Over a month since the United States launched its own counter-piracy effort, details of the operations are emerging. The U.S. coalition is deploying technological and legal creativity to get the job done.
The first tactic: drones. After a report surfaced last week that U.S. unmanned aircraft vehicles were watching the Somali skies, I wrote to Navy Lt. Nate Christensen, who replied: "I can confirm that UAVs are being used aboard U.S. Navy ships to conduct counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. They bring the ability to stay airborne for long periods and cover hundreds of square miles of ocean during the course of one mission." The resulting intelligence is shared among allies. A good start to tackling the surveillance conundrum of patrolling miles and miles of high seas.
Perhaps even more interesting, the U.S. is now detaining and holding pirates -- there are 16 in custody now. As Derek Reveron pointed out in "Think Again: Pirates," that's no small feat. Most countries have been nervous about touching the pirates, let alone keeping them in custody. Britain, for example, instructed its patrols not to pick up any of them. There is no mandated court to try the offenders, and many fear that amnesty requests would be the result of naval arrest. No such fears plague the U.S. Navy, apparently. "They will remain aboard Lewis and Clark until information and evidence is assembled and evaluated and a decision is made regarding their further transfer," reads a military press release.
Good effort, team, but it looks like the pirates haven't lost their edge yet. A coal carrier was taken hostage today, just one of the 24 attacks so far in 2009. (Navies have stopped nine others). At that rate, this year would bring in about 100 less attacks than last. Alas!
Photo: U.S. Navy
After what happened to two Times reporters looking into Robert Mugabe's investments in East Asia, you might want to think twice about dropping in on his new place in Hong Kong (shown above) unannounced:
The throat of Colin Galloway, a 46-year-old reporter, was gripped and bruised by a man in his thirties who lifted him off his feet. Galloway was later examined under police supervision at hospital.
Tim O’Rourke, 45, was grabbed by the neck in his second bruising encounter involving the Mugabes in Hong Kong. Last month Grace Mugabe flew at him with her fists after repeatedly punching another Sunday Times photographer in the face in an incident that attracted worldwide publicity.
As odious as I find the idea of Mugabe living out his last days in luxury after what he's done and continues to do to his long-suffering country, some sort of Idi Amin-type arrangement in which he steps down in return for immunity in China might be the least worst scenario right now.
Photo: MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images
Our friends at Focal Point, the Web-exclusive international documentary series from PBS's acclaimed program Wide Angle, have a new documentary up titled "Underground Zimbabwe." The episode brings you to the black markets and underground protest movements that struggle to survive under Robert Mugabe's regime. Here are some clips:
In Zimbabwe's Life Lines, we meet a young man who survives by selling
basic goods on the black market.
In Demonstrating Under Dictatorship we meet a women's
empowerment movement that stages non-violent street protests to for agitate bread-and-butter issues in defiance of repressive laws curtailing public gatherings:
They're also presenting an interview with Columbia University African studies professor and FP top public intellectual Mahmood Mamdani reflecting on Mugabe's legacy:
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote enthusiastically about the tri-government military operation that Uganda, Congo, and Southern Sudan were undertaking to root out the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Unfortunately, since then, things haven't been going well. The LRA managed to survive the initial military onslaught, and went on to massacre as many as 900 civilians since the military offensive began in mid-December. Joseph Kony, the group's notorious leader, is still alive and well. (While the LRA's deputy commander is set to surrender soon, it was Kony's death or capture that was the main point of the endeavor.)
Yet, just when this military venture was about to fizzle out with its primary objective still not met, an interesting piece of news, courtesy of the New York Times, has now thrown the operation back into the spotlight. On Feb. 7, the Times reported that the United States, through the Pentagon's newly minted Africa Command (or Africom), was heavily involved in the planning of the operation -- supplying intelligence, supplies, and more than a million dollars in fuel aid. According to the Times:
The Ugandan government asked the American Embassy in Kampala, Uganda's capital, for help, and the request was sent up the chain of command in November to President Bush, who personally authorized it, a former senior Bush administration official said."
Given the number of civilian massacres that have occurred since the start of the operation -- massacres that happened because no one adequately secured the villages in the area -- this could potentially be embarrassing for Africom and the Pentagon.
I asked Vince Crawley, chief of public information at Africom, to comment on the claims made by the New York Times. He responded by emphasizing that the United States was involved only in an advisory capacity and that "this wasn't a U.S. plan that Uganda carried out. It was a Ugandan plan that would have taken place regardless of U.S. assistance." With regard to the securing of villages in the area, Crawley said,
There was dialogue on how to protect the areas. There was discussion. Again, it's not a U.S. operation. ... Fundamentally, it's not appropriate for us to comment on the strategies and tactics of other nations. That's not what partners do."
