Africa Matters is a blog that follows the news and offers analysis of African affairs. Our aim is to delve deeper into the issues of African politics and development. We don’t presume to be experts, and we don’t presume to have all the answers—we are just trying to ask the right questions.

Tuesday, January 5

Uganda's Anti-homosexuality Bill, 2009

Andrew Sullivan, on his Atlantic blog The Daily Dish, pointed yesterday to the NYT's a-bit-slow-on-the-uptake account of Uganda's pending anti-gay legislation. The proposed law, the Anti-homosexuality Bill, 2009, introduced in Parliament following a conference last March addressing the "gay agenda," held by three American evangelical activists, could impose the death penalty for "aggravated homosexuality," plus other penalties, such as seven years' imprisonment for "aiding and abating [sic] homosexuality." Of course, the typo in the latter offense unintentionally alters its meaning quite a bit, and may in fact prove problematic for the bill's proponents themselves—a lesson, folks, on why proof-reading is not to be taken lightly.

Sullivan points out, not without reason, that "What's fascinating is that the rhetoric the Christianists use is the same in Africa as it is in America, but in Africa, the public consensus is so anti-gay already that the consequences of this demonization are felt much more immediately and brutally." It's certainly true that Uganda is, on the whole, a more conservative country than the U.S. is, and evangelical Christianity, as in much of sub-Saharan Africa, has become a juggernaut movement there, one which only seems to build momentum; it's also true that homophobia is widespread. On the other hand, I think that there's a real possibility this bill could become law is probably less an indication of Ugandans' extremism, or susceptibility to the rhetoric of extremism, than it is an indication of the weakness of Uganda's political and legal institutions. Undoubtedly, the crazed zealotry of political theater is as popular in the States as it is in Uganda, and the stage is often as dominated by fringe fanatics—really, whom are we kidding? But that this bill is being taken seriously in Uganda (when it would never be in the U.S.), I think, is not so much a sign of a deep and pervasive hatred of homosexuals amongst Uganda's population as a whole, but rather a testament to the Parliament's vulnerability to being overrun by extremists (U.S. House of Representatives, anyone?), but without any check on their power, and with an utter lack of the open political discourse and independent news media needed to judge them objectively.

The real sin in all of this is committed by the American preachers who bankroll—financially and spiritually—Uganda's anti-gay bigotry, and then, under public pressure at home, avert their eyes and disavow the movement they incited. Sullivan writes:

If a movement is "evil" and trying to "defeat" all families, as evangelicals claim of gays (and Nazis and Communists said of gays), then of course some already predisposed against gays would believe it is essential to identify, round up, forcibly cure or execute this foul threat from within. And yet the Americans now claim they are shocked, shocked! by the results of their strategy.
Indeed, David Bahati and the other supporters of this bill are simply following the lead of Scott Lively, Caleb Lee Brundidge, and Don Schmierer, the three Americans who organized the March event—and doing so more honestly than these leaders themselves. Sullivan asks of these three men: "Why are these Christianists not following God's literal truth? Or now that they have unleashed a proto-fascist pogrom against gay, bi and trans people in Africa, have they finally come to terms with the actual consequences of what they actually believe?"

I think probably not. Jeffrey Gettleman, in the Times, quotes Don Schmierer:
“I feel duped,” Mr. Schmierer said, arguing that he had been invited to speak on “parenting skills” for families with gay children. He acknowledged telling audiences how homosexuals could be converted into heterosexuals, but he said he had no idea some Ugandans were contemplating the death penalty for homosexuality.
As I write above, though, I think it's important to keep in perspective, as we do at home, that the voices of a few, as loud as they may be, and even as close as they may be to effecting real policies with tragic consequences, still do not necessarily represent the views of the many. Sullivan points readers to the NYT article's multimedia component, which is definitely worth a visit. In particular, listen to the interview with Haj Medih, a Muslim taxi driver. He says:
I'm telling you, these people are not bad. They are not bad. ... All of us, we are going to die, and we are going to face—our what?—our god, who put us in this country, or in this world. So, if somebody tells that, I'm gay, or I'm homosexual, you leave him—until the day he will die. And he, on the day of the Judgment, he will face, face-to-face, to his god, or to his Allah. But why are you—want to punish somebody? You are not a god. Eh? You are not a god. So why are you telling somebody that I'm going to punish you—or to kill you. Do you know how to make people, to put them in this world? Are you the One? Are you the One? And I'm telling you, the president can come and say, "Okay, let us leave that—let us throw that bill in the dustbin."

