Friday 30 March 2012

30 March 2012

HARARE/LONDON -- I’ve spent the past five days in Harare, on a rare, officially-approved reporting trip to Zimbabwe. So I thought you might be interested in my impressions, ahead of my radio report, which we hope to broadcast next week. (And by the way, there were no restrictions on where we could go or whom we could talk to, nor were we accompanied at any point by government officials.)

First, it was peaceful. I saw scarcely a single soldier on the streets of the capital, not even outside government buildings – and the only police I saw were on traffic duty, waving down motorists and imposing euphemistically-named “spot fines” for such esoteric offences as not carrying a fire extinguisher.

Second, it was relaxed. We were greeted warmly, people were happy to talk openly, and to voice long lists of criticisms of the government of President Robert Mugabe. (Mind you, Harare has long been a stronghold of the former opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which has been in an unhappy coalition with the president’s ZANU-PF party since 2009.)

So everything in Zimbabwe is fine now? Er, no, not exactly. The economy is in a shambles, the country is producing less electric power than it was at the time of independence 32 years ago, and the government of national unity is anything but united. There are deep-seated fears of renewed violence in the run-up to elections due within the next 12 months, and there are plenty of reports of intimidation and worse of opposition supporters in rural areas.

If you calculate Zimbabwe’s national wealth in terms of economic output per head of population, and adjust it to take account of the cost of living, the country comes almost at the bottom of the list of the world’s poorest countries, right down there with Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half the population live below the official poverty line.

As for the national unity government, well, when I interviewed the prime minister and former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the garden of his Harare home, he described his relationship with President Mugabe as “a working marriage, not a happy marriage”. They meet once a week, and the PM insists that the 88-year-old president does pay attention to his views.

But that’s not the impression given by pro-Mugabe hardliners like the justice minister Patrick Chinamasa. We met in his office, where he harangued me about the “puppets” of the West, which is how he described the MDC. As for the demands from the European Union and the Southern Africa regional grouping SADC that he introduce sweeping reforms of the police and judicial systems, he brushed them aside. No need, he said, everything is working fine.

Tell that to the former MDC MP Munyaradzi Gwisai, now a university law lecturer, who runs the Zimbabwean branch of the International Socialist Organisation. He and five others were arrested and charged with conspiring to commit violence at a meeting where they were watching a video showing the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. They say they were severely beaten while in custody – Gwisai told me he was taken to what he called a “torture chamber” in the central police station -- but they were spared the 10-year jail terms to which they could have been sentenced. Instead they were fined 500 US dollars each and ordered to do more than 400 hours of community service.

Why, you may wonder, were they fined in US dollars? Because the greenback is now Zimbabwe’s official currency, after its own currency imploded three years ago beneath the weight of a hyper-inflation nightmare which reached an annual rate of 230 million per cent before they gave up and stopped counting.

As a result, there is now food in the shops again, and teachers and doctors are being paid. At Harare’s central hospital, the clinical director, Gan Vera, told me they’ve made great strides since the worst days of 2008-9, but they’re still not back to where they were a decade ago.

And that just about sums up the country as a whole. Zimbabwe is a better place than it was three years ago, when post-electoral violence claimed the lives of at least 200 people, and thousands more lived in terror of ZANU-PF thugs. But many people told me they are still waiting nervously for what a post-Mugabe era might bring. Politics is on hold pending “the transition” and it’s making a lot of people jittery.

One woman I met spelt it out with brutal simplicity: “We just want the president to die,” she said.

We hope to broadcast my reports from Zimbabwe and South Africa on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday next week, so do try to tune in.

23 March 2012

JOHANNESBURG -- I’ve been in South Africa this week to report on the country’s political and economic prospects. Verdict, in the words of my old school reports: Could do better.

In theory, this should be a country with just about everything going for it. A wealth of natural resources (including gold, platinum, chromium, and diamonds); a relatively well developed infrastructure, and an industrial base which should be perfectly placed to grab the opportunities offered by rapidly expanding markets elsewhere on the African continent.

So why isn’t it happening? Well, up to a point it is. Current economic growth is around 2-3 per cent a year, which by UK or Eurozone standards isn’t so awful. But compared to South Africa’s emerging economy competitors (it’s now joined Brazil, Russia, India and China in the so-called BRICS group), it doesn’t look quite so impressive.

