Monday, February 28, 2005

Gnassingbé II abdicates... for now

This essay is part of a (hopefully) weekly feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Togo's military-imposed leader Faure Gnassingbé, who I'll call Gnassingbé II, announced a few days ago that he was stepping down as de facto head of state. This was in the wake of harsh international criticism and African Union sanctions against the country after its military having installed Gnassingbé II to succeed his late father Gen. Gnassinbgé Eyadema. Gen. Eyadema had been the world's second longest serving leader.

The son will be replaced by Parliament Speaker Abass Bonfoh, who will serve as interim president while elections are conducted. Gnassingbé II will be the presidential candidate of the ruling party.

A spokesman for Nigerian President Olesegun Obasanjo, who chairs the African Union, called the decision a 'victory for democracy.'

Lydia Polgreen joined in the Halleujah Chorus.

But the African response to the Togolese military's actions were taken out of a new playbook, one in which the old insistence on "African solutions to African problems," is no longer what it once seemed - a euphemism for African leaders looking the other way while despots and corrupt governments rampaged, she wrote in The New York Times.

Mr. Gnassingbé's departure has been hailed as a huge success for African diplomacy... The swift reversal was one result of a new phenomenon: African leaders and institutions showing stiff resolve and complete unity,... [the West African regional grouping] Ecowas and the African Union were quick and merciless in their condemnation, and worked from the first day of Mr. Gnassingbé's rule to push him from power.

Jonathan, over at The Head Heeb, warns against premature celebration at the apparent demise of the Gnassingbé dynasty.

I wouldn't read too much into this. Gnassingbe will be the ruling Rally of the Togolese People [RPT] party's candidate in the upcoming election, and Bonfoh - a long-time RPT apparatchik who vocally defended the coup in its early days (despite the fact that Bonfoh was the legitimate constitutional successor) - is clearly warming his chair. The RPT is strongly backed by the security forces and controls almost 90 percent of parliament against a weak opposition, so it will have virtually free rein to administer the campaign and voting process. The battle against the coup isn't won yet; continued regional pressure and lots of international observers are still needed to make sure the election is fair.

The opposition is weak largely because of consistent repression during the 37 year Eyadema regime. But it is fairly weak nonetheless. Opposition leader Gilchrist Olympio is the only opposition candidate with sufficient support to challenge the dynasty. And many see him as an outsider since he's lived out of the country for so long due to harassment by the regime (Gen. Eyadema led a military coup that overthrew Olympio's father, who'd been Togo's first president; by all accounts, Eyadema personally murdered the elder Olympio himself).

But as I opined earlier, the military establishment that appointed Gnassingbé II isn't likely to make things easy.

In reality, this 'power vacuum' bemoaned by the military [the pretext used by the army to appoint Gnassingbé II] was created in no small part by the military itself. As a pretext, one can safely assume, to appoint to the throne Eyadéma's son, a man who would surely know which side his bread was buttered on, I noted.

This report from the UN's IRIN service echoes my observations.

Gnassingbé II's father, General Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruled Togo with an iron hand for almost four decades, putting people from his northern Kabiye tribe in key government and military posts, it stated. Eyadema’s sudden death on 5 February left Gnassingbe [II] as the best bet the extended family business had of clinging on to the perks of power, diplomats and analysts say.

“These guys have not been accountable for 38 years, and they want someone who can protect their interests,” one Western diplomat in Lome told IRIN.

The actions take by the African Union and ECOWAS are a welcome change from the longstanding tradition of African regional and continental bodies (government groupings) being silent in the face of outrage.

The AU did what it was supposed to do in this case and that's laudable. Though it will be interesting to see if it shows the same resolve if a comparable situation were to occur in a much more powerful or economically significant country such as Nigeria or Egypt.

But caution is the order of the day. For 37 years, the army had a privileged position in Togolese society. It's not going to give up control without a fight.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Children at war

This essay is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

The use of child soldiers has exploded in the last 15 years, making it probably the most sickening new phenomenon to emerge in "modern" conflicts.

Child soldiers are not a new development, but in the past, they were the exception. In many conflicts, such as Northern Uganda, Sri Lanka and the former (hopefully) civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, they were in fact the rule. Indicted war criminal Charles Taylor's Liberian rebel army infamously had entities called SBUs: small boys' units. And we're not talking boys of 16 or 17 here, but boys of 10 and 12 specifically recruited for the purpose.

And in conflicts that employ child soldiers, 'recruited' is often a euphemism for 'compelled' or 'kidnapped.' Some new conscripts are even forced to kill their families; this has the dual purpose of both proving their loyalty to the rebels as well as diminishing the likelihood of desertion.

A new book, Children at War, examines this troubling development. It points out the oft-noted reality that children tend to make the deadliest soldiers. Malicious commanders exploit kids' natural fearlessness. Many give the kids hallucogenic drugs to increase their sense of invulnerability. When you read of atrocious crimes from these war zones, like whimsical amputation of hands and arms, remember that these are most likely done not by rational but sadistic men with a method to their madness, but by drugged up teens or pre-teens.

How widespread is the child soldier scourge?

Sixty percent of the nonstate armed forces today use child soldiers; 23 percent use child soldiers 15 and younger; as many as 300,000 children "are currently fighting in wars or have recently been demobilized", notes this review of Children at War in The Christian Science Monitor.

Solutions? One possibility is restrictions on the international trade in small arms, which makes young children physically viable as soldiers. But since powerful governments won't let that happen, author P.W. Singer advocates putting teeth in the international treaties outlawing the use of soldiers under the age of 18. When the world's nonstate military leaders - who give little heed to international treaties and UN resolutions - realize they could be punished (and perhaps have assets seized) by the International Criminal Court, they may rethink their dependence on young, fearless, and impressionable warriors.

"The use of children as a weapon of war would be made like the use of chemical or biological weapons - simply unacceptable to the entire world, under any circumstances," he proposes.


OTHER RESOURCES listing of Children at War.

-War Child, a network of independent organisations working across the world to help children affected by war. It aims

*To alleviate the suffering of children by bringing material aid into war zones

*To support those children who have been evacuated into refugee camps.

* To initiate rehabilitation programmes once children return safely to their homes.

*To be instrumental in healing the psychological damage caused to children by their experiences of war.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Down with obscene programming! Down with decent programming!

Sometimes you have to believe that the gods must appreciate irony. Take the juxtaposition of these two news stories...

-US House sets half-million dollar penalties for on-air obscenity


-Conservatives and Rivals Press a Struggling PBS

Conservatives object to obscenity and trash on television, but one of the main TV targets of their ire: the one network that never airs obscenity or trash... even at the risk of being labeled by some as staid and boring.

I get the feeling that some people would like to eliminate television altogether... except for Fox News Channel..

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

"Science without conscience will be the ruin of man."

The science and technology show Découvete, which airs on the Radio-Canada (French-language) television network, is going to air a show on Feb. 27 entitled: The Boy Without a Penis. Tell me if there's not something you find ethically disturbing about this.

Here's the (translated) description:

Sexual identity, is it innate or acquired? A fundamental question which was the object of a human experiment in Canada in the 60s. This week on Découverte, we tell you the troubling story of David Reimer, a Canadian from Winnipeg who, at 7 months, had his penis burnt off during a surgerical procedure...

This alone should answer the answer the question about ethics. But it gets worse...

and of John Money, the psychologist who treated him. This psychologist advocated one of the most celebrated hypotheses in modern psychology: any boy could be raised as a girl. During the first 14 years of his life, David Reimer was raised as a girl and, unfortunately, the experiment turned badly.

When I was in Guinea, a good friend of mine who was a biology/chemistry teacher, often said, "La science sans conscience sera la ruine de l'homme."

"Science without conscience will be the ruin of man."

How can a modest middle school teacher from a tiny African village continue to be so much more right than the world's smartest minds? I guess it goes to show yet again the difference between wisdom and intelligence.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Let the excuses begin

New York has not had an on time state budget in two decades. Some Republicans are already conceding defeat in this year's battle. Last Tuesday, the GOP controlled state Senate passed a contigency budget... despite the fact that the budget isn't due until 1 April.

For once the beneficiary of a public relations blunder, the Democratic Assembly speaker denounced the Senate's move. As well he should. Senators should get busy preventing a late budget in the first place, rather than laying the groundwork for excuses.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Our man in Tegucigulpa

Last week, President Bush nominated John Negroponte as director of national intelligence. The newly created office will take some powers away from the CIA.

Negroponte, the current ambassador in Iraq, was also Bush's envoy to the UN and was a diplomat in Honduras in the early 80s during the first Reagan term.

