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.

The death of South Sudan’s economy won’t end its civil war

Format Link

Ever since early 2012, South Sudan’s imminent economic collapse has been routinely predicted. Impressions from a recent visit to Juba indicate that this time around it might be more to these divinations than before.  The economic crisis is compounded by a de facto break-down in peace negotiations and South Sudan faces a formidable threat to its existence as an independent state.

This is an interesting blog post by Øystein Rolandsen on the economic situation of South Sudan (spoiler: its bad). But I don't agree with some of its conclusions and observations.

First of all, I don't think that South Sudan's "existence as an independent state" is threatened. The country's independence in 2011 was the result of several decades of civil war and intense international negotiations. There are many people, including all parties of South Sudan's civil war that would in no way accept the integration of  the country back into North Sudan (assuming Khartoum would even want that) or into another of its neighbors.

Due to the civil war and the government's inability to foster a national cohesion (which is strongly related to the economic problems), South Sudan might follow the trajectory of Somalia and fracture into smaller fiefdoms that act with autonomy from each other. But statehood is still a very entrenched concept and the state of South Sudan will continue to exist for decades, if only as a mostly empty shell (like the state of Somalia has, for more than two decades).

I'm also pessimistic about Rolandsen's hope that "the crisis might generate enough momentum for Juba and SPLM-IO to reach a compromise […]."

South Sudan's civil war is not about financial resources per se, but about who controls access to them. This is a function of South Sudan's "winner takes all" political system. All resources are worthless, unless your faction controls the presidency and therefore the power to distribute those resources. In that sense the economic crisis contributed to the outbreak of the conflict (because president Kiir had less money to pay off rivaling factions) but will do little to increase the will to compromise of any of the parties involved no that the war is in full swing.

Lastly, I should note that Rolandsen's assumption that "neighbouring countries appear to have no appetite for external military intervention" is not accurate. Uganda has committed substantial military resources, including ground troops and its modern aircraft fleet, to keep the government from being overrun. The government of president Kiir is also leaning on support from rebels from North Sudan, making an overt or covert intervention of the regime in Khartoum only a question of time.

South Sudan's economy has already collapsed. Waiting for it to collapse further in the hope that it will take the civil war with it into the grave will be fruitless. Instead, mediators and third parties should focus on the roots of the war that predate the country's economic woes (and its very existence): Its centralized, top-heavy political system; low levels of trust between political actors; the abysmal failure of DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration) after the civil war; military and political interventions of neighboring states (not only North Sudan); and the incapability of unwillingness of central political actors (including Kiir and his direct opponent Makar) to put the interest of their country and their people before their own.


Source: Dead economy walking in South Sudan

No One Is Winning South Sudan’s Civil War

A great storm is coming to South Sudan, quite literally. Sometime during the next month, the rainy season will start in earnest and render much of the country inaccessible.

The rains will bring a reprieve for the country’s 16-month-old civil war — no roads means no troop movements. Neither the government nor the rebels have an air force to speak of, nor the airborne capacity to follow up on bombings with ground troops.

But Pres. Salva Kiir’s army — and rebels loyal to his former deputy Riek Machar — are ratcheting up the fighting to put themselves in the best position before the rains.

This makes it harder for humanitarian organizations to prepare. Just like last year, many of the country’s thousands of refugees will suffer and die in overcrowded and inundated camps, even though active fighting will subside.

When the rain clears in November, the war will in all likelihood continue.

Read the rest on War is Boring

Rich Links: Gas Revenues in Tanzania

  • "With the gas industry expected to be the largest player in Tanzania’s economy, the Tanzanian government could face substantial losses if they do not act to curb bad policies and practices.  Here are three major issues Tanzania needs to tackle in order to ensure they capitalize on upcoming gas revenues:"

  • "Mining prospectors will be able to apply for licences online and get feedback within 90 days, according to new amendments to the Mining Bill."

  • "By the evidence of South Sudan’s budget, presented to parliament in late June, the country’s finance ministry has lost its mind."

  • The Norwegian Ambassador to Ghana, Mrs. Hege Hertzberg, has urged the Ghana government to use the oil resource to transform the country's economy from import dependent, to become a leading exporter on the African continent.

  • "Built by a consortium led by British company Globeleq, the 138 megawatt (MW) wind farm is one of Africa's biggest - larger than the 120 MW Ashegoda windfarm that was unveiled by Ethiopia in October 2013, though not as big as the Tarfaya wind farm in south-western Morocco, which started producing energy in April and will eventually generate up to 300 MW of electricity."

  • "Some neighbouring countries are less upbeat about the project. Citing two treaties, dating from 1929 and 1959, Egypt claims a historic right over the Nile. It fears that the dam will restrict the flow of water. […] "These treaties are now obsolete. We are entitled to build the dam," says Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopia's minister of water, energy and irrigation. "For a long time we derived no benefit from our river."

