Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Speaking at an event at Tufts University yesterday, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame gave one the biggest hints yet that he may alter the constitution in order to run for a third term in 2017.

In response to a student’s question concerning what role he would play in the country after his current term ends, Kagame responded: "I have been asked when or whether I am going to leave office right from the time when I started. It is as if I am here just to leave. I'm here to do business on behalf of Rwandans…I don't know what else I can give you on that, but let's wait and see what happens as we go. Whatever will happen, we'll have an explanation."

Kagame has led Rwanda since 1994 when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of the country and ended the genocide against the Tutsis. For the first six years, Kagame was a de facto head, but he officially took presidential office in 2000 after his predecessor resigned. He then won elections in 2003 and again in 2010.

Under Rwanda's constitution, presidents are limited to two seven-year terms, but ever since 2010, there has been speculation over whether Kagame would hand over the reins of power come 2017.

Recently in Rwanda, the media, which is heavily monitored and censored by the government, has published a number of articles in support of a constitutional amendment that would allow Kagame to run again.

These articles tend to frame the issue as a matter of democracy. One letter to The New Times, for example, advised fellow citizens to remember that “a constitution isn’t a straitjacket but a living covenant with built-in rules for amendment as the polity requires. As long as the necessary minimum proportion of Rwandans required by the Constitution want a revision to that sacred document to cater to fundamental change in national need, then we should all be prepared to accept such change."

Meanwhile, an article last year which followed Kagame’s annual Citizen Outreach programmes, in which he meets with communities across the country, described how “residents appealed to the Head of State to remain in office and pledged to vote for him.” The author, a legal scholar based in the capital, concluded: “In many democracies, it is totally justified to amend the constitution principally to advance the broad shared interests of the citizens or in response to nation’s exigencies at hand. It even befits more when the amendment is steered by the people themselves.”

Repression in and out of Rwanda

To critics of Kagame, such talk of democratic principles is disingenuous. They claim that Kagame's regime has long been characterised by repression, violence and human rights abuses, all sheltered by a silently complicit West.

In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, for example, RPF forces are believed to have killed around 35,000 Hutus in reprisal attacks. These “military campaign style mass murders” were catalogued by the UN, but the report was never released, allegedly because of Kagame’s close relationship with the US and the guilt the international community felt for not intervening in the genocide.

Kagame's army has also committed large-scale abuses in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The motivation for Rwanda's incursions into the DRC, the first in 1996, was to root out Hutu génocidaires who still posed a threat, but the RPF went well beyond this. According to 600-page UN report, the Rwandan army killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of Hutus, including women and children, in what some claimed could amount to genocide.

Domestically, Kagame has also been accused of violence and repression. Although the country holds elections and claims to be democratic, Freedom House classifies Rwanda as 'Not Free'. Dissenting newspapers and journalists are not tolerated and claim to be harassed and intimidated. Opposition leader Victoire Ingabire is currently languishing in jail on what many believe to be trumped up charges. And there have reportedly been several cases of extrajudicial killings. This January, for example, the exiled former intelligence chief, Patrick Karageya, was found murdered in a hotel in South Africa. In the aftermath, Kagame did little to dispel suspicions that the Rwandan government was responsible when he commented, "You can't betray Rwanda and not get punished for it."

Over the last two decades, Western governments have largely turned a blind eye to Kagame's repressive tendencies. Many believe this partly because of a sense of guilt at their failure to prevent the 1994 genocide, though as Rwanda specialist Catharine Newbury has pointed out, Kagame is also “extremely adept in speaking a discourse that Westerners want to hear."

Recently, Rwanda's status as an aid darling has started to slip, especially after evidence emerged of its alleged support for the M23 rebels in the eastern DRC, but it remains to be seen how donor countries would respond if Kagame announces he will be running again in 2017. Similarly, while government-backed Rwandan media paint a picture of widespread support for the strongman, it also remains to be seen how the broader Rwandan population would feel about their president's twenty-year rule being extended by a further seven.

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The formation of the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in February last year represented a landmark event in Nigerian politics. For the first time since the country's return to multi-party democracy in 1999, the dominance of the ruling People's Democratic Party looked like it could be seriously challenged.

The APC resulted from the merger of four main opposition groups and is essentially the first challenger party with a national scope. Historically, party politics in Nigeria has consisted of one ‘national’ party and a few others with more regional outlooks. This was the case in the so-called First Republic (1963-6) and the Second Republic (1979-1983). In the Third Republic, the annulled elections of June 1993 were contested by two national parties − the National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) − but these were essentially creations of General Ibrahim Babangida's regime and were roundly dismissed by critics as ‘test tube parties’.

