26 December 2013
By Gwynne Dyer
It’s always dangerous to declare “mission accomplished.”
Former US president George W. Bush did it weeks after he invaded Iraq, and it will be quoted in history books a century hence as proof of his arrogance and his ignorance. British Prime Minister David Cameron did it a couple of weeks ago in Afghanistan, and you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But when Edward Snowden said it this week – “In terms of personal satisfaction, the mission’s already accomplished” – nobody laughed.
Unless you just want a list of events, a year-end piece should be a first draft of history that tries to identify where the flow of events is really taking us. By that standard, Snowden comes first. The former National Security Agency contractor, once an unremarkable man, saw where the combination of new technologies and institutional empire-building was taking us, and stepped in front of the juggernaut to stop it.
“You recognise that you’re going in blind…,” Snowden told the Washington Post. “But when you weigh that against the alternative, which is not to act, you realise that some analysis is better than no analysis.” So he fled his country taking a huge cache of secret documents with him, and started a global debate about the acceptability of mass surveillance techniques that the vast majority of people did not even know existed.
The bloated American “security” industry and its political and military allies call him a traitor and claim that “everybody already knew that all governments spy,” but that is a shameless distortion of the truth. Almost nobody outside the industry knew the scale and reach of what was going on, nor did the US government and its faithful sidekick, the British government, want them to know.
As Snowden, now living in exile in Russia, put it in a Christmas broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought.” Unless, that is, the monster of state-run mass surveillance is brought under control.
US district court judge Richard Leon called the NSA’s mass surveillance programme “almost Orwellian”, and in a 68-page ruling declared that the indiscriminate collection of “metadata” by the government probably violates the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution (relating to unreasonable searches and seizures).
Leon also rejected the spies’ usual defence that their techniques are vital to stop the evil terrorists from killing us all: “The government does not cite a single case in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent terrorist attack.” The spooks’ stock response would be that they could have told him, but then they’d have to kill him. The truth is that they snooped on everybody just because they could. It’s called hubris.
This is not just an American issue, though the protagonists in the debate that Snowden has unleashed are inevitably American. These techniques are available to every government, or soon will be. The tyrannies will naturally use them to control their citizens, but other countries have a choice. The future health of liberal democratic societies depends on the restrictions we place on these techniques in this decade.
“The conversation occurring today will determine the amount of trust we can place both in the technology that surrounds us and the government that regulates it,” Snowden said in his Channel 4 broadcast. “Together we can find a better balance, end mass surveillance and remind the government that if it really wants to know how we feel, asking is always cheaper than spying.” He has paid a high price to give us this opportunity, and we should use it.
Now, in no particular order, some other new things this year, most of them unwelcome. Have you noticed that protesters are starting to use non-violent techniques to overthrow democratically elected governments?
We have grown familiar with the scenes of unarmed crowds taking over the streets and forcing dictators to quit: it didn’t always succeed, but from Manila in 1986 to Cairo in 2011 it had a pretty good success rate, and at least two dozen dictators bit the dust. But the crowds were back in Tahrir Square in Cairo last July to overthrow President Mohammed Morsi, who had been elected only one year before in a free election.
Morsi had won with only 51.7 percent of the vote, and a lot of people who did vote for him were holding their noses. The secular liberals who had made the revolution in 2011 divided their votes between several rival presidential candidates, leaving voters in the second round with only a choice between Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, and an adversary who was part of the old regime.
Morsi often talked as if he had a mandate to Islamise Egyptian society (though he didn’t actually do all that much), and it alarmed the former revolutionaries. They could and should have waited for the next election, which Morsi would certainly have lost, mainly because the economy was still a wreck. But they were too impatient, so they made a deal with the army and went back out on the square.
Their little pantomime of non-violent protest lasted only two days before the army stepped in and removed Morsi from power. It subsequently murdered about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters in the streets of Cairo to consolidate its rule, while the men and women who had been the heroes of the 2011 revolution cheered the soldiers on. And now these “useful idiots” are joining Morsi and his supporters in the regime’s jails: the counter-revolution is complete.
But it gets weirder: in Thailand, for the past two months, non-violent protestors have been explicitly demanding the end of democracy. They are relatively privileged people, mostly from Bangkok and the south, who bitterly resent the fact that a series of elected governments led by Thaksin Shinawatra or his sister Yingluck has been spending their tax money to improve the lives of the impoverished rural majority in the north of Thailand.
