Thinking Aloud: Paul Kagame and the Seduction of Power

Jan. 13, 2016 by Darius 

President Paul Kagame of Rwanda rang in the new year by announcing that he would run for a third term as president. A few weeks previously, Kagame had engineered a popular referendum to amend the constitution, abolishing the term limits that had previously formed a legal barrier between him and running again. The referendum supposedly passed with 98% support and, as a result, Kagame, who has been president since 2000 and effective ruler since 1994, will be able to legally remain in office until 2034. At this point, it seems highly unlikely that Kagame will ever leave office voluntarily.

Kagame will likely go down in history as yet another leader who put his lust for personal power ahead of his country and could not or would not leave office. This is really too bad because Kagame would have otherwise gone down in history as a Rwandan national hero. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Kagame was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, a Tutsi rebel group. It was the RPF that fought its way into Rwanda from Uganda and finally stopped the slaughter. Since the genocide, Kagame sponsored a generally effective national truth and reconciliation process. Abroad, he boosted Rwanda’s regional power (at the expense of the integrity of the Democratic Republic of Congo and a few million lives, but hey, we’re talking from a Rwandan perspective here). On the economic front, Kagame’s tenure saw many positive reforms and considerable development, turning Rwanda into something of a regional economic powerhouse. Unfortunately, Kagame is hardly the only leader who started his rule as a charismatic national leader and slumped into authoritarian autocracy. Similar cases include Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and even Hafez al-Assad in Syria, all of whom were popular national heroes at the outset and probably would have preserved that legacy for themselves if they’d had the good grace to leave power voluntarily or die earlier.

There are three ways the rule of a strong, popular leader in a developing country with limited democratic history can end. Ideally, the ruler gives up power peacefully in accordance with the country’s constitution and leaves. Unfortunately, there are relatively few examples of this. Nelson Mandela of South Africa comes to mind. As a consequence, Mandela’s legacy is unparalleled. The second outcome is that the leader does not leave power but dies or is forced out of power before he can become a full-blown autocrat. President Seretse Khama of Botswana is an excellent example: he led Botswana from independence in 1966 to his death from pancreatic cancer in 1980. During those years, Botswana boasted the largest statistical economic growth rate in the world. The second outcome generally preserves a leader’s legacy: today, Khama is a national hero in Botswana.

The third outcome, though, is unfortunately the most common: leaders convince themselves that their country cannot possibly function without them and bend or break the rules to stay in power. Kagame has fallen into this third category. Over decades in power, leadership inevitably declines, corruption grows, and repression becomes commonplace. Moreover, the process of subverting the constitution is itself nothing short of disastrous. The more often a constitution is changed, the less it is respected and the less power it has. Conversely, if leaders feel free to rig popular referendums to change the constitution, their successors will have no compunctions about doing the same. The constitution becomes a worthless piece of paper.

It is not elections that represent the true test of democracy. It is whether or not leaders, especially popular ones, can resist the siren song of power and leave office peacefully and on time. Paul Kagame apparently could not resist this siren song. Democracy in Rwanda may take decades to recover as a result.


Posted in Thinking Aloud | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

News You Really Need To See: “UN: More Than Half of South Sudanese Kids Not in School”

“UN: More Than Half of South Sudanese Kids Not in School”

The New York Times, January 12, 2016

More than half of the children in South Sudan are not in school, the highest proportion in any country, the U.N. children’s agency said Tuesday.  Fifty-one percent of children between ages 6 and 15, or 1.8 million children, are not in school in South Sudan, which has seen violence for two years as government forces battle rebels, UNICEF said.  Even before the conflict began, 1.4 million children were already missing class.  Since the war broke out, over 800 schools have been demolished and more than 400,000 children had to abandon their classrooms, according to UNICEF. … South Sudan is followed by Niger, where 47 percent of the children are not in school, according to UNICEF.  Only one in 10 South Sudanese students who enter school finish primary education amid a shortage of facilities and trained teachers, said Phuong T. Nguyen, UNICEF’s chief of education for South Sudan. … A South Sudanese official said enrollment actually went up from under 30 percent before South Sudan became independent in 2011, but that the war and a lack of school buildings and qualified teachers have slowed the growth.  Defense spending is taking a large percentage of the national budget with only 4 percent going to education, said Avelino Adrongo Said, director general of planning and budget in the Ministry of Education.  Worldwide, one in four children in conflict zones are missing out on their education, translating to nearly 24 million children out of more than 109 million living in countries at war, UNICEF said.”

