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Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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[update below]

Saw it the other day. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to make a really good biopic. This one is acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. William Nicholson and Justin Chadwick did a reasonably good job here—if one keeps in mind that it is indeed merely a biopic of a man, not a comprehensive treatment of apartheid South Africa or the ANC’s struggle in all its features and complexity. The film races through Mandela’s young adulthood as a lawyer and ANC activist and up to his 1962 arrest and the Rivonia trial; his early ’60s period is well portrayed, as are his 26 years on Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison. The film is particularly strong on Mandela the man, Winnie, their relationship, and how they began to diverge politically during his incarceration—of how Mandela was transformed from an “angry man” to one who “[came] to see that hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart,” whereas Winnie moved in the opposite direction (quotes are from Stephen Smith’s fine essay, “Mandela: Death of a Politician,” in the January 9 2014 London Review of Books). The film is not a hagiography, as this review in The Economist correctly observes. Idris Elba (Stringer Bell in ‘The Wire’) is very good as Mandela, as is (the rather beautiful) Naomie Harris as Winnie. The secret negotiations between Mandela and the white regime in the late 1980s are a high point of the film, though the four years between his release from his final prison dorée and the 1994 election are superficially depicted. E.g. those not familiar with the history will be utterly confused by the reenactment of the Boipatong massacre and who committed it (the Inkatha Freedom Party, the name of which is not uttered). All in all, Clint Eastwood’s feel good ‘Invictus’ is a more satisfying film. But this one may be seen—and should be by anyone with more than a passing interest in Nelson Mandela and South Africa. And it was a commercial and critical success in South Africa, which is a recommendation in itself. Trailer is here, the NYT review—the best on Metacritic—is here, French reviews—mostly good, and particularly the Allociné spectateurs—are here.

On the subject of South Africa, I saw last month Jérôme Salle’s ‘Zulu’, a French-South African police action movie set in contemporary Cape Town (and based on a 2010 novel by French crime fiction author Caryl Férey). The film, which stars Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker “as two detectives uniquely scarred by their nation’s cruel racial legacy” (quoting Justin Chang’s Variety review), is extremely violent. This should be normal given the exceptional level of violence in South Africa, but still… The cops are black and white, the criminals coloured and white, and there’s an Indian in there, so the entire Rainbow Nation is represented, as both good guys and bad. French reviews are mostly good (and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs up). The reaction of Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes was mixed. Trailer is here.

UPDATE: Uri Avnery saw the Mandela biopic and liked it. His review is here.

ZULU-Affiche

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Plot for Peace

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[update below]

As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website

THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.

In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.

In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.

“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.

The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.

BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, published on the Harvard Gazette website.

UPDATE: Those who have seen the documentary—plus those who haven’t—will want to read the article by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, published on The National Interest website, on “Why South Africa loves Cuba.” (January 14, 2014)

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Nelson Mandela R.I.P.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first learned about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.

Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”

Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.

The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.

Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.

UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”

2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”

3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)

4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.

5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.

6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:

It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.

7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.

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The Hunt & A Hijacking

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This film from Denmark, which opened in the US in July, has left no one indifferent, at least not among those I know who’ve seen it. E.g. one cinephile friend, in an email, called it “a must-see film…reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” Another wrote that “Mads Mikkelsen was excellent in this film…I recommend highly.” But then one couple—and with highbrow tastes— “actively hated it”… Such contrasting reactions are probably inevitable given the subject matter: a middle-aged man—divorced with children—in a well-to-do Danish town, an upstanding member of the community known and respected by all, who works with the children in a nursery school and, out of the blue, comes under suspicion of molesting one—based on a tale the child recounted to the school director—, and overnight becomes a social outcast and kept at a distance even by his best friends, all while vehemently protesting his innocence (and he manifestly was innocent). US reviews of the film have been good on the whole, as were reviews in France, where the pic opened last November. Le Monde’s critic panned it, however—putting it in its films “to avoid” category—, prompting me to initially strike it from my “to see” list. But after a few weeks of its run I noted that the audience reviews on Allociné were particularly high. And as I have asserted numerous times, when in doubt go with the Allociné spectateurs over the snooty Parisian critics. So I went to see it and am glad I did. It’s an engaging film, well acted, and at no point rubbed me the wrong way. And it effectively depicts the Kafkaesque nightmare of a man falsely accused of one of the worst crimes possible short of murder. One comprehends why those accused of pedophilia, even if they are utterly innocent, contemplate suicide, or even end up committing it. I was reminded of the numerous day care abuse scandals/hysterias in the US—e.g. the one in Minnesota in the 1980s—and that ended with the defendants’ acquittal, and of the outrageous Outreau affair in France. Of course there are pedophiles out there but the issue here—the one treated in the film—is those who are falsely accused of this—by mythomaniacs or children under the âge de raison, invariably coaxed by adults—and of the collective hysteria that ensues. It’s a delicate subject, needless to say. I recommend the film. If one doesn’t like it, that’s okay. Chacun son goût.

Another Danish film seen recently was ‘A Hijacking’, about a Danish-owned freighter on its way to Bombay—and to the scrapyard after—that is seized by Somali pirates and held for ransom, with the hostage drama lasting for several months, the ship—having dropped anchor out in the ocean—being provisioned with food and water by boats from the Somali coast. The film alternates between the ship and the shipping company headquarters in Copenhagen, which has to deal with the situation and the pirates’ ransom demands. It is very effective in depicting both. On the ship—where the drama is seen through the eyes of the ship’s cook (played by actor Pilou Asbæk)—, one feels the despair of the crew as the crisis drags on and the sanitary conditions go from bad to worse, not to mention the hostages’ permanent state of terror, of being at the mercy of the kidnappers—the actors here are all Somalis, recruited in Kenya— who speak nothing but Somali, are totally inculte, their fingers permanently on the trigger, have a distinct lack of empathy, and little regard for human life. At the Copenhagen HQ, one equally feels the dilemmas of the company CEO (actor Søren Malling)—and the intense pressure which he is under—as he negotiates with the pirates—who have an English-speaking intermediary on board (he says he’s just the translator, not a pirate, but who knows?)—by satellite phone and fax, and their absurdly unreasonable ransom demands—and who has to decide when to follow or not to follow the advice of his hired negotiating expert, who is experienced in dealing with Somalis (played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who does this in real life; when it comes to cultural codes, Somalis and Danes—and Westerners in general, and even most non-Westerners—are not on the same wavelength). Again, the film is very effective on all counts. Slick, well done, and absolutely “realistic.” The way things were depicted in the film are no doubt the way they really happen. Kudos on this to director Tobias Lindholm (who, BTW, co-authored the screenplay of ‘The Hunt’ with that one’s director, Thomas Vinterberg). Reviews in the US (where the film opened in June) have been very good. In France too (both critics and Allociné spectators). But I won’t say that I enjoyed sitting through it, as I felt too strongly the hostages’ terror, the anguish of their families in Denmark, and the pressure on the negotiators at company HQ as they had to deal over several months with the crazy Somalis thousands of miles away. For me at least, the film was a little too angoissant. But that’s me. Others are less squeamish (which I know for a fact). So I recommend the pic, malgré tout.

