I’ve visited Nairobi several times since June and each visit I’ve been startled by the large number of killings publicly confirmed by the police. Some days the police admit to killing as many as five to ten people — all likely robbers and violent criminals, according to the cops.
Whenever I complain about the amount of killings by police, Kenyans tell me that the police actions are welcome — and that there are simply too many crimes in Nairobi and too many armed criminals.
The police also have taken to killing suspects rather than arresting them — partly as a form of protest against a judicial system that moves too slowly against criminals and too often offers them leniency. Prosecutors, meanwhile, routinely fall down on the job, failing to document their cases sufficiently.
The judicial failures, while real, are used as an excuse for police to kill people with impunity. The practice of police killings legitimizes violence in Kenya, by ordinary criminals and political actors alike as well as by the state itself.
That so many of the people killed by police are alleged to be carrying weapons has made me wonder whether the police routinely plant guns on those they kill in order to protect themselves from complaints and obtain at least a flimsy justication for their deadly actions.
My worst suspicions about extra-judicial killings by police have been confirmed by a United Nations investigator. Philip Alston has found that senior police officials are ordering killings by their officers. Alston told the BBC: “Kenyan police are a law unto themselves. They kill often, with impunity.”
Alston provided evidence showing that police officers are given a “bonus” of $65 for every “suspect” they kill. He called on Kenya’s government to fire its police chief.
Is the personal political? Can international relations be viewed through the prism of a marriage?
I don’t ask these questions in my new book, Married to Africa, but the questions will inevitably become part of my appearances to discuss the book. Next week I’ll be speaking at the University of California School of Journalism and then in Portland on March 1, where I’ll be presenting at the original Powell’s bookstore, unquestionably the largest shrine to bookselling in the U.S.
China’s president Hu Jintao handed out gifts to African governments over the past few days, trying his best to persuade their leaders that China cares, even though demand for Africa’s resources — at least in the short term — has declined because of the economic slowdown.
In a speech in Tanzania, Hu said, “During times of adversity, it is all the more important for China and Africa to support each other, work in concert and tide over the difficulties together.” Hs keynote speech was entitled, “Work Together to Write a New Chapter of China-Africa Friendship.”
African critics of China often mock the idea that China wants to assist African countries grow and prosper. With more Chinese in African cities — many of them imported laborers doing jobs Africans themselves could do — tensions are growing over the Chinese presence.
In a bow to these tensions, Hu said that Chinese companies operating in Africa should “shoulder more social responsibilities and forge amicable relations with the local communities.”
Trolling the archives of African books at Powells in Portland, I found yesterday an unusually clear statement, by the musician Bob Geldoff, on the need for a more complex view of the African continent. Geldoff writes:
â€œAfrica is not the Dark Continent as so often described by writers from the gloomy northern skies of Europe. Not the Dark Continent at all. It is the Luminous Continent. Drenched in sun, pounded by heat and shimmering in its blinding glare. And within this immense continent, deserts with rolling seas of sand, tropics shrouded with jungles, equators dense with rainforest and coasts with more animals and fish than seems possible. There are more people, languages and cultures here than anywhere else on our planet. Africa is quite simply the most extraordinary, beautiful and luminous place on earth.
Most of us continue to see Africa as an object, a single, blighted place burning in the relentless, glaring heat, for others it occupies a romantic space in the imagination of child-like primitives and wild, beautiful creatures. For yet more of us itâ€™s the dark side of our minds, the impenetrable place, the unknowable mind. And, yes, all of this is partially true too much of the time. But there are other Africas.â€
Libyaâ€™s Qadaffi is not only wooing sub-Saharan Africans with diplomatic and cultural initiatives. He is quietly spending billions of dollars buying assets in the region, placing a big bet on the last uncharted frontier in global capitalism. To understand what Qadaffi hopes to gain, we look at one of Libyaâ€™s newest investments, Rwandatel, which is the largest Internet provider and second-largest cell-phone provider in this post-genocidal central African country. Qadaffiâ€™s African investment company paid $80 million for Rwandatel in 2007 and hopes to use Rwanda as a platform to take advantage of the sub-Saharan mobile-phone market, considered the fastest-growing in the world.