In the Fourth Republic (1999-now), there have been attempts to create genuine challengers to the PDP. Days before the 2011 elections, for example, some opposition parties tried − and failed − to join forces. Even if they had, the PDP's march to victory looked all but inevitable.

Now, however, some lessons seem to have been learned. Opposition groups have been able to put aside their differences − at least for now − and form early enough before the 2015 elections to develop an alternative platform from which to woo voters and smooth out any internal cracks before it's too late.

APC challenges

There is much discontent in Nigeria with the PDP. Various high-level officials have been implicated in corruption scandals, the government has been unable to ensure economic growth is inclusive and leads to employment, and President Goodluck Jonathan has failed to stem the tide of attacks by the Islamist militants Boko Haram. However, disillusionment with the PDP does not necessarily mean victory for the APC come 2015.

The opposition party has its own issues with which to contend. Last year, for example, the APC welcomed a wave of defectors from the ruling party, including 5 governors, 37 members of the House of Representatives and around two dozen senators. On the one hand, this was a political coup and marked a changing of the tides. But on the other, it left some wondering how different the APC could be to the ruling party if it was drawing so much of its line-up from the PDP.

One way in which the APC could distinguish itself is through its choice of presidential candidate and, crucially, in the process by which that choice is made. As a party whose slogan is ‘A new party for a new Nigeria’, the APC needs to pick a nominee who can embody this sense of change as well as connect with voters. However, once again, its strength in being able to boast an array of well-recognised political veterans could prove to be a weakness if not handled sensitively. For a long time, the PDP somehow managed to keep the many factions within the party happy; now the APC must do same.

Securing credible elections

For all the attention on the PDP and APC, the two giant parties are not the only organisations that will determine the outcome of the 2015 elections. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will also play a key role, especially given how competitive and potentially close the polls could be.

The first challenge will be financial. According to INEC's chairman, Attahiru Jega, running the election will cost N92.9 billion ($570 million). However, given that the 2011 elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has a population less than half the size of Nigeria's, cost $360 million, that figure could end up being significantly higher.

The second challenge for INEC is to ensure the elections are credible. At the beginning of April, federal lawmakers continued to debate changes to electoral law that would place the burden of proof on INEC in election petitions. If implemented, this would mean that INEC would have to show an election was credible when challenged. Only once it did this would the petitioner be required to provide evidence that the poll was not conducted properly. It is hoped that this arrangement would put even more pressure on INEC to ensure free, fair and credible elections.

The messy and disputed governorship elections in Anambra state last November raised serious concerns about the commission’s capacity. Jega has said the lessons have been learnt, but this assertion will soon be tested in the governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun, to be held on 21 June and 9 August respectively.

The American author Mark Twain is often credited with coming up with the saying: “Politicians are like diapers. They should be changed often, and for the same reason”. One thing this points to is the fact that while, in an electoral democracy, people may vote out bad leaders, they will not necessarily vote in good ones. Hence the need to repeat the process often.

Since 1999, Nigerians have not really had this opportunity. Although the man at the head of the PDP has changed, the ruling party has not. Now, for the first time, Nigerians could decide that 15 years of PDP rule is enough and that they are ready to try something new. Over the next ten months, the APC will have to try to convince voters that they are indeed something new, while the PDP will have to try to regain the people's trust or at least convince them to stick with the devil they have come to know so well.

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The following is a work of fiction based on real life events. On the night of 15 April, armed men suspected to belong to the Islamist militant group Boko Haram abducted several female students from a Federal Government Secondary School in Borno state.  

Several loud gunshots came from the vicinity of the school gate, followed by piercing cries from my schoolmates. Boko Haram. It was time to say our last prayers. I took what I intended to be one last look at the bed of my best friend and neighbour. Her eyes locked into mine and reminded me of our pact, our agreement of less than a week earlier. Our mates in the dormitory were screaming and running in search of a place to hide from death; under the beds, behind the wardrobe, inside the huge plastic bucket that stored water. I saw the youngest girl among us hide inside a Corn Flakes box and cover herself with clothes, shoes and exercise books. The box was slightly torn at the side and I could see the wooliness of her hair. Two JS-2 girls hit the iron burglary-proof bars of a window with the rickety wooden chair with which we used to play hot seat on people's birthdays. We had always felt protected by the burglary bars, but that day they imprisoned us. About seven brave students hit at the locked door with an iron bed. Our matron usually locked the doors and took the keys away at 9 pm. Only a gunshot would have brought that door down. My best friend and I ran towards each other, to hold one another and await the bullet, the knife, or both.

