Unhappy fourth birthday for South Sudan

Children at a protection of civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, run by the UN Mission, perform at a special cultural event in March 2015. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine
Children at a civilians protection site in Juba, South Sudan, run by the UN Mission, perform at a cultural event in March 2015. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine

UN’s Secretary-General has called on South Sudan’s president and vice president to come to the negotiating table as the war-torn country celebrates an unhappy fourth birthday.  Ban Ki-Moon released a statement on the birthday eve last week where he spoke of a country where hope was in short supply after a civil war that has gone on for 18 months wreaking havoc of “unconscionable levels of violence and unspeakable sexual abuse”. The Secretary-General said more than 1.6 million people have been displaced, including over 150,000 seeking refuge with the UN. “Some 4.6 million face severe food insecurity and over 600,000 have been forced to flee into neighbouring countries,” he said.

Ban called on president Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar to find a political solution to end the war. The war in South Sudan began in December 2013 as political in-fighting between Kiir and Machar. Kiir unleashed his troops on Machar’s forces after Kiir claimed Machar had launched a coup against him.  Though the pair had fought together against Khartoum in the war of liberation against Sudan, Kiir reminded his audience that Machar had broken away from the main guerrilla army in 1991 and was now doing so again.

Hostilities quickly turned into fully-fledged conflict, resulting in atrocities and possible war crimes. Almost 50,000 people have been killed in what has developed into ethnic conflict between Dinka and Nuer groups. Sexual violence is out of control while 12,000 children have been forced to become child soldiers. The UN estimates three-quarters of a million people have fled into Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan while another 1.5 million remain internally displaced, many ending up in overcrowded “protection-of-civilians” sites run by the UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

Yet organisations like Human Rights Watch have been critical of the UN for the failure of its Human Rights Council to appoint a special rapporteur to focus on South Sudan. It says the Council needs to to urgently create a robust mechanism to create accountability for South Sudan and put leaders on notice they would be charged for war crimes. However a US/UK proposal to create the rapporteur position was trumped by an African proposal which, HRW says, is just another “fact-finding mission”.

In any case, Kiir has rejected as “misguided” what little sanctions the UN has in place. On July 2 the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on six military generals, three from Kiir’s government and three from Machar’s faction. The sanctions included travel bans and freezing of assets. Kiir claimed the sanctions would obstruct the peace process but at the same time justified continued attacks on Machar’s forces. “A sovereign nation, we are tasked with the greatest rights, protecting our people and our land as we are committed to filling that right in pursuit of justice for our nation,” Kiir’s spokesperson said.

An editorial in the Guardian this week says the state of South Sudan was misconceived and its constitution was troubling. “The army swelled, without unified command, and the ruling party remained unreformed from the days of revolution. It had little to offer the people,” the paper said. “Society is now bitterly divided, even between communities still at peace.”

The failure of South Sudan is a personal failure for the US. Former president George W Bush had a particular interest seeing the nation as Christian (and oil-rich) bulwark to the Muslim state of Sudan.  Though Obama was less obsessed, his Secretary of State John Kerry played a big role in fast-tracking independence and helped “midwife the birth of this new nation”.  But in 2011 the new nation had virtually no civil institutions, only 120 doctors for a population of nine million, and just over 50km of paved roads in a territory the size of France. It was also landlocked, ethnically diverse, and entirely dependent on oil revenue.

Four years later and 18 months into interminable conflict, matters have only worsened with staggering inflation, declining oil production and plummeting world prices. Al Jazeera said a water company, one of the few manufacturing businesses operating in the country, had to shut down in December unable to cope with the deteriorating business environment. The company’s owner said they couldn’t access the hard currency to pay for the imports needed for their operations. South Sudan ranks fifth worst on the world’s corruption index and the only way to trade dollars is on the black market. The country’s only hope is a lasting peace deal but it is hard to see that happening while Kiir and Machar maintain their appetite for a proxy war.

That Unhappy Race Part 7 – Archibald Meston “the sacred ibis”

The Sacred Ibis: Archibald Meston
The Sacred Ibis: Archibald Meston

Archibald Meston was born in Aberdeenshire in 1851.  Aged eight, his family moved to NSW to follow Meston’s older brother who grew crops at Ulmarra on the Clarence River. They switched to sugar cane in 1863 and Archibald helped out on the farm while learning the language and culture of local Aboriginal groups. As a young man, Meston was a constant traveller working in canefields and learning more Aboriginal vocabularies. He married Frances Prowse Shaw in 1871 and their first son Harold was born three years later. By then Archibald was manager at Pearlwell sugar plantation at St Lucia in Brisbane and a correspondent to the Queenslander newspaper under the pen-name Ramrod.

