No, Dong

So. Johnnie Walker-loving mass murderer Kim Jong-il may be dying. Although it's obviously difficult to tell - he was apparently dying from a stroke in 2008. And from fatal pancreatic cancer in 2009. He's such a tease.

The real question, of course, is whether it's actually going to make any difference if the loveable little Nork-knome kicks it? Media coverage of the Democratic People's Republic seems to suffer more acutely than that of any other country from 'dictatoritis': the implausible belief that the intractability of an international crisis is entirely due to the fact that a single uncompromising psychopath has, despite the political handicap of judgement-obscuring mental illness, somehow managed to seize and maintain control of an entire nation. Just displace Kim and his unhinged family, goes this line of argument, and a new dawn rises over Pyongyang. And while we've all learned to love to hate Bashir, Saddam, Uncle Bob, nowhere has international strategy bought into a dictator's own personality myth as completely as in the case of North Korea.

It seems to be North Korea's 'crime as foreign policy' that encourages the Team America theory of Korean IR. The ballistic missile proliferation. The mass currency forgery. The dodgy Ilyushins laden with weapons on their way to Iran. They all make it easier to think of North Korea as a country captured by a single mad criminal family. In fact, states captured by mafias and crime dynasties (rather than wider elites) seem to tend to be weak states with a lot of ungoverned political space (think central Asia), not highly controlled autocracies like North Korea. Why shouldn't we see the Korean situation instead as something much more common: a state with a corrupt but comprehensive government apparatus, a predictably self-interested elite, locked like others into an intractable but familiar strategic deadlock with a militarily competitive neighbour?

Ballistic missile testing is a case in point. When the Norks test a missile, as in 2009, the Security Council does a Chapter VII nut. Quite right too. It's not often remarked, though, that South Korea also likes ballistic missiles. Enough to have a clandestine procurement programme. It's just that no-one talks about it like that, because it's called a 'civilian space programme', and it does ostensibly useful things like launching 'satellites for climate change research' (so that's all right then). Everyone's very sympathetic when South Korean ballistic missile (sorry, satellite launch vehicle) tests blow up. As in June this year, when South Korea's KSLV-1 rocket exploded moments after take-off. How did the BBC report it?

South Korea's first launch of the two-stage KSLV-1, in August last year, failed to place its satellite payload into the proper orbit.

Four months previously, an attempted space launch by North Korea was deemed to have failed when the US reported that both rocket stages had fallen into the Pacific Ocean.

The North's launch was seen as a cover for a long-range missile test, and prompted UN sanctions.

Pyongyang had voiced irritation at the South's rocket development, but most other powers in the region accepted that its attempt was part of a peaceful civilian programme.

But space rockets are, um, ballistic missiles. Few space programmes are purely civilian or commercial. Even if they genuinely have civilian objectives, they're always developing countries' ability to launch warheads too. Is it any wonder that North Korea gets a bit priapic (and vice-versa, of course)?

Interestingly, as everyone was comiserating earlier this year about South Korea's rocket test failure, a little-reported Florida court case opened an interesting window into South Korea's space programme. It's a grubbily instructive little tale.

According to the court papers: Juwhan Yun, a South-Korean-born naturalised US citizen running a New Jersey-registered company called Blue Hill Corporation, was arrested in April 2009. In May 2010 he finally entered a guilty plea, admitting to brokering a series of illegal arms deals - illegal because Blue Hill Corporation was completely unregistered as an arms broker. Yun had apparently acted for the Korean government to procure everything from Nike missile components, Russian Sukhoi-27 fighter jets, and US-made F-5 and F-16 parts, to an 'RD-180 propulsion system', also from Russia. According to correspondence between Yun and a confidential informant quoted in the investigating agent's affidavit, the RD-180 propulsion system was intended for the KSLV-2, the successor rocket to the KSLV-1 'climate change research satellite' launch rocket that failed this year. Yen apparently told the informant's company that Russia had recently refused to sell the RD-180 rocket engines to South Korea.

While insisting he wanted to do 'legitimate business', Yun appears to have been trying to make arrangements for technology transfer to South Korea in spite of the Russian refusal: leveraging the informant's Russian contacts to obtain RD-180 manuals and technical documentation from Russia, and then trying to find a "retired expert/specialist with much experience at the right job" - apparently approaching a scientist at the University of Central Florida's Aerospace Program - to teach the South Koreans how to nativise the RD-180 rocket engines.

