Category Archives: U.N.

“Survival of the Fattest” in Rentier States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 188-190:

A governor of one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states is effectively president of his own fiefdom. He has immunity from prosecution and controls the state security budget. The chairman of each of the 774 local governments is answerable to the state governor. To win a presidential primary a candidate needs two-thirds of the states to back him. That backing is in the gift of the governors. The Governors’ Forum is perhaps the most potent gathering in the land. Only about half of Nigeria’s oil revenues are allocated to the federal government. A fifth goes to the local governments. The governors control the quarter of oil revenues that goes to the states.

Oil-producing states receive an additional 13 percent share of Nigeria’s oil income before it is divided between the tiers of government. The state houses of the Niger Delta are powerful pistons of the looting machine. When he agreed to meet me in late 2010, Timipre Sylva had succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa, one of the Delta’s three main states. I had hoped to interview him at Gloryland, the gubernatorial palace set well apart from the shacks that house his constituents. Instead, I was summoned to the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel in Lagos, where Sylva was staying with his entourage during a visit to the commercial capital.

A tall and intelligent man, Sylva was under pressure. Politics in the Niger Delta is unremittingly volatile. Gunmen drift between the militias of MEND, crime gangs, and squads of political thugs that freelance for competing aspirants to power. As Sylva’s rivals sought to force him from office, loyalists were exchanging tit-for-tat attacks with his enemies. Relations with Jonathan, recently elevated to the presidential palace by Yar’Adua’s death, had soured. Little wonder, I suggested, that others coveted his job: his immediate predecessor had found himself president and the one before had siphoned off so much cash that he, like Joshua Dariye and James Ibori, the former governors of Plateau and Delta States, had snapped up enough assets abroad to earn the attention of the British police.

Sylva accepted that there had been widespread corruption among the governors. But he was, he pleaded, just a cog in a patronage system not of his making. “If a chief walks into my office, he expects me to take care of his problems because that is what the military used to do,” Sylva said. “That’s what he’s used to. If I don’t, I’ve got a very big political enemy.”

So you have to “settle” them, I suggested, using the Nigerian term for the dispensing of cash.

“Yes. And you will read that as corruption. But me, I probably will read that as political survival, because I have to survive before I become incorruptible.”

“And you use public funds to do that?” I asked.

“What does he expect me to do? I don’t have that kind of money; the kind of money he’s expecting. Even if I have it privately, I won’t do that with it. And he’s coming to me because I’m governor. If, for example, the big chief comes, and he has to go for a medical check, it shouldn’t be my problem. But it is. If a very big traditional ruler dies somewhere, and they want to do an elaborate burial ceremony, they come to me. I have to do it.”

Me, I probably will read that as political survival. To justify corruption, Sylva reached for the same word—“survival”—that Mahmoud Thiam had chosen when he explained why pariah states are willing to deal with the likes of Sam Pa and the Queensway Group. Said Djinnit, the UN’s man in west Africa, called the competition to control political power in the resource states “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Paul Collier talks about the law of “the survival of the fattest” in rentier states.

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Filed under Africa, China, democracy, disease, economics, energy, military, Nigeria, U.N.

British Ties with Oman

From Arabian Assignment: Operations in Oman and the Yemen, by David Smiley. (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 2; Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 11-12:

The British connection with Muscat dates from the early days of the East India Company in the seventeenth century, though the first treaty between Britain and the Sultan was not signed until 1798. An agreement followed two years later for agents of the East India Company to reside at Muscat, but the appalling climate killed off so many of them that it lapsed. Throughout the nineteenth century the British and the Sultan, who was then the most important ruler in the Gulf, collaborated closely in suppressing piracy, and the slave trade ceased in the Sultanate under a treaty of 1822. By a treaty of 1852 Britain (and France) recognized the independence of the Sultan, who still conducts his own foreign policy and maintains his own armed forces. Under subsequent agreements he may call on British help in time of trouble.