A year later his literary talents were recognised, appointed editor of the Ipswich Observer. There he campaigned for small farmers and against the Pacific Island workers in the sugar industry. By 1878 aged 27, he was well known enough to easily win the seat of Rosewood in the Queensland election, on the vote of small German farmers. Meston’s supporters celebrated the victory with a parade from One Mile Bridge to the centre of Ipswich where the streets were lined with flags.

In parliament Meston was considered ambitious, dashing and irrepressible. He was immediately made Liberal party whip and considered Premier material. Political opponent Boyd Dunlop Morehead gave Meston the nickname that stuck. Morehead believed Australia should be an exclusive British colony and attacked German immigrants as communists and socialists. Meston strongly defended his constituents in parliament. He noted the Teutonic influence on the British race in a speech littered with classical allusions including the ibis and crocodile sacred to ancient Egyptians. Morehead was grudgingly impressed with Meston’s defence and later told him he was the reincarnation of the Sacred Ibis whose plumage symbolised the light of the sun. Meston liked it so much, the Sacred Ibis replaced Ramrod as his pen-name.

Meston’s political ambitions were undone after a defamation action against a German-Australian newspaper the Nord Australische Zeitung. Meston was a supporter of Premier Thomas McIlwraith. McIlwraith was investigated for corruption after had handed a lucrative railway contract to Steel Rails which he held shares in, but a Royal Commission cleared him of personal blame. Meston voted to accept the Royal Commission verdict, a decision which the Zeitung asserted had been “bought”. A furious Meston took the German paper to court but lost, and worse still he lost favour with his German constituents in Rosewood. At the next election the paper’s editor Jean Baptiste Isambert defeated him.

Out of parliament and made insolvent by the court case, Meston continued to edit the Observer until forced out by a syndicate of new owners that included McIlwraith and Morehead. In 1882 he moved north to become editor of the Townsville Herald, and then on to Cairns where he managed a sugar cane plantation and became a local councillor. Meston pushed hard to make Cairns the northern terminus of the railway to the mining fields. It was also the time where Meston began to establish his reputation as an expert on Queensland Aborigines.

This would have been a surprise to those that knew the Sacred Ibis in Ipswich and Brisbane, despite the linguistic interests of his teen years. The Observer had made little mention of Aborigines except to justify a revenge attack by whites up north.  He was also reputed to have shot indigenous people during his canefield days to prevent attacks on local plantations. But by the 1890s, Meston considered himself an accomplished bushman and empathised with Aboriginal bushcraft in his prolific writings. In 1889 he had led a scientific expedition to the Bellenden Ker Range and gave an ethnological description of local tribes.

Meston was mostly mouthing conventional wisdoms of indigenous culture with wild assertions about cannibalism and depictions of the blacks as “savages”. He admitted to white brutality and unscrupulous behaviour too but his Social Darwinism prevented him from prescribing a solution. “The Australian blacks,” he wrote in 1889, “are moving rapidly on into the eternal darkness in which all savages and inferior races are destined to disappear.”

Yet within a few years, Meston had changed his mind and began a campaign to protect and preserve Queensland’s native people. His paradox, a desire to help while treating blacks with contempt, mirrored the paradox of wider Queensland society which grappled with its conscience on how to deal with a troublesome yet untouchable people. Meston’s campaign would dominate the remaining 30 years of his life. He was a regular contributor to Brisbane and Sydney newspapers. He quickly became an implacable opponent of the native police calling them “slaughterers” capable of “systematic outrage.”

In 1891 his reputation as an Aboriginal sympathiser took a hit with an extraordinarily ill-advised business venture. Meston assembled a troupe of indigenous people for a world tour called “Wild Australia”. His business partner Brabazon Purcell gathered Aboriginal people from far western Queensland, the Torres Strait and NT and took them on tour of the capital cities with “a large number of curios and weapons”. In Melbourne the tour ran into trouble as the number of Aborigines and curios did not match the advertised amount leaving Meston with unpaid debts. He “bolted” after a warrant, leaving the troupe with Purcell. When Purcell arranged a departure for England, the Queensland Government objected saying the blacks had been kidnapped and demanded their return. Purcell disappeared leaving the blacks stranded in Sydney, and the Queensland Government agreed to meet the cost of their return.

