Jun 30 2010

Congo’s Unhappy Birthday

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:30 PM

What I’ve learned about Africa, in ten years of visits to the region, study and reflection, is that if something is broken in Africa, somebody wants it broken. And possibly, or even probably, that somebody benefits from it being broken (or breaking it if it isn’t yet broken).

This single insight into how Africa works, however provisional and tentative, explains much about the history of the Congo, from its sudden birth 50 years agoin 1960 to its frustrating, bewildering, and pregnant-with-potential present in 2010. Going back to the beginning, which in the case of sub-Saharan Africa means returning to the years immediately prior to decolonization and the years immediately following political independence, is increasingly vital in order to understand the region’s future as much as its past. In the case of the Congo, which was never a nation-state until the Belgians declared it to be one, neither the design nor the intent of Congo’s notional creators supported the official narrative of nationalism. In short, the Congo was not meant to succeed. It hasn’t. The 50th anniversary of the Congo is thus not an occasion for celebration. To modestly and soberly mark a half-century of Congo, read the opening paragraphs of Piero Gleijeses’ vital history of Cold War Africa, “Conflicting Missions” (University of North Carolina Press) which in great detail documents and assesses the interplay between U.S. and Cuban involvement in Africa from 1959 to 1976. Gleijeses skillfully shows a keen appreciation of the costs of decolonization – and the extent to which Europeans resented having to surrender an Africa they had long controlled and felt they had profitably developed. Gleijeses [in 2002] writes:

In 1945 virtually all Africa was divided among the Europeans: France and England has the largest shares; tiny Belgium ruled the immense colony of Zaire; Portugal was the master of Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and several small islands; Spain held a few fragments; and the fate of the former Italian colonies had yet to be decided. There was no Soviet threat, no Communist subversion, and no threat to the white man’s rule.

Fifteen years later, however, colonial rule was in ruins… The swiftness of the Europeans abdication had many explanations. In a ripple effect, as a colony moved toward independence, expectations swelled in neighboring territories. And when colonial authorities applied the brakes, the response was not submission but riots. “Africa may become,” British prime minister Harold MacMillan warned in August 1959, “no longer a source of pride or profit to the Europeans who have developed it, but a maelstrom of trouble into which all of us would be sucked.” By surrendering formal power gracefully, however, the metropole could retain strong political and economic influence over its former colonies. And so Paris and London let their charges go.

As did  Brussels, with unseemly haste. In January 1959 riots shattered Congo’s capital, Leopoldville, and shook Brussells from its torpor. A few days later, a sobered Belgian government promised independence “without either baneful delays or ill-conceived precipitousness.” No date was set, but Belgian officials speculated that the transition would take 15 years. As unrest grew and concessions triggered more demands, however, the country seemed headed toward anarchy and radicalization, and Brussels began its headlong retreat. In October 1959 the government cut the timetable for independence to four years; three months later it slashed it to six months. On June 30, 1960, Congo achieved independence, for which it was utterly unprepared.

The world was equally unprepared for the birth of Congo. And the world remains so today.

Jun 30 2010

African plantations: the trend towards scale in African agriculture

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:30 AM

The push by foreign investors to form large aggregations of land in Africa — plantations, in a word — is getting lots of attention and concern, but the reality on the ground is inconclusive about the potential for peril. Foreign investors may simply be dumb or naieve about the returns on aggregating farm land in a region of the world where historically plantations have not proved either practical or profitable. Africa is not, and never has been, Latin America. Assemblng land, meanwhile, is one achievement. But growing crops profitably requires much more than land and even farm labor, which is not actually plentiful in Africa either (because most farmers have their own land and want to work it). Crops, whether grown on plantations or in small plots, require water and sometimes fertilizer. The crops also must reach markets, some of them distant. Even if the owners of the plantation purchase all of their output, they must still move output in a timely fashion. And if they plan on exporting crops out of Africa, the logistics of international transport may be prove daunting.

