Democracy in Africa

According to the Economist

[Government hampering of opposition parties] is part of an older problem: the refusal of a defeated incumbent to accept defeat and bow out. Refreshingly, it does sometimes happen, as in Somaliland earlier this month and in Ghana in the past decade. But President Robert Mugabe refused to go in Zimbabwe after a clear verdict in an election in 2008 and President Mwai Kibaki refused to go after the elections in Kenya in 2007. Both leaders sparked widespread violence in their countries, thanks to their determination to cling to office; both eventually had to accept power-sharing agreements with the opposition.

You know you have a problem when you have to go back a decade to find a second example.  I don’t know if I’d call that “refreshing.”

Friday, July 23, 2010 — 1 note   ()

MJC Multimedia: STOP the Serengeti Highway (?)

Michael has hit the nail on the head.  Those of us outside places like Tanzania often all too eager to rush to the defense and preservation of the “natural” at the expense of the economic development and interests of Tanzanians themselves.


I appreciate the concern of people who have a deeply felt concern for nature and preserving its boundless beauty. But I’m hesitant to tell other nations how to best manage their resources. Tanzania largely lacks basic infrastrucuture - roads, bridges, trains, airports etc. - and…


War in Mogadishu-the situation on the ground

Serious fighting has broken out in Mogadishu.  According to international media, the Transitional Federal Government has been planning an offensive to re-take the capital, but it’s unclear who initiated this round.

It’s been difficult to get a clear picture of what’s going on, but I’ve been corresponding with a friend who’s school teacher in Mogadishu.  With his permission, I’ve decided to share his emails with you (thought not his name, for safety reasons).

While it’s hard to get a big-picture look at what’s going on, I think his words are a rare insight into what it’s like living in the chaos of Somalia today.

March 11, 2010 Mogadishu 4:59pm

Dear Rachel,

Every one in the city keeps the head to the ground today.

The battles restarted yesterday and they are more deadly and bitter now. Shabab and the other Islamic wing Hisbul Islam waged the war on the bases of the TFG, it’s possible for these Islamist to knock down the barracks of the shaky TFG troops, but when they get close to the presidential palace, they get pushed back by the African peacekeepers at the palace.

The death toll rises to seventy plus ninety wounds. The shells are ear breaking and most  people were killed by these shells.

Many people resorted to go and live in skorching sunshine make-shifts outside the city.
Shabab claim to have cuptured and burned Amisom tanks.

My family and are safe now. We are in a big building to shelter from the shells.
The wars are still happening the death toll is sketchy. I’ll drop you a line more about these wars if you don’t mind dear Rachel.

March 11, 2010 Mogadishu 7:08pm

It just seems that things are a bit calm, but more bodies were covered 
from a place far from  war zone.

I can still hear the wars.

We all hate wars at night time because the whole city is closed at
 night and no-one will be able to reach the hospital so people may die
 bleeding just like last night.

Although many Somalis believe that the 
U.S plan to interfer Mogadishu and help the govenment root out Shabab
 will only fuel the tensions. [Read about US involvement at]

We hope things will change Rachel. Insha Allah.

It’s incredibly tragic to realize that Somalia has been in a state of war, chaos, and near-anarchy for nineteen years now.  The country is considered a failed state and at times it is hard to fully understand the meaning of that term.

March 11, 2010 Mogadishu 10:34pm

Dear Rachel,

Things are still calm for the night, but some famlies who displaced
today and didn’t still set up their make-shifts at the camps suffered
alot from  heat today and dust and haze tonight. God bless them.

I’m just back to my house. Tomorrow, Insha Allah, i’ll drive my three
young niece and nephews to the IDP. it’s the camps where my mom and
girl friend now live. It’s a little safer than my neighborhood. But
i’m afraid that roads might be closed tomorrow and the battle might

March 12, 2010 Mogadishu 3:50pm

How are you dear Rachel?

There were no more mini buses moving in the city as the wars continue
their third day.

