"White House please, operator"

Gemma Ware


The voices of the continent unite in their welcome for the new president of the United States, tinged with realism


Power came to Nyangoma-Kogelo, Barack Obama’s grandmother’s village, within hours of her grandson’s victory speech. The Kenya Power and Lighting truck, with its men and their cables and electricity posts, were busy connecting the little village to the national grid as the crowds gathered and exulted at Mama Sarah’s front door – a prospect that, if at all it had been envisaged, had never been realistically expected during Mama Sarah’s lifetime.


?Other strange things happened during that historic week in November: a battalion of Caterpillar earthmovers and tipper trucks graded the nine kilometer road leading to the house in four days, a record. There was talk that piped water would soon be installed and that the airport in Kisumu was going to be upgraded to international status. In those heady days of November 2008, in completely unprecedented fashion, the government was actually delivering ‘development’ to a people marginalized since independence. So hurriedly that it barely had time to examine the political implications. It seemed that a new era was dawning in which the new stature of Kogelo would accelerate progress. ?


Certainly there will be parts of the African continent where Obama’s election will herald fast, concrete and visible changes, like Kogelo. More subtle and substantial changes could also be on the way for Africa – particularly in areas affected by the political spillover from a Middle East brought to boiling point by the previous administration. A more engaged US State Department, until now overshadowed by the Department of Defense, will also help unwind some of the more tangled US deployments in Mali and Algeria.

Messages for the new
President Obama

Mustapha Khalfi
Moroccan journalist

Abdirahman Abdishakur Warsame
Somalian politician
Pokuaa Busumru-Banson
South African student

Donu Kogbara
Nigerian consultant


Losing its shine?


But a sense of realism has gradually set in. For many people in his ancestral Nyanza Province and beyond, the disenchantment with the performance of the Kenyan coalition government has dampened Obama-mania. Almost a year into the coalition government, all that the Kenyan public has experienced is a rise in the cost of living and an increasingly draconian state. There is now less a feeling that the world will change as a result of Obama’s victory than there is one of pride that ‘one of their own’ sits on top of the world.


?“I don’t think people are expecting much to change,” says Steve Sande, a Kisumu resident and a youth activist. “People here are very proud that one of our own is in the White House, but nobody is thinking that doors are suddenly going to open as a result. Obama will have a lot on his plate, including sorting out the mess in Gaza. He will have very little time to turn his attention to us.”?


Poverty and possibilities


?Nyanza Province in western Kenya, from where Obama’s father hailed, remains one of the most neglected parts of the country, with one of the highest levels of poverty in the country. Having produced a disproportionate share of Kenya’s dissidents during the eras of Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, it was ‘denied’ development by successive Kenyan governments. ?


Will a US economy in trouble have the political capital available to extend programmes like the African Growth and Opportunity Act? Can it deepen its trade links with the continent beyond oil imports, potentially at the expense of American jobs? Will the new president have much time to spare for the rest of the world, given the huge clear-up job he has been handed at home??


Ultimately the most important news may be a change of tone from the US and the importance of the president as a symbol. Children growing up today in Asia, the US, Europe and Africa will see a black man running the most powerful country in the world. Old prejudice will melt, self-confidence will be released – two powerful gifts to take forward. ?


As one text message doing the rounds across Nigeria had it: “Rosa Parks sat so that Martin Luther King could march, Martin Luther King marched so that Obama could run and Obama ran so that our children could fly.”

Niger Delta: A dangerous masquerade

Gemma Ware


The declining price of oil changes the balance of power in the Niger Delta, while central government casts around for a way of managing the situation


With oil accounting for 95% of its economy, the shrinking price of crude oil has begun to spell trouble for Nigeria, the fifth largest producer in OPEC. The drop in price of more than $100 per barrel since July has already reduced the flows of foreign exchange into the government’s coffers by billions of dollars. The fall in foreign currency reserves and the weakening of the naira have begun to put harsh pressure on President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who came to office in 2007 with ambitious plans to diversify the economy away from oil.?


