Tag Archives: African Arguments

China and Africa – an odd and whimsical approach that suggests Chinese racism

African Arguments

Confucius and the Curate’s Egg: The Morality of China in Africa – a review by Keith Somerville

May 16, 2013

It is oddly appropriate that in reviewing a book that expends many pages in slightly obscure, not always enlightening and often whimsical accounts of the philosophy of Confucianism and folk tales of the Middle Kingdom, that I should employ a very English euphemism taken from a Punch cartoon from the Victorian era to characterize it. For those who don’t know the cartoon, it shows a young Church of England curate at breakfast with his bishop. The curate’s egg is bad – but so as not to slight his superior he insists that parts of it are excellent.  That is rather the case with Stephen Chan’s book looking at the morality of China’s relations with Africa.

Having worked through it over a couple of days there were a few passages that were excellent but I was not convinced in the end that this would enable me to be as diplomatic or perhaps as obsequious as the curate. But I did feel that a little whimsy was appropriate as so much of the book has a strange, whimsical character that does not always sit well with the seriousness of the subject.

I do always worry when a book about Africa has in the title the words “Dark  Continent”. It smacks of the sarcastic advice Binyavanga Wainaina gave to writers about Africa in his well-known Granta article in 2005 – darkness was a metaphor he clearly thought people should avoid.  Stephen Chan, I’m sure, intends its use to highlight some of the less sophisticated Chinese views that persist about Africa.  But it crops up in the book every now and again, as when one contributor, Jerru Liu, notes that “the behaviour of the descendants of Confucius in the Dark Continent is difficult for the West to understand”; one does wonder whether other constructions might have been better to get this across. It is one thing using the phrase to depict bluntly how many Chinese have preconceptions about Africans, as many Westerners also do, but another when trying to describe wider perceptions of Chinese behaviour in his own words.

And it is often the choice of language, of long passages about Confucianism and the Middle Kingdom, that make this a frustrating book to read.  Every now and then one gets glimpses of what could be valuable insights into Chinese approaches to Africa – as the majority of those writing in this slim volume are of Chinese origin – but the whimsical prose or somewhat obscure Confucian discourse then shroud the issue.  We get a lot of folksy or sentimental passages – about how Chan was touched to see Zimbabwean guerrilla leaders eating with chopsticks or how he at one stage seemed popular in Africa because his long-hair meant Africans seemed to equate him with the Shaolin monks of martial arts movies – but these do little in the end to increase the reader’s understanding of the issue of morality in China’s dealings with Africa or the nature and detail of those dealings.

The blurb on the back of the book says that the work “undermines existing assumptions concerning Sino-African relations”.  If there was any undermining going on it was of any lingering doubts about the racist attitudes of many Chinese towards Africa and Africans.  Outlining how “Africa is indeed part of the traditionally ‘barbarian’ world” in Chinese terminology, Chan goes on to say that explanations of the use of white devils for Europeans and black devils for Africans cannot be written off as metaphors for something less insulting, “they were condescending insults”; he then adds that “popular speech in China still uses these labels” (p.17). If that is his judgement on Chinese views of Africans, then it says little for the moral basis of the overall Chinese approach to Africa. He emphasises the point with the old Chinese story of Meng Huo who is crude in his tastes and behaviour but is allowed to remain a king under the tutelage of the virtuous Zhu of the Middle Kingdom – Meng Huo – who, like Africa, is a barbarian and “Barbarians, even those adopted as younger brothers, never quite cease being barbarians” (p. 21).

In between the folk-tales and excursions into Confucianism, there is some detail of the development of Chinese-African relations over time.  I would have liked more of this and greater detail about current trade and investment relations and more in-depth analysis of the problems encountered – such as the repeated and bitter violence between Chinese mine bosses and miners in Africa and growing resentment of the expanding numbers of Chinese migrants and small traders across Africa.

The accounts are interesting, but patchy. So we get reference to China’s support for Savimbi’s UNITA against the MPLA in Angola, but no reference to the extensive arms deliveries and military training given to Roberto’s FNLA via Mobutu’s Zaire in combination with the CIA – the escalation of external intervention in the developing civil war that was arguably decisive in bringing the Soviet Union and Cuba into the conflict.  We get nothing of substance on the use of Chinese rather than African workers on a lot of projects and of the role Chinese retailers play in undercutting their African rivals by importing cheap and subsidised Chinese manufactured goods that, for example, have severely damaged the Nigerian textile industry or reduced South Africa’s trade in manufactured goods with the rest of Africa.

