Thursday, September 27, 2012

Taking the Political Temperature of Guinea, and other Humanitarian News

The catchword used to describe the mood in Guinea, and especially Conakry, these days is “tense.” I’m inclined to agree. After an encouraging recent event - a large (deemed 'historic' by some) peaceful march protesting the delays in elections, unrest flared up again with a vengeance. Friday, as I was heading out of Conakry, ethnically-motivated riots broke out in the Madina market and spread throughout different neighborhoods of the city. Peace Corps briefly locked down the volunteers in Conakry due to the unpredictability of the situation. Alliance Guinea released a brief statement condemning the riots which can be found here.

This was followed by violence in the city of Fria between youths frustrated by  theft from a failing aluminum factory which used to employ a large number of city residents. Evidently the young and unemployed thought it unjust that some were finding ways to cheat the system and steal the resources from the factory which once offered them a livelihood. It took some time for the police to arrive and calm the situation down. This is hardly the first time violent confrontations linked to labor issues have occurred, and unemployment/financial strain can be added to the list of potential triggers which also includes political and ethnic tension. While only some of the recent unrest has had major repercussions in terms of injuries and loss of life, the frequency and the fact that it is spread across the country are important barometers which President Condé and his party should be paying close attention to. His party (RPG) has some shown some awareness of the seriousness of the situation and have reacted - the chief of the heavily-criticized national electoral commission (CENI) stepped down, as reported by Reuters and hailed by the UN as a sign of progress. And it only took a serious and internationally condemned police crackdown on an opposition march to do it.

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the infamous 2009 massacre of peaceful protesters (which included the rape of dozens of women) in the national football stadium. For a succint overview of what has and has not been done since the massacre, see the latest report by Human Rights Watch (via Reliefweb). Also planned for tomorrow is the funeral procession for two youths killed last week in the midst of the unrest. The planned route for the procession runs through many of the main arteries of the city, which is assuredly going to cause problems. The French embassy has released a statement recommending French nationals to avoid the entire route. Such warnings are fairly standard procedure (expatriates are routinely reminded by their embassies to avoid large crowds and political events), but what stands out is the expectation that the funeral procession attract such large numbers of people. The combination of recent political discord, ethnic tensions and other issues is not encouraging, and we are crossing our fingers for a peaceful day tomorrow.

I am happy to report, however, that the protest called for a little over a week ago at the US embassy in Conakry in response to the recent anti-Islamic video never materialized. See the original warning from the US embassy here. Earlier this month, well before the worlwide protests over the video began, the embassy updated its Travel Warning for Guinea:
The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Guinea because the political situation there remains unpredictable. This replaces the Travel Warning of November 4, 2011, to update information on the political situation and accompanying security issues. Although Guinea has been relatively calm since the democratically elected President took office in December 2010, legislative elections, which should have taken place shortly after the presidential elections, have been repeatedly delayed, causing increasing frustration and anger. On several occasions, large crowds of demonstrators representing partisans of various opposition parties have gathered at thoroughfares to express their dissatisfaction. If the legislative election cycle is further delayed or postponed, which seems likely, political rhetoric could turn peaceful demonstrations into violent ones.
For the rest of the Travel Warning, which does not mention religious tension, click here. Notice the aforementioned reccomendation to avoid large crowds. This warning as about as succint a summary of the political strife as you can get, but all most American citizens travelling to Guinea want or need to know. Update: The US Embassy has issued their own warning for September 28th.

Many people thought that a protest over the film wouldn't happen in Guinea since there does not seem to be an Islamic extremist community here. Travel up country will reveal a much larger number of orthodox Muslims, but this by no means should be causally linked to violent anti-American sentiment. The more conservative relgious views is evidenced by radically different styles of dress in public. While the hijab is not uncommon anywhere in Guinea, in Kankan for two days I saw more Niqabs and Burqas than in my entire three months in Conakry. However, as always, it's possible to find at least one source that warns about the growth of orthodox Islam and the potential spread of extremism from neighboring countries. This time, rather unexpectedly, it is a Guinean news website which warns its readers and Guinean religious leaders to pay watch this ultra-conservative community closely in light of their call for protests over the film.  I have to wonder, though, how strong is this community really? And might a Guinean news website hope to get more page views by delving into an analysis which suggests the trendy topic of growing Islamic extremism? Update: Another article with similar commentary can be found here.

