Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Rising hopes for Obama's second coming in Africa



BAMAKO: Mali and Libya were the only African states to surface in the three US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact it was Romney who raised the spectre of the jihadist takeover of northern Mali, fresh from his latest briefing session on Al Qaida. It didn't do him much good in Mali. From a trawl through the streets of Bamako on the US election night, I would reckon that support for Obama was running at around 99.9%. The following day, there was jubilation in Bamako and neighbouring capitals at the second US victory for Africa's Obama.

The main gripe with Obama was that he hadn't turned up in Africa – apart from his three day visit to Ghana in mid-2010. Some Malian politicians railed against US and European backing for the Libyan rebels against Colonel Muammar el-Gadaffi. Mostly, they were furious as the west's lack of interest in the consequences of Gadaffi's overthrow: the southward migration of his Tuareg supporters, then the unilateral declaration of an independent northern Mali, and soon afterwards a takeover by jihadists.

After initial doubts, Obama's administration now backs, along with West Africa's regional organisation Ecowas, a military intervention in northern Mali. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been trying to persuade Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to join – or at least not obstruct – the action. With another UN security council resolution due later this month, the Mali intervention leaping up up the agenda.

Hillary Clinton has coordinated US diplomacy on Mali with US Ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, who is now frontrunner to take over from her as Secretary of State in January. Clinton says wants to leave the post after four tough years – although there's much speculation that she will run for the presidency in 2016.

Rice, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and an Africa specialist on the National Security Council, is well known on the continent. She takes a robust line with Sudan's Islamist regime; in Kigali she is seen as a good friend of Rwanda as other Western governments pull back on diplomacy and aid after successive UN reports accused Kigali of backing for militias in eastern Congo.

Accused by her opponents of misreading or misreporting events leading to the murder of the US envoy in Benghazi, Rice has fought back with backing from unexpected quarters such as Republican former Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

In Obama2, expectations are running way beyond the Sahel and Horn of Africa flashpoints. Top of the list would be to reform US trade policy: for example, ending the billions of dollars of subisidies to US cotton farmers that drive down the world price of cotton and help impoverish cotton farmers in Mali and Nigeria.

Another demand is to boost US market access for African producers and manufacturers, cutting bureaucracy that holds back African exporters. The USA's market access provisions for African exporters may be light years ahead of Europe's, but these days most African exporters are looking east.

A rethink on Washington's agricultural initiative -- Feed the Future – looks necessary. The idea was to boost productivity in 12 African states. But the collective push by GM specialists Monsanto and the Gates Foundation has raised concerns across the continent.

Linked to that, politicians and activists are demanding that the USA to review the excessive demands that the West is making for trade and investment policy liberalisation in Africa. The gap on trade policy between the West and Africa could open as Chinese companies streak ahead in the business stakes.

Activists are also demanding tougher regulation of oil and mining conglomerates to bar them from corrupt deals with ministers and officials in Africa. African anti-corruption campaigners are asking the Obama administration to match its rhetoric on the tax avoidance schemes and the ubiquitous Cayman-Island registered shell companies.

Research from the African Development Bank and Raymond Baker's Global Financial Integrity, a blocks north of the White House, closely monitors how
transfer pricing scams are racking up illicit capital flight from Africa – faster than new investment is coming in.

However, drafting effective laws that don't punish legitimate business takes time and expertise. The Dodd-Franks financial reforms, among much else, penalise mineral-grabbing militias and their corporate cohorts but also have hit hard-pressed local producers in eastern Congo.

Two areas where liberal critics targeted Obama1were immigration and climate change. Both have a critical African dimension. There are as many as 10 million Africans in the USA, many without official papers: they could be among the first beneficiaries of some form of amnesty scheme.

But such a plan remains strongly opposed by the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. A grand-sounding Global Climate Change Initiative to promote renewable energy in Africa is yet to bear fruit in the wake of international failures on a workable treaty on carbon emissions.

Another byproduct of Obama2 might be a rethinking of electoral tactics in Africa. A few hours after Obama's victory speech, a politician friend from Accra phoned up to say his party was studying how money and demographics swayed the vote.

Grassroots organisation and tactics had proved more important than cash – even if both campaigns were swimming in dollars, he concluded. And the power of the women's and youth vote for US parties was a wake-up call for their African counterparts, he insisted. All this, he said, would be put to the test in Ghana's elections next month. 

