Sunday, December 28, 2008
With last week's passing of Guinea's senile dictator, Lansana Conté, and the military coup that followed, the country is marking no deviation from a well-rehearsed choreography, enacted repeatedly since independence from the French in 1958. The dance moves are economical, simple for new generations of political elites to learn.
A leader emerges, accedes power bolstered by populist rhetoric, buys off the military, installs single-party rule. Cronyism flourishes, rule of law evaporates, the military shores up the trappings of statehood. Decades pass; the population languishes. Leader then dies, military resumes control until a new leader-puppet is found. For nine million Guineans, the spectacle and squalor continue.
Conté down for the count
Conté belonged to a dwindling species of wizened and paranoid leaders-for-life, whose ranks include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and Omar Bongo of Gabon. Once hailed as liberators and visionaries, they became pathetic parables of 'absolute power corrupting absolutely'. The psychological path from flamboyant liberator to murderous despot is dramatic stuff, and was ably fictionalized in The Last King of Scotland. An excellent non-fiction account of Mobutu Sese Seko’s rise and fall is Mobutu, Roi du Zaire, by Thierry Michel.
Not so for Conté. A diabetic chain-smoker who rarely appeared in public, Conté was a garden-variety despot whose life and career will be quickly forgotten, even by Guineans. In the murky hours after Conté’s death, a military junta declared power. Western powers demanded an immediate return to civilian rule; a rote bit of finger wagging that has surely never produced a single result.
Alluding to the high propensity for carnage in this West African neighborhood, Senegalese President Wade recently appealed for acceptance of Guinea’s new military junta. Although highly predatory and wholly opportunistic, the Guinean national military arguably prevented the country from sliding into the chaos of its neighbors, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast, for whom Guinea served for years as a place of refuge.
The intent of Wade’s appeal is ambiguous. Another leader-for-life in the making and no friend of opposition parties or the free press, Wade's point may be that civilian rule and democracy are over-rated, and that in such places security is primordial. He may also be a proponent of 'negative solidarity', as my Burundian friends call it, between African leaders who defend one another till the bitter end. Witness the deafening silence from African leaders regarding Mugabe.
Amazonian propaganda and guided missiles
Still, it is all deeply disappointing and predictable. Decades of syphilitic, jack-booted rule finally falls flat in the dust, and a unified populace stares blankly while an army faction takes control. Is it that foreign occupiers are enough to mobilize popular resistance (e.g., anti-colonialism) but when the oppressor is your brother you sit on your hands?
Compared to the colonial era, today’s absence of constructive, popular political agency in the world’s poorest countries is mystifying and exasperating. Back then, Sekou Toure led Guinea to independence and stood proud on the world stage, with adulation from Kennedy and visits from Castro.
[ST’s political compass is clear in these photos: star worship for Castro and distraction with Kennedy.]
Like Mugabe and other liberators, it didn’t take long for Sekou Toure to relish the pleasures of despotism. Conté took him down in 1984 and lived to repeat the tale. Sekou Toure did leave one legacy of note, a massive musical propaganda machine, similar to that created and cultivated by Mobutu in Zaire. Of the dozens of
propaganda bands still playing in Guinea, most notable are the Amazones de Guinée, an all female troupe pictured here.
A tidy description of all these different bands, with audio/video footage, can be found here.
Today, any damn idiot can fill a political vacuum in a place like Guinea, and there are dozens of Guineas in Africa. Coups flourish, generally over control of resources, led by marginalized power bases organized along ethnic lines. Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, wrote an op-ed earlier this year “in praise of coups,” suggesting that the West get back to its once successful business of engineering political putsches where it needed an ally. Only this time, Collier argued, we should do it in favor of better governance by capable partners, and put an end to kleptocracies run by mandarins-cum-raving despots.
Responses to the article were predictable: a fantastical notion; there are no such ‘guided missiles’ in politics. As a dream, though, I understand the appeal of Collier’s idea. Social engineering doesn’t sound so evil when the outcome is a guaranteed net gain. And most people grasp that freedom without structure is a desert, so they might welcome the trade-off. For the meek who get nothing and have nothing, I wonder what they might say to Collier, or anyone who just wants Africa to work.
Like me, Joe Plumbers in Africa want little to do with politics; they just want politicians to do their jobs. Their government’s failings are not their own. So when the ship starts sinking, no one’s interested in going down with it. Who would be? That’s when the jack-boots and ammo cartridges are at their most frenzied.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
The town of Washington DC, where I live, is lilliputian in many ways. There are a few giant Gullivers, surrounded by droves of busy-body Lilliputians. I figure among the diminutive, cause-obsessed lilliputian hordes. We run to and fro with much speed but variable impact, given our small stature. We are disposable and easily replaced; not so the giants whose favor we seek.
The slow-moving Gullivers to whom we cater are the official faces of our body politic. The limited number of giants accentuates their visibility, particularly as they control policy and choose how to spend the assets they obtain from more hordes like me, only further from view.
The reason for my busy-bodyness before these giants is that they dispose of the public funding for which cause-obsessed little people like me must compete. If we win, we use the wealth to assist and rebuild other lands that are at war or are emerging from conflict. The giants grant us these assets with the understanding that they get the credit for any success we achieve through our work. Every act abroad must reflect the grandness of our giants.
Speculation among the hordes
Most of the distant places that benefit from our giants' largesse are poor, diseased and war-wracked, with little immediate strategic interest to the giants themselves. If one of these places fell off the map today, our giants would not miss it.
Why do the giants spend our public funds on crippled, diseased and impoverished places, far from these shores? How do they use the credits they accrue by doing this? We speculate over this. There is no consensus among giants or nor do they offer explicit rationales for these programs. Giants can differ bitterly between themselves over why, where and how they commit public assets in this way.
On the rare occasion when we are face-to-face with such a giant, we defend our cause. To maintain funding levels, we argue that poorer, unstable lands are in the giants' interest. We try to be inventive in our reasoning, but in the end we use a standard set of justifications.
A new set of giants is preparing to assume control of our land, our public assets and, possibly, the ways we engage less fortunate, non-strategic lands. In the short term, a handful of distraught and tragic places will continue to consume the majority of our assistance because despite their chaos, they are considered strategic. Our current set of giants believe these lands are strategic because they harbor our enemies. Something local must be done to deter or befriend them. They cannot hate us; they do not know our beneficence.
