a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Breaking: no one really cares about Somalian pirates

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th April 2009

Last week Secretary of State Clinton announced a number of measures to try to weaken pirates operating in Somalian waters. While attention in the press centered on the possibility of freezing pirate assets, Secretary Clinton only noted that the possibility would be explored, spending at least as much or more time on continued U.S. support of an international “contact group” meeting in Cairo about Somalian piracy and on working “with shippers and the insurance industry to address gaps in their self-defense measures.”

World War II Atlantic convoy
World War II North Atlantic convoy duty, Feb 1942
NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS) Collection
Photographer: Personnel of USS PHILADELPHIA
Credit: National Archives

We (don’t) got us a convoy
It is a curious thing. While it’s true there’s a vast ocean and elusive opponents to deal with it’s not as if those challenges haven’t been met before — against a far more formidable foe: during World War II, American merchant and military supply ships traveled in convoys under naval protection from German U-Boot attack.

Moreover, the waters off East Africa  appear to collapse to a relatively few, relatively distinct shipping lanes — as determined by the Seychelles to the south and Socotra to the north — which of course helps Somalian speedboat operators find ships to hijack more easily, but also defines where they themselves are likely to appear.

While the convoy argument has been made repeatedly, it clearly hasn’t happened yet —  except in the suggestive case when an international cooperative program is affected: World Food Program shipments to the region have apparently been under Canadian and then EU escort for some time.  In the Wall Street Journal, Peter Zimmerman suggests (in so many words) that it’s simple class warfare economics — shippers vs. crews:

Shipping companies will protest that it is more economical for ships to travel alone and not be held to the speed of the slowest vessel in a convoy. And certainly the odds of any given vessel being attacked and captured are less than 1% per voyage. At that rate, a $10,000,000 ransom is only an extra $100,000 tacked on per voyage.

As Zimmerman points out, “But this ignores the fate of those sailors who are captured.” John Robb (“Global Guerrillas”) blames the insurance industry:

If the company that owned the rescued ship wasn’t a US defense contractor, its kidnapping insurance company (likely Lloyds) and its designated crisis representatives (likely Control Risks Group) would have negotiated to pay the pirate’s fee to get the hostage back.

Other explanations include the difficulty of coordinating shipping decisions of multiple shippers, and presumably of allocating the authority to do so. In effect, the explanations are all just different ways of saying the same thing: no one actually cares enough about the Somalian piracy problem to do anything that would stop it.  It appears to be easier to rush warships to the latest hijacking and hope for a clean shot off the fantail, or to pay a multimillion dollar ransom, than to figure out what to do about Somalian ‘pirates’ and how to do it.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Department of followups: obliteration, Altstoetter, UPDATE: Zimbabwe

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th May 2008

An occasional review of further developments in stuff I’ve written about before.

  • Past diminishing and well into negative returns…, April 24, 2008 — Responding to Senator Clinton’s threat to “obliterate” Iran if it were to attack Israel,* Iranian cleric and “Assembly of Experts” member Ahmed Khatami said:

    A disreputable American (presidential) candidate has said that if Iran attacks Israel, she will obliterate Iran if she is the president. I tell the American people, it is a shame for them that their presidents are servants of Israel without any willpower.

    What they are saying recently is just psychological war. However, if the crazy people in Washington or Tel Aviv take any military action, the Iranian nation will hit them with such a slap that they will not be able to get on their feet again.

    We are observing the siege of Shiite Sadr City in Iraq. It seems Americans would like to make what happened in Gaza happen in Sadr City too. We can only conclude that America is fighting Islam.

    What the “slap” would be is left to our imaginations, but Americans are now presumably in the collateral damage crosshairs if Iran chooses to retaliate for any American military action. A corollary to “violence begets violence” is “reckless, foolish talk begets reckless, foolish talk.”

  • Practice to deceive, April 22, 2008 — In prior posts I’ve echoed the suggestions of legal scholars like Scott Horton and Philippe Sands that the Nuremberg “Judges” or “Justice Trial”, a.k.a. U.S. v. Altstoetter, is a precedent for trying lawyers like John Yoo and David Addington for war crimes based on giving the color of law to illegal acts. However, writing at “Balkinization,” New Zealand legal historian Kevin Jon Heller argues otherwise:

    The bottom line, in my view, is that as reprehensible as Yoo’s opinions were –- and they were indeed reprehensible -– the case provides far less support for prosecuting him than most scholars assume.

