BBC BLOGS - Andrew Harding on Africa

Archives for August 2010

Mozambique's flood lessons

Andrew Harding | 21:40 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010


Helicopter carrying British aid across flood water in Mozambique in March 2001
On the plane flying in to Maputo, I was reading an evaluation of Britain's frantic but generally successful role in helping Mozambique recover from the disastrous 2000 floods. One sentence caught my eye: "Mozambique is a developing country with a complex set of rules that is administered by an under-resourced and sometimes poorly educated bureaucracy."

The lines came back to me a few minutes later, as I stood behind a queue of 12 people waiting for a visa. Somehow it managed to take five immigration officers a full 70 minutes to process our small group.

A telling moment? Perhaps. But first impressions are often unfair, and Mozambique has certainly made big strides since the civil war ended here 18 years ago. Levels of poverty have fallen significantly and economic growth has been impressive. The country seems to have bounced back well from the crippling floods of 2000.

Still, there are signs that those strides are getting smaller. Western observers have begun warning about the "observable display of ostentatious wealth amongst the ruling elite", and grumbling about the "declining standards of democratic and political governance". Is Mozambique drifting down a familiar path?

I drove a few hours north of Maputo, towards the grey-green Limpopo river, with a local representative of Save The Children, Samuel Maibasse, who fought on the frontlines against the 2000 floods, and is still helping the country prepare for the next ones.

We met Mozambique's flood celebrity, Rosita, who was born in a tree. We saw school children learning about her story as part of the national curriculum's course on emergency preparedness. We watched and spoke to villagers practising their flood rescue, evacuation and first aid drills. And we listened to a local government official complaining about the difficulty of persuading communities to build their houses on higher ground.

A Mozambican officer carries a baby during an evacuation at Chupanga in Mozambique in 2001

Everyone was very aware of what Pakistan is currently going through (on a far bigger scale), and keen to draw parallels and to offer advice. Here are some of the main points I heard:

  • Planning is everything. Most lives are lost long before outside help could possibly arrive, so pre-positioning supplies is vital

  • In 2000 communities were slow to trust and respond to government warnings. But educational campaigns can and have helped to change that

  • Foreign aid is vital, but as the UK's Disasters Emergency Committee report above acknowledged, "all of the agencies underestimated the resilience of the Mozambican population and their coping mechanisms". In other words, foreign NGOs need to get in early, and get out early too

  • An early, and often overlooked, priority (and this was also something I heard a great deal in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami) is simply helping survivors to get back to work. People want and need to be involved in their own recovery

  • You can't just move poor communities away from exposed areas like riverbanks, if that is where they make their living. Give them land on high ground and they'll sell it to be closer to their fields and cattle. It's a complicated, negotiated process.

Mozambique now has a widely praised national emergency organisation that is co-ordinating the fight against both floods and drought - providing the administrative capacity that simply didn't exist in 2000.

Oil boom?

Leaving through Maputo's airport was a very different experience to arriving. Quick and efficient.

Outside, the inevitable team of Chinese workmen was busy finishing a bright new terminal building. I chatted to some South African businessmen who shrugged off concerns about the ruling Frelimo party's grip on power. "I think everyone just accepts that's the way it is going to be here," said one, who went on to mention the oil deposits recently found off the coast.

I also had an interesting conversation with someone from this organisation - which is trying to take foreign development money - in the agricultural sector - down a more philanthro-capitalist road. More on that soon I hope.

In the meantime, I'm taking a couple of weeks' holiday. Back in September.

World Cup honeymoon at an end?

Andrew Harding | 12:42 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010


South African public sector workers on a march demanding higher wages
A good analysis of the politics behind the current, indefinite, public service strike action that is starting to bite, painfully, at schools, courts and particularly hospitals across South Africa.

The World Cup honeymoon would appear to be winding down.

Does this country need a "Thatcher moment"? If it does I can't imagine it happening yet. President Zuma - master of consensus - owes too many favours to the left, and lacks the appetite and stomach for that particular fight. Besides, he might well not win - especially with the ANC's elites so publically addicted to personal profligacy in the face of real hardships among so many workers.

