"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


kristof in sudan

Where in the world is Nick Kristof? Late last week, he posted a series of secretive tweets alluding to his trip to an unsafe destination:

On Saturday, Kristof revealed that he's been reporting from Sudan's Nuba Mountains, a point confirmed by his Sunday, February 19 column:
"The Sudanese armed forces try to keep aid workers and journalists out, so the story of suffering has not received much international attention. I’m going to try to slip into the Nuba Mountains and report back. Stay tuned. "
According to a tweet from earlier today (Monday, February 20), Kristof made it to the Nuba Mountains, where he interviewed SPLM soldiers.

Setting aside the fact that the Nuba Mountains story has actually gotten quite a bit of attention over the past six months or so, it's obviously a tragic situation that needs to be reported. However, there are a few problems with Kristof's approach here:
  1. There's an obvious bias in the story. While I'm not one to defend the murderous Bashir regime, the Sudanese government does have a legitimate concern that aid coming into the region along that route will fall into the hands of the rebels rather than the people it is meant to help. Kristof needs to be more clearly focused on the fact that just because Khartoum is bad does not mean that everything that the rebels and their South Sudanese compatriots do is perfect. (As Louisa Lombard aptly notes, South Sudan is guilty of discrimination against minority ethnic groups as well). The point here is not that humanitarian aid is not urgently needed to help the Nuba; it obviously is. Rather, the point is that the kind of journalism that takes sides does not help in the goal of getting Khartoum to allow aid through or to give them assurances that the rebels won't take control of that aid for their own purposes. Biased reporting reinforces Khartoum's belief that agencies like Samaritan's Purse (which Kristof names in his story) are politicized, biased, and out to destroy their rule, which makes it harder for all aid agencies and the UN to help.
  2. Other reporters now can't get access. Kristof is on a short reporting trip to the region, but there is a strong cadre of experienced reporters in Sudan who have covered the region for a long time and will be there for years after Kristof is gone. Because Kristof has announced to the world that he's sneaking around in the Nuba Mountains, their jobs are now more difficult. Already, several journalists have had to cancel planned trips to South Kordofan due to concerns about the safety of Westerners. Many journalists working in the region are under the impression that a manhunt for Kristof is happening, a perception reinforced by an apparent uptick in bombings along the road from the Nuba Mountains to the nearest refugee camp in South Sudan over the last couple of days. There's no way to prove that this rise in violence is linked to Kristof's announcement, of course, and I don't think there's solid evidence to support that claim, although we do know that there have been a lot more ambushes of buses along the route and rocket attacks by the SAF over the weekend. More importantly, though, is that people are behaving as though it were true. Why does this matter? Because if reporters who are in this for the long haul can't get in, the story won't be told as it unfolds. There is no question that the attention brought by Kristof will make it more difficult for reporters to get legitimate access to the area. If the famine many are predicting does break out in South Kordofan in the months to come, those same reporters won't be able to tell the story without risking their lives to do so. That will be tragic for those who will need that reporting to draw attention to their plight.
  3. NGO's are on edge. Most of Kristof's trips to places like the Nuba Mountains are done in conjunction with an international NGO that wants to get publicity for its efforts. The NGO provides logistical assistance and, in return, the reporter mentions the NGO's good work in his or her column. The NGO gets good press, the reporter gets the story, and everyone is generally happy. The problem now is that because of Kristof's shenanigans, NGO's in the region are very reluctant to help reporters get the story. Moreover, as it's pretty clear from Kristof's column that Samaritan's Purse is likely helping him, that puts aid workers - especially those working for SP - on the ground in danger, especially if the SAF really is out trying to find Kristof. Rather than being perceived by those on the ground as a neutral humanitarian agency, Samaritan's Purse is now seen as an ally of South Sudan. That's an incredibly dangerous situation for those who are trying to carry out neutral humanitarian work.
  4. There's no Sudanese agency. As is his modus operandi, all the Sudanese quoted by Kristof in the story are victims: a rape survivor, people who've been shot at, refugees. This reinforces stereotypes of Sudanese passivity and a lack of agency. It's not surprising; Africans are almost always victims in Kristof's reporting, but it's an utterly incomplete picture of what's actually going on.
It's easy to criticize Nick Kristof for his longstanding pattern of irresponsible and thoughtless reporting from dangerous locations, but I do think there are some challenging questions for journalists and academics here. How do you balance getting the story with not putting others in danger? Should you announce to the world that you're in a dangerous place in the name of awareness? How do you protect those who help you get the story, as well as the people they're trying to serve?