There were two policemen who manned the entrance gate during our examinations. We covered our fright with the joke that being inadequately armed, they would most likely be the first to flee should Boko Haram attack. Some disagreed, saying the policemen had walkie-talkies and if they sensed danger they would immediately call for reinforcement. Salamatu, whose father is a police officer, said we need not fear, that although we could only see two police men, that hundreds were hiding in bushes behind the school compound and that there were even more plainclothes officers mingling with villagers. She swore that the man who supplied corn to the canteen that morning was her father’s friend in the force. We believed her. We could either believe or drop dead with fear. So we carried on normally. We pretended not to live in the same Borno state where several people had been killed or maimed. We pretended it was not in nearby Yobe state that several boys our age were slain at a similar Federal Government Secondary School. We pretended as if I, Zainab, had not read from the newspaper I borrowed from the government teacher that there were Boko Haram bases in the Sambisa forest not too far from our school. But then, the only thing worse than death, our literature teacher had once quoted, is the fear of death itself.

A week before that tragic night, Magdalene my best friend woke me up in the middle of the night.

“I had a dream last night” she whispered in my half asleep ear. I turned the other way, away from Maggie’s dreams. She had started having nightmares and bedwetting the night after Boko Haram killed several boys from the Federal Government College in Yobe. We had to manage the bedwetting between both of us. On the Saturday morning after the first time, we obtained permission to visit the local market. I escorted her to the used materials section where we bought a cheap macintosh mattress cover and two extra white cotton bedspreads. As the hostel prefect, I made sure all the girls were out on some form of activity when we covered her mattress with the macintosh. We could take care of the bedwetting, but not the dreams.

“Zainab, you have to listen to me. They came here. I saw them.” She was shaking away the weaknesses of the previous day’s evening sports activities from my bones as she spoke.

“Maggie, you have been having that same dream ever since. What do you want me to do?” I stretched away from her and tried to wipe the stubborn sleep away from my tired eyes.

Instead of her usual reply of “Nothing. I was just telling you.” Her voice dropped even more.

“I don’t know which is which.” She responded in a voice that sounded as if she had a rope around her neck and was utilising her final minutes with the priest before the hangman did his job.

“Which is which, about what, Maggie? But I told you that in Islam women and children are safe during a war.” I was now sat up on my bed. I placed a gentle hand on her shoulders and noticed that she had not even bothered to remove her urine soaked nightwear before sitting on my bed. It was definitely not the careful and caring Magdalene that had been my best friend and academic competitor for the five years we had known each other.

“Zainab, I know. I know they are not supposed to attack us. But what if they do?” Her fear and tear-soaked eyes begged me for answers. She continued. “I am no longer afraid of dying just that I don’t know between the heaven of the Bible and the paradise of the Koran which one is real. What happens when one dies. Where -?” Her voice trailed away, replaced by a deep groaning. The tears from her eyes soaked the identical Ankara fabric we both had around our chests. My mother had bought 5 yards of it and split it for both us.

I tried to respond. To remind her that we had had this conversation several times, that we had laughed at the similarities, discussed the differences and said we should talk more to our Imams and priests about the things we did not understand about her religion and mine.

Still shaking and now holding on tightly to the bone of my wrists, Magdalene moaned, “Zainab, promise me, please promise me.” Other girls were stirring. I was afraid that one of them could wake up and flash a torchlight on Maggie’s bed, exposing the map of Nigeria she must have drawn on it with her bedwetting. “Zainab, promise me please, please promise me, Zainab, my friend and sister.” Her voice was rising, almost to a wail. I held her as my panic grew.

“Promise you what, Maggie? Tell me please.” I whispered.

“Promise me that you will pray to your Allah for my soul, when they come. I promise you I will pray to my Jesus for you.” My wrists were tearing apart from her grip. She placed her now agape and wailing mouth on my shoulders to stifle the sound. Out of hurt and confusion I blurted out

“I promise you, Maggie. I promise you I will pray to Allah for you.”

