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Congo

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Congo: A Good Start

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.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“The Congolese…year”; and “Finally…competent”)

 

An African Iceberg?

22 May 2013

An African Iceberg?

By Gwynne Dyer

Keeping a file of random clippings is an old-fashioned thing to do, but sometimes it offers you unexpected connections. Sometimes it’s a connection that you don’t even want to see. But there it is, so what are you going to do about it?

In June, 2009, South Africa’s Medical Research Council published a report which said that over a quarter of South African men – 27.6 percent – have raped somebody. Almost half of those men admitted to raping two or three women or girls. One in thirteen of the self-confessed rapists said they had raped at least ten victims.

The numbers are astonishing and horrifying, but on the assumption that at least a few of the interviewees were ashamed, or were afraid that their admission might later be used against them, those numbers are probably low. The Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, where the study was conducted, are among South Africa’s poorer provinces, but there is no self-evident link between poverty and rape.

The study was a model of statistical rigour. It used a Statistics South Africa model of one male interviewee in each of 1,738 households across all racial groups and income levels in both rural and urban areas. Half of the men interviewed were under 25 years old; 70 percent of the rapists had forced a woman or girl into sex for the first time when they were under 20.

The researchers were not even trying to count South Africa’s rapists. The study was called “Understanding Men’s Health and Use of Violence: Interface of Violence and HIV in South Africa,” and it was really investigating the linkage, if any, between sexual violence and the spread of HIV. It turned out there was none – but that the actual amount of rape going on is completely off the scale even for an extremely violent society like South Africa.

I found another report claiming that 40 percent of South African women can expect to be raped during their lives, but I had nothing to add to the discussion so I just filed the information away. Then last November I saw a report in The Guardian about a study carried out in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo in which 34 percent of the men interviewed – over a third – admitted to rape.

That’s a war zone, of course, and it may not be representative of the Congo as a whole. But I did begin to wonder how widespread this phenomenon was, and I came across a study in the African Journal of Reproductive Health dating back to 2000, in which 20 percent of a thousand women interviewed in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania (hardly a war zone) said they had been raped. Only one-tenth of those rapes were reported to the police.

And early this month came a report from the Rwanda government’s Gender Monitoring Office that a survey of more than 2,000 schoolchildren across the country revealed that 43 percent of them were aware of other pupils being raped. Teachers were allegedly among the chief offenders.

“If teachers are responsible for the problems of teenage pregnancies, that is a serious problem as they’re supposed to protect them,” said Education Minister Vincent Biruta. But Katherine Nichol, who works at Plan Rwanda, an NGO that promotes girls’ education in rural areas, was willing to go a little further. “We only know the tip of the iceberg of this issue here in Rwanda,” she said.

That’s the question, really. Are these reports just anomalies and exceptions? After all, South Africa is very violent, the eastern Congo is a war zone, Rwandans have been traumatised by the genocide of 1994, and Tanzania is – well, maybe just an anomaly. Or are they the tip of a continent-wide iceberg?

Rapes happen everywhere, not just in Africa, and it’s especially bad in war zones. There was practically no German woman left unraped in the eastern parts of the country when the Soviet army swept in in 1944-45.

Armies seem to have a special problem with sexual violence even when there isn’t a war. Last year, there were 26,000 reported cases of sexual violence against women in the US military – and the Pentagon believes up to 80% of sexual assaults go unreported. Indeed, a female soldier in the US military is more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted by one of her own colleagues than injured in battle.

But the subject today is Africa, and the few statistics available suggest that there is an astoundingly high number of rapes in several widely separated countries. So what is needed now is more and better statistics.

Is the proportion of rapists among the male population in the western Congo (which is more or less at peace) much lower than in the East, or not?

Are Kenya’s official rape statistics (over 300 women per week) accurate, or should they be multiplied by ten to account for non-reporting, as in Tanzania?

Are the true numbers for rapes different in Muslim countries in Africa (all the ones mentioned above are predominantly Christian), or are they really the same?