In my view, Kristof could have told this very important story after his return from the region, thus avoiding creating some of the dangers into which he has now inadvertently placed others. He also could have discussed in more detail why Khartoum is afraid to allow aid in, and what could be done to convince the Sudanese government to take another approach.

What do you think?

Correction: The worst-case scenarios for South Kordofan are not a famine, they are for a Level 4 (Emergency) Food Insecurity Situation. My apologies for the error.


what's happening in ituri? part ii

Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Dan Fahey. Dan is an ACM Mellon Post-Doc Fellow in the Political Science Department at Colorado College (USA). What follows are the second of two posts on his observations from a recent field research trip to Ituri, a district in northeastern DRC bordering Uganda to the east and North Kivu to the south. Part I is available here.

In post-conflict Ituri, land disputes over boundaries or rights of occupation and use are pervasive. Since May 2009, UN Habitat (which has an office in Bunia) has identified more than 1,000 land disputes in Ituri’s Djugu and Mahagi territories alone. Some conflicts began decades ago during the colonial era, while others are rooted in annexations, displacements and occupations during the late Mobutu-era and the wars in Ituri (1996-2007). While local efforts and the work of UN Habitat have succeeded in resolving some disputes, hundreds of conflicts remain unresolved, in large part due to the negligence of the State apparatus at the district, provincial, and national levels.

In Ituri, land disputes generally take place between individuals, between a community and an individual (e.g. between a local community and a concession owner), and between communities. According to mediators, the latter two categories are the most difficult to resolve, in part because land disputes are often incorporated into larger struggles for political and economic power. For example, in Djugu territory’s Walendu Pitsi collectivity (where the Ituri war started in 1999), local authorities have explicitly expressed their desire to keep Hema concession owners (whom they blame for starting the war) and Hema villagers from returning to work or live in the collectivity. In Irumu territory, a long-running dispute over the boundary between Walendu Bindi and Bahema Sud collectivities has intensified in the last decade. In this case, Lendu (Ngiti) desires to re-write the boundary (giving them control over large swaths of land currently in Bahema Sud) invoke customary rights but are also tied to economic issues, including collection of taxes, fishing rights, and control of land along Lake Albert, where oil exploration may begin in the next few years.

Local efforts to mediate land conflicts (notably by Bunia-based Reseau Haki na Amani) had some success, but were limited in their ability to address hundreds of entrenched disputes. In 2011, UN Habitat established a Land Commission that has five field offices in Djugu and Mahagi territories (these offices have resolved more than 200 disputes since May 2011) and a head office in Bunia. The Land Commission is doing very important work with little means (each office has only one motorcycle and a very limited budget), but is not without shortcomings. Of the four offices I visited, two (Fataki and Largu/Drodro) were well organized, but two (Bunia and Kpandroma) had serious problems. The Bunia office is almost never open, while Kpandroma office staff articulated their belief that Walendu Pitsi is for Lendu, and that those who left during the war (i.e. Hema) are not welcome to return. UN Habitat is aware of these shortcomings, but constrained by local political dynamics and budget issues. One solution would be to work more closely with local organizations in Ituri, while another would be to get the District government to financially support the Land Commission, which it has so far refused to do.

The silence of the State on land disputes in Ituri is deafening. MONUC succeeded in bringing peace to most of Ituri in 2007, but since that time the government has failed to address widespread land problems that have the potential to reignite war. One point that virtually everyone (villagers, local authorities, UN staff) agrees upon is that the government needs to clearly define boundaries and to establish who has legal rights to land in disputed areas.

Why has the State neglected its responsibilities? While limited State capacity may be one factor, the larger problem seems to be a lack of will. The government (i.e. PPRD loyalists at all levels from Bunia to Kisangani to Kinshasa) seems unwilling to take on this difficult political issue, particularly because during the war the Kabila regime supported some of the same Lendu authorities that are now justifying land occupations and boundary shifts. Some believe the State is too busy extracting wealth from the people of Ituri to address problems that threaten the long-term peace and stability of the district. State action is clearly needed, but there is no indication it is forthcoming.

