Category Archives: War and conflict

Ugandan Alchemy or The Resource Curse?

Here is a nice illustration of the resource curse from relatively recent history- taken from the UN

The pink line shows Uganda’s gold production

The blue line shows Uganda’s gold exports

Uganda – A Nation of Alchemists?


Note the way in which gold exports, but not gold production, suddenly increases immediately following the entry of  Ugandan troops into the Congo War in 1994.

Some observers might suggest this offers support for the view that Uganda’s military involvement in that war was merely a cynical attempt to extract a few tonnes of gold – 40 tonnes over the period shown.

Of course it wasn’t only Uganda – Rwanda, Burundi, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe were all extracting DRCs resources during this period too!

Find Out More –

The Curse of Gold – The Democratic Republic of Congo

A Very Brief History of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

This year I’m using the DRC as a major case study in underdevelopment (it is last on the UN’s HDI rankings after all) – Here’s my (mainly cut and paste from Wikipedia) very brief history of the DRC – I’ll add in video links, general links, pictures and extracts from numerous books laters… 

The Stuff in italics below each heading are the ‘key historical reasons for underdevelopment’


It was quite nice, suggesting Western Nation States f***ed The Congo Up 

[Pre-Colonialism, tribes in the region were doing pretty well for themselves – Organised into the Kingdom of Luba, according to Wikipedia – Each of these kingdoms became very wealthy due mainly to the region’s mineral wealth, especially in ores. The civilization began to develop and implement iron and copper technology, in addition to trading in ivory and other goods. The Luba established a strong commercial demand for their metal technologies and were able to institute a long-range commercial net (the business connections extended over 1,500 kilometres (930 miles), all the way to the Indian Ocean). By the 16th century, the kingdom had an established strong central government based on chieftainship.’

The African Congo Free State (1877–1908) – Colonialism, Brutalisation and Extraction

History of Colonialism

King Leopold II of Belgium formally acquired rights to the Congo territory at the Conference of Berlin in 1885 and made the land his private property and named it the Congo Free State.Leopold’s regime began various infrastructure projects, such as construction of the railway that ran from the coast to the capital of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). It took years to complete. Nearly all such projects were aimed at increasing the capital which Leopold and his associates could extract from the colony, leading to exploitation of Africans.

Rubber was the main export from the Congo Free State, used to make tyres for the growing automobile industry, and the sale of rubber made a fortune for Leopold.

Leopold’s colonization of the Congo was incredibly brutal. Thousands of Congolese were forced to work on Leopold’s Rubber plantations, and the practice of cutting off the limbs of the natives as a means of enforcing rubber quotas was widespread. During the period of 1885–1908, millions of Congolese died as a consequence of exploitation and disease. In some areas the population declined dramatically; it has been estimated that sleeping sickness and smallpox killed nearly half the population in the areas surrounding the lower Congo River.

The actions of the Free State’s administration sparked international protests led by British reporter Edmund Dene Morel and British diplomat/Irish rebel Roger Casement, whose 1904 report on the Congo condemned the practice. Famous writers such as Mark Twainand Arthur Conan Doyle also protested.

The Belgian Congo (1908–1960) – Colonialism, Condescension and More Extraction

In 1908, the Belgian parliament took over the Free State from the king. From then on, as a Belgian colony, it was called the Belgian Congo and was under the rule of the elected Belgian government. The governing of the Congo improved significantly and considerable economic and social progress was achieved. The white colonial rulers had, however, generally a condescending, patronizing attitude toward the indigenous peoples, which led to bitter resentment from both sides. During World War II, the Congolese army achieved several victories against the Italians in North Africa.

Independence and Political crisis (1960–1965) – Turmoil and Transition

The Belgian Congo achieved independence on 30 June 1960 under the name ‘The Democratic Republic of Congo’. Just previous to this, in May a growing nationalist movement, led by Patrice Lumumba, had won the parliamentary elections. The party appointed Lumumba as Prime Minister. Shortly after independence, most of the 100,000 Europeans who had remained behind after independence fled the country, opening the way for Congolese to replace the European military and administrative elite.