Not for the first time, industrial action here has revealed the fundamental political absurdities at the heart of South Africa's tripartite alliance - an increasingly threadbare umbrella that strains to cover strict monetarists and the communist party, whose youth league called this week for "an end to capitalism!"

But reports of the alliance's death remain exaggerated. Too many people still benefit from club membership.

Plucked from poverty in Mozambique

Andrew Harding | 11:44 UK time, Thursday, 19 August 2010


Rosita Chibure sitting up the tree where her mother gave birth to her 10 years ago
Rosita Chibure has taken off her shoes and is climbing carefully up the gnarled tree towards the branch where she was born, 10 years ago. Her mother, Carolina, watches from the ground.

"Anything is possible," Carolina says, reflecting on the day that she and her baby daughter were saved, and looking round at the straw huts of the impoverished village she no longer calls home.

The circumstances of Rosita's unusual birth were captured by a television camera on board a rescue helicopter that hovered above Mozambique's raging floodwaters, poised to haul mother and child from the branches, cut their umbilical cord, and carry them to a life of unexpected celebrity.

Today, with Pakistan grappling with an even more devastating flood, I've come to Mozambique to see what lessons this huge country might be able to offer. But that's for the next blog. Right now I just wanted to let you know a little more about Rosita and Carolina.

Future president?

First the good news. Carolina has a job as a cleaner in a government office in the nearby town of Chibuto. She has another daughter, Cecilia, aged 10 months, who has also inherited her bright eyes and striking features. The government has given them a fine brick house with a big yard not far from the state school where Rosita now studies each morning. She's a shy but friendly girl who dotes on her baby sister and says her ambition is to become "the president of the republic".

Rosita, with her mother and sister, by the plaque below her birth tree

And why not? Rosita's fame is certainly not of the flash-in-the pan variety - at least not in Mozambique. The story of her birth is part of the national school curriculum in a country prone to both droughts and regular flooding. She and her mother have been taken abroad and feted by a government that knows the contribution their tree-birth-rescue made in terms of garnering international attention and aid during the 2000 floods. A plaque has been put on a white plinth below Rosita's birth tree.

But the past decade has not been easy for a family plucked - quite so literally - from poverty and obscurity. Rosita's largely absent father, Salvador, is accused of taking and wasting almost all the money that was given to the family by well-wishers soon after their rescue. A new house is wonderful, so is a school nearby, but the lifestyle implies and requires an income that - thanks to her husband - Carolina does not have. There have been some very difficult moments.

As the sun is setting, Carolina and Rosita wander away from the tree to look round their old village. With their plaited hair, dainty shoes and smart clothes, they stand out like foreign tourists. "Our lives have changed so much," says Carolina. "Nothing happens without God's help."

Rwanda, Conservatives and image

Andrew Harding | 18:13 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010


Around 50 members of Britain's Conservative party have been in Rwanda for the past few weeks - and no, it seems they weren't there to pick up tips about how to win elections with 93% of the vote.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame celebrates his recent election victory

This is the fourth year running that Tory MPs, activists and party members have flown to Rwanda to take part in something that has had "a profound effect on the Conservative Party," according to this year's organiser, Stephen Crabb MP.

It's called Project Umubano and at one level it is simply an opportunity for British lawyers, doctors, teachers, spin doctors, entrepreneurs, cricket fans
and politicians to share their skills with Rwandans - the International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell has been doing some teacher training this year - and now, on a smaller scale, with people in Sierra Leone.

But the Conservatives also insist that the learning process is very much a two-way thing. I ran into some of the volunteers in Kigali last week. Party press officer Alan Sendorek - just back from running a workshop on communications for a group of villagers
- said the project "had helped create a political mass of people in the party who know about development."

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell in Rwanda

When Umubano started, the Conservatives were still in opposition,
and looking to shake off the "nasty party" image.