The trouble came soon after the old Imam’s death; the principal causes were Saudi ambition and, of course, oil. Ever since 1937 the Saudis had been trying to expand their territory beyond the edge of the Rub al Khali [the Empty Quarter], claiming frontiers with their neighbours — the States of the Aden Protectorate, the Sultanate, and the Trucial Sheikhdoms — which those neighbours refused to accept. After the Second World War the two superpowers, Russia and America, became increasingly involved in Arabia and the Gulf, the former pursuing an old imperial design, the latter attracted by fresh discoveries of oil: both with a common interest in reducing the influence of Britain. Encouraged by the new situation, the Saudis in 1952 suddenly occupied the strategic oasis of Buraimi, owned partly by the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi, a Trucial State, and partly by the Sultan of Muscat.

The Sultan gathered a force of between six and eight thousand tribesmen and, but for the ill-advised intervention of the British Government, would have expelled the intruders immediately, thus dealing a sharp blow to Saudi prestige and cementing the loyalty of the Omani tribes. When he failed to move, Saudi intrigue began to prosper.

The dispute went to international arbitration at Geneva, where the Saudi method, perfectly respectable in Arabia, of reinforcing their arguments with offers of large sums in gold to the members of the Tribunal caused such scandal that the President and the British delegate resigned in protest. At the end of 1955 the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government ran out; in a sudden, bloodless coup the Trucial Oman Scouts descended on Buraimi, expelled the Saudi garrison, and established a garrison of their own and another of the Sultan’s in the Oasis. But the three year delay had been disastrous for the Sultan. The Saudis had made good use of the time to spread their influence in Oman, suborning the tribesmen with lavish gifts of money and arms. Moreover, a new Imam had arisen on the death of the Sultan’s old friend: one Ghalib bin Ali. A weak and colourless personality appointed by a cabal of three sheikhs but never formally elected, he was virtually a Saudi puppet; he possessed, however, a valuable ally in his brother, Talib, the Wali [Governor] of Rostaq, a brave, energetic and extremely ambitious leader with considerable military ability, who soon emerged as the driving force of the movement. Immediately after his election Ghalib, with his brother, toured his domain, setting up his own garrisons in his holy capital of Nizwa and in other strategically important towns and villages in the interior.

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Filed under Arabia, Britain, economics, energy, Islam, military, nationalism, piracy, slavery, U.N., U.S., USSR, war

Katanga Surrenders, 1963

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~4646:

On 21 January, Tshombe signed an official declaration that the secession had ended. Along with Munongo, Yav, Muke, Kimba and Kibwe, he dined with UN officials in Kolwezi.

‘Atmosphere friendly’, a UN man telegraphed to Léopoldville, ‘but throughout our conversation we felt Tshombe and Cabinet are extremely REPEAT extremely bitter about Europeans in general, Belgians in particular.’

Munongo publically renounced any further resistance or guerrilla warfare. Tshombe announced that he was prepared to work with Léopoldville to solve the Congo crisis. On Tuesday, Joseph Ileo arrived in Elisabethville to take over the province for the central government and Tshombe returned to the presidential palace to await his fate. UN and Congolese flags flew over Katangese towns.

Since 1960, the UN had lost 135 men in the Congo, including fourteen Irish soldiers (nine of those killed by Baluba at Niemba), thirty-nine Indian, nineteen Swedish and forty-seven Ghanaian soldiers. Only around half the total died at the hands of the Katangese. Baluba, the Léopoldville ANC and Gizenga’s men killed the rest. On the other side, perhaps only thirty-two mercenaries were killed in action during the secession. No one counted dead gendarmes, but they must have been in the low thousands. Civilian deaths on all sides amounted to at least 10,000 and were probably much higher.

In Léopoldville’s boulevard Albert, 600 students chanted ‘Tshombe to the gallows!’ Others stormed the British embassy as Congolese police sat in their jeeps and laughed. Léopoldville agreed an amnesty for Tshombe and his men. The UN soon discovered that the gendarmes were only prepared to surrender if no ANC men were in the area. Kasa-Vubu gave a speech:

Officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the former Katangese Gendarmerie, in addressing myself particularly to you this evening, I do so on behalf of the entire country, the entire nation, to congratulate you and pay you a tribute for your patriotism because it was thanks to your understanding and to your refusal to use the murderous weapons placed in your hands by foreigners that the secession was ended, without too great a loss of human life or shedding of blood.