I carried two of my sister’s babies on my shoulders while one grapped
tight my trausers.

I wanted to bring the kids to the camp which is about 20 miles and at
the same time return back to my school in Mogadishu.

As we waited for twenty minutes a bus appeared, i waved and we got
into it safely. I managed to get the kids to the camp and i returned
before the road was closed.   When i took my books and walked to the
school, a mortar shell hit one of the school roofs. I felt panic
because some teachers and students were in, but although friday is a
holiday the students were not more only some part-time students were
there, so most classes were empty. Fortunately no one was hurt.

Everyone began to escape, i run again back home.
I felt lucky to be safe.

Many people are still moving from their houses. Hospitals are over
crowded with injuries.

Shabab claim victory of today’s battle, their spokesman tells that
they have takenover areas surrounding the president’s headquarter, and
he adds that they will soon remove theTFG from mogadishu.
Things are just calm, but everyone’s hope for peace is really dead as
the door nail. Roars of gun fire can begin at any time. So we are all
prudent. I’ll write more…

Somali media sources are reporting that both sides have pledged to keep fighting until one side controls the entire city.  The government - which has support from the African Union’s AMISOM forces (as well as intelligence and diplomatic support from the US, according to recent reports) - has hinted that a major offensive is on the way.

Previous analyses have stated that, except for the limited AMISOM forces, the government does not have the firepower to take out Al-Shabbab in Mogadishu, let alone the surrounding areas.  However, while Al-Shabbab has claimed victory, news reports state that the fighting has mostly been confined to areas that are traditionally Al-Shabbab strongholds.

March 12, 2010 Mogadishu 6:36pm

Dear Rachel,

I’m just back from a tea-shop. A car pulled near by us, two men armed
with pistol and Ak 47 came out of a car and they kidnapped a man next
to my table.

The kidnappers looked like Islamist. I think the kidnapped man was
working indirectly with the TFG. So normally they decapitate such a

Okay, let me answer your question:
I many times considered to leave this city, but the live in the IDP is
also difficult, i chose to stay in the city with many people like me
who insist on remaining in.

Shabab is an extremist militant organization and for sure it’s the
most powerful in Somalia, so it woudn’t take a day for Shabab to
remove the TFG, but the TFG exists under Amisom. Shabab can only be
defeated by a super power.

There are some more clashes in the city this evening…
I wish you a happy travel, Rachel.

With both sides apparently determined to continue fighting, the outcome could have a serious decisive impact on Somalia’s future for the next few years.  I’ll try to keep this updated as events unfold.

As of March 14th, Somali media is people fleeing from Mogadishu in droves to the IDP camps that my friend mentions.  There hasn’t been much news out in the past few days and I haven’t heard from my friend since Friday.

Update-March 16

The TFG recently signed a deal to join forces with a more moderate Islamic militia named Ahlusunnah Wajama’ah and it looks like things have been relatively calm since then.  However, according to my friend in Mogadishu, many citizens are skeptical of the ability of this merger to bring real stability to Mogadishu and the surrounding regions.

Here’s his take:

As the matter of fact there is no solution in the short term. There
will only be more deadly wars.

People say, ‘The people in Mogadishu divide in two parties, people who
want to kill other people, and people who want to get killed,’
and this is really true because all innocents are at risk to get
killed by every armed group be it  TFG soldiers, Amisom, Shabab
militias or other Islamist.

Specifically in reference to the union between the TFG and Ahlusunnah:

Islamists in Somalia have different vision as well as ideology. For the long history Somalis version of the Islamic religion was based on cultural and moderatism.

Lately we’ve seen a radical version which Shabab imposed on the areas they control. Cross amputation and behading became something simple now.
The portion of the legs and hands amputated hang on some bus-stops you
wouldn’t pass near by untill your eyes catch that portions of hand and leg.

The shaky TFG is engaging in talks to attract moderate Islamist who can contribute militias to help flash out Shabab.

