Sep 27 2007

African leaders: index the streets!

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:38 PM

Americans don’t need a complex index, or algorithm, in order to decide that George Bush is a poor leader. And ordinary Africans don’t need to be told by Harvard University who counts as a great African leader. Leadership ought to reveal itself, making sense in its own context.

I shouldn’t pick on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, which is the sponsor of the latest index to judge African leadership. Ibrahim, who made a fortune building an African mobile phone company, is after all is only doing what other foundations — and international agencies like the World Bank — have done for years. Unwilling to criticize actual African leaders, these global actors promote safe, sanitary “benchmarks” for leadership. These benchmarks, always debateable and grounded in mushy statistics, are psuedo-scientific, misleading and ultimately corrosive. Defenders say these indices are better than nothing. Yet metrics for leadership can only grow out of the societies in which leaders themselves grow. No index can suggest how a Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s charismatic leader, is created. Neither can any index predict or prevent the rise of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who may go down as the worst African leader of the 21st century.

I’d feel more comfortable with even a flawed index on African leadership if the index itself was created and applied by Africans. The new Ibrahim index is a creature of Harvard University, a great American institution but one far removed from the existential realities of African life. I wonder whether the real beneficiaries of the index are not the Harvard professors who administer it. Having just spent a month in a Uganda of pit latrines and floods, of enterprising farmers and hustling “boda” drivers, of Muslim community activists and fervent Christian believers, I know well that the backbone of African societies — out of which great leaders will spring — don’t need lofty professors from Harvard to help them choose good leaders from bad. They can do so themselves.

The trouble with leadership in Africa is not a lack of great leaders or an ignorance about what constitutes great leadership. I meet great leaders all the time in Africa. They lack power, not a moral compass. Their honesty and integrity are a handicap. They are smothered, pressured, and sometimes even extinguished by rivalrous bad leaders who in an endless display of Gresham’s Law prove time again that “bad (leaders) drive out good.”

The academic indices for African leadership don’t calculate the one ultimate source of leadership: people power. Nelson Mandela’s “secret sauce” — why he is the greatest African leader of recent times — is that he embodied the people in the streets, the ordinary South Africans whose dreams and frustrations he knew so well. More power to ordinary Africans will inevitably spawn more great leaders.


Sep 25 2007

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:56 PM

“Africa is likely to be the most affected [by climate change] partly because of the increasing aridity in the
north [the Sahel] and Southern Africa: and these are the most populous parts of the continent.” — Martin Parry, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change


Sep 25 2007

Our Men in Djibouti

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:44 PM

On the flight from Nairobi to Amsterdam, I sat next to a Marine fighter pilot, a beefy 20-something American with a genial demeanor and a pleasant disposition. He’s part way through a six-month tour in the Pentagon’s African command in the city-state of Djibouti in east Africa. Officially the new command center begins Oct.1 but in reality responsibility for the sub-Saharan won’t transfer to the new outfit for another year. The soldier told me that our men in Djibouti are feeling stretched. Less than 2,000 troops must keep up with security issues in at least dozen countries (the volatile West African region remains for the time being the purview of American military officers based in Europe).
Much anxiety has arisen over why the Pentagon needs a permanent base in Africa, and why Djibouti. The soldier clarified this conundrum with an alacrity that suggested his overall intelligence. “The French run the country,” he told me blithely. While Djibouti is quite small and very hot, the French have permanently stationed two groups of combat-ready soldiers, including members of the French Foreign Legion.
So, once more, the reason why the US needs an African base? Well, the French have one. Our soldiers are needed to watch theirs.
The Marine casually mentioned that as part of his job he has contact with African soldiers. He did not describe the nature of the contact. Then I suggested that he read Che’s long-suppressed memoir of trying to foment guerrilla activity with rebels in central Africa. Che was always ready to fight, even die if necessary, but he found his African comrades curiously averse to engaging the enemy in combat. Paired with a young Joseph Kabila (famous, decades later, for replacing Mobutu as president of the Congo), Che found Kabila perversely averse to actual fighting. Kabila was always insisting it was too late in the day to launch an attack, or they had wrong weapons, or the right ones but the wrong soldiers. Che barely hid his disgust and in private wailed on the lack of zeal for war displayed by African revolutionaries.
On hearing my story, the Marine smiled. I advised him to get the book.
Unlike the American military, which has created new definitions for the term “partner” based on botched alliances with Afghan and Iraqi soldiers, the French in Africa specialize in unilateral action. No need to collaborate with African armies when simply attacking them – as the French have done recently in Chad – brings “better” results. In Chad, the French-friendly government is kept in power through direct military intervention by French forces. The Chadian rebels are a rather motley group, easily deterred. If they were not, France might require – in defense of Chad’s government — the sort of massive force that might even create a zone of protection around embattled Darfur, in neighboring western Sudan.
In most African wars, 200 well-trained soldiers, disciplined and unified, are enough to hold any position (or over run it). Hidebound and bureaucratic, the American military is unlikely to grasp the essentials of winning even small wars in Africa. That a test may be in the offing makes the proposition more interesting. The Bush administration has warned that rebel leaders of the Lords Resistance Army, a terrorist group that has disrupted life in northern Uganda for nearly 15 years, may face an onslaught by U.S. Marines, if the Ugandan government, with an assist from Congolese forces, do not shut down the LRA for good in the next 90 days. The clock is ticking and the Pentagon is wondering whether catching the alleged war criminal Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, is easier than nailing bin Ladin.