Even Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller gushed over Negroponte's appointment on the BBC. It seems highly improbable that Negroponte's appointment will face any trouble. But in the absence of any questioning from the perhaps overly loyal "opposition," you'll probably have to look outside the mainstream media to find any serious analysis of Negroponte's long career in the diplomatic service and how it pertains to his new job. The corporate media generally takes its cues from the opposition party (regardless of who's in the White House) to determine what to make into a controversy.

Certainly, fake journalists planted in the White House press corps by the administration (something hardly out of character for them) won't be asking the questions.

This fascinating article from The New York Review of Books has a significantly less sympathetic portrayal of Negroponte than Sen. Rockefeller's hagiography.

For example, the article notes: In Honduras Negroponte exercised US power in ways that still reverberate throughout that small country. His most striking legacy, though, is the Honduras of his imagination. Most people who lived or worked in Honduras during the 1980s saw a nation spiraling into violence and infested by paramilitary gangs that kidnapped and killed with impunity. Negroponte would not acknowledge this. He realized that the Reagan policy in Central America would lose support if truths about Honduras were known, so he refused to accept them.

The piece was published three and a half years ago but is even more pertinent given Negroponte's likely new post. A man who sees things and knows things but refuses to acknowledge unpleasant realities, is that really an appropriate quality for a chief of intelligence?

Perhaps not, but time and time again, it's been shown to be the perfect quality to serve in the Bush administration.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Insert Python quote

Update: The NHL and its players' union have reportedly agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement.

I, like most fans, remain skeptical. And even if true, they've jerked the fans around so much, I'm not going to be that ecstatic anyways.

As my brother noted: Does the Monty Python line, "I'm not dead yet" come to

Good bye NHL. We hardly knew ya.

A few days ago, the National Hockey League officially cancelled its 2004-2005 season, becoming the first major sport to cancel an entire season. Whether it will still be a major sport if they ever resume playing is an open question.

The season was trashed after about five months of a lockout, which is the term used when employees want to work but management refuses to let them.

The key issue is this. Owners say they are losing money. There doesn't seem to be a lot of dispute about this, though I don't know if the owners opened their books to the players or not.

The owners' solution was to demand a league wide salary cap. This means that no team could spend more than a fixed amount of money on all player salaries. The players objected to this because it would obviously artifcially reduce their earning potential.

I was often asked who I supported: the players or the owners. I am a hockey fan. I enjoy watching hockey. The fact that the two sides could not reach an agreement and prevented NHL hockey from being played meant that I couldn't actually support either. Though the fact that the owners were the ones who imposed the lockout and thus were the direct cause of the stoppage made me somewhat less sympathetic to them.

In reality, the people I sympathized with were neither the players or owners. It was everyone else associated with hockey. The people I sympathize with are the people who earned money by selling food or programs at the rinks. The people I sympathize with are the people who run restaurants and bars and souvenir shops near the arenas. They didn't have large salaries to build up some savings. They didn't have huge "war chests" to fall back on.

So don't ask me if I support the owners or players. A more pertinent question might be whose POSITION I support.

Intellectually, I have to support the players' position, if only because the owners' position so violate the basic tenet of 'give me a break.'

The simple fact is this. No owner needs an externally-imposed salary cap in order to make money. In order to make a profit, all you need to do is take in more money than you spend. If you are losing money, there are two ways you can change that into a profit: spend less money or take in more money.

In the NHL's structure, increasing revenues is a lot hard to do for individual teams. Revenues can increase a lot faster due to decisions made centrally, most notably when it comes to national television contracts in Canada and the US.

Yet, spending less money is easier for individual teams to do. All it requires is discipline from management. It requires them to say, "No, I am not going to pay $5 million a year to a slug who can barely skate." No one, not even the much demonized players' union, puts a gun to an owner's head and forces him to pay ludicrous salaries to mediocre players.

So naturally, the owners demand the centralized solution that's unnecessary.

Some teams don't spend bucketloads of money. Some offer reasonable salaries and develop younger players from scratch to build a team rather than trying to buy championships through the free agent market. Two of those teams that did not spend bucketloads of money (relatively speaking) last year were the Calgary Flames and Tampa Bay Lightning. Those were the two teams who qualified for the Stanley Cup Finals.

Here's what any owner can do without externally-imposed salary caps. a) Figure out how much revenue he projects his team will take in, b) Spend no more than that amount (if he wants to not lose money) or spend less than that amount (if he wants to make a profit). A 12-year old running a lemonade stand could probably figure that out.

Fans can complain all they want about overpaid players and how they cause high ticket prices. This is ironic since while most people complain about the high cost of movie ticket prices, hardly anyone complains about overpaid actors.

But at the end of the day, you can't blame the players for being overpaid. Players sign a contact. A contract is a mutual agreement between the player and a particular club. If the employee is overpaid, he is so not simply because he wants x amount of money, but also because the employer AGREED TO PAY HIM x amount of money. If a team agrees to pay a player x dollars, it is because the team thinks his services to the club are somehow worth the investment of x dollars. That's a judgement of the club, which should not be overrided by a centralized authority.

Essentially, owners are asking to be saved from themselves, to be saved from their own recklessness. This is why I can't support their position. I advocate personal responsibility. Any individual owner who wants to make a profit can do so by restricting expenses to an amount less than revenues.

There is no rational reason why an owner in Detroit or Toronto should be limited in how much he can offer a potential employee simply because an owner in Anaheim or Miami can't manage his money responsibly.

If the players want to accept a salary cap as part of a broader collective bargaining agreement, that's certainly their prerogative. But I can't blame their long time refusal to be obligated to save the owners from themselves.

At the end of the day, the players did accept a salary cap so it ended up being a question of numbers.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman rejected the players' offer of a $49 million per team limit on salaries. "If every team spent to the $49 million ... total player compensation would exceed what we spent last season," he said.

This is a great example of faulty logic bordering on the disingenuous.

The cap would not have REQUIRED each team to spend $49 million, contrary to the doomsday scenario implied by Bettman. A $49 million cap would merely have LIMITED each team to a MAXIMUM of that amount. Surely, a man as smart as Bettman knows the difference.

But this is in line with the owners' consistent position throughout: "we owners don't trust ourselves to manage our own finances in a sane way so we need externally-imposed forces to do it for us. And we expect the players as a whole to sacrifice for our own inability to say no."

A responsible parent sometimes has to say no, or perhaps give the child less than he wants, even though it might displease the child. A responsible parent manages the family's finances in a sane way. A responsible parent doesn't expect the government or some other central authority to arbitrarily limit their spending; responsible parents can do that themselves.

The owners' position is that of an immature parent. The parent who can't say no. The parent who can't control his impulses and expects others to bail him out when that happens. The parent who is more concerned with keeping up with appearances than building a solid family. The immature parent thinks, "If I can't have a BMW, then no one in my neighborhood should have one either."

Ultimately, the NHL (and most North American sports leagues) is a restrictive cartel, much like OPEC. And the NHL is trying to manipulate the overall market like OPEC too.

The NHL contains 30 different businesses. They are competitors, yet they are linked as well. If 10 teams go bankrupt and fold, it does affect the other 20. Perhaps this isn't a terrible thing, though. If South Florida or Southern California aren't viable markets for NHL level hockey because too few people there care about ice hockey, is it the worst thing in the world if those franchises move or cease to exist? (Sorry Panthers and Ducks fans)

Maybe this whole situation begs a re-examination of the cartel structure of North American sports. Look at the setup of soccer in "socialist Europe," a setup which is far closer to Darwinistic capitalism that Americans usually prefer.

Take England, for example, There are 92 teams in the country's professional football (soccer) leagues. 20 in the top level, known as the Premiership. 24 in each of the other three levels, known as The Championship, League One and League Two.

In each division, three teams are promoted and three teams are relegated. Except no one is promoted from the Premiership because it's the top league. And the bottom clubs in League Two get relegated I believe to the amateur level.

In other words, the three best teams this year in The Championship (top two teams in the regular season and the third as decided in a playoff involving #3-6 regular season teams) will be promoted to the Premiership next year. The three worst teams in The Championship will play in League One next year..

I like this because it's a very meritocratic way of doing things. You can't be like the LA Clippers and have crappy seasons for 20 years in a row and still be allowed to call yourself a 'top flight team.' If you stink, you're punished. If you are good, you're rewarded.

There is no salary cap in English soccer.

