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Archives for March 2011

Campbell advises South Africa's spin doctors

Andrew Harding | 10:28 UK time, Tuesday, 29 March 2011


South Africa's notoriously thin-skinned government spin doctors are being given a little coaching by the Gordon Ramsey of the trade - Tony Blair's former press secretary, Alastair Campbell.

Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell had a troubled relationship with some of the British media

His advice - get used to it, and "be a bit more chilled."

"Stay calm in a crisis," he urged his South African colleagues, at a formal dinner on Monday night.

"When you've been called Hitler or Goebbels or Rasputin, there's no question capable of upsetting me."

As for the robust media criticism constantly directed at the government and the ruling ANC, "I don't think you have it as bad as you think you have it," he said.

"The disconnect that matters is not the one that exists between what the government does and what the media says," Mr Campbell wrote later on his blog.

"It's the one between what the media says and what people actually think about their lives."

True enough - but the real and widening disconnect here seems to be between the government and the people. The ANC may keep winning - but watch the turnout for May's local elections.

Interestingly, Mr Campbell waded - as perhaps only an outsider can - into a delicate subject that the authorities here seem barely able to even mention, let alone plan for properly: The handling of Nelson Mandela's eventual funeral arrangements.

"It will be a huge moment for the country and the world," Mr Campbell stressed, urging the government's communication officials to see the event on a par with last year's World Cup - and as an opportunity to showcase the country and its extraordinary history.

His advice seemed to go down well at the dinner.

Will - or should - any of it rub off on the government spokesman, Jimmy Manyi?

He's a man who, much like Mr Campbell towards the end of his days at Number 10, has a habit of being, rather than making, the headlines.

Hiding the dead... a Zimbabwean mystery

Andrew Harding | 12:29 UK time, Friday, 25 March 2011


A disused mineshaft. A mass grave. Hurried exhumations. A mood of dread, suspicion, and blistering political rhetoric.

This has the makings of a very Zimbabwean murder mystery.

For many days the state-controlled media, loyal to President Robert Mugabe, has been giving saturation coverage to the exhumation of hundreds of bodies from an abandoned mine.

Zanu-PF ministers have been on hand to declare that the corpses were victims of the liberation struggle, murdered by forces of the white Rhodesian leader, Ian Smith, during the 1970s. Indigenisation Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and others have been quick to build political capital out of the gruesome site - explicitly linking the past atrocities to the alleged "pro-white" tendencies of their current rivals in the MDC.

There seems to be no doubt that the graves, and the corpses, are genuine. But the timing and handling of the "discovery" have raised suspicions in some quarters. Perhaps even more significantly, some people are starting to question the age and identity of the dead.

Are all the bodies really victims of the liberation war, or could some have been killed during the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s?

Some people who have visited the site, and seen the condition of the bodies, have even suggested that some of them could be MDC activists, killed by pro-Zanu-PF gangs during the violent election campaign of 2008.

Perhaps significantly, Zanu-PF ministers now appear to be distancing themselves from the exhumations, which were carried out by an organization called the Fallen Heroes Trust - linked in numerous reports to President Mugabe's party.

A professional, independent forensic examination is presumably the only way to settle this matter.

Will the world prevent Ivory Coast war?

Andrew Harding | 15:28 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011


Is there a more chilling spectacle than a country sliding, fast and foolishly, into civil war?

Ivory Coast is at least three-quarters of the way there now, and the optimists are running out of straws at which to clutch.

Laurent Gbagbo supporters undergoing military training

These supporters of Laurent Gbagbo are undergoing military training

It's still not beyond the realm of possibility that this might play out peacefully," says a western diplomat in Abidjan. "But that's becoming less and less likely."

"It will be worse than Rwanda," says a contact of mine, who is close to Laurent Gbagbo, the man trying to cling on to the presidency. The comment hangs pungently in the air - half-way between a warning and a threat.

We can quibble over the details of the impending war. Military leaders allied to internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara talk - unrealistically to my mind - of something like a "blitzkrieg." Others fear something grimly close to genocide. But the drumbeat of war, of one sort or another, is ominously loud.

Can outside pressure still halt the inevitable? There is hopeful talk of widening divisions within Gbagbo's camp, of defections and waverings - a palace coup, perhaps - as international economic sanctions bite. But Ivory Coast's key neighbours are caught up in their own electoral battles, and while the region hasn't ruled out military intervention, it's doing a lousy job of trying to sound threatening.