In his post-arrest statements Jun stated that he was working for a "subcontractor for the KSLV programme". The company isn't named in the court papers, but we are coyly told that "a check of public source information via the internet verified that the company identified by Yun is listed as a member of the Korea Defense Industry Association and was previously involved in the Altitude and Orbit Control Subsystem and the Propulsion Subsystem development for the Korean KOMPSAT-1 satellite." It doesn't exactly require a super-sleuth to repeat the googling. Which company? Well I wouldn't want to libel anyone, but, um, think of one of South Korea's largest conglomerates, rhyming with "Whanwha".

If Yun was telling the truth, then it's nice that South Korea's leading industrialists, and its government, were still doing business with him. Because he has some serious form: here he is in 1989,

just after being sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison (and barred permanently from the US arms brokering register) for yet more illegal arms trading. This first time round, Yun had similarly set up shop in the US to buy munitions for South Korea, and ended up acting as an agent for a South Korean trading company while negotiating with a notorious UK arms dealer to buy bombs filled with Sarin nerve gas that Yun told his contacts were for sale to Iran (the deal never went through).

Hmmm. Clandestine ballistic missile procurement? Government-linked arms procurers trying to flog nerve gas to Iran on the side? Which Korea would that be then?

I'm not trying to equate North Korea with South Korea. For instance, the South Korean government doesn't like human rights very much, but it's yet to preside over the starvation of several millions of its citizens.

Nor are South Korea's government, companies or agents unusually dodgy. The point is simply that all governments under military and strategic pressure get involved in this kind of dodgy stuff. The Korean stand-off is a conflict like many others, with aggression, clandestinity and strategic deadlock on both sides. Its resolution, equally, is likely to require political movement on both sides - compromise, not a lucky bout of pancreatic cancer.


The world turn'd upside down

For various reasons (mainly a new job) I've been thinking a lot about "international development" recently. The development industry's interventions are always socially transformative. Fair enough: whatever you may think about it, social and economic change - "development" - is supposed to be the point. But the direction of social transformation promoted - or permitted - in the Majority World by Western governments and development agencies is often constrained. Constrained either by a liberal self-censorship that prohibits the imperialism of modernisation, and prioritises instead a georgic vision of prosperous, stable, discrete,self-sufficient (and generally rural) communities; or, more straightforwardly, constrained by donors' and developers' conservative tolerance for some social transformations, but not others. With some significant exceptions, Western development donors and agencies are generally in favour of equalising relations between men and women. They're sometimes supportive of formal political democracy (or, more commonly, it's technocratic cousin, 'governance'). And increasingly some agencies promote measures to end unequal power relations experienced by other disempowered groups, such as disabled people.

But one of the last liberal development taboos - even in the Minority World - seems to be to fundamentally challenge power relations between children and adults. And the institution where development practitioners are perhaps at their most self-congratulatory is the key site where children - everywhere - are disempowered and repressed by adults: school. Schools obviously instantiate, inculcate and reproduce unequal power relations of all kinds. And as a result, it's probably fair to say that almost all school eduaction involves widespread and systematic violations of children's human rights. Day in, day out, children at school are denied free expression; are arbitrarily deprived of their liberty and property; have their privacy routinely violated; and are in many cases subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.

I'm not suggesting that this is any great hidden scandal. It's a mark of how fundamental the powerlessness of children is in our societies that these deprivations of rights garner almost universal acceptance by adults and children alike. And since wealthy, western societies continue to pretend that they're not happening, you wouldn't expect children's powerlessness to be challenged by our liberal efforts to remake other societies.

Which is why I'm pretty surprised by this: a project to train up Ugandan schoolchildren as education and anti-corruption monitors - to monitor their own teachers. As one of the schoolchildren describes it to ActionAid:

"Every fortnight, we go and see the head teacher and ask him questions. We ask for the receipts for what has been spent and also check the physical amount of things bought. We see whether the head teacher has bought the things or if he has just eaten the money. We would know if the head teacher has eaten the money because we look at the receipts to see if they are forged. We check the displays of releases of money which is required under UPE [Universal Primary Education], and we count the children class by class. If something is wrong, we report this to the head teacher. If the head teacher does not accept what we say, we call the teachers and tell them. We also talk to the [charity involved in running the project]"

Why don't development organisations and donors talk about these kind of projects more? Even if this small inversion of power relations in Ugandan schools didn't detect corruption (it does), it would be worthwhile just for its quiet but astonishingly radical challenge to adult-child power relations. Just picture it - can you imagine British schoolkids being trained to audit the accounts of Academy schools, and to challenge the dodgy spending decisions and bloated salaries of their head teachers and chief executives? Tolstoy, Dewey and Foucault would, I think, have been delighted. And it looks like I'm going to have to eat my words about the U.S. Christian charity jointly responsible for this project - a charity whose child sponsorship scheme in northern Kenya I roundly slagged off elsewhere.