The man behind the government’s action was colonial secretary Horace Tozer, and an embarrassed Meston would remain forever grateful to his support. Meston initially backed Purcell but now claimed now the blacks were indeed taken from Boulia without consent. Tozer rejected a Meston request conduct an investigation but it became a public issue. The press picked up a letter Purcell wrote to Meston which spoke of an opportunity to “investigate the vile and degrading temperament of whites in western Queensland”. But Meston’s eventual solution was not to do anything about the whites, but to remove the blacks.

The Black and Tans: British police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence

This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson's book.  Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis
This photo of Black and Tans interrogating a Sinn Fein suspect was on the cover of DM Leeson’s book. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis

Anyone familiar with 20th century Irish history will know of the notorious reputation of the Black and Tans, the British paramilitary organisation who fought against the IRA in Ireland’s War of Independence. The British Government equipped them as soldiers but pretended they were police so they could continue the charade there was no war in Ireland. Their distinctive uniform (dark police green mixed with army khaki) blurred the line between police and military and gave them their nickname. Irish historians paint the Tans as a violent, thuggish and murderous organisations whose members emptied British prisons before running riot in Ireland. However a book called The Black and Tans by Canadian historian David Leeson questions this narrative.

Between 1920 and 1921, 10,000 British men, most of them First World War veterans, enlisted in the Royal Irish Constabulary. A second group of former war officers joined a temporary force called the Auxiliary Division (ADRIC). The Black and Tans were garrison troops defending strongpoints while the Auxiliary Division were mobile and offensive. Both the Tans and Auxiliaries quickly became known for undisciplined violence and their tactic of widespread reprisals which earned them comparisons with other notorious paramilitary organisations such as Turkish bashi-bazouks and German Freikorps.

Leeson’s villains however are not the soldiers pretending to be policemen but their bumbling paymasters in London, the British Government – the “two-headed ass” of David Low’s cartoons. Prime Minister David Lloyd George insisted Ireland’s problem was a policing one. Despite being a Liberal, his Coalition was dominated by Conservatives and Unionists with little sympathy for Irish nationalism and could only offer, in Leeson’s words, “limited repression with limited concessions”.

Irish policy had been the bane of British governments since Gladstone lost power twice over the Home Rule bill in 1886 and again in 1893. Successive Tory and post-Gladstone Liberal governments showed no appetite to reintroduce Home Rule, but the Irish Party kept the pressure up till it re-gained the balance of power after the second election of 1910.

A Home Rule bill finally passed the House of Commons in 1912 and the House of Lords could only delay it to 1914. The Northern Irish Protestants demanded Ulster’s exclusion from the bill and civil war seemed inevitable until the First World War pushed the issue to one side. The republican Easter rising of 1916 was put down but the Irish public was dismayed by the heavy-handed British response. Opinions hardened on the Catholic and Protestant sides with Sinn Fein and the Unionists dominating the 1918 election in Ireland. Herbert Asquith’s Liberals were also crushed; Lloyd George’s Coalition Unionists having a majority of 478 seats in a 707-seat parliament. Lloyd George wouldn’t consider Ireland while the Paris peace negotiations went on in 1919 but Irish MPs refused to sit in Westminster. Rebels began a campaign against Irish police, killing 15 by year end.

The undeclared war escalated in 1920 as the army arrested Irish leaders. Lloyd George introduced a new Irish bill splitting the country into two parliaments (a model of partition later used in India). The rebels intensified their campaign and Dublin Castle released republican hunger-striking prisoners in a gesture of appeasement. It didn’t work and police casualties increased; 28 died between April and June, 55 between July and September. Ireland became ungovernable with boycotts and strikes. Republicans began building an alternative state holding their own courts, as the British system of assizes failed.

Police were demoralised and Dublin Castle asked for the military intervention, saying only martial law or an agreement with Sinn Fein could end the crisis. Conservative and Unionist members of cabinet could not bring themselves to negotiate with the “murder gang”. “The disgrace would deepen to infamy,” Arthur Balfour wrote. Despite misgivings of British officials in Dublin the hawks prevailed and Sinn Fein were declared a criminal organisation as parliament passed the Restoration of Order in Ireland bill. Lloyd George said Ireland had to “sacrifice extravagant demands and too extravagant ideas.”

