Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long:

Our hotel room in Ouagadougou, unlike all the other rooms we have stayed in on our trip, has a television. This allows us to watch the celebrations marking fifty years of Burkina Faso’s independence, which are being held on a football field in Bobo-Dioulasso. Blaise Compaoré is the guest of honour.

Compaoré has ruled his country for much longer than the man he replaced, but he remains a sullen, unloved figure. Sankara has streets named after him in African capitals, with pilgrims trekking to his grave from all corners of the continent. Compaoré, on the other hand, inspires only suspicion and fear; like a stepfather replacing an adored father, he has never gained his people’s affection.

In the first months of his presidency he attempted to mend fences. He disarmed Sankara’s revolutionary committees, legalised political parties, and declared an amnesty for political prisoners. Still he was not trusted, however: he had too much blood on his hands. Realising that he would not win any popularity contests and that holding fair democratic elections would therefore leave him vulnerable, he tightened his grip on power by other means. The media was silenced, rivals locked up or executed, ballots rigged, and opposition parties ground into insignificance. When he stood unopposed for election in 1991, three-quarters of his countrymen abstained from voting.

On the television, a soldier presents his president with the Burkinabe flag – the flag Sankara designed – while the master of ceremonies tells the audience of seated dignitaries that the red half of the flag symbolises the blood spilt for the freedom of the country. Compaoré, balding but still physically robust, looks humble, almost shy as he joins in the singing of the national anthem (which Sankara composed on his guitar). Dressed in a dark suit, crimson tie and polished black shoes, he steps up to a podium to deliver his speech.

 

It is not easy being an African dictator. Attaining and then holding onto power require resourcefulness, cunning, patience and endurance. You can never drop your guard, must never lose sight of your single overriding imperative of clinging to office. All your energies – your entire existence – must be permanently focused on this. It is an exhausting choice of career.

To acquire power, you first need to gather around you a loyal band of supporters. You can start with family members, but as you rise through the ranks in the army or the political party you will need to branch out. Colleagues who admire your charisma and respect your obvious leadership qualities will be your first port of call. You will need to grease their palms from time to time, either with financial rewards or promises of high office when you reach your goal (be especially generous with military officials, whom you will rely on to stage your coup d’état). To obtain the financial rewards and to bolster the long-term solvency of your project, take the time to garner the favour of a handful of wealthy businessmen; you can repay these benefactors with public works contracts once you have your hands on the national purse.

You will need support in the wider population, too. It is possible to lead a country without universal popular backing, but with no support at all from your citizenry you will be defenceless when rivals move to unseat you. You turn, therefore, to the people from your village, your town, your tribe. You promise them that you will give them jobs when you assume power, and in the meantime you must give them sweeteners – food, cash, land or assistance in resolving disputes.

To really make certain that your push for glory will prevail, you must obtain the sponsorship of a Western power, for only they can provide the financial muscle that will guarantee your success. During the Cold War this was easy. However incompetent, corrupt and bloodthirsty you were, however many of your innocent fellow citizens you tortured and murdered, as long as you claimed to be fighting off the communist tide or resisting the capitalist oppressor you could count on financial and military aid from the United States or the Soviet Union. This option is now closed off, although perhaps with the growing presence of the Chinese in Africa it might one day open up again.

Today your best hope is the former colonial power. France in particular is happy to support dictators in return for influence, business contracts, and access to your country’s natural resources. The Ministère des Affaires Etrangères has been a steadfast ally to a panoply of West African dictators, from the mad cannibal Jean-Bédel Bokassa to the kleptocratic Omar Bongo and Félix Houphouet-Boigny. France has even supported dictators whose countries it never colonised, propping up ruthless tyrants like Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea and the doyen of all despots, Mobutu Sese Seko, who while appropriating two-thirds of Zaire’s national budget for his “discretionary spending” openly advised members of his party not to steal too much at once but to ‘steal cleverly, little by little.’ Most of these men (including Blaise Compaoré, who quickly turned his back on the austerity of the Sankara years) have villas in the south of France, palaces in the Parisian suburbs, and penthouse apartments in the City of Light itself. They have fleets of Mercedes and Bugattis to ferry them around when they visit the metropolis. As a budding dictator you have all this to look forward to, and you can count on the French to assist your rise with money and arms, confer legitimacy by recognising your government, and help you quash opposition once you have attained the presidency.

