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.
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
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