(1) + (2) + (3) + (4) + ...

I can't think of any more depressing international situation than south/central Somalia. A population trapped between:

(1) unending, rent-seeking clan rivalry

(2) at least two brutal groups of insurgents, one of which regularly amputates teenagers' limbs and stones children to death

(3) a chaotic, Western-backed transitional government in control of just a few blocks of Mogadishu, whose forces have a propensity to sell their weapons to insurgents and recruit child soldiers

(4) an underpowered AU peacekeeping force which admits in its own reports that it indiscriminately shells civilians (arguably because it's too weak and disorganised to do anything else)

How could the international community possibly tinker with this dismal equation to make it any worse? AU chief Jean Ping has a bright idea, which he announced yesterday afternoon:

(5) bolster the AU force in Somalia with a battalion of troops from the armed forces of...Guinea.

The Guinean army? The one which with alarming regularity for over a decade has been opening fire wantonly on its own people? Several units of which attacked peaceful demonstrators just last September, killing 150 people and injuring over a thousand others, and publicly gang-raped over 40 women in the middle of Conakry? A force so factionalised that last December one faction leader shot the president in the head (another military captain who'd seized power in a coup just a year before). A force so remedial that it's currently undergoing near-emergency U.S.-led security sector reform just to prevent another coup or a civil war as Guineans go to the polls in their first ever comparatively free elections. That Guinean army? Still, maybe they'll fit in in Somalia. After all, they've been quite keen on recruiting child soldiers too, at least until their training camps were disbanded after the president's shooting.

There's no denying that the AU force in Somalia (AMISOM) is desperately short of capacity and manpower. That they're effectively used as cannon-fodder by their international backers who don't want to commit troops themselves (but are quite happy to devote tens of millions of dollars and dozens of warships to protect the fraction of their merchant shipping off Somalia's coast which gets attacked by pirates). And, equally, I know that the Guinean army is far from homogenous: that its most factionalised and probably brutalised units, responsible for past and recent atrocities, seem to be concentrated (although not exclusively) in the gaggle of paratrooper and presidential guard units collectively called the beret rouges.

But with SSR just starting, and certainly with no measure yet of its success, it seems insane to think the Guinean army might be ready, even militarily, to play a major role in a peacekeeping operation. My own overwhelming memory of my extremely brief encounter with the Guinean army is a hurried visit to their headquarters at Camp Alpha Yaya in Conakry last November. Dozens of berets rouges and CMIS gendarmes, largely unpaid, sitting around smoking cigarettes in weird, near total silence, most cradling and playing with the long commando knives that they all carried in brown sheathes. The sort of knives that a group of berets rouges were photographed using to casually stab a suspected demonstrator in the suburb of Bomboli on 30 September last year. It's an indictment of AMISOM - and of the lack of serious international commitment to helping Somalia - that these may be the guys tasked vainly with trying to bring security to the streets of Mogadishu.


Cyborg love-rats

Glamour Magazine. Blows. My. Tiny. Mind.

I was flicking through last month's Glamour on the loo a couple of days ago (too much information?) when I came across this beauty. That's right folks, it's a handy flowchart telling you when you should split up from your partner if he's [sic] been unfaithful.

As you can see, there are only two basic varieties of 'emotional infidelity'. Either you work together, or you don't. Similarly, physical infidelity comes in just two flavours: drunk / not drunk. (Actually, that bit does pretty much cover the many-coloured palette of my sexual experiences, but we'll skip on). If it happened more than once while drunk, he's probably an alcholic.

And so on.

What I love most about this diagram is the kind of business-skirt-Bridget-Jones-too-many-chardonnays life pattern it assumes everyone lives. As in any flowchart, there are at least two different kinds of reduction going on here.

First there's the category reduction in the boxes: reducing a universe of emotional experience - a thousand years of cultural and literary reflection on the subtle, sinuous, tragic and comic ways in which two people's relationship flexes - into ten fifty-word scenarios.

