Return to the Source #2: the “they sure read Orwell in Eritrea” edition

This is the transcription of the first edition of Return to the Source, my new podcast on excellent writing about Africa. You can of course also listen to it, or subscribe to it in your podcast app of choice!

Hello and welcome to Return to the Source number two, the "they sure read Orwell in Eritrea" edition. My name is Peter Dörrie and like every week, I will present and discuss three interesting pieces of writing about Africa.

I will talk about two excellent articles about South Sudan and Nigeria a bit later, but first let me discuss an incredible document, the "Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea".

Now, this title probably sounds as exciting as dried out bread and indeed, you better don't read it for the quality of the prose. But the report is still one of the most fascinating pieces of political literature about Africa in recent months and you owe it to yourself to read at least the abbreviated version.

Published by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the report details human rights abuses and violations in Eritrea and the sheer scale and extent of the allegations are breathtaking. This is the money quote, which has been picked up by many media reports in recent days:  "the commission found  that  systematic,  widespread  and  gross  human  rights violations  have  been  and  are  being  committed  in  Eritrea under the   authority   of   the   Government.   Some   of   these violations may constitute crimes against humanity."

Now, this is pretty abstract in and of itself and the authors of the report, Mike Smith, Victor Dankwa and Sheila Keetharuth, go into more detail later. But finding this line in an official U.N. document is nonetheless significant, not least because the phrase "crimes against humanity" puts this issue plainly into the responsibility of the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the responsibility of the International Community at large.

The authors preempt the report by stating that they were not able to do research in Eritrea itself, because the government refused to cooperate with their mission in any way. The more than 550 interviews the report is based on all took place in other countries as a result and anonymity has been granted to all respondents, a sensible measure if you take what is coming at face value.

If I may paraphrase the whole thing, Eritrea is basically Orwell's 1984 come true. The report documents systematic and state sponsored torture, a complete absence of freedom of the press and expression and compulsory national service and forced labour under conditions akin to slavery.

"Indeed," write the authors, "with no parliament meeting and the court system controlled by the executive, it could even be affirmed that there is no rule of law in Eritrea. It is not law that rules Eritreans, but fear."

There are some incredibly pieces of information in this document. Like for example the aforementioned fact that a parliament simply doesn't exist in Eritrea, not even as a propaganda instrument like in North Korea. Instead, all laws are passed by the government itself. Since independence, the country has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki, who has never been confirmed in any form of national election.

Afwerki's main support comes from the country's armed forces and security services, who act with complete impunity against their own population. Arrests are happening arbitrarily for quote "just about any expression of opinion."

Once arrested, Eritreans are disappeared almost as a matter of course and inquiring about their whereabouts can easily land relatives in jail as well. Conditions in jails are as bad as one can possibly imagine and women and children are subjected to these conditions indiscriminately. According to the report, prisoners are kept incommunicado often for years and are not informed of the charges against them or even of the outcome of the trial against them, if a trial happens at all.

For me personally, one of the most chilling aspects of this grueling system is the national service that all Eritreans have to subject to. I myself did civil service in Germany and the 9 months as a national park ranger were more a pleasure than anything else. In Eritrea, the report details, national service is essentially indefinite and draftees are subjected to conditions that constitute systematic torture and are akin to modern-day slavery. And this for basically every citizen in a whole country!

Reading this report it becomes clear that Eritrea's ruling elite is at least on par with that of North Korea and probably worse. But the authors also make some important points, albeit more veiled, about the international community's failure to assume responsibility for the situation. Other governments, the report reads, should "continue to provide protection to all those who have fled and continue to flee Eritrea owing to severe violations of their rights or fear thereof."

Six to ten per cent of Eritrean nationals have migrated or fled from their home country, according to the report and many live in refugee camps and only have uncertain legal status. Eritreans are the second largest group of illegal immigrants to the European Union and thousands have perished in recent years on the dangerous voyage. Currently, the report implies, the international community is not doing enough to safeguard the rights and lives of Eritreans in their own country or as refugees.

You should really check this report out for yourself. If the full 484 page version does not fit into your schedule, there is also an edited 28 page version with the most important points. You can find links to both documents in the shownotes, as well as links to some media articles on the report.

As always the shownotes are accessible via the podcast app you are using right now, or on returntothesource dot co. This is also where you can subscribe to this podcast.

Now let's come to the second piece I want to talk about. This one is titled "South Sudan and the chronic failure of a ruling elite" and was written by Mawan Muortat, a South Sudanese national himself. It was published by African Arguments, the blog of the British Royal African Society and an excellent source for intelligent writing about Africa in general.

