Posts Tagged ‘politics’

It’s not just the politicians that should rethink things

November 10, 2016

First Brexit. Now Trump. It seems fairly clear who holds the responsibility for this: those smarmy world leaders that are at the heart of the political establishment, which now has been very much shaken and could even be crumbling. They didn’t take Greece’s pain seriously. They chose to bail out the banks rather than let them gracefully unwind. They trounced all over Keynes’ legacy and dogmatically welded themselves to the idea behind austerity and then, when people pointed out that actually curtailing spending might not be the best way to stimulate growth, growled and snarled.

But this initial analysis is simple and unfair. It is certainly true that the politicians have for too many years acted with contempt for a large portion of society, but it seems that they are not alone.

Where are all these Trump supporters? Where are all the Brexit voters? Hidden? Ashamed? Frightened of being seen to rock this cozy establishment?

On social media, the only comments I seem to be reading is that the world is in some sort of crisis and a kind of incredulity that people could actually consider voting for Brexit or electing Trump. I.e, are people really this stupid?

But this misses the fundamental point of what has driven people in this direction, and until people start reflecting on that society is going to have a hard time stitching itself back together. Yes, politicians have acted with arrogance and contempt that beggars belief, but they appear not to be alone.

Suddenly, those who for years have lent their support to the political establishment find themselves in the minority, and that is an uncomfortable feeling.

With Brexit, I was strongly divided. I saw the benefits that staying could bring, but I also see the EU as an undemocratic supranational entity that does things its own way with little regard for due legal process upon which our societies have been built.

Had I been able to vote in the US election, though, there is not a snowball’s chance in Hell that I would have chosen Trump. There was nothing in his rhetoric that endeared me to him and, although Clinton had her baggage, she was the least bad choice of the two.

But recoiling in horror from the outcome and despairing at the stupidity of the supporters of Trump – or for that manner the voters for Brexit, who I do feel some affinity towards – just misses the point.

Something is changing with our societies and people are rocking the boat.

Politicians must start to understand why. We must, too.


The politics of ‘hello’

May 7, 2014

Travellers in the Arabic world will be familiar with the traditional Islamic greeting ‘as-salam al-aykum’ (literally: ‘peace be upon you’), followed by the equally traditional Islamic response ‘wa al-aykum as-salam’ (lit: ‘and upon you be peace’).

Until recently I had considered such an expression to be universally-accepted throughout the Arabic world. But not so. The expression is subtly different in Juba Arabic.

In Juba Arabic, if you are greeting a single person – as opposed to a group – the common usage of this oft-espoused phrase is, “salam taki”.

Why the difference?

Well, first of all, speakers of Juba Arabic – which is a curious melange of Khartoum Arabic and tribal languages – tend to be fairly cavalier with the use of articles. Out goes the ‘as’ before ‘salam’ and the ‘al’ before ‘taki’.

But the really interesting thing is that the Juba Arabic, when said to a single person, is in the singular, whilst the Khartoum Arabic – and I admit to never having noticed this before – is in the plural.

The reason for the greeting being in the plural in most Arabic countries is that the greeting is also being extended to the angels that, according to Islamic belief, permanently accompany a person.

But in Juba, the plural has been dropped, I am informed, because the predominantly Christian and animist southerners do not hold to such believes.

Just one example of how political dynamics have influenced the development of Juba Arabic.

South Africa

March 19, 2012

It’s difficult to appreciate exactly what I’ve learnt during the past few weeks of my South African trip, or whether I am going to come away from this country any the wiser. South Africa is a thoroughly bewildering place and that is why, as a journalist, I am growing to really love it.

As we were driving from Bergville, not far from the north-eastern border of Lesotho, all the way down to the beginning of the Garden Route, we had the deep misfortune to stop at Colesberg. The best thing that our guidebook had to say about the place is that it was on the route from Johannesburg to the southern coast. We just couldn’t have made the trip down south without stopping the night somewhere.

Wanting to minimise our expenses, we opted to camp, pulling up at the only spot we could find, which was run by Afrikaners. Having spent the entire day driving – nigh on 10 hours behind the wheel – I was desperate to find some redeeming feature to the town. We had already driven through the place and seen that it didn’t really amount to very much, Still, being of an optimistic disposition, I was still hopeful that we might find something in the way of entertainment – or at the very least something we could see on our way out of town the following morning.

“Well” – the Afrikaner we were speaking to thought for a moment before continuing – “there used to be a museum in town about the Boer War, but since the blacks took over it has closed down. They really don’t care about history or things like this.” This last bit was said with utter disdain for the way things were now, and no small amount of regret for how they used to be. In many ways, he reminded me of some of the old-timers I met in Khartoum (many of them Europeans) that harked back to the days of Nimieri, when those with money could drink and revel as much as they pleased.