Comparing this volume with Chris Alden’s excellent and detailed China in Africa published by African Arguments and Zed in 2007, I am tempted to ask why Zed didn’t ask Alden for a second, updated edition rather than invest in a discursive and somewhat obscure volume that tells the reader more about the author’s feelings and musings than about the crux of a very important subject for Africa.

Stephen Chan (ed) The Morality of China in Africa:  The Middle Kingdom and the Dark Continent is pubklished by Zed Books, London. ISBN 978 1 78032 567 5 hb; ISBN 978 1 78032 566 8 pb.  £14.99  aa

Western Sahara – “the conflict over the final status of the territory” has gone on too long

African Arguments – Western Sahara is not Mali: on Islamist extremists and Saharwi freedom fighters  – By Celeste Hicks

 

MINURSO Team Monitors Ceasefire in Western Sahara (Oum Dreyga, UN photo library)

Following his most recent visit to Laayoune in November, the UN envoy for Western Sahara Christopher Ross said that “the conflict over the final status of the territory” has gone on too long.

Mr Ross is correct in saying the conflict has gone on too long – it’s now 21 years since a ceasefire was agreed between Morocco and the Polisario (the Saharwi independence movement); the next step was to organise a referendum which was to determine whether the people wanted to remain a part of Morocco – which annexed the territory illegally after colonial power Spain pulled out in 1975 – or opt for independence. That vote by indigenous Saharwi people and the thousands of Moroccan settlers who now live in Western  Sahara has never taken place. Speaking to a number of UN officials from the Mission responsible for organising the referendum (Minurso) recently in Laayoune, the hurdles seem immense – it’s hard to see how it ever will take place.

But Mr Ross’s second assertion that it would be “a serious miscalculation to believe that the status quo can last, since it is now threatened by the rise of extremist, terrorist and criminal elements in the Sahel region” needs more analysis.

In a telephone conversation about Western Sahara to the Moroccan minister of Communications Mustafa Khalfi, I noted down three specific references to the current crisis in the Sahel. In one answer Mr Khalfi said that Morocco’s plan for economic development in the territory was with a view to ensuring “state stability”, explaining that the world “doesn’t need another failed state in the Sahara region”.

I believe this comment is indicative of Morocco’s campaign to convince politicians in Europe and the US that it is a bulwark of stability in a precarious region. Remember that as Ghadaffi’s regime collapsed in near-by Libya, it was remnants of his Tuareg supporters who streamed over the border into northern Mali to cause havoc with their newly-acquired weapons from his stocks – a region now dominated by extreme Islamist groups. Continuing political uncertainty in Tunisia and Egypt is a powerful argument for keeping the peace between Morocco and Western Sahara at almost any cost.

Much of the evidence for the “status quo being threatened by the rise of extremist, terrorist or criminal elements in the Sahel” appears to come from the case of three European humanitarian workers who were kidnapped in Tindouf camp in western Algeria, home to an estimated 40,000 refugees from the conflict between Morocco and Polisario in October 2011. When the three were finally released in July 2012, the kidnapping was claimed by MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa), an off-shoot from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) which is now one of the dominant players in northern Mali. However, the precise circumstances around this incident are questioned; even last month Polisario’s Spanish arm – equally adept as Morocco at propaganda (if on a smaller scale) – told me that it was Morocco who arranged the Tindouf kidnappings; at the time AFP reported US sources suggesting that it could even have been the Polisario.

While it is possible that jihadists from Mali could travel the more than 1500 kilometres across the desert sands to Tindouf to implicate themselves in the Western Sahara conflict, it must not be forgotten what an enormous job they have on their hands in northern Mali. Reliable estimates for the collective number of fighters that MUJAO and AQMI can call on are hard to come by, but some analysts believe it may not be more than a few hundred. Ansar Dine, the other Islamist group operating in northern Mali, may have more members but cracks have already appeared between the so-called ‘foreign’ elements of AQMI and MUJAO (many of them are Mauritanians and Algerians) and Ansar Dine which is led by the Malian Tuareg Iyad Ag-Ghali.