The continent that wouldn't go away
A strange twist of fate, the majority of these catastrophic lands with disastrous leaders happen to find themselves in the same neighborhood. Their neighborhood is large, and fills an entire continent. Because this neighborhood is geographically self-contained, it is easily ignored, like a garbage dump outside town. The people on this continent sense their plague and leave in droves. Some manage to arrive at our shores. Their presence here humanizes the pandemonium they leave behind, so strange is it to us. That they survived their ordeal is miraculous, but sheds no light on a solution.
The current set of outgoing giants have done little decisive for this troubled continent, despite having spent more on foreign crises than any previous body politic run by giants. Before the new set of giants settles in, we the cause-obsessed wish to present our strategies for saving the lost continent.
i. No jobs without infrastructure. Without jobs, dependency on foreign assets will continue indefinitely. There is very little electricity or roads on the lost continent. The private sector cannot incubate or grow because indirect costs, owing to absent infrastructure, are prohibitively high. Another land with giants for leaders--China--is bartering road building against access to raw materials (minerals, oil, timber) in these lands. No money exchanges hands, which is good because corrupt leaders would otherwise steal it. It is bad because it infantilizes these leaders, letting them rule while robbing them of genuine responsibility.
ii. No prosperity without stability. For the last eight years, our giants have repeatedly offered this continent all-expenses paid democratic elections. They believed that democracy would solve the continent's problems. Yet there is almost no clean water, medicine, or personal safety for the people of this continent. Many of the new democracies our leaders purchased are skin deep, or have collapsed. The new set of giants should focus on providing security and infrastructure, because fragile or nascent democracies cannot survive without this basic dual foundation.
iii. No accountable governance without education. We wonder why there are not more revolutions on this continent: there is much bloodshed without political intent. Why do they not overthrow their venal political class? Because they lack an effective, sustained system of education. Without education, manipulation and exploitation meet no resistance, and become the norm. Violence escalates but remains unorganized, absent of strategy or political objective. People kill out of frustration, not for want of change. In other places where the majority is educated, the ruling class is held accountable to common standards. Apolitical violence becomes anomalous.
iv. Lastly, we wish our giants to abandon the grandiosity imperative. Our acts abroad should not reflect our greatness, this world is not a hall of mirrors for the vain. Our acts abroad should meet the immediate needs of the people who must live there. Their political present and future are not our experiments to conduct; their world is not our laboratory.
Monday, October 13, 2008
Africa's natural resources extend across many borders but are not equally abundant for all. Take the Nile River and its extensive tributaries in Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Kenya and Tanzania--all sub-Saharan countries. This neighborhood, also known as the Great Lakes region, comprises the Nile River Basin, the multiple sources of a river on whose lives all Egyptians and many Sudanese depend. Water is literally life for the ancient desert societies of Egypt and northern Sudan, and their skill at conserving water and maximizing its agricultural uses far exceeds that found in upstream Nile countries where water is abundant.
Clearly there is something primordial and miraculous--but alas not causal--in the relationship between scarcity and ingenuity. Take the case of Egypt, whose irrigation capacity precedes its invention of written language, both of which are over 2000 years old. This historical fact becomes amazing in the context of the Nile Basin, whose countries are the poorest in the world.
Technologically, they are so far behind Egypt that they still depend entirely on rainfall to grow food. In Burundi, for instance, rivers and lakes abound but basic irrigation and animal traction constitute the unthought for farmers there. As a result, during the three-month dry season rural farmers in Burundi go hungry and die. Egypt learned to solve that problem long before the West existed.
Were the state of scarcity itself a causal trigger for change, people and their leaders would have figured out solutions to poverty long ago. And given that practical solutions already exist in the world's poorest neighborhood, like the miracle of Egyptian irrigation in a barren desert, one wonders why Egypt's destitute neighbors continue to look the other way.
Created in 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative seeks to introduce the notion of 'common good' to nine countries for whom the Nile is political hot-potato, conflict trigger, and means of survival rolled into one. Many NBI countries have been at war in the last decade, and the Nile as casus belli is not unthinkable with climate changes already affecting the region. Obviously a lack of trust permeates the region and prevents cooperation on mutually beneficial initiatives, like Nile water management. If successful, then, the NBI would use the Nile to promote development in the poorer countries in a way that facilitates a common approach to solutions and averts conflict.
Nearing its tenth anniversary, the folks at NBI headquarters in Entebbe were rightfully wondering about their impact in the region, and whether regional thoughtleaders appreciated NBI efforts. A qualitative study of perceptions among civil society, government, academics and media from NBI's nine member countries was commissioned; results are coming out now.
Read from a longer piece I wrote for 3QD here.
Monday, September 22, 2008
I had to wait years to see this film--it came out in 2004. Netflix is not always so quick to sort out distribution rights and such. The title alone magnifies the intrigue: what could make Darwin have nightmares? It could be a film about the rise of Creationism, for instance, or the vast spawning of evangelical anti-science conservatives.
Such a film wouldn't have to be about natural evolution at all. After all, 'survival of the fittest' and its application to the social and economic realm was not Darwin's idea; apparently he rejected such extrapolations.
This film is a slow and grim portrayal of the effects of a single-track economy in a country incapable of diversifying its revenue sources, or of creating jobs for a largely unskilled population. This could be any number of African countries, unfortunately, but Tanzania sets the scene for this particular portrayal.
In the end it was a disappointment. Why so many African economies fail to get off the ground deserves serious study, but using the Western liberal anti-globalization bias to frame a documentary does not adequately capture the problem. Instead it turns local poverty into a platform for liberal ideologies; anti-globalization in this case. Africans need jobs and better working conditions. Government regulation of extractive industries has failed, and 'survival of the fittest' rules. In that sense the film is correct, but western demand for African goods is not the true cause of Darwin's nightmare.
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
For those of you wondering if I’m dead, I’m not. Thanks for your emails. But others are; I know some of them. After the waves of anger and sadness, death still stands near. It breathes in my ear, it casts shadows. Things slow down in its presence.
Damien Gugliermina was among those who died yesterday in the AirServ crash outside Bukavu. He was a genuine spark among the species, alive with every fiber and neuron. He was dedicated in the usual ways that people are in this line of work, his intensity offset by an easy humor and realism about these wars and the impact of our muddling humanitarian institutions.
