Monday, December 31, 2007

Kenya media blackout greets disputed election result

The Kenyan government has ordered a broadcast media blackout in the wake of the riots that greeted the disputed election win of President Mwai Kibaki. The security ministry ordered the blackout “in the interest of public safety and tranquillity”. Journalists were also warned to stop broadcasting “inciting or alarming material” as supporters of defeated candidate Raila Odinga took to the streets in protest at the result. Plumes of smoke rose over the Kibari area of Nairobi, a stronghold of Odinga support for the opposition, where pitched battles occurred between rioters and police on Saturday.

Kibaki was controversially re-elected in Kenya’s fourth election since pluralism was introduced in 1992. Kibaki was sworn in less than an hour after the electoral commission declared he had defeated Odinga by a quarter of a million votes. The official commission result was that Kibaki won with 4,584,721 votes against Odinga's 4,352,993 votes. Odinga had led Kibaki in pre-election opinion polls and in early poll tallies released to the media. Odinga walked out of the press conference during which the results were announced, and claimed that Kibaki was stealing victory.

In his acceptance speech yesterday Kibaki said he was “humbled and grateful” to be offered a second five-year term of office. He acknowledged the closeness of the contest and said now should be a time for “healing and reconciliation among all Kenyans”. He pledged to serve for everyone and called for tolerance, peace and harmony. “I will shortly form a clean hands Government that represents the face of Kenya,” he said. “The new PNU Government will incorporate the affiliate parties as well as other friendly parties”.

However not everyone agrees with Kibaki that the elections were free and fair. British foreign minister David Miliband said he had real concerns about reported irregularities and promised to discuss the matter with international partners. He quoted EU observers who said they had not succeeded in establishing the credibility of the tallying process to the satisfaction of all parties and candidates. Miliband stopped short of declaring the result invalid. “Britain looked forward to working with a legitimately elected government of Kenya,” he said. But, he added ambiguously, “its outcome had to be seen by Kenyans to be fair.”

Despite 30,000 monitors on the ground, chief EU observer Alexander Graf Lambsdorff expressed regret that they had not able to address “irregularities”. Lambsdorff said presidential tallies announced in polling stations on the election were inflated by the time they were released by the electoral commission in Nairobi. “'Because of this and other observed irregularities, some doubt remains as to the accuracy of the result of the presidential election as announced today,” he said.

The 76 year old Kibaki has been in power since 2002 and is only Kenya’s third president since in the 43 years since independence. Jomo Kenyatta led the nation out of colonialism in 1964 and he ruled until his death in 1978. His vice-president Daniel arap Moi took the reins for the next 24 years. Initially popular, Moi won two elections in 1992 and 1997 but he was eventually viewed as a despot. Towards the end of his reign, allegations of electoral fraud and corruption took their toll. Moi was implicated in the Goldenberg scandal which saw Kenya lose $600 million in “fictitious” mineral exports in the 1990s.

Moi was forced to step down in 2002 as the constitution barred him from contesting a third election. In the election, Moi supported Jomo Kenyatta’s son Uhuru but he was defeated 2:1 by Kibaki. EU and UN observers declared the election free and fair. Like Moi, Mwai Kibaki had also served as vice president but he fell out of favour with Moi in 1988 and unsuccessfully contested the 1990s elections against him. He formed a rainbow alliance of opposition parties to combat the entrenched power of the Kenyan African National Union (KANU) party founded by Kenyatta and Moi.

Moi’s legacy to Kibaki was a nation racked by corruption. According to Human Rights Watch, Kenya’s system of governance is based on highly centralised and personalised executive power. The average Kenyan was poorer in 2002 than two decades earlier. Kibaki claimed his goal was reconciliation and rebuilding of the economy. The Kenyan economy grew strongly during his five year tenure. However his 2005 attempt to redraw the constitution to give stronger powers to the presidency was rejected by a plebiscite.

His opponent, the 62 year old Raila Odinga (pictured right) was a former cabinet colleague of Kibaki (pictured left). During the campaign he argued that few Kenyans have reaped the benefits of the country's economic successes. After unilaterally declaring he was the winner on Saturday, Odinga now claims he was robbed of victory. Police have warned Odinga that he faces arrest if he goes ahead with a protest tomorrow against the result. Odinga's Orange Democratic Movement planned to meet in Nairobi to present “the People's President” to the nation. The Police Commissioner has declared the meeting illegal “in view of the prevailing security situation” and cautioned that anyone who attends “will face the full force of the law.” It appears unlikely Odinga’s angry supporters will heed the warning.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nationalism: A study of Imagined Communities

In a major speech to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Indian independence Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has argued that nationalism is a double-edged sword. Sen said nationality was “universalising” and plays a role in uniting people. But he also said nationality is a major source of conflicts, hostilities and violence. “Nationalism can blind one’s vision about other societies and this can play a terrible part especially when one country is powerful vis-√†-vis another,” he said. Nationalism, he concluded, is “both a curse and a boon”.

Sen’s points about the complexities of nationalism were borne out elsewhere on the planet. In Nepal, the rebels have gotten their wish to overthrow the monarchy. But their apparent avowal to Maoism could be undone by an equally strong desire to support Nepalese nationalism. In Scotland, optimistic nationalist fervour is on the increase in the wake of the “responsible actions” of the Scottish Nationalist Party since their victory in elections in May. Meanwhile the nationalistic stereotypes of Serbia were upended by the local version of Big Brother, where a boorish Kosovar Serb was quickly evicted from the program while a handsome Bosnian Muslim seemed likely to win.

Nationalism is one of the world’s most potent doctrines; it defines the right of a nation to exist independently based on some shared history, language or culture. The concept has been enormously influential. Millions have died in the twentieth century in the fight for nationalism and the nation state has become the fundamental building block of international relations. It is coded in the very name of the world organisation known as the United Nations.

Nationalism is a relatively modern concept. As late as 1914, dynastic states made up the majority of the world’s political system. One of the best books to look at the history and theory of nationalism is Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities” (2nd edition - 1991). Anderson points out that every successful revolution since World War II has defined itself in national terms: China, Vietnam, Algeria etc. Anderson’s thesis is that the concept of the nation is the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our times. Yet despite this ubiquity, the concepts of nation, nationality and nationalism have all proved difficult to define and analyse.

Anderson’s solution is to define these terms as cultural artefacts. He defines the nation as an “imagined political community” inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the nation’s members (regardless of how small that nation is) will never know of, or meet most of their fellow-members but each member shares a mental comradeship and image of their nation. Nationalism essentially invents nations where they do not exist. Yet each member is aware of the physical limit and boundary of the nation beyond which lies other nations. It is also sovereign as it is a product of the 18th century enlightenment which ended the concept of divinely-ordained dynastic realms. The most important quality of that nation is to be “free”.

It is the mental fraternity of this imagined bond that makes it possible for millions to die for, and kill for, such an idea. The nationalist imagining has many connotations with religion and shares with it an infatuation about death and immortality. Nationalism turns chance into destiny. I can say it is an accident that I am either Irish or Australian, but both Ireland and Australia are “eternal”.

The roots of nationalism can be traced back to the rise of print-capitalism in the 16th century. Prior to 1500, four out of every five books printed were in the ecclesiastical language of Latin. But in the wake of Gutenberg, the vernacular ruled. 200 million books were produced in the next 100 years as the book became the first mass-produced industrial commodity. But even the success of the book was dwarfed by the rise of the newspaper: the “one day best-seller”. The newspaper created an extraordinary mass ceremony in the newly rising mercantile class: a simultaneous consumption of news. The newspapers were written in a vernacular that only those of their language-field understood. They were the embryo of an “imagined community”.

