Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the year

Farewell 2012, with all your tragedies and triumphs. Bienvenido, 2013.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

2012: A Reporter's Notebook of the Year Gone By

This past year, my attention was sharply focused on two places near and dear to my heart: the Caribbean nation of Haiti and the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Though I was not as prolific in churning out articles as I have been in the past, with my attention largely focused on completing my forthcoming book on the Democratic Republic of Congo and commencing work on a new book looking at Northern Mexico, I hope that this oeuvre will nevertheless be useful for those of you trying to make sense of this often-tangled world we live in.

With hopes for peace, both personal and geopolitical, for all in 2013.  

All best, 


Letter from Haiti for the Huffington Post (28 November 2012)

The Fall of Goma for the Huffington Post (20 November 2012)

Oil discovery ignites political tensions in Uganda for fDi Intelligence (11 April 2012)    

After Charles Taylor, Justice for Haiti? for the Huffington Post (26 April 2012) 

How Invisible Children's Kony 2012 Will Hurt - And How You Can Help - Central Africa for the Huffington Post (9 March 2012)

The Problem with Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" for Huffington Post (7 March 2012)

North Kivu’s False Peace for African Arguments (29 February 2012) 

In northern Uganda, a difficult peace for Le Monde diplomatique (26 February 2012)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Books in 2012: A Personal Selection

Though intense work on my forthcoming book Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books) and a new project looking at Mexico meant that I wasn’t able to read as much for pleasure as I ordinarily would (something I hope to remedy in the coming year), some interesting tomes nevertheless crossed my radar. Here are some of the most intriguing of them.  

With all best wishes for 2013,  


A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe  

The Nigerian author’s bitter and brilliant 1966 novel about “the corroding effect of privilege” in post-independence Nigeria sees Achebe turning his sharp eye to the acquisitiveness and moral turpitude of the country’s political elite to nearly as great an impact as he examined the destruction of traditional society in a more famous novel, 1958’s Things Fall Apart.

Up Above the World by Paul Bowles   

Chilly, distant and more than a little strange, the American author’s take on Guatemala reminds one of the lineage of U.S. literature that traces back to Edgar Allan Poe, and how the knowledge that comes from actually being in the world, as opposed to just writing about it, adds to the power of the printed page.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain   

At times overly-garrulous but nevertheless entertaining and enjoyable, Anthony Bourdain’s tale of a misspent youth passed between cuisine high and low was something I have been wanting to get around to reading for a long time and am glad that I finally did.

Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel Everett  

A linguistic detective story and a thrilling and respectful account of the author’s years living among the Pirahã in the Brazilian Amazon, this book shows how even the most arcane academic pursuits can be riveting in the rights hands. Though the Pirahã can, quite frankly, sometimes come off as petty, vengeful, cachaça-swilling brutes, Everett’s hard-won insistence that we meet them on their own terms is a refreshing antidote to armchair academia posing as insight. A most unique and enjoyable read.

Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellin Cartel - An Astonishing True Story of Murder Money and International Corruption By Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen   

An engrossing account of the early to mid period Medellín cartel - Pablo Escobar., Jorge Luis Ochoa Vázquez y su familia, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha  and Carlos Lehder - and their American enablers and Colombian and American pursuers. Published back in 1989, the book hearkens back to the days when journalists, well, actually knew something about the subjects they wrote books about. 

Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism by Tony Hodges   

A highly informative if often rather dry account of Angola post-1975 independence to the dawn of the 21st century.

 Beyond the Mexique Bay by Aldous Huxley  

Interesting if often somewhat unpleasantly misanthropic portrait of the writer’s travels through Mexico and Guatemala. Huxley seems as if he would have been a most disagreeable traveling companion: Pissy, prissy, at time unthinkingly bigoted and always, it seems, pining for dear old  England.

Michael Manley: The Making of a Leader by Darrel E. Levi  

An illuminating biography of the nearly-forgotten leader of Jamaica’s People’s National Party, this now-sadly-out-of-print portrait is sympathetic but never hagiographic, recalling such forgotten bits as the sadistic brutality of Manley’s Jamaican education and his brief stint as a journalist, and casting a light back to a time when Jamaica was an important player on the regional stage.

The Rwanda Crisis : History of a Genocide by Gérard  Prunier   

Far more authoritative than Philip Gourevitch’s better-known We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, this book by one of the world’s greatest living Africa scholars looks at the background of one of the last century’s great crimes and why the world failed to stop it.

Defeat is the Only Bad News: Rwanda Under Musinga, 1896-1931 by Alison Liebhafsky des Forges  

As an authoritative account of the reign of the Rwandan monarch Yuhi V (born Yuhi Musinga), this book by one of the world’s great Africa scholars, whose life was tragically cut short, examines the complex links of Tutsi royalty with at first German and then Belgian colonial powers in Rwanda.

Curfewed Night: One Kashmiri Journalist's Frontline Account of Life, Love, and War in His Homeland by Basharat Peer  

A welcome addition to the dearth of literature on the conflict in India-controlled Kashmir by the Kashmiris themselves, Peer’s book nevertheless sometimes reads like confusingly-organized journalist’s notes in search of unifying thread, robbing the overall narrative of any great cumulative emotional impact. Peer is particularly effective when writing about his immediate circle of family and friends, though, and the book adds some sickening details of India’s excesses in its most restive region but, to my mind, the most authoritative Kashmiri voice on the conflict remains the late poet Agha Shadid Ali, whose collection The Country Without a Post Office was one of the highlights of my 2010 reading season.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Friday, November 30, 2012

Letter from Haiti

Letter from Haiti 

By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post

(Please read the original article here)

During late November, the clouds hung low over Port-au-Prince, pregnant with the threat of rain. When it did issue forth, life in Haiti's overpopulated capital, partially destroyed in a January 2010 earthquake but still vibrant between the Caribbean Sea and looming mountains, continued irrepressibly on. Moto-taxi drivers plied the streets in their jaunty raincoats, and people continued hawking anything there was to sell under any surface providing shelter from the deluge.

In the middle of one Saturday afternoon, with clouds rumbling down from the mountainside, a group of about 200 young men commandeered the central Place St. Pierre square in the tony suburb of Petionville, halting traffic and periodically hurling bottles in various directions (one of which shattered at my feet). The lads thumped their chests for about three hours before moving on. Their message was that life was too expensive for people in Haiti and that Haiti's President Michel Martelly, whom they said they had previously supported, wasn't doing enough to ameliorate the situation.

Martelly, in his previous life perhaps the most well-known (and most frequently cross-dressing) purveyor of the sinuous Haitian music known as konpa and popularly known as Sweet Micky or Tèt Kale (Bald Head), was not even in the country at the time, a fact not lost on the protesters.

In office since May 2011, Martelly was winding up a long trip to Europe during which he addressed the European Parliament, attended the Ibero-American Summit in Spain and met with the Pope at the Vatican. He was even absent from Haiti during the must-attend 18 November anniversary of the Battle of Vertières, the 1803 clash during which the rebel Haitian army defeated the French near the northern city of Cap-Haïtien and thus paved the way for Haiti's declaration of independence soon thereafter.

"He wants to work well for the people," said a middle-aged taxi driver named Jackson plying the road near the airport, summing up popular sentiment. "But the problem is his entourage."

