30 September, 2014

The Comoros Islands: Interlinked Domestic, Regional and Global Security Issues

by Virgil Hawkins

Don't be fooled by the relatively small size of the country, and its virtual absence from media coverage and discussions on peace and security in the region and beyond. The Comoros archipelago, situated in the Mozambique Channel, has a host of complex security issues that make it very relevant.

The Comoron capital, Moroni

Ostensibly freed from French colonial rule in 1975, the independence of the Comoros did not exactly signify a clean break. One of the four islands of the archipelago (Mayotte, or Mahoré) voted in a controversial referendum in 1974 to remain under French rule. As the United Nations granted membership to the Comoros, its General Assembly also recognized Comoran claims to the island. France has ignored the resolution. Since independence, the Comoros has experienced at least twenty coups and attempted coups. Four of these were led by French mercenary, Bob Denard, who, at least initially acted with the tacit support of the French government. The latest coup attempt, in April 2013, involved French mercenary Patrick Klein, who worked under the now late Bob Denard.

But it is not just such meddling by the French government and some of its citizens that has threatened the stability of the Comoros. With three islands under the control of the government (Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan), the country has always been faced with the challenge of maintaining unity and the perception of an even balance of power. Coups have resulted from frustration that power has been unfairly concentrated on the largest island, Grand Comore, as have a number of separatist attempts by the islands of Moheli and Anjouan, the latest of which was eventually crushed with the aid of an intervention by African Union forces in 2008. A new constitution in 2001 created the Union of the Comoros, giving greater autonomy to each of the islands.

The island remaining under French rule, Mayotte, is now a French Overseas Department, and an outermost region of the European Union. It also hosts a detachment of the French Foreign Legion. Thanks to French financial assistance, the island has a per-capita GDP that is ten times greater than the other islands of the archipelago. This huge gap in wealth and has resulted in waves of largely illegal migration from the Union of the Comoros to Mayotte (a visa is required), with people seeking jobs, medical care, and/or a generally better life. As a representative of the Comoran Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, “poverty knows no borders”. Thousands have died in unsuccessful attempts to reach Mayotte by boat. Mayotte also appears to be serving to some degree as a hub for the smuggling of drugs destined for Europe.

A billboard in Moroni: "Mayotte is Comoran and forever will be"

As if these problems were not enough, the threat of Somali piracy, thankfully now in decline, also reached the Mozambique Channel and Comoros. Understandably complicated relations between Comoros and France were set aside to overcome this issue, with a military cooperation agreement reached between the two countries, aimed at enhancing the protection of the territorial waters of Comoros.

The issue of a potential 'terrorist threat' (the particular variety perceived as being connected to Islamic extremism) is also being raised, both within and outside of the Comoros. The country, in which as much as 99 percent of the population belongs to the Muslim faith, has not had a past associated with Islamic extremism or connections with international 'terrorism'. A poll of gender experts, for example, found Comoros to be the best country in the Arab world to be a woman. But the fact that many Comoran students have been undertaking religious studies in countries that do face issues of Islamic extremism – a number of Gulf states, Pakistan and Sudan, for example – has been giving some cause for concern. It is worth noting that Al Qaeda's former top commander in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was of Comoran origin.

From a slightly broader perspective, it is interesting to note that, for a variety of geopolitical reasons, the Comoros and the Western Indian Ocean region at large have been increasingly attracting the attention of many of the world's powerful players. The ever-present French relationship aside, development aid is naturally one of the manifestations of the interest of other powers. China has a long history of aid to the Comoros, for example, and this has recently included a large-scale malaria eradication scheme. India keeps a close watch on China's influence in the region (it has listening stations in Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles), and has stepped in with with soft loans for development projects. Gulf states are also stepping up their assistance, with Qatar opening an embassy in the capital, Moroni, in August 2014. Closer to home, Tanzania, which has significant historical and cultural ties with the country, also established an embassy in 2013.

With such interconnected domestic, regional and global peace and security issues, we would do well to include the Comoros in our consideration of the region. Last week, it was announced, without a reason being given, that legislative elections scheduled for December this year, were being postponed by three months. Let's hope it is a simple technicality and not a sign of any further political instability on the archipelago.

18 September, 2014

Political Opposition in SA Unites

by Hussein Solomon

There is a welcome new political maturity amongst South Africa’s political opposition which is a positive development. Following general elections earlier this year, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) appointed its National Chairperson, Ms. Baleke Mbete as the new Speaker of parliament. Eyebrows were raised since whilst the Speaker does emanate from the majority party, s/he is expected to stand above party politics and for this reason is not usually a party leader. Instead, the Speaker is expected to maintain the integrity of Parliament and stand above the fray of party politics.

