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.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Is it all Walt Disney's fault? Maybe if we had all learned the original story of the Three Little Pigs instead of growing up with the Disney version we would know to be afraid of the big bad wolf. You see, in the original story the two lazy pigs who built their houses of straw and sticks were both eaten, whereas in the Disney version they run to their hardworking brother's house of bricks for protection. With all the talk of PIGS and Greece in the financial world today, it seems only natural to see the situation as an allegory with people, companies and nations representing the little pigs and debt as the big bad wolf.

If you haven't heard of the PIGS yet, it's an acronym for what are also known as the Club Med nations in the eurozone, Portugal, Italy (or Ireland if you listen to the Italians), Greece and Spain. All have been thrust into the international spotlight recently as their soaring debt, deficit and a slight credibility gap have been undermining confidence in the euro pushing it down from over $1.50 to around $1.35. The focus started out on Greece, but has now widened its spotlight onto Spain and Portugal bringing with it the huffing and puffing about default and the implications for the euro, a German/French bailout and good old moral hazard or an IMF rescue package and their wicked witch guidance.

Of course there's a variety of reasons for problems in the eurozone: loss of competitiveness due to eastward EU expansion, a sharp drop in tax revenue brought about by the financial crisis, lack of monetary policy options as they now don't have the option to devalue national currency - but the main problem is debt, too much of it. Yet, it's not like any of this happened at once, all three countries, plus most of the western world, have been running astronomical deficits for as long as I can remember. The IMF says that the G7 nations owed a combined $30 trillion US. So, what happened to make this a crisis? Fairy tales, like debt, have predictable story lines, so just follow the money to the beginning as we already know they end the same, night after night, empire after empire.

It's not surprising therefore that the Greek story seems a little repetitive as it parallels the events that led up to crisis 1.0 in 2008. Step one, create the illusion of stability. While the banknotes weren't issued until 2002, the euro came into being January 1st, 1999 when 11 countries took part in conversion day as rates between the euro and national currencies were irrevocably fixed. Greece wasn't one of the 11 as they failed to satisfy all the stipulations of the Maastricht Treaty. Then, as if magically, I love fairy tales, they did; becoming the 12th June 19, 2000. It's since been shown that the EU bought a pig in the poke as we learned in 2004 that total debt was over 100% and worse yet, deficits have been running well above 3% of GDP since the 90's every year except 2006. How'd they get away with it? Of course it was the big bad wolf, Goldman Sachs, and the magic of cross currency swaps.

Remember the wolf in last night's story where he created the illusion of security by bundling mortgages and other debts together, magically obtaining triple AAA ratings in order to buy cheap insurance from the AIG's of the world? Surprise! He also helped Greece to do the same thing. Much as Goldman knew they could rely on the US government to bailout corporate counter-parties due to their TBTF (too big to fail) status, sliding Greece into the eurozone ensured that the ECB (really Germany or France as direct European central bank intervention isn't allowed) would now be standing behind Greek liabilities. These days it seems the wolf also sells the building material to build our financial houses out of straw and twigs.

Cross-currency transactions are part of normal government refinancing as nations issue debt in dollars or yen, swap it for euro debt for a certain period and then exchange it back into the original currency at a later date. However, in Greece "around 2002 in particular, various investment banks offered complex financial products with which governments could push part of their liabilities into the future." Bankers devised a special kind of swap with fictional exchange rates which enabled Greece to receive a far higher sum than the actual euro market value of 10 billion in dollars and yen. Basically, Goldman Sachs secretly arranged additional credit of up to $1 billion for the Greeks disguised as a swap which didn't show up in their debt statistics allowing the books show in 2002 that the Greek deficit amounted to only 1.2% of GDP. After Eurostat reviewed the data in September 2004, the ratio had to be revised up to 3.7%. According to today's 2002 records, it stands at 5.2% (nothing compared to the 12.7% it had planned for this year). With bond maturities at between 10 and 15 years, it'll get even worse when Greece has to pay up for its swap transactions, while of course Goldman Sachs charged a hefty commission of $300 million for the deal and later sold the swaps on to a Greek bank in 2005.

In what amounted to a garage sale on a national scale, Greek officials essentially mortgaged the country’s airports and highways through a legal entity called Aeolos (god of the winds, they should of gone with Demeter to keep the pig theme) in 2001 which helped Greece reduce the debt on its balance sheet that year. In much the same way the wolf picks up the scent of a strapped homeowners forced to take out a second mortgage to pay off credit card debts, the Goldman pack has been stalking Greece to feed it's fairy tale debt habit. As late as November a team from Goldman Sachs led by president Gary D. Cohn arrived in Athens with a deal to create a financing instrument that would push Greek health care debt far into the future.

A similar deal in 2000 called Ariadne devoured the revenue that the government collected from its national lottery. Greece, however, classified those 'mythical' transactions as sales, not loans, despite doubts by many critics. The tide of fear caused by this uncertainty is now washing over other economically troubled countries on the periphery of Europe, making it more expensive for Italy, Spain and Portugal to borrow. For all the benefits of uniting Europe with one currency, the birth of the euro came with an original sin (sorry, I know mixing in biblical stuff now): countries like Italy and Greece entered the monetary union with bigger deficits than the ones permitted under the treaty that created the currency. Rather than raise taxes or reduce spending, however, these governments chose to artificially reduce their deficits by resorting to derivatives sold by and benefiting only the big bad wolf.

