Jul 30 2010

Africa’s Web edge: slow but steady

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:13 PM

Russell Southwood edits an incomparable, and influential, newsletter on information-technology in Africa. He chiefly rides the wave of business in mobil telephony — and the intense competition among global hardware suppliers to sell their wares to African telcos. In a revealing new article, he examines the potential for a similar boom in Internet services. The African web remains underdeveloped and yet Southwood sees expansion around the corner, both from the bottoms-up and the top-down. Unsurprisingly, the biggest barrier to a web explosion in Africa is the very ubiquity of mobile telephony in the region. Who needs their own computer-to-Web connection when the mobile-phone networks with the Web also. Writes perspicacious Southwood:

“The Internet is the basis of Africa’s second wave of investment after mobile. It’s much smaller but the potential is considerable. Almost everyone wants to see the Internet grow but there are significantly different strategies when it comes to making it happen. The private sector is seeking to find the magic services and applications that will generate both users and money. Governments and their donor supporters look to provide improved services and efficiencies in their processes. Russell Southwood looks at the contrasts between top down vs bottom up strategies for the African Internet.”

In the end, urban Africa may become a test-bed for the merger of the computer and the phone, prefiguring the collapse of the distinction between information devices of various sorts. Thus, the tantalizing prospect exits in that in Africa technological conditions exist to spawn real breakthroughs that come first to the world’s poorest region and only later to the rest.

See Safaricom’s M-pesa money transfer service for proof that in information technology Africa can be on the cutting edge.

Jul 29 2010

The business of Africa must be business with other Africans

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 3:11 PM

Business in Africa is dynamic, growing, socially relevant and historically peaking. Never in history has the sub-Saharan been home to so many diverse enterprises.

The great African independence era came during the high-water mark, globally, of state-controlled economies. In recent decades, market-oriented approaches took longer to take root in Africa than perhaps anywhere else in the world. Now that Europe and the U.S. are rediscovering the role of the state in the economy — and because of the financial crisis and over indebtedness — the reputation of the private-sector is declining and fewer people today view business as a solution to urgent problems than they once did. In Africa, the state remains a central economic actor, but the global crisis hasn’t slowed the expanding role of business and the newfound passion for business profit and market expansion among Africans and foreign investors in the region.

The media, the international foreign-assistance community and the official diplomatic community remain largely blind to the exciting business developments in Africa. That blindness is only partly accidental; the official “aid” community, including the media that often acts on its behalf by providing gloomy articles about Africa’s prospects, often appears to emphasize the bad over the good in the region, which means ignoring or undercutting reports of business prospects. And so, for me, I’m not surprised at the scant international attention being given a meeting of Africa’s private=sector elite in Kampala that’s devoted to convincing governments to reduce barriers to trade within the sub-Saharan. Incredibly, the barriers to trade between neighboring African countries are startingly high; in addition to various duties on goods, trucks themselves — the chief transporters of goods — are often subject to high (and random) fees and taxes. Remarkable a trader in say Kampala can be more cheaply and effeciently ship a load of stuff to Shanghai than to Lusaka.

The evidence is overwhelming that the biggest upside for Africa lies in trade by, for and with other Africans. Such trade, which remains at shocking low levels wcompared to trade within the world’s other major regions,  will do more for poverty-reduction and peace-promotion than anything else. That neither the diplomatic nor the humanitarian communities understand the significance of trade within Africa, between Africans, speaks volumes about the dysfunctionality of the role given the sub-Saharan in the world community. If the world must experience an “enough moment” about political violence and human-rights violations in Africa, perhaps we can also say enough to the neglect of across national borders within the sub-Saharan.

To be sure, the business boom in Africa demands close monitoring. Business takes short-cuts, and also spawns inequalities. Partly that’s because some business lavish attention on the rising upper-classes in Africa: monied elites who can afford Western-style products and services. Even as business booms in Africa, inequality is also rising rapidly, as I document in a new essay of mine, “Haves and Have-nots (Africa Style),” in the fall issue of Milken Institute Review.