That night they came. I prayed to Allah for Maggie’s soul and Maggie prayed to Jesus for my soul as we held each other and waited to be shot or slaughtered. But instead of loud gunshots we heard voices shouting Allahu Akbar. In the place of feeling the sharp end of the machete on our necks, strong arms dragged us inside the back of a lorry. Now we are here, deep inside Sambisa forest. I am still praying for Maggie and Maggie is still praying for me. We are praying, and waiting.

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At approximately 06:45 on the morning of 14 April, an explosion ripped through the Nyanya Motor Park in the bustling city of Abuja. The blast, which triggered secondary explosions as nearby vehicles were engulfed in flames, occurred as scores of commuters were readying themselves for their daily commute into the centre of the Nigerian capital. By the time the smoke had settled and the sounds of screams were displaced by those of sirens, in excess of 70 people had been killed and scores others wounded in the deadliest attack of this nature to ever occur in the city.

While there have been no immediate claims of responsibility, suspicion has fallen on the Islamist militant group Boko Haram. Since its formation in 2002, Boko Haram has waged an armed insurgency against the Nigerian government which has left an estimated 5,000 people dead and thousands more displaced. According to Amnesty International, 1,500 of these deaths have occurred since the beginning of 2014, marking a recent upsurge in attacks both in frequency and brutality. Reports of civilian massacres attributed to Boko Haram have become a near daily occurrence in Nigeria's north-east which has long served as the group's operational stronghold.

The increase in violence has many believing that the Nigerian government is losing the battle against Boko Haram. Moreover, incidents such as the 14 April attack in Abuja raise concerns that the Islamist group could be expanding its campaign to areas outside its traditional areas of operation, potentially placing major cities at sustained risk.

In assessing the credence of such concerns, however, it should be noted that the attack at the Nyanya Motor Park was not the first Boko Haram attack in Abuja. On 16 June 2011, a suicide bomber breached the perimeter of Nigeria's police headquarters (Louis Edet house) in what was likely an attempt to assassinate then Inspector-General of Police, Hafiz Ringim. In a telephone interview conducted with a Nigerian newspaper, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Zaid claimed responsibility for the attack which killed one police officer and left several others wounded.

Two months later, Boko Haram then executed one of the most high-profile attacks in its decade-long insurgency when another suicide bomber drove his explosive-laden vehicle into the entrance of a building in Abuja's Garki district housing the offices of the United Nations. At least 21 people were killed and 76 wounded in the attack which Boko Haram claimed was a reprisal for security operations targeting its members in the northern city of Kano.

Boko Haram's attacks in Abuja continued in 2012 when the group claimed responsibility for the 26 April bombing of the offices of the ThisDay news media publications and when its suspected offshoot, Ansaru, launched a daring raid on a prison facility in Abuja's Apo district where a number of Boko Haram insurgents were being detained.

The aforementioned incidents highlighted that Boko Haram possessed both the intent and operational capacity to execute attacks in Abuja which, while perhaps not as deadly, were more sophisticated in both their operational planning and execution in comparison to the recent Nyanaya Motor Park bombing.

But if Boko Haram had the requisite capabilities to execute attacks in Abuja with relative frequency, why has there been a near two-year lull in its operations in the capital? The answer lies in the fact that despite mainstream narratives suggesting the contrary, counterinsurgency measures employed by the Nigerian government have indeed weakened the group.

Boko Haram's attacks in context

Since a multi-pronged counteroffensive was launched against Boko Haram's positions and interests in early 2013, there has been a marked decline in the group's attacks outside Nigeria's north-east. Prior to the aforementioned offensive, Boko Haram was rapidly expanding its operational footprint across Nigeria, permeating both the north-western and central administrative regions of the country. In addition to attacking Abuja with a degree of frequency, Boko Haram was also particularly active in Kano, Kaduna and Plateau states and had even conducted operations as far south as Kogi state.

By the end of 2012, a major Boko Haram attack in Nigeria's commercial capital Lagos, which had so far been spared, seemed inevitable. However, the group's rapid expansion was abruptly halted in May 2013 following the implementation of a state of emergency in the north-eastern states of Adamawa, Borno and Yobe, which have and continue to be worst affected by the insurgency. The emergency decree, which provided the military with additional powers in combating the militants, was soon followed up with sustained air and ground offensives which the Nigerian military claims killed hundreds of Boko Haram members and destroyed key bases in the Sambisa Forest region of Borno state.

In the months following the May 2013 offensive, Boko Haram restricted their operations to Nigeria's north-east. Apart from the reduction in the geographical scope of its attacks, there was also a shift in the group's modus operandi. Attacks utilising suicide bombers declined, while armed attacks targeting fortified facilities such as police stations, military barracks and detention centres similarly became less frequent. Instead, Boko Haram shifted its focus to soft civilian targets, launching attacks on vulnerable and isolated towns, villages and schools, which often had a minimal or non-existent security presence.

