The respected analyst of crises and conflicts, the International Crisis Group, issued a report this week on the benighted nation of Cameroon, one of Africa’s most well-endowed and astonishingly beautiful countries. Politically, Cameroon seems frozen in time, the victim of the weak, yet insistent leadership of Paul Biya, who is approaching 30 years at the helm of a country of 20 million people. The ICG report sheds a welcome light on the unusual history of Cameroon, and its prospects for change, which are ruled poor by the ICG. “Having pushed back democratic advances, the ruling elites now offer little but a politics of stagnation and corruption,” the report concludes. While dismissing the idea that Cameroon, because of the profound domestic opposition to Biya, is “a tinderbox waiting for a spark,” the ICG highlights the potential for conflict in a country where dissent is repressed, media tightly controlled and the best and the brightest leave for Europe and the U.S. This last factor, emigration, weakens civil society of Cameroon and thus perversely “may further reduce the potential for conflict.” Yet Biya is 77 years old and has made no plans publicly for a successor. The worst scenario is a succession crisis that plunges the country’s into disorder, or worse, civil war. While the international community appears unwilling to pressure Biya into stepping down, the least outsiders can do is to demand that he agrees never to stand for re-election as President and that he forms a fair and effective plan to install a new leader in the even to his death.
May 27 2010
There are many famous names in African literature: names that instantly convey recogniton, that force me to catch my breath. Of these names, the most breath-catching is Achebe, after the seminal writer from Nigeria, Chinua Achebe, author of the most-read novel from Africa written in English, “Things Fall Apart.”
Achebe’s masterpiece came 50 years ago, and while he still writes delightful essays, Achebe hasn’t published a novel in decades. And yet the literary world has received a new piece of Achebe fiction, only in this case coming from the pen of a relative, Ngozi Achebe. A physician living in Washington state, Ngozi Achebe is steeped in Nigeria’s past and the traditions of her Igbo ethnic group. Her novel, “Onaedo: the Blacksmith’s Daughter,” tells the story of two women connected through race and ethnicity across 400 years of history. The origins of Achebe’s tale are intriguing, especially for anyone who appreciates (as I do) traditional African art.
As Achebe explains: “There was an interesting discovery in 1976, of exquisite bronze artifacts in Igbo-Ukwe, an ancient Igbo town located in eastern Nigeria. The works were dated around the 4th century and were executed long before the timeline of this story. My challenge was to find the ficitonal blacksmith who would be worthy of that kind of talent ….”
Without giving anything away from Nogozi Achebe’s story, I can say that she does find him.
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May 25 2010
Hats off to International Rivers for its new report on dam-building in Africa. A critic of dam projects around the globe, IR has long exposed mistakes and injustices in the fraught process of creating hydro-power projects. The new Africa report is an invaluable resource for critics and fans of dams in Africa. New hydro-power sources must be part of Africa’s expanding energy mix. However, because African societies are highly divided, and because African elites remain poorly aligned with broader national and regional interests, many — perhaps most — dam projects in Africa continue to be poorly conceived, designed and implemented. Governments continue to prefer very large dams over small, lower-cost, more environmentally friendly mini- and micro-hydro projects. Yet small electricity projects have enormous potential for good. The obsession with giantism remains a scourge in African hydro-power policies. While very small hydro projects cannot meet the needs of Africa’s burgeoning cities, and skyrocketing populations, the governments in the region must strike a better balance between old and new ways of generating and distributing electricity. By ignoring the benefits of small hydro, and alternative sources generally, African governments also erode their credibility as independent arbiters of energy potential. Small hydro also has the benefit of putting people first. Communities can organize and control their own electricity resources; local control is especially important for rural communities that are “off grid.” These communities may never be served by national grids that, at least in Africa, are permanently handicapped, essentially unable to expand for a myriad of reasons. Even cities in Africa could benefit from off-grid approaches, drawing on new tools generating tools and capacities in order to supply electricity to neighborhoods not currently served by the national grid. International Rivers is a crucial voice for greater balance and sanity in the energy mix in Africa; the organization’s new report is an essential reference work.
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May 25 2010
Ethiopia’s election Sunday appears to have delivered the predictable result: re-electing the ruling of Meles Zenawi.
Human Rights Watch aptly described the election as political theater: “Behind an orderly facade, the government pressured, intimidated and threatened Ethiopian voters. Whatever the results, the most salient feature of this election was the months of repression preceding it.”
European election monitors were “encouraged” by the relative calm and lack of violence surrounding the country’s national elections, which in 2005 sparked much violence, especially by the government.
So once again, an African government benefits by lowered expectations. Opposition leaders in Ethiopia, to be sure, are calling for a re-vote, refusing the accept the official results and alleging gross unfairness. But Meles Zenawi isn’t accountable to any Ethiopians, but only certain foreign governments, especially the U.S. who counts Ethiopia as its most important military ally in its war against Muslim fundamentalists in Somalia and the Horn of Africa generally.