On 5 September 1960, Kasavubu dismissed Lumumba from office. Lumumba declared Kasavubu’s action unconstitutional and a crisis between the two leaders developed. Lumumba had previously appointed Joseph Mobutu chief of staff of the new Congo army. Taking advantage of the leadership crisis between Kasavubu and Lumumba, Mobutu garnered enough support within the army to create mutiny. With financial support from the United States and Belgium, Mobutu paid his soldiers privately. Mobutu took power in 1965 and in 1971 changed the country’s name to the “Republic of Zaïre”.

Mobutu and Zaire (1965 – 1996) – Dictatorship (propped up by the United States), extreme corruption, yet more extraction and infrastructure deterioration

Corruption, Aid, The United States, Cold War

The new president had the support of the United States because of his staunch opposition to Communism. Western powers appeared to believe this would make him a roadblock to Communist schemes in Africa.

A one-party system was established, and Mobutu declared himself head of state. He periodically held elections in which he was the only candidate. Although relative peace and stability were achieved, Mobutu’s government was guilty of severe human rights violations, political repression, a cult of personality and corruption. By 1984, Mobutu was said to have $4 billion (USD), an amount close to the country’s national debt, deposited in a personal Swiss bank account. International aid, most often in the form of loans, enriched Mobutu while he allowed national infrastructure such as roads to deteriorate to as little as one-quarter of what had existed in 1960.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Mobutu was invited to visit the United States on several occasions, meeting with U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. In June 1989, Mobutu was the first African head of state invited for a state visit with newly elected President Bush. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, U.S. relations with Mobutu cooled, as he was no longer deemed necessary as a Cold War ally.

The first and second Congo Wars (1996 – 2003) – Rwanda’s Ethnic conflict heads west while neighbouring nations plough in and extract resources    

End of the Cold War, Ethnic Conflict, Rwanda, Resource Curse

By 1996, following the Rwandan Civil War and genocide and the ascension of a Tutsi-led government, Rwandan Hutu militia forces (Interahamwe) had fled to eastern Zaire and began refugees camps as a basis for incursion against Rwanda. These Hutu militia forces soon allied with the Zairian armed forces to launch a campaign against Congolese ethnic Tutsis in eastern Zaire.

A coalition of Rwandan and Ugandan armies, led by Lawrence Kabila, then invaded Zaire to overthrow the government of Mobutu, launching the First Congo War. By May 1997, Kabila had made it to the capital Kinshasa, named himself president and changed the name of the country back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Mobutu was forced to flee the country.

However, a few months later, President Kabila asked foreign military forces to return back to their countries because he was concerned that the Rwandan military officers who were running his army were plotting a coup against him. Consequently, Rwandan troops in DRC retreated to Goma and launched a new Tutsi led rebel military movement (the RCD) to fight against their former ally, President Kabila, while Uganda instigated the creation of another rebel movement called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), led by the Congolese warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba. The two rebel movements, along with Rwandan and Ugandan troops, started the Second Congo War by attacking the DRC army in 1998. Angola, Zimbabwe and Namibia became involved militarily on the side of the government.

Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila, who organised multilateral peace talks which to the signing of a peace accord in which Kabila would share power with former rebels. By June 2003 all foreign armies except those of Rwanda had pulled out of Congo. On 30 July 2006 DRC held its first multi-party elections. Joseph Kabila took 45% of the votes and his opponent, Jean-Pierre Bemba took 20%. On 6 December 2006 Joseph Kabila was sworn in as President.

Contemporary Conflicts in the DRC (2003 – Present Day) – Numerous groups fighting over various things

Ethnic Conflict, Rwanda, learned violence.

There are a number of rebel groups still operating mostly in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. It is widely suspected that Rwanda is funding some of these rebel groups. A lot of the recent conflicts seem to go back to the Hutu-Tutsi conflict from Rwanda.