On 25 January, the last of the Katangese armed forces crossed the border into Portuguese Angola. They would return, but to fight for a different cause and against a different enemy. Katanga had failed as a country.

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Filed under Angola, Belgium, Congo, Ghana, India, Ireland, Portugal, Scandinavia, U.N., war

Two Congo Rebellions End, 1962

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~3909:

On 1 March 1961, Albert Kalonji declared himself chief of chiefs for all Baluba in Kasaï. As the new Mulopwe, Kalonji was supposed to sacrifice a family member to ensure invulnerability, take his pick of local virgins and allow villagers to eat dirt from beneath his feet. He disappointed local witchdoctors by agreeing only to the dirt eating.

Kalonji told his friends that traditionalist-minded tribal chiefs had pushed the position of Mulopwe on him. His critics, including South Kasaï prime minister Joseph Ngalula, thought Kalonji had suggested the whole thing as part of a plan to become dictator. Ngalula complained so loudly that he was exiled to Léopoldville, the Mulopwe having bought the co-operation of Kasa-Vubu and Mobutu with profits from his diamond mines. The UN had banned the export of conflict diamonds but Kalonji smuggled the stones across the River Congo to Brazzaville, where Youlou pretended he had dug them up himself.

Rich and worshipped, the Mulopwe underestimated how much Léopoldville hated his secession. By the end of the year, Ngalula had persuaded the Congolese government to revoke the parliamentary immunity that had kept Kalonji safe during earlier visits to the capital. Mobutu’s men arrested the Mulopwe in Léopoldville on 30 December.

The cell doors slammed on Antoine Gizenga a few weeks later. Parliament had stripped the deputy prime minister of his position after Stanleyville ANC troops invaded north Katanga at the end of 1961. On 8 January, Kasa-Vubu ordered him to return to the capital. Gizenga refused. A more charismatic man could have caused trouble but Gizenga spent his time in clammy introversion by the river. Not even his troop of female bodyguards, pearl-handled revolvers on each hip, made him look like a leader. Stanleyville fell apart while he brooded, and his supporters turned on him.

‘We have had enough of the anarchy and terror that reign in our province,’ said one of Gizenga’s soldiers.

International support had also faded away. American money persuaded previously loyal African leaders to abandon Gizenga. The USSR preferred to focus on Germany, where the construction of the Berlin Wall had increased tensions between east and west. Moscow’s interest in exporting the Cold War to Africa faded further when Afro-Asian nations refused to back Khruschev’s post-Ndola plan to replace the post of UN Secretary General with a three-pronged system that would have boosted Soviet influence. The suitcases of cash stopped arriving in Stanleyville.

‘[Gizenga’s] group has become disillusioned with Russian promises which never materialized,’ cabled US ambassador Clare Timberlake to Washington.

In his damp villa, Gizenga issued daily orders that no one followed. The few cars limping along the roads outside were wrecks and the roads themselves not much better. General Victor Lundula declared his allegiance to Kasa-Vubu, carrying most of the Stanleyville ANC with him. Gizenga ordered the general’s arrest but none of the 300 gendarmes still loyal would obey. Lundula moved on the evening of 12 January. A gun battle left eight Gizenga loyalists dead in the streets at the cost of six attackers. Gizenga’s all-female bodyguards never fired a shot. UN troops moved in and disarmed the remaining gendarmes.

Gizenga sent a cable to Adoula: ‘PUT MY OFFICE AND RESIDENCE IN ORDER. INFORM THE COUNCIL, THE PARLIAMENT AND ALL THE PEOPLE.’

When he arrived in Léopoldville, the police arrested him. The only international protests were a few sparsely attended marches in the Soviet bloc. No one seemed to care when Gizenga was imprisoned on Bula Bemba Island off the coast. The South Kasaï and Stanleyville rebellions were over. Tshombe was the last man standing.

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Filed under Congo, military, nationalism, U.N., U.S., USSR, war

First Wave of Congo Mercenaries, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1640:

By the end of September, reporters had forgotten about Bas’s recruits. The airport controller put fifty of them on a flight to Elisabethville. Commandant Armand Verdickt, head of intelligence for the Katangese gendarmes, ran background checks on the new arrivals. He discovered that the men from Le Cosmos and L’Edelweiss [bars] had done more time than a clock. Army deserters, burglars, car thieves and a rapist. The few without criminal records were alcoholics or drug users, behind on alimony payments, in trouble for driving unroadworthy taxis. Marcel Poelman wrestled, unsuccessfully, under the name ‘the Black Angel’.

