Thursday, May 12, 2016

Random Notes on Africa

I'm reading The Rift: a New Africa Breaks Free by Alex Perry, an American-born, British-educated journalist whose bio says he has "reported on more than 35 wars." It's a rather strange book. The introduction and the conclusion are full of optimism about Africa, but in between is a compendium of reportage from the 2002 to 2014 period that mainly focuses on crisis zones. Many of these stories are terrible, some almost unbearable. There is a sort of message, which is that while things in Africa can be pretty awful, part of the reason they are so awful is the misguided efforts of outsiders to "help." Perry is angry and disgusted with both Africa's homegrown villains and the wicked or foolish westerners determined to make things better whether Africans want it or not.

Remember the civil war in Mali? After the fall of Qaddafi in Libya, the story went, a bunch of his former soldiers went south to Mali and helped the desert Tuareg and Islamists from AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) rebel, creating a huge Saharan state and threatening the populated core of the country. Then the French intervened, the Islamists quickly faded back to the desert, and order was restored. What you probably have not heard – I never heard it, anyway – is that both the "Islamists" and the "government" were actually mainly fighting over the profits of drug smuggling. Gangsters had been flying 727-loads of cocaine from South America to Mali and then either distributing it among dozens of "mules" headed for Europe or loading it onto convoys 4x4 trucks that crossed the Sahara on the ancient caravan routes to Algeria. Both the army of Mali and AQIM were at the time mostly funded by drug profits. At various times both would pretend to be against the trade and launch anti-corruption crusades, but it was all show. For example, the government once "arrested" the senior general who was in charge of their smuggling operation, but his "prison" was a luxurious villa within the presidential compound in the capital. For the past two few years we have had comparative peace because both sides are sticking to their agreements over the division of the spoils; when you hear about peace talks, one local tells Perry, "it's not a political thing, it's two cartels doing a business deal. They just put a political hat on it."

Perry has spent a lot of time covering the civil war in eastern Congo, which grew out of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Perry's favorite African leader is Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda. It was Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front that put an end to the genocide (with semi-secret help from the CIA and others), and just 15 years later Rwanda was one of Africa's success stories. To Perry, Kagame is exactly the kind of leader Africa needs: incorruptible, forward-thinking, determined to make his nation independent of outside assistance. So, of course, westerners keep accusing him of crimes against humanity. Not that Kagame is any sort of saint, but as Perry points out what he has done is only what any western leader would have done. After the RPF drove the genocidal militias out of Rwanda they crossed to Congo. There the UN and others set up a chain of refugee camps for the murderers and their families. Those refugee camps were soon taken over by Interhamwe, an organization led by the organizers of the genocide, and Interhamwe then began launching attacks on Rwanda. So Kagame attacked the refugee camps. What was he supposed to do? If this led to the near complete collapse of government in eastern Congo, and a bloody civil war, was that his fault, or that of the entirely hopeless government of Congo?

The outside world responded by setting up MONUSCO, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perry is at his best in describing the bizarre uselessness of UN "peacekeepers," who mostly stay inside their air-conditioned trailers, inside their compounds, sending reports home via satellite hookups, next to posters saying things like WE ARE HERE FOR THE PEOPLE. Actually the people are kept outside these safe compounds by massive barriers of razor wire; only UN employees are allowed into these safe zones. At the height of the mission there were 17,000 UN soldiers in the Congo, outnumbering the biggest non-UN fighting force in the region 4:1. Their budget was $1.5 billion a year, while the various armed factions managed to scrape together perhaps a few hundred thousand selling coltan and diamonds. Yet the UN did nothing to stop the violence. In one of Perry's most surreal stories, a rebel commander decides that he really wants to drive a UN base out of his district but doesn't want to assault their razor wire. So he takes a bunch of hostages and starts to behead them one at a time right outside the UN's gates, thinking that surely they will have to emerge and try to stop him. He underestimated their lethargy; his men ran out of heads before a single UN soldier or even a messenger emerged from their compound. And this:
Two months later, with the M23 rebels still on the outskirts of Goma, the UN peacekeepers in eastern Congo finally took decisive action. They fled.