Even with U.S. help, the LRA won't be easy to stamp out. Check out our new list of five other rebel groups around the world that have demonstrated remarkable staying power.
TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images
When violence erupted in the island nation of Madagascar two weeks ago, few would have guessed that South Korean conglomerate Daewoo Logistics was partly to blame (or at least, there to take the blame). Daewoo won claim to plant corn on a Qatar-sized portion of Madagascar last November. And a leader of the protests says the deal is one reason for revolt.
The island leased its land to Daewoo for free for 99 years, claiming the benefit of jobs for Madagascar and a boost in investor confidence. Madagascar was cultivating its image as an island haven for peace, tourism, and investment. That is, until the seeds of civil war sprung up last month. Now, Daewoo says its plans are on hold.
About two weeks ago, a feisty opposition party mayor (and former DJ), Andry Rajoelina, proclaimed the government illegitimate and made his own move for power. In addition to organizing mass protests, Rajoelina even claimed to be the true president, that is until the current holder of that job fired him. So far, 100 people have died in violence between protesters and government forces.
So it wasn't that Daewoo didn't see this coming; it just inadvertently contributed to the mess. Years of poverty and a less-than-stellar government were enough for most Malagasies, so watching their land handed freely to South Korea was a bit over the top. "They sold the country's territory to foreign companies," Rajoelina complained to French Radio. "For these [and other] reasons, we demand a transitional government."
Now Daewoo's corn-to-feed-Korea project and Madagascar's government are both on the rocks. The opposition has named its own ministers and called for a general strike. But if Rajoelina gets his way (or even if he doesn't), I'm guessing Daewoo won't be the only company running for the coast.
Photo: WALTER ASTRADA/AFP/Getty Images
If I ever interview another Kenyan politican, John Oliver of the Daily Show did a brilliant job last night of showing me what subjects not to raise:
And you thought our failed states interviews were awkward.
"Predictable" is pretty much the last adjective I would pick for Somalia. But here's something that we might have seen coming: after pulling out last month, witnesses now report that Ethiopian troops are back in Somalia.
When it comes to Somalia, Ethiopia just can't seem to get enough. The countries have fought border wars for decades. In 2006, when the Islamic Courts Union government took control of Somalia, Ethiopian troops started slipping over the border -- much as they are reported to have done today. A few months later, they invaded. So though the troops are out again, have no illusions that Ethiopia will yield its Somali influence so quickly.
That should make things nice and awkward in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, where Somalia's newly elected President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed got a standing ovation at the African Union conference. You see, Ethiopia ousted Ahmed, who was president back in 2006.
Now, Ahmed has promised to reconcile with his neighbors. But he'll have to do the opposite to win respect for his government in Somalia, where Ethiopian troops are reviled as occupiers. Al Shabaab, (shown above) the Islamist radical group that Ahmed will need desperately to rein in, has more than once vowed to wage jihad on Addis Ababa. Here's where it gets unpredictable.
ABDIRASHID ABDULLE/AFP/Getty Images
Anyone who follows Libya's Muammar Qaddafi knows that today is a big, big day for the man once called the "Mad Dog of the Middle East." After decades of proclaiming himself leader of the African continent, he was elected year-long Chairman of the African Union today in Addis Ababa.
It's not as if the title came unexpectedly. North Africa was up for the regionally rotating seat. So beginning last summer, Qaddafi crowned himself "king of kings," quite literally by inviting 200 traditional rulers to Libya so that they might elect him. He arrived at the AU summit with seven more well-dressed kings by his side (turns out they didn't make the guest list and weren't allowed in). And once inside, Qaddafi is said to have circulated a letter with a simple message: I am king of kings, and I expect to be treated like one. No big shocker when the closed door vote put Qaddafi at the reigns.
Keeping up with Qaddafi's eccentricities is certainly an engaging pastime. But the big news is actually that he might be good at the job. The Libyan leader garners a lot of respect where it is most needed these days. In Zimbabwe, Qaddafi's credibility as a leader who has 'stood up' to the West and supported anti-apartheid in South Africa could at least win him an audience (and some sway -- should he use it) with Mugabe. Likewise, Qaddafi could do some good in Somalia where a newly elected moderate-Muslim President, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, desperately needs help holding together a weak government. Qaddafi has the oil money and religious credentials to push the right ways.
On his way out, former AU chairman Jakaya Kikwete proposed creating a budget for Qaddafi to travel the continent fixing spats. Not that Qaddafi has ever needed an invitation to be in charge. Hope the budget is high. Brother Leader likes to travel in style.
In early January, Egypt starting deporting Eritrean refugees -- somewhere between 45 and 65 are thought to have been sent home. These refugees tried to enter Isreal through the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. And the deportations say much less about the refugees themselves than the perilous but staunch relationship between Israel and Egypt.
