No power? No computers? No smartphones? No problem. Blogging by blackboard in Liberia

How a Liberian uses low-tech to solve his community’s information deficit:

Many people in the West African city of Monrovia can’t afford to buy newspapers or electricity to access the internet, so Alfred J Sirleaf had to come up with a way to bring information cheaply to the people. He believes a well-informed people are the key to Liberia’s rebirth so he’s been providing valuable news every day on a huge blackboard in the centre of town. For local news, he relies on a team of volunteer reporters who come to him with stories, while for international events he goes to an internet cafe. Then, in the newsroom, a small wooden shed attached to the back of his blackboard, he updates The Daily Talk with chalk.

Via The New Zealand Herald

Sympathy for the Devil: Charles Taylor and his Apologists in the West

Photo: BBC

Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was last week sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a man with many enemies. As a warlord, he would have expected nothing less – only the most insane of his ilk expect to be universally popular, and whatever else he may be accused of, Taylor’s sanity has never been called into question.

He dispatched his first important foe, his predecessor as Liberian leader Samuel Doe, within a year of beginning the rebellion that would lead him to the presidency. As his army rampaged towards the capital, they gained notoriety for the brutality of their methods – cutting off limbs, enslaving women and boys, torturing children and eating the flesh of their enemies were all on the menu, all endorsed by Taylor. With Doe out of the way, his swansong a home-video recording featuring Taylor’s men slicing off his ears as he begged for mercy, the young warlord then turned on enemies within his own group, precipitating a further six years of civil war. His efforts led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the physical and psychological maiming of many more, but he has been tried for none of his actions in his homeland.

Taylor did not delay long in internationalising his list of enemies. Sierra Leone’s government had played host to a West African intervention force that was set up to end the bloodshed in next door Liberia. Taylor retaliated, pledging that the people of Sierra Leone would “taste the bitterness of war”. As his trial found, he lived up to his promise by providing financial and operational support to Sierra Leone’s rebel army as it murdered, raped and pillaged its way around the country, as well as planning the horrific 1999 assault on Freetown that was the war’s nadir. Among the atrocities committed in the latter attack were the mass rape of students at the college of nursing, the torture of patients in their hospital beds, the use as human shields of those the rebels had enslaved in the hinterland, and the throwing of live children into burning houses. Taylor’s conviction was celebrated on the streets of Freetown – the words of Musa, an informal medicine seller, who told me in 2010 that ‘Charles Taylor was a wicked man,’ encapsulating the views of many of his compatriots.

But it has not all been isolation and ostracism for Taylor. Throughout his life, he has been able to count on a significant network of friends. Not all of these are the type of friends you would expect to find in the circles of a warlord. Continue reading

Lifting the lid on the drug trade through West Africa

A trial that has just got under way in New York looks likely to provide some interesting insights into how South American drug traffickers are going about their business in West Africa, which for several years now (as detailed here and here) has been used as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe and the US.

A prosecution witness in the trial has claimed that Fumbah Sirleaf, son of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, agreed to pose as a corrupt official (not too difficult a disguise for most West African politicians) to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation.

As the Canadian Press reports, Sirleaf and a colleague allegedly met a pair of Colombians representing a South American drug trafficking organisation, and extracted from them a promise to give them $1m and 50 kilos of cocaine in return for letting them use Liberia as a hub. ‘What these defendants did not know,’ said the witness, a DEA agent, ‘was that Liberian officials had not put their country up for sale. The Liberians had been pretending to be corrupt.’ Sirleaf recorded the conversations with the Colombians, and handed the tapes to the DEA. Defence lawyers say their clients were entrapped. Watch this space for updates.

Gaddafi: ‘Championing a United Africa’

This piece from yesterday’s Africa Review contains much that is spurious. That coalition forces are ‘taking their lead from the US,’ that Libya will become ‘a basket country’ after Gaddafi goes, that African leaders see Gaddafi as a ‘benevolent godfather,’ and that in the Ivory Coast there is ‘little difference’ between Gbagbo and Ouattara are all at the very least arguable.

But these claims pale into insignificance compared with the article’s overarching point, which is that the West wants to remove Gaddafi because he is a ‘dangerous African likely to cause a united front against neo-colonialism in Africa.’ According to the Africa Review, the kindly dictator ‘identified himself with sub-Saharan Africa, championing a united Africa and showing the continent how if they formulated a collective vision, they would be able to stand on their own feet.’