    The key difficulty, Heller believes, is that none of the Altstoetter defendants merely gave legal advice; rather, all were also part of the Nazi legal machinery denying habeas corpus to prisoners and issuing verdicts. Heller asserts that the NMT (Nuremberg Military Tribunal) arguably convicted all the defendants for their deeds rather than their legal advice:

    … the mode of participation they use to convict a defendant -– ordering, aiding and abetting, joint criminal enterprise, etc. -– and often even fail to identify which of the defendant’s acts discussed in the judgment they consider criminal. […] … individual responsibility required the prosecution to prove “that a defendant had knowledge of an offense charged in the indictment . . . and that he was connected with the commission of that offense…

    Related posts at “Balkinization” include Marty Lederman’s setup for Heller, “What, if Anything, Does the Nuremberg Precedent Tell Us About the Criminal Culpability of Government Lawyers?,” acknowledging the potential relevance of Altstoetter, and “What’s the Relevance of Altstoetter, Anyway?” following Heller’s piece which reiterates Lederman’s skepticism about the propriety of Altstoetter-based criminal charges against Yoo et al for their “aspirational” readings of U.S. and international law, rather than an inquiry into whether constitutional obligations were breached.**

    However, Lederman also acknowledges Scott Horton’s comment about Heller’s post. There’s much more in Horton’s comment, but one part makes a point I made in “Practice to Deceive” — that the way in which the advice and directives were concealed argues for knowledge that said advice was criminal in nature:

    Philippe Sands’s key finding — if there is just one — is that the bottom up narrative that the Administration puts forward surrounding the introduction of torture techniques is a sham. He follows the story to its roots, and he finds that it is, to the contrary, a “top down” story, with a number of lawyers engaging in an elaborate scheme to cover it up with the paper trail that starts with the Diane Beaver memoranda. Key to this unraveling is the story of the senior lawyers’ trip to GTMO at the launch of the process, a trip about which Haynes repeatedly lied. Now it’s possible to explain this from a PR angle focused on domestic politics, which undoubtedly was a major focus of the White House throughout, but a prosecutor could just as well make the case that this shows recognition and belief that the scheme was essentially criminal (or presented substantial likelihood of criminal culpability) and thus needed to be concealed.

  • Zimbabwe: enough is enough, April 10, 2008 — The repression of Zimbabweans following their election of Morgan Tsvangirai (contested by Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and state apparatus) continues unabated — but so far at least without the logistical resupply of a ship full of weapons sold by China to the Zimbabwean government. The An Yue Jiang was not allowed to dock in South Africa, Namibia or Angola — generally thanks to union activism in those countries.But Nell Lancaster (“A Lovely Promise”) points to a recent article at Sokwanele *** alerting readers that the government of Malawi may be the weak link in the chain of refusals to allow the ship to offload its deadly cargo. As the Sokawanele author Hope puts it, the case is important because (a) political violence in Zimbabwe continues, (b) the case has proven to be something people outside Zimbabwe can get involved in, and (c)…

    it is also forcing countries in the region to ‘nail their colours to the mast’, so to speak. In the open glare of the public eye, this story shows us which nations are concerned for the safety of the Zimbabwean people, and which ones are more concerned with the loyalty to the Zanu PF regime.

    The Malawi embassy in Washington, D.C. can be contacted at (202) 721-0274. Embassy e-mail addresses I’ve found include (Taiwan) and (UN); several others are listed here.

    * Clinton’s remarks to Chris Cuomo (emphases added): whatever stage of development they might be in their nuclear weapons program, in the next 10 years during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.” Like him or not, Khatami is justified to consider this, on careful consideration, as a (reckless) threat of nuclear retaliation by Clinton for a nonnuclear attack — even if, in a subsequent interview with Keith Olbermann, she conditions a U.S. nuclear response on an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. In another interview with Andrea Schaefer, she claimed “facts on the ground have changed” since October 2007 (before the release of an NIE denying an active Iranian nuclear weapons program was underway) — and considered the notion of Iranian theocrat undeterrability plausible enough to repeat without qualification on national TV.
    ** Lederman thus at least implicitly concedes the possibility and potential propriety of impeachment proceedings against Yoo (and possibly the president) by Congress. As may or may not be well known, one of the consequences of a conviction for an impeachable act is that the convicted person may not hold federal office again. Both impeachment and conviction are thus useful and possible after that person has held federal office.
    *** The word means “Enough is Enough”; the site chronicles Mugabe’s repression and democratic resistance to it in Zimbabwe.

