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Al-Qaeda targets Chinese workers–not an idle threat

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has threatened Chinese workers in North Africa in retaliation for the deaths of Muslim Chinese Uyghurs last week in Xinjiang. This is not a minor threat. Chinese companies don’t use a lot of security in Africa, and Chinese workers generally are not well-liked by local populations in Africa; they lack the kind of population acceptance that would keep them safe. The Chinese embassy in Algeria has issued a warning and called for increased security measures for Chinese citizens in Algeria.

To make things worse, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – formerly known as “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” - is an especially violent branch of the group. They’re known for violent bombings, with casualty numbers that are consistently in the double-digits. They also take hostages; they executed a European hostage last month. They have the skills and the willingness to do major damage to Chinese interests. Chinese workers have been easy targets for previous terrorist attacks. Nine Chinese workers were kidnapped in Darfur in 2008, and the Ogaden National Liberation Front repeatedly attacked Chinese workers in Ethiopia.

For the record, there doesn’t seem to be any known link between Uyghurs and Al-Qaeda. The Uyghur American Association and the Uyghur World Congress have condemned Al-Qaeda’s threat, saying that “Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda do not represent the peaceful aspirations of the Uyghur people.”

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Should we buy off term-limited developing world Presidents that want to stay in power?

Adam Nossiter posts an excellent story in the New York Times on the "slow moving coup" in Niger. The situation is basically this: after a decade of democracy, President Tanjda (-->) is refusing to relinquish power when his term expires. In the process, he is subverting a number of state institutions, like the supreme court, to push through a referendum to change the constitution to extend presidential term limits. (Sound familiar?). Nossiter explains the toll this is taking on Niger's nascent democracy:

One thing the people have dearly acquired, though, after decades of coups, military strongmen and weak governments, is a political order that has resembled democracy, albeit with lapses: two successful presidential elections, defeated candidates who go home without causing turmoil, an outspoken opposition and an alert if beleaguered press.

The citizens are manifestly unwilling to give up their shaky gains. The street protests have given way to strikes and daily banner headlines in the nongovernment press, like the one last week proclaiming “The Dismantling of Democracy” in the leading opposition newspaper, Le Républicain.

This sort of situation is all too familiar in struggling democracies.  It reminds me of a point that Paul Collier makes in Wars, Guns and Votes.  Namely, that it would make a great deal of sense to set up some sort of fund to give "fellowships," or something of the like, to presidents in the developing world who willingly relinquish power when their term expires. Too often, the incentives cut against giving up power when one's term limit expires; the personal fortunes of heads of state are often tied to their country's primary export commodity (in Niger's case, uranium). Once power is relinquished, so too is ability to exploit that commodity for personal gain.  

As long as institutions of state remain weak, it would seem to make sense to have some sort of fund to provide an incentive for term-limited developing world presidents to relinquish power.  The downside, of course, is buying off retired presidents fosters the perception that developing world leaders enter politics for personal financial gain.  But the upside -- firming up fragile democracies -- seems to outweigh the drawbacks here. 

Of course, the big question is who or what should fund this endeavor. I nominate Mo Ibrahim.

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Tanks keeping the peace in Somalia

Danger Room's David Axe has the skinny on the kind of weaponry that (U.S.-backed) African Union peacekeepers are using to keep a few blocks of Mogadishu out of the control of insurgents:

The A.U. troops are low-tech, by American standards. But compared to Al Shabab, they’re freakin’ Stormtroopers. "We have the arsenal," Capt. Paddy Ankunda told me during my visit to Somalia, two years ago. He gestured to the A.U.’s machine-gun nests, its mine-protected trucks, and the handful of T-55 tanks stationed at the palace and the seaport. I asked him if the tanks were truly useful, considering the A.U.’s already overwhelming firepower. "We have them so that people know we could use them," Ankunda explained. But it wasn’t until this week, that the A.U. needed to use them. "Our troops were in an imminent danger, so we had to take some limited action,” A.U. spokesman Bahoku Barigye said. “That does not mean we are fully involved in the combat."

Axe makes a good point that using the tanks shows that the Obama Administration is serious about protecting Somalia's vulnerable government -- and that it is doing so in a smarter way than prodding an ill-advised Ethiopian offensive to occupy the country.  Still, even outfitting AU peacekeepers with tanks is relying on a military solution, and I don't expect anyone to be able to explode Somalia's enduring culture of violence away.

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Grading Obama’s Africa speech II

Aside from that one quibble, I generally agree with the grades Bill Easterly and Chris Blattman accorded to Obama's speech in Accra. I'd probably only give Obama an A-/B+ myself. 

The reason is less substance than the optics of it all.    

