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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”)

 

World Population: The African Exception

24 June 2013

World Population: The African Exception

By Gwynne Dyer

The news on the population front sounds bad: birth rates are not dropping as fast as expected, and we are likely to end up with an even bigger world population by the end of the century. The last revision of the United Nations’ World Population Prospects, two years ago, predicted just over 10 billion people by 2100. The latest revision, just out, predicts almost 11 billion.

That’s a truly alarming number, because it’s hard to see how the world can sustain another 4 billion people. (The current global population is 7 billion.) But the headline number is deceptive, and conceals another, grimmer reality. Three-quarters of that growth will come in just one continent: Africa.

The African continent currently has 1.1 billion people. By the year 2100, it will have 4.1 billion – more than a third of the world’s total population. Or rather, that is what it will have if there has not already been a huge population dieback in the region. At some point, however, systems will break down under the strain of trying to feed such rapidly growing populations, and people will start to die in large numbers.

It has happened before – to Ireland in the 1840s, for example – and it can happen again. In fact, it probably will. When you look more carefully at the numbers, you can even identify which regions will be hardest hit, because even in Africa there are large areas where population growth is low and dropping.

None of the Arabic-speaking countries of northern Africa will increase its population by more than one-third by 2100, and some will even be declining. South Africa, at the other end of the continent, will only add another ten million people by the century’s end. It’s in the middle belt of Africa that things will get very ugly.

Between now and 2100, six countries are expected to account for half of the world’s projected population increase: India, Nigeria, the United States of America, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda. Four of the six are in central Africa.

In this area, where fertility is still high, the numbers are quite astonishing. Most countries will at least triple in population; some, like Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, are predicted to grow fivefold. That is on top of populations that have already tripled, quadrupled or quintupled in the past half-century. Uganda had 5 million people at independence in 1962; it is projected to have 205 million in 2100.

The numbers are simply preposterous. Niger, a desert country whose limited agricultural land might feed 10 million people with good management, a lot of investment, and good luck with the weather, already has twice as many as that. By the end of the century it will have twenty times as many: 204 million people.

All these numbers are based on assumptions about declining birth rates: if we all just carried on with the birth rates of today, there would be 25 billion people on this planet by the end of the century. The key question is: how FAST is fertility declining – and all the numbers in this article so far are from the UN’s “medium estimates”, i.e. the moderately optimistic ones. The “high estimate” for Niger gives it 270 million people by 2100: an extra 70 million.

It makes no practical difference. Even the “low estimate” of 150 million people in Niger by 2100 is never actually going to happen. That is fifteen times too many people for the available land, and Niger certainly cannot afford to import large amounts of food. Even without reckoning in the huge negative impact of climate change, large numbers of people in Niger (and quite a few other African countries) will begin starving long before that.

So the real picture that emerges from the UN’s data is rather different. It is a world where two-thirds of the world’s countries will have declining populations by 2100. China and Russia will each be down by a third, and only the United States among the major developed countries will still have a growing population: up from 320 million now to 460 million. (By the way, that means there will only be twice as many Chinese as Americans by then.)

In terms of climate change, the huge but ultimately self-limiting population growth in Africa will have little impact, for these are not industrialised countries with high rates of consumption and show no signs of becoming so. The high economic growth rates of African countries in recent years are driven mostly by high commodity prices, and will probably not be sustained.

It is the developed and rapidly developing countries whose activities put huge pressure on the global environment, not only by their greenhouse gas emissions but also by their destructive styles of farming and fishing. Their populations are relatively stable but their actual numbers are already very large, and each individual consumes five or ten times as much as the average African.

So the frightening numbers in the UN’s latest population predictions are mostly of concern to Africa – but the rest of the world is still in deep, deep trouble on many other fronts.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“It has…very ugly”)

 

 

Somalia Come-Back

11 April 2013

Somalia Come-Back

By Gwynne Dyer

There have been no elections in Somalia since 1967 and there won’t be any this year either. But the country has a new parliament (appointed on the advice of clan elders) who have elected a new president, and the new government actually now controls a significant part of the country. The world’s only fully “failed state” may finally be starting to return to normality.