As it happens, the lead article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “12 Minutes of Freedom in 460 Days of Captivity,” is an excerpt of a book due out this month about a young Canadian woman’s hostage ordeal in Somalia (A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout with Sara Corbett). And Slate had a piece on it a week ago, “460 days in a hell of captivity: An interview with Amanda Lindhout.” Given the high-profile advance publicity, it’s bound to be a best-seller. And à propos, Business Insider—a trashy but fun website—had a slide show recently entitled “The worst place in the world: See what life is like in Somalia.”

I actually have a personal relationship with Somalia, which I’ll write about at some point.

Back to movies: For the record, I saw a film from Iceland—a country that was part of Denmark until sixty years ago—last spring, ‘The Deep’ (en France: ‘Survivre’), by Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur. The pic reenacts a real life story from 1984, of a young, corpulent fisherman (actor Olafur Darri Olafsson) whose trawler capsized and sank in the ice-cold waters a few kilometers off the Icelandic coast, and who managed to swim to shore. Having spent six hours in the water—and with the air temperature below freezing—his survival was literally a miracle, as lasting that long in such cold water was/is simply not possible for the human body. He thus became an object of medical/scientific study—in Iceland and the UK—, with doctors and scientists trying to comprehend how he could have possibly survived the ordeal. A freak of nature. But he was otherwise just a regular guy (though who, as a child, had lived through his town being buried in lava from a volcanic eruption; so for a simple country boy from Iceland he’d been through a lot). It’s not a bad film. Reviews are positive (here, here, and here; French here). I won’t recommend going out of one’s way for it but it’s good for DVD.

ADDENDUM: It occurred to me after posting this that there is a common thread in these three films, which is the protagonist—a man in his 30s-40s—going through a terrible ordeal that hits him out of the blue and that could end in personal ruin or death. He is a victim of circumstances—of larger forces—over which he has no control but that are linked to his employment, and that were a possible, if unforeseen, occupational hazard given the nature of what he does (and that he would not have contemplated when taking up his line of employment). Each man is saved (or vindicated) in the end but does not come out of the ordeal unscarred.

kinopoisk.ru

Djúpið

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This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—, and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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War Witch & Tabu

Rebelle

Two nights ago I watched a documentary reportage on LCP (French C-SPAN) on the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopath cult leader, Joseph Kony, which focused specifically on the accounts of soldier-slave children who had been abducted into the LRA, managed to escape, and regain their villages. The documentary was filmed in the southern Central African Republic, where the LRA has been operating (plus the DRC) since it was driven out of Uganda several years ago. A remote region of one of the most remote countries in the world (and with one of the most deliquescent states on a continent replete with such states). One can’t get much more off the beaten track than the CAR. One almost felt the dread of the film crew moving about the area with the LRA lurking in the bush—and despite the escort of CAR soldiers—, not to mention that of the villagers and the children. Unspeakable what happened to the latter at the hands of the LRA, and of the atrocities visited upon the former. Small wonder that Kony is at the top of the list of war criminals actively sought by the ICC in The Hague. US Army Special Forces, despite years of effort, have not been able to get their hands on him. Dismaying.

The subject of child soldiers is a heart-wrenching one. The children interviewed in the LCP reportage—aged 12 to 16—were nice, innocent kids when they were abducted into the LRA—when they were as young as 8 or 9—, where, by their own accounts, they killed innumerable villagers and participated in massacres. They had no choice. How does one deal with children who have been through this? Most of them seemed normal while interviewed but they’ve pretty clearly been psychologically damaged to varying degrees. The child soldier phenomenon has, of course, been present in many conflicts in the world—e.g. Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan LTTE, Colombian FARC—but it’s mainly an African one. As it happens, I saw a feature-length film on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, ‘War Witch’ (French title: ‘Rebelle’), by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, and that is one of the nominees for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars. The film is set in an unnamed African country, that I determined could only be the DRC, and, sure enough, that’s where it was shot (in the area around Kinshasa). It opens with the assault on a riverside village by an armed gang, who pillage, massacre, and abduct children, including the 12-year old girl and protagonist, Komona—played by the nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza, who won the best actress award at the 2012 Berlinale—, who is forced to murder her parents. If there were ever evil people in the world, the adult leaders of these armed gangs—who call themselves rebels, or revolutionaries, or whatever—are it. The film follows Komona—who is declared by the gang’s leader to be endowed with supernatural powers—as a child soldier, her budding romantic relationship with a veteran (age 14), an albino boy named Magician, and ultimately what happens to them. It’s a disturbing but powerful film, and important to see, as it deals with a tragically real phenomenon, of killer children but who didn’t choose to be that way. I’ve seen two other films in recent years on child soldiers in Africa—’Johnny Mad Dog‘ (shot in Liberia) and ‘Ezra‘ (set in Sierra Leone)—and would rate this one the best, or at least the one to see (if one wishes to see just one film on the subject). Reviews in the Hollywood press—which are positive—are here, here, and here. French reviews are here.

