find the ships they hijack? In theory, the sea is equally vast and equally sparsely populated on both sides of the looking glass.
One interesting theory comes from NightWatch:
Several commentators highlighted the changed tactics by which some Somali pirate groups manage to seize ships far from the coast. What they do not provide is the hypothesis that this proves the existence of a well organized criminal syndicate with modern communications that link pirates to agents in port authorities from
Kenyato the Suez Canal. The business is too big and rich to fail simply because modern frigates are present.
It makes good sense. Why? Pirates have money and they can pay for tips. Port authorities, particularly in Kenya, are likely paid irregularly and poorly (particularly in comparison to pirate rates). The pirates have also shown that they are willing and able to infiltrate government authorities -- as they often do in their home in Puntland, Somalia.
No good news there. Cracking down on internal corruption among port authorities would be about as easy as, say, stopping a piracy epidemic in the Gulf of Aden.
Photo: U.S. Navy
Passport reader John Duffell sends in the above newspaper supplement from Malawi. He writes:
I'm an American who's been living in southern Malawi for nearly a year and a half. Yesterday morning, during a trip to town, I picked up a copy of Malawi's "Daily Times" newspaper to find a 12-page advertisement celebrating "50 years of democratic reform in Tibet" It's mostly about how grateful the people of Tibet are that China has reclaimed what's rightfully hers, and given them freedom at long last. [...] The ad spread looks remarkably like editorial content, and I've since learned that it was paid for by the Chinese Embassy in Malawi.
There's more info on Duffell's blog including a bizarre conversation with the newspaper's editor.
It's not news that China is waging a public relations campaign along with its economic expansion in Africa, but it's a bit hard to understand why Malawians would care that much about Tibet, or why China would care that much what they think.
Have any other readers in Africa seen anything similar?
Photo: John Duffell/Flickr
Via Chris Blattman and Global Dashboard, this AP story reveals the strange behind-the-scenes story of how Guinean President Moussa Camara took power in a miltiary coup late last year. Turns out he just picked the right piece of paper out of a mayonnaise jar. Or did he?
Hardly anyone had heard of Camara, an army captain in his 40s, until Dec. 23, when his men broke down the glass doors of the state TV station. He announced that the constitution had been dissolved and that the country was now under the rule of a military junta.
Locked inside their homes, Guineans frantically called each other, trying to learn what they could about the unknown officer. When state TV read out the names of the 32 members of the junta, Camara topped the list, ahead of far better-known figures. Sekouba Konate - a colonel who headed an elite unit of specially trained commandos - did not even figure on the list.
Soon after his announcement, a brawl broke out at Camp Alpha Yaya Diallo, the capital's main barracks, according to a witness who was present but asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Konate's men demanded he be put in charge, the witness says. To settle the matter, Konate, Camara and a third officer agreed to draw lots. The word "president" was written on a piece of folded paper and dropped inside an empty mayonnaise jar along with several pieces of blank paper.
On the first try, Camara drew the winning ticket. Konate's men demanded a redraw. Again, Camara pulled out "president."
Konate is now a vice president, leaving the country at the mercy of a fragile alliance between armed men with big egos. There are whispers that Camara - whose men stood guard next to the mayonnaise jar - had come to the draw prepared with his own piece of paper already labeled "president."
Is this a joke? After denying the Dalai Lama a visa to attend an international peace summit in South Africa, the country today announced that it would award Fidel Castro its top honor, the Order of Companions of O. R. Tambo In Gold. Previous awardees include Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Okay, okay, I know that the Cuba's revolutionaries were tight with South Africa's anti-apartheid left back in the day. (both countries championed the non-aligned movement). But in 2009, isn't that day over yet?
Sigh. It's a moments like this when even the news wires get a little fiesty.
South Africa, which prides itself as a model of democracy and human rights, drew fire from opposition parties this week when it denied a visa to Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who was due to attend a peace conference."
A well respected South African journalist put it more bluntly:
Human Rights and democracy are no longer the cornerstones of our foreign policy. We prefer countries with entrenched, unelected, self-perpetuating leadership. Ignore the dull thud of rifle butts."
(Hat tip: Passport reader Eric Jon Magnuson)
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
It's been a rough trip to Africa -- at least in the headlines -- for Pope Benedict XVI, but hey, he got some great souvenirs!