So there is no reason to imagine that African planations will suddenly become numerous in parts of Africa (such as Ethiopia and Ghana) where they haven’t historically been. But if plantations do arise, alternative exist to the prospect of wage labor. Perhaps the most compelling alternative is for small farmers themselves to form cooperatives, in order to achieve production scale. Or they can themselves contract directly with a large buyer — a practice I’ve described in detail in The New York Times regarding the case of the American cotton merchant, Dunavant  — in order to benefit from the undeniable movement towards scale in African agriculture. In some parts of Africa, such as a tea plantation I once visited in Malawi, “outgrower” arrangements with farmers who live outside of the plantation proper provide them with both a ready buy for a cash crop, and technical assistance in growing it. A new study from a British development agency, the International Institute for Environment and Development. offers a review of Africa’s “plantation future” and its alternatives. While the authors presume too-bright a scenario for corporate farming in Africa, their survey of alternative “business models” for small farmers in Africa (and elsewhere) is valuable and timely.

Jun 30 2010

From Conakry to Bujumbura: Africa’s election paradox

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:07 AM

The country of Guinea is receiving deserved praise for a wide-open national election — its first in decades — in which 24 candidates vied for the presidency. The resource-rich country, transitioning from military rule, hasn’t yet reported electoral results (and will probably hold elections again in the near future in order to determine which is the dominant political party in a post-coup era). While on June 30 17 candidates cried foul, the number and diversity of the candidates highlight the vibrancy of a country where for too long time appeared to have stopped. Across the continent, in Burundi, the electoral process is upside down, with only one candidate running. The result is a huge disappointment for friends of Burundi (and donors) who had hoped that elections could set the country on a new course. My first mentor in Africa, the gifted journalist Alexis Sinduhije, had set out to campaign for the presidency of Burundi only to join recently with other opposition leaders to boycott the poll. The last man standing is a former rebel leader; Burundi, sadly, has spawned many. In Guinea, expectations run high; in Burundi, high expectations mock the reality of poor performance. The experiences in both countries provide a reminder that elections in Africa are not good in themselves, but reflect the forces (for good or not) in the societies which hold them.

Jun 25 2010

End-game for Africa’s Most Notorious Killer?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:55 AM

The recent U.S. legislation and Obama’s White House statement on the notorious Joseph Kony and his so-called Lord’s Resistance Army reflect an intensifying desire on the part of the U.S. government and the U.S.-based humanitarian community to either kill or capture Kony and end the threat of violence posed by him and his small band of armed followers. While Kony appears to no longer to possess the capacity for gruesome violence that he demonstrated five to ten to 15 years ago – kidnappings of many children in northern Uganda and brutal slayings of adults among his own ethnic group that seemed to further no political objective – he remains free and unpunished, despite an indictment from a UN tribunal for crimes against humanity and a failed effort by the Ugandan government, assisted by the U.S., to get Kony. Kony’s ability to both evade international law, and capture, remains unexplained and vaguely suspicious, given the capacity of the U.S. military to track rogue individuals and the professed desire of the Ugandan government to extinguish the Kony threat. No one really knows why Kony remains at large, still capable of doing harm, if not in northern Uganda, then in central Africa. But while getting Kony is desirable, wider forces are at play in the northern Uganda that suggest, even should Kony exit the scene, the contradictions and dysfunctions that contributed to the challenge of eradicating Kony and his forces in the first place, will persist, creating new conditions for instability. These forces include:

