BBC BLOGS - Andrew Harding on Africa

Archives for January 2011

Relief and worry over Mandela

Andrew Harding | 13:53 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011


The mood inside today's crowded hospital news conference seemed fairly upbeat.

The surgeon general was cracking jokes. The dignitaries were smiling - all except for Nelson Mandela's grandson, Mandla, who looked like someone who'd been through a tough few days.

What did we learn? In medical terms, a very broad outline has emerged. We now know that Mr Mandela has been treated for an "acute respiratory infection" - bronchitis? pneumonia? No-one is saying - and that he's responded well.

A medical panel has judged him "stable" enough to return home. He is able to breathe unaided and to talk. But he will be monitored closely and still needs home-based care.

As for why it took so long to reveal any official information - we got a surprisingly big and humble mea culpa from Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who acknowledged that "we could have handled this matter differently" and promised to be upfront about Madiba's health in the future.

Members of the Nelson Mandela Foundation told me afterwards that a proper system was now in place to ensure there would not be any more long silences - filled almost inevitably by speculation and rumour.

So do we believe what we've been told?

The look on Mandla's face suggested to me that we probably know only part of the truth. Fair enough, perhaps. But the bland phrase "routine tests" which was the official line for days, seems to me a little disingenuous given what we now know - or think we know.

For now then, the alarm bells have been switched off. But the worries linger.

I've just been for a walk through central Johannesburg to ask people for their reactions. Almost everyone I spoke to used the word "father" when talking about Madiba. A blind man called Daniel, shaking a tin on a street corner, said simply "he means freedom to me".

Waiting for news on Mandela....

Andrew Harding | 05:55 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011


It is as though we are all in the waiting room now. Some sitting quietly, some pacing the corridor. Some are texting and speculating and wondering why a cocoon of official silence has enveloped an elderly man who always argued for transparency on such matters.

The silence may be understandable, even expected. But most South Africans I've spoken to feel such a strong bond with Nelson Mandela that, almost like family, they simply want a doctor to come through the swinging doors and give them some sense of what's going on.

We should know more soon. The cocoon is beginning to unravel as officials concede that those "routine tests", which made it sound like Mr Mandela was just having a regular check-up, were actually in response to some sort of respiratory problem.

The complication - and it's something we half knew would become an issue - is that so many different groups and factions legitimately feel here they have a stake in Mr Mandela's story that it is hard to reach a consensus on who should speak - and how, and when - on his behalf in such circumstances.

"Too many stakeholders," was the curt text reply from an insider when I asked why it was taking so long for more information to leak out.

Zimbabwe: The plotting thickens

Andrew Harding | 08:57 UK time, Tuesday, 25 January 2011


So he's back, and fighting fit, and never went near a hospital.
"We were just resting," said President Robert Mugabe on his return from Singapore.

Robert Mugabe (in December 2010)

The speculation - rampant in Harare and backed up by several well-placed sources - was that the 86-year-old had rushed back to Asia for a prostate operation, prompting a frenzy of succession plotting among the feuding factions of Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

"Nocturnal meetings, wheeler dealings - real fun and games. It's a very unstable land," one senior political insider told me.

Of course this sort of death-bed conjecture is probably as pointless as it is morbid.
Depending on whom you ask, Mr Mugabe is either in perfect health, "declining steadily," or "unlikely to bounce back."

The only diagnoses that almost everyone agrees on are that the president takes fastidious care of himself, and that he will cling to power until his last breath.

And yet the plotting appears to be real. The lack of a clear successor to Mr Mugabe is a major headache for Zanu-PF.

The man to beat is Emmerson Mnangagwa - a hardliner with plenty of clout. Vice-President Joyce Mujuru is also well placed.

Then there are maybe half a dozen others, including Saviour Kasukuwere - "the second scariest man in Zimbabwe", according to one of his most prominent rivals.

Intriguingly, although some western diplomats worry that the rules of succession may be murky enough to fuel instability or at least give plotters some extra wiggle-room. It looks as though the former opposition MDC may actually end up playing kingmaker in a parliamentary electoral college charged with finding a Zanu-PF replacement to complete Mr Mugabe's term.

In that case, a senior MDC source tells me, Joyce Mujuru would probably end up with the presidency on the basis that she is "the better of the devils."

Not that the MDC is relishing the idea of President Mugabe's abrupt exit. There are real fears that it could trigger a new clampdown by Zanu-PF hardliners, forcing the party's leadership to bolt to neighbouring Botswana "like lightning" - at least in the short-term.

And there are other - probably more pressing - reasons for the MDC to be worried. The movement's secretary general, Tendai Biti has issued a warning on the elections.