Quickie analysis:  Looking at the numbers, most children missing school in both South Sudan and Niger, the number two country, are absent due to poverty rather than immediate violence.  Ending the fighting and rebuilding the schools will not solve the problem–only sustained development can.

Posted in News You Really Need To See | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Thinking Aloud: “The Tsar of Love and Techno”

Dec. 23, 2015 by Darius 

I recently read The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. It’s an epic, surreal novel that spans decades and thousands of miles, composed of disparate threads of story and peopled by characters bound together through time and space by their connection to a single Soviet censor artist.

In the 1920s, a former artist is employed by the Soviet government to erase the faces of the victims of purges from photographs and paintings. Although the artist is a good Communist, his brother’s death at the hands of the government inspires him to engage in a small act of resistance: he airbrushes and paints his brother’s face into dozens of photographs and paintings in place of the faces he erases.

The artist’s work and, in particular, a landscape painted by a Chechen artist later modified by the artist, becomes the thread that unites the subsequent elements of the story. A ballerina, exiled to a gulag north of the Arctic Circle, stages annual ballets with the roles danced by inmates. Two Russian soldiers, taken prisoner by insurgents in Chechnya, find themselves living in the same meadow of the Chechen landscape painting. The Tsar of Love and Techno even weaves in a story at the edge of the solar system.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is at its best when Marra sticks to his main plot: people struggling to live their lives during the worst years of the Soviet Union and, later, Russia, and, in the process, creating beauty and hope out of dire circumstances. Some of his turns into surrealism and magical realism work well, but others just serve to confuse the story.

The Tsar of Love and Techno is one of those books that grows on the reader as it progresses. It would be a welcome addition to any holiday reading list.

Posted in Thinking Aloud | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

News You Really Need To See: “Danish Measure Would Allow Seizure of Refugees’ Jewelry”

“Danish Measure Would Allow Seizure of Refugees’ Jewelry”

The Washington Post, December 18, 2015, p.A12

In recent months, Denmark has taken a fairly harsh stance toward refugees.  In September, for example, authorities published an ad in Lebanese newspapers carrying an unmistakable message to foreigners who might think about seeking asylum: Don’t come to Denmark.  Now, the country is debating another and even more extreme step: The government is considering a law that would allow authorities to confiscate jewelry from refugees entering the country.  The proposal is almost certain to pass Parliament. … The law would also impact refugees already in the country.  It is included in an asylum policy bill that is expected to pass Parliament in January and would be set to take effect by next February.  Police authorities would be allowed to seize valuables and cash amounts they deem expensive enough. … Although the seized valuables are supposed to pay for refugee-related expenditures, the financial impact could be of less consequence. Experts say the Danish government is more interested in sending a message.”

Quickie analysis:  What’s next?  Rounding up refugees into camps to help defray the costs of housing them?

Posted in News You Really Need To See | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking Aloud: Terrorism Is (Still) Terrorism

Nov. 29, 2015 by Darius 

Yesterday, a man opened fire at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado, killing three people and wounding more than 10 before being taken into custody. The motivation for the shooting by all accounts was an ideological hatred of abortion. The governor of Colorado and others have condemned the shooting as an act of terrorism. Functionally, though, nobody is treating the Colorado crime as a terrorist attack.

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks, the death or capture of the perpetrator or perpetrators is not the end of the story. Instead, there follows a huge manhunt for possible accomplices and, just as importantly, for those who may have motivated or incited the attack. In the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, for instance, police arrested nearly a dozen other people. Most were quickly released, although several were charged with lesser crimes and one friend was sentenced to six years in prison.

However, none of this happens after typical right-wing terrorist attacks such as yesterday’s Planned Parenthood shooting or the shooting at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, several months ago. Instead, these home-grown, non-Muslim cases are dismissed as the sad but predictable work of a disturbed white male and shoehorned into becoming either (a) a mental health issue or (b) a gun control issue. There might be some general hand-wringing about radical discourse, but concrete action never follows. The Planned Parenthood shooter has already been pigeonholed as a disturbed loner. It is not a terribly risky prediction to say that there will be a much smaller investigation, if any, of any associates or contacts who might have radicalized him or helped him along the path to murder.

