Archive for category Africa

Ebola and Globalization


“Close the borders!”  “I’m not going to travel anywhere!”  “Kick any African out of the country!”  These are statements of irrational fear of Ebola. The reality is that the US is probably going to contain the virus this time due to the intense and thorough efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) .  Ebola is not easily transmitted, the biggest threat currently is to care givers, especially those at the end of life.

Yet while a lot of the panic we see in the US is irrational fear, there is reason to fear the spread of Ebola, which could become a global pandemic.  That rational fear is illustrative of the changing nature of global politics.   Diseases like Ebola cannot be contained geographically if it reaches a certain tipping point.  Due to globalization the threat is real and universal.  China does a lot of business on the African continent, one could imagine it hitting that country.  The world is connected.

So what is the proper response?   First, the racist reaction of some needs to be rejected.  The idea that this is an African or “black” disease is simply wrong.  It’s a human disease, and no life is more valuable than another.  Second, irrational fear must give way to rational fear.  That is the fear that the disease could spin out of control in Africa, thereby dramatically increasing the likelihood of a global pandemic.

That rational fear gives us one logical course of action: the countries of the developed world, with wealth and technology, need to do all they can do to combat Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia before it spreads further.   We need to recognize that their problem is our problem.  Trying to isolate ourselves from them only increases the chances that we’ll ultimately suffer from a pandemic.   Our best defense is to defeat the virus while it can still be contained.  Rapidly, time is running out.


It strikes me that Ebola is a perfect example of how our thinking is not yet in sync with the reality of globalization.  We still think in terms of sovereign states, independent, and able to protect ourselves from outside threats.  We’ve not yet internalized the fact that we are so connected with the rest of the world that sovereignty exists more as a legal concept than practical reality.   Instead of calling for a massive influx of aid and support for the fight against Ebola in Africa, we call to close the borders and stop travel.  That’s short sighted and counter productive.

Yet it’s still that way on a plethora of issues.  While neo-liberal orthodoxy keeps us from grasping protectionism in a down economy, on most issues we act like we have the power to go our own way as a country, regardless of what others want.   That is an illusion.

China could in a day destroy our economy.   China won’t, because the consequences for China could be catastrophic.  However, they have the capacity to inflict economic harm at will if we do things that they find contrary to their interest.   That’s just one example.  Globalization has so linked the world economy that we’re all on the same boat, even if we imagine we’re captaining one boat in a vast fleet of individual ships.

Ebola perfectly illustrates the dangers of such anachronistic thinking.  By fearing the disease and thinking we can protect ourselves, we call for things like travel bans, isolation, and an internal focus.  We worry about it spreading here, and follow the small number of US cases with diligence, open to rumor and gossip.

To avoid a real threat from Ebola, we have to fight it where it is now virulent - in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea

To avoid a real threat from Ebola, we have to fight it where it is now virulent – in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea

What we should be doing is following the cases over in Africa, worried about the inability of those states to contain the virus.  We should be clamoring for our government, the UN, and the governments of the industrialized world to do everything possible to contain Ebola now in those countries.   The reality is that if Ebola continues to spread, it will mutate, perhaps become airborne, and ultimately be global.   Nothing we can do will prevent it from hitting our shores if that happens.

We don’t really protect ourselves by focusing on what’s going on now in the US, our best protection is to be proactive in places where Ebola is rapidly spreading.

But we won’t, too many of us are locked in old style thinking.   Meanwhile the clock is ticking on our chance to contain Ebola in West Africa, our best bet to avoid a global pandemic.



Stats through July 31

Stats through July 31

Most of us treat the story about the Ebola outbreak in Africa as a curiosity.   This isn’t the first story about Ebola somewhere in Africa, but it always seems to get contained.   However, the current Ebola outbreak has become more widespread than any time in the past; if it spreads in Nigeria, especially to the capital of Lagos where a case has been reported, it risks becoming the a world wide epidemic.

It started, like small past outbreaks have, in what seemed to be an isolated village, Guéckédou, Guinea.  In December 2013 a two year old died of suspected Ebola, as did a few others.  After that things seemed quiet until February of this year when the disease started spreading through Guinea.  In March Doctors Without Borders warned that this was a dangerous epidemic and would be difficult to contain.

But Ebola in an African country is not unprecedented, so most people shrugged off the news.  Then in May it spread to Sierra Leone, and later to Liberia.

