October 29, 2012
By Shiv Sethi
Oct 29 : On the ongoing military intervention in Mali
Aug 16 : A note on the current situation in Syria
Jul 26 : Egypt’s presidential election
May 27: Fukushima and nuclear energy
May 9: On the conviction of Charles Taylor
Mar 16: The Campaign against Kony
Mar 8: Reforms in China
Mar 1: Who works hardest in Europe?
Jan 29: Update on the Greece Crisis
Jan 15: Strike against rise in fuel prices continues in Nigeria
Jan 14: Haiti’s plight
Jan 12: NAFTA and migration from Mexico
Jan 9: Exposure to small level of radiation
Jan 2: Nigeria ends fuel ’subsidies’
On the ongoing military intervention in Mali
The UN security council passed a resolution on October 12, 2012 to pave the way for an armed intervention in North Mali. Under the resolution, which was passed unanimously, the Malian government, the UN, and ECOWAS will have the mandate to send forces to North Mali. Needless to say, Western governments will ‘do their bit’ to civilize those brutes in Africa. France is already planning to send drones to the region; the EU and and the US are also sending military advisers.
As with most news coverage by imperial propaganda outlets, the most important is often left unsaid. First, this is the second time in less than two years that China and Russia have yielded to Western pressure in the UN security council (Libya was first). Even though they draw a line when it comes to Syria, they allow intervention in Africa. It gives us a brief glimpse of the geo-politics of the region.
Second, the conflict in Mali should be seen as a continuation of the war in Libya and could be partly foreseen. As black immigrants from neighbouring countries were dubbed mercenaries and attacked by the NATO-backed forces in Libya, they fled Libya en masse. In particular, Libya was the main backer of Tuareg people and the main negotiator between them and other countries in the region. Tuareg people came under brutal assault in Libya by NATO and their overtly racist allies. Tawargha, a town of 30000 people close to Misrata, was completely emptied of its residents; even the UN was forced to call it a war crime. Another Tuareg town Ghamdames was reduced to a ghost town. Tuareg along with other remnants of Gaddafi’s army fled in all directions. Algeria absorbed some refugees. There were skirmishes in Niger as Western countries put pressure on it to tackle the military convoys of the fleeing army. But the main blow fell in Mali.
Malian government forces, backed by (who else?) the US, tried to take on the militarized units of these forces. But they were quickly overrun and fled their posts. Large swathes of North Mali, including the historic city of Timbuktu, came under the control of Tuareg rebels This precipitated a coup in Mali. It is far from clear what the coup leaders stood for, even though it was widely reported that they toppled the government for its inability to take on the Tuareg in North Mali. The coup was criticized by regional African powers and Western countries. After much wrangling, a unity government was formed on August 20, which paved the way for consolidation of forces to attack North Mali. It should be noted that in this narrative no one wished to open negotiations with Tuareg rebels. Such one-sided narratives are in line with much-touted Western view of trigger-happy Africans full of neanderthalic instincts eagerly waiting for the next conflict. And they are often false. We might have to wait for a while before we know a more balanced version of the story.
Finally, Western media often dub all its enemies in the Muslim countries as al Qaeda or sympathizers of al Qaeda (e.g. the Guardian article). Now Tuareg had nothing to do with any kind of organization that could remotely be seen as a proxy for al Qaeda. So the new bogey organization is called Al Qadea in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This organization ostensibly wants to impose Islam in the entire region, but no one knows what its size and support base is. AQIM was widely reported to be responsible for destroying ancient monuments in Timbuktu (this also means that they have some alliance with Tuareg). And the Western media cited such ‘medieval tendencies’ as one reason to intervene in Mali.
All the pieces needed to launch an attack on North Mali seem to be in place: ECOWAS forces ready to attack, Western alliance committed to providing logistic support and high tech military hardware, pliant Malian government willing to risk a long term conflict, the UN resolution, and the presence of ‘al Qaeda’. It is also clear this conflict could have repercussions across the region. Niger and parts of Algeria have Tuareg population. The only way it might be averted will be if countries such as Algeria, a powerful region state and with much at stake, could broker a deal.
A note on the current situation in Syria
Now that the so-called international media (across its spectrum from hard right to liberal left: e.g. BBC, NYT, Le Monde Diplomatique to Democracy Now and Znet) is poised to use past tense for Assad’s regime in Syria, many questions about the uprising in Syria remain unanswered.
No one seriously denies that the full scale insurgency in Syria has direct support from many Western countries apart from Turkey, Qatar, and S. Arabia. These countries have already admitted that they have funded the insurgency in many different ways (it is always interesting to read these press releases. In almost all cases, the press release refers to an event in the past, e.g. a recent US statement that they had funded insurgency for the past 5 months).
But how did the insurgency start? Did it really start as peaceful protests and then either owing to foreign intervention or violent response of the Assad regime turned into an ever growing armed insurgency? Was Syria a continuation of Arab Spring (a la Egypt, Tunisia), NATO-backed mauling of Libya, or continuing insurgency fed by past conditions blending into the spirit of Arab spring (Yemen)?
17 months after the beginning of the insurgency we might be in a position to address some of these questions. Syrian situation certainly cannot be equated to Yemen because Syria was most certainly a stable state. This allows us to delve further into this issue.
A look at similar cases from across the world in the recent times can help us decipher the case of Syria. Many regimes in Latin America were practically toppled by popular revolts: Bolivia (2003 paving way for Morales to win presidency), Argentina (in 2001 following its monetary collapse), Venzuela (reinstatement of Chavez in 48 hours). However, in all cases the event was preceded by up to a decade of economic decline and political uncertainty. In fact, in more ways than one these were second revolts not first. The first popular resentment started against military regimes in the region occurred in 1980s and culminated in multi-party elections.