Sunday, January 3

@Africa Matters – am I doing it right?

Well kids, seeing as it's now 2010, I figured it's time for Africa Matters to catch up with the fads of 2007, and so this blog will now be 'tweeting.' Honestly, I can't for the life of me understand what the purpose of 'Twitter' is, or even how it really works, but it seems to be what people are doing, and I'm never one to miss a bandwagon.

For the foreseeable future, AM's 'Twitter' will consist only of post and news-feed headlines. If I figure out what else you're supposed to do there (I think it has something to do with Ashton Kutcher?), then maybe I'll, ya know, do that too. Clearly, it was my New Year's resolution to get this blog up and running again—but if content falls off, I might have to resort to this.

Anyway, thanks, as always, for reading. Please follow us on the 'Twitter,' if you'd like:

Happy New Year!

UPDATE: Ha, so, apparently, I didn't do it right. When this post showed up on Twitter, the headline was an actual link (didn't intend that), to 'Africa'—whoever that is. I'll have to work on my Twitterquette.

Saturday, January 2

The state of Sudan

Jeffrey Gettleman writes in today's New York Times about the uneasy calm that has settled in Darfur. With attacks down and freedom of movement increased, with the government's sponsorship of violence seemingly ceased and the janjaweed subdued, the situation seems markedly improved from a few years ago. Still, while the dire predictions upon the expulsion of 13 aid agencies last year never materialized, 2.7 million people remain displaced and continue to harbor legitimate fears for return. And, peacekeepers and aid workers are still under siege.

Sudanese Darfur has started to look much like its cross-border counterpart in Chad, where criminality is rampant and rebel groups lie dormant, but never at peace. According to the article, Lt. Gen. Patrick Nyamvumba calls the crisis "frozen."

At the same time, Gettleman writes, "The focus in Sudan seems to be steadily shifting to the South." But while he notes that "the root cause of both rebellions, in the south and in Darfur, is the same: marginalization," the connection is stronger than this—these two conflicts have always been intrinsically linked, with an ebb and flow of violence between the two regions: Darfur erupted in 2003 as South Sudan's 20-year civil war drew to a close, culminating in 2005's Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Now, with the South's referendum on independence looming, the tide seems to be rising again there.

Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of independence in Sudan, and Alex de Waal, on his blog Making Sense of Darfur, summed up the mood eloquently:

What has unified the Sudanese people is not a permanent constitution or a common national project, but an unending dialogue, a vibrant national discussion about what Sudan should be. The tragedy is that this debate has been too often conducted with intolerance and violence. But the Sudanese have also shown a remarkable capacity for reflection, reinvention and civil debate about their collective identity.

South Sudan's referendum is scheduled for a year from now; in the next 12 months, we can only hope that the situation in Darfur will continue to improve and that the South will enter this momentous vote without violence—and that their independence day, if such is the outcome, will portend more peace and prosperity than did the one 50 years ago.

Saturday, March 28

The New Blood Diamonds?

Electronics makers are pressed to stop using 'conflict minerals' from mines controlled by armed groups in DR Congo.

As featured on

First there were "blood diamonds," the gems that fueled conflict and human rights abuses in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Then there was "conflict cocoa," the chocolate source that's harvested by children and funds civil war in Ivory Coast. Now concern is rising about the minerals that go into common consumer electronics. Could that be a BloodBerry or a Conflict Cell in your pocket?