We first met in 2006 in Kinshasa, then later here in Goma, and again in Bukavu throughout that year. I saw him a couple of weeks ago in Goma, the same ready smile and sparkle in his eye. That was Damien yesterday. Today his body is being recovered from the 10,000 foot escarpment near the Bukavu airport where his plane was headed when it crashed.
Today I’m on a flight with the same aviation company, a non-profit humanitarian air service that flies aid workers and Congolese VIPs around the country’s trouble spots. After yesterday’s tragedy, I didn’t expect to fly today. Late last night I learned my flight to Beni was still on for this morning.
I stood on the tarmac this morning waiting to board our Twin Otter, ignoring the aviation authorities hitting me for a bribe. The pilot strode up and we started chatting about the crash yesterday. "I wouldn't want to speculate about any errors committed by a fellow pilot," he explained. "Surely there are lessons to be learned?" I ventured. It seemed a strange answer to a natural question about possible cause.
We stopped in Bunia on our way to Beni, to refuel and drop off passengers. The pilot and I hung around on the tarmac; me remembering my experiences in Ituri over the years during the war, and how calm things seemed now.
We started chatting again. He asked me what I was doing in eastern Congo. I described my work for the peace negotiator, Abbe Malu Malu, and why I would be in Butembo meeting Mai Mai groups and planning community reconstruction projects using ex-combatants. He took his sunglasses off and looked at me. "That must be the greatest job in the world!" For once, I thought, I can accept this compliment--he was right.
We resumed our flight to Beni, a short hop from Bunia. We entered a storm, my mind was on the conditions that led to the crash of yesterday. We bounced around in the plane, we were flying blind, and I was afraid. I never regretted, though, why I was here and what I am doing. I'm sure that Damien never did either.
Friday, August 15, 2008
The Olympics are tailored to this particular ideal of beauty as the rarefied perfection of form. No room for fractured beauty, obviously, as that would disqualify. Although pristine beauty is by definition more rare than fractured beauty, I tend to champion the latter because it's more pedestrian, more democratic because accessible to all of us, if we open our eyes wide enough. I love cosmologies, but only for their literary value. It's too late to actually believe in one. Fractured, democratic, horizontal: that's where I'm most comfortable. Zeitgeist I guess.
Of course, fractured beauty abounds here in Goma. As my boss and I bounced along these terrible roads the other day, inhaling pounds of volcanic dust (always in the air) and diesel fumes blasting into the car from all the trucks lumbering by in the other direction, the boss mused that we were on a merry go round. Everybody's on the narrow road at once, with dozens of moto taxis blurring past, honking constantly (think rickshaw madness in Delhi). The 360 degree view is just heads bobbing up and down, some buzzing past, others slow or stationary--pedestrians lost in the melee.
So instead of being overwhelmed by the oozing human morass of it all and thinking cynical thoughts about the Congo, my boss reverts into a childhood reverie and comes up with the merry-go-round comment. A kindred soul: he can appreciate fractured beauty too, I thought.
The first thing I'll do when I get off this merry-go-round and return home: ride my beloved bikes, of course, then open a book of Borges stories and sit by the sea. Nothing could be more pristine ... or magical.
Friday, August 08, 2008
Back in Goma after a refreshing week in Dakar. Marathon return journey via Bamako, Nairobi, Kigali, then Goma. I'm still in a zombie state--just as the Congolese who are forced to put up with this ni paix ni guerre situation as it drags on and on.
In 2003-2004 we used to call the Congolese state an Etat fantome, because there was no administrative presence anywhere in the country outside the capital. Yesterday during closed door talks a lead figure in our group of international representatives referred to us as 'zombies'. I had to laugh: zombies controlled by phantoms. Hard to get less visceral than that.
But it's true, we wander from one event to the next, trying to move molehills that the belligerents perceive as mountains. There is little if any political will on any side of the conflict, meanwhile money is flowing hand over fist to keep all these armed groups at the negotiating table.
A high-level delegation came to town yesterday to let all the armed groups know that they had done nothing since signing peace agreements in January, except run up enormous hotel bills in town that they expected the government to pay. Somehow the ultimatum did not seem to catalyze any sudden commitments to withdrawal of troops, disarmament or demobilization of troops.
A friend asked me this morning if western powers should just get out and let the cards fall where they may. It is befuddling why international efforts to broker peace fail in so many situations.
A colleague mused yesterday on Herodotus and our situation here. The story goes something like: Representatives from an occupying power (Athens?) visit a newly conquered but recalcitrant state that refuses to pay tribute. The messengers say, "We are here with the most powerful of gods, 'power' and 'force', so you must obey and pay us tribute." Receiving officials in the occupied land respond, "Oh that's nice, lucky you. We here are under two other gods, 'poverty' and 'incapacity'."
The moral here being that rule of law and military might are impotent before the inertia of destitution, dysfunction and incapacity.
It definitely captures the inability of the international community to get anything done in Congo, particularly on this peace process.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
[Senegal's original flag from late 1950s]
After satisfying a song that's been on the brain for days (classic Brimful of Asha, or the hilarious short version), I hit the streets and have been exploring and eating non-stop since arriving last Saturday. Delighted to run into an old friend I studied with in Germany eight years ago here in the hotel. Nothing more dreamlike than hearing your name called in a country where you know no one, turning around and finding the beaming face of a long lost friend.
Yves and I were together in Abidjan the eve of the 1999 coup that ticked off Ivory Coast's descent into civil war; he was carjacked on the way to pick me up at the airport. What a planet.
Hopefully I'll get some sightseeing in before I leave, between the meetings, the email and the reports to write. There's always Ile de Gorée, Africa's most poignant monument to human slavery, in stark contrast to the Statue of Liberty, a very different maritime marker of [voluntary] human migration.
Back in Goma next Tuesday to learn what is going on with CNDP (Nkunda hasn't been heard from or seen in almost a month) and whether our efforts to keep political negotiations alive will be successful. Not sure that can be claimed at this point.
At least I'll have these memories of Dakar to keep me going!
[Funny the way earworms love a void... the new one is 'Bros'.... or better yet Carrots -- amazing beats!]