But are firms like Goldman really the big bad wolf? After all, they've done nothing illegal (so far, we think) and they're simply providing a service, supplying for a demand. They weren't doing anything wrong when they bundled junk debt into pretty packages, secured AAA ratings then bought insurance on default for low prices from companies like AIG. Neither was it illegal when they started selling those same securities short, causing their prices to fall and triggering massive contractual payouts from AIG when the value of the bonds fell below certain levels. They were simply playing by the rules of the game when they benefited from their timely trades and ensuing government bailouts. When will we sit up and take notice that the wolf is now as influential on the fairy tale genre as the Brothers Grimm? The same little piggy has roast beef whether the market goes up or down and the rest of us have none.

Much of that nasty debt that Wall Street bundled into pretty packages came courtesy of Main Street. Living within one's means sounds so simple; don't spend more than you can afford. Yet today's reality isn't that easy. Temptation is all around and folks need their flat screen TV's, new cars and homes to put all their stuff in. Governments play a roll here too; whether it's encouraging behemoths like Fannie May and Freddie Mac to give mortgages to people who can't afford them or offering tax incentives for people and corporations to take on debt; tax shields make corporate debt as much as 42% cheaper than equity. Individuals are able to write off all their mortgage interest, up to a million dollars, and companies can write off all the interest on their debt, but not things like dividend payments. Yet these incentives are clearly unnecessary; people will always need mortgages to buy homes, the deductions do nothing to increase home ownership while businesses already like debt as it offers leverage. The business-interest deduction, meanwhile, may lower an individual company’s taxes, but it also means that the overall corporate tax rate is higher, so its real impact is to give companies with lots of debt an unjustified advantage. So the system skews decision making in favor of debt and housing away from equity and other investment choices which magnifies risk making the economy more fragile and volatile.


Three Little Pigs from Guy Galer on Vimeo

The big bad wolf can even be re-branded; the leveraged buy-out firms of the 80's became the private equity firms of the 90's. Like the wolf in sheep's clothing though, the name change hasn't affected their modus operandi, company-flipping through debt which has squeezed the life out of any number of venerable companies and engorged many a Gordon Gecko. Sometimes they even set their sites on sports franchises. The Glazer family's purchase of Manchester United, the world's most valuable sports team, will provide a case study for future generations on how financiers enriched themselves while destroying our cultural icons. Thus far success on the field has managed to paper over the financial cracks but the creaking from the mountain of debt recently forced them to float a £500 million bond. While the demand for the bond issue was strong, it's only a matter of time until the interest payments (£325 million since the Glazier acquisition in May 2005) and the 'fees and loans' being issued to family interests sink the club. After all, you can't sell Cristiano Ronaldo to service your debt every year.

The wolf in Disney's Three Little Pigs was said to be an allegory for the Depression at the time of it's Silly Symphony 1933 release. Sadly, today's PIGS have been forced into responding to their financial woes by reducing many programs begun during that era; squeezing their people in order to keep the wolf from the door. Cutting social programs always come before financial reform or reducing spending on things like defense. Which of course brings us to the US, the Federal Reserve and it's magical printing press. Just as you fatten a hog before the feast, the US has been gorging on debt. With their 14 figure debt and $3.7 trillion deficit (yes just one year), optimistically it'll only take until 2020 for debt to reach 100% of GDP when yearly debt maintenance payments of 20% of GDP should be reached, a figure considered unsustainable.

Like a child believing this time the fairy tale will end differently, America and the neoliberal economic model are following the path of all empires. First, the ideology becomes corrupted and the believers lead us down an economically unsustainable model which inevitably forces the currency down until finally, military power loses its supremacy. Spending half of the world's total on defense every year won't help avoid the fate of the Habsburg's in Spain, pre-revolutionary France, the Ottoman and British Empires, or even the Soviets. Just google "Roman Empire economic collapse" to see how many results come up with the end of the American empire to see how most people think this story ends.

No government can ever balance their budget when the poor live hand to mouth, the working class and the middle class are mired in debt, and corporations and the wealthy can buy tax breaks and/or hide their money from the tax man in off-shore accounts. Yes, we need debt, without it we wouldn't have money apparently. Just as s a growing youth is said to have a wolf in its belly, it can quickly expand out of control; Einstein may or may not have said "compounding interest is the most powerful force in the universe". Conservatives rail against it while needing it to supply their pet projects and war machines, liberals feign concern while writing huge checks that necessitate it and all the while the balance of power in the world shifts inexorably east.

Financial regulation is the brick house that can protect us from the wolves. Having seen how their game of financial Armageddon chicken worked out in 2008 when the rest of the world blinked and handed over mountains of cash, this time the wolf has decided to stick it's snout directly into the carcass of sovereign nations. It's only America that can save herself and the financial world but she better act soon. Goldman Sachs and the gang are hunting ever bigger prey, taking an ever larger portion of the pie, living high on the hog if you will, while the rest of us make do with less. Breaking up the TBTF or limiting their size through taxation using ideas such as the Tobin tax on financial transactions is a first step. More importantly we need to change the consumption culture in which we simply make pigs of ourselves; here once again government can play a role by shifting to more consumption based taxes. If there's a moral to learn from this story it's that the only way to catch the wolf in the pot is to stop consuming more than we produce.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Waiting For Him To Die

I swear I didn't mean to turn it into a competition, but somehow that's how it was construed by two of the nastiest leaders in the world. My comparison of Stephen Harper to Robert Mugabe at the end of 2008 was meant to be a friendly reminder to Canadians of the dangers of the sheep in wolf's clothing yet both leaders have enthusiastically taken on the challenge to see who can destroy their nation the fastest. Both seem to support torture of enemies while doing nothing to free their citizens from illegal imprisonment, both are intent on ruining their country's international reputation and both use every means at their disposal to cling to power.