In short, Israel has turned up the pressure on Egypt in recent months to secure that country's side of the Sinai peninsula border -- a hot spot for trafficking of humans (like the Eritreans), goods, and weapons into the Gaza strip).
In June of last year, just as a 6-month ceasefire with Gaza went into effect, 1,200 more Eritrean refugees were detained and later deported. Recently, during the Gaza crisis, Human Rights Watch researcher Leslie Lefkow says she believes Egypt has sent between four and six flights of refugees back to Eritrea.
From the looks of it, pressure to clamp down on migrants is both formal and implicit. Israel imposed a strict policy to limit non-Jewish immigrants in 2007, facing what it feared was a tsunami of Africans seeking work or amnesty. In April 2007, Israeli and Egyptian authorities reportedly agreed on a policy of 'hot returns' -- wherein all illegal border-crossers caught in Israel would be handed over to the Egyptians within 48 hours. The plan faced resistance from refugee advocates, but it's not clear that the process ever stopped.
Now, with Gaza smuggling at an all time high, Egypt is in the hot seat to get all border crossings under control. The change in Egypt's actions on the border -- at least on refugee policing -- is apparent. "Egypt has always been respectful of refugee law, but this is a different scenario," Abeer Etefa of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Egypt told me.
Sinai has always separated Egypt and Israel -- in geography and politics alike. This time, it's refugees caught in the middle.
Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Even setting aside Turkey's record with its Armenian and Kurdish minorities for a moment, it's a little rich for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to be so aghast at the idea of sharing a stage with a human rights abuser.
Almost exactly a year before Erdogan's outburst at Davos, in which he lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres over Israel's actions in Gaza, he was literally rolling out the red carpet for Sudan's genocidal president and indicted war criminal Omar al-Bashir in Ankara.
So when did "killing people" become a problem for him?
This morning's Times (London) reported that the Obama administration is planning a tougher stance against Zimbabwe's self-ordained president-for-all-time, Robert Mugabe. Then at the White House Daily Press Briefing today, we learned that Obama made a call to the president of South Africa, Kaglema Motlanthe.
Is Obama calling to talk Zimbabwe? Now would be good timing. Just today at a summit in South Africa, Mugabe and the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai look to have agreed to form their long-awaited unity government.
South Africa -- reciever of Zimbabwean refugees and primary economic partner -- is really the only country that can put enough pressure on Zimbabwe's Mugabe to make the deal work. So far, the signs haven't been promising. South Africa's former President Thabo Mbeki has muddled through moderating talks since September, favoring his fellow former-anticolonial comrade Mugabe.
Since Mbeki resigned as president and interim leader Motlanthe took over, the odds of South Africa putting on the pressure are even lower. South African elections are pending in just weeks time, and a split within the ruling party has raised the stakes for the first time in that country's history. As Human Rights Watch analyst Tiseke Kasambala recently told me, "there are domestic goings on in South Africa now that will likely take South Africa's eye off the ball."
None of the rumored Africa people from the new administration have returned e-mail messages about Obama-Zimbabwe policy. But my hope is that Mugabe's name came up in the phone call. I would bet more money on that than I would the Zimbabwean currency.
Photo: ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images
Depending on where you stand, President Barack Obama's Friday decision to lift the Mexico City Policy, better known as the global gag rule, was either wonderful or appalling. For the last seven years, the gag rule stipulated that charities promoting and supporting abortion services could not recieve funding from the U.S. Government. Now, they can. I say: it's about time.
My position is not drawn from either side of the abortion debate. It's drawn from what I saw as a reporter and as a person living in Nigeria. HIV/AIDS is the open secret there -- a growing problem with a whispered name.
To put it politely, the gag rule created a rift -- at times gaping -- between U.S. government-funded projects and those of private NGOs trying to prevent HIV infection. The U.S. government brought the buck -- President Bush's PEPFAR program boasted $39 billion for HIV/AIDS work -- but it also brought rules about how to get the work done. The foundations brought less money and a sometimes different approach. Both sides fought to win the support of the local government for their strategies. From what I saw, that debate could get ugly. Friends working in the field were frustrated and saddened by the result: inertia and politics, instead of posters and condoms.
There was one particular problem that brought it home for me. In 2006, a Nigerian lawmaker announced that 55,000 women die in the country each year from unsafe illegal abortions. The evidence was everywhere -- from women that my colleagues and I met to Nigerian films on exactly that topic.
What was the best way to get that statistic down? Some will say abstinence. But sex is not always a choice. It's in those situations where women seek -- or are forced by their partners to seek -- unsafe abortions. Some counseling and a sterile doctor's office would go a long way.