1.    The grievances of the Acholi (Kony’s ethnic group and the dominant group in northern Uganda) haven’t been addressed by the government of Yoweri Museveni. Acholi grievance is linked to widespread disaffection in Uganda from Museveni, who has governed Uganda for more than 20 years and threatens to run for re-election (or put up his son or wife as candidate in the next presidential election). The political leader of the Acholi is Norbet Mao, an articulate and forceful advocate. Mao claims that fear of reprisals from Kony made him reluctant to condemn Kony; Mao also negotiated at various times terms of surrender with Kony (discussions proved fruitless). Mao views Acholi grievances as central to the problem of northern Uganda. He says Museveni purposely permitted Kony to run wild, terrorizing fellow Acholi as a means of punishing the Acholi for failing to support Museveni during his armed struggle to overthrow his predecessor Milton Obote. Getting Kony won’t end Acholi grievances but actually could expand them. A permanent peace could raise Acholi expectations for a greater share of Ugandan resources, or for more radical options. Mao, for instance, openly talks how the Acholi should consider the peaceful pursuit of secession from Uganda. Any open Acholi secession movement would possibly complicate the already fraught project of allowing the southern Sudanese to vote on independence next year. Since Acholiland borders southern Sudan, any new South Sudan government could easily absorb the sliver of Uganda on its southern border. And since Mao says that, for the Acholi, being part of southern Sudan would be preferable to staying in Uganda, US policymakers rightly worry about the scenario. It will be hard enough to get south Sudan free from Bashir in Khartoum without Museveni suddenly becoming a problem on the question too.

2.    Acholi living in Britain and Canada, while never openly supporting Kony, have assisted him and his forces at various times (and may still be doing so). These Diaspora members served on a negotiating committee who discussed various failed deals, over many years, to bring an end to Kony’s violence. Western European donors even paid these Acholi to participate in the talks and in Uganda was widely believed that these British and Canadian Acholi passed on part of the money to Kony. Should Kony be killed or captured, some members of the Acholi Diaspora may assume a public role in advocating for the Acholi of northern Uganda (because Kony is deemed a terrorist by the US government and thus it is a federal crime for U.S. Acholi to assist him, and European Acholi have similar tried to keep a low-profile about their contacts with the LRA earlier in the 2000s). The point here is that isolating Kony hasn’t been the policy of Europeans: who can forget a few years ago with the Dutch national who ran UNHCR actually met Kony in the jungle and shook his hand – even while Kony was under an ICC indictment. Europeans conflate Acholi grievance with Kony’s mayhem. So does Ronald Atkinson, an historian at University of South Carolina who has written extensively on the “roots of Acholi ethnicity” and has extensively documented the Acholi sense of grievance. Atkinson views Kony as a creature (albeit a pathological one) of the repression of the Acholi by Museveni. Atkinson has lent an intellectual patina to the idea that, while Kony’s methods are reprehensible, he has done some good by drawing attention to the abuse of the Acholi under Museveni.

3.    Museveni has been accused time again of not wanting to lose Kony because the LRA threat has enabled his government to maintain higher military spending than it might otherwise have. Andrew Mwenda, the leading political journalist in Uganda, reported in detail a few years ago about “ghost soldiers” in northern Uganda: essentially the government pretended to send soldiers into battle against the LRA, with commanders (later fired) who collected their pay. Museveni claimed no knowledge of the scam, but an account in Foreign Policy of the botched Dec 2008 Ugandan attack on Kony’s base – which the US helped to  plan and carry out – suggests anew that the main problem in getting Kony may be that his “enemies” don’t want to. Interestingly, Museveni has for some years personally insured the well-being and safety of Kony’s mother, who lives peacefully in Uganda. Museveni needs Kony for two reasons: first, his capture or death could turn him into an Acholi martyr or, worse, pave the way for a more responsible leader like Norbert Mao to lead a peaceful and ethical secessionist movement (Mao maintains close links in Gulu, the capital of Acholiland, with Christian clergy). Second, Kony’s capture or death would rob Museveni of a major national-security justification for high levels of military spending by a country with no other internal threats.

