Archive | March, 2013

Atale of two rebel groups: M23 and Seleka

26 Mar

The Seleka rebels marched into Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic on Sunday, 24th March and effectively ended the rule of President Francois Bozize. The president is reported to have fled his palace and the country as the rebels advanced.

The swift capture of Bangui and the flight of Bozize occurred as four African presidents were in neighbouring Congo Brazzaville discussing peace and security issues in another neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Presidents Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Joseph Kabila of the DRC were meeting in the northern Congolese town of Oyo.

The talks were about the situation in the east of DRC resulting from the rebellion of M23 against the Kinshasa government. For most of the 52 years of independence of the DRC, the east of the country has been in a state of armed rebellion of one sort or another.

There are interesting similarities between the two rebel movements (Seleka and M23) as well as glaring differences especially in the way the international community has responded to them.

The Seleka rebels say they marched on the capital because President Bozize had broken a peace agreement reached between them on January 11 this year by which rebel forces were to be integrated into the national army.

The rebellion had been going on for a while – in two phases. The first started in 2004 shortly after Bozize seized power and ended in 2007 when the rebels led by their present leader, Michel Djotodia, signed a power-sharing agreement with Bozize’s government. The second was launched in December 2012 when the rebels accused the government of going back on the terms of the peace agreement.

The rebels made swift advances across the country in fighting that broke out in December. Regional leaders then brokered a peace deal in January this year in which power would be shared between the government, the opposition and rebels.

A week ago, the rebels moved on the capital, alleging that the Bozize government had once again reneged on the deal it had struck with them.

The rest as we now know is that the rebels have taken over power and Bozize is in full flight.

The story of M23 is similar up to a point. Nearly a year ago, the M23 was formed by soldiers in the Congolese army who accused the government of not honouring an agreement reached with a previous rebel group, the CNDP, on March 23 2009 after many years of fighting.

Like Seleka, M23 moved swiftly across the east of DRC and captured the provincial capital, Goma, in November 2012. They were soon pressured to leave the town.

That is where the similarities end. The rest of the story is about inexplicable differences, hypocrisy, double standards, falsification and utter disregard of evidence on the ground.

The M23 rebels were roundly condemned in the western media and in foreign capitals. They were accused of all manner of crimes against humanity even when such accusations flew in the face of the logic of rebellion. Rebels usually do not harm the people among whom they operate, especially if they are the ones they have vowed to protect. In fact, evidence showed that people enjoyed greater security in the areas the rebels controlled.

No such condemnation has been heard of the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. The French, with a military presence in the country, stood by as the rebels marched into town, only saying they would send in troops to protect their citizens.

There has been no word from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International or the other members of the rights’ brigade.

The foreign media only reports the towns that have fallen and, inevitably, the looting in Bangui because it suits their constructed image of Africa.

True, there has been some protest from the UN Secretary General. But that has been feeble and more formality than heartfelt concern.

When in November the M23 took over Goma, it was like that single event would bring the world crumbling down. The international community mobilised massively to push the rebels back. Immense pressure was brought to bear on M23 and their alleged supporters to pull out of the town immediately.

The Seleka rebels marched into Bangui without as much as a finger being raised to stop them. Instead of warnings about dire consequences if they stepped into the capital, they have only been asked to be good boys, behave themselves and it will be business as usual.

From the moment M23 was born, fingers began pointing at foreign sponsors. The argument was that they could not have such weaponry, organisation and tactics, and skilled fighters without external backing. Allegation of foreign involvement were loudest when Goma fell. The chorus was: the rebels could not do it because they did not have the capacity in equipment, men and expertise.

Seleka have made more spectacular gains. But we have not heard mention of a foreign backer. No effort has been made to identify and punish them.

So, what are we to make of these glaringly different reactions to similar situations? Is it perhaps because in the Seleka case the sponsors are the ones who usually make the accusations? Or is it because the Central Africans have not earned the ire of some powerful people with talk about the right to make their own choices in matters affecting them, or about agaciro?


Any chance Pope Francis I will say sorry to Rwandans?