No stranger to unusual gifts, Pope Benedict was presented with a tortoise in a basket by a group of Baka Pygmies who gave him an unscheduled send-off from Cameroon last week. I’m not sure whether one can read deep messages into the gift of a tortoise (“It’s a metaphor for Pope Benedict’s approach to the Church, a slow dogged move forward with a heavy protective shell.” “It’s a symbol for…” etc etc etc ad nauseam). At any rate appears that tortoises are quite important to Baka Pygmy culture as a symbol of wisdom—they even have a special dance called the tortoise dance.
Vatican officials at first suggested it might find a nice home in the Vatican gardens. But something must have gone wrong with the turtle that was supposed to bring wisdom. After tagging on to the flight from Cameroon to Angola, the turtle (but let's hope not the wisdom!) was left behind in Luanda.
Father Lombardi told reporters the turtle was "in good hands" with the staff of the nunciature in Angola because it was decided the African turtle should live in an African habitat.
It seems counterintuitive to say the least. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader in exile of Tibet, was denied a visa on Friday to attend a peace conference in Johannesburg, South Africa at the invitation of fellow Nobel Prize-honorees Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and F.W. de Klerk.
"Of all the nations on Earth that should empathise with [Tibetans'] plight, South Africa should" wrote The Times of South Africa. "We echo the accusation by Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, that barring the Dalai Lama is a 'total betrayal of our struggle history.'"
So what gives? A bit of real politik -- learned from France's mistakes with China late last year: Nicolas Sarkozy held a highly publicized meeting with the Dalai Lama only to have Beijing cancel its planned joint EU summit and skip France on its Premier Wen Jiabao's European tour. "I looked at a map of Europe on the plane. My trip goes around France," The Economist quoted Wen saying.
South Africa, the rationale might go, can't really afford a chill in relations. The country accounts for one fifth of China's trade with Africa; and South Africa depends increasingly on China for financing. So Archbishop Tutu had it quite right: "We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed."
In the lead-up to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, the country was also looking to head off what it saw as a public relations disaster in the making. Spokesman for the South Africa president told reporters, "at this time the whole world will be focused on the country as hosts of the 2010 World Cup. We want the focus to remain on South Africa... A visit now by the Dalai Lama would move the focus from South Africa onto issues in Tibet."
But if avoiding the headlines was the goal, that strategy has backfired. The conference organizers have promised to pull out of the meeting and the press is eating it up and spitting the South African government out. So much for damage control.
KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images
Though it's a comparatively minor offence when you consider her husband's crimes, it's still a little disappointing that Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe will not be charged for punching Times photographer Tim O'Rourke in the face with her diamond ring while shopping in Hong Kong:
The Department of Justice in the territory issued a statement saying: “Grace Mugabe is not liable to arrest or detention, and enjoys immunity from prosecution.” These rights come under Chinese regulations on diplomatic immunity and privileges, the department said.
Hong Kong’s legal system is separate from that of China under terms of its reversion to Beijing rule in 1997, but it must apply China’s laws in cases involving foreign relations or defence.
Another Times photog got throttled by guards a month later when he tried to take a peek at the Mugabes' new Hong Kong pad.
McClatchy's Tim Johnson worries about the damage to Hong Kong's reputation if it becomes the destination of choice for Mugabe and his ilk.
ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
It's official: Somalia's two major pirate networks have at least tacit (or perhaps even explicit) support of regional government officials as they wreak havoc on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden. Puntland, a semi-autonomous (and relatively peaceful) state in Somalia's northeastern tip, has a rather functional government that has managed to avoid Mogadishu-like chaos in recent years. But now, a U.N. report from the office of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon cites "increasing reports of complicity by members of the Somali region of Puntland administration in piracy activities."
Bad news for Puntland and Somali PR (though the country's reputation doesn't have much room left to fall). But in fact, this is no big surprise. As in any war zone, everyone -- including the government -- is desperate to survive. Of course, cooperating with pirates is just lucrative. Given how well-armed the bucaneers are though, I imagine that complicity is a matter of necessity rather than choice. I am the last one to justify pirate-aiding, but imagine this decision: allow the pirates to operate, or allow a gun barrel to meet you in your office. Not too difficult.
It's also possible that the Puntland government, like the rest of Somalia, is simply starved for revenue. The central government recently made an arrangment with Kenya to collect taxes on imports, like the $300,000 per day trade in the stimulant khat, on Somalia's behalf. As Tim Geithner can attest, nothing spawns creativity like an empty treasury account.
