Mobile revolution in the Middle East

 
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By Christian Nielsen

“You won’t fool the children of the revolution.” Especially not if they’re Twittering away on their mobile phones.

Friday 18 March 2011

What started as a mobile-mediated youth movement has evolved into revolution and probably even war. The revolutionary wave hitting the Middle East and North Africa comes as no huge surprise to some scholars who predicted that the power of new media and instant communications would catch out unwary dictators and undemocratic governments everywhere.

In an article entitled ‘The blog versus big brother: new and old information technology and political repression (1980-2006)’, which recently appeared in the International Journal of Human Rights, the authors suggest that new technology features prominently in the current wave of globalisation which appears to be manifesting in widespread discontent, particularly among tech-savvy youth.

The authors, Indra de Soysa, director of globalisation research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and his colleague Lucia Liste Muoz, suggest that reliable information and free communication are something of a lifeline for fledgling opposition movements.

The authors note: “Sceptics of globalisation suggest that the new technology will hamstring governments from acting in the interests of ordinary people and for furthering communitarian values, leading to demobilisation of reform movements and empowering powerful capitalistic elites.”

Yet others, the authors continue, suggest that new technologies empower people at the expense of states, paving the way “for diversity of opinions and constraining the repressive tendencies of states and bureaucracies”.

Their December 2010 article – appearing rather forebodingly just weeks before the Middle-East/North Africa winter of discontent kicked off – appears to build on a 2009 paper by the same authors under the title ‘The blog versus big brother: information and communication technologies and human rights (1980-2005)’.

“TV is especially bad for human rights,” declares de Soysa in a statement, “because the government can feed propaganda to the population.” Evidence of which can be plainly seen in Libya today, as the world media are being harassed, obstructed and, according to some reports, even abducted by pro-government henchmen. Meanwhile Colonel Muammar Gaddafi maintains his defiant – many would argue delusional (see the Chronikler’s Defiantly delusional) – stand using traditional media like TV to misinform citizens.

Last week, as the country seemed to the rest of the world to be in the grips of full-scale civil war, a Libyan army captain said on Libyan state TV that security in rebel areas is at about 95%. “There are some rats that could be lying in some alleys and inside some flats. We are capturing them one group after the other,” he said. See Gaddafi in action on Turkish TV (BBC).

Young, sceptical and not into TV

That younger generations are turning away from traditional media (or “old technology”) like television in its basic form is well documented (check out the Nielsen report ‘Young people don’t watch TV on TV’). But what we are seeing, anecdotally at least, is that they are also increasingly sceptical about the one-way, lecturing approach to traditional media like TV. This is particularly true of countries where the media is state dominated, censored, or in dictatorships like Libya, just plain mouthpieces for the corrupt state to keep its people down.

So, this is really where the new technologies, especially mobiles and social media platforms, really shake the cage of dictators and questionable democracies. The internet and mobile phones make it harder for despotic leadership to feed the whole population with the necessary propaganda to prop it up. And social media also gives people access to information which might otherwise be censored or blocked on the internet (think China).

Technology as freedom fighter

In Egypt, for example, where a Google employee mobilised so many people in such a short time, social media really showed its potential as a political tool – a force for participatory democracy in some pure form.

Indra de Soysa points to the many eyewitnesses who sent pictures from mobile phones to media organisations like al-Jazeera, the BBC and CNN. “The authorities can no longer get away with attacking their own people. In Burma, the authorities can still shoot a man in the street, and get away with it. But there are beginning to be fewer and fewer countries where that is still the case,” he notes.

In Africa, mobile phones are spreading rapidly which also means that Africans will be connected to the world in a completely different way than before. “The world is becoming flatter because people communicate horizontally,” he adds.

Saddam first

De Soysa puts the current wave of enthusiasm for democracy and freedom in the context of globalisation and the way communications have changed in just a decade. The youth today, he suggests, perceive themselves as citizens of the world – no longer believing that old men should dictate how they should live. De Soysa suggests Tunisia and Egypt were not freak events: the start of the latest wave of revolutionary unrest in the Middle East and North Africa began with the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he believes.

“The human cost was high, and many died. But it was an important symbol that encouraged people in other repressive regimes to believe that it is possible to get rid of a dictator,” he notes.

“I would not say that George Bush should get the Peace Prize, but in retrospect this was a very important event in initiating the change that is now rolling across the Middle East.”

That’s one way of looking at it. Another way is to take Marc Bolan’s advice: “you won’t fool the children of the revolution”… not anymore that is! If Bush helped at all, it was showing younger generations how wrong the old boys with their old technology got it.

 

This article is published here with the author’s consent. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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Defiantly delusional

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Muammar Gaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have something in common: delusions of grandeur that keep them desperately holding on to the reins of power.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

History remembers the likes of Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle somewhat fondly for their jingoistic rhetoric and their, well, dogged outlook in the face of adversity. But the sort of defiance we see from the Muburaks, Mugabes, Gaddafis and, closer to home, Berlusconis and Putins of this world will get less generous treatment in the annals.

But what do these admonished leaders have in common that can be added to the world compendium of bad leaders – a must-read for opposition parties in countries striving for democratic legitimacy? Take Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi for a telling case of two ageing leaders who do everything and anything to maintain their grip on power.

Indeed, their rise to power tells us as much about the men as their antics to keep it. Today they have the misfortune of sharing more in common than any other two world leaders in the news. And the kinship goes way beyond their defiant stand in the face of popular unrest and the obvious colonial connection between their countries.

Gaddafi and Berlusconi are indubitably the most egocentric, obdurate, corrupt, eccentric, vainglorious and conspicuously rich leaders on the planet. These two are clearly cut from the same shroud – they like to think of themselves as the second coming for their respective peoples.

And so it is today that they now face a common dilemma: meet demands to cede power and face the ramifications (legal or otherwise) of their actions, or go down fighting to the last hair plug.

Let’s look more closely at these two characters to understand how their people came to burdened with them.

A military man, the young Gaddafi took control of the country in 1969 following a bloodless coup which sent Libya’s monarch packing. After seizing power, he took a populist approach in an attempt to win over Libyan hearts and minds among the many tribal factions. His pan-Arab, anti-imperialist agenda subsumed elements of Islam along with a more Western mercantile mentality – he allowed small-scale entrepreneurship, but kept control of larger, strategically important companies, including oil-related and media businesses.