Elected to succeed René Préval, the only democratically-elected president in Haiti's 208 year history to finish his term in office (a feat the wily, white-bearded Préval managed twice), the political novice Martelly inherited a to-do list that would have daunted even the most skilled politico.

Much of the country's capital was leveled and some 200,000 people believed killed in the January 2010 earthquake, which at one point had left at least 1.5 million people homeless. Tent encampments dotted the capital and its environs and a cholera epidemic, almost certainly brought to the country by the rather-unloved UN peacekeeping mission in place since the 2004 ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has thus far killed more than 7,500 people.

The most basic services and healthcare remain out of reach of much of the nation's 10 million inhabitants, scattered in far-off provincial districts reached by badly decayed roads. A gradual diminution of Haiti's security situation since the tumultuous ballot that led to Martelly's election culminated last month with the spectacular arrest of Clifford Brandt, scion of one of Haiti's wealthiest families, as the alleged mastermind behind a long-running kidnapping ring.

Also arrested as part of the gang was the commander of a security unit from Martelly's National Palace (there has been no suggestion the president himself was involved), who entered prison as Calixte Valentin, a Martelly advisor accused of murder, exited it. Former members of the country's army, demobilized but not constitutionally disbanded by Aristide in 1995, continue to agitate for the force's reinstatement despite the existence of a police force - the Police Nationale d'Haïti or PNH - currently numbering some 10,000 recruits. A battle over the composition of the country's electoral council has raged for months.

"A stabilization process is taking place albeit a fragile one," says Mariano Fernández, the Chilean diplomat who heads the UN's peacekeeping mission, known by its acronym MINUSTAH, which is envisioned to be scaled back to around 6,300 military personnel in coming months. "We continue planning to reduce and reconfigure MINUSTAH in the coming years depending on the stability of the conditions."

The last caveat is an important one. Haiti's security forces have enjoyed a steadily-improving reputation since the 2006 inauguration of Martelly's predecessor Préval. It has been a marked change from Aristide's 2001-2004 tenure, when politically-connected partisans were inserted into the PNH regardless of their competency or culpability in various crimes, or that of a 2004-2006 interim government when police often made little distinction between armed pro-Aristide gangs and ordinary residents of the capital's poorer neighborhoods.

Until recently, the PNH were headed by Mario Andrésol, widely regarded as one of the most honest and competent officials in the country and who was replaced by Gotson Aurélus in August. Since then, something of a delicate realignment has been taking place. It is widely believed that Secretary of State for Public Security Reginald Delva exercises more operational control over the PNH than Minister of Justice Jean Renel Sanon, his nominal boss. A former senator, Joseph Lambert, now a Martelly advisor, is also spoken of as wielding influence beyond what one would expect.

Though the Brandt arrest was greeted with a gasp in much of the international community (this is, after all, the strata of society most international actors interact with) in Haiti the view was more circumspect.

"The bourgeois control the police with their money, and a lot of police officers also provide security for businesses and the private sector because there is no control, and they can receive more money for their work," says Pierre Espérance, the Executive Director of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, Haiti's most prominent human rights organization. "Each kidnapping gang has its connection with the police."

Despite such realities, one of Martelly's chief plans of attack appears to be an attempt to re-band Haiti and change its relentlessly negative image from a place solely of natural disaster, coups, misery and death to one of a place open to investment and boasting a vibrant and tourist-friendly culture.

Though this approach has been rather too smugly sneered at by the international chattering class that comments on Haiti, most people I spoke with in the country actually saw its value and supported it in principle, even if they didn't quite understand why the president was spending so much time abroad.

There is some evidence that Martelly's approach may be succeeding. The president, ever the extrovert natural showman, would seem a perfect fit for such a campaign. In July, the president even declared a three day out-of-season Carnaval des fleurs (Carnival of Flowers) designed to highlight the country's flair for music and pageantry. The camps from the central part of the capital have mostly been cleared, but with some to their inhabitants relocated to a windswept moonscape situated on denuded land on a road leading north out of the city

A new industrial park in the country's north - which itself has hardly been free from controversy - was opened in October, with, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British billionaire Richard Branson in attendance. The lure of potential gold reserves in northern Haiti has brought a number of international mining companies, some with questionable records, to stake claims on huge swathes of land, creating economic potential but only of the most fraught kind.

Though the vast overpopulation of the capital - a consequence in part of international economic policies inflicted upon Haiti - helped lead to the vast death toll from the earthquake, the decentralization of economic and political power from Port-au-Prince still remains an agonizingly slow and complex process. Privately, many in Haiti's business community, intensely nationalistic at heart despite their comfortable economic status, complain the country has been "invaded" by foreign companies and non-governmental organizations.

In some economically struggling communities, the feeling is one of hopes delayed if not dashed entirely.

"We liked Martelly and we thought he would help a lot of people," says Pè Nico, a diminutive young man whose moniker ("Father Nico") belies his youthful appearance. "But this neighborhood has always been forgotten."

Pushing 30 years old but looking barely into his 20s and resplendent in a Miami Heat baseball cap, Pè Nico leads an armed faction in the capital's quartier populaire of St. Martin, an area of deeply-rutted roads and at times precarious-looking structures from which the PNH and MINUSTAH appear completely absent.

Pè Nico's baz say they voted - "99%" in their words - for Martelly. In their neighborhood, once a war zone and still subject to occasional bouts of violence, residents have been tending to the Partnership for Peace and Prosperity in Saint Martin, under whose aegis members of the private sector operating in the zone and local community leaders have sought dialogue and improvement in living conditions there. The two sides began talking in 2007 and, even through the earthquake and after, they are still talking. It is perhaps a hopeful sign.

I had known Martelly very slightly in his previous life as Sweet Micky. We spent a memorable evening more than a decade ago cruising through Port-au-Prince in his SUV with a loaded pistol between us as he bemoaned the state of Haiti and the irresponsibility of its leaders both political and economic, a scene depicted in a book I later wrote about the country.

When I visited Haiti in August 2011, just after Martelly's election, I found popular support for the colorful, eccentric president among the pep la, as Haiti's struggling class (which is to say almost everybody) is known, still high.

Despite the eroding of that hope when confronted with the immense challenge of governing Haiti and his own missteps, Haitians still seem to be giving Martelly the benefit of the doubt.
So many factors - rising food prices, civil unrest underwritten by various malefactors, another natural calamity - could change that. But in a country whose leaders have often promoted themselves through terror and abuse, Martelly - whose signature colour is pink - has offered something of a change of tone, however unorthodox.

On my last day in Haiti, purely by chance, my path overlapped with that of Michel Martelly.

Waiting at the airport to board my flight home, I saw Martelly's American Airlines plane fly in from Miami. As if on cue and so apt for a showman, the cloudy gloom that had plagued the capital for days broke and rays of brilliant golden sunshine spilled out of a blue sky. Diplomats, Haitian police officers in their crisp khaki uniforms and every airport worker that could sneak away from their job were standing there to greet him. He was going to be inaugurating a new arrival hall, they told me, then this week he would be leaving again, this time for Cuba.

Martelly disembarked from the plane, his bald head and smiling visage visible among the mostly smaller Haitians.