Of course, knowing that at least a small part of the booty from their kidnap might fund a legitimate Somali government will be no comfort to the Greek cargo ship seized by pirates today.
For more on the not-quite-country of Somalia, check out FP contributor Jeffrey Gettleman's new Web-exclusive piece on what makes it such a fascinating place to report on.
There is a lot that was audaciously optimistic about Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's plea today for $5 billion to restart the country's troubled economy. He seemed confident that donors would trust his government to dole out aid. He asked for assistance in the area of "governance" (while opposition activists were being simultaneously disappeared). Wackiest of all was a claim than Zimbabwe's can cut its 230 million percent inflation rate to just 10 (no million) percent in just a few months.
If only it were all so easy. Apparently not yielding to Mugabe's assesment of sanctions on his regime as "inhumane, cruel, and unwarranted," at least one donor -- the United States -- has already rejected the calls for aid. "We have not yet seen sufficient evidence from the government of Zimbabwe that they are firmly and irrevocably on a path to inclusive and effective governance as well as respect for human rights and the rule of law," U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said today.
As to fixing the economy -- the country needs a miracle as much as it does $5 billion. Even the government is running on fumes -- cigarette fumes, to be specific. As Finance Minister Tendai Biti told CNN, "indirect taxes made up of customs and excise duty have contributed 88 percent of government revenue, which means that the government has been literally sustained by beer and cigarettes." In such a state, and amid a global financial crisis, Zimbabwe is unlikely to find much support from its neighbor for adopting the South African Rand. No wonder Mugabe conceded the finance ministry to the opposition in this coalition government.
All this creates a devil of a conundrum. To be certain, Zimbabwe needs help and lots of it. The country and its people are in a desperate state. But perhaps first, Zimbabwean policymakers need a reality check.
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
Some fantastic (and alarming) pictures emerging from the coup that isn't officially a coup in Madagascar...
Soldiers loyal to the opposition broke into the office of the president, who had earlier sought refuge outside the capital. The president has now officially stepped down, handing over the reins to the military until the political crisis can be resolved.
The soldiers used tanks in the military take over of the presidential offices as well as the central bank.
Crowds have filled the streets of the capital in Antananarivo.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Andry Rajoelina is living up the moment... he better enjoy it, as governing the now divided country will not be nearly as fun as his former gig as a radio DJ.
After several months of opposition protests, now, Madagascar president Marc Ravalomanana has been forced to camp outside of the capital while tanks and gunmen break into his presidential compound. Opposition leader Andry Rajoelina has proclaimed himself leader, having appointed prime ministers and a cabinet. And he has called for the current president's arrest with the apparent support of at least part of the army.
Rajoelina claims all this is not a coup d'etat, but... can he suggest a better name?
Desperate to improve things, President Ravalomana offered to call an election over the weekend -- letting the voters decide who is really in change. Rajoelina, however, looks in no mood to negotiate. This wave of popular support is probably the best shot he has at power, and the opposition is keen to ride it to its fullest. African Union and United Nations calls for calm are falling on deaf ears.
What next? A worst case scenario will see a coup -- and one that promises to be bloody. On top of the 100 already killed in protests, more would certainly fall victim to the president's toppling. Ravalomanana supporters are gathering sticks and makeship weapons to defend his final stand outside the city.
The worse case could also see the exit of some of Madagascar's recent international investors -- mining companies and Korean giant Daewoo. Now is not the best time to be losing foreign cash, as developing countries are expected to see a $700 billion shortfall in the financial crisis. But somehow, I doubt all that is on Rajoelina's mind. He has a different kind of capital control to worry about.
Anyone else notice a difference in body type between pirates, and those tasked with combatting them?
Four of the seven Somali pirates arrested await their trial March 5 in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa. U.S. naval vessel USS Leyte Gulf intercepted the seven pirates off the Somali coast last month as they attempted to board a merchant vessel.
Members of the elite Special Operations Group (SOG) of the Philippine Coast Guard exercise in Manila on Feb. 16. The SOG participated in an annual three-day exercise with its Japanese counterparts from Feb. 17 to 19 to enhance its capabilities to combat pirates and armed robbers at sea.
Photos, top to bottom: STR/AFP/Getty Images, JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images
Rumors started swirling the moment news surfaced: the truck driver in an accident that left Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai's wife dead was contracted by USAID.
