Archive for the ‘Conflict’ Category

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

February 4, 2010

A new generation of humanitarians and philanthropists has been reading such damning news reports about Africa for so long that it thinks the continent has to be saved. If they were asked what Africa has to be saved from, they would list any number of devils: poverty, disease, famine, drought, environmental degradation, civil war, tribalism, genocide, corruption, exploitation.

Though it is hard to find any lingering evidence of it, there was a time when the future of Africa was described in generally optimistic terms. Independence rolled across the continent with a forceful euphoria, violently shoving aside the old colonial order. Economies had been growing wildly across the continent, buoyed by global industrial expansion. Africa was known to possess vast untapped stores of natural resources. Labor was cheap. Infrastructure, thanks to colonial development projects, was better than ever. Even archaeology was on Africa’s side, as the Leakey family found fossils proving the continent to be the birthplace of all humans. Africa’s future was at least as promising as the developing regions of Latin America and East Asia, and many economic experts considered its prospects to be better than its peers.

In order to honestly assess what it is that Africa must be saved from, it is important to know what happened to so drastically change the continent’s prospects. If Africa was at some point shortly after independence beset by uninvited and unavoidable external calamities, then it would probably be accurate to say that Africa now has to be saved from whichever of these calamities are still lingering. If, on the other hand, Africa courted its own disaster, then would it not be more accurate to say that Africa now needs to be saved from itself? Or that Africa needs to save itself?

Africa has two fundamental problems: the ludicrous borders it inherited from colonialism and the persistent uselessness of its rulers. All of its many other troubles derive from these two.

The first problem, its borders, is a done deal. After nearly fifty years of independence they cannot be changed. Kenya is Kenya, whether or not it ever should have been. There has been exactly one change to the political boundaries in Africa since the independence era, the birth of Eritrea in 1993. The charter of the African Union unequivocally affirms the territorial integrity of all African countries.

Unlike so many of Europe’s wars, which historically have involved one country trying to expand into the territory of another, Africa’s many wars have been largely internal. The typical African war involves a dictator psychotically guarding power and territory from the advances of one or more revolutionary or secessionist militias (or, conversely, one or more psychotic militias fighting to wrest power and territory from the incumbent dictator.) Though African governments rarely fight wars across borders, neighboring states often support each other’s opponents. Throughout the 1980s, Ethiopia hosted the Sudan People’s Liberation Army while Sudan supported the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front. At the same time, South Africa’s African National Congress was operating from rear bases in Mozambique and Angola while the apartheid government in South Africa supported RENAMO in Mozambique and UNITA in Angola. While African despots are happy to support rebels seeking to overthrow other, disliked, African despots, none are willing to support any changes to the continent’s international boundaries. This is for a very good reason: no African tyrant wants to support a precedent that might eventually lead to his own loss of territory.

Occasionally, though less often, one African country invades another. Rwanda invaded Congo twice in the 1990s. The second time Ugandan soldiers joined the Rwandese, while Angola and Zimbabwe fought on the side of the failing Congolese government in what became known as Africa’s World War. Both times Rwandan troops tried to obscure their involvement in the conflict by disguising themselves as an indigenous rebel movement from eastern Congo. Similarly, Liberian warlord Charles Taylor secretly sent a proxy militia of drugged orphan teenagers into Sierra Leone as the Revolutionary United Front. Both occupations were largely about plunder. Taylor stole diamonds from Sierra Leone while Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, and Zimbabwe ravaged all of the Congo’s vast natural resources, including diamonds, timber, bauxite, coltan, copper, and gold. Never did any of these countries state a territorial claim to the land they occupied. No one suggested that the borders of either Congo or Sierra Leone had been altered.

Through no fault of its own, Africa has been locked into its contrived borders. It is less easy to say that Africa bears no responsibility for the parasitic rulers who have leeched the continent of much of its potential. It is often stated that governments derive their sovereignty from their people, and that therefore governments are responsible to those people. But is it not also true that people are responsible for their governments?

