Human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo at Berkeley

The Center for African Studies and the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley are sponsoring a discussion with human rights advocate Nicholas Opiyo on April 21.  Nicholas is a constitutional lawyer who led the legal challenge to Uganda’s anti-homosexuality law last year.  He’s also the founder of Chapter Four Uganda, a human rights and civil liberties advocacy organization. Please take a look at Chapter Four’s recent work on the rights of sexual minorities in Uganda, and stop by the lecture if you’re in the area!


Updates from PacDev

I had a great time at the Pacific Conference for Development Economics this weekend.  Sendhil Mullainathan really stole the show with an amazing keynote on his new book, Scarcity (which looks like essential reading for anyone interested in poverty issues), but there were also a number of fascinating studies on the political economy of conflict and post-conflict recovery.

  • Tarek Ghani presented some of his joint work with Michael Callen and Josh Blumenstock on the use of mobile money for salary payments in Afghanistan.  Given the amount of violence ongoing in the south of the country, there’s a premium on liquidity in case one has to suddenly flee, and the authors were interested in whether cash or mobile accounts better met this need.  They found that respondents who believed that higher rates of violence would occur in the future were less likely to hold a balance on their mobile accounts, preferring cash instead.  For all the potential of mobile money, there’s still a lot that implementors don’t understand about why people do (or don’t) decide to adopt it.
  • Bilal Siddiqi discussed results from a justice sector intervention in Liberia (joint with Justin Sandefur).  They framed the study with the observation that, while most Liberians prefer customary forms of dispute resolution to (expensive, inefficient) state courts, women are actually more likely to go to state courts when they’re suing men.  The implicit idea is that customary courts are less likely to rule in their favor.  The authors look at the effects of a legal aid program which made it easier for people to access state courts, and found that respondents who participated in the program were happier with their judicial outcomes and had better food security.

African events in the Bay Area

As Chad McClymonds noted in Africa is a Country a few months ago, San Francisco has an odd relationship to Africa.  There are strong African immigrant communities here, but it’s hard to find fora to connect with people with ties to the continent or simply an interest in it.

In hopes of lessening this disconnect, I’ve been compiling a list of Africa-related resources and events around the Bay Area. Check these out, and let me know if I’ve missed any (or if you’ll be attending any of the events!).

San Francisco



*With thanks to Caity Monroe for these suggestions!

Violence and agency in the DRC

In yet another bit of backdated conference blogging, the Great Lakes Policy Forum held an excellent session on “Telling the Story of the Congo” last October. (Notes aren’t up at their site, but Wronging Rights lived-blogged the session.)  The first day of the two-day event (which was all I was able to attend) focused on the partial and often inaccurate narrative about the conflict in eastern Congo which has gained currency among policymakers in the West.  One of the first speakers opened with a striking exercise: he pulled a map of the DRC up on the overhead and pointed to a variety of cities throughout the country, asking the audience how many people had visited each.  A healthy number had visited Kinshasa, and nearly as many had been to Goma or Bukavu, but very few had been to Lubumbashi or Kisangani, let alone Mbuji-Mayi or Mbandaka.  This is a very real result of the way in which our collective imagined geography of the DRC has shrunk to the extreme west (Kinshasa) and extreme east of the country, rendering the rest of the country not as no-man’s land, but as non-existent land.

As the same speaker noted, the current Western framing of the DRC as a land torn by sexual violence and mineral-fueled conflict tends to pass over questions of domestic politics and governance, stripping the Congolese of political agency within their own country.  By way of example, he noted that a recent case of rape in North Kivu drew criticism of MONUSCO for their failure to prevent it; however, few commentators asked who committed the rapes, or where the army or police were at the time.  Sexual violence is clearly a symptom of the eastern DRC’s broader security problems, but the international community appears more interested in topical solutions aimed at reducing rape rates than in sustained engagement with the larger issue of security sector reform.

