Playing the Gaddafi game

There is still support for the ousted colonel across a divided Africa

On Sunday 11 September, Carlos Gomes Junior, the prime minster of Guinea Bissau, told Radio Bombolom:

“With all the investment that Gaddafi has put into Guinea Bissau he deserves that respect and good treatment by the authorities and people of Guinea Bissau.”

Mr Gomes said he would welcome Gaddafi if he were to seek refuge there. Guinea Bissau is a tiny country (for further details see ‘Diagnosis elections‘– 05/09/11) with an equally small voice on the world stage. It is also a very poor country and regular cash injections from the Gaddafi regime would be celebrated publicly, even if, in reality, the money was headed for  the cabinet’s bank accounts instead of social projects and food programmes. When the anti-Gaddafi fighters stormed Tripoli and the National Transitional Council (NTC) moved into town the Colonel elected to flee and African nations, including Guinea Bissau had to choose one of four paths to tread in the post-Gaddafi era:

1. Recognition and condemnation, e.g. Nigeria

On 23 August the continent’s most populous nation and one of Africa’s most important players recognised the NTC. The government was quick to lay down the law to the new Libyan leaders and said the agreement was conditional on the upholding of human rights and democratic principles.

2. Stubborn and angry refusal to accept the new order and a loss of face, e.g. South Africa

The South Africans wanted to ensure that African problems were dealt with by the African Union (AU). This was a fair aim. President Zuma flew to Tripoli in May to try to broker a peaceful end to the conflict with the AU’s backing.

But the drip-drip of countries across the world coming out in favour of the NTC and the rebels, (as they were then), backed South Africa into a corner. Hopes that it could use its membership of the BRICS emerging nations power bloc were dashed when Russia and, as of today 12 September, China recognised the NTC.  In fact, Pretoria’s useless battle against the stream may well see it shipwrecked and isolated on the world stage.

3. Quietly accepting but uncertain, e.g. Niger

Niger has been accepting the steady flow of Gaddafi loyalists fleeing the new order on humanitarian grounds. In the last 24 hours, the country’s justice minister said that Colonel Gaddafi’s third son Saadi had been intercepted in an incoming convoy. Niger has also said it is unsure what it would do if the ousted leader himself turned up in Niamey.

However, on the other hand, Niger has recognised the NTC as the legitimate governing authority in Libya. It also recognises the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) jurisdiction and the ICC has an arrest warrant issued for Gaddafi. The Libyan border nation has manoeuvred into a quietly effective position: show your caring side by accepting fleeing regime soldiers but show your hardened side by waving the ICC arrest warrant at Colonel Gaddafi.

4. Continued support for Colonel Gaddafi, e.g. Guinea Bissau

Carefree and careless, Guinea Bissau, unlike South Africa, has no international standing to lose by admitting the close ties to Gaddafi and offering him a safe harbour. Such self-harm flies in the face of the attitude of influential and helpful neighbours. Bissau may feel their hands are tied by the old Gaddafi-era investment cheques. It would be better to stand up and say that those are some of its debts that will never be paid off.

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Hotting up on the Equator

Equatorial Guinea is one of the smallest countries in Africa but it has large, and questionable, ambitions.

Last week, this blog looked at the friendships and enmities between different Latin American countries and Colonel Gaddafi, (see ‘An Arab and his amigos‘– 05/04/11) but could help be on hand for Gaddafi from another Spanish-speaking source?

The tiny country of Equatorial Guinea sits snugly in the central western corner of Africa. The current head-of-state, Teodoro Obiang Nguema, came to power after deposing his uncle in a coup and then sentencing him to death by firing squad.

Gaddafi also came to prominence after overthrowing the establishment and there certainly seem to be many similarities between Equatorial Guinea and Libya:

1) Longevity of leaders

Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been the president since 1979; Gaddafi since 1969.

2) Political parties

Although a couple of opposition parties have been officially ‘legalised’ in Equatorial Guinea, they have only won a handful of seats during Obiang’s three decades of power. Gaddafi has long proclaimed that he is just a revolutionary leader, not a president, and there has been no formal government, let alone functional opposition, in Libya during those 41 years in power.

3) Protest marches demanding social and political reform

Any attempt by Equatoguinean opposition movements (Popular Union, Convergence for Social Democracy, Progressive Democratic Alliance) to show their united condemnation of the repressive regime is stamped out quickly. All reporting of the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East is banned. All protests are quashed by the police. Juan Tomas Avila Laurel is a writer from Equatorial Guinea and he went on a hunger strike in February calling for democratic and social reform and in protest at the corruption, malpractice and maltreatment of which he accuses President Obiang’s government. He had to flee to Spain soon after he started his fast. The current situation in Libya shows why leaders such as Obiang fear the consequences (civil war, foreign intervention) of mass demonstrations.