Nobody will win a popularity contest by gathering these statistics, but hundreds of millions of African women have the right to know the answer. And when the scale and nature of the problem is clear, there needs to be urgent, decisive action.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 12. (“The numbers…rape”; “The researchers…Africa”; and “Armies…battle”)

 

 

The Fate of Africa

8 August 2012

The Fate of Africa

By Gwynne Dyer

Good news from Africa: after two decades of bloody anarchy, Somalia is finally on the mend. There is something resembling a government coming into being in Mogadishu, with much help from African Union troops – although the country’s most popular comedian, Abdi Jeylani Marshale, famous for his parodies of Islamic militants, was assassinated in broad daylight a week ago

Bad news from Africa: the situation in Mali is awful. The military coup in March that opened the way for Tuareg tribalists and Islamist extremists to seize the northern half of the country isn’t really over. The ignorant and brutal young officers who made the coup are blocking the arrival of 3,000 African Union troops, Mali’s only hope of ever regaining control in the north, because it would undermine their own power.

News about Africa that you don’t know whether to cheer or deplore: the major foreign aid donors have finally got fed up with Rwanda’s endless military meddling in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The United States has announced a cut in military aid, and Britain, Germany and the Netherlands are delaying payment of civilian aid, until Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, stops backing a rebel Tutsi militia in his country’s Congolese neighbour.

Everybody sympathises with Kagame’s attempt to rebuild peace and prosperity in Rwanda after the genocide that killed about half of the country’s Tutsi citizens. Everybody understands why he worries about Hutu militias in the eastern Congo. But he has to stop backing murderous Tutsi militias there, and using them to loot Congo’s mineral wealth. (On the other hand, don’t destabilise Kagame’s rule too much or the genocide might resume.)

Too many names, too many places, too much news. Even Africans cannot keep up with the news about their own continent. Is Africa going forwards, sideways, or nowhere at all? Indeed, is Africa any more than a geographical term?

The surfeit of news is inevitable in a continent that contains half a hundred countries. The sense of chronic crisis and chaos is due to the fact that in such a news-rich environment, the bad news will always jostle the good news aside. And yes, there really is an Africa about which you can usefully make large generalisations.

First, the entire continent is finally growing economically. Many African economies stagnated or even went backwards in the first three or four decades after decolonisation, but now there is real growth. Local disaster areas remain, of course, but over the past decade the gross domestic product of those fifty countries has grown at an average rate of 5 percent.

Manufacturing production in Africa has doubled in the past ten years. Seven of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in Africa. The growth is starting from a desperately low base, in many cases, but the magic of compound interest means that a 5 percent growth rate will double the size of the economy every fourteen years.

So there really is hope that most Africans can escape from poverty in the next generation – but on one condition. The birth rate is declining in most countries, but it must fall faster. The 2008 UN projections saw Africa doubling its population to two billion by mid-century, even assuming that the current gradual decline in African birth rates continues. That means an average population growth over this entire period of almost 2 percent a year.

If the economy is growing at 5 percent and the population is growing at 2 percent annually, that only leaves room for a 3 percent growth in average income. That means a doubling time of about 23 years for African average incomes, so let’s assume that they triple by 2050. That’s not enough.

African average incomes now are so low that tripling them would still not create the degree of prosperity and security that people in other continents are coming to expect. Worse, it would not give African governments the resources to cope with the huge damage that climate change will do to the continent.

The impact of global warming is worst in the tropics and subtropics: huge floods and semi-permanent droughts will become almost routine in these areas. Africa will suffer more than anywhere else, because it is the only continent that is almost entirely in the tropics and subtropics. Feeding the population will become a major problem.

There is enough potential cropland in Africa to feed twice the current population in the present climate, but it’s far from clear that this will remain true in a two-degree-warmer world. If African governments invest enough in agriculture now, they can probably keep everybody fed; if not, the long-term future of the continent is probably widespread political violence and gradual economic collapse.

