Friday, February 26, 2010

Battleship: West Africa

These days are not the greatest for West African nations. Every day it seems like one more of Ghana’s neighbors falls victim to another political fiasco, torpedoed by the powers that be. It makes me understand and appreciate a nation like Ghana even more, which really does seem to rise above the fray and stand out as a beacon of democracy for the rest of the region.

I suppose this recent bout of turmoil started with Nigeria: the most populous African nation, and less than 300 miles East of Ghana. At the end of November 2009, the Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua, conspicuously disappeared. At first it was sort of like, “Hey, has anyone seen the President?” The Nigerian government was silent and the media became restless. For a few days it was sort of a running joke over here, like those old advertising campaigns: “It’s 10pm, do you know where your president is?” or, like the dairy farmers asked: “Got president?” But after a while it became clear, like when a parent discovers that their teenager is not at the friend’s house who was supposed to be having a sleep-over, that something was going on. The game was up, and the silent treatment would no longer work.

As it happened, the government revealed that President Yar’Adua was receiving medical treatment for a heart condition in Saudi Arabia, but the extent of the condition was still kept very close to the vest. As his departure lengthened from weeks to months, rumors of his impending demise and the “power vacuum” in Nigeria strengthened. Compounding the problem, the strongest militant/rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), ended its 3 month cease-fire with threats of all-out assault on the oil and gas industry. After more than two months away, the president finally made the formal transfer of power to the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan (I can’t make this stuff up), mitigating the “power vacuum.” President Yar’Adua flew back to Nigeria earlier this week, and surprise surprise, the vice president isn’t so keen on relinquishing his new powers.

Meanwhile, the president of Ghana’s next door neighbor to the West, Ivory Coast, has deemed it necessary to dissolve the country’s parliament and electoral commission, after accusing the latter of fraud. Elected in 2000 for a 5-year term, Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo has now postponed elections for the sixth time. The latest issue is over the electoral commission trying to add some 400,000 names to the definitive electoral role. In the last month, presidential supporters have been trying to use the courts to remove thousands from the electoral role, whom they deem to be foreigners, and this latest move is no different. According to president Gbagbo, these people are foreigners, and this amounts to fraud. According to the opposition party, these people are from ethnic groups in the north of the country who are unlikely to support Gbagbo. In 2002, the rebel group, New Forces, seized power in the north of the country and formed a power sharing government with Gbagbo, which has been in power ever since. Ex-rebel leader and current Prime Minister, Guillame Soro, has been asked to form a new government. New elections have not been scheduled yet.

If East and West weren’t enough, just last week, Ghana’s neighbor to the North (and East), Niger, experienced a coup when a military junta kidnapped the president and seized power. To the junta’s credit, they say all they want to do is oust a tyrant and hold elections, and they have done nothing to make anyone believe otherwise. To the African Union (AU), however, a coup is still a coup, and they have suspended Niger and threatened sanctions. An article in The Economist on this development points out that despite the AU’s harsh denunciation of the coup, the body has done very little to address the worrying trend of African heads of state abolishing term limits, which Niger’s president Mamadou Tandja did at the end of last year, following in the footsteps of nations like Uganda, Algeria, Chad and Cameroon. It is a major factor that led to the coup in the first place, and a reason why the majority of people in Niger seem to be in favor of it. As a member of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) stated, paraphrasing JFK: "When you make peaceful change impossible, you make violent change inevitable."

For Ghana, its political problems are almost laughably small in comparison. In fact, I did laugh out loud when watching news coverage of the most recent episode. The quick version of the story goes like this: The house of one of Ghana’s ex-presidents, J.J. Rawlings, burned down. All I will say here is that Ghanaians of all political leanings seem to have a soft spot for this guy (who is “very charismatic” according to Dennis), and his story of multiple coups and democracy in Ghana is really very interesting. But anyways, his house burned down and the public was pretty distraught, calling for the current administration in power (Rawling’s own party, the National Democratic Congress (NDC)) to help him and his family in some way. Meanwhile, a member of the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP), Mr. Nana Darkwa, went on radio and said that he had evidence that Rawlings had burned his house down himself, inferring that he would capitalize on the insurance and the help the current administration would surely provide. The guy was then arrested and thrown in prison, on what charges, I am not sure. The NPP was obviously furious, and the news coverage I laughed at was showing the NPP members, noses in the air, holding a walk-out of a parliamentary session in protest. I could only be reminded of the trial scene in “Animal House,” and was just disappointed that the NPP members weren’t also humming the national anthem as they departed.

Now, I know that this is not all that funny, and regardless of his so-called evidence (which turned out to be bogus), it is a serious case of freedom of speech and individual liberties, but I can’t really help the connections my mind makes sometimes. Ghana’s democracy is still very nascent, relatively, and they are learning that you can’t just throw someone in jail because he/she said something derogatory about your friend on the radio. I’m not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure a lawsuit has to filed with legitimate charges brought forth against the accused (in this case maybe slander or defamation), and a free and fair trial has to be held before you can throw someone in jail. In this vein, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Darkwa has since been released on bail, and the charges will most likely be dropped…baby steps.

Like I said, Ghana is learning, but its democratic institutions seem to be strong, and its problems are laughably small compared to some of its aforementioned neighbors. I know that to compare the political troubles of West African states to a game of battleship is to trivialize them. But again, I can’t really help the connections my mind makes, and recently, it sort of feels that way. Our fellow ships are being torpedoed all around us, and we’ve cleverly hidden our vessel along the bottom row of the board. Who will be the next victim and how long will we remain unscathed? These are the unanswerable questions being discussed at the water cooler, while everyone crosses their fingers that the next number called isn’t ours.

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