2018: Not Such a Good Year (Africa)

Africa  Peaceful protests in 15 of Sudan’s 18 provinces against the kleptocracy of Omar al Bashir persisted in Sudan for 10 days, definitely about high prices and probably about three decades of corruption.  He responded with police and army killings, beatings, tear gas, mass arrests and death squads, calling the protesters from all sectors of society including doctors ‘foreign stooges and infidels’, and throwing the opposition leader into jail for good measure.  The President is a soldier who took power in a military coup, is indicted for genocide in Darfur by the International Criminal Court (the only serving head of state to have been charged with crimes against humanity), and is said to have US$9 billion in London banks.  It sounds like the plot of a Sacha Baron Cohen movie.  Unfortunately not.

An under-reported battle kept on in the Sahel, with French boots on the ground fighting IS and Al Qaeda affiliates along the Niger River, alongside the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping mission and increasing expenditure by America.  Well explained by the BBC here. There are many reasons to wish that the French will succeed, and to be grateful to France for risking mass boots on the ground in such a difficult theatre of war. First, there is otherwise a risk of a new Caliphate being declared by the nutjobs who set one up for a while in Iraq. Second, I’d really like to attend the Festival au Desert, and get back to Timbuctoo, one of my favourite towns.

The best news story of 2018 happened in one of my favourite countries, Ethiopia, which I visited in 2009.  The changes are big news because there are 110 million Ethiopians, and the population is growing at the rate of about 2.5% a year.  Things were pretty dire in both Eritrea and Ethiopia for a while, with appalling government and human rights abuses in Eritrea (the country has never had an election) and poor human rights observance indeed in Ethiopia.  For a start, they were at war; things were pretty tense up in Axum, home of the Ark of the Covenant (though no one is allowed to look at it …).  And man was that a grotty war.  I tell you, I have never met a people as touchy about another country as the Ethiopians, who are collectively apoplectic about becoming a landlocked country upon the independence of Eritrea.  The French and the Algerians are nothing compared to this.

But then this guy called Abiy Ahmed came to power after the last PM resigned following what the press describes as ‘ethnic unrest’ in the west of the country, where Oromia is.  That violence has uprooted and displaced nearly 3 million people.  He is, helpfully, a child of a Christian and a Muslim, himself a Pentecostal, as opposed to an adherent of the very dominant Ethiopian Orthodox Church (so he should get along famously with Scott Morrison).  It was a decent position he inherited: his ruling coalition (the rather wonderfully named Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front) has every seat in the parliament (but he’s promised proper elections in 2020) and it has held power these last 27 years.  He is of the majority Oromo people who have not traditionally been well represented in government, but importantly speaks Tigrinya, the language of the minority Tigrayans who have had disproportionate power (as well as the urban lingua franca Amharic, English and, naturally, Oromo).  He has a pretty good CV: fought against the Marxist Derg, has a doctorate of peace and security, and a masters of transformational leadership, Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, cyber security tsar then briefly science and technology minister.

In a strongly patriarchal country which is nevertheless full of strong, educated women, half his cabinet, including the Defence Minister and the Minister for Peace are women. The latter oversees the federal police, the intelligence services, and the information security agency.  He nominated a female president and head of the Supreme Court.  He invited a dissident whom his government had jailed for 18 months back from exile in the US to head up the country’s electoral bureau.  He released the political prisoners, freed up the press, embarked on an anti-corruption campaign.  He’s 42 years old (as I said at the start of this extensive review of 2018, I’m beginning to feel old), five years younger than Canada’s Justin Trudeau, but four years older than New Zealand’s Jacinda Adern.  He’s the youngest leader on the continent.  Troublingly, he did go on to arrest a human rights lawyer.  Whether all these reforms, which include a kind of truth and reconciliation commission to deal with ethnic grudges, can succeed in bringing peace and prosperity to the nation is an open question, but I wish him and his government all the best.

One undoubted achievement was the ending of the 20 year war, the first phase of which was described in Thomas Keneally’s Towards Asmara, with ‘the North Korea of Africa’, as the BBC describes Eritrea.  Napalm was dropped into crowded markets in that war.  Hundreds of thousands of people died, 70,000 between 1998 and 2000 alone. Ethiopia reversed 15 years of policy by agreeing to accept the determination of a border commission set up under the auspices of the International Court of Arbitration, so that Eritrea takes possession of the disputed land. Tigrayan people on both sides of the border were separated from family like India after Partition and like the peoples of the Koreas. There were no telephone lines connecting the two countries. You could not fly from Addis Ababa to Asmara, and you certainly could not cross the land border. Now, the two nations maintain embassies, and a craziness in international relations has been resolved.

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