Representatives from Ansar Dine recently attended peace talks in Burkina Faso chaired by Blaise Compaore, something AQMI and MUJAO have rejected. If the proposed ‘AFISMA’ Ecowas mission to reclaim the north of Mali ever goes ahead, surely the already-fractured Islamists would think twice about stretching themselves too thin?

An appreciation of the genesis of both the Islamic groups in northern Mali and the Polisario would also suggest the two would make unlikely bedfellows. AQMI started life as Islamist group GSPC which led a violent campaign against the Algerian state from the country’s south for many years – yet the main protector and advocate for Polisario and the Tindouf refugees has been the Algerian state in its ongoing hostilities with Morocco. While there remains a danger of disaffected young Saharwis taking up arms out of frustration, my visit to Laayoune showed me many of those fighting for independence see their cause as unique and not associated with regional politics; (for example when I asked civil society leaders if the Gdeim Izik protest camp which was broken up by Moroccan police in November 2010 was the start of the ‘Arab Spring’, several of them told me that it was a similar movement but was specially focused on the Saharwi’s circumstances).

In short, there is not much evidence that either the Malian Islamists or the Saharwi/Polisario are particularly interested in one another. Just as the collapse of Mali caught almost everyone (including me) by surprise, a simplistic reading of the over-arching terrorist threat in the Sahara may not be a useful prism through which to view the Western Sahara conflict. While widespread instability in the region is in no-one’s interests, responding to Morocco’s red flags about the danger of terrorist and criminal networks (smuggling networks have been running across the Sahara for years) risks absorbing the implicit message that only a strong Morocco can protect Europe and the US, and that any attempt to interfere in Western Sahara could tip a precarious balance.

Mr Ross needs to recognise the complexities of what’s going on further south in the Sahel, and not be seduced by Morocco’s pro-Western stance. The EU’s recent announcement that it has appointed a Rapporteur on Human Rights in Western Sahara (British MEP Charles Tannock) and its decision last year to rescind the EU fisheries agreement with Morocco because the Western Sahara problem has not been resolved are encouraging signs.

Celeste Hicks is a freelance journalist with a focus on African issues. She has a particular interest in the Sahel.

Celeste travelled with the assistance of the International Women’s media Foundation.  African Arguments

S Africa – a debate on Marikana, mines and the ANC

African Arguments – Keith Somerville and Desne Masie

Following the response to Keith Somerville’s ‘Mines, Malema and Mangaung’ piece, from Desné Masie and Simon Freemantle, Desné and Keith continued the debate via email. We thought the discussion sufficiently illuminating to warrant publication on African Arguments in its own right. The debate has been lightly edited by an impartial non-participant.

From: Keith Somerville
Sent: 18 September 2012
To: Desné Masie
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Hi Desné, thanks for the e-mail.
I was confused by your piece, to be honest, as it seemed to be more a bit of a rant along the lines of ‘how dare these foreigners criticise the ANC after all it’s done’. I couldn’t find anything of substance where you weakened my argument or really challenged it… It seemed that you objected to the tone more than anything else.
I was not predicting apocalypse, but South Africa and the ANC are approaching a watershed and the ANC will either lose support or…[require] an amazing resurrection which will involve a purge of corrupt elements and place-seekers.
My analysis is strongly supported by much of what [Zwelinzima] Vavi [General Secretary of Congress of South African Trade Unions – COSATU] has said in recent years, the conclusions of Martin Plaut’s excellent book Who Rules South Africa and Moeletsi Mbeki’s recent analysis.
…my analysis is from the left, lamenting the ANC’s undoubted descent into greed, corruption and what seems to be a policy vacuum. I sympathise strongly with the miners who are striking…the company and the union…are both failing them.
Regarding Malema, he is a force. He is not just hot air. He can appeal cynically to the young, unemployed and downtrodden (just as Hitler did) without any intention of helping them in the long-term but as a means of gaining power or influence. Youth League leaders have frequently affected the direction of the ANC (Mandela/Sisulu/Lembede but also Mokaba throwing his weight behind Mbeki and shafting Ramaphosa).
Malema helped unseat Mbeki and now wants to unseat Zuma in favour of either Motlanthe or Sexwale (who has proved to be a disappointing, unprincipled opportunist). He now has ample opportunity to say that he was wrongly kicked out of the ANC by a leadership that has lost its way.
Best wishes,
Keith