Then there's the causal reduction in the lines between the boxes. In this case, the progress of the 21st-century Western middle-class relationship is explained by alcohol, work and communications technology. These are the three fundamental forces that govern emotional motion in this universe. Meaningless flirtation outside the workplace? Emotional infidelity not mediated by email or text message? Loss of control caused by anything other than substance abuse? None of these things can exist. They're against the laws of physics.

Or maybe I'm reading a tad too much into what is, essentially, Just a Bit of Fun.

But I'm not so sure. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether maybe this flowchart might actually be true. At least for Glamour magazine's core demographic. Or rather, maybe it and its friends have made themselves true. Maybe a decade of Cosmo relationship flowcharts, shackled to the growth of post-industrial capitalism's casualised* white-collar service sectors, has actually made Western urban life like this? Maybe this flowchart actually diagnoses the entirety of our under/overemployed, lower-middle-class, low-seratonin metroliving in ten pastel-coloured boxes? A schematic for emotional-death-by-temping. The more I think about it, the more I think maybe it's a work of genius. AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH.

The bigger point is that there's total coherence in Glamour magazine's choice of schematic. The flowchart and its cousins are the emblematic technology of 'management science': the 20th century's ur-science, whose rise both created the business models that keep us permanently overworked yet casualised, rootless and moving from short-term job to short-term job; and which thereby confines our emotional lives to workplace flirtation, inappropriate emails and after-work drinking. It seems only appropriate, then, that those impoverished emotional lives should also be described and directed by flowcharts.

The important thing, of course, is the self-fulfilling cognitive impact of this kind of diagramming. There's nothing wrong with using a diagram to summarise important temporal and causal relationships (although there are diagrams better than flowcharts to do this - they're designed for computer programmes, not the kinds of complex systems better described, in fact, by the allusiveness of formal language). But once you start to use any schematic to explain things, there's a temptation to think that this is how the situation you are trying to explain actually is. That the model is the thing it models. Etc. And then to act that way.

Beyond the ordinary propensity of any sufficiently influential model to make itself true, flowchart capitalism works to make flowchart psychology true. Egged on by the narrow models of management consultants and the OECD, companies and governments seek to reduce labour costs and labour market rigidity. The less job security we have, the more time we need to spend organising our employment arrangements (and organising our lives around our employment arrangements). The more we're forced to do more labour for less money and with fewer people, the more we have to spend our entire lives at work. So, ironically, the less job security and fewer labour rights we have, the more significant the workplace becomes in our social lives. And the more our labour conditions increase the combination of repetitive boredom and stress that we need to assuage with flirty emails and heavy drinking.

In short: deregulation makes us office sluts. As Karl Marx would say.

I'm actually being pretty serious here. The genealogy that gets us from flowcharts to Bridget Jones remains one of the most under-explored narratives of 20th-century history. Philip Mirowski's provocative re-writing of the history of economics (and the history of science) provides, as far as I know, the most detailed account so far. The Ladybird version goes something like this:

1. In the 19th century, thermodynamics begat neoclassical economics. Physicists - and, more significantly, theory-minded engineers, especially ones that were working on steam engines - are the forgotten theorists that produce the doctrines of the new economics, based upon thermodynamic models. Utility is patterned on potential energy, down to its formal mathematics. In other words, the scientific ideas and machines that fuelled industrial capitalism also provided the economic theory that - after the fact - describes and justifies industrial capitalism.

2. In the 1940s and 1950s a new strand of thinking about automata and robots provided the forgotten intellectual origins of post-war mathematical economics: developments in neoclassical price theory, rational expectations theory, theories of institutions, and computational economics. Physical scientists and engineers, working mainly in the United States on operations research, game theory, computers, missile servomechanisms and strategic bombing models, are again the central thinkers. And consequently the model human at the heart of neoclassical microeconomics is not Adam Smith's homo economicus. It's the cyborg.

In Mirowski's account the axial figure of this second phase is mathematician, operations researcher, game theorist and CIA consultant John von Neumann. The eccentric genius of whom his Princeton colleagues said that "he had made a thorough, detailed study of human beings and could imitate them perfectly".

Then there's the third act to this account, which I think has still to be adequately written. It starts from the fact that the other thing these precocious operations researchers and engineers are doing in the first half of the 20th century, as well as revolutionising neoclassical economics, is creating management science. Moving beyond the factory time-and-motion studies of Ford and Taylor, they're trying to make missiles and machines and factories and businesses work more efficiently, in part by making people more like machines.