They cheered.

Michael Deibert's forthcoming book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, will be published by Zed Books in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council. His previous book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press, 2005), was praised by the Miami Herald as "a powerfully documented exposé" and by the San Antonio Express-News as "a compelling mix of reportage, memoir and social criticism."

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Fall of Goma

The Fall of Goma 

By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post 

(First published here)

When the provincial capital of Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo fell to rebel forces today, the rapidity of the rebel advance was shocking, but the fait accompli failure of both Congo's armed forces and the country's United Nations mission was not.

As 2012 dawned, the international community and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo - known by its acronym, MONUSCO (formerly MONUC) - were hailing the peace and stability that a 2009 deal with the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP) rebel group had supposedly brought to the eastern part of this vast country.

Formed by renegade general Laurent Nkunda, the CNDP's ostensible goal was the protection of Congo's Tustsi ethnic group and the defeat of the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), the main Hutu-led military opposition to the Tutsi-led government of President Paul Kagame in Rwanda. The FDLR, though a severely degraded force from what it once was, has its roots in Rwanda's 1994 genocide when several hundred thousand Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered by extremist Hutu supremacist elements.

Succored by Rwanda, Nkunda nevertheless proved himself to be a headstrong and unreliable negotiating partner with the regional powers and with the government of Congo's president, Joseph Kabila, who Nkunda openly talked about toppling. Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, had seized power with Rwandan help in 1997 only to then go to war with his former patrons and die by an assassin's bullet a little over three years later.

As a result of his recalcitrance, Nkunda was jettisoned and replaced at the negotiating table by another CNDP leader, Bosco Ntaganda, who had been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague in January 2006 on three counts of war crimes allegedly committed while he was helping to command another rebel group in Congo's Ituri region, a time during which he earned the sobriquet "the Terminator."

The deal struck between the Kabila government and Ntaganda's CNDP in March 2009 saw the rebels become a registered political party and their forces integrated within the official armed forces, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC). Bosco Ntaganda became an important powerbroker in the province of North Kivu, the Rwanda and Uganda-border region of which Goma is the capital.

Far from a road to Damascus moment, the agreement was rather a modus vivendi by cunning, ruthless political operators.

Kabila, reelected in a highly controversial 2011 ballot, has fashioned a government that is in many ways a younger, more sophisticated version of his father's. Relying on a narrow circle of trusted individuals and a network of international alliances, Kabila's power is built on a patronage base rather than a political base. This model was dealt a serious blow when one of Kabila's most trusted advisors, Augustin Katumba Mwanke, a man who often handled Kabila's most delicate financial and political transactions, was was killed in a plane crash this past February.

Across the border, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for so long a darling of western donors and development workers, has for many years presided over a tight-lidded dictatorship where government critics meet either death (opposition politician Andre Kagwa Rwisereka, killed in Rwanda in July 2011), exile (former general Kayumba Nyamwasa, wounded in a shooting in South Africa in June 2010) or both (Inyenyeri News editor Charles Ingabire, shot dead by an unknown gunman in Kampala last December).

[Along with other neighbors who have seen fit to intervene in Congo over the years, Rwanda has been happy to help itself to large amounts of the Congo's extensive mineral wealth, as documented in a 2001 United Nations report]

As a number of people (myself included) warned at the time, the peace deal as implemented was a marriage of convenience destined for a nasty divorce. Unfortunately, the international community itself gave an additional seal of approval when, against the advice of their own Office of Legal Affairs, UN forces backed Congo's army as the latter launched Operation Kimia II ("Quiet" in Swahili) in March 2009 against the FDLR.

Despite the common knowledge that Ntaganda - a wanted accused war criminal - was acting a de facto deputy commander for Congolese forces during Kimia II, MONUC's command hid behind transparently false Congolese government assurances that Ntaganda was not involved.

According to one investigation, between January and September 2009 more than 1,400 civilians were slain in the provinces of North and South Kivu, at least 701 by the FDLR and the rest by Congolese and Rwandan government-allied forces. Over the same time period in the same provinces, over 7,500 women and girls were raped and over 900,000 people forced to flee their homes.

Despite these excesses, the UN signed a Joint Operational Directive with Congo's army as it launched yet another operation against the FDLR, this one dubbed Amani Leo ("Peace Today"), during January 2010. Immaculée Birhaheka of the Promotion et Appui Aux Initiatives Feminines (Promotion and Support for Women's Initiatives) pleaded that "the name of the military operation has changed, but the situation remains the same: Women are still being killed, maimed, abused like animals."

They would have been wise not to look to the UN for help. Though the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo is the largest in the world at nearly 17,000 military personnel, it is still cartoonishly small for a country the size of Western Europe.

Nor has the mission shown any great appetite for adhering to its mandate, which charges it with working "to ensure the protection of civilians, including humanitarian personnel, under imminent threat of physical violence."

In May 2002, when dissident soldiers mutinied against their commanders in the central city of Kisangani, MONUC troops did almost nothing as those commanders (including Laurent Nkunda) oversaw the killing of at least 80 civilians and a ghastly bout of rape. Two years later, in the city of Bukavu, Nukunda was again present as a series of ethnically-based attacks in and around the city saw looting, raping and murder take place as MONUC did little to aid common citizens. In November 2008, CNDP forces led by Bosco Ntaganda killed at least 150 people in the town of Kiwanja despite the fact that 100 UN peacekeepers were stationed less than a mile away.

Once part of the official apparatus in North Kivu, as pressure grew (as it inevitably would) on Ntaganda to break the parallel chains of command within the FARDC-integrated CNDP units, and with chorus of calls demanding his arrest, the warlord finally decided that the pressure was too much.

By early April of this year, former CNDP members began to desert their posts in North Kivu and fighting broke out around the province. By May, the deserters had named their group the Mouvement du 23 mars, or M23, a reference to the date of the 2009 peace accords between the CNDP and the Kabila government. They operated, as they always had, with strong Rwandan backing.

In July, saying that the Obama administration had "decided it can no longer provide foreign military financing appropriated in the current fiscal year to Rwanda," the United States announced - for the first time since 1994 - that it was suspending military aid to the Kagame regime, citing "evidence that Rwanda is implicated in the provision of support to Congolese rebel groups, including M23." That same month, the Netherlands announced that it was suspending five million euros ($6.2 million) in aid to Rwanda, a decision it said was directly linked Kigali's support of M23. The following day, the British government also announced the freezing of £16 million of aid.

[The recent decision of the UK's international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, to restore aid to Rwanda on his last day on the job resulted in a storm of controversy and a pledge by his successor that she would gather evidence in terms of Rwanda's linkage with M23 before deciding on any new aid.]

But today, with almost-certain Rwandan (and Ugandan) backing and with, by all accounts, barely token opposition from UN forces stationed there, the M23 seized Goma. And tonight, as the United Nations and the international community stand by, the people of Congo are once again at the mercy of those who have tormented them in the past.

The approach of the international community thus far, both in exercising its mandate to protect civilian lives in Congo and in holding the outside supporters of Congo's rebel groups to task, has thus far proved woefully insufficient.

As word of Goma's fall spread throughout Congo, reaction was immediate. Buildings belonging to Kabila's political party - with many Congolese accusing the president of caving in to the Rwandans - were burned in the cities of Kisangani and Bunia, and UN buildings were pelted by stones in the latter town.