  • "Unfortunately, Tullow could not repeat its African success story in Ethiopia. […] Sources told The Reporter that executives of Tullow decided to suspend drilling operation in Ethiopia. "They will pull out their drilling crew out of Ethiopia. They will take out their core staff to other projects in other countries and lay off the rest of the staff in their Ethiopia office."

  • "Zimbabwe's cotton industry will remain under pressure as international lint prices continue to wane with China's imports expected to decline in the 2014/2015 season as the Asian nation shifts to domestic cotton for national reserves."

  • "The duration of license now depends on the size and nature of mineral deposits, as well as the size of investment to be injected in a concession. This will be shown through a feasibility study conducted by the investor."

Can gold save Sudan’s economy (and regime)?

The Sudan has many problems, among them several civil wars and a host of unstable neighbours. But the biggest issue, especially from the perspective of the authoritarian government under president Omar al Bashir, may be the tanking economy.

The trouble began in earnest when South Sudan reached its independence, taking a large share of Sudan's oil reserves with it. Later, the countries almost went into a full-blown war over the transport fees that Sudan levies on the sole pipeline leading out of the South Sudanese oil fields and Khartoum had to reduce these rates as a result.

The consequences were bitter for Sudan: the country lost more than half of its government income and two-thirds of its foreign exchange earning exports. This contributed to a massive inflation of over 30 percent since 2012. The dire fiscal situation led to deep cuts in government spending, especially concerning fuel subsidies. As a result, the country experienced the biggest anti-regime protests since the last coup d'État more than twenty years ago.

Trying to turn the situation around, the Sudanese government started to look at its considerable and gravely underdeveloped gold reserves. Encouraged by rising gold prices on the world market after the financial crisis in 2008, Khartoum decided to make gold the new oil.

This hope that gold can save the Sudanese economy and by extension the regime in Khartoum still persists:

The government is now consulting with international companies and contractors in an attempt to fill the hole left by lost oil revenues with gold exports.

Sudan's Ministry of Minerals, which oversees all mining activity and licensing, has contracted BGS International, a company spun-off from the British Geological Survey, to help restructure its own state surveying organisation, the Geological Research Authority of Sudan (GRAS). […]

Gold is already rising in prominence in Sudan's economic profile. In 2008 the sector represented just 1 percent of exports with a value of $112m, but this year gold will total more than $2bn in earnings, or over 40 percent of all exports. By contrast the value of oil exports has fallen to just more than 20 percent of its 2008 peak. [Gold: a glimmer of hope for Sudan's economy - This is Africa]

But, especially compared to oil, gold has several disadvantages.

Artisanal mining and smuggling

As This is Africa rightly points out in the article linked above, a large part of the gold mining going on in Sudan happens in the informal, artisanal sector. Small-scale mining activities are hard to regulate and control, especially because many of them are located in areas which are contested between by armed groups.

As a result, the government has only limited direct income from the production and trade of the precious metal. A drive to bring more foreign investors and large-scale, formal mining operators into the country could change that, but this will take years. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold are produced without any government interaction and much of this is probably exported informally as well.

What is gold worth, anyway?

Even if the government is able to channel a substantial part of the gold revenues into official channels, there remains the question how big the resulting pie will be that the regime hopes to distribute to quell dissent and strengthen its support base.

At the time of South Sudan's independence, the price of gold was near it's all-time high of 1,900 Dollars per troy ounce. It reached these record heights as a result of the financial crisis of 2008, when private and institutional investors started looking at gold as an alternative to the volatile stocks market. Gold continued to trade at record levels throughout 2012, but went into free fall in 2013, losing more than 35 percent of its value. Today, a troy ounce trades at slightly above 1,200 Dollars.

This poses two problems for Sudan: Firstly, international mining companies are already looking at cost-cutting measures. Mines that were opened or expanded in recent years are getting closed or are experiencing lay-offs in Ghana and Burkina Faso. A continued fall of world market prices for gold will greatly reduce the likelihood that mining companies will invest in Sudan. Secondly, with gold now representing 40 percent of Sudan's export value, the direct economic impact of falling gold prices for the country is immense.

Out of the frying pan into the fire

With betting on gold after its oil revenues plummeted, the regime in Khartoum may have made a big mistake. Almost certainly, it will not be able to realise the hopes it had for expanding the business with the precious metal in the near term. With oil production in South Sudan (and the corresponding transport fees) threatened by burgeoning civil war there, president Omar al Bashir will likely be pressured to enact further austerity measures. If the pattern of the last year holds, this will lead to further protests, seriously testing his hold on power.

