Thinking Aloud: “The Leaders Who Ruined Africa and the Generation Who Can Fix It”

Oct. 22,  2014 by Darius 

In his TED Talk, “The Leaders Who Ruined Africa and the Generation Who Can Fix It,” Fred Swaniker discusses the enormous impact of individual leaders on Africa.

Swaniker’s life story illustrates the differences a good leader can make.  When he was four, his family fled a military coup in Ghana to the Gambia.  Six months later, there was a coup there, too, and his family fled to Botswana.  In Botswana and neighboring South Africa, though, things were very different: there was good education, infrastructure, and governance.

According to Swaniker, leaders matter in Africa more than anywhere else.  This is due to the continent’s weak institutions.  In places with strong institutions, like the US and Europe, any individual leader does not wield enough power to wreck the country entirely.  In Africa, though, the leader has almost complete power over the political system, economy, and everything else.  One leader can easily make or break a country.  Just look at Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe: he all but singlehandedly took a strong, developing country and annihilated its economy and potential through disastrous fiscal policies.  Nobody else in Zimbabwe could or would tell Mugabe that such actions would bring ruin.

Swaniker also discussed what he saw as the three generations of African leaders.  The first generation, typified by leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, freed Africa from European colonialism.  The next generation of leaders, unfortunately, wrecked the continent, bringing war, corruption, and ruin.  Swaniker cited Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo and Sani Abacha of Nigeria as examples of this second generation.  The third generation of leaders, like Nelson Mandela and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, have dedicated their time in power to cleaning up the mess made by the second generation.  These leaders are far from perfect, but they have stopped much of the violence, improved economic policies, and are more accountable to their people.

Swaniker feels the next generation, what he calls generation four, has the power and opportunity to transform Africa.  According to Swaniker, this generation must accomplish two things that previous generations have not.  First, it must create economic opportunities for Africa’s burgeoning population, else Africa and the whole world will be sitting on a ticking time bomb.  Second, this generation must build African institutions “such that we are never held to ransom again by a few individuals like Robert Mugabe.”

You can watch Swaniker’s TED Talk at

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News You Really Need To See: “Poppy Cultivation Hits All-Time High”

“Poppy Cultivation Hits All-Time High”

The Washington Post, October 22, 2014, p.A11

“Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan grew to an all-time high in 2013 despite America spending more than $7 billion to fight it over the past decade, a U.S. report showed on Tuesday.  Federal auditors SIGAR reported that Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of the poppy in 2013, blowing past the previous peak of 193,000 hectares in 2007. … One factor for the surge was affordable deep-well technology, which over the past decade turned 200,000 hectares of desert in southwestern Afghanistan into arable land much of which is now being used for poppy cultivation.  Nangarhar province in the east, and other provinces, once declared ‘poppy free,’ have seen a resurgence in cultivation.  Nangarhar had been considered a model for successful counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics efforts and was deemed ‘poppy free’ by the U.N. in 2008.  It however saw a fourfold increase in opium poppy cultivation between 2012 and 2013.”

Quickie Analysis:  While it may have been a worthwhile goal to pursue the expansion of Afghan agriculture through new irrigation methods, opium production was not the intended result.  

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Thinking Aloud: “Foundation”

Oct. 21,  2014 by Darius 

I recently finished Foundation by Isaac Asimov.  Published in 1951, Foundation remains a classic of the science fiction genre.

Foundation is set in what is presumably the future.  The entire galaxy is inhabited by humans, and the whole galaxy is under the control of the Galactic Empire.  It is a golden age of peace, prosperity, and technology.  But although most people are unaware of it, the Galactic Empire is crumbling.  One man, Hari Seldon, has invented a new science, dubbed psychohistory, that allows him to predict the future by applying probabilistic theories to human behavior.  Seldon sees the upcoming fall of the Empire and brings a group of scientists and thinkers to the edge of the galaxy to preserve what they can of human knowledge through the dark ages to come and to jump-start the rebirth of civilization.  Foundation is essentially the story of this colony as it attempts to survive and fulfill its mission over the generations.

