Ivory trade in the DRC

Jeffrey Gettleman of the NYT investigates a growing illicit trade in the DRC — not diamonds, gold, or minerals, but ivory. Evidence suggests that military forces in the area, including national armies from DRC, Uganda, and South Sudan, and rebel groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army, have been implicated in the illegal and deadly trade. As much as 70% of all ivory is headed to China. Excerpt below, full article here.

Some of Africa’s most notorious armed groups, including the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Shabab and Darfur’s janjaweed, are hunting down elephants and using the tusks to buy weapons and sustain their mayhem. Organized crime syndicates are linking up with them to move the ivory around the world, exploiting turbulent states, porous borders and corrupt officials from sub-Saharan Africa to China, law enforcement officials say.

But it is not just outlaws cashing in. Members of some of the African armies that the American government trains and supports with millions of taxpayer dollars — like the Ugandan military, the Congolese Army and newly independent South Sudan’s military — have been implicated in poaching elephants and dealing in ivory.

Video: The Ivory Wars

When to intervene?

Published online April 24, 2012.

In our interconnected global community how does identity influence one’s actions?

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me– and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This famous quotation comes from public lectures given by protestant pastor Martin Niemöller, a critic of Adolf Hitler who was imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps for seven years. Like many others, he expressed lifelong regret at having failed to act sooner as the Nazis murdered millions. His faith differed from most of those who were persecuted, but the painful lesson he learned was that one’s identity should not dictate one’s actions, or the lack thereof. Unfortunately, this lesson remains relevant today.

Still, questions remain. When do you have a responsibility to help someone? When are other people’s problems also your problems? In the face of obvious wrongdoing or a natural disaster, is it always better to do something than nothing? The answers to these questions are not obvious, even if Niemöller’s words ring true. Injustices, atrocities and accidents occur daily, but as an increasingly interconnected global community, we have not figured out when and how we are supposed to act, either as individuals, organizations, or governments. Many argue that national boundaries should dictate who and what we are responsible for, but upon closer examination, this argument falls apart.

Nationality is one of the most common social categories we use to define our identity, and for good reason. Our nationality, our citizenship, plays a large role in determining where and how we live. We look toward nation-states to dictate the behavior of individuals and governments, and physical boundaries are also those used to assign rights, privileges and obligations. Furthermore, nationalism is not just a facet of our identity, but is deeply embedded in the international system. The norms and rules of sovereignty have for long prevented one country from wandering willy-nilly into the affairs of another (which is not to say that this happens infrequently).

For this reason, human rights advocates, non-governmental organizations, and international organizations like the International Criminal Court, often viewed as proxies for “western” governments, not to mention governments themselves, are often lambasted for meddling in the affairs of countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. Governments of countries on the receiving end of intervention complain loudly about the imposition on their sovereignty. Citizens too are repulsed by the idea and actions of foreigners who behave as if they know and understand a place or problem better than the people who live there.

But it is not clear why national boundaries alone should dictate our rights and responsibilities. Physical boundaries are becoming increasingly porous, and arguably, irrelevant. What happens halfway around the world is not only visible, but also something in which individuals far and wide can have a stake. Following the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti, individuals raised hundreds of millions of dollars, channeled not through governments but rather through non-governmental and international organizations.

It is clear that individuals can make a difference, but the question is when should they? It would be silly to suggest that we should only care about things that happen in countries where we hold citizenship. Why? At least in part because the selection of nationalism as the key factor for determining whether or not to act is arbitrary. If we should only care about “people like us” or stay out of “other people’s” affairs, an argument that begins with one’s citizenship as the relevant identity may quickly reduce down to a sub-national identity, or worse, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or class.

It is surely not the case that we should only care about or attempt to redress injustices if the offended party shares our race, ethnicity, hometown or income level. An argument that lists nationality as the key determinant of whether or not we have a right or responsibility to act is no different and no better than one listing any of our other identities as the deciding factor. Each one of us has many different, and largely socially constructed, identities. For example, I am an American, born in the state of California, in a town called Palo Alto, to a Mexican father and an American mother. I was baptized and confirmed in a Lutheran church. I have light skin. I am a woman. Should any of these categories, any of these identities, limit who or what I care about? Under what conditions should any of these identities dictate how I act?