According to a paper by Francois Bura Dhengo (professor at ISP in Bunia), there were 536 candidates for National Deputy in Ituri, representing several dozen political parties. With the assistance of the Carter Center, the Bunia Diocese’s Peace and Justice Commission (CDJP) worked with its Episcopal equivalent (CEJP) to deploy 318 election observers in Ituri for election day. A report by CDJP (7 Jan. 2012) stated there were numerous election-day problems in Ituri, including polling stations not having enough ballots, stations opening late or not at all, electoral agents illegally providing “assistance” to voters, and the presence of campaign materials (especially for presidential candidate No. 3) in polling places. In Ituri, MONUSCO played a key role in transporting election materials to polling places, further exposing the weakness of the Congolese state.

According to Congo’s National Independent Election Commission (CENI report, 1 Feb. 2012), Ituri voters elected 26 National Deputies from 15 different political parties. The parties garnering the most seats were PPRD (4), MIP (3), MSR (3), and RRC (3). Former rebel groups fared poorly in Ituri, with UPC gaining the most seats (2), followed by FNI (1) and RCD/K-ML (1). Notably, CNDP opened an office in August 2011 in Bunia and nominated candidates, but did not win any seats. CNDP’s arrival was interpreted locally as being a strategic move to establish a presence in Ituri that would enable CNDP to execute post-election actions, if President Kabila had lost.

Among the election winners were current Orientale governor and PPRD loyalist Autsai Asenga Medard, who was elected in Aru territory. As Governor of Orientale province, Autsai Asenga has managed a patronage network that has siphoned untold millions of dollars out of Ituri, while providing virtually nothing in return. Also of note, Bunia native John Tibasima won a seat in Irumu territory for the RDPR party. This former RCD/K-ML official during the war years had lost in the 2006 elections, but had “acquired” a Senate seat. Consistent with provincial and national results, only 2 of the 26 Deputies elected in Ituri are women.


this & that


what's happening in ituri? a report from the field, part 1

Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Dan Fahey. Dan is an ACM Mellon Post-Doc Fellow in the Political Science Department at Colorado College (USA). What follows are his observations from a recent field research trip to Ituri, a district in northeastern DRC bordering Uganda to the east and North Kivu to the south.


This update is based largely on fieldwork conducted during Jan-Feb 2012 in Ituri. Part 2 will include discussions on land conflicts and election results.


Since November 2007, when MONUC succeeded in pacifying Ituri (with the exception of southern Irumu – see below), Ituri’s capital of Bunia has been slowly but surely growing and transforming. Security in Bunia has vastly improved, although off-duty police and soldiers continue nighttime criminal activity in some parts of town. In a scene unthinkable four years ago, people walk the streets at night, frequenting numerous bars and clubs that have sprung up. Bunia is in the midst of a construction and rehabilitation boom, with new hotels, fourteen petrol stations (and counting), the return of banks, and new universities. AngloGold Ashanti Kilo (AGK) – the company poised to start industrial gold mining in Mongbwalu – has contracted Kisangani-based Bego Congo to construct several kilometers of drainage along the main road in town. Despite the vast sums of money extracted from Ituri by the PPRD apparatus, there is still no paved road in Bunia (and the dust – le sixième chantier! – is severe at this time of year). But there is talk the main road will be paved, next year…

Private businessmen drive most of the growth in Bunia. Much of the investment comes from gold traders and cattle ranchers who have diversified their business interests. Some of these same businessmen were involved in supporting armed groups during the war in Ituri, so some people view their investment in Bunia as a sign that they will not support a return to war. There are still many problems in Bunia, such as a lack of potable water and a heavy dependence on MONUSCO for the local economy, but there is a sense that the balance of political and economic power in Orientale province is shifting from Kisangani to Bunia. The significance of this shift remains unclear, particularly since PPRD holds the political power in Ituri, but change is in the air.