The fall of Goma may prove a defining moment, for both the Congolese government and for the gulf between the actions and the words of the international community in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Michael Deibert's forthcoming book, Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair, will be published by Zed Books in cooperation with the Royal African Society, the International African Institute and the Social Science Research Council.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Monday, November 05, 2012

Why I am voting For Barack Obama in Florida in 2012

During the primary season of 2008, I wrote on this blog about why I was voting for then-candidate and now-President Barack Obama for the nomination of the Democratic party.

As everyone knows, since then Obama won primary and then the presidency. Despite being somewhat underwhelming in his first term to those of us who expected a more progressive agenda, it must also be admitted that he has been hamstrung at every juncture by the most extremist and hateful opposition party that I have seen in the United States in my lifetime. Despite that and many disappointments, the Obama administration has managed to get a number of very important things done.

I've been a frequent critic of the Obama administration's policies on a range of issues, but I truly believe at this moment - however flawed - his reelection is what stands between us and the enveloping darkness of the Christian sharia fanatics, Dickensian robber barons and science-denying flat earthers of the Republican Party, as exemplified by Mitt Romney and his even-more repulsive running mate, Paul Ryan. So I will do my part to try and put Florida in the Democratic column tomorrow.

If you believe that the United States should have a middle class and not be a nation of masters and serfs, if you believe that women should control their own healthcare decisions, if you believe that our LGBT friends should enjoy the same rights that we do and if you believe that climate change is a reality and not a myth, I think you should, too, and vote for Barack Obama.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Very brief thoughts on the killing of U.S. ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens in Benghazi

I wake today to the news that U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three embassy staff personnel were killed in the Libyan city of Benghazi in an assault believed to have been carried out by Ansar al-Sharia, an al Qaeda-style Sunni Islamist group tin that country. The ostensible excuse for the attack was the promotion by fringe U.S. evangelist Terry Jones of a film produced by an Israeli-American property developer that allegedly (I have not seen the film) insults Islam.

I never met J. Christopher Stevens but reading his biography as a former Peace Corps volunteer and English teacher in Morocco fluent in both Arabic and French, he certainly seemed a good choice for the role in which he served. I can only help but think again that people are free to believe anything they wish as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, and that I've never seen religion produce anything other than a toxic brew when mixed with politics, whether speaking of fundamentalist Islam or Christianity as injected into the dispute in Northern Ireland. A compassionate liberal humanism is the only approach that makes any sense at all when approaching the world. Secular liberal democracy is something that I think is worth dying for.

Monday, September 03, 2012


"I must give the readers not the book they want but the book they don't want."

 - Portuguese author António Lobo Antunes in conversation with Anthony Bourdain.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair

4 years of research, a year and a half of writing and 897 footnotes later: Welcome the world, little book. And thank you so much, Congo.

I would also like to personally thank my Kickstarter backers:  Erin Siegal, Michele Roumain, Lori DiBacco, Ezra Fieser, Tomas van Houtryve, Jon-Marc Seimon, Chris and April Deibert, Emily Leuning, Cari Luna, Gergana Koleva, Ben Deibert, Natasha Del Toro, Karen Ferriere, Reyna Clancy, Susan Carlile, Kelly Lyons Schober, Emily Hatfield, Brian Blessinger, Sutton Stokes, Stephen Leahy, Jan Voordouw, Nomi Prins, Susanne and Joseph Feeks, Nancy Rebal, Ashley Eckel, the World Future Council, Matthew Moran, Andrew McConnell, Erika Stokes, Marika Lynch, Sean O'Neill, Summer Jauneaud, Hilary Wallis, David Doherty, Jean M. Dorsinville, Patrick Brun, Sharon Brun, Jabe Bloom, Reginald Dumas, Gennike Mayers, Robert Morison, Richard Boncy, Jean Roger Laraque, Erline Andrews, Ben Fountain, David Searcy, Diane Banowetz, Patrick Moynihan, Francesca Romeo, Eve Sibley, Sarah Anderson, Gerry Hadden, Alex Morel, Jann Deibert, Louisa Dykstra, Art Beyond Borders, Emily Breon, Pooja Bhatia, Merritt Tierce  and Noelle Theard.

Thank you all so much. I couldn't have done it without you.

A grant from the International Peace Research Association also proved essential to the book's completion.



Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Morning Coffee

Photo © Michael Deibert

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

In addition to being one of the nicest guys I know, my friend Ben Fountain also happens to be one of the best American writers of fiction alive today. If you liked his terrific 2006 book of short stories Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, grab his new novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a book about war, class and commerce that is one of the best books of the year.

Here is Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times and By Jeff Turrentine's review in the Washington Post.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Untitled, Miami

Oil discovery ignites political tensions in Uganda

Oil discovery ignites political tensions in Uganda

By Michael Deibert 

11/04/2012 9:02 am

fDi Intelligence

(Read the original article here)

The east African country of Uganda, perhaps better known for its lush national parks and history of garish dictators than its natural resources, has unexpectedly found itself as a player in the world energy markets.

Following years of natural oil seeps near the vast Lake Albert, which forms a natural border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, London-based Tullow Oil has discovered 1 billion barrels of potential oil reserves in the country. Tullow estimates that 1 billion to 1.5 billion barrels still remain to be located, while Uganda’s ministry of energy says this number could be as high as 2.5 billion.

So is this reason for celebration? Perhaps, but given the political landscape in Uganda, the discovery of oil is, like most things, an intensely political matter. And the discovery has occurred at a particularly delicate time for the country.

Fragile ground

Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, who seized power as the head of the National Resistance Army in January 1986 following the dictatorships of Idi Amin and Milton Obote, and the short reign of Tito Okello, is an increasingly polarising figure in this country of 33 million people, where half the population is under 14 years old. Many in the country suggest that the way the Tullow deal has been handled thus far is indicative of much that is currently wrong in Uganda.

When Tullow bought out Energy Africa in May 2004, it acquired 50% equity in blocks EA1, EA2 and EA3 of the oil concern on the Albertine Basin. Upon its acquisition of Hardman Resources in December 2006, Tullow became the 100% equity holder of EA2.

At the outset of 2010, Tullow sold equity in the blocks to French company Total and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) – the third largest in the triumvirate of China’s state-owned oil companies – meaning that each company held one-third of the equity in each of the three blocks. This deal attracted state involvement in February 2012, when Tullow company signed two $2.9 billion production sharing agreements with the Ugandan government.

Thus far, Tullow has drilled 45 exploratory wells, of which 43 have been successful, and the company believes that the discovery of oil within its borders presents a golden opportunity to Uganda. “Riding on the back of oil comes a whole raft on ancillary industry and development that any government – be it this one or the next – would want to retain,” says Eoin Mekie, director of Tullow's Uganda operations.

Precious reserves

The World Bank has estimated that revenue from the oil industry could potentially double the Ugandan government’s revenue within six to 10 years. That would be a windfall that could potentially transform the economic status of a country that has received more than $19bn in overseas development aid from Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries over the past 25 years.

