20 November 2013
Bad Times in Libya
By Gwynne Dyer
A little over two years after the former Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was captured and killed by rebel militiamen outside the town of Sirte, the Libyan state is teetering on the brink of collapse. A dozen different militia organisations have more authority than the central government, and if ordinary civilians protest at their arbitrary rule they get shot.
That happened in Benghazi, in the east of the country, in June, when 31 peaceful demonstrators were shot dead and many others wounded while protesting outside the barracks of the “Libyan Shield Brigade”.
It happened again in Tripoli just last week, when a militia brigade from Misrata that has been roosting in the capital for the past two years used heavy machine-guns on unarmed civilians who were demanding that it go home, killing 43 and wounding hundreds.
In between, there have been some eighty assassinations of senior police and government officials. Last month the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by gunmen of the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room group. Almost all the east and the south of the country are controlled by militias who have seized the main oilfields and ports.
Oil exports, the country’s only significant source of revenue, have dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day last summer to only 200,000 bpd. Deprived of most of its income, the government will run out of money to pay its employees next month – including the militias that harass it, for it pays them off too. And once the militias are no longer getting their protection money, things may get even worse in Libya.
That’s the bad news in Libya, but it all follows logically from the nature of the five-month war that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011. It was not the militias that defeated him; it was NATO’s air power, which relentlessly bombed his troops and strong-points. But since the Western countries, haunted by their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, had no wish to put troops on the ground, it was the militias who collected the victory.
The militias now have 225,000 members in a country of only 5 million people. Only about one-tenth of the militiamen actually fought in the war, but in a country with 40 percent unemployment it’s the best job going, so they do not lack recruits. And from the beginning what passes for a national government in Libya, lacking any army or police of its own, hired the militias to enforce its authority. As a result, they have become the real authorities.
What government there was at the centre has now largely disintegrated. There was a reasonably free election in 2012, but most of those elected represented tribal, ethnic or regional interests, and they have now mostly withdrawn from the national Congress in disgust, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood as the dominant influence in the government even though it lacks broad support in the country. So the disintegration continues.
The eastern half of the country, Cyrenaica, with 80 percent of the oil, is now in practice a separate entity, run by militias that demand “federalism” but really mean independence. Prime Minister Zeidan warned in August that “any vessel not under contract to the National Oil Company that approaches the (oil) terminals (in Cyrenaica) will be bombed,” and so far none has dared to – but that means nobody gets the income. It is a truly horrible mess.
Could this have been avoided? Probably not. After forty-two years of Gaddafi’s brutal rule there was no civil society in Libya that could support a democratic government and effectively demand respect for human rights and an end to corruption. Foreign occupation might have supplied some of the necessary skills to run a modern state, but would have been violently rejected by Libyans. Besides, there were no foreigners willing to take on the job.
You have to start from where you are. Libya is taking much longer than the optimists expected to get to where it needs to be: a democratic state that respects its citizens and enforces the law impartially. At the moment it’s not even heading in that direction: Prime Minister Zeidan worries that it might become “an Afghanistan or a Somalia”.
Probably not. The country’s oil wealth can only flow, whether to the warlords or to the citizens, if there is a reasonable degree of peace and order. That is a powerful incentive to cooperation, even if much of the negotiation seems to be done with guns. And there is a kind of civil society emerging in Libya now: those crowds of protesters that the militias massacred were actually evidence that it exists.
It will be years more before the Libyans manage to sort themselves out, but in the end they probably will. They will probably remain a single country, too, although a highly decentralised and federalised one. But it’s very bad now, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“That’s…victory”; and “What…continues”)
18 November 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
The big news of the week is that China’s one-child policy is being relaxed. After 34 years when most Chinese families were officially limited to only one child, most couples will now be allowed to have two children. The reality, however, is that it will make very little difference.
It will make little difference because only about one-third of Chinese couples were still living under those restrictions anyway. The one-child limit never applied to ethnic minorities, and in the past fifteen years it has rarely applied to people living in rural areas either: couples whose first child was a girl are almost always allowed to have a second child (in the hope that it will be a boy).
Controls were stricter in the cities, but if both prospective parents were only children themselves they were exempt from the limit. And people with enough money can just ignore the rules: the penalty for having a second child is just a stiff fine up front and the extra cost of raising a child who is not entitled to free education. (The fines are reported to have raised $2.12 billion for the state coffers last year alone.)
The net result of all this is that the China’s current fertility rate (the average number of children a woman will bear in a lifetime) is not 1.0, as it would be if there were a really strict one-child policy. According to United Nations statistics, it is 1.55, about the same as Canada. Which suggests that most Chinese who really wanted a second child got one.
The new rules that have just been announced by the Third Plenum of the Communist Party say that urban people can now have a legal second child if just one of the would-be parents was an only child. This is not going to unleash a wave of extra babies; it will raise the fertility rate, at most, to 1.6. (“Replacement” level is 2.1.) Indeed, it’s questionable whether the one-child policy really held down China’s birth rate at all.
There are demographers who argue that the one-child policy hasn’t really made much difference. China was already urbanising fast when the policy was imposed in 1979, and the more urban a country is, the lower the birth rate. From about 1970 there was also a very aggressive birth control policy.
