Who will stop khartoum?

It appears that the war between north and south Sudan is inevitable. The north overran the disputed town of Abyei last week and now is angling to take over two border states. The Times reports:

Now, according to a letter from the Sudanese military’s high command, the northern army, in the next few days, plans to take over Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states, two disputed areas with a long history of conflict that are still bristling with arms.

Analysts, local leaders and Western diplomats fear that if the northern army carries through on its threat to push out or forcibly disarm the thousands of fighters allied to the south in these two areas, it could set off a much bigger clash between the northern and southern armies, who have been building up their arsenals for years in anticipation of war.

Malik Agar, Blue Nile’s governor, said Sunday night that northern forces had recently moved “dangerously close” to the bases of southern-allied fighters and that he didn’t think the southern-allied forces would surrender.

A part of me still thinks that Bashir’s sabre-rattling is designed for the northern public. After all he will go down in history as the president who lost the south. In order to avoid immediate ouster he must, at least, pretend to put up a fight. My other side, however, thinks that Bashir (and his generals) might actually want war. Oil and water are on the line.

So how can a war be avoided?

Right now everyone appears to be looking in the direction of the UN for help. But the UN is busy putting out fires elsewhere, not least in Darfur where Khartoum’s forces keep firing at UN helicopters.

That Khartoum would let the south go peacefully was always a long shot. Many analysts had predicted that the north would either finance mini-rebellions in the south or go for a full blown war. It appears that Khartoum is going for both.

South Sudan does not need this war. The whole country has less than 200 Kilometres of paved road, among other mind-boggling underdevelopment records. Its human capital development is lagging behind the regional average by decades. A sustained war would take away vital resources from much needed development work.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Many a time I have lamented at Africa’s lack of a regional hegemon. A hegemon that would take the mantle of regional conscience and policeman. A regional power that would put out fires even when the UN and the global powers that be were too busy (like they are now) or just plain indifferent (remember the mid-1990s?).

If it occurs the north-south war will be bloody and dirty (read land mines, more child soldiers, crimes-against-humanity tactics). As many as hundreds of thousands of people could die. Millions will be affected. It will also mean more light arms in an already volatile region, not to mention potential for spillovers into ongoing insurgencies in The DRC, Chad, Uganda and Ethiopia. Who will stop Omar al-Bashir and his generals?

 

three cheers to gettleman and his ilk

I am on record as being very critical of Jeffrey Gettleman, the New York Times bureau chief for eastern Africa. His sensational reporting from the region has oftentimes painted a one dimensional picture of events and portrayed east Africans as irrational and passive beings at the mercy of fate, and their sadistic rulers. That said, Mr. Gettleman and others who share in his bravery remain the only sources of somewhat credible news reports from  crazy places such as Somalia and eastern DR Congo. Listening to him on Fresh Air today reminded me that even though I may not agree with his presentation style, Mr. Gettleman is doing a brave job of reminding the world of the many evils that still define some people’s lived reality.

jeffrey gettleman is back

Texas in Africa has a piece on Gettleman’s style of journalism. Mr. Gettleman is of course not new to this type of criticism. I have voiced my opinion on his reporting style a few times before.

This is not an argument for the mis-representation of the goings on on the Continent. (By all means tell us who is starving and is under incredible disease burden or being killed in a civil conflict). It is an argument for respectful reporting of the suffering of other people. This sort of sensationalism that you often see on the front pages of major newspapers does more harm than good.

And about Kristof. He should know better. I guess it must feel great to walk into a conflict zone ridden with poverty and get the reception of a rock star such as what Kristof got in Goma.

The line between helping the needy and this sort of vulgar self-gratification can be thinly thin sometimes.

the drc: the fire continues to consume lives unabated

In the recent past the Niger coup, the return of the ailing Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua from a hospital in Saudi Arabia and the supposed peace deal between Khartoum and the Darfuris have stolen most headlines on the Continent.

But let us not forget that the eastern reaches of the DRC still approximate a war zone, to put it mildly. The ineffectual government in the opposite side of the country in Kinshasa still lacks the capacity to provide any amount of security to its citizens in the east. Makes you wonder why the DRC still survives as a single sovereign state.

The number of actual dead in the bloody civil conflict that begun with Kabila’s match towards Kinshasa in 1998 is sort of debatable – ranging from a low of just over 2 million to a high of 5.4 million, pick your number. Really, does it matter that only 2 million human beings instead of 5 million have so far died in the conflict? At this point should the numbers even matter?.