A so-called 'stabilisation clause', which reimburses companies that might lose future profits due to government tax policies and other variables, was overcome when the Ugandan government agreed to compensate the companies involved in the Lake Albert deal for any losses. A formula to calculate that loss has not yet been agreed upon, though, according to Mr Museveni.

At present, one of the greatest sources of debate between the Ugandan government and Tullow appears to be the size of any refinery to be built on Lake Albert, with the Museveni government favouring a large refinery and Tullow favouring, at first, a mid-sized one to produce 20,000 to 30,000 barrels of oil per to day to feed domestic demand, eventually getting up to 150,000 to 200,000 barrels a day.

Bad timing

The oil has been found at a particularly sensitive and politically tumultuous time. Mr Museveni secured his current term as president in controversial elections in February last year, and over the past 12 months several large-scale protests against alleged political corruption and economic mismanagement have occurred in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, many aligned with the country's opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change, which is led by Kizza Besigye, a doctor, former soldier and one-time ally of Mr Museveni.

Government security forces have treated the protestors brutally, with at least 10 people dying and several hundred being put in jail during the demonstrations in 2011. The capital has also seen large protests against load-shedding by national power company Umeme, which has left some neighbourhoods without power for days at a time.

Then there is the matter of transparency. Uganda’s Petroleum Exploration and Production Act dates back to 1985. In May 2010, the country’s minister of energy released a draft of a new petroleum bill to members of Uganda’s civil society and others, asking for review and input. Following meetings among dozens of groups and residents in the area along Lake  Albert most likely to be affected by the construction of any refinery, recommendations were submitted to the ministry. As of yet, no new law has been forthcoming.

Following a raucous debate in Uganda’s parliament – which is dominated by members of Mr Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party – it was concluded that there should be a complete moratorium on oil-related activity until new laws were put in place, which could raise questions about the status and efficacy of the February 2012 agreement between Mr Museveni and Tullow.

“It seems that anything to do with the agreement is the preserve of the ministry of of energy, which is really just three or four people,” says Lynn Turyatemba, an attorney with the Africa Institute for Energy Governance in Kampala, which focuses on electricity, renewable energy and extractive industries. “The executive wants to have a completely autocratic say in the industry.”

Stepping stone

It is a concern echoed elsewhere in Uganda’s civil society. “When the president acts without respecting the other branches of government, he is undermining the institutions of the parliament and the judiciary,” says Mugusha Henry Bazira, executive director of Kampala’s Water Governance Institute, a group that has called on further environmental impact studies to be done before drilling proceeds. “The head of state is running the country as if the presidency is the sole arm of government.”

With Tullow estimating substantive production of oil to be at least five years away, it remains to be seen if the Museveni-Tullow deal can produce any substantive change between now and the date of scheduled next presidential elections in 2016. At that point, Mr Museveni will have been in power in Uganda for 30 years.

For its part, Tullow’s public position is that the discovery of oil in the country should be viewed as a stepping-stone, and not an end unto itself. “Uganda’s future is not in oil,” says Tullow’s Mr Mekie. “What [Uganda] needs to do is develop infrastructure, roads, education, industry and agriculture on a larger scale, so when the oil does run out in 30 to 40 years' time, there is a sustainable economy left behind.”

Whether or not Uganda can achieve those aims, and what role oil and the country’s foreign partners will play in helping to achieve them, remains one of the burning questions confronting Uganda today.

Friday, April 27, 2012

After Charles Taylor, Justice for Haiti?

26 April 2012

After Charles Taylor, Justice for Haiti?

The Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

The conviction today by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of former Liberian president Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting war crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone -- the first such conviction of a former head of state -- is a welcome development for those seeking to hold politicians accountable for their crimes.

Coming as it does on the heels of the conviction earlier this year of former Democratic Republic of Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga for war crimes, the Taylor conviction represents a welcome completion of one of the ICC's missions.

To those of us who have seen the political convulsions of the Caribbean nation of Haiti first-hand over the years, the country makes a compelling case for attention by the ICC as perpetrators of human rights abuses often go unpunished or are even rehabilitated in subsequent governments.

Two of Haiti's former rulers, Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide, returned to the country from exile early last year, and both stand accused of gross human rights abuses.

Duvalier, who took the helm of Haiti in 1971 as a rotund teenager following the death of his father, the dictator François Duvalier, presided over a police state where the national treasury was viewed as little more than a personal checking account and all political dissent was ruthlessly crushed. Perhaps the best symbol of his reign, which ended in 1986 amid a popular uprising, was a prison on the outskirts of the Haitian capital called Fort Dimanche, where thousands of enemies of the state were sent to die by execution, torture or to simply waste away amidst conditions that were an affront to humanity.

Mr. Aristide, one of the driving forces behind the movement that ousted Mr. Duvalier, is a former Catholic priest who twice served as Haiti's president and was twice ousted, once by a military coup and once by a popular uprising and armed rebellion. It was the abuses of Mr. Aristide's government that I witnessed first-hand.

In February 2004, in the midst of the chaotic second rebellion against Mr. Aristide's rule, the photojournalist Alex Smailes and I found ourselves in the central Haitian city of Saint Marc, at the time the last barrier between Aristide and a motley collection of once-loyal street gangs and former soldiers who were sweeping down from the country's north seeking to overthrow him.

Several days earlier, on Feb. 7, an armed anti-Aristide group, the Rassemblement des militants conséquents de Saint Marc (Ramicos), based in the neighborhood of La Scierie, had attempted to drive government forces from the town, seizing the local police station, which they set on fire.
On Feb. 9, the combined forces of the Police Nationale d'Haiti (PNH), the Unité de Sécurité de la Garde du Palais National (USGPN) -- a unit directly responsible for the president's personal security -- and a local paramilitary organization named Bale Wouze (Clean Sweep) retook much of the city.

By Feb. 11, a few days before our arrival, Bale Wouze -- headed by a former parliamentary representative of Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas political party named Amanus Mayette -- had commenced the battle to retake La Scierie. Often at Mayette's side was a government employee named Ronald Dauphin, known to residents as "Black Ronald," often garbed in a police uniform even though he was in no way officially employed by the police.

When Alex and I arrived in the town, we found the USGPN and Bale Wouze patrolling Saint Marc as a single armed unit. Speaking to residents there -- amidst a surreal backdrop of burned buildings, the stench of human decay, drunken gang members threatening our lives with firearms and a terrified population -- we soon realized that something awful had happened in Saint Marc.

According to multiple residents interviewed during that visit and a subsequent visit that I made to the town in June 2009, after government forces retook the town -- and after a press conference there by Yvon Neptune, at the time Aristide's Prime Minister and also the head of the Conseil Superieur de la Police Nationale d'Haiti -- a textbook series of war crimes took place.

Residents spoke of how Kenol St. Gilles, a carpenter with no political affiliation, was shot in each thigh, beaten unconscious by Bale Wouze members and thrown into a burning cement depot, where he died. Unarmed Ramicos member Leroy Joseph was decapitated, while Ramicos second-in-command Nixon François was simply shot. In the ruins of the burned-out commissariat, Bale Wouze members gang raped a 21-year-old woman, while other residents were gunned down by police firing from a helicopter as they tried to flee over a nearby mountain. A local priest told me matter-of-factly at the time of Bale Wouze that "these people don't make arrests, they kill."