Muortat vigorously disputes and in my eyes disproves convincingly that South Sudan's conflict is due to ethnic differences. "Far from being a prisoner of its ethnic diversity," he argues, "South Sudan is all the richer because of it and should instead be seen as a victim of recurring failure of leadership."

He supports his argument with an insightful discussion of South Sudanese history since colonization. I'm not an expert on this issue myself, but Muortat makes a very convincing argument that ethnicity as a dividing political concept is a very recent phenomenon in South Sudan, essentially created by the current political elite to suit their agenda.

This fits nicely with my own view of ethnicity as a socially constructed, albeit very real, concept that is the consequence rather than the source of political action. In South Sudan, Muortat states, it is even not that old and responsibility for the civil war has therefore to be placed at the feet of the political elite, instead of anonymous social structures.

Muortat's article is worth your time for the historical analysis alone, but you should also consider the implied consequences for the resolution of the conflict: South Sudan's elite can not be trusted to negotiate for peace in good faith. Basically none of the relevant actors have shown any effort in recent years to work for the broader interest of their country. While an end of hostilities is unlikely without the elite agreeing to it, the international community and especially the neighbouring states should treat this elite not so much as a constructive actor to work with, but a potential spoiler that in the long run has to be either reformed or isolated.

As always, you can find a link to the article by Mawan Muortat, as well as links to the author himself in the show notes on returntothesource dot co.

And with that I come to the last piece for today, this one is about Nigeria. There was predictably a lot of chatter about the outcome of Nigeria's recent election and this is one of the better articles I've read. Again published on African Arguments, it is titled "Nigeria’s new political landscape explained" and was written by freelance journalist Ejiro Barrett.

I picked this article because it manages to take into account the importance of local politics for the political process in Nigeria while not making the whole story about Boko Haram.

"The final election results revealed regional voting patterns," Barrett writes. "However, it would be prejudicial to assume that Buhari’s victory was dependent on the support he got from his northern constituency alone. For the first time Buhari ran under a national platform. The merger of five political parties, including some members of the perceptibly regional All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) - considered the party of the east – helped the APC make inroads into areas that were traditional PDP support bases, regional or ethnic imperatives notwithstanding."

The piece also makes some very optimistic forecasts for Nigeria's future. Quote "These elections have clearly set the stage for a new Nigeria; one where people will feel confident enough to make demands on the government like never before. As one man puts it, “now we know we can vote in or out whoever we choose, our leaders will be on their toes from now on.” end quote.

If the administration of Muhammadu Buhari can live up to these expectations, only the future can tell. But Barrett paints an interesting picture of Nigeria's post-election sentiments and mentions some interesting and positive initiatives of the new administration.

"President Buhari and his vice, Professor Osinbajo, have also fulfilled one of their key campaign promises by declaring their assets – a step former president Jonathan evaded throughout his four year term," the author notes and adds that Buhari also took some symbolic steps in the conflict against Boko Haram and for the effectiveness of government. He relocated the military command responsible for fighting Boko Haram from Nigeria's comfy capital Abuja to the conflict theatre itself in Maiduguri and has promised to look into allegations of crimes committed by security forces in their fight against the insurgency.

Buhari also apparently turned down two proposed lists of ministerial candidates already. Barrett explains that "One of the unique features of Nigeria’s democratic system is the power of state governors to impose ministerial candidates on the president. What this means is that the Nigerian President is saddled with a cabinet that is made up of cronies of state governors rather than those best suited for the roles. Buhari has insisted that he will not allow anyone to select his cabinet for him."

I know little about this aspect of Nigerian constitutional law, but I think this is quite fascinating. So far Buhari seems like the independent character he promised to be on the campaign trail and willing to break with the business as usual of Nigerian politics. I am personally cautiously optimistic about Buhari's ability to address some of Nigeria's most pressing challenges.

Again, you should check this article out by yourself and you will find the link to do so in the shownotes. There you will also find links to a host of other articles which are also excellent, but which I could not feature here because I actually and annoyingly have to do some real work as well. But if you are interested in Africa, you might find these links of interest to you, so check them out in your podcast app of choice or on returntothesource dot co.

As always, I'm interested in your feedback and recommendations on which excellent pieces of writing about Africa I should cover next week. You can find me on Twitter at @peterdoerrie thats spelled p e t e r d o e r r i e, or just send me an email: If you are confused by my surname don't worry, you can of course find all of this in the shownotes.

