Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Conflict and Intrigue in Mali - an inside view?

A review of The Golden Hour by Todd Moss, GP Putnam’s Sons, NY, 2014

This novel of diplomatic intrigue is set in Mali and revolves around a coup d’etat where all is not quite what it seems to be.  The hero of the piece is Judd Ryker a university professor who has elaborated a theory, based apparently on statistics (although that was never explained) , to the effect that to reverse a coup d’etat one must act early before the politics, personalities  and security arrangements of the coup makers can jell, i.e. within the golden hour(s).    Duh...  In any case this codification of common sense has propelled Ryker into a job at the Department of State where he has been given the responsibility to implement his theory.  Mali, a country that he had some academic experience in, conveniently comes along. 

Ryker, a political appointee, has to confront an unwelcoming and unwieldy bureaucratic system. (This gives author Moss, himself from this milieu, the opportunity to satirize the system; both State and CIA. Yet such digs are not spiteful and descriptions of people and processes have the ring of truth).  Ryker finds that he has to go personally to Mali to discover the truth.  Amazingly he already knows most of the players involved, and although the truth is difficult to discern, our hero works his way through and, of course, saves the day.  Although Ryker is a one man show, unknowingly, he is also a pawn. That is a nice twist in the plot.

Because of author Moss’ background there is much inside scoop on how the State Department reacts to a crisis.  Those knowledgeable will be forced to laugh at themselves. The Mali context was accurate as to places and culture.  I thought the portrait of the ambassador, albeit overdrawn, was fun.  Readers do need to be reminded that this book is fiction, the type of power, and ability to marshal resources to the extent described, just does not exist. 

However, the bottom line is that The Golden Hour is a jolly good read.

The Holocaust linked to Rwandan Genocide

A review of The Ambassadors by George Lerner, Pegasus Books. NY, 2014

No this is not The Ambassadors by Henry James, although it has the same title. The origin of Lerner’s  title is a 1533 painting by Hans Holbein also entitled The Ambassadors.  That painting portrays two distinguished gentlemen  gathered  round a panoply of objects including a globe and a skull, which  indicates their worldliness. Characters in the novel cite that painting and hark back to it on several occasions as the story unfolds.  And a rather odd story it is:  

The novel revolves around Jacob, now an elderly Jew, who found his life’s purpose at the end of the Second World War in saving post holocaust Jews from new horrors and helping them escape to Israel.  Subsequently Jacob remained involved in such efforts, including the evacuation of the Falasha from Ethiopia, wherever Jews were persecuted.  Whenever called to duty Jacob abandoned his family in New York and went to serve. 

When the novel opens Jacob has been called again, but this time to aid the Tutsi people, victims of genocide in Rwanda.  Although not Jewish, Jacob’s preservation mandate has been extended to all those who suffer annihilation.   Even though this plot line is essential to the novel, the thrust of the story is to unwind Jacob’s strained relationships with his wife and son.  She is a respected anthropologist and the son a failure, at least in Jacob’s eyes.  Jacob had more or less abandoned them during his zealous pursuit of justice for global victims.  They, in turn, harbor resentments and antagonisms.   However, in eastern Congo where the Hutu/Tutsi conflict has renewed, Jacob comes to realize that harsh boundaries of right and wrong are perhaps too strict to define humankind’s inhumanities and frailties.  With that growing enlightenment, Jacob returns to New York to sort out his family.  

I read the book because of the Africa connection.  I found that, for the most part, the situation was accurately portrayed.  Neither side comes across as sympathetic.  The genocide is never explained, it is just a given.  While some genocidaires are despicable hoodlums, the ruthlessness of revenge is forthrightly depicted.  In sum, that’s the message - tooth for a tooth has limits - afterwards you just have to cope.   

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

War and Afterwads in Sudan - an extraordinary life

A review of The Red Pelican - Life on Africa’s Last Frontier by Jon Arensen, Old Africa Books, Naivasha, Kenya, 2013.

 This book is a biography with elaborations and dialogue like it might have been.  It tells the tale of Dick Lyth, an Englishman imbued with missionary zeal who, in 1939, set out to minister to Africans in southern Sudan.  Before he could barely get started, World War II began and he offered his services to the crown.   He was commissioned into the Sudan Defense Forces and given the task of securing the south eastern border from aggression from Italian troops based in Ethiopia.  This was not as easy task nor was it easily done because initially Lyth had no troops to command.  However, he recruited among southern tribesmen and soon patched together and trained a small force.   Next was the problem of getting to the border, which was hundreds of miles away across roadless barren desert and waterless plains.  They marched.  Indeed throughout this saga the feats of human endurance that are recounted are amazing.