There are some signs that, after weeks spent focusing on Libya, the UN and the African Union are once again turning their attention to Ivory Coast's crisis. About time too. For many on this continent, the contrast between the international responses to the two countries is stark and telling.

Squabble over Mandela's missing gun

Andrew Harding | 11:39 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011


Just received an angry call, followed by an even angrier press release, from the people who run one of South Africa's most historic pieces of real estate - Liliesleaf Farm north of Johannesburg. Words like "belligerent," "greediness," and "selfish," are being thrown about - all because of a squabble over the search for Nelson Mandela's old pistol - an item of "sentimental importance" to the elderly liberation hero.

Several anti-apartheid activists were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in the 1960s. Image courtesy of Liliesleaf Trust

During the struggle against apartheid, the Communist Party, and then the armed wing of the banned ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe, used the farm buildings as their headquarters. Mr Mandela famously spent time in hiding there disguised as a labourer - and in July 1963 many of his closest colleagues were arrested at the farm. One of them, Ahmed Kathrada recently showed me the window he tried to escape through. He was caught and ended up in the dock together with Mr Mandela. The infamous Rivonia trial was named after the farm's location.

Over the years, Mr Mandela has frequently mentioned that while on the run from the security services - and dubbed the Black Pimpernel by the media - he buried a treasured souvenir - his semi-automatic Makarov pistol somewhere on the property. But where? Various elderly struggle heroes have pointed in different directions, and the gun has yet to be found.

The Trust - which now manages that farm as a tourism, legacy and resource centre - has for some time been negotiating access to what is considered a promising spot - which is now part of an adjoining property - with a view to sending in an expert with a high-powered metal detector.

But according to the Trust's Nicholas Wolpe, the neighbour recently sent him a lawyer's letter, refusing further access "for any reason whatsoever" and insisting that the Trust must instead buy the property for 3m rand ($270,000; £435,000).

In response, Mr Wolpe accused the owner of backtracking and "greediness," in trying to "exploit the situation," as well as "a total lack of respect for the significance of this historical project which has now been bought (sic) to an abrupt and premature halt."

Although the gun has historic value, Mr Wolpe has made it clear that his primary concern is to find it while Mr Mandela is still alive - and able to see it himself. "Recent events surrounding Mr Mandela's health," he said in a statement, made the Trust "extremely keen to uncover" its whereabouts.

Bobbie Lanham-Love, a lawyer representing the neighbour - Al Leenstra - told me his "fairly elderly" client has "nothing cynical in his intentions, and has been bending over backwards to do what's right," and "simply wishes to put the deal to bed." He accused Mr Wolpe of threatening to "play dirty."

Ivory Coast's future hangs in the balance

Andrew Harding | 11:25 UK time, Monday, 14 March 2011


I'm inside the cramped, furnace-hot interior of a United Nations armoured car, grinding through another makeshift roadblock in Abobo, Abidjan. Outside, men in balaclavas - the so-called "Invisible Commando" that's seized control of the neighbourhood - wave us through.

Abobo - a huge suburb - is enjoying a brief lull in fighting which erupts again soon after we leave. Smoke from burning rubbish drifts across the road. Dogs scavenge. I see three women half-running down a side street. Most shops look like they've been looted.

While the rest of the city remains accessible to forces loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, Abobo is "liberated territory" held by supporters of his rival, the internationally recognised President Alassane Ouattara.

The last roadblock was made of the wreckage of several cars. This one is mainly furniture. I can see pistols, and a couple of machetes through the grimy window. Slumped beside me, two UN peacekeepers from Niger are drenched in sweat - two hours into an eight-hour patrol. It must be nearly forty degrees inside here. By our feet are bottles of water and clips of ammunition.

"Somewhere between a cold war and a civil war," is how the head of the UN mission in Ivory Coast, Choi Young-jin, described the situation in the country to me a couple of days ago. It's now moving inexorably closer to the latter - although quite how soon it will all kick off in earnest is still hard to tell.

The New Forces, loyal to Ouattara, seem confident - overly, no doubt - that a blitzkrieg will sweep Gbagbo's loyalists out of power after just a few days of fighting. They're certainly making quiet, but highly significant advances in the west of the country. There's much talk of high-level defections in the military - or at least the groundwork for such defections.

In Abobo, gunmen attempted to hijack a private car we'd hired to pick us up after we'd finished filming the UN. They were talked out of it. But 4x4 vehicles are apparently being targeted actively now. The UN's Mr Choi summed it up neatly:

"We have evidence and intelligence that both sides are preparing for the future."

