Twenty-Three Years After ‘Black Hawk Down,’ America Is Back at War in Somalia

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Long before the debacles of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia was the quagmire that Western militaries would have loved to strike from their records.

In the now-famous Black Hawk Down incident in 1993, overconfident U.S. forces blundered into an ambush in Mogadishu. Eighteen American soldiers and two troops from the supporting U.N. force died.

The West retreated from Somalia. To fill the security vacuum, the African Union deployed a peacekeeping force from 2006 onward.

The AMISOM peacekeeping force relies to a great degree on material and financial support from the United States and European allies, whose interest in the Somalia conflict increased again when Islamist groups gained influence in the country.

But the memory of the 1993 battle complicated direct intervention by Western militaries.

Gradually and quietly, this has begun to change.

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Africa is a Country: Monochrome Lagos

Africa is a Country: Monochrome Lagos

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I am a sucker for fine art photography. And this is fantastic stuff.

Lagos is known for being an assault to the senses: Swarms of bright yellow danfos maneuver stridently through lanes, and in a manner not quite unlike bumblebees — carrying a weight that seems optimistic at best. Dust often cakes the skin, but is streaked by drips of perspiration, courtesy of the blaring sun overhead. An ever-increasing soundtrack of voices booms in the background, emitting from seemingly every direction and without a recognizable source. Ever oscillating between exuberance and excess, the city is described as cacophony of sights and sounds—varying in levels of logic and function, always full of movement and energy.

Yet, in Logo Oluwamuyiwa’s ongoing project Monochrome Lagos (2013—), we encounter a Lagos that is rendered quite differently. A resistant body of work, Monochrome Lagos presents an alternative visual vocabulary through which to comprehend this city — one that strips Lagos down to its component parts, as an encounter between the individual and the built environment. Limiting his palette to black and white, Oluwamuyiwa presents high-contrast images that demonstrate a close attention to line and architectural forms. A rumination on presence and absence, Monochrome Lagos muffles the sensorial tropes of Lagos, bringing to the fore the spaces wherein once can find solace within the city.

Check out the full article for more photos and info on Logo Oluwamuyiwa’s fantastic project.

Planet Money: Nigeria, You Win!

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A really nice and positive podcast on Nigeria's effort to provide young entrepreneurs with capital to grow their businesses:

The episode is well worth your time, but Chris Blattman has the gist of it:

In 2011 the Nigerian government handed out 60 million dollars to about 1200 entrepreneurs, and three years later there are hundreds more new companies, generating tons of profit, and employing about 7000 new people.

David McKenzie did the incredible study.

24,000 Nigerians applied, the government selected about 6,000 to get some training and advice to develop their plan, the plans were scored, and about 1,200 were funded. They got an average of $50,000 each. Fifty thousand US dollars! Who the hell thought this was a good idea?

All the highest scoring plans got funded automatically, but McKenzie worked with the government to randomize among the runners up.

The results are amazing. Looking just at the people who had no firm to begin with, 54% of the control group have a firm after three years, compared to 93% of those who got the grant. And these firms are bigger. Just 11% of the control group have a firm with at least 10 employees, compared to 34% of those who got the grant. They’re more profitable too.

The Nigerians did a lot of things right for this one, especially when it came to choosing the winners and avoiding graft. The results are amazing and inspiring.

The important implication of findings like these is that while there will always be a minority who will waste the money, the vast majority of humans are a good investment under the right circumstances. And the cost of weeding out the duds (like in social security and development programs that require extensive proof of need and high prescribed standards to meet) is far higher than the cost of just giving away cash and accepting a few failures.

With One Arrest, Congo May Have Broken a Notorious Rebel Group

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In a heavy blow against one of Africa’s most notorious militias, Col. Leopold Mujyambere — chief of staff of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, or FDLR — was arrested last week by Congolese intelligence officers in the town of Goma and later transferred to the capital Kinshasa, where he awaits either a trial or extradition.

Read the rest of my latest article on War is Boring!

Simon Allison: The new Zimbabwean dollar that isn’t

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He hits the nail on the head:

The last time Zimbabwe was in this kind of position, it did something few economists would recommend: it simply printed more money, with disastrous consequences. The sudden, poorly-managed influx of Zimbabwean dollars into the economy was the direct cause of the economy-wrecking, poverty-inducing, development-stunting hyperinflation that followed. Surely, surely, Zimbabwe would not go down this route again, no matter how severe the cash crunch?

