Tag Archives: africa

Back to the Future-ish.

After a week of first-class grass-watching in rural Burundi, I’ve returned to what passes for civilization in these parts, courtesy of the country’s second – ahem – “city,” Gitega. I am finding the place exceedingly pleasant. Yesterday I planted my butt under a tree and closed my eyes, I felt the sun on my face, I listened to the ringing of bicycle bells and the steady hum of sewing machines being pedaled in the shade. It was a perfect bit of happiness, if only for the 20 minutes or so before the ants got to me.

In the afternoon I had lunch at a bright little restaurant with a cheerful staff in blue-and-white striped shirts, like sailors on the Good Ship Gitega. The very pregnant matron, Consolé, hummed happy tunes as she busied herself about the place. Richard and Penier, the waiters, talked to me in a Swahili I could barely understand. There was joy in all of this. Consolé’s were the tastiest stewed bananas I’ve had in Burundi, and if the only thing I remember about Gitega is her banane spéciale, I wouldn’t complain about those memories in the least.

There are places I’ll never get to know for more than just a couple of days, but sometimes it’s towns like Gitega, or Nanyuki, Kenya, or Cuamba, Mozambique, that stay with me, if only for the memory of how absolutely content I felt when I was there. As a writer, I always feel the pressure to be on the look-out for the next story; it’s nice to sit around sometimes, to listen to the wind in the trees and simply be.

While it lasts. Sad, after all these weeks, to realize it’s almost time to leave Burundi behind. I feel like I’ve only accomplished about 16% of what I’d hoped to before coming here, but it’s been a perfect three months, in its own way. Next week, when I get back to Bujumbura, I’ll be putting in some round-the-clock blog sessions, I suspect, to catch up on all the things I haven’t said. I’ll be writing up the next round of proposals, researching the latest news out of eastern Congo, emailing ahead to plan for my return to Kigali. I’ll be saying my goodbyes, too, or avoiding the scenes altogether. Sometimes it’s easier to just disappear, to send a few heartfelt texts as your bus barrels away over dusty mountain roads.

At some point, too, it’ll be nice to catch my breath. The great joy/exhaustion of traveling in rural Africa is the steady stream of greeters and well-wishers, the endless meetings on the road, the invitations to meet one’s wife and children and share lukewarm Fantas in the shade. As a life-long codger and born-and-bred New Yorker, I treat my solitude like a religious relic; in some ways, it makes me a very peculiar and reluctant sort of traveler. After a week of rural immersion, I have an urgent need to retreat and decompress; the world outside – the whirl and tumble of African life – almost becomes too much for me to bear.

And so on Tuesday afternoon, as torrential rains flooded the roads and sent everyone ducking under the nearest rusty awning for cover, I curled up in my queen-sized, $5/night bed, popped Lost: Season 3 into my laptop, and spent a narcotic eight hours or so staring at Evangeline Lilly’s ass. On the nightstand was a jar of Nutella and a bag of plump, greasy loaves of ndazi. For the rest of the afternoon, I retreated into a cozy little shell. Jack and Locke were at each other’s throats. Hapless Charlie bit the bullet. It was a bit of familiar furniture in an unfamiliar home. Outside the rain pelted the tin roof, the domestics sloshed about in the yard. I dozed off dreaming of new adventures.

Exposed! UN shines spotlight on Congo’s super-secret, ultra-illicit mineral trade; world shrugs, buys more cellphones.

A friend here in Buja, a foreign national who I’ve come to consider the smartest person in Burundi, urged me to give a second look to the UN’s damning report on the illicit flow of weapons and minerals into and out of the Congo, which was published back in November. In case you missed it, this more or less amounted to the UN shaking its fist and saying, “Damn you! Damn you!” amid the general solemn nodding of the international community. A summary from the UN flak office noted that:

the mainly Rwandan Hutu rebels of the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) continue to exploit gold and cassiterite in North and South Kivu provinces with the help of trading networks in Uganda, Burundi and the United Arab Emirates, while irregular arms deliveries have come from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Sudan.

Though the international hack-factory was far more intrigued by the titillating reports of involvement by the Roman Catholic Church and the dirty-money Maytag that is Dubai, the accusations against the ruling party’s inner circle were big news indeed here in Burundi. One analyst, who was happy to speak on-the-record about just about everything else in the Great Lakes region, quietly asked to remain anonymous when the UN report came up: the government, he said quite bluntly, was seething over the report’s details, and was just dying to make an example of someone.

(On a completely unrelated note, BINUB’s Youssef Mahmoud – essentially the highest-ranking UN figure operating in Burundi, who had seen about all there was to see since arriving in Bujumbura in 2007 – was unceremoniously dismissed from his post in December, under the flimsiest of pretexts. He has since been replaced by a jar of pickles.)

Of particular note were some of the high-level figures in Burundi’s military and security apparatus who were linked to overseas arms deals.

The Group has hard evidence of an attempted purchase of a cargo of 40,000 Steyr AUG assault rifles and ammunition officially for the Burundian police and organized by a Burundian delegation which travelled to Malaysia. The Group estimates that such an arms consignment for the Burundian police is excessive, given that the Burundian police number no more than 20,000.

For those of you who consider Burundi’s problems to be newsworthy in their own right – and not simply footnotes to the African catastrophe du jour next door – these are worth considering. Many here in Burundi believe the final destination for those weapons was not, in fact, the FDLR fighters in eastern Congo, but the youth militias of Burundi’s own ruling party.

