BBC BLOGS - Andrew Harding on Africa

Archives for December 2010

Mystical musings on Africa's coming year

Andrew Harding | 17:59 UK time, Friday, 31 December 2010

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Divination is a tricky business. But taking my responsibilities seriously, and not wishing to bore you with my own 2011 predictions, I've just spent two revealing, smoke-and-chant-filled hours in the company of one of Soweto's most reliable sangomas.

He's asked me to protect his identity "to avoid legal troubles," but I can tell you that in the frantic hours before the World Cup opening ceremony here, it is strongly rumoured that a queue containing half the continent's presidents, and several anxious football managers, snaked along the street outside his inconspicuous bungalow.

I wouldn't dare try to interpret the sangoma's mystical musings into 2011, but instead set them down here for your own consideration.

  • "Don't ask me to do elections or referenda," he said firmly as he settled down onto a shiny red divan. "This isn't a betting shop. No octupuses here. All I will say is that one vote will be a glorious, historic anti-climax, a couple will be stolen in broad daylight, and those already in dispute will stutter and stagnate like bad muti.
  • "A new land will be born. But the pain will be felt by the parents, not the child.
  • "Two huge baobab trees will fall. One to the sound of cheering. The other to the sound of happy tears.
  • "Some will be taken to justice in a flat land. But they will leave trouble behind them, and those who deserve prison most will escape it - as usual.
  • "Wars? Yes, of course there will be wars," said the sangoma with a weary shrug. "But the longest snake will surprise us all. And the biggest monster of them all will be betrayed and vanish.
  • "But ask me about money," he said, eager to change subjects. "The foreigners will still feast on our soil. Some of us will fight over the scraps that fall from their table. But those scraps will get bigger. Most of us will be fatter by the end of the year. But we will not know it.
  • "In one country a woman will discover something miraculous and the whole continent will celebrate. One of us will join a brand new family abroad - but for the wrong reasons -and those relatives will snigger behind our backs."

Then, abruptly, the sangoma stopped and asked me, politely, to leave. "A loud man with a small head has booked the rest of my day," he said. "His year will be quieter than he wishes, but he pays in cash."

Christmas in the mountains

Andrew Harding | 10:20 UK time, Saturday, 25 December 2010

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Dancing in the Drakensberg mountains

There is usually dancing at Christmas

A low-slung car packed full of beer crates was being unloaded halfway up the rutted mountain track. Two boys were sliding along the grass nearby on a home-made wooden sledge pulled by two grunting bullocks.

A little further up the bright green hillside a man was walking behind two donkeys playing a tune on a small red accordion.

"It's a time to be happy," said Caiphus, a local farmer, as he and his family prepared for Christmas in the Mnweni valley - perhaps the most jaw-droppingly spectacular, secluded corner of South Africa's Drakensberg mountains.

Walking along a mountain track in the Draksenberg mountains

Christmas is celebrated in local style in all corners of the globe

Caiphus's sister was back for the holidays from her sewing job in Johannesburg. A born-again Christian, she would be walking seven kilometres down the mountain on Christmas morning to the tiny local church. During term time Caiphus's young children make the same journey on foot each day.

As the sun dropped behind the dark ridge of the escarpment high above the family's thatched hut, Caiphus's oldest boy - eight years old now - began clambering up a steep rocky hillside to fetch five errant goats.

"We will dance, of course," said Caiphus with a smile. "We always gather and dance at any happy occasion. Perhaps we will brew some local beer too."

He looked around the idyllic valley, at the smoke filtering through thatched roofs, the steady roar of the nearby stream, and the maize crops growing on the gentler slopes. A noisy, opinionated gaggle of geese waddled past.

"We have problems here, of course," he said. "They come from Lesotho to steal our cattle - they use magic to send us to sleep so we don't hear them. Aids is a big problem too. And we are still waiting for electricity, and the road, and toilets.

"The politicians keep promising but they do nothing. Still, I say to people that we are blessed. Things are getting slowly better here. And even if you have no job, you can still get by if you have cattle and some maize."

I've been lucky enough to spend most of the past week with Caiphus and my family, trekking through a small portion of the Drakensbergs, sleeping in a mountain cave, and in his family's home.