As the influence of newspapers grew, the next major development in the history of nationalism occurred in the western hemisphere. Between 1776 and 1838, a whole series of Creole states emerged in the Americas which self-consciously defined themselves as nations. Latin American countries made the break from Spain because of the fear of lower-class insurrection as Madrid tried to introduce more humane laws on human rights and slavery. It fragmented into 18 nation states that corresponded roughly to the old viceregal administrative provinces. Meanwhile in North America, the advent of printer-journalists such as Benjamin Franklin became a key component of communications and intellectual life that spurred on anti-colonialism.

Meanwhile Europe was still dedicated to the barrier imposed by languages. Lexicographers, grammarians, and philologists were shaping 19th century nationalism. The leaders of nationalist movements in countries such as Finland and Bulgaria were writers and teachers of languages. State bureaucracies were on the rise which opened doors to people of varied social origins. The language of state pushed out obscurer tongues such as Irish and Breton to the margins. The print-languages were elevated and made it easier to arouse popular support to great causes such as the French Revolution.

But not until the after the conflagration of World War I were Europe’s intra-lingual dynasties destroyed. By 1922 the Hapsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs and Ottomans were gone. The League of Nations showed the way forward but still displayed old biases with non-European nations excluded. By 1945, according to Anderson, the “nation-state tide reached full flood”. In 1975 Portugal, the last of the European empires, shed its colonies. The new African states took on the borders of their old European administrations, and in most cases, their languages. Maps and censuses added to the institutionalisation of these new nation-states.

Of course, this inheritance from colonialism left anomalies all over the world. Passionate nationalism exists in such “nations” as the Karen, Palestine, West Papua, Kurdistan, Biafra, Somaliland, and many others, but there is no nation-state. They have all developed nationalist movements. Many people have made the ultimate sacrifice for their “nation” with colossal numbers prepared to lay down their lives for this “ideal”. As Anderson says, dying for one’s country assumes a moral grandeur which cannot be matched by say, dying for the Labour Party, or the American Medical Association or Amnesty International. All these are organisations a person can join or leave, but a person is deemed to have no choice over their country. But this may change again. After all, contemporary nationalism is the heir to two centuries of historic change. History has not yet ended. Who know how nationalism will evolve in the new imagined spaces of the digital age?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Darfur: Genocide by other means

While the white world frets over the fate of a few white people getting released from Chad, the killing fields next door in Darfur continues to quietly bury the victims of its casual genocide. Death by war and violence has already claimed a quarter of a million people this century and now malnutrition threatens thousands more. A new UN World Food Programme survey shows the malnutrition rate has actually increased in Darfur since the height of the fighting in 2004. But while the story of the six members of Zoe’s Ark has been reported by over 1,300 news articles, the UN report on Darfur attracted just 117.

It doesn’t help that the Darfur Emergency Food Security and Nutrition Assessment (pdf) is not very sexily named. But the basic fact is that no white people are affected by this assessment. The victims are all, depending on labelling, either “Arab” or “African” or “Darfuri” or “Sudanese”. But what ever they are called, the numbers involved are staggering. Last year, it was estimated that some 3.74 million people were affected by the situation in Darfur.

Other key findings in the report are that the food and security outlook in all three Darfur provinces remains poor for the majority of the population, over two million people. Remote West Darfur (pdf), with no direct border to non-Darfuri Sudan, remains most at risk. 3.7 million out of Darfur’s total of 6.7 million rely on some sort of “humanitarian” assistance. Food production remains scanty, livestock is rare, and markets don’t function due to insecurity and poverty. And the world at large remains, generally, disinterested.

Darfur is well used to the lack of attention. The region was almost unheard of outside Sudan before 2003. Within Sudan it has been mostly neglected since its 19th century colonisation. And even when people started dying in sufficiently large numbers to attract the attention of the media and NGOs, the Americans and their allies were too tied up in Iraq to do anything about it, the UN was hamstrung by lack of funding, and the EU conveniently bickered and contrived to look the other way, like it always does. In the end it was decided it was “African problem” that needed an “African solution” and so the new constituted African Union (AU) had responsibility to solve it.

But this conveniently overlooks history and economics and the very obvious culpability of the West in the tragedy of Darfur. Gerard Prunier entitled his book on Darfur “The Ambiguous Genocide”. By that, Prunier was not trying to claim mass killing did not exist, but rather that the labelling of who did it and who they did it to, and indeed the label of “genocide” itself, have twisted the meaning of what happened in Darfur and how it is generally understood. The west’s quest for pithy explanations of news does not suit Darfur’s complex ethnography and history.

The conventional shorthand explanation is that an “Arab” militia supported by the government in Khartoum, carried out mass atrocities on native “African” tribespeople in a land grab. This explanation overlooks deeper motives and trivialises the ethnic make-up of Central African peoples. It also gives the impression it is violence by Muslim peoples on non-Muslim peoples. However the fact is that almost all Darfuris are Muslims. Unlike the colonial war that the Khartoum government fought against the Christian and animist provinces of the south, the conflict in Darfur had no religious connotation at all. It also overlooked the role played by neighbouring Libya and Chad in the region’s destabilisation.

The population of Darfur is an ethnic mosaic but in skin colour everyone is “black”. Language is often similar too with “African” tribes speaking Arabic. The differences therefore come from Sudanese cultural racism which distinguishes between “Arab” and “zurug” (the local pejorative word for blacks) which may hinge on such factors as the shape of the nose, or the thickness of lips. Intertribal marriages and slave concubines have further muddied the racial waters. And what Sudan considers to be “Arab” would not necessarily be so accepted in the rest of the Arab world. The name Sudan itself derives from Arabic Bilad-al-sudan, "country of the blacks”.

This lack of Arab acceptance makes the Sudanese “Arabs” even more sensitive to its labelling within Sudan. Being described as Arab was a token of civilisation as opposed to African “savagery” and marked out a general change from nomad to agricultural life. This ethnic construction was very much a product of the 20th century. Prior to then, Darfur was the home of migratory peoples south of the forbidding Sahara. Between the 13th and 16th century it was the scene of three major migrations. From the north-west came Nilo-Saharans, from southern Egypt came Nubians and from the north-east came Arab groups. Later, more people arrived from Sudan itself. The last group to arrive were the most powerful. They were the awlad al-Bahar “sons of the river”. The river was the Nile and these riverine Arabs from Khartoum were the most powerful people in the land. They were traders and imams who settled in the towns of Darfur and turned it into a Sudanese province in the 19th century.

Prior to that, Darfur was an independent sultanate dating back to the 14th century, initially led by African tribes. In the 17th century we first hear of the “Fur” people. The Fur had descended from the mountains and overran the plains. Sultan Suleiman “Solungdungo” (the pale man) was the son of a Fur father and Arab mother. The Fur assimilated other tribes to maintain their hegemony and the land became Dar Fur (land of the Fur). At the start of the 19th century, Darfur was a respected political entity, while “Sudan” did not exist as such. The Arabic “land of the blacks” was an arbitrary name that covered many jurisdictions. In colonial times the French also called what is now Mali “Le Soudan”. In the 1821 the then stateless entity to the east of Darfur was invaded by Muhammad Ali, the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt. They defeated the Darfuri who had similar designs and who fled back home to their province.

The Turco-Egyptians gradually extended their colonisation of Sudan, south from Khartoum along the Nile. In 1873 they moved against the sultanate of Darfur and easily conquered it. But in 1881 a quasi-religious organisation known as the “mahdi” under the banner of a mixture of Islamist and Christian Revelatory practices rebelled against the Turkish administration. The Mahdist state then collapsed under an onslaught from the British and they lost control of Darfur back to the sultanate. The British were content to rule with the “lightest of threads” and let the sultan rule as de facto leader of Darfur until 1916.

The fate of Darfur was sealed by World War I. Britain was worried about Turkish propaganda and feared Darfur could become a tool of the Central Powers. Looking beyond the war, they also feared the French influence from Chad in the west. The British invaded Darfur. The sultan resisted and he and his sons were shot dead in an ambush as they tried to flee on horseback. The tragedy of Darfur can be dated to the British occupation. From 1916 onwards, Darfur would only be an appendage of some bigger entity, never an object of attention in itself.