Most of the past year has seen Mugabe laying low in an effort to lull the world into a false sense of security that the power sharing agreement struck with Morgan Tsvangirai over a year ago was indeed working. Meanwhile, Harper has been taking bold risks in an effort to wrestle the title and had taken a slight lead in the competition in the past year. Well folks, we should have known better than to underestimate the Zimbabwean zilch as he has struck a decisive blow in his quest for the title of world's worst leader. In case you missed it, Robert Mugabe is celebrating the 10 year anniversary of the start of the destruction of the the agriculture industry through the seizure of white owned farms by implementing a law to do the same thing to the rest of the economy.

Mugabe's latest move goes by the ominous name of the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Regulations 2010. By quietly publishing the law last week, which was actually passed in 2008, the government has officially given all businesses worth over $500,000 notice that they will have to be 51% indigenous-owned. An indigenous Zimbabwean is "any person who, before the 18th of April 1980, was disadvantaged by unfair discrimination on the grounds of his or her race, and any descendant of such person, and includes any company, association, syndicate or partnership of which indigenous Zimbabweans form the majority of the members or hold the controlling interest". By April 15th, all firms, whether foreign or domestic, must submit completed official forms describing the business and showing its plan for ensuring that, within five years, indigenous Zimbabweans will own at least 51 percent of the shares. Judging by the success of such a strategy in the agriculture sector, Mugabe has essentially guaranteed the completion of the destruction of his nation.

Pity poor Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition MDC and Prime Minister for exactly a year last Thursday. Just a week ago he was in Davos schmoozing with the banking elite, extolling the investment opportunities in the new and improved Zimbabwe. He argued in speeches and interviews there that western nations should be easing sanctions on his country as a reward for the progress made and that they were on an "irreversible path to change". Of Mugabe's latest gambit on his return to Zimbabwe later in the week he stated, "I am in charge of all policy formation in cabinet and neither myself nor the cabinet were shown these regulations before they were gazetted. They were published without due process as detailed in the constitution and are therefore null and void." His words haven't had any effect on the imprisonment and torture of Roy Bennett, his nominee for minister of agriculture, during the past year either.

Even worse, imagine being finance minister Tendai Biti, also of the MDC, trying to convince foreign investors to put money into Zimbabwe. The sales pitch might go something like this: "OK, so although every $100 you put into our country instantly turns into $49, just imagine how many zeroes you'll be able to add to it once you convert into Zimbabwean dollars. Based on our inflation rate you'll be a trillionaire in no time!".

And who will be the winners of Mugabe's latest power grab? The people, as Youth Development, Indigenisation and Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere (really, that's his name and title) claimed, "It is in the interest of the people of Zimbabwe to become shareholders"? Ha! Just as in the farm seizures, the benefits will be carefully divvied up amongst Mugabe's cronies, like his cousin here. With a new constitution and election on the horizon next year Mugabe once again needs some carrots to dangle in front of his thugs who he'll need out in force during the polls to guarantee a result that will keep him president.

While the elite gorge themselves on a new source of wealth, the people have to deal with the reality of today's Zimbabwe:

  • a 70% fall in agricultural production since 2000
  • over 90% unemployment as well as the world’s highest inflation - an unfathomable ninety sextillion percent
  • a maternal mortality ratio which quadrupled from 283 per 100,000 in 1994 to 1,100 per 100,000 in 2005
  • an infant mortality rate which rose from 52 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 68 per 1,000 in 2006
  • an adult mortality rate (the probability that a 15-year-old person will die before reaching 60) which sky-rocketed from 286 per 1,000 in 1990 to 751 per 1,000 in 2006
  • life expectancy at birth which fell dramatically from 62 years for both sexes in 1990 to 36 years in 2006
Also at Davos, deputy prime minister Arthur Mutambara told reporters, "What we need to do as a government, what we needed to do as a people is to improve the investment climate in our country, we need to make sure we guarantee security of tenure, we guarantee property rights that business investments are protected  in our country." In reality, what they need to do as a government and a people is remove Robert Mugabe instead of simply waiting for him to die. Time is running out as this latest move will do to the rest of the economy what was done to farming. Once the breadbasket of Africa that even supplied markets in Europe, Zimbabweans now rely on international handouts to eke out survival. Come to think of it, the worst job would theoretically be a white minister of mining. Based on the Bennett prison beatings for the scrapings of what's left of the agricultural revenue and the the relative wealth underground in Zimbabwe to pay for the underground henchmen, it's almost lucky Mugabe has his own man there. Together, along with the ambassador to China, they'll secure Robert and Grace's diamond jubilee.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

XLIV

The Super Bowl is more than just a big game. Not only does it determine each year's NFL champion, it seems to hold a mirror up to the American soul. The sport is as bewildering to most outsiders as Americans themselves, but, there's no questioning its influence on their culture. Heroes are created, myths are born and billions of dollars are spent to help grease the wheels of the economy. 'Broadway' Joe Namath became a household name after leading the Jets to Super Bowl III while the result of the game even seems to influence the performance of the stock market and economy for the rest of the year. It also serves as a moral barometer. The nation was so outraged after 'nipplegate', when Janet Jackson had her wardrobe malfunction, that the whole concept of live broadcasting changed forever. The first Super Bowl following 9/11 featured the WTC flag being planted at midfield.We've come a long way since the first hastily organized championship that resulted from the merger of rival leagues in 1967. The upstart AFL had formed in 1960 and became the AFC, bringing new ideas and a more wide open style of play to compete against the venerable NFL, today's NFC, and the more traditional, smash-mouth game. The battle between progress and tradition has mirrored America to this day and Sunday's 44th version, matching the presidential number of Barack Obama, will be no exception as America sways to the Super Bowl's rhythm. But really, having the immaculate reception is enough, do we really need to talk about conception?