He and some colleagues have set up a tour company taking small groups around the valley and beyond. It has been a magical end - well, almost end - to a busy year.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on this blog in 2010. Why not write in and tell us how you're passing the holidays? Best wishes wherever you are.

Coining a phrase for an African phenomenon...

Andrew Harding | 15:36 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

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Zimbabwe did it once. And could well do it again next year. Kenya did it too, and is still paying the price. Now Ivory Coast seems to be following the same cynical, wretched, familiar path.

We're talking, of course, about a very specific - and right now, very African - type of election. One where the incumbent party or president uses violence, or the threat of violence, as a convenient device enabling it/him to ignore the actual election results and cling to office thanks to some expensively, externally mediated "power-sharing" arrangement.

It may not be an African phenomenon. But it certainly feels like one right now. And at its heart, of course, lies that awkward gap between the rulers and the ruled - a gap that seemed to be narrowing in some parts of the continent, but which remains an unbridgeable chasm in so many other places.

I'm not sure if this type of "election" is a blip, a trend, the last gasp of a particular generation of leaders, or something else altogether. But it does seem like an event in need of a proper title.

I've been scratching my head and badgering my colleagues and have so far only come up with "a Klingon election" - a feeble nod towards Star Trek and the foot-dragging instincts of the Gbagbos and Mugabes of this world. Surely you can coin a better phrase...

Mogadishu diary part 5: Last hope?

Andrew Harding | 18:03 UK time, Friday, 3 December 2010

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I'm just back from an early morning run along the airport runway here in Mogadishu. The familiar thud and rattle of mortar and gunfire in the middle distance. Unusually heavy fighting today.

A Somali government soldier

This government soldier is hoping to be paid soon

There are new lights along both sides of the runway, and the steady rumble of bulldozers clearing ground for a series of new compounds here. For years this country has been a virtual no-go zone for foreigners - for obvious and legitimate security reasons. Instead, the international community has overseen its disastrous - or merely failed - attempts at state-building - and a massive humanitarian operation - at largely arm's length, from the safety of offices in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

But today there are tentative signs that things may be changing. The compound I'm staying at is now full of security, communications, and construction contractors from all over the world. A queue of burly white men is forming beside me right now for breakfast.

So what's going on? Is this a turning point, or another false dawn, in a country that specialises in the latter.

From his icy, air-conditioned cabin near the beach, Amisom's commander, Major General Nathan Mugisha does not try too hard to hide his frustrations. It's taken four wasted years for his troop numbers to reach full strength. "If we'd had the troops four years ago, that would have been enough. But the situation has changed in the meantime." He's hopeful - but not sure - that he'll get an extra 4,000 troops next year. Just about enough, he thinks, to seize Mogadishu - at a pinch.

View of Mogadishu city

Will the new cabinet be prepared to stick it out in Mogdishu?

Now the general feels it's high time the international community returned to Mogadishu in force. "These NGOs should be here to support the people - there's no reason why not. We need their support, and I believe this is an opportunity for them." He doesn't like to talk about building a Baghdad-style "green zone" in case it becomes a target for militants, but he blithely dismisses the risks - "how many bullets have you dodged? We have an area that is safe enough." Perhaps - but that's only within the Amisom compound. The city itself still requires careful navigation, with a dozen or more armed, and loyal security guards.

Abruptly, the general's tone changes, from easy confidence to something approaching anxiety. "This is the last hope we have. This opportunity cannot be missed," he says.

The "opportunity" he mentions is the emergence of a new cabinet for Somalia's Western-backed Transitional Federal Government. It's a smaller team, made up of technocrats drawn, to a large extent, from the vast diaspora. General Mugisha seems confident that, following the reorganisation, the TFG will now finally begin to tackle corruption, pay its soldiers, and be, as he delicately puts it "more transparent... and accountable. We're very happy and optimistic about this new cabinet."