If identity (of any variety) should not be the determinant that dictates our rights and responsibilities to act, what should be? We do not have an answer to this question. What we do have is the creation of social categories around which it is easy to mobilize but also easy to persecute, the creation of “us” and “them”, “foreigners” and “locals”. Such a framing is neither productive nor sustainable.

Perhaps information, knowledge, or understanding should be a prerequisite for action. Much of the critique about “meddling” in other people’s affairs stems from the fact that the meddling is often poorly informed. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as the adage goes. First do no harm, says another popular mantra. Unfortunately, the simplicity of these axioms is misleading. We often do not know whether our actions will, on balance, be more helpful or harmful – it is often impossible to measure one’s impact, even years after the fact.

Yet if we fail to act, we are in danger of becoming bystanders to massive atrocities. Many who looked on as the Rwandan genocide unfolded became exactly that – bystanders whose crimes were those of omission. So too were those who looked away as the Nazis summarily wiped out over six million people. More recently, we have faced crises in Libya, Bahrain, Syria, and beyond, as regimes have clobbered and battered their populations into submission. Rebel groups like the LRA continue to terrorize with abandon. The fundamental questions remain. Should we act? When? How?

The King and Queen-makers

Published online February 28, 2011

Driving through the countryside or city streets in Uganda or Rwanda, one is greeted by the same sight over and again – children. Youngsters in colourful uniforms fill the sidewalks and paths every morning and afternoon as they trek to and from school.

Jogging in the early morning down Kigali streets I have more than once been embarrassingly out-run by little girls in dress shoes and backpacks, screeching gleefully as they dash past. Meanwhile, the smaller children toddle curiously around the home, and babies find themselves securely strapped to the backs of their busy moms. You don’t have to look up demographic figures to know that one word characterizes the population: young.

In a region long defined by civil war, violence and dictatorship, youth is the new and hopeful quality permeating society. The wars that wracked the region for the past several decades have drawn to a close, one by one – the Ugandan civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, the 20-year terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, the Rwanda genocide of 1994, and the Congo wars that followed. As the worst episodes of violence recede, how will newfound security affect the political, social, and economic opportunities and beliefs of the new generation? How will the youth relate to the decisions of leaders whose lived experiences are increasingly distant from their own?

The children and young adults of today will live profoundly different lives than those of their parents and grandparents. While conflict continues in eastern Congo, a peace and cautious hope has come to most of the region. Nearly half of Rwanda’s population today was born after 1994. 52% of Rwandans and 61% of Ugandans are less than 20 years old. Nearly three quarters of all Ugandans have lived under President Yoweri Museveni for their entire lives.

Most Ugandans and Rwandans, therefore, know only stories of the terrible wars that once ravaged society. The scars, visible or not, are everywhere, but the memory is increasingly derived from history passed down by those who lived through it. As these children come of age, they face very different challenges than their parents before them. The vast majority will attended primary school, and will read and write in English. Many will graduate from secondary school, and an increasing number will obtain a university degree. Unlike their parents, most will not fear for their lives, but for their livelihoods.

Yet for now, those who govern the countries in which these children grow up – individuals who were intimately involved in the conflicts of the past several decades – continue to make calculations, judgments, and risk assessments based on the experiences through which they have survived, as have done leaders before them. National security is at the top of the agenda for every government, but the price one is willing to pay for security is shaped by experience. For the older generation, there may be no price too high. For the younger generation, the choices may not be so clear-cut.

It is difficult to assess the extent of the divide between today’s youngsters and the generation that preceded them. Often votes are a good indication of political and policy preferences, but the post-conflict generation is only just coming of age. Surveys too can help, but ultimately we are left to some speculation.