Going back to the international view of the protests, for a fascinating but now slightly dated (since the frequency of protests has slowed considerably), check out the live map put up by The Atlantic Wire.

Now off to the (not so high) seas. I have also learned this past week of piracy occurring just off the coast of Guinea. According to this source, a blog I am unfamiliar with,
On 21 August, seven armed pirates boarded and ransacked an anchored cargo ship 23nm SW of the port city of Conakry, the capital of Guinea. This is the second recent attack in the waters around Conakry Port after a similar incident on 15 July. The attackers held three crew members hostage and injured one officer as they proceeded to seize the vessel’s valuables.

It seems that piracy is slowly creeping its way West up the Gulf of Guinea from the frequently coasts of neighboring countries.

Up north in Mali, the ICRC continues to be one of the only relief organizations able to extensively function and provide aid, despite the immense and numerous challenges of working in the environment. From what I'm hearing, they are playing a key role:

The ICRC, which deploys 111 aid workers in Mali, is one of few humanitarian organisations to have access to all of northern Mali, where no United Nations aid agencies deploy any staff. "It is through concrete actions and our distributions that we manage to gain our acceptance and continue to work. Our dialogue allows us access and the ability to distribute aid," Praz Dessimoz said.
The scale of the need is immense, as the number of displaced persons continues to rise. According to Reuters,

The ICRC distributed food rations to 160,000 needy people in the north during July and August and aims to reach a further 360,000 in the north, as well as 60,000 northerners who fled to Mopti in the south. The total of 580,000 is about one quarter of northern Mali's population before the hostilities, Praz Dessimoz said. The ICRC appealed to donors for a further 25 million Swiss francs ($26.65 million), bringing its annual budget to 60 million francs for Mali, now its fourth biggest worldwide in budgetary terms.
In the latest news on our northern brother, Mali has accepted the presence of an ECOWAS force to push back the Islamist extremists who have taken over the North. However, there is still one more hurdle - United Nations Security Council approval. It's hard for me to say whether this is the right intervention at the right time to help Mali, but the situation has only become increasingly dire as time goes on. It seems to me that although there will be many civilian casualties (as is almost always the case in situations of military intervention) that stabilizing the north is essential to preventing even further loss of innocent lives. Many people are rightfully urging ECOWAS to keep the protection of civilians as its highest priority, and the UN has a key role in putting conditions on the planning of the intervention.

Continuing the humanitarian theme, good news has just come out of the offices of  UNICEF, as the agency is reporting a significant drop in deaths of children under five years of age wordlwide. According to UNICEF deputy executive director Geeta Rao Gupta, "These new data are cause to celebrate." The agency suggests that a sustained focus on reducing deaths from transmissible and easily preventable treatable diseases is paying off. Malaria prevention, specifically through the use of insecticide-treated bed nets, one of the primary interventions used here in Guinea, is one of the areas that has contributed to the decline in mortality. This is not surprising, considering that 
Malaria is among the biggest killers of children under 5, accounting for 7% of child deaths worldwide — a loss of roughly 0.5 million lives in 2011.
Nonetheless, the challenges remain immense, especially at the regional level where most of those deaths occurred:
Under-five deaths are largely concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, which accounted for almost half of these deaths in 2011, and South Asia, where 33 percent of under-five deaths occurred. In a few instances - Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali and Somalia - under-five mortality actually rose between 1990 and 2011.
Hopefully with sustained efforts, which at least in malaria prevention are shown to be working, we sub-Saharan Africa will soon be following the global trend too. According to the same report by UNICEF,
Recent studies confirm that the best way to further increase use of ITNs is simply to provide more of them: Even in households that already own at least one net, children still may not sleep under a net because not enough nets are available for all family members.
And some more Guinea news note to finish off this post - the IMF just announced it has classified the country as a Heavily Indebted Poor Country, qualifying it for $2.1 billion of debt relief (AP via NPR). On the economic front Guinea has been struggling recently (in case it wasn't clear enough from the comment that the country needed $2.1 billion of debt relief), and many have been reporting that recent changes in mining codes have been too restrictive. While theoretically Guinean will pocket more profits from its resources with these changes, there is the threat that foreign investment will be substantially reduced, not helping the situation.

Wish us luck in the coming days and I'll be back with an update soon!