Monday, 25 June 2012

The cost of living and dying

'Protests over Sudan austerity measures' say the headlines. Yes, people are indeed protesting about the government removing subsidies on fuel and sugar, two of the commodities that Sudanese hold most dear. And they are protesting when the government tells them to cut back on spending when most go to bed hungry – especially when that government spends petro-billions on its private bank accounts, its Islamist projects at home and abroad, its wars against its own people and on the dark glassed 'security chic' buildings now scattered through the largely mud-brick capital.

In other words, it's more than the economy, it's the regime. That's what Sudanese are risking life and limb to protest about.

'Arab Spring reaches Khartoum', say more of the headlines. To which, on 25 June, one woman tweeted in response: 'Dear int'l media: plz stop saying Sudan is trying for an Arab Spring. This is our 3rd revolution. This is stuff is in our DNA'. What she meant is that Sudanese civilians have twice overthrown military-backed dictatorships: in 1964, when General Ibrahim Abboud voluntarily stepped down in response to people marching to the Palace, and in 1985, a popular Intifadah (Uprising) overthrew Ja'afar Nimeiri (another self-appointed Field Marshal, like President Omer el Beshir). Only weeks before his overthrow, the US Ambassador assured me that Nimeiri was not going to fall. 'You journalists talk to the wrong people!'

This week, 23 years ago, the Islamist party which now calls itself the National Congress Party but was then the National Islamic Front seized power in a military coup, on 30 June.

The target of that coup was a civilian government whose prime minister was El Sadig el Mahdi. It was Sudan's third period of democracy. Although dictatorship has taken up more of the years since Independence in 1956, the yearning for democracy is also part of Sudanese DNA.

Sadly for the Sudanese, Western and African governments which proclaim their democratic credentials have preferred to engage with the NCP rather than give political (let alone military) support to those struggling for human rights or an independent judiciary. Sudanese North and South regularly ask me why Western governments do not think they 'deserve' democracy.

Sudanese feel isolated in their struggle for liberation from one of the world's most murderous regimes. Khartoum is still killing its own people – unarmed civilians – in Darfur, in Blue Nile, in the Nuba Mountains and even in South Sudan, a year after its independence. Yet those who have taken up arms to resist – now grouped together in the Sudan Revolutionary Front – receive at best indifference, at worst condemnation from the international community. Why are we different from 'Syrians' or 'Libyans?' people often ask.

The protests in the Sudanese capital have continued for over a week now and spread to other towns. This is not just about the cost of living.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Pa'gan in London

Picture the scene. A score of motley officials, aid workers and journalists are seated around a table at Britain's Overseas Development Institute in London.  At the head of the table sits Pa'gan Amum Okiech, Secretary General of South Sudan's governing party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, and its tough chief negotiator at talks in Ethiopia with Khartoum's National Congress Party regime. Before him on the table is the latest issue of Africa Confidential.

Pa'gan complains that though Juba had offered 'to work together for the removal of sanctions on Sudan', Khartoum has responded by 'stealing' the South's oil. The NCP is certainly having difficulty getting used to the idea that since Southern Independence last year, it no longer owns that oil. The issue of President Omer el Beshir calling Southerners 'insects' also hits the fan. The NCP's London Ambassador, Abdullahi Hamed Ali el Azrag, who, as a former head of the Foreign Ministry's Arab Department might have been expected to be more cautious, starts protesting. Pa'gan brandishes Africa Confidential.

'You don't have to believe me!  Look at Africa Confidential!' Ponderously slowly, he reads out the paragraph (AC Vol 53 No 9, for those who may have missed it) recounting how President Omer el Beshir reminded South Sudanese of the old slave relationship. “Despite our attempts to make them aware so that they understand and know where their interests are, they do not understand. God has created them like that. That is why the best thing to do with them is to pick a stick and make them behave well'. This refers to a line from a well known poem by Abu el Tayeb el Mutanabi: 'You shall not buy a slave without a stick with him' (to beat him with). The 'rope of unity' appeared in another reference to the master-slave relationship: 'We will throw this rope around their necks once again, God willing'.

The Ambassador, who has already struggled to defend the indefensible ('when the emotions were very high') after Pa'gan's talk at Chatham House that morning, tries to convince us that this was not a reference to all Southerners. One of his acolytes leaps to his aid: 'This is not a reliable paper!'

Everyone laughs.  Says Pa'gan: 'It was quoted everywhere! It was on your own TV!' Many recall that at Chatham House that morning, one of at least seven Sudanese Embassy officials present had shouted at Pa'gan. 'You're a killer!  You're killers!' This is not what is expected at the august building in St. James's Square, a stone's throw from that same Embassy. After refusing to leave, the angry diplomat had been escorted from the room.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The bad news for Thomas Lubanga and Joseph Kony

Life for those accused and convicted of war crimes got marginally worse last week. Thomas Lubanga, militia leader and recruiter of child soldiers in Congo-Kinshasa, faces the prospect of two decades in a cell in the Hague.


Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord's Resistance Army, founded in Uganda and initially financed by the Sudan government, was the first individual to be indicted by the International Criminal Court back in 2005. Kony's charge sheet runs to the murder and abductions of tens of thousands of children, faces global celebrity.


Lubanga owes his change of circumstance to the International Criminal Court set up a decade ago and the lavishing of nearly a billion dollars on this effort at global jurisprudence. With the infamy of being the first war criminal to be convicted by the court, Lubanga has involuntarily established a critical marker for the court.


People in Ituri, in the extreme north-east of Congo-Kinshasa, have given strong support for the trial and are now pushing for the reparations on which the court is due to adjudicate. Lubanga's conviction, together with the arrival of Gambian advocate Fatou Bensouda as the court's prosecutor in July look set to boost its popular standing in Africa.


The court's toughest days lie ahead with its forthcoming cases against six prominent Kenyans, two of them presidential candidates, charged with crimes against humanity and for orchestrating the violence after the 2007 elections. And then there are its charges against Sudan's President Omer el Beshir, his defence minister and the governor of South Kordofan.


Kony's elevation from African political gangster to global villain came a little cheaper. It took a few million dollars from venture capital firms in California to sponsor a video made by a group called Invisible Children campaigning for Kony's apprehension.


In its ninth year, the campaign broke through globally last week. Its latest video – Kony 2012 – released on the internet got 100 million views in seven days. That's a few more than visit Africa Confidential's website, which has been reporting Kony's operations and political connections for two decades, indeed marginally more than the combined audience of the international pages of the New York Times, le Monde and the Financial Times.


The global reach of Kony 2012, helped by endorsements on twitter from rapper P Diddy and Oprah Winfrey, has put us mainstream journalists in the shade. Celebrity espousal of foreign causes, whatever our doubts, changes news values instantly. Correspondents reporting on the air strikes on South Kordofan in Sudan saw the story lead television bulletins across the world on 16 March – thanks to the arrest of George Clooney in a demonstration outside the Sudan Embassy in Washington.


Simplifications and factual errors in the Invisible Children video have come under fire in Africa and the west. Even criticism of Invisible Children's campaign has benefited from the group's internet celebrity. Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire's challenge to the group for its 'saviour complex' projecting itself as a team of western heroes coming to the rescue of helpless Africans flashed across the internet.


Kagumire has now provoked a deeper debate about how to deal with war crimes and forced Invisible Children to respond.
Invisible Children replied that 95% of its leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandan – whatever the impression given of American command and control in their video releases.


Outgoing ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo fulsomely welcomed the publicity machine unleashed by Invisible Children. Such a breakthrough might rescue his legacy a little in Africa before he hands over to Bensouda.


Two years ago the group pressured members of the US Congress to pass a law demanding presidential action against Kony. That's why President Barack Obama despatched 100 US special forces officers to Central African Republic, Uganda and Congo-Kinshasa to back the regional hunt for Kony.


With a budget of $30 million and a deadline of a year, it's a tiny contingent compared to US deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if it succeeds in apprehending Kony, Invisible Children will take a slice of the credit.


For more conventional and rarefied proponents of international justice, it raises more questions about mobilising support for their causes as well as the status the International Criminal Court's indictments. The US, which is not a member, is the first country to take serious action to enforce an arrest warrant from the court.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Heroes and villains

The elevation of dealmaker extraordinaire Katumba Mwanke to Congo-Kinshasa's Order of National Heroes, two days after he was killed in a plane crash in Bukavu on 12 February, prompts an unhappy comparison with the only other two recipients of the award: Prime Minster Patrice Lumumba and President Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

Lumumba was shot by Belgian soldiers in January 1961, after the then Colonel Joseph Mobutu had ordered his arrest; and Mzee Kabila was killed by a bodyguard, Rashidi Kasereka, in January 2001, as the prelude to a failed coup attempt. Katumba had been on his way to inspect the site for a tourist complex in the lush green hills of South Kivu. Officials in Kinshasa wouldn't be drawn on persistent rumours that the Gulfstream jet in which Katumba was flying was owned by former Katanga governor, Moise Katumbi.

Incontestably Katumba had become the ringmaster of Congo's political system. In that role he enjoyed the supreme confidence of award conferrer-in-chief, President Joseph Kabila. Katumba was one of the few people who could have helped President Kabila cut the necessary political deals to quieten things down after last November's disputed election.