Now that you have the French, your tribe, a few wealthy businessmen and a cadre of military and party colleagues onside, you are ready to make your push for power. In West Africa coups d’état are often bloody. Your opponent will not go down without a fight, so you must be ready to use extreme violence. If you do not eliminate him outright, you must at least force him into exile, preferably after seizing his assets (while Charles Taylor’s rebel soldiers were relieving Samuel Doe of his ears, they yelled at him to give them his bank account numbers). When he is gone, to nullify the risk of a counter-coup you must immediately purge his followers. Siaka Stevens executed dozens of potential rivals during his first few years in power, and Nino Vieira and Compaoré himself were quick to do likewise whenever they smelt a conspiracy brewing.

Once you are ensconced in office, your travails intensify, for you must always be alert to the threat of sedition. This danger is real, your paranoia fully justified. From the 1960s to the turn of the millennium, three in five African leaders ended their rule in a coffin or in exile. ‘I expected a coup any day,’ said the former Nigerian dictator Ibrahim Babangida. ‘From day one I was there, I knew that somehow, some day there would be a coup. Because we took it by force, somebody is going to try and take by force.’ You will need eyes everywhere – in the villages, in the cities, among your friends and close colleagues, even within your own family – to protect you against usurpers.

While you are watching your back, you must not take your eye off your supporters. Now that you are president, their expectations skyrocket, and you must continue to slake their thirst. The French demand mining contracts and free rein for their businesses. Your military colleagues expect promotion and power (you will have to create new positions, new battalions, to give each of them the status and access to national funds he requires). Nor must you forget your tribe and your village. They are your rock, the critical mass which will give you the numbers you need to fend off rebellions or popular revolt. You need them to love you, everybody else to fear you.

To satisfy these grassroots followers you must first provide them with a source of income. This is likely to mean expanding the government bureaucracy to create jobs. This makes your administration less efficient, but by increasing the number of hoops citizens and businesses must go through to accomplish anything, it also multiplies the opportunities for your supporters to extract bribes. Further demonstrations of your largesse will come in the shape of grand projects in your home community. The Ivory Coast dictator Houphouet-Boigny built the world’s largest cathedral in his provincial hometown of Yamoussoukro. Compaoré has opened a wildlife park in the grounds of his palace in the dusty backwater of Ziniaré, and has drawn up plans to relocate the country’s main airport there from Ouagadougou. The town, unlike those around it, has schools, a hospital, and numerous development projects, all in the service of cementing its inhabitants’ loyalty to their leader.

Although your task as a dictator is never straightforward, however, neither, as many of your predecessors have shown, is it impossible. There are a number of advantages to pursuing your choice of career in Africa as opposed to a less benighted part of the world. Chief among them is the weakness of your subjects. The masses are too poor, too hungry and too busy finding food to eat each day to plot rebellion; they are uneducated, and therefore easy to manipulate once you gain control of the media (Compaoré’s first act after dispatching Sankara was to take over state radio); and they are accustomed to repression – to them, one despotic leader resembles another (Western governments take a similar view, and exert only half-hearted pressure for you to step down).

The weakness of your country’s economic and political institutions is another blessing. The business sector, for example, is undeveloped, and laws to protect its assets nonexistent – this makes it easy for you to appropriate your nation’s natural resources to enrich yourself and your cronies. The authority of chiefs was hollowed out by colonialism, making it easier for you to centralise power in the capital. And political parties, if they exist at all, are often mere husks, vehicles for their leaders to amass wealth and furnish the demands of their supporters; they are in no position to stop you plundering state finances and siphoning off foreign aid. You can use the fruits of your pillage, indeed, to guarantee their silence. They will happily comply, for their people must eat too: Compaoré’s own coalition contains more than thirty other parties.

That you are not alone is a further advantage bestowed on you by your continent. Once you have established a reputation as an effective custodian of power, your fellow dictators will rally to your cause. Charles Taylor gave Compaoré conflict diamonds from Sierra Leone, and received weapons and men for the RUF invasion in return. Compaoré also befriended Libya’s Gaddafi and Gambia’s Jammeh, who claims to be able to cure AIDS (but only on Thursdays). The late Houphouet-Boigny gave the Burkinabe leader his daughter’s hand in marriage. If a rebel group somehow manages to elude your all-seeing eye and make a grab for power, you can usually count on your neighbouring despots to help you extinguish the threat.