When Asimov published Foundation, psychohistory was science fiction.  Today, though, it is closer to reality, thanks to Big Data.  Right now, Big Data is primarily used by companies like Google to target advertising, but is it really such a big step to be able to predict not just purchasing decisions but political and other behaviors for a society as a whole?  Perhaps not.

Asimov, though prescient in some aspects, was also quite blind in others.  One of the most obvious is his failure to see women as major players.  The world of Foundation is absolutely and unequivocally dominated by cigar-smoking men; the only woman to play any sort of role is the shrewish wife of a planetary leader.  While unfortunate in this regard, novels always reflect the world in which they were written, and Asimov’s world in the early 1950s was no doubt dominated by cigar-smoking men with women as bit players.

That said, if you enjoy science fiction or even an exploration of how a society can leverage its influence, you should read Foundation.

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News You Really Need To See: “Obama Sees an Iran Deal Skirting Congress, For Now”

“Obama Sees an Iran Deal Skirting Congress, For Now”

The New York Times, October 20, 2014, p.A4

“No one knows if the Obama administration will manage in the next five weeks to strike what many in the White House consider the most important foreign policy deal of his presidency: an accord with Iran that would forestall its ability to make a nuclear weapon.  But the White House has made one significant decision: If agreement is reached, President Obama will do everything in his power to avoid letting Congress vote on it.  Even while negotiators argue over the number of centrifuges Iran would be allowed to spin and where inspectors could roam, the Iranians have signaled that they would accept, at least temporarily, a ‘suspension’ of the stringent sanctions that have drastically cut their oil revenues and terminated their banking relationships with the West, according to American and Iranian officials.  The Treasury Department, in a detailed study it declined to make public, has concluded Mr. Obama has the authority to suspend the vast majority of those sanctions without seeking a vote by Congress, officials say.  But Mr. Obama cannot permanently terminate those sanctions.  Only Congress can take that step.  And even if Democrats held on to the Senate next month, Mr. Obama’s advisers have concluded they would probably lose such a vote. … But many members of Congress see the plan as an effort by the administration to freeze them out, a view shared by some Israeli officials who see a congressional vote as the best way to constrain the kind of deal that Mr. Obama might strike.”

Quickie Analysis:  Despite whatever Obama may do, Congress must eventually be allowed to exercise its constitutional right to impede US foreign policy.  Better in the future, though, when circumstances might have changed, than now.

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Thinking Aloud: Better Late than Never

Oct. 20,  2014 by Darius 

Last night, as the battle for the town of Kobani in Syria continued, the US airdropped supplies to the defenders of the town.  The supplies didn’t come from the US, though.  Instead, the supplies came from the Iraqi Kurdish government.  The US merely delivered them.

Turkey, which is deeply mistrustful of the main Syrian Kurdish movement, was not asked about the US airdrop.  Instead, the US “informed” the Turkish government, and US planes simply didn’t use Turkish airspace.  Today, Turkey agreed to let Iraqi Kurdish fighters traverse Turkish soil to reinforce Kobani.

Turkey’s decision to allow Iraqi Kurdish forces transit is a sensible reversal of a prior bad decision.  In previous days and weeks, the Turkish government didn’t want to provide any support to the Syrian Kurds.  Allowing in Iraqi Kurdish forces, though, makes everyone happy.  The Syrian defenders of Kobani get needed reinforcements.  The US and West, which care little about Kurdish politics, stop criticizing Turkey for being obstructionist.  Iraqi Kurds get a chance to bolster their regional prestige.  And Turkey wins too.  Much of Turkish policy towards Syrian Kurds since the war in Syria started has been to try to promote groups aligned with the Iraqi Kurds.  What better way to create goodwill and an opening for these groups among Syrian Kurds than by arriving as much-needed reinforcements against a common enemy?