Sure they will.

I think most people will agree that this latest move is just another symptom of the mismanagement that Zimbabwe has experienced at the hands of President Mugabe and his cronies. But I'd be interested in better reporting on the politics behind this step.

Zimbabwe will introduce so-called "bond-notes". These look deceptively like paper currency and coins, but actually are bonds, secured by a $200 million loan by the African Import Export Bank. In theory, the bearer could therefore go to the bank and/or government and ask for the bond to be exchanged into U.S. currency. But in practice, one can doubt that this would actually work. No one (who isn't forced to) will recognize these for their nominal worth, especially not outside Zimbabwe, rendering them quite useless to ease the country's trade and hard currency deficit.

In the best case, they will trade at a discounted value, leading to higher costs for importers. In the worst case, they will tempt the government into a new round of money printing, only this time with the added bonus of skyrocketing debt.

So who came up with this idea and how was the AfrImEx Bank convinced to back the scheme? How will the distribution mechanism work and who is guaranteeing a transparent process (my guess: nobody). Will there be any accountability? And as this is clearly a stopgap measure at best, where are Zimbabwe's fundamental economic reforms, which have to be linked to a reform of the political system to be effective? I'm not sure that we will get any satisfactory answers to these questions any time soon.

Alex de Waal: How to steal from Africa, all perfectly legally

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Not a new story, but a good overview about the problem with more-or-less legal capital outflows from Africa:

Africa loses at least $50 billion a year — and probably much, much more than that — perfectly lawfully. About 60% of this loss is from aggressive tax avoidance by multinational corporations, which organise their accounts so that they make their profits in tax havens, where they pay little or no tax. Much of the remainder is from organised crime with a smaller amount from corruption. This was the headline finding of the High Level Panel on Illicit Financial Flows from Africa, headed by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, a year ago.

This amount is the same or smaller than international development assistance ($52 billion per year) or remittances ($62 billion). If we take the accumulated stock of these illicit financial flows since 1970 and factor in the returns on this capital, Africa has provided the rest of the world with $1.7 trillion, at a conservative estimate. Africa is a capital exporter.

While this type of aggressive tax avoidance might be legal, strictly speaking, it really highlights the question of power. Off shore tax havens are simply not accessible for "normal" tax payers. They only make sense as an instrument for the rich, super rich and international corporations. The system is rigged in a very fundamental way to the detriment of poor people and countries with low institutional capacity (for whatever reason) to combat these illicit financial flows. Of both categories, Africa unfortunately has more than enough, putting the continent as a whole at a severe disadvantage on a global scale.

Brian Klaas: Africa’s Catch-22

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Some astute observations in a new article on Good Governance Africa:

Conflict in Africa can result in economic devastation that lingers on far beyond the last crack of gunfire, because aid and trade matter more to the continent’s economic growth than they do to others. The loss of international partners—and foreign direct investment in particular—can drain an African country of its economic lifeblood for years after a coup d’état or a civil war. […]

In research recently conducted for One Earth Future, an anti-conflict think tank based in Denver, Colorado, Jay Ulfelder and this author found evidence that the reactions of Western governments to conflict in other countries can create self-fulfilling economic prophecies. In some cases at least, there is evidence that the economic fortunes of a country after a coup, civil war, or an unconstitutional change of government may be largely dictated by international actors—particularly major powers in the West.[…]

These diplomatic responses are not random. They are carefully constructed with reference to geopolitics. Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africa is in the geopolitical periphery. As a result, some countries outside of the region may receive more favorable diplomatic treatment in the wake of political violence, thereby ensuring continuity or even an increase in foreign direct investment. Government signals provide an important cue to investors, particularly when sanctions are involved—as they often are—with post-conflict, and particularly, post-coup governments.

I have for some time now arrived at the conclusion that - with very few exceptions - foreign policy responses to crises are made up on the fly, in a high-stress and low-information environment based on historical and personal experiences and reference points. African countries are more at the receiving end of this than any other, because western diplomats and bureaucrats are less likely to be experts on the issues that matter to the continent than for any other region.