4) Oil

Equatorial Guinea has huge reserves and its wealth is rocketing, with a GDP far in excess of its neighbours, although it seems that the cash is simply heading straight into the government’s bank account. However, the situation is changing in Libya, where most of the oil is now in rebel-held land.

5) African Union

Obiang is the present Chair of the AU and has used his position to support the Gaddafi regime. Last month, Obiang praised what he called Gaddafi’s ‘readiness’ for ‘political reforms.’ He also ensured that the AU denounced ‘any form of foreign military intervention’ including a no-fly zone. Gaddafi was head of the AU in 2009-10.

As we have seen with Ivory Coast, (Jose dos Santos of Angola, another repressive, long-term president, sending aid to condemned Laurent Gbagbo), the strongmen club of Africa starts to worry when one of their own is in trouble and has no shame in letting it be known where their loyalties lie. Obiang is leader of the AU at the moment and cannot demonstrate worthy, multi-national leadership unless he shows a willingness to sort out his own, impoverished country first.

The flight of the president

Mass demonstrations were rare in North Africa. But 2011 has begun in extremely turbulent fashion, with the Tunisian president, Zine El Abadine Ben Ali, fleeing his imploding country for the Gulf after weeks of riots left many dead and forced the army to move into the cities. The people, disaffected and finally showing it publicly, are seriously unhappy at the way their governments have been handling their economies and jobs markets.

Algeria has also been the scene of rioting and further west, the Arab winter of discontent has been continuing in Jordan, where thousands have been marching in protest at fuel and food prices. Calls for the president to fall on his sword have been ringing round the streets there too. Sectarian bombings in Egypt further along the Mediterranean coast have heightened tensions in the region.

But back in Algeria, this is how 2010 began, with national protests as Algerians were cross about the overbearing feeling of stasis pervading the country’s political psyche and forcing the pace of social development to slow to a crawl. They finished the year up in arms again but the state of the protests in the country for the moment has calmed, as its neighbour has boiled over.

Although the protests across the Maghreb began as demonstrations against rising fuel and food prices and youth unemployment, they have turned into public manifestations of pent-up hurt and stagnation at the lack of social mobility that has been perpetuated year after year by the long-serving premiers. They have been public rejections of the current politics.

The worst disturbances have been in previously mellow Tunisia. Once they started hitting the streets week after week, the police tried to match the swelling demonstrations. Yet the passion and fervour with which the strikes have been carried out snowballed as each day came and went. The protests intensified, demonstrators died, the police stepped up control measures. This is how the pattern continued until the complete meltdown of the country’s governing structure on 14 January, when the president fled, leaving the prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, in charge.

The pressure is now on the AU, the EU, the US and other Arab countries to respond and act. Tunisians will feel they have played their role, in ousting the president. International mediation will be needed to ensure that the fragility of Egyptian sectarianism and Algerian and Jordanian public strife do not exacerbate or Europe will have a serious problem just the other side of the Mediterranean.

The trouble with two presidents

It is Christmas time but the feeling of goodwill to all men seems not to have extended itself to elections season in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president of Ivory Coast was defeated in the vote on 28 November but has chosen to swear himself back into office, causing friction in the capital, Abidjan. The main problem appears to be that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has also taken the presidential oath. So Ivory Coast currently has two presidents, from opposing camps.

The African Union has sent ex-South African premier Thabo Mbeki to sort the situation out. However, his laissez-faire attitude towards Zimbabwe’s electoral hurdles is not easily forgotten. There are worries that he is something of a walkover when confronted with persistent and vociferous fellow African leaders.

Gbagbo has the army behind him and there are fears that Mbeki may pander to Gbagbo’s sympathies over Ouattara. The latter has strong backing from the north of the country and Mr Mbeki will be mindful of the geographical civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-3, when the nation was divided into North and South. Nigeria is a clear and present example of the problems that can arise when you have a country split obviously into northerners and southerners. Sudan is rupturing over the issue. Further afield, the Korean Peninsula provides another example of the problem.

It is also election time at the moment in Egypt but there are problems afoot. Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party, withdrew from the vote over allegations of electoral corruption. It was hardly surprising then, that the governing National Democratic Party returned over 97% of the seats. Egypt is an international focus point for the continent, but eyebrows cannot keep being raised over its ‘democratic’ structure. Next year’s presidential elections will be key.