A failed state is a horrendous thing: no government, no army, no police, no courts, no law, just bands of armed men taking what they want. Somalia has been like that for more than twenty years, but now there is hope. So much hope that last month the United Nations Security Council partially lifted its embargo on arms sales to Somalia in order to let the new Somali government buy arms, and last week the US government followed suit.

The new government replaces the “Transitional Federal Government”, another unelected body that had enjoyed the support of the UN and the African Union for eight pointless years. Then last year a World Bank report demonstrated the sheer scale of its corruption: seven out of every ten dollars of foreign aid vanished into the pockets of TFG officials before reaching the state’s coffers.

Fully a quarter of the “national budget” was being absorbed by the offices of the president, the vice-president and the speaker of parliament. The fact that after all that the TFG still only controlled about one square kilometre (less than one square mile) of Mogadishu, the capital, while the rest of the shattered city was run by the Islamist al-Shabaab militia, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, also contributed to the international disillusionment.

That tiny patch of ground, moreover, was being defended not by Somali troops but by thousands of Ugandan and Burundian soldiers of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Unisom). More than 500 of them had lost their lives defending the useless TFG, and the foreign donors were losing faith in the mission. But the Unisom soldiers did achieve one major thing: they fought al-Shabaab to a standstill in Mogadishu.

In August 2011 the Islamist militia pulled its troops out of the capital. That created an opening, and the international community seized it. It ruthlessly initiated a process designed to push the TFG aside: Somali clan elders were asked to nominate members for a new 250-seat parliament, which was then asked to vote for a new president and government.

It was obviously impossible to hold a free election in a country much of which was still under al-Shabaab’s control, but this process also had the advantage that it allowed the foreigners to shape the result. The corrupt officials who had run the old TFG all re-applied for their old jobs, but none of them succeeded.

The new president who emerged from this process, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, is a former academic and human rights worker who only entered politics in 2011. No whiff of corruption clings to him, and he has worked tirelessly to bring about national reconciliation. And he has the wind at his back: just after he was chosen last September, a Kenyan force evicted al-Shebaab from Somalia’s second city, Kismayo.

That still leaves about 95 percent of the country’s territory and three-quarters of its population beyond the government’s direct control. Al-Shabaab still rules in most rural parts of the country, and Ethiopian troops and their militia allies control much of the western border areas. Pirates with a lot of guns and money effectively dominate much of the north.

One whole chunk of the country, calling itself Somaliland, has declared its independence (and runs its affairs much more peacefully and efficiently than any other part of Somalia). No other country recognises its independence at the moment, but it used to be a British colony, quite separate from Italian-ruled Somalia, and in principle it can make exactly the same case for independence as Eritrea did when it broke away from Ethiopia.

The worst problem facing President Mohamud is the venal and cunning politicians who have exploited the clan loyalties that pervade every aspect of Somali life to carve out their own little empires. Some are frankly and unashamedly warlords; others, including all the senior officials in the defunct TFG, masquerade as national politicians but work for their own interests.

They have not gone away, nor have the clan rivalries that kept the fighting going for 21 years. Drawing up the rules and sharing out the power for a new federal Somalia (none of which has yet been decided) will give them plenty of opportunities to make trouble for the new president and regain their former power. Mohamud definitely has his work cut out for him.

Nevertheless, he has strong UN and African Union support, and he now has a chance to create a spreading zone of peace in the country and start rebuilding national institutions. So last week the United States declared that it was now willing to provide military aid, including arms exports, to Somalia. Weirdly, that actually means that thing are looking up in the world’s only failed state.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That still…Ethiopia”)

 

 

Palestinians’ New Weapon

4 November 2011

The Palestinians’ New Weapon

By Gwynne Dyer

The Palestinians have finally come up with a strategy that may produce some results. But only by accident, so to speak.