A new pressure-group campaign and pending legislation in Congress aim to increase awareness of "conflict minerals" from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and push companies to rid their supply chains of them. In question are ores mined by violent armed groups in the country's eastern region that can turn up in nearly any electronic product - like smart phones, MP3 players, and laptop computers. Activists say that buying products that contain the minerals indirectly allows outlaw factions to continue a conflict characterized by its brutality, including the murder of civilians, violence against women and conscription of child soldiers.

"The consumer electronics industry is the largest end user of the minerals that are fueling the fighting in eastern Congo," says John Norris, executive director of the Enough Project, an Africa-focused advocacy group and leader of the coalition. "These companies have an obligation to ensure they are not financing armed groups by demanding more information and better behavior from their suppliers."

Consumer electronics companies have been aware of the issue for some time, but they have generally focused on only one of the ores coming from the region, coltan. Coltan is a colloquial African word for ore containing tantalum, which is used in electricity-storing capacitors, common in electronics. The Enough Project says it sent letters to 21 large electronics companies last month asking them to audit their supply chains for tin, tungsten and gold as well, using some kind of independently verifiable tracing system.

In Congress, Sen. Sam Brownback is partnering with Sen. Russ Feingold and Sen. Dick Durbin to revise legislation that Brownback introduced last year addressing the issue. Set to be introduced by April 4, the new bill would require companies that use minerals mined in the region to disclose sourcing to the SEC.

"In Congo, many people - especially young children and women - are suffering at the hands of armed groups who are trying to make a profit from mining 'conflict minerals' like coltan," Brownback said in a statement to Fortune. "I hope my colleagues and I are able to pass legislation that will bring accountability and transparency to the supply chain of minerals used in the manufacturing of many electronic devices, and that the legislation will ultimately save lives."

There's no question that the minerals fund armed groups in the largely lawless region. The factions - which include a mix of renegade Congolese army troops, Rwanda-influenced Tutsi rebels and fugitive Hutu fighters from the 1994 Rwandan genocide - control mines that generate an estimated $144 million to $218 million each, according to the Enough Project and reports by the United Nations, Global Witness and others. Since 1998, more than 5.4 million people have been killed in DR Congo's conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee, making it the deadliest on earth since World War II. The UN estimates that 200,000 women have been raped and the armed factions still active in the country's east have used children for mining, fighting and other work, according to Human Rights Watch, the UN and others.

Minerals from eastern DR Congo are shipped mainly to middlemen in Malaysia, Thailand, China and India, according to Enough. The companies buy the same minerals elsewhere and mix them together, but Congolese ore, although a small percentage of the total, is cheaper, according to Resource Investor. Once processed, the refined metals are bought by electronics manufacturing companies, turned into usable components (e.g., circuit boards containing tin), and put into electronic devices ranging from cell phones to digital cameras to televisions.

David Sullivan of Enough says they are appealing to electronics companies, users of the minerals, and not the middlemen, because they have the greatest leverage. "It is unrealistic to expect the average consumer to go to a smelter in Thailand," Sullivan says. "It is realistic for a consumer to ask for peace of mind that their purchases are not underwriting the worst sexual violence in the world."

Some companies already have policies on minerals from DR Congo. Motorola, Apple, HP, Nokia and RIM bar suppliers from selling them Congolese coltan. "Mining activities that fuel conflict are unacceptable," Motorola wrote in response to Enough's request.

HP also said it would work on the issue. "We take very seriously the issue of the social and environmental conditions associated with our electronics industry supply chain," says Judy Glazer, director of HP's global social and environmental responsibility operations.

But even if the companies want to help, it's not easy. There's no certification system for minerals from the region. "Short of banning all minerals coming from the Eastern Congo or coming from Central Africa, it's going to be very difficult to set up a system on the ground that will be able to distinguish between good and bad minerals," says Jason Stearns, a former UN DR Congo investigator. And simply avoiding minerals from the region isn't perfect either, both because rebels profit from other sources, like charcoal sales and bribery; plus, legitimately mined minerals are a critical economic driver for the region.