Among his famed eccentricities, Gaddafi sleeps in a Bedouin tent guarded by female bodyguards on trips abroad. The international journalist John Simpson once implied that the Colonel would pass wind as freely as he would opinions on the ills of Western society.

His record of ruthlessly crushing dissent and repressing civil society was well established long before any of the actions he has been accused of ordering during the February 2011 people’s revolution. His attempts to rally Arab states to band together in dealing with regional issues were generally rebuffed, so he turned his attention towards pan-Africanism, later influencing the creation of the African Union.

A reflection of these extreme views can be seen in his now-acknowledged sponsorship of terrorism, including his alleged ordering of the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.

Ever the unpredictable, his antics have gained him (un)welcomed media attention during his four-decade rule, including such recent exploits as staging a hero’s ‘welcome home’ party for Abdel-Baset al-Megrahi, the Libyan convicted of masterminding the Lockerbie bombing, who was released on ‘medical grounds’; a grand-standing one-hour lecture to the UN on all the ills of the world system; and inviting young Italian women during an official trip to the country to convert to Islam – a gesture he thought would help to cement ties between Tripoli and Rome!

The subject of women leads us neatly on to Silvio Berlusconi, whose now infamous ‘bunga bunga’ parties, involving scores of women as captive audience for his crooning and swooning evenings, were reportedly inspired by Gaddafi’s penchant for travelling ‘en harem’. Speculation is rife where the term comes from – with no apparent Arabic roots, some suggest it came via an old joke about three Westerners being forced to choose between death and bunga bunga, only to discover if they chose bunga bunga that their fate would be “death by bunga bunga!”

But the latest scandal surrounding the mercurial Berlusconi won’t go away so easily. Hundreds of thousands of Italians (spurred on by women’s movements) took to the streets earlier this year to protest against their leader’s intransigence. Italians, who arguably freely elected the man ( his control of the nation’s limited media offering make fair elections unlikely), are finally speaking out, and they are saying “enough is enough”.

And the judiciary might also finally get its chance to catch the playboy politician out. He is currently facing charges of abusing his power in attempts to hide his involvement with a young Moroccan club dancer called Karima Keyek – aka Ruby Rubacuori the ‘heart stealer’.

Italian prosecutors allege that upon learning that Keyek was being held by Italian police on possible theft charges, he used his influence to get her out. Alas Berlusconi remains typically defiant – yes, that word again – denying the charges as “disgusting” and “groundless”. The trial will begin on 6 April.

The Economist takes some pleasure in reporting the antics of “slippery Silvio”, as they’ve called him, and the mysteries of Italian politics. Back in December 2004, following his acquittal on charges of bribing judges, the weekly magazine wrote:

“There is no point debating if the prime minister of Italy might have bribed judges. But the party he leads was created by a friend who was in league with the Sicilian Mafia. That, in its shocking essence, is what two Italian courts decided last weekend. They were giving two separate judgments, one on Silvio Berlusconi and the other on Marcello Dell’Utri, once head of Publitalia, the cash generator in Mr Berlusconi’s media empire, and the man who conjured up his party, Forza Italia, in 1994.”

As recently as January 2011, under the title ‘A party animal’ The Economist took another swipe at the Teflon-PM: “The solution to this crisis that might suggest itself in most other countries was flatly ruled out by the prime minister on January 18th. ‘Resign?’ he asked journalists. ‘Are you mad?’ Once again, he seems bent on facing down claims that would persuade most normal public figures that the time had come for retirement, perhaps to a monastery.”

This article triggered a flurry of readers’ letters. One – by Nevios, presumably an Italian commentator  – underscored the strengthening case that leaders driven by megalomania can easily slip into dictatorial behaviour in an attempt to hold onto power with the sort of defiance (of the facts on the ground) that only the delusional could entertain.

Nevios writes:

“I am thunderstruck by Berlusconi’s ability to deny and repel every [bit of] blame he receives by half the world. He stresses his innocence and moral purity and behaves as though everything were going just perfectly! He is becoming more and more like a dictator, covering up every misdeed that concerns him, limiting the freedom of the press… This is why I thank The Economist, and the foreign newspapers in general, which informs [sic] us objectively and thoroughly about what is going on in Italy.”

In a decade or two from now, how will the world remember the defiant posturing of Berlusconi, Gaddafi and their ilk? Or will we have so many new dictators that the class of 2011 will become a footnote in the annals of delusional leaders?

 

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Christian Nielsen. All rights reserved.

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The Jasmine Revolution

 
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By Osama Diab

Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region.

1 February 2011

Analysts and experts never cease to analyse the sociopolitical nature of the Arab world. Especially since 9/11, most have set their expectations low and been cynical about any social or political change taking place in the land of strongmen and dictatorial power. We, Middle Easterners, have been accused of being passive, unable to mobilise, and unwilling to fight for our rights.

After blowing all over the globe, the long-awaited winds of political change have decided to finally visit the Middle East. North African countries have in the past few years seen a large number of riots, sit-ins, strikes and demonstrations to protest low wages and the high cost of living, but a ruthless police state has always stopped these outcries of anger and frustration from developing into a popular revolution ousting a regime from power. Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution on 14 January  2011 marked the first successful attempt to overthrow a dictator by a popular revolution. And it took place in a country that was thought to be one of the most stable in a region where autocracy was believed to be deep-rooted and nearly impossible to abolish.

The people of Tunisia proved us all wrong by forcing dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali out in a way unprecedented in the Arab world. The only way an Arab dictator would take his suitcase and escape his own country used to be through a military coup, until a few days ago, thanks to the people of Tunisia.

But what does that mean to neighboring countries like Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt? No one can claim it will have no impact, because it already has. At least four people have self-immolated in Egypt out of desperation, which is how it all started in Tunisia when Mohamed Bouazizi burnt himself to death sparking non-stop riots for three weeks to protest against deteriorating living conditions and high unemployment. Riots have erupted in Yemen, Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Algeria since Tunisia’s uprising.

Democracy, like authoritarianism, is contagious. It is hard to find a standalone democracy surrounded by dictatorships, or vice versa. In the Autumn of Nations in 1989, a few Eastern European countries overthrew their communist regimes, which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the collapse of many communist regimes in the region after that. Communism was not hurt just in Eastern Europe, but in many countries all over the world following the Soviet Union’s collapse. Another major ripple effect was Latin America’s serious steps towards democracy over the past three decades in a fashion rarely seen in the developing world. If real democracy takes hold in Tunisia, it will increase the chances of it happening elsewhere close by.