19 Mar

Habemus papam (we have a pope). Those two Latin words, previously unknown to a majority of the world’s population, became very familiar during the election of the new pope as media commentators sought to explain the papal selection process. Yes, we have a pope, Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

He has already scored many firsts. He is the first pope to take on the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich merchant who gave up wealth, pleasure and privilege for a life of extreme poverty. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. He is the first pope to come from the Southern Hemisphere and the first outside Europe for more than a thousand years.

Is this man, with a record of firsts, the person to breathe new life into an ageing, creaking church? Is he the man to bring reassurance to a church beset with scandals and doubts?

Already, he is charming crowds with his simplicity, warmth and spontaneity. It is good to see a pope who strays from a prepared text and speaks from the heart, so to speak. It is refreshing to see him freely gesture with his hands and connect with the crowds. Pope Francis shows signs of vitality and freedom from a sterile formality that we had come to associate with the papacy.

It will be interesting to see if the new style Pope Francis brings to the Vatican can help him break the mould and come up with other, more significant firsts.

Will he be the first to break the silence about a lot of things the church has kept under wraps for centuries – for instance, its indefensible collusion with tyrants across the world, its unconscionable indifference in the face of injustice and all manner of atrocities, or the proverbial burying the head in the sand to avoid seeing the unsavoury sights?

In the case of Rwanda, it is reasonable to expect that the people’s pope (as he is getting to be known) will acknowledge the church’s complicity in the genocide in the country, apologise and ask for pardon – if not from Rwandans, at least from his master. He has taken up the papacy at an opportune moment to do this.

He should have the courage to defrock and even excommunicate the rapist priests and mass murdering clergy who still ply their trade in various countries.

At the very least, he should shed a tear for the desecration of churches in Rwanda, sometimes at the supervision of priests.

If Pope Francis wants to break from an unpleasant past and set the church on a new moral and spiritual plane, he should be prepared to say a collective mea culpa for all the sins of his predecessors.

Will he do it? May be, but to think that will happen requires one to have a large overdose of optimism. More likely, tradition will be kept and nothing much will change.

Still, Pope Francis has a great opportunity to change – not direction; that would never happen – but emphasis, and more significantly has the chance to rejuvenate an ageing church.

Look everywhere and you see an institution in the later stages of fossilisation. Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus, symbolised that process of ageing. The College of Cardinals itself is a club of the elderly and each Cardinal a study in various stages of that process.

I often watch EWTN, a catholic TV network and am not reassured by what I see. The mass is a colourless routine affair. The congregation at mass is made up of elderly people who hardly fill a third of the small church. The sermons are dull and uninspiring.

The rosary, recited by nuns whose habit makes one think of penguins, drones on monotonously. I believe I have caught the plump and elderly mother superior stumble on the beads. You get the impression that the few younger nuns among them would rather be out skipping, swapping romantic fantasies or doing some other girlish mischief.

The church lacks dynamism and vitality and the TV network rather than dispel this view actually entrenches it.

Of course, there will be defenders of the state of affairs where ritual and substance are synonymous and the key elements, and energy an aberration. They will say the church is timeless and ageless. That may be so, but it is also obviously creaking and seems to move along only by the sheer momentum of tradition and history, not by creative energy.

Benedict XVI’s abdication and retreat from the world, whether pushed by the weight of the sins of his priests or overwhelmed by the shadowy and opaque Vatican bureaucracy, gives the church a chance for renewal.

The new pope should not retreat from the world, but must rather engage it and shape its future. He needs to be more forthright and assertive, and not kowtow to palace courtiers who thrive on scheming and intrigues. 

There are some good indications already and perhaps the church has come full circle. The return to simplicity and spontaneity reminds one of the simple and impulsive fisherman who became the rock on which the church is built. .His equally unassuming master, the son of a humble carpenter, gathered for himself a huge following through persuasion and example.

The church may yet be re-energised.  Pope Francis I has the chance to make history. He should seize it.

Who gains from UK aid to Rwanda?

