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West Africa

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Burkina Faso: The 8th Coup Fails

The dust has settled in Ouagadougou, Africa’s capital of military coups (seven in 65 years), and the elections in Burkina Faso have been rescheduled for the end of next month. Don’t be cynical about it; that is real progress.

Burkina Faso, a land-locked country in West Africa, competes with Somalia for the honour of being Africa’s poorest country. You might wonder why anybody would want the thankless job of running such a place, but political power means access to scarce resources (like money) even in the poorest countries. Especially if you are in the army.

What would have been the country’s eighth coup (if it had succeeded) began in mid-September when General Gilbert Diendere, the head of the Presidential Guard, seized and imprisoned the interim president and prime minister. He was doing it, he said, because the party of the last president, Blaise Compaore, had been banned from running in the election.

Compaore, a former soldier who first came to power in a coup himself, was ousted by popular demonstrations last year when he tried to run for the presidency yet again after 27 years in power. Diendere had been his closest associate for all of that time, and everybody assumed that his coup was really a bid by Compaore to return to power.

Everybody was right, although if the coup succeeded Diedere might have decided to stay in power himself. When the demonstrators who had forced Compaore out of power last year came out on the streets again, Diendere’s troops hosed them down with automatic weapons fire, killing fourteen and wounding hundreds. It was not the mob but the institutions that thwarted his ambitions.

The coup was instantly condemned by the African Union. “The AU considers the announcement by the military of the ‘dismissal’ of (interim) President Michel Kafando and the attempt of substituting him with ‘new authorities’ as null and void,” said the AU chairperson, South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma

The regional organisation, the Economic Community for West African States (Ecowas), took a softer line, putting together a mediation team and offering the coup leaders amnesty despite the killings. But when civil society groups in Burkina Faso protested at the amnesty offer, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, took the lead for West Africa.

Buhari, who was a military dictator 30 years ago, coming to power in one coup and losing it in aother, now describes himself as a “converted democrat”. He called Diendere’s coup a “brazen contravention” of Burkina Faso’s constitution and demanded that he withdraw. And Burkina Faso’s army, which had always resented the special privileges of the Presidential Guard, moved into the capital and told Diendere to surrender.

So he did, although there was a bit of shooting first. Now Diendere is under arrest facing eleven charges including “crimes against humanity,” the Presidential Guard has been disarmed and formally disbanded, and the election is back on again for 29 November.

The election will not solve all of Burkina Faso’s problems, but democracy might do it eventually. The country still has the lowest literacy rate in the world, it is still dirt poor, and the population (now 17 million) is still doubling every 25 years. But one thing is definitely changed for the better.

Most Burkinabes may be illiterate, but they have become aware of their rights and no longer accept the dictates of armed thugs in uniform without question. African institutions have changed too, and no longer turn a blind eye when a member country faces a military coup. They intervene promptly and decisively, and they generally succeed.

They are less good at dealing with countries where dictators hold regular elections whose outcomes they control through bribery, a monopoly of the mass media, or just plain police-state terror, like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. But more than half of the continent’s fifty countries are now more or less functional (though still quite corrupt) democracies.

The real value of democracy is that it requires the rule of law, which is the most important thing you need in order for economic growth to benefit people outside the political and business elite. People just won’t bother to invest and work hard if they know the proceeds are likely to be stolen.

The rule of law is never complete – even in the most developed countries, there is often one law for the rich and another for the poor – but the closer you get to the ideal the better your growth will be. People often miss this, thinking only in terms of human rights, and arguing that the economy, not democracy, must be the first priority for poor countries.

They are wrong. It is the rule of law that gradually shrinks corruption and gives people a reason to invest in their future, and you can’t have the rule of law without democracy. Burkina Faso in heading in the right direction, and so is Africa.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 12. (“Everybody…ambitions”; and “They are…democracies”)

Exponential Ebola

Here are two good things about the Ebola virus. It is unlikely to mutate into a version that can spread through the air, as some other viruses have done. And people who have been infected by Ebola cannot pass it on to others during the incubation period (between two and 21 days). Only when they develop detectable symptoms, notably fever, do they become infectious to others, and only by the transfer of bodily fluids.