For the next 40 years Darfur was part of the grandly named Anglo-Egyptian Condominium. Although the Egyptians shared naming rights, this was just a clever move by the British to assuage Egyptian ego – the Brits were the real power. A handful of colonists ran the Sudan Political Service and its territory of 2.5 million sq kms. These men included author Wilfred Thesiger who served in Darfur in 1935. But Thesiger was the exception, what little power there was, was isolated in Khartoum. Darfur did not get any attention except when it caused trouble. Rebel Mahdists launched a rebellion from the Darfuri capital Nyala in 1921 and was brutally put down with 800 deaths. But Darfur was mostly ignored, and services including schools and hospitals were non-existent.

In the 1950s, the British were fighting a rearguard action to delay Sudanese independence. Darfur was not considered a threat because of its “backwardness”. Darfur became part of the new nation of Sudan in 1956 and participated in the first elections two years later. The “Umma” party won that election with a significant vote from Darfur. But the region got no thanks from their new political masters and continued to be ignored. The military then took over, with no change for Darfur. In 1964, the Umma won another political victory, again with help from Darfur. Once again however, this carried no clout in Khartoum.

In 1965 neighbouring Chad descended into what was to be a decades-long civil war. Darfur would become central to the conflict with the Chadian guerrilla group Frolinat based in Nyala. The war spilled across the border. In 1969, newly installed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafy came into the war in support of Frolinat. A brief attack by Gaddafy on Khartoum caused the lasting enmity of the Sudanese government, who in retaliation supported an anti-Libyan, Hissen Habre, as new leader of Chad. Darfur was transformed into a three-way battleground between Libya, Chad and Sudan.

In 1984, famine struck the Sahel and Darfur was devastated. Almost 100,000 people died of starvation in the next 12 months. 80,000 people walked across the country to food camps in Khartoum. The Gaafar Nimeiry regime, in power since 1971, was destabilised and the army took control. The army showed little inclination to solve the food problems of the west and Libya took advantage to invade Darfur. Sudan tacitly accepted the temporary Libyan presence on “their” soil. But Chad did not and fought Darfuri and Libyan troops they accused of supporting Chadian rebel forces.

In 1988 Sudan underwent another army coup. Colonel Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in protest at the peace settlement with rebel Southern Sudan. The reality on the ground in Darfur continued to be bleak: the ravages of drought, war and lack of government interest left it on the brink of starvation. Slowly but surely, rebel groups began to form dedicated to the fight against Khartoum. A low intensity civil war began. As the Cold War ended, new cultural labels rose which gave a political identity to the concept of “Arabism”. It was to those that defined themselves as “native Arabs” that Khartoum would look to, to carry out the violence to come.

A hitherto unknown Islamist group known as Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) claimed credit for starting a revolt within Darfur. They issued a “Black Book” which outlined the discrimination that Darfuris encountered in their relations with Khartoum. In 2003 rebels occupied El-Fashir airport in a major victory over government forces. Sudanese hardliners opted for a strong response. The army was not deemed up to the job. Instead they recruited “Arab” militiamen known as Janjaweed (“evil horsemen”). First used in the 1980s, the Janjaweed were paid a good salary and given access to Sudanese armoury. It was to be “counter-insurgency on the cheap”.

Russian Antonov airplanes bombed Darfuri cities targeting civilians. After the air attacks finished, the Janjaweed arrived to finish the job. An orgy of killing, destroying, raping and looting followed. They hurled insults at the “Africans” and herded them into camps. The government issued propaganda that the rebels had demanded independence and a share in Sudan’s growing oil revenues. Neither accusation was true. Masses of refuges fled towards Chad or the centre. Aid was not getting through to the neediest areas.

News began to escape about how bad things were in Darfur. In 2004 the Red Cross spoke of an “agricultural collapse”. Khartoum prevaricated and found continual excuses to delay foreign intervention. The west was more interested in the fate of the peace talks between North and South Sudan. But Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group began to give Darfur the media attention it needed.

When the UN spoke of “genocide” the world’s press began its feeding frenzy. Now there was an angle to the story that would sell newspapers: the first genocide of the 21st century. Moral indignation lasted much of the next 12 months. Deaths continued and Sudan refused to admit culpability and talked of “bandits” and “rebels”. After concerted international pressure, the Janjaweed were forced to stop their killing. But peace remains elusive for Darfuris. Conflicts in Chad continue to have reverberations. Government disinterest continues. The world does not have the stomach to help. None of the "humanitarian" solutions address the political inequity at the heart of the problem. Now malnutrition is about to draw its weapons against the stomachs of an already battered people. But the world’s media have moved on elsewhere, unable to turn this grotty complex tale into a simple and compelling narrative.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Benazir Bhutto: A new chapter in the tragedy of Pakistan

Former Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif is calling for President Pervez Musharraf to resign immediately to "save Pakistan" in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto was murdered overnight in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad. She was shot in the neck by her attacker before he blew himself up killing 17 people. Sharif has blamed Musharraf for not protecting Bhutto. He said he will now boycott the planned 8 January elections because the president is a threat to the country’s stability. "I demand that Musharraf quit power, without delay of a single day, to save Pakistan,” he said.

As former Australian ambassador to Pakistan, Geoffrey Price, outlined in Quadrant in 1997, Bhutto had an amazing record of firsts. She was elected twice, dismissed twice, and twice defeated at the polls in the space of just eight years. She was the first female head of government in Pakistan and the first woman elected prime minister of an Islamic country. At 35, she was also the youngest elected prime minister of the 20th century. She was also the first PM to have a child (her second) in office. Price also called her the “worlds’ most glamorous head of government" when she took power in 1988.

In the view of the west, her beauty created an impression of a Pakistan that was making a metamorphosis from a military oligarchy into a vibrant democracy. But Bhutto was very much a creature of Pakistan’s elite. She hailed from a prominent political family. Bhutto adored her father, former Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was illegally ousted from that role by President Zia ul-Haq who then tried and executed him for a specious murder charge. Benazir and her mother were interned until after the sentence was carried out. Bhutto then went into exile to Britain where she inherited her parents’ leadership of the democratic socialist Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

In 1987 she married Asif Ali Zardari, who hailed from a minor Baluchi feudal family. A year later Zia sacked his government and scheduled an election for a date he thought would coincide with the birth of Bhutto’s first child. But Bhutto had tricked him and the baby would be born well before the vital final weeks of campaigning. Shortly before the election, Zia died in mysterious circumstances when his plane crashed and exploded after takeoff from a military base. His death proved fortuitous to Bhutto and the PPP won the largest amount of seats in the election.

She formed a coalition government with the help of minor parties. There was general optimism in the air especially after she established an apparent rapport with Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi (the pair would suffer a similar ultimate fate). Pakistan returned to the Commonwealth fold. But tensions between Pakistan and India ran to deep and the early successes were squandered. The gloss began to fade as allegations of corruption, nepotism and tax evasion arose against her and her husband. New President Ishaq Khan sacked her government in 1990. In the election that followed, the PPP was easily beaten by Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League.

But less than three years later Sharif too was sacked by the army. Bhutto won the election and was prime minister a second time. This time she lasted three years only to face essentially the same charges of dismissal as the first time only this time by a new president (Farooq Leghari) and with a longer list of alleged offences. Most serious was the allegation she instigated police terrorism in Karachi against political opponents resulting in hundreds of deaths. Her husband was arrested and charged with the murder of Benazir’s brother Murtaza Bhutto who was becoming a political rival. This time round, the PPP were obliterated at the election that followed.