That's just one example. The real "gag" was that you didn't hear a lot of stories about birth control or HIV prevention in Nigeria. So my few are only the beginning. Maybe now we'll start to hear a few more.
Photo: TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images
Laurent Nkunda's arrest isn't the only recent major development in central Africa. Beginning in mid-December, the governments of Uganda, Congo, and Southern Sudan began a significant joint military operation to root out the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), an insurgent group out of northern Uganda whose leaders have outstanding arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court.
The LRA has a tumultuous 20-year history of not just destabilizing northern Uganda (which currently has about 1.5 million citizens in camps for internally displaced persons because of the group's activity), but also destabilizing southern Sudan, eastern Congo, and the Central African Republic. In the past few days alone, new reports of LRA attacks have trickled out of Southern Sudan, where some members of the group fled after their Congolese hideout was bombed by the tri-government military venture.
What is striking about this military operation -- which, so far, has failed to kill the group's notorious leader, Joseph Kony -- was the regional approach that the three countries took, especially in an area that's not exactly known for its international cooperation (particularly in the aftermath of the Congo War). True, Uganda's army and air force supplied the bulk of the manpower, but even the modest involvement of the Congolese and Southern Sudanese armies at the periphery of the operation is a step in the right direction. While the outcome of the current military operation is still not clear, greater regional coordination almost certainly holds promise for future efforts -- both military and diplomatic -- between the three conflict-rife states.
Over the next weeks and months, anyone who is interested in a political resolution to the crisis in Darfur would do well to pay attention to the actions of the Sudanese government in Khartoum and the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan with regard to the LRA and other rebel groups in the region. Much has been made of the connections between the LRA and Khartoum, which covertly funded the the group's terrorist activity in southern Sudan during the country's most recent civil war. Indeed, whether this new regionalism will bear tangible fruit, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the region's stability and the lives of possibly thousands of people hang in the blance.
The inauguration of Barack Obama wasn't just the event of the day in the United States. It received above-the-fold coverage in countries all over the globe, as Jan. 21's front page of the United Daily News in Taipei, Taiwan, above, shows. To see more Obama-blaring newspaper front pages from Namibia to Israel to Poland and more, check out this week's photo essay, "The Inauguration Heard 'Round the World," which features images obtained from the Newseum.
As Bishop Gene Robinson is added to the roster for Obama's inaugural events, it seems pretty obvious why he and Rick Warren, set to give the invocation, don't exactly get along. Bluntly, Warren is an influential Conservative Evangelical who actively campaigns against gay marriage, and V. Gene Robinson is the first openly gay Bishop in the Episcopal Church.
The gaping divide between the two religious men actually goes even deeper -- all the way to Nigeria, where the powerful Episcopal Archbishop Peter Akinola presides. The famously anti-gay Akinola has led a global movement of Episcopalians against Robinson's consecration. The church in fact split over the issue, twice -- a wide global spectrum of parishes turning to Akinola for leadership.
And when Time named Bishop Akinola as one of the world's most influential people in 2006, guess who they got to write him up? Rick Warren. Just today, Warren was rumored to be willing to help disgruntled Episcopalians get as far away from Robinson as possible. No surprise that when Warren was chosen for the inaugural invocation, Robinson told The New York Times, "it was like a slap in the face."
They've both also said quite nice words about one another, by the way. But still. Yikes. If Obama is trying to "bring people together," that's quite a daring pairing. What must Akinola be thinking about all this?
Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
Just a day after Ethiopian troops left Mogadishu, the Islamic Courts Union government they ousted had already retaken abandoned checkpoint posts. This morning, Islamic insurgents fired on the Presidential palace. Various insurgent groups now control all but a few bits and pieces of the country. Amid all this chaos, the transitional government who is supposedly in charge is bickering its way into irrelevance.
Ethiopian troops have held together a violent status quo for the last two years. You can't help ask the question: now as they go, what on earth is going to happen? I've written my own pessimistic prediction. So here's the unlikely upside, an idea I owe to conversations with analysts over the last few months.
In many ways, Ethiopia's presence has made Somalia worse, not better. Before the 2006 invasion, the Islamic Courts Union had some measure of control over the country. Yes, there were some unsavory characters in the government, but the moderates arguably had the upper hand.
No longer. When Ethiopia came in, sensible moderates stepped off the political stage, hoping to positions themselves well for any future transitional governments. The armed youth movement al Shabab was not so cautious and took the opportunity to impose "order" at the point of a gun all over the country. Nothing emboldens a well-armed insurgency like fighting an unpopular occupying enemy.
As Ethiopia leaves, the insurgency will lose its common enemy. Its popularity and very integrity might fracture. If al Shabab is anything like rebel groups I've reported on, their internal wars are as dramatic as their external street fighting. They often bring themselves down without any help at all. And when an official terrorist organization disintegrates, that's usually a good thing.