(Burundian officials, for their part, countered that the national police force was being trained by repeated viewings of Dolph Lundgren’s 1992 magnum opus, Universal Soldier, and that officers are consequently expected to carry and fire weapons with both hands.)

As opposition parties and international observers continue to accuse the ruling CNDD-FDD party of training and arming its youth groups ahead of this summer’s elections, the presence of large weapons caches in the countryside is…troubling. According to a very trusted source, a number of flights of dubious origin and repute – at least one of which had links to notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout – touched down here in Bujumbura last year, under cover of deepest, darkest night. I do not think they were here for the nightlife, however stellar.

The vast and insidious network of mineral smugglers, arms traffickers, and overall douchey profiteers implicated in the report, meanwhile, has, according to The New York Times, “tentacles touching Spanish charities, Ukrainian arms dealers, corrupt African officials and even secretive North Korean weapons shipments.” These tentacles, it goes without saying, are long and up to no good.

A more detailed account of the findings (of which there were so many, it’s taken me about 3 1/2 hours to download the full PDF), comes to us from Georgianne Nienaber at the Huffington Post, who detailed some of the allegations:

• Arms shipments or suspected shipments to the DRC from Spain, North Korea, Ukraine, Iran, Libya, China, Belgium, Tanzania, the British Virgin Islands [Ed.: WTF?] and others;

• Roman Catholic and Spanish networks of support to the FDLR and other rebel groups;

• Recruitment of soldiers from Rwandan refugee camps;

• Violations of international humanitarian law;

• Impediments in the disarmament process;

• Wanted war criminal General Bosco Ntaganda’s parallel military operations;

• Recruitment of child solders;

• Obstruction of humanitarian access in eastern DRC; and

• Linkage between the exploitation of natural resources and the financing of illegal armed groups which reach all the way to Dubai and North Korea and include the purchase of a Boeing 727 aircraft originating at the Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Florida.

By now, this probably isn’t news to the Afrophiles and assorted newshounds who no doubt follow this blog. The funny thing is: it wasn’t really news when the story “broke” in December. As Nienaber pointed out, the much-hyped “leaked” report had, in a very similar form, already gone public in May of last year.

But the really sobering part is that, in terms of the overall methods and conclusions, another, similar report already appeared, incredibly, in April 2001.

!

That’s right, more than eight years before a blockbuster report was leaked, detailing the widespread funneling of Congolese resources through complicit neighboring countries to a vast and nefarious network of overseas ne’er-do-wells, the UN published a damning report, detailing the widespread funneling of Congolese resources through complicit neighboring countries to a vast and nefarious network of overseas ne’er-do-wells.

Really, Congo, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

'Thank you, brother. And be sure to report the details of this legitimate transaction to the appropriate authorities!'

The differences, of course, are not just cosmetic. While the 2009 report largely places the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR in its crosshairs, before proceeding to untangle its very tangled web of associates, the 2001 report leveled most of its more damning accusations at the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, including their respective leaders-cum-war-profiteers, Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni. These included, e.g., some knee-slapping graphics detailing the dramatic increase in gold and diamond exports by both countries since their invasion of Congo in 1997, despite the fact that the two countries’ combined domestic mining interests could barely scrape together enough gold and diamonds for even a D-list rapper’s Jesus piece. You can almost picture the customs officials in Kampala and Kigali, diligently slapping little “MADE IN UGANDA” and “MADE IN RWANDA” stickers onto each hefty sack of gold and diamonds, before sending them on their way to Abu Dhabi, Antwerp and beyond.

The 2009 report, also, to give it full credit, does a remarkable job in naming names and, um, facing faces. If Colonel David Ruyagi, Ignace Murwanashyaka, Neo Bisimwa, or any of their co-conspirators thought they would be getting off easy in this latest UN exposé, they were sorely mistaken. Likewise, if you were a shady middleman for cutthroat Rwandan rebels looking to export Congo’s exploited mineral resources to reputable and un- businesses abroad, you wouldn’t want to wake up one morning, rub the sleep from your eyes, pick up your favorite news daily, and see this picture staring back from the front page.

A shady middleman, standing, appropriately, in the middle

Similarly, it is sort of implicit in the hopes of an arms trafficker that a picture like this one never makes it into the hands of UN researchers for their soon-to-be-well-circulated memoranda:

Pinstripes might make the man, but a shitload of pinstripes make the arms dealer

I would like to say there are some important and practical conclusions drawn from one or both of these reports, but really, for any cynical observer of this region, they only seem to further illustrate why Africa’s most intractable conflict is so intractable. Cui bono? Why, we all do!

The Real World: African Autocrats edition.

I tweeted the other day about Libyan crackpot Muammar Qaddafi, whose general zaniness, I thought, made him a worthy candidate for his own reality TV show. And then I thought to myself: what if we took not just Qaddafi, but all of our favorite African tyrants-in-chief, put them up in some posh beach villa on the outskirts of Mombasa, and waited for wacky hijinx and madcap hilarity to ensue? You mean this wouldn’t be the biggest ratings bonanza in African reality TV history? Really?

You think these strongmen couldn’t outmuscle even the toughest Jersey Shore juicehead?

Mugabe: 28 years and counting.

Dos Santos: 30 years and still going strong

Wade: only 10 years...but already tinkering with plans to change Senegal's constitution to allow for a third term

Kagame: bitch-slapping the opposition since 2000

Qaddafi: 40-plus years as Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, which I couldn't even make up if I tried

Museveni: 23 years and still spry as a spring despot

Kibaki: stuffing ballot boxes since 2002

Zuma: play on, playa

Yar'Adua: ...