Naturally, most of the poor vote for the Shinawatras, who win every time there is an election. In 2006, the rich party (“yellow shirts”) conspired with the army to remove the party of the poor (“red shirts”) in a coup, but as soon as there was an election the Shinawatras’ party returned to power. So now the “non-violent protests” have begun again, supported by the prosperous middle class of Bangkok, and this time they are demanding a non-elected “people’s council” made up (surprise!) of people like them.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra responded on 9 December by calling an election. But of course the “yellow shirts” don’t want an election, because they would lose it. They have declared a boycott of the vote, scheduled for February, and resumed their demonstrations. Democracy is their enemy, and non-violence is their weapon.
There was a point when it looked like the mass demonstrations in Ukraine that began in late November were heading in the same direction. The protests were originally against President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, which was legitimate – and they did deter the president (who was under severe pressure from Moscow) from joining a Russian-led customs union instead.
So far, so good – but the opposition leaders have also been playing with the idea of using the demonstrations in Kiev as a way of forcing the elected president out of power. That has been done once before, in 2005, when the extra-constitutional action was justified by a rigged election, but there is no such justification this time – and it is unwise to make a habit of changing governments this way in a country that is so evenly divided between the pro-Moscow, Russian-speaking east and the pro-EU, Ukrainian-speaking west.
The outcome is unclear in both Thailand and Ukraine, but non-violence can now also work for the Dark Side.
Meanwhile, in Africa, wars have exploded across the continent this year like a string of firecrackers. In January, France sent troops to Mali after Islamist rebels who had already captured the sparsely populated north of the country threatened to overrun the rest of it as well. The north was more or less reconquered by mid-year, but the situation remains highly fraught.
In March Muslim rebels captured Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Their leaders quickly lost control, and the rebel troops began to massacre Christians. Christian militias then began carrying out mass reprisals against the Muslim civilian minority, and thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were dead before French troops arrived in December. A kind of peace has now descended on the capital, but elsewhere, who knows?
And in December a full-scale civil war suddenly broke out in South Sudan between the country’s two biggest ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer. Pogroms have emptied Nuer districts in the capital, and there are tank battles near the oil-fields as the army splits on Dinka-Nuer lines. The African Union is stripping troops from its other peacekeeping missions to strengthen its force in South Sudan, but this war could end up with killing on a Rwandan scale.
The African continent is emphatically NOT at war, but the band of territory between the equator and about 15 degrees North is in very deep trouble. You can’t just blame all these wars on the fact that the dividing line between Muslims to the north and Christians to the south generally runs through this territory. Mali, after all, is almost entirely Muslim, and South Sudan contains very few Muslims. Maybe it’s just that these countries are all among the poorest in Africa, and the traditional social networks are collapsing under the strain.
The good news is that there are no major wars anywhere else in the world – except Syria, of course. But there are already 120,000 dead in Syria, and more than a quarter of the population is living as refugees either inside Syria or in the neighbouring countries. Siege warfare conditions prevail across much of the country, now a patchwork quilt of government- and opposition-controlled areas.
The United States went to the brink of bombing the regime’s key centres after poison gas was used in Damascus in August, but it managed to avoid war after the Russians persuaded Bashar al-Assad to surrender all his chemical weapons. And by now there is nobody left for the United States to back in the Syrian war even if it wanted to, because the larger rebel groups are rapidly falling under the influence of extreme Islamist organisations including al-Qaeda.
As evidence of how little Washington wants to be drawn back into the Syrian mess, there is now an attempt underway to defuse the 34-year-old US-Iranian confrontation by negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. Meanwhile, if Iran wants to go on supporting the Syrian regime with arms and money, Washington will not object very loudly.
So the war can go on indefinitely, and it has become a proxy Sunni-Shia war. The arms pour in from Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to the rebel groups, and from Iran and Iraq to the Syrian regime, because the former are all Sunni Muslims and the latter are all Shia Muslims. (Assad’s regime is drawn mainly from the 10-percent Alawite minority in Syria, which observes a deviant form of Shia Islam.)
And the risk grows that all this Sunni-Shia hostility could morph into something like Europe’s 16th-century wars of religion, with Sunni or Shia minorities rebelling in Arab countries like Iraq, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia.
What else? Oh, yes, a list. Right, then. Iran sent a monkey into space in January, North Korea carried out its third underground nuclear test in February, and the Catholic Church got a new head when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became Pope Francis I in March.
The United States also fell off the “fiscal cliff” in March, but nobody was hurt. Xi Jinping took over as President of the People’s Republic of China for the next ten years (no election required), and “Curiosity”, the Mars rover, found evidence for running water in ancient times on the red planet. It was a busy month.