This scenario is what many -- particularly in the international community -- are likely praying for. But if it does go that way, there will be a long and violent intermediary period of disintegration. Well armed as al Shabab and all its factions are, they're not likely to go down before all their rounds are fired.
The temptation will be for the international community to step in, freezing the disintegration mid-way in order to save civilian lives -- not to mention combat lawless piracy on the seas. The United States has already circulated a UN Security Council resolution draft that hopes to do just that, boosting the African Union peacekeeping force to maintain the status quo. That's either a very good idea (to save lives) or a very costly way of delaying the inevitable (Somalia's various factions fighting it out). I'll leave that for you to judge.
ABDURASHID ABUKAR/AFP/Getty Images
For the last several years, two things have helped keep the world informed of goings on inside Zimbabwe: the Internet, and mobile phones. Reports of protests, violence, and cholera have leaked over the borders through text messages and conversations with relatives abroad -- especially in South Africa.
Now, mobile phone companies will start charging customers in dollars in hopes of avoiding the burn from 231 million percent inflation (the country just intoduced a $50 billion note). That means the 94 percent of Zimbabweans who aren't employed will struggle to pay.
And reports will stop leaking out.
The world already struggles to find out what's really going on inside Robert Mugabe's police state. The local media has it rough. As Reporters without Borders put it in their 2008 report, "Since 2002, the daily lot of Zimbabwean journalists has consisted of permanent surveillance, police brutality and injustice." Foreign journalists rarely brave it (or are allowed) inside.
Not helping matters, on Jan. 9, Zimbabwe imposed new fees on all journalists -- between $1,000 and $3,000 for accreditation of local journalists, and $30,000 for foreigners. A temporary foreigner can get in for the bargain price of $1,500. Quite simply, "What it means is that they will no longer be able to report," Human Rights Watch analyst Tiseke Kasambala told me.
Perversly enough in both cases, it is Mugabe who is yet again cashing in. Journalist fees will go straight to the government And the country's reserve bank, says Kasambala, has been buying dollars on the black market. "They're making huge killings on the exchange rate." Add the press to the casualty list.
DESMOND KWANDE/AFP/Getty Images
Chuckie Taylor, the son of former Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, was sentenced to 97 years in prison today for convictions of conspiracy, torture, and firearm possession by a federal judge in Miami. He was "lucky" to get just 97 -- prosecutors were seeking 147 years.
Name doesn't ring a bell? The case of Chuckie Taylor was one of our "Top Ten Stories You Missed in 2008", and his trial is important for two reasons. First, Taylor's trial is the first conviction from a 1994 law allowing the U.S. to prosecute American citizens and anyone on U.S. soil for torture committed abroad. Taylor is a U.S. citizen, (he was born while his father lived in the United States) and tortured hundreds of Liberians during as commander of the so-called "Demon Forces," a special security unit meant to protect his father, the President, from 1999 to 2003. The precedent is now set for more cases to follow.
Chuckie Taylor's trial is also important for Liberia. This is the first and only conviction in a war crimes trial for the war in Liberia; no tribunal has been setup in that country. Like father like son -- Charles Taylor Sr. is on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity, as well.
So don't miss the Chuckie Taylor story this time around. And catch-up our other missed stories from 2008 before they crop up again.
On Monday in Washington, President Bush made one last ditch attempt for Darfur: he held talks with the least-worst person he could.
That person was Salva Kiir, who is both the Vice-President of Sudan and President of Southern Sudan. Hours earlier, the administration announced it was authorizing an emergency shipment of supplies to Darfur from Rwanda using two C-17 cargo planes. Another 240 containers of goods will be moved from ports into Darfur to help the fledgling UN-African Union peacekeeping mission.
That leaves me with two questions: Will the supplies do any good? And what exactly is the United States hoping to achieve?
First the supplies: The UN-AU hybrid mission is only at 63 percent of its strength, more than two years after the force was authorized, wracked with one difficulty after another (as if patrolling a space the size of France wasn't hard enough.) Cars and equipment have been stolen; fuel was siphoned from planes at night. Journalists have told me that Sudanese government forces are responsible.
But after months of quietly thwarting further deployment, the Sudanese government has finally swung open the door, "leaving the ball on the side of the UN," International Crisis Group Horn of Africa Director Fouad Hikmat tells me. It's up to UN member countries, particularly the U.S. which provides over a quarter of the budget, to handle the logistics of sending in peacekeepers. Will they be able to make a difference? Hikmat's read: "This is very very very good."
At first glance, it looks like President Bush is trying to cement his legacy as a genocide fighter. But if Bush is thinking Darfur, why meet with Kiir, a Southerner with little record in the region?