It was a hell of a twist to a terrible tale. The incident was already loaded with suspicion -- justifiable or not. Though Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change party said they did not suspect any foul play, they couldn't help noting, "We are... alive to the fact that a lot of Robert Mugabe's opponents died in suspicious road accidents involving army trucks."
Now, rumors of assasination are flying in the opposite direction. Did "the West" try to bring down Tsvangirai? One Zimbabwean MP seems to think so, and he's calling for an investigation to find out."Given the physical facts surrounding it, suspects in this tragic accident can only be those who have vigorously opposed the unity of Zimbabweans and who have responded to the formation of an inclusive government by extending their evil sanctions," he said.
Of course, if something was awry, then all should be debunked. But if accidents are accidents, this is dangerous stuff. Tsvingirai, in his mourning, will have to be careful to avoid being drawn into Mugabe's opposition to the U.S. and Britain. Even unintentional posturing could discredit him as a recipient of aid so desperately needed to stabilize Zimbabwe's economy.
Moreover, the position would shortcut any political sway he holds in the already precarious power-sharing government. Mugabe has survived on a story that paints himself as the sole liberator from Western intervention. If that "intervention" victimizes Tsvangirai, Mugabe will have rationalized his senior role as the regime's protectorate. Let's hope his recent rare kind words for the man are as close as the relationship gets.
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
When Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai was involved in a car crash last Friday that killed his wife of 31 years and left him hospitalized, more than a few suspected his political rival, President Robert Mugabe, of foul play. A charge Tsvangirai himself denied today.
But ABC News now reports a new twist in the case. The vehicle that sideswiped Tsvangirai's car after hitting a pothole was owned by a contractor working for the U.S. government:
U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the vehicle was owned by the contractor, but had a USAID insignia on it. The vehicle was purchased by the contractor with U.S. government money, and the driver was hired and paid by a British development agency.
The truck is said to have been on a routine delivery route at the time of the accident.
According to officials, USAID has been informed that the truck was impounded and its driver has been detained.
Though it now appears likely to have been just a horrific accident, U.S. and British involvement in this tragedy is embarassing to say the least. I wouldn't be too surprised if it's now Mugabe's allies who start pushing the conspiracy theories.
As I wrote yesterday, there were a couple paths that Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir could have chosen after being indicted by the International Criminal Court for his role in atrocities in Darfur. Let's just say he chose the more confrontational of the two: Immediately after the decision, the president expelled 13 NGOs from the country, condemned the ruling as neocolonialism, and looked set to ratchet up his reign. Rebel groups in Darfur announced that they would back out of peace talks, claiming that Bashir is no longer a legitimate negotiator. Fear about what comes next is palpable.
But what is most disturbing of all is how similar the Sudan situation has just become to that of another African conundrum -- Zimbabwe. Bashir is taking a page straight from Robert Mugabe's book, framing himself as a hero of sovereignty, victim of persecution by the West.
The Sudanese president immediately denounced the court as a new tool of neocolonialists meant to keep Sudan from ever achieving peace. He has organized street protests to demonstrate popular support. Like Mugabe has so often done, Bashir uses the real threat against his regime to justify removing aid groups and flushing out political opponents.
Unfortunately, Sudan is becoming another Zimbabwe for the African continent as well. A delegation from the African Union is set to ask the United Nations' Security Council to suspend the indictment. They support Khartoum because they fear the precedent of presidential prosecution, they fear for the stability or the region, or simply because they agree that Bashir is coming under undue pressure from abroad. Solidarity with "anticolonial" leaders -- however repressive -- is becoming far too fashionable.
But unlike Zimbabwe, there are no Morgan Tsvangirais in Sudan, no credible opponent figures, and no real hope that whatever government comes after Bashir's will be much better. The vice president from another party in the south of the country, Salva Kir, tread lightly on the indictment, probably aware that he is on unsteady ground. Indeed, today much of Sudan is shaking.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images
Congratulations Omar al-Bashir! You have just been indicted by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes. You are the first sitting head of state to be wanted for arrest. Human rights groups, and even the ICC-skeptical United States, applaud the announcement. What are you going to do next?
There are two broad possibilities for how things might unfold. For the first time in history, the world will get to watch how a sitting head of state reacts to such damning charges.