Bhutto and her husband went into exile in Dubai. The couple wealth is believed to be in the region of $1.5 billion. Her two terms frustratingly delivered very little. She and her husband are wanted on corruption charges in several countries. Switzerland accused the couple of gaining multi-million dollar kickbacks in exchange for handing out a contract to a Swiss firm during Bhutto's second term as Prime Minister. But with Musharraf’s regime in trouble and elections due in January, the time was ripe for Bhutto to come home. She returned to a hero’s welcome in October and narrowly avoided assassination in another suicide attack. This time she was not so lucky.

Her death provides Pervez Musharraf with a new set of problems. He came to power with pro-American policies. But when he attempted to stack the Supreme Court with his appointees, he triggered a massive backlash from lawyers and judges. He is under heavy pressure from the US to end military rule. Washington concocted an “arranged marriage”: Bhutto would return to Pakistan, there would be elections, followed by a power-sharing deal. And the status quo would carry on with renewed legitimacy. But neither Musharraf nor Bhutto would not have been able to stop the rot of corruption, poverty, and underdevelopment that plagues the country.

Neither can control militant elements. Nor would they have been able to control the military. The army has often aligned itself with Islamist forces. The Zia government backed Hezb-i-Islami which is now aligned with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Even Benazir Bhutto was forced to recognise the legitimacy of the Taliban government in Afghanistan (the only country to do so). As Sharif Shuja observed in the National Observer, a majority of Pakistanis don’t want Sharia Law but if it comes, it won’t be as a result of an election. A nuclear armed Pakistan ruled by Islamic militants could conceivably be a greater problem to world stability than Iran. The assassination of Bhutto may bring forward that outcome, albeit masked by “the necessity” of military rule.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Francisco Goya: a life in art

A New Jersey truck driver pleaded guilty last week to the theft of the Goya painting “Children with a Cart” in November 2006. Steven Lee Olsen faces a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 under the reduced charge of theft of an object of cultural heritage. The painting is worth over a million dollars and is owned by the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio. It was on its way to an exhibition at New York’s Guggenheim Museum when it was stolen from a truck as the drivers stay overnight in a Pennsylvania motel. Olsen was one of the drivers. The painting itself was recovered after Olson told the FBI to say he had found the painting in his basement. It didn’t take long for authorities to conclude it was an inside job.

"Children with a Cart" was considered one of the FBI’s top ten art crimes. Goya painted it in 1778 as a model for a tapestry planned for the bedroom of a Spanish prince. It depicts four colourfully-dressed children and a wooden cart at the base of a dark tree, with a billowing cloud in the background. Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) is considered one of the world's greatest artists and one of the first "modern" painters. But he defies easy categorisation. Robert Hughes said it was the difficulty of pinning Goya down that keeps him alive and fresh.

Goya was born on 30 March 1746 in the village of Fuendetodos near Zaragoza in what was then the kingdom of Aragon. His mother, Gracia Lucientes, came from the lower ranks of the landed gentry - the Spanish hidalgos. The family moved to Zaragoza where she married Goya's father; a member of the Goldsmith's Guild. Aged 13, young Francisco began an apprenticeship to the painter Jose Luzan. He fell under the influence of fellow painters the Bayeu brothers, Ramon and Francisco. He also met their sister Josefa with whom he would fall in love.

Goya’s earliest jobs were religious works for the churches in and around Zaragoza. In 1772 he gained a big commission. This two-year job was to paint a cycle of scenes in oils of the Life of the Virgin Mary on the walls of Carthusian monastery of the Aula Dei near Zaragoza. Though some of this work was later damaged by leakage and seepage. It was then restored by French painters and the seven of the eleven panels that survive are his largest extant work. In 1774, aged 28, he married Josefa Bayeu in Madrid. He joined her brothers at the Royal Academy of Fine Art where they procured him work for the Royal Tapestry Workshop.

Over the next five years, he would paint designs for over forty patterns (including “Children with a Cart”) for the workshop. The tapestries would eventually decorate the royal palaces. And as Goya established himself, Madrid would become his city. Over the next 40 years he would paint its life and make portraits of its royalty and ordinary citizens. In the end he would leave over 130 paintings to Madrid’s magnificent Museo Del Prado.

Back in 1783 Goya was not thinking of the end but he tired of the limiting scope of the tapestries. He eagerly took the commission when the Count of Floridablanca asked him to paint his portrait. This work would prove to be his entry into regal circles. His patrons included the Duke and Duchess of Osuna and eventually King Charles III. In 1788 Charles died and his son Charles IV succeeded him. Young Charles would reign for almost two decades and made Goya his chief court painter. Yet Goya never overly flattered his new patron. The French novelist The√≤phile Gautier said of Goya’s true-to-life 1792 painting of the royal family: "It looks as if he has painted the corner baker and his wife after they have won the lottery."

Tragedy struck in 1792. With Goya seemingly at the height of his fame and success he was struck down with fever. The illness was cured but left him permanently deaf. Isolated by his inability to hear, his painting retreated back into himself. They became intense and incredibly dark. Goya became increasingly preoccupied with fantasies of his own imagination and with critical and satirical observations of mankind. He evolved a bold new style that was very close to caricature. The religious frenzy of that style is exemplified by Burial of the Sardine (1816) which was a stark depiction of the Saturnalia of the Ash Wednesday festival in Madrid.

In 1799 he plunged deep into his inner self to produce perhaps his greatest work, Los Caprichos. They were a series of 80 aquatinted etchings that satirised human folly and weakness. Caprichos means caprices or whims, and they are astonishing, fantastical ideas. About 20 are about witchcraft, while another 25 treat the problems of sex and marriage and the miseries of love. The most famous of the series is the nightmarish plate 43 which he called "The sleep of reason produces monsters". While the artist sleeps, his fantasy is no longer controlled by reason and he is exposed to horrific beings that threaten to overcome him. Too satirical and too dark (and dangerously subversive), the series flopped with the public.

But more pressing political problems entered Goya’s life with the rise of Napoleon. Spain initially supported France in their continental blockade of Britain but withdrew in 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar. Though Spain tried to switch sides again after France defeated Prussia in the Battle of Jena, Napoleon was now distrusting of the Spanish and sent 100,000 troops across the border to signal his intent. In 1808 Charles IV abdicated in favour of his son, but Napoleon installed his brother Joseph as king. The ensuing Peninsular War would lead to Napoleon’s downfall.

The war began when the people of Madrid rebelled in early May 1808. They attacked the French on 2 May and on the next day, the French shot most of the insurgents. These two days would become important in Spanish history. The Spanish would go on use irregular tactics to defeat the French and brought the word ‘guerrilla’ (from Spanish ‘little war’) into existence. The now 62 year old Goya painted his series called “The Disasters of War” that chronicled the battlefield horror of these tumultuous times in the fashion of a vicarious war correspondent.

His two most famous paintings (both 1814) of the era document the symbolic events of initial Madrid uprising. His “The Second of May 1808” also known as The Charge of the Mamelukes depicts the beginning of the uprising when the elite Egyptian Mamelukes of the French Imperial Guard charge and subdue the rioters. The painting is dramatic and chaotic. But for sheer impact, it is dwarfed by his depiction of the events of the following day “The Third of May 1808” when rebels are lined up and shot by the firing squads. This nighttime painting is grand and tragic with the central whiteclad defiant figure reminiscent of the crucifixion. It is Goya’s masterpiece.

In later life, Goya went into semi-retirement when he bought a farmhouse across the river from Madrid named Quinta del Sordo ("Deaf Man's House") named not for him but for its previous owner, also stone deaf. While he no longer worked at court, his passion for painting continued. Goya’s late style is frightening and mysterious. He painted a series of 14 nightmarish paintings known simply as The Black Paintings. Most famous of these was Saturn Devouring His Sons. This scene of the god Saturn consuming a child was a coded reference to Spain's civil conflicts.