With the international focus in northeast Congo on Dungu, the ongoing conflict in southern Irumu territory has been obscured. In November 2007, Cobra Matata – then leader of the FRPI group in this area – entered FARDC after having had his troops enter the DDR process. A few renegade FRPI officers who did not get the posts (or money) they wanted refused to cooperate, and remained in the bush waging a low-intensity campaign in southern Irumu. In May 2010, Cobra left his post in Kinshasa and returned to the bush; suspected reasons include a falling out with superiors and fear of arrest. Since then, FRPI has grown stronger, with an estimated 200 combatants; it also collaborates with the smaller FPJC group. On 22 Jan. 2012, news that two former FRPI commanders (Lt. Col. Dark and Major Baby) had deserted their FARDC posts in Lubumbashi and rejoined Cobra raised concerns about an escalation of conflict. MONUSCO is currently supporting FARDC operations against FRPI, which have increased in intensity since late January.

There are several aspects of the FRPI situation worthy of note. Although FRPI survives in part by stealing from the local population, it also has local support. Many people distrust FARDC, which engages in theft, extortion, and violence against local populations. A letter from the Chief of Walendu Bindi (20 Jan. 2012) to President Kabila restates Cobra’s demands made in Oct. 2011 on Radio Okapi; several observers point to this letter and other information as evidence that some local authorities support Cobra. Among Cobra’s demands are: amnesty like that enjoyed by Bosco Ntaganda and Laurent Nkunda; release of prisoners; and a DDR process. The national government does not acknowledge FRPI as a rebel group, referring to them as “bandits,” and refusing to allow a DDR process to begin (UNDP is ready to do this if the government consents).

There are reasons to doubt the sincerity of both Cobra and the government in ending conflict in southern Irumu. Cobra and some of his men have already deserted from the national army, and their actions appear more criminal than political. Since Cobra does not enjoy strong support from donor-darling Rwanda, he is unlikely to get amnesty and achieve a high position in FARDC, like indicted war criminal Bosco Ntaganda; therefore he may not be satisfied with government concessions (which, in any event, do not appear to be forthcoming). On the other hand, numerous sources doubt the sincerity of FARDC in addressing the problem of FRPI. FARDC officers are profiting from the conflict through the theft and extortion perpetrated by their soldiers. As an example, soldiers openly take 200 Congolese francs (about $0.22) from each passerby on checkpoints along roads (I observed at least a dozen such checkpoints between Bogoro and Geti), which is hard on the impoverished local population. MONUSCO is placed in a difficult position by having to support FARDC, and some observers have questioned why MONUSCO does not take the lead in the fight and relegate FARDC to a supporting role, as MONUC did during the key period of 2005-07 in Ituri. This conflict is likely to grind on during 2012, with the local population suffering at the hands of both FRPI and FARDC.


In early December 2011, an outbreak of cholera occurred in the Geti health zone. The outbreak spread to the northeast, into the Tchomia health zone, then west to Bunia and then north as far as the Jiba health zone. Overall, six affected health zones in Irumu and Djugu territories have had 1,024 cholera cases and 30 deceased persons as of 5 Feb. 2012. The Tchomia health zone has been the hardest hit, and approximately 78% of all cases are in this health zone. According to an OCHA bulletin (10 Feb. 2012): “An assessment into the water and sanitation conditions revealed that the population in Tchomia is obliged to drink unsafe water from Lake Albert as the drinking water infrastructure in Tchomia is defective. This situation is aggravated by the town’s lack of sanitary installations, as 60% of its households have no latrines.”


recommended reading: autesserre's "Dangerous Narratives"

Severine Autesserre has a must-read article out today in African Affairs (ungated link here). Entitled "Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and Their Unintended Consequences," the article unpacks the problems with the oversimplification of the Congo crisis and its solutions into three dominant narratives: conflict minerals, rape, and state-building. In doing so, Autesserre focuses on a wide variety of international efforts to address the Congo crisis, including those undertaken by advocacy organizations, NGO's, the United Nations, the African Union, and foreign diplomats. While acknowledging some successes, she raises the following central question:...we can wonder how the illegal exploitation of resources came to
be seen as the main cause of violence, sexual abuse as the worst consequence,
and the extension of state authority as the primary solution to the
conflict, to the exclusion of other causes, consequences, and solutions.
In analyzing these questions, Autesserre is careful to note the appeal of simple narratives: they are easy to understand, thus these narratives can mobilize a wide variety of actors who lack detailed expertise. Having a "straightforward solution" is also appealing; if activists and policy makers can identify a clear perpetrator of wrong with a clear way to stop that perpetrator's wrongdoing, it's easy to get attention and action.

