Smoke in the region

The papal election could allow West Africans to hit the headlines for the right religious reasons

So far the main international news this year from West Africa has been linked in some way to the French-led battle against Islamist insurgents in Mali. France unleashed a ground and air operation there on 11 January, fighting what it claimed was the growing risk posed to the region and Europe by a bullish al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgency.

The conflict is continuing in the sandy mountains of northern Mali and troops from across the region are involved. But the mission seems to have spurred on Islamist extremists in the area as well. A French family was kidnapped last month from the far north of Cameroon by the Nigerian Boko Haram militants; in an online video of the family one of the abductors cites the French deployment in Mali as a “war on Islam”. And the Ansaru breakaway faction of Boko Haram has murdered both Westerners and locals in what it sees as its ‘struggle of good against evil’.

Islam and Christianity dominate West Africa, although they are often mixed with traditional beliefs. Islam holds sway in nations such as Burkina Faso and Niger; there are more Christians in Benin and Liberia. Countries like Nigeria are split half and half. It is a cultural and religious concoction, nowhere better illustrated than in Senegal.

More than 90% of Senegalese are Muslims but there is respect for the Christian minority, which is open and powerful enough to have one of its cardinals in the Vatican right now: 76-year-old Théodore-Adrien Sarr is the Archbishop of Dakar. And he is not alone. In the Holy See with him are four other West African cardinals, of whom one is among the favourites to be voted into the papacy. The two Nigerian men in red are 76-year-old Anthony Olubunmi Okogie, who’s the Archbishop Emeritus of Lagos and John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, the 69-year-old Archbishop of Abuja. Guinea’s Robert Sarah, who’s 67, is the President of the Pontifical Council and finally there is the affable Peter Turkson. At 64, he’s the youngest of the West African crew and the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. He is also high up on many people’s betting slips for the top job.

Clearly, the secretive voting and burning going on in the Vatican City at the moment only concerns Roman Catholics, and an argument can be made that this negates the papal election having any pan-religious bearing on the region. But this only takes the conclave’s significance at face value. By electing an African pope (and there are also bishops from the other side of the continent in Rome, such as the Sudanese Archbishop Gabriel Zubeir Wako and Tanzania’s colourfully-named Polycarp Pengo) the cardinals will be supporting the notion that the continent can be the driving force behind development in the coming decade; that Africa won’t just be in the lead pack when it comes to economic drivers but that it can also take on the weight of a world faith for the future.

That the responsibility is to head up a Christian denomination does not belittle or criticise the other major global religion – Islam. It supports the importance of faith in the region, be it from a mosque in Dakar or a church in Lagos. Nor does the Catholic factor denigrate the other Christian off-shoots.

However, the Catholic Church is going through a rough period at the moment with global sex scandals and Vatican financial scandals hurting the papacy. What also clouds some of the positive vision that some may have for an African pope are the conservative policies – particularly on the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS and on homosexuality – that remain popular and preached to the faithful. The welcome image of an African pope and all the hope that could bring may well be stained by the realisation that while he may look forward on overall development in his continent, he will also be looking backwards on internal social development.

Last week, the French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told his forces that they are going to be staying at war in Mali until the security of the country is assured. That will take a little while longer yet. Papal conclaves are somewhat shorter affairs and the result of this one could bring what would be (on the surface) positive news to West Africa – with one of the Christian leaders following in St Peter’s footsteps for the first time.

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Correa cruising on

The Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, sets off on his landmark third term

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month

After blitzing the opposition in a crushing first-round victory in the presidential election on 17 February, the next job for Rafael Correa is to count down the days to yet another inauguration later in the spring. He was so confident of victory last month that he hit the airwaves shortly after polls closed claiming his third win in the battle for the small South American country’s hot-seat.

Rafael Correa seems to follow an interesting policy agenda. It is a concoction of hardline leftist leanings in the manner of his Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez and softer capitalist schemes. A kind of curious, simultaneous mix of the defence of the protective power of the state and a defence of letting private foreigners tap for resources in the forests.

Many governments in Latin America regularly seem to put themselves between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the issues of ‘public v private’ asset ownership. Venezuela is an example of a country that has scythed a path through private fields and turned the crop over for harvest by state monopolies. Countries like Brazil prefer the state to lead the way overall even if there are gradual moves such as the announcements from the Dilma administration towards favouring some private investment in infrastructure projects like road and airport construction.

Who owns whose natural resources and who does what with them is always a hot topic in the region. Mexico was sure to underline the significance it attaches to this matter: it inked the promise that all its oil shall be owned by the people and for the people into its constitution. In his second term, Rafael Correa gave a Chinese firm the green light to construct an enormous copper mine near the town of El Pangui. Almost a year ago to the day, large demonstrations by indigenous people preceded a march to the capital, Quito, by residents who feared the development would pollute their water supply, among other complaints. A leftist ally of the president, Bolivian leader Evo Morales, has also felt the heat from indigenous groups who he has rubbed up the wrong way with highway construction through their territory. If Correa is to continue to allow foreign powers to dig and drill in his lush Andean lands then how he deals with the local backlash will remain a serious issue in his third term.

Interestingly, road-building has actually been one of the welcomed development projects in Ecuador. Correa is championed as a leader who takes the time to focus on basic projects. Many people have credited him with a policy agenda that looks to build the country up from the ground, via both motorway construction and social support programmes such as the $50 monthly aid stipend for the poorest families.

There have been low points in his presidency. Rafael Correa has had several serious encounters with the media and he has been accused of trying to exert the same sort of state control over the press that he has wielded in other areas of Ecuadorian society. He has not been shy in bringing lawsuits against the media and the most notable case was his dispute with El Universo newspaper in 2011. This case not only drew international denouncements for the attack on the press, but also over the neutrality of the judges involved. (Mr Correa has also been accused of the age-old tactic of stuffing the courthouses with favourable friends.) Enraged by a critical editorial, the president filed a case against the publication’s opinion editor and two directors and the men were found guilty of libel, sentenced to three years in jail and forced to cough up $40 million in damages. The constitutional court that handed down these verdicts later absolved the convicted journalists after Correa triumphantly announced that, despite him supposedly suffering grave damage to his character, he could still summon up the laudable strength to pardon the men.

And despite his friendliness to outside nations when it comes to tapping up natural resources, he has also not been afraid of stepping on other people’s shoes, particularly those of the United States and the United Kingdom, as the Julian Assange case illustrates. The controversial Australian head of the Wikileaks website is currently holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he was given asylum last year in a multi-national row also involving Sweden, where he is wanted over allegations of sexual abuse. Correa took his time considering the matter but in the end was more than happy to step in and waggle his thumb once again in Washington’s face. For his third term, it seems likely that we will see more of the same: more social support for the poor; more permits for foreign investors; and more antagonism of the West. One area of concern is whether we will see more of the worrying attacks on the press. Overall though, his policies have served him well so far. He might as well continue blazing his trail.

This blog will be travelling to Ecuador next month