The official unemployment rate is around 25 per cent, but among young South Africans it’s closer to 50 per cent (which, as the finance minister Pravin Gordhan gently reminded me in an interview, is about the same level as it is in Spain).
Take the economy first. Unlike India, South Africa has not been able to cash in on the IT revolution. Unlike China, it has not set itself up as the world's producer of everything from children’s toys to plasma TV screens. Unlike Russia, it has not banked billions of dollars in revenue from oil and gas reserves as prices rocketed.

And unlike Brazil, it has not put in place a structured welfare system designed to pull millions of its poorest families out of poverty. The squalid townships which grew up under the old apartheid system are still there, as grim as any slum or favela in Brazil, India or China.

The economic analyst William Gumede argues that the post-apartheid government wrongly concentrated its efforts on what it called “black empowerment”, offering advantages to black-owned companies to enable them to compete more successfully against their white-owned rivals. What that policy did in effect, he says, was to empower people who were already empowered: the educated middle class, and those who had connections to the ruling ANC.

What it didn’t do was help the people at the bottom of the pile, by providing basic welfare programmes and decent schools. As a result, South Africa has now replaced Brazil as the country with the widest gap between rich and poor.

None of this is to say that nothing has changed for the better over the 18 years since apartheid was finally laid to rest. Even in the townships, there are now paved roads where before there were none, and millions of people have access to basic essentials like water and electricity where before they did not.

But it comes at a price. Just this week, there were violent protests against the privatisation of water and electricity supplies, with providers now installing meters and demanding payment upfront. Campaigners claim too many people are being cut off for non-payment, and too many bills are based on inflated usage estimates, because the companies aren’t bothering to read the meters.

So what about the politics? After the heady days of hope when Nelson Mandela was president and guided the country through a peaceful transition to majority rule, today South African politics are not a pretty sight. (Yes, I know that’s the case pretty well everywhere, but here the contrast is so much greater than elsewhere.)

The president, Jacob Zuma, is enmeshed in corruption allegations, as he has been since before he took office three years ago. He’s under attack from left-wing critics in his own party, particularly from the ANC’s traditional allies in the trades unions, and from the Youth League, whose president, Julius Malema, has been expelled from the party.

There’s an ANC leadership election due at the end of the year, and behind the scenes there’s talk of Zuma’s party critics manoeuvring to have him ousted by his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe. Whether the party is ready to turn against yet another leader (Zuma’s predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was removed in a party revolt in 2008) remains to be seen.

The biggest complaint about the ANC that you hear in the townships is that the party has broken its promises to deliver basic services, affordable housing and jobs to those who need them most. The response from the finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, is that you can’t undo the damage caused by 300 years of white minority rule in a mere 18 years.

But if you add to the disappointment over broken promises the constant swirl of allegations of corruption and cronyism, then you have what could become a combustible mix. The ANC still wins about two-thirds of the vote in national elections, but the numbers are falling – and it knows it won’t go on winning for ever.

Friday 16 March 2012

16 March 2012

Who remembers Hungary, 1956? Tibet, 1959? Czechoslovakia, 1968?

How about Iraq, 1991? Or Iran, 2009?

I hope the connection is obvious by now: all of them were popular uprisings, and all of them were crushed. In other words, there is no law of nature that says popular protest must always prevail.

Which brings us to Syria. Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the start of the mass protests against President Bashar al-Assad. According to the United Nations, more than 8,000 people have been killed since the protests began.

Over the past three weeks, ever since the anti-Assad rebels staged their "tactical withdrawal" from the Baba Amr district of Homs, the pro-Assad forces have been steadily gaining ground. In both Idlib in the north and Deraa in the south, the two other main centres of anti-Assad revolt, the rebels are under serious pressure.

So am I saying the Syrian uprising is over? No. Am I saying it may well not succeed? Yes. After all, 30 years ago, more than 20,000 people were killed in the Syrian city of Hama, when Bashar al-Assad's father crushed an earlier rebellion by Sunni rebels.