Seen from the Niger Delta, the source of most of Nigeria’s oil and gas, the idea of breaking the country’s long-running dependence on oil appears unimaginable, and yet some experts believe that the decline in oil prices could present an opportunity for a break with oil dependence and the combustible politics that go with it. But others are not so confident, largely because the sheer complexity of Delta militancy carries the risk of getting out of hand. With its recent history of protests, kidnappings, bombings and attacks on infrastructure, the insecurity in the Delta has begun to pose a threat to the stability of the whole of Nigeria.?

Interview: Don 'Smokey' Gold
Former Niger Delta militant


The Delta’s unrest grew out of a background of disputes between oil companies and communities – which in many areas like Ogoniland have dragged on for decades – but it is now led not only by militants with clear political motivations, but also by criminal gangs. The militant movements have their roots in fraternal orders, cults and youth groups, from which militant leaders and criminal gangsters find it easy to recruit new members.?


When oil fetched more than $100 a barrel, the instability and losses were accepted by the industry as part of the price of doing business. Although, for now, there is the appearance of calm – or at least a fairly predictable level of disruption, mayhem and occasional murder – industry analysts are already predicting that if the global oil price drops below $30, then the oil business in Nigeria could become untenable for most operators. This could have unforeseen consequences.?


Over the past four years, the main onshore producer, Shell Petroleum Development Company, has been repeatedly forced to suspend production from various onshore facilities, reducing output at times by as much as 250,000 barrels a day. Shell and the other major companies, including Chevron and Exxon, have frequently called on the federal government for additional troops to protect their facilities, and it is no secret that Shell has even begun to consider the possibility of a complete withdrawal from its onshore operations in the Delta.


?Behind the current appearance of relative calm lies a complex mix of deals between the Delta’s politicians and militants. Delta State governor Emmanuel Uduaghan champions a policy of accommodating armed groups rather than carrying out military operations to disarm and disrupt them. In January 2008, a key militant leader, Tom ‘Government’ Pollo, was awarded a N6.7bn (approximately $50m) oil pipeline contract.?


Typifying the confusion in policy is the record of bodies like the Delta Waterways Security Committee (DWSC). Created to mediate disputes between communities and oil companies, and to keep the creeks safe for shipping, the DWSC is now suspected of involvement in both violence and oil theft in order to justify its own budget, which runs into millions of naira every month. Even the military Joint Task Force (JTF), charged with tackling the militants in the region, has expressed concerns about the DWSC.


A situation ‘under control’


?In one recent incident on 2 January this year, the JTF commander, Brigadier General Wuyep Rimtip, blamed local youths rather than militants for blowing up a pipeline operated by Italy’s Agip near Burutu, Delta State. For its part, the DWSC sent a delegation that it said would “investigate and bring the situation under control”.?


The theft and ‘bunkering’ (loading) of oil involves both militants and government officials. For his part, one former militant, Don ‘Smokey’ Gold, says: “Government and company officials are the biggest bunkerers of oil... Government and company vehicles and other equipment are involved, not only in bunkering but also in other crimes.”?


Militancy in the Delta involves two distinct interest groups. The hard core is made up of well-trained and well-armed forces with an ideological mission. Militant leaders like ‘Government’ Pollo can call on several thousand heavily armed irregular fighters, billeted in at least six permanent training camps and capable of carrying out rapid attacks on oil infrastructure, then disappearing into the creeks.?


The other interest group is the criminal gangs – such as those led by Ateke Tom and Soboma George – who like to claim affinity to the militant ideology of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), but whose most profitable activity has been the bunkering of stolen oil in the innumerable creeks of the Delta.?


Symbols of resistance?


Through press statements and emails, MEND has become a rallying point for armed resistance to the status quo, but it recruits its members from criminal gangs, youth groups, cults and even some NGOs. Figures identified with MEND such as Dokubo Asari and Henry Okah remain important to the movement as symbols of resistance more than as day-to-day leaders and ideologues, but the leadership remains deliberately obscure, even to its own rank-and-file adherents.


?Community rights campaigners on the ground say there are tens of thousands of potential recruits, attracted by the promise of ready money, who would join in any renewed crime wave that may accompany any further meltdown in the Delta.?


As world oil prices soared, the combination of armed insurrection and criminal violence was highly profitable for those with links in both camps but, with oil prices sliding, this may no longer be sustainable. The days when a single militant’s phone call to a news agency led to an oil price spike are over.?Damka Pueba, a community rights activist from the Delta-based Stakeholder Democracy Network, describes the atmosphere in early 2009 thus: “It’s not peace, it’s just quiet. At the end of the day, things are going to spill over.”?


