Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Kony2012's Gain The African Union's Loss?

The African Union has announced they will be sending 5,000 troops to put an end to the vicious reign of warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army once and for all.  The AU's action comes on the heels of the most successful viral video ever, the Kony2012 campaign, which brought the attrocities of the LRA to a global audience.  But is the mission to stop Kony coming at the expense of the African Union's peacekeeping mission in Somalia?  Head on over to PolicyMic and check out my latest post to see the rest of the story.
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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Kenya Joins The Big Oil Club

It looks like we can add Kenya to the list of the world's petro-states.

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki made the announcement live Monday on Kenyan TV that a prospect well had struck a reservoir of crude oil in the northwestern part of the country.  The test well was drilled by Tullow Oil Plc, a Britsih company that specializes in oil prospecting and production in Africa.  Previously, Tullow discovered oil in neighboring Uganda, kickstarting the oil industry in that country.

It is still too early to determine the true value of the Kenyan oil reserve, more test wells will first need to be drilled.  But the early indications are positive – the oil drawn from the reserve appears to be of good quality, while Tullow said that the strike went “beyond their expectations”.  Kenyan officials, meanwhile, seemed to be incredibly optimistic during the press conference.  President Kibaki talked about Kenya becoming an oil exporter in three years, while Kenya's Energy Minister Kiraitu Murungi promised that: “we will make sure that the oil in Kenya is a blessing for the people of Kenya and not a curse.”

Murungi was referring there to the “resource curse” - the paradox that often strikes developing countries when a natural resource is discovered: rather than sparking the development of the nation as a whole, the resource often leads to the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few, widespread corruption, and rampant poverty for the masses.  We talked about the resource curse here recently when oil was discovered in the Puntland region of Somalia.

Kenya should be well-positioned to avoid the resource curse though.  The country has reached a fair level of development already and has a democratic government, albeit a somewhat flawed one, two factors that should help to ensure that any future oil revenues are distributed properly among Kenya's citizens.  A few weeks ago Kenya announced the construction of a multi-billion port facility outside the coastal city of Lamu, that will include an oil import/export terminal.  Originally this facility was meant to be at the end of a pipeline running from South Sudan, allowing the South Sudanese to export their oil without sending it north to export facilities in Sudan, since relations between the two nations are generally terrible.  But the facility at Lamu could also be used to export any Kenyan crude to eagerly-awaiting markets in Asia as well.
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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Senegal's Surprise Election Result

One of the nice things in writing about international affairs is that sometimes you get pleasant surprises.

Count the election results out of Senegal as one of those surprises.  Heading into last Sunday's election, Senegal showed signs of following that all-to-familiar African script: an aging strongman leader trying to hold onto power by any means necessary.  But then 85-year old President Abdoulaye Wade made a surprise move, he conceded defeat to his opponent, former Prime Minister Macky Sall, just hours after the polls closed when early results showed that Wade was heading to a solid defeat in the runoff election.

Given the circumstances in the previous few months, this wasn't the expected outcome of Sunday's vote.  At the start of the year, Senegal's most-famous singer, Youssou N'Dour, made a splash when he announced he'd be setting aside his musical career to take on Wade in the upcoming presidential election.  He and Wade had once been incredibly close, but had a falling out several years ago when Wade tried to persuade N'Dour to quash an embarrassing story about Wade's son Karim that was about to be run by a newspaper N'Dour owned.  N'Dour refused, citing his belief in journalistic freedom; the relationship between the two men soured.

It deteriorated further when Wade decided to run for a third term as president, sidestepping a change to Senegal's constitution that limited the president to two terms in office on the grounds that the amendment had been passed after he first took office. Then, on the eve of the election, several opposition candidates, including N'Dour, were barred from the ballot.  All were signs that Wade was trying to turn Senegal's presidency into a vehicle for his continued grip on power, which made Wade's quick concession to Sall all the more surprising.

