A prodigal son returns

Yesterday on our way back to Bissau from the south, we were stopped at a military checkpoint and forced to empty our rucksacks. Well, empty them until the soldier got bored halfway through and told us to stop – he didn’t look at the other half.

The reason for this sudden rigour (at the same checkpoint a few days previously mentioning Manchester United was sufficient to avoid a bag check) is the return to Guinea-Bissau of General Bubu, the former head of the navy. Bubu had to flee the country 18 months ago when he was discovered plotting a coup d’etat against the then president, Nino Vieira. He took sanctuary in Gambia.

Last Monday, weary of exile, the general returned secretly to Guinea-Bissau in a dugout canoe, entering via one of the country’s many rivers. Eluding checkpoints such as the one we passed through, he arrived in Bissau, walked into the United Nations building and claimed refugee status. There he remains today.

The government wants the UN to give him up so they can try him for his crime – although Nino Vieira is now dead and Bubu claims he has come in peace, you can’t trust anyone around here, especially someone with his popularity. But the UN constitution makes handing him over impossible, so there is deadlock. All that can be done is for soldiers at checkpoints to make sure people like Bubu don’t get through in future (although checking only half of one’s bag and not asking for ID may not be failsafe). After us, the regional governor passed through the same checkpoint. His bag was searched too, and he angrily asked the soldiers why they were shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted. The soldiers, chastened, shrugged.

2009’s US news stories (and a dog that didn’t bark…)

So here’s a map of last year’s news stories in the US. The size of the box corresponds to the extent of coverage in 55 US news sources – print, TV, radio and internet – as tracked by the website Journalism.org.  (Here’s the full, zoomable high-res version.) 


Can you spot what’s missing? Answer after the jump.

Continue reading

Hotting up in West Africa

The arrest of a Nigerian national suspected of plotting to blow up a transatlantic plane is another worrying piece in the jigsaw of West African Islamic terrorism. Until a year or two ago, Al Qaeda’s presence in the region was more a rumour than a serious concern to Western governments. The group was thought to be involved in diamond smuggling during the Sierra Leonean civil war in the 1990s, and some observers believe it has profited from the heroin trade through the Gulf of Guinea.

But as recently as February this year, when I gave a talk to the UK’s Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism, the British government did not believe Islamic extremism in West Africa would coalesce into a serious threat, especially outside the region itself. Although the FCO has placed half of Mali and Niger and all of Mauritania on its list of travel blackspots, their people still seemed unruffled when I talked to them about their West Africa strategy a couple of months back.

They may be sleeping less easily now. Although Al Qaeda’s infiltration of the region remains at a fledgling stage, the arrest of the Nigerian and the kidnappings of four Spaniards and two Italians – all in the past six weeks – are an indication of the potential dangers both within and without West Africa’s borders. And the pressure that is encouraging young Africans towards extremism – the great collision between demography and poverty that is taking place against a background of inept and venal governance – is intensifying by the day.

The authorities are doing what they can. Nigeria’s police cracked down violently on the Islamist Boko Haram movement back in August, and Mauritania’s police take copies of taxi drivers’ ID cards so that they can haul in their families if passengers disappear.

But without economic development the region’s governments will be fighting an impossible war. Al Qaeda’s wealth will buy off police and army as well as luring in new recruits. It is development that people need – relevant education and infrastructure investment provided by their own governments that are responsive to them and not to donors or other vested interests, and that provide a fair enabling environment for businesses large and small; assistance from the West by means of getting out of the way of trade and migration and forcing Western businesses to behave honestly; and they also need a large dose of luck: they need leaders to emerge who have the will and courage to stop the cycle of selfishness and corruption at all levels of government and to shed the burden of aid in favour of self-reliance; and they need their neighbours to remain stable and peaceful. Only West Africa itself has the power to stop extremist violence in the long-term. As many people I have spoken to in Senegal and Guinea-Bissau realise, the rest of us can help most by clearing their path.

Peak oil, peak water… peak Christmas!