Climbing to the Boma Plateau on the Ethiopian border, Lyth made friends with the Murle inhabitants and enlisted several in the war effort.  Outgunned by the better equipped Italian led forces, Lyth - completely on his own - devised a hit-and-run guerilla campaign that kept the enemy at bay and in retreat for months until a larger Allied Force could push into Ethiopia and remove the menace.  Lyth subsequently transferred into the colonial administrative service and served as district commissioner for this remote area for the next ten years.  Indeed eastern southern Sudan was then and perhaps still is among the most remote and neglected parts of Africa.  The D.C.’s principal job was to keep the peace and to regulate disputes among the tribes.  Lyth was excellent at this. He understood, listened and was Solomonic in judgment.  As evidence of respect he was given the name Red Pelican by Murle elders. Lyth married his English sweetheart and they raised three children in the isolated administrative towns where they lived.  After an astonishing career, following the independence of Sudan in 1956 Lyth resigned from the colonial service, took Holy Orders and later became the Anglican bishop of Kigezi, Uganda.

This biography is replete with stories of bravery, endurance, cultural tolerance, big game hunting, and governing issues.   It was a time of imperialism, when British rule was uncontested.   The book paints an accurate picture of what life was like, both for the Europeans and the Africans, during this epoch and place. 

The writing was a little turgid at times, but the story line held my interest.  The map in the book was inadequate for the task of locating the action.  Finally, I discovered one geographic error, when the author described Lyth’s initial posting in 1939 to south western Sudan “along the borders of Uganda, Congo and the Central African Republic.”  In those days the CAR was known as Oubangui-Chari.

Those in search of obscure, but real stories about Africa in days gone by will find this a fascinating read.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ebola - Back from the Hot Zone

 A retired ambassador I was in charge of the U.S. embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone for several weeks in August and September.  Following is some background on the rapidly changing situation there. I have been home now for more than twenty-one days and did return before the Ebola hysteria mushroomed in the U.S. 

Last August in Sierra Leone the infection rate for Ebola was doubling every week. Hundreds were already dead and a thousand more sick with the deadly disease.  The country was in shock, the populace scared and apprehensive, the government confused and the international community ill prepared to deal with the scourge.  American authorities were slow in understanding how quickly the malady was spreading and what its impact would be.  A crisis of this sort was not something we diplomats trained for, but the first order of business was to put our house -  our embassy -  in order and to re-focus on an appropriate response.   Accordingly, Peace Corps Volunteers were sent home and embassy families were re-located to the U.S.  We advised citizens not to travel to the region and, if they were already there to leave if convenient.  However, most of the approximately four thousand Americans in Sierra Leone are dual nationals and many of them are minors. The embassy declared an “emergency,” a formality that permitted USAID to respond with disaster assistance funding.   At the chancery we began a series of educational discussions designed to insure that all employees, both American and Sierra Leonean, knew what Ebola was, how it was transmitted and how to avoid contamination.  We stressed “don’t touch sick people, don’t touch the dead.”  We also trained a team to wear protective gear and put into place visitor screenings and contingency plans should a contact or an infected person enter the premises.  We deemed that our consular operation where dozens of folks applied for visas daily to be our most vulnerable point, but judged it necessary to continue operations.  Even as we took these precautions at the chancery itself, embassy personnel engaged intensely with Sierra Leonean authorities from the President on down and the donor community with regard to strategies, policies and mechanisms designed to curb the outbreak.   Unfortunately, nobody really knew the dimensions of the problem or how to deal with it on the scale required.  Clearly human resources, i.e. health care workers, the necessary equipment  - protective gear, gloves, body bags, laboratory supplies, disinfectants, etc. - and sufficient beds in properly managed isolation and treatment centers were in short supply. 

