Horn in the side

The Horn of Africa’s volatility is increasingly a cause for concern

Al-Shabaab (the youth in Arabic) are a group of Somali-based militants with close ties to al-Qaeda. They are really starting to infuriate Kenya.

Seven people were wounded when two grenades were thrown into a club in northeastern Kenya on 24 December. One person was killed and 20 injured in a similar attack in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in October. A Kenyan man has been found guilty of the first deadly act and is serving a life sentence for that crime and for admitting being a member of al-Shabaab. And, also on 24 December, two men, Sylvester Owino Opiyo and Hussein Nderitu Abbas, handed themselves in to the police. Kenyan authorities suspect them of being linked to al-Shabaab.

The group have been carrying out more and more daring attacks in the region and Nairobi has taken a tough line with both its own citizens who have been involved with the gunmen and the militant Somalis themselves.

In October, Kenyan troops deployed to their unruly northern neighbour although they are operating under the African Union (AU) flag. Thousands of soldiers from Burundi and Uganda (along with a mere handful each from a selection of countries from the west of continent)  have been stationed in Somalia for the AU since 2007.  Where the Kenyan mission differs is that it has come in response to attacks on its people and property at beautiful hotspots for foreign tourists.

Somalia’s other border nations, Djibouti and Ethiopia, have ordered military detachments over the frontier to try to counter the growing terrorism amongst al-Shabaab-controlled areas. Djibouti has sent Somali-speaking soldiers in a bid to win hearts and minds.

Having had no functioning Mogadishu-based government for the last twenty years, there are many hands in the Somalia pie. Kenya is the most determined player at the moment, launching air strikes and ground attacks against militants. The other AU troops are holding weakly onto areas of the capital.

In October, the Kenyan government blamed the kidnapping of two Spanish aid workers from Dadaab refugee camp on al-Shabaab. The British PM David Cameron has stated he is willing to lead more concerted international action in Somalia. And Ethiopia has just jailed two Swedish journalists for 11 years. Addis Ababa accused them of supporting terrorism after they travelled with a separatist group to the Ogaden area of country – a region with a restive Somali minority. Moreover, there is the serious issue of piracy in the Gulf of Aden exacerbating the situation.

The dire domestic problems of Somalia have proved hard to resolve. It is worrying that deadly attacks are spreading across local borders and that governments’ appetites for military intervention seem only to be growing stronger.

Pacifying the Pacific

Can US Pacific policy provide Barack Obama with a much needed political boost?

The US president’s quiet international diplomacy has been too calm for most voters to notice. With the economy in such a parlous state trumpeting overseas adventures and turning a blind eye to domestic pain would buy him a certain exit from the White House in November next year. But the US is still a global superpower and the president is still a global president: he has to have a coherent and active foreign policy.

We have seen his Republican rivals stumble when it comes to discussing affairs abroad, most infamously Herman Cain, who was all at sea when pressed on the Libya conflict. Mr Obama himself has had some problems in this department, the most notable of which has probably been his failure to uphold his promise to close Guantánamo Bay detention centre. But, largely, overseas policy is faring much better than life back home.

Looking west, Washington is always anxious to achieve the right policy when it comes to North Korea. The oddball state has friends in China, another country with which the White House has to get the attitude right (and a rising worldwide threat to the US’s position at the top of the global tree). Relations will never be completely free from problems but what is to be commended is the more patient and positive path this administration is trying to take towards tricky overseas matters.

The US Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, is currently on a tour of the region. He has been to South Korea (7-11 December) and Japan (11-13) and is presently in China (until tomorrow, Thursday 15) meeting politicians to discuss Pyongyang. Japan and South Korea are seen as friendly nations in a turbulent region. China holds the keys to North Korea and the US would like to know that they are in safe hands.

That area of the world is finely balanced. South Korea twitches daily over the sheer unpredictability of its northern neighbour. The government in Seoul has been forced to tighten monitoring of Twitter and Facebook in an attempt to combat an upsurge in illicit propaganda from Pyongyang. South Korea is also having its own spat with China at the moment: it has asked Beijing for security guarantees after its embassy in the Chinese capital was hit by a projectile. Earlier in the year, a South Korean coastguard was killed by a Chinese fisherman. Further to the south, the Philippines has launched its biggest warship yet, the Gregorio de Pilar (a former US Navy cutter), in what has been seen as a show of strength to China. (The two countries are arguing over fishing rights and sovereignty of the Spratly Islands.)

Either way, the US has many interests in the western Pacific, most notably the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam. In November Australia agreed to the deployment of a full US Marines task force. As the examples above point out, the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula are continuing to be international flashpoints. The US is a player in the regional game and must proceed wisely with purpose. This is the sort of delicate diplomacy which can define an administration’s overseas record. It is also the sort of diplomacy that is rarely celebrated from the rooftops and, as such, must not be relied upon to guide a presidential campaign.

Secrets in the south

For a nation with a growing international influence, South Africa’s recent behaviour is confusing

The annual UN climate change conference is taking place in Durban until 9 December and South Africa is keen to show the world it can be a leader as well as a listener when it comes to global energy. But it has some rather unseemly domestic problems to attend to first.

The climate change summit may be the present focus for the world’s media in South Africa but another area that has certainly caught the media’s attention is the controversial Protection of State Information Bill. It has just been passed by the lower house of parliament and the president, Jacob Zuma, says the new act is needed to improve the state’s control over national secrets. The opposition, backed by Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of anxious journalists, is threatening legal action if Mr Zuma signs the bill into law next year. Many reporters are worried because the new legislation would not include a clause of public interest defence to cover exposé stories unpalatable to public figures. Moreover, journalists could be treated as foreign agents if they were found to be in possession of information that the new bill had been able to redefine as a state secret.

On the surface this seems to be a dangerous bill: whistle-blowing journalism is hard enough in South Africa and the content of this law paints the government in a poor light. State regulation and censorship – to whatever degree – of the press is a scary policy and one that South Africa must denounce and dissuade as publicly as possible. In order to be a global leader you have to be able to show you can manage your domestic and regional affairs first. It seems, however, that at the moment the government in Pretoria has taken a step backwards with this recent bill.

It this type of political misjudgment that provokes scorn and criticism on a global stage. Being provocative is no bad thing itself and South Africa must suggest, debate and dispute to maintain its credibility at the BRICS table where it now has a chair. But when you set yourself against a popular tide you risk looking out-of-touch and wooden. One reaction of governments is to brush off the negative coverage, change course and re-position themselves quickly with the current. Another response is to try to cling stubbornly to your original principles.

Gagging the media will receive no applause from Europe or the US. South Africa’s fellow BRICS Brazil and India will be worried but Russia and China have been accused of similar measures. Yet that is no excuse and South Africa must try as hard as possible to distance itself from such ideas so it can honestly show its aims and ambitions reach further than parochial and oppressive attacks on the media at home.