Syria, on the other hand, does not fall in this category. It has been politically stable for a long time and has not seen anything akin to sharp economic uncertainty/decline. Syria is a quintessential capitalist economy with its structures of clientism made even more obvious by turn to neoliberalism (e.g. Assad’s relatives getting telephone companies from the state for next to nothing). Syria still has a large government (oil revenues help in that respect) and has a substantial state-run industrial sector. One doesn’t have to look further than critical reports of World Bank which bemoan the ‘inefficiency’ of the state run economy in Syria to get a sense of slow, steady, definite, but sometimes reluctant turn to neoliberalism. But it is also abundantly clear that Syria is not yet a harsh neoliberal state as Egypt and Tunisia, which were portrayed as the poster boys of Washington consensus by international bodies like the IMF. Syria, for a more meaningful comparison, is more like Saddam’s Iraq: rooted in Arab nationalism of Baathist principles, broadly secular, mildly ‘socialist’ (in sofar as this can be captured by the extent of state-run economy), etc., but essentially capitalist run not by an ‘independent’ private sector but by a complicated set of arrangements put in place by the ruling elite to primarily benefit a few allied to them. It does not have much in common with most Latin American countries (1980-1990s) which were practically run by a comparador elite, and paid the price with recurrent debt crises, very high inflation, destruction of entire economic sectors, and wild fluctuations in the living standards of not just working classes but even broad sections of the middle classes.
First, this means that appellation ‘authoritarian’ to describe such a regime is highly limiting if not downright wrong. (It continues to be used by even some of the most astute observers of the crisis. In fact characterizations like ‘autocracy’, ‘authoritarian’, ‘dictatorship’ should be used with care because all regimes attempt to form alliances with different sections of the society even when they are run by a very tiny elite. The classical Leftist model uncritically employed by some, in particular the leftist academics in Europe and the US, has rather limited validity. Working classes, even when they are brutally oppressed, have limited means to revolt unless they are organized. There is no evidence to suggest this section is even taking part in the uprising against the Syrian regime. And the reasons are not hard to find. An important part of Leftist discourse on working class revolutions in post-colonial societies was and still is national sovereignty. It was formulated by many including Lenin in the early part of 20th century. The left of European academic pedigree has tended to undermine this aspect (not surprisingly they have also tended to undermine the impact of colonialism in such societies or in imperial countries). However the working people of post-colonial countries live with conditions imposed by imperial countries and can hardly ever overlook it. After 2003, nearly a million refugees crossed from Iraq into Syria. So people in Syria did not have to look at other data to realize what was happening in Iraq.
Nationalist elite (e.g Assad, Nehru) have often exploited this aspect of post-colonial societies to fulfill their more narrow agenda. But for working classes of these countries it is never an easy choice to make if their revolt comes to be supported by imperial countries. They know well that in such cases they might lose even if they win. Imperial powers will play on every single fissure in the society (ethnic, religious, cultural) to ensure that working class organization is shred to pieces and only a loosely knit comparador class is allowed to rule. This also points to a fundamental difference between uprisings in Egypt/Tunisia on the one hand and Libya/Syria on the other. The former revolts were also explicitly anti-imperialist and hence got the nod of a much wider section of the society.
After 17 months, the broad contour of Syrian revolt are showing pattern very similar to Libya:
1. Imperial countries are supporting the revolt even though they haven’t intervened yet. This was already strongly indicated a long time ago because who but the US can get Turkey, S Arabia, Qatar, etc under one political umbrella to support Syrian rebels.
2. Working classes might have their aspirations to overthrow the Assad regime but they have kept away. Most certainly, no organized working class section is involved in the revolt or we would know about it.
3. The revolt, as always suspected, is being led by armed groups funded by outsiders. There are a number of reports of fighters from other countries taking part. At least in part it is a result of grievances of a section of the ruling elite (some living in the US and France) who have got a go-ahead from imperial powers and their local allies in the region with direct material support. This scenario is highly reminiscent of Libya.
4. It is a part of global geopolitical outlook of imperial powers. As Chomsky has emphasized, often using declassified statements of higher officials in the US and data from across the world, the real enemy of imperial elite is not just the Left but even those who seek broad national sovereignty or support similar movements. Syria took that turn a while ago. It should be recalled that Syria was not so hated in Western capitals barely 10 years ago. When Syria militarily intervened in Lebanon, the US helped broker a deal for them to stay in Lebanon in 1990s. Syria had played a somewhat dubious role in Palestinian conflict though the last decades of 20th century. Also, as many have noted, Syria practically wrote off Golan heights to Israel since early 1980s. Not a long time ago Syria was holding talks with Israel, being mediated by Turkey.
Things began to change since early 2000 and more sharply after 2005. First, Syria allowed Palestinian groups to use Damascus as their headquarter (Hamas was one of those groups), Second, its direct support to Hezbollah irked Israel who were forced to cede territory in Lebanon in 2000, largely owing to efforts of Hezbollah. Third, and probably most importantly, its alliance with Iran came to be highlighted when Iran was dubbed a member of the ‘axis of evil’ by Bush. Forth, Hariri assassination in Lebanon was used by the US to force Syria to leave Lebanon in 2005 (Israel conveniently attacked it the next year). That probably was the turning point for Syria. Ever since 2005, Syria has been under intense pressure over either its role in Lebanon or its association with Iran. Or the lines were drawn years before the onset of Arab spring.
Arab spring might have been seen as an opportunity for the working people to vent their very genuine grievances in Tunisia and Egypt. But in Libya and Syria, it was a chance for a section of the ruling elite to topple existing regimes. Western powers, after weighing their options, intervened in Libya and are providing support to insurgents in Syria. Libyan sovereignty has already been destroyed and Syria seems to be headed that way.
Egypt’s presidential election
Analyzing the outcome of Egypt’s presidential elections, Samir Amin thinks that the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate is a victory for ‘political Islam’. The victory will deepen neoliberalism and ‘lumpen development’.
It is worthwhile to look at events of the past few weeks to understand who has won. The supreme court dismantled the parliament before the elections and the ruling military alliance gave itself almost all executive powers on the day of the election. This basically means the president enters his new office with no real powers. There is no parliament, no constitution, and no official body to write a constitution. The military alliance has promised to form a committee to write the constitution but president will have no say in the matter. In fact, some members of the ruling alliance have called him an ‘interim president’.