The FDLR -The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda- Consist almost entirely ethnic Hutus who wish to regain power in Rwanda. The FDLR contains some of the ‘original Hutu genociders’ who carried out the genocide in Rwanda and currently have about 7000 troops still in operation in the DRC. Some of the leaders of the FDLR are facing trial for crimes against humanity in the ICCJ


 The CNDP – In 2006, the Congolese military declared that it was stopping operations against the FDLR. This lead to some troops mutinying and the foundation of the CNDP, or  The National Congress for the Defence of the People,  mostly consisting of ethnic Tutsis, whose main aim continued to be the eradication of the Hutu FDLR. The CNDP consisted of approximately 8000 troops and was believed to be backed by Rwanda.

The M23 Rebels – In March 2009, The CNDP signed a peace treaty with the government, in which it agreed to become a political party and its soldiers integrated into the national army in exchange for the release of its imprisoned members. Its leader, Lawrence Nkunda was also arrested and is now facing trial at the United Nations Court for ‘Crimes against humanity’.

However (here we go again) in 2009 Bosco Ntaganda, and troops loyal to him mutinied from this new ‘integrated army’ and formed the rebel military March 23 Movement, claiming a violation of the treaty by the government. M23 claims that some CNDP troops have not received jobs in the military as promised by the government and also want some limited political reforms.

M23 is estimated to have around 1500 – 6000 troops and as recently as November 2012, M23 captured the city of Goma, with a population of over 1 million, and the provincial capital of the Kivu Province in Eastern DRC, with the aim of getting its political demands met.

Rwanda is widely suspected of funding this rebel group as well, although both Rwanda and M23 deny this.

Other Rebel Groups – In addition to the above there is on and off fighting amongst other rebel groups. For example, Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army moved from their original bases in Uganda (where they have fought a 20-year rebellion) and South Sudan to DR Congo in 2005.


I want a HERTI for my birthday

For those of you that don’t know – a HERTI is a drone – a  ‘High Endurance Rapid Technology Insertion’ drone – Or a five-metre long, unmanned, remote controlled aircraft produced by BAE systems – the kind that the Ministry of Defence tested out inAfghanistan between 2007 and 2009.

BAE drones are programmed to take off and land on their own, stay airborne for up to 15 hours and reach heights of 20,000ft, making them invisible from the ground. Surveillance data is fed back to control rooms via monitoring equipment such as high-definition cameras, radar devices and infrared sensors.

I want one for my birthday (July – don’t forget the ‘buy me a gift link’ to the left!) so I can keep pace with Kent Police and other forces – who are developing a national drone plan with BAE – Drones will potentially be part of the massive surveillance and security operation surrounding the 2012 olympics – (to complement the 42000 security staff, warship in the Thames and surface to air missiles on standby – this is another blog post in itself)

Getting back to Drones – While they aren’t yet licensced to fly in British airspace, they are already in use in the states for combatting crime – only last week local police in North Dakota used a Predator B drone — the most common unmanned aircraft employed by the U.S. military to attack and kill “insurgents” in the Muslim world — to apprehend three men.

So should we be worried about the coming deployment of drones? – Given that they’ve been extensively tried and tested – mainly over Afghanistan and Pakistan – The U.S. currently flys over 7000 drones in such regions -surely it’s just a matter of time before our anti-civil-liberties government authorises their use by UK agents of social control?

Personally, I think we should be very concerned – while there are legitimate, crime-fighting uses – possible uses proposed by the police include detecting theft from cash machines, preventing theft of tractors, road and railway monitoring, search and rescue, event security and covert urban surveillance as well as fly-posting, fly-tipping, abandoned vehicles, abnormal loads, waste management – these drones can easily be put to anti-libertarian uses too.

It’s likely they will be used to increasing the extent of surveillance of protestors at places such as occupy – and there is also the potential to be use them to subvert flash mobbing during future protests. Even more worrying is that the larger drones can be retro-fitted with military hardwear – think tear gas grenades – or harder materials if deamed necessary –

So once in full deployment – these drones effectively give the state easy control over large numbers of ‘unruly citizens’ – which isn’t necessarily bad in itself – except when increasing numbers of citizens have got legitimate grievances against the millionnaire Toryboys and their billionnaire banker friends whose interests they look after!

