Archive for December, 2011

Nigeria was in the news this past week mostly for the Christmas Day bombings perpetrated by the radical Muslim sect Boko Haram that claimed 39 lives. Amidst this terrible carnage something else happened that captured a little less coverage.

More oil spilled into the Niger Delta.

On Wednesday, December 21, Shell Nigeria announced that 40,000 barrels of crude oil was spilled while it was being transferred from a floating oil platform to a tanker 75 miles off the coast of the Niger Delta. Satellite imagery suggests that the oil has spread over 356 square miles. This spill is considered to be one of the worst within the last ten years. Shell Nigeria spokesmen have since stated that the spill has been contained and that nothing came ashore though environmental groups in Nigeria claim that oil slicks have been spotted near the coast.

Earlier this year the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) released a report detailing the damage done by oil extraction to Ogoniland – a part of the country in the Niger Delta region – and held that “the environmental restoration of Ogoniland could prove to be the world’s most wide-ranging and long term oil clean-up exercise ever undertaken.”

The report demonstrates the scale of environmental damage done to the area after 50 years of oil operations. Drinking water in some areas poses serious public health concerns with carcinogen levels 900 times above World Health Organization guidelines (WHO). Fish habitats – which local fishermen depend upon – have been devastated and regional soil is grossly contaminated. Health complaints include burning sensations in the eyes, respiratory problems, frequent rashes, bloody stools, and constant headaches. Some have even reported multiple miscarriages.

What this means is that the most recent spill was not an isolated incident. In fact more oil is spilled in the Niger Delta region each year than was spilled in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. According to the Nigerian government, more that 7,000 spills occurred between 1970 and 2000. Many of the spills only receive attention after months of inaction.

In addition to adverse health consequences, the oil spills and acid rain sound a near death knell to the local water dependent economy. Fish are also apparently driven away due to the increase in large boat traffic. The oil industry unfortunately does not offer an alternative to the locals since most of the oil related jobs go to the country’s political and economic elites. Leaving many with no incomes, residents are forced to search for means to live elsewhere.

National Geographic writer Tom O’Neill sums up the impact of oil aptly in a piece from 2007. According to O’Neill, “Oil fouls everything in southern Nigeria. It spills from the pipelines, poisoning soil and water. It stains the hands of politicians and generals, who siphon off its profits. It taints the ambitions of the young, who will try anything to scoop up a share of the liquid riches – fire a gun, sabotage a pipeline, kidnap a foreigner.”

Nigeria began exporting oil in the early 1960’s and by the late 1970’s it was the sixth largest oil producer in the world. This sudden rush of riches into government coffers sparked a mad dash for political office bringing patronage and corruption to their current infamous levels. Furthermore, as in other countries plagued by the “resource curse,” oil generates enough revenue for the state in order to make taxation of the people unnecessary. Without the need for taxes and the need for resources from its people, the government can afford to ignore the concerns of the population. 

This attitude may be one of the key causes of the area’s insurrection which threatens to turn this region of the world into the new Middle East. According to author Petter Maass in the book Crude World, “rebellion, in such conditions, is inevitable.”

Oil is now the country’s primary export, but according to O’Neill, “its annual per capita income of $1,400 is less than that of Senegal, which exports mainly fish and nuts.” According to Maass “nine out of ten citizens live on less than $2 a day and one out of five children dies before his fifth birthday.” Oil, with its superb ability to release energy and move the modern world at an unprecedented pace, seems as if it is not getting the people of Nigeria very far at all.

Oddly enough, though Nigeria is a leading exporter of oil, it has to import the refined product back into the country in order for it to be of any use to the local population due to the sub par nature of its own refineries.        

Like oil, blame is also easy to find in the Niger Delta. NGO’s, local environmentalists, and at times the UN point the finger at Shell claiming that its pipelines are outdated and poorly maintained. Shell in turn points to the acts of terrorists, black marketeers, and saboteurs.

Unlike oil generated wealth, the blame can probably be shared. 

Progressively minded westerners are now in a search for alternatives to oil mostly because of its general impact, namely climate change. Seldom do we look at the impact that oil has on the lands that it comes from. In the Niger Delta for example, life may have been better off if oil was never found, and its continued extraction doesn’t seem to be making things any better for everyday citizens.

Nigeria presents us with one more reason to turn our backs on black gold.


Progress in Guinea: Baby Steps

Posted: December 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

Human Rights Watch released a statement this week regarding the progress made by President Alpha Conde of Guinea after one year in office. “President Conde has made some progress in confronting the serious governance and human rights problems he inherited, but there is much work left to be done,” said Corrinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch.

According to the statement, the positive strides made by the country include efforts to rein in the country’s notoriously abusive security forces, greater respect for due process, and the creation of a committee to reconcile ethnic tensions. The statement unfortunately also mentions multiple areas where progress has been slow such as the timing of legislative elections. The greatest stain mentioned in the report however regards the lack of accountability for the massacre of September 28th, 2009.

Guinea is a miniscule West African country that is barely ever mentioned in western news media, let alone in the headlines. The country did make the news a little over two years ago for something no country should ever be known for. In late September members of an elite section of the armed forces known as the Presidential Guard entered an opposition rally at a packed stadium and opened fire on thousands of unarmed civilians.

150 people were killed and over 100 women were raped. Many unconscionable acts better left unwritten were committed in a seemingly premeditated effort to intimidate the country’s opposition. A UN led inquiry concluded that the atrocities most likely amounted to crimes against humanity.

