Sep 30 2010

Obama and Sudan’s fate

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:07 AM

Barack Obama is trying to use his presidential “bully pulpit”  to persuade the Sudanese government in Khartoum to permit, as planned, an election next January that could create a new African nation out of southern Sudan. Will his rhetoric be enough?

U.S. policy towards Sudan has changed little under President Obama even though international experts insist the country is “sliding” towards catastrophe. Just as his predecessor, George Bush, rejected calls for direct U.S. intervention in Sudan, Obama has done the same, choosing instead quiet diplomacy and public exhortation. His latest statements suggest he isn’t ready to alter the basic U.S. approach towards Sudan.

The danger of course is that the election will fail to take place or the vote will be ignored by Khartoum, igniting a new civil war in the country. There is also the unhappy prospect that a new nation of South Sudan will be created, and the Khartoum will thus receive applause, but then this new state will be covertly destabilized by Bashir’s northern government — and then the new state will itself collapse into civil war. This last scenario, which hasn’t been examined by policymakers in public, is in some ways the most diabolical, costly and depressing. By permitting the formation of the new nation of South Sudan, Bashir’s government will appear to be following the dictates of international law — and the exhortations of Obama, the president with an African father. But then by covertly destabilizing South Sudan — and giving play to the forces of entropy within the South Sudanese geography — Bashir and friends can set themselves up as the only actor in the regional who can sort out the mess — by conveniently sending their troops into the new nation to “restore order.”

With 100 days left before the scheduled vote, the pressures on the Obama administration are mounting — and the possibilities that rhetoric will give way to action increase. Will Obama choose to decisively shape Sudan’s future?


Sep 23 2010

A new model for cooperation between Western and African media

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:48 AM

The Toronto Star, Canada’s most important newspaper, has launched a blog for African writers in association with Journalists for Human Rights, a Canadian media organization that promotes stronger reporting in Africa by working closely with African journalists themselves — and, crucially, in African newsrooms and media houses. In its first batch of postings, the wisdom of pairing the Star’s powerful brand with the talents in the trenches of African journalism is readily apparent. One post examines a mass suicide in Malawi with exceptional depth. Another striking piece looks at a beauty contest in West Africa. As important as individual stories is the model that the Star and Journalists for Human Rights are testing. At a time when African journalism is maturing by growing its audience and acquiring more resources through market acceptance, Western media houses have an important opportunity to amplify the voices of African writers and reporters. The Canadian model is a significant advance over the common practice of taking talented journalists from their newsrooms and media houses in Africa, flying them to Europe and North America for lengthy “training,” during which time ties to their home audience and contacts wither. Often these journalists return to Africa with their careers interrupted and with the ambition of becoming a great journalist, not at home but far from home. While training and resources from Westerners for African journalists is highly desireable, all efforts should be made to help Africans in their own newsrooms and in cooperation with their newsroom editors and media managers. For an extended discussion on media and the development story, which puts the African question in a global context, see my 2007 essay for IFPRI.

Full disclosure: I’m especially happy to see the partnership because seven years ago I helped launch and run JHR’s first foray into African journalism, in Ghana, where JHR is still going strong in partnerships across the country’s vibrant media landscape.


Sep 16 2010

The Facebook President & Nigeria’s dangerous religious divide

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:04 AM

Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan has ended months of speculation and confirmed he will contest January’s elections. By announcing his decision via Facebook, Jonathan is sending a message to Nigeria’s media that he will go around them, if he thinks by speaking directly he can get a fairer deal.

Jonathan is the first Nigerian president from the country’s oil-rich Delta region. He took office because of the death of his predecessor. He’s been dismissed as a caretaker by Nigerian heavyweights. While he may lack the political machinery of such past presidents as Obasanjo, Jonathan is perhaps in the right place at the right time. The unrest in the Delta might be reason enough for voters to elect Jonathan, a reform-minded native of the region.

