Foreign Affairs

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South Africa: A fading rainbow?

Democracy is not an easy thing to do. It is not something that can be implemented over night nor does the ability to vote mean that things will immediately turn out for the better. For democracy to work, institutions need to be in place and civil society must work together to grow something organically.

Notions of idealism have often ignored the fundamentals of rationalism and pragmatism. In effect, just because something may seem right, it doesn’t mean it is going to work. To a large extent, this forms the building blocks of modern Conservatism and many of the views of the 18th century politician Edmund Burke. Societies don’t become something overnight, they evolve through history and culture. The lessons of revolution and visionary leaders have often led to mass murder and the brutality of totalitarian regimes.

The problem with democracy is that when it is in place, citizens expect results immediately. Yet, when things don’t, old habits often die hard. One only has to look at Russia. Western critics of the current Russian leadership may have some salient points regarding Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style, yet let us remember that democracy as we know it has never existed there at all. Before Stalin and Lenin, Russia was ruled by hereditary Tsars. Authoritarianism and the security blanket of socialism are the systems that Russians know; it may be some time before the framework of democracy beds-in.

The same can be said of South Africa. The pressure for the country to flourish remains intense, almost on the verge of burdensome. The peaceful legacy of Nelson Mandela’s leadership was a platform for countries overcoming long legacies of discrimination to aspire to, any step backward is deemed a desecration of Mandela’s legacy

The current crisis involving the South Africa questions not only the stability of the economy, but the essence of its democracy. The shooting and subsequent killings of protesting miners at a platinum mine near Rustenburg asks not only questions of the police, but questions about politics and society.

Since 16 August, South Africa’s platinum mines have become inoperable. Mass demonstrations by several unions have prevented workers returning to the pits and have put future operations in doubt. The protests have continued to gain momentum and not just in Rustenburg, miners from across the country have joined in wild-cat strikes. The return of the banished former ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema has only stoked the fire further.

Malema is no stranger to controversy. A fierce critic of South Africa’s current leadership, Malema has openly stated his admiration and friendship of Zimbabwe’s ageing tyrant Robert Mugabe, discredited the Government of Botswana and called for the South African mining sector to be renationalised. The 31-year-old raised headlines initially for singing the infamous ‘Shoot the Boer’ at ANC rallies, Boer being the white farmers who settled in South Africa in the 17th and 18th century, now a looser term for white South Africans. In April 2012, Malema was finally banned for calling President Zuma a dictator. Yet, it does not appear to have curtailed his opinions. Malema this week was talking to the South African army, in what has been perceived as a threat to national security.

Whilst Malema’s rhetoric can be deemed as absurd and opportunistic, to what extent does it echo with many of the workers in South Africa’s mining community? Since the end of Apartheid, are they materially better off? Life expectancy has dropped to 52 years old, over a tenth of the population is living with HIV, on top of poor educational standards, crime remains an inherent problem with high murder and violent crime rates. Figures also put the unemployment rate at 25%, though many believe it to be around 40%. Has freedom from Apartheid brought opportunity? For the masses living in black townships, how many would argue that much has changed?

Whilst many poor black South Africans have suffered, the political elite have prospered. 100 years since the ANC was born, to what extent does it really represent its constituents? Why has it introduced a secrecy law that critics believe to be akin to Apartheid-era politics. Why were the miners in Rustenburg arrested under an obscure Apartheid law?

South Africa has struggled like any country whilst it attempted to re-emerge from its bleak past. South Africa is held up as a beacon because what was enshrined in its constitution made it the world’s most equal society. Yet the strikes and gaps in wealth tell another story. A new black elite has managed to develop from the seeds of freedom. From what should have been an opportunity for liberation and new beginnings has led to greed, corruption and a failure of the masses. Whilst the miners may return to work this week, what remains is a seriously inequal society and the fault lines that will only become wider.


How do you solve a problem like Syria?

Intervention remains a word that causes many diplomats to gasp. To what extent does intervention become an occupation and is there a point where intervention goes beyond a point of feasibility? Politicians have learnt to live with the consequences amidst the tides of history of whether to intervene within a country’s affairs. The demise of the Somali state was exacerbated by the White House’s decision to remove US troops after the failed ‘Black Hawk Down’ mission. The UN’s inertia in 1994 only led to greater intensity of killings in Rwanda. Yet, politicians know all too well of the risks that military action can ensue. The toxic-effect of the US-led invasion in Iraq in 2003 and the on-going stalemate in Afghanistan continue to poison the well of intention.