One test for the TFG will be whether its ministers actually stay in Mogadishu themselves. Previous administrations have tended to spend more time in Nairobi, plotting and squabbling. The TFG's chief of protocol, Mursal Saney, assured me that things would be very different. "We work 18 hours a day now. We share our hotel rooms here and sometimes have nowhere to sleep." His boss, President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmad, also insisted his new team was up to the task. When I asked him what was different from previous and equally confident administrations that have come and gone over the years he gave me a one-word answer. "Experience."

But time is not on the TFG's side. Its mandate expires next August and it badly needs to broaden its political base before then. It can probably only achieve that if has some concrete results to point to in Mogadishu, which in turn will depend on Amisom, and the broader international community backing it up. These next few months will be tough to navigate.

Mogadishu diary part 4: Walking wounded

Andrew Harding | 16:01 UK time, Thursday, 2 December 2010

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Ali Abdi Abukar is nine years old, and walking very gingerly - one hand resting on the bandage that covers a 10-inch gash running down his abdomen.

Ali Abdi Abukar and his mother

Ali Abdi Abukar's father was killed in the attack in which he was wounded

Ali, his mother, and perhaps 500 Somali civilians have been queuing since early this morning in the dunes outside the heavily defended compound of the African Union peacekeepers, known as Amisom, on the edge of Mogadishu. It’s a long walk from Ali’s home in the no-man’s land that splits the city centre. Each person is carefully searched before they’re allowed into the camp.

There are other hospitals in Mogadishu, and some foreign aid organisations providing humanitarian assistance to hundreds of thousands of needy Somalis. But security concerns prevent us from visiting them.

By nine in the morning, the sandy courtyard inside Amisom's clinic is packed with people. Ali is seen quickly by a Ugandan army doctor, James Kiyengo. It’s a month since the boy was caught in crossfire. His father was killed that day. Now the stitches running down his stomach are septic.

“We see over 10,000 patients a month,” says Dr Kiyengo. “Most of them would not have survived if they did not have the care that we give. So our impact is quite big. A child like this needs so little but the impact is so big. If we weren’t here, he would definitely be dead.”

Amisom spokesman Major B-B is with us, as always. “This is also about winning hearts and minds,” he says. “Al-Shabab hate this place.” And yet there are victims here too of Amisom’s sometimes indiscriminate attacks – inevitable perhaps in a crowded urban war-zone, but “hearts and minds” can be won by both sides.

A lot of the patients are afraid to be filmed or give their names, saying they fear they will be targeted by the militant group. I run into a middle-aged lady in the clinic’s stairwell. She speaks good English and has come to have an eye infection treated. “We live like animals in Mogadishu,” she says. “Like animals living in a hole – we just go out to find food. Al-Shabab are bad. If they get you, they kill you by knife. They are not strong, but they are helped by business people and foreigners.”

Near the clinic are tents and cabins for in-patients. There’s a ward full of children – several with bullet and shrapnel injuries; a ward for government soldiers; and a special ward for women who’ve had, or are waiting for, fistula operations – a big problem in a country where female genital mutilation remains widespread.

Later in the afternoon, news arrives from the president's office at Villa Somalia – the new cabinet has finally been approved by the transitional parliament. It’s a significant breakthrough. The new team has a lot to prove, and very little time in which to do so.

Mogadishu diary part 3: Touring the frontlines

Andrew Harding | 13:39 UK time, Wednesday, 1 December 2010

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This morning our Ugandan host - Major Barigye Ba-Hoku, spokesman for the African Union peacekeeping force, Amisom - is grinning broadly as he promises us a "safe - well quite safe" tour of the frontlines in Mogadishu.

Before we set off, he produces his mobile phone and shows me the text messages he says he constantly receives from the Islamist al-Shabab militia. "You will be killed in three days," says one. Major B-B, as he's known, sounds rather proud. "There is an oral culture in Somalia, so because I am the spokesman they think I am very powerful. The terrorists call me up all the time."

Major B-B is anxious to show that Amisom has not only shrugged off what is known here as "the Ramadan offensive" by al-Shabab, but actually seized more territory in the city centre. It's hard to be definitive, but Amisom seems confident that it now controls more than half the Somali capital.