It’s a race. Grow average incomes fast enough and you probably survive the coming storm. Otherwise, you lose all you have gained, and more besides. Nobody said it was going to be easy.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 12. (“Everybody…resume”; and “The impact…problem”)

 

 

Biodiversity and Small Mercies

30 October 2010

Biodiversity and Small Mercies

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes we have to be grateful for small mercies. The deal on biodiversity that more than 190 countries agreed in Nagoya, Japan last Friday was, as these things usually are, “a day late and a dollar short,” but it’s a lot better than nothing. It’s even better than most people expected.

Technically, it was only the 10th biennial “Conference of the Parties” who signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) eighteen years ago, but it was not just another meeting. It was a serious effort to move past rhetoric and come to grips with how to stop the slow-motion catastrophe of species extinction. (The current rate of extinction is at least a hundred times higher than the historical rate, perhaps as much as ten thousand times higher.)

The negotiations went right down to the wire, but after three weeks of haggling they got a deal on Friday night. The most important target set by the Strategic Plan 2011-2020 will increase the area of protected land in the world – no farming or grazing, no forestry – from 12.5 percent to 17 percent.

That’s almost half the land that should really remain untouched if nature is to go on producing the “ecosystem services” that keep our environment relatively stable. It’s a dollar short, of course: we will ultimately have to give forty percent of the land surface of the planet back to nature if we really want long-term stability. But it’s a good start.

Even more importantly, the Strategic Plan will increase the protected area of the oceans from only one percent to ten percent by 2020. If that is done in the right places, it would create no-fishing-allowed marine reserves big enough to allow the many endangered fish populations, some of them down to ten percent or less of their former numbers, time and space to recover. (Fish multiply pretty rapidly if you give them time to mature and breed.)

The other big achievement of the conference is a deal that promises governments in the developing world, and also indigenous peoples in those countries, fair payment for genetic material that ends up in highly profitable first-world crops and drugs. There are also useful measures to protect life in wetlands, forests, freshwater systems and coastal zones – and the financing to pay for it.

This is particularly encouraging after the climate change conference in Copenhagen last December ended in a complete train-wreck, for the Climate Change Convention is the long-lost twin of the biodiversity treaty. Maintaining the stable, benign climate of the past 10,000 years is critical to the well-being of a global civilisation that now numbers almost seven billion human beings – but so is preserving the web of life that underpins that climate.

Both treaties were born at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, an event that was extraordinary in its ambition. The Cold War had just ended, the notion of a single global civilisation was gaining ground, and the realisation was dawning that the sheer scale and heedless economic style of that civilisation were starting to devastate the environment that supported it. The summit was an attempt to stop the destruction before it went too far.

The climate change treaty was intended to tackle the key issue of global warming, but scientists and even lay people were beginning to understand that everything joins up. About forty percent of human greenhouse gas emissions, for example, come from forestry and agriculture, and those same activities are decimating or destroying the living species, many of them microscopic, whose interactions maintain the environment we live in.

But nothing much happened after the signature of the biodiversity convention. The rain-forests of the Amazon, the Congo and Indonesia continued to be cut down, the world’s fisheries drifted closer to collapse, and though many deplored the neglect, no government did anything about it. After a good start in the 1990s, the climate change accord also stalled after the United States began actively sabotaging the talks under President George W. Bush.

Now the world is emerging from that wasted decade, and all sorts of things that were put on hold at the height of the terrorist panic, or just postponed because the United States wouldn’t play, are back on the agenda. Not always with instant success, as the Copenhagen shambles amply demonstrated – but real progress is possible again, and last week in Nagoya is the proof of that.

Of course, you probably expected me to write about the two little explosive packets found aboard cargo aircraft last week, because that’s so much more exciting than the fate of the planet. But everybody else is doing that, and there really isn’t much new to say about it anyway. Apart from the observation that a civilisation that thinks the biggest threat it faces is terrorism is a dangerously deluded civilisation.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 8. (“Both…far”)