Wouldn’t the assembled egos be more combustible and fraught with tension than election night in Harare? Can’t you just picture Kibaki and Museveni getting into a shoving match over some underage whore at Forty Thieves?

So I got to thinking…

*************

[Cue opening credits. Papa Wemba music blares. Sun rising on African savannah, old women baring breasts, etc.]

VOICEOVER: This is the true story.

[Slow, tracking shot. Exotic wildlife prancing, loping, migrating across screen. Baobabs. ]

VO: Of eight democratically elected African strongmen.

[Ultra-extreme close-up of grinning African man, democratic foot-soldier, etc., casting his ballot in a free and fair election.]

VO: No, seriously. Democratically elected.

[Pan out. Ruling party youth league goons swinging sticks and truncheons at voters' backs.]

VO: Who decide to take a break from governing.

VO: And move into an IMF-subsidized time-share.

[Fussy white men in suits making nervous faces as they hand over a rent check.]

VO: After evicting local tenant farmers.

[Slow, solemn procession of African peasantry heading toward bleak, distant horizon.]

VO: And receiving a generous UN per diem.

[Fussy white men w/ checks, etc.]

VO: To get real.

[Extreme close-up of baby with bloated stomach, blinking distantly at camera.]

VO: Real crooked.

[African leaders gleefully throwing piles of World Bank cash at each other.]

VO: On The Real World: African Autocrats.

****************

Enter Rwandan President Paul KAGAME, Ugandan President Yoweri MUSEVENI, and Libyan President Muammar QADDAFI. A corpulent Kenyan President Mwai KIBAKI sits on the sofa, stuffing his face with sausage rolls and scanning hot celebrity pics in The Star. Angolan President Jose Eduardo DOS SANTOS sits under a pile of cobwebs in the corner, an oil drip connected to his arm. Nigerian President Umaru Musa YAR’ADUA is nowhere to be seen.

MUSEVENI: You fat Kikuyu, always hungry!

KIBAKI: It is my turn to eat, bwana.

MUSEVENI: If you only eat a little – slowly, slowly – no one will notice. I fleeced the West for years before they realized I was no better than all the other tyrants. Some still think I am an example of the New African Leader. Haha.

KAGAME: Haha.

MUSEVENI: Haha.

YAR’ADUA: …

KIBAKI: Ndiyo, you are right. If I am not careful, Ban Ki-Moon will tell me that I should be tried at a special tribunal in the Hague. Hahaha.

MUSEVENI: Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

[Cut to Ban KI-MOON, wearing a pink tutu and blushing in the corner.]

KIBAKI: We Kikuyu have a saying: grmphluggerblursplatughrump [words drowned out by digestive noises].

KAGAME: In the bush we survived on canniness and wiles. For three years I ate nothing but Human Rights Watch reports. [lifting shirt to reveal washboard abs] Yoweri, feel my stomach.

MUSEVENI: You fat Kenyans cannot even agree on how to misrule a country.

KIBAKI: Yes, now you are handing out leadership advice. Mr. I Can’t Even Control an Unruly Kingdom Within My Own Borders.

MUSEVENI: [makes a flummoxed face]

KIBAKI: Mr. Let Me Bend Over So the Western Oil Companies Can Stick It In.

MUSEVENI: [cartoon teapot steam spouting from ears] Oh, so says the great leader of the Grand Coalition Government. So says him who can’t even manage to steal an election without maybe half the Western world noticing.

[Enter Zimbabwean President Robert MUGABE in combat fatigues.]

MUGABE: Who, me?

KIBAKI: Comrade Bob, Museveni thinks it is easy to manipulate an election against the democratic will of the people. He thinks the opposition will come and just, what, hand you the keys to State House. “Here, Mr. President. Karibu tena.” Oh, it is soOOOoooo easy to win an election when you have already crushed the opposition.

MUSEVENI: Hahaha. It really is. Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahahaha.

MUSEVENI and KAGAME: Hahahahaha.

QADDAFI: Opposition? What’s an opposition? Hahaha.

KIBAKI: He thinks Kofi Annan just comes to Kenya to, I don’t know, go swimming in Mombasa.

MUGABE: The West will send its stooges whenever the business interests of the American and European imperialists are threatened by the revolutionary will of the black African majority.

KAGAME: [rolls his eyes and makes a little here-comes-another-rant-about-Western-imperialism face]

MUGABE: We have a favorite saying in Harare: If you can’t beat them…beat them.

ALL: Hahahahaha.

[Cut to KI-MOON, hastily writing a UN resolution.]

DOS SANTOS: [mumbles something in Portuguese]

MUGABE: Are you still here, Jose?

DOS SANTOS: [pointing to IV drip pumping petroleum into his veins]

KAGAME: I think he is saying that today’s despot will always find a complicit Western government to turn its back on electoral irregularities if there is a business interest at stake.

QADDAFI: And how! Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

DOS SANTOS: [oil bubbles up in throat, making throttled laugh noises]

YAR’ADUA: …

QADDAFI: I used to be a pariah; now I free terrorists and receive lucrative oil contracts from multinationals. I can do whatever I want! Watch!

[QADDAFI drops pants and poops on original copy of the UN charter.]

ALL: Hahahaha.