For over 18 months, the battle between the Assad regime and anti-government rebels has turned Syria into a warzone. Only recently Syria could be described as one of the most stable nations in the region, yet today it has the capacity to create an all out war in the Middle East. The reports of mass artillery bombardments in the cities of Homs and Aleppo, plus the massacres of women and children is creating a humanitarian disaster. With estimates of over 25,000 deaths, possibly more, is a foreign-led intervention an ideal proposition for the situation or is it bound to make the situation worse?
So far, the diplomatic efforts have produced little. Syria’s historically strongest ally, Russia, has continuously refused to back sanctions at the UN. A Libyan-style intervention or arming of opposition forces is deemed impossible. Yet what other solutions remain? The West’s idea that Russia could offer Assad and his inner circle political immunity in Moscow was voted down too. To what extent are we prepared to turn a blind eye to justice in the interest of peace and the deaths of fewer? Do we reach a threshold where justice becomes immaterial?

Will he stay or will he go?

Syria has not signed the International Criminal Court’s treaty and therefore as things stand, Assad can face no international court. However; it is true of anti-government troops as well. They may say they are killing in the name of freedom, but no one can deny the massacres that have taken place on either side. The original protests that led to children having their fingernails removed have led to torture and summary executions. What they may perceive as ‘natural justice’ on the battlefield cannot be translated as humanly dignified. The country is systematically combusting, as are the rules that most humans would see as sacred.
From a diplomatic perspective, is it simple to purely blame Russia for blocking resolutions? Whilst no one can ignore the atrocities, who’s not to say that on previous occasions other countries, particularly in the West, have protected their own interests. There is a degree of old-school Cold War politics. One could argue why Sri Lanka or Israel haven’t had any of their politicians in the dock, these instances on paper show clear breaches of human rights or crimes against humanity, yet impunity remains the watch word. There are crimes and no one likes to see criminals to evade justice, but Syria and Assad wouldn’t be the first to escape the net.
This war, as things stand, has more to come, and who knows how long for. The fact Kofi Annan left his job as peace envoy shows how difficult it is to overcome. If Assad already knows what could wait, then who is not to say he will go out in glory as Gadaffi tried. Who’s not to say that a quarter of a million more people may die through chemical weapons? Then again, if he is brought to justice then how does one prove the atrocities? There are very few journalists and do they have any proof? Not all news coming out of the country can be verified.
Be sure, Assad is resolute but is weak. The question is what do you do about it?

2012: Arab Spring or Fall Back?

During 2011, the Arab political world was transformed as hard-line dictatorships were removed by a movement fronted by a new generation of well-educated, communicative and assertive citizens. Tired of inherent corruption, police brutality and economic mismanagement, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets with a will for change and democracy. In a matter of weeks, decades-old autocracies fell in both Egypt and Tunisia. Whilst across the border, a popular armed rebel movement, backed by NATO, dethroned a former Arab revolutionist turned tyrant, Colonel Muammar Gadaffi.

Yet a year after the start of these successful rebellions there is an increasing amount of uncertainty across the region, and worryingly beyond. New fault lines are developing within these new democracies and the avenues of new media are being stifled by the traditional realms of international diplomacy. In Bahrain, little support has been given to the oppressed Shia majority, whilst in Yemen, the West was reluctant to see President Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced. All the while in Syria, the death toll continues to rise as the international community struggles to deal with the brutal excesses of the Assad regime.

Assad: Belligerent

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, a youthful generation looked forward to a new set of ideals at home and abroad. Yet that generation, now part of the political elite, find themselves coupled with an economic crisis and an ever-mutating world.  The tide of the past two decades has made them increasingly fraught and reluctant to react. They have come to learn, with great expense and millions of deaths, that the succession of democracy and elections does not necessarily lead to economic growth or security. A decade of war in Afghanistan has caused no ends of trouble and still no long-term solution lies in place. Iraq, Pakistan and Syria are all issues that could easily explode beyond borders. Sclerotic institutions such as the UN hold legitimacy, but lack authority. Whereas regional bodies like the African Union (AU) and the Arab League remain divided by stasis and affliction.

The Arab Spring appeared different because the uprisings were led by an internal opposition. International voices highlighted their commitment to human rights, political reform and democracy, but nothing beyond. The memories of Algeria and Iraq meant that the West was reluctant to commit to anything other than rhetoric. Yet here were revolutions that were relatively bloodless and demanded change with so called ‘Western values’. The Libyan revolution required NATO help and incurred losses, but with an ultimate desire for freedom.