According to a member of a Human Rights Watch delegation that visited Saint Marc a month after the killings, at least 27 people were murdered there between Feb. 11 and Aristide's flight into exile at the end of the month. Her conclusion was supported by the research of the Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains, a Haitian human rights organization.

Following Aristide's overthrow, several members of Bale Wouze were lynched, while Yvon Neptune turned himself over to the interim government that ruled Haiti from March 2004 until the inauguration of President René Préval in May 2006.

Held in prison without trial until his May 2006 release on humanitarian grounds, a May 2008 decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the Haitian state had violated the American Convention on Human Rights in its detention of Neptune, though stressed that it was "not a criminal court in which the criminal responsibility of an individual can be examined." Neptune ran unsuccessfully for president in Haiti's 2010 elections.

After being jailed for three years without trial, Amanus Mayette was freed from prison in April 2007. Arrested in 2004, Ronald Dauphin subsequently escaped from jail, and was re-arrested during the course of an anti-kidnapping raid in Haiti's capital in July 2006. Despite several chaotic public hearings, to date, none of the accused for the killings in La Scierie has ever gone to trial.
Frustratingly for the people of St. Marc, far from being supported in their calls for justice, the events they experienced have become a political football among international political actors.

The United Nations independent expert on human rights in Haiti, Louis Joinet, in a 2005 statement dismissed allegations of a massacre and described what occurred as "a clash", a characterization that seemed unaware of the fact that not all among those victimized had any affiliation with Haiti's political opposition.

The Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH), a U.S.-based organization, has lauded Mr. Dauphin as "a Haitian grassroots activist." The IJDH itself maintains close links with Mr. Aristide's U.S. attorney, Ira Kurzban, who is listed as one of the group's founders, has served as the chairman of its board of directors and whose law firm, according to U.S. Department of Justice filings, earned nearly $5 million for its lobbying work alone representing the Aristide government during the era of its worst excesses. By comparison, the firm of former U.S. congressmen Ron Dellums received the relatively modest sum of $989,323 over the same period.

When I returned to St. Marc in June of 2009, I found its residents still wondering when someone would be held accountable for the terrible crimes they had been subjected to. Amazil Jean-Baptiste, the mother of Kenol St. Gilles, said simply, "I just want justice for my son." A local victim's rights group of survivors of the pogrom, the Association des Victimes du Génocide de la Scierie (AVIGES), formed to help advocate on residents' behalf, but have had precious little success in what passes for Haiti's justice system, broken and dysfunctional long before January 2010's devastating earthquake.
Though Mr. Aristide remains something of a fading star for a handful of commentators outside of Haiti -- most of whom have not spent significant time in the country, cannot speak its language and have never bothered to sit down with the victims of the Aristide government's crimes there -- to those of us who have seen a bit of its recent history firsthand, the words of veteran Trinidadian diplomat Reginald Dumas -- a man who does know Haiti -- seem apt, that Mr. Aristide "[acquired] for himself a reputation at home which did not match the great respect with which he was held abroad.''

The ICC has sometimes been criticized for acting as if war crimes and crimes against humanity are simply African problems, taking place in distant lands. The people of St. Marc, only a 90 minute flight from Miami, and the survivors of Forth Dimanche, know differently. Though Mr. Duvalier sadly cannot be tried by the ICC as the court only has jurisdiction with respect to crimes committed after the entry into force of Rome Statute, no such restrictions apply to Mr. Aristide.

It is time that the government of Haitian president Michel Martelly and Haiti's parliament ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and give the victims of Haiti the justice that they have so long been denied.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Story of the Acholi : A Village Tale from Uganda

(Note: I contributed in a modest way to this book, but it is definitely worth picking up for the beautiful illustrations by the Ugandan participants alone. It can be purchased on here. MD)

An incredible 2011 Artfully AWARE summer program led to the creation of our AfA storybook entitled The Story of the Acholi – A Village Tale from Uganda.

This was born out of a project that encouraged Acholi community members living in Gulu, northern Uganda to write, paint and perform about their personal stories consisting of family, positive health and peace & reconciliation after the 20 year civil war.

Our 56 page storybook is written in both English and Acholi languages, is full of colorful illustrations, displays photographs of participating community members and captures personal quotes about this intimate and ultimately empowering project. It is suitable for children over the age of five, and it makes a wonderful gift for friends and family, as well as a great educational resource for the classroom and at home.

100% of proceeds raised through the purchase of our book goes straight back into developing more educational arts programs for community members in Uganda to promote empowerment, support psychological well-being, increase self-esteem and enhance local capacity building.

Statement by Hilary Wallis, Founder and Executive Director of Artfully AWARE

"The illustrations were first created in 2008 in Tororo, and by August 2011, Gulu residents wrote their own personal recollections in diaries describing events they lived through. They painted scenes depicting their beautiful and sometimes harrowing tales. As a collective group, we combined the essays into one – to colorfully tell the story of the Acholi people."

"We hope this storybook will bring Ugandan readers closer together and allow the chance for others around the world to share in this experience, while learning about northern Uganda’s remarkable culture and its people.”

The Story of the Acholi – A Village Tale from Uganda was made possible through a strong collaboration between Artfully AWARE, Childcare and Development Organization and Karin Parents Association.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Organizations You Can Support in Central Africa

Given my two recent articles on the discussion surrounding the American organization Invisible Children and their Joseph Kony campaign (which can be read here and here), several people have written to me to ask me what organizations in Central Africa I do recommend supporting. A brief but by no means complete list, arranged alphabetically, would include the following.

Africa Institute for Energy Governance

This Kampala-based organization works for an environment where energy resources are equitably used for social and economic development, and the Government of Uganda uses such resources for the benefit of the country's citizens.

Artfully AWARE

An NGO that has been working in Uganda since 2008 and whose motto is "Connect, Collaborate, Change," Artfully AWARE connects communities and collaborates with local actors through advocacy events and innovative community development projects mostly centered around the arts. The organization has recently put out a wonderful new book, The Story of the Acholi: A Village Tale from Uganda, which can be purchased here, and which helps to show the beauty and richness of Acholi life and culture, with lovely drawings and fable-like text from people in and around Gulu.

Human Rights Focus (HURIFO)

Since its inception in 1994, Gulu-based HURIFO has championed the cause of human rights in the conflict-affected area of Northern Uganda,

Pole Institute

The Pole Institute, based in Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo's North Kivu province, serves as a meeting ground for reflection and discussion about issues confronting the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

Voix des Sans-Voix

Kinshasa-based Voix des Sans-Voix (Voice of the Voiceless) is the Democratic Republic of Congo's premier human rights organization.

Water Governance Institute

As it's name suggests, the Kampala-based Water Governance Institute works to improve the access to and quality of water for all Ugandans.