However, it’s hard to predict the extent of the effect on neighbouring countries because, even though they belong to the same region and share a lot in common, every country still has a different economic, social and political nature. Copying and pasting a Tunisian scenario in Egypt, Libya, Algeria or Morocco is unlikely to happen. However, North Africa now seems well prepared and more ready than ever to dispose of its authoritarian regimes and gradually start a new era of people’s empowerment due to a steady increase of dissidence and a growing political momentum in some of these countries, in reaction to dire economic situations, high levels of corruption and worsening human rights conditions.

Even though Tunisia’s revolution might not be replicated, it will still bring many benefits to the people of neighbouring countries.

Firstly, it acts as a clear warning message to authoritarian regimes that over-relying on security apparatuses to remain in power with no popular support is unsustainable. It also conveys the message that the economic and political rights of the masses must be dealt with, and cannot be silenced by a heavy hand.

Secondly, it ends the myth that Islamists are the only groups capable of toppling regimes in this region – an idea established after the Iranian revolution and the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, one that has been used by secular dictatorships in the North African region as a scare tactic to win the West’s support. The idea is simple: imposed secular authoritarianism has been for long preferred over an elected Islamic regime by the world’s superpowers. Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once stated that the United States has long favoured stability over democracy in the Middle East and ended up achieving neither.

It also implies that the way for a government to gain legitimacy is from its own people rather than by allying with superpowers, as they all turned their back on Ben Ali after he was overthrown by his people. France, his biggest former ally, has refused to grant him asylum. Many regimes relied solely on their alliance with Western superpowers at the expense of their own people. This might no longer be a good bargain for Arab dictators.

Whether or not we will see the fall of one North African regime after the other is hard to predict and not guaranteed, but the good news is that Tunisia’s revolution will spread the scent of its jasmine to oppressed nations all over the region, inspiring and empowering people in their fight against unjust regimes.

This article was first published by Worldpress.org on 31 January 2011. Republished here with the author’s consent. ©Osama Diab.

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The mother of all clashes

 
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By Osama Diab 

It’s true that football divides Egyptians today, but it also, paradoxically, unites them on so many other levels.

30 December 2010

Today, once again, Egypt will be divided, but this time not based on sectarian tension between Muslims and Copts or political rivalry between the government and the opposition, but between supporters of Ahly and Zamalek, Cairo’s arch-rival football clubs. People in Egypt take their football seriously, especially when the clash is between Egypt’s and Africa’s most successful football sides 

Even though this pugnacity rarely gets violent, it is commonplace on the derby day for fans of both clubs to avoid watching the game with supporters of the opposite side. Even the one family is divided on that football festival. Ahly fans in the living room, while the odd Zamalek fan would watch it with his fellow Zamalkaweya in some street cafe while sucking on a shisha to keep the stress level under control. It’s also common for the fans to verbally harass the enemies a few hours before the battle breaks out. 

But among all this harmless hostility on the day of this Cairo derby, there is also a very positive aspect to it, which is the disappearance of all the forces that divides the people of one nation. Unlike in Scotland, where club affiliation is highly decided by religion and politics, in Egypt, it is not based on either religion, social class, race, and not even geography. An Ahly fan could be a Copt or Muslim, rich or poor, from the very north of the country in Alexandria or from its south in Aswan, old or young, male or female and the same applies to Zamalek fans. On that day, you can see a Coptic and a Muslim teaming up against another Muslim just because of their love for the same club, or an upper class teenage girl screaming in joy at the same time as a binman when their club scores a goal.

 Al-Ahly (Arabic for national) traditionally has been described as “the club of the people” as opposed to al-Zamalek which was founded by a Belgian expatriate and was later endorsed by the late King Faruk and even named after him for a few years. Al-Ahly, instead, was founded by a group of Egyptian elites. However, after the 1952 revolution, both clubs were nationalised and fell prey to governmental control narrowing any disparity between them or their identity. Since then, the reds and the whites have dominated the Egyptian football scene, and even though al-Ahly managed to attract a larger fan base, the demographics of their supporters became very similar.

Some Zamalek fans still pride themselves on being fans of the “royal club” due to its link with King Faruk, while Ahly fans pride themselves on the fact that their club is the club of the masses and is the true representative of Egypt, but these are mostly myths created by the fans to forge an identity for their club that is different from their opponents.

In a time of sectarian tension, political clashes, and a deepening social class wound, Egyptians need something to remind them that unity is possible and that the barriers of social class, religion, etc. can be demolished by a simple idea, which in this case is football.

Tomorrow I will be screaming my heart out here in one of London Edgware Road’s shisha bars with my fellow Zamalek fans in Egypt and all over the world in support of our team, leaving behind our religious beliefs, social status, skin colour, gender, etc. For the time being, let us put aside our political views, credos, bank statements and college degrees, and just bring the munchies, drinks, and flags in preparation for this heated clash.

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The curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt is certainly the gift of the Nile, but the great river could become east Africa’s curse. What are the chances of a future ‘water war’?

14 December 2010

The Nile - ©Khaled Diab

The Nile when it arrives in Cairo. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the world’s attention distracted by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi did not need a whistleblower to cause his country diplomatic embarrassment: he proved more than capable of doing that all by himself.

Zenawi accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in his country and warned that Egypt would be defeated if it tried to invade Ethiopia. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story,” he boasted, rather inaccurately. But why would Zenawi, a presumably seasoned politician who has led his country for almost two decades, make such wild allegations without supplying a shred of evidence to back them up, and why now?

Sceptics may conclude that fomenting a manufactured foreign crisis is a classic tactic to divert attention away from the questionable elections earlier this year, which helped Zenawi retain his grip on power and gave his party all but two seats in the parliament. And Zenawi, despite defeating Ethiopia’s “red terror” when he himself was a rebel leader, has largely worn out his welcome with millions of Ethiopians, particularly those living in the cities, as I witnessed first hand while travelling in the country at the time of the 2005 elections.