For more than fifty years African countries have failed to install but the very odd and infrequent decent or even legitimate government. The occasional tyrant or idiot can be forgiven as a fluke, but if Africa allows or actively installs three consecutive generations of insanely corrupt and dangersous governments, then that is firmly the fault of African populations, and it is firmly the responsibility of those populations to find the right formula for establishing at least tolerable governments.

Consider the following sobering facts from The State of Africa by Martin Meredith:

• In 1980, at the age of 74 and after twenty years as the president of Senegal, Leopold Senghor “became the first African leader since independence to give up power voluntarily” (page 271).
• By the end of the 1980s, “of some 150 heads of state who had trodden the African stage, only six had voluntarily relinquished power.” Three of the six had ruled for more than twenty years (page 379).
• In 1991, “Benin became the first African state in which the army was forced from power by civilians and the first in which an incumbent president was defeated at the polls” (page 389).

Though African citizens are ultimately responsible for their own governments, they are not helped by the international aid industry which makes partners of even the most corrupt and greedy African despots. Donors shower African governments in aid money, fully aware that much of that money goes directly to the personal wealth of corrupt politicians and the accounts of officials tasked with maintaining the incumbent clique’s stranglehold on power. Nimble, savvy dictators have learned that when western donors insist on democratic reform, what they really mean is the façade or semblance of reform. Elections must be held, but a fraudulent one is just as good as a legitimate one. If somehow the fraud fails, then the backup plan is to cook an election crisis which inevitably ends with a power sharing agreement. The new vogue in African democracy, in a power sharing agreement the election itself is discarded, the incumbent remains in power, and the challenger – almost certainly the actual victor – is thrown a bone. It is the ultimate insult to democracy, made all the more revolting when lauded internationally as a restrained, peaceful governmental transition. Are Africa’s standards now so low that all the world hopes for is the electoral equivalent of a fire drill, just testing the systems to see how badly they may fail should an actual democratic transition be attempted?

Western governments willfully support Africa’s broken form of democracy. It is common rhetoric that the west cannot use its aid money to influence the outcome of foreign elections, yet it is common knowledge that aid money is siphoned by the ruling party and used to ensure an indefinite stranglehold on power. Western donors need to openly acknowledge that any contribution to an African government is indirectly a donation to the ruling party.

Recognizing that the carrot of international aid money is not working to lure African governments towards democratic reform, a stick should be found and used alongside it. One option would be for western donors to openly threaten to donate to opposition groups. Since all donations to Africa are in effect political contributions, donors should feel free to give to the candidate most likely to represent democratic values, which in Africa is almost always the challenger. Direct contributions to challengers may offset some of the enormous handicaps they often face contesting rigged elections. Ideally the incumbent would realize that only by instituting true reform would that lost money be returned.

Foreign aid has contributed to many of Africa’s most infamous catastrophes. Ethiopia’s tragic famine in the 1980s was a politically orchestrated crisis designed to weaken opposition populations; aid food and money allowed the government to turn feeding centers into concentration camps, famously draining the sea to kill the fish. At the same time, in Somalia, the government used aid money to resettle refugees related to the ruling family to some of the most fertile land in the country; the rival clan that was displaced by the refugees eventually toppled the government in 1991, igniting the war which is still burning today. During the cold war, aid was used to prop up a succession of friendly dictators throughout the continent, American money famously going to tyrants like Mobutu in the Congo and “Chairman Moe” in Liberia; both countries later imploded when the Cold War ended and America largesse ceased, pulling the footstool of aid out from under the noosed rulers. In hindsight it is easy to see how each good intention paved a few more miles of the road to hell.

But in the end the international community is not responsible for reversing Africa’s run of abominable rulers. Africans are, and if democracy continues to fail then perhaps it should be discarded. “Whenever any … government becomes destructive … it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it … [and] … when a long train of abuses and usurpations evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.” Many African peoples are perpetually in the course of human events calling for revolution.