Many of the big companies are members of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, which have a joint workgroup focused on mineral issues like those from DR Congo. A report by the groups last year noted the challenges of getting rid of illegally mined minerals, mainly because there's no mechanism to differentiate between "good" and "bad" sources. The report outlined goals to address the problem, including the commissioning of "supply chain transparency models" for tin, tantalum and cobalt, but notes it would do so "without identifying their commercial relationships," at odds with Enough's proposal.

Previous efforts to clean up supply chains have had mixed results. The Kimberley Process, a joint government, industry and nonprofit initiative that certifies shipments of rough diamonds as "conflict-free," was largely successful, now covering most of the world's diamonds. But the chocolate industry's response to criticism over child labor on cocoa farms in West Africa, a voluntary protocol by which companies would wean themselves from child labor, then certify as much, hasn't significantly changed practices in Ivory Coast and elsewhere.

Saturday, March 7

Criticisms of the Bashir warrant

I think even the strongest supporters of the ICC and its intervention in Sudan were a bit taken aback by the swiftness and severity of Khartoum's reaction to the arrest warrant issued this week for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. By instantly expelling 13 of the largest aid organizations working in the country, he has put at risk the lives of millions of people who depend on the basic services these groups provide—and, some would say, the ICC itself, and especially Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's chief prosecutor, are partially complicit as well.

Just last week, Nicholas Kristof dismissed worries of such harsh consequences in his New York Times column. He wrote on February 25:
There has been concern that Mr. Bashir will lash out by expelling aid workers or that Sudan’s fragile north-south peace agreement will become unglued if Mr. Bashir is ousted. Those fears are overblown. Time and again, Mr. Bashir has responded to pressure and scrutiny by improving his behavior and increasing his cooperation with the United Nations and Western countries.
Well, maybe not. It's early, and I think it's still premature to draw too many conclusions about how the game has changed, but there's certainly no shortage of critiques out there of the ICC's approach, many of them worth reading.

Amanda Taub at Wronging Rights has an excellent (and, as usual, quite funny—"JEM and the Holograms," anyone?) post, questioning how this one arrest could be worth the consequences. One key point she makes is that the trial that could conceivably come of this is just the tip of the pyramid that constitutes justice; but the international community is trying to crown a structure without building its foundation.
In the domestic legal systems that most of this blog's readers grew up with, prosecutions don't happen in a vacuum. There are police to call, witness protection programs to enter, civil courts from which to seek restitution, and stable (even elected! so fancy!) governments to lean on. In many cases, there are even more bells and whistles. Insurance! A free press! Due process rights!

The people of Darfur lack those protections. Instead, they have relied for years on the charity of international humanitarian organizations whose presence was contingent on the grace of Khartoum, its military, and the various rebel groups. Those organizations weren't always able to protect them before, though they certainly made a valiant effort. They'll be considerably less able to now that they've been forcibly expelled from the country.
William Easterly strikes a similar note over at Aid Watch (with the help of a video clip of the ever-insightful Andrew Mwenda), tying this argument to a parallel debate on foreign aid—he asks whether the ICC indictment "really helps to make Sudan's leader accountable to outsiders," rather than to Sudanese themselves, including the victims of his abuses?