While I’m at it, I should mention another film I saw late last fall, ‘Tabu’, by Portuguese director-auteur Miguel Gomes, that was partly set in Africa (though which has nothing to do with child soldiers). The pic is divided into two parts. The first part is in contemporary Lisbon and focuses on an elderly woman into her dotage and who has a long-buried secret from her past. The second part is a flashback to the 1960s, of the estate in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa—the segment was shot in Mozambique—in which she lived and the revelation of the secret, which involved romance. I found the first part of the film confusing and not particularly interesting, to the point where I thought the pic was going to be yet another insufferable film d’auteur that critics love but causes walk outs in the audience. But it really came together during the second half in Africa. One’s attention was riveted to the recounting of the buried memory—and which was narrated, as this part of the film was silent (and, as with the first part, was in black-and-white).  The second part made the film. And my sentiments on this were echoed by a friend, as well as by several critics. As Variety’s critic put it, the film “starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms.” Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have, not surprisingly, been gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here and here, and French reviews here. Variety’s critic again: “‘Tabu’ is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.” I agree. Highly recommended.

TABU

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French President Hollande arrives in Mali's TimbuktuThat was quite a reception François Hollande received in Bamako and Timbuktu yesterday. Looked like the entire population of the two cities turned out to greet him and as their savior (see here, here, and here). The Baghdad victory parade Bush and Cheney could only dream of. This was hardly a FrançAfrique intervention of bygone days, with the French sending a battalion of legionnaires to prop up a client dictator facing internal contestation. I certainly felt gratified by the scènes de liesse. The Mali intervention has so far gone off without a hitch. Moreover, who would have expected two weeks ago that not only would Timbuktu already be liberated from the yoke of the Ansar Eddine and AQIM psychos but that the French would be in control of Kidal’s airport? Pace my blogging confrère Art Goldhammer, who appears unimpressed, this is a huge success for Hollande and will no doubt modify his image among a certain number of his compatriots (à propos, note the pertinent comments by Massilian and Myos in the thread of Art’s post), not to mention outside France. I doubt we’ll be hearing too many references to “Flanby” henceforth, or cutting remarks on him being indecisive.

There has notably been no triumphalism on Hollande’s part nor any declarations of “mission accomplished.” Everyone knows the thing isn’t over and that the narco-jihadists—who withdrew from Timbuktu without firing a shot—are out in the desert somewhere, likely holed up in the mountain ranges along the Algerian border. Good. Let them stay there. At some point they’re going to have to come out for supplies, which will be rather more complicated for them than it was for the Taliban after 2001, as there is no Waziristan to fall back on. As I pointed out in my last post—and that political scientist Laura Seay reiterated the other day in FP—, northern Mali is not Pushtunistan and Ansar Eddine & Co are not the Taliban (not in number or hegemony over their areas of ethnic strength). It will take a while to eradicate them, or render them a non-threat to the areas from which they have been driven, but it is definitely an attainable objective, particularly if necessary political process between the government in Bamako and the MNLA yields results.

Hollande and defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian—with whom I have been impressed (I didn’t have an opinion on him before the intervention)—have been wise in not setting fixed objectives or timetables, and in saying that France will stay “for as long as it takes.”  And while the rhetoric of African soldiers taking over the job is still there, it is pretty obvious that not only is this not going to happen but cannot happen. Soldiers from the ECOWAS states (Niger excepted) not only have no experience operating in the desert but would  also only make the situation worse, as this analysis in Rue89 suggested. African armies are not only not efficient fighting forces but are given over to extreme violence (committing massacres, mistreatment of prisoners) and raping, looting, and pillaging. If soldiers from neighboring African states took over from the French, it would be a fiasco: they would likely get chewed up by the narco-jihadists and the civilian population of northern Mali would very possibly welcome the latter back as liberators. As for the Malian army, it would not be a good idea for it to enter the Tuareg lands (and one notes that the French did not bring the Malians with them to Kidal). So it’s a French job to the end (and with the Algerians discreetly doing their part).

Early critics of the Mali intervention have been laying low the past week. Algerians on social networks have been reacting with bad humor to Hollande’s victory parade yesterday, so reports Akram Belkaïd. In case anyone didn’t see it, the normally excellent Africanist Stephen Smith had an article on the Mali intervention, dated January 24th, in the LRB. Smith knows the region—not to mention French policy there—better than just about anyone but I was somewhat underwhelmed by the piece. It’s not one of his best. He pulls his punches and avoids taking a clear position one way or the other. I was pleased to note that he makes some of the same points I did in my post of a week ago, particularly on the FrançAfrique, but it is preposterous to suggest that Hollande’s action may have been linked to his domestic political standing and low poll ratings. Not even Hollande’s UMP adversaries have (yet) alleged this. But if Hollande does start to rise a little in the polls, ça ne va pas tarder.

Bamako AFP KAMBOU SIA

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mali-france-conflict photo ERIC FEFERBERG

It’s been over two weeks since France launched its intervention in Mali, which I’ve been following closely and have been intending to write about, but haven’t gotten around to until now. And as all sorts of people more knowledgeable than I have been on the story and weighing in with analyses and commentary, I was wondering if I had anything original to add. But then, numerous persons not more knowledgeable than I (of which more below) have also been tossing out their opinions and on high-profile websites, so if they can, pourquoi pas moi? And a few faithful readers have indeed asked what I think of the French action—and about the situation in Mali more generally (on which I posted three times last year)—, so voilà, here’s my two cents.