‘These are not soldiers,’ said Verdickt. ‘Ils sont les affreux!’ (They are horrors!).

The mercenaries joined Groupes Mobiles: fifteen white soldiers and fifteen Katangese gendarmes packed into a few jeeps, supported by another thirty Katangese gendarmes in a lorry, led by a regular Belgian officer who had stayed on as a volunteer. The regulars always seemed to be bulky men with cropped hair, beer bellies and dainty moustaches, wearing crisp combat fatigues and bush hats with the brim turned up at the left. Les Affreux looked different. They had neck scarves, stubble, cigarettes tucked into the corner of their mouths, rolled up sleeves, revolvers on hips, shorts and socks.

‘Reputed to be bad boys’, wrote a journalist for the Libre Belgique newspaper, ‘with the air of pirates (long hair, droopy moustaches) and frightening in combat’. Their reputation outstripped their performance.

In November, some Affreux in Groupe Mobile D set up residency in Kabongo, near the border with Kasaï, to protect the town’s airstrip. The group quickly fell apart when Poelman the wrestler convinced the other mercenaries to desert with him. Only Charles Masy, blonde-haired and goggle-eyed with a wife back home and ambitions to own a bar, refused to quit. Masy had been 14 when German tanks rolled into Belgium. After three years of occupation, he joined the resistance, playing the innocent well enough to fool the Gestapo when they arrested him. At the liberation, he joined the Belgian SAS but things went wrong and he ended up in Katanga to escape a charge for beating up a Brussels policeman. He was not the kind to run away from a fight.

Other Affreux haunted Elisabethville’s bars and brothels, telling tall stories to journalists and showing little enthusiasm for the bush. Locals avoided them.

‘They were swaggering around all over the place, pissed out of their heads, with large whores on their arms,’ said Irish journalist Alan Bestic. ‘If you angered them they would shoot you in a minute. It was an ugly scene.’

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Filed under Belgium, Congo, military, nationalism, U.N., U.S., war

The UN Enters the Congo, 1960

From Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World, by Christopher Othen (History Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. ~1026:

Ralph Bunce had passed on Lumumba’s request for help to the United Nations Secretary General, a Swedish civil servant with blonde hair and grey-blue eyes calm as a frozen lake. Dag Hammarskjöld turned it down. The UN’s job was peace.

The United Nations had been around since the end of the Second World War. Its optimistic goal of world harmony was often compromised by the competing desires of America and the Soviet Union, its strongest members. American pressure sent UN troops to the Korean War in 1950 and Soviet demands made them sit and watch as the Red Army crushed anti-communist rebels in Hungary six years later. Most of Hammarskjöld’s energy went into persuading the superpowers occasionally to vote the same way.

The Swede did not want the UN to be used as a private army to take back Katanga. The Congo’s biggest problem, in his view, was the threat of a clash between Belgian soldiers and the ANC. He twisted some superpower arms and secured a mandate from the Security Council in New York to replace the 7,400 Belgians in the Congo with UN soldiers. The first peacekeepers, a Tunisian contingent, arrived in Léopoldville on 14 July, followed by units from Ghana, Mali and Morocco. Belgian soldiers reluctantly gave up their positions to blue-helmeted UN men and flew home. The process was surprisingly smooth, even surviving a kick in the teeth from Lumumba, when he declared it too slow and asked the Soviet Union to intervene independently. Moscow officially declined but saw a chance to sink its claws into Africa. Soviet aeroplanes and lorries and Czechoslovak technicians began to arrive secretly in Stanleyville. Cold warriors in Brussels were horrified.

‘The Congo will become communist within two months,’ said Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden, a close colleague of the Belgian prime minister.