However, the flourishing hope appears to be diluting. Syria is fast turning into a cauldron. The UN ceasefire appears to exist purely as a memorandum. Russia and China indignantly reject any action towards President Assad, whereas other Western powers remain divided on whether to arm his opponents. Meanwhile; Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar are concerned at the subversive role played by Iran and Hezbollah. In the past year alone, over 9,000 people have died due to the violence, if this turns into a regional war then who knows how big the death toll will become.

In Africa, unrest is dispersing across several countries. Guinea-Bissau suffered a coup d’état, Nigeria is dealing with a violent insurgency in the north. Tuareg mercenaries, armed by Colonel Gadaffi, have captured the northern half of Mali, including the town of Timbuktu, and have declared independence from Bamako. Whilst in the east, the bloodless secession of South Sudan from Sudan is fast turning ugly. Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir recently called his former countrymen ‘the enemy’. Already factional fighting and bombing has occurred across this fragmented, yet, oil-rich region. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended over 50 years of civil war, a legacy that left over two million dead. Former South Africa President Thabo Mbeki has been unable to get the leaders of Khartoum and Juba to sit down for talks. As Mbeki says, both countries are trapped in the ‘logic of war’.

A year after independence, are the Sudanese on the verge of war?

As combat operations in Afghanistan wind down and the bite of defence cuts hits NATO nations, the prospect of future interventions remains doubtful. Unless organisations like the UN are willing to reform then who is to stop anything? The lessons after the Cold War have made industrial nations wary of change. If these countries lack the foundations and institutions of a democracy, then who’s not to say that it won’t fall apart in years to come?

2011 was a year that brought change for the Arab world, bringing hope and prospects for a new generation. We will see whether 2012 will continue to bring those fortunes or just the hangover from hell.

The EU: Ode to joy or not?

The internal strife emanating throughout Europe is transforming the union into a concord of disharmony. In streets and city squares, hoards of protesters commune to aim their vitriol at lacklustre governments and impugned banks. The years of cheap credit and profligacy have returned to haunt many nations as their debt-ridden treasuries have been forced to implement austerity measures in return for financial bailouts. In Madrid, protesters known as los indignados (meaning ‘the outraged’) have occupied the Puerta del Sol, rejecting the punishing measures accepted by its government. Meanwhile in Athens, Syntagma Square has seen months of violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators, as the Greek government implemented tough austerity measures in return for EU loans. Dublin, Lisbon, London and Rome have also seen a surge in protests and occupy movements, all in reaction to the prospect of cuts to welfare and an unreformed financial sector. What is most noticeable about the swelling in anger is the increasing distrust and hostility between nations. Germany, the central political and economic power is increasingly being slurred with Nazi characterisations, as it forces the ‘feckless’ Greeks to accept the tranches of bailout money. The open antagonism between the prudent Northern Europeans and their reckless Southern cousins is opening tensions to the sustainability of the whole fiscal and political union.

Yet as the continuous infighting continues, many of Europe’s other countries are beginning to lose sight of the European dream. Welcomed in from beyond the frosty realms of the Iron Curtain, Eastern Europe is discovering that the party they thought that was inviting is not as welcoming as they previously thought.

Many policy chiefs in the corridors of power of Brussels believed that a larger political union would create a stronger economic union. To an extent they were correct; here was the world’s largest and most successful internal market. All countries from the Eastern bloc yearned to join; even some North African countries sought membership. The European Union had the benefits of close political and defensive ties with America, multilateralism and a form of welfare capitalism. How the tides of fortune have ebbed away.

Countries that EU technocrats may have one day expected to join are weighing up their options. Georgia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan resent Europe’s hesitancy and hypocrisy. In fact, the West’s biggest proponent in the former Soviet bloc, President Saakashvili of Georgia, could flout the constitutional rules and run again for Presidency in 2013. Why should any of these countries listen to hedonistic messages of prudence when the European Central Bank is printing money to buy debt from its own shambolic economies? Even Hungary, an EU member, is flouting union rules over budget-deficit targets and media freedom. Turkey appeared to go cold over Europe many years ago. Russia is happy to see former satellite states return to the fold.

What about that great American hope? The US was once the Baltic States biggest and most loyal admirer. Countries like Poland were steadfast in their support of NATO and happy to commit men on the ground in war zones. Not to mention America’s new missile defence shield, to the chagrin of Russia. Yet, American foreign policy is heading west once again. The geopolitical and economic shift to Asia is seeing American strategy head towards the Pacific and the emerging markets. No longer is Europe the primary frontier. Obama’s decision to abandon the shield and along with the EU’s inexistent foreign policy is turning the once idealistic Poles and Czechs into hardnosed endorsers of Realpolitik.