4.    The U.S. government relies on Uganda to assist in its Somali strategy and so is reluctant to do anything to alienate Museveni. Hence why the Obama administration never pushed the idea of getting Kony in the first place (and why the Enough people decided instead to force a bill through Congress). Between Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Uganda, the Obama administration has assembled a troika of regional allies to assist in (a) the pacification of Somalia (obviously not going well) and (b) the hunt for home-grown terrorists (and joiners from the US) in East Africa. Museveni seems very invested in (a) not catching Kony and (b) not giving the Acholi more autonomy. Hence, the US treading lightly on the issue.

What’s the bottom line? Competing priorities by the “responsible adults” in this African neighborhood means bringing Kony to justice — rough or ready — remains very difficult. And getting rid of Kony — in whatever manner —  may not end tensions in northern Uganda, or eliminate the LRA, which could persist under the leadership of crypto-Kony personalities, spawned by the awful past and sustained by the contradictions of the murky present.

Jun 21 2010

Blood Diamonds, Bloody Still

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 2:23 PM

The international process to discipline the mining and sale of diamonds has been a Potemkin Village for some years – all show and no go, as enlightened English people sometimes like to say about themselves. In the case of diamonds, the so-called Kimberley Process has never worked as well as advertised. The process was designed largely by activists and then enthusiastically embraced and implemented by diamond mining companies and dealers (De Beers notably). The favorable embrace, which also covered governments, was essentially the kiss of death for the prevention of abuses in the “monetization” of raw diamonds. “Blood Diamonds” indeed became a popular cause, inspiring a movie – and causing many wealthy consumers of diamonds to wonder, at least, who got hurt in order for them to look rich. In many ways, the blood diamond campaign was the greatest success of a global movement aimed at disciplining resource exploiters, especially those in Africa. Intended at its outset 10 years ago to showcase a new kind of voluntary, global and bottoms-up monitoring of resources obtained and sold by combatants in African civil wars, the Kimberly Process never captured the complexity of mining diamonds in African nations ostensibly at peace and under the jurisdiction of legal, recognized governments. In a richly detailed report about Angola, an important diamond producer, Michael Allen of The Wall Street Journal valuably documents many of the contradictions of the monitoring the “diamond miners and sellers and international activists trying to insure good. Writer Mike Allen, a reporter for

In fairness to the activists who designed Kimberley, they meant well. They were ambitious, and the problem they tackled is very difficult. They tried hard. One of the activist groups, Global Witness, amply lived up to its name and for years has witnessed what’s gone wrong with diamond mining and attempts at transational regulation. The cynical might include that any well-intended but ultimately voluntary transnational process aimed at disciplining the long-shadowy business of diamond mining and dealing will inevitably founder. What’s needed are national governments who impose tough rules on diamond mining and trading within their own borders – and stiff, swift penalties for evasions. Of course the Angolan government is hardly about to do so, which may only mean that activists should be pushing for the government to be replaced by a “better” one. In the absence of any reasonable prospect of a revolution in Angola, reasonable people can reasonably propose Potemkin Villages in the meanwhile.

Yet the failure of Kimberley doesn’t mean the return to the worst years of blood diamonds. Those sad days aren’t likely to ever return. But the complexities of halting the brutality associated with diamond – and turning them into a “normal” product like coffee or textiles – are too difficult for voluntary transational monitoring.

Jun 16 2010

Will Indians have “green thumb” in African “bush?”

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:39 AM

The rush by international capitalists to gain rights to farm land in Africa continues. Now Indian investors are drawining attention for theit interest in growing stuff. Ethiopia has actually moved most aggressively on the ground to strike land deals with foreign agro-business, chiefly because its dictatorial government takes a heavy-handed approach to package large plots of land for lease or sale to outsiders. Given the challenges of Ethiopia’s terrain and climate (and the high cost and low levels of irrigation), serious doubts exist over whether foreign agro-investors can earn a profit on anything other than greenhouse-dominated horticulture. Rather than becoming a new way of pillaging African resources, foreign-owned farms in Ethiopia may merely become “money pits,” the folly of arrogant Chinese and Petro-Arab backers. But the outlook is rosier perhaps in West Africa, making the new report of investments in Ghana by Indian capitalists intriguing. Ghana has much idle land, and especially good prospects for large-scale growing in the under-used grasslands north and south of the provincial northern capital of Tamele. When I visited Ghana last fall, I learned of Brazilian efforts to establish corporate plantations in the eastern part of the country,where irrigated water could be delivered from the Volta River. Now the entry of investors from India reinforces the idea that Ghana my become an African breadbasket. The drama of how, when and why Africa can become a global food exporter is one of the most fascinating and unexpected narratives in rural development the world over.