Soon after, Harold d’Aspremont-Lynden was on his way to Katanga as head of the Mission Technique Belge (Belgian Technical Mission – Mistebel), a high-powered group of experts full of ideas on how to run the new country. Minister of Foreign Affairs Pierre Wigny was not happy. He had been arguing against taking sides in Katanga ever since Tshombe declared independence, but lost any support in the Cabinet after Léopoldville accused Brussels of organising the secession and broke diplomatic relations.

 

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Filed under Africa, Belgium, Congo, military, nationalism, U.N., U.S., USSR

Centralization in UN Afghanistan

From Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, by Thomas Barfield (Princeton U. Press, 2010), Kindle pp. 302-303:

Although Afghanistan’s regions had become autonomous during the Afghan civil war, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the United States both pushed to reestablish a highly centralized government of the type that had failed repeatedly in the past. Abdur Rahman created the first centralized Afghan state in the late nineteenth century only after many bloody military campaigns, but his political goals had been limited to destroying internal rivals, preserving his supremacy, and maintaining order. Later rulers who thought they could use his state model to impose change on the country soon found that it was not up to the task. The reforming King Amanullah was overthrown, and his state collapsed in 1929, requiring two generations to fully restore. Only the Soviet invasion in 1979 preserved the unpopular PDPA regime from a similar collapse after it too found the Afghan state institutions weaker than expected. During the civil war that followed the dissolution of the PDPA in 1992, Afghanistan reverted to its older pattern of regional autonomy that even the Taliban could do little to change. Arriving UNAMA officials saw the lack of a strong centralized state as a symptom of Afghanistan’s problems and moved to restore it. Though written to serve monarchs, the constitutions of 1923 and 1964 were used as templates for the constitution of 2004. This new constitution made the Karzai government responsible for everything from appointing provincial governors to paying local schoolteachers.

The enthusiasm for restoring a highly centralized government was confined to the international community and the Kabul elite that ran it. Many other Afghans saw such governments as the source of Afghanistan’s past problems. Critics contended that decentralization better suited Afghanistan because such governments had so badly neglected the rest of the country. The nondemocratic regimes that had ruled Afghanistan previously saw this as an acceptable price for the greater political control it gave them, particularly by preventing the reemergence of powerful regional elites, which had characterized Afghan politics before 1880. But the impact of twenty-five years of warfare changed this situation. Regions wanted a direct choice in how they were to be governed at the local level. The international community saw assertions of such regional autonomy as signs of disorder that needed to be curbed. They dismissed decentralization proponents as supporters of warlords who would bring the country to ruin. In fact, establishing governmental order and services by region, rather than centrally from Kabul, had considerable merit. It would have proven more effective and given people more of a stake in local administration. In addition there was always the risk that if a highly centralized government faltered, the consequences would be nationwide.

Any prospect of central state failure was dismissed by those who touted Karzai as a sure bet for success after he steered the country through the constitutional process and his own election as president in 2004. Afghans were less sanguine because they saw Karzai in a different light, as a vacillating leader who was unwilling to confront his enemies or discipline his allies.

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Foreign Effects of Hard Soviexit, 1991

From Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union, by Conor O’Clery (PublicAffairs, 2011), Kindle pp. 44-46:

Yeltsin’s team has already taken possession of the Soviet foreign ministry in Moscow, seized its bank accounts, evicted the last Soviet foreign minister of the Gorbachev era, Eduard Shevardnadze, and installed Yeltsin’s foreign minister, Andrey Kozyrev. Throughout the day, Soviet embassies in different time zones around the world receive a communique from Kozyrev informing them that they all are about to become the foreign missions of Russia. Non-Russian Soviet diplomats will have to set up separate embassies for their own republics, which is the privilege and price of their independence. The communique instructs the diplomats that by December 31 the Soviet flag is to be lowered for the last time on every embassy building around the world and the Russian tricolor hoisted in its place. Some envoys are anxious to declare their allegiance to the new order without delay. Already the white, blue, and red emblem is flying prematurely at the embassies in New Delhi, Teheran, and Kabul.