Desné Masie says:
September 20, 2012 at 11:01 am
From: Desné Masie
Sent: 18 September
To: Keith Somerville
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Dear Keith
I would say we meant largely to engage with the negative synopsis and tone of your article. There was insufficient space to go into some of the finer points, but this is a country that [still works], and mining is not as important to the economy today as it was historically… In my opinion, [your] piece, which was relentlessly negative in tone and outlook, was an example of increasingly negative commentary in the wake of Marikana, and [is broadly representative of] the manner in which South Africa is written about generally.
This is also partly the fault of the South African media, which enjoys a robust culture of debate that is also prone to exaggeration. This, of course, also spills into international press networks. So, I would say that saying the country is “descending into into a morass” would fit into a broader apocalyptic narrative that is extant in the international press in terms of its consumption of African news.
But this is subjective and open to interpretation, and you may feel, contrary to the aims of your body of work as a journalist. I would, however, say that, in my opinion, the international press and its role in observation and informing is welcome. I take issue, however, when the Global South is framed in these accounts. And these countries are forced into a permanently defensive position, constantly having to prove they’re not about to tank.
Where we agree is that the event should prompt the government into taking meaningful action on inequality.
Which brings me to Who Rules South Africa – which I reviewed here, and also interviewed the authors. While the book makes some good points, provides a snapshot about South Africa, you will see I asked Paul [Holden] and Martin [Plaut] similarly, if they did not think their synopsis was far too negative and reliant on the negative SA media sources I mentioned earlier…I am appealing for a framing of South Africa that is not prejudged by a doom and gloom outlook that is … too rife in opinion and analysis …and contrary to the views of South Africans who feel that there is still much to be positive about.
That being said, Paul pointed out that…in his opinion, countries such as Italy are more corrupt than South Africa, but of course we must speak out on corruption anywhere it rears its ugly head.
…In a personal capacity, I have voted against the party in elections, since I feel it is complacent about its majority. I would say though that while it has failed in some aspects, and the stink around Zuma needs airing etc, South Africa has enjoyed many milestones – significantly that it has had free and fair elections and is developing a welfare state, the grants from which have lifted many people out of poverty. Houses have been built, the economy has been stable. I do not think that current media analysis local and domestic in that regard is balanced.
…by no means am I saying that foreign correspondents should not write about South Africa. I also know that the media and international community played significant part in liberating South Africa, but I am also saying let’s not be so soon to damn it, even though we all would be disappointed after its extraordinary transition to democracy that it would not succeed. This is why I mention that I write in a personal capacity – if only because I think the ability of South Africans to galvanise around the good of the country is a testimony of their commitment to democracy. But while I am saying let’s give the country a chance, I’m not absolving the government from its responsibilities.
Re: Malema
I have written on him as well – and agree with some of what you say as well as that he speaks some uncomfortable truths, but largely I think he is an opportunistic PR machine afforded too much attention and that is what has made him seem truly powerful. Essentially, I feel he is ruthlessly self-serving. Time will reveal if he truly is a kingmaker, but my feeling is not.
Re: Moeletsi Mbeki
I think he makes some good points, and the abuse of BEE does require some introspection… While I feel BEE is an insufficient response to years of unequal opportunities, somehow racial inequality from the past needs to be addressed? I think that white South Africans make an enormous contribution to South Africa, but economic power does need to shift. Moeletsi’s views on the state of the South African economy are not entirely correct though. South Africa has continued to enjoy GDP growth, and this is remarkable considering the contraction in trade and investment due to the global financial crisis.
Kind regards
Desné