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, one of Africa's most famous doctors, succumbed to Ebola in Sierra Leone, despite having followed all the protocols

Dr. Sheik Umar Khan, one of Africa’s most famous doctors, succumbed to Ebola in Sierra Leone, despite having followed all the protocols

A few facts:  Ebola is spread through exchange of bodily fluids, which can include sweat and thus touch can transmit the disease.  It kills over half of its victims, and this strain seems to have a death rate of near 70%.   Once infected, there is no cure.  There are treatments, but those usually involve basic patient care to increase the chances of survival.   There is no vaccine, nor are there any potential vaccines or cures anywhere near any kind of human testing.   Since the disease has been very limited in scope, drug companies haven’t had the profit motive to invest large amounts in preparing for a potential outbreak.

If it spreads, we’re in trouble.

There has been a case in Lagos, Nigeria, a city of over 20 million people.   Not only is Lagos immense, but it is full of slums and dirty living conditions.  If it spreads there, it could rage out of control.   Lagos is also home to major transnational oil companies who operate in Nigeria.   Ebola in a city won’t stay in the slums.   There is a lot of international travel from Lagos, and it’s likely that an outbreak in Lagos would become global.

At this point, the response has been slow.   Seen as an African disease, the West hasn’t taken it seriously, nor has it given African states affected the aid they need.  Governments in the West haven’t funded research into cures or vaccines because it wasn’t seen as a major problem.

But it’s not too late.  At this point, the virus is not out of control, even if this outbreak is larger and more dangerous than any time in the past.  For once Ebola is in a position to become a global pandemic, and even if the chances are still relatively small, the time to act is now.  Not only to prevent this outbreak from spiraling out of control, but to prepare for the future.  This will happen again, and again, and each time the risk of a pandemic will grow.  This needs to be a global priority.

There is nothing about Ebola that makes it an African disease;  if it spreads to the West it will be hard to stop

There is nothing about Ebola that makes it an African disease; if it spreads to the West it will be hard to stop

The governments of the West need to give as much aid as possible to assist the effort on the ground in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Nigeria.   The focus now can’t be primarily on potential cures or vaccines — there’s not enough time for that — but to treat, quarantine, and contain the virus where it is.

That means sending people and supplies – basic medical equipment, including gloves, sanitizing agents, sheets and material used to disinfect and create sanitary conditions.  Good quarantine facilities will make it easier to contain the virus.  People on the ground can make it easier to identify cases and get help to where it’s needed.

Yes, it’s dangerous.   More health care workers have died in this outbreak than any other Ebola outbreak before – not only in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the health care workers.  That is scary – and one can understand people in the West not wanting to go into a situation where even the top doctors have not been immune from infection.  But we send troops into battle, and health care workers have proven themselves as brave as soldiers.   They often have helping others as their main goal.

Still, if we want to send enough people to make a difference, they need to be well equipped and everything possible done to protect health care workers.   This is real.  The time to act is now – this is a real and present danger, and the warning signs are clear.   Otherwise we risk that 2015 will be remembered as the year of the Ebola plague.


Rwanda as a Case for Non-Intervention?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.

Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.

Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others.  Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries.  Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power.   They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.

It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control.    The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support.  Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment.   This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.

They did not fear western intervention.  After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done.  As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there.    In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.

It almost worked.  The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out.   The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.

Common scenes in that three months of hell

A common scene in that three months of hell

The story line usually goes like this:  Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis.   Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG.    This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage.   In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together.   France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.

But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:

Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state.   Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up.   We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood.   We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners.   We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated.  But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.

It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.

To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks.   Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition.  Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.   Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly.  After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.

More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda.   A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers.   Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?

I don’t know.   To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it.  I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed.   It’s worth thinking about.


Nelson Mandela – the Radical Hero

mandela prison

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) emerged as one of the true heroes of the late 20th Century.    He’s inspired young people, helped his country avoid a blood bath which many thought was inevitable, and demonstrated the power of forgiveness and truth over vengeance and anger.

The path Mandela took to this position was interesting.  He started out inspired by Gandhi, who had initially been active in South Africa, committed to non-violent resistance.    His activism against the South African apartheid regime began in earnest after apartheid was put in place as an official policy in 1948 by the openly racist National Party.   But Mandela’s commitment to non-violence changed on March 21, 1960, the day of the Sharpeville massacre.   69 protesters were killed by police, and it became clear that the government would use all means to support apartheid.

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

The March 1960 Sharpeville Massacre would radicalize Mandela

Mandela then gave up non-violence and helped form the violent “Spear of the Nation” or MK.  Drawing inspiration from Castro, Che Guevara, and Nasser, Mandela took a more radical stance.  He never openly advocated communism, but there were clearly connections between the MK and communist radicals.   Moreover, he went to Ethiopia to study guerrilla warfare, as the ANC saw the only option against the National Party to be violence.