A group which had been touted as being better equipped and trained than the Nigerian military, and which had exhibited this superiority in brazen and sophisticated attacks against hardened targets, was now waging a more conventional and risk adverse form of guerrilla warfare. Although high-profile attacks have not ceased in their entirety, as witnessed by the December 2013 attack at the Borno Air Force base and the more recent assault on the Giwa barracks, these incidents have been sporadic and mostly limited to the city of Maiduguri where Boko Haram has always maintained a strong operational presence.

While spiralling casualty figures show that the Nigerian army is certainly not winning the battle against Boko Haram, it would be wrong to suggest that Boko Haram is exactly winning either. Although tragic and brutal attacks continue relentlessly, the tactics employed by the Nigerian army have, at the very least, stymied the Boko Haram's geographical expansion and curtailed its ability to execute attacks against targets of strategic security and/or governmental importance.

In this regard, we should be careful when drawing conclusions about the 14 April attack at Abuja's Nyanya Motor Park. If Boko Haram was indeed responsible, it is unlikely that the incident marks the beginning of any sustained campaign by the militants in Nigeria’s capital, or indeed anywhere else outside the country’s north-east. Instead, the attack could be seen more of a reflection of a militant group aware of its operational decline yet which is still intent on posturing itself as a threat of national proportions.

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On 17 April, 1980, Robert Mugabe addressed a euphoric crowd in the soon-to-be-independent Zimbabwe. In the aftermath of a long and brutal liberation struggle against white minority rule, Mugabe seemed to publicly embrace the ideals of peace and reconciliation. By becoming Zimbabwe’s leader he ostensibly vanquished the ugly specter of colonialism and racism that had defined the country formerly known as Rhodesia, and entered office buoyed by a wave of international fanfare and support.

It was in this context, on the eve of Zimbabwe’s independence, that Mugabe declared:

“Democracy is never mob rule […] Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others […] Our new nation requires […] a new spirit that must unite and not divide.”

This hopeful rhetoric would almost immediately ring hollow. By July, a state of emergency had been declared and a mere six months after achieving independence, Mugabe ordered the first wave of the Gukurahundi massacre, a violent suppression of the Ndebele in which an estimated 20,000 people were murdered. The Gukurahundi would mark the ominous beginning of an era characterised by widespread violence, suppression of the political opposition and civil society, rampant corruption, and a gradual degradation of Zimbabwe’s economy.

Although a cavalier disregard for human rights has been a hallmark of Mugabe’s leadership from the outset, this largely went unnoticed or otherwise tacitly encouraged by his Western backers early on. Despite the warning signs of a burgeoning dictator with violent tendencies, then US president Jimmy Carter welcomed Mugabe to the White House in August 1980, giving a round of stirring speeches to university students in Washington, DC. Early in the next decade, following a series of bloody elections and what some have labeled a genocide against the Ndebele, Mugabe was appointed an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II and received scores of honorary degrees from around the world. Many of these honors, including his knighthood, have more recently been revoked.

Under Uncle Bob

Whereas Mugabe and his allies in the military, police, and security forces once largely relied on physical violence to preserve their hold on power – from Gukurahundi to the horrific electoral violence of 2008 – state repression is now largely masked behind the 'rule of law'. While there are occasional outbursts of violence against peaceful protesters and suspicious disappearances of critics, the Mugabe government relies on more nuanced methods to maintain a veil of democratic legitimacy.

Harassment and dubious incrimination of human rights defenders doesn't attract the same headlines as overt violence. And in this sense, Mugabe has learned the all-important lessons for 21st century despots: 1) use courts and state prosecutors instead of baton-wielding security forces to strangle the legitimate work of civil society actors; and 2) stage routine elections, but peacefully tilt the playing field in your favor thereby making the election a mere formality.

These cunning methods have allowed Mugabe to rule the country he once helped to liberate longer than many Zimbabweans have been alive. Mugabe has the ignominious distinction of being the only African head-of-state to preside over an average decline in both economic output and life expectancy since 1980; Zimbabwe's poverty rate has skyrocketed; and the nation has shifted from being a global exporter of food to one in which one in four citizens needs food assistance.