Keith Somerville says:
September 20, 2012 at 11:02 am
From: Keith Somerville
Sent: 18 September 2012
To: Desné Masie
Subject: Re: Marikana – African Arguments
Dear Desné,
My generally negative analysis, is I think supported by the trends within South Africa since the early years of the millennium, when the ANC began to appear very divided (rather than being a broad church that enabled and encouraged different views and an element of compromise) and the Zuma-Mbeki conflict started. I don’t believe strong criticism necessarily equates with an apocalyptic view – South Africa is in a negative phase but one that is capable of reversal. But at the moment, the ANC does not seem united, to have coherent policies, a process of realistic planning or the will to reform. That may come at or after Mangaung, or it may need further breakaways, perhaps on the left and from within Cosatu.
Perhaps the best thing that could develop is a left-wing party taking in elements within the ANC, Cosatu and civil society groups – maybe the ANC has served its purpose, however noble that purpose it was.
Certainly mining is not as key to the overall economy as before, but it is a major employer and one where there has been no trickle down of benefits to workers, let alone redistribution, and in which the worst results of BEE can be seen. But beyond mining, the situation seems no better. There is no serious attempt at investment in infrastructure and much private investment goes into the top end of the economy – things like malls, rampant consumerism for those who have stayed rich or benefitted since 1994, and housing in gated communities for the beneficiaries of 1994 and those who have remained rich.
The poor majority are as poor or poorer than ever – as shown by the poverty level wages paid at Marikana. Service delivery is indescribably bad – whether provinces are under-spending on basic education for the poor or the Limpopo textbook scandal. Unemployment is high and workers are as poorly paid as under apartheid.
Finally, there is seeming impunity of ANC leaders and their cronies before the law. They can be accused and charged, but how many actually have their political careers affected or are convicted?
The host of accusations against Malema were not followed up until he turned against Zuma and now suddenly the Hawks are after him. Zuma has a score of investigations or corruption-related charges outstanding, but will he ever stand trial? As in Berlusconi’s Italy, those close to power and able to harness support from ANC grandees or use the intelligence services, are immune from the law. The rule of law is shaky; the police corrupt and tinged with the brutality of the apartheid in their standard operating procedures against strikes or demos and the judiciary is subject to political interference.
This may not be Armageddon or terminal but it is something that must be reversed or it will lead to mass alienation from the political process, and the growth of industrial, communal and political violence. South Africa still works for some, but it fails to work for the majority.
Best wishes
Keith

African Arguments

Could the election of Somalia’s new president be a turning point in recovery?

African Arguments by Sally Healy

The election of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud by Somalia’s Transitional Parliament is an unexpected success for the hugely discredited political process in the country. It could prove to be a turning point in Somalia’s recovery. With twenty five candidates standing, numerous doubts about the integrity of the new parliament and widespread reports of bribery for their votes, it was widely assumed that the post would go to the highest bidder. And it seemed a certainty this would be one of the usual suspects: President Sheikh Sharif, Prime Minister Abdi Weli or former Speaker Sherif Hassan. How nice it is to be wrong!

Hassan Sheikh’s victory is a useful reminder of the capacity of Somalia to surprise the outside world. Beyond the façade of internationally constructed governments, we know so little about how this country without a national government really works. Hassan Sheikh is largely unknown outside Somalia but he is very well known and respected in Mogadishu where he founded and runs the Somali Institute of Management and Development, now a university. He has also played a leading role in the various civic and philanthropic forums that provide the backbone of social and economic support so essential to Somali survival. The most important of these was a civic initiative known as the Mogadishu Security and Stabilisation Plan that tried to re-establish administrative structures before the rise of the Islamic Courts. His own account of this period provides a good insight into his political principles, above all a consistent message that without reconciliation no real progress can be made in rebuilding formal institutions.

I have worked with Hassan Sheikh on a couple of assignments. He is a very engaging, thoughtful and sincerely religious man. But what struck me most was his quiet confidence in the future of Somalia. He believes in the strength and the integrity of the Somali people and in their capacity to recover and to thrive again. Perhaps this is because he has operated for so long within Somali civil society, where such huge achievements have been made. Maintaining that confidence will be tougher in the grubby world of politics where we have become conditioned to expect failure.

Needless to say, the problems he will face are enormous. Al Shabab remains the immediate challenge in South Central Somalia, although it is contained for the time being by AMISOM forces. The formation of national security forces to replace AMISOM is still at a rudimentary stage. Neither the long drawn out political “transition” (in progress since 2004) nor the hastily concocted constitution has resolved the big questions about Somalia’s political future, including the nature of the federal system and the relationship with Somaliland. There is no legacy from the TFG in terms of government structures, institutions or even the beginnings of a functioning civil service.

