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Archive for February, 2020

Lady Macbeth of Maseru

First there was ‘Macbeth’, the Shakespeare play (1606). It’s a bloody play even by Shakespeare’s demanding standards, with Lady Macbeth as the chief inciter to violence.

Then there’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, a short novel by Nikolai Leskov (1865) that was later turned into an opera by Shostakovich. This Lady Macbeth is called Katerina, and she murders first her father-in-law, then her husband, then his nephew and heir, and finally her lover’s next mistress. Industrious to a fault, you could say.

And in 2020 we have Lady Macbeth of Maseru, the unpretentious capital of Lesotho. Maesaiah Thabane, wife of Prime Minister Thomas Thabane and therefore First Lady of Lesotho, is charged with ordering the murder of his previous wife three years ago, and he’s accused of being her accomplice. She is, of course, half his age. She’s 42; the prime minister is 80.

I have had several dear Basotho friends since I was a teenager and have visited the country at intervals for most of my adult life, but I must admit it’s a puzzling place. There is no white settler minority, and it has none of the tribal rivalries that cripple so many other African countries. It should be better than it is.

Everybody is descended from Sesotho-speaking refugees who held out in its mountains against the Zulu armies during the Lifaqane of the early 1800s. It’s poor, like many mountainous countries – 16th-century Switzerland sent its young men abroad as mercenaries; modern Lesotho sends them to South Africa’s gold mines – but it’s pretty equal.

So why has it got a very high murder rate, and why are its politics so vicious? It’s a democracy, but its modern history is strewn with coups, attempted coups and even military interventions to quell the fighting by South Africa (whose territory completely surrounds Lesotho). Now the prime minister and his wife both stand accused of murder.

The killing actually happened in 2017, just before Tom Thabane began his second term as prime minister, but the story goes back to 2012, when he began divorce proceedings against his wife, 58-year-old Lipolelo Thabane. She fought the case, so he just moved his girlfriend, Maesaiah Ramoholi (as she was then known), into the prime ministerial residence and began treating her as the First Lady.

Now it was Maesaiah who accompanied Thabane on state occasions and received the official financial support a First Lady is entitled to – until Lipolelo won a court case in 2015 that acknowledged that she was still the First Lady and entitled to that money.

This judgement made no practical difference at the time, since it was issued just as Tom Thabane lost the prime ministership in one of the games of musical chairs that pass for politics in Lesotho. But in the next round of the game, in 2017, Thabane emerged as prime minister again, and suddenly that court decision mattered a lot.

Lipolelo was going to be First Lady again, receiving the honours and the money that Maesaiah thought should be hers. Two days before Thabane’s re-inauguration as prime minister, however, Lipolelo was shot to death on the dirt road leading to her house outside Maseru. A family friend who was also in her car escaped with several bullet wounds, but she could not identify the attackers.

Regrettably, attacks like this are not unknown in Lesotho, so the public (with some misgivings) accepted it as just another unresolved tragedy. Two months after Thabane took office again, Maesaiah became the new Mrs Thabane and Lesotho’s new First Lady in a wedding in Maseru’s stadium. However, Lesotho’s police quietly continued their investigation.

Eventually they found something interesting. Two months ago Police Commissioner Holomo Molibeli sent a letter to the prime minister whose key sentence read: “The investigations reveal that there was a telephonic communication at the scene of the crime in question… with another cell phone. The cell phone number belongs to you.”

Okay, give him a break. Thabane is 80, and he didn’t realise that he should be using a burner for this kind of call. Or Maesaiah didn’t. Whatever. But there it is: the fat is now officially in the fire.

Maesaiah fled to South Africa when an arrest warrant was issued for her in January, but eventually came back and was officially charged. Tom Thabane also went to South Africa to avoid a court appearance, allegedly for ‘medical reasons’, but appeared in court last Monday and claimed that as prime minister he has legal immunity from any criminal charge.

That’s questionable. The king, Letsie III, certainly has immunity, but Thabane’s claim will have to go to the High Court. Maesaiah’s trial will probably have to wait until that is decided.

Just another heart-warming story of everyday folks in Lesotho politics – but at least the rule of law still prevails.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“Everybody…equal”; and “Okay…fire”)

Assange Hearing

The cost of being a whistle-blower is going up. When Daniel Ellberg stole and published the ‘Pentagon Papers’ in 1971, revealing the monstrous lies that the US government was telling the American public about the Vietnam war, he was arrested and tried, but the court set him free.

When Edward Snowden released a vast trove of documents in 2013 about the global electronic surveillance activities of US intelligence agencies, he was already abroad, knowing that civil liberties had taken a turn for the worse in the US since 1971. Snowden is still abroad seven years later, living in Moscow, because hardly anywhere else would be safe.

And Julian Assange, whose court hearing on a US extradition request began on Monday at Woolwich crown court in east London, is facing 175 years in jail if Britain delivers him into American hands. The American authorities are really cross about his WikiLeaks dump of confidential material in 2010 that detailed US misbehaviour in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Everybody knew or at least suspected that terrible things were happening there, but without documentation there was really nothing they could do about it. What Assange did was give them the evidence.