  • First, François Hollande did the right thing in sending French troops to Mali en catastrophe, with the sudden, unanticipated Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive across the demarcation line, seizure of Konna, and the manifest goal of the Islamist fanatics to seize the airport at Sevaré and then advance on Mopti just down the road. This would have been a disaster and could not be allowed to happen, so Hollande had no choice but to act illico. The narco-jihadists had to be stopped and quickly. If they had taken Mopti—Mali’s second city—it would have been a cakewalk to Bamako in view of the worse than pitiful state of the Malian army. Now it is possible that Ansar Eddine & Co would not have advanced on Bamako, as argued by Andrew McGregor of The Jamestown Foundation: fighting in southern Mali and trying to occupy Bamako and its hostile population would have been too tall an order for the Tuaregs and their non-Malian allies, and of which they were no doubt well aware. Perhaps. But this couldn’t be left to chance, and certainly not with the thousands of French and other European expatriates in the capital. The French would have had absolutely no choice but to intervene had an assault on Bamako come to pass but the costs would have been infinitely greater than they are now.
  • A narco-jihadist takeover of Bamako—and thus the entire country—and the consequent collapse of the Malian state would have been a catastrophe of the first order. First, the humanitarian consequences, of the huge numbers of civilians killed and the even huger number of refugees fleeing to neighboring states, some of these only recently exiting from major instability or civil wars of their own (Ivory Coast, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone). And, as is too well-known, the presence of large numbers of war refugees in an African state can only engender instability and very big problems—humanitarian, political—in that state. Secondly, once ensconced in Bamako—and after the inevitable bloodbath and destruction—there would be no getting Ansar Eddine and its Al-Qaida allies out of there. Bamako would become a Kabul circa 1998 (or perhaps 1992-96, when rival groups fought each other and destroyed the city in the process). Thirdly, it wouldn’t end there. A Mali turned into an Afghanistan circa 1996-2001—and with Al-Qaida in the saddle—would be a grave threat to its neighbors—most with weak states and armies no stronger than Mali’s—, particularly Guinea, Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Ivory Coast, and, above all, Senegal. A domino effect is not to be excluded here, particularly in view of the increasing influence of Wahhabi-style Islam across west Africa, including in Senegal. But the threat would also extend to Europe and the US. If Senegal and Mauritania were to succumb in turn, Al-Qaida Islamists in league with Latin American drug cartels would be in control of the Atlantic coast of west Africa. The security threat to the West here is, I think, rather obvious. So, IMHO, the French decision to intervene was a no-brainer.
  • It is being said that everyone supports France’s Mali intervention—and which is backed up by UNSC resolutions and all that—but that the French are also on their own. Both are true. The EU, US, ECOWAS, African Union, and Arab states (most of them) are all supportive of the French, and the Russians and Chinese haven’t said a thing against (and why would they? as they hardly have an interest in Al-Qaida gaining a durable foothold in an African state). But France’s European Union allies are making it clear that their support of France will be moral and modest at most. And absolutely no boots on the ground. The Brits, burned by Iraq and Afghanistan, will offer light logistical support at most; the Germans, typically prudent, are giving the thumbs up but little more; Italy, forget it; and the Spaniards, terrified of terrorist attentats, even restricted French air force overfly rights on their territory over a four-day period, authorizing them on a case-by-case basis so reported Le Monde the other day. This is crazy, if not downright scandalous. To paraphrase a well-known Parisian islamologue pundit, France’s solitude in a conflict whose stakes concern all of Europe, and particularly its southern rim, voids the European Union of its very essence and meaning. Indeed.
  • As for the US, the Obama administration is supportive of the French and has offered logistical support—transporting soldiers and equipment in C17s, offering satellite intelligence, and now refueling tankers—but has been holding back (until today at least). So the Americans don’t want another Afghanistan. And, as it happened, the American engagement with the Malian army over the past four years, as the NYT reported two weeks ago, was a complete fiasco. But west Africa is a lot closer to the US than is Afghanistan and, for the reasons mentioned above, there are real security interests at stake, not to mention economic as well, as a radical Islamist Mali would inevitably send shock waves into Nigeria and strengthen Boko Haram and other fanatical Salafists there. And immigration from west Africa into the US has become significant over the past three decades, with a lot of movement back and forth. So there is no avoiding increased American support of the French intervention. Troops are out of the question, of course, but increased logistical support may be needed (i.e. drones).
  • The key regional actor, obviously, is Algeria. Algeria’s game in Mali over the past year—which the well-informed blogger Andy Morgan, writing last July, called “masterful”—is well known (of trying to split Ansar Eddine—Malian Tuareg Islamist fanatics, with whom one may presumably deal—from AQIM/MUJWA—transnational terrorist jihadist fanatics, with whom one may absolutely not deal). (BTW, see Andy Morgan’s other posts on Mali and the Sahel; they are very interesting). The Algerians decreed northern Mali to be their chasse gardée and told France and everyone else to either fall in line behind their diplomatic strategy or butt out. The Algerians were being a pain in the rear, as can be their wont, but were defending their interests (at least as the Algerian military defined them). But Algeria’s game blew up in its face with the Ansar Eddine/AQIM/MUJWA offensive of 2½ weeks ago. The alacrity with which the Algerians allowed the French air force overfly rights was striking. Given Algeria’s relationship with France—which may be mildly characterized as neurotic—and its psychosis over its sacrosanct sovereignty, this was amazing indeed. Lucid Algerian analysts have favored the move (overtly or implicitly)—e.g. journalists Omar Belhouchet, Akram Belkaïd, Kamel Daoud—but most Algerians are uncomfortable to shocked by the tacit alliance with France (though Algerian public opinion seems to have evolved somewhat since the hostage crisis at Tiguentourine). What is clear is that Algeria, however much it may have been part of the problem, is a necessary part of the solution. The Algerians are not going to openly send troops into northern Mali—and will certainly not be seen openly collaborating with the French—but unless Algeria wants to be “Pakistanized,” as Kamel Daoud put it, it will have to do all it can to seal its southern border and eradicate the jihadists down that way. So France, the US, and everyone will have to continue indulging the Algerian regime, and regardless of how it deals with hostage crises involving their citizens.
  • Mali has shown that it hardly has a functioning state and an even less of a functioning army. However one evaluates the presidency of ATT over the past decade—I’ve read contradictory arguments by specialists, some arguing that it was positive (that ATT was a visionary and a democrat), others negative (that ATT’s elections were less than free and fair and that his rule was heavy-handed)—, there is no denying Mali’s deliquescence. My faith in the argument that democracy could take root in poor countries suffered a blow with what has happened in Mali. One thing is for sure, though, which is that Mali is not a nation, never has been, never will be. The Tuareg are akin to the Iraqi Kurds: they want independence and absolutely not to be in the country of which they are a part. But as an independent Azawad, like an independent Kurdistan, is not going to happen—they’re landlocked and every bordering state is hostile to the prospect—, the only solution is autonomy or a confederal arrangement. Hardly an original thought on my part. At least there’s a prospective Tuareg partner for this, the MNLA, and that can retake the initiative if/when Ansar Eddine is brought to heel.
  • Critiques of the French intervention that excoriate French colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, the FrançAfrique blah blah are so stupid, asinine, idiotic, and utterly irrelevant that they do not merit a response. Some of these critiques have been penned by trendy leftist academics (e.g. here and here), others by nutty bloggers (e.g. here), who, until proof to the contrary, have no greater knowledge of or insight into Mali (or the history of French colonialism) than do I or any other halfway informed person. Other critiques of the same tenor issue from Arab (mainly Algerian) and African tiersmondiste intellos frozen in the 1970s and who operate in their own intellectual and political universe (for one prolific and representative case, see here). No point in responding to them. That thankless polemic may be assumed by their Arab/Algerian and/or African detractors (as, e.g. this Senegalese academic has done with that overrated bloviator Tariq Ramadan). (For those who haven’t been paying attention, the FrançAfrique and French neocolonialism are dead; a thing of the past; they’re over; finished).
  • Numerous, marginally less stupid critiques of the French intervention have insisted on the link between the jihadist takeover of northern Mali and the NATO Libya intervention, of the perverse effects of the latter and its engendering of the former. I wish to know if these critics of the Libya intervention warned loudly of the impact a collapse of the Qadhafi regime would have on Mali while the intervention was underway, i.e. in 2011—and if any insist that they did, I invite them to furnish documentary proof of their prescient warnings. But even if one or two of these brilliant Cassandras can do this, so what? (for my view of the Libya intervention, see here). Not every perverse effect can be anticipated when undertaking an urgent course of action and, in any case, the eventual impact on the Malian Tuaregs was hardly a clinching argument against ridding Libya and the world of the psychotic Qadhafi regime once that opportunity presented itself.
  • Yet other critiques have warned of France getting bogged down in an endless Afghanistan-like conflict and from which the lessons have not been learned, or so it is asserted (e.g. here). Retort: Mali is not Afghanistan (see below). The comparison is specious. And then there are critiques coming from within the French political class, e.g. the howler from Valéry Giscard d’Estaing evoking “neocolonialism”—the same Giscard who sent troops to Kolwezi and palled around with Emperor Bokassa—, or the neo-pacifist Dominique de Villepin warning against engrenages (quagmires) and wondering how France could have been infected with the “neoconservative virus” (whatever neoconservatism has to do with anything here), or of Jean-Luc Mélenchon deploring the fact that the parliament wasn’t consulted before the intervention (as if the French parliament is ever consulted on such matters, and particularly before they happen), or of UMP personalities (J-F Copé, L.Wauquiez etc) breaking with the union sacrée and criticizing Hollande because France is all alone in Mali and without its EU partners (these very same UMP personalities who uncritically supported every unilateral action of Sarkozy). Quite simply, any critique of the French intervention with a valid point or two but that is not policy relevant, that does not propose an alternative course of action, is worthless, in my book at least.
  • What is remarkable about the intervention is how French soldiers are being welcomed by the Malian people as saviors (the scènes de liesse in Gao today offering the latest spectacle). Given how unpopular and unloved the French are in their former African colonies, this is something indeed (in this respect, I challenge anyone to visit francophone Africa and ask people how they feel about France; one will not find many positive responses). Not even leftist/tiersmondiste detractors of the French will deny that the Malian people are greatly pleased and relieved by the French intervention.
  • It has almost gone without saying that the French are not only on their own in Mali—and that a Malian/ECOWAS fighting force to take over from them is illusory—but that the conflict against the heavily armed, well-trained, and highly motivated and fanaticized narco-jihadists will be a long one, and for which France lacks the men and resources. Maybe but I’m not convinced. As asserted above, Mali is not Afghanistan. Ansar Eddine is not the Taliban (not in numbers) and there is no Waziristan-like sanctuary. The narco-jihadist forces number in the thousands at most and though well-armed from Qadhafi’s arsenal, can only get around in pick-ups in the open desert, which is perfect terrain for air power and drones. The Tuaregs are not Pashtuns and northern Mali is not southern Afghanistan. And Ansar Eddine and its AQIM/MUJWA cohorts are not Qadhafi’s Libya and with its resources. They are also not fish in the water in the areas they have occupied. Au contraire, they rather manifestly appear to be hated by the population under their yoke. If Algeria, Niger, and Mauritania can effectively seal their borders, the narco-jihadists—bereft of gasoline to fuel their pick-ups and with reinforcements choked off—can well be asphyxiated. Some may retreat into the Adrar mountains. They can stay there (and where the Algerians could make discreet incursions to smoke them out). The French, despite limitations in manpower, will have the logistical support they need. And they have the Malian population behind them. If the MNLA can gain the upper hand among the Tuaregs—and with part of Ansar Eddine rallying to it—and make a deal with whoever is in power in Bamako—and brokered by the French—, the intervention could wind up successfully in a matter of months. Call me Pollyannaish but I think this is definitely in the realm of the possible.