    NOTES: (1) Khatami remark link is to a Real News Network video clip, transcript, and translation of Khatami’s remarks. (2) Nell has an earlier post about the An Yue Jiang here.

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Zimbabwe: enough is enough

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 11th April 2008

Via the Flickr “Democracy in Action” photo pool, I ran across a blog by Zimbabweans called “This is Zimbabwe” this evening.

The blog is run by Sokwanele, described as a “popular underground movement in Zimbabwe” in Wikipedia. Sokwanele means “enough is enough”; it appears to be credible enough for many news organizations seeking up-to-date information about the situation in Zimbabwe.

The blog reports that in the wake of the recent election — which the opposition appears to have won, but which Mugabe is seeking to undo via a run-off — Mugabe’s police have resumed their practice of vicious beatings of opposition voters and party members; a photo of one of the victims, taken yesterday, is on the right. The group also maintains a map of election conditions across Zimbabwe. The legend includes symbols for murder, food supply, political violence, and abduction, to name a few.

The latest development is that Zambian government has called for a weekend meeting of the SADC, a Southern African regional group, to discuss the crisis, and that both elected leader Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe will attend. Sokwanele requests that supporters of human rights and democracy politely contact a number of official e-mail addresses in the Zambian government, the South African government, and the SADC, and tell them that “Zimbabweans have the right to live in a democratic, free and peaceful country…. we voted for change, we got change, and we want change now.”

It seems like a small enough request by people who deserve the support of decent people everywhere. We may have our own house to clean up here in the United States, but we can surely spare a moment to help our friends elsewhere too.

SEE ALSO other posts about Zimbabwe at this site.
UPDATE, 4/11: African history scholar and professor Timothy Burke has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about Zimbabwe, so for continued coverage that’s a better place to go than here; the link leads to a discussion of a recent NYTimes op-ed. Burke thinks Mugabe’s security apparatus — that is, not necessarily Mugabe — is what’s really in control of the Zimbabwean government. Via Jim Henley.
UPDATE, 4/11: An online petition via will be presented to South African president Thabo Mbeki when he visits the UN next week. Mbeki is considered one of the few people who might have influence on Mugabe.

We sign to support the democratic and human rights of the people of Zimbabwe. Election results must be released immediately, verified independently, and–if approved as legitimate–accepted by all parties. If a run-off is required, it should be monitored by international observers and be kept free of violence, fraud, and intimidation. World leaders, including South African President Thabo Mbeki, should do all they can to ensure a just result.

UPDATE, 4/12: Two makes a blogswarm! Nell Lancaster (“A Lovely Promise”) notes Mbeki’s incredible “no crisis” statement, under a title that says it all: “Let them know they’re not alone“.
UPDATE, 4/14: General strike tomorrow. More at American Street, where Nell’s title gets another blog home.

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South African police fire on AIDS protesters

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th July 2005

This was posted a few hours ago on the GENDER-AIDS eforum at Forty Injured, Ten Shot at Peaceful Protest to Demand Treatment Action Campaign, Cape Town. The account was posted by the “Treatment Action Campaign,” which is working for increased access to anti-retroviral (ARV) treatments for South Africans with HIV/AIDS :

On 12 July 2005, the South African Police Services in Queenstown brutally assaulted and then opened fire on unarmed, peaceful protesters asking for HIV treatment.

Forty people were injured and ten were treated for gunshot wounds. One person, Pumla Xesha had to be admitted to hospital. At least ten of the injured people were people who live openly with HIV/AIDS. The majority of the protesters were women. At no stage was there violence, threat of violence or any form of provocation. No warning to disperse was issued as is required by law. After the assault, as people ran away, the police opened fire with firearms and then used teargas. …

CBS News reports that the TAC protesters may have resorted to desperate demonstration measures themselves:

Hospital staff called the police when protesters forced their way into wards, intimidated staff and disrupted services, Health Department spokesman Sizwe Kutelo said. The TAC maintained the demonstration was peaceful.

Police spokesman Superintendent Gcinikaya Taleni said organizers did not notify authorities of their intention to demonstrate, as required.

He confirmed rubber bullets and smoke grenades were used to disperse the crowd, which he put at over 1,500, but said any injuries were as a result of the stampede.