This video provides an excellent overview of what Herti drone looks like… It could be teargassing you within 5 years!  


My top four examples of elites getting away with crime

So in week 2 this term – we look at what the crusty old men at the AQA label the ‘Marxist’ perspective on crime – part of what they say the ‘Marxist’ perspective is involves the Criminal Justice System being unfair – here are four examples that support this view – four examples of elites getting away with crime!

I wish I could say there was some kind of points ranking system that leads to the 1-4, but there isn’t – the ranking’s mainly based on a combination of  harm done, raw cheek, and the extent to which these ‘criminals that aren’t actually criminals’ annoy me.

Yes that's his son - he should've got 10 years just for producing that ponce...

In at number four – achieving its position for the sheer cheek of it – Derek Conway (ex) MP – I know there are more recent examples of the expenses scandals, but this one from a few years ago really stands out – in 2007, an inquiry found that Conservative MP Derek Conway had “misused” parliamentary funds by paying an annual £11,773 salary, plus bonuses totalling more than £10,000, to his younger son Freddie while he was a full-time student in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Commons Standards and Privileges Committee found that the arrangement with Freddie was “at the least, an improper use of parliamentary allowances: at worst, it was a serious diversion of public funds.”  The Commons committee said it was “astonished” by the lack of evidence of any work that Mr Conway’s second son had done in return for the £45,000 in salary. Mr Conway was suspended from the Commons for ten days and required to repay £13,000 of the money.

Mark Thatcher - 'It was just a little coup attempt'

In at number three – It’s ‘Sir’ Mark Thatcher  In 2005 he plead guilty over his involvement in an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea. The son of former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fined the equivalent of US$500,000 (£265,000) and given a four-year suspended jail term. Sir Mark denied any knowledge of the plot, and agreed a plea bargain and will now co-operate with investigators. He admitted breaking anti-mercenary legislation in South Africa by agreeing to finance a helicopter. The businessman said he did not initially know the helicopter’s alleged purpose – that it was to be used in the alleged coup attempt, instead believing it was to be used as an air ambulance. But in his plea bargain statement, Sir Mark says he came to realise the helicopter was to be used for mercenary activities before the deal was finalised.[3]

And at NUMBER two – the case of Union Carbide in Bhopal

The events surrounding the tragedy at Bhopal, India, provide a good case study of how capitalist enterprises can be supported by the state on a global scale. Union Carbide, an American owned multi-national company, set up a pesticide plant in Bhopal. In 1984, the plant accidentally leaked deadly gas fumes into the surrounding atmosphere. The leakage resulted in over 2,000 deaths and numerous poisonous related illnesses including blindness. Investigations since have revealed that the company set up this particular plant because pollution controls in India were less rigid than in the USA. In Snider’s terms (1993), the Indian State supported such capitalist development in the interests of allowing profits to be made. Marxists would point out that there have been no criminal charges despite the high death and injury toll. They would see the company owners as the true criminals in this scenario. Killed more than 3000 people and caused permanent injury to a further 20 000. The escape of gas was caused by inadequate safety procedures at the plant. No criminal charges have as yet been brought against the plant although it has agreed to pay 470 million dollars in compensation.

Bliare - he operated according to his own rules

At Number one – For sending hundreds of British soldiers to their deaths and being responsible for thousands of innocent Iraqis dying – and well deserving of the top position-  is the Megalomaniac psychopath Tony Bliar – the most notorious war criminal in the history of Britain – for decieving the public into backing (well some of them at least) an illegal war in Iraq.


Of course this is not an exhaustive list – we could add Andy Coulson, the Corporation Shell, and Berlusconi – all deserve top ten positions – but I only had time to do four….  