Several speakers were similarly critical of the Western narrative around minerals and conflict. One pointed out that mining is in fact not the only revenue source for many armed groups, and that it’s unclear whether cutting off this particular source of funding would decrease or exacerbate violence. Another speaker, more accepting of the idea of a positive correlation between mining revenues and violence, said that the international community’s exclusive focus on eastern Congo overlooked continued conflicts over natural resources in the center of the country.  In his words, places like Kikwete and Mbuji-Mayi are “more like war zones” today than Goma is.  Ultimately, the canonical view of conflict minerals in the eastern DRC appears to have been created largely by Western activist groups such as the Enough Project, with very little input from the Congolese, and without sufficient attention to the contextualized and ultimately local ways in which violence plays out.

Straus on remaking Rwanda

Catching up on yet another batch of backdated conference blogging, I went to see Scott Straus discuss his edited volume Remaking Rwanda at CSIS last October.  It’s a thought-provoking book, as is his previous work, The Order of Genocide, which contains a very insightful analysis of the microdynamics of the genocide.  Remaking offers a largely critical look at Rwanda’s post-genocide domestic politics, with only brief acknowledgement of the RPF’s real successes in realms such as primary education and economic growth before proceeding to pillory the government for its repression of political dissent and attempts at social engineering.

Rather than revisiting the book’s conclusions directly, Straus used the conference to engage with the question of why the Western meta-narrative about Rwanda had shifted from a largely positive one in the early post-genocide period to the flurry of critiques that constitute it today.  In part, he felt that the shift was warranted.  Rwanda’s obvious intervention in the DRC contributed to an early change in public opinion, supported by the increasing number of defections from the RPF and the repressive manner in which the 2010 elections were handled.  The 2009 death of Alison des Forges, who was an early critic of the RPF’s slide towards authoritarianism, then spurred the generation of a number of commemorative conferences and works on Rwanda at a time when scholars were abandoning the self-censorship that had previously characterized much writing on the country.  Remaking Rwanda was one such work.

That said, Straus also acknowledged the complexity of Rwanda’s contemporary politics.  Whilst “it’s not a secret” that the RPF has installed an authoritarian regime, he also noted the challenges of governing a post-conflict country, and suggested that we are in need of better methods to evaluate the effects of authoritarianism in different contexts.  In part, he seemed to feel that this pointed to a need for more comparative work on Rwanda, and explicitly called for more comparisons with Burundi.  Of course, as another commentator pointed out, there’s an even larger set of potential comparative partners out there, since practically every leader in East Africa today came to power out of conflict.

Having had a few months to think this through, it does seem to me that much research on Rwanda is limited by a lack of comparison.  I do think there are good reasons to believe that genocide is a form of violence that’s analytically distinct from other types of civil conflict, but it also seems that some perspective is lost in treating Rwanda as completely unique.  Regression to authoritarianism (or illiberal democracy, or some other non-democratic form of rule) was common in the 1990s even among African states that hadn’t suffered conflict.  Straus’ more specific concern is that repression and “growing de facto ethnic inequality” will someday re-ignite all the familiar conflicts, which seems a likely outcome to me – one certainly sees the same pattern in both Rwanda and Burundi’s historical periods of ethnic conflict.  That said, one might gain a better understanding of the specific conditions that contribute to the re-ignition of conflict, or to its avoidance, in comparative perspective.  Uganda and Ethiopia might both be interesting places to start.

Pres. Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi at the Wilson Center

Went to see a decently interesting discussion with Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza at the Wilson Center last week.  (There’s video of an interview he later conducted at the Center here.)  As speeches by politicians tend to be, his presentation was a polished and upbeat discourse on Burundi’s post-war reconstruction, focusing on the country’s provision of free primary education and healthcare, and the success of consociationalism at keeping the peace.  Perhaps due to the fact that he’s not up for re-election any time soon, the questions were considerably gentler than those thrown at DRC presidential candidate Leon Kengo wa Dondo during a speech he gave at SAIS a few days previously.

(Adding to my collection of blurry photos of African politicians)

That said, I was interested to note that the first commentator pre-empted my own question by asking about whether the country’s ethnic reconciliation would be durable.  The responses given by both Nkurunziza and former Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Howard Wolpe fit the simplified formula I’m investigating in my thesis very well: powersharing + war fatigue = ethnic reconciliation.  No discussion of mechanisms at all, although I didn’t really expect such in this type of public forum.