Furthermore, a recent survey by the country’s largest trade union found that 75 major companies have shut down since January 2014 alone, putting around 9,000 breadwinners out of work; a once lauded education system is crumbling, with teachers routinely striking or leaving the work force altogether due to inadequate pay; and in March 2013, while 80% of the country was surviving on less than one dollar a day, Mugabe binged $16 million of taxpayer funds to cover the costs of his 90th birthday party, his daughter’s wedding, and two bronze statues of himself to be built by North Korea. A recent study by the Center for Global Development estimates that Mugabe’s misrule has cost the country upwards of $96 billion.

Zimbabwe’s economic decline began in earnest in 2000, the year Mugabe suffered his first and, to date only, defeat in the polls during a constitutional referendum. Shortly after that defeat, groups of liberation war veterans took the long-standing problem of land distribution into their own hands as they seized, often violently, vast tracts of land from the country’s white commercial farmers.

This so-called fast-track land reform programme was, at least in theory, well-intentioned as it redistributed land to around a million black Zimbabweans, many of whom have since made successes of their farms. However, many farms that were once booming are now underutilised, and considerable chunks of the seized land ended up in the hands of Mugabe family members and long-time supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF party.

This type of mismanagement and corruption, often under the dubious guise of 'national progress', is not uncommon. Nowadays, scandals are so commonplace that barely anyone outside the country bats an eyelid at revelations, for example, that Mugabe has disbursed salaries of over $500,000 a month to senior bureaucrats.

All the while, the United States and other Western governments send millions of dollars in aid, lending a lifeline to a government that blames the West for most of its ills, while benefiting from unchecked graft and corruption. After the 2013 elections, the West collectively questioned the legitimacy of an election stolen without bloodshed – surely a vast improvement for Zimbabwe – but in private breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Mugabe's legacy

While Mugabe and dictators like him around the world have more recently outpaced democratic gains, international actors – including governments and civil society – can take a number of steps to reverse this trend.

Firstly, they should recognise that 'peaceful elections' – in other words, the lack of bloodshed on Election Day itself – are not necessarily fair or credible. Leaders that ascend to power through illegitimate means should be labeled as such and rightfully isolated until necessary reform is implemented.

Secondly, we must work collaboratively, with more progressive regional leaders in Africa, to counteract repressive legislation such as anti-protest and public assembly laws as well as so-called 'NGO laws' that restrict foreign funding for independent groups and unduly increase government oversight. We can do this together by investing more in civil society, thus empowering individuals with the necessary tools to combat modern-day repression at the local level.

From boasting about his “degree in violence” to using more nuanced means with which to maintain power, Robert Mugabe is a veritable trailblazer in the field of modern dictatorship. He has both inflicted human misery at home in Zimbabwe and has inspired it abroad. 

In his speech 34 years ago, Robert Mugabe appealed to the best in all of us, planting the seeds of social cohesion and genuine progress, particularly for those who had been unfairly marginalised in the past. Today, that same soil is heavy with the spilt blood of those who dared to oppose his directives and now seems incapable of sustaining an increasingly starved population. Mugabe is living proof that power corrupts, and that a cult of personality can devastate a country otherwise brimming with untold potential. To many people, Mugabe’s legacy will be one of violence, intimidation, corruption, and economic ruin, but this certainly does not need to be Zimbabwe’s lasting legacy as a nation.

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Looking out across the sea from the town of Vilanculos on the Mozambican coast, the silhouette of a large vessel, sitting on the edge of the blue-tinted horizon, is just about visible to the naked eye. The group of local fisherman frantically hauling a net full of the morning’s catch into their modest dhows ignore it, but a splinter group of two or three of these small sailing boats set off towards it through the cobalt shaded waters. The likelihood is that it one of the many passing cargo or container ships has travelled across the vast Indian Ocean from Asia.

Both the convoy of small fishing boats and their larger counterpart are here to do business, but not to exchange a few Malaysian bananas for some freshly caught crabs. The locals are expecting to acquire several kilograms of cocaine, which will be taken back to shore to be sold for recreational use in the town’s streets, bars, backpacking lodges and private residences. The drug is cheap, but potentially lethal. Strychnine, which is used in rat poison, is sometimes found mixed in with the cocaine.

Drug use inevitably adds another dimension to the town’s social problems, which are usually defined in terms of poverty. But local consumption is largely a by-product − albeit an increasingly serious one − of a bigger issue, namely Mozambique’s growing role as a hub in the global drugs trade.