I’m not inclined to completely credit the government position after seeing Quicktime video clips of the police assault (1, 2, 3), which I found at the Treatment Action Campaign web site. On the one hand, it’s certainly pushing the envelope to protest inside a hospital; on the other hand, breaking up a protest with clubs in a confined space (see first clip) is not going to bring a situation under control, it’s going to cause panic. The second clip shows police leveling rifles on the run outside and apparently shooting at a fleeing crowd some thirty yards distant; I don’t know whether such rifles fire live ammunition, rubber bullets or both, but these looked like real-bullet-shooting rifles to me — and the shooting appeared entirely unnecessary at that point, regardless.

The TAC leadership is calling for a peaceful mass protest in Queenstown on July 26. The organization is trying to reverse decisions by South African health officials to not admit additional clients to ARV programs, and is calling for more urgency and accountability as South Africans die while on the waiting list for ARVs.

Both the July 12 protest and the unnecessarily brutal response shine a spotlight on the desperate HIV/AIDS situation in South Africa — a country whose current leader, Thabo Mbeki, has not distinguished himself in rising to the challenge. This amounts to people trying to climb on lifeboats after the Titanic has hit the iceberg. More lifeboats — in the form of increased funding for ARVs — are desperately needed.

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Zimbabwe to ban human rights NGOs

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th August 2004

Mugabe strikes again. Via AEGiS, an August 12 Agence France-Presse report:

A draft bill which is set to be debated in parliament this year seeks to clamp down on NGOs through the banning of international human rights groups from Zimbabwe and cut off overseas funding to local organisations promoting rights. […]

President Robert Mugabe has said Zimbabwe must not allow NGOs “to be conduits or instruments of foreign interference in our national affairs.”

The leader confirmed that a bill tightening control over the NGOs would be introduced in parliament during the current session, which is the last one ahead of crucial legislative polls due in March next year.

Problem solved! No more pesky updates about Zimbabwe from wacko outfits like Refugees International, Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International.

The measure may also be a serious blow to Zimbabwean groups like Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, which issues a cheery little item called Monthly Political Violence Reports. Since the document does tend to get a little long each month, the authors provide handy bar charts of the month’s and year’s politically motivated rapes, assault, torture, murder, and what not. Here are this year’s totals as of April, 2004:

…and I’m guessing the tortures, rapes, assaults and killings in camps training “youth militia” in such techniques aren’t fully known or counted.

Mugabe is also using food as a political weapon, and Zimbabweans who rely on the food outlawed or foreign-supported NGOs provide may find themselves at the mercy of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party for their next meal. The Zim Observer joins most other news media reporting the story by quoting the head of the Zimbabwean umbrella organization NANGO:

“The bill criminalises a sector that is providing social safety nets to a lot of communities,” said Jonah Mudehwe, head of the National Association of Non-Governmental Organisations.

The online periodical New Zimbabwe reports that Secretary of State Colin Powell specifically spoke out against the NGO measure last week. Powell went further, calling for “regime restoration” in Zimbabwe:

For southern Africa as a whole, the situation in Zimbabwe is a threat to the common future. At this stage, Zimbabwe’s problems transcend any one man. And clearly, solutions to those problems must come mainly from within, from among the people of Zimbabwe.

The political regime in Zimbabwe has been degraded, but its constitutional basis remains intact. Zimbabwe needs regime restoration. It needs to restore the rule of law, an unfettered Press, and the country’s former pluralistic political life.

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Amina Lawal update

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 25th September 2003

The New York Times reports that Amina Lawal, a Nigerian woman facing execution by stoning for adultery under Islamic Shariah law, will go free. An international petition drive had been mounted to protest her case. But the Nigerian appeals court’s decision was made on the basis of the details of the case, and not on general principles:

The Islamic appeals panel ruled the conviction couldn’t stand because Lawal wasn’t given enough time to understand the charges against her; only one judge, instead of the required three, presided at her trial; and she was not caught in the act of sex out of wedlock.

That third item presumably makes stonings in Nigeria any time soon in Nigeria unlikely — but not impossible. But for now, one woman has escaped that fate, and that will have to do.

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I am getting younger, and I still can punch

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th June 2003

Last weekend I wrote about the showdown in Zimbabwe between Robert Mugabe and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The BBC provides a grim but inspiring online diary of last week’s protests, compiled by an MDC student activist. Excerpts:

Monday, 2 June: 0800: Students begin toyi-toying (militaristic jogging on the spot while chanting) and singing anti-Mugabe songs. […]

1100-1200: Students march and are blocked by police who start firing tear gas canisters, blank shots, stun grenades and live ammunition into the air. Students manage to overcome the police, who call for reinforcements. […]

1300 until evening: Police fire tear gas canisters straight into halls of residences to flush out students and then beat them up.