Solidarity with your peers is essential, for like them you are in this for the long haul. This job, once embarked upon, is for life. Even if you weary of spending all your time smoking out opponents and attending to supporters’ needs, even if all the extrajudicial executions and betrayals of close friends finally breach your psychological defences and envelop you in guilt, it will be impossible for you to step down. Your power is a prison. If you allow someone else to take the reins, your life will be at his mercy – in the unlikely event that he does not send you to the gallows or the firing squad, at the very least he will target the assets you have so patiently accumulated.

But let us imagine that you can be sure of your survival, perhaps after reaching an agreement with your successor to stand down in return for being left alone. Maybe then you can fade peacefully from the political scene and slip into a quiet retirement. But wait! You cannot! You have forgotten the most important thing! If you step aside, what will become of your villagers, your tribespeople, your long-standing political and military allies? They will all be cast out onto the street, penniless. You cannot do this to us, they will say, an appalled look on their faces, their palms upturned in a pleading gesture. After all we have done for you! This is Africa – you have obligations. You cannot just turn your back on your people! Did your venerable ancestors bring you into the world for this? To spit on us, to betray those who gave you everything? No, you must stay the course, they agree, nodding sagely, the wisdom of generations on their side. We are in this together. You have no choice. You wanted power, we put you in power, and in power you must remain.

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

As the anniversary celebrations in Bobo reach their climax, Blaise Compaoré concludes his speech. It is possible that my imagination is deceiving me after spending the past few days thinking about Sankara, but I detect in his successor a great, crushing sadness. His eyes, sloping down at the outer edges, look careworn, lacklustre. His shoulders are slumped, his brow furrowed. His speech, fluent but turgid, has merely gone through the motions, its repeated references to ‘solidarity’ and the Revolution containing none of the vigour and excitement that filled his predecessor’s proclamations. Compaoré is in the process of amending the constitution to allow himself to stand for yet another five-year term in office. If he finishes that term, he will have ruled Burkina Faso for thirty-three years. Thirty-three years of looking over his shoulder, fielding demands, nurturing loyalty – thirty-three years in a jail of his own making. As I sit there watching the speech in my new Thomas Sankara T-shirt, I cannot suppress a pang of sympathy for the late revolutionary’s nemesis.

Continue reading

Bruce Jackson: the man who took NATO east

Bruce-Jackson-DELFI-Photo-by-K.-ČachovskisThis is a piece I wrote 11 years ago for this crappy financial magazine I used to work for. The piece is good though. It’s about Bruce Jackson, an American spy-banker-arms-dealer-policy-wonk, who helped lobby for the eastern expansion of NATO in the 90s and Noughties. I thought I’d post it here considering this week’s NATO conference on further eastern expansion and Russia’s response. The piece was written in 2003, in the middle of the second war in Iraq.

IT WAS THE deal of the year in central and eastern Europe – not a sovereign Eurobond, a corporate high-yield issue or an IPO, but a transaction that emerged from the heart of the military-industry complex. It was the biggest debt financing of the year – a $5.5 billion off-balance-sheet deal arranged by JPMorgan and guaranteed by the US government. You haven’t read about it, because it was to finance Poland’s acquisition of 48 F-16 military aircraft from Lockheed Martin.

That deal was signed in March 2003. The same month it went through, Poland agreed to send about 3,000 troops to Iraq. Euromoney spoke to a banker involved in the syndication of the financing. “We understood what the deal was,” he said. “The US government finances the deal at good rates. In return, Poland supports the US in Iraq.”

Every other eastern European country that has either recently joined or is waiting to join the Nato military alliance also supports the US campaign in Iraq, leading US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to praise the birth of “new Europe” and French president Jacques Chirac to tell these countries to shut up.

Man of influence

The figure at the centre of all these events is someone you probably haven’t heard of, but who wields extraordinary political influence in the region – Bruce Jackson. He is a Washington neo-conservative, a member of the Project for the New American Century, and friend and colleague of other prominent neo-conservatives such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century.

A former investment banker, he’s also president of a private NGO called the US Committee on Nato, one of the most influential in eastern Europe. He has also headed a neo-conservative think-tank called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. And he’s a former vice-president at Lockheed. Is he the military-industrial complex conspiracy figure par excellence?