So was the former opposition party right to cut a power-sharing deal with Zanu-PF back in 2008 in the first place?

The optimists point to Zimbabwe's economic recovery, and to the possibility that free and fair elections can still be held.

The realists argue that at least the MDC has had a chance to catch its breath, lick its wounds, and get some hands-on experience of government.

But the pessimists - and in Zimbabwe that's a big group - fear that Zanu-PF is many years away from even countenancing the possibility of relinquishing power, with or without Mr Mugabe at the helm.

They worry about the MDC's ability to withstand another onslaught from the security forces, especially given that Prime Minister Tsvangirai appears, according to some, to be dwindling into little more than a golf-playing figurehead for the movement.

So... after a surprisingly long lull, it looks like this may be a busy, dangerous year for Zimbabwe. Could these reports about a new phase of property seizures be an early sign of things to come?

After Tunis... Khartoum?

Andrew Harding | 13:30 UK time, Thursday, 20 January 2011


The ripple-watchers, pondering which regime is next in line for a Tunisia-style reshuffle, have tended to look east and west along the Mediterranean coast to other Arab states.

But could those ripples meander further south, down the Nile to Khartoum?

People queuing to vote in Sudan

"On paper," says a western diplomatic source in the Sudanese capital, "we have many of the ingredients here."

It's certainly been a bumpy ride recently for President Omar al-Bashir. And it may get bumpier still in coup-prone Khartoum, as he prepares to let the south of the country secede.

In that context - what to make of this week's decision to put Sudan's most provocative rascal back in jail? A sign of the government's weakness? Bellweather proof that Hassan al-Turabi was speaking the truth when he warned that the country was ripe for revolution? Or simply a bit of precautionary housekeeping by a security ministry that still has a fairly firm lid on things? I'm guessing the latter, for now.

The prospect of losing a quarter of its territory would be a recipe for instability in any country. And northern Sudan has plenty of other edges ready to fray.

One of Africa's greatest voices, Chinua Achebe, dissects the continent's colonial burdens impeccably.But if Sudan's northern opposition parties smell blood, they may yet be disappointed.

The same diplomatic voices pointing to the similarities with Tunisia are also quick to point out that many opposition party figures are weak, co-opted, or discredited to the extent that Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) may even "see the opposition as their greatest strength."

Could the referendum on southern independence even play, counter-intuitively, into the president's hands?

Africa's blue-light brigade

Andrew Harding | 17:44 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


Traffic rules are for the little people, right?

In the good old days in Moscow, Soviet apparatchiks used to scream down their very own lane in the centre of the road. A glorious synthesis of planning and contempt. Then the USSR collapsed and the people reclaimed the lane, so the elites (by then mostly gangsters in my experience) would simply stick a blue light on the roof of their Mercedes and drive a couple of inches behind anyone who dared to obey the speed limit.

In comparison, I don't think South Africa does too badly. The traffic here is nothing like Moscow, or Jakarta, or Manila, or Bangkok a few years back, when the king could barely leave his palace for fear of making the logjam even worse. Nor does President Jacob Zuma's often rather ferocious security detail require a lockdown of the entire city for his convoy. Unlike his counterparts in Harare and Nairobi.

But there is one road - the M1 motorway between Johannesburg and Pretoria - that stands out as a gridlocked, construction-clogged, blue-light-flashing, rage-inducing, revolution-inspiring exception. And it was on this road that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela MP found herself recently being pulled over by some traffic police.

The details of that encounter are still being disputed, but the incident will no doubt become part of the broader soap-opera narrative of abuse of power that seems to fill the papers and airwaves here without ever leading to any real action or reform.

So which African country has the worst blue-light problem on its roads? I think we need an annual ranking system to match the corruption indexes and economic growth figures. Perhaps there's someone with an equation or an algorithm that can settle the matter.

Sudan votes, optimism abounds

Andrew Harding | 21:13 UK time, Sunday, 9 January 2011


What a day! Three parts euphoria, two parts earnest determination, a discreet but unmistakable twist of doubt, and a gut-busting side-order of unreasonably high expectations.

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We arrived at our first polling station just after dawn on the shabby northern outskirts of Juba. Several people said they'd arrived at 0400 hoping to be first in the queue, but found others who had been waiting for hours already.

I walked, dutifully, along the entire line, trying to find someone, anyone, who would admit to supporting the idea of unity, rather than independence, for south Sudan. It's becoming a bit of a personal quest - does anyone know anyone here who is voting "no" to secession? Please... What happened to John Garang's dream - or was it mere politicking - of a loose alliance with Khartoum?