The recent ‘business as usual’ that keeps the crisis in the Delta on hold fails to address the urgent need for roads, schools, jobs and the diversification that could break the dependence on oil, community advocates like Pueba say. ?


Nigerian journalist and Delta native Ibiba Don Pedro believes that while there is a new set of political players in Delta politics, they are busy creating new business opportunities for themselves. “On the surface it looks like we are moving away from the [former President Olusegun] Obasanjo years of corruption. But in Rivers State, civil servants are still not being paid. The looting is still going on. Officials are still using banks for money laundering.” She adds: “Public/private partnerships have been announced but there is nothing yet on ground.” ?


The Niger Delta has waited for decades for investment in public services and infrastructure like electricity and transport that could help bring about the region’s renaissance, and it is still waiting. There was a major setback for development projects when Nigeria’s best-known construction firm, Julius Berger, pulled out of the Delta in mid-2008 after concerted attacks on its personnel. The current decline in federal and state oil income means that even less new investment is likely to happen in 2009.?


As formal and illicit revenue streams start to dry up, affecting the security in the Delta and the stability of the oil sector, life in the region could become even more risky. If the corrupt revenue flowing into the militant networks starts to run out at the same time as their hundreds of thousands of potential new recruits see their firebrand leaders growing rich, this could feed a very dangerous cycle.?Ibiba Don Pedro says the military JTF has been chasing the smaller militant groups but leaving the bigger oil thieves alone, and she notes: “People are not speaking out. People are not asking questions.”?


The JTF has to appear to be doing something in order to justify its existence, as, like many of the other political actors in the Delta, it is accused of having a vested interest in maintaining a stalemate. But its leaders know that if they attack the main MEND leadership, the latter could shut down all production within days and spark a conflict that could last for years.?


Unlike kidnapping and other criminal rackets, militant violence in the Delta is for the most part a form of non-lethal political theatre. None of the players seriously wants a war. Yet if the cycle of poverty, desperation and envy fills the militant training camps, the final act could yet end in a tragedy without a script.?


The familiar village-level masquerade – the role-play of the social and cosmic order – is in many ways being replicated on a larger scale in the political games being enacted across the Delta. The risk is that the masks that key actors wore when oil was at record highs may not suit a hastily-revised script. It is this sense of uncertainty and danger – as the symbols of power in Nigeria change once again and the actors are forced to improvise – that may spark a shooting war by accident rather than by design.


Niger Delta militant attacks 2008

Interview: Don 'Smokey' Gold, a former Niger Delta militant


The Africa Report: Is the government doing anything to address the underlying causes of the crisis?


?Don ‘Smokey’ Gold: The government and leaders of Niger Delta are working superficially and paying lip service to the Delta’s problems. There is no geniuneness in the pursuit of the problems to a logical conclusion. Their self-interest and gains are greater than the interest they might have in solving the problems.?The Ministry [for the Niger Delta] they set up recently is fattening their pockets and [is] not for the development of the region.


?Is the government serious about tackling oil bunkering??


The adage says when the head is rotten the other parts of the body cannot function well or not at all. This adage goes a long way to explaining the bunkering situation in the country. The seriousness should start from the top. There is no problem that cannot be tackled if there is seriousness of purpose from the government.?Government officials are the main bunkerers. They hide under the civilians and even when these civilians are eventually arrested, they will bring out their ugly heads to free them with huge sums of money. In fact, this generation has a long, long way to go to tackle the bunkering due to the high level of corruption. I see no seriousness.?


Are the oil companies doing anything to improve the lives of people in the Delta?


?The oil companies are not the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. They are here purely for profit maximisation. The extent of their help should be spelt out in the memorandums of understanding (MOUs) signed by them and host communities.?The oil companies tried initially to [live up to] their MOUs but the so-called office-holders and royal majesties from various oil-producing communities killed the efforts of the companies. Because of this, the companies are deviating from their MOUs.?Office-holders and royal majesties have conspired with companies’ representatives to enrich themselves, because the companies’ representatives have seen that representatives from various oil-producing communities are so corrupt. So they all work together. That is the reason why you hear people from various oil-producing communities complaining. But they fail to understand that it is a game of conspiracy.