By mid-August all were acutely aware that the situation was spiraling out of control.  The numbers of sick and dead from the hard hit eastern regions were growing astronomically and cases were beginning to popup in the densely populated capital.  The international press publicized the situation. African neighbors ostracized the three core countries. Most international flights were cancelled.  The government adopted stringent measures.  Chlorine hand washing stations were required at all buildings.   Public meetings, gatherings and sporting events were banned. Schools closed indefinitely. Travel to and from the interior was constrained.  All illnesses were to be reported to authorities, likewise all deaths.  Traditional funerals and funeral rites were banned. The dead were to be collected and buried by trained teams wearing protective gear. A nation-wide campaign was undertaken to educate the populace about the disease.  In September there was a nationwide stand down so that Ebola education teams could visit every household.  Meanwhile, the government and the World Health Organization (WHO) in conjunction with international partners invigorated the response mechanism with new leadership.  Visits by UN Ebola czar David Nabarro and CDC Director Tom Frieden underscored both the urgency of the crisis and the commitment of the international community to be supportive.   By September that support was beginning to flow in a steady manner. 

Fortunately, CDC was ahead of the curve and by early August already had a number of epidemiologists and other experts, between 20 and 30, on site. They were instrumental in helping to establish the first isolation and treatment centers. Working with the national Emergency Operation Center they helped to define policies and priorities.   They were hands on in establishing laboratories, reporting mechanisms and statistical compilations.  A CDC team worked closely with airport authorities to ensure that screening for travelers met the highest standards. A four person Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) from USAID soon arrived and began the process of ordering and coordinating the delivery of quantities of necessary supplies.  We were also successful in getting five ambulances transferred to the Sierra Leonean army from the Department of State controlled regional peacekeeping stockpile.  We also made arrangements for specialized training for Sierra Leonean military personnel engaged in providing security in and around the isolation and treatment centers in the quarantined zone.    Subsequently all of these undertakings have expanded.  Now, even the U.S. military is deploying personnel and resources to aid in the response.  American efforts have been complimented by other donors, foremost the UN family led by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. Additionally, the U.K. Ireland, China, the EU and others have all played a part.  A number of health professionals from elsewhere in Africa have also volunteered to serve.  Yet the anti-Ebola effort remains mostly a Sierra Leonean affair.  At least ninety percent of the crucial health care providers are locals and health care personnel have borne the brunt of the casualties.  Virtually all of the contact tracers, ambulance personnel and burial teams are local. More people are being recruited and trained for all of these tasks.  The number of treatment beds is expanding. The population is acutely aware of the reality of Ebola.  Hysteria and rumor that characterized earlier times have subsided to be replaced by stoicism while waiting for an uncertain future.   So far, although we may be gaining a little, it is still not enough. New infections continue to outpace the response. 

The cost to Sierra Leonean society is high.  People no longer touch in greeting.  No handshake is a ever present reminder of the crisis. How to reconcile the need to care for sick family with the stricture of not to touch?  How to conform to the directive of don’t wash or bury the dead, when traditional culture requires that?   With no schools families are hard pressed to monitor their children.  Imagine the disruption this generates.  Fear of Ebola has meant the collapse of the non-Ebola health care system.  Hospitals and clinics have closed because staff have no preparation or equipment to deal with feverish walk-ins.  So malaria, measles, flu are untreated not to mention heart attacks, injuries, and maternity cases.  Food is in short supply in the cities as transportation links to rural areas degrade.  Similarly, regional transportation throughout West Africa is stalled, exports affected and the economy spirals downward.  Lack of international personnel, business travelers and visitors has hit the hospitality industry hard.  Hotels and restaurants are empty.  Banks have limited hours. All of this, but especially the specter of the unknown - will I get infected? Will my family? Will I have a job? How safe am I? -  result in great apprehension.  Personal relationships are suffering and discrimination against families with known cases, survivors and even health care workers is evident. People feel victimized by God, by the devil, by fate, by government, by politicians, by the international community, and by neighbors.  So a sense of helplessness grows.  So far this has not yet resulted in social chaos, but it might.  One has to hope that the Sierra Leonean strength of character, tempered as it has been by a terrible civil war, will prevail.   However, at the end - when it comes, when Ebola is conquered - a massive undertaking will be required to heal the national psyche as well as to rebuild the economy.  

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Politics and Chaos in the Congo

A review of The American Mission by Matthew Palmer, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 2014


This intriguing tale is set in Africa, specifically in the present day Congo. Descriptions of the teeming capital of Kinshasa and its mad house politics, full of  intrigue and violence, ring true. Similarly authentic are descriptions of a remote village tucked on the shore of one of the Congo’s massive rivers. Finally, the author captures the essence of how an American embassy operates.  He should be qualified for accuracy in that regard because Palmer is a serving U.S. diplomat.  Yet, however realistic the background, this novel is fiction.  The story is a rollicking suspenseful adventure replete with heroes, heroines and villains galore.