4 Mar


The United Kingdom’s Secretary of State for International Development, Ms Justine Greening, last week announced a resumption of aid to Rwanda. But in doing so, she turned aid philosophy back to the pre 1990s.

Before an anti-Rwanda UK media hysteria forced the British government to suspend aid following allegations of support for the M23 rebels in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, most UK aid to Rwanda was channelled through the government’s budget in what is known as General Budget Support.

Ms Greening’s aid plan seeks to revert to the old ways of giving it through international aid agencies, NGOs and charities.

This about-turn can only be explained in terms of British domestic politics The British government, and Ms Greening in particular since taking over from Andrew Mitchell as Secretary for International Development, has been bullied by a rabidly anti-Rwanda media to back out of a previously working aid arrangement. The government is also conscious of public anger at continued aid to other countries when it is cutting expenses at home.

Also, the aid business is a multi-billion dollar industry that attracts many players in the form of international relief and aid agencies, NGOs and charitable organisations – the sort that are Ms Greening’s choice as conduits for British aid..The industry has powerful lobbyists in the media, churches, academia and parliament who will do everything to see that their clients get a big cut of the money.

In taking the decision that she has, Ms Greening has had to mollify a restless domestic constituency and bend to a powerful aid industry lobby. International economics or the desire to see poor Rwandans rise from poverty are only secondary.

In restoring aid to Rwanda, Ms Greening is also playing on the old moral myth that the existence of so many poor people in a world of plenty is a scar on the collective conscience of the affluent and it is immoral not to do anything about it. 

But why did the UK agree to general budget support in the first place? It must have been convinced that it works. The Government of Rwanda must have put up a compelling case that this was the most effective way to use aid.

And so far there is no dispute about that. Everyone – even the UK media that led the loud cries for the crucifixion of Rwanda – agrees that aid has been put to effective use. Because of this, and prudent management of the economy, more than one million people have been lifted out of poverty in the space of only five years and the country is on course to meet nearly all the Millennium Development Goals. At this rate there would be no more poor Rwandans for Ms Greening to worry about giving British taxpayers’ money.

In the last few years, the discourse on foreign aid has been more about effectiveness than the modalities of its disbursement. Rwanda has been at the forefront of this discussion both as proponent and model. Obviously, this mode of giving aid divested of its overtly political side and sidestepping the many players in the industry was too much for some and had to be subverted. Ms Greening’s plan does just that.

Even in matters of aid, there are issues of sovereignty and dignity to consider in addition to the more practical ones for which it is sought. It is the business of the state to plan and provide for its people and get them to work for themselves and not depend on hand-outs.

Of course, the means to do that may not always be available. That is why aid becomes necessary. Its purpose and principle is to support the programmes of the recipient country. It follows that programmes and priorities must be identified by the recipient country and agreed to by the donors.

That is the bottom line – whether the aid is given as general budget support or sector or project support – it must support a people-owned programme. It can never seek to replace it.

The UK aid decision recently announced is changing all that and returning us to the pre-1990 aid policies. Everyone knows they didn’t work very well.

First, there is no accountability for money channelled through aid agencies – certainly not to countries it is intended to benefit.

Then most of the money is spent on administrative and transport costs on personnel from donor countries, capacity building which really means endless meetings, seminars and workshops. Very little gets to the real beneficiaries.

The NGOs that UK aid would be channelled through are structurally and ideologically not positioned to make aid effective as development support. Their relevance depends on a continued need for their existence – poverty to alleviate, service to provide, and so on. It is obvious that they cannot work themselves out of existence by being efficient.

In addition, NGOs usually set themselves up as alternatives to the state. In purely terms of self-interest, they must undermine the state, not support it. Therein lies possible conflict with the state.

There is also the question of NGOs being single issue organisations, unable to look at the wider picture of national development. The government cannot be reduced to simply an observer and coordinator of disparate organisations over which it has no control.

Aid is needed, but on terms that make it effective and benefit its recipients. It must answer their specific needs. It cannot simply be an exercise in easing the conscience of do-gooders or a face-saving device.