Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dangerous Names and Games

Gunfire breaks out around the presidential palace followed by the tell tale military music broadcast over state radio while a few days later the president of it's neighbouring nation is whisked back under the cover of darkness after a 93 day absence. Another coup in one west African nation and a game of presidential hide-and-seek is played in another. Just two more stories crossing the news wire out of a continent with over a billion people and 50 countries but a political morass which has produced only a handful of good leaders. Being no exception, Niger and Nigeria share more than a border and west Africa's largest river which lent both countries the name that shocks the politically correct. Just as outsiders were ignorant of the Niger River's improbable course for centuries, observers today struggle to make heads or tails of the incorrectness of the two nations' politics.

Last week's military coup in Niger shouldn't have come as surprise to anyone. Now former President Mamadou Tandja followed the failed African leader playbook step-by-step after he first come to power in elections following a coup d'etats in which then President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara was killed on the tarmac of the airport outside the capital of Niamey in 1999. Mainassara, who had himself taken power in a coup from the first democratically elected president of Niger in 1996, was returning from pilgrimage to Mecca when his own Presidential Guard nearly cut him in half with machine gun fire. Before we get lost in the coup loop, let's just say that Tandja like so many African leaders grew to enjoy the privileges of power. Despite reassurances that he would step down after the constitutionally mandated two five-year terms, when the time came to bow out, he found he couldn't.

A quick glance at the length of time in power of leaders around Africa is enough to tell you this isn't an isolated incident. The situation has deteriorated to the point that the Ibrahim Prize, an award intended for democratically elected African leaders who served their term in office within the limits set by the country's constitution and has left office in the last three years went without being handed out this year. The only deserving candidates have already won; Botswana's Festus Gontebanye Mogae in 2008 and Mozambique's Joaquim Alberto Chissano in 2007 while Nelson Mandela was named Honourary Laureate the same year. The prize is intended to offer financial stability as a reward for good governance ($5 million plus $200,000/year for life), after all, these leaders most likely cling to power in order to maintain the life of luxury that goes along with their status.

Meanwhile, Nigeria had seen a much quieter transition of power which is now threatening to become louder. As the elected President Umaru Yar'Adua had been incommunicado for nearly three months in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, the Nigerian parliament promoted the vice-president in order to maintain "peace, order and good government". Neither coup nor election but serendipity brought Goodluck Jonathan to the pinnacle of political power in Nigeria February 9th. Despite questions about the constitutionality of the move, the uncertainty caused by the power vacuum had become unsustainable as problems flared up throughout the country and without. With the threat of violence breaking out in the oil producing south as a tenuous truce fell apart, civil unrest in the north with ethnic clashes leaving hundreds dead and of course a little diplomatic problem involving the US with Nigerian travelers being subjected to increased scrutiny after the underwear bomber tried to blow up a Detroit bound flight on Christmas Day.

Suddenly, just before the senate met to discuss amending the constitution to clarify the transfer of power, two planes landed in the presidential wing of the airport in the capital city of Abuja under the cover of darkness. President Umaru Yar'Adua's timely return threatens to throw the entire nation into chaos. A power struggle between the two camps was already intensifying as Yar'Adua supporters grew uneasy as Goodluck's assertiveness grew. Reshuffling ministers and forging ahead with an amnesty for militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta had led to talk of a Goodluck run for the presidency in elections due April of next year. Meanwhile, the senate resolution promoting Mr. Jonathan prescribed that he would cease to be acting president once Yar'Adua stated in writing to the leaders of both houses of parliament that he had returned from "medical vacation". His return has done nothing to clear up the true state of his medical condition, only adding to the uncertainty. In addition to a chronic kidney condition, it's believed he was taken to Jeddah last November to be treated for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane protecting the heart. Incredibly, this wasn't the first episode when Nigerians were uncertain about whether their president was dead or alive. During the presidential campaign in 2007, he was rushed to Germany for emergency treatment yet he went on to win the election despite the rumors of his death. Confusion reigns while political maneuvering has bordered on the surreal; a security detail stood guard over the presidential chair to ensure the acting President did not sit on it yesterday at the weekly cabinet meeting. Who will sit in the chair next is shrouded in mystery.

While the mystery behind the origin and course of the river from which both countries take their name was eventually solved, the etymological roots of the name itself remain inscrutable. Today we know the river runs from southeastern Guinea north east into the heart of Mali past Timbuctu where it cuts hard right, south east for the Gulf of Guinea through Niger and Nigeria. This unlikely boomerang shape even confused history's greatest traveller, Ibn Battuta, who believed the river near Timbuktu was part of the Nile. This was long held to be true, as even the Roman roadmap or Tabula Peutingeriana, records a Flumen (River) Girin presumed to be today's Niger, with the remark translated "This river which some are naming Grin is called Nile by others, for it is said to flow under the ground of Ethiopia into the Nile Lake". It took unlikely named Scottish explorer Mungo Park to simply discover that the great river flowed east and not west into the Senegal at the close of the 18th century (don't be put off by the title of a great book about his trip - Water Music). We find the name cringeworthy thanks to its false, and to many, offensive association with the Latin adjective niger - black. Further corroboration seems to come from the Sudan is the plural of aswan in Arabic - black.