It all comes down to Sunday's match up between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints. Making their first Super Bowl appearance, the Saints will be looking to complete a story book season that many observers are paralleling with the rebirth of their post-Katrina city. Interestingly, it is thanks to the vote buying lobbying of Congressmen that the Saints even came into existence. Senator Russell Long's vote, which was necessary to obtain an antitrust waiver to allow the merger of the NFL and AFL, was purchased with the promise to locate the next expansion team in his home state of Louisiana, allowing the Saints to appear the following year. The Colts meanwhile are looking to repeat their performance from four years ago when they won the franchise's second title. On paper it's a dream final for the fans as it pits the #1 team from each conference against each other for the first time since Super Bowl XXVIII that saw my Dallas Cowboys clobber the Buffalo Bills. That's where the comparison end though as both those 90's teams had run first attacks featuring Emmitt Smith and Thurman Thomas, while Sunday's game should be a pass happy affair. The league has definitely seen a ground shift towards the pass in the last couple of years and Sunday should provide ample evidence.

The Colts quarterback Payton Manning, coming off his fourth MVP season, will be dueling it out with his opposite number on the Saints side, Drew Brees, who led the league with 33 touchdown passes. Both passed for over 4300 yards thanks to the help of an arsenal of weapons. While wide receiver Reggie Wayne rightfully gets most of the attention when the Colts are on the field, it's Haitian connection, Pierre Garcon, who I think will make the big down field plays and be a difference maker Sunday. Rookie Austin Collie proved a couple weeks ago in the Conference final against the Jets that he's also a threat while tight end Dallas Clarke always gets his looks and should be good for a short touchdown. Meanwhile, the Saints may be able to spread the ball out even more, as Brees can pick and choose between Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Lance Moore at wide receiver. Again though, I think it's the up and coming Robert Meachem who will turn in the big play for the receiving corps. If tight end Jeremy Shockey has had enough time to recover with the bye week, look for him to make a few plays too.

Neither teams backfield gets the credit they deserve as they are overshadowed by the passing attacks, yet both teams have the ability to hurt you on the ground. Joseph Addai is the featured Colts running back and took the rock to the house 13 times this year, good for 6th best in the league and he's ably backed up by rookie Donald Brown. Over the regular season the Saints running game turned into every fantasy football players nightmare - the three-headed monster. While it may not have done any good fantasy-wise, in real football it means Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and oft-injured Reggie Bush suffered less wear and tear over the year, leaving them fresher now when the games count. In fact Reggie Bush literally took over the divisional match up against the Arizona Cardinals amassing 217 all-purpose yards and scoring on an on an 83-yard punt return and a spectacular 46-yard run. Look for him to once again make the most of his limited touches.

Defense? We don't need no stinking defense! With the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens eliminated, the defenses will be an afterthought come Sunday. Damage control will be the key; neither defense will be able to stop the other team, so the winner may be the one who slows the other down just enough. Most likely though, with the two teams so evenly matched, it'll all come down to turnovers. Last week, the Saints were beaten in all aspects of the game but one, fumbleitis, as the Saints were the beneficiaries of six Minnesota Vikings fumbles and two Brett Favre interceptions. If I had to name a difference-maker for the game on this side of the ball it would have to be Darren Sharper, after all he tied for the league lead with nine interceptions. Even more impressively, he had a total of 376 return yards on those int's, oh, and he took three of them back for touchdowns!

As usual, the game will actually play second fiddle to an even bigger event for many - the Super Bowl commercials. The ability to reach a third of the American audience, around 100 million folks, most of whom having entered a salty snack and beer induced stupor that leaves them more prone than ever to propaganda techniques, leaves advertisers, and many viewers, drooling. In a year when it's become fashionable to have your commercial banned from airing by the network as a way of creating buzz, the biggest stir is being created by one that shouldn't have been accepted, starring a quarterback who's yet to even take a snap in the NFL. In case you missed it, Florida quarterback Tim Tebow will appear in a commercial during this year's Super Bowl to promote the pro-life anti-abortion cause. The ad, which is paid for by the ultra-conservative evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family, is expected to recount the story of Pam Tebow's 1987 pregnancy. She contracted amoebic dysentery while doing missionary work in the Philippines and ignored recommendations by doctors to abort her fifth child due to the associated health concerns and gave birth to Tim. Of course the story has the anti-abortionist's dream ending: Tim was born healthy, so healthy in fact that he has gone on to win the 2007 Heisman Trophy and lead his Florida Gators to two BCS championships. His daddy, a preacher himself said of his son, "I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback." Well, it seems he got a two for one.

Of course the usual suspects are lining up on both sides of the argument over whether or not the commercial should be run during the Super Bowl. Conservatives and right wingers are going goo-goo over Tebow's brave move to risk his draft position in the NFL by taking a stand on a divisive issue and CBS's decision to air it. Meanwhile, for arguing against it, many woman's groups and the left are being demonized by much of the press for their attempts to suppress free speech. Yet, the argument against its airing goes beyond the fact that we should be arguing the finer points of the game instead of an intractable issue like abortion for a few reasons.