The government and the moderate Islamist Ahlusunnah Wajama’ah signed their John Hancock over night  unanimously to join Ahlussunah to the TFG. Ahlusunnah controls vast territory in the central Somali regions, they went in to bitter fights with Alshabab and they managed to defend Shabab from their areas.  

Ahlusunnah is armed, trained and backed by the neighboring Ethiopian regime.

However, people in Mogadishu don’t think that this peace deal will
bring any change.

We’ll wait to see what comes out of these deal.

With no current resolution to the fighting, it’s unclear what the implications of this escalation will be for Somalia.  For the moment, things seem to be in limbo, but I will update this if the situation changes

Sunday, March 14, 2010   ()

Political Scandal in South Africa

Today I was reading Resident Alien, a book by one of my favorite South African authors, Rian Malan, and I came across this passage:

In the past two decades, South Africa has been stricken almost weekly by scandals that would have toppled governments in the West but seem almost meaningless here.  Who stole the funds donate to resettle ANC exiles?  Who asked the Zambia government to throw Katiza Cebekhulu in a dungeon so that he couldn’t testify against Winnie Mandela? Did Thabo Mbeki really negotiate the arms deal on a ‘government to government’ basis and pocket the resulting commissions?  Did he really tell Bulelani Ngcuka to bring him the head of Jacob Zuma, even if that entailed fabricating evidence and setting honey traps?  When these stories break, you think they’re going to tear the country apart and alter everything forever.  But they don’t.  They linger for a week or two and then fade into oblivion, blown off the front pages by the next dumfounding scandal. The ordinary laws of cause and effect don’t seem to apply here.  The boundaries of the matrix we inhabit remain unknown.

This pretty much sums up my experience with South African politics in the month and a half I’ve been in Cape Town.  Here’s a sample of recent stories:

President Jacob Zuma is revealed to have had another child out of wedlock

In early February reports surfaced that the President, or JZ as people call him, had another illegitimate child.  This did not touch of the firestorm that I would have expected, since this is not the first time.  However, he did get hammered by opposition leaders because they believed he was setting a bad example for the country in terms of safe sex and HIV/AIDS policy.

He already had a rough start to his term, with trials for corruption and rape.  The corruption charges were dropped and he was acquitted of the rape (he alleged that it was consensual and during the proceedings also revealed his AIDS protection strategy: showers).

Julius Malema’s shady business dealings

Journalists recently called into question the fact that the chairman of the ANC Youth League is supposed to make 20,000 rand a month (a bit less than $3,000) and yet lives a lifestyle that involves multiple houses, lavish parties, and expensive clothing.  It turns out that several corporations that Malema is allegedly on the board of have recently received lucrative government contracts.

Before the story broke, Malema had made a speech in which he said that citizens must be wary of politicians who cannot explain how they’ve made their money.  When pressed for such an explanation, Malema stated that he was a product of South Africa’s liberation, not the media and therefore did not owe them anything.  Since the story came out, he threw himself an expensive public birthday party.

All of this is made only more surreal by the headlines.  When I first got here I kept seeing signboards reading “Jacob Zuma’s Secret Love Child!” plastered along the major roads in an effort to entice commuters to buy the paper.  In the US, these would be the (wildly untrue) fixtures of supermarket checkout lines, and I assumed that this was a marketing ploy of one of South Africa’s more absurd tabloids.  Only later did I realize that this was the preferred advertising strategy of South Africa’s major national, reputable newspapers.

Thursday, March 11, 2010   ()

Why the iTunes business model epically fails in South Africa

I’m sure those of you who illegally download music are rolling your eyes right now, but bear with me for a second.

Yesterday I decided I wanted to watch the season finale of a TV show I’d been following, which had aired after I left the US.  The episode was $1.99, which wasn’t a problem until I saw the file size: 1.5GB.