Country-wide voting is scheduled for Sudan this year -- part of a 6-year Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the decades long war between North and South Sudan in 2005. The light at the end of that long tunnel for Southerners is a vote on secession in 2011. If all goes according to plan, they'll vote on whether to remain autonomous, or become independent.
Like many Southerners, Kiir favors secession. But countrywide elections have to happen first -- and Darfur is in no shape to hold them. "[Southern politicians] for a long time weren't involved in Darfur, they were focused inward," Hikmat tells me. Now, they see they should become engaged because Darfur is a very serious threat to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement [and their secession vote]."
One more complication: the International Criminal Court may soon issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir. That makes Kiir the international powerbroker with the most credibility.
So Bush's and Kiir's interest may be right in line. For now. The U.S. should think long and hard about whether they want to back a secession, an outcome that Kiir favors and that Khartoum will certainly fight to prevent. It is an open secret that both South Sudan and the Khartoum government are arming in anticipation of the referendum in 2011. Yet another dilemma for the new President to look forward to.
Photo: Dennis Brack-Pool/Getty Images
In recent days, the number of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia has started to fall. French troops arrested eight pirates on January 1st, turning them over to the Somali government. The EU mission also saved a Greek tanker from kidnapping on January 2nd. A Danish warship sunk yet another pirate vessel after warning flares set that ship on fire (the pirates were rescued from the wreck, and remain onboard the Danish vessel). And a Chinese cargo ship flat out-maneuvered the pirates on January 2nd.
A round of applause might be in order. After a slew of hijackings last fall, the world's navies finally seemed to get serious about fighting the pirates. Previously, many countries feared that arresting pirates could lead to awkward legal proceedings and even amnesty suits by suspects claiming they could be put to death at home if extradited. All good points. But then, so are the tens of thousands of ships that pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. From the looks of it, squeamish fighters once reluctant to pick up pirates are increasingly keen to do just that. Whatever they're doing, it seems to be working.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
After Kenya's, Zimbabwe's and Nigeria's recent election mayhem, observers worried Ghana might fall into the same electoral dissaray. In the runup to the recent presidential vote, both major candidates claimed they were set for victory.
Initial polls in December left a tightly contested race -- with the two leading candidates within just one percent of each other. The governing party candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo and the opposition leader and former professor John Atta Mills bitterly contested the second round of elections. After being seperated by just 23,000 votes, Ghana's final constituency voted on Saturday and catupluted Mills to the presidency.
And thus Ghana avoided the election trap. The first African country to gain its independence in 1960 holds its reputation as a democracy where power has been transfered peacefully and often, with only minor incidents (like this one). The outgoing president didn't try to extend his term, and he urged a peaceful transition. Mills' opponent conceded gracefully and the incoming president promised to be a "president for all."
Good. But now, as many governments have learned the hard way, the more difficult part is yet to come, and Ghana finds itself in an unusually precarious (or promising) turning point.
Ghana is a commodity-dependent economy in a market reeling from bubble and burst. Gold, cocoa and timber make much of the country's GDP, and agriculture employs over half the population. The fall in commodity prices spells hope and disaster all at once; lucrative exports will suffer, as will farmers' bottom lines. But urban food prices -- once crushing for the average Ghanaian -- will come down from sky high.
And despite Ghana's healthy growth rate, the impoverished majority is hungry for prosperity to trickle down. Offshore oil -- found in the summer of 2007 -- once promised to pay for a host of new public services. Now, the sunken petrol price stop drilling before it even begins.
The incoming president seems to have a good head about the economic policies needed to move forward. But he'll need the world economy, the increasingly corrupt bureaucracy, and his country's belief in democracy to be on his side, as well.
Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
The first thing to say about the coup attempt that followed the death of Guinean President Lansana Conté is that it's something of a miracle it took 24 years. The president, who died of diabetes Monday, was hardly a beloved exemplar of democratic values. By the time of his death, even the once-loyal Army was starting to mutiny over low pay. In fact, for many West Africa watchers, Guinea's fall into chaos has only been a matter of time.
For more than two years leading up the president's death, political wrangling and unrest were the norm. General strikes in 2006 paralyzed the country. Conté refused to leave power and poverty was consuming the country. I was in Senegal at the time, and the stories we heard there were fierce: Strikes were so strictly adhered to that any passing soul on the street would be shot. There was violence between police and civilians -- as has also become the norm in times of crisis in Guinea.
In the compromise that ended those strikes, the president finally named a prime minister. There have been several in recent years, and the most recent, Ahmed Tidiane Souare, was a close Conté ally whom the International Crisis group wrote in June "puts reform at risk." Democratic legislative elections were scheduled for this month.