Nigeria’s elections are in January. Jonathan might help his cause greatly by moving to reduce tensions in the Delta. His failure to do so during the few months left in his term might help to persuade voters that he is not deserving of re-election. The best indication of his chances will come in late October when the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chooses its own presidential candidate. The party, which came to power under Obasanjo, suffered a big setback when his handpicked successor, Yar’Adua, a northerner and a Muslim, died in office, giving the presidency to Jonathan, the vice president. Jonathan is a southerner and a Christian. Without the support of the PDP, Jonathan’s campaign will be difficult. If the PDP chooses a strong candidate, Jonathan’s odds will grow longer still.

The religious divide in Nigeria appears to be growing. Muslims in the north appear more open to fundamentalist messages. The radical Boko Haram group this month successfully led a prison break in northern Nigeria, freeing jailed members. Despite the murder of Boko Haram’s chief last year, the group appears to remain a force in the region. In the Kaduna and Plateau states, meanwhile, Muslim extremists have murdered Christians, with disputes over land and resources often taking the form of religious violence.

Christians in Nigeria’s densely-populated southern cities, meanwhile, are themselves subject to waves of religious extremism, often igniting Muslim backlash with their own militant assertions of Christian superiority. The space for religious tolerance in Nigeria — never large — seems to have narrowed in recent years, fueled partly by a zealous Christianity that seeks to roll back ordinary intimacies between Christians and Muslims that have long been a part of Nigerian society.. Eliza Griswold’s new book, The Tenth Parallel, offers fresh documentation on the sources of the religious divide in Nigeria; the book includes the reportage that appeared in her important Atlantic monthly article of 2008 on Muslim-Christian contention in the country (a subject which remains relatively ignored by the world media). Yet Nigeria is the largest country in the world — and the only one of any size — where Muslims and Christians are roughly equal in the population. Which makes Nigeria a kind of living laboratory experiment for the possibility of Muslim-Christian understanding.

Such understanding is of course possible — and has even existed in Nigeria for centuries. Two of my own wife’s sisters have married Muslim men, though they are Christian. Inter-marriage is often a misleading path towards the elusive goal of religious tolerance. Yet my personal point highlights that the interaction between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria is deep and profound. One Nigerian friend of mine reminded me recently that mixing between the two faiths was so common among her Yoruba ethnic group — probably the largest in Nigeria — that a single family would often have large continents of both Muslims and Christians: “I grew up in a more harmonious Nigeria where Muslims and Christians live together peacefully.  There are a lot of people in my family who are Muslim and actually they used to have holiday celebrations that were more fun than us Christians. Politicians now use religion to fuel paranoia in people.”

Religious awarness is now much greater than ever, even when such awareness falls short of bias or ouright hostility towards the Other. In next year’s presidential election, the religious orientation of the candidates is sure to become a major issue in the minds of voters. By past practice, Muslims can rightly say that it is their turn to hold the presidency. In the logic of Nigeria, they are most likely correct. The cost — in terms of civil unrest — of a Christian presidency is simply too high, unless some new factors come into play.


Sep 10 2010

Climate change & Africa: urban adaptation is crucial

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:14 AM

The fierce debate over the extent of climate change should not obscure the severe differences of opinion over how much adaptive skills of humans will influence the adverse effects of climate change. Especially in the sub-Saharan, where the severity of warming is expected to be among the greatest in the world and where the fragility of the environment is already high in some significant sub-regions. A concensus seems to be emerging that improved governance could significantly reduce the pain of climate change for ordinary Africans. Here’s the superb Andrew Revkin on this important perspective:

“Many scientists believe that sub-Saharan Africa will be particularly vulnerable in the coming decades to climate-related dangers like heat waves and flash flooding. But global warming is the murkiest of factors increasing the risks there. Persistent poverty, a lack of governance and high rates of population growth have left African countries with scant capacity to manage ….”

Revkin makes an excellent point that climate change isn’t a scourge in itself; rather, how humans adapt to changing weather is crucial. We might place his perspective in an emerging perspective that priviledges the “social construction of climate change.” Across a wide spectrum of challenges posed by climate change, the short-term response could well be to alter “patterns of development,” as Daniel Sarewitz, my visionary colleague at Arizona State University has so eloquently and persuasively argued in many formats in recent years, notably an Atlantic piece from 2000 that remains prescient today.