1800: Student union leaders inform us that more than 40 students have been admitted at Parirenyatwa hospital. One is in the intensive care unit, activists report that three students are feared dead. Police, hospital officials and university authorities deny any knowledge about that. […]

Wednesday 4 June: The police, CIO and military intelligence officials have been interrogating students about a list of hunted activists. […]

Friday 6 June: 1215: We have just heard that two students were taken by the army on Monday, beaten up and dumped at Harare International Airport. They were told to get the next plane to Britain or the USA. One of the students had his hand fractured and it is now in plaster, the other one has a malfunctioning ear and has back injuries due to continued stamping of boots on his back. *

CNN reports that Mugabe’s show of force stifled or broke up most demonstrations around the country, although a successful work stoppage took place in the capital city of Harare. A statement released by MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai to the MDC web site takes a different view:

It is a matter of public record that Zimbabweans from all walks of life overwhelmingly responded to the first stage of our final phase of democratic resistance. […]

Special tribute goes to the men and women who braved the brutality of the Mugabe regime. Some were killed. Others were injured. Scores were arrested.

For the past five days, therefore, the people of Zimbabwe reclaimed their sovereignty. They were in charge. This was a major installment, indeed a landmark towards a permanent recovery of their freedom.

The other main development, unfortunately, was the June 6 jailing of Morgan Tsvangirai on additional treason charges (Tsvangirai is already accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe… but was apparently free on bail.) The BBC reports that the second treason charge, related to last week’s protests and work stoppages, will be added on Monday.

The MDC pledges to continue the fight against Mugabe. Vice President Gibson Sibanda says for the Mugabe regime to “brace itself for a long winter of intense but peaceful mass action.” Meanwhile, Mugabe either reveals unsuspected powers in an interview with the South African Press Association, or simply confirms he’s a nasty, deluded old man:

I am for a fight, I am getting younger as I told you, and I still can punch.

What to do, if you like
You can use the e-mail and other contact links I provided last week to directly protest Tsvangirai’s arrest, or torture accounts like these (again, via the BBC, published in late March of this year)**, to the Zimbabwean government.

I’m aware that e-mails are considered less effective than regular mail or telephone calls (although I’m not sure the “effort” involved is appreciably less). That’s why I’ve provided links to web pages with regular postal addresses and phone numbers. A government like Zimbabwe’s may well be completely unimpressed by such campaigns anyway, at least in the short run; I don’t know. If there are better ways to register concern about Zimbabwe, I’m willing to learn and share what I’ve learned.

Meanwhile, thanks very much to Kevin Drum, Gary Farber, and Joe Katzman for mentioning my earlier post and the Zimbabwe contact links — and of course to those of you who took the time to contact the Zimbabwean government.


* Unlike what is shown here, the BBC presented the MDC student’s account in blog-like reverse chronological order: most recent on top, oldest on bottom

** At least one submitted account in this compilation claims the MDC is guilty of similar intimidation.

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Zimbabwe threatens planned opposition demonstrations

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 31st May 2003

The French and South African help on the way to the Congo may well be too little, too late — not that great efforts shouldn’t be made regardless. But a little well-placed attention right now might help avert a tragedy in Zimbabwe. Via Glenn Reynolds and his source StrategyPage, there’s word from a South African newspaper that Robert Mugabe is arming his thugs in advance of planned demonstrations next week. On Thursday, the “Mercury” reported:

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is surreptitiously arming his war veterans and violent youth brigades with guns so that they can crush the planned street protests to topple his regime next week.

The street protests have been dubbed “the final push for freedom” by the opposition.

Army sources promised chaos and bloodshed on a scale never seen before, if protesters tried to march into Mugabe’s official residence in Harare.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said it would begin street protests from Monday to force Mugabe out of office, but Mugabe’s militant war veteran supporters have vowed to crush them. They said they would use their military experience to ensure the MDC protests “don’t even take off”.

According to sources, Mugabe has “opened army barracks” to the war veterans and youth militias. The sources said Mugabe was taking the MDC threats seriously. They said Mugabe was well aware that the last national strike called by the opposition had been an overwhelming success. He was therefore taking into account the possibility of an overwhelming response to the latest call.