The fertility rate in China had already dropped from 5.8 children per woman in 1970 to only 2.7 in 1978, the year before the one-child rule was introduced. It has since fallen to 1.55, but that might well have happened anyway. For comparison, Brazil’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.0 fifty years ago to 1.7 now WITHOUT a one-child policy.
China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission claims that the one-child policy has spared the country an extra 400 million mouths to feed, but it would say that, wouldn’t it? The real number of births avoided by that policy is probably no more than 100 million in three decades. And if we accept these numbers, then three major conclusions follow.
The first is that the one-child policy is not the major culprit in China’s disastrous gender imbalance, with at least 120 boys born for every 100 girls. The social effects of this are very dangerous: by the end of this decade there will be 24 million “leftover” men who will never find a wife.
Any sane government would be terrified by the prospect of a huge army of unattached and dissatisfied young men hanging around the streets after work with nothing much to do. A regime with as little legitimacy as the Communists will be even more frightened by it. Unfortunately for them, ending the one-child policy will have little effect on this pattern.
Only state intervention as arbitrary and intrusive as the one-child policy could reverse the gender imbalance, and it is doubtful that the Communist regime is still confident enough to risk that degree of unpopularity.
The second conclusion we can draw from these statistics is that China’s population is going to drop whether the regime wants it or not. It will peak at or below 1.4 billion, possibly as soon as 2017, and then begin a long decline that will see it fall to 1.2 billion by 2050.
There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but it exacerbates what is already the greatest threat to economic growth in China: the population’s rapidly rising average age. The big, old generations will be around for a long time, but the younger generations are getting smaller very fast. Indeed, the number of people in the 20-24 age group in China will halve in the next ten years.
This means the dependency rate is going to skyrocket. In 1975, there were 7.7 people in the workforce for every person over sixty: by 2050, the ratio will be only 1.6 employed persons for every retiree.
No country has ever had to bear such a burden before, but ending the one-child policy won’t get the birth rate back up. The only way China could increase its workforce to lessen the burden is to open up the country to mass immigration. And what are the odds on that?
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11. (“The new…policy”; and “Only…unpopularity”)
11 November 2013
Iran Nuclear Deal: The Aftermath
By Gwynne Dyer
What will the Middle East look like after Iran and the great powers that are negotiating over Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons ambitions – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) – sign a deal that ends the confrontation? It’s time to ask the question, because there is going to be a deal.
It didn’t get signed in Geneva last weekend, but it came close. The only foreign minister at the Geneva talks on Friday was Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran, but progress was so rapid that by Saturday almost all the foreign ministers of the “P5+1” – American, British, French, German and Russian – dropped whatever they were doing and flew in for the grand finale. Only the Chinese foreign minister was absent.
The grand finale has been postponed. There were just too many details to clear up in a single weekend, and a couple of sticking points that have yet to be resolved. But the date for the next meeting has already been set (20 November), and nobody went away angry. “We are all on the same wavelength,” said Zarif. “There is a deal on the table and it can be done,” said British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
There are “still some gaps” between Iran and some of the other countries present, Hague said, but “they are narrow gaps. You asked what went wrong. I would say that a great deal went right.” Even French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, the one who apparently dropped a last-minute spanner in the works, said that “we are not far from a agreement with the Iranians, although we are not there yet.”
Fabius’s demands were that the reactor in Arak, now nearing completion, should never be activated, as it would produce plutonium as a byproduct, and that Iran’s store of uranium enriched to medium level (20 percent pure) should be brought back down to 5 percent to move it farther away from weapons-grade (90 percent). Introduced into the talks at a late stage, his demands brought the proceedings to a temporary halt.
All the other Western powers closed ranks and insisted that these were joint demands, but they were not part of the original draft agreement. Speculation was rife that France was acting on behalf of its customers (for French weapons) on the Arab side of the Gulf, notably in the United Arab Emirates, who view the deal under discussion with just as much horror as Israel does. But France can only delay things: the deal is going to happen.
One immediate consequence of the deal will be that Israel has to stop threatening to attack Iran. The threat was always 90 percent bluff – Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s own military chiefs would probably refuse to obey him if he ordered such an attack without American support – but now it will be simply ridiculous. Which will swing the spotlight back to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Iran’s economic isolation will also end, although it may take several years to unwind all the economic sanctions. The gradual return of prosperity in Iran will make the current Islamic regime more secure (which may be the main reason that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah AliKhamenei, authorised newly elected President Hassan Rouhani to negotiate the nuclear deal and end the confrontation.)
But the big question is whether a nuclear deal with Iran will cool the rapidly intensifying Sunni-Shia conflict that threatens to suck in the whole of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula. The answer, alas, is probably not.
The split is as incomprehensible to non-Muslims as the religious wars of Europe four centuries ago were to non-Christians, and mercifully Sunni-Shia hostility has never reached quite that intensity of violence and hatred. But right across the Islamic world it has been getting worse for several decades now, and the eye of the storm is in the Middle East.