The Irish Constabulary was responsible for policing Ireland except Dublin. It earned the name Royal for its part suppressing the Fenian uprising of 1867. It had a force of 10,000 men, all Irish and mostly Catholic. It was armed and with ordinary crime rare in Ireland, political surveillance was its most important role. They were hated by Republicans who called them England’s Janissaries: “a force of traitors and spies”. When the War of Independence started, many quit the RIC, angered at being forced to act as soldiers. Facing a manpower crisis, government minister Walter Long suggested some of the 167,000 British ex-servicemen receiving unemployment benefits might fit the gap. Their reputation as criminals was undeserved. Most were discharged with honour from the army and few had criminal records. The first Black and Tans arrived in Ireland in January 1920. A shortage of police clothing led to their mixed costumes which attracted great attention as they marched to their barracks.

Recruiting was slow but picked up as the RIC received a substantial pay rise in June 1920. Numbers really took off after September 1920 when police sacked the county Dublin town of Balbriggan. The sack was discussed in parliament and made national headlines and despite the notoriety the publicity alerted many ex-servicemen about employment with the RIC. Despite the good pay, conditions were hard and dangerous and they were shunned and resented by fellow Irish police.

They had no love for the ADRIC either. Auxiliaries were officially temporary cadets but paid as sergeants, a rank it might take decades for Irish police to reach. The division was Churchill’s idea to raise a “special emergency gendarmerie” of war veterans enlisted for one year. ADRIC’s leader Major General Henry Tudor said their role was to “crush the present campaign of outrage” using military tribunals, deporting prisoners, collective punishment and “a special penalty of flogging imposed for the cutting of girls’ hair and outrages against women”. ADRIC became known as Tudor’s Toughs and remained a separate force spending much of their time conducting raids, earning a more fearsome reputation than the Tans. When faced with resistance they lost restraint and committed atrocities which seemed to crush the IRA but in the longer term only hardened republican resolve and turned the Irish against them.

As the struggle intensified, Ireland descended into a reign of terror. The guerrillas resorted to ambush and assassination which the Tans and Auxiliaries met with group reprisals and murder. Suspects and prisoners were summarily executed, homes and shops of IRA volunteer families and supporters were burned. In the summer of 1921 an election was held according to the Government of Ireland Act for the House of Commons of southern Ireland (a separate election was held in the north). Republicans triumphed with Sinn Fein treating it as an election for a new revolutionary parliament. When elected members refused to take their seats in a House of Commons, London threatened to govern Ireland as a crown colony. On June 21, Lord Chancellor Birkenhead finally admitted Britain was at war in Ireland – a war it was determined to win.

The war was not popular in England and King George V made a more conciliatory speech opening Belfast’s new parliament which was welcomed in Britain and Ireland. When republican leader de Valera indicated he might compromise, and with many of the hard-line Unionists finally out of cabinet, Lloyd George was persuaded to negotiate. A truce was arranged on July 8 and came into force three days later. The Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 6 kept Ulster separate and Ireland within the realm but Britain conceded the dominion status it fought resolutely against 12 months earlier.

While Ireland descended into its own self-inflicted horror of the Civil War, the Black and Tans and Auxiliaries went home to England (there were very few Scottish or Welsh in either force). Both forces entered the infamy of Irish history but they consisted of mostly ordinary men. The Auxiliaries behaved worse, but this Leeson says, was merely a privilege of rank. Their cruelties were overlooked by the British government anxious to pretend the insurgency was “a policeman’s job”.

Leeson compares how the British in Ireland behaved with Brazilian death squads of the 1964-1985 period. “Violence workers” were ordinary people who were trained to confine their violence against known or suspected enemies. However the margin of tolerated illegality was wide and helped insulate them from the impact of their crimes. Leeson says during the war Ireland was transformed into “a looking-glass world of crimes without criminals, police without laws, trials without judges or juries and sentences without appeal.” Lloyd George’s government must take most of the blame for turning Ireland, at least temporarily, into Devil’s Island.

That Unhappy Race Part 6: The Empty Years

Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.
Premier Thomas McIlwraith brought Queensland out of depression in the 1880s but he had no interest in Indigenous affairs.

After the failure of the Drew and Hale Commissions to achieve results, Queensland Aboriginal policy in 1880s drifted into what Gordon Reid in “That Unhappy Race” called the empty years. Scottish-born premier Thomas McIlwraith’s plan was to cut government costs and push economic development when conditions improved. Aboriginal affairs would have drifted out of public consciousness but for the efforts of one man: editor-in-chief and part of owner of the Brisbane Courier and the Queenslander, Gresley Lukin.