Sep 24 2007

Electrify Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:29 AM

There’s been a flurry of interest in electrifying Africa, and Abbey Wasswa of Kampala knows why. Even in Africa’s capital cities, such as Kampala (where I met Wasswa this week), there isn’t enough juice to go around. Indeed, electricity outages — and even outlets — are in such short supply that many ordinary Kampalans routinely scramble to charge their mobile phones. In pursuit of satisfying these electricity-challenged Kampalans, Wasswa recently opened a phone-charging station in one of the city’s poor neighborhoods.

I’ve been harping on the need for expanding power sources in Africa, especially hydro-electric sources, for some time (see the Wall Street Journal’s brief report on my insights from its May 8, 2007 editon). To be sure, the widespread and severe shortages of electricity in many African countries does mean business opportunities such as offering phone-charging as a service. Wassway, for instance, asks for about 30 cents to fully charge a single mobile phone. Because there are 3 million mobile phone users in Uganda, the market for phone-charging is not small. Indeed, Wasswa has plenty of competitors. Still, Wasswa sees an opportunity both to earn a small profit and to provide an essential service to his neighbors. “In the ghetto,” he says, “many people don’t have a place to charge their phones.” His store — a shack, really, on the side of dirt road — is such a place.

“Don’t you have phone-charging stories in your country?” Wasswa asks me early in our conversation.

“No, we don’t,” I answer.


Sep 22 2007

Uganda’s Musical Identity-Crisis

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:45 PM

Had lunch at Café Pap with Steve Jean, perhaps Kampala’s leading music producer. As everywhere, the pirating of digital music is well established in Uganda, sinking deep roots into youth culture just as the country’s first true copyright law takes effect. Jean, whose latest hit act is a band called Blue 3, bemoans the government’s unwillingness to crack down on copy-cats and imagines new approaches to distributing digital music – encrypted downloads at a music store he plans to open next year in the east African city.
Jean is also a realist. He spent a decade in southern California, learning the ropes of recording, and today has the most cutting-edge studio, creatively and technically, in Uganda. While he backs some acts out of passion, he also must take on commercial work in order to cover his expenses. And because of the difficulty musicians face in selling CDs in Uganda, he recognizes that a successful producer must build a multimedia “brand” for his clients. That means working in radio, television and of course live performances.
“Musicians still don’t get their fair share, but the situation is much much better than 5 to 10 years ago,” Jean says. Over this period, Ugandans have learned to love their own music. “Coming up, people only wanted to hear copyrights,” or songs made popular by American musicians. Now Ugandans want original songs from their star musicians, sung increasingly in their indigenous languages. The same sentiments preside over popular music tastes in neighboring Tanzania and Kenya, where Swahili is the language of choice in studios.
These songs, despite lyrics in local languages, are invariably imitative of Western pop music, or niche styles such as hip-hop. Jean concedes that Ugandan musical originality remains problematic. “We are trying to make international styles our own,” he says, and he thinks the adoption process  – in reggae and hip-hop, in particular – is successful. “This is our music now,” he says. But what about the emergence of a distinctive Ugandan style, a set of national musical traits that are instantly recongizeable in the same way that music from Mali or Senegal or Nigeria is immediately distinctive?
“Not yet,” Jean says. And even the roadmap isn’t clear.