Yet evidence to the contrary overwhelms the common perception. The first European explorers in the area were the Portuguese, and they would most likely have named it 'Negro' or 'Preto' but didn't.
After all, the Niger is known as a 'clean' river, in that it carries a tenth of the silt of the Nile because its headlands are located in ancient rocks that provide little silt, therefore the reference cannot be mistaken for the water. Further back, the Greeks in the time of Ptolemy knew of two rivers in the area, the Gir and Ni-Gir. The Buduma, one of more than 250 ethnic groups that make up Africa's most populous country, had a word for river that may have been nijir. Others have argued the Niger shares a Semitic root with Senegal, naghar, meaning river as both rivers were often considered one and the same in the past. The most convincing argument of all comes via Tuareg, a Berber language transmitted from around Timbuctu to the Mediterranean, who called the river gher n gheren "river of rivers", shortened to ngher. Regardless, today the Niger basin is densely populated and home to the Oil Rivers, named after the palm oil once produced in the area. It's the modern petroleum pumped out now that has lead to the explosive situation in the south of the country. 

Speaking of explosive, it's the uranium found in Niger that makes sure their constitutional path has been just as uncertain as so many other African nations. Natural resource in Africa are all too often the bane of it's politics helping the wicked stay in power. It's far too common for leaders to simply change the constitution to extend their reigns and depending who controls the armed forces, they get away with it or don't. Uranium accounts for 70% of Niger's export earnings while the French and Chinese build more and bigger mines to enrich whoever has power. The wealth often goes directly to the politicians, sometimes they're caught like the Prime Minister in 2007, usually not. The people's slice is pared back until they fight back so the rulers hope their army holds the balance. Meanwhile, in Southern Nigeria, MEND (Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) rebels called off a truce January 30th, perhaps forcing the move to promote a new president, constitutionally or not, as the oil needs protecting. MEND attacks over the last few years are estimated to have retarded the production of 2/3 of the potential production (about $1 billion in revenue) of the fifth largest supplier to the US. The name problem reared it's ugly head on the oil market last week as news of the coup in Niger broke and geographically challenged traders caught wind of the story and confused it for Nigeria helping push oil over $80 for awhile.

Sometimes it seems a coup can be justified, such as when the constitution is altered by the leader simply to extend his rule. Mamadou Tandja did just that while also overseeing the starvation of his country and judging by the track record of too many African leaders he could've held on indefinitely. Gabon's Omar Bongo died last year after ruling for 42 years which made the little green book Colonel, Muammar al-Gaddafi the longest serving African leader - since September 1st, 1969. The list gets worse from there: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has been the President of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. He deposed his uncle on August 3, 1979 in a violent coup d'état, supported by 600 mercenaries licensed from Hassan II of Morocco. Rounding out the medals in third is Robert Mugabe, another who came in on a wave of optimism, only to have systematically destroyed his nation over the past 30 years. We're just waiting for them to die. Mugabe took another step as he turned 86 the other day and celebrated in the Chinese embassy in Harare, the first embassy he's visited his entire rule. Guess he likes that the Chinese spend tens of billions on resources as well as birthday cakes without any 'silly' human rights strings attached.

The coup in Niger is being denounced acrimoniously by the usual acronyms, yet it was the predictable inaction by the AU, EU, UN and ECOWAS that left the army with little choice as Tandja had suspended the constitutional court and rigged a referendum to clear the way for his perpetual installment in power. Coups can bring stable democracy, such as Mali's coup of 1991 in which leader Amadou Toumani Touré removed the blood thirsty regime of Moussa Traoré, drew up a new constitution and organized elections with return to civilian rule in a year. It's that whole organizing free and fair election thing where many stumble. Will Niger's military junta hand back power as they claim they will? While they are promising to return civilian rule, the vagueness of their claims is looking rather ominous. For every coup leader that offers a solution, there is a Bongo in the Gabon, Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, Blaise Compaoré in Burkina Faso or Omar al-Bashir in the Sudan to remind us of the perils. And those are just a few in power today, let's not even talk about Sierra Leone and of course you can't forget about Idi Amin in Uganda, Mobutu in Zaire or Abacha in, you guessed it, Nigeria.

Those who don't believe in coincidence would find much to ponder in these two stories. Since he left the country, Nigeria's political elite has been consumed by a power struggle between Yar'Adua loyalists, who wished to keep him in power, and those who argued that he was too ill to govern. His return to Nigeria closely follows on the heels of a ministerial delegations failed attempt to see the president the previous week. They were to determine the state of his health, the first step in declaring him permanently incapacitated from holding his office, but were prevented from seeing him by his doctors. If someone were to shout "olly olly oxen free" in this game of hide the president, the losers would be Yar'Adua's wife and followers. In Niger, former colonial master France has slowly seen it's grip loosened over uranium production, as agreements have been signed with Canada, Australia and most importantly, China. The coup occurred on the same day a US congressional delegation was visiting the capital of Niamey. Niger has recently moved away from the French monopoly of uranium production towards other countries such as Canada, Australia, the US, South Africa and most importantly China. The stakes are high as not only billions in investment are poured in but the Nigerien town of Arlit alone largely supplies France with the uranium required to power up the it's nuclear programme and power stations - generating almost 80 per cent of France's electricity via an estimated 59 nuclear plants. The French are denouncing the coup the loudest while the Chinese and Americans, while stopping short of voicing support, have been much more muted in their response.

It'll take a while to catch up to Abacha, after all he made it up to #4 on the modern most corrupt list having siphoned £3 billion out of the country's coffers, but the health care ain't bad either, three months in a Jeddah hospital doesn't come cheap. It isn't Nigeriens or Nigerians that the world is worried about, it's the uranium and oil. Apparently undreds of thousands in aid will keep trickling in to prevent a few of the starving from dying, but billions in graft will also be gushing out as a few reap from the rape. Niger may be little more than a hazy Dubya false claim recollection for many, but the yellowcake extraction is ramping up just as the never ending battle for resources is tilting towards China. And don't worry Nigeria, even if you've past the coup years, oil will be number one for awhile yet, so Nigeria's power struggle game of is he dead hide-and-seek will be just as rewarding.


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