A few months ago, the military council disqualified the chosen candidate of MB, al-Shatir (a rich businessman with strong neoliberal tendencies). Morsi, no different from al-Shatir in economic outlook, already owes his present position to the military council.
Then there was the little drama before the results were announced. Both candidates claimed victory after the voting and the military council patiently waited while anger against them rose as one of the candidate was clearly fielded by them. As this anger reached its crescendo in Tahrir square, a judge, after paying tribute to the democratic process, announced the result in the favour of the MB candidate. The head of the military council congratulated Morsi. Tahrir square celebrated. This provides a classical example of how the electoral process can act to release steam of popular resentment, without offering anything tangible.
According to Amin:
“The Muslim Brotherhood — which is part of the power system — should not be considered merely as an “Islamic party,” but first and foremost as an ultra reactionary party that is, moreover, Islamist. Reactionary not only concerning what are known as “social issues” (the veil, sharia, anti-Coptic discrimination), but also, and to the same degree, reactionary in the fundamental areas of economic and social life: the Brotherhood is against strikes, workers’ demands, independent workers’ unions, the movement of resistance against the expropriation of farmers, etc.”
To him the recent victory of MB serves to “to reinforce the alliance of the two pillars of the system — the army high command and the Muslim Brotherhood”
I think he goes too far in claiming this is ‘an alliance’. It is more a minor concession to a potential stakeholder in political power. Also this sets the stage to play MB against popular seething anger in Egypt. In my view, these two ‘pillar’ might ally on economic issues, which already indicates a dismal failure of the movement unleashed on Tahrir square. However, MB is likely not a monolithic organization as Amin claims. Its youth wing, in particularly, might go against their elders even on economic issues.
One issue on which military elite and MB elite might differ is Egypt’s policy towards Israel; this issue might also highlight differences within MB folds. It cannot be overlooked that a lot of Western aid, loans, and investment in Egypt is predicated on Egypt’s relation with Israel. Military and business elite of Egypt are hooked into this system that connects them to Western imperial policies in their own country and in the region. It might not be too easy for MB to seamlessly join this system, as Amin claims. Even if MB’s top leadership seek to do it, citing political and economic exigency, the lower levels of the leadership and the rank and file of the movement, who have honed their political acumen on stridently anti-Israel outlook, might stand against it.
Israel openly supported Mubarak during the uprising. And the election of a MB candidate to the position of the president could not possibly have satisfied them. The western powers will have to play the fine balancing act of retaining political control in Egypt and serving Israel’s interests. There already have been minor skirmishes on Egypt-Israel border.
MB elders have moved to defang Hamas. One of Hamas top leader now lives in Qatar and the other in Egypt. However, Israel’s policy towards Hamas has shown no change and it cannot change. They are likely to use the weakness of Hamas to strike against their leaders. Under these conditions, it is a given that MB leadership in Egypt will sooner or later have to take a call on Egypt’s politcal relations with Israel.
Fukushima and nuclear energy
Global Research has put together a set of videos and articles since Fukushima disaster as an online I-book. It is becoming increasingly evident that Fukushima tragedy has not yet run its course. In particular, there is recent focus on the spent fuel rods in reactor 4, which was badly damaged, and its possible implications. There was an explosion at this reactor and there were speculations on the amount of spent fuel in it (e.g. I had included some of these references in my article). Now the data are becoming available from important establishment sources in Japan and the US government, eg. in this article that appeared in Global Research.
Here is the picture in the words of Robert Alvarez, former Senior Policy Adviser to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Energy (quoted from the article above):
“In recent times, more information about the spent fuel situation at the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site has become known. It is my understanding that of the 1,532 spent fuel assemblies in reactor No. 304 assemblies are fresh and unirradiated. This then leaves 1,231 irradiated spent fuel rods in pool No. 4, which contain roughly 37 million curies (~1.4E+18 Becquerel) of long-lived radioactivity. The No. 4 pool is about 100 feet above ground, is structurally damaged and is exposed to the open elements. If an earthquake or other event were to cause this pool to drain this could result in a catastrophic radiological fire involving nearly 10 times the amount of Cs-137 released by the Chernobyl accident.
The infrastructure to safely remove this material was destroyed as it was at the other three reactors. Spent reactor fuel cannot be simply lifted into the air by a crane as if it were routine cargo. In order to prevent severe radiation exposures, fires and possible explosions, it must be transferred at all times in water and heavily shielded structures into dry casks.. As this has never been done before, the removal of the spent fuel from the pools at the damaged Fukushima-Dai-Ichi reactors will require a major and time-consuming re-construction effort and will be charting in unknown waters. Despite the enormous destruction cased at the Daâ€“Ichi site, dry casks holding a smaller amount of spent fuel appear to be unscathed.
Based on U.S. Energy Department data, assuming a total of 11,138 spent fuel assemblies are being stored at the Dai-Ichi site, nearly all, which is in pools. They contain roughly 336 million curies (~1.2 E+19 Bq) of long-lived radioactivity. About 134 million curies is Cesium-137 â€” roughly 85 times the amount of Cs-137 released at the Chernobyl accident as estimated by the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP). The total spent reactor fuel inventory at the Fukushima-Daichi site contains nearly half of the total amount of Cs-137 estimated by the NCRP to have been released by all atmospheric nuclear weapons testing, Chernobyl, and world-wide reprocessing plants (~270 million curies or ~9.9 E+18 Becquerel).
It is important for the public to understand that reactors that have been operating for decades, such as those at the Fukushima-Dai-Ichi site have generated some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet.”
It is frightening reading. Pool 4 alone contains over 10 times the radioactivity released during Chernobyl disaster. Reactor 4 is badly damaged and no technologies exist to remove spent rods from reactor on a short time scale. Another level 7 earthquake (not uncommon in those parts) could easily completely destroy whatever remains of the containment structure, releasing all this radioactivity into the air. As Japanese high official openly concede this would result in evacuation of large parts of Japan including Tokyo.