To be sure, a speech before Ghana's political elite is a smart choice for a number of reasons.  It is a fine reward for the political maturity Ghana's elite exhibited in the wake of a tightly contested election that was decided by less than 1 % of the vote.  The ruling party lost, but rather than rail against election irregularities, it gave up power.  The peaceful transition of power from one party to another is all too rare on the continent and Ghana's political class deserves praise. However, I get a sense that in service of rewarding the Ghanaian political elite, Obama missed an opportunity to speak directly to the people. 

I happened to be in Addis a couple of weeks after the elections.  The excitement over Obama's victory was evident nearly everywhere you looked.  A teenage kid hanging outside the main UN headquarters was even hawking bootleg DVDs of Obama's Democratic National Convention acceptance speech. Apparently, they were selling.  I bought myself a copy of Dreams from My Father--in amharic--from a street vendor nearby. The title's translation, an amharic speaker told me, reads "Secrets to Greateness and Change."  

This anecdote and others I have heard strongly suggest to me that the President of the United States may be the most popular political leader in Africa.  To that end, I think the speech would have been more effective had it 1) occured in a public setting, like a public square or stadium and 2) drawn more from Obama's signature, direct-to-the-people inspirational oratory.     That's the reasoning behind my A-/B+. 

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Grading Obama’s Africa speech

Bill Easterly grades Obama's Accra speech.  He comes away generally positive, but this bit irks him. 

“We welcome the steps that are being taken by organizations like the African Union and ECOWAS to better resolve conflicts, keep the peace, and support those in need. And we encourage the vision of a strong, regional security architecture that can bring effective, transnational force to bear when needed.”

D. Sigh. Obama seems to fall for the myth of the benevolent, neutral, outside, rapid-response “peacekeepers,” which is a leap of faith relative to the historical record that outside military intervention is rarely neutral and rarely available rapidly “when needed” (JEL article). Any given African country will not automatically see an outside force as neutral just because it is made up of other Africans.

With respect, I think Easterly is missing the point.  The fact that the intervention is "rarely available rapidly 'when needed'" is precisely why the United States should support regional security arrangements, like the African Standby Force, that seek to correct this problem.   The AU, at present, does not have the capacity to mount complex peacekeeping operations, yet it is being asked to bear primary responsibility for fielding these kinds of missions. (e.g. AMIS in Darfur and AMISOM in Somalia).  The problem is, the AU can barely support these kinds of mission.  As Susan Rice has said, Africa is basically "tapped out" with its ability to field peacekeepers. 

To that end, it is important that the international community support efforts to build regional peacekeeping capcity.  This kind of vision is eminantly sensible, could save lives,  and would help make manifest the maxim of “African solutions to African problems."  Hard to see why this vision would come under such harsh criticism from Easterly. 

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U.S. names Great Lakes Special Envoy

Will a new U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes region (that's Congo-Rwanda-Burundi, not Michigan-Wisconsin-Illinois) solve MONUC's difficulties?  Well, no, but it's still good to see the United States engaged in the oft-neglected region.  And the man tapped for the job, Howard Wolpe, is, as his informed introductions of many a speaker over at the Woodrow Wilson Center indicate, one of the more knowledgeable Africa hands that President Obama could have picked.

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Assessing MONUC

An informative look from Al Jazeera on MONUC, the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo and the largest in the world.

One minor issue: MONUC is no longer just dealing with the "aftershocks" of the Rwandan genocide. Congo's conflict, while tied up in dynamics that cross the border into Rwanda, has long since morphed into its own multi-headed problem.  But that's still more than enough for MONUC to deal with.

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Obama in Ghana

This is pretty neat. The White House sent the following sms messages to the mobile phones of a thousands of Africans during the president's speech today.   Full text of his speech here
We made sure that speech would be as accessible to as many Africans as possible on the radio, TV, and by SMS. These are the speech excerpts that we sent out to thousands of SMS subscribers in Africa and around the world.
  • It is an honor for me to be in Accra & to speak to the representatives of the people of Ghana. I am proud that this is my first visit to sub-Saharan Africa as President of the US.
  • The 21st century will be shaped by what happens not just in Rome or Moscow or Washington, but by what happens in Accra as well.
  • I will focus on four areas that are critical to the future of Africa and the entire developing world: democracy; opportunity; health; and the peaceful resolution of conflict.
  • Governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not.
  • With better governance, I have no doubt that Africa holds the promise of a broader base for prosperity.
  • People must make responsible choices that prevent the spread of disease… promoting public health in their communities and countries.
  • America will support these efforts through a comprehensive, global health strategy.
  • Africa’s diversity should be a source of strength, not a cause for division
  • We must stand up to inhumanity in our midst. It is never justifiable to target innocents in the name of ideology.
  • I am speaking to the young people. You have the power to hold your leaders accountable, and to build institutions that serve the people.
  • I can promise you this: America will be with you. As a partner. As a friend. Freedom is your inheritance. Now, it is your responsibility to build upon freedom’s foundation.