Here are three bad things about Ebola. The “bodily fluids” that can transmit it include even the tiniest droplet of sweat: just the slightest touch can pass the virus on. The death rate for those who become infected is 70 percent. And the US government’s Centers for Disease Control warned recently that we could have 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January.

Since the number of known cases so far is only around 7,500, that suggests that the number of new cases is doubling approximately every two weeks. This is called exponential growth: not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… but 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…. If you put one grain of wheat on the first square of a chess-board, two on the second, and keep doubling the grains every square, there are not enough grains of wheat in the world to get you to the 64th square.

Exponential growth always slows down eventually, but the question is when? A vaccine would slow it down, and the British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline already has one under development, but it is still in an early stage of testing. Human volunteers are now being given the vaccine to check for unforeseen side effects.

If no serious side-effects are found, the vaccine will then be given to health workers in West Africa. A process that normally takes years is being compressed into mere months, and ten thousand doses of the vaccine are already being produced (for the health workers). But it will be the end of the year before we know if it actually gives a useful degree of protection from the virus.

If it does, then millions of doses would have to be produced and injected into the people of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where Ebola is already an epidemic – or tens of millions of doses if the disease has spread by then to more populous countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana or, worst of all, Nigeria, which has 175 million people.

Until and unless a vaccine becomes available in very large quantities, the only way to stop the exponential spread of Ebola in the affected countries is to isolate the victims, a task that is very difficult in mostly rural countries with minimal medical facilities. Liberia with 4.2m people, had only 51 doctors and 978 nurses and midwives at the start of the crisis, and some of those have already died or fled.
You don’t need to find and isolate everybody who gets the disease to break the exponential pattern. Just isolating 75 percent of them as soon as they become infectious would drastically slow the spread. But at the moment, in the three most affected countries, only an estimated 18 percent of the victims are being taken to treatment centres (where, of course, most of them will die).

This is why the most important intervention so far has been the dispatch of 3,000 US troops to Liberia, with the primary job of creating seventeen large tent hospitals and training 500 nurses to work in them. Britain is providing 200 new hospital beds in its former colony of Sierra Leone, with 500 more in the next few months. Cuba has sent 165 health workers, China has sent 60, and France has sent various teams to help its former colony, Guinea.

But with the exception of the American aid to Liberia, it is all woefully inadequate. Nine months after the first case of Ebola was confirmed in Guinea, we are still playing catch-up, and playing it badly. Why is that? Aren’t the developed countries also at risk if the virus continues to spread?

Well, no, or at least their governments don’t think so. Even without a vaccine, they are confident that their health services can find and isolate any infected people quickly and prevent Ebola from becoming an epidemic in their countries. They are probably right, and so they see the limited help they are sending to West Africa as charity rather than a vital self-interest. But they may be wrong.

As Professor Peter Piot, who first identified the Ebola virus in 1976, said in a recent interview with Der Spiegel, “I am more worried about the many people from India who work in trade or industry in West Africa. It would only take one of them to become infected, travel to India during the virus’s incubation period to visit relatives, and then, once he becomes sick, go to a public hospital.

“Doctors and nurses in India often don’t wear protective gloves. They would immediately become infected and spread the virus.” Then you would have Ebola on the loose in a country of more than a billion people, millions of whom travel abroad each year. All hope of confining the disease to Africa and driving it back down to almost nothing, as was done in previous outbreaks, would be gone.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 5 and 6. (“Exponential…people”)

Victory in Mali?

30 January 2013

Victory in Mali?

By Gwynne Dyer

As usual, a well-trained Western army has gone through a fierce-looking but virtually untrained force of African rebels like a hot knife through butter. Two weeks ago, the northern half of Mali was entirely under the control of Islamist militants, whose forces were starting to advance into southern Mali as well. So France decided on very short notice to send troops and combat aircraft to its former colony in West Africa.