Sep 12 2007

Ebola: a man-made pandemic in a fictional Congo

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:55 AM

Instability in eastern Congo breeds armed conflict, prompting diplomats to meet, scratch heads and issue declarations. Last weekend, the presidents of Uganda and Congo met in the latest effort to ward off a small war between the two countries. They are wrangling over possession of a small oil find in Lake Albert, which is divided between them along a fuzzy line that must become sharper. The risks of conflict along the border were highlighted this morning by a report in the Daily Monitor on five cases of Ebola being reported in Congo. The deadly cases are not near the border, but the re-appearance of Ebola at all is a reminder that instability breeds disease as well as well. When public-health authorities can’t function because of social conflict, diseases spread. Pandemics are as much socially-constructed as they are driven by nature. Ebola presents an especially difficult medical challenge. My own son, a junior in high school, spent this summer as an intern in a California biotech company seeking, among other things, to develop a basic defense again acquiring Ebola. Until a vaccine becomes available – and that’s perhaps decades away – traditional methods of prevention must do. And these methods depend on social order: cooperation, swift action against eruptions of the disease and careful consistent monitoring. In many parts of the Congo, where the national government has only a weak presence, public health is essentially an illusion.

The problem of course is that Congo, as a political entity, is an illusion. The country is too large, diverse and riven by durable differences to be managed from a single center. It is time to explore a truly federalized Congo that might over the next 10 to 20 years peacefully “devolve” into a several nation-states. Eastern Congo would be especially well-served by “devolution,” since the region – today the least stable in the current Congo – has natural economic, social and geographic links to neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. If Scotland can engage in a process of “devolution” from Britain, why cannot eastern Congo engage in the same process? Colonial maps cannot forever burden the serious and expensive efforts to develop regional integration, whether in East Africa or the sub-Saharan generally. The double-standard – whereby European countries can split themselves apart based on democratic processes but African countries are eternally bound by the borders of their former European masters — ought to end. That European governments often quickly oppose any talk of redrawing African are examples of both hypocrisy and stupidity. European governments spend billions of dollars holding together unwieldy African countries and in the end sustain only the fiction of real sovereignty. The Congo is perhaps the best example of this. Congolese elections, which cost European donors a hefty sum, accomplished the little more than to highlight the folly of holding this vast territory together under a single political rubric. Maintaining the fiction of the Congo, in short, is dangerous and ultimately futile.


Sep 12 2007

When taking away your teen’s allowance is not enough

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:54 AM

The van from the Naguru “go down” neighborhood to Kampala center took a different route than usual this morning, and we passed a compound surrounded by a high wall, topped by new barbed wire. A friend in the van casually informed me that the compound was a prison for juveniles, mainly teenagers who defied their parents wishes and were then sent to prison. Aggrieved parents need only to approach the courts, or even the prison officials, directly and negotiate terms of engagement. Many parents opt to imprison their kids for as little as a week, judging that the mere dose of incarceration will compel improvements in a child’s behavior. Since there is no published price list for imprisonment services, my friend does not know the cost. Because she approves of the practice of parents imprisoning their wayward teens, she may someday learn the actual cost. She has a teenager of her own.


Sep 11 2007

the joys of reading the Daily Monitor

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:06 PM

One of the joys of being in Kampala is de-coding the print edition of the Daily Monitor, which today reads like an alarming tip sheet on self-dealing by Ugandan public servants. On page 3, the Monitors’s Grace Matsiko casually mentions a rather shocking practice in public finances by a government whose revenues continue to be heavily subsidized by “aid transfers” from the taxpayers of wealthy countries. Matsiko’s story describes a simple robbery of about $20,000. The robbed was a Gen. named Aronda. The robbers were two of his aides who absconded with what the newspaper demurely described as the general’s “research purse.” By way of explaining why the soldier carried so much money on him, the Matsiko explained that all senior officers in Uganda’s army received piles of discretionary cash on a monthly basis. The money is for his personal use! Weirdly, the astounding practice does not merit news; only the robbery does. The writer does not even muse aloud about why such “research” funds are necessary, since army officers are indeed paid and have some official expenses reimbursed. Obviously the robbed money funds some unaccounted for activities by army officers. The question of course what are these activities and do any support national security or the public good? And why do wealthy donors not insist on a halt to handing out piles of cash to soldiers?