Yet the structure punishes fiscal irresponsibility. A few years ago, the club Leeds United were in the Premiership and even in the semifinals of the pan-European Champions League. However, in order to do this, the club had to spend like a drunken sailor and racked up enormous debts. As with most debts, they had to be re-paid. With the club spending more and more on paying the debt (and their credit worthiness ruined), they had less and less to spend on players. The level of the team dropped as the best players were sold off. And last year, the team was relegated from the Premiership into The Championship. The demotion will cost them further revenue as they will get less TV money and play less glamorous opponents thus attracting fewer fans. Other clubs were more fiscally responsible. They didn't reach the romantic heights of European glory, but they're still playing top-flight soccer. Leeds were reckless in their spending and got punished. Leeds supporters aside, is that really such a horrible thing?

Yes, it makes for less parity. NFL(the American gridiron football league) is generally acknowledged as the best run of the American sports leagues and is the most popular team sports league in the country. It also has a salary cap, which I'm sure some people will be quick to point out. Parity is the patron saint of the NFL. Nearly any team can win the NFL's Super Bowl in any given year. And this is the be all and end all of sports. Or so we are told.

Any good story needs a villain. Baseball fans hate the New York Yankees. English soccer fans hate the Yankees' Siamese twin, Manchester United. A lot of fans will say something like this: I have two favorite baseball teams. [My team] and whoever's playing the Yankees. They are vilains and it makes their games and rivalries that much more exciting.

The idea of promotion and relegation adds one other benefit: rendering late season games meaningful. Even in the parity-laced NFL, a late season game between two bad teams is going to spark little interest, even from fans of those teams. Promotion-relegation makes these games just as important as a game between the two top teams. Whichever of the bad teams lose is that much closer to relegation, and all the bad things that implies. In soccer, these 'relegation battles' are matches which have all the passion and committment (if not skill) as any clash of titans. In North American sports, they are yawn fests played with second string players in half empty venues.

All of the above is what I believe intellectually.

Emotionally, I want to give the whole NHL lot of them the finger and offer them a great variety of expletive deleteds. Ultimately, the hockey players and owners are vastly overestimating the NHL's importance to North America's sporting landscape.

The NHL is the fourth major team sport in the United States, and might even be surpassed by MLS soccer if this nuclear labor war goes on a lot longer. It is not important enough to have this kind of catastrophe.

In 1994, Major League Baseball cancelled the World Series. It took 5 years before interest in baseball to be revived... and that was with the help of great stories like Cal Ripken's streak and the Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa home run derby. The NHL is in nowhere near as strong a position in the US now as MLB was back then.

Even in Canada, the ancestral home of the sport, there are concerns. Ken Dryden, who was both a legendary player in Montreal and general manager in Toronto, recently opined, "I think that there are a number of fans in this country [Canada] who have sensed over the last number of months that actually, maybe, it was more habit than it was passion."

And ultimately, this is the NHL's biggest danger. Their main concern should not be fans who are furious, like the blogger Bobochan. Their biggest concern is fans who simply stop caring.

Anger subsidies over time.

Apathy usually does not.

Even me, I was not crushed by the season cancellation. I accepted in late-November that there wouldn't be any NHL this season. Even in past years, I didn't really follow the NHL much until April. Because the Stanley Cup playoffs are the most exciting tournament in any professional sport I've ever seen. (Only the 3rd round of the English soccer FA Cup comes close and that's only one round) But I stopped following the NHL regular season a long time ago. Simply put, the regular season really doesn't mean much. As long as you win about as many games as you lose, you'll probably make the playoffs. And the playoffs is when the real hockey is played.

Another downside is that simply put, the NHL isn't as exciting as it was 10 years ago. Watch an NHL game from last year (or a minor league game this year) and notice how much hooking and holding and interference you see. Notice how much time is spent by players stuck in the corners grinding away for the puck. See if you can stay awake long enough to follow it.

Then watch a game on ESPN Classics from the mid-80s through, say, 1994. Notice how much stickhandling you see. Notice how much skating. Notice how much faster the game was, how much more flow there was, how much time you spend on the edge of your seat. See if you dare change the channel.

Last spring, the NHL had its most breathtaking Stanley Cup finals since 1994. It was a final dominated by skaters and scorers and exciting players, rather than defenders, goaltenders and the neutral zone trap (for you soccer fans, the trap is ice hockey's equivalent of catennacio). After the '94 finals, the NHL ruined this momentum by having a labor dispute cancel half the season. After last year's finals, they ruined it again.

Except this time promises to be even most devastating.

Good bye NHL. We hardly knew ya.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Côte d'Ivoire: Rwanda redux?

This is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

How bad are things in Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa? Bad. Really bad. Some people think irrational war fervor was bad in the United States a few years ago. It was.But it's nothing compared to Côte d'Ivoire.

The country was long a paragon of stability in a turbulent region. That's the cliche, anyway. Much like Tito's Yugoslavia, this was attributable more tot he political skill of one man. Côte d'Ivoire was ruled by Félix Houphouët-Boigny, from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993. Houphouët-Boigny was talented in managing a coalition of disparate interests and even in co-opting the country's large immigrant population. He ran the country as a one-party state until the early 90s, when most African countries had to present at least the facade of multi-party democracy.

The pompous Henri Konan Bédié succeeded Houphouët until a military coup overthrew the PDCI party regime on Christmas Day in 1999. This coup ushered in an era of instability that the country had never seen before.

The military regime tried to rig elections in 2001. It excluded all the major candidates except long-time opposition leader Laurent Gbagbo of the FPI party. It allowed Gbagbo because the junta needed a candidate whose stature was modest enough to make the sham appear credible yet weak enough that the military ruler, Gen. Robert Guéi, would triumph comfortably.

The regime miscalculated and results started showing Gbagbo ahead. The junta tried all kinds of machinations but the public wouldn't accept it. This occured shortly after the huge public uprising in Belgrade forced Slobodan Milosevic from power. The Ivorians tried the same thing and had the same effect. Gen. Guéi quit and Gbagbo became president.

Africans and westerners alike invested much hope in Gbagbo, who'd been opposition leader for nearly two decades and jailed often during PDCI rule. Whenever such uprisings succeed and dictators unseated, there always seems to be the hope that the new leader will be another Nelson Mandela. This is often unrealistic. Mandela is considered a great man precisely because he was EXCEPTIONal, and thus was the EXCEPTION.

One of the characterstics of Bédié's six year rule was the development of a concept known as Ivoirité, or Ivorianness. It is a very xenophobic principle that is used to distinguish 'real Ivorians' from, presumably, fake ones. This was an explosive principle in a country like that. As the region's economic powerhouse, Côte d'Ivoire attracts migrant labor from many of the countries in West Africa. 1/3 of the population is foreign born.

Bédié's regime pushed through a constitutional amendment requiring that in order to run for president of the Republic, both of your parents had to have been born in Côte d'Ivoire. (By contrast, in the US, only the candidates themselves have to have been born on American soil... and some Republicans are even pushing to scrap that). Again, with such a large immigrant population in the country, this was hugely divisive.

It was even more controversial since the move was really designed to exclude opposition leader Alasanne Ouatarra, one of whose parents was born in the country now known as Burkina Faso. (The requirement was absurd since any candidate's parents would've actually been born in the expansive colony of French West Africa, before Côte d'Ivoire was even an independent country)

The targeting was even more ludricrous since Ouatarra was sufficiently 'Ivorian' to have been Houphouët-Boigny's prime minister in the early 90s. In fact, Ouatarra served as acting president whenever Houphouët-Boigny was out of the country or as he was incapacitated and dying.

This move was seen not only as being designed against Ouatarra, but against all northern Ivorians. The north of the country is where the largest population of immigrants can be found.

Though Gbagbo had been opposed to Bédié's regime and to its authoritarian tone, he eagerly adopted Bédié's destructive Ivoirité policy. Ivoirité is the Pandora's Box that has destroyed Côte d'Ivoire.

Northerners had long felt slighted by the central government, as it's the poorest region of the country. Exclusionary Ivoirité targeted at them was the last straw. Rebel groups were founded and a civil war was launched.

I won't go into the long, twisted history of the war and various peace negotiations but the fundamental demand of the main unified rebel group is better, non-exclusionary treatment for northerners. The Gbagbo/FPI government frequently agrees to this in words but both their other propaganda and their actions betray this.

Northerners want the constitution changed to remove the objectionable clauses and then they will disarm. Southerners want unilateral rebel disarmament first. Needless to say, there is no trust on the northern side that this will actually happen.

It's been exacerbated by the hate media campaign put forth by pro-government forces. And by the groups of so-called 'Jeunes patriotes', or Young Patriots. They are roving, violent militias of predominantly young men who go around terrorizing anyone suspected of being a rebel sympathizer, or at least not sufficiently loyal.

And though the Young Patriots and other militias are nominally aligned to the government and claim to be acting on its behalf, it's really unclear how much control Gbagbo has of any of this. I seriously suspect that Gbagbo fears that if he negotiates and actually tries to implement a fair peace agreement, he will be assassinated by extremist elements.