In April, Nicolas Maduro was narrowly elected president of Venezuela a month after Hugo Chavez’s death. In May, Silvio Berlusconi, three times prime minister of Italy, was sentenced to four years in prison for fraud. In June, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced his divorce.
In July, Croatia joined the European Union. In August, Robert Mugabe won his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe at the age of 89. And in September Japan, emotionally shaken by the Fukushima incident, switched off the last of its fifty nuclear reactors. (This means the Japanese will be burning far more coal to keep the lights on, and so they have cut their target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 from 25 percent to only 3.8 percent. But they probably feel better about it, so that’s all right.)
In October, New Zealand announced the official Maori-language alternative names for North Island (Te Ika-a-Maui) and South Island (Te Waipounamu). In November, Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the largest tropical storm to make landfall in recorded history, devastated the central Philippines. And in December, the Chinese spacecraft Chang’e landed the Jade Rabbit rover on the Moon. It was the first soft landing on the Moon since 1976. So you see, there IS progress.
To shorten to 1650 words, omit paragraphs 5 (“The bloated…reasons”); 7 and 8 (“US district…hubris”); 19-21 (“There was…Side”); 25 (“The African…strain”); 27 (“As evidence…loudly”); and 31 (“The United…month”).
A further cut to 1100 words can be achieved by omitting paragraphs 11-18 (“Now…weapon”)
26 April 2012
Sudan Is Not The Norm
By Gwynne Dyer
President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has been having some fun with language recently. He has come up with a new name for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the party that has formed the government of South Sudan since it finally got its independence from Sudan last July.
“Movement”, in Arabic, is “haraka”, but Bashir has started using the word “hashara” instead. “Hashara” means “insect”, and Sudan’s official media have obediently taken up the abusive term. Everybody remembers that the Hutu regime in Rwanda described the Tutsi minority as “cockroaches” when it launched the terrible ethnic genocide in 1994, and it’s particularly troubling because Sudan and South Sudan are on the brink of war.
The oil town of Heglig, on the new and disputed border between the two countries, has changed hands twice this month: first South Sudan drove Sudanese troops out, then the Sudanese took it back. South Sudan’s government insists that it withdrew voluntarily, but the facilities that supplied half of Sudan’s oil have been comprehensively wrecked.
The war, if it comes, would be over the control of the oil reserves along the undefined border, but it would also be an ethnic conflict. The majority in Sudan thinks of itself as Arab, and looks down on the “African” ethnic groups of South Sudan. Members of the Sudanese elite, conditioned by centuries of Arab slave-trading in Africa, sometimes even use the word “abd” (slave) in private when referring to southerners.
The rhetoric is getting very ugly. Bashir recently told a rally in Khartoum: “We say that (the SPLM) has turned into a disease, a disease for us and for the South Sudanese citizens. The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.” It will, he implied, be a total war: “Either we end up in Juba (South Sudan’s capital) and take everything, or (they) end up in Khartoum and take everything.”
This is nonsense: neither side’s army has the logistical support to advance as far as the other side’s capital. But they could certainly kill a lot of people – about two million died in the 22-year war that ended in South Sudan’s independence – and they seem determined to do it all over again.
So what are we to make of this folly? Many people will simply say “It’s Africa. What did you expect?” Others, more sophisticated, will lament that mankind is still trapped in an endless cycle of wars. Almost nobody will say to themselves: “Pity about the two Sudans, but they are just one of the inevitable exceptions to the rule that war is in steep and probably irreversible decline everywhere.” Yet that is what they should say.
War between countries is not the norm in Africa: there are 52 African countries, and only two pairs have gone to war with each other in the past twenty years.
Internal wars are much more common, and some, like those in Rwanda, Somalia, Congo and Sudan, have taken a huge number of lives. But those wars were killing on average more than half million people a year in the 1980s; now the annual death toll from internal conflicts in Africa is around 100,000. It’s not as bad as people think it is, and it’s getting better.
There has been a profound change in attitudes to war not just in Africa, but all over the world. Most people no longer see war as glorious, or even useful. They don’t see it as inevitable, either, and their governments have put a lot of effort into building international institutions that make it less likely.
No great power has gone to war with any other great power in the past 67 years. That is a huge change for the better, for the great powers are the only countries with the resources to kill on a truly large scale: it would take a century’s worth of Africa’s wars at their worst to match the death toll in six years of the Second World War.
This change of attitude has not reached the Sudans, where several generations have lived in a permanent state of war. It is hard to imagine anything more stupid and truculent than the decision of Salva Kiir, the president of South Sudan, to halt all oil production (although it provided 98 percent of his government’s budget) because Sudan was siphoning off some of the oil.