I was in Hama just a few months before the anti-Bashar protests began, and I can tell you there's not much to show for that failed uprising. A beautifully laid-out park marks where the old city centre used to be, before it was flattened, and the ancient "noria" water wheels still creak and turn, as they have done for hundreds of years.

Perhaps we would have felt differently about the Arab spring if it hadn't started in Tunisia and Egypt. It seemed almost easy, didn't it? In Tunisia, the army simply wasn't prepared to fire on its own people; and in Egypt, the generals apparently decided to sacrifice President Hosni Mubarak in order to protect their own position.

For a brief moment, it looked as if Arab autocrats were being swept away like rotting driftwood in a storm. But then came Libya, and Bahrain, and Yemen.

In Libya, NATO stepped in, with UN authorisation, to back the rebels; in Bahrain, the Saudis and their Gulf allies stepped in to back the ruling family. In Yemen, months of painfully protracted negotiations finally engineered the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, although how much of a real change there has been remains to be seen.

So why do some uprisings succeed while others fail? On the evidence of the past year, I'd suggest two crucial elements are in play: the readiness of the old regime to deploy overwhelming military force, up to and including the use of heavy weapons such as tanks and artillery in residential areas; and the involvement of neighbours and regional powers.

In Libya, the old regime was prepared to use overwhelming force, but outside powers (NATO, Qatar) backed the rebels. Result: the rebels won. In Syria, the regime is certainly prepared to use even more overwhelming force, but so far, outside powers (Qatar, Turkey) are providing only limited aid to the rebels. Result: the rebels have not won.

Whether it's Budapest or Prague, Lhasa or Basra, military might wins the day. There have, of course, been many other uprisings which toppled autocratic regimes without a shot being fired. The ripple of European revolutions that marked the end of the Cold War in 1989 showed us what happens when sclerotic regimes rot from within and lose the will to hang on to power.

But that's not what we're seeing in Syria. President Assad's father crushed the revolt in Hama and went on to rule for another 18 years, before dying peacefully in his bed. Bashar's rule is not universally unpopular (there has been relatively little protest in either the capital, Damascus, or in Syria's second city, Aleppo), and there is no evidence to suggest that his regime has lost the will to live.

The word from Washington, London and other Western capitals is that it's only a matter of time before the regime is toppled. Maybe so, but history suggests that's not necessarily the inevitable outcome.

Friday 9 March 2012

9 March 2012

You probably remember that when the UN security council voted on a resolution about Syria last month, Russia and China vetoed it.

But why was it Russia and China, in that order, rather than China and Russia? Perhaps it's time to re-evaluate the nature of the relationship between these two Eastern giants, one post-Communist, and the other -- well, what's the right term -- neo-Communist?

Ever since the end of the Cold War, we've tended to assume that Russia was the dominant one in the Moscow-Beijing partnership. After all, the Russians were used to behaving like a super-power, perfectly happy to play a major role on the world stage.

How different from the Chinese, quiet, diffident even, concentrating on expanding their economy at terrifying speed and keeping the lid firmly on any signs of domestic unrest or dissent.

These days, it's rather different. The Russian foreign policy analyst Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, calls what's happened a "historical role reversal". As he wrote in an article this week: "In 1979, China's gross domestic product was a mere 40 per cent of that of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union. Nowadays, China's GDP is between four and five times bigger than Russia's."

What's more, he wrote, at the height of the Sino-Soviet confrontation, the Soviet Union was a military superpower and the Chinese People's Liberation Army was doing little more than preparing for a "people's war". Today, China's defence budget is the second largest in the world, far ahead of 5th-placed Russia.

And while we're on the subject of defence budgets, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported this week that on current trends Asian defence spending is likely, for the first time, to exceed that of Europe during the course of this year.

And yes, Chinese spending makes up a whopping 30 per cent of the regional total, having more than doubled over the past decade. European defence spending, on the other hand, has been sharply cut back.

According to the defence industry consultants IHS Jane’s, by 2015 China will be spending more on defence than the combined total of Nato’s top eight members, excluding the US: that's the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Canada, Spain and Poland.

Now, I wouldn't want you to get this out of proportion. According to the latest available figures, in 2010 the US was still spending nearly six times as much on defence as China -- and more than the next 15 top-spending countries combined (including the UK, France, Russia, India, Brazil and Turkey).