On August 5, 1962 he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment.  Even in prison he refused to renounce violence; he said the ANC should renounce violence only when the government would renounce violence against the ANC.   He would remain in prison until 1990, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.   Yet Cold War politics muddied the waters.

While most people were sympathetic to the ANC’s willingness to use violence against the racist South African regime, it also provided cover for those willing to forgive racist oppression due to the National Party’s embrace of anti-Communism.   With the Cold War intense, the US wanted a strong ally in Africa, and South Africa was a perfect choice.   They had gold, minerals, wealth and a strategic location.   When people complained about the racism of apartheid, the US and UK could either say they refuse to infringe on South African sovereignty, or argue that they also opposed apartheid, but Mandela and the ANC were not the answer.   Moving from apartheid to communism would be to go from one form of oppression to another.   With such rationalizations, support for the apartheid regime remained consistent until near the end.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

Up until his release, Mandela was considered a pro-Communist terrorist to many in the West.

For many on the right, it was far better to support institutionalized racism that dehumanized millions than risk the possibility that a majority black government in South Africa might be friendly to communism.  Indeed, the coziness the West showed to the racist government did nothing but push the ANC towards anti-American regimes.

In the eighties the tide started to turn.   While the Reagan Administration gamely tried to pretend that it was not supportive of apartheid, embracing the “Sullivan Principles” regarding rules for investment in South Africa (principles designed to benefit blacks and put conditions on investment), the apartheid regime was becoming untenable.   Congress overrode Reagan vetos of sanctions against South Africa.  Not only was global pressure mounting, making South Africa a pariah state, but young people in South Africa were increasingly opposed to the racist philosophy that defined apartheid and the National Party.

The young Mandela was a fighter

The young Mandela was a fighter

Ironically both Communism and apartheid were undone by the same force – globalization.   The inability of South Africa to compete in a globalized world economy along with the isolation of dysfunctional communist economies led both systems to collapse almost simultaneously.   That also meant that the apartheid regime had lost its last defense – if there was no Cold War, there was absolutely no reason for the West to support the National Party in South Africa.

Still, the conventional wisdom in the West was that the 1990s would see a South African bloodbath.  The Nationalists would hold on to power, the ANC would grow violent and aggressive, as the blacks would rise up in a mass revolt.  In this context the last Nationalist President, F.W. DeKlerk, who took power in September 1989, advocated to end apartheid and official racism.  To symbolize the significance of this move, he ordered the release of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation - something some on the right still do not accept

Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation – something some on the right still do not accept

Nelson Mandela had been in prison for nearly 28 years.   He could have been bitter, angry and seeking revenge.   Many of the whites in South Africa opposed the ending of apartheid, it could have all gone badly.   However, Mandela embraced reconciliation — truth commissions instead of revenge seeking.  An embrace of a South Africa where the majority would now rule, but without reverse racism or a desire to avenge the past.

The result has not been a perfect shift towards a new society.   South Africa managed to make the transition smoothly, but still faces a myriad of problems.   Mandela helped avoid a blood bath and put South Africa on the right path; that was all he could do – the future will have to be made by South Africans together.

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela's former prison

President Obama and Michelle visit Mandela’s former prison

Yet it’s sad to see that the far right still harbors hatred for Mandela due to abstract accusations.  When Texas Senator Ted Cruz posted something kind about Mandela on his website, he was inundated with negative comments.   True, Cruz’s constituents are farther right than most, but that kind if vitriol in ignorance of what Mandela accomplished is simply sad.

Mandela danced with radicals and extremists because he was fighting a cause and they were willing to be his allies.   Though he fought evil with violence — he was not a Gandhi nor a Martin Luther King Jr. — the American revolution was also violent.   British rule was arguably much less evil than the apartheid regime.

What matters is that when Mandela’s side won, he did it with grace, forgiveness and a sense of dignity that most of his opponents lacked.  Mandela is remembered as one of the historical giants – a hero, an inspiration and a great man.   The haters will never take that away from him.    He was radical when it was necessary, but moderated when the evil he was fighting ceased to be.   That is part of his greatness.




“Stop Treating Mama Africa Like a Vagina”

One of my projects this year is a series of lectures as part of the “World in Your Library” series sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council.  Saturday I traveled to beautiful Southwest Harbor, Maine, a delightful community on Mt. Desert Island.   The island, home to Acadia National Park and the tourist destination Bar Harbor, is stunningly gorgeous and I never knew what a gem Southwest Harbor was.   In the next two months I have talks in Bangor and two in Kennebunk.