For those who closely follow the conflict minerals debate, Autesserre's observations on the awareness of those working in Congo on the causes of conflict will be of particular benefit. She finds widespread misperceptions that natural resource exploitation is the primary cause of violence and the first issue that must be addressed to stop it, despite widespread evidence to the contrary. Likewise, the overwhelming focus on rape as a weapon of war "diverts attention from other forms of violence that are equally horrific, such as non-sexual torture, killings, and recruitment of child soldiers." And the emphasis on state-building as the only possible solution to the region's problems ignores the fact that the state is a predatory disaster.

The misallocation of attention to three oversimplified narratives has real consequences, and, in Autesserre's analysis, those consequences are largely negative. She concludes:
However, by leading interveners to focus overwhelmingly on these issues, and to neglect other causes, consequences, and solutions, these narratives also have a number of perverse consequences. They obscure most interveners’ understanding of the multi-layered problems of the Congo. They orient the intervention toward a series of technical responses and hinder the search for a comprehensive solution. They lead interveners to privilege one category of victims over all the others. Even more disconcertingly, they reinforce the problems that their advocates want to address, notably by legitimizing state-building programmes that reinforce the harassment of the populations by state officials, and by turning sexual violence into an attractive tool for armed groups.
Put more succinctly, as Autesserre notes in the article abstract, "the focus on these narratives and on the solutions they recommended has led to results that clash with their intended purposes, notably an increase in human rights violations."

Autesserre's article is an important contribution to a growing body of peer-reviewed research based on solid fieldwork suggesting that the overwhelming focus on conflict minerals and rape is misguided and actually causing harm to the very people it purports to help. We are long past the point of needing realistic, pragmatic advocacy narratives and solutions that acknowledge and respond to the complexities of the DRC crisis. Congo's people deserve nothing less.


recommended reading

Kathryn Mathers (of Africa is a Country fame) has a brilliant desconstruction of Nicholas Kristof's reporting on Africa in the latest issue of Transition. You can read the full (ungated!) text here.

Mathers engages with many critiques of Kristof's work that many, including we here at TiA HQ,have discussed in the past (see here, here, here, and here for but a few examples). Unlike my ranting blog posts, however, Mathers engages in actual academic debate over Kristof's work, its impact, and what it says about how foreigners imagine Africa. Her concluding paragraph (emphasis mine) beautifully sums up the ultimate problem with Kristof's general narrative about Africa: its dehumanization and the theft of agency from Africans themselves:
Kristof, therefore, forces us to gaze into the strained eyes of a suffering
woman like Mariam Karega while emptying her life of support networks
and her own social tools. This singular being has to stand in at one and
the same time for all African people and for American failure. Her suffering
must be defeated, although only partially or temporarily, for American
“man” to save himself and to save Africa over and over again. This can
only be the job for the “fully human” American guided by writers like
Nicolas Kristof. That is why Kristof’s stories about American NGOs and
enthusiastic young travelers in Africa, meant to encourage Americans’
interest in the continent, are so disturbing. They allow the Africans to be
consistently present but irrelevant to the project of making Africa safe for
Highly recommended.



shameless self-promotion

I've got a couple of public speaking events coming up:
  • New York City - Thursday, February 23 at 6:15pm at Bard College's Globalization and International Affairs Center in Midtown. The topic is "Building Capacity? NGO's and State Reconstruction in the DRC." Details and free (required) registration here.
  • Baltimore - Tuesday, February 28 at 7pm at Goucher College in the Athenaeum Batza Room. I'll be on a panel about conflict minerals sponsored by Goucher's STAND chapter. Also on the panel will be representatives of the Enough Project and the Accountability Roundtable. No registration required.
Hope to see many of you there!


shameless self-promotion

Today I'm at American University's Washington College of Law for a conference, "Addressing Sexual and Gender-Based Violence in Conflict and Post-Conflict Settings: National and International Strategies." You can watch the event (8:30am-2pm EST) here live. My panel, on SGBV in the DRC, is at 12:30pm EST. The full lineup of speakers is here.