I hope you tune in next week as well, when I return with a new collection of outstanding writing about Africa. Thanks and Goodbye.

Return to the Source #1 – The first Edition

This is the transcription of the first edition of Return to the Source, my new podcast on excellent writing about Africa. You can of course also listen to it, or subscribe to it in your podcast app of choice!

Hello and welcome to the first edition of the "Return to the Source" podcast. My name is Peter Dörrie, I'm a freelance journalist focused on security and resource politics on the African continent and I will host this show on a weekly basis.
There is a ton of excellent writing about Africa, but too often, it drowns in a sea of mainstream mediocracy. The goal of this podcast will be to highlight outstanding pieces of analysis, interesting op-eds, documentaries and important historical writings about politics, society and culture across Africa. Each show will feature and discuss two to three pieces, give you the gist of them, as well as discuss their context and provide additional information or another perspective, where I think it is needed.

So let's get started! This week I'll be covering three excellent pieces about the looming commodity debt crisis in Africa, the recent elections in Ethiopia and Denis Sassou-Nguesso's attempts to change the constitution in Congo-Brazzaville.
I'll start of with an interesting piece published by Quartz titled "It’s time to treat commodity-backed loans to African countries the same way we treat equity". The author, Grieve Chelwa – I should apologize in advance for probably butchering every last name from now on – is an economics PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.

In this piece he makes the interesting observation that some African countries are facing a new debt crisis, largely because of their reliance on commodity backed loans.

"The writing off of debt under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) and Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative (MDRI) initiatives in the last decade," Chelwa writes, "which improved the financial standing of most countries, has ironically led to an accumulation of new debt, this time from private creditors. […] By 2013, the cumulative total of sovereign bonds issued on the continent had grown to at least $10 billion. [And] much of the dollar denominated credit to African governments is implicitly backed by commodities, a straight forward consequence of the continent’s reliance on primary commodity exports."

Unfortunately for Africa's resource rich governments, commodity prices and especially the oil price have slumped in recent months. Chad, Zambia and other countries which had based their repayment schedules on more optimistic price forecasts are now forced to seek rescheduling of debts. If the lenders are uncooperative, Chelwa notes, this might lead to severe social spending cuts. He cites a study that finds that "the share of the national budget allocated to education and health can decline by as much as one-third in response to an increase in the debt burden."

But Chelwa also has a solution up his sleeve: "One option," he writes, "would be to structure the contracts so that they are more like equity." In that case, lenders would share the risk of depressed commodity prices because the principal of a loan would be adjusted accordingly. In return, investors would also receive a higher payout in case prices rise.

Chelwa hopes that the increased risk would let lenders pick their investments more carefully and force them to monitor the behaviour of the government. And social spending would be under a lesser threat of budgetary cuts.

I think that not only the looming African debt crisis Chelwa describes, but also the example of Greece are perfect examples for the need of greater risk sharing in the case of government debt. Private lenders currently have little to fear, because states essentially can't go bankrupt – in the worst case the IMF steps in and the population has to carry the weight of the budgetary spending cuts that come as a condition for receiving international bailouts.

Another option I would add to Chelwa's suggestion, though, is that African countries themselves take measures to better manage their commodity incomes. In my opinion, too much is currently used for consumption and purposes like backing foreign loans. Instead, governments should commit to use a sizeable share of their commodity revenue to invest themselves, ideally in their domestic economy. That would certainly delay some of the benefits of commodity incomes, after all you could only spend money you have already made, in contrast to loans which are taken against expected future production. But this would be a much more sustainable way to go about it.

If you are interested in this kind of discussion, be sure to read the article in its entirety. The author has included a ton of interesting links and – as per usual for Quartz – there are some interesting graphics. Grieve Chelwa also has an interesting looking twitter feed. You can find him at @gchelwa, that is g c h e l w a.

So let's go to the second piece for this week. This one is by one of my favourite authors on African Affairs, South African journalist Simon Allison. Simon is the Daily Maverick's Africa correspondent and his piece is titled "As Ethiopia votes, human rights are not the real story."

This is more of an opinion piece in my mind, but Simon makes some good points which will be a bit controversial. The article was published before the results of Ethiopia's parliamentary election were in, but he rightly predicted the sweeping victory of the ruling Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front: it has won all of the 442 seats that have been declared so far and looks set to win most of the 105 which will be counted until the final results are announced on June 22.