Without those deals, things will get much noisier. One sign was the government's despatch of troops to shut down a peaceful protest march led by priests in Kinshasa on 17 February. Outrage continues over the official verdict that veteran oppositionist Étienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba lost the presidential vote in the wake of reports of widespread fraud.

Added to that is the uproar over the long-delayed results of the parliamentary elections.

Katumba's favoured political role was that of discreet advisor to the president. That's why he wasn't unduly disturbed when President Kabila officially relieved him of his duties as minister of state in the office of the President in 2002.

That was after a UN report in 2002 had named Katumba as a leading member of an elite network of Congolese and foreign business operators presiding over the transfer of some US$6 billion of the state's mineral assets to shadowy private companies.

With or without formal postings, Katumba had remained an indispensable member of regime's inner circle, the man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of both political factions and the corporate ownership structures.

The elite network still thrives. Congo's mineral assets are being parcelled out to the regime's business favourites. That helped finance the ruling party's election campaign, and win over a few political chieftains.

So how does Katumba compare with rebel leader Mzee Laurent Kabila and nationalist premier Patrice Lumumba?

Laurent Kabila ran a rebel army against Mobutu Sese Seko's regime in the 1960s. He returned from quasi-obscurity to seize power in May 1997, after a lightning offensive dominated by Rwandan fighters had chased Mobutu from power.

Among Laurent Kabila's top aides in 1997 was a smart young banker who had been working in South Africa, Katumba Mwanke. When Joseph Kabila took power, after his father's assassination, Katumba became a combination of national security advisor and chief of treasury.

That is a world away from Lumumba's speech on Congo's Independence Day, 30 June 1960. Lumumba saluted those who gave their 'strength and their blood' to put an end to 'the humiliating slavery' of Belgian rule. Minutes earlier Belgium's King Baudouin had praised the 'achievements of colonialism' and paid tribute to the 'genius' of his great grand uncle King Leopold II, one of the most brutal colonial rulers in history.

Lumumba's pan-Africanist oratory and his determination to put Congolese in charge of managing and developing the country's vast mineral reserves invoked a petulant and then murderous response from the Belgian authorities.

That response set the pattern for another 50 years of political and economic depredations and impunity. In the interests of accountability, perhaps Congo could establish an Order of Villains (national and international) as a counter to its sparsely populated Order of Heroes.

Monday, 23 January 2012

The regional fight intensifies after Kano slaughter

The shootings and bombings in Nigeria's northern commercial capital of Kano on 20 January are reckoned to have taken over 170 lives. They followed the established pattern of attacks in northern Nigeria over the past month: a surprise attack on police stations and churches and a strong statement of responsibility claiming to come from a spokesman for the Jama'atu Ahlus Sunnah Lidda'Awati Wal Jihad, known as locally as Boko Haram (western culture is forbidden).

The scale of the violence, bigger than any other single attack so far, looks like a turning point. Nigerians of all faiths are urging the government to take more determined action.

There is little support in northern Nigeria for massive escalation of the counter-insurgency. Local people are already claiming that the state of emergency in several north-eastern states is alienating communities who fear being caught in crossfire between state security and the Boko Haram's Islamist fighters.

The emergence of Abubukar Shekau as a leader for the group in a well distributed video on the internet and elsewhere – he called for his supporters to attack Christians in the north and to avenge the the killing of Muslims. The killing of an earlier leader of the group – Mohammed Yusuf – in police custody in July 2009 appears to have prompted an intensification of the military campaign.

Yusuf's killing prompted an investigation and some attempt at back channel negotiations mediating between state security and Boko Haram fighters. Little progress has been made because of the lack of clarity on the group's aims. Its push for for a theocratic state, tougher sharia law provisions, the outlawing of the Christian faith and mass attacks on civilians is not a programme that has much appeal.

People want the militia attacks to end and many call for a political strategy. Such demands have differing interpretations: they call for the government to win hearts and minds, to push forward with an economic and social development programme. That may help, but Boko Haram is targeting any government initiative, trying to get the message across that any links with the state or federal government will put the beneficiaries in danger. The modus operandi is similar to Islamist insurgencies elsewhere in Africa and Asia: it tries to drive a wedge between local people and the government institutions.

However, political and religious tolerance are often much more robust than outsiders suggest. The mass action against President Goodluck Jonathan's abolition of the fuel subsidy this month saw an impressive display of solidarity between Muslims and Christians. We hear reports in Kano that Christians were protecting Muslim protestors at prayer when the police were trying to disperse demonstrations.