No, wait. That was no more foolish and aggressive than Omar al-Bashir’s unilateral seizure of much of South Sudan’s oil (which crossed Sudan in pipelines to the sea), just because the two sides had not reached an agreement on transit fees. Now both countries are short of oil, strapped for cash – and about to waste their remaining resources on another stupid war.
But at least the rest of world is trying hard to stop them. Even South Sudan’s closest friends condemned it for seizing the town of Heglig, and forced it to withdraw. The African Union has sent former South African president Thabo Mbeki and special envoy Haile Menkarios to mediate between the two sides. China, which took most of the oil exports from both countries, has sent its envoy to Africa, Zhong Jianhua, on a similar mission.
Who knows? They might even succeed. Miracles happen all the time these days.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 11. (“The war…southerners”; “This is…again”, and “No great…war”)
13 February 2012
The New Division of Africa
By Gwynne Dyer
Sudan was bombing South Sudan again last week, only a couple of months after the two countries split apart. Sudan is mostly Muslim, and South Sudan is predominantly Christian, but the quarrel is about oil, not religion. And yet, it is really about religion too, since the two countries would never have split apart along the current border if not for the religious divide.
Ivory Coast was split along the same Muslim-Christian lines for nine years, although the shooting ended last year and there is an attempt underway to sew the country back together under an elected government. But in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest country by far, the situation is going from bad to worse, with the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram murdering people all over the country in the name of imposing sharia law on the entire nation.
“The situation we have in our hands is even worse than the civil war that we fought (in 1967-70, which killed between one and three million people),” said President Goodluck Jonathan. That’s a major exaggeration – the current death toll in Nigeria from terrorist attacks and army reprisals is probably only a few hundred a month – but the potential for much greater slaughter is certainly there.
In an interview with Reuters, President Jonathan said: “If (Boko Haram) clearly identify themselves now and say…this is the reason why we are confronting government or this is the reason why we destroyed some innocent people and their properties, why not (talk to them)?” But it’s pointless: he already knows who they are and what they want.
“Boko Haram”, loosely translated, means “Western education is forbidden,” and the organisation’s declared aim is to overthrow the government and impose Islamic law on all of Nigeria. In a 40-minute audio message posted on YouTube two weeks ago, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, threatened that his next step would be to carry out a bombing campaign against Nigeria’s secondary schools and universities.
This is not only vicious; it is also completely loony. There is no way that Boko Haram could conquer the entire country. Only half of Nigerians are Muslims, and they are much poorer than the country’s 80 million Christians. The Christian south is where the oil is, and the ports, and most of the industry, so that’s where most of the money is too. The same pattern is repeated in many other African countries: poor Muslim north; prosperous Christian south.
There was no plan behind this. Islam spread slowly south from North Africa, which was conquered by Arab armies in the 7th century, while Christianity spread rapidly inland once European colonies appeared on the African coast in the last few hundred years. The line where Islam and Christianity meet runs across Africa about 1,100 km (700 mi.) north of the equator (except in Ethiopia, where the Christians have the highlands and the Muslims the lowlands).
In general, the Muslims ended up with the desert and semi-desert regions of Africa because Islam had to make it all the way across the Sahara, while the more fertile and richer regions nearer to the equator and all the way down to South Africa are mainly Christian because the Europeans arrived by sea with much greater economic and military power. But some 350 million Africans live in countries that straddle the Christian-Muslim fault line.
There probably won’t be a full-scale civil war in Nigeria this time around, but Boko Haram is targeting Christians indiscriminately. The Nigerian army, not best known for its discipline and restraint, is almost as indiscriminate in targeting devout but innocent Muslims in the northern states that are home to the terrorist organisation. Christians are already moving out of the north, and Muslims out of the south.
It will get worse in Nigeria, and it is getting bad again in what used to be Sudan, and Ethiopia is an accident just waiting to happen. Even Ivory Coast may not really be out of the woods yet. There is a small but real risk that these conflicts could some day coalesce into a general Muslim-Christian confrontation that would kill millions and convulse all of Africa.
Christianity and Islam have been at war most of the time since Muslim armies conquered half of the then-Christian world, from Syria to Spain, in the 7th and 8th centuries. There was the great Christian counter-attack of the Crusades in the 12th century, the Muslim conquest of Turkey and the Balkans in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the European conquest of almost the entire Muslim world in the 18th-20th centuries.
It is a miserable history, and in some places it is likely to continue for some time to come. But nowhere in sub-Saharan Africa does the frontier between Muslim-majority and Christian-majority areas derive from conquest: these populations are not looking for revenge.