The basic plot is that a noble disgruntled young diplomat whose career is apparently in the doldrums is given a new chance at embassy Kinshasa. He eagerly seizes the opportunity, but soon finds that things are not what they seem, and not on the up and up.  He is sent out to perform tasks which he finds morally repugnant, particularly an ambassadorial backed effort to support an international company’s effort to exploit a mining concession that would destroy a peaceful village.  He strives to reverse the idea and finds himself drawn into a whirlwind of truths, half-truths and outright lies.  Erstwhile friends become enemies and vice versa.  Even as the plot swirls, our young diplomat finds his firm ethical ground and stays true to his ideals. 

I really enjoyed the novel because I liked the setting and all the foreign service references, most of which were spot on. While I don’t mind seeing diplomatic stereotypes caricatured, I would caution that there are no inner State Department cabals like the ones described. I offer a few other little nit-picks for what they are worth.  Palmer moves the geography, geology and ethnic presence of the Congo around to suit his needs.  That’s okay in a novel, but still disconcerting to find the Luba people hundreds of miles from home, the copper belt re-located to the rain forest, and Zongo (a real town) misplaced on the inside cover map. Additionally, in the opening chapter set in Darfur the Janjaweed did not raid Zagahwa camps but often attacked Fur IDP camps. A comment about how to get to the fictitious village was “fly to Goma and go downriver” is wrong.  Kisangani is the town on the Congo River that should have been referenced.  Goma is on a lake.  Finally, in talking about the Foreign Service our hero says he registered his will with the human resources office back home.  That is not done.

Foreign Service Officers will particularly enjoy this novel as will folks who know Africa and know how politics and business play out there. Even so, it is a novel with universal appeal. 

Sierra Leone troubles

A review of Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah,  NY 2014

This is a sad and truthful book. It is fiction, but in the context of the story the author speaks eloquently to the realities of African life in the aftermath of war and in face of a harsh modern world where traditional values succumb to the pressures of new times. In the wake of civil war the novel recounts the saga of how a family in Sierra Leone revitalizes itself in an effort to restore harmony and peace in their village.  Even as the older ways, based on strong interpersonal relationships, are being reconstituted, new disruptive ways intrude in the form of a mining company and the disruption it brings.  Eventually, the new ways win out.  The village is destroyed and its people co-opted by corruption. Dismayed by their fate, remnants of the family flee to the capital city, but there too face agonies of unemployment, scams and the collapse of social fabric.

The novel begins in a hopeful fashion wherein first elders and then families return to their abandoned village not only to pick up and bury the bones of the dead, but also to rebuild their lives and village society.  They succeed only gradually as villagers harbor fears and scars from the war.  Included among the returnees are a man and his two children whose hands were cut off by rebel militia.  Also appearing was the young man, who while being called “commander cutlass”, was the perpetrator of the amputations.  He is remorseful, but they cannot reconcile.

The story soon focuses on Bockerie and Benjamin and their families. They survived the war by fleeing, but return to their jobs as teachers.  The school has nothing but students – no equipment and no books – but the teachers love their work and labor on. Soon the principal regularly steals what little there is, including teacher salaries.  Just as the village is getting settled, a mining company opens operations nearby.  This causes havoc. The company is uncaring and unresponsive to village concerns. It pollutes their water. Its trucks run down their children. Its men harass and rape village women. Remonstrations have no effect as national officials are in the pockets of the company.  But the company does provide jobs, and finally Bockerie and Benjamin find no alternatives other than seeking employment there.  First the company undermines the soul of the village and eventually destroys it physically in its quest for ore. 

Ultimately Bockerie and his family travel to the city to seek new beginnings, but alas more trouble. As country bumpkins they are not prepared for slick city ways.  Despite setbacks, the family perseveres.

Author Bleah throws every kind of disaster into the paths of his protagonists.  All too often he makes expatriates, i.e. the mining company, or western influence the scapegoats for every pernicious event.  Clearly part of his message to the world via this novel is that external actors must be more understanding and caring about the societies they encounter.  Yet much of the author’s ire is saved for domestic corruption and leaders who sell out their people for the all mighty dollar.  But the novel is more than that too, it is a study of the aches and pains that people go through as the world around them changes.  They cannot go backwards, nor even find a stable present, but must go forward.  The challenge in doing that is not to lose one’s humanity and moral compass in the process.