Violence Costs, Peace Pays – The Global Peace Index 2011

Key findings from the Global Peace Index 2011


2011 Global Peace Index from Vision of Humanity on Vimeo.

2011 Global Peace Index from Vision of Humanity on Vimeo.

Iceland is the most peaceful country, Somalia the least.

The two worst performing indicators were the likelihood of terrorist attacks and violent demonstrations within countries – Despite the ongoing ‘war on terror 2010-11 saw an increased threat of terrorist attacks in 29 nation. There is a a greater likelihood of violent demonstrations in 33 countries, mainly influenced by the Arab Spring unrest – Libya tumbled 83 spots in the rankings – the biggest fall ever recorded

On a positive note world expenditure on arms fell for the second year in a row and relations between neighbouring states improved.

Western Europe remains the most peaceful place on earth, with four Nordic countries in the top ten – although those countries that suffered the worst cuts such as Greece and Ireland dropped in the rankings due to protests within countries – Suggesting that those countries most exposed to Capitalism are more likely to suffer from conflict – and that note America ranks a dismal 82nd in the rankings – mainly due to its militarism abroad.

Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region least at peace, containing 40% of the world’s least peaceful countries and Somalia displaces Iraq as world’s least peaceful nations.

The most dramatic changes in rankings this year were caused by internal conflicts between nations and their citizens and not because of wars between nations – note the declining significance of the Nation State here!

It’s estimated that if the world had been just 25% less violent last year, it would have saved the global economy $9 trillion in 2010 – enough to pay for investments to combat climate change; achieve the Millennium Development Goals; pay off the public debts of Greece, Ireland and Portugal and meet the costs of the Japanese 2011 Tsunami – with 2 trillion spare!

Libya – another war for oil?

libya_war_for_oil-300x185BBC breakfast’s Sussanna Reid needs a bit more practise at faking it – it was painfully obvious that she’d just been told to wrap an interview up early when a pesky guest on Saturday’s breakfast show dared raise the point that the only thing that can explain why we’ve invaded Libya to protect democracy protesters but not, for example, Syria, is that Libya has oil and Syria doesn’t!

Of course Allied troops claim to have gone into Libya to prevent Gaddafi massacring pro-democracy protesters, but this clearly cannot be the only reason for this invasion – if it were, then there would at least be some of kind motion towards going into Syria – where more than 500 people have been killed in similar protests against the president there.

Thinking Allowed – Donating to Disaster Victims

imagesPeople are much more likely to give money to help victims of natural disasters than to help people who have been victims of human made disasters. This is according to the latest research by Dr Hanna Zagefka. She draws on a comparison between the £300 million donated to 2004 Tsunami victims and the mere £30 million devoted to the victims of the Dafur tragedy going on at the same time.

Of course withe the above two examples you could just argue that the difference in donations is due to the different levels of media coverage – which was much greater with the Tsnami (I guess the story is less complex after all) – but Zagefka claims to have controlled for this for inventing ‘hypothetical cases’ as part of her research study. I don’t quite believe that the general public are 10 times more likely to give to natural disaster relief rather than human disaster relief – but they are somewhat more likely (by how many times she doesn’t say on the programme?),


I’m left wondering whether it’s more intelligent people that give money to human disaster relief funds…  if you give money you will probably start asking questions about ‘what, exactly caused this in the first place’??? And that hurts the brain a lot more than.. ‘Big wave smashed someone’s home.. give money… man will go build new home.. smile!

Or it could, of course, be just a rational response – with a natural disaster – I guess you can be more certain that your money will be spent on sorting out the aftermath – with human created, political trajedies, these are just much messier – there is less guarantee that money will spent effectively on sorting these out – and then there’s the issue of whether ‘we’ should be wading in at all of course…

I also did a bit of stats digging – comparing natural disaster deaths to ‘direct deaths from conflicts – which is just one type of ‘human/ politcal cause of death’

Deaths from Natural Disasters….

Over the decade from 2000 to the end of 2009, the yearly average was 78,000, according to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction (ISDR). For the 1990s, the average was 43,000, and the 1980s was 75,000.

