Friday, August 29, 2014

Djibouti Trip

Seven weeks after leaving Chad I was back in Africa again, spending a week in Djibouti.  Last time I visited Djibouti was in 2011 and the highlight of the trip was snorkeling with whale sharks in northern Djibouti.  This time in Djibouti it was all work.

I noticed a number of positive changes in the city such as the addition of solar powered traffic lights and more paved roads.  For the most part the people seemed to obey the traffic lights and police and/or gendarmes were around to enforce the rules.

Some things haven't changed, like getting haircuts by the canal or khat stands throughout the city and in every village in the countryside.

I spent some time visiting projects in the hills outside Djibouti where huge hills and ravines were covered with black volcanic rocks the size of bowling balls.

The port facilities continue to improve, I just wish I had more time to spend at the beach (or with whale sharks!).

 I was glad I had an interpreter with me for this trip as very few of the Djiboutians that I met with spoke in pure French.  Most spoke in Somali or in a Somali-French hybrid.  However, the people that spoke English only wanted to practice their English.

I'm looking forward to visiting again soon!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: The Pirates of Somalia

The Pirates of Somalia: Inside their Hidden World by Jay Bahadur (2011)

To write this book about the inside world of the Puntland pirates Jay Bahadur traveled to Somalia and with great luck managed to make friends with former pirates and succeeded in returning alive to tell his story.*  Patience and a lot of khat, the tree leaves chewed in the region for its narcotic properties, allowed Jay to get pirates to tell their stories.  Surprisingly the pirates personal stories don't match the tales in the media of pirate mansions and freely flowing money.

In seeking to verify the media reports Jay Bahadur interviewed several pirates, victims, pirate associates, and villagers in the pirate areas.  In the end, Jay discovered that the pirate haven of Eyl was poor and there were no pirate mansions.  The people also claimed to be anti-pirate and wanted them to leave the area.  The former pirates all seemed to be broke and an accounting of ransom payments and the expenses of a hijacking verified that piracy didn't pay any better than a minimum wage job in the region.  However, the pirate sponsors made a lot of money.

Jay also described the three waves of piracy in Somali waters, where the first group were legitimate fisherman fighting against foreign fishing vessels which had destroyed local fisheries.  The second group of pirates started when the original fisherman weren't able to fight the foreign fishing boats (due to up arming of the foreign boats) but they found the cargo vessels transiting Somali waters to be easy targets.  The third wave transpired when Somali inlanders heard about the record ransoms for the hijacked boats and decided to get into the piracy business.  This third wave began to turn piracy into a business enterprise with motherships and speed boats that ventured hundreds of miles from Somali territorial waters to prey on big boats in the commercial shipping lanes.

An interesting point in the book is that many pirates were former members of various defunct coast guard operations designed to fight foreign fishing boats or pirates.  These coast guards learned advanced maritime operations, how to navigate at sea at distances far from shore, marksmanship, and how to coordinate attacks.  When the government of Puntland stopped paying the coast guards they turned to piracy themselves.

At the end of the book the author made several recommendations to combat the Somali piracy issue:
1. Finance an effective and well-paid Puntland Police Task Force
2. Fund an expansion of the Puntland prison system (to hold captured pirates)
3. Foster intelligence coordination between Puntland and international naval forces
4. Clamp down on illegal fishing
5. Encourage or require passive security measures abroad

The author correctly concludes by stating that the problem of piracy or land-based kidnapping for ransom in the region won't stop until the underlying issues of scarce resources is addressed. The above recommendations will help with resolving the immediate problem of piracy but addressing conflict and competition for scarce resources may never be resolved given the cultural and physical environment in Somalia.

*American journalist Michael Scott Moore wasn't as lucky as Jay Bahadur as he was kidnapped by Somali pirates while conducting research for a book on piracy in January 2012.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ebola Issues

The Ebola epidemic in Africa is about to get a lot worse thanks to the assault on a hospital in Monrovia, Liberia on 16 August 2014 where 17 Ebola patients were liberated along with their bedsheets and other Ebola contaminated items.  These patients were hand carried from the hospital and out in the general community for a couple days coming into contact with many others as their "liberators" didn't believe in Ebola.  As most people get around Liberia on mototaxi or crowded minibuses, many may have come into physical contact with the infected patients.  This close contact with others will allow the virus to spread rapidly and people may not know they were exposed.