This is what happened to Rwandan strongman Juvénal Habyrimana in 1994 as he tried to implement a peace deal with Tusi rebels. And what followed his murder? A genocide. This is what I'm afraid might happen in Côte d'Ivoire.

There are so many parallels between the two, it's scary. From the leader who considered making peace with rebels but was opposed by extremists in his own camp. To the despicable hate media campaign against 'foreigners.' To the involvement of French and UN troops. To the meticulously planned campaign against all 'enemies' of the regime... and thus enemies of the Republic... the rhetorical unification of the government of the day with the nation as a whole is a key part of any sinister propaganda campaign. Even to the Lady MacBeth wife of the president with her own Pretorian Guard entourage (Agathe Habyrimana in Rwanda and Simone Gbagbo in Côte d'Ivoire).

You think I'm exaggerating about the virulence of the situation there? If you read French and have a strong stomach, just take a look at the Ivorian press [links to many of the country's media outlets can be found at the portal].

This article from the UN's IRIN service gives an idea of just how strongly fanatacism reigns in the country.

Even the title says a lot: "I'm against the war but please don't quote me."

"I've been taken off the air [of state radio] because I'm not on anyone's side, I just want peace in Cote d'Ivoire," said a well-known preacher whose sermons were taken off the air after the war broke out.


"But I cannot speak out this way in public because of the youths,"
he said, referring to the xenophobic, rampaging so-called Young Patriots militias.

The preacher continued, "Some of them asked me how I thought the crisis could be resolved. When I said through negotiations, they said 'no way.' If you knew how well they were organised, you'd understand why I've stopped speaking publicly."

One schoolteacher explained, "A woman who lives in my suburb who's a 'patriot' [a militant, pro-government person] said she was going to tell the GPP [a hardline militia group] I was a suspect individual because I never go out on their [pro-government] demonstrations.

"I tell them this is not the case, that it's just that I'm not at war with anyone. What I want is peace for everyone in this country, not a peace that favours some and not others. But people who think the same way I do can't really speak their minds, neither here in Abidjan [Ivorian commercial capital] nor anywhere else in the country. There's no-one to protect us."

"You're either with the rebels or with the republic. You can't sit on the fence in this war," declared Mamadou Koulibaly, the parliamentary speaker and a key figure in the ruling party. [Does that rhetoric sound familiar?]

But not everyone is cowed by the fanatacism.

"If you fail to come out in favour of one or the other political camp, and make impartial appeals for peace and the respect of the peace agreements, your organisation will be attacked. But we're ready to take on this risk because that's our choice," said Salimata Porquet, who heads a women's group. "We need to think Cote d'Ivoire first and not one group or the other, because the people who are being silenced and who are suffering from the troubles are the majority of the people. We are mothers and wives and we know what we're talking about."

One can only hope that the silent majority in Côte d'Ivoire no longer remains silent... and is actually a majority.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Freakin' duh!

Speaking of the Keystone Kops' foreign policy...

"The Iraq conflict, while not a cause of extremism, has become a cause for extremists," said CIA director Porter Goss during Senate hearings.

"Islamic extremists are exploiting the Iraqi conflict to recruit new anti-U.S. jihadists," he added.

Wait a minute...

So Iraq was not a part of the war on terrorism before but has become one due to the invasion. The Iraq excursion has been a Godsend to terrorist recruiters. In other words, the Iraq adventure has made us more vulnerable and less safe.

Gee, it's too bad no one wondered about such a probablity before the invasion.

Oh wait, someone did.

The Keystone Kops' foreign policy

Gotta love this BBC headline:

Iran to aid Syria against growing threat

So it's come to this.

The recklessness of President Bush's foreign poicy has brought hyperconservative, theocratic Iran and revolutionary, rabidly secular Syria to make common cause.

Then again, according to the right wing's own contentions, Bush's foreign policy allegedly brought hyperconservative, theocratic al-Qaeda and revolutionary, rabidly secular Saddam Hussein to make common cause too.

Contrary to left wing claims, Bush HAS succeeded in being a uniter not a divider. He's helped previously sworn enemies to unite... against us.

I don't know about you, but I sure feel safer!

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

NYS GOP chairman: Dems linked to terrorist collaborators

As some of you may know, controversial lawyer Lynne Stewart was convicted of helping terrorists. She passed messages from Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, author of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, to his followers. Now, no one actually died or was injured as a result of these messages, but she was convicted anyway.

The verdict was denounced civil rights groups who claim that it will discourage lawyers from defending unpopular clients, an essential part of the justice system. The conviction was praised as a blow against terrorism by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, of torture memo infamy.

The newly christened Republican chairman in New York state, Stephen Minarik, has decided to make political capital of this conviction. Minarik issued a statement criticizing the Democratic Party, which is hardly surprising from a GOP chairman. Yet, many think he crossed the line when he said that the Democrats "can be accurately called the party of Barbara Boxer, Lynne Stewart and Howard Dean."

Over the past several years, Republicans have done everything they can to imply that Democrats' actions benefit terrorism. Usually they try to hint this more subtly, by suggesting Dems aren't as tough on [hold hand over heart] enemies of freedom as the GOP. This was the approach adopted by Vice-President Cheney during the election campaign.

Republicans distribute bumper stickers and yard signs with slogans like "I support our troops and President Bush," as though the two were inseparable. They want to make the two inseparable. No one can criticize the troops and if the troops and the president are one and the same, then no one can criticize Bush either.

But usually they are careful suggest that Democratic policies benefit terrorism inadvertantly. Some Dems believe poorly planned invasions against non-threatening countries helps the terrorist cause more than it hurts it and this common sense constitutes 'negligence' in the eyes of the right.

Republicans do this because underhanded, read-between-the-lines smearing is usually harder to counter than unabashed attacks. Americans generally respond to subtle meanness better than to overt nastiness. That's why it's so unusual that a mainstream Republican leader like Minarik would make his attack so explicit.

Even New York's GOP governor, George Pataki, admitted that Minarik had crossed the line of decency, calling the comments "not in the realm of appropriate political discourse."

"The Democratic Party doesn't have anything to do with Lynne Stewart," the governor rightly added.

Curiously, [w]hen asked if Minarik, who is also the Monroe County Republican chairman, should resign, Pataki didn't respond, reported the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Pataki's rough week

It's been a tough week for New York's governor George Pataki. There is widespread chatter in New York political circles about whether the governor will run for a fourth term in 2006. Running for a fourth term usually isn't kind to any chief executive in a democracy. Ask Helmut Kohl or even Pataki's predecessor, Mario Cuomo. After a decade or so, people usually start to get tired of you. And Pataki was never that well-loved in the first place. His main attribute is that he's so bland that he's hard to demonize.

Yet people are getting tired of him. Scandals like corruption and slush funds in the state's public authorities and the selling of Erie Canal development rights at a cut price (NYCO blog has a series of articles on this) have further eroded the public's already shaky confidence in state government in general. Pataki, as chief executive, is a focal point of this generalized malaise but his active obstruction of those who are trying to shed light on these issues does not look good.

Admittedly, most New Yorkers are hazy at best about the details of these things, but it only confirms their perception that state government is irredeemibly corrupt. With gerrymandering, it's nearly impossible to get rid of a state legislator, but it's easier to get rid of a governor. A sports analogy would be appropriate here.

A poll last week showed his approval rating at a mere 43%. Pataki would likely get trounced in an election against popular Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who has already announced his candidacy for governor. Yet despite his unpopularity even in New York, where a Republican must be moderate to win statewide office, there are still those who hold the delusion of Pataki as a serious candidate for president. While Pataki might be chosen as a vice-presidential candidate, Al Sharpton is as likely to his party's presidential nominee in 2008 as Pataki.

As a moderate, it was unsurprising that Pataki was also slammed in this recent article in the National Review... which is increasingly adopting the Weekly Standard/American Spectator model of trash (TNR used to have good quality writing, a good representation of intellectual conservativism, even if I disagreed with most of it).

Among Pataki's crimes: his recent State of the State address advocated (according to TNR) creating more bird sanctuaries, building new ethanol facilities, and encouraging kids to exercise.

In recent States of the Union, President Bush has talked about hydrogen fuel cells and criticized baseball players who take steroids. But I guess Bush was sufficiently strident and militaristic in other parts of the speeches to escape the TNR's wrath.

Then again, TNR columnists also regularly attack Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for daring to question the wisdom of the Bush administration's macho chest-beating and blind beligerence that passes for a foreign policy. So maybe Pataki's in good company.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Democracy in the Middle East

I was listening to a number of BBC stories on the assassination of Rafik Hariri and something came to mind.