The sad reality, however, is that most of Africa’s most heroic and inspiring reformers are quickly corrupted absolutely once they have won the absolute power that comes with ruling an African country. Nelson Mandela is the obvious, and perhaps the only, exception; more numerous are those who prove the rule: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, Yoweri Museveni, Isaias Afwerki, …

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Surviving the Siege

January 22, 2008

It was the evening of December 28.  At the Lake Bogoria Hotel – a hot and dusty cinderblock edifice in such a barren stretch of desert that it is able to call itself a resort only because there is no nearby competition to claim otherwise – the guests were starting to feel the anxious disconnect that naturally comes from being too remote and too alone as traumatic events are unfolding in more consequential places.  Phones were dialed and answered, exclamations were made, and rumors were spread.

Mungiki gangs are wearing police uniforms and killing people at roadblocks!” said the large, angry man from Nairobi.

“The Luhya are fighting alongside the Kikuyu.  They are killing all the Luo!” said the Luo who drove the new, sporty, offroad Lexus.

“The Kalenjin are fighting alongside the Luo.  They are killing all the Kikuyu!” said the Kikuyu who was there with his wife but seemed to be flirting rather shamelessly with one or more of the young and pretty female hotel staff.

“Raila is crowning himself the President tomorrow at an illegal rally in Uhuru Park!” said a man who swore he got the news straight from the Pentagon, the name given by the opposition, without any sense of irony, to the six – not five – leaders of their party.

“Kibaki has arrested all the opposition!”  said another man who swore he got the news straight from the outgoing Vice President, who himself, like most of his party, was “trounced” and “floored,” in the words of the local media, in his bid to be reelected to Parliament.

“The police and the army are divided.  It’s war!” said the bartender.

It was the second night of tallying; only half the votes were counted; impatience was turning to anxiety throughout much of Kenya.  The countrywide reaction was similar to that caused by the occasional winter storm in midwest cities like Louisville, places that are hit by a debilitating snowfall every third or fourth year, often enough to expect inconveniences but not often enough, it would seem, to be prepared for those inconveniences.  People started to panic – supermarkets were emptied; gasoline and firewood were stockpiled; windows were shuttered.

At the Lake Bogoria Hotel, we started making our own plans for survival and, if necessary, escape.  We started with a car by car inventory of our supplies.  We had, between the four of us, approximately twenty litres of water.  Two of us had very little food left, having been on the road for almost a week, but the other two had enough to share, having just left home the day before.  We had staples like pasta and peanut butter, and we had luxuries like chocolate, marshmallows, and graham crackers.  We did not have bread, as twice we had been outsmarted by the local vervet monkeys.

Each car had about 500 kilometres worth of fuel, in the tank and in extra jerricans, more than enough to get us home, but in the meantime not enough to allow for any leisurely drives through the nearby national park, famous for its birds – like the lilac-breasted roller, the woodland kingfisher, the grey hornbill, and the hoopoe – and its greater kudu, a very large yet skittish antelope that is hard to see just about everywhere except Lake Bogoria National Park.

One by one, we took our phones and their chargers inside the hotel to recharge their batteries.  We asked the hotel staff to let us know whenever they had any new scratchcards – about the size and style of a lottery ticket, with a window that is scratched clean to reveal a code number which is then dialed into your phone to add minutes to your cellular account – which we then bought in bulk at every opportunity.  One day the hotel was without electricity so we were not able to keep our phones charged; otherwise, we managed to remain in constant communication with our families, and our informants, despite our remote and disconnected location.

On the first night and again on the second night, we asked the hotel staff to collect some firewood, ostensibly for our evening campfire but in reality for a stash we were building in case of any emergency need to drive for temporary safety or for permanent escape into the rocky desert which stretched from where we were camped all the way north into Sudan and Ethiopia.  The wood and other nonessential items too large to be carried on the run in an emergency, like camping equipment, were stored in the far backs of our cars.  In the midsections, we kept useful but dispensible items like clothes and toiletries that we needed or wanted to access regularly while camped at the hotel.  Also in this space were whatever items we had with us that could, if necessary, be used as weapons – a rungu, essentially a small club in the shape of a miniature golf driver, and a panga, or machete.  They were out of the way, but still accessible from the front seat, in an emergency.