Lukin wrote a stinging editorial in the Queenslander on May 1, 1880 calling for reform in response to a letter from Cooktown about the brutal war raging in the north. Headed “The way we civilise” Lukin’s editorial began by saying Aboriginal people in new territories were treated no better than wild animals. “Their goods are taken, their children forcibly stolen, their women carried away, entirely at the caprice of white men,” he said, and all at the butt of a rifle. Lukin said those who committed outrages were protected by the majority under a code of silence, while the government looked the other way. When blacks retaliated, they were “dispersed” by native police, a euphemism that Lukin knew to mean “wholesale massacre”.

Lukin wrote several more editorials in the same vein urging the replacement of the native police with a white force assisted by black trackers. He also rebuked frontier journals for encouraging murder of Aboriginals just for the theft of clothes. But Lukin’s pleas went unanswered. At Battle Mountain near Cloncurry the Native Police defeated the Kalkadoon people, while in Brisbane McIlwraith was unmoved. Each show of European superiority confirmed the attitude of powerbrokers that the Aboriginal people were doomed to extinction.

The election of Samuel Griffith as the Liberal premier in November 1883 offered some hope of change. His government introduced legislation to protect Aboriginals and New Guineans who were being exploited on ships in Queensland waters. However the bill was watered down in parliament and the abuses and kidnapping continued. Griffith’s Minister for Lands Charles Dutton established the first Aboriginal reserve since 1879, a Lutheran mission at Cape Bedford (it endures today as Hopevale, the homeland of Noel Pearson).

Aboriginal people in the region were ravaged by goldmining at Cooktown though the rough terrain meant they offered stern resistance to the native police. They were brought in by the loss of traditional lands and hunger. To placate them, first the settlers, and then the government offered them rations. This peace through food plan was successful and Griffiths started taking notice. In 1885 he asked his police commissioner to report on the possibility of replacing the native police with a white force and he gradually rolled out a new system across the north. By the early 1890s this was established government policy, keeping the blacks quiet and in places they could be watched. However a new problem added to the need for further control: opium.

One of the earliest to notice the problem was the Surat settler EH Smith who was “most shocked at witnessing the effects of opium on the ‘niggers’.” Smith said opium was everywhere with Chinese people in Roma supplying the drug at immense profit. A Rockhampton settler said an Aboriginal woman visiting Cooktown “learned the use of it” and spread it back to her countrypeople, where it had become endemic. “They formerly bought flour, tea, tobacco, red handkerchiefs and now the sale of them is entirely stopped for opium,” he wrote. Stations quickly got into the habit of paying Aboriginal workers in opium and if supply was bad in some areas, the entire population would move on to other areas. A police inspector noted that the addiction did not lead to crime but “they lose all their animal spirits and become lethargic in their nature and disposition”.

As Reid wrote, opium addiction had become another thing that Indigenous people had suffered at the hands of the white intruder in two decades of Queensland settlement, following malnutrition, disease, dispossession, abuse and violence. In the white community the opium problem fed on paranoid suspicions about the influence of the Chinese increasing public pressure to take action. The stage was set in the 1890s for one man with political will to come up with a workable plan. That man was Archibald Meston. 

Vote Ochi – a Grexit foretold

grexitOn Sunday Greece takes a historic vote on whether to accept an EU bailout. It is important not because of its knock-on impact to the world economy which will easily recover any losses (markets work on sentiment and sentiment is unfaithful and forgetful). It is important because Greece is offering a template to take genuine power from the technocrats and hand it back to the people – appropriately in the country where democracy was invented. The referendum execution is leaving much to be desired but the intention is clear and a worry for politicians across the world who believe voters cannot be trusted to make the right decision in complex matters.

Greece’s referendum is certainly complex. As I write on Saturday morning Australian time – less than 48 hours from when polls open – the exact question voters are deciding on remains obscure while a constitutional challenge to the referendum was not defeated until yesterday. That gives only a day to get millions of ballot papers out to every part of the remote countryside and each of its islands. If that sounds like a fiasco in the making it probably is, nevertheless the need for a speedy resolution is real and the Greeks themselves fully understand what is at stake.

The question is hard, but the answer is simple, yes or no. The discussion that has gone for weeks across Greece is based on these binary opposites. The “yes” vote (confusingly to western ears “né”) is a vote to accept the continued medicine of years of austerity and low growth. It is “the devil you know” and an easy choice to ensure many more years of what Greece has endured since 2009, but within the euro. The yes vote is supported by most of Greece’s centrist political parties, the business community and Greece’s EU partners.