Somehow management 'science' - not economics - becomes the master discipline of the late 20th century. The management consultants who make up the discipline's priesthood start fanning out from McKinsey and PA Consulting and Booz Allen, determining not just how manufacturing processes, but soon how whole corporations, cities, armies, government departments and societies, should be organised. By the late 20th century the re-imagining of workers, processes and institutions as industrial machines - and their re-engineering for 'efficiency' - seems to have won out over other candidate 'ur-sciences' (economics, social anthropology). And of course the basic spanners and wrenches of the management practitioners mirror, but in totally bastardised form, the prescriptions of the economics that was also substantially generated by management science's progenitors: identify ineffeciencies or 'synergies'; fire those workers unfortunate enough to be employed in an 'inefficient' position; and ensure that everyone left is working as long and as fast and as cheaply as possible.

And of course, with this parenthood, it was only natural that management science should so enthusiastically embrace the flowchart: the analytical tool first probably formalised (for designing computer programmes, not factory processes or business models) by John von Neumann.


I've been meaning to write a lot more about the global intellectual triumph of 'management' and its bizarre manifestations (to take one small instance, how the management consulting firm Adam Smith International, in conjunction with DFID, are currently restructuring the Sudan People's Liberation Army). And the homogenous picture of neoclassical economics I've badly sketched here is, of course, a total caricature. But this is already way too long. So for now, I'll leave it with this.

NATO have a new strategy for Afghanistan, right? The proposed solution to what is arguably Europe's and the United States' most important foreign policy problem. In December, NBC's Richard Engels got hold of a copy of some declassified bits from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The master document is this - produced, it appears, by noted counter-insurgency specialists, er, PA Consulting.

The Mother of all Flowcharts.

This is how we're bringing peace to Afghanistan. And romance to our tired treadmill lives. And we wonder why we're so fucked.

* In case Per or any other actual economists are reading this: I think I mean increased external numerical flexibility in the labour market. I'd be grateful for correction if there's a more appropriate metric, though.


Retooling Françafrique

I've never been a big fan of reading the entrails of press releases trying to divine signs of intrigue. But there's been one under-reported corner amid the reams of coverage of the Clotilde Reiss saga this week. The European media's cloak-and-dagger speculation has been all about possible prisoner-swap deals cut by the Elysée to get Reiss out of Tehran: speculation fuelled by the recent shuffle of high-profile Iranian prisoners out of French jails - first Majid Kakavand, the Iranian engineer the US were trying to extradite for alleged illegal procurement of US components for Iran's arms industry; then Ali Vakili Rad, convicted in 1994 for assassinating the Shah's last Prime Minister, Shapour Bakhtiar.

But there's been little in the Anglophone media - and scarcely more Francophone coverage - about France's diplomatic wingmen in the Reiss negotiations. The Elysee's short statement after Reiss' release thanked "Mr Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, Mr Abdoulaye Wade, President of Senegal, and Mr Bashar al-Assad, President of Syria, for their active role in securing our compatriot’s release."

It would be fascinating to know what Lula and Assad did to help smooth the wheels. Wade, though, clearly wanted everyone to know how helpful he'd been: the Senegalese presidency put out a press statement on the day of Reiss' release with a detailed narrative of shuttle diplomacy between Paris, Dakar and Tehran since October 2009, which he claims sealed the deal on Reiss' release after last-minute meetings in Tehran on 14-15 May between his son, Karim Wade, his foreign minister, and the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

It's hard to know how much of this is puff from a president under increasing fire from accusations of corruption and nepotism after a decade of power - Senegal's Socialist Party criticised Wade this week for blowing his own diplomatic trumpet "like an elephant in a china shop".

But what's most interesting about Wade's account is the cast of supporting characters on all the late night Air France flights. Wade says that he initiated discussions on the Reiss dossier unilaterally on a trip to Tehran in October 2009, and was initially encouraged by France; but that after a 2 hour meeting in Dakar in November 2009, he was told by Andre Parant, one of Sarkosy's African affairs advisors, that France wanted Senegal to suspend its diplomatic efforts.

Senegalese efforts were revived, Wade claims, in late March, when his son Karim Wade met at the Elysée (not, of course, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d'Orsay) with Claude Gueant, Sarkozy's chief of staff. From then on, according to Wade's account, Gueant is his point-person as his ministers shuttle back and forth between Tehran, Paris and Dakar.