But the trend is clear: China is catching up. And it's interesting to wonder why.

If I were suddenly to invest in a new high fence round my house, with security guards on duty around the clock and an armoury of high-powered weapons on hand in my bedroom, what would you assume?

That I'd developed a bad case of paranoia, or perhaps that I was frightened of my neighbours? Or that I wanted you to sit up and take notice, say to yourself "I'd better not push that Robin around -- he looks as if he means business"?

My hunch is that China has realised that its economic clout can now be parlayed into military clout. It has regional interests that it is determined to protect, and it's prepared to spend some of its newly acquired wealth on purchasing the means with which to protect them.

China, after all, has a proud past as an imperial power (so does Japan, but that's a rather different story). I'm not suggesting that it wants to re-create its imperial past, but it may well be ready to use its regional muscle to get what it wants.

Above all, it needs to keep its fuel supply lines open, as it's now increasingly dependent on oil imported from the Middle East -- and, like the US, it regards guaranteeing energy security as a top national security priority.

And for that, you need modern military hardware, and the technological know-how to keep ahead of the game. China is clearly prepared to pay for both.

2 March 2012

Here's a question for you to ponder over the weekend: if international military forces were to intervene in Syria, how likely do you think it is that they would be able to create a sustainable solution to the crisis?

The question was asked in an interview this week by the NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen -- and I think it's a good one.

Gideon Rachman, in a thoughtful column in the Financial Times, put it this way: "Is it possible that, in intervening to stop one evil, we will create a greater evil in the future?"

If you or I had been trapped in the hell that was Homs over the past month, I'm sure we would have been begging for foreign intervention, anything to bring to an end a bombardment that has killed countless innocent people, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of anti-Assad fighters.

But if you or I were an Iraqi who had lived through the hell that followed the US-led invasion of 2003, we may well have cursed the foreign forces that unleashed such horror on our country. The dilemma faced by policy-makers is that stopping one evil does not necessarily protect us from future evils.

Back in 1999, at the height of the conflict in Kosovo, Tony Blair delivered a speech in Chicago in which he outlined five questions that he suggested need to be asked whenever international military intervention is being considered.

They were:

1. Are we sure of our case? (Blair commented: "War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress, but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators.")

2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options?

3. On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake?

4. Are we prepared for the long term?

5. Do we have national interests involved?

Syria is not Kosovo, nor is it Iraq or Libya. But if the aim of military intervention is to end the killing of civilians and enable the building of a stable, democratic state, well, let's just say the lessons from Kosovo, Iraq and Libya are far from clear.

As Gideon Rachman pointed out in his column, there is always a risk that by stepping in to prevent people dying, you end up being responsible for even more people dying.

So suppose you simply wanted to offer a basic level of protection to the people of Homs or other cities in Syria where citizens are at risk. How would you go about it? Send in an international ground force, perhaps made up of Saudi, Qatari and Turkish troops? To take on the full might of the Syrian army?

There's been talk of creating humanitarian corridors, safe havens, or buffer zones. But they would all need to be protected by military forces, and one of the lessons from the Balkans conflicts was that even limited interventions can quickly develop into something much more.

The assessment of the NATO secretary-general is that even if there were to be a UN mandate for military intervention (and there's precious little prospect of that in current circumstances), the mission would not have a high likelihood of success.

In other words, it would fail on the third of the Blair tests, even if all the others were satisfactorily answered.

None of this is meant to suggest that military intervention never works. It ended the killing in Bosnia, although it has failed so far to put in place a stable democracy there; ditto in Kosovo (although there is still violence, and countless unresolved issues); ditto in Sierra Leone and East Timor.

As far as Homs is concerned, it may be -- with the "tactical withdrawal" of the anti-Assad forces from the district of Baba Amr and the arrival of the Red Cross and Red Crescent -- that civilians will now at least be spared the constant fear of death by shelling or sniper fire.

What we don't yet know is whether the Syria uprising has reached a turning point: does the defeat of the rebels in Homs mean that government forces can now reassert control across the country, or will the rebels simply regroup and prepare for another stand elsewhere? The northern province of Idlib, close to the Turkish border, may well become the next flashpoint.