Jul 21 2010

Ghana’s oil curse: act one

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:11 AM

Hats off to the Financial Times for its superb coverage of Ghana’s handling of its off-shore oil resources, and the growing concern that neither the development of this oil, nor the profits produced by it will be well managed and well used.

These are early days for Ghana and its off-shore oil, but this week’s news about wrangling over the ownership of exploitation rights raises fresh worries that Ghana, held up by the Obama administration as a model for good governance in Africa, is actually not.

Last fall I visited Takoradi, the nearest major city to Ghana’s offshore oil, and I was impressed by the cadres of African oil engineers — notably a group of Nigerians employed by Schlumberger — descending on the city as part of the advance efforts to ready the reserves for retrieval. Takoradi is a gorgeous coastal town, a model for what’s going right in Africa’s medium-size cities. But even last year prices for basic goods and services were rising in Takoradi in anticipation of the oil flowing. The creation of a super-rich oil “enclave” in Ghana, while perhaps inevitable, raises questions about whether the government really understands that managing its new oil wealth is not simply about spending the revenues wisely (as opposed to simply permitting government officials and their cronies to steal the cash) but there’s also the serious issue of preventing “Dutch disease,” whereby rising oil revenues leads to a weakening of Ghana’s service economy and rising prices generally.

Because of strong revenues from the export of cocoa and gold, Ghana stands a better than good chance of avoiding Dutch disease — since, admittedly, the country already suffers from it to an extent because of these older lucrative commodities. But as the FT highlights, the cruder problem — theft of oil revenues — remains a threat. Much of the present sense of urgency surrounding how to exploit Ghana’s now-proven oil reserves turns on whether the former government of John Kufuour engineered a sweetheart deal that gave political insiders a stake — perhaps worth hundreds of millions of dollars, or even more than a billion — in the foreign production company that will harvest the oil in Ghana’s waters.

Jul 20 2010

With U.S. help, Afghanistan can become another Nigeria

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:51 AM

Nigeria, the nation, is not usually held out as a model of anything, no less of a Valhalla for builders of effective just nation-states. Not so for three authors of an article in Foreign Affairs magazine, “Defining Success in Afghanistan.” For Stephen Biddle, Fotini Christia and Alexander Their, the U.S. can’t reaslistically build a “strong, centralized Western-style government in Kabil.” But these political analysts insist that “Afghanistan is not ungovernable.” There is a “feasible” option that can serve as a lodestar for American success in the Afghan war, and justify the loss of lives and the costs being incurred by the American public. And that’s for Afghanistan to achieve the level of political maturity presently possessed by Nigeria.

Yes, that Nigeria. The country in West Africa. The big one with all those people.

Biddle, Christia and Thier, as is probably obvious, are not Nigeria experts, nor even Africa experts. They probably haven’t visited Nigeria or even maintained any Nigerian acquaintances. Because this is their picture of the Nigeria they’d love Afghanistan to become:

“After the end of the Nigerian Civil War in 1970, Nigeria had a weak federal government and a strong regional system, in which individual governors were free to organize local administration as they wished. Even today, the country retains some traits of internal mixed sovereignty. States in the Muslim north have sharia law, whereas others secular judicial systems. The central government intervenes selectively to suppress unrest, such as in the Delta region. Although there are signs that Nigeria may now be deteriorating, for most of the last 40 years it has functioned tolerably.”

Signs of deterioration indeed. Who knew that for scholars of international security and relations, African affairs remains a sphinx? Perhaps what the authors call “internal mixed sovereignty,” which political philosopher Will Kymlicka and others term “asymmetric federalism,” does do some good in Nigeria. And for brief references to Nigeria, the one by Biddle et al at least has the advantage of presenting the country as a role model notwithstanding the failure to mention periods of dictatorship and martial law as well as the widespread looting of public oil monies by federal and state governors alike. But enough. This case rather seems like another example of the penchant for highly educated non-Africans to say anything about Africa, or anything that appears to support their own political views. Debunking the dumb things said about Africa and its people by Americans could be a fulltime job but it isn’t because such debunking doesn’t help enough Americans score their own debating points. In the end, the question being answered is “What has Africa done for us lately?”