YAR’ADUA: …

KAGAME: I used to worry how my strong-handed tactics would play in Western capitals. And then I realized that the West wants leaders like me. Maybe 95.1 percent of the vote in 2003 was being modest. Haha.

MUSEVENI: Haha. I am on thin ice. I only secured 59 percent. 2011 will be too close to call. Hahaha.

KAGAME: Hahaha.

QADDAFI: Election? What’s an election? Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

KAGAME: Winning a free and fair election by a landslide majority with the tacit approval of the West is easy. Do you want to know the real trick?

KIBAKI: ?

MUSEVENI: ?

ALL: ?

YAR’ADUA: …

[KAGAME leaves and returns with a pint-sized marionette of Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph KABILA.]

KABILA: [in high, squeaky voice] Look at me, I’m the leader of a sovereign nation!

MUSEVENI: I can see your lips moving, Kagame!

KABILA: I control a nation as vast as Western Europe, with abundant mineral resources that would never, ever, EVER get smuggled out on my watch.

ALL: Hahahaha.

MUSEVENI: [flashing Congolese diamond-crusted wristwatch] Yes, this watch was made with diamonds from Uganda’s vast hidden, super-secret mines. Hahaha.

ALL: Hahahaha.

KABILA: What has two thumbs and calls the shots in Kinshasa? [jerks thumbs toward KAGAME, who is poorly disguising his lackluster ventriloquist's skills in the rear] This guy!

MUSEVENI: Hahaha.

KAGAME: [dropping KABILA puppet, now that he's finished with him] Hahaha.

ALL: Hahahaha.

[Enter Senegalese President Abdoulaye WADE, followed by 10,000 Haitian refugees.]

KAGAME: Look at Wade – generous to a fault!

WADE: That’s what the IMF said! Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

WADE: What’s a bag of money between friends? Hahaha.

ALL: Hahaha.

HAITIANS: …

KAGAME: We Africans must embrace our brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Who else can be counted on to come back and run our countries? Haha.

WADE: Haha. I’ve already offered them voter registration cards. Haha.

ALL: Haha.

QADDAFI: You are so generous to invite our African brothers back to their homeland.

MUGABE: Speak for yourself, Asian.

QADDAFI: [chortles something in Arabic]

MUGABE: [brandishes fist]

[Cut to KI-MOON, effete and panicking in the corner.]

KAGAME: Quick, someone call Zuma.

MUSEVENI: Where is Zuma?

ALL: Zuma!

Cut to South African President Jacob ZUMA in a hot tub, surrounded by buxom South African women.

ZUMA: [whispering in the ear of a giggling young girl] Really, I’m the President. I can do it. We can just say you are a Zulu secessionist queen, and just like that [snaps fingers], I give you half of KwaZulu-Natal.

[Cut to DOS SANTOS, oil burbling.]

[Cut to YAR'ADUA, missing.]

[Cut to KIBAKI, gorging.]

[Cut to KAGAME and MUSEVENI, squabbling over profits.]

[Cut to WADE, grandstanding.]

[Cut to millions of Africans, waiting.]

[Fade to black.]

****************

VO: Next week, on The Real World: African Autocrats.

[Exterior shot: Crouching Dragon nightclub, somewhere in Mombasa.]

[Close-up of ZUMA, standing at the bar.]

ZUMA: [whispering in the ear of a pretty young Kenyan] No, really. You take a shower when you are finished and you are safe.

[Cut to Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles ZENAWI, outside, surrounded by 1,000 sycophants and tussling with bouncer.]

ZENAWI: What does this mean, I am not on the list? I have friends in Washington.

[Close-up of gruff, Eritrean bouncer, head shaking.]

ZENAWI: Twenty years ago in my country, we would have fed you to a lion. I am serious. We would have buried you under the prison.

[Cut to Sudanese President Omar AL-BASHIR, sequestered by ICC warrants, pulling on an argilah pipe, alone at his home in Khartoum. AL-BASHIR sighs, belches, drums his fingers on the tabletop. A wallclock ticks loudly in the background.]

[Cut to Hu JINTAO, thrusting his hips on the catwalk and showering 1,000-yuan notes onto the hungry, huddled African masses below.]

JINTAO: I make it rain, bitches! I make it rain!

[Cut to Coca Cola-sponsored commercial break.]

A land of milk and honey.

I am living in Burundi, which is almost funny to say, because if you’d stumbled across this blog at home or at the office or on whatever Apple pleasure device you call your own, you might have felt a sense of ambiguousness, or amorphousness, at what you’re reading. I have used my little digital platform to talk about Angolan oil wealth and Ugandan homosexuals and the heartbreaking sincerity of letters from Malawi, but I haven’t always had a lot to say about Burundi itself – apart from observing that it is a useful butt for jokes that begin with, “If you think [insert impoverished country here] is poor…”; and a comedic foil for anyone hoping to make light of a particularly dire situation (i.e., “At least we’re not in Burundi!”)

Well I, for one, am in Burundi, along with eight million or so other people, most of whom, if my months here are any indication, are probably poor; most likely illiterate; guarded toward their neighbors; skeptical of their leaders; not at all unkind; worried for their children; unsure when the next meal will find them; hopeful, impossibly hopeful; and generally glad to be tilling their soil and drinking their banana beer and making do in whatever thrifty, belt-tightened way, if only there could be a few good leaders and a small dose of good luck to help this country back on the right track.

A good deal of the song sounds something like, 'MSD, MSD, MSDeeeeeee!'