Voilà my two cents. For others on the same page as mine, see David Rodhe’s defense of the French intervention in The Atlantic, Gregory Mann’s post in the Africa Is a Country blog—plus this one in The Guardian—, Jean-François Bayart’s in Le Monde, and this by François Heisbourg, also in Le Monde. This Timbuktu Who’s Who from last July is also useful. À suivre.

mali_le point_26012013

mali-carte-14ejour_0

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La Pirogue

La Pirogue

This is one of the better films I’ve seen over the past couple of months. It’s from Senegal, about a major, real life subject, which is migration—irregular, clandestine—from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe: in this case, of the treacherous 1,500 km passage in pirogue fishing boats from Senegal to the Canary Islands in Spain (see the map here), which African migrants determined to reach Europe began to take toward the middle of the last decade, and that peaked in 2006, when some 30,000 came ashore in the Canary Islands. As the islands couldn’t cope with the influx, most of the migrants were transported to reception centers on the Spanish mainland, at which point they were home free—to move on to their destinations on the continent (mainly France)—, which the well-informed migrants knew would happen. The pirogues were piloted by Senegalese fisherman driven out of their waters—and into unemployment—by big fishing trawlers, mainly from South Korea. And the voyages—which have for the most part ended due to concerted international action—were organized by unscrupulous traffickers.