The Libyans have long been players in Africaâ€™s unorthodox business scene, but now the stakes are higher and the Libyans â€“ flush with oil money and emboldened by a period of relative prosperity in much of Africa â€“ are positioned to turn what once seemed like a costly political strategy â€“ wooing African governments through friendly investments in prestige projects such as hotels and infrastructure â€“ into a profitable growth-oriented portfolio. Mobile-phone operations in Africa are the worldâ€™s most profitable on a percentage basis.
There is a back story to the Libyan saga. Rwandatel was previously owned by a reclusive American tycoon, Greg Wyler, who invested in Rwanda a few years ago in a act of misguided altruism. Wylerâ€™s problems in Rwanda were chronicled by the WSJ in a page one story about two years ago and I described how Wylerâ€™s Rwanda operation was resurrected as part of a profile on American investor in Rwanda, published in Business 2.0 in the summer of 2007. About a month later (and a few days after a glowing story appeared in the Sunday Non Rwandatel and Wyler), the Rwandan government issued an ultimatum to Wyler: sell out immediately or risk having Rwandatel seized by the governmentâ€™s battle-tested troops.
After three days of â€œnegotiations,â€ Wyler â€“ who had pissed off and disrespected the Rwandans for years by failing to make good on promises and behaving like a moron generally — sold out for about $12 million. The Rwandan government then turned around and sold the company to the Libyans for $80 million.
What Libyan capital and Rwanda’s telco market will yield remains to be seen.
In an excellent article in today’s New York Times, the first details have emerged on military aid given by the U.S. government to the Ugandan government late last year. The American aim, personally approved by President George Bush, was to kill Joseph Kony and crush the last remnants of the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army, which for decades has killed and abused innocent civilians in the far-North section of Uganda. The U.S. government has long been asked to assist in the capture of Kony. As the Times details, the latest military operation against him was at least partly designed by the U.S. — and, in failing, left vulnerable civilians to vicious counter-attack, a Kony “speciality.”
The question is now whether, under a new U.S. administration, the Pentagon should try again to help the Uganan armed forces get Kony?
President Obama should consider assisting the Ugandans in another attempt to crush Kony and the LRA. Kony after all has been indicted by a U.N. court for war crimes and is undeniably responsible for horrific crimes, particular against children. Yet the Ugandans alone have failed to stop Kony for more than 20 years. The Times article didn’t mention one awful possibility that is widely discussed among elite Ugandans: that the goverment doesn’t wisah to halt Kony and his “rebels” because the pursuit of this bad character attracts enormous amounts of foreign aid. So in my kind of drama foretold by George Orwell, the Ugandan government and Kony stage a “phantom” war for the benefit of themselves (and the harm of many innocents).
The contradictions have been well documented in Kampala’s Monitor newspaper. One example should convey the extent of them: the government pays for the upkeep of Kony’s mother, so that he can feel he is at least doing right by her. The tactic, according to the government, is to encourage Kony to surrender by showing him a kind of rough mercy.
Well, Kony hasn’t surrendered and now even the government doesn’t believe in its mercy strategy either.
I left Lamu a week ago and I still canâ€™t get this small island off my mind. Bear in mind that Lamu, which sits off the coast of Kenya near the countryâ€™s border with Somalia, has no cars and the preferred means of moving cargo on land are donkeys. Travel by water is preferable to riding a donkey (especially for a man my size), so for a couple of days I hired an Arabic-style dhow, which came with both a captain and 15-horse-power Yamaha outboard motor.Â The captain, named Shea for short, is an ebullient native of Lamu who wear his hair in dreadlocks and was supremely confident of his sea-faring skills. One day he took me to explore the neighboring island of Manda, where I wanted to visit the excavated ruins of a â€œSwahiliâ€ trading post, established in the 1700s. From a geographic-historical perspective, Lamu is a kind of mini-Zanzibar and served as a entrepot for traders from the Arabian peninsula. Slavery was legal in Lamu until 1907, but the ethno-racial culture on the island is definitely â€œCreole.â€ Nearly everyone is Muslim, and most women wear extensive clothing. The chador is even commonly worn. Captain Shea, like many young men on the island, embraced a kind of Rasta-based Islam. His boat sported a flag of Bob Marley who he claimed once played a concert on Lamu island, which he attended.