Recent surveys in Rwanda show that both the young and old continue to place a high value on national security. Overall, 44% of Rwandans said that “strong defence forces” should be the top national priority, with a similar percentage across all age groups, according to the World Values Survey. In the U.S., by contrast, while 38% of all Americans surveyed believe strong defence forces is the most important national priority, only 20% of those under 30 list national defence as the top priority. The vastly different security challenges facing each country have surely shaped these preferences.

In Rwanda, an extraordinarily large percentage of people not only support strong defence forces as the top national priority but would also contribute to this goal – 95% of all Rwandans and 96% of 15-29 year-olds surveyed said they would be willing to fight for their country. In the U.S., only 41% of 15-29 year-olds were willing to do so. 91% of Rwandans also expressed a preference for greater respect for authority in the country. All this suggests that so far, there is little evidence of a generational difference in security preferences. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that most of the peacetime generation is still too young to be included in any survey. We are likely still observing the preferences of an adult population for whom the remnants of conflict may still be too fresh, and continued violence in eastern Congo too close.

In Uganda, evidence is mixed regarding whether the old and young have different preferences when it comes to national priorities, but there appear to be greater differences than in Rwanda. There are obviously serious economic challenges facing Ugandans, which may trump security concerns for the ordinary citizen — 64% of 18-29 year-olds were unemployed in 2008, according to an Afrobarometer survey. For most Ugandans, “improving economic conditions for the poor” is the most important national priority. Only 17% of 18-29 year olds listed maintaining order in the nation as the highest priority. Interestingly, young people expressed greater fear of political intimidation or violence than the very old in Uganda – 36% of young people said they had “a lot” of fear of political violence. And worryingly, the majority of Ugandans believe political competition often or always leads to conflict.

Uganda and Rwanda are both societies in transition  — transition away from conflict, transition toward greater political participation, transition out of poverty. How today’s children will view the behaviour and policies of leaders whose life experiences are increasingly distant from their own is yet to be seen. It may be too soon to detect generational differences in any scientific way, but ready or not, the youth bulge is coming into its own. Young people already make up the lion’s share of the population in the region. In just a few years they will be the king and queen-makers, or breakers. Watch this space.

HIV in colonial Africa

Online this week in The Independent (Rwanda Edition): How public health efforts likely contributed to the early spread of HIV.

The Tragic Amplifier

Published online December 8, 2011.

This year marks the 90th anniversary, approximately, of the introduction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) into the human population. It also marks thirty years since HIV was first scientifically recognized in 1981. Since the 1920s, this virus has spread across the globe and become the HIV/AIDS pandemic we are all too familiar with today. Most people consider the 1980s to be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the virus had been prevalent in populations living in parts of central Africa for decades before it became a global nightmare.

New evidence from epidemiologist and international health expert Jacques Pepin suggests that human efforts to improve public health in central Africa were critical in facilitating the early spread of HIV, which has since claimed nearly 30 million lives. In the past two decades, massive coordination, mobilization, innovation, and investment have managed to slow the epidemic and save millions. As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011, HIV/AIDS is a reminder to us all of the tremendous power of human folly, but also of human triumph.

The Origins of AIDS, by Pepin, is a remarkable new book that pieces together the emergence of HIV in the human population, and its subsequent spread across the globe. HIV is the human version of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), which has been present in chimpanzee populations of central Africa for hundreds of years. Human contact with chimpanzees led to at least one transmission of SIV to HIV in a human in the early 1920s, most likely a hunter or a cook living in central Africa, where the majority of SIV-carrying chimpanzees live. This transmission alone was extremely unlikely to have triggered an HIV epidemic, and indeed chimpanzee-to-human transmission could have occurred on separate occasions prior to the 1920s, but would not have spread far. An infected hunter may have passed HIV to his family members, but in all likelihood, the virus would have stopped there. Why did HIV begin to spread beyond a few infected individuals in the early 1920s?

Pepin argues that heterosexual transmission, which is the predominant mode of transmission of HIV today, could not alone have led to an outbreak of HIV on a scale that would trigger a pandemic. Thus, there must have been some kind of “amplifier” that allowed for very rapid transmission of HIV to many people at a time. And what was the mostly likely initial culprit in the amplification of the virus? Colonial public health campaigns involving widespread use of unsterilized syringes and needles.