Jun 15 2010

The vuvuzela is not African

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:16 AM

Now hear this: the plastic horn, which is making impossible communication between players on the football field at the World Cup, is a South African tradition – not an African one. In some many aspects of life,South Africa presents not the face of Africa but of an outlier, an exception, an unrepresentative non-tropical zone of contested African-ness. The case 0f the irritating vuvuzela is typical of how South Africa, despite the conceit that the country embodies African-ness and thus can pretend that its existential reality provides an African map in miniature, in reality provides a distorted image of tropical Africa. In the dozens of football games I’ve attended in East and West Africa, I’ve never heard the vuvuvela played – no less a chorus of them. Sepp Blatter, FIFI president, is wrong when he describes the vuvuzela as reflecting that “Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound.” Blatter may be correct in general about an Afro-beat, but the sound of Africa is not the vuvuzela. Not in Accra, or Lagos. Not in Kampala or Nairobi. Fans at matches in these cities cheer and jeer, but they don’t create auditory mayhem in a concerted manner, to their credit. Perhaps a World Cup ban on the vuvuzela is not necessary, but neither should “blame” for them be laid at the door of a “notional” Africa. The awful vuvuzela is a South African toy, and to South Africa should go the “credit” for for making a travesty of sporting spectatorship.

Jun 14 2010

The riddle of Nollywood unlocked?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:23 AM

The great popularity of Nigerian movies in Africa is often noted but rarely explained. In The Nation, Emily Witt takes a valuable stab in the process of explanation in a review of a collection of essays on “Nollywood” published by Indiana University Press, an important source of fresh books on sub-Saharan Africa. Witt shrewdly observes that African movies of the sort made by such celebrated Francophone directors as Sembene are “burdened with ideology” (doing what elite Africans think Europeans consider to be art) and far more popular abroad (with the very Europeans who often funded the films in the first place) than at home in Africa, partly because the high-minded pretensions and “puritanical didacticism” of the films drove audiences away. By contrast, Nigerian films about everyday urban life – these are do-it—yourself videos without pretensions and frankly pandering to mass tastes – represent a radical re-ordering of African cinema. Hence the prominent role granted the supernatural, romance, corruption and crime. Unfortunately, Witt’s actual experience viewing Nigerian movies seems limited to rummaging through clips available on Youtube. As a result, while trying to defend the value of Nollywood content, she unfairly stereotypes and denigrates Nigerian films, fixating on the themes of juju, magic and mayhem that do indeed dominate many Nigerian movies though hardly all. Witt even dismisses the content altogether, seeing the films instead as chiefly valuable as signs of rebellion. Yet Nollywood content, while often trivial and offensive, sometimes rises to the level of art and social criticism. That only a minority of Nigerian movies achieve this level, however, is no different than, say, what happens with Hollywood or American television. Witt thus cruelly ignores – likely out of ignorance rather than mean intentions — the best achievements of, for instance, the talented comedic actor Nkem Owoh, whose satires of Nigerian greed and crime actually can be readily appreciated by foreign audiences and of course Nigerians themselves. Owoh also is fond of depicting ordinary people, such as bus drivers, which enhance his presentation of class conflict and working-class culture. While presenting herself as a kind neo-Marxist cultural critic, Witt manages to de-politicize Nigerian films. She also sadly de-racializes them too. Owoh, for instance, in his classic “Osuofia in London” explores the hilarious contradictions of an ordinary Nigerian visiting London to gain his share of an inheritance from a deceased relative who had the good fortune of marrying a white British woman. Owoh both exposes the folly of Nigerians expecting whites to always assist them while at the same time dramatizing the real ways in which Europe and the U.S. serve as a steady source of relief from the grinding difficulties of Nigerian life. Witt also fails to appreciate the useful moralizing present in the films of Zack Orji, one of the most serious and articulate Nollywood directors, who also acts in his own films with his talented wife. Orji’s films often depict the struggle of independent women to reject men who abuse them and take control over all aspects of their lives. To be sure, Nigerian films are contradictions in form and content. But they need not remain objects of ridicule and misapprehension by Western writers apparently motivated by a desire to celebrate Africa and Africans.