Apologies to any groups that I may have forgotten, but I hope that this gives readers a good base for exploring groups demonstrating genuine solidarity with the people of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Some important articles on Invisible Children and Kony 2012

Links to a few useful articles examining the Kony 2012 campaign, Uganda, human rights and Central Africa in general follow, arranged chronologically. All best, MD

7 March 2012
The Problem With Invisible Children's "Kony 2012"
By Michael Deibert
The Huffington Post

7 March 2012
A Ugandan female blogger responds to Kony2012 campaign.
You Tube

9 March 2012
Former child soldier "totally disagrees with approach of military action as a means to end this conflict."
National Geographic

9 March 2012
Kony 2012 Won't Change the Lives of Ugandans
By Adam Branch
Dissent Magazine

9 March 2012
How Invisible Children's Kony 2012 Will Hurt - And How You Can Help - Central Africa
By Michael Deibert
Huffington Post

12 March 2012
Kony2012: should have advocated for dialogue and not military option
The Acholi Times

14 Mar 2012
Kony screening provokes anger in Uganda
Ugandans, who suffered at hands of Lord's Resistance Army, react in anger at Kony video causing internet waves.
Al Jazeera

15 March 2012
Uganda screenings of Kony film halted after protests
Agence France Presse

15 March 2012
Kony: What’s to be done?
African Arguments

15 March 2012
“KONY 2012” and the Magic of International Relations
e-International Relations

20 March 2012
Kony Is Not the Problem
By Angelo Izama
The New York Times

20 March 2012
How Kony survives and Obasanjo’s one man peace mission
African Arguments

16 April 2012
Kony 2012 screening in Gulu leaves One dead and many injured
Acholi Times

20 April 2012
Critic: 'Communities are trying to heal broken hearts, but Invisible Children want to plaster Kony's face everywhere'
The Guardian

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Michael Deibert and George Ayittey on Voice of Russia

George Ayittey, president of the Free African Foundation, and I were interviewed on Voice of Russia yesterday about the Kony 2012 campaign and issues surrounding democracy, governance, security and human rights in Africa. You can listen to full interview here. If I sound a little out of breath it's because I was moving furniture and boxes into my new apartment while on the air. All best, MD

Friday, March 09, 2012

How Invisible Children's Kony 2012 Will Hurt - And How You Can Help - Central Africa

How Invisible Children's Kony 2012 Will Hurt - And How You Can Help - Central Africa

The Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

Posted: 03/ 9/2012 12:10 pm

Earlier this week, I wrote an essay outlining what I viewed as some of the problems with the "Kony 2012" campaign spearheaded by the American NGO Invisible Children.

The campaign and accompanying film advocate -- via technological assistance, training and the presence of United States military personnel throughout Central Africa -- for military support of the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ostensibly to facilitate the arrest of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group and an accused war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court.

To anyone who has spent time in Central Africa in general and Uganda in particular, this appears to be a road fraught with peril. In response to several requests that I elaborate further on the problems of this approach and a possibly more constructive approach, I offer the following.

There are several instances of blatant dishonesty in the film that immediately catch one's eye and trouble one's conscience.

The first is the inference that in the Uganda of today thousands of children are continuing their grim sojourns as night commuters to escape the violence of the LRA. With the LRA's presence in Northern Uganda having essentially evaporated by the end of 2006, the use of images of the bodies of thousands of sleeping children -- who may or may not have consented to be filmed -- attempts to convince the viewer that the crisis of overt violence in Northern Uganda is ongoing, and thus necessitating direct military action. As the organization spent $1,859,617 on travel and filmmaking last year (out of total expenses of $8,894,630) one would think Invisible Children could have shown a more current (and accurate) picture of Northern Uganda and the organizations there working to improve it.

Also troubling is the film's depiction of Lieutenant Okot Santo Lapolo. A Museveni loyalist who serves as a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) in the Acholi region, Santo Lapolo is perhaps better known for harassing and threatening government critics in the press in the region than opining on human rights. When Invisible Children interview him, however, Santo Lapolo is described simply as a "politician," with no mention of his role as an éminence gris for the regime.

This is alas part and parcel of the film's and the organization's whitewashing of the highly tortured history and legacy of the Museveni government in Central Africa, a government that has done some good things for the country but which also, through reckless military adventurism and a hunger to retain power, has routinely trampled on the values of human rights that Invisible Children claims to champion.

The Museveni government has been undergoing a serious crisis of legitimacy since at least 2001, when the Supreme Court of Uganda, while upholding the vote in presidential elections that year, also found that "the principle of free and fair election was compromised." The situation deteriorated further in 2006 when elections were marked by what observers called "serious irregularities and significant shortcomings." In 2011 elections, the National Resistance Movement -- Museveni's political party -- handed out money and gifts, intimidated political opponents and in general behaved in a way that seriously called into question the validity of the final results.

Over the last year, large scale protests against alleged political corruption and economic mismanagement have occurred in Uganda's capital, Kampala, many aligned with the Forum for Democratic Change led by Kizza Besigye, a doctor and former soldier as well as a former Museveni ally-turned-critic. Government security forces have treated the protests brutally, with at least 10 people dying and several hundred disappearing into jail during the demonstrations last year.

Beyond Congo's borders, in addition to its military actions in Somalia (where Uganda's army is essentially fighting a proxy war for Western powers against Islamist militias in that country,) Uganda's army also still has yet to answer for its actions following its late 1990s invasion of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire) alongside Rwanda and a hastily-cobbled together Congolese rebel movement.

In the wars that followed, the Museveni government was the key military backer of the Mouvement de libération du Congo (MLC), a Congolese rebel movement led by Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is currently on trial at the International Criminal Court at the Hague -- the same body that indicted Kony -- for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In addition to the MLC, the Museveni government also actively supported a faction of the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) and the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), both of whom were implicated in the grossest human rights abuses. One former UPC chieftain, Thomas Lubanga, is currently on trial at the Hague, charged with using child soldiers, while another former leader of the group, Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed The Terminator and also an indicted war criminal, is now a power broker in the eastern Congolese province of North Kivu and a lynchpin of the regional détente between Congolese President Joseph Kabila (himself re-elected in a controversial ballot last year) and Museveni's erstwhile ally-turned-rival, Rwanda President Paul Kagame.

Then there is the history of high-level attempts to crush the LRA itself.

In December 2008, seventeen U.S. military advisers provided logistics, communications, and intelligence support for the Ugandan and Congolese army's Operation Lightning Thunder, an attempt to nab Kony which failed. In the weeks that followed, the LRA descended on several Congolese villages, killing hundreds of people and kidnapping over 100 children from communities left defenseless against the LRA's desire for vengeance.

What is the system of protection that Invisible Children advocates for communities such as these put in the line of fire by the military operations the group advocates? Invisible Children is silent on this score.

This, then, is the context that Invisible Children advocates further militarizing.

Complicating matters still further, the push for an increased military presence in Central Africa comes after the discovery of one billion barrels of potential oil reserves in the country, with an estimated 1 to 1.5 billion barrels yet to be located.

Last month, London-based Tullow Oil signed two $2.9 billion production sharing agreements with the Museveni government, despite the fact that Uganda's parliament had concluded that there should be a complete moratorium on oil-related activity until new laws were put in place (Uganda's Petroleum Exploration and Production Act dates from 1985). Security for the installations is being provided by a military unit closely linked to the president.

Reactions to the Invisible Children campaign from Uganda itself have been telling.