The film—which is an homage to the thousands of migrants who perished at sea (some 6,000 in 2006 alone)—reenacts, in documentary-like fashion, the journey: of the recruitment of the pilot by the sleazy trafficker in a coastal village outside Dakar, the assembly of the 30 migrants—native Senegalese and Peuls from Guinea—on the beach, the crossing to the Canaries on the high seas, the dynamics among the passengers—who are divided by ethnicity and language—, their contrasting reactions when they come across a pirogue whose engine has failed and is packed with desperate migrants (Guinean Peuls), and then what happens when things start to go wrong with their own boat. The portrayal of all this is no doubt totally accurate. It’s quite a powerful film for this reason, but above all because it shows the migrants as real, flesh-and-blood individuals seeking to better their lives—and at huge risk to their lives—and not as statistics, some faceless mass, or objects of phantasms and fear stereotyped by European public opinions and demagogic politicians. Seeing the film increases one’s revulsion—well, mine at least—toward the anti-immigrant demagoguery in immigrant-receiving countries. Not that Europe (or the US) should throw open the doors to unfettered immigration—which no one is proposing—, but that policy responses to the issue must involve respect and consideration for the migrants, that we’re talking about real people and who, again, seek nothing more than to better their lives. The film should be required viewing for anyone expressing a decided viewpoint on the issue, not to mention politicians and policy-makers engaged with it. Variety gave the film a good review, as did French critics. Pierre Haski of Rue89 had a nice essay how “the African boat people finally have their film.” Trailers are here and here.

On the subject of irregular immigration to the European continent, I saw a small Italian film a few months ago, ‘Io sono Li’ (English title: ‘Li and the Poet’; en France: ‘La Petite Venise’), on a young Chinese undocumented immigrant who works in a bar-restaurant in Chioggia, on the Venitian Lagoon, where she was sent by the Chinese trafficker who brought her into the country, initially to work in a clandestine textile factory near Rome. The story is of her effort to accumulate enough money to bring her young son from China to join her—while still owing money to the trafficker—, of her isolation in Chioggia, and the friendship she develops with a retired Slovenian fisherman, who has lived in the town for many years—he’s nicknamed “the poet” and is a regular at the bar—but, as an immigrant, is also an outsider. The review in Variety, which called it “a gentle pic,” is here. French reviews, which were positive, are here.

io sono li

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Voici une analyse de Bernard Guetta sur France Inter hier, que je trouve assez juste

Ça n’a pas été « non » mais ca n’a pas été, non plus, un «oui concret». Malgré les « discussions approfondies » qu’elle a menées, hier, avec le président algérien, la secrétaire d’Etat américaine, n’a pas encore su le convaincre d’approuver et appuyer l’intervention contre les groupes islamistes qui font régner la terreur au Nord Mali depuis le printemps.

Les contacts vont se poursuivre, a déclaré Hilary Clinton en assurant avoir « beaucoup apprécié » l’analyse de la complexité de la situation malienne que lui a présentée Abdelaziz Bouteflika mais, courtoisies diplomatiques ou pas, quatre raisons retiennent l’Algérie de s’engager dans cette crise aux côtés de la France, des Etats-Unis et de pays de la Cédéao, la Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique de l’Ouest.

La première est que l’Algérie reste allergique à tout renforcement de la présence ou même de l’influence française à ses frontières. Un demi-siècle après avoir recouvré son indépendance, l’Algérie continue de se méfier de son ancienne puissance coloniale et cela d’autant plus qu’elle a désapprouvé son rôle dans le renversement du colonel Kadhafi et, plus généralement, le soutien des Occidentaux aux révolutions arabes qui sont perçues comme une menace par le pouvoir algérien.

La deuxième est que l’Aqmi, al Qaëda au Maghreb islamique, l’un des groupes qui a pris le contrôle du Nord Mali, est essentiellement constitué d’islamistes algériens qui avaient trouvé refuge au Sahel après avoir été militairement défaits à la fin des années 90. L’Algérie ne veut pas se retrouver aux prises avec eux et la troisième raison pour laquelle elle est si réticente à appuyer cette intervention est que 50 000 de ses citoyens sont des Touaregs, vivant aux frontières du Sahel et très proches des Touaregs du Mali, ceux-là mêmes dont l’aspiration indépendantiste a permis aux islamistes de prendre pied au Nord de ce pays.

L’Algérie craint de susciter une question touareg sur son territoire et la quatrième raison de sa réticence est qu’elle veut encore croire en la possibilité de faire éclater par la négociation le fragile front qui s’est formé entre les islamistes touaregs et Aqmi. L’Algérie est tout, sauf allante et sa prudence gêne considérablement la France et les Etats-Unis qui ne voient pas comment leur appui logistique pourrait garantir le succès de l’intervention africaine qu’ils préparent si le plus puissant Etat de la région ne leur prête pas la main. Français et Américains vont donc continuer à tenter de convaincre l’Algérie de sortir de son attentisme mais, s’ils n’y parvenaient pas, un point d’interrogation supplémentaire pèserait alors sur cette opération dont les points faibles sont nombreux.

Mal entraînées, les troupes du Mali et de la Cédéao peuvent sans doute reprendre les villes du Nord Mali mais plus difficilement les sécuriserà long terme et moins encore rétablir l’ordre dans le vaste Sahel si la frontière algéro-malienne n’est pas hermétiquement fermée et si les renseignements algériens ne leur apportent pas un complet soutien. Cette intervention reste aussi nécessaire qu’aléatoire.

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[update below]

Last week I had a post on “The crime in Timbuktu,” where I rhetorically asked why a couple of thousand American and/or French special forces couldn’t just go in and clean the Ansar Eddine fanatics outta there. My question, I will readily admit, was not entirely grounded in reality, as I know well that such an intervention is not in the cards. I was getting carried away in my emotion at the destruction of Timbuktu’s shrines. The US is certainly not going to send troops to some country most Americans have never heard of and to save historical patrimony in a town hardly anyone has ever been to (on my one trip to Mali I got within 500 km or so of Timbuktu; it’s not easy to visit even when one is in that country). Earlier this week Le Monde had an analysis by Africa specialists Patrick Gonin and Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos on why an outside intervention in Mali would be exceptionally difficult. France, the ex-colonial power, is intensely distrusted by Malians, ruling out any intervention on its part (anti-French sentiment is strong in most former French colonies in west and equatorial Africa, as anyone who has spent time in the region will quickly pick up on). It is not likely that the United Nations will act, as what is happening in Mali does not undermine world peace, nor does it (yet) seriously threaten stability throughout the region. And the humanitarian crisis provoked by the conflict is not (yet) such that the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) principle can be invoked. Neighboring African states could intervene with the benediction of the UN, as they did in Liberia and Sierra Leone in the 1990s, but these operations were not brilliant successes (and with Nigerian and other troops participating in the pillage of Liberia). An American intervention is not even mentioned, as it so out of the realm of possibility.