To put it simply, nuclear reactors are ticking nuclear bombs waiting to explode. And the bomb becomes more dangerous the longer the reactor lasts.
It appears to me that Fukushima disaster has created great awareness (I am a thankful beneficiary) about the nature of nuclear energy which was hidden or deliberately obfuscated for decades. I always thought nuclear safety was only about disposing off long half life isotopes like Plutonium. I did not know that much bigger safety issues related to short half life byproducts of energy creation, which are stored on the sites of nuclear reactors for decades.
For decades scientists have sought to solve this problem by completing the fuel cycle inside the reactor and fast breeder reactors are based on this concept. However, most countries have dismantled these reactors and quashed plans to build more such reactors (India being an exception that continues to pursue it). So there is no easy technological fix to this problem, which underlies the very concept of nuclear safety.
On the conviction of Charles Taylor
After a five year trial, Ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor was convicted by a UN-backed court in the Hague for ‘aiding and abetting crimes’ during the Sierra Leone civil war in 1990s. This is the first time an ex-head of state has been convicted by an international court for ‘crimes against humanity’ since such trials were established at Nuremburg after WWII.
Even though the international media has highlighted (and celebrated) the court’s decision, the most important issues have either remained subscripts or are totally missing. First, Charles Taylor has actually been acquitted of the most serious charges against him. The court could not prove that the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone during 1990s were ordered by him. The headlines could well be ‘Charles Taylor found not guilty of direct involvement in Sierra Leone civil war’. Second, he was no dictator at the time of his arrest in 2003. He was the elected president of Liberia with over 70% of the vote in an election in 1997, considered free and fair by regional and international bodies. Even the BBC admits he continues to enjoy strong support in Liberia and his conviction could lead to unrest in Liberia.
Interestingly, such courts have rarely been able to prove anything and end up handing out sentences based on crimes of ‘aiding and abetting’. This has been true of International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that failed to prove charges of planning and carrying out genocide against any of the Hutu political and military leaders. This was also true of the trial of Milosevic in the Hague. One might think, as the so-called international media is apt to assume, that the lack of such direct evidence is no proof of innocence but facts are not only very different from the one presented by mainstream media/diplomats/academics, they are far more complex. Civil wars are complicated beasts and the war in Sierra Leone was no exception.
The main charge against Taylor relates to his direct support of Revolutionary United Front (RUF). RUF waged a civil war in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Many leaders of RUF were arrested after the civil war and were accused of crimes ranging from amputation of limbs of civilians, diamond laundering, to using child soldiers. The main leader of RUF Sankoh died in captivity in 2003 and some of the other leaders have already been convicted by an international court. In many ways, the conviction of Taylor is a culmination of this long term process.
A good website to get a brief summary of important events during 1990s, interspersed with proclamations of RUF, is: http://www.sierra-leone.org/AFRC-RUF/
RUF was no Marxist revolutionary outfit. Its main selling points and aspirations were overtly nationalist. It claimed to be fighting against state corruption and kleptocracy which had prevented the country from realizing its full potential after de-colonization in 1960s (sounds familiar!). Economic policies based on the ‘plantation model’ and sale of important resources such as diamonds and bauxite was inherently limiting in the view of RUF. They sought to overthrow the govrenment that stifled ‘private initiative’ and usher in a society with universal education and health care, political power to people’s committees, use of rich resources (land and water) of Sierra Leone for economic and manpower development, etc. They always emphasized their national character (e.g. Muslims and Christians praying together).
With the help of Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a section of Sierra Leone military, RUF managed to overthrow the government in May 1997. The leader of AFRC, Koroma, was chosen president. RUF-AFRC proclaimed the civil war over and issued plans to return the country back to civilian rule within four years in addition to social
and economic measures to enable country’s recovery from the ravages of the war. They also issued deeply apologetic statements for their role in economic loss and atrocities committed during the civil war. They appealed to the people to accept their ‘prodigal sons and daughters’ back in their fold, but they justify their actions against the government:
“War, despite its tragedies, is an important learning experience, an agent capable of effecting social change more rapidly than any other change. What we need at this juncture is the consciousness of he imperative of building a new Sierra Leone more quickly and comprehensively, devoid of hunger, hate, malice and wickedness and filled with freedom and equality. For this great challenge we require enlightened leadership with a vision to fire the people of Sierra Leone with unequalled drive and purposes.”
More importantly, they issued appeals to the regional and global forces not to intervene (including a placatory letter to the-then US president Clinton to see their side of the story) but rather help them re-build Sierra Leone. For all intent and purposes, the civil war might have ended there. The regional and global powers could put diplomatic pressure on RUF-AFRC to be more inclusive and start a genuine process of ‘peace, justice, and reconciliation’ . Deeply aware of their own weakness, RUF-AFRC might readily have agreed to such conditions, as they indicated.
It is also clear that at this stage no external powers had played a decisive role in this conflict even though RUF had received support from groups in Liberia and Libyan government (both Taylor and Sankoh were trained in Libya in late 1980s).
That was to soon change. Regional military forces under Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), dominated by Nigerian military, intervened in 1997 to depose the RUF-AFRC government. ECOWAS forces, backed by Britain and the US, have intervened on numerous occasions in West African states in the past 20 years, including Sierra Leone in 1997 and Liberia in 2003 to depose Taylor. A few days ago, ECOWAS announced its decision to send troops to Mali and Guinea-Bissau to shore up these governments, facing threat from insurgency and recent coups (e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17876813).
If ECOWAS attack formed one front of the assault on Sierra Leone, the Western powers opened the other front through security council resolutions, resulting in the deployment of thousands of UN troops in the country. The number of these troops increased to more than 15000 by 2000; their mandate was also expanded until they formed an armed group fighting against RUF. However, external powers failed to control large swathes of the country and were forced back to the negotiating table. This resulted in the most comprehensive peace and power sharing agreement between the warring sides in 1999: the Lome agreement.