In 1824, he left Madrid after 50 years. He could no longer bear the misrule of Spain under the autocratic Ferdinand VII and went into surreptitious exile. He went to a French spa to take the waters before settling in Bordeaux. He died there in 1828 aged 82. He was initially buried in Bordeaux before his remains were exhumed and returned to Spain in 1901. He was moved again in 1928 to his final resting place. This was the church known as Real Ermita de San Antonio de la Florida. It is called Madrid´s Sistine Chapel for its ornate ceilings painting by Goya himself in 1798. The frescoes portray a celebrated miracle by Saint Anthony of Padua. Goya’s remains (minus his stolen head, never recovered) now lie under the beautiful angels he painted. As Robert Hughes aptly puts, Goya was one of those uncommon artists that had the daring to take on the whole of human experience. Few artists before or since have approached his vision and talent.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve

In Australia, as in many western countries, Christmas Eve is the epitome of the tension between capital and Christmas. The media usually presents this ‘last minute spending spree’ as an unalloyed positive. This may reflect the nature of the relationship between media and their customers, the retailers that spend so much in advertising. No thought is given to whether this consumption is a good thing. Scopical reported gleefully an $800 million spent across the nation today. They quoted the Retailers Association’s executive director who said, "It'll be a healthy Christmas for retailers, who want their cash registers ringing long and loud." The valid warnings from economists about rising inflation seemed almost carping in comparison.

The Fairfax outlets also today reported the NSW Business Chamber statement that Christmas shoppers have spent $6 billion across Australia in the month prior to Christmas, up six per cent on 2006. In particular, electrical goods such as plasma screens, DVD players and MP3 players did well - with sales up 13 per cent on last year. While the article did talk about debt-funded spending and increased petrol prices, there was nothing in the frame of this of how this fits in with global warming and the need to reduce consumption. The media, in collusion with their advertisers, will be a long time coming round to this argument.

But not all Christmas Eve activity is about commercial interests. For many cultures, the night of Christmas Eve is the highpoint of the Christmas festival. In Spanish speaking cultures, Christmas Eve is known as “La Nochebuena” (the Good night). Family members gather around nativity scenes common to most homes. Christmas dinner (often Pavo Trufado de Navidad – Christmas turkey with truffles), games and song are followed by La Misa del Gallo (Rooster’s Mass) at midnight. La Misa del Gallo is so called because of the tradition that the only time the rooster crowed at midnight was at Jesus’ birth.

In Scandinavia, Christmas Eve is also the highlight of the festive calendar. It gets dark in some parts of Sweden by 2pm at this time of year and the locals are anxious to make the most of the long evenings. Swedes hang lighted stars and put electric candleholders in the windows. On Christmas Eve (Julafton) homes are alive with the smell of baking which ends in a huge Christmas Eve dinner followed by present giving usually done by someone dressed up as a tomte or Christmas gnome.

But one Swedish consultancy firm are determined to turn a Christmas tradition on its head. Stockholm-based Sweco have done an analysis on population centres and the rotation of the Earth's axis and worked out that the best place for Santa’s Grotto would be a remote location in northern Kyrgyzstan at latitude, (N) 40.40 longitude (E) 74.24 to be precise. The theory is if he starts there and travelled west against the rotation of the Earth, Santa then has twice as much time to deliver presents on Christmas Eve then if he had started at the North Pole. Given the Arctic melting issues, this may need to be looked into more seriously.

Back in the UK however, the rise of anti-social behaviour has claimed another casualty. Many churches have been forced to cancel their Christmas Eve midnight masses due to problems of violence caused by drunks and intruders. Church officials have reported attacks on clergymen in the run up to Christmas. Reverend Malcolm Liles said: "I have heard of several instances where clergy have been asked for money or have been assaulted in their churches." Liles and others are calling for better employment rights for ministers, including improved safety and an end to the situation where churches have no legal responsibility for the safety of the clergy, who are deemed to be employed by God.

Its not just the Christians who are celebrating, others are celebrating the ancient midwinter festival of Yule. Pagans gathered in Modesto, Kansas on 21 December to celebrate the winter solstice. It is the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere and the one where the Sun God supposedly dies and is resurrected. Twenty four druids, witches and warlocks walked through an archway while others wafted white sage smoke over them and before spraying holy water from the Irish Well of St. Brigid. The sage was meant to remove negativity while the water was a blessing.

Meanwhile much larger numbers were gathering for another religious rite. Over one million Muslims have made the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) for the annual Haj. They completed the rituals which included stoning the Jamrat in Mina before performing the farewell tawaf in Makkah. Those left will stay in Mina to stone the Jamrat for the fourth day. Authorities were on high alert and imposed a strict one-way system to ensure there was no repeat of the incident at Jamrat bridge during the 2006 Haj when 362 people were killed in a crush. Makkah’s governor Prince Khaled Al-Faisal warned he had noticed that many pilgrims have sneaked into holy places without having a Haj permit. “We will find solutions to all these problems,” he warned.

And on a night traditionally associated with a guiding star, astronomers have gotten their own present for Christmas Eve. Tonight is the night the planet Mars is in syzygy and will be the second brightest object in the sky next to the Moon. Syzygy is when a planet is in opposition which means it lines up with the Earth and sun, with the Earth in the middle. Mars is in opposition once every 780 days. Michael Fauerbach, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Florida Gulf Coast University, says it will appear a couple of hours after dark. “It's impossible to miss,” he said. “It's a bright orange-ish object, and it's obviously not a star”.

Don’t tell that to the wise men. Happy Christmas.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Book of Revelation: the end of the world as we know it

In a recent amusing youtube video, US President George W Bush acts out his apocalyptic fantasy to the tune of REM’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). It is amusing, partially because the makers have cleverly synched his words to the song, and partially because it taps in to the greatest apocalyptic fantasy of all. That fantasy is the biblical Book of Revelation. The story of Revelation is told in the fascinating book “A History of the End of the World” by American author Jonathan Kirsch.

Revelation is the last book of the Bible. Revelation is Latin for the Greek word apocalypse (“unveiling”). It is a roadmap to the end of the world, according to first century thinking. It is the Omega to the alpha of Genesis. The ‘alpha and omega’ is one of the many images that have seeped out of Revelation and embedded themselves in modern culture. Others include the Antichrist, The Seventh Seal, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Armageddon, the Whore of Babylon, Gog and Magog, and of course, 666, the fabled number of the beast. In short, Revelation is a treasure trove of the eschatology of endtimes.

However, the book is a serious anomaly. Revelation is a violent fantasy that sits awkwardly at the end of the mostly peace-loving Christian New Testament. The story of the lives of Jesus and his early followers segues uncomfortably into this misogynistic fire and brimstone Old Testament-style story of how history will end in catastrophe. Revelation’s moral calculus has been a crucial factor in the lives of many key Christians over the eras and remains a strong force especially in the religion-drenched politics of the US.

Revelation, also known as Apocalypse, has always divided the critics. The pious call it the revealed word of Jesus while feminist theologian Schussler Fiorenza called it “apocalyptic pornography” and literary critic Northrop Frye said it was an “insane rhapsody”. Thomas Jefferson was no more impressed and dismissed Revelation as “merely the ravings of a maniac”. The book was written by a man called “John” in the Romanised Asia Minor (now mainland Turkey) for an audience of early Christians. Revelation is traditionally ascribed to John the Evangelist, but no evidence supports this. However he is likely to be born a Jew from Judea, and a bitter witness to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

But John is a Jew who has converted to Christianity and he turns Revelation into a curious mix of anti-Semitism and Jewish history and tradition that made some scholars describe him as a “Christian Rabbi”. The book’s apocalyptic theme is borrowed from the Old Testament Book of Daniel. Revelation is responsible for giving Satan (which the Old Testament merely saw an “adviser”) such a bad reputation. Satan is backed up by a memorable cast of bad guys including plagues of locusts, a seven-headed ten-horned red dragon and the Great Whore of Babylon. The drunken whore is straight out of Freud, a sexual monster with whom “the kings of the earth have committed fornication”. Most intriguingly she keeps a mysterious golden cup full of “abominations and impurities”.