That’s the things with revolutions. Things are never quite the same once they have taken place, and someone always loses out. And twenty years ago South Africa endured one hell of a revolution.

I have spent the past four or so weeks trying to understand South Africa and get to the bottom of this post-apartheid world. Many South African whites I have spoken to have referred to the pre-apartheid days almost in wistful contemplation, before embarrassingly correcting themselves and pronouncing their utmost delight that apartheid is now finally dead and buried (and how on Earth could they think otherwise?).

The blacks, too, play due deference to the equal values that Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and the rest admirably fought for. But there is a nasty undercurrent in the ruling ANC party that is starting to emerge, too. The blacks have the power now and, in a sense, that is only fair. After all, that is how a democracy works – the rule of the majority over the minority. And most people around the world these days to seem to value democracy pretty highly.

So far, things have been pretty good for the whites in South Africa. They still live in their great big houses, with electrified fences, and still tend to their generous plots of land. The much-feared Zimbabwean-style land grabs have not yet materialised.

There is some debate to be had about the extent to which Nelson Mandela and his crew should be thanked for this. It is true that over the years Mandela has taken on a God-like status, and this is probably not fair to all the other thousands of people that were also involved in the struggle. The world has built Mandela up into something that perhaps he is not, to the extent that he can have done no wrong.

Still, I have found that few people, be them black or white, can bring themselves to criticise Mandela. Here is a man that won power just so he could give it away. Where in Africa has that ever happened before? Where in the world has that ever happened before? Mandela could have kept going – nothing forced him to step down as the country’s first democratically-elected president. But he did and that alone deserves huge applause.

(The other day, though, I did discover one black lady who was less enamoured with Mandela than everyone else seems to be. She said she didn’t much like Mandela or the God-like status he has now taken on. She said that he was a dreadful president, more inclined to focus on social needs than building the economy, but that of course might reflect a difference between left and right ideologies, neither of which can be 100% proven to be better than the other. But her main point, and one that it is difficult to argue with, is that the struggle was greater than one single person – and one must always remember that).

One of the most significant actions of the post-apartheid government was the realisation that, for true democracy to be established in South Africa, the whites also had to be part of that democracy. Nothing would be gained from making an enemy of the whites and that is why, in almost every speech he made after coming to power, Mandela was at great pains to bring them on board too. Some say that perhaps he went too far, raising too much hope among the whites and alienating some of the blacks that may have suffered so terribly under apartheid. But did he have any choice? That is the ultimate question that scholars will be arguing about until the end of time.

Now, though, things within the ANC are changing. Mandela is no longer a part of the process that he gave up so much for. His health is failing and there is a great deal of speculation about how much longer he has. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has retired from public life, which is a great shame as he’d be an excellent person to interview for my book on international justice. Many others who fought apartheid so fiercely and successfully have now either died or retired from politics. It is true that President Jacob Zuma has some entitlement to the role, since he also did some time on Robben Island. But what about who comes afterwards?

The comments made by youth ANC leader Julius Malema – and the fact that Zuma has had to discipline him by kicking him out of the party – shows exactly the kind of politicians that may be nipping at the heels of the outgoing champions of freedom. These are people that never suffered under apartheid, that perhaps only vaguely remember it through the stories that their fathers used to relate to them and that perhaps have not yet earned the moral justification to hold the highest office in the land.

These are worrying times for the South African nation if the ruling party cannot find within the ranks of its young members sufficient talent to keep alive the ideals that Nelson Mandela and his peers sacrificed so much for.

Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation must live on.

I leave you with a quote from Nelson Mandela, which is very telling of the way the great leader thought:

I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Changing the Dutch drug law

December 28, 2011

With most things in life, I am pretty much a die-hard liberal. I believe that, providing you are not interfering with anyone else’s life, you should be able to do pretty much as you please. I’m thinking, in particular, of drug use.

There are a few caveats to this sweeping statement. You should be of sound mind and of a responsible age, for example. Furthermore, the condition of not doing harm to anyone else also extends to the financial implications for society. For example, if you smoke all your life, there is a better than average chance you are going to end up with cancer and need more expensive care than someone who hasn’t indulged in this disagreeable habbit. But, with a little bit of mathematical wizardry, it is fairly easy to ring-fence society from the costs of other peoples’ lifestyle choices – simply raise the level of tax on cigarettes so that you are sure that future medical expenses will be covered by this revenue (which, in England, they probably are already).

There should also be an abundance of information about the expected consequences of your chosen action. “SMOKING KILLS” labels are a good example.

Anyway, by and large, live and let live is a pretty good motto to follow.

This is why the decision of the Dutch parliament to ban foreigners from purchasing cannibis in coffeeshops wrankles so much. It will not stop people taking drugs in the Netherlands. It will simply push things underground and provide Dutch drug dealers with a new source of income.