Hassan Sheikh Nonetheless starts with some important assets. He is his own man. He is not part of the discredited political establishment. He Lives in Mogadishu and has not been plucked from the Somali diaspora. He is not in the pocket of any foreign power. The political party he formed in April 2011 has provided a structure and network of supporters that will certainly have been working through informal clan channels to deliver this unexpected election victory. He offers a new approach to solving Somalia’s problems of government, first and foremost a political approach, with reconciliation as its starting point.

Some Credit is due to the international actors. They have stuck with grim determination to their “roadmap” to end the transition and put an end to the self-serving extensions of the TFG mandate. Whatever its shortcomings, the process to end the transition – the expansion of parliament, the involvement of clans, the insistence on the timetable and the unavoidability of the election created just enough political space for a credible Somali leader to slip through.

Hassan Sheikh will undoubtedly face enmity from the people who have profiteered for so long from Somali politics. He may be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task he confronts. But if he can tap into and draw strength from those enduring civic networks that he has helped to nurture, he stands a better chance of succeeding than any of his predecessors.

Sally Healy is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute (and co-author with Hassan Sheikh of a 2009 report for UNDP on the role of the Somali Diaspora in Development).

This piece is also published by the Rift Valley Institute.

S Africa – Moeletsi Mbeki says BEE is legalized corruption

African Arguments by Magnus Taylor

Listening to Moeletsi Mbeki on the morning of 13th Sept one question kept springing to mind: How often does he talk to Thabo? The younger Mbeki has been a thorn in the side of South Africa’s ANC for many years now and a constant critic of the post-apartheid settlement, with all the instincts and flair of a former journalist able to communicate his points with clarity (if a little less precision). His brother may have stamped his marked on the country as President, but Moeletsi appears keen to expose a land “frozen” in time, where economic power remains in the hands of a white elite and a few black businessmen elevated through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

Moeletsi_Mbeki
On Lonmin-Marikana
Moeletsi began his speech with reference to the recent massacre of miners at the Lonmin-Marikana mine. This, he said, has “made it clear that the government is prepared to use all necessary force in pursuit of profits.” According to Mbeki, the South African mining industry is 150 years old, and has operated largely unchanged since the 19th century.
Mbeki’s speech was centred on an attack on BEE, of which he claims to have been one of the earliest critics. South Africa may have “a mushrooming middle class” but this is not an entrepreneurial body of people. It is a group that has relied upon inflated public sector salaries and a transfer of existing industrial wealth (rather than the creation of more.)
Very little is now being invested in the economy – particularly in infrastructure such as power generation and transport. The productive sector is also shrinking – footwear, clothing and textiles cannot compete with cheaper Asian imports. Unemployment stands at a rising 33 percent and whilst the life of the poor is getting ever more precarious, the political elite just gets richer. South Africa has become an unstable society, where the government – in the guise of the re-militarised police – has been forced to use violence in order to maintain its control.
The post-Apartheid settlement
Mbeki went on to explain how key external players which facilitated the end of apartheid. The key point being that both the UK and US, in particular, had economic interests vested in the protection of their own investments in the country. In the case of the UK, this included the 800,000 English-speaking white South Africans, whose lives the British government wanted to see free from serious disruption following the change of political system. For the US government, of central importance was the protection of the Cape Sea Route (a major transit route for world trade, especially oil) and the continued availability of key minerals critical to the US economy.
The maintenance of the above interests meant that the South African economy became frozen in the state it existed in 1990, which was essentially what it was in 1870. An economy frozen in time cannot, however, stand competition with more entrepreneurial rising powers (particularly those in Asia.)
Black Economic Empowerment
BEE has functioned as an attempt to co-opt and bribe the controllers of political power, with the elite using taxation and corruption to enrich itself. In Mbeki’s words: “BEE is legalised corruption.”
South African corporations are no longer really investing in the country, and capital flight is vast and on the increase. The public sector has become a cash-cow for a political elite rather than a provider of good public services. For these reasons, the economy is growing at an anaemic 2 – 3 percent per year, which explains the growing instability and emergence of demagogic populist figures like Julius Malema.