One of the commonly heard lines in the US is "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East."

It's repeated so often that no one really thinks about it.

Even aside from the Palestinian Territories (possibly a democracy but not yet an independent country) and Iraq (ditto), isn't Lebanon a democracy?

For the last decade and a half, it has had competitive elections and peaceful changes of government. It has a free press and a vibrant political system.

I guess the question about the "Israel=only democracy in the region" line is this: is the canard intentional obfuscation or an assumption based on simple ignorance?

Death of a legend

I was saddened to read of the death of Arthur Miller. Miller, arguably America's greatest ever playwright, died late last week at the age of 89. Miller was a great artist precisely because he was unafraid to challenge politically correct norms, be it the American Dream or McCarthyistic fanaticism. The New York Times has a series of articles on Miller and his work that is worth checking out.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Ex-Lebanon PM assassinated; Syria suspected

Former prime minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated today in Beirut. Hariri, who dominated Lebanon's post-civil war political scene, was killed when a huge car bomb hit his motocade. Nine others died as well.

Since the end of the country's civil war in 1990, Lebanon has become a fairly peaceful, stable and prosperous country. Most observers consider Lebanon the most liberal and cosmopolitan in the Middle East.

Hariri served as prime minister from 1992-98 and again from 2000 until his resignation after parliament amended the Lebanese constitution to extend Syrian-backed President [Gen.] Emile Lahoud's term by three years. Lahoud had been set to leave office last November noted CNN.

Syria maintains a 16,000-strong occupational force in Lebanon. Many see Damascus' invisible hand in real control of Lebanon's politics, though this has brought relatively little international and regional criticism [apparently Occupation and meddling in other countries' affairs are only bad things when done by the capitalists and/or Zionists].

Hariri, who resigned from the government last October, recently joined calls by the opposition for Syria to quit Lebanon in the run-up to general elections in May, Reuters reported.

Needless to say, Syria has instantly become a prime suspect in Hariri's assassination, though Damascus denied involvement. "We condemn all those who are trying to create a turmoil in Lebanon, our brother Lebanon," said Syria's foreign minister, who called the killing a 'heinous act.'

"The assassination of al-Hariri is painful news. It is a black day in Syria, Lebanon and the entire Arab world," countered Syria's information minister.

The degree of credibility given to Syria's denials is an open question.

As expected, some dutifully followed their ideological pre-disposition to blame Israel for everything and the bad weather. "A well-organized terrorist organization such as the Zionist regime has the capability of such an operation," huffed a spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry.

No explanation as to why Israel would want dead a moderate, modernizing, anti-Syrian politician.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

NY death penalty revival unlikely

Good news from Albany for once. The New York Times reports that it appears improbable that the death penalty will be re-instituted in New York. State-sponsored murder, euphemistically known as capital punishment, was brought back in New York in 1995 after the election of Republican Gov. George Pataki ended over two decades of anti-death penalty politicians in the chief executive's chair. The law, however, was struck down by a state court last year on technical grounds.

Some politicians wanted to modify the law governing state-sponsored murder to meet the court's objections. This, even though no one had actually been executed by the state since the 1995 re-introduction. Since 1995, an estimated $175 million or more has been spent on death penalty cases. Juries have sentenced only seven men to death and five of those seven convictions were reversed by the state's highest court, while the other two are still being appealed.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a death penalty supporter, added that he had growing doubts about the practical need, expense and infallibility of the death penalty, especially since defendants can now be sentenced to life without parole, which is clearly a more legitimate alternative.

Silver appears likely to block a full floor vote on getting New York state back into the vigilante business, making it one of the few times in recent memory's that the legislature's anti-democratic conduct was used for Good, rather than Evil.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Blair backs Annan

The American right has showered praise on British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some have even compared him to Churchill. This might seem odd on the surface, since Blair's politics are much closer to those of Bill Clinton, who the neo-cons despise, that those of George W. Bush. This might seem odd until you keep in mind that Blair has been wildly loyal in licking Bush's boots, in a way that, say, French President Jacques Chirac has not. That's why Chirac ranks with Saddam and bin Laden on the neo-cons' hate list while they've all but canonized Blair.

So it will be interesting to see how the far right explains this. Blair has given strong backing to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who, like Chirac, is a prominent in the neo-con smear campaign.

There were serious problems in the oil-for-food program that UN was compelled to administer to get around severe economic sanctions that should never have been imposed in such a broad way. As the scandal exploded, Annan ordered an independent investigation. The investigation was critical of how the program was run. Annan suspended two key figures in the program. Additionally, he said he might lift diplomatic immunity from criminal prosecution if further investigation warrants it.

Perhaps what the far right fears is the precedent of accountability the UN is setting. In the UN, when someone screws up badly, they're punished. In the US, when someone screws up badly, they're re-elected. In the Bush administration, when someone screws up badly, they're given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor an American civilian can be awarded.

Perhaps this is why Blair said of Annan, "I happen to think in that very tough time that he has handled himself with great distinction, with a lot of wisdom and in difficult circumstances has been a tremendous unifier. I know it has not always been easy for him politically or personally but Kofi I wanted to say to you how pleased we are to have you here and how warmly we welcome you and how much we regard your Secretary-Generalship of the United Nations."

I suspect the far right will regard Saint Tony's comments as the ultimate disloyalty. Blair should not take it personally. Extremists of all political stripes equate disagreement with betrayal.

Attention literati

Afficienados of literature may be interested in this excellent online literary magazine: Words Without Borders.

The African Review of Books is another good one if you're interested in international word artistry.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Eds up

"Bruce [Arena, US national soccer team boss,] told me that it is only going to get harder. He told me I'm not going to score every game." -US forward Eddie Johnson.

Johnson has yet to heed Arena's comments.

With a goal in Wednesday's match in Trinidad and Tobago, he became the first American ever to score in his first four caps. He has 6 goals in four appearances with the national team, all World Cup qualifiers.

The US won the match 2-1 with goals from Johnson and Eddie Lewis.

Much ado about nothing

Yesterday, disgraced New York Yankees star Jason Giambi held a press conference. A few months ago, The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Giambi admitted before a grand jury to taking steroids. This caused a huge scandal and finally shamed Major League Baseball into implementing a sham non-policy on steroids (4 strikes and you're out for only a year). He's also become a huge embarassment to the Yankees, who still are obligated to pay him $82 million for the four years left on his contract... though apparently the Bombers are looking for ways to void the contract.

Anyways, Giambi held a press conference yesterday, on the eve of the spring training. He insisted that he told the truth to the grand jury, but would not acknowledge what that truth was.

He apologized profusely to fans, teammates and the Yankee organization. But he refused to say exactly what he was apologizing for... except for vague "ongoing legal matters."

Why would you bother to hold a press conference to apologize, if you refuse to say what you're sorry for?

"I wanted to get here [New York City] now so I wouldn't be a distraction to my teammates, '' Giambi said. "And (so) when I get to Florida, I can concentrate on baseball. "

I can understand that Giambi's lawyers don't want him to open his mouth too much, but why subject yourself to a big media circus, all the bigger because it's the Yankees, to basically say nothing?

Thursday, February 10, 2005

The newest menace to society: underwear

Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' last year exposed thousands of innocent American eyes to a naked breast (though no action was taken against the football players themselves, most of whom had naked arms). But apparently even being clothed isn't sufficient for some legislators with way too much free time on their hands.

Another story from the big government crowd. Legislators in conservative Virginia have decided a new Crusade to 'protect the people.' The target of their (self-)righteous ire: people who don't wear belts.

The Virginia House of Delegates has approved a measure that would outlaw underwear or boxers hanging over the top of pants.

I'll let that sink in for a minute.

Those menaces to society who commit the egregious crime of exposing their naked... boxer shorts could be fined $50.

[Full disclosure: when I play basketball at the YMCA or at the park and I'm on the 'skins' (no shirt) team, sometimes my boxers are visible over the top of my shorts. The same can usually be said for most of the other people on the skins team. Then again, I better not reveal this, lest the busybodies ban shirtlessness too or perhaps even ban being naked in the shower.]

"Most of us would identify this as the coarsening of society," said a Republican supporter. Bad taste? Perhaps. Requiring the full wrath of the Commonwealth? Give me a break!

"To vote for this bill would be a vote for character, to uplift your community and to do something good not only for the state of Virginia, but for this entire country," huffed the bill's sponor, a Democrat.

To ban the displaying of boxers is a vote for character?? I think fighting against self-important, pompous legislators would do a lot more to uplift Virginia.