One: Tebow and CBS have decided to align themselves with a group that openly promotes hate no matter the cost. CBS's decision to not anger the group and its leader James Dobson is almost understandable given the influence that they wield they risk alienating a large segment of the viewing population. Of course they'll possibly face a viewer backlash from anti-hate groups, but CBS has clearly 'come out' on which side they are on. Why Tebow would choose to associate with those who advocate misogyny, child-abuse and homophobia is bewildering. The Gator quarterback, who played every Saturday with biblical citations on his eye black, is being held up as an example for his bravery to make a stand despite the fact that it may cost him come NFL draft time. They could be right, add this to his slow release and skill set which many feel is ill-matched to the NFL and he could slide down the draft board, conceivably out of the first round, along with it's guaranteed millions. Well, I guess he could already be campaigning for his inevitable jump to politics.

Two: In the past CBS has banned commercials on the basis that "The network simply does not accept any advocacy advertising of any kind". Selling Coke, not beliefs. This argument was held up as the reason for not airing a commercial for the liberal-leaning United Church of Christ highlighting the UCC's welcoming stance toward gays and others who might feel shunned by more conservative churches. Even this year they banned an ad for gay dating site Mancrunch as well as a GoDaddy ad featuring an ex-NFL player who discovers his feminine side upon retirement. It's difficult not to question CBS's position reversal; are they afraid of having the game and it's latent homoeroticism linked to anything gay or are they simply choosing to support one side's political agenda?

Three: This ad continues a dangerous precedent being set by celebrities pushing their medical quackery. Suzanne Sommers giving cancer advice, Jenny McCarthey and her MMR shot leads to autism scare and now the Tebows poking their noses into women's wombs. Is it right for them to be telling a national television audience, in coded language or otherwise, that we should ignore science and pray extra hard because it all worked out for them? This is dangerous stuff. They're telling women whose lives may be at stake, to gamble with their health and roll the dice with their god. What's pro-life about that?

Four: The ad may in fact be based on an outright lie. You see, abortion has been illegal in the Philippines since 1930. I'm getting the feeling that this is all based on a feel-good goodnight story that Tim's mom used to tell him when she was indoctrinating him with her beliefs and has now somehow taken on a life of it's own. Lies have a tendency to do that. People are questioning the possibility that any doctor would have risked six-years in prison by offering any such advice. CBS will face legal action if the add proves to be misleading by not mentioning Filipino law. If this fact were to become known, there is potential for some irony here, as by promoting taking away a woman's choice, the ad may create awareness of the desperate situation faced by women in countries where they have no choice such as the Philippines.

Final score predictions? The Colts look like they'll go off as big favourites, but if I'm in Vegas I'm taking the Saints against the spread. The opening line had the Colts up by only a field goal but as the money's piled on them, it's risen to nearly a touchdown. With the over/under an astronomical 57.5, it seems we're indeed in for a shootout, a 34-31 game doesn't seem out of the realm of possibilities. Oh, the 34 will have Colts written above it giving them their second Super Bowl in the last four years. As for the Tebow ad, I'm afraid the "Celebrate Family, Celebrate Life" advocacy spot we'll be subjected to this Sunday is foreshadowing what's to come, as an onslaught of such ads has been guaranteed come election time due to the recent Supreme Court decision to loosen electoral sponsorship laws. While the nation's stadiums may serve as Sunday churches for many and the Super Bowl has become a holy day as much as a sports event, we will already be force fed a steady dose of skyward finger pointing and god-thanking speeches. The anti-choice ad has no place on Super Sunday where we expect arguments about the better team and commercials featuring talking frogs or dancing lizards but not a debate about faith and politics stirred by a proselytizing Gator.



Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Togo Travesty

The announcement coming when it did, the same weekend the African Cup of Nations champion was crowned, the Confederation of African Football (Caf) was probably hoping it would slide by unnoticed. Instead, they've managed to ensure the tragedy that befell the Togolese national football squad stayed at the top of the news headlines while Egypt fought its way to a 1-0 victory over Ghana to claim the title for the second consecutive time. In case you missed it, Togo has been banned from the next two African Cups, not for cheating or doping as you might expect, but for pulling out of the tournament after three people were killed in a half hour machine gun siege on their bus by rebels moments after as they entered Angola.

Wait, let's rewind. This year's tournament was held in Angola, a nation that has enjoyed less than eight years of peace since the end of a 27 year civil war. Among the 16 teams competing, the tiny west African nation of Togo (12 on the map) in fact boasts a relatively powerful squad. Touting a couple of English Premiership players, Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor and Aston Villa midfielder Moustapha Salifou they were unfortunate both geographically and politically in having drawn to play their group stage games in Cabinda, one of four venues for the tournament. You see, Cabinda is an exclave. Not only is it separated from the rest of Angola by a strip of the DR Congo and does it share it's northern border with the other Congo, but it's also home to the last pocket of unrest leftover from the civil war. Despite the signing of a peace deal in 2006, the nationalist movement Flec (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) has continued a low-level insurgency as it tries to claim independence from the Angolan government.

Ahh, seems I need to back up some more. Angola was plunged into 27 years of civil war from the moment it won it's freedom from Portugal in the Angolan War of Independence, itself a 14 year struggle which was only brought to an end with the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon. While all civil wars are complex, a reading of Rysard Kapuscinski's Another Day of Life would be an essential starting point in deciphering the complex web of armed faction acronyms, from the MPLA to UNITA, and supporting nations from Cuba to Zaire. It was a conflict which saw Chevron prop up a socialist regime and Cuban soldiers protecting American oil installations against CIA sponsored South African mercenaries. Fortunately for our purposes, focusing on Cabinda, only two factors need to be remembered, Flec and oil. Angola is sub-Saharan Africa's 2nd leading oil producer, with the Cabinda region producing about 60% of its total output. In fact, while diamonds furnished most of the revenue for the rebel UNITA during the civil war, it was Cabinda oil that kept the government MPLA going. Diamonds versus oil, and in the end, oil emerged victorious.