The no vote (transliterated as “ochi” or “oxi”) is more of a leap into the unknown. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has hitched his Syriza government to ochi, demanding the forgiveness of a third of Greece’s massive debt and delayed payment on the rest. Syriza came from nowhere in 2014 to win government because they could articulately plot a future that extricated Greece from its problems, foreign debts that even decades of austerity would not clear. One early joke was that Syriza would counterclaim Germany for $250 billion of Second World War reparations to Greece.

But Tsipras’s bargaining chip was simple: give us relief or we stop paying. The ultimate action in this game of bluff is creditors would throw Greece out of the euro zone, which Syriza claims it does not want to happen. Yet this is the path “ochi” takes us on, a fact the people know regardless of how Tsipras frames the question. The prime minister has complicated his gambit by increasing the stakes. Syriza has pledged its future on the people voting no on Sunday. If the ‘né’ vote wins, then Tsipras and his finance minister Yanis Varoufakis will resign and the government will fall.

Nevertheless you can expect weasel room, as three results are possible: a strong yes victory, a weak yes victory and a no victory. Europe is hoping for a strong yes vote, one that keeps Greece just inside its monetary tent but placed on the naughty step for the foreseeable future. Greece would pull back from the brink and a managerialist government would replace Syriza and implement the wishes of Berlin paymasters.

That’s if there is a strong win but what the polls are predicting is a weak yes win. That could leave Greece in status quo, Syriza or some proxy paying creditors till kingdom come in endless last minute negotiations that only whittle away at the edges while grumbles slowly simmer. The path could be clear for a far right government (such as Golden Dawn, which supports the referendum) to blame the weakest in Greek society for their problems and replace austerity with authoritarianism.

A ‘no’ vote is the clearest of outcomes. It will set the country on the Grexit path, certainly from the monetary union, and probably the political union. The technocrats will never admit it but European Monetary Policy is set for political reasons not financial reasons. It loosens some trade barriers but tightens others. Britain stayed out not because of the nationalistic braying of its press but because it saw how London would lose control of its destiny. Each country in the euro zone gives away its central or reserve bank and hands monetary policy to Brussels. The European Central Bank sets its main lever – interest rates – to the needs of its core constituency, Germany.

Though Germany was badly scarred by the GFC, it remains a massive and diverse economy with a well-educated workforce. The price of the euro reflects these factors. The lack of a drachma means not only that Greeks lose out on the cost of transferring currency (tourists love all countries on the euro), and remains expensive to visit, but a Greek exporter has no benefit over German exporters in currency fluctuation.

Leaving the euro may not save Greece from itself but it might save Greece from Europe. Tsipras should be applauded for trusting the electorate to make that decision and not leave it in the hands of faceless technocrats. I wish the country well, and look forward to a good exchange rate on the drachma.

President Pierre Nkurunziza confounds world to prolong Burundi’s agony

Counting has started in Burundi’s fraudulent election despite an opposition boycott, continued protests and deaths on the street, and the refusal of the UN and AU to endorse it. The country has been in turmoil since April, when President Nkurunziza defied the constitution and sought a third term, triggering rioting which climaxed with a failed military coup last month.

The street movement known as “stop the third mandate” has not abated and Nkurunziza’s opponents say his decision to stand again violates the constitution as well as a peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005.  Burundi gained independence from Belgium in 1962 and almost immediately ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi groups. As with neighbouring Rwanda the population had been divided into separate ethnic groups by the colonial power. According to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi there is no distinguishing physical, religious, linguistic or colour characteristics yet individuals identify with one of three ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi or Twa.

The civil war began in 1993 following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye just four months after winning power. The war dragged on through the 1990s between the majority Hutu faction and the minority Tutsis. It was exacerbated by a blockade by neighbouring countries that crippled the economy. After 200,000 died in the conflict, the warring factions were finally brought to the peace table in 2000 and resulted in the signing of Arusha Agreement. At the time, more than 700,000 people were refugees – almost 10 per cent of its population.

However not all rebel groups signed the agreement. Some groups continued the armed rebellion as a three-year transitional government was established. In 2003 the government and the leader of the main Hutu rebel movement signed a peace accord in Dar es Salaam while a smaller rebel group was given three months to open talks or face consequences. While talks dragged on, the people of Burundi exercised their right to a democratic vote in 2005 for the first time in 11 years. Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader and born-again Christian, won a mandate to bring peace and prosperity to the region.

Nkurunziza was reelected in 2010 though the opposition boycotted the election. His second term was characterised by post-electoral repression, rising corruption, the shrinking of political space and authoritarian governance. Last year amid increasing paranoia, he banned jogging, fearing it was being used as a cover for subversion.