One way of interpreting this might be to see Senegal's president playing off two factions in Paris: Sarkozy's new foreign policy advisers like Parant, reluctant for Wade to, er, wade in; and older contacts in the Françafrique networks like Gueant (deputy-director of 'arms-to-Angola' Charles Pasqua's cabinet during the 1990s), accustomed to circumventing the Quai d'Orsay to deal straight with France's West African friends in high places.

It's surprising (and widely remarked upon) how these old networks have returned to the Elysée in recent years. When Sarkozy came to power in 2007 much was made of the 'death' of Françafrique, the shadowy post-colonial political-business system which channelled French aid, political support and military muscle to a stable of reliable (if slightly murderous and dictatorial) West and central African leaders, in return for a complex system of double-bribery in which aid and loans trickled back to France as illicit funding for both Gaullist and socialist parties. French influence in Africa was waning, commentators claimed, as the US and new powers like China and Iran offered assistance with fewer strings attached to France's traditional African clients. At the same time, Sarkozy's Blairist new dawn came complete with a Robin-Cook-esque gesture at a new ethical foreign policy: in 2008 Sarkozy's new secretary of state for overseas cooperation, Jean-Marie Bockel, said he wanted to "sign the death certificate of Françafrique." Yet two months later, Bockel was removed from his ministry (allegedly, the New York Times claimed, after he annoyed Gabonese president Omar Bongo, the centre of the Françafrique system since the 1960s, by referring to Gabonese corruption). Meanwhile advisers like Gueant straddle the divide between Sarkozy's young turks (he's been Sarkozy's chief of staff since 2002) and the old Pasqua Africa networks. Most telling is the man who the Senegalese presidency claims accompanied Karim Wade to Tehran in April: "the lawyer Robert Bougi", Bongo's confidant and Jacques Foccart's inheritor as the lynchpin of the Françafrique system. Bougi apparently now also has an advisory role on African affairs at the Elysée.

Françafrique was always as much about stability as corruption: keeping France's reliable friends in power for as long as possible with aid, loans and battalions of French troops stationed at the presidential palaces (Bongo, the lynchpin, was the longest serving non-monarchical head of state in the world, in power for 42 years). So it's interesting that Wade's power play seems at least partly to do with the reported grooming of his son, Karim, to succeed him smoothly as Senegal's next president. The Senegalese press has widely reported that Gueant and Bourgi have been promoting Karim's candidature in Paris. Whether or not that's true, on the other side Andre Parant slipped out to a French regional journalist at the end of April that 'the government' was worried about political unrest in Senegal if Wade undertook a "monarchical succession" (an 'off the record' comment duly published by Republican Lorrain).

So it looks like the reseaux are back, albeit with rivals for Sarkozy's ear. But the Reiss saga shows how fortuitously the old African networks may be serving new purposes for French policy - giving France an oblique diplomatic lever with newly important powers like Iran. Many Francophone West African states - with substantial or majority Mulsim populations and a string of Francophile Muslim presidents at the heart of the old Françafrique networks (Gabon's Bongo, Chad's Deby, Niger's Tanja, Senegal's Wade, Mali's Touré...) - are important in diplomatic configurations not accessible to powers like the UK, US and France - the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, for example, and Tehran's 'two-fingers to the G-20' G-15 group. Iran and some Gulf states are growing investors in West Africa. It's become a bit of a truism that Senegal in particular is Iran's 'bridgehead' in Africa: a major Iranian car factory is due to start exporting from Senegal; they've been promised an oil refinery; and Senegal (along with Zimbabwe, Sudan and Gabon) continues to defend Iran's right to civilian nuclear power and denies that Tehran's making a bomb.

Just when this new polyamoury of France's former colonies is making French columnists faintly wistful for the days of quiet phone calls and cash-stuffed briefcases (and, of course, making the Heritage Foundation priapic with gleeful fear about Shi'a empire-building in West Africa), the cosmopolitan ties of France's old friends in West Africa - tapped into by the oldest of old-school Françafrique operators - suddenly look rather useful. With the French deficit at 7.5%, I wonder how long it can it be before Paris is asking some of its old friends in the Gulf of Guinea to put in a friendly word to a few Gulf State sovereign funds to play nicely? Perhaps there's even a more general point - are former colonial powers, with their culturally-anchored deep networks of oblique international influence, actually peculiarly well-equipped to operate in a new polycentric international order? And is this something that the US lacks?


that they could call you

I've just finished reading James Meek's excellent novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. His anti-hero, an insufficiently deracinated British journalist (clearly, in part, Meek), moving between Afghan airstrips and Islington dinner parties, describes at one point the "battle for distance", on which the practice of journalism depends. And human rights research. And war.