Monday, July 21, 2008
And civilians continue to die in far greater numbers than before the Goma Agreement was reached six months ago. A serious lack of political will on all sides is undermining the agreement.
A new Human Rights Watch communique begins:
"On January 23, 2008, after weeks of talks, the Congolese government signed a peace agreement in Goma, North Kivu, with 22 armed groups committing all parties to an immediate ceasefire, disengagement of forces from frontline positions, and to abide by international human rights law. Following the signing, the Congolese government set up a peace program, called the Amani Program, to coordinate peace efforts in eastern Congo. Yet the government and international donors have provided limited funds to carry out that work.
The agreement failed to halt the fighting. United Nations officials have documented some 200 ceasefire violations since January 23, the majority between the forces of renegade general Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) and a loose coalition of combatants from the Mai Mai Mongol, the Coalition of Congolese Patriotic Resistance (PARECO), and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Rwandan armed group whose leaders participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The FDLR was not a party to the Goma agreement.
Human Rights Watch also found credible evidence that soldiers from the Congolese national army were supporting the PARECO, Mai Mai Mongol, and FDLR coalition, questioning the government’s commitment to the peace process."
Sunday, July 06, 2008
A primary concern is the lack of 'sticks' (vs carrots) for Laurent Nkunda, the most powerful group. His military advantage over the national army has been demonstrated several times, to much embarrassment in Kinshasa. His strong hand in these negotiations is not diminished by the threat of an ICC indictment; rather he knows he could turn the entire east upside down if things don't go his way. Without a convincing stick to wave in his face, the negotiators' hand is weak.
The other oncoming train in this particular tunnel is the prospect of a national army massively inflated by former rebels, when the Ministry of Defense can barely clothe, train, equip let alone pay its own forces. So a bigger, more dysfunctional national army is a good thing for Congolese civilians? Not sure where that strategy was rubber stamped, but there you go.
Coverage of the Amani process itself can be found here (Radio Okapi)
And the following report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting describes the fragmentation of peace process itself. It is certainly accurate from my view on the ground, but does not exclude the possibility of resuscitation, which we are currently busy with.
'A ceasefire signed by more than 20 militia groups earlier this year is being broken repeatedly.'
The fragile peace that has restored some calm in the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, is in danger of collapsing, say key militia groups.
“They attacked our positions. It is now war,” said Sendugu Museveni, the former president and now chief negotiator for PARECO, one of the major ethnic Hutu groups to sign a ceasefire in January.
A peace deal was signed in the Goma, the capital of the North Kivu Province, by more than 20 militias operating in the region. Museveni accused the forces of Tutsi militia General Laurent Nkunda of repeated violations of the ceasefire and of sabotaging the peace process by backing out of the talks last week, as it has done several times before.“This is the last chance,” said Museveni. “We are very tired of responding to the capriciousness of the Tutsis who do whatever they want …. We will not agree to be dominated all the time by the Tutsis.” Read the rest here.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Mr. Bottom Billion, Paul Collier, published an insightful op-ed last week lamenting the current politically-correct mindset that sees powerful, rich nations only bullying weaker, poorer ones. Yet the planet's major disaster states are ruled by isolated autocrats who are omnipotent on their own turf: Mugabe in Zimbabwe, General Than Shwe in Burma. These leaders are far more powerful than any Western head of state; there is nothing weak about them.
Efforts to help the citizens of these countries are blocked by such leaders and their cronies, for whom their people are 'better dead than fed'. The only effective change agent in such situations are the national armies, with their capacity for a coup d'etat. Coups are historically common in such instances, but are like 'unguided missiles', Collier explains, because their outcomes are unpredictable. How then to help make coups 'smarter'?
His answer: "Rather than trying to freeze coups out of the international system, we should try to provide them with a guidance system. In contexts such as Zimbabwe and Burma, coups should be encouraged because they are likely to lead to improved governance. (It's hard to imagine things getting much worse.) The question then becomes how to provide encouragement for some potentially helpful coups while staying within the bounds of proper international conduct."
Read the whole piece here.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Western policies designed to weaken the junta have been contradictory, perhaps even self-sabotaging. The State Department claims its trade sanctions have encouraged ASEAN countries to adopt a more critical stance on Burma; this is correlation, not causation. ASEAN countries continue their waffling course of ‘constructive engagement’, meaning: do business and look the other way. The US was alone in pursuing sanctions for over a decade until the ill-fated ‘Saffron Revolution’ last September, at which point the EU implemented similar measures.
Critics of these sanctions, embargoes and other disincentives highlight their feel-good, symbolic character—much like Bush’s declaration of genocide in Darfur being followed by cooperation with Khartoum on terrorist intelligence matters. As with Sudan, sanctions against Burma arguably strengthen the hand of ruling authorities by creating a scapegoat for their own internal policy failures and narrowing the opportunity for Burmese to expand their economic, social, and cultural contacts with reform-minded nations. The conservative CATO institute, for instance, makes a case for re-opening commercial relations with Burma, arguing that investment and trade brings technology, better working conditions, and increased exposure to democratic ideas.
Burmese pressure groups and international human rights agencies have lobbied the UN for Security Council action to target Burma’s gas and oil industries, the junta’s primary source of revenue. Such a vote was never tabled, as China and Russia would surely veto on the grounds of the principle of non-interference, their almighty sacred cow and miracle panacea for any vexing political crisis.
But for those nations who huff and puff and try to blow the junta house down--to what effect? Sanctions that fail to cut off all revenue streams to an offending party are ultimately a non sequitur. And wherever there is oil, there is always political wiggle-room. Extraction rights to Burma’s vast offshore oilfields were accorded to China in 2007, along with contracts to build an overland pipeline leading—where else?—to China.
Read the remainder of this piece I wrote for 3quarksdaily.com here.
Thursday, June 12, 2008
On the Rumba River: a new French film on Congolese music and life on the world's second largest river, now a graveyard for abandoned barges and steamers.