I was at a campaign rally a few weeks back for the Mouvement pour la Solidarité et la Démocratie – Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, or MSD – led by the charismatic and controversial Alexis Sinduhije. The party was opening a new permanence – a permanent office, I suppose – in Bururi province, and during the obligatory flag-raising ceremony a strident, militaristic tune filled the air. Few in the crowd knew the words to the MSD anthem, and I could hardly blame them: the song carried on for six or seven minutes. Between the murmuring and lip-synching, I asked a man beside me to translate the refrain.

“When MSD gets there, the international community will recognize that we are again a country that will rise above our problems and again be a land of milk and honey,” he said. It was, admittedly, not the catchiest tune. But you sort of get the point.

The crowd lip-synchs its support

Say what you will about Burundians, but they sure know how to open a permanence in style!

This is a proud and anxious year for Burundi, which is holding its first direct presidential elections since its 12-year civil war officially ended in 2005. (The 2005 polls brought in a new parliament, which in turn chose former rebel, gospel singer, and football afficionado Pierre “Peter” Nkurunziza to lead the country.) Even after the formal peace was brokered in 2005, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), the last and most recalcitrant of the Hutu rebel groups, continued to wage a small-scale war in the bush. They formally agreed to lay down their arms in 2008; last April, they finally carried through on their promise. Thus 2010 marks the first year since the civil war began in 1993 that no armed factions are at loose in the countryside, and that the government – ostensibly, at least – includes all of this country’s dissonant voices (43 officially recognized political parties, at last count).

Burundi’s past experiences with elections have not always ended well, and have always been surprising. Beginning with the election of the Tutsi nationalist Prince Louis Rwagasore as prime minister in 1961 – won at a time when Burundi’s colonial overlords in Belgium had shifted their allegiances to the country’s Hutu majority – Burundian elections have always defied by the conventional wisdom. Calling for elections in Burundi has, in effect, always been a precursor to defeat.

The lesson for Buyoya: don't hold an election unless you're sure you can fix it

In 1993, when Tutsi strongman Pierre Buyoya called for elections – prompted by a wave of post-Cold War reforms across the continent, and signaling the end of 30 years of Tutsi military rule – he was upended by Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu whose brief experiment with reform ended with his murder at the hands of Tutsi extremists from the army. When Ndadaye’s Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) party, wayward custodians of the transitional government which brought the civil war to an end, called for elections in 2005, it was the Conseil National pour la Defense de la Démocratie -Forces pour la Defense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) – a rebel group that threatened to return to the bush should they lose – which surprised everyone with a sweeping electoral win. FRODEBU, full of wounded pride, retreated to lick its wounds, and CNDD-FDD suddenly found itself, despite a complete lack of governing experience, at the helm of this tiny, troubled nation.

Incredibly, these men would prove unfit to govern

You can argue that the experiment was doomed to fail – that a party raised and founded on a culture of violence would find the tricky business of politics to be less palatable than their preferred gun-barrel diplomacy. But the Burundians I’ve spoken to all describe those first months as a time of great promise. The war had ended; the corrupt old guard of FRODEBU – tainted by years in power, however neutered – had been swept from office; and the new ruling party – running on a platform of human rights and good governance – had stirred hopes of a fresh start for the country.

The honeymoon was over before it started. Rights groups quickly uncovered a campaign of repression and political violence being carried out at the hands of the ruling party; and the corruption that, to some degree or other, had always played a part in Burundian politics, soon took on the momentum of a runaway train. Describing the disillusionment that set in once the first hopeful signs faded, one restaurant owner in Bujumbura told me, “It was like a dream had been taken away.”

The presidential jet: If found, please return to this address

The scale and audacity of the crimes was shocking, even to the most cynical observers. The presidential plane was sold under bizarre circumstances shrouded in sleaze and secrecy; and the free-for-all became so brazen in recent years that the anti-corruption watchdog OLUCOME, citing $30 million in stolen revenues in the first half of 2009 alone, called graft “a way of life” in Burundi.

“It is the first time that people have stolen more than $30 million at one time,” said Gabriel Rufyiri, the head of OLUCOME, when I met him last week. “That’s the first time in our history that such an amount was stolen. It was the first time that a presidential jet was stolen in view of everyone. And all the criminals are there, and they’re becoming stronger and stronger. They are becoming stronger than the state. We see that corruption is becoming more endemic than before. The corruption is being legitimized by those who were supposed to fight against it.”

Rufyiri, like most outspoken critics of the government, has received numerous threats on his life. He has been imprisoned, according to his own count, “at least five times since 2002.” Twice he has had to flee the country.

In the five years since CNDD-FDD took office, a culture of repression and impunity has come to dominate the political scene. And yet people are oddly hopeful – that particular, African hope that finds even the darkest clouds to have a silvery lining. While the threat of violence remains high around the elections, most believe the prospect of a return to civil war are slim. Nearly 300,000 lives were claimed by that lost decade; the country is only just getting back on its feet.

“The Burundian people are not ready for more war,” a pastor told me.

Today I met a man, Pacifique, who has spent the past 10 years living in Antwerp. He was sitting beside me at Aroma, the café, complaining about the heat (the first time I’d every heard an African pining for the cold of Europe). It was his first visit to Burundi in more than two years, and the difference to him was palpable.

“The mentality is changed,” he said. “In Bwiza” – one of the city’s poorest, liveliest quartiers – “people are doing some trade and commerce. They are talking about some things with politics they were afraid to talk about before.”