Writing in the newspaper The Independent, Ugandan writer Musa Okwonga suggested that Invisible Children should have let their viewers know that "when a bad guy like Kony is running riot for years on end, raping and slashing and seizing and shooting, then there is most likely another host of bad guys out there letting him get on with it. "

On the Project Diaspora site, one writer accused Invisible Children of being "a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant....selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. "

How Invisible Children can push for the measures it has and remain eligible for tax-exempt status as an organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code -- which states that such an organization may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates -- would seem to remain something a mystery.

A refrain that is often repeated by Invisible Children's supporters is that the organization's goal is not to "get bogged down by history" but rather to "raise awareness" thus leading to "action." But what kind of action can come in Central Africa if one ignores the region's history?

So then, the line of reasoning goes, what is to be done? If not by supporting Invisible Children's campaign -- intentional or not -- to reinforce the Museveni government's hold on power, then how can those who have been inspired and moved by the plight of those suffering in Central Africa ameliorate the situation of those in greatest need?

Despite living under a rapidly ossifying authoritarianism, Uganda still has a vibrant civil society made up of and working for the empowerment of Ugandans, with a number of organizations that are worthy of any support we can give them.

In Northern Uganda itself, the group Human Rights Focus has labored for years and produced detailed reports on the the conflict there far more nuanced and accurate than anything Invisible Children has ever put out.

Elsewhere, as government officials and foreign investors lick their lips at the promise of an oil boom, groups such as the Africa Institute for Energy Governance and the Water Governance Institute are doing important work to hold both Uganda's politicians and their foreign partners accountable to the Ugandan people.

Further afield, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, groups such as the Goma-based Pole Institute and the late, heroic Floribert Chebeya's Voix des Sans-Voix work to defend the rights of the Congolese under the most difficult of conditions.

These are organizations led by people who risk their lives every day standing up to the Musevenis, the Kagames and the Kabilas of the world.

Likewise, by working with local organizations to strengthen the government of South Sudan, a region that the LRA long used as a redoubt and whose rapid disintegration the group is no doubt praying for to give it another refuge closer to home, would also be an extremely productive use of the time of those outside of the region who wish to help.

If the people who have been moved by the Kony 2012 campaign truly want to help Africa, they must start by learning about and supporting the struggles of the Africans themselves. This is their fight, this is their history, these are their countries. Not ours. The citizens of Africa must write their own future from within their own borders. We cannot do it for then.

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Thursday, March 08, 2012

The Problem with Invisible Children's "Kony 2012"

7 March 2012

The Problem with Invisible Children's "Kony 2012"

By Michael Deibert

The Huffington Post

(Read the original article here)

Recently, a new video produced by the American NGO Invisible Children focusing on Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been making the rounds. Having just returned from the Acholi region of Northern Uganda myself, where the LRA was born, I thought I might share some of my thoughts on the subject, for what it's worth.

I think it is easy for Invisible Children and other self-aggrandizing foreigners to make the entire story of the last 30 years of Northern Uganda about Joseph Kony, but there is a history of the relationship between the Acholi people from whom the LRA emerged and the central government in Kampala that is a little more complicated than that.

Kony is a grotesque war criminal, to be sure, but the Ugandan government currently in power also came to power through the use of kadogo (child soldiers) and fought alongside militias employing child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, something that Invisible Children seem wilfully ignorant of.

The conflict in Acholi -- the ancestral homeland of the ethnic group who stretch across northern Uganda and southern Sudan - has its roots in Uganda's history of dictatorship and political turmoil. A large number of soldiers serving in the government of dictator Milton Obote (who ruled Uganda from April 1965-January 1971 and then again from December 1980-July 1985) came from across northern Uganda, with the Acholis being particularly well represented, even though Obote himself hailed from the Lango ethnic group. When Obote was overthrown by his own military commanders, an ethnic Acholi, General Tito Okello, became president for six chaotic months until Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army took over. Museveni became president, and has since remained so, via elections -- some legitimate, some deeply flawed.

Upon taking power, the Museveni government launched a brutal search and destroy mission against former government soldiers throughout the north, which swept up many ordinary Acholi in its wake. Some Acholi began mobilizing to defend themselves, first under the banner of the Uganda People's Democratic Army (largely made up of former soldiers) and then the Holy Spirit Movement.

This movement, directed by Alice Auma, an Acholi who claimed to be acting on guidance from the spirit Lakwena, brought a mystical belief in their own invincibility that the soldiers of the Kampala-based government at first found terrifying: Holy Spirit Movement devotees walked headlong into blazing gunfire singing songs and holding stones they believed would turn into grenades. The movement succeeded in reaching Jinja, just 80km from the capital Kampala, before being decimated by Museveni's forces.

Out of this slaughter was born the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, a distant relative of Alice Auma. Kony added an additional element of targeting civilian Acholi to his schismatic blend of Christianity, frequently kidnapping children and adolescents to serve in his rebel movement. The Museveni government responded by viewing all Acholi as potential collaborators, rounding them up into camps euphemistically called "protected villages", where they were vulnerable to disease and social ills, and had few ways to carry on their traditional farming.

The LRA's policy of targeting civilians (though not the Museveni government's draconian measures) eventually drew international condemnation and in 2005 the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants against Joseph Kony and several other seniors LRA commanders for crimes against humanity and war crimes. Ironically, one of those commanders, Dominic Ongwen, was himself kidnapped by the LRA while still a small boy.

After peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government collapsed in 2007, the group decamped from its bases in southern Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

Following the end of negotiations, the Museveni government launched its Peace Recovery and Development Plan (PRDP), an effort to stabilize northern Uganda after years of war. Since then, according to the United Nations 98% of internally displaced persons have moved on from the camps that once sheltered hundreds of thousands of frightened people.

Despite criticisms from the Acholi that the government's program has been insufficient, local initiatives and the work of some foreign organizations have helped restore a sense of normality and gradual progress to the region, with people returned to their homes and travel between once off-limits parts of the region now facilitated with relative ease.

Now a thousand miles from the cradle of their insurgency, the LRA would appear to have little hope of returning to Uganda, though their potential to wreak havoc on civilians remains little diminished. In Congo's Haut-Uele province, between December 2008 and January 2009, the LRA massacred 620 civilians and abducted more than 160 children; and a year later they returned and killed 321 and abducted another 250 people in December 2009.

In October 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he was sending 100 Special Forces soldiers to help the Ugandans hunt down Kony. By the end of the year, the Ugandan army confirmed that the troops had moved along with the Ugandan army to Obo in the Central African Republic and Nzara in South Sudan.

The problem with Invisible Children's whitewashing of the role of the government of Uganda's president Yoweri Museveni in the violence of Central Africa is that it gives Museveni and company a free pass, and added ammunition with which to bludgeon virtually any domestic opposition, such as Kizza Besigye and the Forum for Democratic Change.

By blindly supporting Uganda's current government and its military adventures beyond its borders, as Invisible Children suggests that people do, Invisible Children is in fact guaranteeing that there will be more violence, not less, in Central Africa.

I have seen the well-meaning foreigners do plenty of damage before, so that is why people understanding the context and the history of the region is important before they blunder blindly forward to "help" a people they don't understand.

U.S. President Bill Clinton professed that he was "helping" in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s and his help ended up with over 6 million people losing their lives.

The same mistake should not be repeated today.

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of the forthcoming Democratic Republic of Congo: Between Hope and Despair (Zed Books).