Good review here. A snippet:
"The confrontation between environmental ugliness and sonic beauty is part of the point of Wendo's music, and eventually becomes a lynchpin of Sarasin's film as well. Immediately following the band's light, lively reunion show, Wendo - while dolefully gazing at a Congo river littered with decrepit, abandoned boats which symbolize the country's wholesale neglect - laments a country torn asunder by leaders and politicians more interested in enriching themselves than tending to their fellow citizens. It's a forceful juxtaposition of tight-knit community and unjust disregard, amplified by the absence of any superfluous or manipulative aesthetic embellishment. True, the director's refusal to provide basic details about some of his featured musicians, as well as the Congo's rocky past, can at times leave one wanting. But ultimately, On the Rumba River makes up for its lack of informational depth with stirring poignancy."
Monday, June 02, 2008
David Rieff's weekend article in the NY Times Magazine, "Humanitarian Vanities," points out that the logical endpoint of much humanitarian advocacy--regarding the 'right to intervene' and more recently the 'responsibility to protect'--is ultimately nothing other than regime change. After all, if the famous 'root causes' are to be addressed, is that not through direct engagement with national authorities? Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe--who has not dreamt of an end to suffering in these places?
Lasting solutions lie with the venal political class, folks, not aid agencies. And they must go, by any means necessary. Yet most aid agencies are averse to this language, Rieff points out, even though it is the logical conclusion of their interventionist ethos.
"After the Iraqi debacle, it is hardly surprising that we are hesitant to undertake interventions that may well involve regime change. And regime change — its moral legitimacy and political practicality — is the ghost at the banquet of humanitarian intervention. Use any euphemism you wish, but in the end these interventions have to be about regime change if they are to have any chance of accomplishing their stated goal."
I'm glad to see Rieff writing on these issues again; I've always appreciated and learned from his contrarian views. Here's a link to a critique I wrote of his 2002 book, A Bed for the Night, in the Parisian journal Multitudes.
Monday, May 26, 2008
The final scene of the 1968 Planet of the Apes (Rod Serling script, starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall) is worth enduring the tortuous acting. It's a very different ending from the 2001 remake with Mark Wahlberg, and distinguishes the original Apes as true science fiction. Marky Mark's version is a generic action film.
Briefly: After his escape as a prisoner in an ape society on a distant planet, Heston discovers a damaged Statue of Liberty half-buried on a remote beach. He realizes that his inter-planetary voyage had in fact kept him on Earth all along. Humanity had destroyed its own civilization, paving the way for a Planet of the Apes.
I had a more mundane version of this vision recently: a post-petrol world where combustion engines were a memory and pedal-power had reclaimed the Earth. I like apes, but they didn't play a role in this particular fantasy.
Embrace your inner redneck
Sound advice, perhaps. Not for me though, at least in this lifetime. My inner redneck will have to wait—I’m still recovering from my past life as Pavlov’s dog. But last weekend I had the opportunity to embrace that inner redneck in my first close encounter with the apotheosis of modern redneckdom--NASCAR. This was the Southside Speedway in Richmond Virginia, one of the sport's earliest professional tracks, in use since 1959. NASCAR fans hail Southside as ‘the toughest short track in the south’, and I quickly learned why.
Thing is, I wasn't there for the roaring engines or burning rubber. I came for a day of bicycle racing. These were track bikes primarily but a couple of road bike races were also scheduled. I arrived late and over-caffeinated to find the speedway grounds completely empty except for a hundred or so cyclists in the circle inside the track. Most were either preparing to race or recovering. I had not missed my start time, and ran over to get registered.
Under a gray sky and spots of rain, the place had the mournful feel of a fair ground or circus site after the festivities had ended, the cheers and laughter now gone, the animals and rides long departed. Here too, on the ground were crushed candy wrappers, gluey traces of melted sno-cones, tufts of cotton candy stuck to matted patches of grass where crowds had stood and cheered.
But absent any NASCAR fans and the roar of the spectacle itself, the quiet speedway also had the distinct feel of anachronism, of future-past. I gazed out at the empty bleachers and imagined the speedway as a relic of an extinct civilization, a NASCAR ruin in a post-petrol world.
'I can't control my fingers, I can't control my brain'
Founded by a band of track bike racers without a local velodrome, the Sprint Club (think 'Fight Club') created its own race series called Go Fast Turn Left, in deference to Richmond's long history of stock car racing at Southside, where many GFTL races are organized.
The Sprint Club ethos is a direct descendant of old school punk rock's DIY spirit. That means, in no particular order: (1) Appropriating a found environment, making it one’s own, at the expense of appropriate norms and behavior that belong to that environment; (2) In spectacle or performance, participation trumps consumption. Passive, polite observation is replaced by direct participation, eliminating the distance between spirit and seer, artist and viewer; 3) The ‘do it yourself’ mentality is self-explanatory--there are no experts, only students and practitioners, and all are welcome.
After getting my race number and quickly inhaling assorted carbs and sugars, I steered out onto the ragged tarmac to warm up with the other racers. A banked, tight oval track, Southside is only a third of a mile long. My group would race for 25 laps. From the previous night’s NASCAR event, there were fist-sized chunks of black rubber from exploded car tires, random nuts, bolts and metal fragments scattered everywhere. The racing surface itself was gritty, pock-marked and scarred from crashes and the elements.
Ass on fire
I didn't win the race or even come close, but I learned a few things. First, cycling is a cruel muse. Glorious bouts of smoking and drinking never got in the way of my marathon running, years back. Marathons permitted me the dubious luxury of being a hedonist and a masochist at the same time--usually such joys cannot coexist. But competitive cycling is different than long distance running. Marathons require stamina and effort sustained over hours, as does cycling. Unlike marathons, however, cycling involves regular spikes of acceleration, troughs of radical energy depletion and periods of recovery within the course of a single race.
My fantasy of riding on a post-petrol, futuristic ruin of a NASCAR track was shared, I learned, with other riders, some of whom complemented me on my 'sweet ride' before the race (have a look, it really is an amazing bike). These were the same guys who slammed into me as the peloton whistled forward at a bruising 31 mph. 'Keeping the rubber side down' was more challenging than I thought. At one point, I heard a crash behind me, but rubbernecking was not an option.
Competitive cycling is a contact sport, I also discovered, with lots of intimidating banter between riders. Kind of like a mosh pit, I thought and smiled, as I managed to keep pace with the breakaway pack for much of the race. Surely I would finish in the top five, I thought. But with two laps to go, my legs turned to lead and a handful of leading riders pulled away from me. I hadn't the strength to stay with them, or even maintain a spot in their slipstream. I crossed the finish line and thought, 'Time to kill my inner Marlboro Man'. Alas, it appears my inseparable companions hedonism and masochism will finally be parting ways.