Direct Deaths from conflicts

52,000 direct conflict deaths occurred each year between 2004 and 2007. Altogether at least 208,300 people died directly as a result of armed conflict. Between 2005 and 2007 the total number of direct conflict deaths increased to an estimated 63,900 per annum as compared to lower annual tolls in 2004 and 2005. This increase is due primarily to armed violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and Somalia[1].

So the numbers are broadly similar – and if anything the ‘humans causing death’ category is grossly underrepresented – So should we spent more money relieving ‘human disasters’? Perhaps instead we should spend more on preventing human disasters, or maybe in the case of war, make it less easy for TNCs to actually profit from human tragedy through selling aramaments…… ?

Website of the Week – The Global Peace Index


This is an excellent resource for A level students studying Global Development – and it also demonstrates the ‘macro approach’ to Sociology extremely well.

The Global Peace Index (GPI) ranks Independent countries by their ‘absence of violence’. The Index is composed of 23 indicators, ranging from such things as

  • a nation’s level of military expenditure
  • its relations with neighboring countries
  • the level of respect for human rights.

The index uses the latest available figures from a wide range of respected sources, including The World Bank, various and UN offices and Peace Institutes and the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The project’s ambition is to go beyond a crude measure of wars—and systematically explore the texture of peace. The hope is that it will provide a quantitative measure of peacefulness, comparable over time, that will provide a greater understanding of the mechanisms that nurture and sustain peace. This, in turn will provide a new platform for further study and discussion, which will hopefully inspire and influence world leaders and governments to further action.

This Guardian article has a good summary of the data and this video below has more on the GPI

If you go straight to the bottom ranking countries you ge a real feel for the fact that while much conflict is found in the developing world, it is not limited to the poorest countries – suggesting there are complex and varied causes of conflicts the world over. The other thing that this analysis misses out on is the role of the west – need I remind of the US’s role in destabilising Iraq and Afghanistan? Anyway, the bottom ten or so are…we will be looking at some of these as case studies in the development module.  

  • Nigeria
  • Columbia
  • North Korea
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo
  • Chad
  • Georgia
  • Russia
  • Israel
  • Pakistan
  • Sudan
  • Somalia
  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq

It’s a holiday in Eritrea – don’t forget to pack some cheese

I haven’t been posting over Christmas because I’ve been on holiday in Eritrea – so I think it appropriate to do a post based on a few observations of this little known country.

For A level students studying Global Development Eritrea, you can, for the sake of the exam, pigeon hole Eritrea as an example of a country that has failed to develop due to the isolationist policies of its paranoid left leaning government. Having said this, it would be more accurate to say that the case of Eritrea demonstrates how difficult it is to develop ‘general laws of development’ – Eritrea’s history is complex and it reminds us that understand development, or lack of it, requires looking at countries on a case by case basis.

An introduction to Eritrea

er-mapOn mentioning that I was going to Eritrea, no-one, it seemed, was  able to locate it on a map, and some had never even heard of the place, so I guess a basic introduction is in order.

Eritrea is relatively young African Nation on the horn of Africa, North of Ethiopia, east of Sudan and across the red sea from Yemen.  If that doesn’t sound daunting enough, half a day’s drive through neighboring Djbouti would take you into Somalia, except that you wouldn’t be permitted to drive across that particular border, or any other land border for that matter, because they are all closed due to political tensions.

Eritrea is a god forsaken place, something Eritreans are actually begrudgingly proud of if you believe Michaela Wrong’s book ‘I didn’t do it for you: how the world used and abused a small African Nation’. The book is poorly written but is one of the best available for giving you an insight into the country and its history, which you have to understand in order to understand the country.

Focusing on more recent times – and being thoroughly Eurocentric at the same time – Wikipedia offers the following brief summary ‘The Italians created the colony of Eritrea in the 19th century around Asmara, and named it with its current name. After World War II Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia. In 1991 the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front defeated the Ethiopian government. Eritrea officially celebrated its 1st anniversary of independence on May 24, 1992.’ Also of significance was a border war with Ethiopia, which lasted from 1998 to 2000 and lead to 100 000 deaths.