President Zuma with Ms. Baleke Mbete (Photo: GCIS)

At the time of her appointment, then, speculation was rife amongst analysts that the reason for her deployment to Parliament had a lot to do with the perception amongst ANC leaders that she must go to Parliament to stifle dissent amongst ANC back-benchers and to muzzle the opposition. Indeed, the ANC had a torrid time in the previous National Assembly when cabinet ministers were taken to task by members of the political opposition and shown wanting. Meanwhile, ANC back-benchers walked out on key votes threatening the ANC’s majority. Ms. Mbete’s second tenure as Speaker proved pundits right. She has attempted to shield the executive from criticism whilst stifling debate on crucial questions. At the same time, she proved to have a rather thin skin when faced with probing questions regarding her own conduct. This is an unfortunate character trait in a Speaker of Parliament. At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that the street brawl tactics of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) merely added fuel to the fire.

Given Ms. Mbete’s repeated attempts to shield the executive from scrutiny, members of the opposition decided that there was far more at stake than their personal egos and the changing fortunes of their respective political parties. What was at stake was nothing less than the future of South Africa’s constitutional democracy. At its core was a system of checks and balances with Parliament holding the executive to account for its actions and any abuses of power. Unfortunately the abuse of power seems to be characterizing the Zuma Administration and therefore there is a desperate need for a robust Parliament to play its role of watch-dog with tenacity.

As such the political opposition decided to unite in an effort to protect the integrity of Parliament and our constitutional democracy and call for a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker. Whilst a united opposition certainly do not make up the votes necessary to oust Ms. Mbete, given the ANC’s majority, it surely must be a wake-up call to the ANC. More importantly, its presages a new political maturity amongst the political opposition to make common cause in defence of South Africa’s hard-won democracy.

03 September, 2014

Another False Coup: Tom Thabane's Inevitable Loss of Power

by M. K. Mahlakeng

“I have been removed from control by the armed forces”
PM Tom Thabane, eNCA News, 29th August 2014

“I am in South Africa visiting my daughter and would return to Lesotho on Sunday” 
PM Tom Thabane, BBC News, 30th August 2014

These two statements issued by Lesotho's Prime Minister present a contradiction, and serve to question whether an intervention is necessary. In definitional terms, a coup is a “sudden, violent and illegal seizure of power from government, and it is often broadcasted announcing a shift of power into the hands of the military etc.” Thailand serves as a classical example. None of the actions by the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF) are tantamount to what a coup really is. The cause and the epicentre of the current standoff is the PM. The military has done nothing wrong so far.

There is no doubt that Lesotho has had its fair share of political instabilities. The classification of certain recent political crises as coups, however, has been used as a systematic attempt to muddy the waters, compromising the concerns of the opposition, thus inviting the Big Brother to mediate not on the concerns of civilians, but on the concerns related to securing its interests and those of the ruling parties. Hence the PM requested the deployment of troops in the country. This was a similar case to the 1998 bungled Operation Boleas which saw Lesotho in socio-economic ruins.

Thabane is confronted with fears emanating from two inevitable scenarios: 1) the fear of re-opening parliament and facing a no-confidence vote from a grand coalition of parties; and, 2) the fear that he might lose in elections considering his declining popularity. Therefore, in an effort to secure power, Thabane has resorted to an authoritarian style of leadership and has turned the Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS) into a security institution for his All Basotho Convention (ABC).

Prime Minister Tom Thabane

The PM has on recent occasions used the police force as his personal agency to threaten and intimidate members of society (this includes members of the opposition and the military). It was later discovered that the PM intended to use the police to distribute arms and ammunition to his ABC-allied youth movement, Under the Tree Army (UTTA), to destabilise an intended peaceful march by members of the opposition on 1 of September proposing for the re-opening of parliament. Hence a pre-emptive disarmament and barricade of police stations to stem this flow of weapons. With the police losing sovereignty at the hands of political actors, the military as the last agency mandated to ensure peace and security had the right to intervene. Also as argued by the military spokesperson Captain Ntoi, “the army is empowered to prevent terrorism, internal disorder and threats to essential services”.

Thabane must refrain from unilateralism when dealing with crucial national decisions, especially in a coalition government expected to engage in consensus-based politics. Secondly, parliament must resume in order to chart the way forward for Lesotho’s leadership and governance. Thirdly, both security agencies must disengage themselves from the political spheres of the country, only assisting in maintaining order where national security is threatened.

02 September, 2014

President Mugabe's Media 'Freedom'

by Leon Hartwell

The media has an imperative role to play in shaping the societies in which we live. In 1994, the year South Africa became a democracy, then President Nelson Mandela stated, “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference … It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution, so that it can protect our rights as citizens.”

On the 18th of August 2014, Angela Jimu, a photojournalist with the Zimbabwe Mail, was beaten up by police while covering a demonstration in Harare. In Zimbabwe, such attacks against independent journalists and the media have become normalised.

In 1980, then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe was asked by the Swedish magazine Contact whether he would permit “an open, critical press”. He replied, “Yes, sure. This you will see, quite a lot of open criticism in the press. I am for the freedom of the press, really, freedom of expression.”

Newspaper printing press in Bulawayo (Photo: David Brewer)

Looking back at Mugabe’s time in office, the nonagenarian has not been the champion of media freedom that he set out to be. His actions speak louder than his words and there have been many similar and worse violations against media practitioners than that of Jimu’s most recent assault.