Yet Cabinda has always been more than physically separate from the rest of Angola. Even though it too had been a Portuguese protectorate since the Treaty of Simulanbuco, of 1 February 1885 (Portuguese only), the area has a distinctive culture, ethnicity and history and thus Angola and Cabinda were kept as officially separate overseas provinces. Locals were never Portuguese citizens, being labeled indigenas and forced to pay a head tax or work for the state six months of each year (p.103 gives a more thorough account). The rebel group, Flec, was not immune to the fracturing into splinter groups so common during civil war, with the result that when a peace deal was finally signed in 2006, most of the soldiers didn't feel it applied to them. While the Angolan government marketed a lasting peace, future trouble was inevitable in a corrupt environment that breeds fierce competition for the spoils of natural resources (pp.30-36 for more).

So, that brings us to the fateful day for the Togolese national team. The question is how could the team be sanctioned with suspension from the next two editions of the tournament in 2012 and 2014 and slapped with a $50,000 fine when it clearly was the fault of the organizers for having scheduled the matches in such a volatile region where warnings of possible attacks had been issued? Caf's executive committee's case seems to be based on three points. First, the Togolese team shouldn't have driven but flown; second, the team withdrew shortly before the tournament; thirdly, and most importantly it seems, there was 'political interference' in the decision to pull the team out of the tournament. The first claim rests on the organizers assertion that teams were told to fly in the regulations posted on the web site; the second on Article 78 of Caf's regulations which specifies such a punishment for teams withdrawing shortly before the competition; the third on strict policy intended to separate politics from sport. Absurd, all three.

Prior to the tournament, the team had been practicing in the Congo, in Pointe Noire. A quick look at the accompanying map (zoom in top left) will show that without strict warnings about the lack of safety, which you wouldn't expect when a major tournament is being played in the area, flying over the southern tip of the Congo, Cabinda, a bit of DR Congo (labeled Zaire on the old map) and then much of Angola to Luanda to turn around and fly back to Cabinda would seem ludicrous. As for the regulations stipulating the necessity to fly, the nearest I could find is 16.15. Satisfactory transportation means should be put at the disposal of the visiting team, the referees and the commissioner, either by road or by air if the distance is superior to 200 Km. The travel should be made on the day before the match at the latest and at a reasonable hour of the day, except if visiting team arrive late. Pointe Noire to Cabinda is much less than 200 km, besides, I don't think there was a plane waiting for the team anywhere, thus the bus ride. Additionally, it's clear that someone on the Angolan side knew they were planning on going by bus as the team was accompanied by an Angolan security force. Thanks to Google maps you can try to follow their route.

Next, while article 78 does specify punishment for "forfeit notified less than twenty days before the start or during the final competition", a quick look down the page to Articles 80 and 89 reveal that "Reserves are made as to cases of force majeure and shall be decided by the Organising Committee" - three dead and a backup goalkeeper with a bullet lodged in his spine as a result of a terrorist attack sounds like it would fit the bill. Additionally, just days before the decision to impose the penalties, Caf president Issa Hayatou was quoted as saying, "We wished they would have stayed but respect their decision to leave." Shortly after the attacks he was quoted further saying, "It is left to you to decide to stay in a competition synonymous of fraternity, brotherhood, friendship and solidarity. And in case you decide to leave the competition, we will definitely understand your decision and it will be accepted."

Point three is admittedly the stickiest. Amid the aftermath, the team wavered back and forth between going home and playing, finally holding a team vote and surprising everyone with the decision to stay. At this point however, Togo's Prime Minister Gilbert Houngbo overruled the team's decision and ordered them home, denouncing the security in Angola and sending the presidential plane to collect the squad. Technically, politics have entered the sporting realm at this point. Yet, wasn't the choice of Angola as host nation politically motivated, seen as an opportunity to develop its facilities, tourism and infrastructure - over $1 billion was spent, $600 million alone for the four new Chinese built stadiums. The decision to have Cabinda serve as a venue was even more transparently politically charged in a brazen effort to prove to the outside world that peace and stability had been achieved in the region and therefore ready for foreign investment.

The organizers miscalculation also affects politics beyond Angola's borders. The leader of the Flec movement that claimed responsibility for the attacks, Rodrigues Mingas, lives in exile in France. Tensions have arisen as the Angolan government has criticized France for not taking appropriate measures to have him extradited. Don't forget, the tournament is officially known as the Orange Africa Cup of Nations, Orange of course being a French telecommunications company. Back in Cabinda, the government is using the attack to justify a crackdown on political opponents, rounding up priests, professors and lawyers. Needless to say, the authorities don't have a very good track record of treating their detainees well. Meanwhile in Togo, presidential elections are due to be held later this month and I've got a feeling this tragedy will be an issue. It seems that politics have a way of getting involved in situations like this no matter how hard you try to avoid it.

Any other year and the whole tournament would most likely have been canceled, however, it comes in the same year that Africa will host it's first World Cup, when South Africa takes center stage for the world's most popular sport (No matter what you hear over the next few days, far more people will watch the World Cup than the Super Bowl). Somewhat ironically, 2010 also marks the African Union's Year of Peace and Security. This tournament was to serve as further proof that the continent was ready for the challenge, but it has only given ammunition to those who have questioned the decision to hold the world's biggest sporting event in 'the dark continent'; never mind that Cabinda is further from Johannesburg that London is from Moscow.