They were fed up with nineteen years of “direct negotiations” with Israel that never made any progress towards a final peace settlement, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas badly needed some small victory to prop up his failing popularity. So he decided to seek international recognition of Palestine as a sovereign state.

He didn’t say that he was abandoning direct negotiations with Israel forever, but he insists that they will not resume until Israel stops building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – which will be shortly before Hell freezes over. In the meantime, he is trying to strengthen the extremely weak bargaining position of the Palestinians by seeking membership in the United Nations.

He knows very well that the Palestinians cannot get full membership in the United Nations, because the United States has promised to veto that. But membership in the various UN agencies like the World Bank and the World Health Organisation is not subject to a veto, and each organisation they join would move Palestine a tiny step closer to real statehood.

Their first target was the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). On 31 October (last Monday) they were granted full membership by a vote of 107 in favour, 14 against, and 52 abstaining.

The United States immediately cut off its huge contribution to UNESCO’s annual budget – 22 percent of the total – as a punishment for voting the wrong way. The UNESCO vote, said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, was “regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Israel’s response was equally drastic. It announced that it was speeding up the construction of 2,000 new homes for Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It has also cut off the transfer of tax revenues that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority on goods passing through Israel: about $100 million a month, which provides half of the PA’s domestic revenue. Without it, the PA’s civil servants will go unpaid.

Painful measures for the Palestinians, but Israel is always building more homes for Jews in the West Bank, and it cuts off the flow of revenue to the Palestinians whenever it feels like it: this is the second time this year. Nothing new there. And Washington had no choice: it is obliged by a 1990 US law to cut funding to any organisation that recognises the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

But this law, which the Palestinians were barely aware of when they adopted their current strategy, presents them with an extraordinary opportunity. There are fourteen other UN specialised agencies, from the Food and Agriculture Organisation to the World Meteorological Organisation, most of them with similar membership requirements to UNESCO: a two-thirds majority vote of the existing members, and no veto.

If the Palestinians apply for membership in each of these organisations over the next year or so, they will probably get the same 88 percent majority when it comes to a vote on membership. None of the countries that defied the United States and voted Palestine into UNESCO is going to humiliate itself by changing its vote at other UN agencies. And each time, Washington will be forced by law to cease its contributions to that agency.

The United States would not actually lose its membership by stopping its financial support – at least not for a good long while – but it would lose all practical influence on these agencies, which do a great deal of the work of running the world. It would be a diplomatic disaster for Washington, and it would test America’s reflexive compliance with Israel’s agenda, perhaps to the breaking point.

This interesting possibility is only now getting the full attention of decision-makers in the United States, Israel and Palestine. It gives the Palestinians unprecedented leverage over the United States, but it is a tool that must be used with caution, for Washington cannot back down. The United States operates under the rule of law, and the Obama administration must enforce this archaic law unless and until Congress rescinds it.

The law, which prohibits the United States from paying funds to any UN agency that accepts the Palestinians as full members, was passed in 1990, before the Oslo Accords were signed and at a time when neither Israel nor the US even spoke to the Palestinian leadership. But Congress, which is often described by Washington insiders (though always off the record) as “Israeli-occupied territory,” will certainly not repeal it.

Using this new lever that has fallen into his hands, Mahmoud Abbas could actually drive the United States out of most international agencies if he wanted, but that is not in his interest. What he actually needs is some major pressure on Israel from Washington to stop building settlements and start negotiating seriously.

That cannot happen in an election year, so perhaps Abbas will wait until the end of next year and the outcome of the American presidential election. The US law will stay on the books, but if Barack Obama wins re-election in 2012, maybe then he will risk putting pressure on Israel rather than see the US driven into what amounts to diplomatic isolation. Or maybe he won’t.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 13. (“He didn’t…Nations”; and “The law…it”)