Zenawi is a wily character, the Mubarak of East Africa. His alliance with U.S. military power is tactically shrewd and surely has extended his tenure as defacto dictator of one of Africa’s most important, and talent-rich, countries. Because of his strategic position, Zenawi gets essentially a free pass from the West on all manner of issues deemed internal to his country, from repressing ethnic minorities to selling off valuable farm land to foreigners and to muzzling legitimate dissent.
For now, the theater that is Ethiopian politics is not quite on summer vacation.
May 20 2010
So says Daniela Kroslak, deputy Africa program director for the International Crisis Group, referring to the crackdown against political dissenters in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.
Silence in the face of repression is the standard posture in Africa, even among the best and the brightest. Then masses remain silent in the face of their degradation, from Lagos to Nigeria, from Jo-berg to Accra. When will ordinary Africans protest their own debasement? When will they take to the streets in their own “orange” rebellion?
Not soon, I know. I remember well talking with a meritorious presidential candidate in Uganda, shortly after the country’s incumbent president “won” the election in the usual manner. I asked the loser, in his party’s head office, could he not call his supporters into the streets? Could he not ask them to mobilize?
“I cannot,” he told me. “I cannot.”
I cannot remember why he could not ask them. Perhaps he said his supporters would suffer too much for their protests on his behalf. I don’t remember. I only remember that he would not ask his supporters to take to the streets, and that he did not, and now, some years later, Uganda’s president has since “won” another election. The president sends the police to meet protesters in the streets of Kampala. In benighted Togo, the president of this country does the same. In Kenya too.
And so it goes. Rule of law is not enough in lands where repression is a cost of doing business.
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May 14 2010
Might sub-Saharan Africa spawn a major innovation in financial services that sweeps the globe, and is not micro lending?
The rapid spread of money transfer via mobile phones is upending conventional notions of financial services. Following the path of Vodaphone in Kenya, MTN in neighboring Uganda is also finding a ready market for their own brand of digital banking.
Global business in Africa is dominated by natural resources — oil, gold and certain cash crops — but mobile money is one giant exception worth following.
May 08 2010
Reporting for the Atlantic, Howard French traveled by train from Tanzania to Zambia via the Tazara railway, which at the time it was built by the Chinese in the 1970s was the third largest infrastructure project ever undertaken in Africa. On a journey to witness and assess China’s current role as Africa’s key benefactor, French found that China’s condition-less stance on aid distribution reinforces some of the ills of an earlier colonial era, prompting people to begin to question how much better off they’ll truly be once China has come and gone. The author of A Continent for the Taking, French is one of the keenest international observers of the African scene. His article deftly combines deft storytelling with strong analysis and a strong sense of Africa from the ground up.
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May 07 2010
Save the Children is supporting a fascinating web project on a slum in Freetown, Sierra Leone — and an effort to document lives of ordinary people over time. in a highly creative way. The Kroo Bay project gives voice (and video) to the staff and clients of a resurgent health clinic in a West African city. The idea mixes reality TV with social media. Well done and worth emulating.
May 05 2010
Nigeria’s long presidential melodrama is no over. Umaru Yar’Adua has been pronounced dead.
Africa’s giant, floundering in the shadow of a political crisis, now can prepare for new presidential elections — and a fresh opportunity to raise the bar on self-governance in this critical nation.
Nigeria and its people have long shown that, despite the country’s dysfunctional national politics, their own creativity, energy and ambition permits them to make a mark on their world, and each other. At times Nigerians speak as if no governance is better than what they have. Yet improved self-governance will help all Nigerians, at home and away, and the death of a president, while sad in its way, will only hasten the inevitable day when Nigeria rises to the heights that its best and brightest often presume it already has reached.
May 03 2010
Rafael Marques, one of Africa’s most courageous and intelligent civic activists, gave a stunning interview recently in New York City about the the scale and scope of the theft of Angola’s government oil revenues. Marques is a lonely voice in the international community, battling against what seems like the impunity of Angola’s corrupt government officials. In his interview, Marques calls for more international pressure on Angola’s government — and not only over oil but also diamonds. A journalist for whom exposure is not enough, Marques wants to help change the behavior of Angola’s government as well mobilize the victims of Angola’s shameful misrule.
Marques is a curious invaluable figure on the landscape of African activism. He operates in the intersection of journalism and accountability, bearing witness to the wholesale thievery in which his benighted country functions with the explicit assistance of international oil companies and the very consumers of Angola’s oil — in China, in the U.S. and elsewhere — who do not take any responsibility for the crimes committed in the place where the oil originates. As Marques writes of his anti-corruption campaign, which he calls “Maka” from the word for comoplex problem in his indigenous Kimbundu language, “Maka is a response to the public’s silence, whether motivated by fear or by complicity, in the face of the looting and destruction brought about by the actions of the current leadership, and by the venal behaviour of the public administration in general.”
Neither silent nor fatalistic, Marques mines the pool of hope for a better Angola — and a better humanity.