Iran is the sole Shia great power, so it is inevitably the focus of the fears of Sunni Arabs and the hopes of Shia Arabs. Moreover, given Turkey’s semi-detached relationship with the region, Iran is in practical terms the greatest power in the entire Middle East.
For the past decade, Iran has been greatly weakened by the arms and trade embargoes that the West imposed because of the nuclear issue. Once those embargoes are removed Iran will regain much of its former strength. This is already causing great anxiety in the Sunni Arab countries, especially those that face it across the Gulf.
Even quite experienced people in Washington and other Western capitals don’t realise the extent to which the Sunni Arab countries of the Middle East thought that their close ties with the Western great powers gave them a kind of guarantee against Shia power –and how betrayed they feel now that they think that guarantee is being withdrawn.
Sunnis outnumber Shias almost ten-to-one in the Islamic world as a whole, but in the smaller world that stretches from Iran and Turkey to Palestine and Yemen, the “Middle East”, Shias make up more than a third of the population. The war is already hot and quite openly sectarian in Syria and in Iraq. In many other places (Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen) it is bubbling just underneath the surface. It will get worse before it gets better.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 10. (“Fabius’s…happen”; and “The split…East”)
6 November 2013
Congo: A Good Start
By Gwynne Dyer
Can it really be as easy as that? Get Rwanda to stop supporting the rebels in eastern Congo, pay the soldiers of the Congolese army on time, send in a United Nations force that actually has orders to shoot, and presto! The bad guys surrender or flee, and a war that has lasted almost twenty years and killed up to five million Congolese is suddenly over.
At least that’s the way it is playing in the media (to the extent that news about the Congo plays in the media at all), and there certainly has been a sudden change for the better.
Less than a year ago the latest and one of the nastiest rebel militias, M23, actually occupied Goma, a city of one million people that is effectively the capital of eastern Congo. UN troops watched helplessly from the sidelines and the Congolese government’s army got drunk and took revenge on civilians for its defeat, while M23 officers swaggered through the city taking whatever they wanted.
It was so humiliating, so stupid and wrong, that Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to give it its proper name, stripped dozens of officers in eastern Congo of their commands and called them back to Kinshasa. Their replacements had at least a rudimentary grasp of their trade – and they have not yet been in the east long enough to develop lucrative deals with the local mining interests and the militias that feed on them.
The Congolese army’s soldiers in the east got some much-needed training in small-unit combat drills. They also started to get paid regularly (in contrast to the more usual pattern where the officers steal their pay and the troops compensate themselves by looting civilians). It’s actually not that hard to turn a rabble into a disciplined army if you have a bit of time and money, and the job was done within a year.
Meanwhile the “international community” (aka the United States and its friends) put heavy pressure on Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame to stop supporting M23. Recently the US even blocked military aid to the small but heavily armed republic, just across Lake Kivu from Goma, that has been meddling in the DRC’s affairs, sometimes even invading the east, for the past two decades. It worked: Kagame stopped answering the phone when M23 called.
And the United Nations, whose 13,000 peace-keeping troops in the eastern Congo had been of no use against M23 because they had no mandate to fight, was so embarrassed that it changed the rules. A new “intervention brigade” made up of 3,000 South African, Tanzanian and Malawian troops was sent, with tanks, helicopters, drones, and full permission to use its weapons against the rebels.
Finally, M23 helped by breaking up into rival factions that fought one another. The former commander, Bosco Ntaganda, known as “the Terminator”, lost the struggle, and to save his life he fled to the US embassy in Rwanda and asked to be turned over to the International Criminal Court to face trial in The Hague on war crimes charges. His successors were just as cruel and corrupt, but less competent.
The offensive against M23 started two weeks ago, with the DRC troops doing the fighting and the UN “intervention brigade” in support. Apart from firing a few mortar rounds on the last day, the UN troops were not even committed to combat. On 5 November the M23 forces lost their last hilltops and surrendered or fled across the border into Uganda or Rwanda, and the war was over. Maybe.
It is a huge step forward, but the peace will only last if two things happen. One is that the DRC now turns its attention to the biggest remaining militia in the east, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.
The FDLR is a Hutu militia, run by the remnants of the Hutu regime that carried out the genocide against Tutsis and Hutu moderates in Rwanda in 1994. Like most of the eastern Congolese militias, the FDLR makes its living by looting the local population and running protection rackets against the rich mining operations in the area, but its ultimate aim is to regain power in Rwanda.
It was the presence of this force just across the border in eastern Congo that caused Rwanda to intervene in its giant neighbour in the first place. M23 was just the last of a series of Tutsi militias that Rwanda created to contain the FDLR, and if it is not destroyed the Rwandan meddling (and the war) will resume.
The other condition for a lasting peace is that the DRC’s own troops in the east of the country do not fall back into their bad old ways. There is big money to be made if they collaborate with the various militias in shaking down the mining operations, and it remains to be seen if the soldiers (and members of Kabila’s own government) can resist the temptation to profit from deals of this sort.
So it isn’t really over yet, but it’s a good start. After a generation of carnage, the people of the eastern Congo deserve a better future.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The Congolese…year”; and “Finally…competent”)