This latest in a string of bizarre decisions from football's governing authorities came down from leadership represented by Issa Hayatou, a man who symbolizes many of the reasons Africa has seen so little progress. Hayatou has been dictator president of Caf for over twenty years and it is no coincidence that the leader of his home nation of Cameroon, Paul Biya, has also been president since 1982 - José Eduardo dos Santos has been Angola's president since 1979! These type of men have been great innovators in the world of phony elections, ensuring that the cycle of corruption (you'll find Angola at 162 of 180 countries on the corruption index) and poverty will continue while they live like kings. Sport, much like oil, is a natural magnet for corruption as displayed in Angola where at least a third of oil revenue is siphoned off into the pockets of the politically connected while the people are left to suffer. At its best, football serves to bring the people of the world together, at it's worst, it serves to further the political aims of the entrenched elite.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Chilcot Chicanery

Unless you live in the UK, you might have missed the fact that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was questioned Friday by the Chilcot Inquiry. Wait, unless you live in the UK you might not have heard of the Chilcot Inquiry. Well, let's be honest, even if you live in the UK, you probably don't care, while if you were in the Queen Elizabeth II centre on Friday, you might have mistaken the questioning for a celebrity roast. After all, there's so much more important stuff happening in the world besides figuring out how your country ended up taking part in a conflict that has resulted in a couple hundred thousand deaths and cost trillions of dollars.

The remit of the Chilcot Inquiry is to consider the period from the summer of 2001 to the end of July 2009, embracing the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, the military action and its aftermath. To consider the UK's involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish, as accurately as possible, what happened and to identify the lessons that can be learned. Those lessons will help ensure that, if we face similar situations in future, the government of the day is best equipped to respond to those situations in the most effective manner in the best interests of the country. Sounds so nice, doesn't it? Noble almost - to learn from the mistakes of the past about how to behave in the future. Yet, we won't learn much, there won't be a smoking gun, instead of prosecuting politicians for committing illegal acts, a public forum has been created for Mr Blair and his kind to spread their hate, lies and deceit. Instead of fireworks Friday, we got a pop and fizzle; instead of revelations we got the seven techniques of propaganda as only Tony Blair could deliver them.

When was the last time an inquiry such as this has actually produced any results? The 9/11 Commission? The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission? The Copenhagen shenanigan? Any G-7, 8 or 20 meeting? All smokescreens, staged farces that are nothing but transfer propaganda. When public scepticism erupts in response to resultant extremes of criminality and violence that even the media are powerless to deny, the illusion must be bolstered. Somehow, these meetings still lend a stamp of some sort of approval for a good many people that something's being done, justice being served. Hopes of this were raised just two days before Blair took the stand, a bombshell was dropped by his senior legal adviser of that era, Lord Goldsmith. The counsel had changed his mind over the legality of the conflict on the eve of the invasion after being whisked to Washington for a tete-a-tete with Condaleeza Rice and US government "lawyers". (Is that what we're calling the hired muscle these days?)

Anyway, the scene was set for a showdown between Blair and the hostile inquiry members. Oh, but wait, did I say hostile? Inquisitive perhaps? At least impartial? No, on all counts I'm afraid. If I'd have said hospitable, war-mongerers, handpicked by Gordon Brown to refer to the five members I'd have been on target, which explains the easy questioning of Blair. The biggest lie of the whole inquiry came only 10 minutes into it's first session back in November when Sir John Chilcot said: "My colleagues and I come to this inquiry with an open mind." Let's quickly look at the five:

Martin Gilbert penned a piece December 26, 2004 on Blair and Bush likening them to Churchill and Roosevelt for their heroic leadership on Iraq. During the run up to war Sir Roderick Lyne was point man in deflecting Russian opposition in his role as ambassador in Moscow. Sir Lawrence Freedman wrote much of the speech Blair delivered in Chicago in 1999 outlining justifications for regime change, then later spoke of the "rather noble criteria" which lay behind the illegal invasion of Iraq in March 2003. During a Chilcot session in December he volunteered the information that he had "instigated" a pre-war seminar for Blair to discuss Iraq because, he said, "I was aware of misgivings among some specialists in Iraq about the direction of policy". Baroness Prashar, another cozy insider who also ticks the female and minority boxes, is governor of Ditchley Foundation, whose director, Sir Jeremy Greenstock was the UK Ambassador to the UN who presented the lies about Iraqi WMD. And of course Chilcot himself was part of the Butler Review whose job it was to whitewash the fabrication of evidence of said WMD's.

The biggest shock for me reading and watching the Blair testimony from Friday was how many references he made to Iran in an inquiry set up to discover the reasons for invading Iraq. You would think, as the UK's special envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East, he would be promoting what the group claims to promote, peace, instead of excusing atrocities and promoting war. "It's a constant problem for Israel, they use great force in retaliation. Before you've gone two weeks, they're the people that started it all." After saying that in the aftermath of the last Gaza conflict it should have come as no surprise to hear him hammering away using the oldest, most facile propaganda trick known to man, Name Calling. With an election on the horizon and Labour's popularity lagging, Tony's obviously decided to do his best for the team. He managed to squeeze the word Iran in 58 times over his testimony. Here's a transcript. It's even more interesting if you notice the context in which he mentions the Persian state, references to 9/11, WMD and al-Queda are peppered among his soliloquies to Iran. Blair said many of the arguments that led him to confront the "profoundly wicked, almost psychopathic" Saddam Hussein seven years ago now applied to the regime in Tehran. "We face the same problem about Iran today".

What do you do when dealt a bad hand? Well if you're Tony Blair and everything you asserted about Iraq before the war has been proven wrong, you do a little Card Stacking propaganda. This seemed to be his strategy heading in, to convince us that it's a better world thanks to the removal of Saddam Hussein as well as the inevitability of the war. "I genuinely believe that if we had left Saddam in power, even with what we know now, we would still have had to have dealt with him, possibly in circumstances where the threat was worse." More astonishingly, he was then allowed to turn questioner at his own questioning, "What if I had not invaded Iraq? Where would we be then?"