Zenawi’s political offensive seems to have caught Egypt unawares, with the ageing and increasingly frail-looking President Hosni Mubarak appearing miffed by Ethiopia’s posturing when asked about it by al-Jazeera last week. Nevertheless, like its counterpart in Addis Ababa, the Cairo regime could find a foreign distraction convenient, embroiled as it also is in allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation during last month’s parliamentary elections.

But are there any reasonable grounds for Zenawi’s allegations? Whether or not Egypt is actually backing rebels in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians may be inclined to believe the claim, simply because Egypt has previous form when it comes to meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs.

After Egypt conquered Sudan in the 19th-century, it launched a further campaign to invade Ethiopia, which ended in failure in 1875. In the aftermath of the second world war, Egypt made a cheeky claim for Eritrea at the Paris peace conference, which undoubtedly incensed the Ethiopians. In more recent times, Egypt and other Arab countries provided support to the Eritrean independence movement, in a kind of proxy Arab-Israeli war. However, for all his other failings, President Mubarak has taken a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards relations with Ethiopia.

But why this animosity between two countries who – beyond sporadic trading missions that stretch back to ancient times, and the religious link between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches – have actually had limited contact and interest in each other’s affairs over the centuries?

Well, one issue above all else has been clouding the waters: the Nile. It is only fairly recently that the discovery was made that some 85% of the Nile’s waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Five years ago, when I sat in a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it was somewhat overwhelming to reflect that here I was many thousands of miles away, floating on Egypt’s life-support system.

Herodcreating sotus once said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile but, in a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for the “eternal river”, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt, one of the driest places on earth, would be little more than a barren desert dotted by occasional oases.

Given Egypt’s almost complete dependence on water from outside its own borders, the Nile is viewed as a major “national security” issue – and one whose importance is growing. To secure its supply, Egypt signed an agreement with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 which gave Egypt 48bn cubic metres of the Nile’s total flow of an average 88bn cubic metres. Following independence, Sudan upped its share to 18.5bn cubic metres and Egypt got 55.5bn.

When the other Nile basin countries were not in a position to make use of the river’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue. However, in recent years they have pursued a drive for more equitable redistribution of the Nile’s resources through the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia understandably wishes to exploit the rains that fall on its territory to develop its agricultural sector, to stave off starvation, to generate electricity and to stimulate development. Towards that end, it has constructed a number of dams in recent years, including a mega dam.

Despite Egypt’s expressed commitment to sharing the river, the country can barely make ends meet with its current mega quota of Nile water. And, with a burgeoning population and an even drier climate thanks to global warming, Egypt will need even more water in the future. That is why it has been blocking moves to change quotas.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in May to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan. So, could this impasse eventually lead to a water war on the Nile? The idea is not far-fetched, as a number of conflicts already partly revolve around water, including Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1999, the UN, predicting that water would be the main cause of conflict in Africa over the following 25 years, identified the Nile basin as a major flashpoint.

Averting this looming catastrophe involves careful diplomacy, the development of appropriate alternative sources of water (including desalination) and, perhaps above all, urgent population control.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 December 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Deserts, desolation and development

 
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Amid the sweltering heat and omnipresent dust, Andrew Eatwell discovers Sudan’s hospitable and friendly face – and its rapidly developing capital.

13 October 2010

“Good luck,” the Egyptian immigration official said with a wry smile as he stamped me out of Egypt at the port in Aswan, Egypt’s southernmost city. I was heading for Sudan – a 20-hour ferry ride south across Lake Nasser and a place where relatively few Western travellers dare tread. Given everything you read in the international media and on Western governments’ websites about Egypt’s war-torn, Islamist-ruled neighbour, I felt certain at least a little luck would be needed.

My fears – and those of friends and relatives who worried I would be caught up in one of Sudan’s myriad conflicts or taken hostage by Islamist extremists – proved unfounded. They started to dissipate on the ageing, overloaded passenger ferry that shuttles people and all manner of cargo once a week between the two countries. Crushed in between washing machines, satellite dishes, cutlery sets and the odd metal detector, my travelling companion, Dan, and I quickly got talking to Sudanese travellers and traders. Some were returning from visiting relatives in Egypt, some were there for business, but almost all were bringing something home with them. “Everything is too expensive in Sudan, that’s why we go to Egypt,” one man told me as we sat in the shade of a lifeboat.

We spent the night in that same spot. Two white westerners – a Brit (me) and a New Zealander (Dan, friend and fellow Arabic language student from Cairo) – and a dozen Sudanese guys lying in a row, our backs on the hard, hot metal deck, our legs dangling over the edge of the ferry as the waters of Lake Nasser glided blackly passed. Every square inch of space was taken – filled with cargo or people sprawled on the open deck or on benches or the floor in the stuffy seating areas below. Going to the toilet or the canteen in the dark involved navigating an assault course of human limbs.

We both found the genuine, friendly curiosity of our fellow Sudanese passengers refreshing after months spent in Egypt where decades of mass tourism and too many touts sometimes leave you with the unpleasant feeling that the locals view every Westerner as a walking wallet.

Wadi Haifa

Stepping off the ferry at Wadi Haifa. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

The ferry’s arrival in Wadi Halfa was as chaotic as its departure. People rushed ashore and cargo was hauled overboard onto the small concrete dock before both – almost interchangeably – were loaded onto trucks and busses for the short trip across a patch of barren wasteland to the immigration and customs offices. I was prepared for the worst: a thorough grilling by the immigration police and a full search of my backpack – Britain is not exactly on good terms with the Omar al-Bashir regime. Instead, we were waved through customs with barely a hitch. Our Sudanese visas, acquired equally painlessly at the Sudanese Embassy in Cairo for $100, were checked and the immigration officer stamped us into the country before jovially quipping: “Welcome to Alaska!” as we walked out of the warehouse-like office into near 50-degree heat.

Heat, dust and hospitality

Wadi Halfa, a few kilometres inland from the lake, proved to be a foretaste of every other Sudanese town we would visit. A few dusty streets, a dusty central square, a few dusty cafes and a couple of lokandas – cheap, basic hotels with, yes, dusty rooms and even dustier bedding. Heat and dust are the two defining elements of northern Sudan in summer – air so hot you can feel your lungs warming with every breath and dust that gets into every bodily crevice. Removing it is almost impossible, in part because water is in short supply and a shower – unless your definition of one involves a jug and bucket of brown liquid – is almost unheard of in many places.