As for the deliquescent Malian state itself—and which has been in conflict with the Tuareg secessionist movement in the north (Azawad)—, it does not presently have the ability to drive the Islamists out. But Gonin and Pérouse de Montclos conclude that the situation could eventually change in favor of the government in Bamako

D’ores et déjà, il paraît très peu probable que les Maliens puissent revenir au statu quo ante. A défaut d’une indépendance de l’Azawad qui ne serait reconnue par personne, et surtout pas par les pays voisins, une forme d’autonomie régionale devra sans doute être négociée en vue de construire un nouveau contrat social et national. A l’heure où les combattants du MNLA  [Mouvement national pour la libération de l'Azawad] sont en déroute, c’est peut-être paradoxalement l’intransigeance des islamistes qui permettra au gouvernement malien de regagner “les coeurs et les esprits” des Touareg en les convainquant que le pouvoir éloigné de Bamako vaut mieux que la dictature de proximité des fous de Dieu.

In the meantime, all one can do is weep for Timbuktu.

UPDATE: Francis Ghilès and Bill Lawrence have a good analysis (en français) in Slate Afrique from earlier this week on “how to save the Sahel.” The situation in Mali could indeed destabilize the whole region, including the Maghreb. Armed intervention would only worsen the chaos, they argue. Europe does need to intervene but as a disinterested mediator—something the French, at least, have never been. On peut toujours changer; il n’est jamais trop tard…

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The crime in Timbuktu

What is currently happening in Timbuktu is so upsetting that I can hardly bear to read about it. To call it a crime is almost an understatement. The willful destruction of Timbuktu’s historical patrimony by the fanatics of Ansar Eddine is causing outrage not only chez moi but across the planet, and not least of all in the Islamic world. Ali Brahim, the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Asharq al-Awsat, thus had a tribune yesterday on “the crime of Timbuktu,” where he asserted that

what is certain is that these [extremist, fanaticized Islamist] movements are like locusts; invading the land and leaving it barren and ruined, only to move onto another area to spread their destruction.

Yes, like locusts. Insects. Vermin. And they should be treated as such, i.e. exterminated. A couple of thousand of American and/or French special forces could do the job, in Timbuktu and Gao at least. Yes, yes, I know this is easier said than done, that it would take a UNSC resolution and that Russia and China may object; the US is focused on Iran and Syria, already burned in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is not about to get involved in another desert war in a country most Americans have never heard of; the French are skittish about terrorist blowback on the streets and metros of Paris; the Algerians would get all upset at another Western intervention on their border, etc, etc. But still… Unlike Syria—or Afghanistan, or Iraq—, this one would at least be doable.

In his tribune Brahim asks

Who finances, trains and arms these [extremist, fanaticized Islamist] groups? This is an open question that needs to be answered.

Yes, good question. One could start by looking around in the country that finances Brahim’s newspaper plus some of its neighbors, but we won’t get into that now.

Hazem Saghieh, political editor of Al-Hayat, also had a tribune yesterday on the crime in Timbuktu. He observes that

The truth is [that the destruction of priceless historical patrimony] carried out by organizations like Taliban, al-Qaeda, and Ansar Dine are the product of a “culture” that has for decades been prevalent in the Muslim world. The first victim of such ‘culture’ is Islamic civilization itself…

Precisely. As for the ideological roots of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Ansar Eddine, and other wreckers of culture, Saghieh should look around the country that owns his newspaper—which is the same as the one that owns Brahim’s. Oh well.

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Viva Riva!

Taking a break from French politics, which I’ve been writing about pretty much nonstop for the past few weeks, I want to mention a few movies I’ve seen of late. One is this slick Congolese crime thriller, the first feature-length film shot in that country since the 1980s. The story is about a small time, high-living hustler named Riva, who steals a truckload of gasoline from the Angolan criminal gang he works for to sell on the Kinshasa black market for his own profit, of his run-ins with corrupt soldiers, policemen, priests—everyone is corrupt or corruptible—plus local criminal kingpins, all while trying to evade his Angolan gangster boss and his henchmen, who are hot on his trail. It’s a good, entertaining action film, with the usual dose of violence plus steamy sex scenes. For those who may be not be into this genre—and I’m usually not—, it’s worth seeing for no other reason than it was entirely shot on location in and around Kinshasa, which is a city that has to be seen to be believed. The European producer wanted the director, Djo Tunda wa Munga, to shoot the film elsewhere for security reasons, but he insisted on doing so in Kinshasa, as no other city could possibly substitute (it would be akin to shooting a film in Albuquerque and calling it L.A.).

Kinshasa—where I spent four days four years ago—is a teeming Fourth World urban dystopia of ten million people—many refugees from the war ravaged interior of the country—and the capital of a failed state—of a once kleptocratic state that has collapsed into near non-existence after two decades of war, five decades of catastrophic misrule, and, prior to that, one of the worst colonial systems ever. Before arriving in Kinshasa from sleepy Brazzaville across the river, I was told to get ready for Mad Max à l’africaine. Kinshasa is the one African capital I’ve visited where I was issued with a cell phone to call US embassy security if I was out and about and thought I was going to be robbed—not by criminals but by uniformed soldiers who hadn’t been paid in months, who cruise the streets looking for foreigners to shake down. And if one is not accompanied by a local fixer at the airport, the probability that one will be robbed or extorted in the gauntlet of men in uniform is close to 100% (N’Djili has to be the worst airport in the world, hands down and by far). But despite all this, there is a vibrancy to Kinshasa. It has a great music scene—as one may glean, e.g., in the fine 2007 documentary ‘On the Rumba River‘—and the academics, journalists, and students I met there were great. The Belgians built Kinshasa to be a majestic, European-style city. If the Congo had had a functioning, even halfway rational state these past decades, Kinshasa could have been just that.