Tank graveyard in Asmara
Tank graveyard in Asmara

According to Michaela wrong, this history of conflict has helped to forge a kind of national identity founded on a stoic sense of independence and a coldness towards foreigners, given that the rest of the world stood by and did nothing to assist Eritrea in either its struggle for independence or in its later border war with its much larger neighbor. The signs of past conflict are noticeable – walking around Asmara you see the odd physically disabled war veteran, and if you travel further afield you come across abandoned military vehicles and bombed out buildings.

Some basic stats about Eritrea


Population – 5.7 million

GDP per capita – $700 – rank 224 in the world

Population below the poverty line – 50%

Infant Mortality Rate – 43/1000 live births – rank 65 in the world

Literacy rate – 59%

So what’s Eritrea like?

The only way into Eritrea for the aspiring tourist is by air – you have to fly into the capital city of Asmara, which at 7000 feet above sea level is the second highest capital in the world after La Paz, Given the arid, desert climate the air is very dry, and after a couple of days you will experience breathing difficulties, minor throat irritation, a general deterioration of skin quality, and a mild headache, which is only made worse when you encounter the bureaucracy surrounding travelling within the country.

Eritrea - where it's fine to photograph camels - just not government buildings
Eritrea - where it's fine to photograph camels - just not government buildings

Asmara is the only place a tourist can visit without an official permit. Travel to other destinations is strictly limited – and requires you to get a permit from the ministry of tourism specifying the exact dates of travel and the method of travel – including the car registration number if travelling in your own vehicle. Some parts of the country, in fact most of Eritrea, is out of bounds to tourists all together – namely those regions furthest from the Capital city near the politically sensitive outlying regions with the boarder countries.

Despite the travel restrictions, my ten day time limit, and the fact that I wasn’t exactly in explorer mode this holiday (well it was a holiday!) limiting my direct experience of Eritrea – this is of no real concern to my gaining an understanding of the country – direct experience is of little use to actually understanding a people who live under a repressive government  run by a paranoid dictator – in such circumstances people tend to not open up out of fear.

Much of the information below comes from books, critical web sites and comments from people, who shall remain nameless, who have lived within the country for some years.

There are some nice things about Eritrea….

Cinema Imperio in Asmara - Modernist architecture
Cinema Imperio in Asmara - Modernist architecture

Firstly, it’s a good place if you like stylish cities boasting good architecture – most of the guide books rave about the architectural gems in Asmara – it’s an eclectic mix of styles reflecting different historical periods – add in.

Secondly, Asmara and surrounds are pretty chilled out, it’s safe, the roads are relatively quiet and there are relatively few beggars – even the children give up hassling you for money after a matter of seconds.

Thirdly, a legacy of the colonial past means that the city does an excellent line in Machiattos – which will set you back about 30 pence, at least if you get the favourable exchange rate.

Fourthly, Eritrea’s also a good place if you like dramatic dessert scenery – train or road from Asmara to Massawa provides for some dramatic landscape as you descend from 7000 ft to sea level.

There is more good stuff in Eritrea – namely the Dhalak Islands – which offer some of the best coral reefs in the world, but given that there’s only a handful of boats that go out there (yes you require a license from the government) I didn’t get out there.

And there are some not so nice things about Eritrea

Having said all of this, although Eritrea feels nice and safe and chilled, there is an undercurrent of repression running through the country –

Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki - from popular hero to paranoid dictator?
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki - from popular hero to paranoid dictator?

The government is a dictatorship which maintains near absolute control over the media – there is one, state run newspaper – a propaganda rag that boasts about Eritrea’s development achievements, only two television channels, and no broad band internet; the government is also extremely suspicious of foreigners and restricts international trade through tightly controlling currency flows (you have to fill in a currency declaration form on arrival, and register any dollars that you change when in the country).