There was a cult of seeing without knowing and watching without touching. The generic foreign faces on television: you knew them, because you could see them, you could hear the foreign sounds they made. But you had to avoid knowing enough about them to prevent your imagination making them out to be what you wanted them to be. You had to turn away from the knowledge that you could reach them on the phone. That they had phones. That they could call you. The horror of the labour required if these truths were accepted drove people to celebrate the distance and nurture it, to turn their will towards preserving the difference between a here and a there, in a world where there was no there any more, where everyone was already here.

As a nascent (and insufficiently deracinated) professional voyeur of human misery, I'm beginning to have a few of those experiences. Where you're sent 'abroad' and you meet people, real people, who might as well be ghosts, and you store up their stories for research reports and self-aggrandising dinner party anecdotes. And you file each encounter in the compartment in your head which is condescendingly labelled 'source', or even 'victim'. But which is really labelled 'people from that place on the news'.

And then the ghosts materialise on the end of a mobile phone. And occasionally, which is worse, after a while they don't.

There's a second myth which goes along with the myth of distance. The myth that you are powerless to help, because they are so far away. And they are so many. And so you're helping as best you can, because you're helping to tell their story or lobby their government or support their court case or their counselling or their compensation. When of course you are perfectly powerful enough to help directly and concretely, with your airline tickets and bank transfers and phone calls and consular letters. If only you pulled out your finger and did something in time.

There's no trite lesson at the end of this post. Except to glumly remark that our liberal Ummah doesn't stretch anywhere near as far as we would like to think. That our (or my) habit of picking and choosing the acquaintances we maintain at a distance - between the friendly, well-educated, useful ones we want to keep up with on Facebook, and the ones who aren't on Facebook at all - is repellent. And that there must be a way of doing better?



Guinea's opposition parties have worked hard to develop a unified political memory about what happened on the 28th September. Probably one of the reasons they remain within a unified coalition is because they and their supporters share the experience and solidarity of the repression on that day; and it'll be significant to see what happens to the Forces Vives once it comes to election-time.

But interestingly, that shared memory has been formed not just by the opposition parties' statements, or even by people sharing stories and experiences personally, but by a rapidly-circulated body of photographs and video clips of the events at the stadium. The government junta's claims about what happened that day - a 'violent' demonstration, police threatened, crowd members carrying their own firearms who fired on the police, soldiers staying in their barracks and only a small number of people killed after a stampede - were immediately falsified by film clips and photos: of soldiers firing on demonstrators, public rapes and piled-up bodies. Almost all were taken on people's mobile phones, and almost everyone in Conakry has seen them - in a country where relatively few ordinary people have regular access to the internet, or their own email addresses.

People haven't seen the footage on Youtube or Facebook or viral emails - it seems to have been circulated almost entirely on people's mobile phones themselves. The first thing that the first young person I interviewed said was 'Tu as le Bluetooth?'

28 Septembre CD-ROMs and DVDs are also selling in Conakry's markets, and showing in the tiny shack-cinemas throughout the city where people usually go to watch a big European football match, or play on a Playstation for an hour.

I know the impact of social technology is continually over-hyped. And it's obvious that international pressure - particularly from ECOWAS and France - has to a large extent shaped the CNDD's more moderate posture in recent weeks. But I don't think the impact of this corpus of visual imagery can be underplayed in what's subsequently happened in Guinea; the opposition parties growing in strength, and the CNDD having finally to appear, at least, to cede some power. Effectively, cameraphones have ensured that there's simply no way anyone in Guinea can believe that the regime's story about the repression is true, even if those images themselves select another particular version of events. Despite relative popularity immediately after coming to power, the CNDD are now literally unsupported.

The first widely marketed cameraphones appeared in the global North around 2003; and we've just reached the stage where enough people in rich countries have got rid of their first cameraphones for them to be fairly widely available throughout east and west Africa. Visual sousveillance has finally reached even the poorest parts of the global South; and, to some extent, seems to be working to shape remembering and forgetting. And I'm glad that no amount of fresh paint is going to stop that.


More circuses than bread

I'm afraid I haven't really found the time or the impetus to write about my brief stay in Conakry in November. That's partly because there's quite a lot about the work I can't really describe here. What struck me most, though, was the forced banality of life in the CNDD's Guinea.