Even at night, the heat can be unbearable and joining the locals in hauling your bed outside into the sandy courtyard of the lokanda to catch a slight breeze is often the only way to get some sleep and avoid drowning in your own sweat.

Road to Atbara

On the "road" to Atbara, 150km from anything, except sand and some trees. Photo: Andrew Eatwell

From Wadi Halfa we travelled south through the Nubian Desert to Dongola, then southeast to Karima and Atbara, tracing, as best we could, the course of the Nile and encountering progressively bigger but no less dusty, ramshackle towns.  At times, amid the sand storms that frequently blew up in the afternoons, driving through vast expanses of desert, crammed into the back of a bus, car or minibus, could best be described as voyaging through the insides of a vacuum cleaner. And in that desolate desert environment, there is certainly a sense of being in a vacuum – nothing for miles, eerie silence and no signs of life, or sporadically, life that once was in the form of cattle and camel carcasses slowly decaying by the side of the road.

The fact there were paved roads at all surprised me. From the research I had done on northern Sudan, I had expected gruelling, bone-jarring journeys on dirt tracks through the desert. Instead, we encountered new black tarmac everywhere – the results, locals were only too happy to tell me, of Chinese investment in the last couple of years.

In most towns, at least as far as we could tell, we were the only Westerners and the locals were genuinely curious about why we were there. A tea or coffee – and it is good coffee! – at one of the numerous street stalls run by brightly clad women frequently resulted in long conversations with our fellow drinkers, usually in Arabic, sometimes in English, and almost always about football. More than once, however, politics came up: they asked about America, the embargo, and about the West. Some said they wanted to emigrate, others blamed the West for Sudan’s problems. No one ever mentioned al-Bashir by name, nor did they want to talk about Darfur or the south. Many, a little surprisingly, said that the situation was improving, that they were struggling less now than in the past to live. In northern Sudan, at least, I came away with the impression from what I saw and heard that things were gradually getting better – though I very much doubt people in Darfur or South Sudan, which I have yet to visit, would say the same.

Begrawiya pyramids

At the foot of the Begrawiya pyramids. Smaller than their Egyptian cousins, but impressive. Photo: Andrew Eatwell.

South of Atbara, about a third of the way to Khartoum and just off the main Khartoum-Port Sudan road, the Begrawiya pyramids rise from the desert. Built 2,500 years ago by the Meroitic Pharaohs when the area was arable and verdant, the cluster of tombs sit half-buried by the sand. Though dwarfed in scale by their more famous counterparts in Egypt, they are just as impressive in their own right – helped by the fact that they are not thronged by tourists. We were the only visitors that day and the sense of desolation and of a civilisation lost was overwhelming as we sat staring out at the bleak desert in the shadow of the ancient tombs.

Khartoum: where the rivers and cultures meet

Stuck without transport in the middle of nowhere, we managed to finally flag down a road train after a waterless hour standing in blistering heat on the side of the road. Six hours later we rolled – slowly, painfully slowly – into the Sudanese capital. After saying goodbye to the affable, talkative truck driver, a Moroccan with a Sudanese wife transporting UN food aid from Port Sudan to South Sudan, we checked into a rundown hotel near the city’s main souq.

The area, like much of the capital, felt like an oversized version of every other Sudanese town we had visited, albeit livelier and more cosmopolitan. The shops bustled with activity during the day and the street cafés were alive at all hours. Along the Nile, not far from where the Blue and White Niles meet, new glass-and-steel office buildings were under construction and from the hostel window we could see a more upscale hotel: the Plaza, its rooftop sign written in Chinese.

We spent several pleasant days between central Khartoum and Omdurman, the capital’s more conservative sister city on the other side of the river, wandering the streets, browsing the souq’s stalls, soaking up the atmosphere over spiced coffee and fresh juices (alcohol is illegal), oh, and rediscovering the luxury of a shower.

For the first time since entering Sudan, in Khartoum I got a feeling that we were leaving the Arab world and entering sub-Saharan Africa. In the cafes, South Sudanese from different tribes sat in groups alongside Arab Sudanese from the north, Christians shopped and drank alongside Muslims. It seemed that in the more cosmopolitan, business-oriented atmosphere of the city, the divisions that have put Sudan on the world map for bloodshed and violence could easily be forgotten – perhaps too easily.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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More to Sudan than meets the West’s eye

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Despite its reputation for war and violence, there is more to Sudan than meets the West’s eye.

24 September 2010

Huge, harsh, desolate, with bloody borders and regions wracked by genocidal conflict, listed by the United States as a state sponsor of terrorism and under an international embargo, led by the only sitting leader to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, Sudan, Africa’s largest country geographically, is the quintessential pariah state. But there is much more to this land of violence and extremes than the religious fanaticism, gun-toting militias and rebel groups, famine and poverty that is frequently portrayed in the Western media.

Despite having the odds and much of the international community stacked against it, Sudan’s northern region, the largely violence-free area where the Islamist government of President Omar al-Bashir faces little opposition, is developing at breakneck speed. New roads are carving their way across the vast stretches of desert, glass and steel buildings are climbing skyward in Khartoum, and, at least for some Sudanese living away from the country’s many conflict zones, living standards are slowly improving.

“Here there was nothing but dirt before. Now there are paved roads, all in just a few years,” Hagg Said, the brother of the owner of a roadside café near the northern town of Abri, told me during a recent visit. “We can get around and trade more easily, it’s much better.”

The road running past Hagg Said’s brother’s café, like many roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects in Northern Sudan, was built by Chinese contractors, using local laborers, Chinese foremen and imported Chinese equipment. Some locals are enthusiastic about China’s growing influence – one store owner in the area has proudly hung a photo of Chinese President Hu Jintao alongside one of al-Bashir on his wall. In contrast, many northern Sudanese view the United States with disdain. They see Washington (which bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Khartoum suburb of Omdurman in 1998 on the spurious grounds that it was producing chemical weapons and had links to al-Qaeda) and Western nations’ policies as holding the country – and their own lives – back.