But the place is chaotic and sans foi ni loi, which the film captures perfectly. At the end I thought of the final scene of the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’: all those people killed and for what? Here, a few lousy barrels of gasoline. Life sucks in a failed state. À propos, the film is recommended for those of a social scientific bent and/or interested in comparative politics or development issues. The acting is also very good, notably the lesbian army captain who masquerades as a nun (actress Marlene Longange) and the femme fatale played by the bellissime Franco-Ivorienne Manie Malone—she learned Lingala for the role—, who, as Variety’s critic correctly observed, is “stunning…a knockout from head to toe” (see here, here, and here). The pic received top reviews in the US (here, here, and here)—where it opened last year—, as well as in France (here).

Another film I’ve seen lately on the same general theme is ‘Miss Bala’, a Mexican crime thriller about a college student and beauty queen contestant in Tijuana—played by the rather beautiful model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman—, who is press-ganged into serving a local drug gang (it’s based on an actual story from a few years ago). The pic is a hyper-realistic portrayal of the unbelievable level of violence in Mexico, of its descente aux enfers into a narco state. Objectively it’s a good film—reviews in both the US and France are tops—but it’s not “fun” like ‘Viva Riva!’ nor an edge of the seat thriller, insofar as the set pieces, while well done, are choreographed and you know the poor young woman, though caught in a hellish engrenage, is not going to get killed. If Mexico has really become like this—and I’m quite sure the film’s depiction is accurate—, well, this is really a disaster. And right on the US border, and with the US in no small part responsible. On y reviendra à l’occasion.

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Once upon a time in Mogadishu

The Foreign Policy web site has a photo essay on Mogadishu, Somalia, from the early 20th century to the 1960s, a “peek into the ‘pleasant’ colonial past of the world’s most dangerous city.” I lived in Mogadishu as a boy in the 1960s, on two separate occasions for a total of a year-and-a-half (the first time my father was doing academic research there—he was a political science specialist of the horn of Africa—, the second time he was director of the US Peace Corps in Somalia). Mogadishu was a pleasant city indeed—I have many memories of it—and more interesting architecturally than any African capital nowadays, at least of the ten or so I have visited in recent years. And the beach was great. My family enjoyed living there and we were quite affected by the destruction of the city and country over the past two decades. My mother, now 81, has written a book of her memories of Mogadishu and with photos, which will be published soon. I’ll put up a link for it when it’s out.

The above photo is a post card my father sent to my sister and me in 1963, and which I’ve had up in my study for years. We were with my mother in India while my father had gone ahead to Mogadishu to find a place to live. Here’s what he wrote

This is a picture of downtown Mogadishu. It is a very small city. Only 90,000 people. Yesterday I went out of the city and saw wild baboons and camels. You can also see wild giraffe and elephants if you go 100 miles to the south. Today I saw a United Arab Airlines Comet jet fly over the city. Everybody here speaks Somali and Italian. Very few speak English, and you will have to learn to speak Somali or Italian. There is a very nice beach here on the Indian Ocean and we will go swimming. There are no sharks near the beach but far away. The school over here is closed in December and will open in January, when you two can go. It is right now 90°F and the sun is shining very brightly. Come soon and bring your swimming trunks!

I did learn a few words of Somali (mostly swear words) and phrases in Italian. Nice American/international community school and with some Somalis (my best friend in the 5th grade’s father later became prime minister). Apart from United Arab Airlines (the future Egypt Air), the only flights to and from the city in the mid-1960s were by Alitalia (DC-8s, three times a week to Rome), Aden Airways (Viscounts, to Aden and Nairobi), and Somali Airlines domestically (DC-3s and Cessnas). In the early 1970s the Soviets built a slaughterhouse on the ocean, so we learned in later years, and from which animal carcasses were dumped in, causing sharks to find a way around the coral reef that protected the beach. Soviet foreign aid. No more swimming in Mogadishu. For Somalia, it was all downhill from there…

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No state, no taxes, guns galore. See for yourself here. Send the congressional GOP there. Grover Norquist too.

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Stephen Smith has been one the leading journalists covering Africa since the 1980s. I would go so far as to call him the best. He has covered all the continent’s conflicts and wars (and almost gotten killed more than once), and knows its politics and history inside out. He is also the author of a slew of books (most of which I have admittedly not read, though have looked at all and read the reviews), all of scholarly quality (not loaded up with Thomas Friedman-like anecdotes). Now he has an article on the Ivory Coast, “The Story of Laurent Gbagbo,” in the latest London Review of Books. Well worth reading if one is interested in the subject. His LRB articles on Rwanda and the Françafrique (linked to on the sidebar) are also highly recommended.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

R.I.H. = Rest in Hell.  No tears shed here, that’s for sure. Too bad this didn’t happen nine years ago but better late than never. Also too bad he wasn’t arrested and brought to trial (in New York, not Gitmo). But the SOB got what was coming to him. There was 9/11, of course, but also Nairobi in 1998—where over 200 Kenyans were killed and up to 4000 wounded (many maimed for life)—, Istanbul in 2003, 3/11 in Madrid, 7/7 in London, and all the others. But OBL’s death isn’t likely to make much of a difference—which is hardly an original observation on my part. This recent article in Foreign Affairs, on how Al-Qaeda works, is relevant on this score.

UPDATE: This commentary by Steve Coll in The New Yorker isn’t bad.

2nd UPDATE: Here’s Ahmed Rashid’s take in the NYRB’s blog.

3rd  UPDATE: Deborah Lipstadt compares the fates of Adolf Eichmann and Bin Laden. She regrets that the latter did not face a court of law.

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Bye bye Gbagbo

Ouf ! It’s finally over in the Ivory Coast and for Laurent Gbagbo. For a while there the country looked like it might go the way of Liberia or Sierra Leone. I was in Abidjan for a few days in 1999, where I gave talks before audiences of political and government types, academics, journalists, and civil society actors. Les forces vives de la société. The main topic of conversation then was the worsening political crisis in the country and the threat of civil war. It was likewise a focus of concern in Mali, where I went afterward; as the Ivory Coast was the economic engine of the region and with large migrant populations from neighboring countries, the prospect that it could blow had Malians terrified. And then it happened, the Ivory Coast descended into civil war and chaos for a decade.  And now it looks like there may be a happy ending—or at least a relatively happy one—as Alassane Ouattara is the most impressive, competent leader the region has seen in a long time. Let’s hope he does the right thing.

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