The most striking piece of evidence was a video and audio clip from an Apache helicopter gunship attacking civilians in Baghdad in 2007. The crew spray their targets with machine-gun fire, making comments like “It’s their fault for bringing their kids into battle” and “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” They even target people in a vehicle that stops to help the wounded.

As for the claims of the US authorities that Assange has “blood on his hands” – that his 2010 data dump endangered the lives of some of those who were mentioned in the documents – there is not a shred of evidence that this is so. If anyone had come to harm over the past nine years as a result of his actions, don’t you think that the US government would have trumpeted it to the skies?

The whistle-blowers are among our last remaining checks on the contemptuous ease with which those who control the information seek to manipulate the rest of us. We don’t always respond to the whistle-blowers’ revelations as fast and as strongly as they would hope, but they are indispensable to keep the level of lying down. They should be praised, not punished.

So what are the chances that Julian Assange will escape extradition to the United States and a lifetime in prison? His lawyers will doubtless argue that nobody was harmed as a result of his revelations (except perhaps in their reputations for truthfulness) and that nobody profited by them. A British court might look unfavourably on an extradition request that is brought out of sheer vindictiveness.

The story that Donald Trump contacted Assange through an intermediary, former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, might also help. Trump was allegedly offering to pardon Assange if the Australian would confirm that it wasn’t the Russians who gave him the Hilary Clinton campaign emails he released during the 2016 election campaign.

This has all been denied by both Rohrabacher and the Trump White House, but in carefully phrased ways that leave room for suspicion. Trump’s recent denial that he doesn’t know Rohrabacher and never spoke to him is especially suspect, since he invited the man to the White House for a one-on-one in April, 2017. British courts will not extradite if the request is politically motivated.

But Assange’s best chance probably lies elsewhere. During the seven years when he lived in Ecuador’s embassy in London as a political asylum-seeker, a Spanish security company called UC Global installed cameras in every corner of Assange’s space in the embassy and live-streamed every contact and conversation he had, including with his lawyers, directly to the US Central Intelligence Agency.

I don’t know how a British court will respond to that information, but I think I know how an American court would respond. That’s how Ellsberg got off in 1971: the government tapped his phone conversations (and sent burglars to break into his psychiatrist’s office and steal his file), so the judge dismissed the case because the government’s behaviour was outrageous and no fair trial was possible.

There will be many appeals, both in the UK and maybe later in the US, and Assange will not draw a free breath for a long time, if ever. But in the meantime, here’s one happy ending.

Edward Snowden couldn’t tell his girlfriend his plans before he left the US and released his documents, because that would have made her his accomplice. She was angry at first, but she forgave him, married him in 2017, and lives with him in Russia.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“The whistle-blowers…punished”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

The Next Russo-Turkish War?

Turkey has not won a war against Russia since the 1600s, although there have been at least half a dozen of them. You would think that even the most aggressive Turkish leader would try to avoid another one, but you would be wrong.

President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, who has ruled Turkey for the past seventeen years, says he is going to start a war with Russia at the end of this month. Just in Syria, of course, where both Turkey and Russia have already been meddling in the civil war for years. He’s not completely deranged.

“We are making our final warnings,” Erdogan said on Wednesday. “We did not reach the desired results in our talks [with Russia]….A (Turkish) offensive in Idlib is only a matter of time.”

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, is the last province controlled by rebel forces, and Turkey is their patron and protector. Russia’s military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in 2015 saved President Bashar al-Assad from almost certain defeat, so there was already strain on the Turkish-Russian relationship – but until recently it was kept under control.

While Russia was determined to stop militant Islamists seizing power in Syria, it was also angling to lure Turkey out of its membership in the NATO alliance, so in 2018 Moscow and Ankara made a deal at Sochi on the Black Sea. The northwestern province of Idlib, where all the surviving rebels had retreated, would remain under Turkish protection, at least for the time being.

That deal broke down last year for several reasons. Almost all the other rebel forces in Idlib were subjugated (after considerable fighting) by the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham organisation, which is just al-Qaeda with a name change. (You remember al-Qaeda: the 9/11 attacks, head-chopping, ‘Islamic State’.) And Turkey made no effort to stop the jihadi take-over.

Turkey also didn’t keep its promise to free up the M5 freeway, which runs between Aleppo and Damascus, Syria’s two biggest cities. (Its northern section, in Idlib province, was in rebel hands.) So in December the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, launched an offensive to clear the jihadi forces off the M5. They have now succeeded, and Erdogan is very cross.

Western media unanimously condemn the ‘ferocious’ Syrian offensive (so unlike the gentle offensives conducted by Western forces), and focus only on the refugees who have fled the fighting. They almost never identify the people the Syrians and Russians are fighting as al-Qaeda, preferring to describe Turkey’s jihadi allies as “some rebel groups in the area”.

But there is little chance that NATO will come to the aid of its Turkish ally even if Erdogan acts on his threat to attack the Syrians and Russians. And he may well do that: in recent weeks he has been pouring thousands of Turkish troops and hundreds of tanks into Turkey’s ‘observation posts’ in the province.