According to Revelation, the abominable and impure endtimes will be presaged by the “Tribulation”, with its plagues and pestilence, earthquakes and floods, comets and eclipses, and battles in Heaven and Earth. Jesus will return to Earth at the head of an army to fight a battle at a place called Armageddon. After defeating Satan and his followers, Jesus will rule for a thousand year Reich. But then Satan will escape, and with his allies Gog and Magog fight a second almighty battle. He is defeated again and cast off to eternal torment in a lake of “fire and brimstone”. Everyone on Earth is killed but the Elect will be resurrected and granted eternal life in the “new Jerusalem”.

The timetable of Revelation has long been a boon to millenarianists ever since the book was written. But it suffered some early embarrassments. In the book, John reserves his wrath for the Roman Empire. The “mark” of the beast was actually a Roman coin, which “branded” Christians when they fell into their hands. The 666 (or possibly 616) was an alphanumeric code which some say refers to Nero (although he died two years before the temple fell). This anti Roman sentiment was inconvenient by the time Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion in 391 CE. The book probably would not have made the cut of “approved” books in the Christian canon if not for the belief that the author “John” was John the Disciple (who, by another tradition, was the author of the Gospel of John).

Augustine then legitimised Revelation by giving it a spiritual and metaphorical reading. But the book’s supporters were always excited by its promise that the “end was nigh”. A medieval monk named Joachim of Fiore fomented apocalyptic revolution based on his interpretation of Revelation. He saw the Muslim warrior Saladin as the latest incarnation of the Anti-Christ. His visions inspired Crusaders such as English King Richard the Lion-Heart who visited Joachim for inspiration on his return from Palestine.

In the 1490s, Dominican friar Girolano Savonarola urged the citizens of Renaissance Florence to toss their paintings and perfume into the Bonfire of the Vanities to bring forth Judgement Day. He was a religious reformer who preached against the moral corruption of the clergy and the pope. His vision of New Jerusalem held Florence in rebellion for three years before he was excommunicated and hanged in 1498.

By the time Savonarola died, Columbus had begun his voyages to the Americas. The ideas of Revelation were quick to follow the first European immigrants. The Puritans saw the English civil war as a battle between Christ and Antichrist. They took their millenarian message across the Atlantic where the apocalyptic message spread quickly. Revelation was the text of choice of the Seven Day Adventists, founded in 1863 by Ellen White and her husband James. Many turned to a new variation called “The Rapture” which believed that the virtuous would be plucked from Earth without being inflicted by the horror of the Tribulation.

The idea was imported into the US by Irishman John Nelson Derby who led a dissenting group called the Plymouth (or “Exclusive”) Brethren. Derby’s plot twist on the Revelation (the Rapture is not mentioned anywhere in the text) has proved immensely appealing to American fundamentalist Christians. Vernon Howell (rebadged in biblical fashion as David Koresh) followed the Savaranola template when led his followers into martyrdom at Waco. There he believed the battle of Armageddon was about to start.

The Rapture is also responsible for America’s love-hate relationship between Christian fundamentalists and the Jewish people. It states that Israel will be restored to the Jewish people before bringing the world to an end. The rise of Darby’s ideas in the 19th century coincided with the rise of Zionism. While early Zionists were prepared to site their nation in Argentina or Uganda, Christians pressed Zionist claims to Israel itself as a precondition of the Second Coming. To this day, Christian Zionists regard peace in the Middle East as an obstacle to their plans, and their ideas match those of the hawks and hardliners in Israel. An uneasy marriage of convenience exists between fundamentalists Christians (who tolerate Jews only as a necessary conduit to Judgement Day) and government of Israel (who think the Christian ideas are crackpot but value their support and money).

Meanwhile Ronald Reagan brought the ideas of Revelation into mainstream American politics. In 1980, he said “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon”. He surrounded himself with people who had similar beliefs. His Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger admitted he read Revelation and said “I believe the world is going to end…every day I think time is running out”. Reagan spoke of the Soviet “evil empire” which predicted would die out with human history itself whose “last pages are even now being written”.

Reagan was only half right. The end of Soviet Communism did not presage the end of history or the last man. And while no president since him has been so outspokenly apocalyptic, the two Bushes and Clinton have all been forced to declare themselves to be “born-again Christians”. Many of the leaders of the End Time movement are rich, well-connected and very powerful. And 46 per cent of all Americans claim to be "born-again" according to a 2002 Gallup poll. George W Bush himself was converted by Billy Graham in 1985 after a drunken weekend at the Bush compound. His core constituency is the fundamentalist voting bloc. While he himself has not openly declared himself, his language is often apocalyptic, such as when he describes the 'war on terror' as 'the epic struggle of good and evil'. His actions in the Middle East show that his government’s support of Israel is a pivotal issue. As it always was, the fate of the New Jerusalem is intricately tied with the old one.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Omagh: the search for justice goes on

Sean Hoey, the only man charged with a direct role in the 1998 Omagh bombing, has been found not guilty. Families of the 29 victims have called for a cross-border enquiry as the judge blamed police failures for the verdict in one of Northern Ireland’s largest ever trials. After a $32 million investigation that took nine years, Hoey was cleared on 56 counts relating to the Omagh bombing and several other attacks on police and military installations. Justice Reginald Weir, who conducted the case without a jury, said the police had a "slapdash approach" to evidence-gathering, which meant DNA evidence presented at the trial could not be relied upon. He also said police were guilty of a "deliberate and calculated deception" and ordered court transcripts be sent to the police ombudsman.

The judge said the people of Omagh and Northern Ireland community clearly wanted to convict the perpetrators of bombing. But he also said he had to bear firmly in mind the cardinal principle of the criminal law. He quoted a judgment by the Court of Appeal, which said justice demanded " proper evidence and not merely evidence which might be true to a considerable extent, probably is true, but which was so convincing in truth and manifestly reliable that it reached the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt." The judge’s verdict was that “the evidence against the accused in this case did not reach that immutable standard.”

Hoey is a 38 year old electrician from Jonesborough, in County Armagh. His solicitor Peter Corrigan said his client was an innocent man who had been completely vindicated. "Today's judgement - a reasoned, lengthy and well considered judgement - completely vindicated this position that he maintained. Sean Hoey is an innocent man” Hoey's mother Rita also read out statement in which she described the police investigation into her son as a "witch-hunt". "I want the world to know that my son, Sean Hoey, is innocent," she said. "This is not a failure to bring those responsible to justice."

Her attitude was not shared by relatives of the victims. Victor Barker, whose 12-year-old son James died in the attack, blamed Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the former chief constable of the then Royal Ulster Constabulary, for the police's failure to convict anyone. Michael Gallagher, who lost his son Aidan in the bombing, also blamed Flanagan’s “appalling inefficiency”. He said the case had been a disaster for the Omagh families. "I think there has to be real questions why this was allowed to go through the system,” he said. "The police recommended the prosecution and the DPP allowed it to move forward, then they brought us all here for Christmas to get this news."

Omagh was a quiet Tyrone market town that was mostly spared the ravages of the 30 year Northern Irish strife. On 15 August 1998 a 225kg car bomb exploded in Omagh town centre after three warnings failed to give the exact location. It was a Saturday afternoon and the town was packed with shoppers. It was a particularly busy as women and children were in the town buying school uniforms and supplies at the end of the school holidays. The town was also hosting a cross-community carnival. Authorities believed the warnings were for the courthouse and shepherd people towards the site of the car bomb. The blast killed 29 people and two unborn children in what was to become the largest loss of life in Northern Ireland’s history. Another 220 were wounded.