Rich links: diamonds and bushmen in Botswana

As usual, the web's most interesting reads:

Diamonds and Bushmen

Charity Survival International alleges that the government of Botswana systematically uses access to water as weapon to drive the country's Bushmen out of their diamond rich reservation. The Independent

South Sudan plans allocation of new exploration blocks

The East African country will hold an auction to sell exploration licences to new oil blocks. If exploration proves successful, additional oil production could significantly enhance government income. Voice of America

Tullow Oil stops exploration in Kenya

After demonstrations in Kenya's Turkana region by local communities demanding a greater share of jobs and higher income from Tullow's operations, the British company has suspended all exploration activity in the area. Kenya hopes to significantly add to its natural resources portfolio with oil deposits currently appraised by Tullow. Sabahi | the Star | African Mining Brief

Zambia first cancels, then reinstates tax on unrefined copper exports

Only days Zambia has cancelled a 10% export tax on unrefined copper and other minerals, the country's president Michael Sata has ordered his government to reintroduce the tax. Lifting the regulation had been a key demand of international mining firms, which argued that Zambia doesn't have the necessary smelting capacity to process all ores in the country itself and that the additional tax would make operations uncompetitive. African Mining Brief

The future of Tanzania's mining sector

Tanzania sports quite a wealth of various precious metals, gemstones, fossil fuels and other minerals. But falling gold prices and power challenges have made some investors weary. Mining Weekly | Daily News

Other stuff

  • How can African countries use their oil revenue for lasting development? the Guardian
  • Angola has opened a training centre for oil industry related professions: Mining Review
  • Women are breaking into the male dominated mining sector in Zimbabwe: IRIN

Rich Links: Natural Gas in Tanzania, Nuclear Power in South Africa and More

As always, the best links from around the internet:

New policy on natural gas coming soon in Tanzania

The government of Tanzania is on the verge of passing a new national policy on natural gas exploitation. So far the country has no specific official policy in that sector and the new legislation wants to address specifically the issue of local content. AllAfrica/Tanzania Daily News (2)

South Africa aims for new nuclear power plants

The South African government pushes for the construction of new nuclear power plants to increase the generation of nuclear energy from 1,800 MW to 9,600 MW per year by 2030. Key financial decisions are planned to be taken this financial year. South Africa currently runs the only active nuclear power plant on the African continent and pursues a large nuclear capacity under the label of "clean" and indigenous energy. AllAfrica/

Resources in the DR Congo

A detailed look at the trends and challenges of the natural resources sector in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Ventures Africa

The dangers of the use mercury in gold mining

Mercury is used by the great majority of artisanal gold miners in Africa, numbering millions, but its use results in dramatic health problems. A new international treaty aims to reduce the amount of mercury used, but changing entrenched practices in local communities will be hard. The Economist

Search for oil kills whales off Madagascar

A sonar system, operated by Exxon Mobile to explore oil fields off the Madagascan coast, is the reason for the death of dozens of melon-headed whales. This is the finding of an independent scientific commission. Global Post

Three alternatives for South Sudanese oil

The governments of South Sudan and Kenya are currently planning the establishment of a new pipeline corridor to transfer Sudanese oil to the Indian Sea at Lamu. This article argues that the better alternatives would be to transfer the oil by either rail or road. AllAfrica/Pambazuka News

High hopes for Rwandan mining sector

The Rwandan government wants the country's mining exports to triple by 2017. AllAfrica/Rwanda Focus

WarIsBoring: Africa Round-Up

Tuareg rebels. Al Jazeera photo.


The regional repercussions of the fall of Gadhafi are beginning to come clear as Tuareg militants attacked a total of six towns since Jan. 17. The Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) — the group responsible for the attacks — has been formed only recently and is believed to have many former Gadhafi mercenaries in its ranks. The group has recently claimed to have shot down a MIG bomber, probably with ground-air missiles pilfered from ammunition depots in Libya.

The official objective of the MNLA is the autonomy of the Malian part of Azawad, an area that many Tuareg see as their traditional homeland. But the Sahel Blog points out that the Malian government tried to prevent an escalation by offering concessions to the Tuareg community before the attacks even started. It is also interesting that the MNLA seems to have no interest in liberating those parts of Azawad which are situated in Algeria. The conclusion might be that the string of recent attacks did not happen with the intention to capture territory, but to demonstrate the military strength of the group and to bolster its position on the negotiating table.


Over the last year the terrorist group Boko Haram has made its way from a little known splinter group to an international security threat. Its attacks have become increasingly more sophisticated and cover a much wider area than its original area of operation. The latest hotspot seems to be Kano, which saw a huge attack on Jan. 20 and a number of smaller incidents since then. […]

Read the rest (covering developments in Somalia, Sengeal and the Sudans) over at