This is the Jardin du 2 Octobre in downtown Conakry. Named after Guinea's independence anniversary, it's presumably supposed to commemorate the achievements of the independent Guinean people. But at the moment in has freshly-painted pictures of Donald Duck and Goofy around its walls. In fact, it's one of two freshly painted buildings in the city. The rest of Guinea's capital - its decrepit hospitals, its parliament building, its stained villas and empty hotels - is crumbling gently into the sea. Even some of the mining companies have sent their foreign staff home, and when we were there a single cargo ship was sitting in the city's port. But in late November, on the eve of the fete of Tabaski - the celebration of the return from the Haj - Conakry's public gardens were grandly opened after extensive refurbishment. On Tabaski itself there were hundreds of people queuing with their children, waiting to play on the park's newly installed children's rides: all laid on by the government, the queues watched over by bored soldiers and the rusty T-55 tank that the regime have stationed at the adjacent crossroads since the December 2008 coup brought the CNDD junta to power.

This was just six weeks after Conakry's security forces killed over 150 people and gang-raped dozens of women during an opposition rally calling for the CNDD to cede power. As Guineans queued with their children to ride on the Mickey Mouse merry-go-rounds, soldiers were still stealing diplomatic cars and driving them into Conakry's suburbs to arrest 'troublemakers'.

(Ironically, the renovation of the Jardin has reportedly been paid for by a Lebanese businessman, close to the CNDD and the predecessor regime, who the opposition 'Forces Vives' claim has recently helped procure military equipment for the junta's newly formed militias. They've produced no concrete evidence for this - but the UN certainly thinks he has form: in 2003 the UN Panel of Experts on Liberia named his company as an intermediary in a series of arms shipments from Iran to Guinea, passed on, they claimed, to the Guinean-backed LURD rebels then engaged in their final brutal assault on Monrovia.)

Just down the road, Guinea's parliament building, the Palais des Peuples, is still empty of parliamentarians since the constitution was suspended in December 2008. Instead, last month it was turned over to the 'Miss Guinee' 2009 contest, another Tabaski treat laid on by the CNDD. The pageant was shown live on state TV (they must have needed something to fill the schedules after the president stopped his daily three-hour chat show). The day before, we saw 'les Miss' in our hotel's restaurant, decked out in ludicrously low-cut ball dresses, having the nervous privilege of being lunched by a dozen red-beret soldiers, including some of the CNDD's inner circle.

Conakry's other freshly-painted building is also named with a date. The Stade du 28 Septembre, the city's main football stadium, commemorates the 1958 referendum in which the Guinean people voted for complete independence from France; and now, of course, is synonymous with the most recent 28th September, when gendarmes and soldiers strafed the stands with Kalashnikovs and carried out gang rapes on the pitch. Just a couple of days after, still littered with empty cartridge cases, the stadium was cleaned from top to bottom, the blood washed away, and the entire stadium complex given a new coat of paint. Nothing to do with getting rid of forensic evidence, of course; an upcoming match with Burkina Faso simply meant that the stadium had to be spruced up...

At both the gardens and the stadium, the fresh paint is obviously part of a larger pretence that nothing's wrong. That attempt has manifestly failed. But I think maybe the partying wasn't a facade, despite almost everyone in Conakry having a friend, relative or acquaintance who had been recently injured or killed by the security forces. Several people we met said that they were glad there was a big Tabaski celebration: Guineans always party before they go back into the streets, they said. A diplomat told us that on the night of 27th September, despite the roadblocks, he'd never seen the clubs in Conakry so full or so frenetic. You always know that the opposition is planning a big demonstration, he said, because the clubs are overflowing the night before.

In a country where every major political demonstration for a decade has been met with indiscriminate, excessive and lethal force from the army's elite commando forces, that seems like gladiator spirit. It also shows the extraordinary political organisation of Guinea's political parties and trade unions. Peaceful demonstrators keep getting massacred because they keep going back into the streets; and that's testimony to the amazing ability of the parties and unions to motivate and mobilise people - through dense networks of friends and families - to go back into the streets.


This might be fun...

...although "as soon as the information is ready" sounds a bit like "we've assigned half an intern in the Department for Whogivesatoss to do this, so we'll never have to publish it before the Tories get in. And they'll want to abolish it."

Home Department
Written answers and statements, 15 December 2009

Phil Woolas: In their response to a Report by the Public Administration Select Committee, 'Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall', the Government agreed to publish online, on a quarterly basis, information about ministerial meetings with outside interest groups. Information for the period 1 October to 31 December 2009 will be published by Departments as soon as the information is ready.

(Nicked from here)