IMGP3752In the front of our cars, always accessible, we kept what we called our “grab and go” bags.  These were light, and always ready, containing only our most essential items, those supplies and, crucially, documents we absolutely had to have on our person should we need, for instance at a violent roadblock, to abandon our cars and run for safety.  In these bags we each packed our passports and our money.  We made four copies, one for each of us, of a list that included our names, passport numbers, and telephone numbers in Kenya and in the United States.  We each packed a small one-litre bottle of water and some small snackfood, such as peanuts.  We carried, between us, pocket knives and tools, lighters and matches, iodine pills, headlamps, maps, compasses, a handheld gps unit, and spare batteries.  At all times, we wore light and flexible clothes of the sort you can live and move in for days, fully protected from the sun and wind and rain, yet fully mobile as well.  We were ready to run, if need be.

After provisioning and arranging ourselves, we convened around the camp fire, maps in hand, to discuss likely, and several unlikely, escape routes.

“If there’s a war, it’ll be coming from the south.  Nakuru is already burning.”

“We can’t go west.  They’re killing each other in Eldoret, and it’ll only get worse if Raila loses.”

“And we can’t go east.  Nyeri will explode if Kibaki doesn’t win.”

This left only north, deeper into the lawless desert sahel which Kenya shares with its unruly neighbors: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Somalia.  These borders are so uncharted and theoretical that on many maps they are marked by dashed lines.  Indeed, along some of the more rugged and inaccessible frontiers, the administrative boundary and the geographic boundary do not coincide.  Many of the people who live in this empty hardscrabble land – the Turkana, the Molo, the Omo – have nothing to do with the governments which ostensibly rule them, if they know of these governments at all.  We decided this was a good thing – “if they don’t even know Kenya exists, they probably don’t give a shit who the president is.”

Our emergency plan, then, was to aim for Moyale, on the overland trucking route between Nairobi and Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia.  The planning done, we staked in and hunkered down to wait out the war.

In the end, and despite our melodramatic paranoia, the Lake Bogoria Hotel was not a bad place to outlast a siege.  We were lucky, as we had not planned to be there; angry roadblocks had diverted us turn by turn until late afternoon, at which point we simply aimed for the nearest safe, comfortable, and at least slightly vacationlike destination.  We had been planning to camp deep inside the national park, entirely removed from people and their politics, but, having stopped at the hotel to watch the news, we were swayed by the receptionist, who said, “Just camp here.  We have a pool.”

It was easy to get into a routine; wake with sun, swim, shower in the poolside changing rooms, then go inside for the buffet breakfast and the local and international news, by way of satellite television.  Kenya was the world’s top story, which, we quickly learned, meant that all the major news channels – CNN, BBC, Skynews, Al Jazeera – would be returning to the story at the top of every hour.  We became skilled, like lazy American children with their Nintendo and Playstation consoles, at rapidly surfing the complex remote control interface as we chased any mention of Kenya from one channel to the next.  Our days became a numbing and metronomic back and forth from the pool, for about 45 minutes every hour, to the television, for about 15 minutes.  Very occasionally, the local newschannels had something worthwhile to say, and then we would spend hours at a time immobile in front of the television, only to realize much later that we had not learned anything new at all.  Thankfully, the hotel had a deepfreezer full of ice cream, which we steadily consumed, despite our self-issued directive to save our money in case of an emergency.

On the morning of the fifth day, we decided it was time to try to drive back to Nairobi.  We left early, before sunrise, hoping to put as much road behind us as possible before drunken village mobs emerged to reignite the smoldering tires of yesterday’s roadblocks.  On the long drive out of the hotel’s fenced compound, we picked up the receptionist who had convinced us to camp there.  She was on her way to the nearest town, about 20 kilometres away, where she was planning to take a seat in a police convoy back to Nairobi.  She explained why:

“I am Kikuyu.  I cannot live here anymore.  I cannot work with these people.  The way they look at me, the way they speak to me – I can tell they hate me now.”