Boko Haram’s style of radical Islamism is an import from somewhere else entirely, and it would be a terrible mistake for large numbers of Muslim Nigerians to embrace it. On the other hand, it will be a terrible mistake if Nigeria doesn’t get a choke chain on its army, whose brutal actions are all too likely to drive Nigerian Muslims in exactly that direction.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Christianity…revenge”)
12 July 2011
Sudan: The Left-Over Country
by Gwynne Dyer
The flags have been waved, the anthem has been sung, and the new currency will be in circulation next week: the Republic of South Sudan has been launched, and is off to who knows where? Perdition, probably, for it is a “pre-failed state”, condemned by its extreme poverty, 15 percent literacy and bitter ethnic rivalries to more decades of violence and misery. But what about the country it leaves behind?
It’s telling that there is a South Sudan, but no North Sudan. What’s left is still just Sudan. It’s still the second-biggest country in Africa, and it still has four-fifths of the people it had before the south broke away. But it has lost a big chunk of its income: almost three-quarters of the old united country’s oil was in the south. It’s also an Arab country run by a dictator who has been in power for 22 years. So we know what comes next, don’t we?
The dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, is unquestionably a Bad Man. He seized power in a military coup in 1989, and he is the first serving head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court. In 2009, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in his conduct of the war in the rebellious province of Darfur. It added three counts of genocide last year. But he’s not all bad.
He inherited a much bigger war, between the predominantly Muslim north of the country and what is now South Sudan. It was a squalid, dreadful affair that killed about two million southerners and drove another four million – about half the southern population – from their homes. Bashir has a lot of blood on his hands. But he eventually realised that the south could not be held by force, and he had the wisdom and courage to act on his insight.
In 2005 he ended the fighting by agreeing that the two parts of the country would be run by separate governments for six years, after which the south would hold a referendum on independence. He knew that the south would say “yes” overwhelmingly – in the end, 98.83 percent of southern Sudanese voted to have their own country – yet he never reneged on the deal.
“President Bashir and (his) National Congress Party deserve a reward,” said Salva Kiir, now the president of South Sudan, after the votes were counted in February. And Bashir said: “We will come and congratulate and celebrate with you…We will not hold a mourning tent.” His decision made him very vulnerable politically in the north, but he stuck to it for all these years, and as a result many tens of thousands of people who would have died are still alive.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that north-south relations will be smooth after the South’s independence. Most of the oil is in South Sudan, but the new country is landlocked: the oil can only be exported through pipelines that cross Sudan proper to reach the Red Sea. Yet there is not a deal on revenue-sharing yet, nor even on the border between the two countries.
The dispute over the province of Abyei flared into open fighting between northern and southern forces last week, although there is now agreement to bring in an Ethiopian peacekeeping force. There is no agreement, however, on the referendum that was promised for the province but never held.
Abyei’s permanent population is mostly Dinka Ngok, who are Christian or animist by religion and “southern” in their loyalty. The north, however, insists that the Misseriya, Arabic-speaking Muslim nomads who bring their herds of cattle into Abyei to graze during the dry season, also have the right to vote in the referendum. Deadlock.
Such ethnic quarrels will persist and proliferate: at least five rebel groups are fighting the new southern government, and Bashir’s regime faces big rebellions in Darfur, South Kordofan and Nile Province. South Sudan will almost certainly end up as a one-party state that spends most of its revenue on the army – “the next Eritrea,” as one diplomat put it – but the future of Sudan itself is harder to foretell.
Bashir’s immediate problem is economic. The deal to split the oil revenue equally between north and south lapsed with South Sudan’s independence, and he is bringing in harsh austerity measures and a new currency as part of a three-year “emergency programme” to stabilise the economy. But the price of food is already soaring in Khartoum as confidence in the Sudanese pound collapses.
Unaffordable food was a major factor in the popular revolts against oppressive Arab regimes in recent months, and Bashir is trying to insulate himself against that by promising stricter enforcement of Islamic law in Sudan. That may win him some support among the Muslim, Arabic-speaking majority, but by the same token it will further alienate the north’s remaining religious and ethnic minorities. So more rebellions in the outlying regions.
On top of all that, Bashir will forever be seen, however unfairly, as the man who “lost” the south. His status as an indicted war criminal does him no harm with the majority population at home; his failure to crush the southerners by force is what really undermines him. So he may soon have to go abroad and live with his money.
He did one good thing in his life, and no good deed goes unpunished.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The dispute…foretell”)