Then there’s the lack of freedom allowed to the citizens – If you are unlucky enough to be born Eritrean, you will be assigned a job based on your qualifications – and that will be your job for life – no opportunity to move up the career ladder; you wouldn’t be allowed to leave the country until you are over 50 if you’re a man (different rules apply to women), and even then most people won’t be able to afford to anyway; and men have to do two years compulsory military service, typically at some point in their 20s, longer if required by the state.

Finally there is the low level of material well being – Eritrea isn’t in famine, but there is a lack of variety of foods – there is a restricted supply of fruit and veg, and butter and milk are hard to come by. The food on offer in shops and restaurants is very uniform – fried eggs and foul mashed means and the local, fermented, bread appear to be the staples. There are no indicators of advanced economic development – shopping malls don’t exist, and consumer electronics – TVs, stereos, let alone computers, are extremely scarce – in fact when you enter the country you have to declare electronic goods and demonstrate that you still have them when you leave to prove you haven’t sold them on. The only new cars on display are those brought in by expats – diplomats and development workers – living in the country, local transport is decades old.

All in all the most depressing thing about Eritrea is that it is a place of such huge potential – the people seam stoical, there is mineral wealth, it is well located to be a hub of international trade, and yet the paranoid dictatorship seems to be holding it back, obsessed with idea that Eritrea needs to shun outside assistance from businesses and western governments, believing that these are responsible for the underdevelopment in other African countries, and that Eritrea needs to be self reliant.

Of course actually knowing how bad things are in this country is difficult – there is a dearth of reliable official information – so there will always be a level of uncertainty, but things have to be bad when several thousand people a year are prepared to risk imprisonment in order to escape to refugee camps in the Sudan.

And I never thought I’d hear myself say this – but I think that what Eritrea needs is a good dose of trade liberalisation! It’s all about balance at the end of the day.

To find out more about Eritrea – you can look up the stats  on the CIA world fact book, browse through a brief history on Wiki and give Michaela Wrong’s book a go.

It’s definately worth a visit – it is a thoroughly odd place – and get there while you can – Eritrea might not be around as a country for too long – Ethopia must be gagging to get its hand on the port of Massawa (it’s lanlocked following Eritrean Independence) and I don’t believe there is that much popular support for the president.

The Hague – where leaders of poor countries face trial for war crimes

A couple of items from ‘The Week’ highlighting two recent court cases demonstrate how power can distort international criminal justice –

Jean-Pierre Bemba
Jean-Pierre Bemba - ex vice president of the DRC and on trial for war crimes

In the first case, Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has gone on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. He is the most high profile figure to be tried by this court since it was established in 2002. The charges relate to atrocities, including mass rapes, by Bemba’s personal militia, in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2002-03.

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, Israel, two Israeli soldiers, convicted at a military trial of using a nine-year old Palestinian as a human shield have avoided jail. The soldiers had forced the child at gunpoint to search bags for booby traps in a basement shelter towards the end of the Israelis’ 22 day assault on Gaza in January 2009. The men faced a maximium prison sentence of 3 years for ‘inappropriate conduct’ but were let off with suspended sentences and demoted.



In both cases we have countries using military force against another

Shimon Peres - president of Israel - probably won't be going to The Hague!
Shimon Peres - president of Israel - probably won't be going to The Hague!

country without UN sanction, both engaged in illegal wars/ occupations -but it is only the African president that is held to account by the Hague, while in the case of Israel there is no International trial of the president – the soldiers are tried in Israel itself and essentially let off.

This is clearly a very good example of how the amount of power a country has on the international stage, and maybe how close that country is to the US, influences the likelihood of the leader of that country being tried by the International Court of Justice – so I guess one could argue that the ICC is a place where leaders of poor countries get tried for war crimes, while the leaders of rich countries are allowed to pursue illegal wars with impunity.

In fairness, the ICC might catch up with Israel, and maybe even Britain and America (Iraq) in the next ten years, but I’d put money on the fact that we won’t be seeing Shimon Peres, George Bush, or Tony Bliare in the dock anytime soon!