Pacifique’s daughter, a placid, pot-bellied little girl, came down the sidewalk and joined us. She planted a kiss on her father’s cheek and unfolded some schoolwork for him to look over.

“I don’t believe in all this politics, Hutu and Tutsi,” he said. “We speak the same language, we are the same people.”

First there was Hollywood; then Nollywood. Now, meet the filmmakers of Bujumburiwood…um, Burundywood…uh…

Sadly, my friends in Rwanda have already claimed “Hillywood” for themselves.

The boys of Bujumbura patrol the streets in third-hand T-shirts and ill-fitting jeans, carrying stacks of DVDs they sell to passing motorists, sidewalk diners and curious passers-by. Rifle through the selections in this busy capital of Burundi and you’re likely to find Nigerian crime dramas, Tanzanian romances and Hollywood blockbusters pirated in China. What you won’t find are films made in Burundi.

For an impoverished country still struggling to emerge from more than a decade of civil war, that might not be surprising. But as peace returns to this troubled African nation, Burundian filmmakers are hoping to finally put their country on the map.

For my report from the frontlines of Burundian filmmaking, check out my piece in Variety here.

Memo to McCall Smith: Africa sux!

Seems not everyone is charmed and cheered by the syrupy sweetness of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. Speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival last week, the best-selling author responded to criticisms of his rose-colored view of the continent.

“Sub-Saharan Africa has a lot of problems, but it is not universally bleak and I wanted to show the inherent goodness in Botswana, which is a very well run country, with very little corruption and a wonderful people,” said Smith.

This, it seems, is a controversial statement. As Reuters reports, “In Smith’s “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series, there is little corruption, disease or dictatorship.”

Bowing to the criticism, McCall Smith announced plans for a new series, The No. 1 Malnourished AIDS Orphans Agency. This will be followed by a film adaptation of his unreleased novella, The No. 1 Brutal Kleptocrats Club, starring Don Cheadle.

McCall Smith's new series focuses on The Real Africa

***********

Yesterday a hippo was wallowing in the water off the shores of Saga Plage. It attracted quite a crowd. Every now and then it would surface and spout water from its nostrils and wriggle its little hairy hippo ears. Squeals of delight all around. Little boys flashing their smooth little backsides decided to throw sticks to get its attention. Luckily, carnage was avoided.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here: Burundi edition

Three and a half weeks after applying for a one-month visa at the Bureau de l’Immigration here in Bujumbura, my application has finally been processed by the relevant stooges. This means that less than a week after getting my January visa approved, I’ll be going back again to get an extension for February. Not exactly surprising, given the state of the immigration office.

By my reckoning I’ve made seven trips to le bureau this month, only to be turned back, brushed aside, pitied, blatantly laughed at, and denied. The paperwork wasn’t ready. The paperwork was lost. The paperwork was something-in-French-I-couldn’t-understand. And me, flustered, irate, trying to explain in my marginal français: “J’ai venu sept fois ce mois, monsieur! Quelle est la problème? Je ne peux pas revenir chaque jour! Je suis…[flustered hand movement] busy.”

Still, me and the head stooge seemed to build up a sort of rapport, if by “rapport” I mean “mutual loathing.” The man was stern, fierce, unmovable. In a country that’s only just emerged from 13 or 15 or 16 years of civil war (depending on who’s counting), I suppose you can expect sympathy for the white guy to be in short supply. So instead I just grumbled and sighed and fought my way through queues which usually looked something like this:

Still, I succeeded in getting my visa de sejour and in not swallowing my own face in a fit of self-consuming rage. Given the circumstances, it was a good day.

Haiti would be better if Haitians behaved differently (or, Things to Argue About With Other White People on a Rainy Day)

The Haitian tragedy of the past week falls – as my geographically astute readers will observe – just beyond the boundaries of the continent I currently call home. I don’t want to suggest that my travels in Africa somehow make me an authority on what is happening in Haiti. I’m not. The blog is This Is Africa – not These Are Black People.

This Is Africa

This Isn't

Billy Sothern at Slate nicely sums up the problem – and danger – of foreign correspondents trying to report about a complicated country that they’ve only just managed to bone up on over a few late night sessions of Googling.

But.

On the one hand, governments across Africa are – to some degree or other – sending aid to the beleaguered island nation. (The list includes the DRC, which, as Reuters reports, “has just been told by the International Monetary Fund [that] its debt levels are fiscally unsustainable.” Picture poor Kabila forking over all those hard-earned, debt-relieved dollars!) Plus at least one African leader has proposed “the creation of a new African state to resettle Haitians left homeless by an earthquake.”

(A brief but relevant aside: Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, who made the suggestion, is rapidly gaining on Libyan Pariah-in-Chief Muammar Qaddafi for my annual “What the Fuck Was He Thinking” African Leader Award. “All we are saying is that the Haitians didn’t take themselves over there,” Wade told Reuters TV on Monday. “We have to offer them the chance to come to Africa, that is my idea. They have as much right to Africa as I have.” This from a man whose visionary plan to combat poverty in his country includes the construction of a 328-foot high bronze statue of the “African Renaissance” with a $27 million price tag attached. And built by North Koreans. From which he’ll take a 35 percent cut of future tourist revenues.)

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled Haitians.