So let us not lose perspective here. Even by conservative estimates more than 2 million lives have been lost. Millions of children continue to stay out of school (with grave long-term consequences for the security and economy of the region). And those that benefit from the conflict – the generals and arms and mineral smugglers – continue to do so with impunity. There is also no question that international big business is either directly or indirectly bankrolling the conflict (check out the more detailed report from Global Witness here). Hillary Clinton’s visit last year to Goma highlighted the unbearably gruesome existence of those (especially women and children) who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in a war zone. Everyone who matters in the country and region know these facts. So the big question is: What will it take to change people’s approach to this conflict? Why isn’t more being done?

africa’s endless conflicts

The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman has a thought-provoking piece in Foreign Policy. I don’t particularly buy his doomsday analysis (most of the Continent will definitely not head the Somalia way) but his characterization of the modern day African rebel movement is spot on. The typical rebel leader on the Continent is nothing but a roving bandit with huge amounts of ideology deficit.

please do away with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung”

Big business and economic development in “pristine lands” is awful. Especially if you grew up with the comforts of indoor plumbing and general over-abundance of the purest hedonistic-capitalist kind. It is only when you have the choice to pop in and out of “tropical obscurity” that you would find the intellectual courage to defend a way of life that is just above that of man circa 1750 A.D. Suddenly you find yourself forgetting the basic fact that it is underdevelopment that makes infant mortality, HIV infection rates, gender inequality and a whole lot of other maladies most acute in your presumed tropical paradise.

I am beginning to read things to the effect that the development of a port in Lamu (Kenya) is bad – both for the environment and the local people and their culture. I don’t buy most of the stuff though. The likes of Gettleman want us to believe that people in places like Lamu are inherently anti-development. According to him the people of Lamu “say they are not especially well suited for the mechanized world.” Good for them. They would much rather live with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung” than have a modern port constructed in their district. This is total horse manure.

Firstly, the environmental costs of having a modern port in Lamu will surely be outweighed by the socio-economic benefits. Oil exports from Uganda and Southern Sudan, among other trading opportunities in the wider region will surely create jobs in the area. Secondly, why should we assume that exposure of Lamu culture to the wider (albeit still not completely apparent) Kenyan Culture is necessarily bad? Aren’t cultures supposed to change with time? Plus if Lamu culture cannot keep up after such an encounter it should be allowed to go the way of the dodo. That is why we build museums.

If it can be done – as it should – the construction of Kenya’s second port in Lamu should be a foregone conclusion. The Kenyan government should make this crystal clear to all the environmentalists and anthropologists concerned.

the democratic republic of congo, what a mess

The Democratic Republic of Congo is in a deep hole. And it is not just because its president, the younger Kabila, wants to extend presidential terms by 2 years and then may be abolish term limits, at least according to the Economist.  It is primarily because almost everyone in the country seems to have incentives to keep the war in the east raging on – well, everyone except the civilians on the ground. The New York Times reports that an upcoming UN Report will implicate bigwigs in the Congolese army of colluding with rebels in the east to profit from illegal mineral exports, among other commodities. FDLR, the rebel outfit which has among its ranks remnants of the genocidal Intarahamwe from Rwanda, is among the chief beneficiaries.

Quoting the Times:

There is ….. creeping warlordism. Local army commanders are taxing timber, charcoal, tomatoes, anything that passes through their roadblocks, making $250,000 a month, the report said. Commanders are even conscripting civilians to haul wood through the forest, reminiscent of the Belgian colonial days when pith-helmeted officers whipped Congolese porters with hippopotamus hide.”

The Congo conflict is more than anything else an economic conflict. It will only stop when those profiting from it come to their senses (I don’t know what will prompt this if 5 million deaths and counting can’t do the trick). And the web of war-profiteers  is huge.

Meanwhile in Zambia, it’s everything goes like it is still 1991. A section of donors have suspended aid to the health ministry because $ 2.1 million went missing (“more than 100,000 Zambians die every year from malaria and HIV/AIDS”– Economist). The government is reluctant to fight corruption. Mr. Rupiah Banda, the current president, seems bent on becoming the new Frederick Chiluba – the kleptocrat who ruled Zambia for ten years. Things never change.