First, there is defiance, and retaliation. The outcomes that Sudan watchers have feared are now on the table in the central African country. As the International Crisis Group writes in a statement today:
Bashir’s regime has already issued veiled threats against the UN and AU missions in Sudan, the international humanitarian agencies operating there and Sudanese who support the ICC prosecution. It could also direct, or encourage, violence against the millions of displaced Darfuris living in camps in the war-torn region. There are signs that it may also declare a state of emergency and clamp down on internal political opposition, to show the Darfur rebel groups that they will not be able to use this development to their military and political advantage.
It could get ugly. In the worst-case scenario, experts see Bashir consolidating his power, kicking out aid workers, stepping up repression in Darfur, and even squashing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South signed just a few years ago.
But then again, as Luis Moreno Ocampo, the court's prosecutor, told FP just a few weeks ago, "For people in Darfur, nothing could be worse [than it is now]." Justice, at least, puts pressure on Bashir's upper cadre, and shows the people of Sudan that their leader is no longer immune. Negotiations with Darfur rebel groups, which were reopened on Feb. 17, will have to find a new interlocuter, says Ocampo. But that could be a good thing.
Overnight, the stakes have changed in Sudan. Justice looks possible, impuntity looks over, and internal unrest looks likely. What next?
As news trickles in from the small West African country of Guinea Bissau this morning, it looks more and more like a spat between President Joao Bernardo Vieira (right) and a faction of his army led to unfortunate deaths on both sides. The armed forces chief was killed last night in a bomb attack. Today, the president himself was assasinated by a small contingent of soldiers in apparent retribution.
News like this is bad most anywhere. It's particularly bad in Guinea Bissau, a country that has recently joined the ranks of the world's narco-states. Cocaine has recently started making its way to Europe from Latin America via West Africa and Guinea Bissau is a favorite of trafficking gangs.
The army -- at least part of which was involved in the President's death -- is one of the reasons why drug-runners love the place. "We cannot talk about the army [in Guinea] as an institution that we are used to talking about," Antonio Mazzitelli of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime in West Africa told me. Officers lack training and equipment; most are relics of the independence fight over three decades ago. "When drugs arrive, [there is a] lot of money. The traffickers find it easy to secure the services of army people; in order to provide services or in order not to interfere with [the trafficking.]"
Now, Bissau looks more vulnerable than ever. Though the army claims that it has no interest in a coup d'etat, it's unclear who is in charge in the at the moment. (Coups are a historical staple in Bissau.) Regardless of whether civilians or officers take over, drug money has permeated the country's political system and daily life. "Drugs generate enormous amounts of money that unfortunately can easily infiltrate West African institutions," says Mazzitelli, describing the case of Guinea Bissau and its neighbors. Mazzitelli worries that elections would be a time when drug money could be particulary influential.
The only good news might be that drug gangs tend to shy away from international attention -- and Guinea Bissau is suddenly getting lots of that. With any luck, it will be the window of calm before a new leader has to weather the drug-trafficking storm.
GEORGES GOBET/AFP/Getty Images
Writing for Foreign Policy's Axis of Upheaval, Jeffrey Gettleman refers to the "ethereal pan-Somali dream": a long-held national desire to grab back Somali-speaking territory in neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, and Djibouti. "Pursuit of that goal would internationalize the conflict and surely drag in neighboring countries and their allies," Gettleman warns.
Many fear that the Islamist militia Shabaab, which control an increasingly vast territory in Somalia, might try to live the dream. Today is a very good example of how bad that could turn out. The BBC reported this morning that clashes between a local ethnic group and a Somali one in Ethiopia left 300 dead and as many as 100,000 fleeing the site.
This flare-up is just one of Ethiopia's trouble spots -- in fact, it's not even the worst. Miles to the East, an ongoing Somali insurgency by the rebel group Ogaden National Liberation Front has been brutal on both sides. Somalia and Ethiopia have fought civil wars over the territory, and today Ethiopia holds on to it dearly. The State Department's recently released Human Rights report for Ethiopia, for example, describes a campaign to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in the insurgent region.
Ethiopia is intent on crushing pan-Somali ambitions on its territory -- part of their motivation, in fact, for invading Somalia in 2006. Worries over the Ogaden insurgency in particular provided a convenient historical grievance. So in case you needed further reason for concern, clashes today are a mere taste of what could follow if Somalia -- a linchpin in the Axis of Upheaval -- goes regional.
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