Jackson, through his work for the NGO, has done more that anyone else to get eastern European countries into Nato. First, he lobbied hard in Washington to get the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland invited in 1999. He advised the heads of these states on how to reform their military forces and civil societies so as to get the invitation, and testified in their support to the US Senate committee on foreign affairs.

In the past two years, he has been equally active in getting most of the other eastern European countries invited to Nato. He has travelled relentlessly, meeting heads of state and foreign ministers in every eastern European country, advising them on how to reform, and helping, this year, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to get invitations to join Nato.

None of the accessions was by any means inevitable. It took vision, will and hard work. Jackson recalls: “When we started in 1995, around 70% of editorial boards and 80% of think-tanks were on the record as being opposed to Nato expansion. There was concern Russia would go ballistic if we did expand Nato east. So effectively people were suggesting we do another Yalta, and sacrifice the region to Russia’s interests. So it took us considerable amounts of work. We organized well over 1,000 meetings with senators and Congress. By 1999, we won 89% of the vote. With the second round, almost all the effort came from the countries themselves, trying to accelerate their own reforms and not be left out.”

The fact that in 1995 so many in the west were against Nato expansion makes it all the more remarkable that one man, apparently operating in a private capacity at an NGO he set up, should have had such an influence. As one diplomat in the region says: “All these countries getting into Nato – this was Bruce’s work. He’s a real player in this process.” Continue reading

The six fathers of ISIS

(As defined by Ziad Majed and abridged by Amir Ahmed Nasr in this excellent post):

ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.
1. ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.
2. ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.
3. ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.
4. ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).
5. ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.
6. ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

Ahmad Nasr also adds the observation that:

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the  Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviours of local authoritarian actors.

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) – Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked – so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!

Patching Up Nigeria’s North-South Divide

In the post-colonial period, African politics has tended to look something like this (as excerpted from my book on West Africa, The Ringtone and the Drum):

The French anthropologist Emmanuel Terray, drawing on his experience in the Ivory Coast, identified two distinct but parallel systems of government in Africa. The first is the world of the air-conditioner. This system, which is inspired by the Western style of government, gives off an impression of bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency. It is a world of presidents, constitutions, parliaments and laws, and speaks the language of democracy, development and modernisation. It pertains to certain places and certain hours of the day, to ‘office hours (as long as one defines these relatively flexibly),’ to government buildings made of cement and steel and glass, to presidential palaces and airports with VIP lounges, to ‘glorious official soirées in illuminated gardens.’ While the air-conditioner hums in the background, the leader, in his three-piece suit and tie and speaking in fluent metropolitan French or the smooth American burr favoured by Charles Taylor, announces grand development plans to his spellbound foreign backers: hydroelectric dams, a new motorway, airports, universities – the appurtenances of a modern state. He promises elections free and fair, and looks businesslike, not awestruck, when he takes his seat at the United Nations.

But much of this is display. As Terray observed, the principal function of the world of the air-conditioner is not to govern, but ‘to show, particularly to the outside, that the country works, that it holds rank in the concert of nations’ (recall the Sierra Leone government’s gift to Haiti’s earthquake victims, and its explanation that the country needed to play its part as a member of the international community). The serious business takes place not here, but amid a second world, the world of the veranda. This is a world of palavers under baobab trees, of sharing what you have, of the impenetrable African night, of obligations – personal, not bureaucratic, obligations – to your ancestors and your community; a world, at its most extreme, of human sacrifices in sacred forests. For our leader’s real concern is not democracy, nor the provision of services to his nation, nor that nation’s prosperous future. His real concern is in meeting his obligations to his narrow band of supporters, in feeding them in the here and now so that they will sustain him in power. This second system acts as a brake on the pride and greed of the Big Men, who are allowed to enrich themselves only if part of the material and political booty they accrue is generously redistributed. Like Gulliver tied down by the Lilliputians, Terray noted, the Big Man is ‘far from being entirely the master of his choices.’ As long as he produces the goods, the little people will sing his praises, vote for him, pass on rumours and render him other services. But if he fails to deliver, and to keep delivering throughout his time in power, they will jump ship. It is a tit for tat relationship, which requires the leader to be permanently on his toes.