I didnâ€™t bother to tell Captain Shea that Marley had died before he was born. After all, the man was my captain, and we had to navigate a tricky shallow channel, lined with mangroves, on the way to the entrance of the ruins, which can only be reached by boat.
The captain remained in with his dhow while I explored the ruins with a guide.
We were gone from a long time, so long that on my return the captain inquired what went wrong. I told him weâ€™d gotten utterly lost in the bush surrounding the ruins. Weâ€™d found the ocean but on the way back we lost on our way and kept moving aimlessly.
The captain instantly recognized a familiar problem. â€œTraveling by boat is often like that,â€ he said. Then he added that getting lost was good. â€œGetting lost gives you chances to find things you arenâ€™t looking for,â€ he said. â€œHow else can you find valuable new things when you donâ€™t know you are looking for them in the first place.â€
The wisdom of the young sailor knocked me over. Indeed, while “lost” on Manda island, the guide and I found the ruined carcass of an antelope, killed by a wild animal or by hunters who frequented the area (by the evidence of the many home-made traps we found). The decaying head sported two fine long horns. The guide removed the horns from the rotting bones and we took them away.
Iâ€™d never handled such a horn, which instantly intrigued me because of my attraction to certain Congolese fetishes (often made by the Songye tribe) that display small animal horns atop the head of a carved figure.
So when we got back to the boat late and apologized to the captain, he said, â€œMake no apologies, getting lost is good.â€ And then delivered his pithy wisdom â€“ the wisdom of a Muslim dhow captain, the master of his own universe, who began as an apprentice sailor at the age of ten. His awareness of the importance of encountering “unknowingness” placed him squarely in the Baconian tradition of science. Camus described the same condition as “persistence” in the face of the absurd. To me, the captain was an existentialist, empowered by a method, born out of existence on an isolated island, and yet shared by many across time and space.
The trial of Lucky Dube’s murderers is bringing renewed attention on the most depressing statistic generated by life in South Africa: the number of murders, which reached nearly 19,000 last year, according to official sources.
There are small wars in Africa that produce fewer deaths in a single year.
The 2007 murder of Dube, an international reggae music star, was especially shocking since he was killed in front of his two children and his killers, all allegedly apprehended, seemingly knew they were murdering a national hero. That Dube’s killers are only now facing trial highlights the complexity of South Africa’s crime problem: weak police work, poor gun controls and ineffective courts all combine to “lower the bar” for people who rely on killing as a tool to promote their personal interests.
South Africa wants to lead the entire region in new economic and cultural directions, and the country’s best and brightest of the country have much to offer the rest of Africa. But until basic social order is created and sustained, Africa’s wealthiest country won’t be a role model for its neighbors but rather will represent a depressing anti-model for how inequality and the dysfunction of basic institutions can combine to routinize violence, erase physical security and intensify the criminalization of everyday life.
The recent peaceful election in Ghana — where the ruling party was unseated in a surprise victory for the party of a former dictator — was a reminder of how the democratic process is supposed to happen in Africa. Too often, however, elections are a prelude for various forms of vote-rigging, fraud and indeed wanton disregard for civil rights. I’ve published a short essay in the new issue of Milken Instititute Review, reflecting on the mixed record of elections in Africa. I even attack a few bits of conventional wisdom, asking whether in some countries at least, the body politic might be better served by “brokered” outcomes (also known as “power sharing”) rather than winner-take-all votes, where the incentives for cheating are sky-high.
I’ve started writing a column for Andrew Mwenda’s snappy and insightful newsweekly, the Independent, of Kampala, Uganda. Mwenda is a brave and talented journalist — and committed to his country and intelligent journalism alike. In the weeks ahead I hope to publish views and reportage that draws on my research in Africa and my thinking about U.S.-Africa relations. Barack Obama provides a focal point, but not a boundary for this new writing, as my first blast suggests.