Today, every town in the north of Mali is under French control, and the surviving rebels have fled into the desert. But most of them did survive: after losing a couple of major clashes in the first days of the French drive northwards, the Islamist forces simply abandoned Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, the main towns of the north, as soon as the French forces came near. The easy part of the intervention is now over.

It’s not surprising that the French military intervention was an instant success. The Islamist rebels, like most African paramilitaries (and quite a few African armies, too), did not even know the basic combat drills that every infantryman in a Western army has practised until they are second nature. But now come three tasks that are considerably more difficult.

The first is to deploy an African Union-backed military force, made up of units from armies elsewhere in West Africa, to take over from the French. You can’t just hand the recaptured towns back to Mali’s own army, which is so incompetent and rotted by politics that it would promptly lose them back to the militants.

This force, dubbed the International Support Mission to Mali, has the unanimous blessing of the United Nations Security Council. International donors met in Ethiopia on Tuesday and pledged $455.53 million to pay for this force. Mali’s many neighbours – it has open desert borders with seven other West African countries – have already identified the units they are going to send.

But it’s going to be weeks or months before those African units actually arrive, because many of them aren’t very well trained either. (French and British troops are being sent to train some of them before they even set foot in Mali.) In the meantime, the north of Mali will really be entirely under French military rule.

This means that there will be none of the looting, rape and murder that tends to follow the Malian army’s arrival in town, but the French troops are very foreign indeed. They are not even Muslims, in a country that is nine-tenths Muslim. They were welcomed as liberators when they rolled into the northern towns in the last few days, but if they stay for too long they will become first unpopular, and then hated. That’s just the way things work.

Once African troops replace the French, the next task is to rebuild the democratic government of Mali, which was destroyed by a military coup last March. The interim president, Dioncounda Traore, says that he wants to hold elections next July, but behind the scenes the greedy young officers who made the coup still hold the real power. They will have to be sent back to their barracks before elections take place, and that will not be easy.

And the third task is to win the very different kind of war that starts in Mali now. Retaking occupied towns was easy. Now that the militants have scattered across the vast deserts of northern Mali, they will launch a different kind of war – a “war of the shadows”, conducted by raids, bomb attacks and assassinations.

Countries can survive for decades with that kind of low-intensity war going on in the background, but the only way to shrink it to a manageable level is to make a political deal. This is not impossible in Mali, because the Islamist fanatics actually hijacked the revolution from their former allies, the Tuareg separatists.

Most of the people in the north are Tuaregs, desert-dwelling people of Berber stock and nomadic heritage who are ethnically, culturally and linguistically distinct from the black African majority in southern Mali. Many of them support the separatist movement that wanted to create an independent Tuareg state in northern Mali, but few actually share the extreme religious views of the Islamist militants.

The two groups made an alliance to drive the Malian army out of the north, but the Islamists then turned on their allies and seized absolute power for themselves. Their harsh rule was resented by most people, however, and so it should be possible to isolate the Islamists if the Malian government is willing to make a deal that gets the Tuareg separatists on its side.

They won’t get independence, but they would probably settle for a large degree of autonomy for the north. It will be hard to get a new Malian government that is elected almost entirely by the votes of southerners (90 percent of the population lives in the south) to make that concession, but the alternative is a long, draining guerilla war in the north.

Was the French military intervention in Mali necessary? Yes, in the view of the United Nations, the African Union, and most Malians. Was it a success? That remains to be seen.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“But it’s…work”)

 

 

 

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

12 December 2010

Ivory Coast: A Tale of Two Countries

By Gwynne Dyer

All the foreigners and about half the Ivorians agree that Alassane Ouattara won last month’s presidential election in Ivory Coast – but not the southerners, who say that it was their man, Laurent Gbagbo. So the Election Commission declared Ouattara the winner, and the Constitutional Council declared Gbagbo the winner.

