Western journalists are trained to frame African problems in familiar tropes. The mania this month over â€œSomali piratesâ€ reflects an old media passion for romanticizing thievery in a part of the world where gross inequalities indeed cry out for action, sometimes any action. The pirates, whom are hijacking oil tankers and ships in the waters off Somalia and Kenya, are rarely portrayed as real people, responding to incentives, however perverse, and rational expectations. In a rare departure last week, the Guardianâ€™s Xan Rice, based in Nairobi and ably assisted by a Somali correspondent, provided a glimpse into the mind of a pirate. An excerpt makes riveting reading, not the least because of the Somaliâ€™s matter-of-fact recitation of his life choices carries an aroma of authenticity:
â€œI started to hijack these fishing boats in 1998. I did not have any special training but was not afraid. For our first captured ship we got $300,000. With the money we bought AK-47s and small speedboats. I donâ€™t know exactly how many ships I have captured since then but I think it is about 60. Sometimes when we are going to hijack a ship we face rough winds, and some of us get sick and some die.
â€œWe give priority to ships from Europe because we get bigger ransoms. To get their attention we shoot near the ship. If it does not stop we use a rope ladder to get on board. We count the crew and find out their nationalities. After checking the cargo we ask the captain to phone the owner and say that have seized the ship and will keep it until the ransom is paid.â€Our community thinks we are pirates getting illegal money. But we consider ourselves heroes running away from poverty. We donâ€™t see the hijacking as a criminal act but as a road tax because we have no central government to control our sea.
â€œWith foreign warships now on patrol we have difficulties. But we are getting new boats and weapons. We will not stop until we have a central government that can control our sea.â€
“The least we can do for African countries is respect the difference between them, even when the most visible difference is a different style of misgovernment.” — John Ryle
“Everywhere new ways to write about Africa have appeared, reinvesting the continent and its people with humanity.” — Chinua Achebe
Once more, people of good will have failed to end, finally and emphatically, the security threats in Uganda’s far north posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army of indicted war criminal Joseph Kony.
Kony’s ability to elude capture, and the inevitability of standing trial for brutal acts against civilians stretching over decades, has been based on the belief that a negotiated settlement between the LRA and the Ugandan government is essential to peace, stability and development in Uganda’s poorest and most troubled region. That may still be true. Yet once more, Kony has refused to accept generous peace terms. Time appears to have expired on one of the lengthiest and most puzzling attempts by European “peace builders” to end an African conflict. As I have written earlier this year in The Wilson Quarterly, humanitarian failures in northern Uganda — many of which stem directly from misguided efforts to accomodate Kony –Â are many and yet eminently fixable.
I visited Uganda earlier this month and I feel the sorrow that policymakers and civil leaders must be experiencing now as another deadline for terminating negotiations with Kony has come and gone. While I didn’t venture into the far north on my Uganda trip, I saw a dynamic country that suffers greatly from the burden of an unresolved civil conflict. Kony needs to be either arrested or defeated decisively in battle. If the Ugandan government cannot do so, for whatever reason, a “coalition of the willing,” led by the new Obama administration, should orchestrate the capture of the LRA’s famously unstable leader. Only by dismantling the LRA, and putting Kony on trial for his crimes against humanity, can Uganda become a cohesive nation in reality as well as rhetoric. The task, from a tactical military standpoint, is not difficult. Kony has hundreds of men, at most under his command, and his movements are easier to predict and track from the air. In a weekend of determined activity, a U.N. coalition could seize Kony and destroy his already-weakened forces permanently. The cost of the action would less than is spent in a single day in Iraq by the U.S. government, and perhaps even less than is spent in an afternoon.
I was in Nairobi on Election Day, getting the news of Obama’s victory surrounded by jubilant Kenyans who view our new President as a brethren. Because I wore on my vest an Obama-Biden button, I received a great deal of love from strangers. I’ve made 30 visits to Africa since 2000 and yet this last visit was the most emotional. America seemed indeed a land of redemption and hope for the many Africans whose paths I crossed over three weeks in three countries (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania). The intense focus on Obama and his achievement of course resonates for Africans from the standard of racial and ethnic pride. However, there is a sobering side to the African infatuation with Obama, which I explore in a new essay for Foreign Policy. In essence, I argue that “Obamania in Kenya has gone on for years now, but the hype isnâ€™t just about the president-electâ€™s roots. Rather, Kenyaâ€™s Obama fixation seems to represent a kind of escapist fantasy for an African country beset by political dysfunctionality.”