The police were out in force all day. Dozens of trucks laden with young uniformed men armed with guns and rather menacing truncheons. I only saw one man without a uniform carrying a machine gun all day - an encouraging change from the old days here.
Many voters told me why they wanted independence, but I don't think anyone put it more eloquently than Mary Francis Babodo, who had come home from a diplomatic job in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo to register in her home village.

"I was born in a refugee camp," she said. "I went back to a refugee camp as a mother, and I don't want to go back to a refugee camp as an old woman."

This vote is, of course, only one small part of a much longer, more complicated process and today's euphoria will probably wear off pretty fast. But is Sudan on the right track? Among the foreign dignitaries in town for the referendum is the actor George Clooney, hoping to use his celebrity to keep the media, and a satellite monitoring project, focused on the region's trouble spots. "If it's messed up," he told me, "it could be one of the worst wars of the 21st Century."

But other observers seem to be stepping back from the alarmism of recent months. At a polling station in the centre of Juba, I spoke to former US President Jimmy Carter, who has spent years on mediation and other projects in the country. "The future has a lot of dangers. But the stabilising factor is one - one only. Nobody in Sudan wants to go back to war," he said, sounding fairly optimistic about north-south relations, but rather less so when it came to the challenges of building democracy in the south.

Rushing back for the party in south Sudan

Andrew Harding | 14:04 UK time, Saturday, 8 January 2011


Julio Iglesias is singing about love in the hotel restaurant. Jay Adengora is talking of miracles in a shed on the edge of town as he waits with his suitcases to be resettled by the UN after 23 years as a refugee. And George, Thabo, Jimmy, Kofi and a chorus of several thousand less famous international guests are all jetting in for what promises to be an extraordinary, defining, euphoric weekend of hope and history here in southern Sudan.

Is this a Berlin Wall/Mandela moment? Perhaps there's still a little too much doubt in the air. But it certainly feels like something close to it in the dusty, ramshackle, boom town of Juba.

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After so many decades of misery, determination and sheer luck, the region has finally won the chance to choose its own fate, and everyone seems to be rushing back for the party.

I keep running into old friends - a former regional governor, an Irish priest, aid workers, drivers and diplomats. Most are openly concerned about the future, the unrealistic public expectations, the sheer incompetence of many ministries, the jaw-dropping lack of infrastructure, of hospitals, roads and jobs, the old scores that are still waiting to be settled, the regional security implications of a new country being born on the banks of the hotly contested River Nile, and the endless opportunities for conflict along the frontier with northern Sudan.

There is a very real chance that things could go badly wrong either for the South, or the North, or both.

And yet, after so many years of conflict, there is no mistaking the sheer appetite for peace here in Juba -a hard factor to measure, but an all too easy one to overlook.

And then there's the simple fact that, time and again in recent years, the gloomiest predictions have failed to come true.

Against the odds, the referendum looks almost certain to overcome giant logistical and political obstacles and to push the south firmly along the road to full independence. A good deal of restraint and commonsense has been displayed.

Of course international assistance and diplomacy has played its part - America dangling the carrot of lifted sanctions in front of Khartoum, and China's oil interests nudging Beijing towards a more even-handed approach.

But an enduring peace will depend on the leadership of politicians in the north and south of what remains, at least for a few more months, a single country.

How do you rate their chances?

And any thoughts about what to call an independent southern Sudan? Nobody here seems too sure.

Gbagbo loyalist threats highlight Ivory Coast fears

Andrew Harding | 09:16 UK time, Thursday, 6 January 2011


Roadblocks. It's always the roadblocks.

We were trying to test claims that forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo had relaxed their siege of the hotel here in Abidjan, where Mr Gbagbo's rival for the presidency, Alassane Ouattara, remains holed up.

On a scruffy, narrow, wooded section of the road, five heavily armed soldiers - members of Mr Gbagbo's Republican Guard - suddenly surrounded the car, screaming at us to get out.

"You've been filming our positions," snarled the man in command. Not true. Over the course of the next 10 minutes we were all threatened with beatings and death, but our local Ivorian translator and fixer was singled out. He stood, shaking and speechless with terror, as several soldiers jabbed at him with their rifles and described how they would take him into the bushes and finish him off.

"We know you. We know what to do with your sort," they said, after establishing that he was from the north of the country, where support is strong for Mr Ouattara.

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It was a chilling insight into the ethnic tensions that have been fanned and manipulated so many times by Ivory Coast's political class and the disputed election have brought back to centre stage.

A man in civilian clothes - a white T-shirt - seemed to be directing events. He spoke into a mobile phone, calling for back-up, and making some of the most overt threats against our whole group.

Eventually, though, the tension subsided and we were allowed to continue along the empty road that leads to the Golf Hotel, and the man the world insists is the elected leader of this country, guarded by his own soldiers and by a robust ring of United Nations forces.