Sall won by running on a platform that promised an improved quality of life for Senegal's more than 12 million residents by providing increased employment opportunities and cutting taxes on staples like rice.  Wade had become unpopular in Senegal over the perception that he had become out of touch with the problems faced by average Senegalese.  An ill-conceived plan to electrify Senegal's rural areas had left the country suffering from frequent black-outs, which had a negative effect on the economy; meanwhile, Wade spent more than $27 million on a massive statue called “African Renaissance” that looms above the capital, Dakar, from a hillside on the outskirts of the city.

Many Senegalese are hoping that the quick and peaceful democratic transition will serve as a signal to the international community about the stability of Senegal, which remains the only nation in western Africa never to have suffered from a military coup in its 50 years since independence, and will lead to an increase in foreign aid and investment.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Iran, The War, and Everything

Since it is now the Persian New Year (Happy Nowruz), it seemed like a good time to run the infographic below that illustrates how foreign powers nibbled away at the territory of Iran during the 19th and 20th centuries, which might just explain why the Iranians are rather particular about being ordered around by the international community.

 Meanwhile, Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has come to the same conclusion that I did several months ago – that any attack on Iran's nuclear sites will only drive Iran towards building a nuclear bomb, rather than dissuading them from it.  I am almost certain that such a decision will surely be taken after (any) strikes on Iran,”  Lavrov said Tuesday on Moscow's Kommersant FM radio, where he also claimed that the CIA and other American officials have admitted to not having any hard evidence of any political decisions on the part of Iran's leadership to actually authorize a nuclear weapons program.  Lavrov also repeated assessments made by military analysts in the West that have concluded airstrikes against Iranian facilities could slow any research program, but would not destroy it as the Israelis did with Iraq's nuclear program, which was effectively ended by an Israeli airstrike in 1981.

But energy industry analysts are becoming more convinced that a conflict with Iran is in fact imminent, based in part on an executive order signed on Friday by President Obama that, among other things, orders executive departments and agencies responsible for plans and programs relating to national defense to “be prepared, in the event of a potential threat to the security of the United States, to take actions necessary to ensure the availability of adequate resources and production capability, including services and critical technology for national defense requirements.”  Get that? Analysts say that the order effectively would, in a time of national emergency, give the President effective control over the country's natural resources.  And the only national emergency the analysts see on the horizon is a potential conflict with Iran.  The White House tried to downplay the impact of the executive order on Monday, saying that it was similar to executive orders signed by several other presidents in the past and should not be taken as a sign of an impending war.

The New York Times meanwhile, is reporting that the Iranian conflict could prove to be quite costly for America.  A leaked war game scenario carried out by the Pentagon earlier in the month projected up to 200 American casualties after a US warship was attacked by Iranian forces in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes against their nuclear research facilities.  This attack then draws the United States into a large-scale conflict with Iran.  Pentagon officials stressed that this was one of a number of possible outcomes, but admitted that an Israeli attack would spark off a series of reactions that were both “unpredictable and uncontrollable”.

My prediction is that if the Israelis launch their oft-threatened airstrike, it will be before our November presidential elections.  The clock keeps ticking...
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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Could Khodorkovsky Be Freed?

Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks that pardoning jailed Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky is a good idea. 

Four days ago, the human rights council appointed by Russia's soon-to-be-ex President Dmitry Medvedev recommended that the President pardon Khodorkovsky before turning the office over to Vladimir Putin; I made the same case recently in an op-ed over at PolicyMic that freeing Khodorkovsky would not only be the right thing to do, but would also assure more of a legacy for Medvedev than simply being remembered as Putin's temporary seat-filler.

Khodorkovsky was once Russia's richest man and the head of one of Russia's most-powerful corporations, the oil conglomerate Yukos.  But Khodorkovsky broke an unspoken agreement between Putin and the oligarch class with his donations to a political party in Siberia.  The full legal force of the State was soon brought down on Khodorkovsky, who in 2003 was charged and eventually jailed for tax evasion.  In late 2010, Khodorkovsky was charged again on largely the same evidence and years were tacked on to his sentence, time enough to keep him in jail through the presidential elections held earlier this March.