Jun 11 2010

Football: metaphor for African life (1)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:03 AM

With the first African World Cup underway — and South Africa spectacularly taking a one goal lead on Mexico — we will witness a test of football historian Peter Alegi’s view of the effect of the game on African national political consciousness. “Africa is a huge continent, and soccer is one of the few areas of popular culture that really binds people together, but it is a very short-term thing,” Alegi said in advance of the games. “You talk to any Nigerian, and it’s hard to see what they all have in common, but for the 90 minutes that the Super Eagles are playing, there is a Nigeria.”

And sometimes, when a side disappoints with an embarassing loss, the complaints begin before the game is over. Africans on the sidelines, in my experience watching the sportat various venues in Africa, often view their national team as a metaphor for their national government. And the failure of teams in games often is attributed to the very factors bedeviling governments: lack of organization, corrupt or incompetent management, lack of dedication by the players themselves to the team cause.

While unquestionably football unites countries, the experience also reminds everyone of the divisions and deficits within a society as well. Dysfunctions on the field often mirror — or at least seem to in the heat of the moment — those found in African life.

Jun 08 2010

Cape Town, the World Cup and an African success story misunderstood

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:05 AM

The Center for Investigative Reporting has published an interesting, well-balanced, technically-impressive and timely report on the struggles in Cape Town of shanty dwellers trying to retain their informal housing arrangements — in the face of a municipal drive by Cape Town authorities to “clean up” the city, considered South Africa’s most charming and best-run, in advance of this month’s World Cup. The report, which stopped shorting of finding any forced removals because of the games, highlights the difficult balance between urban planning and the value to burgeoning urban populations of living closer to jobs and services (even if they must subsist in shacks). Unfortunately the audio report comes without any African voices; only the American reporter, Christopher Werth, can be heard narrating this clever slide show. The report also reinforces a flimsy conceit — that it takes an enterprising well-meaning American to uncover some kind of inhumanity in Africa (which appears to have escaped the notice of Africans themselves), Yet the content of the report makes clear that Cape Towners have fought hard and publicly over the issue of informal housing — and the need to resist and reduce forced removals (the question even was debated in South African courts, where presumably African voices were heard). A more effective way to tell this common African story –such fights are occuring in every African city every month — is to elevate one or a group of Africans into the role of narrator, perhaps choosing Africans who are themselves on the front lines of the struggle. Then the text and context of the report would give voice to African voices and empower the only people who can actually solve — and even comprehend — the complexities of the Cape Town slum crisis; and of course these are the people who live in the city themselves. Instead, the report, while well-meaning, reinforces an inaccurate an ultimately demeaning stereotype — that Africans are unable to tell their own stories and to discuss their problems — and potential solutions in their own ways. The struggle of the residents of the “Joe Slovo” shanty is actually a good news story from Africa, not an expose of wrong-doing and shame, but rather an inspiring example of how grassroots movements can make a difference in Africa, and how an African urbanization that too often strikes Westerners as bewildering and dehumanizing is rather empowering, democratic and hopeful.

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