Thursday, May 08, 2008
In 2006 I evaluated the $200m DDR program funded by the World Bank and referred to in the WSJ article below. I found a rotting corpse. To my surprise, the people who hired the evaluation at the Bank were not receptive to my findings, and promptly sat on the report for a year. In the end, they released an anodyne 20pp version of my 150pp report. Talk about deliberate obfuscation -- I've never seen it so shamelessly flaunted.
Read the Wall Street Journal article on the Bank's new anti-corruption efforts...
Bits and pieces here: "On April 21, the bank released the findings of a corruption probe into a $100 million "demobilization and reintegration" scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which uncovered "sufficient evidence to substantiate allegations of fraud, corruption and disallowed expenses." The very next day, April 22, the bank announced that it had approved an additional $50 million grant for – drumroll, please – the same "demobilization and reintegration" scheme in the Democratic Republic of Congo. [...]
There has also been no change to the shove-the-money-out-the-door mentality that lies at the root of the bank's endemic corruption problems. When the bank first initiated the Congo project in 2004, it had just been burned by a similar demobilization project in Cambodia, where by its own later admission it showed "a lack of realism," a "need for greater political awareness," and a "lack of understanding."
Yet none of these lessons were so much as mentioned in the bank's internal project proposal for the Congo. That proposal contains page after page of written promises of external financial and technical auditing, competitive bidding and other anticorruption bells and whistles. None of it seems to have made much of a difference in preventing the scheme from sliding into the same morass that is the frequent endpoint of World Bank projects."
Friday, May 02, 2008
Waterbuck and wildebeest in the background, also zebra and giraffes...
Wednesday, April 23, 2008
I feel like the Cookie Monster when I’m in this part of Africa – can’t get enough ugali. Doesn’t help that I’m a vacuum cleaner by nature, generally eating anything within reach of my arms or legs. My big orifice welcomes anything remotely edible, except manioc ugali (foufou); I like the maize version.
Took the bus back from Bukavu via Cyangugu to Kigali yesterday. Stunning countryside, and we passed many towns where I worked in 1994: Gikongoro, Kibeho, Butare, and lots of small villages. Back then Butare was a ghost town, littered with bodies, no civilians in sight, and occupied only by the RPF. Between Gikongoro and Butare was ‘the line’—basically an international border where RPF control stopped and that of the French military began.
On the French side, all the way to Cyangugu and the Ruzizi River where Congo starts, were Hutu IDPs: some certainly guilty of genocide, some not. But all of them were running for their lives. Anyway, there was no way to tell who was guilty, and culpability was not a priority issue then. The main thing on everyone’s mind was to prevent a second (revenge) genocide.
It took a while to figure it out, but my cramped minivan yesterday was filled with Banyamulenge (Tutsis of Rwandan extraction born or raised in Congo). Politics was the primary discussion point, and lots of laughter about life in general. In today’s ethnically charged climate, Banyamulenge are no longer welcome in Congo. Many felt forced to immigrate to Rwanda, a country they don’t consider home, and that does not accept them. Many never learned to speak Kinyarwandan, as pressure to assimilate in Congo meant speaking Swahili and French. Unwelcome in Congo, in Rwanda they must assimilate again, this time to a society conrolled by Tutsis from Uganda—English and Kinyarwandan speakers.
JG, a friend here, was born and raised in Bukavu to a Tutsi refugee father and a Congolese (Shi) mother. In his final years of study towards priesthood at Bukavu’s prestigious seminary, his mentors and colleagues turned on him. Because he was half-Tutsi, he had to leave. With no English or Kinyarwandan, he came to Kigali and found the professional ranks occupied entirely by Tutsis who’d followed the RPF from Uganda. Along with the Hutu majority here, JG is essentially excluded from participating in the bright and prosperous Kigali of today.
Over ugali and beer yesterday, JG and I recalled the French expulsion from Rwanda in late 2006. For a government that brooks no dissent, no opposition politics and barely a peep from civil society, it was logical that they eject a threatening foreign presence: recall the Kagame indictments issued by a French court (and more recently by a Spanish court). However consistent the logic of this regime—brook no dissent—it is a recipe for open hostility, sooner or later.
JG wants a country where ‘all Rwandans are one’; his NGO works with former prisoners (ex-genocidaires Hutu) to reintegrate into society. Very brave, but essential if the timebomb is to be diffused. JG's work is a drop in the ocean, unfortunately. And as long as the government treats everyone except the Ugandan Tutsi community as potential traitors, the supposed center will not hold.
In Congo, that wait can last for years, as the state does nothing. It undertakes no repairs, provides no services—emergency or otherwise—to people affected by conflict or natural disaster. How a country’s government can get away for so long with such criminal negligence is befuddling to outside observers; even insiders get lost in the maze of causality behind dysfunction and crisis on so colossal a scale.
Update on the plane crash in Goma: Congo’s Transport Minister is blaming the tragedy on the volcanic eruption in 2002, whose lava consumed part of the runway, shortening its length. No repairs were ever undertaken to return the strip to its former length; landings and take-offs simply became that much more treacherous. The minister did not stop with the volcano. He also blamed the crash on the war, which effectively ended in 2004, although conflict continues in the eastern provinces. Neither he nor any other Congolese politician ever mentions the absence of an official regulatory body as a probable cause. Yes, aviation is a regulated industry, in the interest of public safety. Does anyone in this government know what such a regulatory body would look like, or how to run one?
Congo continues to sink at free-fall velocity. No vital signs are apparent since elections in late 2006. Popular hopes and expectations were perhaps too high, now people are waking up to their worst fears: plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
Some Lega masks from South Kivu, about 60 years old. Exquisite up close.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The volcano was the last thing on my mind as I approached the border, fearing I would have to negotiate my entry with drunken policemen and soldiers. Instead I found an efficient customs service manned by rational, non-threatening civil servants, as professional as on the Rwandan side of the border. Small signs of progress make big impressions, given the state to which the DRC has sunk over the years.