Update: The Virginia Senate, probably red-faced over the embarrassment this has caused the state, has scrapped the nonsense.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

So much for 'solidarity' with the workers

One of the commonly misunderstood or misrepresented realities about authoritarianism is this: left-wing dictatorships are dictatorships first and left-wing second. Regimes will quickly shed any pretense to left-wing ideals in order to preserve their hold on absolute political power.

Since the late 70s, China has opened itself up to foreign investment and many aspects of capitalism in a way that would surely have Mao rolling in his grave. But one thing remains: absolute control by the Chinese Communist Party over the country's political space.

During the 1980s, the main opposition to Poland's communist government was the Solidarity. trade union During the liberation struggle against white minority rule, guerrilla leader Robert Mugabe was a strong proponent of Marxist rhetoric, something which he jettisonned for a while but re-adopted with a fervor a few years ago. The main opposition to Mugabe's regime comes from the Movement for Democratic Change led by former labor leader Morgan Tsvangarai. Zimbabwean trade unions are also strong opponents of the regime. How is it that the main opposition to these 'workers' paradises' can come from... the workers?

The answer is very simple: left-wing dictatorships are dictatorships first and left-wing second. The reason the regimes in Soviet Poland and Mugabe's Zimbabwe were so opposed to workers' trade unions is because they represented something far more dangerous to an authoritarian regime than even right-wing 'counterrevolutionaries.' They represented an alternative power structure.

While most of the world has been strongly critical of Robert Mugabe's dictatorship, prominent African leaders (with the notable exception of Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade) have been largely concerned with appeasing Mugabe.

The African point man on the Zimbabwe crisis has been South African president Thabo Mbeki of the African National Congress (ANC) party. Mbeki has been reticent to criticize Mugabe for two main reasons. First, the ANC and Mugabe's ZANU-PF party (just ZANU until 1987) are ideological cousins as they are both left-wing movements that fought against white minority rule. As a result, Mugabe was a big supporter of the ANC during the latter's struggle against apartheid. It is also a fact that Mugabe's paranoid, anti-imperialist rantings have some sympathy in Africa and just enough of the occasional shred of truth to maintain that sympathy.

Though ZANU-PF and the ANC are both left-wing movements that fought against white minority rule, South Africa became a democracy and Zimbabwe did not. The ANC was a movement that was able to transcend its charismatic icon (Nelson Mandela) while ZANU-PF didn't. Though the South African poiltical system is imperfect and has some problems which I'll address in the near future, it's clear that South Africa respects the basic principles of democracy and rule of law while Zimbabwe does not.

The ANC, the South African Communist Party and COSATU, the main South African trade union grouping that is closely allied to the ANC, have jointly announced that conditions in Zimbabwe are not "conducive" to holding "free and fair elections." Parliamentary elections are scheduled for 31 March.

This is criticism Mugabe could easily write off if it came from the UN or George W. Bush or his favorite scapegoat Tony Blair, the British prime minister. But coming from folks Mugabe thought were his allies has to be a bitter pill for the bitter old man to swallow.

It will be interesting to see if how great the rift is between President Mbeki and his party and how they will try to paper over it.

But as always, Mugabe didn't take this snub lying down. A COSATU fact finding mission was refused entry to Zimbabwe. Typically, the regime accused the mission of backing the main opposition MDC (which itself was founded by trade unionists).

"If it is really levelling the playing field and conforming to SADC [Southern African regional grouping] norms, how can they feel threatened by people carrying pens and notebooks," said the general secretary of COSATU.

Authoritarian regimes often feel threatened by people carrying pens and notebooks.

The Zimbabwean goverment obfuscated by claiming the delegation needed to apply for a permit through the South African labour minister.

"[The delegation was] charged with (Section) 18A of the Immigration Act which relates to prohibited immigrants. They are being put on the next plane back to South Africa," explained the general secretary of the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions, which organized the visit.

Not only has "Marxist" Mugabe oppressed his own country's trade unions, but now he's attacking South Africa's. So much for 'solidarity' with the workers.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Monarchical republics

This is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Overt military coups are so 1970s. The image of thugs in camouflage and dark glasses just doesn't play well anymore in a world where pretenses of 'democracy' and 'liberty' are mouthed ad nauseum. They bring sanctions and condemnation. Absolute monarchies are the same way. Even the worst dictatorships at least pretend some popular legitimacy: 'I want to retire to my farm, but the people want me to remain Leader' is a popular lie. So what's an armed force to do when a de facto military leader dies? The military occupies a privileged position in such regimes. Those in privileged positions don't like to lose such privileges. However, exigencies require at least the facade of constitutional order. Overt military coups are denounced by international institutions and, more importantly, this typically results in the suspension of international aid. Corrupt generals aren't in it for the stripes on their shoulder.

A solution has been found: monarchical republics. Monarchical republics respect the facade of constitutionalism but are de facto monarchies. From Syria to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, dead dictators have been replaced by their sons. This succession has inevitably been ratified by the supposedly independent national assemblies. Togo, in West Africa, is the latest country to become a monarchical republic.

This weekend, the country's dictator, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, died after 38 years in power; he ascended to the throne after a 1967 military coup. Eyadéma was the world's second longest serving leader, behind only Cuba's Fidel Castro. The constitutional successor, the National Assembly speaker, was out of the country. So the military suspended the constitution and appointed Eyadéma's son as the new head of state.

"The Togolese armed forces swear allegiance to Faure Gnassingbé as President of the Republic of Togo," said Armed Forces Chief of Staff General Zachari Nandja. That the military would swear allegiance to a man, rather than to the constitution or to the republic, is telling of the mentality of an institution which has dominated the country for almost the entire independence period.

This seemed like a traditional military coup and was quickly denounced by the African Union, the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, other African leaders and pretty much everyone else. So the miltiary quickly backtracked. They ordered the parliament to change the constitution (which apparently was re-instated after the required manipulation).

Previously, the interim president would rule only for 60 days while new elections were organized. This was changed to allow the new president to complete the previous president's mandate: in this case, until 2008.

After this happened, deputies voted to oust the old National Assembly speaker and replace him with Eyadéma's son: Faure Gnassingbé. As new speaker, Gnassingbé was duly appointed as president to fill the vacancy.

So voilà, the military has the facade of constitutionalism.

The military claimed this was necessary because the National Assembly speaker was out of the country on a diplomatic mission and the armed forces wanted to quickly fill the power vacuum.

Nice try, guys.

Following Eyadéma's death, the speaker quickly flew back to West Africa. Except the military had closed Togo's borders, so the speaker had to land in neighboring Benin. If the military had really wanted to fill the power vacuum in a constitutional way (snicker), it would've allowed the speaker's plane to land or at least sent a military jet to Benin to pick him up.

In reality, this 'power vacuum' bemoaned by the military as created in no small part by the military itself. As a pretext, one can safely assume, to appoint to the throne Eyadéma's son, a man who would surely know which side his bread was buttered on.

Fortunately, no one was fooled by this charade. The continental body, the African Union, has denounced the ruse for what it was: a military coup. The AU has already showed more spine in its two years of existence than its predecessor, the Organization of African Unity (based on its infamous 'non-inteference principle'), did in four decades. The coup was also trashed by the West African regional grouping ECOWAS.

The AU has a principle of suspending countries which allow extra-constitutional transfers of power and imposing sanctions on such governments. An AU communique also encouraged foreign donors to withhold aid from the new regime in Togo.

Thanks Brad

American goalkeeper Brad Friedel has announced his retirement from international play. Friedel, who will continue playing for his club team Blackburn Rovers, got his first international cap (appearance) in 1992. Friedel and Kasey Keller have been the main keepers for the US national team since 1995 and have been one of the best keeper duos in the world. Friedel was the starting netminder for the US in the 2002 World Cup finals and led the Americans to the quarterfinal round, their best finish since 1930. He became only the second person ever to stop two penalty kicks (during regular play) in the same finals.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Intentional irony?

From The Christian Science Monitor's News briefs

A Hamilton College panel on the "Limits of Dissent" was cancelled after multiple death threats were reported against both officials of the upstate New York school and controversial guest speaker Ward Churchill. An essay by Churchill, in which the University of Colorado professor compared victims of the 9/11 World Trade Center bombing to "little Eichmanns," a reference to the infamous Nazi war criminal, ignited strong resistance to Churchill's scheduled visit.

Was Hamilton College trying to be intentionally ironic? Or perhaps Ward Churchill's opponents were trying to live down to the criticism of them?

There's a not-entirely-unfair sentiment that universities are no longer the venue for vibrant debate and free exchange of ideas they've traditionally liked to promote themselves as. Incidents such as this do little to dispel that train of thought.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

We're not invading them... today

So Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has insisted that attacking Iran is not on the agenda... before adding the ominous qualifier: "at this point in time."