“Mugabe’s resolve to crush any challenge to his authority must not be underestimated,” said a middle ranking army official, who preferred not to be identified.

That’s for sure; I happened to read Doris Lessing’s April piece in the New York Review of Books recently, have a look for yourself. See also this tremendous report by the U.S. State Department, issued in March.

The government’s tough, threatening line against the MDC is confirmed by articles in the Harare Herald and the Daily Telegraph (“Protest will be crushed, Mugabe’s army pledges”).

I ask you to contact the government of Zimbabwe by e-mail, phone, and/or fax, and let them know that, as they say, “the whole world is watching.” I suggest saying that we condemn threatening demonstrators, and condemn Mugabe’s miserable human rights record, and that we’ll be watching to see what happens next week. I plan to mention that Rwandans have been tried in Arusha (Tanzania) and in Rwanda for their crimes against humanity, and to suggest that might happen to Zimbabweans who go too far next week, too.

An ounce of prevention, and all that: the ongoing carnage in the Congo has been traced by at least one analysis to our collective failure to prevent the Rwandan tragedy.

To put this little action in the proper perspective: this may be just a thimbleful of prevention, and it’s almost certainly yet another case of too little, too late. If you send a message, it may get deleted or ignored. The MDC seems to be intent on a showdown with Mugabe, so violence is almost guaranteed next week. But it doesn’t seem utterly naive to hope that enough messages might help a bloody crackdown stop a little bit sooner.

Bottom line: if you send a message, you’ll probably never know just how ineffective it was. But you’ll know you’ve helped put Mugabe on notice that someone is watching.

Contact the Zimbabwe government:
Zimbabwe embassy to the US: web site, e-mail, contact web page.
Zimbabwe mission to the U.N.: Telephone: (212) 980-9511/5084, Telefax: (212) 308-6705
Zimbabwe embassy in Canada: web site, e-mail
Government of Zimbabwe: web site, contact web page.

Consider CC’ing these organizations:
US State Department, Human Rights: web site, contact web page
Human Rights Watch: web site, e-mail
UNHCHR: web site, e-mail

Here’s a handy-dandy multiple address e-mail link, modify as you wish, of course.

…OK, you’ve been very patient and very good. Now go have some fun. 🙂

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Political correctness in Zimbabwe: bloody and real

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 13th May 2003

Doris Lessing’s April 10 “New York Review of Books” article “The Jewel of Africa” makes it clear: she does not like Robert Mugabe. Not one little bit. She has a point, and supports it well. But she nearly buries it for many readers with an early paragraph:

Mugabe is now widely execrated, and rightly, but blame for him began late. Nothing is more astonishing than the silence about him for so many years among liberals and well-wishers—the politically correct. What crimes have been committed in the name of political correctness. A man may get away with murder, if he is black. Mugabe did, for many years.

I came across her article while reading German blogger “FraFuchs,” who was uncomfortable with the “get away with murder, if he is black” part. The ensuing discussion tended to refrain from seriously considering Mugabe’s crimes, focusing instead on Lessing’s “PC” charge. I weighed in, claiming that was a side issue (“Nebensache”).

Lessing’s essay, focused on events in Zimbabwe, can’t possibly make a case about politically correct “liberals and well-wishers” in the West turning a blind eye to a tyrant because he was black. But it succeeds in the more important task of documenting Mugabe’s pettiness, viciousness, and betrayal of his people and his opportunity. And as I read and reread it, I believe I hit on what the disconnect for me and the German readers was: Lessing isn’t mainly concerned with Western political correctness. She’s at least as concerned, I think, with specific Zimbabwean forms of political correctness and related self-deceptions — including her own. Excerpts:

Early in his regime, we might have seen what he was when the infamous Fifth Brigade, thugs from North Korea, hated by blacks and whites alike, became Mugabe’s bodyguards, and did his dirty work, notably when he attempted what was virtually genocide of thousands of the Ndebele people (the second-largest tribe) in Matabeleland. […]

Fiery articles in the government press were read in the same perfunctory way as were the public pronouncements of the Soviet government, or any Communist government. The official rhetoric in Zimbabwe was worse than anywhere in Africa—so said a United Nations report. “Never has rhetoric had so little to do with what actually went on.” […]