In late April this year, Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party announced he would would run for a third term in the June 26 election. The announcement sparked immediate protests and claims a third term would be a violation of the country’s constitution. Police prevented many demonstrators from reaching the city centre, but there were numerous clashes in the suburbs, with police using teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition. The clashes went on for days with the government becoming increasingly intolerant.

In May General Godefroid Niyombare declared a coup announcing the dismissal of Nkurunziza and his government while the president was in Tanzania. Crowds packed the streets of the capital Bujumbura while rebel soldiers holding the airport forced Nkurunziza to return his flight to Tanzania. Loyalists remained in control of the presidential palace and state broadcaster. That night the head of army went on radio to call on rebels to surrender. There followed fierce fighting but the coup impetus failed and Nkurunziza came home 24 hours later. He went on air the following day to say the coup had been crushed.

Despite the end of the coup, violence persisted through May and June. Nkurunziza claimed the violence was ethnically-based and a throwback to the dark days of the civil war. On May 23, grenades were thrown into a Bujumbura market killing three and wounding 21. An opposition leader was murdered the same day causing opposition parties to end negotiations with the government.

Yet the violence did not stop planning for the election. There was a last minute hitch as one of the vice presidents Gervais Rufyikiri fled the country saying Nkurunziza’s candidacy was unconstitutional. The government then alleged Rufyikiri was involved in the coup as students sought protection in the US embassy. A day later the opposition announced they would boycott the election.
Nkurunziza’s likely victory will be hollow and not just because there is no opposition. Sanctions are adding to Burundi’s already formidable economic challenges. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world with 70% of the population below the poverty line. In 2003 the World Bank estimated per capita annual income at $110. The UN ranked Burundi 169 out of 177 countries in the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) human development index.
The 2005 report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Burundi (pdf) estimated that 90 percent of the population relied on subsistence farming for a living in a country which suffered three successive drought years. 68 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line. Much of the country is devastated with land mines. Meanwhile the disability and death rate from malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases remains high.
As the Kenyan Daily Nation said Burundi is disintegrating under Nkurunziza. “The international community can sit back and wait for the inevitable tragedy to unfold or step in to stop the slide to the brink, save lives, and restore political sanity before it is too late,” it says.

The killing season must end: Why Labor should not change its leader

shorten gillardThe Killing Season on the ABC is brilliant television and should give producer Deb Masters and writer/presenter Sarah Ferguson a double in TV and journalism awards. The three-part series is deservedly taking plaudits for its riveting dissection of the Rudd-Gillard leadership wars. Though the period has been well examined in books, The Killing Season is rich multi-sensory art, from the wintry Poe-theme opening and the music of Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1, the theme of Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, a flawed hero and adventurer.

The Killing Season offered extended interviews of its own flawed protagonists, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, two of the sharpest minds in Australian politics in the 21st century. Both had the right stuff to become Prime Minister but got in each other’s way. They were personal and political opposites, but made a smart marriage of convenience at the time, as Simon Crean observed. Rudd got the nod as leader, easier to sell as a male Protestant than a female atheist.

Rudd was a consummate actor and phenomenal media performer. He dominated their first election as a team and the defeat of four-time Prime Minister John Howard was put down to “Kevin 07”. The electorate respected Gillard but loved Rudd and his nerdy dad persona. His rock-star status was still rising after the 2008 Stolen Generations apology and his response to the Global Financial Crisis. But his stratospheric ratings could not last forever and quickly fell to earth after the Liberals appointed a hard-nosed leader to replace the hapless Malcolm Turnbull. Saving Australia from financial collapse was an astonishing achievement but too intangible to measure and Rudd’s leadership slowly collapsed amid a series of self-inflicted blows.

Rudd wasn’t the only one making mistakes. Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan made a fatal error to replace him in June 2010, though each step in the process was defensible. Rudd still had a winning lead when he was sacked in 2010, despite his problems. Rudd could not believe what was happening, his horror best expressed in The Killing Season in his shocked, almost whispered comment that trails off, “But the polls….?” His government had 52-48 lead over Abbott at the time, just like Shorten has now. But Labor panicked and he was gone. The people were not consulted and the coup would, as Anthony Albanese predicted, destroy two Labor leaders.