While no one initially claimed responsibility for the bombing, suspicion immediately fell on the Real IRA, a small offshoot of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Real IRA had rejected the ceasefire the IRA had declared in 1997. The Real IRA finally claimed responsibility on the Tuesday after the attack. Their statement claimed there had been "three warnings put in, there were 40 minutes warning on each of them." They said they placed two warning calls to Ulster Television (UTV) and one to the Samaritans in Coleraine. "Each time the call was made it was very clear [where the bomb was] and the people talked back.” They said. "At no time was it said it was near the courthouse. It was a commercial target." They offered apologies to the “civilians”.

The following year, South Armagh republican Colm Murphy was the first to face charges relating to the bombing. He was charged with conspiring to cause an explosion. The judge at his trial in Dublin's special criminal court described him as a "service provider" for the Real IRA. He was convicted and sentenced to 14 years. However in 2005 his conviction was overturned and a new trial ordered, due to defects in the earlier trial with doubt cast on the evidence of two Irish police officers. His lawyers successfully fought this year to postpone the retrial indefinitely as Murphy is suffering from short-term memory loss resulting from a car accident and this condition will interfere with his right to a fair hearing.

Sean Hoey is Colm Murphy’s nephew. In September 2003 Hoey was arrested at home following a massive security operation involving 200 officers and soldiers. He had no past paramilitary or criminal convictions. His supporters claim Hoey is being framed in a conspiracy involving the Irish and British governments. A group called the Irish Freedom Committee say there were many irregularities surrounding the Omagh attack. They say authorities knew about the bomb two weeks in advance, and army and police were confined to barracks on the day and suffered no casualties.

However one major authoritarian casualty was police chief Ronnie Flanagan. He immediately announced a task force had been set up to investigate the bombing which would supplement the local police resources. Forensic scientists had examined the bomb timers for fibres and Low Copy Number (LCN) DNA. LCN is a new development which allows analysis of tiny samples of skin cells, sweat and other bodily fluids. Police matched the DNA to Hoey but the technique remains unreliable and scientists are divided over its efficacy.

In a 2001 ombudsman report, Flanagan was accused of "defective leadership, poor judgement and a lack of urgency" for his role in the bomb. English lawyer Victor Barker, whose son, James, died in the attack, said the initial investigation by Flanagan had been deeply flawed. "He [Flanagan] said he would fall on his sword if anything was wrong with this investigation,” said Barker. “I will give him the sword."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Zuma assumes control

Jacob Zuma has refused to speak in his first public outing since becoming African National Congress (ANC) leader on Wednesday. Reporters crowded around him as he emerged from a meeting with key deputies and followed him until they released with embarrassment he was going to the toilet. When he re-emerged from the bathroom, Zuma merely smiled and laughed at requests for comment before being whisked away by bodyguards into an awaiting car.

His first official speech is likely to be tonight at the party’s closing session. The 65 year old Zuma was elected on Tuesday night at the party’s national conference in the far northern city of Polokwane. In the party’s first leadership election contest in 58 years, Zuma won with 2,329 of the votes at the ANC's five-yearly convention to the Mbeki's 1,505. His convincing victory steers the way clear for a tilt at the South African presidency in 2009 while the aloof Mbeki takes on the mantle of a “lame duck” leader.

Analysts are divided in their interpretation of Zuma’s 60 per cent victory. Some see it as a sign of healthy democracy in the ANC while others see it as a portent of a fatal split in the organisation. Mbeki was booed and heckled during his speech to the congress on Sunday while Zuma supporters danced and loudly sang their signature anthem “Awuleth’ Umshini Wami” which means "Bring me my machine (gun)".

Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma was born in Kwa-Zulu Natal in 1942. He received no formal schooling and joined the ANC aged 17. Just one year later the apartheid regime made the ANC illegal. Zuma was arrested in 1963 while trying to leave South Africa. He was convicted of conspiracy against the government and served ten years on Robben Island. After his release, he organised the ANC in exile in Swaziland and Mozambique. After the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Zuma was instrumental negotiating a peaceful transition to a majority government and rose through the ranks to become deputy president.

But in 2005 Zuma was strongly implicated in the corruption scandal of Schabir Shaik, a banker and close friend of Zuma’s. A court found Shaik guilty of persuading a French arms company to pay an annual half million rand bribe (about $75,000 on current exchange rates) to Zuma in return for the firm’s participation in a multi-billion rand arms deal. Testimony showed Zuma was always short of money and relied on Shaik’s kickback to subsidise his extravagant lifestyle. Shaik was jailed for 15 years and Mbeki sacked Zuma shortly afterwards.

At the time, this seemed a fatal blow to Zuma’s political career with a likely trial and prison sentence to follow. But in September last year, a judge dismissed the State’s application to postpone Zuma’s trial and struck the matter off the roll. Justice Herbert Msimang said the state's effort to prosecute was "anchored on unsound foundations". But the state hasn’t given up hope and a decision must be made early next year on whether to press charges of racketeering, tax evasion, fraud and corruption against him.

Some are now worried that the populist Zuma will turn South Africa into the “new Zimbabwe”. Many fear his appointment will cause an exodus of skilled white workers and their wealth. The Johannesburg share market declined 1.5 per cent yesterday on news of Zuma’s ascension. The business community is worried that Mbeki’s market friendly policies will now be abandoned by the apparently more socialistic Zuma. Stanislava Pravdova, an analyst at Denmark's Danske Bank, had a typical business reaction. "With Zuma's victory, South African politics has lost a lot of its credibility abroad," she said.

However the door may yet open for newly installed ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe to take control of his country's fortunes. Motlanthe is a natural backroom player and mostly shuns the limelight that comes so naturally to Zuma. But as a former political prisoner, Motlanthe is well respected within the party and is a good negotiator. He is also likely to play a compromising role between Zuma and Mbeki. More interestingly, it remains distinctly possible that the next presidency could fall into his lap if Zuma is unable to shake the persistent corruption allegations over the next 12 months.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Putin shuffles the deckchairs

Vladimir Putin has confirmed the worst kept secret in Russian politics by saying he had “accepted an offer” to become the country’s Prime Minister. This will now happen if his handpicked successor Dmitri Medvedev is elected President in March as the Prime Minister is a presidential appointment. Analysts have painted this as a deft manoeuvre for Putin to maintain the reins of power despite the constitutional obstacle of a maximum of two presidential terms. But the announcement heralds shifts in power factions behind the scenes.

Medvedev is a hot favourite to win the Presidential election with the full weight of incumbent approval behind him. Putin endorsed Medvedev for the presidency last week and Medvedev responded by saying he wanted Putin to serve as Prime Minister. The motto appears to be “Elect Medvedev and keep Putin." With opinion polls consistently showing that almost half of Russia’s electorate would back Putin’s chosen successor, and strict media controls denying oxygen to opposition parties, the path seems clear for a Medvedev victory, most likely in a second run-off election.

The 42 year old Dmitri Medvedev would then become Russia’s youngest leader since Tsar Nicholas II. Medvedev is a graduate of St Petersburg’s State University where he gained a doctorate in law. In 1990 he was appointed to a consultancy position in the city’s council. Here he first encountered Vladimir Putin who was also a council advisor. He moved into national politics in 1999 becoming Government deputy chief of staff. He led Putin’s presidential election campaign a year later. He was rewarded for his loyalty in 2005 with the role of First Deputy Prime Minister, a position created specifically for him.

Medvedev is part of the Kremlin’s technocrat wing, which has strategic control the state-run gas monopoly Gazprom. Putin’s support for him is a repudiation for the hard-line military and intelligence “siloviki” faction (pdf) which backed former defence minister Sergei Ivanov for the presidency. Ivanov still has formidable weapons at his disposal for the election. The Siloviki remains the most powerful of the Kremlin cliques and controls the military, administrative and legal agencies including the FSB (the rebadged KGB).

