Guess which is the sole UK non-profit on Iran’s blacklist?

December was a veritable smorgasbord of top 10s of the decade, top 100 foreign policy intellectuals and what have you, but now that the new year is underway, it’s clear that there’s really only one list to be seen on: the Iranian government’s new blacklist of  60 external organisations that it’s banned its citzens from being in touch with.

Some of the organisations on the list are just as you’d expect: the Open Society Institute, Freedom House, or Human Rights Watch.  Most of the big US think tanks are there, too: Brookings, Aspen, the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute. The New America Foundation’s call for a grand bargain with Iran has pissed them off so much that they put it on the list twice.

But only one UK non-profit organisation has made the cut – step forward and take a bow, Wilton Park!

Full list here.

Between a rock and a hard place

The next stage of our journey presents a dilemma. We have to get from Guinea-Bissau, where we are now, to Sierra Leone.

The overland route would be by far the most attractive option, but the violence in Guinea-Conakry, which lies between our starting point and our destination, rules it out. There is a very long overland route which bypasses Guinea, but which takes you through Liberia and Ivory Coast which, like Guinea-Conakry, are both on the UK Foreign Office’s blacklist of places to avoid (being on this list invalidates travel insurance, so if you fall ill or get shot or blown up, you will be skint as well as dead). There are no flights from Guinea-Bissau, so that leaves flying from Gambia or Dakar, Senegal as the only options (and you take your chances with West African airlines).

To get to Gambia or Dakar, however, is not easy. You either have to go by land through the Basse Casamance region of Senegal, where there has been a low-level but dangerous rebellion for years and where a 9-year-old girl was murdered by bandits a week ago and where gunfights between rebels and soldiers are common. Or you have to endure a gruelling two-day road journey east through Guinea-Bissau, up into Senegal and around Gambia to Dakar. We have done this journey once, and the idea of doing it again makes me suicidal. It too is not without risks, for the roads are atrocious and littered with overturned or burnt out vehicles.

So there is no easy option. The road up through Casamance is also on the FCO’s blacklist, although if we can make it the 18km to Ziguinchor tomorrow we can then ask in town whether it is safe to go overland up to Gambia. If it’s not safe, we can go by boat to Dakar (safeish if the boat doesn’t sink, as it did a few years ago). We have decided on the latter course, which means 18km of danger – approximately half an hour. Ziguinchor itself is quite calm and well guarded by police.

I will post again when we get to Ziguinchor. I have been reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Another Day of Life, where he got caught up and regularly fired on in the Angolan war of independence, as reassurance. This would have been a cakewalk for him.

The best news on climate change for months. Maybe.

And now for the good news on climate change. 

First, an excerpt from the New York Times yesterday.  We join Bono, a contributing columnist at the Times, as he’s setting out a list of 10 ideas that might make the next 10 years “more interesting, healthy or civil” – ideas which “have little in common with one another except that I am seized by each, and moved by its potential to change our world.” Here’s number 3:

In the recent climate talks in Copenhagen, it was no surprise that developing countries objected to taking their feet off the pedal of their own carbon-paced growth; after all, they played little part in building the congested eight-lane highway of a problem that the world faces now.

One smart suggestion I’ve heard, sort of a riff on cap-and-trade, is that each person has an equal right to pollute and that there might somehow be a way to monetize this. By this accounting, your average Ethiopian can sell her underpolluting ways (people in Ethiopia emit about 0.1 ton of carbon a year) to the average American (about 20 tons a year) and use the proceeds to deal with the effects of climate change (like drought), educate her kids and send them to university. (Trust in capitalism — we’ll find a way.) As a mild green, I like the idea, though it’s controversial in militant, khaki-green quarters. And yes, real economists would prefer to tax carbon at the source, but so far the political will is not there. If it were me, I’d close the deal before the rising nations want it backdated.

Bono just endorsed contraction and convergence – a big deal, for three reasons. Continue reading

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  (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.

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