It is dangerous, short-sighted and stupid in the extreme. The result, unfortunately, of populist politics rather than pragmatism.

This ban will be phased in from January 1 and, from the beginning of 2013, it will not be possible for non-residents to buy soft drugs in the Netherlands.

(This may also be contrary to European free-trade laws – I would expect a European court case to follow pretty soon.)

Where it all began

November 23, 2009

I have just returned from three weeks’ holiday in Japan, hence the inactiveness of this blog.

The visit was mainly rest and relaxation, but I put aside one day to kick off research that for a book about international justice that I plan to write.

I spent a day interviewing people in Tokyo about the war crimes trials that took place shortly after the second world war.

One interview in particular stands out for the raw emotion that I felt whilst conducting it.

The interview was with the grandson of one of those who were indicted for war crimes after the second world war. Not only that, but this particular indictee, as foreign minister, had signed the declaration that authorised the attack on Pearl Harbour which ultimately brought the US into the war.

I had studied all of this in history, of course, but that was text book stuff. This really brought history home, with surprising force. Here was a real person who suffered through these real events, and it took me away from the dusty tombs of A-level history to a world of real people and real feelings.

“For my parents, the Tokyo trials were a matter of life and death,” this interviewee said – since most of the indictees were getting the gallows.

When his grandfather was sentenced to imprisonment instead, his mother got up and said, “we won”.

Besides this fabulously illuminating interview, what came across during my time in Tokyo was how politically-motivated the trials had been.

Few seemed to deny that they were simply “victor’s justice”, with no suggestion that the other side should also be held to account for their crimes.

Moreover, the Tokyo trials were very much shaped by the politics of the time. One university professor said it was very important to look at what the trials (heavily backed by the US) sought to achieve – and that was speedy demilitarisation of Japan. This explains why the emperor, who should have at least been questioned even if he was never indicted, was never touched.

The concept of international justice seems to have changed little, then.

The whole raison d’etre of the ICC is to bring lasting peace to regions afflicted by war, and to put an end to human rights abuses.

Which means that politics necessarily goes hand-in-hand with justice, undermining the purist’s view that the ICC should just be about justice.

That was never the idea, and it can’t work.

The UN’s Security Council (political) makes the referral to the ICC (judicial), and it is then up to the ICC to start an investigation (or not, as the case may be). The two bodies are theoretically separate, but one could argue that they shouldn’t be. There should at least be some formal recognition of the ICC’s political intent.

Look at the mess left by trying to indict Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on a purely judicial basis. Now had one said, yes, we should indict Bashir, but there may be reasons for not indicting him, things may have worked somewhat smoother.

America, the ICC and the problem of image

September 22, 2009

I attended a fascinating lecture by John Bellinger, a former legal advisor to George Bush, yesterday, which went some way to explaining why (whatever Barrack Obama’s intentions might be) the US is going to remain outside the International Criminal Court (ICC) for some time to come.

It’s all to do with politics. That and a rather hawkish Senate, the approval of which is necessary for any formal ratification of the Rome Statute. Oh, and the military, which are worried that, should the country join the ICC, the arses of some of the sorry soldiers will be hauled before The Hague. (It was amusing to hear one of the members of the audience, a Pakistani, liken this situation to the military juntas of Latin America and elsewhere – I would have made the comment with tongue-in-cheek, but I don’t think he was).

So, following on from all of this, there are clearly a great many myths surrounding the Obama administration – what his intentions might be and what, in reality, he can actually do.

But all of this presents a big problem – and one that I was hoping Obama would be able to overcome.

As I have written elsewhere in this journal, one of the significant problems with the Bush administration (okay – there were a whole slew of others, too) is that he had a big image problem in the Arab world. See the problem that my students had with him. And then see the euphoria that gripped Sudan upon news of Obama’s election.

So, as I said at the time, I think one of Obama’s biggest achievements is likely to be that, by becoming the first black man in the white house, he has given a whole new face-lift to America. Which the country badly needed.

But there is a danger that, unless Obama takes a braver stand against the hawks of Congress and the Senate, this whole image thing is likely to fade pretty fast. And the presently smooth obsidian skin of America will start to look cracked and parched once again.

Top of my list of concerns, at least as far as Sudan goes, is that the US is heavily backing, through the Security Council, the ICC’s indictment of Bashir. But, of course, it still remains outside of the ICC. Although all of this is perfectly legal – the Security Council being separate from the ICC – the position severely under-cuts America’s legitamacy in Sudan, at least in the eyes of the locals. Even those vehmently opposed to Bashir question why on Earth the US should get involved with the court, when it still hasn’t had the backbone to sign up. The widely-held perception in the country is that the ICC is a western-led plot to topple the current regime. And that smacks of neo-colonialism.

Obama survived his first 100 days, the test of any US president’s mettle, with rather impressive results – certainly, the foreign press love him. But let’s wait to see the assessment after the next 100.

