Politicians quick to take advantage of Ghana’s oil windfall

Oil barrel coffin, Ghana (photo courtesy Flickr user What KT Did)


In The Ringtone and the Drum, my recently published book on West Africa, I described how diamonds have proved a curse rather than a blessing to Sierra Leone:

Once the resource curse falls on a country, like a deadly virus it spreads rapidly, crippling its host’s every organ, paralysing its every function. First to suffer are farming and manufacturing. The profits from diamonds (or oil or gold) far outweigh those achievable through agriculture or industry, and it makes economic sense to allow mineral extraction to become the dominant productive activity. Often it becomes the sole productive activity. Diamonds give a country’s leaders more wealth than they ever dreamed of, so they no longer need to worry about other parts of the economy. Minerals become the only way to make a living; everything else is left to rot. As other, more labour-intensive sectors collapse, the majority of the population has no work (the decline of Sierra Leonean agriculture was swift: twenty years after discovering its precious stones, the country had gone from exporting rice to importing it). A chasm opens up, between the rich few with access to mineral wealth, and the poor masses who are shut out.

The masses have no outlet for their frustrations, no way of redressing the balance. While they are growing rich on diamond exports the leaders of a resource-cursed country do not need to agonise over what their subjects think of them. Governments in countries lacking in valuable minerals depend on taxes to keep them in business; without them, ministers would not be paid and the machinery of government could not function. For taxes to be paid, the state must count on at least some degree of support from its citizens, and is to some degree answerable to them – if it ignores their needs entirely, citizens will use non-payment of tax as a bargaining chip. But in diamond-rich economies, governments need nothing from their people; profits from the gems are more than sufficient to keep the leaders in luxury, and their subjects, lacking any leverage over them, have no way of agitating peacefully for a fair share of the pie.

Sierra Leone’s near-neighbour Ghana, the world’s newest oil producer and one of its fastest growing economies, has so far avoided damage to non-oil sectors, but last week brought a worrying sign that politicians are keen to get their hands on oil revenues. By itself, and even though inflation in the country is running at just 9%, members of parliament awarding themselves a 140% pay rise may not be cause for tremendous alarm – Ghanaian MPs’ monthly salary of $3,800 is still much lower than that of their Kenyan counterparts, for example, who trouser a cool $10,000 a month.

But it is difficult to understand why such a pay rise should be backdated to 2009. Such a ruse means that in January next year, lawmakers will receive a windfall of $109,025 (the $2,225 pay rise multiplied by 49 months). Ordinary Ghanaians who are struggling to make ends meet are unlikely to be aware of the full extent of the politicians’ good fortune, but if they did have time to do the calculation they would receive a nasty shock: it would take a Ghanaian on the minimum wage 121 years to earn what MPs have just gifted themselves.

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

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?

A man scorned: respect, vengeance and the use of rape in war

In the recent conflicts in Darfur, Uganda, Congo, and Bosnia, rape has been used systematically as a tool of war. The horrors perpetrated on civilian women and girls have been a key part of fighting forces’ strategy, a deliberate method for advancing the war effort.

Different theories have been put forward for the surge in such violence in the past few decades. Amnesty attributes it variously to ethnic cleansing (by raping a woman you infect her ethnicity with your group’s seed), the desire to sow terror in the enemy’s community, and the need to stop culture and values, of which women are often seen as the guardians, being passed down to the next generation. Others highlight the need for armies to humiliate their opponents (both the raped women and their husbands and sons) by emphasising their inability to protect themselves.

Sierra Leone’s 1990s civil war saw some of the worst atrocities against women of any war in history. Boys raped their mothers and sisters, pregnant women had their stomachs cut open, poles were shoved up vaginas. Gang rape became a sport. Yet here, ethnic considerations played little part, and in what turned into a Hobbesian frenzy of all against all there was no clear enemy to humiliate. Terrorising the civilian population and showcasing their power were no doubt important motivations for the rapists, but it seems there were other factors at work too.

I wonder whether a lethal cocktail of population pressure, poverty and pride was not a more important driver of the carnage. The population explosion forced young men off the land and into the cities to find work. Most ended up unemployed and dirt poor. They were therefore unable to afford the products of modernity – cars, houses, mobile phones, smart clothes – that the young women of the country, clinging to dreams of Westernisation, increasingly demanded. Spurned, the destitute young men could not find wives or start families. In Freetown earlier this year, one young Muslim hawker told me, ‘unless you have a car and a house, people don’t think you’re serious.’ Further along the West African coast in Senegal, a hotel boy complained that he could not find a wife because he was too poor. These days, he said, a girl’s highest priority is money: ‘I can’t afford a car or a house so women aren’t interested in me.’

Rebel fighters in Sierra Leone’s civil war singled out their elders for some of the most horrific violence. The latter, seeing that their sons and nephews could not fulfil the roles expected of them, had looked down on the younger generation. When war broke out, they paid a heavy price for this lack of respect. Could it be that the treatment of women was also linked to respect, a crazed act of vengeance by the proud, frustrated young men they had scorned? The traditional explanations for armies’ use of rape in war put most of the blame on instructions from the top, but perhaps in some cases the pressure comes from the bottom, from the fatefully wounded pride of the soldiers themselves.