Reading RUF-AFRC documents it is quite clear they had high hopes from this agreement. With the advantage of hindsight, it is also clear the other side had no intention of honouring the agreement. Under the agreement the RUF was to be integrated into the regular army of Sierra Leone, but the UN/ECOWAS forces moved to disarm them, sparking wide spread clashes (this was also one of the demands of Maoists in Nepal which the other side completely rejected). The impasse was broken by British armed intervention: 800 British troops with logistic support of Western naval forces in the region, backed by helicopter gunships and British and Guinea airforce attacked Freetown, resulting in massive defeat of RUF and the arrest of Sankoh. (Probably the largest single operation of the entire war, this intervention is much celebrated in Britain as savour of Sierra Leone, e.g. for a romantic account see, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/8682505.stm. The difference between imperial forces and others is that the former have the privilege of celebrating their crimes while the latter apologize (or are forced to apologize) . The French forces captured the Ivory Coast president in a similar ‘daring raid’ last year). The war dragged on for two more years but RUF-AFRC could not cope with such powers ranged against them. The civil war was declared over in 2002. Now it was Taylor’s turn.
As noted above, ECOWAS intervened to depose Taylor in 2003. George Bush threatened Taylor with dire consequences unless he resigned and turned himself for a trial. He finally resigned in 2003 and, after an escape and capture drama, was sent to the Hague.
The arrest, trial, and the conviction of Charles Taylor is an ongoing process to demonize any opposition to Western imperialism and its local allies. In the case of Taylor, it also serve to underline the racist myth that Africans cannot solve their problems on their own. While such narratives satisfy well defined imperial agenda of political and economic domination, they also find resonance amongst a wide variety of the Left that tends to view such issues within the narrow perspective of human rights.
The Campaign against Kony
March 16, 2012
A campaign launched by an NGO went berserk on social media and the US mainstream media in the past few weeks. The video produced by the charity, Invisible Children, against the Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony was viewed by some 71 million viewer in less than a week. The video describes in graphic details the atrocities committed by Kony-led Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), especially LRA’s use of children as soldiers. The video calls for US intervention to help Ugandan army to arrest/kill Kony. A resolution to ‘tackle’ Kony has been introduced in the US house of representatives:
The unholy trinity of NGOs, social media, and Western imperialism joined hands, yet again, in an attempt to ‘civilize’ Africa. As many have noted such campaigns are more reminiscent of late 19th century. This was the time when soldiers (with guns), statesmen (with laws to justify brutality of imperialism), and charities (with hearts full of concern for African children) walked together to colonize Africa. Nothing much has changed since.
First, as the article referenced above and almost everyone else has noted, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is a spent force. By various estimates, it is on the run under continual assault of Ugandan army and its strength has been reduced to less than 500 members and it mostly operates in DRC, South Sudan, and Central African Republic (CAR). Here is some information on wikipedia: “In 2007, the government of Uganda claimed that the LRA had only 500 or 1,000 soldiers in total, but other sources estimated that there could have been as many as 3,000 soldiers, along with about 1,500 women and children. By 2011, unofficial estimates were in the range of 300 to 400 combatants, with more than half believed to be abductees. The bulk of the soldiers fighting for the LRA are children. According to Livingstone Sewanyana, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Yoweri Museveni was the first to use child soldiers in this conflict. Since the LRA first started fighting in 1987 they may have forced well over 10,000 boys and girls into combat, often killing family, neighbors and school teachers in the process.[”
So why has the US dispatched 100 military advisors a few months ago to help Ugandan army fight against this ragtag force? In an interesting parallel, Mamdani had noted that some of the most strident calls to intervene in Darfur were made when the level of violence had perceptibly dropped and a peace accord seemed close at hand. It is well recorded that the level of violence unleashed by the Ugandan army on the rebels (and civilians in rebel areas) is on another level; the author of the article above notes the condition of refugee camps in rebel areas. Ugandan army has also been accused of resource plunder, murders, and rapes in CAR, where they go ostensibly in pursuit of LRA.
So the timing and target of this campaign seems all wrong. The reasons are linked, at the author of the article above and many others explain, to the spread of US interest in Africa. A simple but compelling version is that oil has been struck in Uganda recently. The US African command AFRICOM, unified military structure created in 2006, is spreading its wings and looking for a large military base in Africa; currently it is headquartered in Germany. Obama’s Africa trip was directly linked to finding land for such a base. Now that Libya has fallen, it might provide the best place to host AFRICOM; Libya, incidently, is the country that hosted the largest US military base in Africa until 1969.
Uganda has been a part of Western political and economic interests in the great lakes region for the past twenty five years. And Yoseri Museveni has served these interests well and has been well rewarded for his efforts. Starting from 1990 when a Ugandan-based and US-funded army led by the present Rwandan president (then a security chief of Museveni trained in the US) attacked Rwanda (this happened around the same time as Saddam’s attack on Kuwait, but did not even make it to a serious discussion in the UN for more than two years) until the present, Uganda is directly responsible for millions of violent deaths in Rwanda and DRC. Uganda has been accused of resource plunder in DRC even by the UN.
And this is in addition to the atrocities committed by the Ugandan military in North Uganda, which, according to some activists in the region, might have resulted in over million deaths in the past 25 years. Large number of settlements in that region have been destroyed and people moved to refugee camps and forced to live under atrocious conditions more akin to concentration camps (Salwa Judum did it on a smaller scale in Chhatigarh. Some defense analysts believe that such scorched earth policies were devised by the British in Malaysia in 1950s, but the British did exactly the same thing in the Boer war in early 20th century, as recorded among others by Gandhi).
By any measure of what constitutes human rights violation, Museveni’s Uganda will top the list (of course after you leave out Western imperialists) in the past twenty years or so.
One might be tempted to call the video naive in its aspirations, as some have pointed out. However, such a view is hardly tenable when one notices that the same pattern has repeated itself without fail on each occasion when Western powers have sought something in a country. There surely is a design beneath apparent naivete that re-appears with such unerring tenacity.