The basis for this claim is unclear, for when one thinks of Gaddafi and sub-Saharan Africa, unity and self-reliance are very far from the first things that spring to mind. Was Gaddafi championing a united Africa when he armed Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, enabling them to kill tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans and maim, rape and torture many more (even Taylor’s defence lawyer at the Hague has asked why Gaddafi is not in the dock)? Was he formulating a collective vision when he sent Libyan troops to help the mad cannibal Idi Amin crush a popular uprising, or when he gave Amin arms to massacre sub-Saharan Africans in northern Uganda? Was he helping Africans stand on their own feet when he sent weapons to a rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now on trial for war crimes? The list goes on and on; with friends like these, as sub-Saharan Africans reading the Africa Review must surely be asking themselves as they splutter over this morning’s cornflakes, who needs enemies?

Land grabs meet climate policy

Very interested to see the news today that City of London police have “arrested the director of a Merseyside-based business in connection with an alleged plan to pay Liberian officials $2.5m (£1.7m) in connection with land concessions the company hoped would earn it more than $2bn”.

The thousand-fold disparity between what the British company was planning to pay and what it hoped to earn is obviously astonishing (and that’s before we take into account allegations that the Liberian government would apparently have been liable for making up any shortfall against the project’s anticipated earnings). It all brings back to mind the case of Daewoo’s disastrous attempt to lease one half of Madagascar’s arable land back in March last year – Global Dashboard coverage of that here.

This would appear to be landgrabbing at its worst: the host country gets screwed on the terms of the deal thanks to weak negotiation capacity and/or naked corruption, and poor people get few if any benefits (as well as the risk of getting turfed off community land that they may have had access to for years, but without having the formal ownership rights).

But two things are new and interesting this time round. First, the fact that this land grab is not about staple crops, nor about biofuels, but about carbon credits – specifically, forest credits for avoided deforestation, that can then be used by EU states or other Kyoto signatories to meet their emission targets.

As the FT observes this morning, the global carbon market is now worth $144 billion annually. That’s $20 billion more than total global aid flows. As the carbon market grows, we’ll see more and more problem cases like this – as David and I predicted in our scenarios (pdf) for future climate policy last year. The fact that land grabs are now taking place for carbon sequestration as well as crops and biofuels also underlines just how many different land uses are now competing for the world’s soil – expect this one to run and run.

The other novelty here is the fact that the deal led to an arrest on bribery charges. Land access deals tend to be opaque at the best of times – I’ve been looking at them as part of work I’ve been doing on resource scarcity with the World Bank, and evaluating their implications for governance, conflict risk and poverty reduction is far from easy. It’s often suspected that bribery of host country elites is part of the picture, but extremely hard to prove – and in any case, many investor countries will turn a blind eye, given their strategic interest in improving security of supply on key commodities. So more power to the City of London police’s elbow for sending a signal on this one – it’ll be interesting to see more details of the case as they emerge.

Above all, massive credit to Global Witness, long one of the most impressive NGOs on resource security issues. They’ve been saying for a very long time that the emerging global climate regime on reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD) needs to take far more account of governance and conflict risk issues (see their new report on this, out yesterday). That point has just been vindicated in spades. And on top of that, it was their information that led to yesterday’s arrest. Bravo.

Are supermodels above the law?

Having refused to testify against Charles Taylor, the thuggish former Liberian president currently being tried at the Hague for war crimes, it now seems likely that the supermodel Naomi Campbell will be subpoenaed instead.

The story goes that after a dinner party hosted by Nelson Mandela at his home in South Africa, Ms Campbell was visited in her hotel room in the middle of the night by envoys sent by Taylor, who presented her with an enormous uncut diamond. Campbell allegedly told Mia Farrow about the gift the following morning, but has since denied receiving it to anyone who asks.

Some might think this romantic, but the diamond, if it existed, was a blood diamond from Sierra Leone, Liberia’s nextdoor neighbour, and was paid for with the weapons and soldiers deployed in that country’s vicious civil war.

This, of course, could stain Campbell’s impeccable reputation. She has said she does not want to testify because ‘Taylor has done some terrible things,’ (er, I think that’s why they want you to testify dear) and because she is ‘concerned for her safety.’

By 1997, Sierra Leone’s war was already several years old and approaching its most apocalyptic stage. Already, thousands had been killed or had hands, lips, legs or noses cut off by men and boys funded and supplied with weapons and drugs by Taylor, who needed Sierra Leone’s diamonds for his own insurgency in Liberia (which itself caused a quarter of a million deaths). So Taylor had already ‘done some terrible things’ by the time he allegedly gave Campbell the diamond. Perhaps Campbell hadn’t researched his past (she is a busy woman), but what is Mandela’s excuse for inviting him to dinner?

Apparently, Campbell promised Farrow she would give the diamond to Nelson Mandela’s Children’s Fund, but the Fund denies having ever received it. This could get interesting.