Previous Turkish policy is a good example of the missed opportunities that arise when an actor only considers its historic or short-term goals.  In this case, Turkey’s short-term goal was to prevent the empowerment of the Syrian Kurdish group because of Turkey’s historic mistrust of the Turkish-Kurdish terrorist organization with which the Syrian Kurdish group has been allied. In doing that, Turkey ignored its longer-term goals and the fact that the situation on the ground has changed: assisting, even passively, the Syrian Kurds builds goodwill with foreign and domestic audiences, deprives the Assad government of the Kurdish corner of Syria, and gets an army of murderous fanatics off its doorstep.

In other news related to both the Syrian Kurds and the need to take the long-view and deal with facts as they exist, last weekend the U.S had its first-ever face to face meeting with the main Syrian Kurdish group, the PYD – three and a half years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war and three years after the beginning of the US’s vetting of moderate Syrian rebel groups.

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News You Really Need To See: “Death Penalty Fuels Violence in Iraq, Says U.N. Report”

“Death Penalty Fuels Violence in Iraq, Says U.N. Report”

Reuters, October 19, 2014

Iraq should stop its widespread use of the death penalty, which is unjust, flawed and only fuels the violence it purports to deter, the United Nations said in a report on Sunday.  Sixty people were hanged in Iraq by the end of August this year, and although that is fewer than the 177 who were executed in 2013, 1,724 people remained on death row.  Iraq tends to carry out the sentence in batches because President Jalal Talabani opposes the death penalty so a vice president orders executions when he is out of the country…. Judges often pass death sentences based on evidence from disputed confessions or secret informants, condemning suspects who are unaware of their rights, may have been tortured and have no defense attorney until they arrive in court, the report said.  Some convicts’ relatives said they had been offered a chance to avoid the death penalty by hiring a particular lawyer for $100,000, while many women detainees said they had been detained in place of a male relative, the report said.”

Quickie Analysis:  The death penalty as a mechanism of justice is rather dependent on executing the right people.  Without that, it just becomes another mechanism for corruption and sectarian violence.  

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Thinking Aloud: How the Other Half Lives

Oct. 19,  2014 by Darius 

What a difference 850 miles makes.  That’s the approximately distance between the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria and Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia.  One thing in particular stands out between them: the role of women.  It’s about as far apart as one can get within the Muslim world.

Two articles that appeared in the same Wall Street Journal (October 18-19, 2014) illustrate the difference very well.  The first article details how well car service apps, like Uber, are doing in Saudi Arabia.  There, 80% of their customers are women.  Why do Saudi women use Uber so much?  Because Saudi women still aren’t allowed to drive, and Uber provides more convenient and more upscale service than taxis.

Meanwhile, according to another article in the same newspaper, Kurdish women are fighting on the front lines against ISIS fighters.  It is even estimated that up to a third of Kurdish fighters in Kobani are female.  Kurdish women have long enjoyed great empowerment and independence; in the 1920s, British author Agatha Christie, accompanying her husband on an archaeological dig in Syria, commented on the fierce, no-nonsense character of Kurdish women.

Yet the Kurds and the Saudis ostensibly follow the same religion, Sunni Islam.  The main Kurdish women’s brigade fighting in Kobani is even named after a martyr – as it happens, a female schoolteacher who was killed by ISIS.

Where does the deep difference spring from?  In short, culture.  There is nothing in the Qur’an (which is Saudi Arabia’s official constitution) that prohibits women from driving; there is not even any injunction in the Qur’an that women must cover their hair, simply that women (and men) should dress modestly.  Yet burqa-clad Saudi women need to spend hundreds of dollars a month on car services while Kurdish women fight and die alongside men to defend their homeland.

Admittedly, the Saudi women and the Kurdish women are on the ends of the spectrum seen across the Muslim world.  It’s important to remember, though, that while the extremes make the news, most Muslim women actually live in the middle.  It’s also important to remember that social conventions that are described, erroneously, in the Western press as Islamic are often, in fact, cultural and have no specific religious basis at all.

For more on either of these two stories, see

“Uber’s Most Avid Users: Saudi Women,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.B1, and “Kurdish Women Fight on Front Lines Against Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal, October 18-19, 2014, p.A1,

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