In Washington, DC, on Christmas morning the red flag with hammer-and-sickle emblem is hanging limply from the mast above the first floor of the Soviet embassy on Sixteenth Street. It is a still, mild day with the temperature 12 degrees above freezing. Inside, the three hundred staff are dividing themselves into ethnic groups and claiming temporary diplomatic space by putting up the names of their republics on office doors. There is considerable chaos, compounded by a shortage of cash. Senior diplomats have had to give up comfortable homes in Maryland and Virginia and move into rooms in the embassy compound because there is no hard currency available from Moscow to pay their rents. Ambassador Viktor Komplektov has been in office only nine months, and he knows that, unlike his counterpart at the United Nations, his days are numbered. He is not trusted by Yeltsin because of his failure to condemn the coup in August. For three days before it collapsed, he enthusiastically disseminated the press releases of the putschists to the American media and peddled their lie to the U.S. government that Gorbachev was ill and unable to continue his duties. The fifty-one-year-old ambassador decides to use the remains of his Soviet-era budget to hold the embassy’s first ever Christmas party as a “last hurrah” for the USSR.

With caviar, sturgeon, champagne, and vodka, the Soviet embassy in Washington goes down like the Titanic. “Enjoy yourselves,” Komplektov tells the four hundred guests. “This is the way we celebrate a grand occasion.” Afterwards the red flag is lowered, and the Russian colors are raised in its place, signifying it is now the Russian embassy. Komplektov is recalled within three months.

Perversely, in Israel a new Soviet mission opens this morning. As if nothing has changed in Moscow, the first Soviet ambassador in thirty-four years presents his credentials to President Herzog, and the red flag with hammer and sickle is hoisted over the ancient Russian Compound in Jerusalem. This anomaly arises from a promise Mikhail Gorbachev made two months previously, when he still had some authority, to his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Shamir, that he would restore Soviet-Israeli relations broken off at the time of the 1967 Middle East War. The credentials of the envoy, Alexander Bovin, are the last to be signed by a Soviet leader. Bovin’s destiny is to be Soviet ambassador for a week and then become ambassador of Russia, based in Tel Aviv, where he will remain in office for a further six years.

In Santa Cruz de Tenerife, the largest port of the Canary Islands, a Soviet cruise ship docks this Christmas morning. The passengers disembark for a day’s sightseeing. When they return they find that the hammer and sickle on the side of the funnel has been prised off by the Russian crew, and they sail away, citizens of a different country than when they boarded.

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Filed under Central Asia, democracy, Israel, nationalism, Russia, U.N., U.S., USSR

Sectarian Standoff in Central African Republic

This update on the sorry state of affairs in the Central African Republic (CAR) is in memory of my closest brother, who died a year ago today just before his 64th birthday. He served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on rural health projects in what was then Emperor Bokassa‘s Central African Empire during the late 1970s, and later went on to become one of the tiny handful of academic experts on the country. For his memorial service, his old Peace Corps colleagues recommended redirecting contributions to Water for Good, which builds wells to provide clean water throughout the CAR.

The following excerpt is from a detailed and depressing firsthand report in Foreign Policy by Ty McCormick headlined ‘One Day, We Will Start a Big War’: Outgunned by powerful rebels in the Central African Republic, the U.N. can’t even protect civilians. Now it’s pushing for early elections that could destroy a fragile peace.

There are scarcely 200 paces of tarmacked road in Bambari, a sprawling city of rusty tin kiosks and crumbling concrete edifices, smudged with rust-colored clay, deep in the heavily forested interior of the Central African Republic (CAR). They span the length of a single-lane bridge across the Ouaka River, a muddy torrent that cleaves Bambari in half from north to south. They also happen to be the most important 200 paces of road in town, though for reasons unrelated to the quality of the driving surface. The bridge marks the boundary between two dangerously divided communities, a red line across which visitors from the other side risk death, occasionally by decapitation.

The east bank of the Ouaka is controlled by remnants of the Seleka, a largely Muslim rebel coalition that pillaged and raped its way across CAR before seizing power over the country for a brief period in 2013. The west bank belongs to the anti-Balaka, the knife- and machete-wielding Christian self-defense militias that sprang up to counter the Seleka but managed to make the Muslim rebel coalition’s abuses look relatively mild by comparison. “Muslims are too afraid to travel to the [west] bank,” the mayor of Bambari, Abel Matchipata, told me recently. “Some Christians are traveling to the [east] bank, but they are doing so with a lot of fear.”