I read this novel by a Sierra Leone author in August of 2014 while I was in Freetown during the height of the Ebola crisis.  Even though the Ebola plague is not part of the novel, I found the theme of confronting life’s woes to resonate strongly.  That is precisely what so many citizens are compelled to do in the face of the uncertainties of this terrible disease.      

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Congo Revealed - Some Glory, Lots of Pain

This is a review of Congo - the Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck, Harper Collins, NY, 2014.

This book provides a fascinating look into the Congo’s turbulent history.  Rather than an academic recitation of facts and faces, the author strove to piece together the fabric of the Congo’s past by linking together anecdotes and memories of people who were actually there.  Imagine how enormous was the task to find and interview such persons - people who essentially constituted the oral repository of the last hundred years.  Yet van Reybrouck found them, even a man who had encountered Henry Morton Stanley in the waning years of the 19th century.   Other interlocutors remembered building the railroads, being the first person in school, fighting WWII in Ethiopia,  laboring in the mines, organizing unions, being persecuted, or elevated, by colonial authorities and the nascent political awakenings of  the post war era.  Independence era memories of men in close proximity to Kasavubu, Lumumba and Mobutu provided insight into their motivations and foibles.  Similarly, additional interviews moved the story forward in time through the Mobutu years to the coming of the Kabilas. The vibrancy of personal recollections gives this book a special aura. Moreover the aura is Congolese because the folks interviewed were/are Congolese. The author reported their perceptions of their history even as he wove those memories into the more sterile historical record.   The sum then becomes more than the parts and the result is a definitive epic - just as the subtitle indicates. 

Although political history is fully recounted, the social aspects of past times were elucidating. What did Congolese people think about Europeans?  and vice versa?  Van Reybrouck makes no apologies for Belgian’s colonial rule, but he does dissect the colonial era carefully; usefully adding recollections from Belgians - including his own father - which show a more human side to the stark version of authoritarianism that is standard historical fare. 

The treatise elaborates on the roles that popular music, sports, i.e. soccer, and religion - Catholics, Protestants, Kimbanguists, Pentecostals and other syncretic sects played in the evolution of society, and of politics.   Similarly, the book covers the rise of tribalism, the phenomenon that plagues the Congo today, but which grew from a number of factors including slavery, urbanism, modern politics and poverty. 

Clearly any history of the Congo has to study political non-functionality and corruption.  These themes pervade the book. Corruption began with Leopold’s Free State, continued with Belgian monopolies, was adapted by Congolese politicians who seized assets for their own use, was refined in Mobutu’s system of control via payoffs, and culminated in the more recent scramble for minerals by warlords and neighboring authorities from Rwanda and Uganda.   Dysfunctional politics too track the same trajectory wherein the need to control, and survive, outweighed any responsibilities to the community or society at large.  The Congo did not fall into an economic and political abyss overnight. Its leaders, with at minimum the acquiescence of the people, took it there.   Van Reybrouck’s book is a history, so does not propose solutions, but it does give readers an appreciation for the complexities of the current situation and of the hurdles that the nation faces as it tries to move forward.

The sections about the fall of Mobutu, the Rwandan/Ugandan invasion, the coming of Laurent Kabila, succession by his son Joseph and conflict in Kivus provide background on recent events.  By and large van Reybrouck gets the facts right, and he does produce some interesting anecdotes, but he does err in adopting assertions by fellow countrymen Reyntjens and Braeckman both regarding the number of Rwandan refugees that died in the conflagration (he uses the inflated number of 300,000 that was bandied about at the time, but that has been subsequently  scrutinized closely) and the role of the U.S. government during that conflict (allegations that U.S. troops and equipment were involved are simply false).   Knowing that van Reybrouck got his facts wrong on those issues, raises the question of credibility throughout the book.  What else is misreported?   

The book closes with a rather strange chapter that discusses the presence of Congolese traders in China, their puzzlement with that society and their efforts to buy goods wholesale for shipment home.  Although it is good to know that entrepreneurs are out there, I suppose the relevance of the ending is that whatever the disaster of the homeland, some of the Congolese people remain vibrant and forward looking.