Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

13 September 2000 Edition

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Humanitarian crises underline UN weakness


The role of the United Nations as a peacekeeping agency was discussed at the UN Millennium Summit that finished on 8 September 2000 in New York. There is general agreement that the organisation has to improve and update its procedures if it wants to recover its credibility in the new millennium. The UN should learn from its deficiencies, those that allowed genocides in East Timor, Rwanda and Kosovo and the bombings and blockades against Iraq and Serbia.

While the premiers of the different countries in the world analysed the future of the organisation - now largely controlled by the member states of the Security Council - the meeting shared the headlines with the latest humanitarian crisis taking place in Western Africa and Asia.

Africa was one of the main focuses for discussion during the summit. Led by South African president, Thabo Mbeki, African leaders accused the world's rich nations of neglecting and exploiting their continent for decades, condemning millions of people to a lifetime of misery and suffering. ``The poor of the world stand at the gates of the comfortable mansions occupied by each and every king and queen, president, prime minister and minister privileged to attend this unique meeting,'' Mbeki said. ``The question these billions ask is, `What are you doing.... to end the deliberate and savage violence against us that, every day, sentences many of us to a degrading and unnecessary death?''

UN statistics show that the majority of people in Africa live on less than $1 a day, while 40% of government revenues are allocated to servicing debt, accrued in most cases by corrupt governments supported by the western powers. This works to the detriment of health, education and other essential services.

Zambian president, Frederick Chiluba, said existing plans for debt relief for the world's poorest nations were inadequate, and Ghana's president, Jerry Rawlings, said Africans were suffering under Western corruption. Rawlings said Africa had had some ``notably corrupt'' leaders of its own, ``but we are also entitled to demand that the developed world does not thrust corruption upon us''.

Rawlings attacked Western governments for turning a blind eye to the corrupt practices of their own companies in Africa. ``For every dollar of corrupt money that is kept in Western banks, one African child dies, two African children starve and three African children suffer from disease and ignorance resulting from lack of health care and education,'' he said.

Botswana's president, Festus Mogae, told the summit his country was the worst affected by HIV/AIDS in the world, and he urged leaders to pool their efforts to fight the disease.

Radio Interference

Kenyan president seeks ban on vernacular broadcasting


On 31 August, President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya ordered his attorney general to craft legislation that would ban private radio stations from broadcasting in Kenya's indigenous languages, on the grounds that such broadcasting fostered ``tribalism and disunity.'' In essence, the leader of a post-colonial African state was ordering private broadcasters to communicate only in English and Kiswahili, the two ``national'' languages.

But President Moi does not object to vernacular broadcasting as such. In the same statement, he claimed that the vernacular broadcasts of the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) actually ``ensure that national unity is not undermined.'' It is obvious, in short, that the real issues here are ownership and content, not language.

This move signals the autocratic Moi's determination to maintain his government's rigid control over the airwaves. And given that the proposed legislation is almost certainly aimed at a station that broadcasts in the language of the Kikuyu people, steadfast Moi opponents, it also highlights the country's complex ethnic politics.

Politics aside, what is the point of vernacular broadcasting? Kenya has over 40 ethnic groups, each of which speaks a more or less distinct language or dialect. Most of these languages are mutually unintelligible. While this might seem like a compelling reason to broadcast in languages that the entire country can understand, the issue is more complicated.

Most Kenyans study English and Kiswahili in schools, but few ever attain more than a rudimentary knowledge of the languages. By the most generous estimates, only 69 percent of the population is literate, meaning they have mastered the basics of reading and writing in at least one language (only about 40 percent of women can read and write in any language).

Kenya's population is not only divided by language and literacy. In 1993, the country was rocked by bloody land clashes that pitted several ethnic groups against each other. Thousands of Kikuyu, Luo, Luhyia, and Kisii farmers were branded as ``foreigners'' and expelled from the Rift Valley Province, Kenya's breadbasket. For months before the clashes, several members of Moi's cabinet had publicly called on members of traditionally pastoralist groups-including Moi's Kalenjin community-to expel those groups from the province.

The Kikuyu-the largest ethnic group in the country, and one of the hardest hit in the 1993 clashes - have long viewed Moi as their nemesis, a feeling that is thought to be mutual. Economically powerful and overwhelmingly pro-opposition, they have lived in fear of state reprisals because of their consistent refusal to vote for the ruling KANU party in local and national elections. Many Kikuyu see this latest presidential directive as further evidence of an organized government campaign against the community.

Three stations would be affected by the proposed legislation-among them Sauti ya Rehema Radio, which broadcasts in Kalenjin, and East FM, which broadcasts in English and a variety of Indian languages. But most Kenyans seem to believe that the directive is aimed at the largest and most popular station, Kameme 101.1 FM, which is based in Nairobi and broadcasts exclusively in the Kikuyu language.

The private stations mostly broadcast entertainment, along with oblique social commentary on issues such as the country's frequent brownouts. These shows are mild by the standards of Howard Stern or The Simpsons, not to mention Kenya's frequently outspoken English-language press. More troubling to the president, it would seem, is that the Kikuyu community now controls its own mass medium.

Because the government still limits their range, the private stations have not challenged the KBC's national coverage. However, they have managed to siphon off some of the KBC's advertising revenues by offering alternatives to the officially sanctioned content of the state media.