Julie Flint takes this point and runs with it at Making Sense of Darfur. She writes that this move by the ICC really runs counter to justice and violates the Rome Statute proviso that prosecutions act in the interest of victims.
If [Ocampo] wanted to indict President Bashir–a reversal, by the way, of his initial thinking–why did it have to be now? What was the hurry? UNAMID is not yet at full strength and its protection capacity is modest. The biggest NGOs in Darfur, whose mere presence has at times served the war-displaced well, are now gone–and with them the witness they were able to bear as well as the food and medicines and water they provided. What can be more unjust than further, unnecessary suffering for Darfurians?
Flint also asks the important question about why the indictment was made public?
Why Moreno Ocampo decided to name his suspects - and then to give away his game plan by announcing he might take them off planes - is best known to him. His decision to use public applications rather than sealed warrants was widely opposed with the Court itself. But listening to and calmly weighing criticism is not one of the Prosecutor’s strongest points.
And, of course, also at Making Sense of Darfur, Alex de Waal weighed in on the topic. One of the more persuasive arguments I've heard in favor of the ICC is the empirical one: the track record of previous arrest warrants for sitting leaders (see: Slobodan Milosevic and Charles Taylor) isn't actually so bad. But de Waal points out that Sudan isn't Serbia or Liberia—in fact, it's more like Uganda, where, initially, the ICC indictment brought Joseph Kony to the table... until he realized that, no matter what, it wasn't going away. And back into the bush he went. De Waal writes:
Milosevic was in the process of losing a war against NATO and Taylor was in the process of being eased out of power (with a promise of safe asylum). The one international policy towards Sudan that has really worked–the CPA–is focused on a negotiated transition. Milosevic and Taylor ran one-man dictatorships which crumbled when they were removed. Bashir is not a one-man dictatorship–on the contrary he has been overshadowed by his lieutenants for most of the last 20 years–so the idea that his replacement by one of his colleagues would represent a democratic transformation is not well-founded.
So what to make of all this? As I say above, I'm wary of being so quick to condemn the ICC, though, of course, the early signs aren't good. But I think we need to see how this plays out. Everything Bashir does is calculated. I still think it's possible he's setting up a situation where he can reinstate the NGOs, putting himself in a position to claim he's made a concession without actually giving anything up. It's tit for tat, really—his opponents added leverage with the indictment, so he's doing the same to balance things out. This actually might be a shrewd move—since the ICC warrant is neither reversible (except for the one-year stay, which seems unlikely) nor necessarily actionable, I'm not sure how much effect it has beyond symbolism; on the other hand, Bashir has hold of a very real lever with his control of the humanitarian establishment in Sudan. He can perhaps claim some sort of moral high ground by reversing the expulsions in the face of a warrant for his arrest.

On a more principled level—and Amanda Taub and Julie Flint imply a similar sentiment—I also just feel like somehow this is selling Darfurians short. It's almost ironic that, in indicting Bashir, the international community is in fact granting him rights—i.e., of due process—that most Sudanese lack. Justice is so much bigger than this trial could ever be, and it can take many different forms, as well. Why go all in now—the stakes are so high, but the pot seems so small. As Taub writes in her post, the base of the pyramid consists of social norms, basic rights and liberties, security, and judicial institutions. Why gamble it all on catching one man when there's no indication doing so will help build this pyramid, with the structures that will secure real justice for people in Darfur and throughout Sudan, now and into the future?

Oh, and also kudos to Derek, at Wicked Karibu, for the best headline on the subject: The ICC's waltz with Bashir.

Friday, March 6

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring

Though the protracted war in Northern Uganda languished for nearly two decades without any real acknowledgment beyond the country's borders, the original Invisible Children documentary and the campus movement it spawned can be credited as among the first large-scale efforts to bring more attention to the subject. Still, it's very much worth reading Chris Blattman's sage, but critical, perspective on the group's approach—his takedown doesn't pull punches (if I can mix a wrestling metaphor with a boxing one... close enough, right?), but it's right on:

There’s also something inherently misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous, about the idea of rescuing children or saving of Africa. It’s often not an accidental choice of words, even if it’s unwitting. It hints uncomfortably of the White Man’s Burden. Worse, sometimes it does more than hint. The savior attitude is pervasive in advocacy, and it inevitably shapes programming. Usually misconceived programming. The saving attitude pervades too many aid failures, not to mention military interventions. The list is long.

One consequence, whether it’s IC or Save Darfur, is a lot of dangerously ill-prepared young people embarking on missions to save the children of this or that war zone. At best it’s hubris and egocentric. More often, though, it leads to bad programs, misallocated resources, or ill-conceived military adventures. There’s lots of room for intelligent advocacy.
I've written more than once about celebrity advocacy, disaster pornography, and the like. This pretty much falls into that genre. As most critics will note (look at the comments to Blattman's post), IC at least deserves praise for making a heartfelt effort to raise awareness for something important, and doing quite a good job at it. No doubt, their young, hip approach to the cause has been a significant part of their success. And some say that this is more than enough—so what if they smooth over the details or miss them altogether, isn't some awareness better than none at all?