Just how much can Africans be expected to alter their behavior in the face of climate-change? Afro-pessimists, such as Revkin, see scant capacity and little reasons for optimism. Yet the facts on the ground show otherwise. Africans are undergoing the largest and most radical shift in their patterns in hundreds of years. The least urbanized region on the planet, Africa is urbanizing more rapidly than anywhere else. The world’s fastest-growing cities: nearly all in Africa. The greatest numbers of people moving from farm to city: Africa comes high on a list that of course must include India and China. In the urbanization of Africa lies the greatest potential for adaptation to climate change. The story of African cities — their sudden, violent expansion in recent decades; their great potential to leverage such transformative technologies as cell phones; the economies of scale and the denser richer markets that come from clustering people who historically have been the most widely dispersed in the world — will shape the unfolding climate-change drama in Africa in ways that remain both impenetrable to environmental scientists and activists alike. The sheer rapid pace of urbanization in Africa means that climate change could well have less negative effects on Africans than most well-meaning observers presume. By directing their energies at assisting both public and private actors in African cities, the international community could begin to introduce concrete adaptations that better the lives of a growing proportion of ordinary Africans. That most assistance remains directed at nation-states in Africa is understandable but unfortunate. Outsiders must begin to work more energetically and directly with Africa’s burgeoning cities, where the best defenses against the worst effects of climate change can be identified and reinforced, where possible.


Sep 05 2010

Despite food riots, there are successes in African agriculture

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:51 PM

Successes in African agriculture are harder to recognize when wheat shortages are causing price increases — and raising the specter of food riots in African cities.

The riots in Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo this week reinforce the pessimistic scenario on Africa’s food future, which Raj Patel outlines persuasively in The Guardian. The logic is devastating. Rising prices for commodities imported in large quantities by African countries will inevitably lead to social pain — and backlash. As one Mozambican official with a national farmers organization told Patel, “These protests are going to end. But they will always come back.”

The struggle by ordinary urban Africans to procure enough isn’t only intensified by climate change but also by widening income inequality in most African cities. But neither of these forces should obscure the successes in agriculture that have created zones within the sub-Saharan of high food production. These zones of success — from tuber and cotton farmers in West Africa to vegetable and maize growers in East Africa — are detailed in a new book, “Successes in African Agriculture,” from Johns Hopkins University Press. The book reprises work first published six years ago by the International Food Policy Research Institute under the inspired editorship of Steven Haggblade, a professor of international developmemt at Michigan State University and one of the brightest minds on the planet on the subject of African farmers.

According to this important book, sub-regions within Africa continue to produce food surpluses, despite various well-known handicaps faced by small African farmers. These surpluses sometimes help to close the food gap in sub-regions where imports typically account for much consumption. In his more recent papers, Haggblade has identified barriers to trading food between African nations as among the most important obsacles to both lowering food prices and raising living standards for small farmers in Africa. A greater reliance on intra-African agro-trade could do wonders for reducing the impacts on Africans of climate change and spot shortages of wheat and other important commodities today and in the years ahead. In the final chapter of “Successes in African Agriculture,” Haggblade and three co-authors outline “the way forward” for African farmers. That African farmers have been succeeding, and have significant capacity for growth and change, ought to be as important a story as food riots. Both success and failure co-evolve in Africa; emphasizing one at the expense of the other, in food security or any other modality of human existence, is neither intellectually honest nor morally persuasive.


Sep 02 2010

Sinduhije on Burundi: missed chance for democracy to flower

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:10 AM

Alexis Sinduhije, one of Africa’s great journalists, is somewhere in Europe, waiting out the tense aftermath of the failed election this summer in Burundi. Sinduhije withdrew as a candidate for president some weeks prior to Burundi’s national election June 28. From an undisclosed location this week, Sinduhije gave me a glimpse of his anger at Burundi’s elite — and his criticism of Western donors for permitting his country’s dysfunctional leadership to delay the inevitable turn to social and political reform. Writes Sinduhije: “I am surviving trying to re-collect my movement as the ruling party and the government are busy to destroy it. Trying to get sponsorship to fund the work of organizing the party again. As you know election was rigged and the entire West let it go and remains silent on harrass, torture, killing and jailing of the opposition members. It is a shame.”

For more from Sinduhije, see his recent essay in The East African.