The topic of today’s talk was “Children and War.”   The topic is important to me thanks to a course I co-teach with Dr. Mellisa Clawson, a professor of Early Childhood Education.   She and I started teaching that course in 2004, and over the years thinking about how war affects children world wide has changed my view on how we in political science think about conflict.   “Children and War” is a subject that elicits emotion and pain.   One woman said after the talk that her stomach hurt, and she had a hard time taking in the information, even though she was glad she came.   She gave me a hug and thanked me.  After the talk the Q and A ran almost an hour, perhaps the most flattering response one can receive!

I ended the talk with the video above – “Vagina” by Emmanual Jal.  Jal is a former child soldier from the Sudan, whose musical ability and creativity helped him escape and recover from the trauma of being a child soldier witness to and participant in atrocities and horrors.  The video is crude in some ways – “stop treating Mama Africa like a vagina, she’s not your whore, not any more….”  One woman, a feminist, was at first put off by what she saw as the derogatory use of the term “vagina.”  But others pointed out that the video was saying the beauty of Africa – and the vagina – was being misplaced by violence and rape; in this case, rape of Africa’s natural resources, leaving the people poor and subject to horrific violence.

Massive oil wealth is produced in the Niger Delta, where people live in abject poverty

Massive oil wealth is produced in the Niger Delta, where people live in abject poverty

And Jal is, sadly, correct.  Our lust for diamonds, oil and gold have lead us in the industrialized West to be complicit in horrific crimes in Africa.  We provide the demand for demands, gold and of course oil, and big corporations in collusion with African governments (read: organized criminal gangs aka mafia) provide it.  The people who live and work there are left poor, and wars to try to control the resources leave thousands dead and provide the fodder for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

There are many organizations now that try to “rescue” and rehabilitate former child soldiers — children who have perpetrated atrocities that here would yield the death penalty.   Former child soldiers recall how they would feel proud of the terror they’d instill going into a community and killing indiscriminately.   Sometimes their leaders would scratch their skin open and rub cocaine into their blood to create a sense of power.   They’d tell them they were invincible; the LRA in Uganda would have the children rub palm oil over their body, saying it would protect them, if they believed the Lord was true.  If comrades died, they lacked belief.

As many as 40% of child soldiers are female; rape is a constant

As many as 40% of child soldiers are female; rape is a constant

Up to 40% of child soldiers were girls, all of whom were raped and used as sex slaves, home keepers, and soldiers.  If they have children from the rapes, those children would be raised to fight.  They often avoid rehabilitation in order to avoid the stigma of having been part of the militias – the stigma of having been raped and used, making them “undesirable” by men in that culture.

But as Jal’s video shows, we are complicit.  Our big corporations work with their corrupt governments to cheaply mine diamonds, gold, oil and other minerals.  We don’t know or care of the social impact.  We pretend it’s just “the market,” and that any problems in Africa are endemic to those countries.   We are blameless.

Yet we are not – we make those atrocities possible, and our forefathers through colonialism and greed destroyed the old functioning culture on the African continent to bring them “civilization” – Christianity, government and science.   Thus they went from being self-sustaining and balanced to impoverished, unstable and dependent.   Crudely, we (in the West overall) raped the continent saying “it’s good for them and they like it.”  Yeah, Jal’s metaphor is discomforting, but accurate.

One problem is cheap weapons; yet when efforts are made to control their flow, the US opposes as the NRA considers it "gun control."

One problem is cheap weapons; yet when efforts are made to control their flow, the US opposes as the NRA considers it “gun control.”

To solve these problems it’s not enough just to try to help former child soldiers.  We need to work to build communities with a sense of purpose and identity.  Military intervention can’t work without a lot of effort to help rebuild social structures, providing education, basic necessities, and stability to allow community building.  But those efforts work against the desire of big corporations of the West – joined now by groups from China also wanting cheap resources – to maximize profit, while keeping Africans poor and divided.

If the people of Africa are kept down, treated as worthless as powerful states and corporations use “the market” to rationalize the plunder their wealth, the people may strike back.   In an era of terrorism, new media and easy to obtain WMD, that anger could be given substance.   The anger implicit in this video could magnify.  It’s in our interests to work together now, rather than close our eyes and simply enjoy the lifestyle we receive by tolerating the violence and abuse by corporations and governments worried more about the bottom line than humanity.