In the 1930s and 1940s, colonial administrations in French Cameroon, the Belgian Congo, and elsewhere began massive public health campaigns to treat various infectious diseases, including yaws, syphilis, malaria, leprosy, and sleeping sickness, using syringes and needles which were not sterilized regularly, if at all (oral tablet versions of treatments were not available for these diseases at the time). Although there are no blood samples from this time period still in existence (the oldest blood sample in which HIV has been detected dates back to 1959, taken from a man living in Leopoldville, Congo, now known as Kinshasa), it is well documented that other less lethal viruses, like Hepatitis C, were transmitted via syringes in Cameroon, Gabon, and the Belgian Congo, among other colonies. It is not difficult to imagine that HIV could have been passed quickly through a population via syringe as well.

One clinic to treat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Leopoldville treated up to 1000 patients a day by the mid-1950s, with documented evidence that medical equipment was not sterilized between patients. To make matters worse, HIV was likely introduced into Leopoldville/Kinshasa at a time when there was a dramatic gender imbalance due to colonial policies. Urban areas like Leopoldville were often the equivalent of “work camps” in which wives and children were not welcome, which resulted in widespread prostitution, further facilitating the spread of HIV through heterosexual transmission.

HIV, which first spread through non-sterile syringes, often in clinics aimed at treating sexually transmitted diseases among men and sex workers in urban areas, kept at a steady prevalence through heterosexual transmission among the same population. In the colonial period, female sex workers, or “free women”, had only a few regular clients each year, but by the time of independence, female prostitutes would often see up to 1000 clients per year. This new type of prostitution greatly facilitated the transmission of HIV to populations beyond urban areas, and spread along major trades routes and cities in central and eastern Africa, including Kigali.

By 1984-85, Kigali, which at the time had a high ratio of males to females, and thriving prostitution, had the highest recorded HIV prevalence in the world, with 80 percent of prostitutes, 50 percent of STD patients, and 15-20 percent of blood donors, factory workers, and hospital employees testing positive for HIV. By 1987, HIV prevalence was at 17.8 percent in urban areas and jumped to 27 percent in urban areas by 1996.

From central Africa, HIV soon spread to Haiti, before being transmitted via multiple routes to the United States and beyond. Today, 34 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and another 29 million have perished. That the spread of this virus was likely facilitated, and perhaps only possible, with the help of human technology and early public health campaigns should give us pause, and remind us of the terrifying potential for destruction due to human folly. As Pepin writes, “When humans manipulate nature in a way that they do not fully understand, there is always a possibility that something unpredictable will occur.”

Turning the tide on the spread of HIV/AIDS has taken decades, and millions have tragically lost their lives in the process. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic also demonstrates the amazing power of human innovation and cooperation that can take place on a global scale. Today, there are 6.6 million people receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and both AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are declining in most parts of the world. The time, research, energy and money that have gone into tackling HIV has been phenomenal. If anything, we are now in danger of devoting too few resources to other health challenges that must also vie for the attention of the global health community and domestic health budgets.

HIV/AIDS is an extraordinarily painful reminder of the good intentions that can pave the road to hell, and of the unique capability of humans to create as well as destroy.

HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph

Today is World AIDS Day. HIV has taken the lives of an estimated 29 million people around the world, and currently around 34 million people are infected. The effort of many individuals, organizations, and governments has led to a turnaround in the pandemic, infection rates and deaths due to AIDS are falling in most parts of the world. Still, there is a long way to go, and many people still do not have access to life-saving drugs.

A new book by Jacques Pepin, The Origins of AIDS, provides a remarkable account of how HIV initially spread among populations in central Africa, and later became the pandemic we know today. His sobering finding is that human efforts to treat and prevent disease with the use of non-sterilized syringes in colonial Africa very likely facilitated early and rapid HIV transmission. I discuss his work in this week’s column, excerpts of which is below.