Last year's attacks – the most spectacular were the bombs at the national police headquarters on 16 June, on the UN headquarters, and churches on Christmas day – have now established a dangerous dynamic according to Nigerian writers Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. Speaking of a 'dismal watershed' when militia men shoot the faithful in their places of worship, Soyinka has raised alarms about a dangerous cycle of retribution.

National Security Advisor General Andrew Owoye Azazi told me this month that the military and police are getting a grip on the crisis but they have much work to do to win over local people as informants as well as find ways to break up the organisation's cells.

There are inexact parallels between the Boko Haram insurgency and the militant movement in the Niger Delta, Azazi said. Hailing from the Niger Delta, Azazi had a network of contracts across the region and the relative success of the amnesty programme.

The Islamist insurgents have less direct leverage on the economy than the Delta militants who were able to shut down parts of the oil economy. Instead, Boko Haram's strategy is to render swathes of the country ungovernable, which will wreak terrible damage on the economy and portray the government as unable to protect its own people.

Worse still, there are signs of the insurgency spreading in the region. A confidential UN report sent to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released on 18 January says its investigators have established links – and training camps – between Boko Haram militants and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. It points to the growing traffic in arms and drugs across northern Nigeria, southern Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania. So far the closing of Nigeria's borders with its northern neighbours has had little effect. That is partly why so many are calling for a more determined political and intelligence strategy after the horrendous death toll in Kano. President Goodluck Jonathan speaks of a breakthrough – more than ever that's what his security planners need, after almost six months of being on the defensive.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Sudan's man on a mission in Syria

Never has there been so much criticism of the Arab League by the international Arab media. Yet the League’s emergency meeting in Cairo on Sunday only boosted the numbers in its mission to monitor abuses in Syria, refusing to accept United Nations observers (‘foreigners’) and ignoring a golden opportunity to replace the widely condemned team leader, the Sudanese former external security boss, General Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa el Dabi.

Yet Mohamed el Dabi is well known in the Arab world. He emerged on to the international stage in 1995 when he took over Sudan’s extremely active external security because Gen. Nafi’e Ali Nafi’e was moved sideways.  Nafi’e had been shifted at Egyptian insistence after Egypt and Ethiopia blamed the National Islamic Front regime for the attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.  Nafi’e is now of course back as Presidential Assistant to Field Marshal Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir.

President Omer soon sent Mohamed el Dabi to Darfur, where his arrival in 1999 to oversee security is seen in the area as the beginning of the NIF’s ethnic cleansing campaign. Locals formed self-defence groups but it wasn’t until 2003 that the ‘rebellion’ formally began and the regime has made sure outsiders forget what led up to that.  ‘He brought 1,500 soldiers from Khartoum and began to burn the villages from Barey to Kudumuli,’ one fighter told Africa Confidential in 2009. UN and human rights bodies echo such accounts.

This is what the Arab media have targeted.  On New Year’s Day, Saudi Arabia’s Asharq al Awsat, which doesn’t usually publish much the royal family wouldn’t like to read, noted that he was ‘accused of being responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in his own country and against his own people’ and quoted the United States-based ‘Enough Project’ that ‘instead of heading a team entrusted with a probe of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by Syria, the general should be investigated by the ICC for evidence of similar crimes in Sudan.’ Mohamed el Dabi, it noted, had been chosen for the Syria team by President Omer el Beshir (who of course is himself wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide in Darfur).

Under the headline ‘The scandal of El Dabi’, the daily Al Hayat, too, slammed into ‘a soldier belonging to an army that practised crimes in Darfur more atrocious than the crimes practised by the Syrian regime today. This soldier is a man accused of committing war crimes, a man of whom Amnesty International has said Mohamed Ahmad el Dabi was responsible for "arbitrary arrests, detentions, violent disappearances, torture, and other forms of mistreatment of many people in Sudan." Moreover, El Dabi was one of the men of the coup d’état staged by Omer el Beshir. Therefore, how do we expect him to defend freedom?!’

The Arab Spring appears to be affecting even the conservative Arab media. However, it means different things to different people. The Muslim Brotherhood (which is doing very nicely out of Egypt’s revolution) joined the chorus of attacks on the League’s Syria team, again in the name of freedom and justice.  That just might make some people forget that the National Islamic Front (now National Congress Party), of which Mohamed Ahmed el Dabi has been such a staunch defender, itself grew out of Egypt’s Brotherhood in the years after the Second World War.