Not recognizing the astonishing insensitivity of saying such a thing in a room in which at least 20 people could have replied: "My son would still be alive today", Mr Blair went on to paint a picture of Iraq emerging blinking and frail from the darkness of despotism into the sunlight of freedom. Most Iraqis, he argued, are better off now, ignoring that the Iraq war made the Middle East less secure, emboldening Iran and making future moves to disarm Tehran doubly difficult. It debased the moral case for humanitarian intervention by undermining the authority of international law, legitimising unilateral action by imperious governments. Mr. Blair believes the end justified the means. But the methods used to take Britain to war perverted law and democracy. That was not some unfortunate byproduct of a greater moral endeavour, it was a fatal corruption of the diplomatic process that might have led to a better outcome for Iraq. The means sabotaged the end.

The 'I'm gonna puke' moment didn't hit me until I saw Teflon Tony's Plain Folks propaganda gambit. He had previously admitted in an interview that the WMD's hadn't really mattered in his decision to attack Saddam. In this exchange he tries to display that old Blair charm, instead he comes off like a double talking fool.


The out of the blue comments I'll put under the testimonial propaganda banner. Between 2000 and 2002, Blair stated: "[Iraq] had a child mortality rate of 130 children per 1,000, as bad as in the Congo... Now the figure is 40 child deaths per 1,000…" Was this a dig at the Congo for some past slight or simply an attempt to deceive? Of course the statistic fails to take into account the draconian UN blockade of Iraq, under which child mortality more than doubled between 1990 and 1999, rising from 56 per 1,000 live births in the period 1984-89 to 131 per 1,000 in 1994-99. Later, his interlocutors allowed him to answer a question about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq with a reply about military action taken alongside Bill Clinton in 1998. He was permitted to repeatedly make the claim that Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions in general and 1441 in particular when in fact they weren't.

Apparently, most people were surprised that Iran would try to destabilize post-Saddam Iraq, therefore who would have planned on that? Worse, he played on the surprise that al-Queda moved in post invasion by using the fact that most people were trying to argue they weren't there pre-invasion. Um, yeah, that's the point, the invasion gave them a foothold you pompous fool! "People didn’t think that al-Qaeda and Iran would play the role that they did. It was really the external elements of al-Qaeda and Iran that really caused this mission very nearly to fail." So, though al-Qaeda had, as Lord Blair kept reminding us Friday, "changed everything" with 9/11 and were one of the reasons why the British and Americans invaded Iraq because the Americans said Saddam had links with al-Qa'ida and might give them weapons of mass destruction, when it turned out that the links were as non-existent as the weapons, Lord Blair was surprised to find al-Qaeda turning up in post-invasion Iraq. "People did not think that al-Qaeda and Iran would play the role that they did."



Remember the 'coalition of the willing'? Well Bandwagon propaganda is and was featured in the build up to war, drumming up support, or at least attempting to convey the illusion of support. Blair's zeal as the head cheerleader of the tiny club has always been on display, and the pompoms were out Friday. Blair managed to get in some of that team America spirit at every turn, "I never regarded September 11 as an attack on America, I regarded it as an attack on us. And I had said we would stand shoulder to shoulder with them." Pressed on the subject of the April 2002 Crawford meeting with Dubya in 2002 where some have claimed he signed his name in blood for invasion, he would only admit to "I think what he [Bush] took from that was exactly what he should have taken, which was if it came to military action, because there was no way of dealing with this diplomatically, we would be with him."



Last comes Glittering Generalities, Blair's specialty, a man who obviously has no time for details, only grand gestures. Forgotten by most people today, Friday's session shed a bit of light on an intelligence report, the September dossier, which contained among other things the infamous 45 minute claim. While most American will recognize the dossier for Dubya's State of the Union claim "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa", it was this sexed up report that was used by Blair to convince his ministers and ultimately parliament to go to war. In the foreword to the dossier, Tony Blair said the intelligence shows "beyond doubt" that Saddam was a WMD threat. Not only a vague, nebulous threat, but that Iraqi forces had WMD that could be used within 45 minutes of an order being given.

Of course since then, every claim, every one, has since been proven false. Friday we heard the former prime minister lightly dismiss it by saying that the dossier "assumed a vastly exaggerated importance later". Yet it was Mr Blair, as the panel did not remind him, who invested that document with such importance by recalling Parliament for an emergency session so that he could wave it around to terrify MPs and a nation. He had been told by his own officials that the intelligence was "sporadic and patchy" and yet he represented it to the Commons as "detailed and authoritative". Asked why he had not asked essential questions about the nature of the so-called intelligence, he was allowed to escape with the insouciant shrug, "I didn't focus on it a great deal."

Many had hoped for an "I'm sorry for lying" moment but Blair obviously looked upon his testimony as a chance to road-test the defiant passages planned for the self-justificatory chapters of his memoirs. Yet, if nothing else, Blair's testimony left little doubt that his religious fervor in support of war wasn't diminished by his snap conversion to Catholithism. Sadly, he seems to embody the rule rather than the exception when it comes to his kind showing any kind of remorse or contrition for perpetrating a crime against humanity. Therefore he'll be able to back to giving economic and political advice to governments and companies such as JP Morgan through his business venture, Tony Blair Associates, as well as giving lectures across the world. This helps soothe any pangs of conscience he might feel as he's believed to have amassed a personal fortune of £15 million since leaving office in 2007, including a significant amount in the Middle East. So, much like Edith...