As regular readers will know, we’re always on the lookout for the latest emerging scarcity trend – so, in keeping with the seasonal mood, here’s why your Christmas tree seemed so pricey this year:

The price of trees has risen sharply for the second consecutive year because of the combination of a Europe-wide shortage and the weak pound. A 7ft Nordmann fir – the most popular variety – could now set you back between £40 and £50, up from £30-£40 in 2007.

“It’s very much a seller’s market,” says Ian Millward, managing director of Trees for Christmas, which sells about 8,000 trees wholesale each year. This year Mr Millward sold his entire stock before December 1, two weeks earlier than usual. “It’s certainly the worst shortage I’ve known. I’ve only been able to buy a finite supply of trees,” he says.

Thrillingly, it seems that falling prices a year or two ago led to a precipitous decline in investment, setting the stage for a supply crunch… just like oil!

The supply of Nordmanns from Denmark, the largest exporter of Christmas trees within the European Union, has fallen sharply since 2005 following a steep decline in prices, which caused growers to stop planting.

Peak oil, peak water, peak food… peak Christmas? 

Happily not, dear readers: in fact, there’s a silver lining in here for Britain. You may think that we don’t export much these days other than Collateralised Debt Obligations and The X Factor. But you’d be wrong:

Not only does the weak pound raise the price of imported trees, it also makes exporting a more attractive prospect for UK growers.

Britain to the rescue! The feelgood factor returns! Unfortunately, of course, in what’s probably a taste of what’s to come on the economic front in 2010, that means fewer trees available for those of us at home.

“We used to buy a lot of trees from Scotland but we just couldn’t get any from suppliers there this year,” says Richard Doubleday, owner of Sandon Garden Centre in Chelmsford. “It seems some growers sold out their stock to European buyers because they could get a better price due to the difference in the euro and the pound.”

So, it seems you can add Christmas tree growers to the National Shit List, along with bankers and MPs. Happy Christmas!

Blame China

Mark Lynas in today’s Guardian:

The truth is this: China wrecked the talks, intentionally humiliated Barack Obama, and insisted on an awful “deal” so western leaders would walk away carrying the blame. How do I know this? Because I was in the room and saw it happen.

China’s strategy was simple: block the open negotiations for two weeks, and then ensure that the closed-door deal made it look as if the west had failed the world’s poor once again. And sure enough, the aid agencies, civil society movements and environmental groups all took the bait. The failure was “the inevitable result of rich countries refusing adequately and fairly to shoulder their overwhelming responsibility”, said Christian Aid. “Rich countries have bullied developing nations,” fumed Friends of the Earth International.

All very predictable, but the complete opposite of the truth. Even George Monbiot, writing in yesterday’s Guardian, made the mistake of singly blaming Obama. But I saw Obama fighting desperately to salvage a deal, and the Chinese delegate saying “no”, over and over again. Monbiot even approvingly quoted the Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, who denounced the Copenhagen accord as “a suicide pact, an incineration pact, in order to maintain the economic dominance of a few countries”.

Sudan behaves at the talks as a puppet of China; one of a number of countries that relieves the Chinese delegation of having to fight its battles in open sessions. It was a perfect stitch-up. China gutted the deal behind the scenes, and then left its proxies to savage it in public.

Meanwhile, the FT observes, cracks are starting to appear among the emerging economies:

Cracks emerged on Tuesday in the alliance on climate change formed at the Copenhagen conference last week, with leading developing countries criticising the resulting accord.The so-called Basic countries – Brazil, South Africa, India and China – backed the accord in a meeting with the US on Friday night, and it was also supported by almost all other nations at the talks, including all of the biggest emitters.

But on Tuesday the Brazilian government labelled the accord “disappointing” and complained that the financial assistance it contained from rich to poor countries was insufficient. South Africa also raised objections: Buyelwa Sonjica, the environment minister, called the failure to produce a legally binding agreement “unacceptable”. She said her government had considered leaving the meeting. “We are not defending this, as I have indicated, for us it is not acceptable, it is definitely not acceptable,” she said.

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