Reforms in China
March 8, 2012
Recently there have been calls to overhaul the overtly neoliberal economic model of China. From these intense discussions has emerged a sixteen point agenda (see a recent article on this proposed set of demands by a Chinese comrade from UMass, Amherst). The author discusses briefly the background to such demands. For instance:
“The richest 70 members of China’s legislature added more to their wealth last year than the combined net worth of all 535 members of the U.S. Congress, the president and his Cabinet, and the nine Supreme Court justices.”
One of the demands is to rein in the wealth of these business-political elite (called princelings by Naomi Klein as almost all of them are relatives of communist party officials in the past). The author has written many articles on Chinese economy in Monthly review in the past many years e.g.
Another interesting article on the recent rise of China in historic context is by James Petras:
As expected, the picture painted by many of these authors is very different from the one by the Western liberal press.
In particular, Land-Hartsberg lays bare the social realities of export-led growth of Chinese economy in the past 20 years: large scale closure of public sector companies, informalization of labour markets, policies to induce immigration from rural areas to suppress wages, horrible working conditions, privatization of social services, etc.
China has one of the lowest employment elasticity in the world, defined as the ratio of jobs generated per GDP growth. It decreased from roughly 0.34 in 1980s to 0.12 in early 2000s, which means that for 1% growth in employment Chinese economy had to grow by 3% in 1980s but now that number is more like 8%. The global average for this number is close to 0.3. This is probably owing to an abnormal growth in export-oriented, highly productive manufacturing industry in China. Western corporations own, directly, through subsidiaries or tie-ups, up to 80% of the export-oriented high tech industries. Private consumption as a percentage of GDP has fallen continuously in China, from close to 51% in 1988 to 39% in 2005 (as opposed to other countries e.g. India).
As Land-Hartsberg shows China is no technological power house (even though there are important Chinese owned flagship companies like Lenovo in this sector). In fact, it is the final destination of East Asian industrial production, before exports mostly to the US and European markets. A point rarely discussed is that China’s current account surplus might not be earnings of Chinese. According to researchers Zheng and Yi,
“China’s growing foreign exchange reserves do not imply wealth that is disposable at any time, but rather a sizeable indirect debt… [in 2005] only half of China’s accumulated foreign exchange reserves were consistent with its wealth, which allowed Beijing to fulfill international payment obligations. The remaining capital inflows (FDI and short-term foreign borrowings) could be interpreted as implied debts… that China would have to pay back eventually.’
Or Chinese central bank is one of the parking places of international capital.
Many researchers have tended to look at India as a superior model, which grows at a smaller rate but consumes more owing to running small current account deficits and by smaller levels of domestic investment.
March 1, 2012
The unemployment rate of Eurozone countries continues to rise. Worst affected countries are Spain, Greece, Italy, and Portugal. Even though these countries have traditionally seen much higher rates of unemployment as compared to countries in the North, this time around they have already reached the worst levels seen in the past 30 years. And the crisis is more prolonged than any time in the near past.
BBC recently published an interesting article on the work hours in different countries in Europe (a Left group in Germany had written a detailed article on this issue around 6 months ago). Who works hardest in Europe? Greeks. And who works the least number of hours: Germans. Who gets more holiday? Again the same pattern. As the article discusses, even if one accounts for different employment patterns (e.g. more Germans work part time and the labour participation rates are higher in Germany) Greeks still work harder than Germans. The catch-all phrase to explain this (apparent) discrepancy is productivity. Germans work less, enjoy more vacations, etc. because they are more productive. However, higher productivity is a statement of unequal social relations rather than an explanation of anything.
Many years ago I had studied international coffee trade. Nearly 25 million farmers in developing countries generate around a million high paying jobs in the North, while only earning between 20-30 % of the final value of coffee. This would suggest that a worker in coffee trade in the North is more productive than the southern farmer by a factor of nearly 70! Nothing can be further from the truth.
In fact all the work that requires any ingenuity is carried out in the South (e.g. growing coffee). In the North it is roasted and transported.
January 29, 2012
Even as Greece struggles to manage its finances, the news of a German takeover of Greece’s budget has caused an uproar. If this were to ever happen Greece would be reduced to a semi-colony of the EU, just as Kosovo and Bosnia already are.
But the very fact that this possibility is being openly discussed, with the blessing of the corporate press, might mean that ground is being laid for such an eventuality.
Greece is presently struggling to reach a deal with its bond-holders to accept a hair-cut of up to 50% (for records it should be pointed out that such a hair cut would be an impossibility under the new treaty agreements Germany and France are pushing for). It seems some hedge funds are refusing and for good reasons: Greece might threaten to default if they don’t agree but these funds already have bought Credit Default Swaps (CDS) from international banking system against such a default. This means the final bill will be paid by the very banking system which has already been bailed out umpteen number of times by the US and EU central bank since 2008.
Even if a bail-out is agreed it might be no panacea for Greece. Liberal and Liberal-left press has hailed the virtues of such hair cuts. For them it means that the creditors, as they should, end up bearing a part of the burden of their risky investment. They forget to look at the extreme power imbalance of the two sides. They cite the example of Argentina which forced a hair-cut of up to 70% on over 90% of its creditors since 2001. A more careful look reveals a different picture (such analyses have been performed by bodies in Europe. e.g. Jubilee, which stand for the cancellation of third world debt). Such hair cuts are generally contingent on meeting many other conditions: short term bonds become long term bonds at interest rates determined by inflation rate or even the growth rate of a country’s GDP, etc. This normally means that even though short term servicing decreases, the country might end up paying far more in long term and could be punished for growing faster! One very interesting phenomenon that has emerged out of such debt structuring is that internal debt spirals up even while external debt falls or stagnates (e.g. Brazil and Argentina).
Jan 15 2012
Trade unions in oil sector had earlier threatened to stop all oil production today (Sunday) but they appear to have backed off from such action. There are many informative articles on the ongoing impasse in Nigeria.