Back to Niger Delta, A dangerous masquerade

Editorial: Credit-crunch politics


“Cui bono?” a FRIEND asked pointedly while we were waiting for Ghana’s election results in one of Accra’s more popular hotels. He was of that generation of Ghanaians who had spent their formative years declining Latin nouns and translating Virgil’s Aeneid. “Why the winner of course, that’s who benefits!” I replied impatiently.


?“Not our election, the bigger picture. Look at it all – crashing oil prices weaken Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Russia’s oligarchs are ruined as the gas price heads south and what chance for China’s plans to outstrip the US economy by 2025 when it’s closing factories and sacking millions of workers. And American workers are rejoicing as their fuel prices tumble. Cui bono?” he boomed.?


As other hotel guests, bored with waiting for the results, turned to listen to this high- volume exposition, my friend warmed to his conspiratorial theme. The credit crunch, he insisted, was a put-up job by the few surviving investment banks: they had made huge profits and huge errors, so they invented a huge crisis to cover it up and then got the outgoing Republican administration to bail them out with hundreds of billions of dollars. ??


“And why should Africa have to pay for this nonsense?” he concluded rhetorically. Like many, he was hopeful that after a decade of economic growth and a few good elections, such as Ghana’s, that Africa was turning the corner. Now Africa’s plans were put on hold because of great power shenanigans, and its good economic prospects would be reversed.?


His audience quickly divided into conspiracy buffs buying into his theory and rationalist opponents who argued that economic interdependence meant everybody’s boats would be sinking in the credit crunch.?


China needed its mass sales to the US market, while the US, as the world’s biggest debtor, needed Chinese finance, the gainsayers concluded. They are locked in each other’s embrace. “Ah, but who wins at the end of the day?” flashed back the conspiratorialists.?


That the credit crunch changes everyone’s political calculations, at least, is beyond dispute. It was Barack Obama’s reaction to the evolving crisis that enabled him to pull so decisively ahead of John McCain in last year’s US elections. And it was John Atta Mills’s selective borrowings from the Obama electoral lexicon that gave him an edge over his rival Nana Akufo-Addo in Ghana’s cliff-hanger elections. Like Obama, Atta Mills won support by spelling out how the economic slowdown would hit the voters’ living standards and how change would help them. ??


We will hear a lot about change from politicians this year. In Ghana, ‘change’ is local slang for a tip or gratuity. And in South Africa, the ANC’s embattled Jacob Zuma promises change and better conditions for those left without jobs and decent houses amid the post-apartheid transformation. But with South Africa’s economic growth forecast to slow drastically as capital inflows decline, Zuma will struggle to deliver. The impact of the global slowdown will not be lost on the ANC’s new rivals in the Congress of the People.?


Other Southern African ruling parties facing elections – in Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia – have to tackle the credit-crunch effect, whether falling oil prices for Angola or crashing demand for Botswana’s and Namibia’s diamonds, or falling aid and tourism receipts for the others. And in West Africa’s Guinea, junior officers have mounted the first credit-crunch coup with over $10bn in mining investments at stake.?


Credit-crunch politics will mean weaker economies and harder-pressed ruling parties across Africa, slower GDP and export growth, wobblier currencies, lower investment and higher government borrowing. Opposition parties are gearing up for heroic election struggles this year, taking Ghana as their model. For them, harder times may mean more votes. That’s the change they can believe in.

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Message to Obama from Nigeria

Gemma Ware

Donu Kogbara, consultant, Nigeria



“Nigerians, both here and abroad, phoned each other to scream “We’ve won!” Euphoric text messages were sent by Obama fans in Kano, Jos, Enugu and Lagos. We have, since that jubilant morning, constantly reminded ourselves that Obama is American, not African – despite his touching willingness to identify with the Kenyan roots he inherited from his largely absent and – let’s face it – negligent father.


The thing about typical Nigerians – regardless of class or tribe – is that they don’t generally expect salvation from external forces, don’t particularly want some foreign leader to interfere in their affairs, don’t share the Arab view that America is the ‘Great Satan’ and are more interested in partnering with Halliburton executives than in getting them jailed or excluded!”


Back to other messages for Obama

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