Just like Islamist terrorists, right-wing terrorists are plugged into communities of like-minded extremists. Why are these communities not being targeted and dismantled by law enforcement? After all, terrorism is terrorism. Or does terrorism require a brown, or at least swarthy, perpetrator to merit the “terrorism” moniker in the US?

Terrorism is politically motivated violence designed to instill fear in civilian populations, and white, right-wing terrorism – and the radicalization process leading to it – needs to be taken as seriously by US law enforcement as any other terrorism.

I’ll believe it when I see the associates and the political and religious mentors of the Planned Parenthood shooter taken into custody. If that doesn’t happen, we should all be asking why not. The three people killed in Colorado yesterday are just as dead as the result of politically motivated violence as the three people killed at the Boston Marathon two and a half years ago.

Posted in Thinking Aloud | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

News You Really Need To See: “Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight”

“Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Yemen Fight”

The New York Times, November 26, 2015, p.A1

The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.  It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project.  The program was once managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, but the people involved in the effort said that his role ended several years ago and that it has since been run by the Emirati military.  The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels who have pushed the Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana.  Supporting Yemen’s deposed government Saudi Arabia.  It is also a glimpse into the future of war.  Wealthy Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have in recent years embraced a more aggressive military strategy throughout the Middle East, trying to rein in the chaos unleashed by the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010.  But these countries wade into the new conflicts — whether in Yemen, Syria or Libya — with militaries that are unused to sustained warfare and populations with generally little interest in military service. … The Latin American force in the Emirates was originally conceived to carry out mostly domestic missions — guarding pipelines and other sensitive infrastructure and possibly putting down riots in the sprawling camps housing foreign workers in the Emirates — according to corporate documents, American officials and several people involved in the project. … The Emiratis have spent the equivalent of millions of dollars equipping the unit, from firearms and armored vehicles to communications systems and night vision technology.  But Emirati leaders rarely visit the camp.  When they do, the troops put on tactical demonstrations, including rappelling from helicopters and driving armored dune buggies.  And yet they stay largely because of the money, receiving salaries ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 a month, compared with approximately $400 a month they would make in Colombia.  Those troops who deploy to Yemen will receive an additional $1,000 per week, according to a person involved in the project and a former senior Colombian military officer.”

Quickie analysis:  The modus operandi of the Gulf: start a war, then pay other people to do the dying.

Posted in News You Really Need To See | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thinking Aloud: What’s in a Name? A Fight for the Past

Nov. 19, 2015 by Darius 

Over the past month, students on college campuses across the US have protested continuing racism. The protests have been sparked by a variety of local incidents and have resulted in few concrete changes or even proposals. At Yale, though, there has been a concrete demand on the part of the protesters: rename Calhoun College. Here’s why Calhoun College should keep its name.

Calhoun College is one of Yale’s residential houses, where some students will reside for at least half of their time at Yale. It is named after 19th century South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun, who served at various points as senator, vice president, and secretary of state. Like almost all South Carolinians in politics of during the first half of the 19th century, though, John C. Calhoun was a nasty piece of work when it came to racial issues. He was a leading proponent of slavery and ultimately the political godfather of South Carolina’s secession in 1861, which lit the Civil War.

It’s easy to see why Yale students, especially students descended from slaves, might prefer not to live in a building named after John C. Calhoun. As sensible as it may seem to pick a new name, though, there is a better solution. Keep John C. Calhoun’s name on the building. And in the lobby, construct an exhibit that meticulously details every horrendous thing Calhoun ever said, thought, or wrote. Make the name of Calhoun College not a tribute to John C. Calhoun but rather a permanent documentation of and damnation of his beliefs and actions. At the same time, show how far we’ve come as a society and even how much work we still have ahead of us—a section of the exhibit could cover modern-day racism, whether at Yale, in the US, or around the world.

It would no doubt be easier and cheaper to simply rename Calhoun College. It is a dangerous habit, though, to try to bury what we don’t like about our past or put a more palatable spin on it. (States’ rights? Please.) Try as we may to forget him, John C. Calhoun is a central part of our history. Don’t let the Confederate-flag wavers be the only ones to own him and his story. If, as the pro-Confederate side tends to say, “but it’s just our history,” then let’s examine that history. Let Calhoun College tell the story of that history in all its unpleasant detail. Make it a learning experience. After all, that is the point of higher education.

Posted in Thinking Aloud | Tagged , , | Leave a comment