Life after al Shabaab – Somalia’s Bakara market booming

African Arguments by Mary Harper

Last month, as I walked through Bakara market – the main commercial district of Mogadishu – it was difficult to believe that just one year ago, it had been a stronghold of the Islamist group, Al Shabaab, and the scene of frequent fire fights and mortar attacks.
In August 2011, the militia largely withdrew from Bakara and the rest of the city. It has since been driven out of other key areas of Somalia, but still controls significant parts of the country, and carries out frequent suicide and other attacks in the capital.
Bakara market was positively booming. In some streets, I could not move for the crowds of shoppers. In others, donkey carts, cars, minibuses and lorries piled absurdly high with produce, jammed the roads, horns blaring constantly.
As a rather obvious foreigner and therefore a potential target, the plan was to keep me on the move, whether on foot or in the car. This proved difficult in Bakara. Once, when we were completely stuck in a traffic jam, one of my bodyguards fired his gun out of the window of our vehicle. He told me it was the only way of getting the traffic to move. Fortunately, he aimed upwards into the sky.
Bakara market is a riot of colour, sound and smells. There are freshly painted buildings, in beautiful pastel shades of pink, blue, yellow and green. Others are grey concrete, clad in scaffolding, as Somalis rush to repair them from the rubble of war. New tin roofs glint in the sunlight.
The huge market is cleverly divided into different zones, each area selling particular items. We started off on ‘Pharmacy Street’, where the shop fronts were decorated with paintings of medicine bottles, syringes and packets of pills. One even showed a box of Viagra, the drug used to enhance male sexual performance.
‘Suitcase Street’ and ‘Shoe Street’ were next to each other, a sign perhaps that the traditionally nomadic Somalis are always on the move, packing up their bags and wearing out their shoes. We moved through an area selling the brightly coloured gauzy cloth used to make women’s dresses. Now that Al Shabaab has largely left Mogadishu, women are no longer forced to wear dark heavy robes, and to completely cover their faces.
The area selling locally-grown fruit and vegetables, freshly baked bread and slabs of red meat was particularly busy. It was Ramadan, and people wanted to make sure they had enough supplies for iftar, the often elaborate evening meal served to break the fast. I noticed some of the bags of rice and other grains on sale were printed with the words ‘World Food Programme – Not for Sale’.
The offices lining the streets were also doing good business, selling airline tickets, and offering printing, photocopying and other services. The biggest, most glamorous buildings were home to telecommunication giants, remittance companies and newly-opened banks.
A local official told me that millions of dollars of business are done every day in Bakara market. It was easy to believe him. Read more…

Guinea Bissau Coup: Military Plays Politics To Defend Own Power

African Arguments  – By David Stephen

On the night of 12th April Guinea-Bissau ‘Military Command’ put troops on to the streets of Bissau, the country’s capital, closed the frontiers, imprisoned the Prime Minister, the acting President and others, sacked the government, dissolved parliament, and shut TV and radio stations. These events were justified, according to the ‘Military Command,’ because the Prime Minister, backed and assisted by Angola, was bent on “annihilating” the armed forces of Guinea-Bissau.


These events took place in the midst of a presidential election. On 18 March, the first round of voting in the elections to replace President Malam Bacai, who died in January, had given the main candidate, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes, jr., (known as Cadogo), just under half of the votes. Cadogo was backed by the main political party, the former liberation movement, the PAIGC. The runner-up, former President Kumba Yala, obtained 23 percent of the vote. His party, the PRS, or Party of Social Renewal, is the country’s principal opposition. International observers – from ECOWAS, the Africa Union, the Community of Portuguese-speaking Nations (CPLP) and the British Parliament (the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Guinea-Bissau) – all pronounced the elections to have been free and fair.
By law, the second round should have been between Gomes and Yala, due to take place on 29 April. But as soon as the results of the first round were declared Kumba Yala and five other runners-up declared that the election had been fraudulent, and said they would boycott the second round.
Prior to these latest events, there had been a general feeling among observers that Guinea-Bissau was moving in the right direction. The cashew nut harvest had been successful, with good world prices. Carlos Gomes was being seen as a man who could get things done. Bissau had had a face-lift: roads were improved, and, for the first time in years, street lights in Bissau actually lit up the city at night.
The international community seemed pleased with progress, though critical of the slow pace of Security Sector Reform (SSR), and of efforts to tackle narco-funded corruption. But Prime Minister Gomes had failed, notably, to end years of mutual suspicion between him and the army, or to reach out to the Ballantas, the largest single ethnic group, strong in the army and who see Kumba Yala as their leader.   Read more…