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

Kony2012 and the evolving marketplace for ideas

Published online March 19, 2012

After over 70 million views (100 million plus by the time this is published online) and countless tweets, the Kony 2012 video has reminded us of one thing: it is not quality alone that popularizes ideas.

Today, the marketing of your ideas matters as much or more than the content of the ideas themselves. At first blush, this seems a sorry or even scary state of affairs. But consider the evolution of the marketplace for ideas. Ideas have never found the light of day based on their merit alone. Access to bullhorns has long depended on identity – on status and class, on race and gender, on education and religion. Today technology is shaking things up, and democratizing the marketplace for ideas. The identity of the idea-producer is increasingly distanced from the idea itself. The barriers that once favored the voices of the few over those of the many are slowly fading.

Over the past week I have had countless conversations with students, friends, and even strangers about Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, and of course, the campaign and video that started these conversations in the first place, “Stop Kony 2012”. This sudden and remarkable outpouring of interest about a rebel group that has been around for decades is the result of the work of a single organization, Invisible Children. There have been spirited debates about the veracity of the film, ethical questions about its content, financial issues, concerns over the stated goals of the organization and film, and a larger debate about the role and motivation of outsiders in “African affairs”. Perhaps the most maddening aspect of the Kony 2012 film is that agency is so consistently placed on the part of the three filmmakers who “discovered” the conflict in 2003. (You have heard this story before. John Hanning Speke too “discovered” the source of the Nile – this is what has been “marketed” to pupils in most schools up to today).  The version of the story told by Invisible Children tends to position the three men and their organization front and center at the expense of all other actors. It does not deal in nuance, and it shies away from complexity.

Critics of the film have struggled to put forth alternative versions of the evolution of the conflict, and the current challenges that the region faces, of which the LRA is only one. But many fear the damage has been done. They fear that Invisible Children has hijacked the conversation, pushing aside or simply ignoring the work that journalists, academics, policymakers, development workers, and ordinary citizens have been conducting for years. IC has proposed their own solutions to ending the terror of the LRA, which include sharing their video, buying an “action kit” (posters and bracelets inclusive), and raising money for the organization. They have virtually blanketed the web, at least for a period of time, with their own propaganda, their own ideas.

The phenomenal success of their campaign, at least as judged by the number of viewers, hinges not on the quality of their ideas and not on the feasibility or sensibility of their proposed solutions, as many experts will attest, but rather on their access to the platforms that get out the word. They are well equipped to execute their campaign  – trained in film production, with a snazzy website and killer social media strategy, they have the all tools to dominate the marketplace for ideas.

Is this not unfair? Wrong? Even dangerous?

If the simplistic, emotive, and well-marketed ideas are the ones that make it to the global stage, should this not give us pause? Some argue that it is the very ideas that play to our underlying prejudices and the stereotypes that we find most moving (i.e. the west must “save” Africa), amplifying rather than dispelling our biases. They argue that the vast and diverse sources of news and information allow us to further distance ourselves from ideas we don’t like and fixate instead on those that support to our prior beliefs.

To the extent that government policy is driven by the masses, whether they take to the streets or to their Twitter accounts, should we be concerned about the quality of ideas that eventually make it to the mainstream? What happens when these ideas are the products of sleek marketing rather than of cool-headed and careful deliberation? These are all important questions.

The process that brings ideas to the center stage of public debate is not fair and does not give everyone equal say. Nor has it ever. But the good news is that the very technologies that have allowed IC to kick-start the conversation on the LRA have also allowed competing voices to fight back and provide an alternative view. In fact, in a departure from days past, social media may differ from the platforms of old in that it cannot easily be controlled to produce dangerous hysteria. You cannot stifle dissenting opinion for long in this day and age of hashtags and viral videos.

Perhaps IC has not hijacked the conversation after all.

Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and other online media have allowed critics to respond to the IC campaign in real time. No sooner had the IC video come out than online posts pointing out its many flaws began to pepper the blogosphere. Within hours, IC had posted a response on their website, and the debate raged on. Journalists and ordinary citizens used online platforms to share their responses and concerns, and millions of people watched and listened. This is remarkable. The platforms that allow the dissemination of ideas are increasingly open for business. The marketplace for ideas, however flawed, is expanding.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a long way to go. The fact that most people living in northern Uganda, even capital cities like Kampala, Kigali, and Kinshasa, were not even aware of the video (not that they missed much) only highlights the disparity in global connectivity, and as such, inequality in access to arenas where their voices can be projected loudly and widely. Those who set the agenda and those who have the first say in the debate are often still the most powerful not because of the quality of their ideas but because they know how to market them. The increase in information of all kinds means that people can seek out that which will confirm their biases and prejudices. But access to the microphone stretches farther than it ever has before. And this is good news. The question is what will we do with it?

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.

Kampala Bomb Blasts Kill Dozens

Bomb blasts at the Kyadondo Rugby Club at Lugogo and Ethiopian Village last night killed dozens of people during the World Cup Finals. I was at a popular bar in town watching the match, and only heard about the blasts in the final moments of the game. Fat Boyz bar in Kisementi closed immediately upon receiving information about the blasts, and other bars in the area emptied at an extraordinary pace.

Local TV footage from the scene at the rugby club showed chairs, bodies and body parts strewn about. One image showed a decapitated head. Those injured at Ethiopian Village in Kabalagala were taken to International Hospital Kampala (IHK). The latest reports say 37 were admitted to IHK and 5 have already died. Injured persons from the rugby club were taken to Mulago Hospital, which reports say was overwhelmed by the sudden influx of patients.

No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks, though some speculate that Al Shabaab, a militant Somali group, could be behind the attacks, possibly with on-the-ground support from the Allied Defence Forces (ADF), a Ugandan rebel group. Al Shabaab has warned that there would be consequences for Uganda’s role in AMISOM (African Union Mission in Somalia). If Al Shabaab is in fact behind the attacks, it is likely they will claim responsibility soon.

These are the worst terrorist attacks the country has faced. See the BBC coverage here, Independent blog coverage here, Monitor Coverage here, and Al Jazeera here.

More updates to come.

Burundi is rebel-free

But the challenges are far from over.

African Union troops are physically disarming 21,000 fighters from Burundi’s last active rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL).

It follows a weekend ceremony where FNL leader Agathon Rwasa symbolically surrendered his own weapons to the AU.

A grenade attack killed six people but the BBC’s Prime Ndikumagenge says it was not linked to the rebels.

But he says it shows how many weapons are circulating in Burundi following more than 10 years of ethnic conflict.

According to the AFP news agency, estimates put the number of weapons owned illegally at between 100,000 and 300,000.

Reports the BBC.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has issued a call to find the killers of Burundian anti-corruption activist, Ernest Manirumva, who was murdered earlier this month:

(Bujumbura) – The Burundian authorities should ensure a speedy, independent, and thorough investigation into the killing on April 9 of prominent anti-corruption activist Ernest Manirumva, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation should lead to the prosecution of those suspected of responsibility for the murder.

In the early hours of April 9, 2009, unidentified assailants raided Manirumva’s home and stabbed him to death. Police and colleagues told Human Rights Watch that files were strewn around his room, and that it appeared documents had been taken from his house. Manirumva was vice president of the Burundian civil society group Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques [OLUCOME]). Since January, Manirumva, a highly respected economist, had also been vice president of an official body that regulates public procurement.

“Manirumva’s work threatened the interests of corrupt officials and businesspeople who prey on Burundian society,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible for his death should face justice. That would send a clear message that silencing critics is totally unacceptable in Burundi.”

Manirumva’s death sent shockwaves through Burundian civil society. Neighbors found his body just outside his home early last Thursday morning and notified police. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that a bloodstained folder lay empty on his bed, suggesting that documents inside had been removed….