The EU’s decision to prevent the Euro from failing will see a new era of internal relations. Closer fiscal relationships will only mean tougher stances on imprudence. The collective voices of the right in Northern Europe will no longer tolerate the spending cultures of countries like Italy and Greece. EU expansion will certainly be welcoming to countries of the Balkans but it might not be as jovial as they thought.

Nigeria: Beyond the violence

It is unusual for African countries to make the news headlines in British media, yet the continuous violence in the Northern Nigerian city of Kano has created much concern and interest from across the world. An Islamic and self-declared jihadist organisation called Boko Haram, which means “western education is sacrilege” in the Hausa language, has been launching co-ordinated suicide attacks across the country as part of their demands for an Islamic caliphate under Sharia Law. In the past few months attacks have intensified with bombings on Christian churches, the UN building in Abuja and most recently several police stations, where 186 people were left dead. At the centre of it all is the hapless President Goodluck Jonathan. Elected last year after the death of his predecessor President Yar’Adua, 2012 has not begun good well.  Not only a state of emergency in the north of the country and border closures with Chad and Niger, he has had to deal with a general strike after the government removed a fuel subsidy. The incidents in Kano have so far seen the national Chief of Police sacked and the ‘reorganisation’ and ‘repositioning’ of the Nigerian Police Force. Do these events mark a new era of politics in Nigeria or do they simply comply with the world’s previous assumptions of the country?

There is a belief with many Westerners that Nigeria is a land of dysfunction; dominated by internal strife, oil revenues and systemic corruption. The former US Secretary of State once declared that all Nigerians are crooks. Perhaps most people would associate it with email ‘419’ scams or documentaries by the filmmaker Louis Theroux. Yet the links to Britain are historical and continue to be present today. Acquired as a buffer from the Francophone dominated West Africa, the British Empire formed a country comprised of different religions, languages and tribes as a measure of convenience. Religious lines were split almost evenly between the Muslim north and Christian south, though religious relations were normally good. The country’s significance was reaffirmed several years later when oil was discovered at a time when the Royal Navy was changing its fleet from coal to oil powered vessels. When independence was granted in 1960, rule was governed in a similar way to the how the British had left it. The dominant population of Northern Muslims had power in the legislature and crucially the military, to the displeasure of the southern and western factions. The ugly Biafran War in 1970, which left over one million dead, is a direct legacy of the tension between the north and south.

Yet the underlying issue in Nigeria is not religious or ethnic conflict, but endemic corruption. Even as the country emerged from a military dictatorship, corruption has continued to play its part, from the local area boys to the state house. Nihu Ribadu, a prominent anti-corruption figure said that that since independence in 1960, over £380 billion dollars had been wasted or stolen by the government. Much of this money is laundered into British banks. In 2011, Transparency International ranked it the 143rd (out of 182) in its annual corruption index, yet Goldman Sachs deems it to be in an economic grouping behind the BRIC nations. As Africa’s most populous country, almost 160 million and growing, why is their thought to be so much potential when seventy per cent live under the poverty line?

Oil and petrodollars, continue to pollute the environment and the political system. As other countries have found, resource dependency inhibits creativity and innovation. As the state can rely on mineral wealth, it relies less on tax revenues and consequently accountability. The World Bank says that Nigeria’s oil wealth is siphoned off by only one per cent of the population.

After the oil price rises in the 1970s, it was the multinationals who filled the investment void vacated by the Government. Portrayed by some as a Faustian pact, the multinationals offered a more reliable investment to locals through jobs and wealth. However; not all benefitted, as local Governors became rich, other regions and ethnic groups were left out and felt the effects of oil spills and contamination. The lack of infrastructure or investment in health and education has been the main consequence. In 1993, fed up with the continuing pollution in the Niger Delta, protestors prompted a shutdown of Shell’s operations in the area. As a consequence, a military crackdown brought before a court several men accused of murder, with questionable evidence, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. All men were hanged for their crimes, stoking an international uproar, which saw several countries request Nigeria’s suspension from the Commonwealth.

Even with its massive oil exporting powers, almost 2.2 million barrels a day, Nigeria does not have any working oil refineries and therefore has to import the great majority of its oil. Many of the deals are struck by governing politicians and as the Africa watcher Richard Dowden says “Any politician who does not end up a multi-millionaire is regarded as a fool. Not many Nigerians are fools.”

And what of the nation’s politicians? Nigerian Parliamentarians are paid a salary of $1 million a year with $1 million in expenses to supplement it. Former rulers like Ibrahim Babingida and Sani Abacha both managed to steal billions of dollars and get away with it. The impunity and almost admiration for such men may be the reason why corruption happens and why there is so much of it. Simply because it is there and it works. It is part of the system, so there is no other way to function. As long as everyone receives their share then it is okay. Corruption is the oil that allows business to function. Tax collectors, telecoms companies, immigration officials all take part, especially the maligned police force.

