Heart of darkness

Another anti-government rebellion is under way in the middle of Africa

This time it is in the Central African Republic (CAR) and so far nearly a dozen towns, including the major settlement of Kaga Bandano, have fallen into rebel hands. The dissidents, who are threatening to march on the capital, Bangui, complain that the CAR president, Francois Bozize, has not stuck to the terms of the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement (LCPA), which was forged between the government and all but one of the country’s armed groups. (The one gang which did not sign the original LCPA belatedly put its pen to paper in June this year.)

But this upsurge in violence has worried Western nations. The US has moved its ambassadorial staff to safety and on 26 December protesters threw stones at the French Embassy building in Bangui, tearing down the tricolore in anger at the rebellious movements in the north of the country. The CAR government has asked for help from Paris in sorting out the malcontents but the French leader, Francois Hollande, is reluctant to get back involved in the internal politics of his country’s former colony. (On a recent trip to Algeria, another ex-French subject state, Mr Hollande described colonialism as “profoundly unjust and brutal”.)

The United Nations Security Council has condemned the ‘Seleka’ rebel attacks and called for both sides to come to a peaceful solution. Surprisingly, the rebels seemed to have been aided in their assaults on many places due to the withdrawal of the troops stationed there, many of whom are from the CAR’s northern neighbour, Chad. But the idea of an internal rebel advance, taking towns and villages along the way, feels remarkably familiar and fresh in the memory. Just to the CAR’s south is the huge rough rectangle that forms the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and this other acronymed African country has had recent rebellious problems of its own.

On 20 November soldiers from the M23 rebel army stormed the town of Goma, in the far east of the DRC, close to the Rwandan border. The M23 group defected from the Congolese army in a dispute over a 2009 peace agreement that saw rebels reintegrated into the military; the group takes its name from the date of these accords (23 March). After the fall of Goma, the M23 soldiers wrested control of several other towns in the region from the UN-backed national Congolese forces. The M23 rebels retreated from Goma at the start of this month after a frail peace deal was agreed between the two sides.

The rebel movements in both the CAR and the DRC arose from peace accords that were meant to have put a stop to all this mutiny. The incendiary nature of fractured rebel factions, government crackdowns and other cross-border rebel influences mean that the current situation of a fragile peace in DRC and an ongoing insurrection in CAR is dangerous. Added to this mix are further international groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army. These outlaws are headed by globally wanted man Joseph Kony and they are infamous for mass recruitment of child soldiers and for a growing list of crimes, from robbery to rape. They are based around and about this general central/east-central African region.

This region is certainly bubbling. CAR shares a frontier with the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, which is still completing a slow, complex and often violent divorce from Sudan. Al-Qaeda-linked Somali militants Al-Shabaab have been willing to pop over the south-western border to Kenya to carry out suicide attacks in markets and nightclubs. When a few nations are involved, it is more likely that they will be able to get together themselves and sort out their problems. But the growing entanglement of national influences and interests amongst the jungles and red-dirt roads of the area may now signify the moment for an ‘outside’ power to step in and mediate. However, as we have seen from the plea from the CAR for help from their former colonial master, it would be nearly impossible to find a mediator who is not tarnished by current, former, overt or covert ties and partialities.


A long way to go

The new Mexican president tries to ease himself into an uncomfortable chair

After a five-month hiatus that followed his election win in the summer, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s Enrique Peña Nieto has finally settled down into the presidency. He has had a busy few days since taking the presidential sash from the outgoing Felipe Calderón. And, just like the election on 1 July, this time of political change has not been free from controversy.

The man at the helm of the Mexican ship is young and claims to be leading his refreshed PRI party out on a new message of national unity and endeavour. But his agenda and the political mystique surrounding the PRI’s comeback have been under scrutiny during the long campaign, the election, the summer interregnum and now the handover of power. Critics say that the PRI is simply an old book that has been re-covered and its return to the top job is like the re-issuing of a booming, controversial tome that once kept all other books out of the shop window and pushed back onto the dusty shelves.

The conservative PAN and their embattled former president were seen as increasingly tired as Calderón’s six-year term was coming to an end. Enrique Peña Nieto has clearly tried to highlight the change at the top by underlining his rhetoric with energetic plans and policy announcements. And, just one day after his inauguration, he oversaw a cross-party agreement to try to overcome the infamous squabbling in Congress. (Even though the PRI retook the presidency, it does not have a majority across the two houses of parliament.) The ‘Pact for Mexico’ saw the three chiefs of the big party beasts (the PRI, the PAN and the left-leaning PRD) agree to work together in three main policy areas: telecommunications; education; and local government finances.

There were serious street protests ahead of and during the handover ceremony on Saturday 1 December. This was nothing new: the president came to power in the face of massive student demonstrations spearheaded by the ‘YoSoy#132′ group and this blog witnessed first-hand the energy of the youth protests which often coupled their anti-PRI heartbeat with a pro-PRD leaning. This time around 92 people were arrested amid violent scenes: police had to fire tear gas to contain protesters who showed their ire at the congressional confirmation of power on a man they see as a puppet for a fraudulent few moving behind the scenes at the top of Mexican society. Stones and firecrackers were thrown, banks and hotels’ windows were smashed and bonfires started in the roads of the capital.

The PRI has had to continue to dampen the ongoing claims that it secured its new election success through the old techniques of vote-buying, smear campaigns and manipulation of the media. But in the summer, after the defeated socialist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador launched a legal challenge to the result, the country’s highest court found in the PRI’s favour and Mr Peña Nieto was free to prepare for his groundbreaking move to the presidency.

But the major national issue that overwhelms all Mexicans and belittles all the legislative changes and electoral arguments is the wave of violent and organised crime that still floods the country. On Sunday, as the co-operation agreement between the three parties was announced, there was a timely reminder of Mr Peña Nieto’s biggest challenge. Nine people were found dead in the northern city of Torreón. In one house, seven men had been dismembered and Chihuahua state authorities found heads, torsoes, arms and legs stuffed in plastic bags; across town another two bodies, riddled with bullets, were discovered.

66,000 Mexicans have died and thousands more are desaparecidos after the war that ex-president Calderón declared on the gangsters. Civilians, police officers, members of the armed forces and criminals have all been killed in this civil war. There have been some successes for the authorities (25 of the 37 most-wanted barons have been killed or captured) but the public would like a new way to try to quell the fear of extortion, rape, kidnap and torture that exists across large swathes of the nation. For the moment, the new leader has maintained the deployment of the army and navy on the streets and he has categorically denied that there will be any secret, shadowy handshakes and winks with the gangsters, a tactic his party has been accused of using in the past.

The president may be new but the violence is not. And, in fact, the PRI has never been denied the chance to discuss combative policies to sort out the destruction as it has never fully been beaten out of office. Despite missing out on the last two presidencies it has held on to many state governorships (including Peña Nieto himself in Mexico State from 2005-11) and it too has suffered from the crime: PRI politicians have been threatened and killed.

Mr Peña Nieto has won the hearts of many housewives with his good looks and he undoubtedly won the votes of many Mexicans in the election. But his road to the presidency has not been smooth and the challenges he now faces are not small in number or in scale. He has a long way to go to prove to the country that whilst the Mexican political behemoth may be back, it is a reformed political creature with a taste for fair governance rather than widespread corruption.