News From Nowhere

June 21, 2010

Well, not quite. But it might as well be. Some things happening in Africa that you might have missed.

According to the New York Times, children as young as 12 have been receiving military training from U.S. army personnel in Uganda, before joining the fight between the Somali government and islamist guerrilla groups. Human rights campaigners based in Mogadishu estimate that there are between 1-2,000 child soldiers on the Somali government payroll, with thousands more fighting against the state, or for local warlords. The Times also reports the words of recently resigned Somali defence minister Sheik Yusuf Mohamed Siad, who said that he had “lost hope” adding “ll this international training, it’s just training soldiers for the Shabab.”

This has caused some problems for the Somali government, which after all is heavily dependent upon assistance from the U.S. (which put it into power in the first place). President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed has announced that any child soldiers will be swiftly demobilized, causing human rights campaigners to rejoice, yet as the AP reports, Ahmed immediately “asked the international community to provide his cash-strapped government with the resources it needs to deal with about 100,000 armed militiamen of all ages in the country.”

In the wake of the Somali allegations, and as part of a broader push to combat child soldiers, the UN Security Council may be about to put in place a system of ongoing sanctions against “persistent perpetrators, as IPS reports. Any moves would target non-state actors, however, holding out the threat of “naming and shaming” if such groups seek international legitimacy. But the Somali government would not be covered, even if Shabab was (and sought such legitimacy). Successes in programs using such methods include Nepali Maoists, yet it is hard to expect Somalia or the DRC working as well, unless Shabab or groups like it actually come to power, as have the Maoists.

Children are suffering from recruitment into armed forces, but millions more are at risk from starvation in West Africa where the rains and harvests have failed – sending food prices spiralling. Poor families are slaughtering cows and taking crisis measures in the form of forage foods, while markets remain stocked with food. As Oxfam’s Caroline Gluck puts it,”When you walk through the markets, you can see that there is food here. The problem is that the ability to buy it has disappeared.” Oxfam are preparing for a deeper crisis. As Gluck puts it, “This is just the beginning of the traditional hunger period, and people have already been forced to sell their livestock. This is very early for the alarm bells to be ringing, before Niger has even reached the start of the most critical part of the food calendar.”

The food crisis in West Africa comes as farmers across the temperate zones of the world report bumper harvests after warm spring weather and handy early summer rains. Such production levels have economists and farmers in the developed world fretting over price collapses caused by overproduction, as ten million people face possible starvation a few thousand miles away.

There may be no hand outs of American corn to the starving of Niger – at least not now, when a crisis can be averted. But there may be local solutions available, unlike in 2005, when thousands died and grain was exported from the west African nation, a situation provoked by foreign donors and “free market principles” according to Jeevan Vaskar. Vaskar notes that warning systems and supports have since been trialled in Niger, but whether they will avert disaster this time around depends on the next few months. As Oxfam’s Gluck puts it, while the nation’s (military) government has made an appeal for assistance, “donors have been slow to respond and organisations like Oxfam are struggling to fund programmes to deal with the widening crisis.”

Attracting the attention of donors in a downturn is tough, as those charged with fighting measles in east Africa are finding. According to UNICEF, over 700 children have died in an outbreak of the disease across 14 of the region’s countries, putting “recent gains in reducing mortality due to this highly contagious disease at risk of being reversed.” The problem is simple. Earlier efforts to immunise those at risk had reached 92 percent coverage by 2008, according to the WHO. But these programs have not been followed up. As the WHO’s regional director for Africa, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo puts it, “countries must continue follow-up vaccination campaigns every two to four years until their health-care systems can routinely provide two doses of measles vaccination to all children and provide treatment for the disease.” There is a deadly funding gap between the cost of those services and what is currently possible.

There is also a massive gap between the ideals of democracy and the standards observed by the Rwandan government at the moment. After charging opposition leader Victoire Ingabire with propagating “genocide ideology” the government of U.S. ally Paul Kagame, then had his American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, arrested on May 28th – only releasing him this week after weeks of what the lawyer has described as mistreatment by prison officials. Although he has been released on medical grounds, apparently the Rwandan state continues its investigations into what seem to be preposterous, and chilling charges. Erlinder’s offence, besides assisting one of Kagame’s political opponents, has been to charge (both legally and in public speeches) that the current Rwandan leader was a prime cause of the 1994 genocide. Specifically, Erlinder submitted a lawsuit earlier this year accusing Kagame (a Tutsi) of ordering the execution of both the (Hutu) Rwandan president and his Burundian counterpart. Beyond that, he has maintained the apparently impermissible position that the genocide was multi-faceted and not purely a case of Hutu’s vicitimising Tutsis (as indeed it wasn’t).

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