Much of the testimony of that 2010 period is of chaotic moments shared Rashomon-style with differing conclusions depending on the speaker. The Killing Season was, as one deft reviewer called it, classical tragedy “where at each stage all the tragic character can do is tighten the net”. Gillard replaced Rudd but couldn’t remove him. And for the next three years, he white-anted her relentlessly until his revenge was served stone-cold in 2013. Gillard and Rudd’s relationship was not the first poisoned by power and won’t be the last. Neither were “killed”, but they destroyed each other politically and are now both lost to parliament despite still being in their 50s and in their prime.

Worse still, their Labor Party too is now out of power, rudderless as well as ruddless, after looking semi-invincible from 2007 to 2009. Two leaders and two elections later the moral challenges of our generation are in the calamitous hands of Tony Abbott, the great divider. The Killing Season is important history to see how we got to that equation in six short years. The astonishing personal enmity tells us how Labor imploded and is compelling viewing. But a better guide to why it happened comes from the rich first-hand testimony of the large coterie of supporting characters swirming around Gillard and Rudd.

Sarah Ferguson is Australia’s sharpest political interviewer and her forensic approach extracted the drama from every statement and counter-statement. Most Labor ministers were rueful, occasionally bitter, but always honest, whether they supported Beasley, Rudd or Gillard. Minders like Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton were eye-opening in their perceptive day-to-day detail. Their admiration for Rudd’s judgement was shared by Gordon Brown, Hank Paulson and Ken Henry. Only three notables from the Labor first rank did not have their say with Sarah and two of them, Lindsay Tanner and John Faulkner, are retired. The third is current leader Bill Shorten.

Shorten’s minders no doubt believed there was nothing to gain from raking over old coals – particularly coals that Shorten himself stoked, with important roles in the 2010 and 2013 coups. This was a mistake, he should have explained what Labor had learned from the process (arguably nothing if today’s factional announcement from Tasmania is a guide). Shorten was implicated anyway despite his silence, caught out lying to Neil Mitchell about the 2013 challenge that brought Rudd back to power.

Shorten has apologised privately to the Melbourne radio host but should return to Mitchell’s show to talk about why he lied in the first place. It has undermined one of Shorten’s main advantages over Prime Minister Tony Abbott, after the latter was caught out lying spectacularly and repeatedly to the public the night before the election.

The Killing Series came out at a bad time for Shorten. Fairfax have gone on the attack over questions he may have to answer in a politically motivated union inquiry. Others on the left such as Jason Wilson decry Shorten as a do-little union apparatchik constantly moving to the right to avoid being wedged by Tony Abbott. Yet he leads in the polls, and a move to sack him would only suit Abbott, who is trying to get Labor to panic again. Abbott has no intention of going to an early election he wouldn’t win, but more Labor leadership turmoil would change that.

Abbott hailed The Killing Season as an unmasking of Labor’s untrustworthiness. “I don’t normally say thank you to the ABC,” Abbott admitted in parliament, “but I have to say Australia is indebted to you on this instance.” Abbott was spouting rubbish as usual, but he was right on one point – he doesn’t normally say thank you to the ABC. He’s normally lying about its future, stacking the board, slashing its budget and attacking its editorial policies.

Barely days after The Killing Season, he launched into open warfare over the Zaky Mallah exchange on Q&A on Monday. Not for the first time, Abbott used the sporting analogy of “whose side are you on?” when attacking the ABC. Abbott’s crude “team Australia” rhetoric is inadequate when trying to distil a complex argument like why people support Islamic State. It was a point Mallah demolished when he spoke about how young Australian Muslims become disenfranchised. The ABC took no “sides” but offered a platform for dissenting views, a platform urgently needed as the Murdoch press (which sets the media agenda and also has a vested interest in attacking the public broadcaster) becomes increasingly one-sided. The ABC is considered duplicitous despite the public judging twice as trustworthy as the government.

This is not just a problem for the ABC. It is a problem for Labor as an alternative government. Rupert Murdoch is a bulwark for Tony Abbott, his papers running constant interference and setting agendas by attacking Abbott’s enemies while giving him an easy ride. Mallah is considered the enemy but hysterical front page photos like the Courier-Mail’s conflation of the ABC and Islamic State are okay because the Courier-Mail is on “our side”. The effect is to move the Overton Window of acceptable political discourse further to the right.

The Killing Season is classic public broadcasting and a terrific first draft of history. Labor should learn from that history and allow Shorten what it didn’t allow Beasley in 2007, Rudd in 2010 and Gillard in 2013: a chance to survive the killing season and be judged by the voters. They might be shocked to find that behind the screeching of Abbott and Murdoch, there is another Australia out there, and one that does not like to be told what to think.