A dangerous and decisive day as Abidjan awaits its fate

Andrew Harding | 08:41 UK time, Thursday, 10 March 2011


Some dangerous, possibly decisive days ahead for Ivory Coast.
Across the city, ambassadors in their manicured, cloistered villas, are preparing evacuation plans.

Right now Abidjan feels a little quieter than usual - but that's only because everyone is waiting to hear from the far side of the continent. Will it be news of a peace deal that filters back from Ethiopa, or - rather more likely - the starting gun for a return to full-scale conflict?

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The expectation - by no means guaranteed - here is that the African Union will attempt to paper over its cracks and endorse Alassane Ouattara as the legitimate, elected president of Ivory Coast at a high-level meeting in Addis Ababa.

Mr Ouattara has left his besieged headquarters at the Golf hotel in Abidjan to travel to Addis - clearly anticipating the continent's backing. But his rival, Laurent Gbagbo has stayed behind, snubbing the AU and strongly implying that he will not abide by its recommendations.

If that happens, a well-placed source here in Abidjan has told me that we could see Mr Ouattara's forces - the former rebels who still hold the northern half of Ivory Coast - launch swift attacks on the south in order to seize full control of the country. Their allies are already pushing in from the west.

Will they race to find a military solution? Do they have the necessary force to win - and how much are neighbouring states weighing in with logistical support? Hard to say. This is a very unpredictable neighbourhood. It's hard to imagine Laurent Gbagbo's forces crumbling without the "bloodbath" that some here are already predicting.

Success for Mr Ouattara's side will depend a great deal on how quickly the southern economy - collapsing under the weight of sanctions - weakens Mr Gbagbo's grip on power and his ability to fight back.

Petrol, gas, and cash are all in short supply here. That will only get worse.
On Wednesday I took the short UN helicopter ride across the lagoon here in Abidjan to the Golf hotel. With Mr Ouattara away, the place was much quieter than on my last visit. The trapped inmates - or ministers, aides, and bureaucrats - sat drinking coffee in the lounge, or pacing the gardens for exercise.

"It's the only place I feel safe," said one aide. "I miss my family."
Patrick Achi, named by Mr Ouattara as presidential spokesman and government minister, was sounding far more confident, insisting that many soldiers were defecting from the Gbagbo camp, that a "consensus" would emerge from Addis, that sanctions were causing Mr Gbagbo to "panic" and that this crisis was entering its final stage.

But, he said, "we are afraid of a crazy dictator, losing power, doing a crazy thing - setting the country on fire."
Later today I'm hoping to meet Charles Ble Goude - leader of Mr Gbagbo's fiercely loyal Young Patriots.

In the meantime, you can follow me on twitter at hardingbbc

Ivory Coast heads into the abyss

Andrew Harding | 08:49 UK time, Tuesday, 8 March 2011


"Be careful - trust no-one," is the half-whispered welcome of a baggage handler at Abidjan's smart international airport. Officials crowd round our luggage, but are not interested in their contents, only our intentions - "You will tell lies like the French," one uniformed woman snarls. A man in dark glasses demands of me: "So, who won our elections?"

Life is on hold for Abidjan residents

It's two months since my last visit here. In January, Ivory Coast was moving steadily towards the brink of civil war. Today, it is already plunging headlong into the abyss.

A rash of menacing roadblocks has erupted across the city, set up by a confusing array of militias and soldiers who are steadily carving frontlines into every neighbourhood. Parts of this once-elegant city still seem calm, but there is a twitchy and deepening sense of insecurity everywhere. In the west of the country, the fighting has already begun in earnest.

Laurent Gbagbo, the man deemed to have lost last November's heavily monitored presidential election, remains in his office. He has already "nationalised" the banks - "one of the biggest bank robberies in history" is how a western diplomat here describes it - now he's doing the same thing with the cocoa industry.

Smart tactics by a man feeling the squeeze of international sanctions - but will it buy him more than a few weeks' worth of salaries for his soldiers and civil servants?

A final diplomatic push by the African Union to find a peaceful settlement looks like it will collapse later this week. Mr Gbagbo has been invited to Ethiopia for his first face-to-face meeting with Alassane Ouattara, the man almost universally recognised as the duly elected president of Ivory Coast. Mr Gbagbo - probably fearing a coup - is unlikely to leave town.