Defending Nairobi

The New York Times has a story on the security situation in Nairobi. In the interest of full disclosure, Nairobi is my home town. I was there this summer and would like to point out – just for the record – that although Nairobi may not be the safest place in the world, it is not the most dangerous city in the world either. The city has 4 million people, give or take. Income inequality is off the charts. The city’s economy cannot provide enough jobs for its youth, most of whom do not spend enough time in school and therefore resort to petty theft to earn a living. This summer there was a wave of kidnappings. Some were by real criminals. At least one that got exposed was by a young woman trying to get money from her father by pretending that she was kidnapped.The Nairobi city council is run by a bunch of clowns.

I agree with Gettleman that the incidence of crime in Nairobi is way too high. That said, Nairobi is not Jo’burg or Kabul. It is still very much a live-able city – as evidenced by the many NGOs and UN agencies that have set up shop in there.

gettleman does it again

Do not get me wrong. Jeffrey Gettleman’s story on the famine in Kenya is as important as any other article on a humanitarian disaster. It is his delivery that sucks. In typical Gettleman fashion (more about his style here and here), the article is full of sensationalism that does not belong in the Times. He goes way out of his way to depict all Kenyans as hapless, passive victims of the weather and their ineffectual government.

“The aid community here has been predicting a disaster for months, saying that the rains had failed once again and that this could be the worst drought in more than a decade. But the Kenyan government, paralyzed by infighting and political maneuvering, seemed to shrug off the warnings.”

Lines such as these are meant to convey the message that ordinary Kenyans – meteorologists and even some civil society organizations or even the Kenyan media – have had nothing to say about the famine that is affecting the country. It is the do-gooder foreigners who know it all that have warned the intransigent government. It is the same foreigners who are expected to send in food aid to help the dying Kenyans. Nothing is ever said about local initiatives to mitigate the disaster. That would give agency to Kenyans, and nobody really wants to read about that.

Instead we are told that “Turkana men are abandoning families, simply vanishing into the desert because they cannot face the shame of being unable to feed their children.” And the story would not be complete without the mention of tribal conflict. So even though it is obvious, and quite rational, that in times of acute scarcity there would be conflict over resources – and even Mr. Gettleman acknowledges this – there is still subliminal hints to an irrational ethnic conflict between the Turkana and the Pokot. Again, nobody wants to hear about rational people fighting over resources. No, being in northern Kenya is like “stepping back in time.” The place is full of starving people who engage in irrational tribal wars. This is the much more sexier story.

May be I am holding Gettleman to too high a standard. After all he is an American lacking enough knowledge of local conditions to appreciate the nuances involved even in the midst of such disasters. But he is the Times’ bureau chief and because of that people take what he writes seriously. There must be a more humane way of telling the world about the problems afflicting the inhabitants of the arid and semi arid parts of Kenya.

can we please end the nonsensical sensationalism

“He stood in front of a burned-out vegetable market, wielding a rusty machete and wearing blue toenail polish.” Gettleman, The New York Times.

I am a regular reader of articles by Jeffrey Gettleman, the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times. I read his articles because most of the time they are the only coherent on the ground reporting that come out of places like the remote parts of Eastern DRC and East Africa in general.

But I have a slight problem with Mr. Gettleman. I have noticed a consistent pattern in his reporting that is kind of disturbing. He seems to always be willing to go out of his way to over-dramatize whatever he is reporting about. For instance, the above details – the “blue toenail polish” and what not – do not belong in the pages of the New Yorks Times but on some creative writing novel. When we read reports on soldiers from elsewhere, we never hear about their tattoos or body piercings or anything. I therefore get a bit disturbed when I see a consistent pattern on Mr. Gettleman’s part to portray combatants in African conflicts as somewhat other-worldly.

The other day I watched a video for  a class in which the same gentleman had the guts to say that the era of Belgian colonization represented “more prosperous times” for the Congo. What does he mean? Who are his editors? Does he know what the Belgians did to the Congo? I am sure he does. He must be a smart man to have been able to rise to the position of bureau chief. So this was either a slip or a deliberate attempt to hype the problems facing the DRC.

Do not get me wrong. I am not trying to advocate for restrictions on reporting. I am all for free press. But I also think that the press has a responsibility and a duty to desist from consistently portraying a particular group of people as irrational and crazy. Unfortunately, I feel that most of Mr. Gettleman’s pieces have had this rather distasteful feel to them.