In my last posting on this issue I had tried to show that there is no subsidy on oil on Nigeria but heavy taxation, which is set to increase further. Later I realized I could be terribly wrong. What I had written holds for a sovereign country in control of its resources. In other words, if Nigeria could pump its own oil, export it for refining and ship it back, it would likely cost Nigeria less than 25 dollars a barrel, far less than the cost of fuel even before the prices were raised. The scenario changes dramatically if the situation is something like this: Nigeria pays full price of refined fuel imports (almost 70% of its consumption) but oil companies that export crude oil pay Nigeria a tiny fraction of the international cost as license fees. Under an agreement with IMF, the former seems to be the case (not only for Nigeria but for other oil producing countries as well), and to the best of my knowledge, the latter has generally been the case for most oil producing countries.
This kind of agreement is not so detrimental to the producing countries if the cost of crude is low, as was the case barely five years ago, and refineries require huge investment. But it leaves oil producing countries with a heavy cost burden if prices increase rapidly and the license fees cannot keep pace with this increase. In any case, either the Nigerian government is lying or Nigeria is a classical neo-colony ruled by a class under the thumb of IMF and western corporations. More likely, there is a bit of both.
Articles listed above give us further insight into Nigerian economy and the state. The average labourer earned 35% more in 1970s.
More than one third of Nigerian budget of nearly 30 billion dollars goes to military and security apparatus, almost 20% is spent on just 17000 high officials (reminds one of colonial officials of India), with less than 1% spent on education and health. Investment in public utilities like electricity production remains woefully low. Western oil corporations continue to follow highly environmentally destructive methods, displacing thousands of people from their habitat.
Jan 14, 2012
A long al jazeera program on the continuing plight of Haiti, two years after it was devastated by an earthquake.
A year ago I had posted the following article and cited a paragraph from it.
In particular the paragraph from the article above:
“…reported a similar pattern in Haiti, noting that “of the more than 1,500 US contracts doled out worth $267 million, only 20, worth $4.3 million, have gone to Haitian firms. The rest have gone to US firms, which almost exclusively use US suppliers. Although these foreign contractors employ Haitians, mostly on a cash-for-work basis, the bulk of the money and profits are reinvested in the United States.”
The same article notes that “less than 10 percent of the $9 billion pledged by foreign donors has been delivered, and not all of that money has been spent. Other than rebuilding the international airport and clearing the principal urban arteries of rubble, no major infrastructure rebuilding — roads, ports, housing, communications — has begun.”
The state of affairs has not changed in the past one year, e.g.
Less than 1% of the total aid has gone to the government of Haiti (not that it might have made much of a difference because the present government has clearly been installed by the US; less than 20% voted in presidential election and the election commission was forced to change the results to declare the favourite candidate of the US victorious). The rest has flowed to the US government (e.g. for sending troops to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake) and mostly US-based NGOs. Haiti has been turned into a ‘republic of NGOs’ , the title of al jazeera program. Reconstruction has barely begun. Nearly half of million Haitians live in make-shift camps. The UN-backed forces are occupying Haiti since 2004, and have been directly responsible for many atrocities in the country. If this was not enough, the UN presence gifted to Haiti the pandemic of cholera last year, which had been eradicated long ago from Haiti. Given the kind of conditions Haitians are living in, the cholera infected nearly half a million people and claimed 7000 lives.
In the name of reconstruction, the old discredited neoliberal model of opening sweat shops and luxury hotels is being pushed on Haiti. One extreme rightwing Christian evangelist from the US had called Haiti earthquake a result of Haiti ‘pact to the devil’, referreing to Haiti’s formation of first black republic two hundred years ago after expelling French colonial forces. He might be right about this one: if you are black and seek to be free, you must continue to pay a heavy price.
Jan 12, 2012
The author traces the dynamics of rural economy of a Mexican region after NAFTA. As cheap, subsidized corn and cheap-corn-based pork entered Mexico, it forced communities to sell land (policies at the same time made community land a saleable commodity) and migrate to the US, to work for the company producing pork on an industrial scale, the very company partly responsible for their migration. In the meanwhile this company and its local collaboraters acquired land sold for a pittance in Mexico and expanded their operation. The article fails to discuss the rise in corn prices in recent time, partly owing to corn being diverted to biofuels. This means that urban consumers, who usually support these policies because they see themselves as beneficiaries of lower prices resulting from such globalization, were also cheated out of their initial gains.
Another aspects of such migration is a rapid expansion of ‘money-order’ economy. 11% of Mexican population lives in the US today, and its remittances account for nearly 3% of the Mexico’s GDP, the second highest foreign exchange earner after oil. Such migration is also on in other parts of the world in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Ireland lost 1% of its population last year to such migration, e.g.
‘Recovery’ in Baltic republics such as Latvia is also being fueled by massive emigration and remittances from countries such as Sweden. The champion of the world in this regard is Somalia; nearly 40% of its GDP is remittances from Somalians working abroad.
Jan 9 2012
In this fairly detailed article, the author looks at the possible impact of exposure to low level of radioactivity. The author starts her narrative from Hiroshima study, a study performed to understand the impact of exposure to radioactivity years after the nuclear explosion. She cites many references that strongly suggest that the official version of conclusions from the study were flawed. As Hiroshima study formed a benchmark for what constituted dangerous levels, it also biased every single study after that. She quote an interesting study from Germany in 2007 in which it was found the child leukemia was twice as likely for children living within 5 kms of 18 nuclear plants in Germany. This study was junked because the level of exposure to radiation was not considered harmful. Something similar was done in the case of Chernobyl.
While the WHO and IAEA studies predicted a very low number of deaths from Chernobyl fallout, the latter amnesty international report came up with a number almost 10 times higher. The most detailed study to date, carried out by fairly established Russian and Ukrainian sources, came up with a number close to a million. The author spends some time discussing this study.
Jan 2 2012
Nigerian government decided to end fuel ‘subsidies’ which sent fuel prices spiral up by more than 100% in a day. In its typical narrative, the BBC blames government subsidies of over 8 billion dollars a year, which honest IMF officials want abolished, for this predicament. This entire set of arguments are bogus, and especially so for oil producing countries like Nigeria.