The hotel - usually accessible to journalists and others only by helicopter - is an island of surreal calm at the heart of Ivory Coast's political storm. Staff mow lawns and serve drinks to members of the "government in waiting," as security guards carefully monitor each corridor and exit and others wash their clothes by the hotel pool.

Inside, I did manage to interview Allassane Ouattara. The highlights struck me as the following:

  • Laurent Gbagbo was not negotiating in good faith but was simply trying "to buy time" while he brought in more military equipment.

  • Negotiations were therefore "over."

  • No meeting could take place between the two men until Mr Gbagbo recognised Mr Ouattara as President. Mr Gbagbo would then be guaranteed amnesty and security here or abroad.

  • The only option now was for Mr Gbagbo to be removed from office either by the threat of force, or by force itself. Mr Ouattara called on the West African regional body Ecowas to move quickly to launch a military strike to "pick" Mr Gbagbo and "take him away."

  • "Removing one person does not mean civil war." Mr Outtara was confident that most of the army, and indeed the country, was on his side and that what military planners sometimes call a "decapitation strategy" could be carried out fairly easily.

We left the hotel, taking a different route back into the city centre, and escorted through the first roadblock by a UN vehicle.

A meeting of Mr Gbagbo's "Young Patriots" was being held on a dusty football pitch in a poor neighbourhood near the airport. Two men in balaclavas, one brandishing a rocket propelled grenade launcher, stood on a van in the centre of the crowd. More armed men lingered on the edges.

The mood in the crowd was generally cheerful, as singers and speakers entertained them. But when I started asking about Gbagbo vs Ouattara, the familiar jibes and prejudices came out. Northerners against Southerners, immigrant communities against "Ivorians."

Several men told me they were ready to "fight and die" for Mr Gbagbo, and that if neighbouring countries sent troops in, "they would see how we Ivorians can defend ourselves."

The constant subtext was that Mr Ouattara and his supporters were not "true Ivorians." When I asked if they could accept, under any circumstances, a President Ouattara, a roar of scorn drowned me out. "So why bother holding elections at all?" I asked. "That's for the politicians to work out," said a young man, adding a subtler threat against the country's huge immigrant community. "If they attack us from abroad, we'll deal with all the foreigners living here."

High stakes for Africa in Ivory Coast

Andrew Harding | 09:23 UK time, Tuesday, 4 January 2011


A thick cloud of Saharan dust has blown in over Abidjan - an appropriate metaphor for the murky, sullen confusion on the ground here. A big change from my last visit.

"What we really need is a military coup," one local journalist told me. "They're all rogues," said another friend. "We simply live in fear."

As the foreign delegates come and go, the politicians and generals weigh up their loyalties, and rival armed groups fortify their positions, there is a sense that almost anything could happen here in Ivory Coast - at almost any moment.

So what will it be? A quiet coup, escalating street protests, a foreign invasion, some unforeseen and violent provocation, civil war, genocide, or perhaps simply months of backroom negotiations as the money starts to run out and Laurent Gbagbo - the man clinging stubbornly to a presidency that the world insists is no longer his - dies the death of a thousand unpaid bills and salaries?

Laurent Gbagbo (left) welcomes Raila Odinga at the airport

Will Laurent Gbagbo (l) learn any lessons from Kenya's Raila Odinga (r)?

Whatever the outcome - an enormous amount is at stake for Africa. I flew here via Kenya, a country facing many of the same challenges as Ivory Coast. You don't even need to leave the airport - shabby and virtually unchanged in the 19 years I've been visiting - to see how another predatory, parasitic elite has squandered so many chances.

Kenyan newspapers are full of the parallels between their own political stalemate and that in Ivory Coast. "The government of national unity model is one of Kenya's most insidious exports to the rest of Africa," writes the country's whistle-blower-in-chief, John Githongo in The East African, lamenting the "peace at any price" logic that has seen "a once much heralded, stable and prosperous African country brought to grief by political incompetence, cynicism and corruption."

"First there was us. Then there was Zimbabwe. Then Madagascar. And now Ivory Coast," writes L Muthoni Wanyeki, of Kenya's Human Rights Commission, in the same paper, predicting nonetheless that the era of "negotiated democracy" is coming to an end.

Fitting perhaps, then, that it was Kenya's Raila Odinga who took the latest offer of asylum and amnesty across the continent to Laurent Gbagbo - not that such an exit seems likely to appeal to the man.

But if the year is getting off to a gloomy start here, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful elsewhere. South Sudan seems to be confounding the apocalypse-predictors as it moves towards independence, and last night a friend in Abidjan sent me this link, suggesting nearby Ghana could be a world-beater this year and that "Africa's decade still holds sway."

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