The ruling Peoples Democratic Party [sic] (PDP), the new governing elite that succeeded the military, have a cosy arrangement that rotates the Presidency between a ruling southern Christian and northern Muslim. It in effect allows those in charge to have a share of the spoils whilst in charge, before the next rotation. The issue currently is that Jonathan succeeded Yar’Adua, who died before his tenure finished, before being re-elected. This led to violence in the city of Jos last year and the more recent anger in Kano. Muslims were annoyed at their PDP officials who acceded to Jonathan’s victory. Boko Haram is now exploiting that loss of trust by giving people an alternative, violence is their tool. For the first time in decades many Christians are leaving the north in fear.

Commentators argue that militants in the lawless Niger Delta were bought by government bribes to keep the peace; it is only likely that the members of Boko Haram will be bought with bags of bills sooner rather than later.

Prospects of Nigeria splitting or an African ‘awakening’ are not to be ruled out, but is anyone in a position to take it that step further? Nigeria is becoming strategically important to the West as it slowly becomes less dependent on Middle Eastern oil. Yet who is to say that the Gulf of Guinea will remain stable.

Russian elections: Putin in power.

It was the British Foreign Secretary William Hague who said that the democratic uprisings of 2011 are the most defining international events of the twenty-first century. All across North Africa and the Middle East, citizens, who had been shackled for generations by authoritarian rulers, protested in the streets to win the right to be free participants in a democratic nation. Absolute rulers in Egypt and Tunisia have been overthrown peacefully, Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule ended ignominiously after 42 years, whilst in Syria, Bashir al-Assad has resorted to turning on his own people. The great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, once said of Russia that its people were deserving of a despot because they did not love liberty. Yet after dubious election results and a forthcoming Presidential campaign in 2012, the Russian people are looking to join a new struggle to prevent the current Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, taking Presidential power for a third time. Two decades after the breakup of the USSR and the difficult transition to democracy what lies ahead for the Great Bear?

The elections in the State Duma (the lower house) last week can only be declared as a farce. An institution re-established by Tsar Nicholas II as a way of appeasing revolutionaries back in 1906 saw Putin’s United Russia party re-elected with 49.5% of the vote, down from 64.3%. The Opposition say between 20-25% of the vote was faked and if counted accurately the United Russia party would have polled just under 30%, a claim denied vehemently by election officials. Reports claim wide instances of ballot rigging including officials filling out ballots and parents of schoolchildren forced to vote in fear of cuts to school funding. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has called for the results to be annulled, whilst many angry voters have taken their displeasure to the streets. Last weekend saw anti-Putin demonstrations in over 80 cities across Russia; they believe if they cannot stop him now then he is sure to be elected for another two terms (12 years), a costly mistake for the country. There were pro-Putin rallies accompanying the counterparts; however reports suggest that many of the demonstrators had been bussed in from cities, unaware of what they had been sent to.

President Medvedev’s decision to stand down after one term did not surprise anyone but it did ask questions of where Russia wanted to go. Critics claim that Putin was the man making all the decisions, yet there seemed to be a greater avenue of reform, along with the usual skulduggery associated in Russian politics. Diplomatic relations with the US were famously reset when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, key reforms began in the military and new measures were put in place to attract international investors. On the contrary, we saw the 2008 conflict against Georgia, energy wars with Ukraine and diminishing press and social freedoms. The difficulty for Russia is that it has struggled to secure a place in the world after the Soviet Union broke up. Many former satellite states like Lithuania and Estonia have rushed to join the EU and others would prefer protection from NATO rather than the Kremlin. With a decreasing population and waning influence in the world, Putin’s perception is that Russia must be united under a strong leader. Officials and oligarchs are happy to accept this as long as they retain their share of the spoils. Even Nicholas II moved to restrict the powers of the Duma.

For ordinary Russians, none of these situations are conducive. Political stagnation, corruption and the high cost of living has seen a poll show that around 20% of Russians consider emigrating. Despite a growing economy, many of the most talented scientists and graduates are moving to the US, Canada and the EU, Russia is suffering a brain drain, the prospects of Putin only exacerbate this situation.

Putin claimed the US was behind the protests and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to organise the unrest. Yet, outside interference and suspicion does not work on a growing technological and mobilising middle class. They want reforms and they don’t want Vladimir Putin to take any part of it. The concerning aspect of it all as the former chess grandmaster and pro-democracy activist Garry Kasparov says, if the peaceful protests fail then it may lead to bloodshed.

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