Here's how Stephen Crabb MP described the results in an email to me this week: "The aim of Project Umubano was to make a small but significant contribution to development in Rwanda but since it began four years ago it has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the Conservative Party as well. It would be inaccurate to say that the Conservative Party was not interested in development pre-2007; many of our MPs and activists have been committed to alleviating poverty overseas as a moral imperative for decades. But I remember debates on Global Poverty during that last Parliament that were sparsely populated on our side of the House to say the least. As a member of the International Development Select Committee at the time I always found this disappointing. Since the election this year though, there are around 30 of our MPs who been on Project Umubano, have experienced development on the ground and are enthusiastic to talk knowledgeably about the subject in the House of Commons. This is a significant chunk of our parliamentary party, not to mention the hundreds of staff, candidates and activists who have also taken part in Project Umubano. This has helped to create a critical mass of people who are not only interested in development but have seen the lasting difference it can make first hand. There is no question that Umubano has helped to generate a new level of positive interest and experience of development within the Conservative Party."

It's no surprise that the Tories chose Rwanda. Britain is the biggest international donor to President Paul Kagame's government - pumping in some £46m ($71.6m) a year. Britain still sees Rwanda as "fantastic development partner; the money is used wisely and transparently", according to one insider.

But for how long will Britain remain comfortable supporting Rwanda's increasingly authoritarian government?

I met the Conservatives just before the election and no-one was keen to discuss the issue on the record, but there is growing international frustration with President Kagame's low threshold for criticism and increasingly paranoid rhetoric. His achievements in government are remarkable and Rwanda is justifiably cut plenty of slack because of its recent history. But Western governments, Britain's included, are starting to mutter that their support is "not unconditional".

South Africa's media freedoms under threat?

Andrew Harding | 13:07 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010


Be careful what you photocopy... Plain clothed police in Swaziland are reported to have arrested a man for daring to copy a foreign newspaper report about a royal sex scandal in the tiny kingdom.

Note the difference between the coy way it was reported in the local Swazi media, and the way South Africa's boisterous newspapers have been covering, and breaking the story.

But could South Africa's own media now be under threat? Journalists here are deeply concerned about a proposed media tribunal being touted by the ruling African National Congress.
A selection of South African papersI was at an ANC briefing this week where the party's spokesman insisted the tribunal would not threaten the country's free press. But few journalists or cartoonists here
seem ready to be convinced - concluding instead that a party increasingly weighed down by allegations of corruption is looking for a dodgy way to stem the flow of awkward headlines.

Too shrill, too knee-jerk? As in most countries, reporters here sometimes overstep the mark, and sometimes even take bribes. But if you read that last story, you'll see the newspaper involved policed itself pretty effectively. South Africa's papers are the envy of the continent, a feisty, vital bulwark against misrule. This country meddles with the media's independence at its peril.

Here, hopefully in support of that argument, are a few more "unpalatable" articles - about what looks like another looming scandal linked to President Zuma's family, about the ANC's troubles, and about South Africa's greedy elites.

Kagame's hold on Rwandans

Andrew Harding | 21:34 UK time, Saturday, 7 August 2010


The crowds head towards the hilltop - thousands of Rwandans streaming in from the surrounding fields and villages. They are ushered, efficiently, into smaller groups; searched, given flags, and then guided towards orderly clusters of roped-off areas. It is all done neatly, and without fuss.


Then come the speeches. First a local man, then a woman, stand on the podium and tell the crowd how they have become rich - quickly. The woman started with one goat. Now she has two hundred cows and seven staff. The crowd roars.

I have been to my fair share of election rallies in Africa. They do not normally start like this. They are certainly never on time. The subtext is always power, not prosperity. In Kenya, the guest speakers are usually defectors from rival parties who grovel and confess.

The cheering from the back of the crowd signals the arrival of President Paul Kagame.

Tall, thin, slow to smile - he walks down the aisle like a university professor dutifully acknowledging his students' approval, but concerned that some of their essays are not up to scratch.