One, I think that's a false choice—no one suggests they should have stayed at home, just that their approach could be more sophisticated. But, even so, I'm not that sure some awareness is better than none: "A little learning is a dang'rous thing."

I'm mostly concerned about two possible externalities of efforts like these: misunderstanding and paternalism. If the point of advocacy is to effect policy change, then I think we have to ask, what shape will this change take? Not to preach heresy in the age of Obama, but change, alone, is not enough. If the advocacy is misinformed and patronizing, why is there any reason to think the policies it begets will not be as well? In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill discusses public intervention in private matters—a distinct concern, but for the same reason, and with the same outcome: “The strongest of all the arguments against the interference of the public with purely personal conduct is that, when it does interfere, the odds are that it interferes wrongly and in the wrong place.” The logic here is that the public rarely understands personal problems, so its intervention has a bad track record. The same, I would think, could be said of misguided activism.

Case in point: Invisible Children. As one commenter to Blattman's post writes:
I talked with aid workers in Gulu and the rest of Uganda in the first half of 2007, and IC was met with unrestrained and unparalleled scorn. I was told their NGO was an outcast in northern Uganda--"nobody in the NGO community even knows what they *do*" is, if I recall correctly, an exact quote.
I had a similar experience, though it was put to me as something like: "Gulu is overrun with frat boys." (In fairness, that may have more been in reference to those hoping to film the next Invisible Children, rather than those who made the original.)

My point, I suppose, is that there's a dangerous tendency in the U.S. to fetishize causes. This is why celebrities flock to them and groups like IC print trendy T-shirts that read, "i heart the LRA." It would be one thing if such efforts tended to lead to smarter policy outcomes or more robust and appropriate interventions. But they don't. Instead, we end up trying to save people who don't need or want saving, and even if they did, we wouldn't know how.

Thursday, March 5

Bashir and the ICC

Yesterday, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir; Bashir is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, pillaging, and mass displacement. The much-anticipated announcement came after months of deliberations since the ICC's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, requested the indictment. The U.N. Security Council has the power to stay the charge for up to one year, but no such action has thus far been taken. The three-judge panel ruled against charging Bashir with the crime of genocide.

Immediately following news of the decision, the Sudanese government ordered several of the largest humanitarian organizations working in Darfur to close down operations. According to the AP, at least 10 groups have been expelled, including MSF, Oxfam, IRC, CARE, and Save-UK. The move will affect hundreds of thousands—potentially millions—of people in the western Darfur region, as well as in north and east Sudan, who depend on critical services provided by NGOs in displacement camps and in the absence of government infrastructure, including vital water, health, and sanitation facilities. An abrupt pullout could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

It's hard to see, exactly, how this all plays out. It's possible that Khartoum is bluffing, or that calmer voices in the U.N. or A.U. will prevail and can broker a deal to allow the agencies to continue operations. If not, though, it seems unlikely that the Security Council, having abstained from intervention before the issuance of Bashir's arrest warrant, will opt for a stay at this point, especially since it will appear as if the three Western veto powers capitulated in the face of Khartoum's threats. More likely, it seems to me, this could lead to something along the lines of tougher sanctions—or, probably less likely, as Nicholas Kristof is suggesting, targeted military strikes on Sudan's air force. But what will that mean, in the short-term, for the thousands of people in northern Sudan who have been left suddenly without basic social services? Eastern Chad, for one, is probably in store for a new influx of refugees into its already overcrowded and under-equipped camps. A mass cross-border exodus has the potential to be disastrous, given the already rickety state of things in Chad, but hopefully the international community is better prepared to deal with such a situation today than it was, say, in Eastern Congo in 1994. 

Still, though, the number of wild cards in Sudan's deck right now is worrying: the coarse relations with and similar instability in neighboring Chad and CAR; the tenuous peace in South Sudan; the ongoing rebellions in Darfur; the rapid withdrawal of humanitarian assistance; and now the open question as to what effect having a fugitive for a president might have on politics within Khartoum. The destabilizing forces weighing on Sudan seem to grow by the day.