One of Mugabe’s problems is that he confuses independence with freedom. He likes to refer to himself and his party members as “liberators” of Zimbabwe. Let us be clear: independence is strictly speaking self-governance and sovereignty over a specific territory. Freedom is much more extensive; it involves “the absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government”.

Mugabe’s interpretation of liberation gives him the impression that it is somehow justifiable to oppress Zimbabweans as long as the oppressor is a native of the country (although Mugabe would exclude White natives from this category). However, as explained, true liberation and freedom is much broader than independence as it goes beyond self-rule. Freedom means that Zimbabweans should not be oppressed by anyone, irrespective of the origin of the rulers.

Political scientists claim, as is the case with milk, that political leaders run the risk of becoming ‘sour’. The shelf-life of a president/prime minister is typically ten years (or even shorter). In a (pseudo) democracy, a leader that performs well, have nothing to worry about (unless there are two-term office limits) as voters would presumably affirm a leader’s good work by voting for him/her. But, when a leader is incompetent or cruel and consequently unpopular, they might use a combination of bribes, threats, or violence in order to cling on to power, further augmenting the souring process. The longer a non-performing leader (intent on staying in office) stays in power, the more mistakes he/she is apt to make, the more he/she has to hide, the more people he/she will owe, the more violence he/she needs to use, the more he/she will have to subdue the truth.

As Mugabe and his cronies became sourer, the Zimbabwean media became more critical about their activities. In response, the regime increasingly clamped down on their ability to report without fear or intervention.

Based on Mugabe’s wrongful interpretation of ‘liberation’ (i.e. self-rule/sovereignty), he also set out to ‘liberate’ the media. The 1980s kicked off by replacing a largely White (minority) dominated media, not with a Black (majority) dominated media geared to serve the public interest, but with a pro-Mugabe/ZANU media. Already in 1981, the then editor of the Manica Post, Jean Maitland-Stuart, was forced to resign after she criticised the use of North Korean experts to train the notorious Fifth Brigade (which was used during the Gukurahundi Massacres). In 1985, the first Black editor of the Sunday Mail, Willie Musarurwa, was also fired after reporting on financial scandals related to Air Zimbabwe. Such early examples should have served as a warning as to future prospects for the media.

From 2000 onwards, Mugabe’s regime introduced numerous pieces of legislation with the intent of further restricting media freedom and freedom of expression. In 2002 alone, ZANU-PF introduced three infamous media gag laws, including the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Broadcasting Service Act (BAZ).

With the formation of the Government of National Unity (GNU) in February 2009, media reform was supposed to have been a priority. Initially the Movement of Democratic Change led by Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC-T) promoted some reforms, but as time went by they became less vocal about the issue. It might have to do with the fact that independent media stopped treating the MDC-T as the underdog outside of government. This meant that the MDC-T, as is the case for ZANU-PF, had to be scrutinized where they made mistakes and when they failed to deliver. Tsvangirai apparently disliked this and wanted the media to treat him and his party with kid gloves. In fact, his aides have on a few occasions threatened and even physically assaulted journalists.

Another reason why the MDC-T perhaps failed to push for media reform, is because there were some slight changes within the media environment, giving the (wrongful) impression that progress has been made. For example, during the GNU years, ZANU-PF licensed five new newspapers, including the Daily News and NewsDay, under the punitive AIPPA.

While the launch of these newspapers was important, they could only reach a limited (largely urban) public as newspapers continue to be expensive for the majority of Zimbabweans. Radio and television therefore remain the most important media to reach the Zimbabwean public. This is why ZANU-PF clings on to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Commission (ZBC) and would only license new radio stations operated by Mugabe’s cronies.

While there were no new independent television stations launched in Zimbabwe during the GNU years, ZANU-PF allowed the entry of two new radio stations into the market, including ZiFM (owned by ZANU-PF’s Supa Mandiwanzira) and StarFM (owned by Zimpapers, ZANU-PF’s chief mouthpiece).

To be clear, there were several anti-ZANU-PF representatives that had some air time on ZiFM and StarFM, perhaps more so than ZBC. This serves to give the illusion that these radio stations are somewhat objective. But, by and large, these radio stations are pro-ZANU-PF. They allow Zanu-PF to set the agenda and public discourse at the expense of the opposition and other alternative viewpoints. Closer to elections, they also become more political.

As a result of the lack of reforms during the GNU years, ZANU-PF continues its hegemonic hold over public discourse. The big loser, of course, is the media and, ultimately, also the Zimbabwean public. The role of the media is to speak truth to power and to keep the public informed. When governments interfere with the media, the latter loses its value.

Thirty four years after Zimbabwe’s independence and his interview with Contact, Mugabe continues to rule a broken nation. Mugabe could have used the media to promote liberal values and to do nation building, he could have asked the media to promote reconciliation and to report the truth. Yet, he has chosen not to. The nonagenarian (and his inner circle) has been in power for so long that he needs a media that will only tell the public what he wants them to believe. Public information then becomes lies (or at the very least half-truths), all to serve the ruling elite. It is in this context that ordinary journalists, like Angela Jimu, will continue to be victims of a ruling elite, which ‘expired’ a long time ago.

*Leon Hartwell is an independent political analyst