When exactly did America's reputation get so bad that a secretary of state has to out of her way to vigorously deny rumors of imminent plans to invade another country willy nilly?

Thoughts on the Iraqi election

To the Iraqis who braved insecurity and threats to go out and vote: I tip my cap to you. You are the real heroes, not the Abu Ghraib criminals, not theocratic insurgents who willfully slaughter innocent Iraqi civilians, not the American generals who say it's 'fun to shoot people.' Ultimately if Iraq is going to become a stable, free, independent, democratic country that respects human rights, it'll be because not because of a foreign occupation force or the delusions of distant Crusaders but because of people like you. You voters and, especially, the candidates who ran have more guts than anyone else in Iraq right now.

To Americans: the next time you hear a friend or colleague whining about how he can't be bothered to vote because it's too inconvenient for him to spend 10 minutes walking around the block to the polling station, slap him upside the head. The Iraqis had a higher voter turnout than we did in our last national election (where turnout was high by our standards). And we didn't have to dodge bullets to go vote.

The interesting question about the elections is how the US will react if the coalition led by the American-installed prime minister Iyad Allawi loses to a coalition of religious parties. Traditionally, the US has only supported democracy in countries provided that the governments were pro-American; or they have supported opposition 'pro-democracy' movements in countries where the regime was anti-American.

Democratic governments that represented their own interests first have traditionally been either shunned (think France today) or removed (many examples but Iran 1953 is the most geographically pertinent one). Anti-democratic governments that are sufficiently pliant to American interests are usually embraced, or at least tolerated (there are more than enough current examples of this).

The first partial results have Allawi's coalition losing to the religious coalition. What happens if the new, democratically-elected government wants to impose Sharia? What if the new, democratically-elected government wants to use the future constitution to turn Iraq into an Islamic republic? What happens if the new, democratically-elected government wants to restrict foreign access to Iraq's oil fields? What happens if the new, democratically-elected government criticizes the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories?

Yasser Arafat was an internationally recognized democratically-elected leader as well but Bush administration was quick to declare him 'irrelevant' when he was seen as too belligerent to the US and Israel. The new democratically-elected leader Mahmoud Abbas has adopted a line that's more 'acceptable' to Washington so they haven't deemed him 'irrelevant.' At least not yet.

It's fine that the US wants to protect its interests and those of its allies... though I wish the administration would be more ingenuous about this rather than using noble-sounding rhetoric that makes for easy charges of hypocrisy.

When the new Iraqi government is sworn in, the Bush administration will surely laud it as a 'historic step for the Iraqi people in the quest toward freedom and liberty and taking control of their own destiny' or some other high-fallutin' sentiment of that sort. But how will Washington react when the new Iraqi government wants to protect ITS interests? Especially if they're in conflict with American interests? Will the new government cease being a 'beacon of freedom and liberty' and become 'irrelevant' or terrorist appeasers or America-haters?

Time will tell. History suggests skepticism.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Youth soccer thuggery

'The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.'
--Fred Astaire

It looks like youth soccer thuggery is not limited to the United States. This article in the British Guardian reports that: boys' and girls' football [soccer] leagues across Britain are in turmoil because of abuse and violence by overwrought parents. Games are being abandoned as referees are assaulted, brawls break out and players are left in tears.

So much for sports as amusement, as a fun activity.

The problem is now so bad that officials who run children's teams have written to hundreds of thousands of parents warning that errant clubs could be fined up to £2,500 [US$4700], or even shut down, because of misbehaviour.

The English soccer federation, The FA, is now investigating around 100 cases in which adults, often parents, abused or attacked players, officials or the parents of youngsters on the opposition team. Parents have been disciplined for getting so excited they end up shouting or swearing at their own child.

'Some parents have been banned from attending matches because of their behaviour, such as striking a player or a fellow spectator,' said a spokesman for the FA. 'Very often these parents are competitive and passionate about their football and want their child to do well. Unfortunately they don't understand how their actions can harm their children's progress or enjoyment of the game.'

The spokesman is very diplomatic. These parents are idiots who don't have a clue. In youth sports, if a parent is more upset about how the game unfolds than the player on the field/ice/court, then something is seriously wrong with that parent.

I coach youth soccer. I am competitive. I go into every game hoping my team wins and trying to make it happen. But not at all costs. I'd love to win a lot of games and trophies, but I don't need them to know I'm a good coach. I don't need them to enjoy what I'm doing.

Ultimately it's about helping the kids improve as soccer players. As for these nitwit parents without the tiniest shred of perspective, who are trying to live their dreams through their kids or selfishly seek some reflected glory, they are the ones who ruin it for the kids. They are the ones who end up pushing their kids to quit the sport altogether in disgust.

Ice hockey great Ken Dryden once said, "Sports may build character, but more often, it reveals it." He was referring to athletes.

But the sentiment could just as easily apply to their parents.

Divine intervention?

Another thumbs down to an ego who deserves it more often than most: Philadelphia Eagles' wide receiver and media whore Terrell Owens.

Owens broke his left ankle a month and a half ago. His team will play in the Super Bowl on Sunday. He hasn't played since injuring the ankle in mid-December. Owens decided he was going to play in the NFL championship game.

Actually, he says the decision was made for him. Not by the coaches or doctors, but by God.

Yes, God.

"I respect Dr. Myerson [who performed surgery on his ankle] and his decision to not medically clear me," Owens said. "But prior to going down to see him for that last visit, I can honestly say God had already cleared me. It really doesn't matter what a doctor says. I've got the best doctor of all, and that's God."

Because with genocide in eastern Sudan, people rebuilding their lives after a terrible tsunami and all sorts of terrible things going on in the world, God decided to use his powers of intervention to affect a football game. After all, God surely wouldn't want to deprive the unwashed masses the joy of seeing Terrell Owens play.

If Owens had to get an injury, why couldn't God have made it to his mouth instead?

Friday, February 04, 2005

Stupidity in the DR Congo

Rhetoric against colonialism and neo-colonialism is standard fare in much of Africa. The Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] is same country that gave the world Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese nationalist who served briefly as the country's first prime minister. In 1961, Lumumba famously attacked Belgian colonial rule, especially the atrocious period during the reign of King Leopold II. He did so in the presence of Leopold's grandson King Baudoin who was in the capital Kinshasa (then called Leopoldville) for independence ceremonies. This touched off a diplomatic furor. Lumumba was assassinated later that year in a plot widely attributed to the Belgian government.

Chippla's blog points to a bizarre BBC story suggesting that attitudes in the capital might have changed. The Congolese interim government has re-erected in Kinshasa a statue of Leopold riding his horse, after spending 40 years where it properly belonged: in a garbage dump.

Leopold set up the Congo Free State in 1877 in what is now the DRC. Unlike most colonial ventures, the Congo Free State was not a Belgian colony, but was the personal property of the king. A land about the size of western Europe.

Congo Free State was Leopold's personal play thing for several decades until the Belgian state annexed it in 1908. Leopold's rule over the Free State exhibited a brutality that's hard to imagine now. Forced laborers were used mainly to extract rubber. Those who did not meet quotas had their hands chopped off.

"A people without history is a people without a soul," explained Culture Christophe Muzungu (whose surname means 'white man' ironically).

Leopold's era was surely the most soulless period in a land that's been cursed ever since. Why the descendants of his victims would want to honor this greedy terrorist with a statue is incomprehensible*.

Leopold's Congo was by far the most savage part of a not-very-pleasant European colonization of Africa. Estimates of those killed by the brutality of Leopold's forces vary widely, due to lack of numbers in early 20th century central Africa. However, estimates range from 5 million to 22 million.

Even conservative estimates put Leopold's Congo in the same league as Nazi Germany and Stalinist USSR.

At least the peoples of the former Soviet states had the good taste to tear down Stalin's statues.

Recommended reading: King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.

*-addendum: Perhaps not as incomprehensible as one might have originally thought. On the BBC World Service last night, Hochschild theorized that the bankrupt DRC government is trying to curry favor with Belgian donors. He noted that DRC President Joseph Kabila gave a speech before the Belgian Senate last year praising "the Belgians, missionaries, civil servants and businessmen, who believed in the dream of King Leopold II of building a state in the centre of Africa" referring to them as "pioneers." Pragmatic, perhaps, but appalling nonetheless.

On imperialism

James, over at Hobson's Choice blog, has a fascinating entry on Imperialism as a Vocation and an interesting series of essays on Private Sector Imperialism. Both are well worth a read.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Shake Hands With the Devil

This is part of a regular feature on my blog that presents interesting stories from elsewhere in the world, particularly Africa, that are little reported in the American media. It's part of my campaign to get people to realize there is a lot going on in the world outside the US, Israel and Iraq.