Khodorkovsky's supporters have long contended that the tax evasion charges were a personal vendetta on the part of Vladimir Putin, arguing that if this was the legal standard, then all of Russia's oligarchs should be jailed.  Even though Medvedev has the power to pardon Khodorkovsky, his supporters are not optimistic.  For one, it seems that in order to get the pardon, Khodorkovsky would have to admit his guilt, something Khodorkovsky refuses to do since he contends he's not guilty of anything.  An admission of guilt is not necessary for a pardon under Russian law, a point ruled on several times by Russia's Supreme Court, though there is a belief that Medvedev would insist on one in order to give Khodorkovsky his pardon. 

This could also simply be an excuse for Medvedev not to exercise his pardon power.  Khodorkovsky's backers further believe that ultimately the decision on whether or not to pardon Khodorkovsky will come from Putin, not Medvedev.  Putin and Khodorkovsky have an active dislike of each other.  In the past Putin has dismissed claims that Khodorkovsky's prosecution was politically-motivated and has insisted that “thieves should sit in jail,” for his part, Khodorkovsky has issued a series of letters from his prison cell in Russia's remote Far East condemning the Putin presidency for failing to fight corruption and for concentrating political power within the Kremlin.    
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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Pussy Riot Arrests

Last month we brought you the story of Pussy Riot – the feminist punk rock band who have been causing a stir in their native Russia over the past few months with their politically-charged lyrics and public protest performances – unfortunately, the band seems to have finally pushed officials a little too far.  The Guardian is reporting that six members of the band were arrested last Saturday, with two members remaining in custody.

The arrests are blatantly political in nature, and stem from a performance given a few weeks earlier; that the arrests happened the day before Vladimir Putin reclaimed the presidency of Russia is not mere coincidence, the two members still in custody, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhin, reportedly were told that the case against them came “from the highest levels.”  The charges faced by Pussy Riot are quite serious, unlike the 15-day detentions often passed out to troublesome critics of the Kremlin.

The charges stem from an impromptu performance in February at Moscow's iconic Christ the Savior cathedral, where members of Pussy Riot rushed to the altar and performed what they call a “punk prayer” imploring the Virgin Mary to free Russia from Vladimir Putin. Russian officials were not amused, and are leveling serious charges at Pussy Riot's members saying in an official statement that they are investigating the case as a crime “involving a gross violation of public order, including inciting religious hatred as part of a planned conspiracy,” punishable by up to seven years in prison.

Interestingly, in the comments section of The Guardian piece there was a note about an article in Russia's Novaya Gazeta written by an Orthodox priest who compared the Pussy Riot performance to the acts of an iurodiviy, or a kind of “holy fool” noted in Russian history who says outrageous things as a way of speaking truth to power. In their official statement about the arrests, Pussy Riot notes that: “our patriarch [head of the Russian Orthodox church] is not ashamed of wearing watches worth $40,000, which is intolerable when so many families in Russia are on the edge of poverty.” 

The arrests of Pussy Riot, along with dozens of other arrests at the small protests that sprang up in Moscow as the results of last Sunday's election were announced, send a signal that the new Putin administration is growing tired of the public protests and is looking to clamp down on displays of opposition to his rule.  We'll keep following the developments here.    
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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Somalia's Latest Problem: The Resource Curse

It is looking like Somalia may have another problem to soon deal with: the resource curse.

The first oil from a new well drilled in northern Somalia could flow to the surface just weeks from now.  As is typically the case when a new national resource is discovered in an under-developed nation, the new oil patch is being described as the cure for Somalia's ills – a domestic source of income that will promote stability and development for the nation that will bring the Somalia diaspora home.  The reality is much more problematic.

While Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has signed deals for oil exploration, the oil field is actually located in the northern part of the country in Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia that has little to do with the TFG.  To further complicate matters, the TFG's mandate runs out in August (it is suppose to be a “transitional” government after all), so what will happen to their authority to enter into contracts such as this is a question.  And the presence of foreigners looking for wealth in their land has drawn the attention of Somalia's Islamist militants.  A little-known Islamist militia, which according to The Guardian is led by the ridiculously named Shiekh Atom, has pledged loyalty to Somalia's top terror group, al-Shabaab and has declared all oil contracts signed in Puntland to be null and void.

Some Somalis are also skeptical about the potential for oil to save their country.  It is a promise that seldom works out as well as promised, especially in Africa.  One only has to look at oil-producing countries like Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria, where the quality of life for the population in the oil-producing regions has actually gotten worse since the discovery of oil, for evidence of this trend.  A number of Somalis cited in articles about Puntland's oil are skeptical of the alleged windfall coming to their nation and worry that most of the wealth will wind up in the hands of foreign companies.

There also seems to be a little confusion over what's actually being drilled in Puntland in the first place.  When a potential new oil or gas reserve is discovered, it is practice to first drill a test well to analyze the quality and commercial viability of the field.  Yet in a conference on Somalia last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that not only was the first oil expected to flow from the Puntland well in the coming weeks, but that pipelines had also already been laid to the coast so that the oil could be exported – construction of a pipeline typically doesn't occur until you know you have a viable field on your hands, otherwise it is a lost investment.

The oil news out of Puntland also puts this story from December 2010 in greater context.  The government of Puntland had announced the signing of a deal with a shadowy private security firm; the deal was allegedly to fight pirates along the Somali coast, yet security efforts were focused inland.  The suggestion at the time was that firm's real purpose was to protect foreign workers who were prospecting for natural gas reserves in Puntland's interior.  
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Monday, March 5, 2012

Electile Dysfunction

The outcome of Sunday's presidential election in Russia was never really in doubt, it was a given that, despite the rash of street protests against him that have marked the past few months, Vladimir Putin would once again be the President of Russia.  The only real open questions were what would be his margin of victory and would the vote be fair.

It seems like the answers to those questions are “too much” and “no”.  According to reports this morning, Putin received roughly 65% of the votes cast – the ballot-counting is not yet complete, but this is being taken as the official margin of victory.  If this 65% figure holds, then Putin wildly outperformed the pre-election polls, which at one point had him in the mid-40s, before moving back above the 50% threshold (where he'd avoid the need for a second-round run-off vote) in the weeks just before the election.  This plays into the story coming from Russian groups like GOLOS and election monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), who are both talking about widespread reports of “carousel voting” - where one group of “voters” are transported from polling station to polling station, casting votes for Putin at each.  OSCE also slammed the Russian election for not being open to opposition parties beyond the small Kremlin-approved group allowed on the ballot.

The reply out of the Kremlin was predictable; the claims of voter fraud were dismissed as fabrications as they always are.  For his part, Putin talked of the “great victory” he had won for Russia against some vaguely defined opposition force, though the implication was that foreign powers were trying to install some sort of puppet government to control Russia.  It's worth noting here that Putin has repeatedly tried to dismiss the large-scale public protests sparked by Russia's last rigged election this past December as being orchestrated by shadowy “foreign powers”.

Meanwhile, Iran also held elections last Friday for their parliament.  By this morning, the votes had largely been counted and were showing a big victory for the faction controlled by Ayatollah Khamenei over the faction controlled by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  It is now widely expected that Khamenei will use his expanded base of power to try to effectively sideline the populist Ahmadinejad, or perhaps to simply amend Iran's constitution to eliminate the position of president entirely and get rid of the troublesome Ahmadinejad all-together.