It’s been eight years now since Ivory Coast, once the richest country in West Africa, was divided. This election was supposed to end the division, but it has just perpetuated it. Maybe it’s time to accept that Ivory Coast is two countries, not one.

Once the notion of dividing an African country in two was unthinkable. The basic rule of the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was that the former colonial borders must remain inviolable, since if they could be changed there might be a generation of civil wars.

But there was a generation of civil wars anyway – in Nigeria, Angola, Ethiopia, Liberia, Congo and Sudan, to mention a few. There are far more ethnic groups in Africa than there are countries: some vie for dominance within the existing borders, while others simply want to secede and form their own countries.

There is also a religious split between mainly Muslim and predominantly Christian regions that extends right across the continent, but the dividing line runs THROUGH a number of countries, not between them. From Ivory Coast in West Africa to Sudan on the Red Sea, the north of every country is Muslim, and the south is Christian.

The ban on division was breaking down even before the OAU was replaced by the African Union in 2002. Eritrea’s secession from Ethiopia in 1993 was accepted by the OAU, although the subsequent secession of Somaliland and Puntland from Somalia has not received official blessing. And next month southern Sudan will almost certainly secede from the rest of the country in a referendum overseen by the African Union.

It’s becoming almost commonplace – and maybe Ivory Coast is a suitable case for treatment. It enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity under the rule of its first post-independence president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, but since his death in 1993 there has been almost continuous political upheaval. Finally, in 2002, rebel “New Forces” in the army seized control of the Muslim north and split the country.

It has remained split ever since, and there are some 8,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the country. But neither negotiations nor outside pressure have ended the division – and neither have elections.

Reunification was supposed to be achieved by the recent election, which was closely scrutinised by all manner of foreign observers from Africa and beyond. Almost everybody voted on the basis of ethnic and religious loyalties, and the winner was a Muslim northerner, Alassanne Ouattara. He got 54.1 percent of the votes, to 45.9 percent for the incumbent, President Laurent Gbagbo.

Gbagbo is a Christian southerner, and he lost because there are a few hundred thousand more people in the Muslim north of the country. But he did control the Constitutional Court, which promptly declared that hundreds of thousands of northern votes were invalid, either because the voters in question were actually foreigners, or because they simply didn’t exist.

So Ouattara was inaugurated as president at a luxury hotel in Abidjan guarded by United Nations troops, with the blessing of the UN, the African Union, the European Union and the United States. But at the presidential palace, guarded by the Ivorian army, Gbagbo was also sworn in for a new term as president. “We didn’t ask anyone to come and run our country,” said Gbagbo defiantly. “Our sovereignty is something I am going to defend.”

The African Union is trying very hard these days to ensure that electoral results are respected in Africa, so it has suspended Ivory Coast’s membership until Ouattara is actually in power. Since Gbagbo still has the support of the army and controls the state television channel, however, it will be very hard to get him out. Besides, the rights and wrongs of the situation are not as clear-cut as they seem.

Because Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest exporter of cocoa, was the richest country in West Africa, for decades it received a large flow of immigrants from the poorer countries to the north, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso. The immigrants were all Muslims, and their languages were closely related to Dioula, the dominant language of northern Ivory Coast. They were all illegal, of course, but some of them voted anyway.

Ivorian elections have therefore long been troubled by accusations that many voters in the north are not citizens. Even Ouattara himself was banned from running in the 2002 election because his parents, it was alleged, were from Burkina Faso. And it doesn’t matter who is right: southerners will always think they have been cheated if their candidate loses, while northerners will always insist that the vote was legitimate.

The problem has crippled Ivory Coast for almost twenty years, and it will not go away. Mercifully, the killing so far has only been in the thousands, not the tens or hundreds of thousands. But if Ivorians can’t resolve the current dispute quickly, it may be time to consider a divorce.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 11. (“Reunification…Gbagbo”; and “So Ouattara…defend”)