Jul 19 2010

When a passport for “one Africa” isn’t nearly enough

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:07 AM

The general problem in African politics is the weak capacity of citizens to realize citizenship rights within their own country. While it is bad, for instance, that immigrant Nubians must pay bribes to obtain birth certificates and passports in Kenya, some native-born Kenyans must pay these same bribes to achieve these same ends. The denial of citizenship – to immigrants, or dissidents — is a much smaller problem, though denial is often a tool to silence politic dissenters or the economically marginal (and sometimes the advantaged “foreigner” as in the case of the Lebanese of West Africa or the South Asians of Uganda). Remedies for Africa’s citizenship “deficits” suffer from a lack of global context; for instance, much of what African nations “need” to do regarding naturalization and harmonization of citizenship rules and practices are not yet done in such developed countries as Japan, Germany or Poland. What is gained by imposing on African societies a much higher standard for the politics of immigration than, say, Ireland.

Much of the formal problems with obtaining citizenship in specific African countries also occur in Latin America. As I’ve described in my 2003 book, “The Diversity Advantage,” on diversity, migration and nation-states, Germany and Japan lack clear rules on naturalization and tie citizenship closely (if not wholly) to ancestral ties to land. So why can’t African nations do the same?

I believe African nations should not base citizenship on “blood ties,” because whatever benefits of citizenship can be earned. The flip side of “earned” citizenship, or post-racial models of citizenship, can be seen through forms of institutionalized discrimination, either of affirmative action for some or “affirmative limits” on others. An interesting comparison also could be drawn between the status of Lebanese and South Indians in certain West African countries and the status of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia; for instance, ethnic Chinese in Malaysia, while afforded citizenship, must comply with regime that makes it harder for them to access certain public services (such as university education) and gives “native” Malays more opportunities in employment. Might not a similar approach to citizenship be tried in say Zambia, where many white Zimbabwean farmers have moved in the past ten years and where Chinese migrants have also settled in recent years. Why should these advantaged immigrants be given equal rights to those ordinary Zambians born and raised in the country? On the flip side, why should nonwhite Zimbabwean farmers, who bring knowledge and wealth and enterprise to another African country receive a pathway to citizenship benefits that are afforded the very people born in Zambia.

My main point is there is not only one legitimate political response to migration when there are actually many.

The two most interesting problems in African citizenship:

(a) the most need to recognize sub-national affiliations (either ethnic or territorial) as part of formal, legal citizenship and to accept (in the manner of Will Kymlicka, the distinguished Canadian political philosopher) the inevitability of “asymmetric” forms of citizenship whereby one set of citizens may possess different rights (notably language rights) than others. Avant-garde citizenship structures might enliven discussions about the achieving working political arrangements in such critical multi-ethnic nations as Nigeria, Congo or Sudan. Asymmetric forms of citizenship could promote national unity while at the same time enhance regional autonomy and local power.

Many African countries could take specific small steps, such as permitting dual citizenship and making naturalization of spouses automatic, that would at least put them on par with European countries, most of whom do not permit anything like the wider entitlements that the author presumes (but doesn’t document) would benefit African societies. Asymmetric forms of citizenship, which some also call “multicultural citizenship,” are an increasingly important tool for accommodating diversity among citizens, whether “natives” or “settlers.”

(b) the need for members of the Diaspora to achieve dual citizenship in order to facilitate their expanded involvement in their countries of origins (alas many African countries wish to strip their own citizens of their passports after they naturalize in the US or Europe).

None of what I say above precludes the creation of a “common African citizenship.” One passport for every African is an appealing idea. But there is no need for one-size-fits-all  approaches in a world where multiple identities coexist. That there can be multiple types of belonging – to ethnic group, nation, continent, race, gender and adopted places – is a sociological fact and increasingly a political given.