Instead, Guinea got a coup.
So now what? For now, the military has the reins, despite claims from Souare that he retains control. The perpetrators of the coup, calling themselves the National Council for Democracy and Development, have called a curfew and promised elections in two years. As in previous times of tension, soldiers fill the streets and much of Conakry is shut down. Companies, such as mining giant BHP, are closing offices for now. Other countries in the region are condemning the coup.
So what at first seemed like a Christmas miracle for Conakry has taken a dangerous turn for the worse.
Photo: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images
There is a crisis. People are dying. Sending peacekeepers sounds great -- they come with U.N. neutrality, a mandate (usually) to use force, and the promise to do something. Who doesn't want to help out in places like the DR Congo, Zimbabwe, and Somalia?
If only it were so easy, writes the U.S. Government Accountability Office in a report released today. Future peacekeeping missions will be plagued by complex logistics, extensive troop needs, daunting political circumstances, and a reluctance from member states to donate troops and resources.
But the report is even more jarring. One cannot help but notice that the "hypothetical" situation described in the report sounds not-so-vaguely reminiscent of Somalia, to which Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice suggested sending peacekeepers just this week.
The potential new mission’s area of operations would have limited infrastructure and utilities, lacking roads, buildings, and water, and would thus require increased logistical planning...the potential new operation would be in a high-threat environment, political factions would recently have been fighting for control of the country, and there would be large numbers of internally displaced persons...According to UN planners, a potential new force would likely require units with the capability to deter threats from armed factions supported by international terrorist groups, which previous operations did not have to take into account to the same degree.
Sound familiar? There are only few countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have that level of chaos with possible international terrorists to boot -- and Sudan already has two U.N. missions.
So what would a peacekeeping mission to Somalia look like? This "hypothetical" country would require 21,000 troops, 1,500 police, 4,000 to 5,000 civilian staff, and a costly helicopter force to supply aerial surveillance 24 hours a day. According to the report:
There are a limited number of countries that provide troops and police with needed capabilities to meet current needs, and some potential contributors may be unwilling to provide forces for a new operation due to such political factors as their own national interests and the environmental and security situation in the host country.
The U.N. is already short 18,000 troops to staff its mandated missions around the world, and is missing 22 percent of the needed civilian personnel. The GAO warns that, though there are efforts to help the U.N. close the gap, the U.S. has failed to support some incentives such as increased protection for civilian forces. And Somalia is far less appealing a locale than Liberia, Cote D'Ivoire, and maybe even Darfur.
So peacekeeping is failing -- or it might, if the world tries this particular case. Blue helmets are not one-size-fits-all countries. Hopefully Congress will read this "hypothetical" between the lines.
Photo: STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images
An undersea cable near Egypt in the Mediterranean was cut today, disrupting Internet access for millions:
The main damage through is to the four submarine cables running across the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal.
It is thought that 65% of traffic to India was down, while services to Singapore, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Taiwan and Pakistan have also been severely affected.
The cause of the cut is unknown though there was some seismic activity recorded near Malta. This certainly seems like a pretty serious story:
Jonathan Wright - director of wholesale products at Interoute which manages part of the optical fibre network - told the BBC that the effects of the break would be felt for many days.
"This will grind economies to a halt for a short space of time," he said "If you look at, say, local financial markets who trade with European and US markets, the speed at which they get live data will be compromised." [...]
"We've lost three out of four lines. If the fourth cable breaks, we're looking at a total blackout in the Middle East," said Mr Wright."These three circuits account for 90% of the traffic and we're going to see more international phone calls dropping and a huge degradation in the quality of local internet,"
If financial transactions as far away as Singapore were really blocked by a minor undersea earthquake near Malta, it's a pretty sobering reminder of the fragile physical ties that make our virtual world possible.
It isn't every day that Somalia beats China in a battle of military technology... and still loses.
On Tuesday, it was the well-armed, satellite-phone-wielding Somali pirates who held up a Chinese cargo ship. The crew members' defense? Petrol bombs! The makeshift Molotov cocktails worked well enough to hold off the pirates until an international patrol helicopter intervened.
No wonder China is dispatching ships to join the international contingent of navies patrolling against piracy in the gulf of Aden. 1,265 Chinese ships have passed through that same corridor this year and 20 percent of those came under attack. Not good odds.
Alas, should we just start shipping our Suez-bound goods over land? I'll let you see a lay of the land and decide for yourself: the president has fired the prime minister. Parliament is impeaching the president. The U.S. wants to send peacekeepers, but U.N. diplomats fear that's suicide. The entire country is food insecure, and about half is a humanitarian emergency.No wonder the pirates prefer the seas.