An M23 tank fired a single shell into Goma. Around 1,000 guerrillas began advancing on the city. The UN immediately abandoned the civilian population, retreating in convoys of trucks back inside their bases or moving clean outside the city. The rebels took Goma that afternoon without a shot. By the evening, crowds were gathering in front of UN bases, demanding that those peacekeepers who had not left do so forthwith. 'You could not defend us,' shouted Amani Muchumu, 18. 'You are useless. You are dismissed.'
Perry also has a field day with the way western aid groups routinely exaggerate the human suffering these wars involved. According to the International Rescue Commission, the civil war in eastern Congo claimed 5.4 million lives; according to the US military, it was more like 40,000. After one Rwandan attack into Congo,
The UN said Rwanda's actions had displaced 53,000 people. Oxfam's Congo director, Elodie Martel, made that 500,000, and on Twitter Oxfam said the figure was '2 milion +'.
Aid groups, Perry argues, need African catastrophes to raise money, so when none are handy they simply invent them.

Here is Perry on why South Africa's ANC has had so much trouble transitioning from rebel movement to governing party:
Freedom fighters fought the law. Under an oppressive state, breaking the law was freedom. It was freeing your mind and snatching back your authority. And if you were breaking the law, why not work with the experts? In its fight with apartheid, the ANC, and its Durban branch in particular, had worked in close alliance with black organized crime.

The problems began once the Struggle was over. Once they were the law, many of Africa's freedom fighters saw no reason to stop breaking it. It was who they were, after all; free thinkers and revolutionaries, righteously radical entrepreneurs who took what they wanted and, in that act, found their liberation. It was a mindset well suited to rebellion, but it made for horrible rulers. Once in power, numerous ANC revolutionaries who had fought to better themselves made sure they did, helping themselves to state finances, often in alliance with their old criminal friends. With power so lucrative and used so unscrupulously, comrades were soon killing each other over housing deals or government contracts or simply because they thought it was their turn.

This was the paradox of liberation and democracy, said [former ANC operative] Sifiso. The ANC may have fought for democracy. But to do so effectively, it had had to become profoundly undemocratic. The Struggle had required discipline, hierarchy and a willingness to safeguard the movement above all else. When it took power in 1994, the ANC should have adjusted. "But we did not," said Sifiso. "We did not deliver to the people. We continued to deliver only to ourselves."
As Perry notes, more than 16,000 people are murdered in South Africa each year, ten times the death toll of the civil wars in Somalia that get so much American attention.

South Africa's ANC leaders may have enriched themselves, but they are amateurs at theft compared to the insane kleptocracy of Nigeria. The great majority of the billions foreign companies pay for Nigeria's oil is simply stolen by Nigeria's leaders. In the early 2000s, when the price of oil was high, the Nigerian elite was sending more money out of Africa to their own foreign bank accounts than all the aid flowing into Africa from the outside put together. Frustrated people sometimes fought back against their robber princes, but most of these uprisings were quickly crushed. The exception is the revolt led by Boko Haram, who have made themselves famous by embracing violence as a creed, staging stunts like the April, 2014 abduction of 276 schoolgirls. This kidnapping led to a worldwide outcry, symbolized by the tag #BringBackOurGirls. Americans who rushed in to help were astonished to find that the government of Nigeria seemed not to care:
For close to three weeks after the girls first went missing, the government had appeared not to even notice. It then claimed that they had been set free, then said al-Qaeda was to blame. After that President Goodluck Jonathan's wife Patience accused the girls' parents of inventing the whole affair to embarrass her husband; then had one of the #BringBackOurGirls organizers arrested; then told people not to criticize Jonathan since his presidency was the work of God; then, to press her point, went on live television to evoke God's presence, wailing, "There is God-o!" over and over. The President's office later displayed same sensitivity when it claimed, falsely, that it had a peace deal with Boko Haram, before going on to announce that the slogan for the President's re-election campaign would be #BringBackJonathan.
And so it goes.

In the final section Perry returns to the optimism with which he started. He marvels at Africa's cell phone boom, which was followed by booms in writing cell-phone apps and then a whole system of cell phone banks. Africa went in a decade from having almost no retail banks to being years ahead of the west in mobile banking and payment systems. Perry also talks to people setting up commodities markets and commercial farms and all sorts of business successes. And the one thing all these activities have in common, he says, is that they are not funded with western aid.

1 comment:

Susi said...

Former student we know went to South Africa to teach. Most day he was the only teacher to show up, except on paydays. The other teachers tried everything the could to co-opt him. He left, disgusted with the horrendous corruption, but with optimism that the people would eventually find a way out of this mess.
Remember Tammany Hall, etc. We went through our messes, though, from here they don't look as bad.