A node in the narcotics networks

Mozambique's porous borders and long coastline, combined with its relative stability yet lack of governance in some areas, make it a useful transit point for drug trafficking networks. Understandably, little is known about the exact quantities of narcotics that make their way through the Southern African country. The fundamental lack of data on both drugs seized and drug-related arrests makes it difficult to assess the scale of the problem, but most agree that Mozambique's problem pales in comparison to the notorious Guinea-Bissau.

Compared to the unstable West African country, which many have described as a 'narco-state', Mozambique is a "small player," according to Joseph Hanlon, a Senior Lecturer in Development Policy and Practice at the Open University. “This is not big time," he says, "nobody’s really interested. This is not Guinea-Bissau.” However, it is arguably partly because of the heavy international focus on Guinea-Bissau that alternative African transit hubs, such as Mozambique, have emerged.

According to sources, there are five main types of drugs that enter and cross the country. Three of these − heroin, hashish and mandrax − are understood to be primarily trafficked by sea from the Pakistan, Afghanistan and India. These drugs often arrive in shipping containers hidden amongst legitimate goods. The narcotics are typically repackaged on shore and then smuggled overland to South Africa, the major regional market for illicit drugs, or via air to the US and Europe.

Cocaine also sometimes comes in by sea, as witnessed on the shore at Vilanculos, but more typically arrives by air from Columbia and Brazil, smuggled in by drugs mules. As we can see from arrests and drug seizures at Maputo airport, these mules tend to be South African, Mozambican, Nigerian or Tanzanian. If the cocaine makes its way past security successfully, it either goes on to South Africa or continues its journey by air to Europe and East Asia.

Finally, there is marijuana, which has a long history of local production and consumption in Mozambique. Use of the drug is engrained in much of Mozambican culture, and many of the country's cannabis plantations are small, family-run operations, providing a crucial source of income. The majority of trafficking operations for marijuana are understood to be controlled by members of the local Pakistani communities who are generally based in the country's northern provinces and are able to receive shipments of cannabis directly from Pakistan or other south Asian communities. As with Mozambique's other drugs, evidence suggests the marijunana trade is also growing. In 2011, for example, 31.6 metric tons of the drug was seized by authorities, a 900% increase from the previous year. 

The role of the government

In the face of the government's lack of drug-related data, much of the information available on Mozambique's role in the global narcotics trade comes from reports of drug-related arrests. According to Charles Goredema, a Senior Research Consultant on Economic Crime in Africa, news of these interceptions may be promising sign. “They indicate that there is a substantial amount of resistance towards Mozambique becoming a drug trafficking hub,” he says.

Goredema also claims that Mozambique has been part of regional drug trafficking programmes led by international agencies such as Interpol, and that it has engaged in bilateral initiatives with the likes of South Africa.

However, others suggest that Mozambican government's efforts to curb its role as a transit hub may be compromised. One the one hand, authorities may simply lack the capacity and resources needed to effectively tackle the drugs trade, but on the other, there may even be a degree of complicity amongst some officials.

In Africa and the War on Drugs, Neil Carrier and Gernot Klantschnig describe the extreme end of government collaboration in the drugs trade as one in which the state is "bought by powerful drug cartels, which gain official protection for their business or in even more extreme cases co-opt state actors into active positions within the trade." There is little evidence to suggest the situation is such in Mozambique, but custom officials at borders, airports and ports and often reported to be involved in the trade or to accept bribes to turn a blind eye. Meanwhile there are also allegations of some senior government officials profiting from narcotics. According to Hanlon, figures in the Mozambican government may be linked with heroin in particular, allowing certain groups licence to trade in the drug and enjoying a cut of the profits in the process.

Some observers also see the lack of high-level prosecutions related to drugs as further evidence of government inaction, if not complicity. Mohamed Bachir Suleman, for example, was added to the US government's list of the world’s leading drug traffickers in 2010. The US claimed that "Suleman leads a well-financed narcotics trafficking and money laundering network in Mozambique" and prohibited American corporations from doing business with him. Mozambican authorities promised to investigate following the allegations, but to this day Suleman remains a free man. Some have pointed to the fact that the businessman, who is a bit of a local hero in Maputo, lives in a mansion down the road from the president and has donated millions over the years to the ruling party, Frelimo.

Catch of the day

Back in Vilanculos, it is unlikely any unsuspecting visitor would give a second thought to the splinter group of dhows sailing out towards the horizon. But later that day, they may well come across the group's catch of the day behind closed doors and on secluded street corners. Cocaine, which unlike heroin is not regulated by figures in the Mozambican government, continues to find its way into the hands of the locals and tourists alike, creating a situation one resident described as "terrible."