Ebola is a virus that is spread through contact with fluids of an infected person and has an incubation period of 2 to 21 days.  Ebola kills 90% of people infected with the virus and does not currently have a vaccine.  An experimental drug has been used successfully in some cases but the supply is limited and knowledge of the side effects and associated complications are not fully known.

In the Liberian case the Ebola patients were moved around the densely populated city of Monrovia (estimated population of 750,000 in 2011) and possibly into the countryside as the liberators sought out traditional healers to cure the sick.  So far more than 400 deaths have been attributed to Ebola in Liberia but many may be unreported in the interior away from modern medical treatment centers.

Its possible that the Ebola patients may have also been moved away from the city along traditional trafficking routes towards Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, or Sierra Leone.  The borders throughout the region are extremely porous with people moving freely into Sierra Leone on many routes that avoid official checkpoints.  Given the incubation period of 2 to 21 days its possible that people are already enroute to areas that haven't been warned about Ebola and are currently reporting no issues.

Countries may also be underreporting Ebola incidents after the example of the treatment of Liberia and Sierra Leone by the international community.  Major airlines have cut off service to the affected countries and tourism has come to a stop.  As neighboring countries have sealed their borders trade has also halted and scarce supplies and food are becoming impossible to find.

The next phase of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia will explode around 6 September (21 days after the hospital escape) and may linger longer if the government claims of having recaptured all the infected patients isn't true.  The current Ebola outbreak is the deadliest in history with over 1200 killed since December 2013 and an estimated 2,200 infected.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Zakouma National Park

A couple months ago I drove 11 hours to Zakouma National Park in southern Chad and spent a couple days driving around the park and looking for elephants.  The scenery was great traveling to the park but it is so remote that there are no local cell towers and your phones won't work.  Ten years ago there were around 4000 elephants in the park but now there are less than 400 due to poaching.
Tinga Lodge for dining or relaxing

Tinga Huts

We stayed at the Tinga lodge in cloverleaf huts and had great lunches and dinners and decent breakfasts.  The rooms had private baths and screened windows, mosquito nets, and ceiling fans.  Even though I was there during the hot season in March it wasn't uncomfortable to sleep, even when the generator failed for a couple hours one night.

 There seemed to be more water buffalos than anything else in else.  During an evening game drive we ran across a huge herd of hundreds of water buffalos on a grassy plain.  Considered one of the more dangerous animals in the park, the water buffalos seemed ready to charge every time we stopped to take a picture.
We spent hours driving around the park looking for elephants checking out spots where they are usually found along the river but all we found there were crocodiles enjoying the sun.

We found a variety of other animals including groups of giraffes, baboons, and vultures.  The vultures reminded me of the ones from the old animated Jungle Book movie, even though that movie was set in Asia.

Even though we didn't find any elephants after days scouring the park we did run into a couple groups of lions.  Monkeys were normally everywhere in the park and accompanied by the loud sounds from other animals but where we found these lions enjoying the sun it was quiet and calm.  We got within 10 meters of these lions and the guide explained that the lions weren't interested in us because they were full from eating all the former monkey residents of the area.

As we left the park early on our last day at dawn we ran into another group of lions looking for breakfast near Tinga lodge.  Some monkeys were walking along with the lions about 100meters away making lots of noise to let all the other monkeys know that lions were coming.

If you are in Chad and you notice any poaching or people hassling elephants please call the numbers on this sign to alert the authorities.  The elephants aren't confined to the park and there are no real fences around the park to keep the animals in or poachers out.  Elephants can range all over southern Chad and there are several groups outside of the relatively safe borders of the park.
Le Braconage= Poaching
In April and May 2014 the US did provide training to 100 rangers from the Chadian Anti-Poaching Brigade at Zakouma National Park.  The US trained rangers will support the Zakouma park rangers and Nomadic Guard when they run into heavily armed poachers.  In 2012 heavily armed Sudanese poachers used truck-mounted heavy machine guns and RPGs to slaughter elephants in Zakouma.  Later they attacked and killed several park rangers.  Poachers remain a serious threat to elephants and other animals in the park and the high value of ivory is motivating criminal and insurgent groups to kill animals for the money to support their other activities.  At the rate elephants are being massacred, if more isn't done none will be left in Chad.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Elephant Rock