An hour later, I learned that a DC-9 from the primary national airline, Hewa Bora, crashed on take-off from the city airport. The fuselage spun into a residential/commercial area and exploded, claiming around 80 lives. DRC is well known as having the worst air safety record in the world. Locals have abandoned the former reference for commercial aviation, ‘air peut-etre’, in favor of the darker language of ‘cerceuils volants’, or flying coffins. See the BBC story here.
Still, I've managed to meet many local NGOs to discuss their work in hopes of connecting them to donors elsewhere. The primary constraint is capacity: very few are large enough to absorb much money, and all reauire direct supervision, regular training and institutional development. Despite a peace accord in 2004 and presidential elections in 2006, Eastern DRC is very much an emergency context, although limited development and recovery activities are underway. The national government is weak; the army provides no security and there are no public services or any basic infrastructure to speak of.
If I could change one thing about international assistance to Africa, it would be to drop the democracy and elections obsession. Security and infrastructure are the most basic conditions for progress. Democracy bakes no bread and stops no bullets in this part of the world.
For the next leg to Bukavu, I'm taking the boat!
Monday, April 14, 2008
Out in Swedish since 1992 and in English since 1996, how did it slip by me? Old and lazy, I surmise. To make up for my failings, I've been trudging around with it for the last couple weeks, letting its thesis seep into my veins, like a slow-drip IV.
Lindqvist writes with a delectable dryness, like Kapuscinski (Guardian obit here), one of the few western writers on Africa I respect. Lindqvist also travels 'embedded', and his content is driven by his encounters and their always unpredictable unfoldings. A man infatuated with Fortuna is a kindred soul.
Unlike Kapuscinski, always meek before taxing geopolitical questions, Lindqvist is a gleeful slaughterer of sacred cows, an iconoclast and anti-ideologue par excellence. The thesis of this book is that the Nazi quest for Aryan supremacy and Lebensraum was at its core an application of the expansionist and racist principles of imperialism and colonialism that Europeans had long been applying to the Third World.
In this light, there is little exceptional about the Holocaust itself, given that its precursors were myriad. No one notices this historical continuity because the victims of European expansionism and subjugation were not Europeans, until Nazism--itself a culmination of certain trends in European thought and action over centuries. Is this so shocking a thesis? I think not.
Among the African countries I know well where large scale human massacres have occurred, I'm finding that debate in Rwanda over justice, reconciliation and root causes is relatively free of the usual blame game and denial of responsibility that goes on elsewhere. All are aware that colonialism did much to poison Hutu-Tutsi relations here, and post-independence relations with France have been dubious to say the least. France was forced to pull its diplomatic presence here in 2006.
But Rwandans are not blind to the fact that a homegrown logic was unleashed here: it was not imported or forced down anyone's throat by outsiders. What I've found so uncanny is that many here read the metamorphosis of mind that led to Hutu Power and the 'Intent to Destroy' (the name of Lindqvist's new book on the methods of genocide) that were unleashed in April 1994 in almost identical terms as Arendt's elucidation of the origins of totalitarianism.
A group I met today, Never Again Rwanda, made this case quite clearly, despite no one knowing Arendt or her work. Their efforts revolve around creating a 'culture of reason' in a country where a 'culture of silence' predominates, and automatic obedience before authority is expected and assumed. Critical thinking is rare, and not rewarded. NAR are trying to inculcate these values in schools and among local authorities.
Genocidal ideology is resurging, and eyewitnesses to the genocide who survived and can now testify are being targeted and killed. 'Survivor' and 'perpetrator' are the new categories for Tutsi and Hutu. Although everyone knows that ethnic hatred is an organizing principle to the violence and not its root cause (which is unequal wealth and power sharing), many remain susceptible to ethnic rhetoric. NAR is doing good work; we hope to find them more funding to expand their efforts on a national scale.
Saturday, April 12, 2008
The experience was heavy and I choked up, but emerged strangely grateful that I had been in the country for the immediate aftermath of the primary wave of killing. Today's visit also brought back a lot of memories from that period of my life that had faded or simply been repressed. I've always contextualized my time in Rwanda in 1994 as just another relief mission to a war-torn country, but I now realize that it was something else entirely.
It's easy to say, but genocide is the most extreme human transgression. That thought needs a visceral connection somehow, otherwise it remains purely intellectual--subjective and forgettable. Today I grasped in my bones that there is nothing else at the bottom of the human psyche after all other trap doors have given way. Beyond madness, beyond reason, beyond fantasy, beyond brute physicality, genocide is the final cul-de-sac at the bottom of human consciousness.
There are several genocide memorials around the country; this one is both a museum and an unmarked cemetery with enormous mass graves in submerged cement containers. Name placks are fixed to an adjacent wall, somewhat like the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Survivor stories are playing on video screens positioned throughout the tour, which occurs largely underground. That of Valentine runs: "I lay down again among the dead bodies. It was three days after the killings, so the bodies stank. The Interahamwe would pass by without entering the room, and dogs would come to eat the bodies. I lived there for 43 days . . ." [read rest here]
Rwanda is recovering slowly; there is security and infrastructure, the two main ingredients for human prosperity in a post-conflict country. Latent tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are spreading, however, and many I've talked to are not optimistic about the prospect of peaceful cohabitation.
More on all this later...
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Somalia being the sole exception, the rest of this neighborhood is entering an 'early recovery' phase now that peace was bought on the cheap. That means no justice for victims; impunity greases all palms. Rebel leaders lay down arms in exchange for posts in the national army, government, or some other enticement. No sticks, just carrots--presto, it's donkey heaven. The international community who funds these charades can only pray the juice is worth the squeeze.
Lower on the rungs of power, paramilitary thugs and drooling militiamen get their reward too: a poorly run DDR program and the chance to return to village life without trial or sanction for all the bloodshed and rape in their wake. La politique du ventre started these wars; in turn it offers an incentive to end them. I recall Goethe saying that however complex man's psyche may seem, the 'circle of his states is soon run through'. Or in this case: 'me want you got', as they say in Sierra Leone.
So besides an Empedoclean dance of love and strife, what drives this dynamic of power and suffering, of 'grievance and greed'? I see a perfectly balanced Pavlovian equation stuck on infinite repeat: Oppression, rebellion, reward. Oppression rebellion, reward. Hunger for power starts wars as easily as it ends them. Keep justice and culpability out of any peace negotiation and the powerful can remain atop the dung heap for generations to come. Laundry detergent dreams for evermore! Even Pavlov's dogs could have smelled the rot of this seamlessly conditioned feedback loop--a mile high stench totally lost on the big brains at the UN Security Council.