And the AU's early and adamant unity in support of Mr Ouattara has been fatally weakened by South Africa's reckless politicking, which has seen Pretoria call the election "inconclusive." "Unusual and unhelpful," as one observer here put it. The AU's final recommendations seem certain to be ignored.
So then what?

Some sort of military escalation seems the most likely right now.
Mr Gbagbo could cling on for many months. Or he could be ousted by his generals. Mr Ouattara's forces could launch an offensive from their bases in the north of the country. Or Nigeria could take the initiative after its own elections next month and push for a regional military intervention. Or the wretched status quo - complete with a rising death toll - could drag on indefinitely.

And today Women's Day is likely to be marked here with rallies across the city. On many people's minds - last week's vicious attack on unarmed women demonstrators.

'Mounting fears in Zimbabwe' says survey

Andrew Harding | 12:54 UK time, Friday, 4 March 2011


How do you measure fear? A set of new statistics from Zimbabwe attempts to do just that.

The figures, compiled from a "nationally representative sample of 1,200 adult Zimbabweans" by an independent non-governmental organisation called Freedom House, paint an alarming picture of a population, which after more than a year of growing confidence following the formation of a power-sharing government and the halting of the country's economic collapse, is once again beginning to cower.

Here's one perspective on the mood in Zimbabwe, then, as the prospect of elections draws closer.

  • 89% of respondents did "not feel free to express political views"
  • 74% believe "that fear affects how people vote"
  • 57% want elections this year, but almost the same number "stated that fear of violence makes Zimbabweans abstain from voting"

  • support for the former opposition MDC-T has dropped sharply, from 55% to 38%. At the same time 42% of respondents chose not to declare their vote preference - an 11% rise from the previous year

  • support for Zanu-PF has grown from 12 to 17%

  • 58% of respondents had experienced "violence and intimidation in their communities in the past two years."

These figures were presented by Freedom House at a news conference in Johannesburg, and then followed by panel discussions which focused on concerns about a new wave of intimidation by President Mugabe's Zanu-PF.

Zimbabwean journalist Faith Zaba told of being threatened with death for planning to write about a senior general; she also said "there's a fear of Facebook," because "we know they [state security] are monitoring."

Women's activist Grace Chirenje spoke of "fatigue and fear in civil society... there are so many human rights violations right now, perpetrated mainly by the police and army... and youth militias."

Human rights lawyer Alec Muchadehama declared that the reconciliation process "has simply not happened. Nothing has changed... People are afraid. They are not prepared to sacrifice."

Polling expert professor Eldred Masunungure told me the fall in support for the MDC was "a big but bitter lesson" for the party. "Though they've performed reasonably well in government, they've done very badly in terms of... resuscitating the party and readying it for the next electoral battle."

Despite the generally gloomy tone of the survey's findings, it's worth pointing out that on Monday, Harare will play host to a much more upbeat gathering of foreign investors, lured for the most part by Zimbabwe's vast mineral resources.

How to square the gloom and the optimism? Zimbabwe's finance minister - also the MDC's Secretary General - Tendai Biti can always be relied on for a choice turn of phrase.

"We're fighting the most sophisticated dictator on the African continent," he said, in reference to Mr Mugabe, and in answer to a series of questions I put to him.

"We are talking about two different messages. The past and the future." He said most foreign investors were able to see beyond the "fiction and rhetoric" of Zanu-PF's statements about seizing companies by force.
"No major players have pulled out," he said.

As for the political struggle between the two parties: "It's inevitable that there's going to be a violent collision. But our vision is the future, and the future will always win. A new society is being built," said Mr Biti.

"The only challenge is whether this baby is going to be delivered by violent caesarean section, or by normal delivery. But it will be delivered anyway," he said.

Another race row in South Africa

Andrew Harding | 13:38 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


It's a topic that blisters to the surface every few weeks here in South Africa. The rainbow nation is still understandably, sometimes unhealthily, often obsessively preoccupied with issues of race.

But this particular blister is a little different. Instead of the usual, fairly predictable black/white rows about "Shoot the Boer" or the transformation policies of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) or a dozen other familiar triggers, the current focus is on the country's mixed-race or coloured population.

Today one of South Africa's most senior politicians - himself a member of the coloured community - launched a searing attack against the government's loose-cannon of a spokesman, Jimmy Manyi, calling him a "worst-order racist" and condemning his "acute lack of judgement."

Minister of the Presidency Trevor Manuel was incensed by Mr Manyi's suggestion - last year - that coloured people are "over-concentrated" in the Western Cape Province - a comment that seemed to hark back uncomfortably to the forced relocations of the apartheid era.