While the West has sought to isolate Sudan, banning investment and blocking trade in response to the al-Bashir government’s dire human rights record, China has seized the opportunity to expand its influence. Chinese investment in Sudan accounted for a large chunk of the $5 billion the country received last year and China is one of Sudan’s largest trading partners, a relationship that has helped the Sudanese economy quintuple in size over the last decade, one of the fastest growth rates in the world. Clearly, Beijing is not just interested in selling cheap consumer products, construction equipment and completing infrastructure projects. Sudanese oil – the country is now the third-largest producer in sub-Saharan Africa – accounts for around 10% of China’s oil needs, and Chinese investment in the country’s mineral and resource-rich regions is growing. And it is precisely those regions that have put Sudan under the international spotlight.

Darfur, whose inhabitants rose up against decades of government neglect only to be slaughtered in their tens of thousands at the hands of government-backed Janjaweed militiamen, remains a dangerous flashpoint in the west of the country – one that spread across the border into neighbouring Chad in 2005.

In the south, where 70% of Sudan’s oil is pumped, a two-decade civil war between government troops and separatist rebels representing the area’s Christian-Animist population, claimed the lives of more than 1.5 million people until a 2005 ceasefire brought an uneasy end to hostilities. A referendum on independence for the south, scheduled for January 2011, is likely to be a new flashpoint in the near term.

Just recently, the Abyei border region, an area of rich pasture lands close to key oil fields where a separate referendum is to be held next year on whether the territory should join the currently semi-autonomous south, has been the site of several killings linked to conflicting territorial claims.

In all these regions, people are dying, killed not just by the bullets of soldiers, militiamen and rebels, but by the consequences of those conflicts: famine, poverty and disease. The United Nations recently warned that places such as Akobo, a town in the south-eastern region of Jonglei, is the “hungriest place on earth” with almost half of all children suffering malnutrition. The international humanitarian aid that does get to where it’s needed is essential for millions of Sudanese living in the worst areas of conflict, but international political pressure has so far had only limited impact. Killings continue in Darfur and Abyei, the south is still tense, al-Bashir remains in power – he won a widely ridiculed election in April after opposition parties boycotted the poll – and has yet to be hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Away from Sudan’s many areas of conflict, those countries willing to deal with Sudan and al-Bashir’s regime, such as China, India and some Gulf Arab states, are having far more impact, helping not only their own interests but, by proxy, also the lives of more than 20 million Sudanese (out of a total population of around 40 million) living outside the conflict zones.

Khartoum’s souqs and commercial districts bustle with activity, traders hawk cheap Chinese-made clothes and consumer products, internet cafés abound and mobile phone shops line every other street. New buses now ply paved roads previously only served by bone-rattling pick-up trucks, and satellite dishes beam channels from across the Arab and Western world into rural and urban homes. In the city’s squares, shops and cafes, where economics, rather than politics, governs daily life, people from Sudan’s many disparate ethnic groups mingle with apparent ease.

“I go to Cairo to buy from the warehouses and bring things back to sell in Khartoum. Everything is more expensive in Sudan, but people are buying so I can make a good profit. I’ve been all over for goods,” said Ibrahim, a trader from the capital, as he sat among boxed-up washing machines, flat-screen TVs and ceiling fans on the deck of the weekly ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan in Egypt to Wadi Halfa in Sudan.

Much of the world has sought to isolate Sudan in order to punish its political rulers. But entrepreneurial Sudanese and the few countries still willing to deal with the pariah regime, regardless of their underlying intentions, have ultimately ensured the world economy and economic opportunity have become more accessible to the average Sudanese.

Nonetheless, the unbalanced development of the country, largely based on oil wealth and with a large disparity between the center and periphery, remains a potential source for conflict and political instability, especially if oil-rich south Sudan moves to secede from the north next year.

Andrew Eatwell is currently travelling through Africa. His journey has so far taken him through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda over the last two months. He has found the experience interesting, taxing, fun, tiring, exhilarating and saddening in almost equal measure. Sudan and Ethiopia stand out as the two most intriguing countries he has visited.

This article is published here with the author’s permission. ©Andy Eatwell. Please visit Andrew’s website at QorreO.

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The ICC and Darfur

 
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By Tom Kenis*

The ICC indictment of Sudan’s leadership merits a balanced appraisal.

September 2008

In July 2008, the International Criminal Court submitted, upon the request of the United Nations Security Council, charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in Darfur against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, having already done so for Sudanese Humanitarian Affairs Minister Ahmed Muhammad Harun and a local militia leader. None have so far been brought into custody, nor is this likely to happen in the near or even remote future.

“Politically motivated,” cried the Sudanese government. “Double standards, and neo-colonial bullying,” charged African, Arab and many European commentators. The tacit welcoming of the ruling by America, itself not a signatory and fierce opponent of the ICC, surprised few, given Sudan’s oil-laden geology. This, in turn, explains the eerily quiet wind blowing from China, which meets close to seven percent of its oil imports from the regime in Khartoum. (Credible) conspiracy theories aside, many analysts fear a Sudanese backlash, a hardening of positions, undermining a tenuous peace process, and turning out more harmful in the end to the very people the court ruling is supposed to rush to the aid of.

All of the above is true. The ICC, set up in 2002, has picked out small fry, a sitting leader of an Arab state at that, the adverse connotations of which have not gone unnoticed in the region. In many ways, the ICC merely ups the ante, shielding behind the cloak of internationalism self-interested policies and the chess game of jostling powers that weaker states have historically been victims of and at best spectators to.

And yet we cannot dismiss the notion that the voices raised against the ruling, and hence in defence of a government that at best utterly fails to act in defence of its own citizens, with horrible consequences, are all but devoid of ulterior motives. The court’s ruling is indeed a heavily politicised one, but so would a now hypothetical decision to the contrary. At one extreme, currying favour with the regime in Sudan inculpates one to the charge of wishing to secure access to the nation’s natural resources, while proponents of the ruling are accused of wishing a regime change for the sake of gaining a toehold to those same resources. Concurrently, some advocates of the court’s decision aspire to divert attention from their own misdeeds in the human rights arena, while detractors fear the legal dire straits such a precedent might put them in. Worse infringements occur in other places, so why intervene here? Indeed, arguments and ammunition are easily found in support of either position.

To those with no material stake in the imbroglio, the question then boils down to one of inclination, optimistic or pessimistic, as to the ability of the mechanisms hitherto employed to alleviate and ultimately solve a question of extreme human suffering. Do the actions of the ICC represent something new, or should such an instrument be seen as merely the sum of its constituent parts, a continuation of old policies, lorded over by self-interested nation states? Can the ICC transcend the balance of powers? Is the ICC, in plain English, capable of saving lives? The wider question should, but perhaps given the inchoate state of the institution, cannot easily be disentangled from the concrete case of Darfur before it.