More to the point, though: I came across a heated cyber-skirmish between a couple of conservative eggheads over at The National Review which dragged my beloved little Burundi into the picture. The argument stemmed from a column by editor-at-large Jonah Goldberg – author of the right-wing polemic Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning – in which Haitians are, in a time-honored conservative tradition, more or less blamed for being poor. “The sad truth about Haiti isn’t simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture,” writes Goldberg, while sounding actually not all that sad.

The blogosphere exploded with nearly three responses. John Derbyshire criticized the author’s woeful lament that “Haiti will never get out of grinding poverty until it abandons much of its culture.” (He didn’t, in fact, disagree “that we need to transform Haiti’s ‘culture of poverty.'” He just didn’t know how to do it.) With a stunning coup de grace, Derbyshire dusted off his CIA World Factbook and boldly proclaimed that “Haiti isn’t actually that poor.”

Chin up, Haitian man: at least you're not in Togo! (courtesy of Damon Winter, The New York Times)

Goldberg got testy at being misunderstood. “My meaning was only ‘there are places way poorer,'” he wrote.

At rank 203 out of 229, Haiti is in the 11th percentile. To put it another way, one country in nine is as poor as, or poorer than, Haiti. If one person in nine is shorter than me, I’m not that short. As for “arguably slightly poorer”: with Haiti at per capita GDP $1,300, I think Eritrea at $700 and Burundi at $300 would give you an argument.

I would like to see that argument. I would like to see Eritrea and Burundi gang up on Haiti and shake their fists and say, “Hey, Haiti, we’ll show you abject poverty!”

An Eritrean woman: really fucking poor.

This whole argument is so dangerously stupid it should come with an FDA warning. Bickering over indices and World Bank rankings when it comes to a certain level of poverty is sort of like arguing about whether or not your hot dog is Kosher: at the end of the day, it’s still really, really bad for you. Besides, when you consider the obscene levels of economic disparity you find in much of the developing world, you have to take those measures of per capita GDP with a big grain of WFP-distributed salt. Does Gabon’s gaudy $14,200 per capita GDP mean anything to all but a small circle of its oilgarchs? Does the great resource wealth of Namibia (per capita GDP: $6,400) improve the lives of its rural poor? (Actually, according to some, it makes them worse.) Are Kenyans better off than Burundians, since their per capita GDP is nearly four times as great? Even if they live in the far north, where people refer to “Kenya” – i.e., Nairobi – as a distant, far-off land?

Living the high life in northern Kenya

Despite the fact that the author’s idea of a good time is betting on Human Development Indices, this piece makes a good argument against the HDI. Conclusion: “Scandinavia comes out on top according to the HDI because the HDI is basically a measure of how Scandinavian your country is.”

Burundians: not very Scandinavian

I was talking this afternoon with Pancrace Cimaye, spokesman for Burundi’s opposition FRODEBU party. Cimaye – a stout, world-weary man whose paunch suggested a very Scandinavian level of Human Development – was talking about the extreme poverty in Burundi. He said that FRODEBU officials had a certain parlor trick they played in the countryside to show how five years of ruling-party rule had done nothing for the country’s development. I will leave aside the swarminess I feel about this schtick, since it sort of makes a point.

They would tell a gathering of party members – sometimes 1,000 strong – that if any of them had a 10,000 Burundian franc note (the equivalent of about eight US bucks), FRODEBU would match it with one of their own. Not a single man would raise his hand. So they would ask if anyone had Fbu 5,000. None. Then 2,000. Then 1,000. Finally, a few farmers would raise their hands. And that was it.

Now, whether that points to the corruption and incompetence of the ruling party – as opposed to any number of very complicated factors – is debatable. But the reality of the poverty it underscores is pretty concrete. I would be happy to bet my own Fbu 10,000 note that you could use that same schtick with a bunch of Kenyan Samburu or Ugandan Karamoja or Mozambican Makonde or Botswanan San or Nigerian Ijaw – or even hypothetical-$1,300-a-year-earning Haitians – and the result would be the same. At some point, the indices are just dressing-up some ugly, naked facts.

Exterminate the brutes! Report claims Congo war toll greatly exaggerated

A new report released by the Human Security Report Project has questioned the widely accepted – and widely quoted – death toll attributed to the endless war(s) in the Congo.

According to the report, the common estimate of 5.4 million deaths due to war since 1998 is based on unsound methodology and greatly exaggerated. The AFP reports that

The 2010 Human Security Report, released Wednesday at the United Nations in New York, challenged the research used to arrive at the figure, saying “estimates of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s war death toll are at least twice as high as they should be.”

New report says it's not as bad as it looks (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, The New York Times)

The widely used figure was calculated from a series of five surveys by the International Rescue Committee, along with assistance from the Burnet Institute of Australia in two of the surveys. The IRC, founded in 1933, is one of the world’s most respected relief agencies. It provides, according to its mission statement, “emergency relief, rehabilitation, protection of human rights, post-conflict development, resettlement services and advocacy for those uprooted or affected by violent conflict and oppression.”

Among its other findings, the new report faults the first two surveys conducted by the IRC, which “were not done in a randomly-selected area on a representative population, as is standard in statistical research,” according to the AFP. The surveys, which concentrated on the densely populated and war-affected regions of eastern Congo, inflated the death toll by focusing on the country’s most conflict-ridden regions. (Which sort of falsely implies that western Congo is a land of milk and honey.)

Populations fleeing violence in eastern Congo (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

The meat-and-potatoes portion of this report, of course, boils down to the amount of humanitarian aid pouring into the Congo. The Washington Post quotes an IRC researcher, writing in 2006, who links the figures provided by his group to the dramatic increase in foreign aid to Congo in the past decade.