Back in West Africa, Niger is gearing up for local elections to be held on 31 December and the more significant contest to be the country’s leader on 3 January. President Mamadou Tandja is under pressure after the military grabbed power in a coup earlier this year. The head of the national electoral commission, Abdourhamane Ghousmane, has urged all politicians and parties to work together to try to achieve a nationally-recognised result in the New Year.

All hopes rest on his words being honoured. Otherwise Mr Mbeki could be off on another power-mediating placement sooner than he thought.

The fine line between defence and politics

On Monday 18 October the Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping, was promoted to second-in-command of his country’s Central Military Commission, the government body which controls the 2.2 million-strong army. It is a posting which is undoubtedly seen as a stepping-stone to the presidency in 2013 in a nation where the military and political promotions go hand-in-hand.

The next day, 5000 miles away in London, the coalition government led by the Conservatives announced wide-ranging defence budget cuts. The run-up to the publication of the ‘Strategic Defence Review’ was dominated by criticism from the opposition Labour party, the public, soldiers, sailors and airmen alike. Even the Defence Secretary himself was found to have been railing against the cuts he was asked to find by George Osborne, the British Chancellor. The outcome of the report has been a source of contention and paradoxy: the Royal Navy’s flagship, HMS Ark Royal, is to be retired four years earlier than planned but two new aircraft carriers will be built. However, there will be no British planes for use on the ships for 9 years. In addition to the naval cuts, the number of tanks and artillery pieces will be slashed by 40% and up to 20,000 service jobs will be at risk.

The government has stressed that a streamlining of a mismanaged and economically wasteful budget was imperative but there is no doubt that the British military standing in the world will be severely reduced, and any future conflicts will probably be impossible without allies’ aid.

But this notion does not apply to the UK alone. The Falklands War in 1982 was a purely British-Argentine affair, although each combatant did receive oral backing, Argentina from some fellow South Americans and Spain, and the UK from the US and Chile. Times have advanced though and if tensions rise once more in the South Atlantic, then Argentina would be able to call on direct military support from friends on the continent, notably Hugo Chavez’ Venezuela. Britain would be unable to respond as it did in 1982 and would have to seek out allies of its own.

The current Argentine president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, reshone the spotlight on Las Malvinas last weekend through Twitter when she labelled British soldiers carrying out exercises on East Falkland island ‘pirates’. Chavez also joined in online, recalling for the return of the archipelago to Argentina.

Looking further north, there is a different type of military deployment occurring in Colombia and Mexico. Both countries have large-scale deployment internally, as presidents Santos and Calderon look to conquer the drugs gangs. Mexico has sent the greatest number of soldiers to the frontline, and has also increased the remit of the navy and its marines, who are regularly involved in operations inland, not just in coastal areas. The gangsters are ingenious, and only the armed forces have the firepower to engage with the gangs, and the know-how to intercept seaborne missions and underwater deliveries via miniature submarines, although these conflicts have led to a massive death toll over the last four years, with more than 28,000 killed.

Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are the two African countries which are consistently in the current military news regarding Africa. Somalia hits the headlines for the ongoing unrest and firefights between the Al-Shabab militia and government forces, with the armed piracy situation adding to the problem. And the DRC is in the news for the gross abuses of villagers carried out by the army. The African Union (AU) provides peacekeeping elements to both these nations, among others, and it is in Africa where we see this type of military sanctioning and control the most in the current climate.

Looking back across the Indian Ocean, Burma has been under the control of a military regime for the past 22 years, and any attempts to promote democracy are dealt a fierce rebuke. Upcoming elections will be closed to outside observers, disallowing direct comment on the campaigns and results. Indeed, as Indian Nobel economics laureate Amartya Sen remarked on Thursday 21 October, only Burma’s closest allies, (which he cited as India, China and Thailand), have enough sway within the governing junta to be able to argue for democracy or promote greater transparency regarding human rights. Burma has an omnipotent role for the military in daily life in the country, but it is not the only Asian country to place such great value on the standing of the armed forces.

Last week, North Korea’s rulers named the present leader Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un as a general, and the foreign media (which was allowed within the borders, albeit under tight monitoring) was quick to point out the proximity of military high-command to political office. It certainly seems that Kim Jong-un, the dictator’s youngest son, will replace his father as the head of the country, but such a transition would have been extremely difficult without first giving him a prominent military role.

South Korea has US backing but has been keen to extend the diplomatic arm in recent months, refusing heavy-handed retaliative action after its neighbours sunk a warship in May. With Australia and New Zealand playing minor roles in Afghanistan, there remains the possibility that they could find themselves getting more and more involved with the nations to their north in the future.