In 2010 the government swore it would bring those responsible to justice. At the end of 2011, not a single indictment has been issued. The government has presented no evidence that the investigation has progressed and has allegedly made no efforts to locate bodies disposed of by the security forces after the incident. Adding insult to injury, President Conde has appointed two men implicated in the massacre to high-level positions.

None of this lack of progress is making the news the way the killings did over two years ago. Guinea’s “Bloody Monday” presents the quintessential forgotten story. Gruesome stories make the news, but not many bother to see how things turn out afterward.

While any progress towards justice, rule of law, democracy, and human rights should be applauded, by not bringing those responsible for the killing of September 2009 to justice, the government of Guinea is sending the message that its people cannot protest without fear of being maimed, assaulted, and killed.

Baby steps towards good governance just aren’t good enough.

The simple fact that little violence was reported during this week’s legislative elections in Cote d’Ivoire can be considered a success even if turnout was low. This is especially true since last year’s standoff after the presidential elections, when sitting President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, resulted in thousands of deaths and an eventual indictment for Gbagbo from the International Criminal Court.

Further south in the continent, a lesser success can be seen in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Though allegations of fraud are ample after the country’s presidential and legislative elections and incidents of violence and human rights violations plagued the run-up to the elections, UN officials have acknowledged that the situation could have been much worse.

Both of these countries as well as others on the continent have seen election related violence all too often on other occasions during the more than half century since Africa broke free from colonialism. About a year ago The Economist accurately referred to this problem as “the refusal of a defeated incumbent to accept defeat and bow out.” Recent examples include not only Cote d’Ivoire, but also Zimbabwe, when President Robert Mugabe refused to go after a clear result in an election in 2008 and Kenya, when President Mwai Kibaki refused to concede after elections in 2007.

Why this continental wide problem of power transition?

While multiple variables are certainly influential, somewhat of an explanation can be found by peering into recent history, especially the transition between colonialism and independence. A detailed account of this time period is described in Martin Meredith’s, The Fate of Africa where he claims, “ Africans had little experience of representative democracy – representative institutions were introduced by the British and the French too late to alter the established character of the colonial state. The more durable imprint they left behind was of authoritarian regimes in which governors and their officials wielded enormous personal power.”

The leaders of independent countries used their newness to justify strong, one-man or one party rule. Meredith cites one claim in particular from the first leader of independent Cote d’Ivoire, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who claimed “Democracy is a system of government for virtuous people,” “in young countries such as our own, we need a chief who is all-powerful for a specified period of time.” A key problem is clearly the fact that no one seems to have specified that period of time.

Authoritarian rulers then used this logic to pillage national wealth and to rule by decree.

Fast forward a few decades to current time and elections are now more current and less tumultuous, but the possibility of violence – evidenced by the global breath holding that accompanied the recent elections in Cote d’Ivoire and the DRC – still simmers beneath the surface.

A basic boiled-down explanation could simply be the old adage that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely’ and historical tendencies towards absolute rule are difficult to breakdown peacefully. They simply linger for a while.

What then is to be done?

Most of this is definitely for countries themselves to decide, but other international actors can help to create an environment where limited power and therefore easier transitions of power between leaders are encouraged. This starts with the unbiased and objective implementation of international law.

Specifically in Cote d’Ivoire, this means bringing all perpetrators of last year’s election violence to justice. It is alleged that Gbagbo’s forces committed mass murder and rape after losing the election, but it is widely held that 3,000 people died in violence committed by both sides though no member of Ouattara’s side has been charged yet.

In November, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Luis Moreno-Ocampo stated “Ivorian victims will see justice for massive crimes: Mr. Gbagbo is the first to be brought to account, there is more to come.” It is the international community’s responsibility to ensure that this promise is carried out.

With the thorough application of law, internally and internationally, there may be hope that on future occasions the changing of the guard will be less turbulent. The transition between personal rule and the rule of law has been long, but with everyone paying attention small steps could lead to eventual great successes.

Revisiting “the Man in Black”

Posted: December 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

Many, many times I have found myself frustrated at the way foreign policy stories are easily forgotten. Remember the post-election violence in Kenya in 2006? When was the last time you read a news story about Kenya. Or the violence in Nepal? What about that? Are these locations only interesting when there is atrocious violence occurring?

What does that say about us?

In the West I think we tend to forget these places even exist after they fall from the headlines. How soon will it be before we forget about Libya or Tunisia. How about the Ivory Coast? It has been roughly one year since the post-election violence there and how many people know what has been happening in the country that once had us riveted?

Perhaps what is needed is something similar to the idea put forth by Johnny Cash in “the Man in Black.”

Here are a few verses:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,
Why you never see bright colors on my back,
And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.
Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

Perhaps most relevant to this particular project are the lines:

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,
In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,
But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,
Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

Johnny Cash wore black as a symbolic reminder. This project however seeks to be more than symbolic. It will attempt to be a constant reminder of the fact that just because locations fall from the headlines does not mean that they cease to exist.

Newspapers, cable news channels, and news websites need to focus on new and exciting stories to attract viewers and to sell papers.  That is the nature of the society we live in, but don’t we also have a global civic responsibility to follow stories not only because they are interesting but because they are important?

Each week, Forgotten Stories FPI (Foreign Policy Initiative) will provide information about one of these stories much like a man in black standing in front of the crowd.