There are two basic solutions to this: Either resist the urge to react instantaneously to everything that is happening in the world, if you come to the conclusion that your government doesn't have the institutional capacity and knowledge to formulate a response on short notice. But this goes against the basic instinct of state departments and foreign ministers everywhere and wouldn't necessarily be desirable in the first place.

Or governments decide to purposefully and diligently invest in developing the expertise and personnel necessary to make informed and coherent choices, even under pressure. That wouldn't come cheap, but would probably be cheaper than dealing with the fallout of a botched crisis response.

Rosebell Kagumire: Male survivors of rape in northern Uganda and Ongwen trial

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Some really interesting information on sexual and gender based crimes during Uganda's civil war. Every now and then a story like this about male rape survivors surfaces, making clear that this is a much more common feature of conflict than is generally known. The public (and to a certain extend the victims) are increasingly outspoken when it comes to sexual crimes against women, but male victims still have to fight tremendous stigmatization. In Uganda's case, this is compounded by the fact that one of the conflict parties (the National Resistance Movement/Army) is still in power:

The question of justice at home is the biggest. Yes Ongwen’s trial is key and but for most survivors like Okidi, a trial of one side of the conflict will not bring him peace and justice. Many of the crimes committed before the ICC came into force and especially those by NRA (later called UPDF) have remained unaddressed. Uganda government is still yet to deliver on reconciliation, reparations and real tangible reconstruction and healing of the survivors of the conflict in northern Uganda.

via Rosebell's Blog.

China in the Indigenization Trap

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From Brooking's Africa in Focus blog:

Zimbabwe clamped down with the enforcement of its controversial indigenization law—requiring foreign companies with assets of more than $500,000 to transfer or sell a 51 percent stake to indigenous Zimbabweans this month. The deadline of April 1 had been set earlier in March in accordance with the controversial 2008 indigenization law requiring foreign companies to submit plans for such indigenization or face the risk of closure. […]

According to Chinese statistics, China has been the largest foreign investor in Zimbabwe for years, with total FDI of more than $600 million in 2013. Among all African destinations for Chinese investment, Zimbabwe has ranked among top three in the past three years.According to official Chinese media, currently there are more than 10,000 Chinese nationals living and working in Zimbabwe. Many Chinese companies in Zimbabwe are actively engaged in contractor services, including telecommunications, irrigation, power, and construction. […]

Chinese investment in the diamond mining industry seems to have taken the worst hit. Indeed, the indigenization of diamond mining industry has been interpreted by Chinese analysts as the government’s “nationalization” of the diamond mines. The two Chinese diamond companies, Anjin and Jinan, began their mining operations in Marange in 2012, reportedly with the Zimbabwean partner holding 51 percent of the share. Nevertheless, the Zimbabwean government ordered forced evictions of the companies in February, unless they become a part of the Zimbabwe Consolidated Diamond Company (ZCDC). The ZCDC, founded in 2015, is believed to be the government’s puppet to consolidate the ownership of diamond mines. Anjin has filed a law suit at the Zimbabwean Supreme Court to dispute the government’s decision.

Very interesting look at China's competing interests (political vs. economical) and perspectives in Zimbabwe, as well as a broader discussion of the indigenization policy of Zimbabwe's government.

It’s a Good Time to Be a Dictator Again

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There was a brief period of time when it looked like openly fraternizing with authoritarian rulers might go out of style, especially in Africa.

The Cold War’s end suddenly obviated the West’s need to prop up local allies — and Russia simply didn’t have the means anymore to do the same thing. The brutal civil wars of the 1990s and 2000s brought the deadly consequences of dictatorship to the fore, and a new crop of African rulers promised to usher in multi-party democracy.

In stark contrast to the situation in the Middle East, most African countries weren’t strategically significant. To top it all off, the Arab Spring discredited Western foreign policy in North Africa — specifically, the hemisphere’s dealings with the likes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.

Western governments promised to have seen the error of their ways and solemnly swore to really push for democracy in Africa, and without foul compromises this time around.

Well, those feelings were short-lived. With right-wing populists breathing down the necks of European governments due to the migrant crisis and defense companies in dire need of sales after the financial crisis massacred Western defense budgets, any autocrat who has something to offer is back in the game.

Read the rest on War is Boring!