Let me explain something. Here internet is not pay by the month, the hour, or the connection speed, it’s pay by the megabyte.  The going rate is around 0.30R to 0.40R a MB.  Even at the lower price, that means that downloading the file would cost me 450R on top of whatever iTunes charges.  It’s about 7 rand to the dollar, which means downloading that 45-minute TV episode was going to cost me $64 (not including the $1.99).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say iTunes doesn’t make that much money in South Africa. (In their defense, they don’t actually try. If you download iTunes in South Africa the only thing you can buy are iPhone apps.)

This is an extreme case, but streaming a TV episode, uploading photos to Facebook, or even doing really extensive online research for an assignment becomes a cost-benefit analysis.

So the question becomes, in a world where the Digital Revolution is in full swing and our lives are increasingly reliant on online communication and commerce, where does this leave South Africa?

Information is a vital piece of a vibrant democracy and civil society.  I still see students using Facebook and email communication is common, but, for example, reading the news online can become a luxury.  With unemployment and poverty at current levels, the average South African stuggling to make rent and feed a family becomes cut off in as more information moves online.

I don’t know what this means for South Africa yet, but hopefully in a couple months I’ll be able to offer you all some more insights.

I have come away with one realization: living in a society based on the free market definitely has its advantages.

Thursday, February 25, 2010 — 2 notes   ()

A guide to getting around Cape Town

Since I don’t have a car, getting around the city can be a bit of a chore.  Taxis are expensive, the trains are dangerous, and the bus system stinks.  Luckily there’s another option.  In Tanzania they call them dalla-dallas.  In Kenya, they’re matatus.  Here it’s just taxis (as are the normal metered cabs, which can get a bit confusing). 

Basically they are a 14-passenger van, gutted, with row seating installed.  The taxis rush around the city at breakneck speeds, cramming in as many passengers as possible, as the barkers yell out their end destinations to every single passing pedestrian.  In addition to the driver, the taxi’s have a barker whose job it is to tell the driver when to stop, collect fares, and arrange passengers to make as much room as possible.

While the legal limit (painted on the side) is 14 passengers, the taxis aren’t usually full until there are 18 or more passengers and you can hop on or get off anywhere along the routes.

In South Africa, they’re actually pretty organized and most routes pass through a main terminal downtown.  With a small downside that in dodgier areas different taxi associations have been known to declare literal war on each other, it’s an easy way to get around.

Here the taxis are fairly tame, but riding a matatu in Kenya last summer was a harrowing experience.  The vans themselves would not be out of place as a finished product on Pimp My Ride.  With more screens than most people’s houses and thumping speakers, the van bodies are covered with graffiti, art, and slogans.  My favorite one had both Barak Obama and Osama Bin Laden’s faces painted on the sides.

I’ll be honest, I generally tried to avoid the matatus, except for traveling from Nairobi to Nakuru and back.  Every day, the newspaper is filled with the stories of horrific accidents involving speeding, overcrowded matatus on the highways and city streets.

That said, when I first landed in Nairobi after two months in Tanzania, even the matatus looked safe and shiny.  The dalla-dallas, like many things in Dar es Salaam, are in a perpetual state of disrepair.  The floors are rusting through, the windshields are cracked, and I once burned my forehead on an exposed bulb in the ceiling.  Often everything in the sides besides the outside metal has been removed.

The best part about the dalla-dallas is that the normal roof is removed and a higher, domed roof is bolted on.  This vastly increases the barker’s ability to cram people in, as they can stand up inside.  The most we ever counted was 28, but I never rode them during rush hour.  In the early mornings and late afternoon, when the half an hour drive to the city center turns into 3 hours, they are so full that passengers hang out of the windows to make more room.

Because my knowledge of Swahili slang and the local languages it sometimes gets mixed with is not fantastic, I could never understand exactly what the barkers were saying in Tanzania or Kenya.  Being in Cape Town has shown me that I was seriously missing out.

Here are a few choice quotes.

Directing the passengers to fit more people in: 

“You are like children.  I must tell you how to do everything!”

In response to people who declined a ride because they didn’t want to cram into the already full taxi:

“Okay, fine.  So you don’t want to go home?  Then you won’t get home.”

Traveling should always be this much fun.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010   ()