But an opinion poll released yesterday by the Yury Levada Analytical Centre shows clear support for Medvedev over Ivanov. 35 per cent said they would vote for Medvedev with 21 per cent favouring Ivanov. The 66 year old current Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov is third with a 17 per cent approval rating. Medvedev’s rating has increased five percentage points in four months while Ivanov’s has dropped a dramatic 15 per cent in the same period when the hugely popular Putin announced his intentions. Putin won in 2004 with over 70 percent of the vote.

With power top-heavy in the hands of the president, it is not clear how his switch to Prime Minister will operate in practice. Putin is unlikely to want to accept orders from his new “boss”. Putin said in his speech to the closing session of the United Russia party congress on Monday he was ready to continue their “joint work” and that he would not seek to change the legal authority of either office, and that he was ready to work with Medvedev "without changing the distribution of powers between the president and the government". That means all the key "power ministries", such as the Foreign Ministry, Defence Ministry, and Interior Ministry would report directly to Medvedev. It remains to be seen who will really be pulling the strings of their joint work.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Pre-Christmas COAG meeting

Kevin Rudd has added indigenous affairs to this week’s first Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting since he was elected Prime Minister. COAG meets in Melbourne on Thursday. The meeting is shaping up to be a busy one with both the federal government and their state counterparts queuing up to set the agenda. Some have called this pre-Christmas event an example of “Kevin 24/7”.

The COAG meeting will also discuss issues of education, health, infrastructure, business deregulation, housing, water and climate change. But it was Monday's announcement that federal cabinet had decided to add indigenous affairs to that list that caused most media interest. The request to add it to the agenda came from Queensland Premier Anna Bligh following the worldwide media attention about the case of a 10-year-old girl who had sex with nine young males in the Cape York community of Aurukun. Bligh said she did not expect any "miracle cures" would come out of the meeting but she hoped to achieve progress on several matters.

COAG is the peak intergovernmental forum in Australia and meets on an adhoc basis. It comprises the Prime Minister, State Premiers, Territory Chief Ministers and the President of the Australian Local Government Association (ALGA). Established by Paul Keating in 1992, its role is to initiate, develop, and monitor nationally significant policy reforms which require cooperative action. Examples include water reform, counter-terrorism arrangements, and environmental regulation.

This is the first COAG meeting in the era of so-called “wall to wall” Labor administrations. COAG’s last meeting in April discussed a range of issues including water reform. The meeting was most notable for Victoria’s refusal http://www.thewest.com.au/aapstory.aspx?StoryName=372475 to sign up for the national water reform agenda which had at its heart the $10 billion plan to save the Murray-Darling Basin. But while this disagreement captured public attention, the meeting itself made progress on a range of unsexy issues including national rail safety legislation, trade measurement. occupational health and safety standards, and state variations in building codes and business numbers.

The various administrations have different ideas what is the top priority for this week’s meeting. Although Queensland Premier Anna Bligh was the one to put Aboriginal issues on the agenda, she said says Australia’s problematic health systems should take centre stage. "Number one on my agenda will be the health system…and it'll be followed very closely by water, infrastructure and more difficult social issues such as the problems confronting Indigenous communities," she said. "What I hope is that we see out of our first COAG with the new Prime Minister that we see the beginning of a new era in Commonwealth-state relations.”

But Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Tom Calma says Indigenous affairs shuld be the top priority. He said it was important that it becomes a high priority agenda item to be discussed on an ongoing basis rather than just the standing agenda item. He said COAG should ask the Ministerial Council for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs to prepare a comprehensive report on the state of indigenous affairs. Without this high level attention, he said “it ultimately results in a lack of sustained attention to the issues”.

The fate of the River Murray is also likely to be a high-profile item for discussion. Victoria was the only state to oppose the $10 billion federal takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin under the Howard administration. South Australia wants to bring the issue up in these talks but the Rudd government is refusing to say if the matter will be resolved this time round.

Others, including The Age have suggested less pressing items (though perhaps more electorally sensitive) such as surgery waiting lists are top of the agenda. They quoted PM Rudd saying that Health Minister Nicola Roxon had hoped to have a plan ready to discuss quickly cut elective surgery waiting lists with her state and territory counterparts.

But Rudd knows it is the Aboriginal issue that is the most sensitive. He has ruled out forcing a Northern Territory-style intervention in Queensland until the effectiveness of the Howard government initiative can be measured. He will look at a Queensland Government initiative to make payments to Aboriginal communities conditional on good behaviour. "I'm looking forward to a very broad-ranging conversation with the premiers and chief ministers on what further actions can profitably, productively and co-operatively be undertaken,” he said. “Let's face it, there are huge challenges out there.” On that point, Rudd has few gainsayers.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bali climate change talks end

The 187 nation climate change talks in Bali ended on Saturday with an agreement to launch further negotiations after reluctant agreement from the US. The final text of the agreement has acknowledged that “deep cuts” in carbon emissions will be needed. The “roadmap” the parties agreed on included a 2009 summit in Copenhagen to negotiate a binding deal as well as in principle support for the 2050 target of halving worldwide emissions, supported by assistance to developing countries. The deal was concluded after the US dropped opposition to a proposal by the G77 main developing-nation bloc for rich nations to take the lead.

There were some disappointments. The EU had pressed for binding carbon emission cuts of 25 to 40 per cent by 2020. While the US signed the eventual deal, the White House released a statement saying it had “serious concerns” about some aspects. It said the problems can not be solved by developed nations only, negotiations must differentiate developing countries by size of economy and emissions, and the commitment should favour the most vulnerable and least developed countries.

This is a coded call for India and China to do more. China's emissions are on par with those of the US but on a per capita level, each American emits far more than a Chinese. But the tide turned against the US in the conference after Al Gore made a major speech saying his country was "principally responsible" for blocking progress at the climate conference. However Russia and Japan joined the US in successfully opposing numerical targets.

But the official press release (pdf) from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) painted the outcome as a strengthened climate change deal that offers a clear agenda for the key issues to be negotiated to 2009. The UNFCCC is the parent treaty of the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012 and the UN believes the decisions taken at Bali will pave the way for action to adapt to the negative consequences of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, deploy “climate-friendly” technologies and finance adaptation and mitigation measures.

Australia will not commit to binding targets until the independent climate change review led by ANU Economics Professor Ross Garnaut releases its findings. The review will examine the impacts of climate change on the Australian economy, and recommend medium to long-term policies and frameworks. It has the challenging goal of ensuring future prosperity while meeting international emission targets. The review is not scheduled to complete until end of September 2008 though there will be a draft report due end of June.

This delay left Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in an awkward position at Bali. Last week he was accused of working with Canada and Japan to sabotage the EU and G77 for binding commitments. But he emerged from the conference in triumph after Australia publicly supported including the advice of the UN's peak science body (IPCC) in a crucial secondary document that will become part of the Bali road map. This advice says emissions must be stabilised in the next 15 years if the world wants to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees. Australia’s role in getting this advice into the roadmap was praised by several NGOs including the Climate Institute and the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Much remains to be done including solving the problem of how a carbon emissions market would work which protects poorer countries from deforestation. This is of particular importance to Indonesia and Brazil with their massive rainforests. Indian Science Minister Kapil Sibal also complained that the agreement was too vague on technology transfer. “They don't want to give us technology support. It says support for technology,” Sibal said. "What does support mean — support from where?"

The likelihood is that by the 2009 talks in Copenhagen there will be a new regime in Washington. The world will hope that whoever represents the world’s worst emitter will come ready to play their part. Last Thursday, the UN released fresh data that showed that the temperature rise continues unabated. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) said that the last ten years to 2007 were the warmest on record citing data taken from a global network of weather stations, ships and buoys. According to Michel Jarraud, MWO’s secretary general, "It's very likely the warmest period for at least the last 1,000 or 1,300 years." Expect a lot more hot air at Copenhagen 2009.