Jul 15 2010

Why Diamonds Can’t Be Mugabe’s Best Friend

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:10 AM

Robert Mugabe, the aged head of what passes for Zimbabwe’s government, is sounding like a girl on the verge of a quickie marriage: diamonds are now his best friend, or at least best hope of clinging to power in Harare, one of Africa’s once–great capitals. I have neither been to Zimbabwe, nor met Mugabe; I have been in the wrong place, at the wrong time, perhaps since Zimbabwe is one of the gems of Africa and Mugabe one of the classic spoiled characters of the region. Once a beacon for transformation in Africa, Zimbabwe is today is a shadow of its former self, the victim of a political disease that’s not unique to Africa but perhaps expresses itself most destructively in this region: and that is the disease of the once great leader — a true folk hero in Mugabe’s case — permitting himself to degenerate first into a tyrant and then into the parody of a tyrant, a kind of comic misguided rogue who fails to see the walls tumbling down around him because he retains a posse of devote, devious henchmen.

Mugabe is not alone in Africa in falling prey to the delusions of the past, of holding on too long to a vacant power. Museveni in Uganda seems to have acquired the Mugabe virus, though he remains in the early stages of the disease. Wade of Senegal, once a modest reformer, clearly has a bad case of Mugabe-itis. Omar Bongo caught it and, forgivingly, died before his people suffered too grievously. Mubarak of Egypt is another victim. The disease is not without cures, however. Mandela avoided it. So did Jerry Rawlings of Ghana. And Mo Ibrahim, the Anglo-Sudanese tycoon, believes he has created a workable prophylactic: offering to pay African presidents to peacefully quit their offices.

In Mugabe of course, the disease of holding on to power has wreaked destruction on a scale unimaginable to Zimbabweans who knew their country, a mere 20 years ago, to be both the agricultural breadbasket of southern Africa and a spawning ground for great talents, both white and black. True. the demon of racial oppression was never expunged from Zimbabwe, only chased away to return in a new, more insidious form. Mugabe’s use of race as a tool of dictatorship is well known. How he manages to hang on to power is less understood, for in many ways, for more than Bashir of Sudan or Eyadama of Togo, Mugabe is the baddest of the bat cats on African soil.

In earlier days in the saga of Mugabe’s decline, I shared the hope with some others that a “humanitarian” coup could be engineered, perhaps even by the Bush administration, that would rid Mugabe from the political scene. Certainly if there is any military meaning to the term “humanitarian intervention,” then Mugabe ought to be its embodiment. The odds now seem slim for any forced removal of Mugabe, who somehow managed to craft a clever power-sharing agreement with the high-minded but inept Morgan Tsvangirai. The power-sharing agreement is nonsense; Mugabe retains both the public trappings of power and the behind-the-scenes control of the police, the army and the economy. This last preserve of Mugabe’s – the economy – has for some years been the subject of cruel merriment chiefly because Zimbabwe’s economy is wrecked and its currency nearly worthless. Yet commodities around the world are booming and from gold to cocoa, these hard goods are more valuable than any paper currency. In its new diamond mine, Zimbabwe has renewed wealth, and Mugabe hopes to tap it. “No one should doubt our resolve to sell our diamonds,” he said  on July 12. Activists want to stop him, though their conceptualization, “conflict diamonds,” applies most directly to nation-states in civil war, not sovereign countries controlled by forces of immorality or incompetence or both. The Otawa-based advocacy group, Partnership Africa Canada, in June released a detailed, timely and significant report on diamonds and Zimbabwe; the report, “Diamonds and Clubs: Militarized of Diamonds and Power in Zimbabwe,” is the best single source about events on the ground.

One asnwer to Mugabe’s persistent flouting of fair play and responsible governance is to ban Zimbabwean diamonds from international commerce. A ban, while well-intended and warranted, will be difficult to impose, if not impossible to enforce, because diamonds are among ultimate in fungible commodities, easier to move, easier to sell, and the origins of them are impossible to identify quickly.