Mugabe had enjoyed seeing himself as the senior black leader in southern Africa: he did so at a time when he was increasingly seen as an embarrassment. When Nelson Mandela appeared and became the world’s sweetheart, Mugabe, according to many accounts, was furious. There were ridiculous scenes where Mugabe imagined he was establishing himself as first in importance. At lunchtime during a conference of African leaders, Mandela got in line with everyone else at the buffet, while Mugabe sat at a table that had been moved so that it would be prominent in the room, and had his followers bring dishes to him. This made everyone laugh at him; but surrounded by flatterers, he never understood why people were laughing. […]

Well-off black farmers—some assisted by their white neighbors—and more modest black farmers have had their land taken from them. A key fact, hardly mentioned, is that since Independence 80 percent of the farms have changed hands, and under the law they had to be offered first to the government, which refused them. Mugabe’s rhetoric about white farmers grabbing land from the blacks is contradicted by this fact.

As a result of his campaign of misinformation, moreover, you meet people who will tell you, “The whites threw my grandparents off their farm and took their house.” At the time of the whites’ arrival in the area that is now Zimbabwe there were a quarter of a million blacks, and they lived in villages of mud-walled, grass-roofed huts. […]

He has recently set up compulsory indoctrination classes in villages throughout the country, mostly for teachers, but for other officials too, where they are taught that they should worship Mugabe and be totally obedient to ZANU, the ruling party. All the ills of Zimbabwe are said to be caused by machinations of Tony Blair in cahoots with the opposition parties. The students learn useful skills like how to murder opponents with a blow to sensitive parts of the body, and how to strangle them with bootlaces. […]

The latest news is that Mugabe, under a contract with a Chinese company, is importing Chinese farmers to grow food, since the forcibly acquired white farms are not producing. He says this is because there is no farm machinery. Yet all the expelled white farmers had been forced to leave behind their machinery.

Lessing is a Zimbabwe/Rhodesian expatriate, a ‘recovering Communist,’ and a liberal. I think the combination accounts for her mixture of pride in the white farmer class she belonged to, opposition to its arrogant oppression of blacks during the Rhodesian years, impatience with ideological cant, and sorrow at what modern-day Zimbabwe has become. Her point that the West has ignored black murderers in Africa actually needs little elaboration: Rwanda, Congo, various and sundry diamond-afflicted countries of West Africa are all examples from the recent past.

The ZANU indoctrination program is a brutally concrete example of political correctness, Zimbabwean style. Mugabe’s lies are part of a kind of Zimbabwean “Project 1984”: rewriting history for the sake of his hold on power. As for liberals and well wishers giving Mugabe undeserved passes, Zimbabwean examples turn up throughout the essay: cronies privately sighing “it wasn’t supposed to get out of hand,” bureaucrats excusing corruption with the sad claim that “you can’t expect democracy of the European type in Africa,” Lessing herself doubting Mugabe could be making plans that would ruin his people.

The “PC” wars may be a dull topic in the U.S. or Europe. But political correctness is a deadly serious issue in Zimbabwe; it’s enforced with beatings and murder, there’s nothing “quote-unquote” about it. That’s when lesser forms of cant and self-deception become more than mere annoyances, they become a form of collaboration. Lessing succeeds in writing about that; Mr. Fuchs, his commenters, and I all failed to recognize that message. That’s generally the writer’s fault, but in this case, we readers may share some of the blame.

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HIV/AIDS lends SARS resistance?

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 1st May 2003

Laurie Garrett, of Newsday, reports:

…Guangzhou authorities divided the floor of People’s Hospital No. 8 in half, putting SARS patients on one side of the elevator bank, and AIDS patients on the other. Health care workers walked back and forth between the two sides of the floor, and some of those doctors and nurses contracted SARS.

Yet not one of the several dozen AIDS patients or their visitors, some of whom were also HIV positive, developed the disease. […]

Some scientists speculate that the virus doesn’t actually kill human cells — that the immune system’s overreaction actually precipitates the destruction of cells of the lung and other parts of the body, precipitating the acute pneumonia that is the disease’ hallmark. In theory, they say, death may be the result of an aberrant or overly sensitive immune response. If that is proved correct, it’s possible that HIV patients may actually be at lower risk for SARS precisely because they lack strong immune responses.

This is only speculation, of course, but the notion is garnering interest among physicians here. An added bit of evidence supports the theory: The most effective SARS treatment so far is steroids — agents that stifle the immune response.

In other news

…I could hardly believe my eyes: the WHO estimates that 3000 African children die each day from malaria. That’s over a million children per year.

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