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.

A precarious peace in Sierra Leone

“You wouldn’t understand this country if you stayed here for five years. I don’t understand it,” says Nestor Cummings-John, the head of the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (“faute de mieux,” he replies when I ask why the group is run by a man).

I take his point. After six weeks in Guinea-Bissau (plus a lot of background research), I felt I had a fairly good grasp of how the society worked, why things are as they are, and what the prospects are going forward. But after six weeks in Sierra Leone, my mind is full of confusion, as chaotic as Freetown’s deranged street markets. I can only hope that a few weeks of quiet reflection somewhere sane like Burkina Faso will help me sort through the jumble of impressions, fears, questions and competing explanations that are clattering around my head.

One of the questions I’m grappling with is whether Sierra Leone is knitting itself together after Siaka Stevens’ ruinous dictatorship and the even more damaging civil war, or if in fact the country is in danger of slipping back into conflict.

Tony Blair, who visited Freetown last year, believes Sierra Leone is “thriving.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the other hand, which was set up to investigate the causes of the war, argues that the same levels of poverty, corruption and youth alienation pertain today as prevailed twenty years ago, before the war started. As Paul Collier showed in The Bottom Billion, moreover, most countries that go through one civil war endure another within a decade or two.

Blair’s view is buttressed by the fact that the country has been at peace for nine years, that it held uneventful elections in 2007 which were widely judged to be fair, and that dangerous neighbours like the Liberian thug Charles Taylor are off the scene. Exiles are returning, drawn by peace and the still-tantalising prospect of mineral riches. And many Sierra Leoneans have told me their compatriots have learned their lesson from the war and are extremely reluctant to go down that road again.

Not everyone is so sanguine, however. While the wealthy are generally quite optimistic about the future, the poor remain disgruntled, railing against the corruption of the rich and the ineffectiveness of government. “The poor don’t love their country,” says Joseph, a young Freetonian working with Amnesty International. Edward, an old man in a Freetown slum, says the poor have no reason to be patriotic. Most young people I’ve met have asked me to help them acquire visas for Britain. Continue reading

The Sierra Leone Guide to Prevention of Tourism

When I arrived in Sierra Leone six weeks ago and encountered its friendly people, spectacular beaches, lively nightlife and mysterious traditions, I wondered why the country has so few tourists (in our six weeks we have met a total of three, with three or four other possible but unconfirmed sightings).

It didn’t take long to find out. A nation that should be eager to attract tourists seems to be making systematic efforts to keep them out. If you were trying to make it as difficult as possible for foreigners to visit your country, I could recommend the following measures, which all work brilliantly for Sierra Leone:

– Charge an exorbitant sum for visas (£50 for a month, compared to, say, £10 for three months in Turkey, a much more tourist-friendly destination)

– Make obtaining the visa more complicated than for any of your neighbours by forcing applicants to produce a letter of invitation from a Sierra Leone national

– Encourage customs officials in the airport to be as surly as possible, and fail to punish them for extracting bribes from new arrivals for performing the simplest of procedures

– Build your airport thirty miles away from the capital city, on the opposite side of a giant river mouth, forcing visitors to cross either by helicopter, which regularly crashes, or ferry, which often breaks down or sinks. Make sure, too, that the ferry departure times do not coincide with incoming flights, so that your visitors will have to wait for hours in the burning sun (you will of course already have ensured there is no shade at the dock)

– Allow dozens of hustlers to converge on new arrivals as they exit the airport, giving preference to pickpockets and con merchants

– Refuse to harness the torrential rain in the rainy season to provide water and electricity to visitors at any time of year. This will ensure they cannot take respite from the heat with the help of fans, cold drinks, air-conditioning or showers. It will also mean restaurants and food stores will be unable to refrigerate food, thereby increasing the risk that your visitor will fall sick

– In the event that he does fall sick, make sure you spend none of the billiions of pounds of aid you receive on building effective hospitals or recruiting competent doctors to treat him

– Make your public transport system as slow and uncomfortable as possible, by failing to maintain vehicles so that they break down often, waiting until they are full before departing hours behind schedule, and packing two people into seats designed for one

– Enhance the effect of the above by allowing roads paid for by foreign donors to deteriorate and then failing to fill in the hundreds of resultant potholes

– Should a tourist somehow manage to shrug off these obstacles and apply for a visa extension (you have no psychiatric hospitals to house him, of course), redouble your efforts to force him out. To do this, hire the least friendly, most corrupt people to work in your immigration department. Extort money from your visitor for a visa extension that is officially free, then smile smugly at his distress

– As a final punishment for having the cheek to visit your country despite all your efforts to stop him, charge the departing, browbeaten tourist a £50 airport tax

NB: For foreign investors, multiply your efforts tenfold.