Bambari’s stark divisions mirror those in the rest of CAR, a Texas-sized swath of rainforest and savannah that is sandwiched between Chad, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among other troubled neighbors. Even before the latest crisis, CAR was “worse than a failed state,” according to the International Crisis Group. Now, after two-and-a-half years of turmoil stemming from the Seleka coup, the country is de facto partitioned: anti-Balaka in the southwest and former Seleka fighters in the northeast, where they fled after the coalition was disbanded and its leader stepped down under intense international pressure in January 2014. (They are now known as ex-Seleka, an umbrella term that refers to a smattering of armed groups lacking an organized central command.) Outside of CAR’s capital city, Bangui, virtually nothing is under government control. At least 6,000 people have been killed and 832,000 displaced — 368,000 inside the country and 464,000 abroad. About half of the country’s 4.7 million inhabitants are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.

When I visited Bambari last month, ahead of planned elections that many fear could be destabilizing, the city of just under 50,000, the third-largest in CAR, was still reeling from its latest spasm of violence. On Aug. 20, a Muslim taxi driver was plucked from his car outside the city and beheaded by anti-Balaka fighters. The incident provoked a backlash from the Muslim community and a counter-backlash from the Christian community, both of which have acquired a healthy appetite for revenge. By the time the dust had settled, at least 10 people were dead and dozens more wounded, including two aid workers from the Red Cross.

The unenviable task of keeping Bambari’s residents from each other’s throats falls mainly on a single battalion of U.N. peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is itself home to the largest peacekeeping operation in the world. The Congolese are part of a 12,000-strong U.N. force in CAR known by its French acronym, MINUSCA. Authorized with a robust Chapter VII mandate to protect civilians and support the transitional government that replaced the Seleka, MINUSCA has been dogged by persistent charges of abuse and incompetence since taking over for a beleaguered African Union force in September 2014. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of rape and of firing indiscriminately on civilians. They have also struggled to halt periodic outbursts of violence, like the spate of clashes and looting in late September that paralyzed the capital for close to a week. “Plagued by accusations of sexual abuse and facing mounting violence, MINUSCA threatens to turn into a disaster for the U.N.,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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How NGOs Feed Corruption in Cambodia

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 4386-4443:

In 2009 more than 2,000 donor and NGO organizations were based in Cambodia—more per capita than most anyplace in the world. And the money they disbursed per person far exceeded the average for poor countries receiving foreign aid. Some donors were huge government agencies, like the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department for International Development in Britain. Others were large international organizations, like the United Nations, World Bank, or International Monetary Fund. Still others were small, local groups, like the Alliance Association for Rural Restoration. It appeared to have fewer than a dozen employees.

Overall, so many donors and NGOs were pursuing projects in Cambodia that they were tripping over each other. Several reports on their work noted that many didn’t coordinate with each other and ended up spending time and money on duplicative projects. The government often had no idea what they were up to. “Some of them, particularly the smaller ones, I don’t know what they are doing,” said Im Sethy, the education minister. No matter. The foreigners stationed in Cambodia savored the lifestyle. “People move here just because it is a nice place to live,” said Sara Colm of Human Rights Watch. “There’s Internet, restaurants.”

For many aid workers this was a delightful change, given where they had been based before. Jean-Pierre de Margerie, head of the World Food Program office in Phnom Penh, had just moved from a posting in North Korea. Richard Bridle, head of the UNICEF office, and Douglas Broderick, head of the UN’s mission in Cambodia, had been stationed there, too. In Pyongyang they led controlled, constricted lives. “The government was always playing mind games,” de Margerie recalled. Phnom Penh, in comparison, was quite pleasant.

But for the WFP and other UN agencies much of Cambodia was still listed as a hardship post, just like North Korea or Burma, with commensurate salary supplements. In those other countries, though, they couldn’t walk along the riverfront and stop in any of half-a-dozen espresso bars and pick up one of the two better than average English-language newspapers.

Teruo Jinnai, head of the UNESCO office in Phnom Penh, had worked previously in Tanzania—and Rwanda “just after the genocide,” he said. By comparison, he said, Cambodia was like a ball of clay that he could shape any way he wanted. “Here I have found my own passion. Here, I can work and cause the result I am after. In France, or America, you don’t see results. But here I can set my own target. If I want Cambodia to be like this or that, I can see the result. So that gives you more power, more energy, more passion.”