Obama has to face some tough challenges if he is to press ahead with his badly-needed foreign policy initiatives of making the US look good in the world.

Finally, Britain can join Europe

May 27, 2009

Try as one might, one can’t but help feeling a certain cackling glee at the number of British MPs that have been felled by recent revelations in The Telegraph about outrageous expenses that have been claimed. With ten years’ writing about politics, I can honestly say that I loathe the profession and it would take a great deal to persuade me ever to become a bona-fida elected MP.

This evening, I went for a walk along the banks of the Po with an Italian friend of mine. “So, what do you think of this MP scandal?” he asked.

I shrugged. I hadn’t really been following it. I’d been in Hungary. Though I had received embarrassing tidbits courtesy of CNN.

I tried to explain in Italian something of the British pysche – that for a country such as the UK, proud as we are of our righteous democracy, these things just don’t really happen. So it’s kind of a shock to the system. Cackle as we may as Andrew MacKay bites the dust, we (as a nation) are starting to realise that it’s not the MPs that are at fault, but the system. Everyone is on the take. A bit like A Clockwork Orange. Absolutely no one is good.

And we’re pretty damn pissed off about this.

Compare this to Italy. Everyone knows Berlusconi is corrupt. Most people suspect he has mafia connections (never proven, please don’t sue). Everyone knows the media is biased. And yet the system survives and no one batters an eyelid.

Feeling particularly patriotic, I tried to lay all this out to my walking companion – explaining that in Britain we have a zero-tolerance to this kind of thing. It’s just about the only thing I like about the country.

My companion thought for a moment before responding, in jocular tones, “well, then, finally you can join Europe.”

Dead presidents count

November 5, 2008

Those that ventured into downtown Khartoum this afternoon may just have noticed the appauling levels of traffic that criss-crossed through the streets – even worse than usual. I had never seen such total grid-lock before.

This grid-lock, I am informed, was all because of one former Sudanese President, who died yesterday. Al-Mirghani. A name that many non-Sudanese, even those that follow events in Sudan, will be unfamiliar with. Most will have heard of the Prime Minister with whom he served – Sidiq al-Mahdi – but not with al-Mirghani, despite the latter’s valiant efforts at making peace with the rebels (which may have not been so noticeable had Sidiq been left to his own devices) and his noble lineage. He came from the prestigious Khatim Sufi Sect, which claims descendency, probably with some degree of accuracy, back to Prophet Mohammed himself.

This explains why I now have blisters on my feet from walking so much. It was faster than taking the bus.

Of course, this blog entry might have been slightly more informative had I given my take on a President who is very much living rather than one recently deceased. I speak of course of the election of Barrack Obama – an outcome that, inevitably, almost every Sudanese I have spoken to is ecstatic about. But I don’t really have the energy to write about this. Blame it on the walking.

As I was trudging back through the dusty streets of Khartoum, I was accosted by three young Sudanese lads who called out to me, playfully, “Obama!” For a moment, I thought of pausing and setting them right – that I was British, in fact, and not American as they clearly thought. But then I checked myself. The Obamamania that has gripped Sudan, and indeed the wider Muslim world, seems, for now, to have given rise to a much more positive view of America and their voting nationals. So there really was no need to set things straight.

That’s about as insightful as my commentary gets today.

The politics of Egypt

July 14, 2008

Sudan is often criticised for being a politically repressive society. Lack of press freedom. Intimidation of government critics. Etc.

But, in my twelve months of writing about the country, I have yet to fully understand the criticism levelled at the regime in this respect – particularly the suggestion that the local population are afraid to speak out. The moment you get into a taxi or amjad, the driver will start to shoot his mouth off about the government. Over steaming mugs of jabana, complete strangers will often espouse their political viewpoints in loud voices, often at cafes known to be frequented by government officials. I often strike up conversations with relative strangers about the political situation in the country, and usually receive a pretty direct reply.

Now, contrast this with Egypt, a country that has a somewhat ill-deserved reputation for being modern, liberal and sympathetic to the West.

Yesterday, we were invited to dinner by an Egyptian we had met in a cafe. Once we had pushed our platters away and the sheesha had been fetched, I thought I’d steer the conversation towards the politics of the country, and find out what our host thought about the current government. That morning, I had read an article about a raid on the house of a Muslim Brotherhood member (this organisation, reputed to foster extremism, has been banned in Egypt for a number of years).

My host answered that politicians in Egypt were very honest and he thought a lot of Mubarak in particular. But he answered in the kind of quick, dismissive way which suggested he didn’t much like the turn the conversation was taking. We talked about how to prepare the perfect tagine, instead.

Later, Violetta remarked that he seemed very nervous of me, and highly suspicious of how much I seemed to know about Egyptian politics.

An interesting comparison between the two countries, I thought.