On the podium, Mr Kagame claps awkwardly and briefly to the music, then he launches into a peevish lecture about unnamed forces that are trying to destabilise Rwanda. His style may be donnish, but his language is that of a soldier.

"Those who give our country a bad image... can take a rope and hang themselves," he says, peering at the television cameras.

It seems an odd line of attack.

Paul Kagame has good reason to feel as pleased as that lady with her cows.

In 1994, his rebel army ended Rwanda's genocide. Since then his government has worked to transform a shattered nation into one of Africa's least corrupt, fastest-growing, most competent countries. It is an extraordinary achievement, and most Rwandans are quick to credit their president.

But there are complications.

Rwanda may be the poster child of international development. The UK certainly thinks so - pumping huge sums into the country's impressive struggle against poverty.

But the politics here are less straightforward - still warped by the legacies of the genocide.

Frank Habineza sits at his desk in the capital, Kigali, staring at a photo on a laptop. It shows his friend and former politically ally, Andre Rwisereka, lying on his front, with his severed head facing the wrong way.

Both men used to be members of President Kagame's ruling party. But they broke away and formed Rwanda's Democratic Green Party.

They tried to register for next week's presidential election but got nowhere. Then last month, Mr Rwisereka's body was found.

"Of course I'm scared," says Mr Habineza with a shrug.

There is no evidence to link the government with the murder or to two other recent attacks - against an exiled general and a journalist investigating his case.

But there is a pattern of intolerance here - of newspapers closed down, critics arrested, and democracy curtailed.

The three candidates running against President Kagame are all his political allies. It is a coronation more than an election.

To some extent, that is understandable.

The forces that led the genocide are still intact and in exile - waiting for the chance to exploit any instability.

Mr Kagame has good reason to tread carefully and to police the political landscape closely.

And while he is doing that, his plan is to unite Rwandans - partly by rescuing them from poverty and partly by trying to rid them of the old ethnic mindset - of a downtrodden Hutu majority and their Tutsi masters, turned victims.

In speech after speech, the president urges people not to use those labels - to think of themselves purely as Rwandans.

It is a bold plan. It may well be working. But it is hard to be sure in a country where reticence and repression are woven into everyday life.

The fact remains here that 85% of the population is Hutu. The government is dominated by Tutsis. It is an uncomfortable reality that speeches alone will not change.

Still, this is an extraordinary place. I lived for a while in Singapore - and the government here has that same sense of drive and vision - and yes, the same mania for control.

I am staying now at a Chinese-built hotel overlooking the centre of Kigali. There is an African fashion-show here at the weekend and the lobby is full of long-limbed models.

Deborah is 18, and studying economics. Sure, a few years back we were divided at school, she says. Tutsis sticking together. But now it is just not an issue. It is all about making money, working hard. Rwandans love to follow orders.

She pauses, and her friend Craig sits forward. Of course we do not forget what happened, he says. We all lost people in the genocide. But we are doing fine. My worry is what happens when Kagame goes. He is what is holding this country together. Without him, I would give this place two years, then there will be another war.

This entry first featured as a report on Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent.

Models, diamonds and Sierra Leone

Andrew Harding | 11:41 UK time, Wednesday, 4 August 2010


Diamond miners near the town of Bo in Sierra Leone
"Who? No. Sorry... We have not heard of this lady."

Naomi Campbell is, unsurprisingly, not a household name in Sierra Leone. But that may be about to change, as the British model and celebrity prepares to become a reluctant, and perhaps significant, participant in the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor - one of the alleged financiers and organisers of Sierra Leone's long and peculiarly horrific civil war.Model Naomi Campbell, who is not a household name in Sierra Leone

On the outskirts of Sierra Leone's graceful but dilapidated sea-side capital, Freetown, a group of amputees sheltered from an afternoon rainstorm, and listened with interest to news about Ms Campbell's role as a prosecution witness - subpoenaed to appear at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague on Thursday, to confirm whether she was given diamonds in 1997 by Mr Taylor, at a party hosted by Nelson Mandela when he was South Africa's president.

