Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Africa, Bullets and Ballots

Today’s Guardian has a good article about the current presidential elections in Liberia. After the brutal civil war that this country has been through these elections are surely a sign of hope. Among the interesting snippets in the article a couple of things are worth noting.

The first is that the two front runners in the elections are retired AC Milan striker George Weah, 39, and Harvard-educated economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66. If Ms Johnson-sirleaf wins she will be Africa’s first female president. Mr Weah on the other hand seems like a promising candidate too: someone committed to his country, with a history of philanthropy and who has worked as a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

The second point of note is one of the sadder ironies of Liberia’s history. The country was formed by freed slaves from the USA yet:

The freed slaves who founded Liberia in 1847 lorded it over the indigenous people, who made up the majority of the population. The indigenous were treated harshly by the educated elite, who emphasised their difference by walking about in morning coats despite the blistering West African heat. They practised a system of forced labour that was tantamount to slavery.

And the final interesting point is that, whoever wins the election, they will actually have little say over how the country is run, as the Guardian notes:

Ultimately, whoever the next president of Liberia is, they will have limited freedom to act. A Liberian army is being rebuilt from scratch, but in the meantime there are 15,000 UN troops keeping the peace. Western donor countries insist on intrusive financial measures to ensure that aid money is not squandered.

Liberia has quietly become a trusteeship for the international community. Under an economic management plan known by the acronym GEMAP, foreign experts will be inserted into key arms of the state with co-signature authority on government spending.

This isn’t a bad thing per se. Yet I’ll be interested in what limitations our foreign ‘experts’ place on spending in the country: if it’s just controls on corruption and military spending that’s great; if, on the other hand, it’s another austerity programme – then don’t hold your breath waiting for Liberia’s recovery.

Meanwhile, The Human Security Centre has just released the Human Security Report 2005 and the good news is that – globally – conflict is on the decline. One major reason for this, according to the report’s press release:

Analyzing the causes of the improvement in global security since the early 1990s, the Report argues that the UN played a critically important role in spearheading a huge upsurge of international conflict prevention, peacekeeping and peace building activities.

Although marred by much-publicized failures, these efforts have been the major driver of the reduction in war numbers around the world. The Report examines alternative explanations for the decline and finds them wanting.

Something that all you ‘aid is no good and the UN no use’ conservatives might want to consider sticking in your pipe and smoking…

While UN peacekeepers and those people who work in peace-building can take some credit for decreased conflict, Johann Hari in a splendid column on the arms trade gives us a few pointers as to who shouldn’t be taking the credit for the reduction in conflict:

Emmanuel Jal first held an AK47 when he was seven years old, and he first killed a man when he was 10. When I met him in London this week - now in his mid-20s - he spoke with a quiet, brittle calm about his life as a child soldier…But he stressed that this is not just another African horror story. This is a parable - and the lesson is for us. "Every single one of those guns was supplied by the outside world. Nobody in Sudan manufactured them."

They came - directly or indirectly - from the five countries that make up the permanent members of the UN Security Council: the US, China, France, Russia and - yes - Britain. "Why did the world make it possible for children to kill children with your guns and your bullets?" Emmanuel asks. "Why are you still doing it?"

Hari continues:

In a sane world, we would be turning off the tap of weaponry to the poorest people in the world, and trying to slowly disarm tyrannies and non-state militias. Instead, the Big Five economies are ramping it up, pumping out another 8 million small arms every year, along with enough bullets to shoot every single person in the world twice. Of the 14 countries in Africa where there is a conflict, Britain has sold arms to 10 of them…The problem is not simply that we allow arms suppliers to the poor and tyrannical to operate in this country; it is much worse. The [English] Government actively lavishes cash and political energy on them. Arms suppliers receive subsidies topping £990m per year from your taxes - enough to build 10 hospitals.

All of this is worth bearing in mind when you consider today’s news that conflict is on the rise again in Sudan.

If all this compels you to action, have a look at the following websites:

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