An issue of principle? No doubt. But there's politics at play too, of course, with Mr Manuel and the ANC looking for ways to woo the coloured vote in the Western Cape away from their fierce rival, the Democratic Alliance (DA). This storm follows another, smaller scandal involving a newspaper columnist who ranted - probably in jest, but without the balm of wit - about coloured stereotypes, and was promptly sacked.

Like sun spots, these disputes seem to flare up more strongly from time to time.

Sometimes they're flimsy, sometimes political, and often they point to deeper tensions within the country.

A few weeks ago I visited the tiny, exclusively Afrikaner community of Orania, where some 900 white people are busy trying to create a stronghold for their particular culture and identity.

Carel Boshoff, the town's mayor told me that the notion of a rainbow nation was "an optical illusion, like a rainbow itself. A nice concept but far from reality... A flash in the pan, which seemed so wonderful but wore off like a bad hangover."

But I don't share his pessimism - or realism as he'd call it. The frictions may be endless, but most South Africans seem to muddle through.

Besides, as society evolves, it's increasingly tempting to substitute the word "class" for "race." No-one has a monopoly on good sense when it comes to any of this, but for my money, South Africa's comedians tend to make a better job of nailing it, than its politicians.

By the way, if you use twitter, you can now follow me on @hardingbbc

Zimbawe protests a conspiracy?

Andrew Harding | 11:50 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011


It started as an online rumour... talk of a "million man march" in Harare with the none-too subtle implication that this might just be the start of an Egypt/Tunisia/Libya/wherever-next uprising in Zimbabwe. Before long, the US embassy was warning American citizens to stay away from the city centre this Tuesday, with the advice that "while we do not know the ultimate scale of the demonstrations, we anticipate the government will react forcibly and the situation could easily turn volatile".

In the end... there were a few extra roadblocks around town, but so far no sign of any protests, let alone a million men.

So what happened? Or rather what didn't happen? Was it simply feeble organisation, cold feet, and a lack of official police endorsement, which kept the marchers at home?

Or was it something more intriguing.

It's always tempting - probably too tempting - to search for conspiracy theories in Zimbabwe. There have been plenty of dark mutterings that all this might be a "plot" or "hoax" arranged by President Robert Mugabe's own party, Zanu-PF - giving it another excuse to crack down on dissent.

It's certainly odd that none of the highly organised, well-connected human rights groups and pro-democracy organisations in Zimbabwe knew anything about the proposed march. Instead, the idea seemed to drift anonymously from unnamed or unknown sources on the internet.

A source at the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) - now unequal members of a faltering unity government - downplayed the idea of a conspiracy. His party is more concerned at the growing harassment of its members and what it calls a "paranoid attempt by certain sections of the state apparatus" to link events in North Africa with Zimbabwe's own escalating political frictions. The police recently arrested 46 people in Harare for watching a video about Egypt's protests. Several were allegedly tortured.

Human rights lawyer Irene Petras says there are many reasons why Zimbabwe is unlikely to follow Egypt's example. "There is a lot of fear. The military are very much in control," she said. There's also "a wariness about rocking the boat", now that the economy has stabilised. Much of Zimbabwe also "lacks the infrastructure and social media... in terms of mobilisation." But in the end, she said, "If people are really repressed enough and have the ability to lose that fear then there's always the possibility in any country that this could happen."

Leaving aside the conspiracy talk, the timing of today's non-rally is certainly interesting. It came, or rather didn't come, one day ahead of a very different gathering, due to take place in Harare.

President Mugabe's party is planning to launch a national anti-sanctions campaign and petition on Wednesday, in what sounds very much like the opening salvo in an election campaign by Zanu-PF that is likely to focus on both sanctions and moves to "indigenise" companies. Mr Mugabe said recently that he wants "to get to elections as soon as possible". The rally is certain to be huge, with demonstrators brought in by bus from around the country. A handily sharp contrast to today's non-event.

The "sanctions" issue remains a tricky one for the MDC. The US and Europe are known to be keen to lift their remaining targeted sanctions against President Mugabe and his allies, because he's managed to use them so successfully as a propaganda weapon against the MDC. But that won't be possible until all parties have agreed a credible, rig-proof timetable for a referendum and elections. Zanu-PF is highly unlikely to do anything in the short-term which would enable the west to remove the sanctions and rob Mr Mugabe of his favourite campaign weapon.

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