In the same issue, on the next page, readers learn that one of President Yoweri Museveni’s private secretaries received a payment of roughly $150,000 from a businessman who purchased land from the government. The evidence suggests that the Museveni aide helped to facilitate the land deal in exchange for a bribe. There is no evidence to suggest that the buyer of the land received a sweetheart deal. Indeed, the transaction, made five years ago, may simple have been business as usual. The attorney for the accused private secretary, according to the Monitor, does not deny his client received the money only that the prosecution case is faulty; he claims the wrong penal code violation is alleged.

Uganda of course is home to one of the “good” African governments. Just this weekend, President Museveni, prodded by officials in the U.S. State Department, forged a compromise with the Congo government in a bid to halt a dangerous dispute over oil reserves found in Lake Albert, which is shared by the two countries. Museveni’s reliability in international relations – he’s also dispatched troops to Somalia – make him an excellent ally of the Bush White House. The President is smart, talented and tactically gifted. Yet the persistence of official corruption in his government, while possible occurring without his knowledge and without his direction, raises questions about his management abilities, if not his character.


Sep 10 2007

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:13 AM

“It is embarassing for me as a Pan-Africanist to refer to the maps of the Belgians and the British. As Africans, we should see how to move beyond these colonial processes and push on.” — Yoweri Museveni, on his agreement with Congo about the border demarcation through Lake Albert, Sept. 9, 2007


Sep 10 2007

Trade Terms, Migration and African Ambition

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:09 AM

At an afternoon tea with Andrew Mwenda in Kampala Fang Fang restaurant, Uganda’s leading journalist on matters political and economic, talked of the failure of global leaders to stop subdizing favored farmers in rich countries at the expense of African farmers, most of whom rank among the world’s poorest. Why were Mwenda and I – who had not seen each other in months and had plenty of catching up do, especially about his fiery resignation from the Monitor newspaper — even dwelling on such trade distortions when the so-called Doha Round in trade liberalization is long dead? Perhaps because the meeting of Asian leaders with President George Bush this past week brought the international failure of trade reform back into the news, however briefly and furtively. Find hope for Africa elsewhere, I dare say. The so-called Doha Round in trade liberalization is essentially dead because of the refusal of Europe and the U.S. to sharply reduce tax-paid handouts to uncompetitive farmers. Though the biggest beneficiaries of these reductions will be already-rich farmers in Mexico, Brazil, Thailand and even China, the main moral case for removal of farm subsidies is that the action will raise prices on a range of farm products for Africa’s poor and wealthy farmers alike.

I favor these cuts, even though I do not view changes in terms of trade as a panacea. For a farmer who lacks the funds to light his home or properly clothe and feed his children, even a penny on every pound of cotton sold, or a dime on every pound of corn or coffee, means a great deal. The poor measure their lives in the smallest of increments; perhaps nowhere is this truer than in rural Africa. So the objection that Africans will hardly benefit from trade reform is not persuasive. Which brings me to the two following quotes and my parting comment:

“Every cow in the European Union is subsidized to the tune of two dollars a day, while between four hundred and five hundred million Africans live on less than a dollar a day.” – Stephen Lewis

“If you will not pay us reasonable prices for our exports, we will export ourselves.” – anon. Zambian, quoted in The EastAfrican, Sept. 10.

The Zambian’s comment should not be viewed as a threat but rather a prediction of what is already occurring, albeit on a small scale. The exodus of the talented, enterprising and merely healthy younger-working-age people of Africa are what birth-dearth Europeans want and so obviously need. Black African immigrants are scorned today not because Europeans do not want them but rather because such forms of “soft” power are an instrument of social control. Europe wants black Africans but not at a price of social cohesion, or rather the illusion of cohesion.


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