Bashir says it with cows…

Supporters of the Egyptian revolution will be glad to know that Omar Al-Bashir, president of Sudan and supporter of democracy everywhere (except Darfur, South Sudan, East Sudan, eastern Chad, Eritrea, northern Uganda…you get the picture) has given the Egyptian revolution his blessing, with the gift of 5000 head of cattle (worth over $1 million, depending on the state of the cows). The cows began the trek from Khartoum to the Egyptian border on Monday, coinciding with the visit of Egypt’s prime minister Essam Sharaf (himself, incidentally, completely unelected). The two leaders talked about water. Specifically, about the Nile Basin Initiative. If Sudan and Egypt lose any significant portion of the Nile waters to the upstream countries, on which they both depend, they’re up shit creek without a paddle. Except the creek will be dry.

The cows are just one part of Bashir’s strategy of ingratiating himself with Egypt’s new leaders, which began with a visit to Cairo at the beginning of the month. Since Mubarak fell, his government has been very critical of the Mubarak regime, claiming that they’d been a victim of ‘blackmail’ ever since Mubarak narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Khartoum. This is all posturing; Bashir would have been very unsettled by Mubarak’s departure. For a dictator, any form of people power is far more dangerous than another dictator, no matter how much they do or do not get along.

VERDICT: Omar Al-Bashir goes 4th; he’ll have to try a lot harder to impress his more sophisticated Egyptian colleagues than that. And no, camels won’t cut it either.

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A tale of two rocket attacks

This weekend, rockets rained down on two African countries. There’s Libya, of course; front page headlines all round, especially since everyone realised that nuclear disaster in Japan would be averted. It helped that the mission had a noble name – operation “Dawn Odyssey” –  and that there were some spectacular pictures coming out of Libya.

At the same time, receiving barely a mention in the international press, Laurent Gbagbo – the authoritarian president of Cote D’Ivoire who’s refused to leave power after accidentally losing the elections (accidentally because he’d rigged them to win; he just didn’t rig them well enough. Which gives me little faith in his competence, even as a dictator) – rained down mortar on a market place in the major city of Abidjan, killing anywhere between 25 and 30 people. It’s starting to get really ugly in Cote D’Ivoire; Gbagbo also called on his supporters to “neutralise” his enemies, which is a fairly unmistakeable call to arms.

In a related story, the South African diplomatic service found itself red-faced this weekend after City Press revealed that a hoax letter, purporting to be from French president Nicholas Sarkozy, was “sold to African leaders” by the Gbagbo regime. The fake letter was used as evidence that Sarkozy put pressure on the electoral commission to declare for opposition candidate Ouattara. Despite its shady provenance, and the fact that it was written in poor French, the SA foreign ministry has been using it to support its pro-Gbagbo posturing, showing it to the EU and to Hilary Clinton.

A few questions arise. How was this letter “sold to African leaders”; and for how much? If the French really was poor – I haven’t come across a copy of the letter – this is strange because Cote D’Ivoire is a largely francophone country, as its name suggests. And why is the South African government supporting Gbagbo?

VERDICT: Gbagbo goes 4th, for murdering his own people; South Africa goes 4th, for being a bit stupid and for supporting an illegitimate ruler who murders his own people; and the international media goes 4th, for having completely blinkered priorities.

 

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Iran’s clever waiting game as the Middle East realigns

Brilliant article from the ever-excellent MK Bhadrakumar on Asia Times Online on Iran’s role in the Middle East uprisings, particularly Bahrain. He argues that Iran is too clever to ‘walk into the trap’ of getting its hands dirty by providing any material support to the Bahraini protestors, knowing that the US and allies will be picking over the debris to find any sign of Iranian involvement, which would doubtless be used to ramp up rhetoric, or action, against Iran. Instead, they’re pursuing a far more subtle strategy which hinges on persuading the general public (the so-called ‘Arab Street’, an Orientalist term I can’t stand because it simply does not exist) that this is not a religious, Sunni-Shi’a issue, and that Saudi is defying its mandate as Custodian of the Holy Places (Mecca and Medina) by killing Muslims in a foreign country. That Iran can condemn the attacks on protesters while brazenly attacking its own protesters is of course the height of irony; but then again, foreign policy is rarely without irony.

The Middle East is being remade now, as I type; the geopolitics of the region is changing forever, and all the major players are desperately tying make sure they’re at the top of whatever the new alignment is going to be. So far, Iran’s looking like it is well-placed to come out of this even more powerful than when it all began.

VERDICT: The Islamic Republic goes forth, with or without an appreciation of irony.

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Egypt’s river dries up as Burundi joins Nile Basin Initiative

In the midst of the chaos across the Middle East, has no one noticed that Egypt has just lost control of its most significant and valuable resource? No, not oil – not everything’s about oil, and besides, Egypt doesn’t have that much of the black gold. No, it’s not tourism either – the hotels might be hurting but the pyramids aren’t going anywhere, unless Gaddafi decides to bomb them in a fit of retaliatory pique.

It’s water. Egypt needs a lot of it, being a desert country and all, and gets what it needs from the life-giving waters of the Nile. Despite the fact that the great river flows through ten African countries, Egypt – along with Sudan – gets most of the water. 90% of it, in fact, is shared between Sudan and Egypt under the terms of a colonial-era treaty.

But this treaty is being challenged by a coalition of five Nile-bordering countries, spearheaded by Ethiopia, who have set up the Nile Basin Initiative to renegotiate its terms. This week, under the cover of popular revolutions, Burundi became the sixth member of the group, giving it enough legal weight to scrap the treaty without Egypt’s consent, under the provisions of international law. They haven’t done so – yet.