If the EPRDF will beat its 2010 margin of victory of astonishing 99.6 per cent is unclear, but irrelevant – Ethiopia will remain a de facto one party state.
Ethiopia's regime has a less than stellar human rights track record and its overwhelming electoral victory is largely based on intimidation and oppression of the opposition. But, and this is Simon Allison's main point, this is not the story we should focus on. He chastises NGO's like the Freedom house for quote "missing the point", when they criticize the Ethiopian government.

"No matter what their political dispensation," Allison writes, "there are few governments in Africa with a shining human rights record, and Ethiopia is certainly not amongst them. However, there are even fewer who are delivering widespread and sustainable development to their people – and in this category, Ethiopia leads the pack. This is the real story."

He goes on to applaud the Ethiopian government for its good use of aid money, the economic growth and reduction of poverty it has fostered in recent years. And he points out that this development is build on the foundation of a unique model, an ideology of development that has for a change not be derived from quote "the standard western approach [that] has usually failed to deliver."

And I agree, this is the most fascinating and interesting aspect of Ethiopia's younger history. After the civil war, the country's leadership under the late Meles Zenawi developed a self confident vision in a way that few other African countries have managed. Ethiopia has chosen the quote "other option", its own model for development and has fared well with it. Other African countries and the international community should definitely take note.

But I disagree with Simon when it comes to the other part of his argument that we should not focus on the faults of the system. First of all, I doubt that any self-respecting NGO would not at least mention Ethiopia's successes when criticizing the government for human rights abuses. And indeed, the Freedom House op-ed that Allison cites so disapprovingly notes many of the same success stories that Allison himself does.

But more importantly, I think that the "Ethiopian model", let's call it that, of an autocratic government focused on delivering economic growth and fighting poverty while securing the political status quo can still be perfected. Allison rightly notes that democracy is not automatically followed by prosperity. But an autocracy or benevolent dictatorship is also no guarantee for success. Why not make the third option, broad poverty reduction and simultaneous respect for basic human rights and a participatory government the "African model"?

Nonetheless, Allison's essay is an interesting read and it makes some important points. You should definitely check it out, just as his other stuff. You can also find him on Twitter at @simonallison. The links to all the articles and the authors will of course also be in the show notes, which you can find in the app that you are using to listen to this podcast, or on the website return to the source dot co.

Now, let's turn to the last article I want to highlight this week. Like in the case of Simon Allison, I've known the author of this one for some time, it's the great Kamissa Camara. In her day job she is the senior programme officer for west and central Africa at the U.S. organization National Endowment for Democracy, but she regularly publishes articles in her own capacity.

This one was commissioned by the Good Governance Africa initiative and I should note that I have myself an upcoming article with them, so stay tuned for that. But Kamissa's piece is called "Kaka Nguesso", lingala for "Nguesso one more time," as she explains later in the article.

I've chosen the article primarily because I find it to be an excellent and timely companion to current events in Burundi. I don't want to imply that Burundi and Congo-Brazzaville have a lot in common, but the basic issue in both countries is the same: the strong man in power wants to stay in power and is or may be happy to game the constitution to reach his goal.

Changing the constitution to allow additional terms is all the rage among Africa's self-assumed presidents for life at the moment, but the case of Nguesso is especially interesting for a few reasons, as Kamissa points out.

First of all, there is the usual two term limit and also an age limit of 70 for presidential candidates in the 2002 constitution. Nguesso, says Kamara, would be ineligible on both counts.

But the constitution also has article 185, which quote "prohibits revising the restrictions on presidential terms. The only way to remove the term limits is to scrap the constitution entirely." end quote.

This would be a much more substantial and surely more divisive project than what other presidents have attempted, more or less successfully, in either changing individual articles or just exploiting apparent loopholes in their constitutions. And it will require Nguesso to take a clear stand on the question rather soon, because presidential elections are scheduled for July 2016. Of course he could choose to follow in the footsteps of Joseph Kabila of neighbouring Congo-Kinshasa and play for time, trying to find reasons to postpone the elections and thereby remain in power without a clear mandate.

This is an excellent article on a country that receives little attention in the media normally, so be sure to check it out. If only to be prepared when something like in Burundi goes down.

That's it for this week's "Return to the Source". If you liked what you heard, please share this podcast with your colleagues and friends.

As I've mentioned you can find the shownotes with the links to all the pieces I've covered in your podcast app of choice, or on the website: return to the source dot co. You can find me on Twitter at @peterdoerrie, that is spelled p e t e r d o e r r i e and you can send me suggestions and feedback there or via email to

I hope you tune in next week as well, when I return with a new collection of outstanding writing about Africa. Thanks and Goodbye.