HIV/AIDS: Human folly and triumph (published in this week’s Independent Rwanda Edition)

This year marks the 90th anniversary, approximately, of the introduction of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) into the human population. It also marks thirty years since HIV was first scientifically recognized in 1981. Since the 1920s, this virus has spread across the globe and become the HIV/AIDS pandemic we are all too familiar with today. Most people consider the 1980s to be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, but the virus had been prevalent in populations living in parts of central Africa for decades before it became a global nightmare.

New evidence from epidemiologist and international health expert Jacques Pepin suggests that human efforts to improve public health in central Africa were critical in facilitating the early spread of HIV, which has since claimed nearly 30 million lives. In the past two decades, massive coordination, mobilization, innovation, and investment have managed to slow the epidemic and save millions. As we mark World AIDS Day on December 1, 2011, HIV/AIDS is a reminder to us all of the tremendous power of human folly, but also of human triumph.

*                   *                   *

Turning the tide on the spread of HIV/AIDS has taken decades, and millions have tragically lost their lives in the process. But the HIV/AIDS epidemic also demonstrates the amazing power of human innovation and cooperation that can take place on a global scale. Today, there are 6.6 million people receiving life-saving antiretroviral treatment, and both AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections are declining in most parts of the world. The time, research, energy and money that have gone into tackling HIV has been phenomenal. If anything, we are now in danger of devoting too few resources to other health challenges that must also vie for the attention of the global health community and domestic health budgets.

HIV/AIDS is an extraordinarily painful reminder of the good intentions that can pave the road to hell, and of the unique capability of humans to create as well as destroy.

thoughts on the U.S. troop deployment in Uganda

I am gathering here some opinions regarding Obama’s announcement that 100 U.S. troops will be/have been sent to Uganda to help fight the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group who have been operating for the past several years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan and in northern Uganda before that. There seems to be a dearth of good analysis on this topic (I realize the news just came out yesterday), but I will try to add more as they become available/are brought to my attention. Anyone have any additions?

US deploys special forces in Uganda, but why? Angelo Izama

Obama’s troops in Central Africa to fight LRA; will they deliver? Rosebell Kagumire

Did Obama make the right call on Kony? James Lindsay

And here is a very neat link to the US cables mentioning the LRA. It’s interesting that there were practically no cables on the LRA before 2006, despite the fact that the group was most active in Uganda from the 1990s to around 2005. (h/t Washington Post*)

*I should note, however, that in general I feel this post doesn’t really capture the politics or even essence of the LRA.

Updates:

A new one not to be missed: Rush Limbaugh “Obama invades Uganda, targets Christians“. Foreign Policy post on Limbaugh’s blindly ideological and shockingly uninformed statements here.

NYT article here. US has provided $33 million in the region to fight the LRA since 2008.

copycats

Well, entirely unsurprisingly the Ugandan army has been accused of war crimes in the DRC in a recently leaked draft UN report. The foreign minister, Sam Kutesa, has suggested that the publication of such a report might “undermine” Uganda’s resolve in contributing to and participating in peacekeeping missions, most notably in Somalia. This sounds not unlike Rwanda’s recent threat to pull its peacekeeping troops, which spurred the last minute trip of Ban Ki Moon to smooth things over. Copycats! But hey, the (credible) threat seemed to work pretty well for Kigali. It doesn’t set a very good precedent for the UN though…

Friday rant on good intentions

I hate to harp on this, but the whole LRA/Northern Uganda/Invisible Children issue is still grating on my nerves (is that the phrase?). I just came across an article by Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy in the Huffington Post on Invisible Children’s “Abduct Yourself” event tomorrow. I don’t especially want to get into another debate on IC and the work they do/have done, but I want to say that how you approach and write about an issue or situation matters. For example, someone who did not know anything about Northern Uganda would have every reason to believe that the LRA was still active in this country after reading Wentz’ article.