Of course, the Iranian election has its flaws as well.  Opposition parties were largely absent from the ballot, making the vote really a choice between the hardliners and the even-more-hardline hardliners.  It was the widespread belief that there had been voter fraud in Iran's last parliamentary elections in 2009 that sparked the “Green Movement”, which for a brief period of time, looked like it might lead to large-scale reform in Iran.  Not wanting a possible repeat, most opposition/reformist parties were simply banned from the ballot in advance of last Friday's vote.  Opposition groups then called for a boycott of the vote, which set the stage for a Khamenei vs. Ahmadinejad battle at the ballot box.

It is too early yet to tell what impact the result of last Friday's vote might have on the ongoing standoff between Iran and the US/Israel over Iran's nuclear program, nor can we tell yet what will be the fallout from the apparently fixed elections in Russia, two factors that should make the next few weeks very interesting.   
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Friday, March 2, 2012

Kenya's Big Port Gamble

Amid much fanfare and in the presence of international dignitaries, Kenya broke ground today on a major port complex that, if successful, could propel the country into the ranks of “developed” nations and serve as a catalyst for regional stability.  Or it could also turn into a multi-billion dollar boondoggle for the East African nation....

The port complex near the town of Lamu on the Indian Ocean coastline in southern Kenya will be the country's largest-ever infrastructure project, with initial construction costs budgeted at a whopping $24.5 billion.  It will include berths for 32 ocean-going ships along with an oil export facility.  But the port will not just be for Kenya's benefit – a new railway, super-highway and oil pipeline will link Lamu to Ethiopia and South Sudan as well.

This last link is especially important.  When South Sudan left Sudan last summer, they took with them the bulk of Sudan's oil reserves.  The South Sudanese economy is almost totally reliant on oil sales for revenue, but all of the existing infrastructure links South Sudan's oil fields with refineries and export terminals in Sudan.  When South Sudan embargoed shipments of oil north to Sudan over a payment dispute earlier this year, there was some fear that the dispute could reignite fighting between the two sides – South Sudan previously fought a decades-long war for independence against the Khartoum-based government in the north.

For South Sudan Lamu represents nothing short of an economic lifeline, a way to export their only commodity while avoiding the bottleneck in Sudan.  South Sudan's President Salva Kiir was on hand for the official groundbreaking along with his counterpart, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi – Ethiopia lost their own Red Sea coastline following the independence of the region of Eritrea in 1993.  For their part, Kenya is banking on Lamu to help to move them towards their goal of being considered a developed nation by 2030.

There are, however, some problems with the Lamu project.  It is a huge expense for Kenya to undertake right now, despite the potential it provides for future economic growth; those projections though are speculative, Kenya is assuming that Lamu will become a transportation hub in the decades to come, something that is far from a sure bet.  Pristine mangrove forests and coral reefs are being destroyed so that the port facilities can be constructed, leaving environmentalists to worry about the long-term impacts the project will have on the local ecosystem.  And according to the BBC World Service, the indigenous Lamu people opposed the project as an unnecessary seizure of their historic lands.  The Lamu have also said that they have not been adequately compensated for their losses because land in their society was traditionally handed down through extended families by custom and without official land deeds, meaning official ownership of much of the land was difficult, if not impossible, to prove.

But the Lamu port project is moving forward, whether it becomes the catalyst for regional development and stability that leaders promised at the groundbreaking remains to be seen.
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Russia's New Era Of Stagnation

Russians will be going to the polls on Sunday to return Vladimir Putin to the presidency.  Despite the mass public protests that have filled the snowy streets of Russia's major cities, the fact that Putin will once again be elected president isn't in doubt, though two outstanding questions: whether he'll avoid a run-off by getting 50% of the vote and whether or not that vote will be fair in the first place, remain.

Over at PolicyMic today, I take a look at the upcoming election, and how Putin's return could lead to a period of economic and social stagnation in Russia not seen since the 1970s.  Surf on over and give it a read.
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