"I don't know her. But if she will tell the truth and help the prosecution, that will be a great thing," said Jabaty Mambu, who still bandages the stump of his right arm. His hand was chopped off when he was 16 years old by RUF rebels, who rampaged through Freetown in 1999, killing and mutilating thousands of civilians. "They held me down and cut it off," he said. "It is hard to say 'I forgive you.'"

Edward Conte, who lost his left arm in a similar way, believes Charles Taylor is guilty of the allegations he faces at The Hague. "He should be kept in a lonesome place until he dies."


Brenda Hollis is the prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The solemn, soft-spoken US lawyer has spent the past two years leading rebels, government soldiers, diamond dealers and survivors through their testimonies as she builds her case against the former leader of neighbouring Liberia.
Diamond dealer Alusine Kamara says there are no longer 'blood diamonds' in Sierra Leone

Now she must handle the famously petulant Ms Campbell, who has refused to be interviewed by the prosecution team and will only do so now under a subpoena.

"If a person has a reputation for being difficult, or doesn't have a reputation for being difficult, the approach is still the same," said Ms Hollis in carefully measured tones. "How she responds will dictate whatever follow-up approach we may take."

The media attention generated by Naomi Campbell's brief role in the trial - the first of its kind of an African head of state - is clearly a source of irritation for the prosecution team. "It's unfortunate.... I wouldn't say we're frustrated... but it would be unfortunate if the focus of the international community were only brought back to the trial because of the presence of a celebrity," said Ms Hollis, on a visit to Sierra Leone.

Still, the prosecution insists Ms Campbell's testimony will be worth any attendant complications. "Naomi Campbell has an important part of the story," said Ms Hollis. "After [the Mandela] dinner she was visited by men who gave her diamonds and said they came from Charles Taylor. That's important because it shows his possession of rough diamonds and contradicts his claims that he did not have any. It's also close to the time that a large shipment of arms was brought into Sierra Leone," she said.


These days, Sierra Leone's famously high-quality diamond fields are no longer targeted by rebel armies.
Diamond entrepreneur Aloysius Wai believes diamonds have mainly been a curse for Sierra Leone

Some three hours drive inland from Freetown, in the town of Bo, diamond dealer Alusine Kamara sorted through a small pile of shiny stones. He said he bought about $50,000 (about £30,000) worth every month from local miners. "No blood diamonds now," he said, pulling out an official document. "See, everything legalised - 90% controlled by the state."

In the woods outside town, entrepreneur and private diamond miner Aloysius Wai watched two of his workers shake top-soil through sieves as they stood in a water-logged pit. "If diamonds make people get a living then it is not a curse, but if it is used to kill people and buy ammunition and destroy... generations then it is a curse," Mr Wai said. So where does Sierra Leone stand on the blessing-curse scale? "Eighty percent it's a curse here."

Back in Freetown, Edward Conte is now president of an association of amputees. "This trial is important to stop impunity," he said. "It will show to all other people who want to do that thing tomorrow, and they will think, 'Oh, I will be held responsible for what I did.'"

Japaty Mambu, pictured here aged 16, says his scar means he will never forget Sierra Leone's civil war

His vice-president, Ismael Daramy, came over to talk. Rebel soldiers cut off both his arms in 1998 when they found him in a diamond field. "We can talk about forgiveness and reconciliation but what provisions are being made for the victims," he said. "I'm thinking what will happen to me and my children in the future. I'm living on the street and begging to get something for my family, while the international community spends millions of dollars trying a single man."

But Japaty Mambu, now 27 years old, insisted that Sierra Leone was already on the mend. He and some friends recently built a chicken coop and are waiting for their first eggs. He also plays for an amputee football team and travelled to Spain before the World Cup to meet their national team. "I think we are on the right track with reconciliation," he said. "Eleven years have passed by and I have confidence I'm strong enough to do a lot of things. So I'm relaxed, but I can't forget it, because the scar is always there."

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