He writes:

I watched the film Invisible Children: Rough Cut a while back, about kids sleeping in the streets in Northern Uganda — hundreds of them — because they feared being abducted by rebel leader Joseph Kony and forced to fight in his rebel militia, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). They’re kids. Except no one told them they were, so they carry AK-47s, kill their parents and murder, rape and terrorize their own people on command. In the past two decades, 30,000 of them have been abducted. This is a reality neither you nor I could ever begin to understand. It was one of those times in my life where I was given a choice — continue ignoring the issue because it wasn’t in front of me, or forget about myself and do something. I was losing sleep, I had to go to Africa. My band Fall Out Boy traveled to Northern Uganda to film our music video “Me and You” to see it for ourselves and my experiences have forever changed me.

Everyone I met, everywhere I walked, with every step, the hardwiring in my brain began to change. I was quiet. Every time I wanted to complain, I made sure to bite my tongue instead. One day, we were stopped by some local men holding machetes; they wouldn’t let us pass. The fear I felt was paralyzing, but I looked into the eyes of these men and all could see was desperation. A pervasive hopelessness. These men stood at the mercy of a twenty-three year war.

Of course, the LRA are still active and wreaking havoc in the region (namely in Congo). They are continuing to abduct and kill with impunity, there are still many children whom they have taken captive, and whom they have forced to do terrible things. This is unacceptable, outrageous and terrible. It must be stopped. But I am not at all sure that Wentz himself knows that there is no longer a war going on in Northern Uganda.

There are many issues in Northern Uganda that may be publicized, but war is not one of them, and it doesn’t really do anyone any service to suggest that the war is still ongoing there. If anything, it continues to make the country sound like a scary and dangerous place (the whole “heart of darkness” thing, a line I wish had never been written). We are working on recovery and redevelopment, people are returning home and trying to begin their lives afresh.

I am more than happy to pressure government to get on with the promised PRDP already, to demand more from a Prime Minister who had never even been to the north until last year. But I am so sick of hearing self reflections and misrepresentation of the many challenges there actually are in the region, especially from people who come for a week or two and leave thinking they understand the whole of the situation. You had to go to “Africa” because you were losing sleep? Give me a break.

Anyway, I’m glad if this publicity will help people find Uganda on a map. I’m glad lots of young Americans want to make their world a better place. I’m even glad if Mr. Wentz’ trip has made him appreciate his own life a little more, or to think a little less about himself. Nevertheless, what you write and how you present yourself and your “cause”, whatever it may be, matters. Good intentions do not always save the day.

End rant.

Covering Congo


If you’ve been reading/watching international media recently, you’ve probably seen more coverage of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) than you have in a long time. In short, General Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi, and his National Congress for People’s Defence (CNDP) have been fighting the Congolese army and other militia (including some former genocidaires from the 1994 Rwandan genocide) in North Kivu, Eastern DRC, displacing thousands of Congolese in the process. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Rose Kabuye, a high ranking Rwandan official, has been arrested in Germany on arrest warrants issued by a French judge.

Most of the coverage you will find in the international press will (and has) focused on the humanitarian crisis that has ensued from the fighting, as well as the possibility of this becoming a regional conflict, not unlike the Congo war from 1998-2003. This conflict, however, is far more complex. European leaders have been jumping into the fray, in my opinion largely because they don’t want to be blamed later for not taking action (a la the Rwandan genocide). Well intentioned though they may be, I have serious doubts as to the level of understanding most outsiders have of this conflict (which is not at all new and stems from fundamental issues involving state capacity and human security in the Great Lakes Region). I also wish the international coverage reflected a deeper understanding of the issues at hand — which include the fast-eroding French-Rwandan relations, French involvement in the Rwandan genocide, the legitimacy of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his government, the scattered but ongoing Hutu-Tutsi conflicts regionally, the lack of DRC state capacity, and many more. The Economist ran a fairly good piece and I look forward to their future analyses. Mr. Izama at the Daily Monitor also wrote a good analysis of the wider implications of the conflict, including the non-coincidental arrest of Mrs. Kabuye.

Just to give you a different idea of Goma, above right is a photo I took of the would-be idyllic city, as seen from a beach in Gisenyi, Rwanda (just a few miles away from Goma on Lake Kivu).