Amisom fighter in Mogadishu looking through the sights of a gun

Amisom has only just reached its intended strength of 8,000 men

The subtext, underlined repeatedly during the day, is that if only the international community would step in and pay for a few thousand extra Ugandan troops - say 20,000 in all - the whole city could be secured within a matter of months. Amisom have been here for more than three years now, but have only just reached their intended strength of 8,000 men. Their mandate is also a largely defensive one, limiting their ability to take the fight to al-Shabab.

Amisom is also facing growing criticism over allegations that it is shelling and firing mortars in civilian areas, causing many hundreds of casualties. The sooner it can take the whole city - three months' work according to one officer - the quicker those criticisms will stop.


We put on our flak jackets and helmets once again, and squeeze inside the sweltering armoured trucks. We've been told not to discuss our movements on local phones because al-Shabab may be monitoring them.

Twenty minutes later we're climbing the crumbling staircase of a huge ruin overlooking the beach. This used to be Hotel Urbha. Now it is an artillery-blasted concrete skeleton, filled with Ugandan soldiers peering out from behind their sandbags at al-Shabab positions perhaps a kilometre away. Along the spectacular, rocky shoreline, children are splashing in the surf.

A Ugandan officer points to a dusty road, and a barely visible line of sandbags. "Al-Shabab trenches," he says. "They are tunnelling too." Snipers and mortars are a problem, but it seems the major threat comes from suicide bombers and roadside bombs.

A few minutes later, sweat soaking through our flak jackets, we're half-running across open ground towards a gaping hole in the side of a small cottage. We're just a hundred metres or so from al-Shabab's positions now, and weaving through buildings and gardens, occasionally making a quick dash across exposed territory.

"Run, run, run," shouts Major B-B. From behind us there's a fairly steady thump of machine-gun fire from Ugandan troops. Then suddenly, the whip-crack of incoming sniper fire overhead, then another, and a little further away, the boom of mortars. It's turning into a lively morning.

Right on the frontlines, in a neighbourhood cluttered with ruined buildings, we meet our first Somali troops, working alongside Amisom. There are a few civilians here too - two women selling cigarettes and an older man praying in a courtyard as bullets zip and crackle nearby. We pass a giant cauldron with the remains of some pasta caked to the bottom.

"I'm here to fight the terrorists," says a middle-aged Somali soldier clutching a Kalashnikov. Twenty-one-year-old Hassan Abdi Mohammed says he's just come back from a training camp in Uganda, funded by the European Union - part of a broader international strategy to strengthen the UN-backed government's infrastructure and security forces to enable it to take a lead in stabilising Somalia. "We want to fight and win," Hassan declares.

But the Ugandan officers don't hide their frustration with their Somali colleagues. "There are problems," says one. "They are not yet up to standard." And there's a broader concern that the clan rivalries and political divisions that erupt so frequently within the government filter down almost instantly to the street, meaning the AU peacekeepers can never be entirely sure of the support of their Somali colleagues on the frontlines.

Another AU officer complains that "many Somali troops are defecting" to al-Shabab. The simple reason is money not ideology. Several Somali soldiers quietly tell me they haven't been paid in months.

A view of Somali coast and fort from Urbha Hotel

From the Urbha Hotel, one can see the beach on side and fighting on the other

We snake back on foot, heads low, half-running, weaving through the rubble, ducking under the barrel of an old Soviet tank. Then suddenly we're close to the beach again - a searing ribbon of blue on the horizon, groups of old men sipping tea in the shade, some fishing boats in the ancient harbour. A Ugandan colonel has prepared a hot lunch for us on the third floor of the gutted Urbha Hotel. Beach on one side. War on the other. A surreal experience.

A while later, back at the Amisom compound, we run into Uganda's President, Yoweri Museveni, surrounded by a group of soldiers singing and clapping. "Ah you media," he says with a grin. "You are all muck-rakers." He's the first foreign head of state to visit the country in many years and after meeting the president, he agrees to a short interview.

The focus, inevitably, is on the need for more troops - and on who will pay for them. The international community doesn't "take Somalia's problems very seriously," President Museveni tells me. "They're near, on the ocean having a nice time, but the problem is here on land. I don't know how much money they're spending on ships but the pirates come from the land." He's ready to send more troops here, but only if Western governments are prepared to foot the bill.

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