Mother Jones has an interview with retired Canadian Gen. Roméo Dallaire. Dallaire was head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide who was prevented from having his force intervene to stop the atrocities because of the opposition of the Belgian, French and American governments. Then when he asked his forced be enlarged and given a mandate to intervene, the Security Council, on the demands of the Belgians, French and Americans, slashed the force's size by 80%. Dallaire is one of the true tragic heroes of Rwanda. His case demonstrates that "the UN" can only act if powerful member states want it to act and it's powerless if those member states want to bury their heads in the sand. The interview is worth reading if you don't know much about the behind-the-scenes of Rwanda 1994 that could've prevented the genocide if anyone outside Dallaire's mission had been willing to take even the smallest action. His account of that horrible period is called Shake Hands With the Devil.

Why democracy and militarism are mutually exclusive

Bobo's blog offers congrats to Vermonter Eugene Jarecki who won a grand prize at the Sundance film festival for his film Why We Fight. It's described as at American militarism, and argues that promoting democracy with force has never worked.

I see three principal reasons for this.

First, the US has never fought a war that was fundamentally about making another country democratic. This has been the RESULT of a few years, World War II being the one typically cited by militarists. However, promoting democracy abroad was never the objective of World War II: it was self-defense and defense of our allies (not all of whom were democratic). The objective may have been noble, but it should be represented accurately.

Second, for democracy to take root in a country, it requires a fundamental committment of the people of that country to buy into the principles of democratic governance. If the people don't buy into those principles, they can't successfully be imposed by an outside hegemon. Outsiders can help, by supporting domestic democratic reformers. But ultimately, the people of a country have to want democracy themselves and be willing to accept the principles required for democracy to work or it simply won't work.

The other reason democracy can't be promoted with a barrel of a gun is quite simple. Brute force is the absolute ANTITHESIS of the give and take required for a democracy to function. In democracy, if you can't get everything you want, you have to negotiate and compromise. With militarism, if you can't get everything you want, you just invade willy-nilly or bomb the hell out of the bastards. Democracy requires accepting that sometimes your side won't win the day. Militarism doesn't.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

UN-scapegoating more important than halting atrocities

A UN investigative commission yesterday issued a report into the atrocities being committed in Darfur, eastern Sudan. What did it say? Well it depends a lot on what you read (again demonstrating the wisdom of not relying on a single media source).

This article from the Associated Press, which is the most important source of world news for most newspapers in this country, made its headline: 'U.N. Clears Sudan of Genocide in Darfur.'

In order for something to technically be genocide, it must fit a precise legal definition (click here to read that definition). Something can fail to meet the definition of genocide but still be a war crime.

'UN Clears Sudan of Genocide in Darfur.' That sounds pretty definitive, right? It's not genocide so the Sudanese regime should feel exonerated. Ideological critics pounced on such headlines to denounce the UN for being complicit in atrocities, for protecting war criminals, for essentially saying, 'It's not genocide, so it must be ok.'

And a shallow, superficial reading of only the headline might lead you to that conclusion.

Take this shallow, superficial attack entitled 'The Security Council tries hard to stay irrelevant.' The author, it wouldn't shock you to learn, has traditionally been very sympathetic to both President Bush and the belligerent neo-conservative agenda. In his ideological fervor, he's too lazy to distinguish between a UN investigative commission (which issued the report) and the Security Council. But this is the first time he's written about Darfur (because it gave him a chance to attack "the UN") so such lack of nuance is utterly predictable.

This critic cited an excerpt of the report which claimed that Sudanese government sponsored militias "widespread and systematic" abuses that may constitute crimes against humanity, then added snidely 'Because the distinction is just oh-so-important.'

As anyone reasonably informed person knows, such distinctions ARE important in a LEGAL context. If you want to put criminals on trial, you have to make sure they are indicted with the proper charge so they are not ultimately set free. And those more concerned with justice than partisanship would not want such war criminals to be set free. Legal proceedings have to be done with much more precision than careless political rants.

If I believed this critic's comments, I would be outraged too. It sounds really bad what the UN said. It sounds like they are acting as apologists for genocide.

[Full disclosure: I've repeatedly described the situation in Darfur as genocide, one of the few things about which I've supported unreservedly the Bush administration.]

Except a closer look reveals something significantly different.

Take the BBC article on the story, which is entitled: 'UN urges Darfur war crimes trials.'

Even conservative Fox News' headline did a better job than the critic in capturing the spirit of the report: 'U.N.: Sudan Not Genocidal, but Still Bad.'

Hold on a moment. How can the UN be urging war crimes trials? I thought the UN was acting as apologists for the atrocities? I thought they were saying it was fine and dandy? How can they be both apologists while demanding justice?

It's all so confusing.

The UN investigation recommended that the Sudanese war criminals be brought before the International Criminal Court.

You'd think the critic would support such a decision. One part of the report he cited uncritically was The Sudanese justice system, it concluded, "is unable or unwilling" to address the situation in Darfur.

Oh wait a second. The Bush administration vigorously OPPOSES the International Criminal Court. And so does the critic, who writes The ICC was an awful idea from the start. You don't deal with genocide (or crimes against humanity or whatever) with a silly little court that only has [authority] over those who agree to let it have power over them. The obvious lack of logic just boggle my mind.

So by this logic, I can get away with theft if I don't 'agree to let [a court] have power over' me?

Typically, the critic attacks 'a silly little court' as a way of deterring genocide but he doesn't bother to offer better ways. If he has better ways of implementing justice than 'silly little courts,' then he would do well to be specific. Because it's easier to sit in your computer chair and criticize those who are trying to make a more just world than it is to actually make a contribution yourself.

[Nicholas Krystof's column in The New York Times argues that the Bush administration should set aside its opposition to the International Criminal Court, an opposition that effectively shielders the war criminals]

It's quite obvious to anyone that the critic's main concern is not the fate of the victims of atrocities/genocide/war crimes in Darfur. If it were, he would've focused on them or on attacking those who were committing the atrocities. He would've focused on what COULD BE DONE to stop the massacres. I've offered several essays which included ways to deal with the situation. Instead, he choses to eviscerate a poorly constructed strawman (and he doesn't even bother to get the right target!) which neatly conforms with his pre-conceived ideological notions.

It's a sad statement on the morality and values of those who are more concerned with petty (and not even factually accurate) sniping at the UN rather than trying to figure out how to halt the terrible atrocities. The situation in Darfur is too grave for attention to be deflected by such disingenuous ranting. Save the UN-bashing for something else. Let's try to figure out how to pressure the Sudanese regime into halting their sponsorship of genocidal militias. And if you can't offer something constructive, then at least stop denigrating those who are.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Religious obscenities

According to some religious extremists, the Asian tsunami was God's retribution. For what? Well, that depends on what kind of extremist you ask.

Hindu extremists say God was upset over Christian activity in India.

Last week, a column on the widely-read Indian news site suggested that the tsunami was a sign of retribution against Christians, whose activities are seen as betraying India's essentially Hindu character... Columnist Rajeev Srinivasan pointed to several religion-related factors he sees as pertinent. Referring to the earthquake as the "Christmas quake," he implied that the timing wasn’t mere coincidence. He also noted that the tsunami hit a church at Velankanni, one of the most significant Christian pilgrimage points in South India, resulting in the death of 50 people. Finally, he connected the tragedy to what many see as the recent mistreatment of a revered Hindu leader, noted a column on the website

Some Christian extremists, on the other hand, say God is pissed off at Muslims.

Author Henry Blackaby, speaking at a Kentucky pastors' conference here in mid-January, said he didn't fully appreciate the significance of the widespread destruction until he saw a map published by the Voice of the Martyrs depicting the most intense regions of Christian martyrdom worldwide. Blackaby said he noticed that the tsunami hit many of those same regions. He told a workshop audience that most Christians don't realize that 400,000 to 450,000 believers are killed annually for their faith, and that many regions of persecution shown the map "match to the T" the tsunami's swath of destruction, explained an article from The Baptist Press.

"(But) if you read the Old Testament, especially, God is very concerned how the nations treat His covenant people," Blackaby added. "The nations that persecuted, offended and killed His people, God came down and destroyed them. And He's the same God today. He's just as concerned about His people."

I wonder exactly how that works since a) presumably God created Hindus and Muslims too and b) the Old Testament was recorded before the evolution of Christianity.

Muslim extremists, for their part, don't want to be left out of the judgementalist fun. The newspaper of the PJD, Morocco's Islamist Party, reportedly claimed that the tsunami showed showed God's displeasure with South-East Asia's sex tourism industry. Some 5000 people marched in the capital Rabat in support of the paper, though the comments have been denounced by other Moroccan political parties.