“Following the release of the 2000 survey results, total humanitarian aid increased by over 500 percent between 2000 and 2001. The United States’ contribution alone increased by a factor of almost 26. It is probably fair to assert that the mortality data played a significant role in increasing international assistance,” one of IRC’s key researchers, Richard Brennan, wrote in a 2006 journal article.

Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project, said the dispute over the actual figure would put billions of dollars in aid at risk by “discrediting population health surveys as a whole.”

“Policy makers need to have hard data,” he told AFP. “Anything that questions the credibility of these surveys is a bad thing.”

What's at stake in the Congo war

The IRC defended its findings, responding in a statement that “5.4 million is our best estimate based on established methodology and conservative assumptions, but the real figure could be as low as 3 million or as high as 7.6 million.”

The fuzziness of the figures is not accidental. Most of the controversy surrounds the “excess” death toll – those deaths caused by disease, lack of food and medicine, and malnutrition, often in populations fleeing the violence – which, in a country as vast, undeveloped, and chaotic as the Congo, is almost impossible to calculate. As one scholar observed, the “normal” mortality rate attributed to pre-war Congo, based on the average for sub-Saharan Africa, ignores what was most likely a higher rate.

“In Congo, people were already dying in higher numbers than in the rest of Africa, even before the war. And they continued to die in higher numbers after the war,” said professor emeritus Joshua Goldstein of American University’s School of International Service, American University, [in the Post report].

Disease, malnutrition, and little access to health care are part of the excess death toll (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

The report questions whether this baby would have been able to survive, even without the war's consequences (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

A cholera patient who was forced by fighting to flee his home (courtesy of Lynsey Addario, NYT)

As the Post observes, “the Congo conflict has been dubbed the world’s deadliest since World War II,” and the death toll figure has been “used worldwide to bolster political support for a massive UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian aid in the heart of Africa” (AFP). The importance of getting the figures right, of course, is indisputable. But this begs the question: would “only” 2.8 million deaths have been less a cause for action?

Congolese villagers are happy to give MONUC soldiers a helpful push...right out of the fucking country (courtesy of Jean-Marc Bouju, AP)

You can access the full report here.

Congo’s intriguing mixture of fascination and frustration: neither fascinating nor intriguing

I try not to make a habit of trashing the work of my hypothetical colleagues, but when a writer so obviously mails it in – especially in a story that conforms to all the guidelines of Lazy Travel Writing 101 – I feel inclined to vent.

Today’s Guardian features a dispatch from Africa correspondent David Smith, whose most recent Letter from Africa (or, specifically, the Congo), reads like a postscript to Binyavanga Wainaina’s biting How to Write About Africa, without the parody.

“Is there anywhere in Africa to rival the mystery and mystique of Congo?” Smith asks. (Short answer: yes.) Drawing on the fabled exploits of Henry Stanley, Mr. Kurtz and Muhammad Ali – and giving at least a cursory reading of the back cover of Tim Butcher’s Blood River – Smith unpacks 1,000 words on “Congo’s intriguing mixture of fascination and frustration” in a way that makes Congo sound as intriguing, fascinating and frustrating as a weekend trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. No taxis at the airport in Kigali! No toilet seat at the hotel! Terrible coffee! Harrowing indeed was the perilous, three-hour drive from Kigali to the border in the back of his chauffeured car.

“I dozed on the back seat as the driver put on a CD,” writes Smith.

“The horror!” wrote Joseph Conrad.

For Smith, it could have been worse

What follows is a plodding account of what Smith sees on his day-trip to Goma – a blow-by-blow of “people sitting in grime on the streets,” “the dilapidated state of most of the buildings,” and “the rutted, pot-holed, jolting terrain.” Apart from a brief nod to the fact that this was once “a popular tourist stop for those adventurous enough to drive from one end of the continent to the other,” we learn about as much from this piece as Smith himself presumably did by watching the Congo scroll by outside his window. For an amateur’s travel blog, this is acceptable; for a freakin’ “Africa correspondent” for The Guardian, slightly less so.

One redeemable feature: this pic, from Getty Images

Nothing of Goma’s fabled history as a resort town for wealthy colonists in the Belgian Congo. Nothing of the fun-loving, free-spiritedness of the Congolese. Even the fact-checking is lazy: the Nyiragongo volcano – “a perpetual menace to this city” – which looms on the city’s outskirts did not, in fact, erupt earlier this month. That was Nyamulagira, 15 miles to the north of Goma. This would have taken three seconds to check on Google (seven, if you’re on a Burundian connection). It is also the only fact that needed to be checked in the story.

Nyiragongo, which did not erupt earlier this month

It’s hard to swallow a piece about a writer who claims to have gone “in search of the place where Henry Stanley explored” by casually strolling across the border, taking a look around, and talking to not a single Congolese soul. What little local color we have is supplied by Alan Doss, “the Welsh-born head of the UN mission,” whom our fearless scribe asks to describe “the magnetism of the Congo.”

“The great rush for Africa,” he explained.

“This is truly a magnificent country with incredible diversity among its peoples.”

An actual Congolese man

Malik Ngiama, with self

Despite Doss’ earnest protestations, the Congolese we see basically sit on “unclean floors,” sell chickens and eggs, and watch kung fu flicks in a wooden shack. This, it seems, is travel writing. Shame on you, Guardian!