That Mugabe will thus inevitable sell diamonds, and reap monetary rewards (potentially substantial since the Zimbabwean government claims to hold $1.7 billion worth of stones, and the country is believed to possess stones more in the ground worth billions more), will neither strengthen nor weaken his hold on power. Mugabe’s survival arise from dysfunctions within the wider region; African governance fails repeatedly to manage pathologies that cut across national borders. The answer is not a Pan-African government. Neither is the African Union up to the task of ejecting Mugabe and leading a transition to a better Zimbabwe. The one hope for this benighted country – so rich in human talent, so rich in history and geography – is for Jacob Zuma of South Africa to engineer Mugabe’s exit. Then South Africa should oversee a trusteeship in Zimbabwe for a period of years during which time the economy cab be stabilized, the police and army reformed, the process of reconciliation can be started and local and national elections held. An immediate Liberian-style transition is not possible. The opposition in Zimbabwe is too weak, disorganized and compromised. The physical infrastructure too ruined. Only South Africa has the moral authority and the physical capabilities to oversee a genuine transition in Zimbabwe. Neither the United Nations nor an alliance of Britain and the U.S. can be trusted to do the job well.

South Africans, having just performed splendidly as hosts of the World Cup, are on a roll. The world should urge Zuma and his government to seize the opportunity to both rid the world of a ruler among the most deserving of retirement and help launch Zimbabwe’s return to its former health. The trouble with this scenario is that Zuma and South Africa’s political leadership have deep reluctance to intervene in Zimbabwe. As Stephen Ellis, an professor of African Studies at Leiden university in the Netherlands and author of the seminal 2005 essay, “How to Rebuild Africa,” points out to me in an email: “South Africa has not responded well to this challenge, and Zuma’s freedom of manoeuvre is quite restricted.  He is himself a Zulu, who speak the same language as the Matabele, and is close to the old ZAPU leadership who were the ANC’s allies in the old days, in the 1960s and 1970s.  Zuma is now being threatened by Julius Malema who is openly courting Mugabe and is advocating ZANU-type policies in South Africa, including land reform.  China’s role here will be crucial – the ultimate question is: will Zimbabwe end up after Mugabe’s demise becoming a normal country once again?  Or will South Africa actually become more like Zimbabwe?  These are open questions.” And likely to remain so for some time.

Jul 13 2010

Calling Naomi Campbell: When prosecutors get desperate, bring on the supermodels

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:15 AM

If you think the international criminal case against Charles Taylor is a slam dunk, think again. The prosecutors in the International Criminal Court — in Holland’s Hague — apparently are in such desperate straits that they need to call on the assistance of the notoriously generous super-model Naomi Campbell.

No kidding. Campbell’s legal street-smarts seems essential to the case against Taylor. After spending tens of millions of dollars on capturing, incarcerating and compiling an air-tight case against the deposed Liberian dictator, the forces of good in African affairs now seem to be placing their bets partly, if not wholly, on the sworn testimony of a British beauty best known for her baroque temper tantrums.

The only development more unlikely than Naomi Campbell influencing the course of human-rights law is Naomi Campbell visiting Malawi in the company of Madonna for the purposes of adoping a baby!

Perhaps Campbell won’t drill a large hole in Taylor’s defense against claims he trafficked in conflict diamonds. Perhaps she will not recall that she received a big rock from the celebrity-seeking Liberian leader in 1997 when, according to reports, she apparently did — and at a “charity dinner” at the home of Nelson Mandela no less.

Let’s hope that on July 29, when the super-model is scheduled to testify, she will stun the court, not only with her striking looks but also with her penetrating memory of the receipt of a gift from a Taylor aide. Perhaps she’ll also tell the court, for curiosity’s sake, what Mandela himself was doing when Campbell got her early Christmas present.

Jul 12 2010

Fela is not Open Source

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:44 PM

Femi Kuti is visiting Philadelphia, fronting his own band, and my wife, who like Femi hails from Nigeria, tells me that no one — no one! — other than Femi should get to perform Fela’s music in public.