But what about the African Union--are they not capable of some form of leverage, an anchor of reason in this ocean of impunity? Alas, the AU still worships the 'brotherhood of African leaders'. In practice this means Mugabe gets a winking tisk-tisk from Mbeki; Obasanjo offers exile to Charles Taylor. The AU says nothing, which is consent. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of ZANU-PF supporters continue believing the absurdity that to vote for Mugabe is their only hope against 'imminent British invasion'. A successful politics of the belly thus appears to confer mass hypnotic powers to the demagogue over the hoi polloi. If the AU ever awakes from its hypnotic state of genuflection, maybe it will stop facilitating the dingdongs at Africa's helm and roundly condemn them.
Taking Tiger Mountain
So who's taking tiger mountain by storm? Here comes a warm jest. Given the colossal scale of human suffering this madness entails, this post-conflict neighborhood is swarming with massive UN operations, hundreds of NGOs doing relief and development, philanthropists, human rights activists and do-gooders of every stripe. It's easy to dismiss the humanitarian circus as futile or naively quixotic; it is a most imperfect enterprise, full of disappointment and disillusion. Nor can it fix any of the political dysfunction and self-serving governance at the heart of Africa's problems. Still, I find hope in the humanitarian movement because it is the only full-fledged assault on dystopia going in this part of the world. Everyone else is either getting crushed under a boot, or donning boots to do some crushing.
I'm in Rwanda right now, and havent been here since 1994 just after the genocide. It offers a significant exception to my rant above. An amazing transformation of the country has occurred; it stands in complete opposition to its immediate neighbors, particularly DRC and Burundi. Under Kagame rule, it is not exactly a democratic place, and there is no independent media or much civil society to speak of. But security and the foundations for economic development are clearly here, and Rwanda has prospered as a result.
One thing I agree with Kagame on is his ambition to wean the country off of international charity as quickly as possible. I too want a world where there are only workers, no expatriate labor force or foreign donors at the top of the food chain in developing countries. International financial assistance to private and public sectors will be needed, but the vast machine of intermediary entities--international NGOs, UN agencies, the World Bank country offices--should disappear, the sooner the better. Direct support to indigenous efforts, providing human capital and capacity are sufficient, will get everyone off the ground and into the air. Hence my visit: our little initiative (called 'PRISM Partnerships') aims to connect local NGOs with financial backers elsewhere.
I'm surprised how many positive reactions I've gotten from people across the board: locals, internationals, cynics and dreamers. From the bottom of the well at night, one can only dream--not of utopia but of resistance strategies, of the infinite possibilities for effective assault on dystopia.
Monday, April 07, 2008
That was before Burundi's serious problems started, and it was considered the more stable of the two countries. Even in 1994, before the war commenced here in earnest, I recall our jeep breaking down in the center of Bujumbura in a torrent of flashfloods and rainfall. I got out to look under the hood for five minutes or so, then scrambled back into the dry interior to wait out the downpour. Looking around inside I realized that the lurky loiterers who'd materialized around the jeep had also managed to clean out everything inside it--while it was fully locked!
I got back out of the car and trudged ankle deep into the immobile, drenched crowd to see if any of our goods were visible in anyone's hands, carts or atop their heads. Everyone I passed had clearly witnessed the theft, and now either stared at the ground or averted my gaze when I stood before them. Some smiled and looked away. Clearly some sort of game was going on. No one offered any information, or even acknowledged me as I moved between them, rustling and poking among their belongings in search of my own. Their deliberate passivity and blatant complicity was infuriating in a way I'd never before experienced.
That was my second time in Burundi, and I've since worked here off and on at least 7 or 8 times over the years. And I've since had many more things stolen -- each time the takings dig deeper into my resources! So I'm familiar with the silence, the pretending-it-didn't-exist while still in full stare mode that Burundians indulge in so shamelessly at the expense of other people's troubles.
That jeep incident was the first time I'd been dealt a full dose of the well-known Burundian trait people here call 'solidarite negative': never disclose anything to betray a member of a group, even an accidental group (a crowd at a market), because your disclosure will be remembered and brutally avenged. A warm and fuzzy place indeed.
I got here today at noon and met immediately with an old Burundian friend and colleague to download recent political developments and hear where the country was heading. Little appears to have happened since my last visit in late 2006, except that the ruling political party has split, creating a dysfunctional breach.
More on this as my visit unfolds...
Friday, April 04, 2008
And your silence is all to no avail; today the blinding sun of torture is at its zenith; it lights up the whole country. Under that merciless glare, there is not a laugh that does not ring false, not a face that is not painted to hide fear or anger, not a single action that does not betray our disgust, and our complicity.
-- Sartre, Preface to Fanon's The Wretched Of The Earth
In my recurring fantasy, Americans awake in toxic shock at an administration so far beyond the pale that each of us, asphyxiated and sputtering with rage, simultaneously grasps our complicity, our guilt by association. If nothing else appalls and shames us into action, passivity as complicity just might. In that Rorschach moment where silence and complicity meet, responsibility for national wrongs becomes ours, just as the parents of bullying, violent children know they too are to blame. Once the floodgates of popular rage are open, our leaders will remember to whom they are accountable.
Find the rest of this post on the absence of outrage in American culture over at 3 Quarks Daily.
Friday, March 07, 2008
The infamous Russian, known to anyone who's worked in African conflicts over the last twenty years, was arrested today in a sting operation by US DEA officials in Thailand. The so-called 'Merchant of Death', the subject of a book and movie ('Lord of War', with Nicolas Cage) supplied arms and military hardware to all sides of almost every major global conflict, including the Taliban in Afghanistan, and yet lived openly in a Moscow luxury high rise until his Thailand trip. His links to African blood diamonds and Al Qaeda financing have been the subject of much research, mostly by Doug Farah, formerly of the Washington Post.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Read the rest of this story, with links to various Franco tracks and videos, over at 3QuarksDaily.
Bosana mayele ya bakoko te!
Monday, January 21, 2008
Read the rest of my article on the experience over at 3QD. The place is called Tom Brown's Tracker School, found here.