Like with the other drugs traded in or via Mozambique, not a great deal is known about cocaine trade.  It is notable, for example, that Paul Fauvet, Editor of the Mozambican News Agency (AIM), told Think Africa Press he was surprised to hear of cocaine entering the country via maritime routes, while some such as Hanlon were less so. What seems to be agreed on, however, is that Mozambique's problem will continue to grow if steps are not taken by the international community and Mozambican government alike to learn more about the trafficking networks, address rising domestic drug use, and address corruption from the pettiest levels to the highest. 

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It was a haunting discovery: a terrified 11-year-old girl cowering in the corner of a ransacked house three days after her village had been attacked in a horrific act of ethnic cleansing. Her parents had also been killed, and in the streets outside dogs fed on the decomposing bodies of her neighbours. This scene, witnessed by Amnesty International researchers, may be reminiscent of those that occurred during the Rwanda genocide. But this girl was a Muslim, not a Tutsi. The village was in the Central African Republic, not in Rwanda. And this happened this February, not 20 years ago.

A decade ago, marking the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan lamented the collective failure of the international community to protect the 800,000 people who perished. “Such crimes cannot be reversed. Such failures cannot be repaired. The dead cannot be brought back to life. So what can we do?” Far from being a rhetorical question, Annan was raising the key issue facing all those concerned with safeguarding against genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Since the Rwandan genocide, regional and international institutions have developed new norms and mechanisms aimed at providing some answers to Annan’s question. The International Criminal Court and other UN-assisted tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, are attempting to ensure that those who commit atrocities are held to account. The principle of “responsibility to protect" also provides that states must protect their populations from crimes against humanity.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights has the power to investigate widespread human rights violations, whilst the African Union has the right to intervene in member states where genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes are taking place.

And yet, despite these institutional changes, this renewed commitment to principles of international justice does not translate to sufficient practical action on the ground. The recent events in the Central African Republic and in South Sudan underscore the continued failure of regional and international bodies to act firmly, decisively and quickly enough to prevent atrocities.

In recent months, the Central African Republic has experienced ethnic cleansing on a massive scale, targeted against the country’s Muslim population. War crimes and crimes against humanity have been perpetrated against civilians, and many have been caught up in fighting between the mostly Muslim Séléka rebels and the mainly Christian anti-balaka militias. It is only now that the UN has finally decided to bolster its peacekeeping mission to 12,000 personnel. But that will not be fully in place until September.

In South Sudan, thousands of civilians have been killed since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013. Both the government and opposition forces have targeted civilians based on their ethnicity, raped women and girls, burned homes, and looted badly needed humanitarian supplies. Heavy weaponry has been used indiscriminately in civilian areas, churches and hospitals sheltering civilians have been attacked, and more than a million people have fled their homes. In response to the violence in South Sudan, the UN Security Council unanimously agreed to increase peacekeeping force levels but deployment has been slow. The African Union Peace and Security Council called for a Commission of Inquiry in December 2013, but it was not formed until last month and its members have yet to set foot in South Sudan. Meanwhile peace negotiations being brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development have stalled.

Protect the living

Human rights organisations can play a crucial in raising awareness of the threat of mass atrocities in order to spur the international community into action. In the Central African Republic, Amnesty International experts have made three separate in depth research trips to the country as well as to refugee camps in neighbouring Chad. The organisation published a report flagging the escalating violence as far back as October 2013. It also published satellite images providing evidence of 485 homes being torched in the town of Bouca as well as internally displaced persons massing near the town of Bossangoa as people fled the violence. Amnesty International was the first to describe the bloodshed there as ethnic cleansing.

Despite international expressions of concern, however, the killing goes on, and time is running out for the millions of men, women and children in desperate need of help in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Tragically, the young girl found hiding among the dead in her village in CAR is far from an isolated example.

The genocide in Rwanda was shocking not just because of the extremity and scale of the atrocities but also because it was preventable.

If the international community is truly committed to stopping mass atrocities, it must ensure that its mechanisms are effective. States and individuals must know that they cannot act with impunity. The Security Council must deploy peacekeeping forces where they are needed most and must be resourced to ensure they can carry out their mandate to protect civilians.

We may not be able to bring the dead back to life, but by taking these steps we can ensure we protect the living.

This article originally appeared on Al Jazeera English online.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact:

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