Fela is of course Nigeria’s most famous song writer and entertainer, now deceased since 1997. Femi is his talented, yet intevitably derivative, son. My wife is a Nigerian nationalist and presented with a performance by the Senegalese singer Cheik Lo of Fela’s classic “Shakara” song, on the classic Red Hot + Riot album, says emphatically that no one — no one! — but Femi should sing any of Fela’s songs.

“No one?” I ask Chizo. “No one,” she answers.

My wife doesn’t know Femi, and never observed an instance of nepotism that offended her sensibilities. She’s heard his music and knows he is trying hard to protect his father’s musical legacy. “This is a matter of blood,” Chzio tells me. “Blood trumps even talent.”

Who needs a pseudo-meritocracy when values arise from family, from place? Femi, on tour in the U.S., isn’t about to lay claim to Fela’s legacy on the basis of his DNA, yet his actions betray his beliefs. He is Fela’s oldest son after all. In an interview with the august New York Times, no mere aribiter of African music but of American high culture generally, insists that the Broadway hit musical, based on Fela’s songs and orchestrated by the neo-Fela Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, ought to travel to Lagos to perform before the home Nigerian team.

Femi is no Roland Barthes, no Gramsci of popular culture, but he understands enough about Fela to demand the great musician be recognized first and foremost as a Nigerian and next as an African. Only when his geographic roots are affirmed can the world hail Fela as a “world” musician. “It’s good that it’s on Broadway, the publicity is great, everyone is talking about it,” Femi told the Times, referring to the Fela musical. “But if there is truly respect for the music and the message, it has to come to Africa, back to Lagos and the Shrine that we, his family, have built for him. That is important spiritually and culturally.”

And important to Nigeria too. In life, Fela was often spurned by a Nigerian elite too ready to embrace conventional British norms. Now in death, Fela is a hero of authentic Nigerian-ness. He is a folk hero fast becoming a secular saint. For a man without a country in life, in death Fela is a national hero, and Nigerians — notably Femi, flesh and blood — are proudly claiming their own.

Jul 12 2010

Blowback in Uganda?

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:47 AM

Sunday’s sickening bombings in Kampala may be the actions of Somalia’s al-Shabaab group, which claimed responsibility on Monday. The claim is more than plausible. Uganda has been a strong supporter of the American military role in Somalia and has even provided a contingent of troops to the American-led effort — and training of pro-US Somali forces on Ugandan soil. Al-Shabaab considers the Ugandan government an enemy. The logic for the terror group’s role in the sad events of yesterday seems clear: revenge. And there’s the real potential for a widening crisis. The Bush-era U.S. policy towards Somalia has not yet been revised under the Obama; that the policy urgently needs revision – perhaps radical revision – is a “no brainer.” James Traub, in the current issue of Foreign Policy, makes the case compellingly for a new tack on Somalia; is anyone in the Obama administration listening?

That Shabaab-directed violence may now be spilling into Uganda adds urgency to the importance of crafting a US policy towards Somalia that reflects the realities on the ground, which include the de facto partition of this geographically well-endowed region into 3 autonomous “provinces.” For Uganda, the time may also have come to review its explicit support for US military actions in Somalia; such a review need not occur because of the menace of Shabaab and the threat of continued terrorist attacks against innocent Ugandans as well as foreign guests, but stands on its own merits.

Having spent many pleasant and productive days in Kampala, I hope the city soon returns to “normal.” Kampala is perhaps the most peaceful, crime-free large cities in the entire African continent. Whatever shortcomings shown by Uganda’s often-criticized and autocratic president, Yoweri Museveni, he deserves great credit and respect for Kampala’s tranquility. The city is safe than any of similar size that I know in the U.S., for instance. And because of Kampala’s charms, which include its position on a tropical plateu, the city is a magnet for talented people throughout East Africa. In the days ahead, look for understanding to the writings of the city’s great newspaper, The Monitor, and its fine political commentator, Andrew Mwenda.