International bodies are only as effective as their participating countries allow them to become. A prime example is arguably the United Nations, once paralysed by the Cold War stalemate, somewhat invigorated since, but stilly hamstrung by its veto-wielders’ reluctance to reform and adapt to changing international relations. Perhaps the ICC, an organisation that is legally speaking not part of the UN, can play a reinforcing, complementary role, hand-in-glove with the trend of expanding international laws. Whether the challenge of justice-over-the-weak v justice-for-all can be overcome, only time will tell.

The shifting of the balance towards universal success v a quick demise of the ICC will take place in the penumbra of smaller nations, between ardent supporters and stern detractors. Those countries seeking an advantage in opposing the court now, might one day find themselves in need of more robust international policing. The inverse, one should add, will arise just as easily. The clear choice for governments here and now is between short-term self-interest and its long-term variant. The difference is significant. Today, two very passionate foes of expanded international jurisprudence, Israel and the United States, already find themselves applauding the court’s ruling on Darfur. A verdict according to double standards will only serve to accentuate those double standards and increase the pressure to address other, more complex, even more intractable conflicts. Alas, small fry first.

The ruling appears not yet to have unleashed the feared deterioration on the ground, despite one senior Sudanese official reacting furiously, threatening to turn Darfur into a graveyard. On the contrary, the initial response of the Sudanese government has been one of increased responsiveness, at least in tone, to international pressure. With perhaps a cynical stretch of the imagination, white faces, too, will soon pop up in the dock at The Hague. If we include the ad hoc tribunal for Yugoslavia this has already happened. Of course, all gains, especially as modest as these, can be reversed. However, one must also recognise even modest gains for what they are: timid beginnings, but beginnings nonetheless.

*Tom Kenis is a Belgian NGO worker. Published with the author’s permission. ©Tom Kenis.

This is an archived article from Diabolic Digest.

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Congo’s colonial ghost

 
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By Khaled Diab

As we approach the 50th anniversary of independence, how successful has Congo’s post-colonial experience been?

28 April 2010

Preparations are under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo for celebrations to mark 50 years of independence in June. The Congolese government has reportedly set aside $2 million for the festivities. Guests of honour will include a high-level Belgian delegation, headed by King Albert II, who will be on his first official visit to the former colony.

With these festivities in the air, how has the first half-century of independence been for the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

While it’s difficult to sum up the past 50 years, one thing that can be said with some confidence is that they have been troubled – from the western-backed murder of independence leader Patrice Lumumba, through the long and repressive Mobutu dictatorship, to the Second Congo War, known as Africa’s World War, not only because of its being the deadliest conflict since the second world war but also because it involved seven foreign countries.

Today, a stability of sorts has descended upon the country with its elected dictator, Joseph Kabila, although fighting continues in a number of provinces of this vast country, particularly in the east.

Despite its enormous mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, largely due to the uncontrolled plundering of its resources. With a per-capita GDP of around $100 per year, it comes close to the bottom of the well-being league, though its human development index is constantly rising.

In fact, Congo is a classic example of the fragile African state. So, what lies behind this fragility?

A key factor is a failure of leadership on a monumental scale. Political corruption, coupled with weak state institutions, has ensured that the main function of Congolese politics, like in many other African countries, is to serve the private ends of the ruling elite.

“The political class in Congo is shit,” Joseph Nzau, a 55-year-old Congolese professional based in Brussels, told me in no uncertain terms. “Politicians don’t have the common good in mind. They want to enrich themselves first and their clans second.”

Whereas political corruption may skim some of the cream off the top of the pie in countries with effective governance, in places like the DRC, it gobbles up the lion’s share of the cake, as attested to by the vast fortunes Mobutu and his cronies accumulated or squandered.

But should Congo’s political class cop the entire blame? Well, there are certainly other factors at play. The DRC is about the size of western Europe, but the country has a population that is smaller than Germany’s and yet is divided into some 250 ethnic groups speaking an equivalent number of languages. Governing such a huge and diverse land mass, with a relatively low population density, not to mention poor infrastructure and a state that is weaker than probably even the smallest European states, is no easy matter.

Much as apologists for Europe’s colonial legacy and those afflicted with selective amnesia would like to believe, the reality is that Congo’s colonial experience, as in so many other post-colonial states, has caused deep and lasting scars, and very much handicaps the modern state. “The situation of Congo today is a consequence of Belgian colonisation,” Nzau says, expressing a common Congolese perception.

But this link between European colonialism and the current turmoil in much of sub-Saharan Africa is not just a case of Africans looking for someone else to blame, as is so often claimed. In fact, the same link was explicitly made in last year’s European Report on Development. “The scramble for Africa … is a natural candidate for the historical origin of the fragility plaguing many sub-Saharan African countries,” the report stated.

But why should such a relatively short sojourn have such a profound impact? In the case of Congo, part of the reason is that there was a centuries’-long prelude. Prior to direct rule, most of central Africa was depopulated as a consequence of the European slave trade to the west and, to a lesser extent, the Arab slave trade to the east. This, for example, helped accelerate the eventual collapse of the once-powerful indigenous kingdom of Kongo (which had different borders to the contemporary DRC).

The ruler, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, an early convert to Christianity, wrote regularly to the king of Portugal to complain about the effects of the slave trade on his subjects:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for mass.

Undoubtedly, the worst chapter in Congo’s history was when the country became the personal property of King Leopold II, who wanted a domain to match his ego. The king infamously described Belgium as “petit pays, petits gens” (“small country, small people”) due to his subjects’ lack of appetite for empire – unsurprising given that they had been ruled for centuries by foreign powers, including the Spanish, the Habsburgs, the French and the Dutch.

Jealous that he did not preside over an empire like his cousin, Queen Victoria, across the Channel, Leopold spent years in search of a land that he could transform into his personal fiefdom. With the help of the dodgy Welsh-born American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley (born John Rowlands), Leopold set his sights on a part of Africa unclaimed by the other European powers which he eventually gave the name Congo Free State. During his private rule, an estimated 2-15 million Congolese died through forced labour and other forms of exploitation.