Critics of the donors and NGOs often noted that they favored expensive Basque, northern Italian, and Japanese restaurants that charged more for a meal than some Cambodians earned in a year. That may have been unfair; you don’t have to live like the people you are helping to be compassionate and effective. Nevertheless, it was clear that these people had a lifestyle they wanted to protect.

Though their work was challenging, it was often rewarding. Many were highly paid, and Cambodia charged no income taxes. They could live in sumptuous homes and hire as many servants as they wanted.

If they cut off aid to the government, as the human-rights groups were demanding, many donors would lose their jobs, or at least their postings. In a Brookings Institution report entitled Aid Effectiveness in Cambodia, two Cambodian economists argued that donors were eager to begin programs that required their continuing participation and assistance because they “wish to maintain their presence in Cambodia.” The donors’ favorite project: good governance, an objective certain to require many years of work. So far it had produced few if any useful results. At one point in 2008, the Brookings study found that donors were pursuing 1,300 different projects nationwide, and 710 of them were ongoing, meaning they required a continued donor presence to keep them running.

So what happened each year when the donors’ meeting came around again? Hun Sen stood before them and one more time said, this year, we are going to reform education, health care, land usage. Every year human-rights groups and opposition candidates cried out: Hold back your donations until they end land seizures, illegal logging and corruption, until teachers stop selling test scores and doctors stop demanding bribes!

But most every donor in the audience had spent the past few months negotiating contract renewals with their home states or organizations, agreements allowing them to continue their work for the coming year. Here at the meeting they were to announce what they were now planning to do and how much they intended to spend. Human Rights Watch and the others were asking them to rip up their new contracts and go home, jobless.

Naturally, none of the donors said that bleak possibility was the reason they would not hold back aid. Instead, they argued, “If you hold back money, the people most affected would be the poor,” explained In Samrithy, the NGO liaison coordinator for the Cooperation Committee of Cambodia, a donor umbrella group. He acknowledged that corruption was so rife that government officials helped themselves to money and goods that donors had dedicated to the poor. Even when they “distribute rice to the poor who they have evicted from their homes—they take some for themselves,” said Kek Galibru, director of Licadho, the human-rights group. “They can’t help it. It’s a habit.” Still, In Samrithy said, “the poor won’t get the services they need,” if aid is cut off. As for the corruption, he explained it away. “Some money goes this way or that way. But it’s useful if some of it reaches the poor. Not all of it does, but some does. That’s better than nothing.” That was a popular rationalization among donors.

A few months after parliament passed the 2010 anticorruption law, a routine government census turned up about 2,000 ghost workers—phantom employees whose salaries went into their supervisors’ pockets. The government declined to prosecute, saying, “We must first warn those individuals who are getting money from ghost names,” as Cheam Yeap, a senior member of parliament, put it.

The next month, Hun Sen addressed the annual donors’ conference once again and promised one more time that soon “we will have the capacity to fight against this dangerous disease” because “corruption will damage our institutions.” The donors awarded him $1.1 billion—the largest pledge in a generation.

Some Cambodians and others remained astounded by the donors’ behavior—even people who worked for them. “I don’t understand their policy,” said Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of another donor umbrella group. “The government has learned that the donors are not serious.” He leaned forward in his chair and spoke softly, as if he were confiding a secret. “They do not stand behind what they say. Sometimes I don’t think some of the donors are really here to fight corruption.”

Year after year the foreign donors continued meeting with the smiling health minister who flattered, and coddled, them. They reached agreements to begin new projects and then joined their friends or lovers at the new Greek place for dinner. After the donors handed over the money to build a new health clinic, the deputy minister took out enough to pay his son’s school tuition bill. The assistant minister took enough to buy new tires for his car. His deputy simply stuffed some cash in his pocket. After all, government commerce was carried out entirely in cash. When the clinic was finally built, so little money was left that the contractor had to use cheap and flimsy building materials, raising the real risk that the structure would collapse in the next big storm—just like that new school building in Kampong Thom.

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