There's good reason that Darfur is a household name. After over five years of crisis, little has improved, and by some measures, things are worse than ever. Now add this to the mix: a report by the Darfur Consortium says that slavery -- the abduction of men, women, and children for physical and sexual labor -- is rampant.
In addition to how despicable slavery already is, (for more on the contemporary slave trade, check out Benjamin Skinner's FP piece from March 2008) this is also another reason to worry about the Darfur crisis' evolution. Just look next door to Uganda and you can see how slavery tears a society apart. There, the abductions of children by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army have forced an underground society of young people who walk miles each day to find safe haven in cities and towns, for fear of abductions in the village homes.
Now, imagine trying to rehabilitate those children. Abducted children -- and now in Darfur, men and women too -- have been robbed of their will, their security net, and their lives. That's a lot of rebuilding, and it means that the conflict is just that much more entrenched. In Uganda, government and neighboring troops have been looking to stop the Lord's Resistance Army led by Joseph Kony since 1986. The 200,000 abducted children have no other sense of normality than this.
If slavery is indeed now a staple of Darfur, as evidence seems to indicate, that means that peace agreements, peacekeepers, and even aid won't be enough to stop the conflict. Peacekeepers, for example, will have to grapple with the presence of civilians among rebels contingents. Peace agreements will need to include extensive emancipation of souls.
The line between the ambiguous sides of this conflict has just become even more blurred.
Photo: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
As I wrote on Monday, the United States is hoping to send U.N. peacekeepers into turbulent Somalia. Yesterday, a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the use of force on ground in Somalia to stop pirating passed. In a press briefing afterward, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was very cryptic in response to the final question:
QUESTION: (Inaudible) does this resolution mean that –
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.
QUESTION: -- you can intervene militarily in Somalia?
SECRETARY RICE: We – there is a very – there is a very clear, longstanding understanding in international politics about the role of UN Security Council resolutions in this regard, and the fact that it is the Transitional Federal Government that is desirous of not having their territory used for safe haven for pirates. And so that is what has just taken place here in the Council.
Apparently, some Kenyans are still celebrating Barack Obama's winning of the U.S. presidential election last month. But a Kenyan high court pulled the plug on one celebratory activity that was scheduled to take place in Nairobi last Saturday, the 13th: a bullfight.
Animal-welfare activists said the competitions, in which two bulls have a go at one another, are cruel. Check out the full National Geographic video report here.
According to Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, the recent surge of U.N.-inspired naval patrols sent to thwart out of control piracy aren't having much of an effect on the Somali pirates.
More than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the United States have joined the hunt.
And yet, in the past two months alone, the pirates have attacked more than 30 vessels, eluding the naval patrols, going farther out to sea and seeking bigger, more lucrative game, including an American cruise ship and a 1,000-foot Saudi oil tanker.The pirates are recalibrating their tactics, attacking ships in beelike swarms of 20 to 30 skiffs, and threatening to choke off one of the busiest shipping arteries in the world, at the mouth of the Red Sea."
Outgunned and outnumbered, the pirates "seem to be getting only wilier."
While some ships have taken to alternative, and largely unsuccessful tactics -- the crew of a Filipino boat hurled tomatoes at assailants -- merchant vessels are now hiring private security guards, who offer more hands-on suggestions: "We should make 'em walk the plank," says one.
When I asked Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper what one would need to eliminate piracy off the Somali coast, he answered with a question: Are you fighting them on land or at sea?
Over the weekend, it seems the Bush administration answered: both.
In addition to the international vessels patrolling offshore, a U.S. resolution is already circulating in the U.N. Security Council calling for a limited U.N. peacekeeping force to bring stability to the East African nation. The United States also wants Ethiopian troops to stay through the U.S. presidential transition. And they'd like to add Eritrea, Ethopia's breakaway neighbor and favorite adversary, to its state sponsors of terrorism list.
Talk about a hard sell.
First, the administration is calling for a light U.N. mission, in a country where even heavy force has been ineffective.
Second, no one -- not the Ethiopians, not the African Union, not the United Nations -- wants to go to Somalia. For the two-year lifetime of the tiny African Union mission, the international community has struggled to find troops for the operation.
Finally, you can expect this to ratchet up tensions in the region. Eritrea is indeed rumored to supply the Somali Islamists with weapons. But Ethiopia and Eritrea have an ongoing border dispute that has left both sides exceedingly militarized. Acceding to Ethiopian wishes by putting Eritrea on the terror list is like playing Russia roulette. With all live rounds.
After a weekend in which the Somali president fired his prime minister (only to have him effectively re-instated by parliament) there is little reason to believe that the weak government will not fall instantly once foreign troops are gone.
Light a match, and the whole place might just blow.
Photo: JOSE CENDON/AFP/Getty Images
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