Nigeria, the largest producer of oil in Africa (along with Angola and Gaddafi’s Libya), extracts around 2 million barrels a day. Yet there is a black market in fuel because Nigeria exports crude oil but imports refined oil (compare it to India which has more refining capacity than consumption). But we know that refining cost are barely a few dollars a barrel. Industry specialists agree that oil extraction costs are less than 10 dollars a barrel in these parts. Let us double this to include servicing capital costs, profits, etc. and we end up with a number less than 25 dollars a barrel for a country that can produce all its crude and can get it refined at presently prevailing international costs. 25 dollars a barrel means around 25/160 dollars a litre or less than 15 cents a litre.
According to the BBC article, the cost of petrol was roughly 40 cents a litre (more than 60 cents in black market) before the recent increase. It is already close to 3 times what the cost might be if ‘typical’ numbers in capitalist lexicon are used (return on capital +profit all within 10s of percent of the capital investment). Also it is worthwhile to compute how much Nigeria’s production is worth on international markets where one barrel of oil is selling for 100 dollars: its is 200 million dollars a day, a billion dollars in five days and nearly 70 billions dollars a year! For a country of 150 million people, this is 500 dollars a year per person, not far from Nigeria’s per capita income. Surely Nigeria should be rolling in cash with this windfall. They should at least not be taxing their citizens so heavily and seeking to increase these taxes further. Yet none of it is the case: Nigeria is a highly indebted country barely managing its debts in spite of its oil riches. Needless to say, it is a classical neo-colony, more or less completely under the thumb of international oil companies and financers. Even as
its resources are plundered, its people face brutal repression when they oppose (the militant group MEND seeks to expel all oil companies from Niger delta), its environment is degraded by oil spills (Nigeria has faced a Mexio gulf oil spill last year for each year in the past 40, an activist claimed). And if this was not bad enough, the government has doubled oil prices under IMF’s edicts.
Ivory coast, Libya and modern imperialism
April 15, 2011
The Ivory coast ‘crisis’ is over. Many people have called Western military ‘mercenaries of global capitalism’ and French proved it yet again. French forces kidnapped (in imperialspeak – arrested) the incumbent president and delivered him to the headquarters of the President whom they want installed at the helm of affairs. And what about the impartial UN ? UN forces, without any mandate, directly helped the French in this overtly criminal endeavour. It is not that the incumbent was a peoples’ revolutionary. He looked after the overarching French interest in Ivory Coast but appeared to have stepped out of line when he tried to take Ivory Coast out of the Franc zone and accommodated interests of capitalists from across the world. The other imperial powers looked on when the French armed the opposition and finally provided direct military help. Ivory Coast, the largest cocoa producer in the world, is the most important country of the Franc zone. Now it might be ‘stable’ again.
Nato planners thought Gaddafi’s forces will fall like a house of cards as soon as they started bombing. But things haven’t gone well. Gaddafi’s forces have not only held on but appear to consolidate their gains in the past one week. And then the ‘civilized nations of the world’ had to contend with the added nuisance of the African Union (AU) peace mission to Libya. Gaddafi agreed with the peace plan but rebels rejected it and NATO barely acknowledged it. But what can AU do? It is a weak and deeply divided union (two of its main members South Africa and Nigeria voted for the UN resolution to support NATO strikes in Libya; yet Zuma was seen in Libya barely 15 days later with a peace plan) . Gaddafi has been one of the main architects of AU. He has used oil money to fund the organization (dubbed ‘an attempt to bribe the military leaders of Africa’ in imperialspeak, here joined by the synthetic and sanitized Left, as symbolized by publications like Guardian or most authors on Znet). In fact, Gaddafi invoked the idea of ‘United States of Africa’ , a dream of early African leaders like Nkrumah (who justified it in his classic Neocolonialism, the Last Stage of Imperialism). Africans can certainly do with sovereignty and unity. Trade routes in Africa are like an open palm, that run from resource rich areas to ports for exports to the external world. Ports continue to be largely dominated by imperial powers. A recent example in this ongoing trend is the controversial Chad-Cameroon oil pipeline, also relevant in the present context as Libya played a role in Chadian politics.
That imperial powers and their local agents should want to undermine this process is understandable. However it makes far less sense when the Left tries to equate Gaddafi’s interference in Chadian politics with imperialism. Gaddafi can buy favours with money, also consolidating his own position in Africa. But Libya has no way to start dominating the politics in the same way as imperial powers do. No wonder he ended up funding militias that found themselves at the losing end most of the time. This is also crucially linked to the conditions that prevail in most post-colonial countries in the world. The economy of these countries is largely dominated by imperial powers or their local agents. It has turned out to be very difficult to break their stranglehold as all foreign trade is run by this sector. Even Gaddafi’s Libya was not strictly independent in this sense. He might have nationalized oil and increased licence fees, etc. but oil refining, shipping, and more crucially marketing was always dominated by a bunch of western corporations. In fact many of these firms liked nationalization as they were protected from external competition and were provided internal subsidy (this process is studied in detail by Magdoff (The Age of Imperialism) or Galeano (The open veins of Latin America)).
The first supporters of Gaddafi after the uprising started were Castro and Chavez. However, many left observers saw this as simply an attempt to support a fellow anti-US ruler. Such analyses were flawed on at least two levels. First, Gaddafi has been a good ally of imperial powers for a while. Second, and more importantly, is it possible to coherently analyse internal politics of Libya without the role of imperial powers in it? For that matter, and at a more general level, is it possible to analyse the internal politics of any country these day without looking at how it is linked to international finance and trade? One feature of neo-liberalism is the rise of exactly the people who are even more strongly linked to global capital. And global capital comes with its own modes of dominations, be it private investment, using debt to affect structural reform with IMF leading the way, funding civil society and media (leading to favourable results in elections by overt or covert corruption, e.g. colour revolutions of ex-Soviet republics, or finally invoking the help of international militia, that goes by the name of NATO.
Sooner or later Gaddafi’s Libya will fall, especially if NATO sends ground troops as is being proposed. Both the right and the Left will rejoice. But there is not doubt in my mind that this will take Africa backwards not forward.