With rampant unemployment and rising inflation in Kenya, few literate people can afford to purchase newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. But as President Moi and his cabinet are well aware, most Kenyans do listen to the radio.

The ruling KANU party has a huge rural following in this predominantly agricultural country, so the government naturally has a vested interest in vetting and controlling the type of information that rural residents receive. Since independence in 1963, KANU's attempts to control what Kenyans read, write, hear, say, and even think have taken many forms, including a bizarre 1967 law that makes it treasonous to ``imagine the death of the President.''

But since the advent of multi-party politics in the early 1990s, several oppressive, KANU-sponsored laws have been challenged successfully in Parliament and the courts. Further evidence of an emboldened citizenry is that local journalists attacked Moi's recent directive in a series of pointed editorials, while ordinary citizens (from many ethnic groups, by all accounts) flooded newsrooms and English radio chat shows in Nairobi with irate phone calls. And six days after the president's statement, Kameme and East FM are still broadcasting in vernacular languages.

Unfortunately, Moi's directive against a Kikuyu-operated, Kikuyu-language radio station can only heighten existing tensions between the Kikuyu and the Kenyan state. It also shows that the president is determined to keep mass communications under strict government control. Will he succeed? Stay tuned.

Underfinanced UN peacekeeping

The 15 Security Council members held a summit within a summit to agree on broad peacekeeping principles, with special emphasis on Africa. They also promised to ``consider'' recommendations in a recent UN-commissioned report calling for a new structure ready to organise operations quickly. A draft declaration to be adopted by the leaders of the 15 Security Council members at the Millennium Summit pledges that Africa will get increased international attention in both development efforts and peacekeeping.

But the resolution to be adopted by 15 presidents and prime ministers, whose countries have seats on the council, is short on specifics, including how an overhauled UN peacekeeping operation would be financed. The United States owes the world body £1.18 billion, most of it for past and current peacekeeping operations.

At issue is an understaffed and underfinanced UN peacekeeping department, which in the last year has had difficulties recruiting, directing and supplying basic equipment for troops and police in Sierra Leone, East Timor, the Congo and Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Refugees fleeing Guinea

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, hosting the world's biggest UN peacekeeping operation, which is seeking to contain the country's long-running, brutal civil war, is now facing a refugee crisis. Authorities in Guinea are continuing with a round up of thousands of refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone. The West African country currently harbours around half a million refugees who have fled the Liberian and Sierra Leone conflicts.

The crackdown began on Saturday, 9 September, after a speech by Guinea's president, Lansana Conte, in which he blamed the refugees for helping armed dissidents who had been responsible for border attacks. The president's speech signalled a crackdown on foreigners in the capital Conakry, with Guinean civilians joining enthusiastically in hunting down the refugees.

There were accusations that the security forces had beaten people, broken down doors, extorted money and stolen the refugees' belongings. Those rounded up have been taken to police cells or are being held in public buildings or open spaces around the city.

The Sierra Leone ambassador in Conakry said that people had been flocking to the embassy, and about 700 people spent the night in the embassy compound. The Sierra Leone ambassador said the vast majority felt threatened and wanted to go home, and he was trying to get the authorities to allow them to leave by boat. It is impossible to travel by road, as this would mean passing right through the area of the recent fighting. The Guinean authorities have refused to allow boats from Freetown to dock, a move designed to prevent any more Sierra Leone refugees coming into the country.

A report of the US Committee for Refugees released on 6 September says that at least 1.5 million people in Africa fled their homes during the first eight months of the year 2000 because of war, violence, or political repression. This is equivalent to nearly 50,000 new refugees and displaced people per week. The newly uprooted people join millions of other Africans who remain refugees or are internally displaced, a cumulative total of some 14.2 million Africans.

Timor faces starvation

Meanwhile, in Asia, the people of East Timor are facing yet another humanitarian crisis, only a year after pro-Indonesian militias and the Indonesian army went on a rampage of destruction and killings, forcing more than a third of the population into misery as refugees in West Timor.

Nowadays, 130,000 East Timorese held in West-Timorese refugee camps are facing death by starvation, following the United Nations' decision to withdraw following the killing of three UNHCR staff by pro-Indonesia militia members on Wednesday, 6 September. With stocks of rice and medicine exhausted in many of the more than 200 camps in West Timor - 80% of them controlled by militiamen - refugees are facing deteriorating conditions.

UN officials knew of the presence of pro-Jakarta militia in the camps, as they knew of the wish of the majority of East Timorese refugees to return to their country immediately. Nearly 170,000 refugees have returned to East Timor since UNHCR began a repatriation programme on 8 October 1999. However, the programme has had to be halted due to the continuous harassment and intimidation of aid workers and refugees by the militia.

Since the UNHCR went to Timor in September 1999, 103 security incidents have been reported, culminating in the killing of three of its officials and dozens of refugees following the UNHCR's withdrawal.

The murders have triggered intense international pressure in Jakarta to rein in militias that operate with total impunity around the refugee camps. The Indonesian government has done little to stop the militia, apart from arresting 15 people over the latest bloodshed. For Indonesian president, Abdurrahman Wahid, at the UN Millennium summit, ``everything is under control. The situation is now going very well''. The opinion of those in the refugee camps is very different.

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