We gave her a ride to the junction.  It was our contribution to the ethnic cleansing of Kenya.

“The World Is With Kenya”

January 9, 2008


It is not only the citizens and politicians of Kenya who are fanning the flames of political frustration and ethnic tension throughout much of the country. The election observers, the diplomatic community, and the local and international press also have been complicit in the election fraud and postelection tribal violence that has divided Kenya. Each group has failed to prevent or even sufficiently condemn the rigged results which disenfranchised half the country’s voters.


The voting and tallying was observed by dozens of independent agents from Kenya, from the rest of Africa, from Europe, and from the United States. The European Union, who sent the largest contingent, was seen as the leader of the various observer missions. The head of the EU team, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, typically spoke to the press on behalf of the many missions. His comments were consistently flaccid and meaningless. When it became abundantly clear that the election was being stolen, and by whom and even how, Mr Lambsdorff managed only to say, in uselessly noncommittal language, that the alleged instances of fraud raise doubts about the credibility of the electoral process and that “the electoral process has fallen short of international standards.” Such fraud, he said, should be investigated at a later date by an independent body. Never did he say, firmly and unequivocally, in plain English, what was immediately clear to all: The election results are not credible.


The diplomatic community, in particular the Ambassador of the United States to Kenya Michael Rannenberger, has been equally noncommittal about its criticism of the electoral process. The closest Mr Rannenberger has come to any sort of public censure of the stolen election was when he rescinded his congratulations to the officially announced winner. He is recognizing Mr Mwai Kibaki as the elected President of Kenya, despite the manner in which the presidency was, literally, taken. At the same time, he is referring to Mr Raila Odinga as the opposition, despite the clear reality that the Orange Democratic Movement won all levels of the national election. To the disenfranchised citizens of Kenya, he has said: “No election is worth fighting over.”


Finally, the local and international press reports on the election tallying were so simple and cursory that they were little more than a regurgitation of the fraudulent statistics announced by the Electoral Commission of Kenya. It was pure description, without any sort of investigation or even analysis. Never did any journalist bother to investigate the documented instances of electoral fraud. Never did any reporter bother to interview any of the witnesses to that fraud. Never did any analyst state that there is something statistically unlikely and suspicious about the incumbent’s impossible comeback victory on the last day of tallying. By simply regurgitating the statistics presented by the ECK, the media gave immediate default credence to a falsified version of the election results. Even now, no one is bothering to uncover a more accurate version.


By tacitly allowing a falsified election, the international community is contributing to the disenfranchisement of millions of already frustrated and marginalized Kenyans. The world keeps telling these Kenyans that their grievances should be pursued in the electoral courts rather than on the streets of Nairobi, Kisumu, and Eldoret. This is either naïve or cruel. Surely the world understands that the courts are as biased and rigged as the electoral commission. Surely the world knows what the result of such an inquiry would be. If not, the world is naïve; if so, the world is cruel to refer an aggrieved people to an institution stacked against them.


Unwittingly, the international community is contributing to a devastating sense of powerlessness. Every time a supposedly independent observer stands on television to say that Kenya needs to pursue its grievances legally not violently, Kenya’s belief in justice and democracy diminishes a little more. At the same time, political frustration and ethnic hatred burn a little more from the social fabric of this previously stable and peaceful country. Sadly, and very problematically, it is likely that tomorrow’s battles are being planted in today’s hopelessness.


In 1959, much of the Tutsi population of independent Rwanda was expelled from the country. Many of them fled to neighboring Uganda, where, decades later, a second generation of refugees organized itself into the militarized Rwanda Patriotic Front. They invaded their home country in 1990. Four years later, in 1994, the Hutu majority responded with a genocide that killed nearly a million Tutsi. It may take time, maybe even decades, but ethnic frustration always resurfaces, often explosively.