Two hours north N'Djamena is a cool rock formation known as "Elephant Rock."  The road to the rock formations is paved to the quarry but at that point you have to drop into 4-LOW for the deep sand to the base of the rock formations.  The rock shapes and fractures remind me of volcanic rocks in the US like Devil's Tower in Wyoming or other places in Idaho.

I camped out at the rock three years ago on my first trip to Chad and it was great to finally get back to the rock.  The only difference that I could see was that the quarry located next to the rock formations had expanded and had started to extract rock closer to the Elephant.  If I end up staying in Chad much longer I may have to bring my ropes and climbing gear to get on top of the elephant!

All the kids and eventually many of the adults from a local village came to check out the Americans climbing up to the rock.  A group of kids that spoke decent French adopted us and one became my guide and helped me climb up and down the rock by pointing out the best route and routes to avoid.  Turns out that the wide cracks that I would usually ascend are used by many of the locals at toilets as (of course) none of the locals had toilets or running water.

Our guides coming from their village
As we were climbing into our vehicles for the ride back to N'Djamena giant herd of cattle passed by the base of the rocks.  They went straight to the shade of the thorn trees for some relief from the warm 40*C day.  The cattle were herded by nomads on camelback who at noon were also in the shade of nearby trees.  Not much happens in the heat of day during the hot season in Chad.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Return of Bozize? A Question of Sovereignty

Self-proclaimed President Djotodia has now left office leaving the world to wonder who should take over until elections can be held later in 2014.  One answer is the deposed former President Fran├žois Bozize.  Although Bozize came to power through a coup in 2003, he won elections in 2005 and 2011 and was the presiding over the country until he fled rebels in March of 2013.  Seeing that the job is vacant again and he was the last one elected and recognized as the leader of the Central African Republic, shouldn’t he be restored to his position?

The selection of the next leader of CAR is a decision that will upset some group or another in a country that has been destroyed by violence.  Former Seleka rebels may increase attacks on peacekeeping troops as their former Chief is no longer in charge, but they were already fighting peacekeepers.  There are more security forces in CAR now than any other time in recent history and more are preparing to enter the fray so they should be able to handle rebel fighters.  The bottom line is that even if some other person was selected to be the transitional leader there will be opposition. 

Is the international community enforcing the idea that the quality of a sovereign leader should determine if they stay in power?  In that case leaders from many different countries should be deposed and new leaders selected.  Bozize may not have been the most capable or effective leader for his country but he was internationally recognized as the sovereign.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Where have all the trees gone?

In many African capitals the ancient trees that once shaded colonial boulevards are being cut down, often for stated "safety" reasons, but usually the easy answer is not the true answer.  As recent conflicts in Africa demonstrate, the national government doesn't have to control the entire country to be the internationally recognized head of state, just the capital.  In many places the national government doesn't really try to govern border regions.  However, the capital is sacred and must be protected at all costs in order to preserve the head of state.  In the Central African Republic a "red-line" was drawn to keep the Seleka rebel coalition out of the capital, but the rest of the country was left at the mercy of the rebels.

Often roads are intentionally left in poor condition to slow the advance of rebels towards the capital so the military would have more time to react.  Checkpoints line the roads to the capital and slow movement.  In the cities, trees are cut down that could potentially hide snipers or provide protection from rebel troops.  Trees along the road also can limit the maneuverability of tanks and other armored vehicles.  The leafy green foliage that keeps the dust and temperatures down in the concrete jungle also obscures people on the ground from hovering attack helicopters.

With advances in air conditioning in vehicles and buildings its less essential for the more fortunate to have trees.  The more fortunate also have generators to power the climatized spaces so electricity isn't a problem.  Unfortunately, in the places where the trees are cut down the general population usually don't have access to affordable reliable electricity.  But if the leader only sees his people from behind bulletproof glass does he care?