International outrage and one of the first major human rights campaigns in modern history led to the Belgian government taking Congo off Leopold’s hands and annexing it. Although the worst human rights abuses ended, the main priority of the Belgian Congo, despite Belgium’s earlier reluctance to enter the colonial game, remained the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth for the benefit of the Belgian economy.

During the period of direct rule, the European institutions and structures that were brought in took little account of local culture and conditions. After independence, rather than reform the state, local leaders simply took it over, alienating themselves from the population.

The 50th anniversary of independence should give Belgians and Congolese pause for thought. In the coming half-century, the Congolese need to overcome the legacy of the past and take command of their future. For their part, Belgians need to recognise that their colonial legacy is not just an issue for historians but that it helped create the current mess.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 21 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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Rebel without a hope

 
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By Khaled Diab

Like an ageing rocker, Muammar el-Gaddafi is on a mission to rid Africa of poverty and conflict. But are his dreams of a United State of African to prove as futile as his earlier visions of Arab unity?

February 2009

There is something of the ageing rock star about the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qathafi (pronounced Gaddafi in the Libyan dialect). It’s not just his unkempt hair, his eccentric sense of dress, his insistence on sleeping in a tent and the female bodyguards who surround him like tough-as-nails and confident groupies – and how all this confuses the staid and conventional leaders he visits.

The Libyan leader sees himself as being antiestablishment and has a penchant for rubbing the political the Arab, African and western political establishment up the wrong way. But after four decades at the top, he is the establishment and his radical rhetoric is wearing very thin.

Gaddafi actually reminds me somewhat of Bob Geldof: he had a couple of early hits, failed to make it into the rebels’ hall of fame and has kept his dimming star alight by projecting himself as a saviour and harbinger of world peace.

Isolated by the American-led sanctions regime and ridiculed by his Arab counterparts, Gaddafi embraced his African brethren – and African leaders, such as Nelson Mandela, helped break Libya’s international isolation. After angrily turning his back on the frustrating quest for Arab unity, Gaddafi has centred his attentions on African unity.

In co-operation with South Africa and Nigeria, Libya played a pivotal role in transforming the toothless body known as the Organisation of African Unity into the nascent African Union which was established in 2002 – which many disappointed Africans dismiss as another impotent talking shop where African leaders get to rub shoulders at taxpayers’ expense.

Earlier this month, Gaddafi was elected chairman of the AU, not to mention hailed as “king of kings” by his entourage of tribal African leader.

The maverick – some would say delusional – colonel then wasted no time in rocking the boat, ruffling feathers and pushing his reality-lite visions. He not only dismissively asserted that democracy could not work in Africa because of tribalism, he urged the assembled leaders to merge into a single “United States of Africa”.

I like it when people think out of the box, but Gaddafi’s idea is so far out there that it belongs on another continent that has not yet been discovered. I am a believer in gradual integration and may be even the eventual emergence of some kind of loose union.

However, this is a clear case of putting the cart before the horse. Too many African states are having trouble enough ending or avoiding conflict within their arbitrary borders that going for an even larger geographical union is bound to spell disaster – or at the very least total paralysis.

In addition, the AU has generally failed to live up to expectations. Its key successes relate to the peacekeeping efforts in such hotspots as Darfur and Somalia, as well as interventions in support of democracy in Togo and Mauritania. But the continent’s overall democratic deficit remains huge, and the AU’s mechanisms for promoting greater integration and transparency, as well as rooting out corruption, have so far failed to achieve significant results. How on earth can this dysfunctional body be transformed overnight into a US of Af, as Gaddafi wishes?

Despite support from some AU members, such as Senegal, most Africans have reacted sceptically, with some African leaders suspicious that the Libyan leader – who used to support myriad revolutionary groups – is out to topple them by other means.

“Gaddafi should first let African countries sort out their myriad domestic problems before they can start aspiring for grander things,” an editorial in Kenya’s the Standard sensibly pointed out. “Unity won’t be an automatic panacea to the insurmountable problems we are likely to face. We should learn from the European Union where countries are strictly vetted before admission to the bloc.”

“Unlike Europe, Africa has not succeeded in moving beyond the most rudimentary stages of the [integration] process,” argues Gerrit Olivier, co-director of the Centre for African and European Studies at the University of Johannesburg. “African countries, in spite of the notions of African unity and pan-Africanism, stick rigidly and evangelically to the Westphalian model of absolute national sovereignty.”

And therein lies one of the key stumbling blocks along the road to African, as well as Arab, integration. Whereas post-war Europe has pursued a pragmatic gradualist policy, in Africa and the Arab world – grappling with the dual curse of colonial legacy and corrupt and ineffective leadership – hollow and haughty rhetoric traditionally took the place of concrete action. The AU has been an attempt at pragmatism, but Gaddafi is doing his best to derail that.

“Gaddafi must stop promoting dictatorship and supporting leaders who do not respect the wishes of their people with reckless proclamations like his infamous ‘revolutionaries do not retire’,” advises Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, deputy director of the UN Millennium Campaign in Africa.

Although he has modernised Libya and done it some good, the isolation he has brought to the country, the wastage of its oil wealth on promoting global revolution and other crackpot schemes, as well as his oppression and poor human rights record, count greatly against him.

Of course, in his warped view, Gaddafi doesn’t see it that way. Officially, he retired from politics in 1979 and holds no official title but, in an Orwellian twist, he calls himself “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution”. The country, which he calls a “jamahiriya” (a term he coined to mean government by the masses), is supposed to be run by a collection of local popular assemblies, but no prizes for guessing who actually calls the shots.

Gaddafi has not been idle on the domestic front either, and is following up his ‘Africa unite’ hit with an ‘I wanna be anarchy’ scheme that is just as muddled but almost charmingly naïve in its idealism. Disillusioned by widespread corruption, Gaddafi has urged Libyans to endorse his proposal to dismantle the government and give the oil wealth directly to the people.

When I read the news, I thought that some good – instead of the occasional hassle at airports – could finally come out my having been born in Libya, and I could apply for citizenship to get some of that action. Seriously, while I applaud the idea of giving Libyan’s a fair stake of their country’s oil wealth, how does he propose that Libya function without a government?

Four decades at Libya’s helm have done his sense of reality no good and it’s time for Gaddafi to actually retire. His people could do without this particular comeback kid.

A shorter version of this column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free section on 19 February 2009. Read the related discussion.

This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest

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