Egypt is obviously in no position to respond – this is further demonstrated by the fact that Al Masry Al Youm, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper, had to seek comment from the former Minister of Water and Irrigation, who made the nonsensical statement that any decisions coming from the new coalition are only binding on the members of the new coalition, and would not apply to Egypt or Sudan. All true; but if they decide to use dam the water upstream, it will suddenly start looking very applicable indeed.

This is Egypt’s – and Sudan’s – most serious foreign policy consideration, as we’ve commented on before. Don’t be surprised if this causes the next revolution or war. Egypt is a fundamentally unbalanced, with not nearly enough fertile land to support its population, even if the water supply remains constant. Take away the water and there will be problems.

VERDICT: This is bad news for Egypt, but the existing treaty is very unfair and deserves to be replaced with something more thoughtful. And we always like to see African regional integration. So the Nile Basin Initiative goes forth.

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The malign influence of Africa’s King of kings

As the last stand of Muammar Gaddafi plays out in blood and bullets across the Libyan desert, it’s worth remembering that Libya is the most African of the North African countries and the toppling of the green revolutionary regime will have far more impact in sub-Saharan Africa than either Mubarak’s or Ben Ali’s departures. This is no accident, or ethnic generalisation; Gaddafi, spurned by the Arab League for his increasingly eccentric ways, and their ability to see right through his blatant power grabs, deliberately turned his attention on Africa, trying to make Libya the head of a new African polity. The ‘United States of Africa’ is his dream; so is the African congress of chiefs and tribal leaders which in 2008 crowned Gaddafi Africa’s ‘King of kings‘.

This culminated, unsuccessfully, in the bizarre African Union summit last year in Kampala where he tried to get himself elected as AU Chairperson for the second time in a row, employing some of the techniques which have served him so well in Libya over the years. These techniques failed, with the AU electing Malawi’s Bingu Wa Mutharika instead (followed this year by Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang, showing that it wasn’t Gaddafi’s politics that the AU had a problem with). Nonetheless, since the 1990s Gaddafi has exerted an increasing and often malign influence on the continent, and there are a few countries who might be affected by his departure.

Most obviously, there’s Chad; the two countries share a common border, which doesn’t prevent either of them from sending in the troops when the time is right. Gaddafi brought Idriss Deby, the Chadian president, to power in 1990 by supporting him financially and militarily, and continues to dabble. Deby has subsequently denounced Gaddafi for supporting Chadian rebels trying to overthrow him.

Gaddafi supported these particular rebels, based in Chad’s far east, because of their proximity to Sudan, and the support they were able to give to another of his interests – the rebels in Darfur, particularly the Justice and Equality Movement, whose leader Khalil Ibrahim continues, as far as I can make out, to enjoy the comforts of exile in Tripoli after being denied entry to Chad.

Most controversially, if true, are unconfirmed reports that Gaddafi was sponsoring the Unity Party of Liberian president and Western media darling Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. This news surfaced at around the same time that Sirleaf announced her intention to run for office again – within her constitutional mandate, to be sure, but in violation of a very specific campaign promise she made to serve only one term. The two leaders are also alleged to be personal friends.

This is just a sampling; there are undoubtedly more African governments and political groupings that have been enjoying Gaddafi’s largesse, and his departure may well see a subtle rearranging of Africa’s own political landscape. Unless someone else steps in to fill the void.

VERDICT: A Gaddafi-less African can only be a good thing. His departure goes forth.

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Better a king than a president in the Middle East

Can a king be a king without a crown? Yes say kings Al-Khalifa of Bahrain and Abdulla II of Jordan. (Pic: LIFE)

In the end, titles are important, especially if you are a despotic Middle Eastern ruler. A quick survey shall illustrate:

Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Algeria, Libya: all run by Presidents-for-life. The protests which have rocked/are rocking these countries, while very different in origin and nature, have a common theme – they all demand the exit of the president himself.

Bahrain, Jordan*: both run by monarchs. I’m not too sure about Bahrain, but certainly in Jordan the King is the centre of power. Yet in both these countries the protesters have been very careful to emphasise that they are not protesting the monarch, but rather the government (which was appointed by the monarch). One protestor (a Bahraini blogger) tweeted today: “Just to clear things up, nobody wants AlKhalifa [the king] out. Hell, I would rather they rule Bahrain than anyone else. We just want our rights.”

It’s a curious position. While presidents-for-life have their legitimacy conferred by rigged elections, monarchs have theirs conferred by the pomp and ceremony of royalty, but their powers and influence on the state amount to much the same thing. But, right now at least, I’d rather be a king than a president – if, of course, I was an authoritarian Middle Eastern ruler trying to maintain a firm grip on power. Which I’m not.

* It will be interesting to see what the protestors in Morocco are going to say, another monarchy with big protests planned for Feb 20th.

** An underestimated side-benefit of monarchy is the ability to pass on power to your son without question (it’s always the son). Mubarak had such problems trying to prepare Egypt to accept his son Gamal as president; if he’d merely been handing the crown over, would there have been any fuss at all?

***This whole theory failed miserably for the Shah of Iran, the last Czar, and Louis XVI. Or perhaps they were just so bad that even their royal aura couldn’t help them.

VERDICT: Titles go forth, says Dr. Third World Goes Forth.

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He’s gone.

18 days that changed Egypt forever, on the Daily Maverick.

Verdict: Mubarak goes 4th, finally. Egypt goes forth into a whole new chapter.

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