Some countries may have moved away from this model in recent years; a few may even have been blessed with leaders who attempt to govern for all their people. On the ground, however, this is how African governments continue to be perceived – their reputation for cronyism has yet to be shaken off.

And perception is important. In Nigeria, which has been no exception to the above rule, the perception of many people is that the informal system of rotation of the presidency between northerners and southerners that had prevailed since 1963 has been broken. It may or may not be a coincidence that the murderous activities of the northern terrorist group Boko Haram, which some influential figures believe pose an existential threat to the country, ratcheted up after the accession to the presidency of Goodluck Jonathan in 2010. Jonathan, a southerner, succeeded the northerner Umaru Yar’Adua when the latter died after just three years in office. The informal rotation had hitherto seen the eight-year tenure of a northerner followed by a roughly similar period in charge by a southerner, but Jonathan’s victory in the 2011 election meant that by the end of his term southerners would have been in power for thirteen of the previous sixteen years. That he plans to run for re-election in 2015 has exacerbated northerners’ concern.

Northern Nigeria already lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north, school attendance is lower, and infant, child and maternal mortality rates are all much higher than in southern states. With a northern president in power in a patrimonial polity, northerners at least had the hope that they would have their “turn to eat” every few years. Without that reassurance, even in the unlikely event that the gulf between north and south does not continue to widen, many northerners’ perception is that they have been cut loose, and that the ‘material and political booty’ accrued by presidents will now be the exclusive preserve of southerners.

There are a number of measures that must be taken to quell the growing anger of the north, but in a country that threatens, as Foreign Policy magazine has recently put it, to ‘come apart at the seams’, political representation is among the most important. While it waits for leaders that govern for the many rather than the few, or for institutions that force them to do so, formalising the regular geographical rotation of presidents by enshrining it in the Constitution (thereby obliging the major parties to abide by it in putting forward candidates) may help narrow Nigeria’s north-south divide. In an ideal world this would not be necessary – leaders would take into account the interests of all their countrymen and distribute resources equally. But Nigeria is not an ideal world. The north-south divide has been accentuated by the long rule of southern presidents, and has helped bring about the emergency the country is facing. Formalising the rotation of the presidency is only a patch on a wound, but it may be a necessary one for northerners again to feel that they have a future as Nigerians.

What’s wrong with Geneva?

The BBC website has a rather breathless piece about the joys of Geneva today, declaring that “a cosmopolitan city known for diplomacy (and watches), is now gathering steam as a business and corporate hub.”  It suggests that the city’s reputation as a diplomatic center, hosting innumerable UN offices, is a big plus for its overall appeal:

“Business travellers like to come to Geneva because of the extensive presence of international organisations,” said Van Beurden, the manager of business development at the Crowne Plaza Geneva hotel. “This brings global movers and shakers, both commercial and political, to one small place. That’s why we see international companies investing in offices and headquarters here to be close to these decision makers and financial institutions.”

By pure chance, I have also just published something about Geneva for the Politico Magazine:

There are lots of fun things to see in Geneva. There’s the Jet d’Eau, a 140-meter-high waterspout. There are the Alps. And, if you are especially lucky, there is John Kerry.

The U.S. secretary of state has visited the Swiss “city of peace” five times since he took office in February 2013. It’s far from his most frequent destination. His website records 11 trips to Tel Aviv alone in the same period as part of his doomed effort to revivify the Middle East peace process. Yet Kerry’s appearances in Geneva have played an outsized part in his efforts to save Syria, strike a nuclear deal with Iran and forge a strategic partnership with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov.

The city has thus served as the backdrop to Kerry’s effort to bring to heel an increasingly unruly world through his personal diplomacy. He sometimes seems more at home there—or in other historic centers of European diplomacy, like London and Paris with their ornate foreign ministries—than at the dowdy State Department in Foggy Bottom.

This year, Kerry’s diplomatie genevoise has started to go awry, with talks on Syria and Ukraine flopping. The Swiss backdrop can hardly be blamed for these failures—and the Swiss government has in fact done Kerry a huge service by directing European mediation and monitoring in Ukraine, keeping a lid on the crisis. But the secretary of state’s attachment to Geneva points to deeper flaws in how he views the world.

So what’s wrong with Geneva?  Read the rest of the piece here.