The Russian response to Erdogan’s threats has been steadily hardening. After a last-ditch meeting between Turkish and Russian delegations in Moscow on Tuesday failed to produce results, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned: “If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian republic…this would of course be the worst scenario.”

He added sarcastically that Russia would not object if the Turkish military took action against the “terrorist groups in Idlib”, in line with the Sochi accord. But what would the Russians actually do if Erdogan carries out his threats?

Erdogan is threatening air strikes against targets throughout Syria, not just in Idlib. He has a big air force, and he could certainly do that, but Russia has a bigger one. Would it just sit idly by and let its Syrian ally be pounded from the air? That seems unlikely. A ground war between Turkish and Syrian troops could well be accompanied by air battles between Russia and Turkey.

You can spin the speculation out endlessly – what would the Israelis do? What would the United States do? – but the likeliest outcome is that Erdogan backs down and the ceasefire line in Idlib is redrawn to leave Highway 5 in Syrian hands.

However, ‘likeliest’ is a long way from ‘certain’. This could end up as a major war, and since Turkey can easily block Russian ships heading for the Mediterranean, Russian victory would not be quick or easy. But they would win in the end, as they always do, and Russia’s victory would make it the paramount power in the eastern Mediterranean.

It would also entail the fall of Erdogan. There’s always a silver lining.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Western…province”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Germany, Japan and the War on Rationality

Germany and Japan are finally winning a war together. Unfortunately, it is the War on Rationality.

Coal, as everybody knows, is by far the most damaging source of energy we use, in terms of both the harm to human beings and the impact on the climate. It’s twice as bad as natural gas, and dozens of times worse than solar or nuclear or wind power. Yet both Germany and Japan have been building lots of new coal-fired power stations. Why?

Would it upset you if I said it’s because they are, despite their apparent sophistication, superstitious peasants at heart? Well, go ahead and get upset.

Germany still gets more than a third of its energy from burning coal, and most of it is ultra-polluting lignite or ‘brown’ coal. If most of Germany’s seventeen nuclear power had not been shut down after 2012 (the last are scheduled to close within two years), then at least half that coal would not have been needed.

There had been an active anti-nuclear power movement in Germany for some time, but what triggered the 2012 decision to shut the entire sector down was the Fukushima incident of the previous year.

I am deliberately avoiding the words ‘calamity’, ‘disaster’ and ‘catastrophe’, because while the Fukushima tsunami killed 19,000 people, the subsequent problem with the four nuclear reactors on the coast killed nobody. Yet the German people, or at least a large number of German anti-nuclear activists, insisted that any nuclear reactor anywhere was a mortal danger, and the government agreed to shut all the German nuclear plants down.

The same thing happened in Japan. The Japanese planners were foolish to put four reactors on the coast in a region where earthquakes and consequent tsunamis were to be expected from time to time, but what needs to be condemned is Japanese planners, not nuclear power. Nevertheless, all fifty Japanese nuclear reactors, which supplied 30% of the country’s electrical power, were immediately shut down.

The Japanese are not as blindly dogmatic as the Germans: two of those nuclear plants reopened in 2015, and seven more reopened recently. A further seventeen are in the lengthy process of restart approval, so by 2030 the Japanese government hopes to be getting 20% of its electricity from nuclear power again.

But that’s only half the amount of nuclear power that Japan originally planned to have available by 2030, and the gap between 20% and the planned 40% of the country’s energy needs will be made up by burning coal. Japan recently announced that it plans to build 22 new coal-burning power plants in the next five years.

This is deeply irresponsible behaviour, and the worst thing is that the decision-makers know it. They are just deferring to public opinion, which in this instance is entirely wrong. The ‘superstitious peasants’ should really be frightened of global warming, for which coal-burning is a major driver, not of relatively harmless nuclear power.

That’s not to say that nuclear power is the solution to all our problems, or even most of them. It is generally the most expensive option because it is costs so much to build the reactors and the associated controls and safety devices. Indeed, nuclear is no longer cost-competitive with other ‘clean’ sources of power like wind and solar.

So there is a case for not building any more nuclear power stations, at least in regions and countries that have ample resources in terms of sun and wind. But there is no case for shutting down existing nuclear stations and burning more coal to make up the difference. That is so stupid it verges on the criminal.

Other countries can be idiotic too. Due to an administrative glitch, Chinese provinces are currently building hundreds of unnecessary coal-fired power stations that may never be used, since the central government expects the country’s coal use to peak this year – and most existing Chinese coal plants already sit idle more than half of the time.

At least China is also building nuclear plants as fast as it can, and last year accounted for more than half the world’s output of solar panels. (On the other hand, it is providing work for the Chinese construction industry by building a planned 300 coal-fired power stations in other countries, presumably on the unspoken assumption that carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere won’t affect China’s climate.)

But nobody is as crazy as the Germans and the Japanese, who have been shutting down nuclear plants and replacing them with coal-fired plants. France will close its last coal-fired station in 2022, and Britain will do the same in 2025, but Germany says 2038 and Japan just says ‘eventually’. That’s far too late: by then the die will be cast, and the world will be committed to more than 2 degrees C of warming.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14. (“This is…power”; and “At least…climate”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.